Wednesday, January 28, 2015

EGL Fall 2014 Canoe Hang: Autumn in Algonqin: The Year's Last, Loveliest Smile

EGL Fall 2014 Canoe Hang:
Autumn in Algonqin: The Year's Last, Loveliest Smile

Paddle's gentle touch,
The year's last, loveliest smile,
Scarlet tears swirl by.

Without a doubt, the EGL Fall 2014 Hang in Algonquin goes down in the books as the benchmark for a great canoe trip.

There was a sense that something was going to be different this trip. Late Thursday afternoon I was on my way to do a little grocery shopping for the trip when my cell-phone chimed. Looking at the name, I just shook my head in amazement. Somehow Ggreaves had managed to get a signal and inform me that the Thursday group had arrived, last fall's island site was occupied and that they had taken the site directly beside the Night Lake Portage on the eastern shore of Pen. Years ago, canoe tripping meant hanging up the sign "gone fishing" and leaving the world behind; family, friends and work were all put on hold until you walked back through the door. That evening, as I was packing my gear, my Fallkniven S1 slipped out of its sheath and landed hilt-side down, thankfully, on the top of my foot. An hour in Emergency and two stitches later I was out of the hospital finishing my packing. Scattered patches of fog hung in the still, low valleys along Highway 11 that runs from Toronto past Algonquin towards North Bay. At one point, just south of Huntsville, the fog was so thick it was barely possible to see beyond the shoulder of the highway. But as quickly as it came we passed out of it like through a curtain and ahead were bright blue skies and the colours of autumn. All things considered, the trip hadn't even started yet and already it had proven interesting.

Jiblets on the drive up

Smoke Lake

After the drive east on Highway 60 and another short stretch on the gravel Rock Lake Road, Gilbert and I pulled in at the Ranger Station. There waiting for us were Kasuko, Dant8ro, Ryvr, Cruiser51, Bubba and Quiet. Chenvre was on his way in from Ottawa and would be arriving shortly. As for the rest of the group, two canoes had already headed in the day before carrying Old Boot and Iguana in one and Ggreaves and Entropy in the other.

Quiet ready to go

Highboy ready to go

To be honest, organizing paddling partners was pretty straightforward. Jiblets, whose canoe was a little too large to easily solo, would stern with Bubba at the bow. Chenvre would be teaming up with Kasuko, a brave undertaking on both their parts as the last time they paddled together they found themselves somewhat damp after a minor maritime mishap. As for the rest of us; Ryvr, Dant8ro, Quiet, Cruiser51 and I would be paddling solo. While any canoe is a lovely thing, and never more so than when it's loaded with all the gear necessary for a jaunt in the Park, Cruiser's handmade cedar strip canoe was a work of art and drew much deserved praise from all around. Based on the Bear Mountain 15' Freedom design, Cruiser had built himself and you couldn't but admire his excellent workmanship and attention to detail. If you ask me, every beautiful canoe makes the world a slightly better place.

Cruiser and Ryvr ready to go

Cruiser's beautiful woodstrip canoe

Ryvr getting the feel of his rental canoe

Once the cars were parked we pushed off the docks as a group and paddled our way along a small section of slow flowing river out to the main body of Rock Lake. We were greeted with hillsides painted with vibrant yellows, oranges, golds, reds and dark greens. I have rarely seen the Park so beautiful. Dominating the landscape is Booth's Rock, a series of high cliffs that rise up on the eastern shore and named after John Rudolophus Booth, one of Canada's most successful self-made lumber and railway barons of the 19th century. Of his many accomplishments was the construction of a railway from the Georgian bay, through the lands that would later become Algonquin, down to Ottawa, where he had the secured the contract for supplying lumber for the construction of the Canadian Parliament buildings. Working all day with the crews only to return to continue working late into the night managing the business of his empire, John Booth was a fascinating character. In fact, many of the Algonquin thoroughfares, be they road or trail, follow the same railway tracks that Booth created over one hundred years earlier. It's a clear reminder of the tenuous relationship between industry and the landscape that has become synonymous with Canada. (for more information Actually it was high atop those cliffs, overlooking the beauty of Rock Lake and the surrounding forests that I almost proposed to my wife, but the perfect moment eluded me I descended sheepishly down again.

Pictograph cliffs, Rock Lake

Following the western shore, we rounded the headland and came to the another series of high cliffs, this time rising straight up out of the water and continuing up for another hundred feet. While beautiful in and of themselves, these cliffs are also of particular interest because they are reputed to hold aboriginal pictographs. I say "reputed", because all of my previous searches for them had been in vain. But persistence paid off at last! Close to the southern end of the cliffs, just a few feet above the waterline they had lain hidden all these years, with colours so subdued that it was no surprise I had missed them before. I'll leave the socio-religious interpretation to the archeologists, but to me it looks like a famished beaver.

Pictographs, Rock Lake

Colour enhanced

About a kilometer from the cliffs the main lake turns south and narrows to a channel that extends south for a couple of kilometers to the 375m Rock/Pen portage. Along the channel on the left, more cliffs would appear between the trees while on the right gently rolling hills followed beside us. Up ahead a prominent hill stood out and at its base the channel ended and a lively river splashed noisily into the lake. A low shelf of smooth rock marked the landing for the portage on the right. Because some of us had straggled behind looking for pictographs, most of the group had already gone down the portage. Only Kasuko and Chenvre were there waiting, and with them two others.

These two strangers had been waiting by the shore, anxiously looking back up the channel. They were part of a group of three canoes and apparently one of the canoes was long overdue at the portage, likely they had paddled down the wrong channel and become lost. Worried about not being able to find a campsite for the night, the third canoe had gone on ahead to Pen. They were obviously worried so I asked about the skill level of the errant paddlers. They assured us that they were experienced trippers but the problem was that they had no food. All of it was packed away in the other canoes. They were struggling with the dilemma of whether they stay or they go on ahead? Rock Lake is a big lake and going all the way back up the channel trying to find a lost canoe could take hours. If the lost canoers were novices then going back would be certainly be appropriate, but as they were experienced, my hunch was that they'd find the portage eventually and join their friend when they could. Personally I would have waited around for a while, as they were, but then continue on in to find where the third canoe had set up camp. Only then would I have returned to guide the lost canoe back to camp, especially if it was starting to get dark. The key lesson is for every canoe to have a map, a compass (or GPS) and enough gear and provisions to be self-sufficient, at least for a day. Mishaps do occur and even the best navigators get lost occasionally. What became of them I never did learn, but I like to think that they managed to meet up in the end.

Back at the portage the last of our group had pulled up. Kasuko kindly offered to carry the group food pack across the portage, a good thing too because it was weighted down with all of the ingredients for two group dinners. His help was definitely appreciated. I changed into my running shoes, shouldered my pack and threw my canoe over my head. The portage was only a short 375m one with only one short hill just a little way in and then a short but steep incline as it drops to the lake on the far side. Well-maintained boardwalks spanned the boggiest areas and before long I was descending down the last slope out into the sunlight where a wooden dock stretched into the water and I canoes were scattered everywhere. The rest of the group had taken the opportunity to have a bit of lunch as they waited for us to show up. With a sigh, I dropped my pack, dug out a handful of raisins and a peanut butter wrap and joined them.

Lunch complete, we pushed off to find our friends. Ryvr and I took point and paddled towards the channel that connects the north bay to the main lake. Off to the right lay the "island" campsite that we had stayed on the autumn before. The "island" was actually peninsula connected by an ismuth of scrub covered sand. But it was close enough. Coming out into the main lake we had to navigate through some huge erratics which rose up to just under the surface, like terrors from the depths eager to claim the unwary. Flecks of red, green and white showed how often they had managed to snare passing canoes. It was on one of these that my daughters and I put a major gouge into the bottom of my canoe only a couple of years earlier.

Southern Pen Lake

Up ahead on the left we saw movement on the shore where the Night Lake portage comes down to the lake. I hollered out what should certainly become the official Hammock Forums greeting "WHOOO BUDDY" and immediately get a distant "whooo buddy" in response. Ryvr, who's paddling beside me, decided that this was the time to see how fast his rented Keewatin could go, so with paddles digging deeply, the race was on. It was a good one and pretty close for a while, but in the end Ryvr managed an unexpected burst of speed and glided to shore a few lengths ahead of me. Young whippersnapper.

Down on shore we found a scene straight out of the French Rivera. Iguana was coming out of the water, 76 Highboy was lying stretched out on a towel and Old Boot was relaxing in a camp chair. After a warm welcome, we asked about Ggreaves and they informed us that he was across the lake at the group's second site, a necessity with a group as large as ours. I have to say, it was my first time meeting Old Boot but she certainly had a finely tuned sense of relaxation necessary on these arduous EGL hangs. After the rest of the group pulled up and greetings were exchanged we grabbed our gear and jogged up a short incline to check out the campsite. There was a nice fire pit, a makeshift plywood table nailed between two trees nearby and the usual parallel logs to provided seating. Surrounding that was plenty of space to sprawl, a good thing to with our fourteen people.

Highboy and Ggreaves on Thursday

Old Boot had set up her outfit at the top of the path that led down to the beach, and so that side of the camp officially became designated as the "Ladies Section". To the south or right of the site, set back in the woods a short way, Iguana's and 76Highboy's hammocks already hung. The newcomers fanned out and one by one dropped their gear and got to work turning the span between two trees [in to] home for the weekend. By me were Bubba, Quiet and Jiblets, with Entropy just a little down the slope. Some of the group went over to the second site to balance the numbers. They'd shuttle back and forth between the campsites for most of the weekend.

Ryvr, Cruiser and Quiet relaxing by the fire pit

After setting up camp everyone made their way back to the fire pit to partake in a little well deserved lollygagging. It was good to get a chance to sip some single malt and relax with friends, some of whom, Entropy for example, I hadn't seen in quite a while. He was actually the first Hammock Forums member I had the pleasure of meeting on the drive up to my first Hang where we then met Kasuko and his infamous penny stove. I also met a couple of other chaps, one of which, Shawnh, followed me on our first canoe hang later that fall. It became the first EGL hang.

Chard's and Jiblets' outfits

Early in the afternoon, Iguana announced that he was going to take a stroll down the adjacent Night Lake portage, just to see what was at the other end. It was a while before he returned, no worse for wear. Apparently the trail was a little longer than he had planned but it just meant a nice stroll in the woods was all the nicer.

Chard looking with horror at the amount of crap he brought in

Back on camp however, the afternoon was wearing on and it was time to start thinking about dinner. Now personally, a "traditional" backcountry canoe trip had always meant an "all-for-one and one-for-all" approach to meal planning. Whether it was pancakes for breakfast or spaghetti for dinner, everyone got to enjoy, or at least suffer through, the same meal. Trips were planned at a group level. There'd be one kitchen tarp, one stove, one axe, one saw and one set of pots. Then, not surprisingly, our EGL Hammock Forum Hangs came along and broke that mold. What's different is that we're more a collection of like-minded solo hikers than a boy-scout troop. Picture the film Predators; replace machine guns with Dutch Clips, toothy aliens with toothy black flies and you've got it. Just count the number of solo paddlers in our group; six of the ten canoes were paddled solo, well actually nine canoes and one kayak, but Highboy will be Highboy. Redundancy is the rule and it's not unusual to have as many axes as hammocks, as many saws as trees and as many stoves as there are stars in the sky. Efficient? Absolutely not. But wonderfully individual nonetheless. It's always interesting seeing how different people solve our common challenges in so many creative ways. I suppose that the very fact that we're hammock campers in the first place demonstrates our interest in pushing the boundaries of camping gear and practices, in evolving the craft. I still have friends who shake their heads disapprovingly when I talk about hammock camping! But I digress.

Entropy searing the beef

Needless to say, I'm still a fan of the big group dinners. Nothing beats a pot of hearty soup or stew and a chunk of bread washed down with a glass of wine. On this evening's menu was a classic beef bourguignon, prepared faithfully according to Julia Child's recipe, served with egg noodles and fresh bread. The biggest challenge was that the beef would require at least three hours of cooking to cook thoroughly and become fork tender and that process simply can't be rushed. We had tried a few years earlier with some Hungarian Goulash, and although the stew was delicious, the meat was decidedly chewy. Not so tonight. Although it was only mid-afternoon, everyone pitched in one way or another to either help prepare the food or collect firewood. Supported by an army of sous chefs and wood collectors, Entropy diligently sautéed a rasher of double-smoked bacon and onions. Setting those aside, he went on to brown six pounds of stewing beef. Once everything was ready, it all went into a 10 litre (2.5 gallon) pot together with a litre of nice Italian red wine, a litre of beef broth and some bay leaves. I was using was the new Campbell's prepared beef broth in 500ml (one pint) tetra packs but the little plastic spout was proving annoying to open. Undeterred, I unfolded the spout, casually held it against a log and chopped the whole dang end off with my axe. Let's see Gordon Ramsey beat that. Two more tetra packs followed the same fate and before long the stew was simmering away happily. At this point it was simply a matter of maintaining a low fire and waiting. After a couple of hours, when the beef was almost ready, several small bags of pearl onions were parboiled, peeled and sautéed whole. Finally a couple of pounds of mushrooms were quartered and sautéed thrown into the stew.

Jiblets took the opportunity to throw a grill over the fire irons and grill some tandoori chicken legs. They were looking rather good but as Jiblets was turning them, one of them managed to roll off the grill and land in the fire. He tried to rescue it with his makeshift chopsticks but the heat was too much for his bare hands. Things were looking pretty grim. Luckily I had been tending the stew with a leather glove on my hand and so I quickly reached in and snatched that piece of chicken before the Fire Gods could claim their offering.

Dant8ro and Old Boot waiting patiently for dinner

Jiblets' chicken reminded me of some spicy Hungarian sausage I had picked up for the trip. One of my favorite ways of eating it is to simply roast it slightly over the fire. After heating it up I sliced it up into pieces and went around offering it to the gang. Poor Old Boot. I love spicy food; my mother all but weaned me on hot sauce. Cruiser's the ranking pepper-head in the group, concocting his own peppery potions; even going so far as to dehydrate drops of a particularly deadly sauce on tiny squares of rice paper; add a couple of dots to your dinner and you'd better have some yogurt nearby. Old Boot on the other hand apparently is the product of a loving family unwilling to subject her to unnecessary hardships. She innocently tried a piece of sausage and was reaching for water shortly afterwards. Apparently eyeballs can sweat after all. Sometimes I forget that not everyone shares my love of hot food.

Jiblets and his improvised chopsticks

Meanwhile Ryvr, Dant8ro and Cruiser were busy preparing their own dinners. It wasn't long however, until the stew was almost ready and it was time to finish it up by adding a couple of bags of broad egg noodles. Ten minutes later everyone was helping themselves to big helpings of stew and a big piece of baguette. The silence spoke volumes. People enjoyed seconds, even thirds when I could force them to, but I had slightly misjudged the quantities and unfortunately there was about two servings left over.

Iguana ripping through the firewood

It seems to be a hallmark of the EGL that ordinary tasks sometimes become hilarious. Standard procedures in Algonquin call for food to be hung from a sturdy tree branch some 15 feet in the air and some 5 or so feet from the tree, protecting the contents from not only marauding bears but a myriad of other persistent little critters that invariably turn up when people start dropping food on the ground. Even following procedures, Entropy's food bag had been chewed into my some little critter. Cruiser was in the process of setting an elaborate system that consisted of a multi-wheel pulley being suspended on a main line between two trees while the working line, the one that was attached to the food bags, hung down to the ground. Essentially forming "T" with one pulley at the top intersection and another at the bottom of the "T" by the food, making the hauling up of the heavy food bags a simple matter. Well, at least that was the plan. Enter Jiblets stage left. After several tosses, including one in which Cruiser was actually able to land his throw bag neatly on top of the target branch, he finally managed to get his main line up and over the branch. The weighted throw bag dangled down on the far side and looking around for help, he spied Jiblets casually looking on. Let me paraphrase the conversation...
"Could you hold this for me?" asks Cruiser.
"Sure" says Jiblets.
"I like this guy" says Cruiser to the gathered onlookers, "he really knows how to follow orders."
A general chuckle from the group and Cruiser turns away to retrieve his throw bag.
"Follow orders indeed!" Jiblets thinks to himself. Without a moment's pause a michievous grin crosses his face and he lets go of the rope. It goes racing up into the trees and up and over the branch. Cruiser spins around with an expression of shocked disbelief on his face that was priceless. Morale of the story: Don't make wisecracks about the help, especially when that help is Jiblets.

After dinner, the group made their way down to the lake to enjoy the cloudless night sky. In a little while the Milky Way rose up out of the eastern forest and stretched across the sky. The second to last star of the four stars of the handle on the big dipper (or was that three?) drew a bit of attention as we tried to spot stars. I pulled out my smart phone to start up my astronomy app when I noticed I had a couple bars of signal. On a lark I texted my elder daughter and was very surprised when my phone rang a few minutes later. Even though the volume was on low, the ring was deafening. It was like taking a call in the middle of a cinema, but magnified ten-fold by the silence. Sorry for shattering the moment everyone.

Down by the lake the mood was great. If anyone's ever met Ryvr, they wouldn't soon forget it. A big, fun loving extrovert with a hearty laugh and a flair for haute cuisine, Ryvr's got a ribald sense of humor that leaves everyone in stitches. I wish I could recall the exact conversation but at one point something was said that was usually reserved for those fraternal times when ladies weren't present. Nonplussed, and with much grace, Old Boot said something like "Oh, that's ok, there's not much you could say that would shock me." I gave Ryvr 15 minutes. It took him 20. He must have been distracted by the night sky.

Saturday night was a special in more than one way; Highboy was celebrating a birthday. Although many miles from family, he was, at least, amongst friends. He stayed up late that night, carrying on the celebration, but one by one people excused themselves to retire to their hammocks. For most of the Friday crew it had been a very long day with little or no sleep the night before and the hammocks beckoned.

It was early dawn when I first woke up and the forest had just begun to take on colour. I could hear people quietly snoring nearby and some voices down by the fire pit. I pulled my top quilt up, rolled over and went back to snooze a little longer, a rare luxury when my younger daughter's favorite pastime is waking up her father on weekends. I got up a little while later, pulled on my shorts and my heavy wool bush shirt and wandered down to get breakfast. Most of the crew was up and about. Jiblets and Dant8ro had strapped a 2QZQ Tree table to the tree that anchored one side of our kitchen table and had fired up Dant8ro's MS Core woodstove for its christening burn. I was impressed. It burned hot and made short work of boiling up the morning's water. Breakfast was a simple pack of oatmeal and a tall mug of instant espresso.

Dant8ro's MS Core

MS Core's Dant8ro

Beside the fire pit stood the remains of what must have been once a tall pine. Now all that remained was a slightly rotted stump some two meters high, already much chopped at. Dant8tro took out his saw and lopped off the top section, narrowly missing Cruiser in the process. Jiblets, unimpressed with the less than perfectly horizontal cut too his turn at trimming off the remains of the stump, ultimately producing a disc-like cross-section of the tree. Inspiration expresses itself in many ways. This time Jiblets and Dant8ro were determined to use that disc to make a shelf on that stump and it actually turned out pretty well. At one point midway through the construction, Ggreaves tried to use the stump to set up his stove and prepare some food. I think the sawdust drove him away.

Jiblets and Dant8ro leveling stump as Entropy watches on

Quiet had also set up his Titanium Goat wood stove complete with stove pipe. It was normally part of his winter camping kit, but I think he felt that it needed some long overdue burn-time. Not too heavy to pack in, it collapsed down into a fairly compact package. He was even kind enough to boil up some water for me. Throw a canvas tent over that and you've got yourself an all weather camping outfit.

Old Boot, Jiblets, Highboy and Ggreaves hat

The morning was turning into a beautiful day, sunny skies and little to no wind. Ggreaves and Iguana had already taken a canoe and headed back to do a day trip to the top of Booth's Rock. In this part of Ontario, the trout fishing season ends at the end of September, so this would be my last chance to do some open water fishing until next spring. I had even packed in a portable fish finder but unfortunately forgot to repair a wire that came loose after the last time I used it. Chowder was on the menu tonight and I thought a little fresh fish would make a nice addition. It was about 10am when I pushed off from shore, only to find bubba quietly sitting on the shore having breakfast and enjoying the view. Jiblets and Entropy launched a little afterwards. Our plan was to troll the south along the western shore down as far as the Galipo River. Personally I wasn't expecting much action on the main lake. The waters still held their summer warmth and I knew that the sunny weather and calm water would generally force trout down to more comfortable depths. Without my sonar I couldn't tell the depth so I didn't put on any additional weight on my line. Casting my line out behind me I paddled south until out of the depths I could start to weeds. I quickened my pace to keep my spoon high and avoid snags, but eventually they became so dense that I just gave up and reeled my lure in.

My map was back at camp, so I paddled further along the shore looking for the opening to the Galipo River where I knew brook trout could be found. On the way I managed to take a few pictures of one of the Park's Great Blue Herons. I got within about one hundred feet before it spread its wings and flew beyond the high shrubs along the shore. Jiblets and Entropy paddled up and reported that they had had similar luck. Entropy took out his GPS and took bearing on the mouth of the Galipo, just beneath the prominent hill at the southeast end of the lake.

Great Blue Heron

So late in the season, the water levels were quite low and we scraped several times along the sandy bottom of the river mouth before we entered the winding creek and put a pair of small beaver dams behind us. As we worked our way against the current the forest started to close in on us until at last we reached a small pool below a rock garden over which the Galipo was noisily flowing. On the right, a little back from the portage was a clearing in the brush and Jiblets and Entropy pulled their canoe up onto there. I continued a little way further and landed on the left side by the portage proper. The mouth of the Galipo River has to be one of the most awkward portage landings in the park. The field of rocks left nowhere to land a canoe safely so I just steered Lipstick (my canoe) between a pair of large rocks and pulled her a little out of the water. Eager to do a little fishing, I grabbed my little tackle box and my fishing rod and started down the portage trail.

A few years ago I had passed the same way with some friends from the office and we had discovered a wonderful little fishing hole along the way. Not far up the trail the Galipo tumbled a few meters into a broad, deep pool that emptied into a swift before rounding the bend back towards the portage. Tying on a tiny gold and orange Panther Martin spinner I made a couple of exploratory casts. At first I got a couple of following flashes but it wasn't long before I got a solid hit. Excited I pull out a small bookie, no less beautiful for its small size. I would have thrown it back but it was deeply hooked, so it put it on the shore behind me. After a couple of more fruitless casts over the top of the deep pool I switched my lure to a slightly larger and heavier black spinner, all the better to get down and ply the depths of the pool. As Jiblets and Entropy came up the trail behind me I pulled in another, larger speck. By this time Jiblets had tied on one of his home-salted smelts and landed a nice female bookie, the largest of the day. After losing my spinner to a log deep in the pool, I asked Jiblets if I could try one of his smelts. I tied on a jig, threaded on a smelt and cast out towards the foam where the river plunged into the pool. I moment later I was pulling in my day's best trout, a male bookie just a little smaller than Jiblets but in full fall colour. Absolutely beautiful. The three of us fished that pool and the little swift below it for the better part of two hours until a couple of other anglers came up eager to try their luck. We took some pictures and chatted for a while. We gathered our belongings and our catch, and then walked back down the trail to the canoes.

While we were fishing another group had landed and I guess that my canoe was blocking the portage because I found that it had been placed carefully up out of the way by the edge of the rocks. Beside it were a couple of canoes and some very nice trippers. One old chap, after he had buckled a pack onto his back, boasted that he had just had knee replacement surgery a couple of months earlier and that this was his first trip. Tough old bugger! I waited for them to pass and then threw my gear into the canoe. I carried it out to the rocks, carefully launched and then followed Jiblets and Entropy down the creek. This time we were travelling with the current and it wasn't long before we were back out on the main lake. Back at the pool the two fishermen had mentioned a deep spot back out on the lake near to the river mouth so Jiblets headed off in that direction while I began my long paddle back to camp. I was hungry and thinking about lunch. Once out over deep water I once again threw out my line and slow trolled back to camp. I think I got one hit along the way, but I didn't catch another fish for rest of the day.

Ggreaves and Bubba

Pulling back up on our campsite's beach, I showed the group our catch, hung them on a tree while I had lunch and then took them far down to the beach to be cleaned. I gutted them all but left Jiblets' otherwise untouched. I know he likes his trout steamed, but my mind was set on lightly floured trout fried to perfection in a pan of hot butter and oil. Simple and delicious. Kasuko was interested in watching the filleting process so I did my best to not butcher them too much. On small to medium fish I just make one pass along the spin on each side of the spine, carefully fillet out the rib bones and then take off the skin. No muss, not much fuss. In the end of it we had four lovely fillets ready for the pan. The little one could be fried whole. When Jiblets and Entropy got back Jiblets graciously let his be filleted and fried up as well. We had enough for everyone.

Ggreaves and Iguana paddled in and told us about their rewarding, albeit exhausting hike. Following the route the wrong way, or rather against the flow, in typical EGL style, they managed to make it to the top of the cliffs we had seen the morning before. The only problem was that they had underestimated their water supply and had come back to camp a tad thirsty. Nothing a gallon of filtered water between them couldn't fix. On the whole, it sounded like a fun excursion.

Old Boot's tree shelf and pot combo

Dant8ro, Ryvr and Cruiser also had a little fun. They have a history that goes back long before the EGL, so it's not surprising that there's more than a little good natured ribbing going on between them. On this occasion Ryvr and Cruiser were carrying on with their favorite pass time, trying to elicit a profane response from Dant8ro. But with the stalwart stoicism of a Palace guard, Dant8ro just sat there calmly smiling. I suspect, however, that deep below that steadfast countenance, devious plots of retribution were being hatched. Glad I was being nice to him.

Ryvr going to town on splitting firewood

We relaxed around the fire or down by the beach for the rest of the day. Finally, as the afternoon was wearing on, I thought it might be time to get dinner started. One minute there were fourteen campers in various states comfortable relaxation around the site. I made a comment as to whether anyone wanted to help get some wood for dinner and [everyone up jumped] and started lending a hand. From zero to sixty in two seconds flat. Not more than five minutes later we heard a large crash in the forest behind us and someone was calling for an axe. I grabbed mine and headed into the brush. Ryvr and Quiet had taken the firewood collection to heart and downed a lovely thirty foot dead standing hardwood that had to be 25 cm (ten inches) at the base. There was very little limbing to do and so they cut it into quarters, they placed one on my shoulder and I staggered back to camp. That was one solid piece of wood. Back at camp more wood was being pulled in and within an hour there was half a cord of wood neatly chopped and piled behind the fire pit, more than enough for several days. The campers who followed us would be very grateful.

Highboy and Iguana sweating the onions and bacon for the chowder

Soup was a simple chowder. Bubba took to peeling and dicing the potatoes, a task made easier this year because I remembered to bring the peeler this time. The onions and bacon were sweated down by Iguana who lent a hand as lead chef, and once these were done they were transferred to the big pot together with the clams and two Campbell's cream base and the diced potatoes. Simmering only took an hour and while that was happening, the trout fillets were floured and passed over to Ryvr for a professional frying. So dinner was an appetizer of fresh fried brook trout followed by some delicious New England Clam Chowder. Now for those of you who aren't familiar with the proper pronunciation it's "CHOW-DA!" Say it right! Judging by the empty pot, I'd say it was a hit. Funny thing though. As I was finishing preparing the pot I looked up and around at the group and fully two dozen sets of eyes were focused on the fire. I couldn't but help being reminded of a similar night long, long ago when as a boy scout I shone my flashlight into the trees around our camp and saw nothing but hundreds of tiny little eyes staring back at me. Now raccoons were replaced by quiet hangers, but the hungry look was still there! A little unnerving but definitely funny. The fire was built up and while some people sat around the fire chatting, others would wander down to the lake and enjoy the stars. We talked and shared some of the finer spirits as I enjoying my favorite A'Bunadh single malt. I even went so far as to light some ablaze, the blue flames dancing delicately around the metal rim. It was a nice way to wind up a good trip.

Morning dawned and unfortunately it was time to break camp. Some were up early and had managed to be fully packed before others had even woken up. Ryvr, always the early-bird, paddled over to the other site to make sure that those late sleepers were up and packing. We agreed that we all wanted to leave at roughly the same time and we knew that left to their own devices, it could be well into the afternoon before some of them woke up over there.

Ryvr, Dant8ro and Cruiser, Jiblets and Bubba had all left early. Jiblets would be waiting for me but the others had a long drive ahead of them and wanted to get an early start. The rest of group had our canoes lined up along the shore, but it wasn't until Chenvre and Kasuko started loading their canoe that everyone pushed off shore. Quiet and I stayed back a while, finishing our coffee and chatting until finally, after taking in the scenery once last time we launched our canoes and followed everyone north. At the portage we once again met Kasuko and Chenvre, but this time it was Chenvre who offered to carry the now much lighter food pack. After a short snack at the end of the portage we bent our paddles and continued north into Rock Lake where we turned aside to show them the pictographs. I was impressed with Kasuko. Just a couple of years earlier he ventured out on his first canoe trip ever on our second EGL canoe hang. It was his first experience at canoeing or even camping in Algonquin, the complete novice. Fast forward a couple of years and there he was, paddling strongly in the bow of Chenvre's canoe. Makes an old man proud it does.

Quiet paddling out

We paddled the last leg of the trip to the north end of Rock Lake and entered the narrow channel again. Paddling around a few bends we finally saw the access point, the docks already crowded with other canoes coming and going. We loaded the vehicles, secured the canoes to the roofs and drove away leaving nothing but a dusty trail behind us and many good memories. Another fine trip done.

One of the fine traditions we have is to end our trips with a visit to a local restaurant and have a farewell lunch. One of our favorite haunts is the Portage Store on Canoe Lake. With a bustling outfitter below and a well-stocked gift shop behind, the Portage Store Restaurant overlooks the southern bay of Canoe Lake, by far the busiest access point in the park. On such a busy weekend we were very lucky to get the best table in the house, in the far corner of the restaurant overlooking the docks. Ring-side seats for the best show in town. It's too bad the other guys couldn't join us. Bubba does love this spot but he, Ryvr, Dant8ro and Cruiser were already on the long road home. Beneath us a steady stream of day trippers were out to get a taste of the beauty of Algonquin in the fall. Portage store staff were busy carrying canoes to and from the dock as people awkwardly put on or removed off life jackets. With amusement we watch the antics below; one woman so eager to get off the canoe that she did a long legged yoga stretch onto the dock, reaching out with one foot until she was able to drag the canoe around and hop out. Low points on style but she definitely stuck the dismount. Another couple were sitting face to face in the canoe jerking their way away from the docks. One pretty lady stood with life jacket on and paddle in hand while wearing an ankle length dress. To our horror we watched as one lady came out onto the docks with an infant in a stroller. We let out a collective sigh of relief when she finally turned and walked back to shore. But winner of the prize in the most ludicrous category was a the "package" adjusting, hair tossing fellow in green pants who spent a good twenty minutes strutting back and forth as his adoring girlfriend videoed him. Most impressive was that he actually managed to change his outfit sometime during the shoot. Runner-up went to his stocky brother who was copying his brother stride for stride. If only they had looked up, they would have seen eight pairs of eyes crying with laughter. But in the end, even with the show, it was nice seeing people from every walk of life and corner of the globe taking the time to appreciate something we've enjoyed for years.

Backcountry paddlers stepping carefully around swarms of carefree day trippers. Those heading into the backcountry would scamper excitedly around their canoes with their freshly scrubbed clothes, gear and faces, checking to make sure each pack was carefully in their canoe. Those returning would glide heavily to the wooden docks, their movements a little stiffer, their gear a little rougher. Cups and shoes dangle from straps of their packs and beards have replaced clean-shaven faces. When they pass each other sometimes there's a good natured nod or a few words of encouragement. Sometimes it's just the thousand yard stare. But in the end, we're all in the same great fraternity. From fledgling paddler to grizzled tripper; we're canoers and we're proud of it.

Left front to back: Kasuko, Quiet, Entropy, Ggreaves
Right front to back: Old Boot, Jiblets, Iguana, Chard
Missing: Bubba, Chenvre, Dant8ro, Ryvr, Cruiser, Highboy

Chard and Lipstick

EGL Canoe Hang - Spring 2014 - Feed the Flies!!!

EGL Canoe Hang - Spring 2014 - Feed the Flies!!!

Feed the Flies!

Another EGL trip to Algonquin. Despite voracious mosquitoes and blackflies and incessant headwinds, it was a glorious weekend; perfect weather and great company, excellent food; you can't ask for much more.

From the onset, it was going to be a laid back weekend. Instead of the usual early morning dash to get on the water as early as possible, Bubba, Iguana, Jiblets, Keg, Quiet, and I agreed to meet up at the Family Place restaurant in Huntsville for a nice, late morning breakfast before picking up our rental canoes from Algonquin Outfitters at 10 am. We'd be renting three canoes, a tandem for Keg and Bubba, a 15' Keewaydin solo for Jiblets and a 16' solo Shearwater for myself. On a lark, Jiblets and I also took a pair of double bladed kayak paddles. It turned out to be one of the best decisions we made all weekend. With Iguana and Quiet paddling their own canoes, we'd have a small flotilla of five canoes heading into the park.

It was around 11am when we pulled into the Algonquin Park Ranger Station at Kearney on Algonquin's western border to pick up our permits, and close to 12 when we finally pulled into the Magnetewan Lake Access Point's parking lot. Our canoes were in the water shortly afterwards.

Our route wasn't too arduous; we'd be paddling roughly 10 km / 6 miles over four lakes joined by three easy portages totalling a little over 800m / 1/2 miles; literally a walk in the park. On our way out we were hoping to run across 8008r and Toots who were also planning on being in the park that weekend, but it wasn’t until we got back that we learned that they had changed their plans and camped in a totally different section of the park. Too bad, it would have been nice to see them again.

From the docks at the access point, it's two short paddles and two short portages to Ralph Bice Lake, by far the largest lake of the trip. Just beyond the portage I looked down into the water and saw half a dozen nice sized lake trout just milling about the bottom. I was tempted to break out my fishing rod, but couldn’t be bothered. At least it was an encouraging sign! A little way ahead I saw some paddlers rafted together consulting their maps. Although the two in the canoe were fairly non-descript, it was the paddle boarder that caught my attention. This soon after ice-out, the water is cold, especially on large lakes like Ralph Bice and I couldn't imagine this chap not capsizing at least once crossed the lake. With all of his gear lashed to the top of his paddleboard, I didn't know how he'd planned on righting himself if he did flip. Just a few weeks earlier, two souls were lost on Opeongo, the largest of the park's lakes. Some people just don't think things through too carefully.

We pushed our way east along the south shore into moderate headwinds. At about the halfway mark we stopped for a short lunch in the lee of a lovely little peninsula campsite that jutted into the main lake. With sandy beaches and a fantastic view, it was definitely a site to return to with the kids.

By the time we reached the eastern end of Ralph Bice, I'm sure we were all glad to see the portage ahead. It had been a long paddle. Jiblets managed to put his fishing rod to good effect and hauled in a respectable lake trout. First of the trip!

After the last portage of the day, we pushed off into Little Trout. Back in Huntsville, one of the sales staff at Algonquin Outfitters gave us some good advice about the lake and had recommended the lone campsite on the north island just out from the portage. I had camped on the lake several times before, and knew the site; some college kids had camped there during our fall hang of 2012. It was a good choice as it featured a large rock shelf facing west, and what we soon discovered was a really nice log seating arrangement, complete with table and backrests.

Photo Courtesy of Iguana

It wasn't long before hammocks were up and camp was squared away. Firewood was collected and processed and soon afterwards dinner was being prepared; grilled lamb, sausages and dehydrated meals including some exotic sounding Kung Fu Chicken. The main feature of dinner, of course, was Jiblet's steamed lake trout with rice. Wrapped in parchment paper and foil and placed on the grate, it was simple and delicious. One of the best new toys was Quiet's new 180 Tack folding wood firebox/stove. It's simple design and wide fuel access made maintaining a respectable fire look easy. Definitely a solid piece of gear. We had all had a long day, Bubba had been up since 3am that morning, so all we could think of was crawling into our hammocks and passing out.

Photo Courtesy of Iguana

Saturday started beautifully, with the sun shining hot under a cloudless sky. After a lazy start Jiblets, Iguana, Quiet and I took our canoes and went for a paddle, Jiblets and myself to fish, Quiet to explore and take photographs and Iguana to just relax and paddle quietly about. There were a few other paddlers on the lake, a young couple over here, someone fishing over there and a few people just passing through. I didn't really expect to catch anything, calm water at midday under bright skies has never been very productive in the past, so it wasn't much of a surprise that we came back empty handed. Keg had found a nice shady spot high on the rock outcropping and had taken advantage of the quiet time to get some reading done. All in all it was a nice relaxing afternoon. Just what the doctor ordered.

One unusual thing happened. As Iguana was out scouring the island for firewood, he stumbled upon a little sealed PVC tube with writing on the side. Apparantly a family had placed a "time capsule" here on the island with the intention of coming back in 2010 to check on it. After bringing it to camp for inspection we did put it carefully back. Hopefully future campers will treat it with equal respect and that family will have that momento to look forward to finding again and again for decades to come.

Photo Courtesy of Iguana

After a late lunch, a swim and some more quality time lounging around camp it was time to start thinking about dinner. New England clam chowder was on the menu and some fresh lake trout would have been a welcome addition. I pushed my canoe back into the water to try my luck at the western end of the lake behind our little island. I managed to fool one healthy little brook trout with small gold and orange spoon, but lost it at the canoe. That wasn't going to be the last time I regretted my decision to lighten my load by leaving my net at home. I eventually returned emptyhanded back to camp.

Photo Courtesy of Iguana

Our final dinner Saturday night came together in classic EGL tradition. Preparation was a group effort, but thanks definitely go out to Bubba for chopping and dicing the onions, celery and potatoes. Personally I think he just relishes the knifework. It took some time to bring the large pot of chowder to a slow boil, but I wanted to avoid scorching the bottom of the thin stainless steel pot. Eventuallly dinner was served with a toasted whole grain baguette. The soup was awesome! The white wine, sausage and bacon made all the difference.

Photo Courtesy of Iguana

We finished the night lounging around the fire. Iguana and I managed to catch the setting of the thin waxing moon on the west horizon and a couple of us went out to enjoy the stars and discuss the meaning of life and the universe, you know, the normal things, before turning in.

Sunday morning started early. We were packed and on the water at a little after 9am. Checking the ripples on the water moving from west to east, it was obvious that the wind had changed direction overnight and that we'd have to battle headwinds on the way out. Pushing out into Ralph Bice after our first portage, the winds became more fierce. I broke out my kayak paddle, threw out my fishing line and paddled west. Up ahead I could see Iguana, paddling his tandem Grumman solo out of the bay and onto the main lake. He was all but stopped in his tracks as he came out of the sheltered bay and faced the powerful headwinds coming off of the main lake. I've got to give him credit, he just bent to the task and slowly disappeared around the bend.

I had a notion of trolling along the north shore of Ralph Bice, so Jiblets and I broke from the main group struck out on our own. At least I think Jiblets came along, I was so busy looking forward that I never saw him. The north shore was a little out of the way, but with our kayak paddles, I wasn't too worried. Always a purist, I normally scorned kayak paddles in favour of the traditional canoe paddle, but I have to admit I was very impressed with how effective they were in making light work of paddling a well trimmed canoe into the wind. Crossing to the north side in strong winds and moderately heavy seas didn't worry me too much; the Swift Shearwater handled the conditions very well, but it was the large line of reefs that loomed up out of the depths to just below the surface that got me concerned. I didn't relish the idea of running aground or trying to work free a snagged lure as my canoe turned broadside to the wind and bounced around on those dark, cold swells. Up ahead the large rock I noticed on the way in now had waves breaking against it, but it wasn't until I got closer that I saw that it was surrounded by smaller waves breaking on rocks just below the surface. On a placid day, it would be fun to explore the area, in this weather it would be folly. I turned to cross the lake back to the southern shore.

Far ahead Keg and Bubba pulled in for lunch at the same campsite we had stopped at on the way in. Soon they were joined by Iguana who had just powered his way up the lake. I was next to land, followed by Jiblets and finally Quiet bringing up the rear. After a breather and a group photo, we hit the water again for our last push home. I threw out my line with the intention of trolling up the shoreline to our next portage. It wasn't long however before I felt a solid hit on my line. After a short fight I landed first one laker, then another and then another, each larger than the last. Each time I'd be blown back down the lake, bobbing up and down on the swell, so by the time I finally reached the portage, the rest of the gang had already gone on ahead. Only Jiblets was in sight and soon even he disappeared down the trail just as I was pulling up.

Another lake and other portage and we had our last short lake in sight. A very short paddle later and the sand was grinding under my canoe as I pulled in beside the Access Point docks. Everyone had already taken their gear up to the car park and were in various stages of getting ready to depart. I filled a large dry bag with lake water and put the fish inside, we'd get some ice on the way out.

Bubba, Keg, Iguana and Quiet finished loading up their gear and started off a little ahead of Jiblets and myself. We agreed to rendezvous in Huntsville to return the canoes and then grab a quick lunch at Harveys. Jiblets and I secured our canoes to his rock solid homemade roof rack, went for a quick swim and then pulled out of the parking lot leaving Algonquin behind. Another great trip was over.

Eastern Great Lakes Hang Trip Report - Feb 2014 - Snowshoes, Cold and Olympic Gold

Eastern Great Lakes Hang Trip Report - Feb 2014 - Snowshoes, Cold and Olympic Gold

Snowshoes, Cold and Olympic Gold

Just wanted to give everyone a quick trip report of the Feb 2014 EGL Winter Hang.

This year's winter hang was a little different, that's for sure. To be fair, unseasonably warm weather, icy rain and some unforeseen personal obligations turned what was originally planned as a merry gathering of hangers on a two night backcountry trip into an overnighter attended by first a group, then a troupe, then a few and finally a pair of crazed hammock campers. It's too bad. We couldn't have asked for a more beautiful weekend to get out and explore some new territory.

Just after 8 am Saturday morning, Iguana and I rolled onto the highway out of Toronto on our way to the Kawartha Highlands Provincial park, just north of Peterborough. It was the first time either of us had been to that park and we were eager to see some new vistas. At first, just east of Metro Toronto, there seemed to be little more than a couple of inches of snow covering the ground, with many patches of dried long grass showing through and things didn't look too promising for a serious winter hang. But southern Ontario's funny that way, and as soon as we got away from Lake Ontario, we weren't suprised to see progressively more snow as we raced past Peterborough and started the final run towards the park. There was easily a couple of feet at least of snow on the ground. We followed the 401 to the 115 up to Peterborough and then Trans-Canada (Hwy 7) until we turned north on Hwy 28. From there we followed the 28 north to the town of Burleigh Falls and caught Hwy 36 west to Hwy 507. Another few minutes on the 507 and we found our turnoff east onto the Beaver Lake Road, dubbed the Road to Catchacoma. It snaked it's way over and around the various cottage covered hills and snow-covered lakes. Despite the snow from the day before, the road was well plowed with a fresh layer of sand.

One of our group, Rofo, had scouted out the area for us a week or so earlier and was able to give us some good information on the area. At the northeast end of Beaver Lake, just as he had promised, the road widened to form a good sized parking area before turning sharply to the west. other than one other car parked by the road, we were alone. We got out and stretched our legs. The morning was perfect; a balmy -2c/28f under sunny skies. The broad snowmobile trail that Rofo had mentioned ran east and slightly uphill into the forest. Although we'd hike in along this trail, we still had to go to the other "official" Bottle Lake trailhead to get the self-registration form.

Getting back in the car, we drove another 500 yards down the road until we found another small parking area carved out of the snow. At the top of the hill we spotted a small covered wooden notice board that held permits, park newsletters and other info. I had been under the impression that we could self register when we got to the trailhead, but I was mistaken. Apparently a reservation had to made with Ontario Parks in advance and then the booking number could be hand-written on the provided permits and placed on the dash of one's car. Hmm. Not to be daunted, I pulled out my phone to call the number indicated on the notice board. No signal. Iguana tried his with the same result. Hmm. I looked at the notice board again and read a little further down "For better cell phone reception, exit the driveway to the right and drive to the top of the hill." Hmm. Back in the car. A couple of minutes later we got through to a Parks rep to book our reservation. Other than being put on hold a couple of times and having a bizarre conversation with the rep trying to convince her that we weren't about to embark on a canoe trip in the middle of February, things went quite well.

With our booking number clearly written on our permit we drove back to the hairpin and unloaded our gear. Both Iguana and I were pulling wooden toboggans. In addition to the basic essentials, we both brought folding camp chairs and I had my ice auger lashed on to allow us easy access to lake water. I was also trying out my Rush-72 backpack. It contained all of my camp gear and food, everything except my quilts, winter boots and extra layers of clothing. I had planned on carrying everything on my back, but the bulk was a little unweildly. As it was, the duffelbag on my toboggan was half empty. I had even waxed my toboggan the night before, first rubbing on ski wax and then melting it onto the wood using a putty spatula heated on my kitchen stove. Once treated this way, the sled runs like a dream. Without any further delay we plunged into the woods, if stumbling around while pulling a sled can be referred to as plunging.

On my last backcountry winter camping trip to Swan lake in Algonquin Park, we had to snowshoe through fresh, deep snow all the way to camp. It was, for someone of my non-athletic disposition, the three kilometer hike was quite taxing. The snowmobile track to Sucker Lake was anything but; broad, hard packed with gently rolling hills, we were able to make good time, stopping only occasionally to shed a layer or take some pictures. But we quickly found that if you strayed off the path only a little and you'd sink up to your knees in snow.

I had a pretty good feel for the lay of the land so after about twenty minutes or so I started looking for a turn-off on the trail, something that would lead us north over the next couple of hills and down to Sucker lake. It wasn't long before we spotted a ski trail that seemed to be heading the right way. We left the sleds and snowshoes behind and struck along the track, sinking slightly every third step or so. We followed it for a few minutes until it appeared to turn back and head west, parallel with the shore. I was sure that the lake was just over the next hill, but it just seemed like too much work to bushwhack over there, especially with a well groomed trail behind us. We returned back to our toboggans and decided to follow the snowmobile trail a while longer. Rofo had told me that it gradually turned northwards, running along the eastern shore of Sucker Lake. We started seeing the broad expanse of frozen lake between the trees, obviously Sucker, and the trail started to descend pretty quickly. Soon a broad snowmobile path branched off to the left and we turned to follow it. We must have stumbled upon Site 125. It was quite nice, with large, well spaced trees set slightly back from the shore; a fine summer spot, ideal for a hanging. But unfortunately the spot was taken; a large green tarp was strung in the pines just to the left. Ahead of us the trail dropped quickly off the shoreline and onto the frozen lake.

Out on the ice, out of the shelter of the trees, a cold northerly wind blew across the lake. Looking around, we saw the island we were had planned on camping; a steep-sided, pine covered island roughly in the middle of the lake. As picturesque as it was, those stands of evergreens meant we'd have to constantly scrounge for wood as we quickly burned through our softwood supply. The far north shore, on the other hand, looked ideal. A high, snow-covered hill streaked with bare grey hardwoods above a narrow band of dense evergreens that hugging the shoreline. Tucked in behind those pines at the foot of the hill, we'd be out of the northern winds and close to an ample supply of quality firewood back on the hillside. You can't go too far wrong setting up on the north shore of any lake when winter camping. In almost every case, you'll have protection from the prevailing northerlies at your back while giving you a chance to get some warming sunlight during the day.

Ahead on the ice we could see a pair of ice-fishermen sitting by their holes, to one side of the snowmobile path we were following north. As we got close, we stopped to chat. They were a young couple of guys and they confirmed they were camp back by the green tarp and that it was their vehicle back at the trailhead. The ice? A good 20 inches. The fishing? They had a bite first thing in the morning, but nothing since. Not very encouraging. Lake trout fishing's like that. Long periods of boredom broken by a few minutes of frenzied fighting. At least that's been my experience. I was starting to regret not having brought my fishing gear.

Crossing over the lake we soon left the snowmobile path and started breaking a path for the north shore. It was pretty rough going, at least for me. I guess the warm temperatures and rain of the previous few days had taken their toll and the lake was covered in a layer of crusty snow over a core of soft snow and slush. It wasn't long before I'd walk for 50 yards, rest and then set out again. Memories of Swan Lake all over again. In hindsight, it probably would have made sense to strap on the snowshoes, but it didn't seem worth it at the time, our destination being just ahead after all. I've certainly found a new respect for the polar explorers. Those guys must have legs of steel to be able to manage to hour after hour of that gruelling exercise.

Eventually we reached the north shore and worked our way in behind the small stand of low pines to the foot of the hill where we planned to camp. The site was ideal; good trees to hang from, little wind and plenty of firewood close at hand. The snow was easily 2-3 feet deep and snowshoes were essential to get around without sinking, at least at first. After an hour or so however, the packed down snow set up nicely and it was possible to walk around comfortably on foot. Still, when we had to venture into the thick bush and deep snow, snowshoes were essential. We also found navigating through the dense pines much by simply getting behind the sled and pushing it through the fresh snow rather than try to haul it up and over our tracks where it would invariably flip into a rut.

It was only about an hour past noon, and we had a good four or five hours of sunlight left. After an initial scouting of the area, we decided to build a quick fire, have lunch and warm up a bit and then set up camp afterwards. I pulled out my collapsible shovel and we took turns clearing out the fire pit area enough to accommodate not only the fire but our two camp chairs. Unfortunately the spot we had selected was a little more uneven than we could have hoped for and our chair placement was a little less than perfect. In the end, I spent quite a bit of my time sitting downwind of the fire "taking in the flavour" of the outdoors. In other words, I was a smoke magnet.

Now Ontario's Provincial Parks winter camping policy require campers to stay off of summer sites. It's a sensible rule for a couple of reasons; not only do winter campers do tend to put a strain on the surrounding wood supplies but the unavailability of proper toilet facilities (aka thunder boxes) means that in the spring, campers are likely to find little toilet paper wrapped "gifts" scattered (pun intended) around the site. One of the benefits of this regulation is that we tend to camp in remote, fairly untouched places. Along the more popular summer routes, campsites tend to stripped bare of easy kindling and firewood. If you've picked a good spot, gathering kindling in the winter is as simple as reaching out and snapping off the bone dry lower twigs of the nearby pines. Close at hand Iguana found some dead standing hardwood and quickly sawed it into managable lengths. I built my personal favourite fire configuration, a top-down fire, lit a piece of birch bark and within a couple of minutes a roaring blaze was driving the chill out of our bones.

Ironically, the remote little backwood spot we carved out for ourselves was not quite as remote as we could have hoped. No sooner had we got the fire going than Iguana reached down and picked up a crushed can off the ground, evidence that even this remote spot had been previously occupied. What were the chances that we would have picked the one spot that may have served as a prior fire pit? Well considering that back at Valens, in our "Gearing Up for Winter" hang, Iguana and 76 Highboy managed to randomly select a patch of snow to place their fire that sat directly over the original fire ring, on a site they'd never visited, I'd put the chances at close to 100%!

Lunch was a simple; a pre-made peanut butter and raspberry jam sandwich, half a litre of Lipton's instant chicken noodle soup and a few swigs of coffee from my thermos, still piping hot. Iguana's lunch was a little more ambitious. Taking his queue from Jiblets he set ten nice chicken wings to grill over the fire. What a feast. After our hike in, this little bit of time out by the fire was a pleasure.

As I switched out of my un-insulated 14" L.L.Bean Maine Hunting boots into my big heavy polar grade Sorel's, I'm glad I took the lessons from Swan Lake to heart. Back then, wearing heavy insulated boots and insulated pants certainly made tripping more difficult. Fighting the weight of a snowshoe, a big boot and pants clinging to my legs was a pain. I actually think I managed to tear the medial meniscus on my right knee during that trip, although it wouldn't be diagnosed for another year. Anyway, this time I opted for a lighter pair of boots and a pair of stretchy Lycra jogging pants, leaving my warmer gear was packed on my sled for camp. It certainly worked well. As recommended, while travelling I started off a little cool, on purpose. The exercise of walking quickly warmed me up and I found that before long I was even shedding layers. Remember, it was still only just below freezing and back in the forest, there was little or no wind to contend with. The hunting boots have especially flexible soles, which promoted blood flow and kept my feet surprisingly warm, so much so that by the time I took them off to switch to my big camp boots, the socks I had worn in were damp and needed drying over the fire. Had I worn my insulated boots, all of that perspiration, and likely more, would have made its way into the felt. They certainly would have been colder and may have even needed to be placed by my socks to dry. As it was, a quick switch into a dry pair of socks and my Sorel's left my feet dry and warm. Iguana had the good sense to wear snow gaiters and kept his boots on for most of the day. It was only around dinner that he switched over to his waterproof down booties, and he had nothing but good things to say about them. With the fabric soles, he said could feel every twig on the ground. I joked that with those on, he could probably feel each snowflake.

While getting changed, I also took the opportunity to throw on my newly fashioned wool bush shirt, modelled closely on the Swanndri bush shirt. It was a fun project and the result was a sweater that with light under layer, was perfect for temperatures around the freezing mark.

With lunch behind us, and about two or three hours of light left, we strapped on our snowshoes and turned our attention to setting up camp. It never ceases to amaze me how long it takes to decide where to hang, even when surrounded by trees. I picked a couple of trees about ten yards from the fire pit and Iguana settles on a pair of trees another ten yards past me. We each stomped down the snow around our areas and got to work. As I mentioned the snow set up quite quickly and it wasn't long before we were able to walk around with only our boots on.

I have a recurring problem on these winter hangs that comes from setting my DIY sil tarp with it's 12' ridgeline tight against the ground in storm-mode. With my hammock's whoopies coming off at around 30 degrees, they intersect my tarp's ridgeline about 6 inches short at each end. Most annoying. In any other season, It's not a problem, I simple raise my tarp a foot and it clears the whoopies just fine, but come winter when most of us try to minimize cold drafts by hugging the ground, I get a sloppy hang. In hindsight I suppose I could have raised the tarp and packed snow around the edges, but it seemed like a lot of effort for a single night at -10c.

With the tarp, beaks, hammock, quilts and underquilt protector in place, my pack hanging from a tree and my toboggan's gear all policed up, it was time to get to work on the evenings firewood supply. Strapping on the snowshoes, I grabbed my saw and started uphill looking for the perfect tree. Even with the snowshoes, it was a tiring climb, with deep snow and a steep incline. But all the effort was worth it. Getting up into this stand of hardwoods, with their grey trunks bare of leaves and clouds racing across the blue sky overhead, was magical, Only the breeze in the treetops broke the muffled silence of the snow covered forest. I stood for quite a few minutes, catching my breath and taking it all in. I kept looking around for that one dead standing tree that suited my needs and eventually found the one I wanted a little further up the hill. The dead standing hardwood was at least thirty feet long and about six or so inches at the base. Using my saw I felled, limbed it and then cut it in half. I dragged the top half back to camp returning for the larger lower section a little later. In the meantime Iguana had found a nice dead birch closer to camp and those big logs became the foundation of our fire. We took turns sawing through the wood, switching after cutting two sections. It made light work of the tree. Neither of us got too tired or overheated and we were left with a good stack of wood. Technically it wasn't exactly one "sh#tload" of wood, as per an earlier discussion in Valens, but it was hardwood after all and it served us well enough.

Evening was coming on and dinner wasn't too far off. We grabbed the auger and ducked under a couple of pines to get down to the lake and pop a hole in the 20 inch thick ice. Melting snow is fine in a pinch, but easier and tastier by far is good old-fashioned lake water. While we were out there, I could but help thinking about the snowmobile trails that crisscrossed the lake. Common sense said they went up to the north end of Sucker, across the portage and into Bottle. From there, there was an excellent chance that they'd turn south and hook up with the Bottle Lake Access point and the road where Iguana's car was parked. Although certainly more exposed than the forest trail we had come in on, the distance up and around the two lakes were roughly equal and flat level walking sounded really good. I tried to flag down a couple of passing snowmobiles to inquire about the trail, but they were either too far away to notice us or didn't fee safe approaching two maniacs waving their arms and jumping around on the ice. Don't blame them either way, but I can't help thinking that if we had been in a real emergency, we would have been out of luck. I wasn't impressed.

Getting back to camp, we threw another log on the fire and I hung my Zebra Billy from a steel cable to warm up some water. Dinner for me was a tender lamb chop and a bowl of dehydrated Mexican rice & beans with chicken. It was one of those freeze-dried meals you can get at Canadian Tire (a large camping/hardware store chain for those non-Canadians) and I was quite impressed. I had readied myself for a less than pleasant mouthful of foul-tasting mush, but it wasn't bad. I'd definitely get it again. The only trick I did was to use a 500ml stainless steel wide mouthed lunch thermos to rehydrate my food. Not as light as a pot-cozy, but certainly more effective. Iguana grilled up a nice slab of steak and then sautéed some frozen vegetables. Nice and healthy. By the time dinner was all finished, the sun had set and the camp had become quite dark. Just the time for a dram or two of Laphroaig; its smoky, peaty flavour making it the quintessential Islay single malt, perfect for the bush.

We sat around the fire for a while and then decided to head out onto the ice and check out the lake and stars. It was a beautiful clear moonless night. The Milky Way ran dimly across the sky and Jupiter shone down on us from high in the Southern sky. We stayed out there on the ice for a while, sometimes chatting, sometimes just silently staring quietly into the sky. Growing up in the big city, I can never go out and look into the night sky without being deeply moved. An added treat was the wildlife. Listening carefully we could hear a the hoots of a Barred owl and even the excited yapping of wolves or coyotes.

After a while we returned the warmth of the fire and sat around chatting. With only the two of us, there was a different tempo that there would have been with a larger group. Not better or worse, just different. Eventually we decided to call it a day and let the fire burn down low. We covered the fire pit in a blanket of snow, I looped my food bag over one of the low broken stub on a nearby pine and we made for our hammocks. As always, I'd been looking forward to crawling into my down quilts all day long. I changed into my long johns and rustled around for ten minutes until I was finally able to settle down. As far as I could tell, Iguana had crawled into his hammock, moved around once and passed out.

Strange thing though. During my thrashing about getting ready for bed, Iguana asked me if I was beside his tarp. I answered that I wasn't, that I was sitting on my hammock moving around my plastic foot mat. Apparently the acoustics in our little area were quite weird, and sounds bounced around quiet alot. I don't know whether it was an undigested bit of lamb, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, or a fragment of underdone potato, but I woke up in the middle of the night with a shout after having a very vivid dream featuring me fending off a very disagreeable Rottweiler. I went back to sleep only to be woken up in the middle of the night by loud rustling seemingly right beside my hammock. Bear? Sasquatch? Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog? Nay. It was just Iguana moving around his hammock. My heatrate returned to normal and I settled back to sleep.

It was still dark when I woke up and although outside it was around -10c, tucked away in my quilts I was toasty warm. I powered up my phone and checked the time. It was 6:57am EST on Sunday February 23rd, a time Olympic Hockey fans the world over would recall as minutes before the start of the gold medal round of 2014 Men's Hockey finals between Canada and Sweden. All week I had looked forward to listening to this early morning game from the extreme comfort of my hammock, even more so now that Canada had made it to the finals. I had just enough time to "irrigate" a nearby tree, grab a snack and tuck myself back in my hammock before the game. Armed with a raspberry poptart, I launched a radio app on my phone and tried to lock into CBC Radio One. I was getting between one and three bars, so I had high hopes. I'd get the pre-game talk, loose it, see the "buffering" counter tick back to 100% and then start listening again. After much fiddling I found that if I held my phone up out of my sleeping bag at just the right angle, my reception was fine. So with a cold hand I listened as Canada cruised to a 3-0 victory over Sweden with Jonathan Toews, Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz each managing to put the puck past Lundqvist into the Swedish net, while Carey Price stopped all 24 shots against him. Breakie from the hammock might be good, but Olympic Gold from the hammock is great!!!

As soon as the game was over I pushed back my quilts and got my day going. Early into the game, I had heard Iguana get out of his hammock and get the fire started. He had asked how the game was going and I, after throwing out a spoiler alert, was more than happy to tell him. Getting some fresh water from the lake, we put on our pots onto the fire. Iguana enjoyed a nice hot mug of organic tea and eggs, over easy. I was suprised becuase he had left his eggs out overnight and even with the cold, they were still unfrozen the next morning. Amazing!

Simple coffee and oatmeal was going to be my breakfast. Back at home I had put all of the oatmeal ingredients into a ziplock bag and now all that was required was to place the entire bag into my metal thermos, pour in some hot water and then screw on the cap for a few minutes. No muss, no fuss and no cleaning! Not everything went as well as planned though. I managed to commit a grevious, almost unpardonable sin that morning: I spilled a full pot of coffee onto the ground. The pot had been balanced on an outer log of the fire and would have been fine if I hadn't reached down to adjust the fire. Such is life. Another trip out to the lake to get fresh water, another wait for the water to boil, another several scoops of espresso coffee (Medaglio- D'Oro: my family's coffee of choice for the last three generations. If it was good enough for dear old Lily, it's good enough for me!)

Breakfast finished, we turned to the task of packing. Fortunately it never takes very long to break camp, especially when hauling your gear on a sled. I had plenty of room in my duffel bag and it was a simple matter to stuff my gear loosely into their sacks and drop them in. In little over half an hour we were packed and ready to go. We did a last look around our campsite, strapped on our snowshoes and plunged into the pines towards the lake.

With the snowshoes on, we all but floated over the snow and slush that had given us so many problems yesterday. Within a hundred yards we were on the firmly packed snowmobile trail heading north, our snowshoes strapped to the tops of our toboggans. The trail was perfect and we made good time up the lake to the portage that would take us into Bottle Lake. The short trail at first rose a few yards and then followed the course of a open creek to the lake below. The sound of water running over stones was seemed out of place in this deeply quiet, snow-covered landscape. There was a little open water where the stream entered that lake and we followed the trail of snowmobilers that had given the area a wide berth.

Another half hour of walking and we saw the yellow portage sign that could only mark the trail up to the main road. Stopping once to catch my breath, we caught sight of the notice board where we had registered. We had made it!!! We pulled our sleds across the open area and to the top of a long snow-covered track that rand down to the road. I let go of my sled and it raced down the hill. Iguana, in the best tradition of our Canadian bobsledders, rode down the hill on his toboggan until he reached the bottom and flipped. I tried to capture it all on video, but somehow got my settings messed up. I only managed to capture his wide grin!

Not wanting to drag our wooden toboggans over the gravel covered road, Iguana set off for the quarter mile hike back to his car. After a while his car pulled up, the back door was opened and we carefully lifted our gear inside.

The drive home was great. We stopped at a roadside cafe in the town of Selwyn, just north of Peterborough, for a proper breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast and coffee. With those eggs and bacon and sausage smothered in HP Sauce and Frank's Red Hot, it was the perfect end to a great trip in the bush. From there it was clear sailing back to Toronto.