As I go through my disjointed notes from our winter trekking expedition to the Missinaibi Headwaters of Northern Ontario, Canada, I had to laugh at some of my sentences. “What did I get myself in to?” “Why would anyone want to do this?” “Who in their right mind says -26 is a good day?” I always love writing notes in the moment because it helps give perspective when you go back to write your articles. As Paul Theroux stated “Travel is Glamorous only in retrospect.” If I were to write an article simply from memory, I would talk about how beautiful it was, how many laughs we had, and how everyone should go on an 11-day winter camping trip. Luckily, I took notes.
I remember reading mountain climber, Dave Braeshears’ book ‘High Exposure’ about his life and times climbing Mount Everest. One paragraph stuck with me when he talked about how Everest always sounded like a great idea when he was sitting by the fire at home sipping wine. When he was home safe and sound he’d say,(I’m paraphrasing, but I remember it something like this:) “I think I’ll do Everest again next year” Then while on the expedition he always says to his team mates “remind me never to do this again’ And yet he did, again and again. Eight times to be exact. Dave Braeshears made it to the summit of Everest five of his eight attempts.
How Quickly We Forget
As I sit here in the warmth of Australia, I remember our expedition with fondness. It wasn’t so bad. It was actually a lot of fun and I would definitely do it again. I forget just how cold I was, how I dreaded strapping on my snowshoes to stamp out a spot to go to the toilet, and how exhausted I was hoisting sleds up steep hills and over fallen trees. It reminds me of the time we climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. As we closed in on the summit, our legs felt like rubber. We were dizzy with fatigue and each breath was a monumental achievement. As we trudge on to that final push we said to each other, “Let’s never do this again ok?” But by the time we reached the summit and made our way back down to the lush rainforest at the base of the mountain, we were already planning our next epic climb, which ended up being a trek to Mount Everest Base Camp a year later. When I think back to Kilimanjaro now, I tell people, “It wasn’t so bad, you can do it no problem.”
Even though these expeditions are trips of a lifetime and are life changing experiences, we think it is important to let you know what you are getting yourself in to. They are not for everyone. Even those of us who seek out challenging experiences have difficult times while in the moment. But for some reason, there are certain people out there who thrive on suffering. Or should I say, pushing ourselves to the limits and seeing what we can accomplish. As our cameraman on Lure of the North Dave Hartman said, “It’s treks like these that make you ride a high for several months afterwards.”
The Lure of the North
Our days during our Lure of the North Expedition to the Missinaibi Headwaters were difficult. We trekked for 8 hours a day and set up and tore down camp for another 5 1/2 to 6 hours. (3 in the morning, 3 in the evening) After we ate our dinner, we settled into our sleeping bags and drifted immediately off to sleep. We prayed that we didn’t have to wake up in the middle of the night to pee because going outside was an ordeal. It was way below zero, we had to put our snowshoes on to go anywhere and we had to expose our bare bottoms to the icy chill. I held my bladder until it nearly burst. Luckily we were always snug and warm in our large canvas tent heated by a woodstove stoked every three hours by one of our guides and owners, Dave or Kielyn Marrone. I remember watching them go in and out of the tent in their shorts and I wondered how they could possibly bear it?
During the day, we pulled our sleds over frozen lakes and rivers and through difficult portages connecting said lakes and rivers. The portages are meant for canoes in the summer time on well packed trails. Pulling sleds through in the winter while wearing slippery moccasins and snowshoes was a whole other ball game. We fell in the snow, slipped down the hill, and stepped out of our snowshoes. It was difficult and frustrating. We worked up a sweat even though it was -20 or lower. We had to strip down to our base layers immediately because if the sweat formed and you stopped, you instantly became freezing. I would walk with a light shirt on each day as my sweat turned to ice crystals on my back, in my hair, and on my face.
It was an uncomfortable feeling to be extremely hot, yet very cold at the same time. As soon as we stopped, I threw on my parka and sat in silence as we ate our snacks and sipped some tea. I hated stopping. It was cold and uncomfortable. I would have preferred to keep walking straight to camp. But that would end up making me ill and too fatigued to move on.
Falling through Ice
Before The Lure of the North, we were worried about walking on ice. I remember hearing of guys from neighbouring towns in high school dying in snowmobile accidents when falling through ice, and that always stuck with me. I was terrified of falling through and being trapped under the ice while experiencing a horrific death. I know what you’re thinking? ‘Then why would you go on a trek that spends 11 days walking over frozen lakes and rivers?’ Well, like everything we do, we always make sure that we go with qualified professionals who have experience and skills to keep us safe.
As it turned out, there were 4 punch throughs and 1 break through during our expedition. Deb was the first to go through the ice when when trying to take a photo of me stepping over a transition area. We knew this area was unstable as where the lake meets the shore is the thinnest ice of all. (You are safer walking right down the centre of a frozen lake than close to shore.) Luckily it was only a foot that went through. So her first punch through was quite uneventful.
There was another time where we all went over a transition area already except for Dave Marrone and myself. It seemed routine, but as I started walking towards the rest of the group, my leg was hip deep in water.
Tip: When falling through ice throw your body back on to the ice you came from. The ice ahead of you is weaker, but the ice behind you is good because you were just walking on it. If you remain calm and get back on to good ice, you will be fine. Lakes and creeks don’t have rushing water to worry about.
Once Kielyn fell right in up to her waist. I was walking behind her with my head down. I didn’t even notice until I heard Marrone behind me say, “Are you alright Kielyn?” I looked up to see her crawling out of the ice. They knew the ice was vulnerable here, and Kielyn was walking ahead with her pole to check for thin ice, she found it alright! But her skill and training had her turn around to good ice and climb back out.
It turned out that punching through ice isn’t as scary as we thought. Dave and Kielyn led the way checking ice with their poles listening for hollow sounds. They would tell us which line to follow and we listened. I don’t think we would have or could have walked these frozen waters ourselves, but with them in the lead, they kept us safe.
And to answer your question, ‘Why do we do epic treks like this?”
We go on adventures that scare us and challenge us to learn about ourselves. We learn new skills and overcome our fears. We find out in the end that things aren’t quite as scary as we thought. As human beings, we always tend to over analyze things and dwell on our fears. Many people give in to their fears and never end up challenging themselves at all. They think and talk themselves out of a great adventure! We don’t want to be those people. Yes, we vocalize our fears, whine and complain to each other and ask ourselves why are we doing this? But in the end, we do it. We push through and come out better people. I think that taking on these epic challenges makes you a better person. You are alone with your thoughts day after day. You see yourself clearly and understand your limits. You surprise yourself with your strength and discover what you are capable of. If you give it a try, you may just find, that you are capable of a lot more than you thought.
The Lure of the North is located in Sudbury Ontario and they run Traditional Winter Camping Expeditions all winter long ranging from 3-day introductory courses to full on 11-day epic adventures. In the summer you can take courses with them to make your own moccasins and traditional winter camping gear. Flights to Sudbury leave daily on Porter Airlines from Billy Bishop Airport in Toronto. Video by Hayfire Media
Read more of our time with Lure of the North: