Written by Andy Goodson
Photography by Andy Goodson, Mitch Doll and Sean Hootz
Bad weather and poor emergency planning had stifled our first attempt to reach Snail Lake for a chance at catching a rare Arctic char in May. The incidental shoreline camp-out was fun, but flipping a canoe would not have overthrown our entire plan had we been adequately prepared. After three months of crap, I think we've learned enough to give it one more shot.
Snail Lake is typically reached by snowmobile only and remains inaccessible during open water season. The nearest road is over 10 kilometres away through dense jack pine forests limiting travel to water and snowmobile trail. While summer access is possible, the terrain is treacherous and the lake conditions are wildly unpredictable.
A special thanks to Rick and Lorraine Zerr whose generosity made this trip possible.
Part Three: Home on Scat Island
August 19, 2016 - At the dock of North Steeprock Lake, the dogs, Jean-Paul and Oats, splash along the shore while fighting over a stick. Dark-grey clouds roll across the sky with fractured reflections of the coniferous treeline blotted on the windswept water.
"Great. Here we go again," Matt says, tossing his backpack inside the canoe. "Where do I even sit in this thing?" Kyle pulls Matt's backpack out of the canoe and replaces it with his own. "If I were in the middle, I'd lay down on the floor and let you guys do all the work," he laughs. Rearranging gear, Kyle points to a narrow space between rod cases, fishing nets and dry bags. "Matthew would be steering though, so we'd probably wind up paddling in circles. Now take a seat." Matt abjectly steps between the thwarts.
There's a marked difference in atmosphere from when we first left these shores in the spring—a calmness about the group moving at a leisurely pace. Maybe the stakes are lowered now that unexpected changes are decidedly 'inevitable' rather than 'slightly possible.' The wind is blowing in the opposite direction it had been in the spring. We won't rely on luck but we'll gladly take it.
A gust from the northwest bends the treetops. I zip my jacket and double-check that I brought the toque I had hesitated to pack the night before. The cold front has brought autumn-like temperatures and the forecast isn't promising much improvement. It won't matter once we get moving as long as we stay dry. Besides, some unseasonal cold might keep the bugs at bay.
Sean walks down the hill toward his one-man kayak, "Are we ready to go?" Nate and Gill paddle their way down the channel as Adam and Mitch follow behind.
I take my place at the front of the canoe as Kyle shoves us off-shore from the stern and Matt sits stiffly in between. The water is calm despite the wind overhead. We make it out of the river channel unhurried.
Sean loads a fresh roll of 35mm film into his point-and-shoot camera before we hit turbulent waters. After damaging a paycheck's worth of gear on the last attempt at reaching Snail Lake, Mitch and Sean have both opted to shoot with film cameras. Whether it's cheaper overall is debatable.
We exit the channel and see the east end of the lake dotted in whitecaps—only a minor concern as the trees on the western shoreline protect us from the wind. Without breaking much of a sweat, we reach the meandering wetland channels that lead to the South Steeprock portage in record time.
Kyle, Matt and I have fallen behind, but there's no rush. On a languid paddle through the winding marshes, we collide with the rest of the group sitting in a clump of canoes at a dead-end, nowhere near the portage.
"I don't remember crossing anything like this. Are you sure we went the right way?" Sean says, freeing his paddle from the ridge of tangled grass.
"We couldn't have taken a wrong turn...It looks like the whole channel shifted," Nate remarks the moving landscape of earthy puzzle pieces. He steps out of his canoe and onto the grass as the ground beneath him slowly sinks.
"Maybe we can drag it through..." He tamps down the marsh, creating a shallow passage barely deep enough to drag the canoes to the opposite side. As soon as he re-enters his canoe, the mound of grass resurfaces forcing each of us to go through the same process. At the end of the line, I wait our turn while Matt and Kyle sing a debauched chantey about an incestuous outfitter to the tune of The Little Drummer Boy.
Sean's kayak scrapes over shallow rocks as he charges the stony shoreline at the head of the portage. We unload the vessels and begin packing for the hike immediately. I look back at the marshes triggering a wave of déja-vu. I remember the desire to capture the scene in a photograph and decide it's not worth the effort a second time.
Half the group has already left. Kyle and I throw the cedar strip canoe over our shoulders and make haste down the path, crossing patches of wild blueberry and Labrador tea spotted through the mossy forest. Wiser packing has made this task all the more enjoyable, but what I appreciate most is overlooking the final crest and finding South Steeprock Lake, calm and unmoving. The memory of trees violently swaying back and forth as waves lap onto the grass is still terribly vivid.
We allow ourselves a quick beer and smoke, feeling a bit like cheaters having had it too easy compared to last time. The lake changes hues from yellow and green to gray and blue while we watch from shore. Dark clouds muddy the sky, reminding us we still have a lot of work to do before reaching safety.
Two minutes after departing, we slow down as drops of water hiss and fizz on the lake.
"We're already wet. We might as well keep going," Nate suggests to all of us who have inexplicably stopped paddling.
Sean looks frazzled in his lonely kayak with a tired Jean-Paul. "Can we stick together? I keep spinning around in circles and no one would even notice if I flipped," he says. There's an unsympathetic expression on everyone's face giving away the futility of his request. While our group operates on a significant level of trust, we still fall short in many aspects.
We continue across the lake, passing by the clearing where we had been stranded for two nights, and the open water that had caused all the fuss. I throw on the hood of my jacket as we reach unexplored waters for the first time.
Finding shelter is going to be tricky. We need to reach the other side of Steeprock's largest island if we're to be in a reasonable place for the portage to Snail Lake tomorrow morning. The island is shy of a kilometre in length, but the trouble is finding a section of land that isn't completely barred with thick stands of jack pine. Whether such a place exists is unknown to us.
"Andy, you know where we're going?" Nate yells across the water. I unfold my topographic map and attempt to get a bearing on our location as light rain speckles across the paper. "I'm 99% sure I know where we're going." That lousy 1% sure likes to call the shots though.
I lead the group into a dead-end arguing that my map must be out-of-date; Nate checks his GPS and puts us back on course. The rain might be cold, but I'll be warm as long as my friends keep roasting me for my mistake.
We pass through a narrow channel on the southern side of the island, scanning the shores for a suitable place to debark. None of it looks overly appealing. Bursts of mist move across the surface as the wind wets my face. The group is silent.
"What about over there?" Mitch points to a small island with tall spruce trees in the distance. It might as well be under a spotlight with a heavenly chorus. Tall trees mean old-growth forest, and old-growth means thinner stands and less underbrush.
We approach a grassy opening on the island's shore and kiss God's green earth. The sombre weather can't encroach on this feeling of warmth and security.
"Did anyone else notice the massive piles of crap on this island?" Nate remarks, pointing out notably fresh mounds of dung. Similar piles seem to pop-up everywhere among the unkempt grass since he mentioned it. Given that the nearest island is over 200 metres away, it's hard to imagine any animal but a moose plodding its way through the water. We're not scatologists, so I'll leave this one up for debate.
"I suppose we'll be hanging our food then," Sean suggests as we continue investigating. At the top of an eastern hill, there's a ring of stones that had been used as a fire pit some time ago. There's a large field of grass enclosed by trees on either side at the middle of the island. Wandering further west, we come across a few pieces of decomposing plywood among an old spruce forest. The trees, well into their golden years, have laid a floor of needles where only the most resilient and shade-tolerant plant species are able to grow.
"I don't know about you guys, but I want to stay in the forest. I love it here," MItch says, crouching to see the underside of a mushroom cap. It is quite beautiful. But we'd be sacrificing hours of possible sunlight for the sake of aesthetics. "People have obviously camped up here in the grass before, we might as well too and reduce our footprint," Sean suggests. Kyle lumbers around impatiently, "Camp in the meadow—poop in the Mushroom Kingdom."
While clearing a spot for cooking, Nate pulls on a blade of grass, slicing deep into the skin on the edge of his palm. I assume it's nothing more than a paper cut, until I see what appears to be deep tissue at the root of the gash. "Christ, man! Do you need stitches or what?", I ask expecting the worst. "No, I'll be fine. I just need to get some balsam sap on this," he says.
Part Four: Let Down
August 20, 2016 - I put on my clothes and run downstairs following the scent of sausage and cheap butter-flavoured syrup. My mom stands beside the stove in the sunlight cast through the kitchen window. She tells me "Good morning" with a smile like moms do. I miss the part when she says that thing about how I shouldn't wander too far—breakfast is almost ready. I shove myself into a pair of beaten shoes. No time to tie the laces. The screen door slams twice behind me as I leap off the stoop and run to the pavement. Breathing the dust and freshly cut grass with delight, I bolt as fast as I can, just to see how far I can run with my eyes clenched shut. Lights and shadows flicker, the gift of second sight or a glimpse of my favourite cartoon. A shoelace catches beneath my step. The scent of rust and copper, then cement.
Awake from dream-state anaesthesia, I turn on my back and see the gold and green sunlight covering the tent with shadows playing on the nylon walls. I watch for a few minutes before getting up and making my way to the water trying to remember the last time I've slept so well, let alone in the outdoors.
The morning air is warm and dry, a signal that we might have struck the jackpot for timing our trip to Snail Lake. Aside from a few flies, the mosquitoes are remarkably absent. Luck might be on our side today.
I light my gas stove and trade the fresh pancakes and breakfast sausages in my imagination for a mug of instant coffee and a plastic bowl full of soggy oatmeal. Clinking pots and rustling grass summons the rest of the group out of their tents to fuel up for the day's mission. In an hour's time, the canoes are loaded up with gear as we lazily take to the water once again.
"It should be south from here tucked in a small bay," Mitch says, taking the leadership role for our search. "Keep an eye on the shoreline for anything that looks like it could be a snowmobile trail." About 20 feet from the edge of the lake, a break in the trees takes shape and reveals a small grass pathway climbing upwards and into the forested ridge. "This is it," Mitch exclaims. "The Snail Lake Portage."
Muddied water fills the boot prints I've left while jogging up the first hill to investigate, but the trail is certainly passable aside from a few fallen branches and waterlogged sections. Recalling the satellite imagery, there is at least one slough we'll need to cross. We take the lighter two canoes with us, figuring it will be easier to ferry the group across water than spend our energy bringing all three vessels on the long hike.
We catch our breaths at the peak of the ridge and continue trudging through the boggy path. With a canoe over the right shoulder, I sink to my thighs in mud and plod out on my knees. We take several impromptu breaks along the way, waiting for others to regain balance and retrieve missing boots. I try to imagine how we would handle this if there were an onslaught of flies. We probably would have turned back a long time ago.
On a particularly high plateau, the pines appear short and stunted and the forest floor covered in red and orange peatland moss. The sparse understory seems more at-home in a Canadian Shield forest than in the jungly woods of the southern boreal uplands. We take a short break before descending once again into the typical evergreen brush, only a few hundred metres from the first and only slough-crossing.
Adam moves toward the stagnant pond, dragging a canoe behind him as water overflows into his boots. "God damn it," Matt trips on the spindly grass, gracefully falling into the swamp and soaking himself from the neck down. The marsh begins to sink rapidly. Mitch holds onto the canoe anticipating another surprise-swim as the rest of us scurry off in time for the turf to rebound. Matt slips again—claimed property of the slough.
"Woah, check it out," Nate jumps on the grass trampoline, sending ripples through the ground beneath us. We bounce on the floating marsh for a little while longer, then ferry the group across.
Despite being such a small body of water, finding the snowmobile trail on the other side proves difficult among scattered and stunted pine trees. Nate investigates one particularly promising clearing and uncovers the last stretch of trail.
There's the path.
There's the opening.
There's the water.
There's Snail Lake. "...Huh."
"Wow. We finally made it to Snail Lake. What do we do now?" Kyle asks loudly. Matt sinks into his own shoes, "We get to hang out in the swamp." Sean, Nate, Adam and I have plans to fish, but we'll need to take two trips to ferry the whole group over to a clearing on the east side. Kyle can wade in the marsh until the second trip.
It's mid-day, the sun is bright and the water's warm—all great things when chilling out on the beach, but not-so-great when hunting for skittish salmonids. Adam asks me what tackle ought to work. I'm sticking with the same plan I had in the spring: small spinners with a juicy nightcrawler. "Shut up and fish," Kyle yells at us from shore. We drift toward the only island on the lake and cast our lines.
The truth is we've never had much luck still-water fishing for trout or char. I want to boast a record-breaking catch from Manitoba's most elusive stocked lake, but experience tells me I'm going to sit here until I convince myself that catching one doesn't prove anything. Just getting here should feel like an accomplishment. Maybe I set the stakes too high.
"Jerky?" Sean throws me a bag.
It's not long before Nate and Adam paddle away to cover more water, then promptly give up their rods for beers on the shore. Sean and I try casting along the ridges, changing tackle and reeling in from different depths.
I tie on a small Five-of-diamonds and toss it out into the lake. Bloop. Click. Ssssssss...
Snail Lake is nothing if not peaceful. Less than a quarter of the size of South Steeprock, it's a sanctuary in the heart of an unforgiving forest. But I struggle to find any distinct features that would be a worthy symbol of the lake. The shores are the same mix of spruce and jack pine we've seen everywhere. Without an Arctic char, we might as well be faking the moon landing.
Sean and I sit hunched in the canoe, baking in the heat for hours as the sun passes overhead, a living daydream. An 'introduced species' swims somewhere in these depths with the same elegance and strength as its wild ancestors running the streams and rivers of the Yukon. It has the water entirely to itself, out of reach and not to be bothered. Lucky bastard... While I know a few dedicated anglers who would stay here until nightfall to reel one in, I just can't muster the determination.
"What time do you want to head back?" Sean asks as muffled banter carries over the lake. "I don't really feel like cooking supper in the dark and it could take us two hours to do that portage again." I pull my lure out of the water and find the bait detached. I was getting sore trying to scrape deeper meaning out of this trip anyway.
We paddle back to ferry the rest of the group to the snowmobile trail empty-handed.
The return trip goes much more smoothly, aside from a few more swims in the slough. We arrive back home at 'Scat Island' in a couple hours with just enough time to cook a half-assed meal and take a quick evening paddle on South Steeprock.
Sean and I cast a few hopeful lines to redeem our titles as anglers with whatever the lake deems fit—reeds and weeds, apparently. The lake is deceptively shallow in spite of its size. On an evening like this one would expect to see at least a few jumps breaking the surface. There's only deafening silence, the love-child of remote wilderness and city-born tinnitus.
Sean turns toward me with a little slack in his jaw. "I bet we could get there in one day if we tried... Think we'll ever go to Snail again?" he asks in a sluggish drawl. It takes a moment for his words to bypass my sunset trance and register meaning. "I don't know, man."
I wake up the next morning in time to see a deep magenta glow covering the eastern horizon. Snail Lake—another notch in the belt, with or without Arctic char. Reaching the lake had been one of the goals I had set for myself when I first started backpacking. Crossing another off the list, I wonder how soon we'll reach the end.
Matt lets out a frustrated groan as he stumbles out of his tent with a sweater tied around his head like a turban. "I should have smothered Kyle with a pillow," he says. He drew the short straw, no doubt.
We start packing gear, giving time to settle the dissonance between wanting to stay and desperately needing a hot shower. Lethargy is the hangover of adventure—a compromise for stability, warm sheets and food that doesn't need to be reconstituted in boiling water.