March 12th-13th, 2016
Backcountry Hot-Tenting Near Arrowhead Provincial Park
It’s been a rather lousy excuse for a winter here in southern Ontario this year, which makes perfect sense considering we just spent all of our money on a canvas winter tent, trail stove, and materials for building our own freight toboggans. We did get out on the Family Day long weekend, which was really fucking cold, but that was pretty much the most extreme weather we saw all season. Refusing to let our new equipment gather dust for eight months, we acted on a tip from some fellow adventurers (Canadian Pathfinders) and set off for a nice and easy crown land trek just north of Huntsville and Arrowhead Provincial Park for the weekend.
The drive up was uneventful. The sun was shining and the temperatures were hovering just above the freezing mark. The weather had been warm and sunny the week prior, and we were a bit concerned that there wouldn’t be enough snow to float our toboggans over. We didn’t see any snow until we were north of Barrie, and even then it was only a dusting. Luckily, as we approached Huntsville, there was plenty of snow in the bush. At the access point, it took some time to properly load our ‘boggans and wrap the load in tarps so we wouldn’t lose anything. We discovered that losing things was much less likely with full loads securely wrapped, and off we went down the trail, post-holing constantly due to the warm conditions. It wasn’t an easy pull, but we knew we were only heading in about a kilometre to a basecamp area near the park boundary, so we sweated and struggled in our t-shirts in knee-deep snow to reach our site in good time.
The scenery here was much more beautiful than I had expected considering the proximity to the bustling metropolis of Huntsville (population: 19,816).
Our first task was to tramp down and flatten the snow with our snowshoes in our tent area. Andrew then harvested some firewood while I searched for boughs to make a tent floor with. As luck would have it, I found a recently-fallen black spruce tree that had taken out a balsam fir on its way down only about 50 m off the trail. It took me about half an hour to saw through the branches and carry them back to the site, and then we set up our tent using the centre pole we had brought along and guyed out the sides with nearby trees and a few pickets. We had a minor disagreement about which tree to guy one of the corners of the tent to, but generally speaking, we are getting tighter pitches of the tent with every use. While Andrew shoveled snow over the tent skirts, I wove a beautiful and fragrant floor with the boughs I had collected. I used the spruce as a base and the balsam in a light layer overtop to minimize prickly-pokies. Such a wonderful way to camp! Our tent smelled amazing, we were insulated from the snow, and the springy branches increased the comfort level of our Ridgerests and Thermarests tenfold.
After setting up the sleeping area, we brought the stove inside (Andrew had given it a quick burn outside first because he had oiled it after our last trip) and I organized our kitchen area. We relaxed with a couple of beers and warmed up some delicious meat pies from the Pie Commission on the stove for dinner. With the stove going, it was quite hot inside our tent – about 25C while seated close to the ground and reaching 30C at the highest point – so we kept the door open while cooking and eating supper. We listened to the blues while enjoying a hot buttered rum after dinner, and then tucked ourselves in for the night.
We used the same sleeping gear as we had when it was forty below, except we wore less clothing to bed: Just long underwear tops and bottoms, no balaclavas or heavy wool pants this time. We slept warm and comfortably as the temperature only went down to about -5C overnight, and the boughs forming our bed were as close to a coiled-spring mattress as I’ve ever experienced in the backcountry. Pure luxury. And our eyeballs remained pleasantly thawed throughout the night.
One of the things I like most about our winter tent is how it allows so much light to filter through the canvas. In the morning, we woke to beautiful sunshine, the pattern of the trees wallpapering the interior of the tent with gently-shifting images of the forest outside. It was quite windy in the morning, but we had secured our stove pipe with a bit of wire and some paracord to a sturdy tree, so we weren’t all that worried about the chimney taking flight and leaving us gasping of smoke inhalation. Breakfast was excellent! We fried up some some maple blueberry sausages and fat Belgian waffles and made two pots of French press coffee served with generous splashes of Bailey’s creamy beige.
It was such a lovely day and we were in no hurry to head home, so we chose to set out for a bit of a snowshoe after taking down the stove and tent, stashing the boughs and firewood for others to use, and packing our toboggans for the trek out.
Such a perfect day for a snowshoe! We didn’t even wear jackets, just our wool sweaters and t-shirts. We spent about an hour and a half exploring the trails leading to Arrowhead’s cross-country ski path, taking a rest just off the trail on a perfect couch made by a fallen tree. We both really liked how the forest changed from coniferous to deciduous in the hills, and made plans to return someday and go farther than we had this time. After a leisurely tromp back to our site, we drank a quick beer and tightened up the lashing lines on our toboggans.
The haul out was easier in some ways and more difficult in others. We post-holed less because we had packed a float for our snowshoes and toboggans on our way in, but the way out was mostly uphill and our toboggans were extra slick on the hard surface, which made for heavy and hot work. Thankfully just a slight tug on the pulling line of the toboggan was required to give it enough momentum for us to keep on truckin’, and after dragging over and under a few trees, and catching the edge of my snowshoe and falling into the drifts a couple of times, we were back at the car.
As I finish writing this in Toronto, early April, it’s snowing like mad outside and we already have an accumulation of 5cm. I thought after this mild winter we’d be getting back in the canoe soon, but it looks as though we may have another toboggan trip in the cards before ice-out. The wet conditions aren’t ideal, however. I can’t wait for this in-between nonsense to stop so we can camp without getting horribly damp and soggy. I wouldn’t mind a spot of greenery, either… I love the winter, the snow, and the cold, but I’m definitely ready to dip the ol’ paddle. Soooooon. Soon.