Written by Andy Goodson
Photography by Andy Goodson, Mitch Doll and Sean Hootz
"Better late than never," Kyle says with a smirk, tugging his gear along the snowy trail in a bright orange children's toboggan.
I'm happy to see that he, Adam and Andrew had been able to find their way to camp conveniently after we set up the canvas tent. My fingers are numb, we have no fire yet, and I've run out of dry spots on my scarf to shield my face from the wind. But there's no use in being cranky.
All of us are finally here, and it looks like we're in for the long haul: two nights in the semi-wilderness, sleeping on ice and warding off frostbite. The time for our first winter camping trip has finally arrived.
About Steiestol Lake, Greenwater Provincial Park*
Greenwater Provincial Park is a popular tourist destination in Saskatchewan situated on the western edge of the Porcupine Hills. I like to imagine Greenwater as an example of the Golden Age of provincial parks– a time when camping didn't involve a satellite television or setting up a partition to avoid seeing your neighbour grilling hot dogs in his boxers. You know, when people went camping to meet new people and not to get away from them.
For a first-time winter camping trip, a sense of familiarity, warmth and security seem like good prerequisites. But risk is needed to make it worthwhile... We're not driving all this way to sleep in our cars, and Greenwater offers one interesting option...
Steiestol Lake (pronounced "stay-stall") is our target– the most elevated body of water in the park. Its name commemorates Odd Jostein Steiestol, who fell in love with the lake while working in the park for 32 years. A short hike in is required, providing a perfect balance of exclusivity and accessibility.
...But Steiestol and I also have a bittersweet relationship. Since the day I first came home from kindergarten - and saw my dad's nine-pound rainbow trout proudly mounted to the wall - the lake has been a total tease. I've spent countless hours with a line out, rifling through every jig, spinner and fly I own, trying to top my dad's catch from the same lake. Every time, I come home with nothing more than wet clothes and mosquito bites.
Maybe it's the old-growth aspen forest, the quiet isolation or the thought of a 12-pound winning lottery ticket swimming through the shallows... But if I'm going to die as a frozen corpsicle, it might as well be at Steiestol Lake.
*Note: always ask staff for permission before backcountry camping in provincial parks.
Day One — BREAKFAST BEFORE BACKPACKING
January 21, 2016 - "Don't worry, I hear it's a very peaceful death," my brother Matt reassures us as he butters his toast at The Sportsman Motel in Kelvington. We're discussing the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning in our tent, caused by the new propane heaters David, Sean and I had recently acquired and were not about to give up easily.
"Sean brought a detector, so I'm sure we'll be just fine," I say, but Sean shifts his eyes skeptically. This was a concern I hadn't prepared for. Mitch takes in one last slurp of coffee and blurts, "It's called the 'silent killer' you know. Should be interesting!"
After a few more cups of coffee, we square up for our meal and gather in the parking lot to discuss the plans. It's nearly noon.
"If we wait for the rest of the group, we're going to run out of sunlight. They wanted their fancy breakfast in the city so bad, they'll have to find us on their own," I say with weak authority. "We'll drive straight north through Greenwater, and there'll be a parking area with a sign saying 'Steiestol Lake'. That's where we start our hike."
The mood is optimistic even though winter camping had been a hard sell. When I first pitched the idea over a month ago, reactions were morose. But that lack of confidence translated into some deep research and, now, we're reasonably sure we will survive with most of our limbs intact.
After a short half-hour drive, we unload our vehicles at the trail-head.
"That's what you're packing in? You never learn," Sean says, laughing at my gear sled. I like to dangle everything I own off of carabiners and bungees. With a bag full of beer hanging off a driveway snow-shovel, this is my finest work yet.
The ropes on our sleds tense as we take to the endless hill at the start of our hike.
The gear sleds are not the golden chariots we had hoped. Everything spills out of my sled at each incline. I concede to the inevitability that I will be making two trips. But I still feel better off than Matt, whose rolling luggage looks as if he's lost on the way to the airport.
We march at a tired pace close to the lake opening when I hear Mitch Shouting in the distance. "What the hell is this!?"
I had read about the risks of thin ice on aerated lakes, but I didn't expect giant patches of open water. The thin ice was a concern, but seeing it in person does not inspire confidence in someone who plans to sleep on it.
We trudge through the snow at a lengthy distance from the open water, browsing the forest for a clearing big enough for our colossal 10-person tent that also has shelter from wind, ample firewood, free Wi-Fi, etc. But the forest is far too dense. We convince ourselves that the ice is our only option for camp before opening a few cold beers to celebrate– defiantly Canadian.
With our tent set up and a lack of physical exertion, the cold starts to bite. With the sun going down fast, it only gets worse. The team of latecomers is given a task: build a fire to end all fires.
Predictably, this amounts to nothing more than a smoky, soggy mess. I'm not sure if the cold had affected our propane somehow, but dinner requires more instances of rogue flame-throwing stoves than I'm comfortable with. After a few shots of whiskey around a piddly campfire, the cold draws us into the tent like zombies.
DAY TWO - A FEAST FOR ICE KINGS
"You really wanna trust your life in the hands of a machine!?"
Kyle's words echo in my head, along with the tiny crumbs he spit out while saying it. A horrible headache wakes me up. It's not long before the rest of the group joins me.
"That would have sucked without the propane heaters. I've definitely had far colder sleeps, but last night was still restless," Sean groans, rolling in his sleeping bag.
Disturbing dreams and odd semi-hallucinations are a common point of discussion this morning. Even with the carbon monoxide alarm, I wonder if this is our brush with the 'silent killer?' Or maybe just a few too many celebratory beers.
I step outside and the icy winds strip the residual heat I carried with me from my sleeping bag. I had almost forgotten where we are. But a few freshly drilled holes with the hand auger wins my warmth back for a short while.
Freeze your ass off, ladies and gentlemen — welcome to open-air ice fishing. I sit motionless on my folding chair for the next two hours, staring down a hole, patiently waiting for that winning lottery ticket to take off with my line. It doesn't.
Between jig bounces, I look up and watch my friends as they stumble out of the tent one-by-one over the next hour. Nobody bothers to try lighting a campfire. It looks like they're just pacing around aimlessly in slow motion. A few stoves are out, but nobody seems to be making breakfast.
I put down my rod once the smell of coffee permeates the area.
While I was fishing, everyone else had been working together to build a meeting area in the forest, far away from the frigid breeze coming off the lake. A small campfire burns as they lounge around it. The spot they had found is undeniably comfortable.
"I have to admit, you don't make ice fishing look very appealing," Sean jabs at me. I open a beer.
The weak sun shines through the forest canopy. The smell of smoldering birch releases my aching muscles. It's abundantly clear that we won't be accomplishing much today.
"Man, what would we be doing if it was minus twenty-something out? I'm exhausted," I say with a breath of resignation. Mitch replies, "I think it's the combination of wearing that extra ten pounds of gear and the body constantly fighting off cold. It's like, I want to move, but my body's just having none of it." A gentle nod from the rest of the group as they munch on chocolate chip cookies confirms the sentiment.
We throw a few more dead branches onto the fire and start discussing our food supply. This is one area we did not under-prepare. Andrew throws a giant pot of water on the fire and proceeds to boil a witch's cauldron-worth of ramen noodles. The meal is complemented by a few generous portions of homemade lasagna, chili and smoked elk roast.
The entire afternoon is spent gorging around the fire. As the sun begins to set, we make our way out of the forest and put our calories to good use with some cross-country skiing and one more valiant attempt at ice fishing.
We reconvene at the site of our all-day smorgasbord for supper just after nightfall. In a bout of unprecedented alchemy, Nate cooks a round of mouth-watering steaks with a splash of honey bourbon and a few shakes of Montreal steak spice. Chalk it up to the winter conditions, but there's not much else to do other than test the limits of your appetite in good company.
Unlike the night before, we spend hours around the campfire before turning in to the tent.
I will be completely honest, winter camping is not the same brand of fun you get with a warm-weather adventure. But for most of its setbacks, there are positives to counter them. No mosquitoes being the most obvious. However, gear breaks down. Things get frozen. It seems like everything can go wrong if you're unprepared. But staring down the barrel of uncertainty is easy when you have good friends to rely on—even if they show up late.
Although I didn't catch a trout that I could use to taunt my dad for Christmases to come, I know we had accomplished our goal. Winter camping is no longer the daunting challenge it used to be— we had won.
The next morning, I'm hesitant to look outside of the tent. For as long as I've been pretending to sleep, the sound of ice pellets plinking against the tent tempts me to lay on the ground forever. Tearing down the tent, packing our gear and hiking back is going to be murder— but at least we'll be sharing in the misery, and the reward*. That's what friends are for, right?
*A special thanks to Chicken Little restaurant in Kelvington for warmly welcoming our haggard group and helping us with our impromptu mission to eat every scrap of food within 50 km of Greenwater Provincial Park.