Face To Face written by Henry Maitland
Back in the early nineties, I was talked into a winter camping trip by one of my buddies. “We have to camp out at least two nights,” he said. “Why,”I asked? Because any one can stay awake for at least one night and feed a bonfire to stay warm,” he answered. That’s how the students in the outdoor education program survived their annual winter camping trip. We’ll show them how it’s really done. We planned a three day trip, to a secluded speckled trout lake, during the March break. The location of this secret lake was north of Ignace, Ontario.
The plan was to use two snow machines. The lead machine would tow the sled with all the gear and that allowed the second machine, which was much lighter, to be turned around on the trail in case of an emergency. We fished this lake the previous weekend, so we knew that the trail was open. However, the deep snow off to the sides of the trail made walking without snowshoes impossible.
The sled was packed high with gear: minus forty below “Wood’s”sleeping bags and self inflating mattresses, a nylon dome tent and ground sheet, individual packs containing a spare base layer of underwear, an extra fleece jacket and pair of wool pants, second pair of fisherman’s wool socks, another pair of Sorel boot liners, a pair of fishermen’s three fingered wool mittens, a pack with cooking gear and a one burner naphtha mountaineering stove, a cooler with high fat content food, and a gas powered ice auger.
Most of our food was precooked and stored in a cooler. Our menu consisted of tea, carnation instant hot chocolate, roasted chicken slices, boiled potatoes, beef stew, beans and wieners, hard boiled eggs, pumpernickel and white bread and two pounds of back bacon. The cooler also contained frozen minnows and live worms in a small styrofoam bait keeper. Also we packed a large thermos of hot chocolate.
The back racks of each machine contained a two and a half gallon jug of gas, a pack with ice fishing gear, a fold up hand saw, tools, a drive belt and spare spark plugs. A long handled axe and a pair of snow shoes were fastened to the machines using black rubber trap straps. My buddy also fastened a fold up shovel to his machine.
Our daypacks contained a pair of dry socks, dry gloves, first aid kit, fire starting kit, belt knife, and personal items that might be required during the day.
A compass, a fox forty whistle and ice picks were worn around our necks. A mini flash lite with extra batteries were placed in the inside pocket of our fleece jackets, a spare lighter, sunglasses, and a folding knife were stored in the pockets of our two piece snow machine suits.
Just before we departed at approximately 10 a.m., I checked the thermometer outside my kitchen window. It read minus twenty five Celsius. I would need to fasten the snorkel to my helmet to prevent my eyeglasses from fogging. The ride up the groomed trail was uneventful. We stopped and checked to make sure the gear was secure before heading off on a trappers trail. This was a single snow machine track that went by the steep path that lead down to the spring feed speckled trout lake. I was in the lead hauling the sled and my buddy was maintaining a safe distance behind. At one point I came around a curve and slammed on the brakes. I was face to face with an adult moose less than twenty feet away. My mind started racing. “What should I do?” There was nothing to do but sit still. The animal just stood its ground. Then I heard my buddies snow machine approaching. He pulled up behind the sled and stood up on the running boards of his machine. He could not see the moose around the bend. I put my hand up to stop him from getting off. Hearing the noise of the second machine the moose started moving and made a herculean leap off the trail into the very deep snow. It stood on the right hand side of trail for a moment, then slowly managed to make its way into the bush. Now my buddy had a full view of the animal and just stared in disbelief.
Setting up the dome tent at minus twenty five celsius or so was no fun. We found an open spot not too far off the trail. We tramped down the snow and laid out a tarp for a ground sheet. The fibreglass poles had metal ends which slid onto metal ring pins at the base of the tent. The rain fly, the outer protective covering, was fasten to these rings at the bottom of the tent using little metal “S” hooks . Some of these metal parts were difficult to manipulate while wearing gloves. At one point I got so frustrated, I took mine off and burnt my bare fingers on the cold metal. Once the tent was up, snow was piled around the base. The mattresses and sleeping bags were unrolled while we still had daylight.
We jumped on our snow machines and followed the trail onto the lake and made our way to one of our favourite fishing spots. It was just off a small point and nearby was a sheltered cove. With no wind, this was the perfect place to build a fire. Gathering firewood proved to be a difficult task because of the deep snow. Between both of us, we managed to dig out, and saw off, several dead branches from old blowdowns along the shoreline. The snow was up to our waists in some spots. By late evening, we had a small fire burning but it would not last long. Tomorrow, we would need to make firewood a priority.
My job was to keep the fire going as long as possible while my buddy heated up some beef stew on the one burner stove. The little stove proved to be a godsend. It used naphtha gas which burned hotter than propane, especially in very cold weather.
There was hardly any wind as the sun set below the horizon. You could feel the temperature dropping. I started thinking about just how nice and warm I would be in my sleeping bag. After a few more hours the fire was just a bed of embers. We drank the last of the hot chocolate from the thermos and decided to call it a night. “Damn, it was cold!” We jumped on the snow machines and headed for the tent.
I put on a dry pair of moisture wicking socks, along with a dry pair of fisherman’s wool socks and crawled into my arctic sleeping bag. I left my toque on and started to dream of fresh speckled trout. Sometime during the night, I woke up and my feet were freezing. No matter how much toe wiggling I did, the cold did not go away. Finally, nature called, and I crawled out of my sleeping bag and managed to get into my Sorel boots before heading outside. The pain in my feet started to ease a little by the time I made it back to the tent. I decided to take the pack liners out of my Sorel boots and wear them over my socks, inside my sleeping bag. Within twenty minutes I was sound asleep.
Next morning, I awoke to the sound of a snow machine warming up and then heading off into the distance. Staring at the roof of the tent, I noticed where the moisture from our breathing had escaped through the mesh material and had frosted the inside of the rain fly. After several minutes, I decided to brave the cold and got up, put on a fresh base layer, then a fleece shirt-jacket and wool pants. I slipped on my snow mobile suit and pack boots with dry liners, then headed outside to meet the day.
The morning was overcast with no wind and just as cold as it was the previous day. I started my snow machine and let it warm up. With dry wool mittens inside my moose hide gauntlets, and all the gear in the sled secure, I followed my buddies snow machine tracks. Like a creature of habit, he returned to our favourite fishing hole. He had set up the small gas stove and was frying bacon in a small pan. “Here” he said, “try this.” He forked out a slice of bacon and handed it to me. You could see the fat on the top side of the slice already congealing in the cold. It was so cold, you could take a slice of bacon straight from the hot pan and put it in your mouth.
The left over bacon fat was soaked up with thick slices of pumpernickel and quickly eaten. Next, we needed to melt some snow and boil enough water to make a thermos of tea. While we waited, plans were made for the day. We decided to auger some ice holes not too far off shore and rig up four set lines, two baited with worms and two baited with frozen minnows.
I started to clean the snow away and my buddy tried to start up the gas powered auger. It was reluctant to start in minus thirty degree Celsius temperatures.
Finally, it coughed to life, and after it warmed up we started the first hole. I grabbed one handle with both hands and my buddy grabbed the other handle. He was in control of the throttle. Together, we applied a steady pressure as the auger cut through the ice. The trick was to keep the auger straight and to clear the ice shavings from the auger by frequently lifting it out of the hole. The ice was a least two feet thick. After drilling four holes, we took a break.
We geared up some ice fishing rods and set them up so that the bait was sitting about a foot or so off the bottom, in approximately twenty feet of water. In the cold temperature, the ice holes needed to be scooped frequently so that the line would not freeze in the hole. We sat on the bank of the shoreline and took turns walking out to scoop the ice holes. We fished for several hours without one bite. Around high noon, the wind started to picked up. Cold chicken slices on white bread and a mug of hot tea hit the spot. The speckles just weren’t biting so we decided to pull the lines.
We needed to collect some firewood for the evening. The job required us to wear our snowshoes. Armed with a long handled axe and folding saw, we made our way up onto the nearby point of land. The deep snow and heavy brush made our task difficult. Finding a good sized blowdown, we set to work limbing and chunking it into pieces that were manageable. To avoid sweating in our heavy clothing, we worked at a snails pace. At times, we would remove our jackets while sawing or hauling firewood to the shoreline. However, once back out in the open, the jackets went back on. The wood was stacked by our fire pit from last evening.
The day remained overcast and cold. The thought of fishing in the cold and afternoon wind was unpleasant so we decided to go for a run on the snow machines. Back out on the groomed trail, we headed north west and checked to see what other lakes might have recently travelled trails into them. The exhaust from the snow machines helped keep at least one foot warm and I was happy because my machine had handle grip warmers.
Upon returning to our fire pit, we set up two fishing lines with worms for the late evening bite. Then, I laid the fire wood in the pit so it would be ready to light closer to nigh fall. There was no action at the fishing holes except for the continuous breaking and scooping of shell ice. Meanwhile, my buddy got the one burner stove going to heat up the beans and wieners. The food did not stay hot as it was just too cold. We ate quickly, and cleaned the bowl with a slice of white bread. We washed it down with cold tea from the thermos.
As the light of day was disappearing on the horizon, I pulled the fishing lines. No fish. I shovelled enough snow in each ice hole to fill it to the top. Hopefully, this would keep the holes from freezing too solid. With the gear put away, it was time to light the fire. We spent the rest of the evening feeding wood to the fire and melting snow on to get enough hot water to make each of us a mug of hot chocolate.
The second night of sleep was somewhat more comfortable. I put a fresh pair of moisture wicking socks on, then pulled the spare pair of pack boot liners on over top. My feet stayed warm enough so that I was able to fall asleep. However, with the temperatures hovering at around thirty-five degrees, the penetrating cold woke me up several times throughout the night.
We got up and dressed with the first light of day. With the snow machines warmed up, we made our way back to the fire pit and frozen ice holes. My buddy got busy melting snow for tea and I started the auger and cleared out the ice holes. The water in the ice holes was frozen solid for approximately the first six inches. Once more, the lines were baited and set.
After what seemed like a life time, the water for the tea was boiling. We put a bag in each mug and poured the hot water on top. We drank it straight, with no sugar or milk. I think that was the most welcomed cup of tea, ever. It did not stay hot for long. The remainder of the bacon was fried up and quickly eaten. We munched on some hard boiled eggs and bread soaked with bacon fat.
The sky was overcast and the fish were not biting. We decided to do some jigging. Still nothing. The wind was picking up so we refreshed the bait and reset them. We headed to the tree sheltered shoreline, where we could lie low out of the wind. The speckles were just not biting. No doubt, the low barometric pressure caused by the extremely cold temperatures resulted in the poor fishing conditions. When the air pressure drops, fish feed less aggressively.
We nicknamed the stocked speckled trout lakes in the area “Light Switch lakes“. They were either “on” or “off”. Often, the fish would feed in a frenzy for twenty or thirty minutes and then nothing for the rest of the day.
The day was not warming up and the fishing was so bad, we decided to pack it up and head home. The return ride was cold. Upon arriving home, we unloaded all the gear from the snow machines and stowed it in the garage along with the loaded sled. When I opened the door to my house, I was welcomed with a blast of warm air. There was no place like home, especially when it’s minus thirty-five degrees Celsius outside.
I caught this speck in one of the above mentioned Light Switch Lakes in the first week of June back in the mid nineties.