Photography by Andy Goodson and Sean Hootz
November 19, 2016 — Woody River Recreation Site, Saskatchewan: Day One
Every year, I make the same mistake. I wait too long to go on my last open-water fishing trip. This is why it's no surprise that, when we pull up to the boat launch at Smallfish Lake in November, I know I've wasted my time again.
"Told you it'd be frozen," Sean starts. "I'm starting to think you want to suck."
We press a fresh set of tracks into untouched snow, browsing the campground for a place to stay the weekend. Four inches of undisturbed powder blankets the entire camping area. Aside from some light hunting traffic down the nearby Woody River Road, the place feels virtually abandoned.
Kyle saunters out of his truck, tracking sunflower seeds among his footsteps. "I'll be honest, I thought more people were coming out," he says, pulling a bottle of Stolichnaya vodka and two jugs of Clamato out of his truck box. Kyle usually only tags along on bigger trips, so I'm not sure what he's expecting.
Jason remains silent, unravelling the canvas tent we'll all be sleeping in. Laziness could stifle tomorrow's mission to hike and find the famously out-of-reach Armit Lake, and Kyle has a way of bringing out my subconscious desire to sit back and eat smoked oysters around the campfire all day.
After setting up the tent, Sean suggests taking a hike up the nearby Woody River in the spirit of the grasslands. We use the residual mentality from last month's trip—just choose a direction and walk. The thrill for exploring land and water makes me forget that I've come here with any intention of catching fish.
We follow the river upstream, where the woods are thick stands of trembling aspen and the ridges are much steeper. Kyle tries climbing a slope that sends him sliding back down with every attempt. He shouts a few choice curse words, then picks himself up and tries again.
"All I brought were these boots and they weren't made for this shit. Should be using them to dance all night at the bar," he moans in his blue, high-vis coveralls.
At the top of the ridge, we get a lovely view of the river bend and surrounding forest. Sean finds an old baiting barrel, along with a piece of jaw or maxillary bone.
Not wanting to get too carried away with an afternoon hike, we visit a few more lookout points and cut through the forest back to the vehicle. We drive another 20 km north to the river's inflow on the south end of Woody Lake with an hour of sunlight to spare.
The number of spruce trees increases dramatically at Woody River's upper reaches, but the forest is thick and more challenging to hike. Sean and I snap a few photos and twigs in our faces before deciding we've had enough.
We drive back to our site at Smallfish Lake Campground where the only tire tracks still belong to us.
Sean lights the propane heater inside the tent as a breeze picks up off the lake, plunging the 'feels like' temperature down to the Ninth Circle of Hell. I don't have a thermometer I can check to tone down the hyperbole.
"I will not be cold while car-camping," Jason states as a matter of fact. "There's no excuse for being uncomfortable." We repeat the mantra in unison: "I will not be cold, car-camping."
Birch bark ignites and the stack of frozen wood finally catches fire. "Who wants a Caesar?" Kyle asks. I take him up on the offer. Truth be told, it's a little strange to see him drink.
"Are you going to polish off that entire bottle? That's a lot of clam juice for one sitting," Sean inquires.
Kyle pours himself another cup, leaving a finger's width of vodka at the end of the bottle. "You're not my dad," he says.
November 19, 2016 — Woody River Recreation Site, Saskatchewan: Day Two
I'm not sure if I've slept much at all, which is par for the course on the first night. It's the thought of hiking an undetermined amount of kilometres that fails to get me out of bed. I can't be worse off than Kyle, who's been getting up every forty minutes to deal with the aftereffects of attempted vodka-suicide.
"Anyone else have weird dreams?" Sean asks in the dark, somewhere in the vicinity of his sleeping bag. "Thank carbon monoxide hallucinations for that, the white man's vision quest."
"Kyle, are you coming on this trip, or what?" I prod him, but there's no response. I ask again. He groans, says "No," then rolls over.
"Do you have any regrets?"
"Never," he says.
Sean, Jason and I pack for the day and drive north again, this time, to Spirit Lake. There, we begin our hike down a system of back-roads and ATV trails in shaky attempt to reach the isolated Armit Lake.
Our knowledge of these trails is lacking and our navigation is based on rough satellite imagery and our own sense of direction. We know we might not make it to our destination, but the fun is in the process.
The sky is overcast and the cold is hardly noticeable as quiet breezes tumble snow off the forest canopy. Sean remarks that it's hunting season and we're not wearing bright colours, so I don my best garb in red plaid with trail-tape tassels.
Wanting to avoid run-ins with hunters, we turn at a junction and head down an old ATV trail covered in fresh snow and fallen trees blocking the way for vehicles. The road transitions from a narrow corridor of young pines to a frozen bog. In a wetland of trickling water and mud, the path becomes indiscriminate and completely useless.
"Yeah...starting to think this isn't the right way," Sean says, pulling his boot out of mud and cracked ice. We come across a metal tree stand and get paranoid about hunters again. "Let's go back to the main road and see where it takes us. As long as we're headed roughly northeast, we should get to Armit Lake."
Continuing our hike, Jason remarks the changing forest type as we progress. "There's a land feature I saw on the map called 'Spirit Mountain.' This must be it."
Spirit Mountain's elevation is gradual and unspectacular, while the trees obscure any potential viewpoints. These are common themes among plains features that misappropriate the word, mountain. Spirit is interesting, however, because of the abrupt transition of forest from the skirt of the hill to the northern slopes. The change from a near monoculture of trembling aspen to old-growth spruce forest is like walking into another display room in a natural history museum.
By the time we take our third break, we've hiked for nearly four hours. We discuss how far we ought to go before we call it quits. Had we been more serious about this adventure, we might have packed a reliable map.
"I never thought I'd say this," Sean sighs, "but thank God for these trails. It'd be impossible to hike through this forest and make any real progress." The peace of boreal wildness rattled by a two-stroke engine firing through the mud comes to mind, but I get the point. It's just a shame that accessible nature always comes with a caveat. Hell, you can find out what province you're in just by noting the brand of beer cans strewn about—if it's mostly Bud Light, I know I'm in Manitoba.
We hike for another twenty minutes before surrendering at a fork in the trail marked by a sign with the words "Bad Road, Good Road." Armit Lake feels like it should be just over the next hill, but, in reality, we're probably headed in the wrong direction halfway to Kamsack.
The cloudy sky turns deep blue as we speed-walk the entire way back to the vehicle before dark. Keeping up the pace is the best painkiller for sore muscles at this point.
I start wondering about Kyle, and how he probably would've hated this. "Who drinks a bottle of vodka the night before a long hike? The Clamato alone would have given me crippling heartburn."
"He was never coming out for a hike. He brought cowboy boots," Jason argues.
I don't understand how Kyle's mind works, but when I bounce a lure off of a frozen lake in late November, there's a good chance it's because I don't feel like fishing in the first place. Sometimes you just want to be outside without having to explain why.
We reach the vehicle in time to see the sunset over the valley on our drive back to Smallfish Lake. I had expected a campfire upon our return, but that is a dumb assumption to make. The campsite looks as cold as ever.
"I slept the entire day," Kyle says, emerging from underneath a canvas wall. "All our drinking water froze, so that really sucked." Apparently he had tried building a fire, but we didn't leave any lighters. The pile of twigs along with a few fine strands of bark and tree-beard shows that a valiant effort of primitive fire-building had been attempted.
"You drinking again tonight, Kyle?" Jason asks.
"Nope. She's all gone. You guys probably won't see that ever happen again. Once in a blue super moon."
We get a fire going. I sit down beside it with a hot bowl of slop, a mixture of fried pancetta, mushroom soup and two packs of Uncle Ben's instant rice—the perfect balance of delicacy and college-freshman cookery. Jason, Sean and Kyle huddle around the camp stove, enjoying some half-baked cake mix.
It's great to be outside.