Written by Andy Goodson
Photography by Andy Goodson and Sean Hootz
We're going to freeze, but it will be fun—maybe.
Earlier this year, we broke the winter's spell with a backcountry camping trip to the eastern ridge of the Duck Mountains. Since then, we've put a few more excursions under our belt—so many, that I feel like I've been travelling for a lifetime. We've seen snakes, canyons, fossils, cliffs and our fair share of northern lights. It seems only fitting that we return to where we started for one last jaunt into the wilderness.
Remembering the horrible bugs of Waskwei River and the punishing heat of Amisk Lake, a little cold weather is more than welcome this time around. Fall also grants us the opportunity to fish for spawning trout from the shores of Duck Mountain's crystal-clear lakes.
We oblige the call to action. I'm still trying to write splake trout off of my bucket list, and, this season, I'm going to do it...
After finding a spot on the shores of Laurie Lake, Sean hooks into something before I've even untangled my fishing line. I quickly trade my reel for a camera.
I'm thrilled to witness Sean catching his first still-water trout and his first brown trout.
—At least, that's what I tell him. I can admit that I would rather be the one holding a trembling rod, carefully watching the tension between my fishing line and the frantic splashing from shoreline... But etiquette is etiquette.
Forgetting about splake, I catch nothing all day. Bad karma, I guess?
We stop by Gull Lake, where I see a mid-sized brook trout swimming around the dock. After trying to coax a bite using the better half of my tackle box, I realize it's just not going to happen. "Well, are you about ready to go?" Sean asks. "It takes a braver man to admit defeat," he says with a dumb-ass grin. I'd rather spend the rest of the day rooting around in the woods anyway.
After leaving the park and heading on another short country-drive, we find ourselves on the fringe of the escarpment once again. It's not overly remote, but the closed roads and the valley walls lend an illusion of exclusivity.
When we walked this road in early-spring, there was warmth in the air in spite of the snow on the ground. Today, whatever heat is making its way down to the ground is being swept away by a constant stream of wind.
The cold is not a bad thing. We're able to hike up and down the slopes without breaking much of a sweat. It's the lack of biting insects that is the real treat. And we are soaking it in.
Every season has its unique pros and cons, and autumn is no exception. The advantages are clear: fewer bugs, lower risk of heatstroke, that smell of old leaves and plaid clothes look awesome. The cons are: you risk crossing paths with hunters, bull moose are rutting and black bear are out for one last meal before hibernation.
I can feel my happy-go-lucky resilience wear away with every last minute of sunlight. We set up our camp, light-up the stove and cook up a nice pot of chilli. This hits the spot, but the temperature outside is starting to bite, and it's past bedtime.
I can't move. But not because of the cold. I'm terrified by the clattering sound of a two-stroke engine echoing through the woods. Whether I close my eyes or leave them open, it doesn't matter. The tent is still pitch black. It must be the middle of the night... Who could be out here?
Like a chainsaw carving through a garbage can, revving and sputtering, the unmistakable sound of an ATV is definitely getting close. I turn over and see pale-white headlights tracing their way through the woods. The tent illuminates and the drone of an idling engine becomes impossible to ignore. I try not to panic.
"Oh my god, what do they want?" I worry to myself. Every possible scenario is running through my head, especially a few key scenes from Zodiac and Deliverance.
As I prepare for doom, the quiet rumble of an airplane overhead slowly engulfs the sound— until there's nothing left. All I hear is the river in the distance. There are no lights anymore either.
"Holy shit," I collapse my head back onto my pillow. I've had forest-dreams about wild animals rustling outside the tent, but they are far less terrifying than dreams about run-ins with other people. It's ridiculous, I know. But when you settle in for a night in the backcountry, your reptilian-brain likes to mess with you.
The next morning
After nearly 12 consecutive hours of darkness, I find myself warm and well-rested. "It couldn't have been that cold," I think to myself as I reach for my half-frozen water bottle. There is frost on the tent's rain fly and the outside layer of my sleeping bag feels crisp to the touch.
I step outside and quickly throw on a jacket before the freezing air sticks to my clothes.
The dark corner of the woods where we stayed overnight feels five degrees colder than the area nearby. Out in the open, the sun has already thawed most of the grass. But this does us no favours as we pack up our camp in our metaphorical meat-freezer.
Like any season, you take the good with the bad, and I'm not convinced winter in the prairies is the unbeatable demon it's painted out to be. That said, I can't imagine us being able to camp in anything much colder with the gear we have. It's going to take some thought.
Sean and I decide to make one last stop before heading out... The same spot where we filmed the sunrise over the Manitoba Escarpment back in early April. We don't stay there for nearly as long, but it's nice to see it again.
"Let's go get some burgers."