February 15, 2019 - It's 10:30 at night and I've just arrived at the cabin where Sean, David, Nate and Gill are gathered around the kitchen table. Matt is drinking a beer and a bottle of some neon-yellow liqueur. I ask him what's new, 'Not much, thinkin' about taxes,' he says as I take a swig of his bottle, which tastes like pixie puke in a Disney Land kind of way.
We've been avoiding winter camping due to extreme cold, preferring finer comforts instead like electric heat and toilets with seats on them. But idle time is a powerful force, so we have forced ourselves to commit. What helped was finding a new location: Black Beaver Lake in Duck Mountain Provincial Park. I used Manitoba’s Lake Information for Anglers map, which listed rainbow and brook trout—potential adventure material. I called the Sustainable Development office in Swan River to check whether we were allowed to camp there (only in winter so long as you don’t kill yourself). I made no promises.
Over the kitchen table we discuss the weekend’s meal plans. David's sole victual is a frozen utility duck, which he has never prepared before and can’t decide whether to spit-roast it, or just sort of dangle it over the fire with twine. Matt has cheap steaks he got on sale. I have put all my money on one dish to rule them all: Beef Bourguignon, a recipe borrowed from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which is essentially a beef and bacon stew simmered in red wine until the meat is almost falling apart. Sean has agreed to bring the wine for his stake in the stew. (I must credit Susan Koskie for introducing me to this dish—ever since I first tasted its savory goodness I've been waiting for an occasion worthy enough to make it.)
We get a comfortable sleep and head out the next morning. After a short breakfast in Benito, we ride up the north side of the Duck Mountains. The rising elevation makes the Swan River valley appear in my rear-view mirror, flat as a Monopoly board.
The sky is a brilliant blue and the evergreens—tall, dense stands of pine and spruce—carry heaps of bone-white snow on their branches. The thermometer reads -19C, which is at least 10 degrees warmer than it's been all week. We reach the parking area at the trail head of Black Beaver Lake, completely snowed in, visibly undisturbed all winter. There's one pickup truck parked on the barely existent shoulder.
We pack our sleds with our gear and start the hike. Gill takes the lead, blazing a trail through knee-deep powder. I'm at the back, supervising the group. For safety.
'Nothing like a winter camp to really drive home how out of shape you are,' Sean says amid heavy breathing, something I feel I've heard before. 'You can go ahead if you like...I'm going to take it slow...' I decline his offer, for his sled is the biggest and leaves the flattest trail to walk on.
Before the trip, Sean pointed out on the topographic map an upsetting number of contour lines crossing the trail. I shrugged this off even though Copernicus Hill, an adjacent feature, is a steep hike as I remember it. The trail to Black Beaver Lake is only one kilometer but a steady uphill hike almost the entire way. When trudging through soft powder with an over packed gear sled, it's very easy to break a sweat (and you sweat, you DIE, for those not in-the-know).
At one of the minor plateaus on the hike uphill, the trail splits in two. Nate asks if we should keep going straight. I offer to do some quick recon, slide down a few steep hills, twists and turns and eventually find the lake. But I don’t find any level land that isn't also covered in trees and thigh-deep snow. I decide we're better off with the main trail where it might be more flat for a tent.
'Alright, let's keep going up the hill then,' Matt says at a raspy volume.
The hill starts to decline shortly after the junction and we arrive at Black Beaver Lake once again. The surrounding trees, stiff as cardboard props for the entire hike, begin to sway as a gust of wind blasts the heat bubble surrounding me clear-off my body. I zip my coat, throw on a hood and tighten my borrowed scarf, which belongs to Teisha and has no business smelling as good as it does, unlike my own, which smells like sardines.
Nate points to a frozen piece of land across the empty white space, ‘Is that an island?’ I can see no ideal camping spots from here, but it’s close to where the previous trail had led. We decide camping on the ice may be the only option, but we can take shelter in the woods during the day just like we did at Steiestol.
We start hiking across the deserted lake.
Like morose trappers the six of us trudge on, first in single file then in separate bands. I notice how Black Beaver Lake is completely pristine and trackless: no animals, no snowmobiles. Nothing. It feels wrong to disturb it, but we do.
I look at Matt whose face is flushed red, and his eyes: real squinty. 'This is the hardest thing I've ever done,' he says clearing his throat. Meanwhile, Sean continues to trail behind with Nate and Gill leading the pack. We finally reach a spot we can all agree on then unload our gear, but the tent is still at the vehicles… Maybe we should have brought that first.
The second trip is marginally easier than the first with only Sean, Nate and I doing the trek. I find it tolerable as long as I keep myself from focusing on the discomfort, which is impossible. Nate however has some Slavic strength that allows him to shut this out and motor ahead, leaving me and Sean in a wake of snow and shame.
We encounter the couple who had parked their truck at the trail head and mention our plans to ice fish at Black Beaver Lake. They say it’s rumored to have winterkilled (most of the fish have died off from extreme cold, lack of food or oxygen). We say we'll try anyway and they wish us good luck. 'Of course we picked a dead lake', I think to myself.
Upon returning to camp, Gill, David and Matt have shoveled out a spot for the tent and the place is looking neatly organized. It's been over a year since we've last set up this tent, so It takes us a long time—endlessly adjusting tie-ropes and pegs—then we raise the pole and see the dreadfully frozen ice box that is our living space for the next couple nights.
Next comes the housekeeping. By this time there are only a few slivers of sunlight peaking over the treeline and I'm mostly just pretending to work hoping things get done on their own. I set up my sleeping space, blow my last breaths into my air mattress and prepare to expire for the night. Then the space heater is lit, and the tent becomes the most livable place on Earth.
With everything set up, the warmth gives everyone a second wind. We’re free to enjoy ourselves and make these frozen woods feel something like home.
We spend the rest of the night sitting around the fire shooting-the-shit, not much different than if we were back at the kitchen table. It’s only when I step away from the confines of the meeting area that I pause and remember where we really are.
February 17, 2019
Too much of a good thing. You shouldn't be sweating at night in the middle of winter. The heat is running seemingly full blast. Don't you remember falling asleep? It must have come quickly. Who's snoring? No way you're getting up to piss. It's got to be like three in the morning. Now you're thinking about it, so you lose. Go find your boots in the dark. Jesus, who's snoring now? Someone's breath smells like fresh pike meat.
Hey. Just a reminder—you're not sleeping.
Someone moves in their sleeping bag, crinkling their air mattress against the tarp beneath. The carbon monoxide detector beeps once, then emits silence.
Maybe you imagined it? Nope, there it goes again...What is that, like three minutes in between beeps? Better wait a few more times just to be sure.
A grunt is produced.
'The monoxide alarm is going off.'
'The monoxide alarm is going off.'
I hear him reach out of his sleeping bag and check the detector hanging by his head.
'Mmph, low battery.'
A few other sleeping bags start wriggling due to the commotion. Nate emits a groan of disapproval.
I ask to turn off the heat and the air is almost instantly cold. After a few minutes, I fall back asleep until twilight hours, dreaming stress dreams of laying on an ice block next to someone whose breath smells like fresh pike meat. But finally, it's morning. And from the cold dark cave I emerge outside.
The fresh air is like an instant shot of caffeine. We start the day by setting up the ice fishing tent and drilling a few holes in the supposedly dead lake.
Before the trip I watched this video from Uncut Angling about sight fishing for lake trout and got the idea to glaze the ice with a blowtorch so that it glows blue and stuff. Apparently this doesn't work here; there's too much snow or air in the ice. Also Black Beaver Lake isn’t the clearest lake in Manitoba, let alone the Ducks.
Sean and I drop our lines down the holes. I ask him to hold my rod while I find my potato chips. Just as I make my way back to the seat, a brook trout appears from nothing and takes my lure without fuss. "SET THE HOOK!" I shout-whisper (shisper?). But it doesn't take. Still, this is more action than we've ever had on a winter camp.
We see a few more drive-bys through the hole. I manage to catch and release one small brook trout, roughly the average size one would catch out of a river on the Manitoba Escarpment. I can't say if it's from this year's stocking or not, but we did not see a great number of fish, or any of remarkable size.
Sean retires his fishing rod and I do the same after a few more minutes. I have a job to do.
Outside the tent, I shovel out a kitchen area and set up the hibachi (lent graciously from Andrew who could not make the trip) with all the accouterments: charcoal, dutch oven and utensils. I commence drinking Grant’s scotch, with two Pabst on-hand for in between. All the ingredients I've prepared in advance are at my side, portioned and partitioned in sequence with the recipe—mise en place.
Camp BEEF BOURGUIGNON
1 cup of chopped pancetta (Italian bacon)
Stewing beef, cut into 1.5-inch pieces
1 cup diced onions and 1 cup diced carrots
4 cloves minced garlic
2 tbsp of flour, plus whatever qualifies as a reasonable amount of salt and pepper
Beef broth and red wine
Herbs (1 tsp thyme, 2 tsp parsley, 1 beef bouillon cube) and 2 tbsp tomato paste
Sautéed mushrooms (pre-cooked and frozen)
Bag of little potatoes
Crisp the pancetta in a dutch oven, remove and place in a bowl
Sear stewing beef in pancetta grease, remove and place in bowl
Sautée onions and carrots; add garlic once cooked and heat for 1 minute
Bring the meats back to the party; submerge in roughly equal parts beef broth and red wine
Add the weird-looking Ziploc bag of herbs and tomato paste you combined
Simmer for, like, three hours, then add potatoes; once cooked, add mushrooms and serve
Everything goes well until step four. I forgot the wine.
I jog up to the camping area in the woods where the rest of the group has built a kitchen of their own. Kneeling among beer cans thawing by the fire, Nate sears a steak in a pan of flaming Yukon Jack. Matt and Gill are observing, drinking. David has managed to get his frozen utility duck on a spit supported between two logs with carved notches. The duck is wrapped in what appears to be 25 feet of burlap twine. Several sticks are wedged in between the cordage and the duck to tighten the grip wherever it has gone slack.
'It looks like a head crab,' Matt says.
'Pour more liquor on it so the twine doesn't burn', Nate suggests.
David splashes more Yukon Jack on it. The Black Sheep of Liquors.
I ask Sean where the wine is—this most crucial of ingredients for beef bourguignon. 'In the tent', he tells me.
'How's that beef... boogie-yon going?' David asks. 'Smells good from up here.'
I run down to the tent, shuffle around in the darkness and find the box of red wine I was promised. But, to my horror, it is completely unfit for human consumption.
"Royal Red, you've got to be kidding me."
I run back up to the camp, feeling the burn in my thighs. "Does anyone else have a decent red wine to contribute?"
Thankfully, Nate has an unopened box of something not fermented in a dumpster. Sipping on a mountain mug of Ballantine’s scotch, Sean asks what's wrong with Royal Red, but I have no time to explain. I run back down to the tent, grab Nate's wine, and bolt for the fishing tent where the hibachi is giving off plumes of onion steam. I add the beef broth and red wine. After a few alcohol-infused blows on the charcoal, the stew begins to simmer.
Running between kitchens, checking on progress and nursing several drinks at once, the day passes by quickly. I admit my focus on the food has taken some off the surroundings, but not entirely so. The lake is appreciably quiet, the skies are clear, the cold is hardly noticeable and I have no interest in being anywhere else but our camp.
While there's still daylight, Sean and I take a hike to the other side of the island. The tracks from our hike the previous night are clearly visible, something I find amusing. The sequence of events is clear: “They walked forty feet out onto the lake at night to see how it felt, stopped, looked around—decided it was creepy—then entered the woods a different way than they came to see if they could drunkenly find their way back to camp.” At one point, I remember, I had collapsed backward into the snow, which was very deep and formed a perfect cushion. I stared at the night sky with the spruce trees appearing to stare down intimidatingly from above. I almost felt free from gravity's drag until the snow under my ski pants began to melt.
Back at camp, the mood never changes.
David removes his duck from the spit after painstakingly rotisserieing it for almost six hours. The spice combination—a dash of Mediterranean seasoning now-and-then and multiple douses sweet liquor—is not the most pleasant combination. But it’s still pretty good, as all things are when camping.
I check on the beef bourguignon: it’s as ready as it's going to be. I add the last ingredient, sautéed mushrooms, and take the stew off the hibachi.
I bring the simmering pot toward camp. It’s fully dark by this time, and the campfire radiates a welcoming glow onto the surrounding woods. The muffled music and laughter get clearer as I approach and it feels like entering a busy diner on a rainy day.
'Who's ready for beef boo-ging-yong-yong?'
I serve up a portion to Nate first, for donating a decent old-grape-juice, and Sean second, for his effort. I slice up a few pieces of olive bread Teisha had sent me with and the feast commences. For a bunch of people who've been eating all day, the stew is impressively devoured within minutes.
After dinner, the bill for the day’s liquor consumption is served. Boozy stew curdles in my stomach, and I find myself lying prone by the fire, holding desperately on to planet Earth to keep it from spinning out of the solar system.
Nate's taste in music has always been eclectic, which is the reason he gets to be DJ since we're all really good at tolerating that stuff. But now, by the fire, the music morphs into something sinister. I dream of hideous circus clowns in full makeup smoking crack pipes in front of kids, their parents shelling out wads of hundreds for pickles-on-sticks, and cheap, rusty roller coasters leading hoards of cheering tourists to their grisly deaths. Whatever flesh I have exposed to the raging campfire must be searing, while the rest is raw and frostbitten like an unevenly cooked duck.
Meanwhile the group is discussing art, I think.
‘Where did Andy go?’ I hear someone ask, even though I’m lying less than a foot from the fire. I muster the strength to suggest slightly mellower music.
After some time, consciousness returns along with my sense of balance. Like surfacing from underwater, reality comes flooding back. I’m not at the kitchen table at home—I’m in the woods. An uneasiness settles in from realizing I’m in no state to help myself if something needs to be done. I start drinking cup after cup of water, which tastes like a smoked pair of jeans after its been boiling on the pit all day, but I feel incrementally better.
I’m not much for conversation at this point, so I reflect on my day spent In the majestic Duck Mountains: I got drunk and cooked a stew, and tomorrow I’ll go home and write about it—over like two months. Hopefully it’s somewhat interesting.
February 18, 2019 - The night is more restful than the first and the next morning we pack up, ready to head home. The sky is bright and blue. And the air invigorates in a way that makes you realize just how shallow you breathe after spending half a season indoors, or two nights in a propane-heated closed space.
We sweep the camping area several times to make sure nothing is left behind. The only hitch is the steel tent pegs, frozen solid into the ice, refusing to budge despite attacks from both torch and axe. We’ll need to return later in the year and retrieve them by canoe with a magnet. Ice anchors or screws are a better choice for next time.
By mid-day we leave the camp behind, feeling surprisingly energetic. Our time at Black Beaver Lake has passed quickly, and I’m not sure I have much to show for it, but the story is not always immediately apparent.
On the trail again, Matt tugs his sled, hardly a challenge now that the path we’ve made has been packed down multiple times. I ask him if this trip really was the hardest thing he’s ever done. ‘I’ve said that so much it’s lost all meaning,’ he says.