January 5, 2005
It was early Sunday morning when I heard the airplane overhead. If the passengers saw us, I was sure we'd be mistaken for moose. This deep in the Canadian wilderness, in the middle of an immense frozen lake, people would assume four slow-moving black dots to be wildlife of some sort.
| A warm tent after a long day
Photo by Stephen Renegold
Most of the time they'd be right. We were definitely outnumbered by the moose and wolves and white tail deer of the region. And except for the small Canadian town of Atikokan 20 miles away, we were likely the only humans for 100 miles in any direction.
In fact, the plane was the first sign of human life I'd seen since our ski trip began three days before.
But that's why we came to Ontario's Quetico Provincial Park, Canada's counterpart wilderness preserve to Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Solitude is pretty much guaranteed in Quetico during winter, where only 50 to 100 people request permits to camp in the 1.2-million acre park each year between November and March.
For a change from my usual winter-camping routine, which involves sleeping out under the stars in northern Minnesota, I invited my father, Chuck, and a friend, Steve Millard, on a ski trip guided by the Atikokan-based Quetico Outfitters. Instead of small camp stoves and puffy sleeping bags to keep us warm, we'd rely on a network of large, canvas-walled tents and a pair of teepee-like structures called yurts that are set up about 20 kilometers apart along Quetico's northern boundary.
These wilderness shelters let groups like ours ski or snowshoe from tent to tent each day, eliminating the burden of having to make a camp every evening. Unlike a normal winter-camping trip, my backpack weighed less than 30 pounds, as the tents had been stocked ahead of time with sleeping bags, air mattresses, cooking supplies and all the items I'd normally have to haul in. Our guide, Garth Stromberg, carried most of the food in his backpack and doubled as the chef during our three-day trip.
Into the woods
Despite the lightened load, our journey through the park was a serious, strenuous adventure. We spent the first night in a yurt at Quetico's drive-in Dawson Trail Campground then jumped in the next morning with a 22-kilometer ski.
Stromberg led on the hilly portage trail from the campground. He paused every few minutes -- arm outstretched, ski pole dangling from his wrist -- to point out untouched 350-year-old white pines or wolf tracks in the snow.
After an hour of skiing, the trail ended and the snow got deep. We coasted downhill onto Pickerel Lake, an immense body of water the stretches more than 40 kilometers east to west. Most of our time for the next two days would be spent on Pickerel's seemingly endless ice shelf.
On the lake, the usual kick-glide cadence of Nordic skiing was replaced with plodding through ankle-deep snow. When breaking trail my ski tips poked just a few millimeters out of the fluffy mantle. For six hours we laid fresh tracks across miles of featureless lake ice.
While Stromberg guided much of the time, he was happy to let us lead and navigate across Pickerel's island- and bay-riddled expanse. On the ice, peninsulas looked like islands, and passages that seemed to be heading the right way often dead-ended in bays. Because of this, I unzipped my chest pocket every half-hour to retrieve the map and check location.
Three kilometers from camp, the clouds lowered and the sun grew dim. Daylight became flat and weak. White sky blended with the snow, and there was an utter, almost surreal lack of detail: no color, no topography, no trees or rocks.
Darkness set in as we skied into a bay halfway down Pickerel Lake and found the gear Stromberg had pulled in on a sled earlier in the week. Because we were his first group of the year to this location, the canvas tent had not yet been set up.