When I was eleven I gained a new perspective on life: a fish’s-eye view from the bottom of a partially frozen river. As I plunged through the ice and sank amid the rush of escaping air, I felt no sense of alarm. My boots were weighted, as if with cement. It seemed ironic that as I stood dreamily underwater, the bubbles clamored upward as if they themselves were starving for oxygen.
I had nothing to fear; after all, hadn’t the two boys who had fallen through the ice before me been retrieved without fuss? Looking up, I saw rippled faces peering into the hole through which I had fallen. Suddenly a hand punched through the surface as if from another dimension and, startled, I reached for it. Our fingertips brushed. Then a longer arm thrust downward and I was grabbed firmly by the hand of Zeus and hauled out. It was only when I lay floundering on the riverbank that my teeth began to chatter.
We had been conditioned for brashness. Aside from a mild bout of hypothermia, what price had we paid for our misadventure? The collective intelligence of my present day canoeing fraternity is the product, I suspect, of oxygen-deprived episodes like mine. The inability of our group as a whole to make the mental leap from cause to effect enables us to take incalculable risks…so now we are winter campers.
* * *
It’s February and we are cleaning up after supper when I notice two Swiss army knives lying side by side on the trampled snow. Which one to pick up, I wonder? One is old and dirty, the other pristine and full of shiny tools. It looks like a cocktail shaker could be housed inside. I reach for the expensive one.
“That’s mine,” declares my nephew, Jay. “You gave it to me for my birthday a few years ago.”
Ah yes, the lures. Each year I had tucked a map or camping doodad in with the CD or book he had requested, gambling that he might be the one. If anybody in the family could be convinced to go canoeing or camping, it was Jay. My hunch had paid off so here we are, four of us on a snow-covered campsite overlooking the wind-sheared ice of Norway Lake in Killarney Provincial Park, Ontario.
Dan and I are enjoying our second winter camp together, the only members of our paddling group who appreciate that with proper gear and know-how, it’s not about the cold – it’s about the fun. The rest refuse to be swayed.
We pass an agreeable afternoon hiking the Silhouette Trail from Norway Lake to the Crack, a sizable gap in the granite through which the trail passes. The Crack is located behind a promontory that overlooks Killarney Lake and the Blue Ridge to the north. We reach our destination in late afternoon – too late to make it back to camp before sunset. While the others examine the map, I explore the terrain near the outlook and fortuitously discover a crevice in the rock that opens up into a steep ravine. In no time we are spit out at the edge of the lake. From there, we snowshoe back to camp across the ice.
Jay and his buddy, Paul, are twenty-somethings. When our fire falters on the first night, I watch Paul study the fire…and us. Most dudes gaze into a campfire with woolgathering vacuity, the flames dancing in their eyes, but I can see the fire behind Paul’s eyes. Our coals are at ground level, where they should be (and not on top of the snow), and we all take turns on our hands and knees puffing into the glowing embers. Each time, the flames poof back to life then flicker and die.
“I don’t know if this will work,” muses Paul, “but if we make a base out of flat wood and build the fire on top, it might burn drier.”
Jay constructs a teepee from dry twigs and it works brilliantly – soon firelight is leaping on the pines around us. We walk out onto the ice and see Ursa Major upended in the night sky to the north, Orion in the south. A meteorite flares across the horizon.
The campfire is our hearth, our beacon, and as it guides us home I am glad for the way we mesh. Sometimes it pays to invest in a couple of sharp new knives.
This winter our target is Silver Peak, again in Killarney Provincial Park. The plan is to pull our toboggans across Johnnie Lake to Clearsilver Lake where we will set up camp. From there, we will execute our assault on the mountain.
There is a change in personnel: Graham, one of our paddling crew, agrees to join us. “You’re coming,” I had warned him good-naturedly. “We will wear you down.” Jay is in Honduras and Paul has dropped out. Jay’s younger brother Drew, however, is champing at the bit – Jay’s enthusiasm has spilled over. With Drew comes Josh, a student of jazz who sports dreadlocks. (“Why the Rasta ’do?” I ask one night at the campfire. “We’re all good musicians,” he confides. “This gets me gigs.”) Dan and I round out the crew.
In mid-February a thaw strikes, rendering lake travel unsafe. The night prior to departure I spread out the map and invite Drew and Josh to formulate a plan B. They choose Gulch Hill, an overland alternative.
The next afternoon sees us lugging our toboggans north from the George Lake campground through wet snow; lifting them over open creeks; double-teaming them out of streamcut ravines. In late afternoon we find a protected spot between a cliff and a hill – shelter from the gale-force winds that scour the lakes – and we set up camp. Sometimes being stuck between a rock and a hard place is a good thing.
In the morning the sun shines brightly and the temperature plummets, refreezing the lakes. Ice travel is back on the agenda. Setting our sights on Gulch Hill, we trek on snowshoes over Lumsden and Acid lakes then, at the foot of the rise, we form a strategy. The mountainside is steep and icy so we begin our ascent at the base of the spine and follow it gradually to the top. Each time we reach a pinnacle there is another, higher peak beyond it. Invariably these peaks are separated by saddles, or basins, and always they are full of snow – soft, deep, windblown powder that hinders our progress. Near the top of the ridge adjacent to Gulch Hill we are sobered by misfortune. A plaque marks the site of a 1994 plane crash that claimed the lives of all six passengers. Small pieces of the plane can still be found.
The Transportation Safety Board of Canada’s investigation determined that due to rain and fog the pilot was likely unable to land at the Killarney airstrip, so he set a course for Sudbury, his filed alternate airport. Ground scar marks where we stand near the top of the ridge had indicated a wings-level attitude at impact. The engine was set at maximum cruise power. They had simply not seen the mountain. They had crashed at 1321 feet above sea level. The mountaintop was at 1408.
Forging ahead, we crest the ridge. To the northwest is fjord-like Baie Fine and, at its furthest inland reach, the Pool. To the north, the hazy specter of the Blue Ridge stretches before us and, spanning the horizon beyond it: the magnificent La Cloche Mountains. At our feet lies Muriel Lake. To borrow a phrase from Graham, the scene is spellbinding and “butt-kickingly beautiful.”
We don’t make it to Gulch Hill. Staring across a snow-filled col that we presume to be the ‘gulch,’ we decide unanimously to end our hike where we stand. The sun has apexed and begun its downward arc across the sky – it’s time to go home. As the others hurry down the mountainside, Dan and I hang back. It requires enormous force of will on my part to break with the allure of this place.
On Sunday we have an easy out – another party has snowshoed from George Lake through to the Silhouette Trail and it is on this uneven track that we pull our toboggans, tipping them, righting them, overturning them yet again. The last leg, George Lake, is child’s play. Our loads seem weightless as we tramp across the ice – newly frozen and stippled like a curling rink – fashioned this time by a benevolent force of nature.
A few days later I receive an e-mail from Jay. He and his brother are eagerly anticipating next year’s adventure. They are already devising ways to improve their kit. Perhaps, he suggests, we can persuade their father to join us.
Two weeks later my wife and I are sitting in a restaurant with Jay and Drew’s parents. “They want you to come next year,” I remark casually to their father. “Silver Peak.” Jack, an avid hiker, hesitates; he looks uneasy. I smile knowingly and signal our server.
“Let me buy you a pint of ale,” I say, beginning the process anew. “We need to talk.”