Anyone who goes out in the wilderness often and for extended periods of time has likely had a moment on a trip when they wanted to quit. When we have completed a trip after wanting to quit but choosing to carry on, we often have a sense of accomplishment, satisfaction and a lot of pleasurable memories. You almost start to enjoy the suffering on some strange level.
Then, hopefully very rarely, a moment comes that you must recognize. This is the time that pushing on is not the right decision and choosing to do so can become dangerous. You hear about this more often with mountain climbers as turn around times must be strict and adhered to. The decision to quit or carry on must be made. It’s often not something we talk about in the tripping world but it happens sometimes and recognizing it could save your life.
I recently undertook a winter expedition longer and more demanding than I have previously attempted. I had ambitious distance goals and was on a route that I had no experience with. My original partner backed out of the trip less than two weeks prior to departure, so my wife stepped up to the plate. This was to be her first winter backcountry experience and was only the second time she had been winter camping in her life.
A week prior to the trip, we scrambled and scraped together some old gear that was not really suited to the task, but we figured it would get the job done. Our 160 pounds of gear, divided between our two 6-foot toboggans, was checked and double checked. We were ready so away we went.
Our trip started in fine form. The first half day, we took a last-minute suggestion and followed the dogsled trails into the park. Everything was great. Our toboggans we are sliding along effortlessly, and we were making good time. Lunch on day one was at the 6 km mark, well on our way to achieving our goal of 10 km. After lunch, we eventually had to leave the prepacked dogsled trail and begin to break our own trail. This is where the real trip began. The next two km we covered that day to Jeppi Lake were difficult, to say the least. Snow conditions had us sinking up to the knee while attempting to climb the hills of the portage. Most of this portage was on a side hill and we quickly learned that toboggans do not like side hills. We may have made an error in our trip planning, taking that dogsled trail suggestion.
We woke to a sunny blue sky and in good spirits. However, by the time we were done breakfast weather conditions had deteriorated. The day featured blizzard-like conditions and some very severe elevation changes. We had difficulty climbing and descending the hills in the heavy new snow with the heavy toboggans. I took a big spill attempting to descend one hill which broke one of our toboggan poles and aggravate my not-really-healed sprained ankle. This led to a mere 3 km day. Things were not off to a great start.
The newly fallen snow was pristine on North Tea Lake and the sun was shining. All that fresh snow made breaking trail on the lake more difficult, but we managed to complete the crossing and found a great place to camp off the portage heading into Manitou. We manage 9 km. Not bad but we were still slipping farther and farther from our goal. We were already a day and a half behind our original schedule.
We headed out across Manitou Lake on another sunny day. A couple of km out we came across a week-old skidoo track. We were flying on the hardpacked trail that made for easy going compared to the previous few days. The afternoon brought clouds and, with four km left to our camp, we lost the skidoo trail. It was back to breaking trail. Once we set up camp we realized Meghan’s ski boot was broken. Her borrowed gear was proving not up to the task. The recreational trail skis and boots were self-destructing. But after a successful day, we were in good spirits and were making plans on how to make up the lost days. We decided to shorten the trip by 20 km as the Barron Canyon Rd was plowed in quite far and our ride would be able to pick us up further into the park.
That night, we used our borrowed In-Reach to contact a friend in Bonfield to see about getting some much-needed supplies. Chocolate, Gatorade powder, booze, and a needle and thread (see above broken boot) were needed to complete the trip in comfort. After confirming we were not strangers luring them out to be murdered, our friends agreed to meet up out at Kiosk the following evening to deliver the goods.
This is where things took a turn. We had planned to take a traditional canoe route around the L’Amable du Fond River to Kiosk. We were hoping the traditional route would still be distinguishable as a trail. Unfortunately, it was not, so we continued down to the river hoping for safe shelf ice to travel on. No luck there either. At this point, I may or may not have uttered some unrepeatable words in frustration. Out comes our map. There was an old logging road but was it still there? At this point the way, our luck was going, I wasn’t holding my breath, but it was really our only option. So, through the bush we went, bushwhacking two km through some rather fun terrain (lots of steep, almost vertical hills and very thick bush). Finally, we reached the road that luckily was still there, although, three feet of snow had accumulated here. It was very heavy and sticky as the temperature was rising but at least it was easier than bushwhacking.
Now, I would love to meet the engineer that designed this road because somehow, he built a road that seemed to climb forever with no downhills. We followed this road for 10 km, waiting the entire time for it to head downhill towards the lake. It was getting late at this point and we had to meet our delivery, or they would just leave. I sprinted off ahead after consulting with Meghan. The logging road had km markers, so I told her we only had four km left and I would see her when she got to camp.
The end of the road was in fact not at Kiosk as it appeared on the map but was, in fact, two more km by rail trail. This was not cool as I’d pretty much hit the wall but I had to get there. I carried on, arriving (collapsing, to be honest) at highway 630 in Kiosk just at dusk as my delivery arrived.
Time to set up camp. I was getting super cold as I’d been sweating hard while attempting to get there in time and Meghan had all our clothing. I figured the best bet was to get the tent set up quickly and get a fire going in the stove to warm up my increasingly numb hands. As I was working I started to shiver, then I stopped shivering. Not good. By this time, it was fully dark, and I was getting a little worried about Meghan as well as struggling to get the tent up in the dark without a light.
The wind carried curses and my name on it. It was faint and beside the roaring river, I was unsure if I’d heard it correctly. I knew I’d better get my skis on and head out to find Meghan. Skiing without a toboggan is extremely fast comparatively and I covered the two km back to the road head in no time. As I approached I heard yelling and feared the worst. Once I was close enough to see her facial expressions I realized it was more anger than pain and questioned whether to turn back to camp or go help her with her toboggan. I was met with an exhausted wife whose first words to me were “I’m going home with your friends.” When I told her, they were already gone… well if looks could kill. We got to camp safely but I was in severe need of warming up at this point. We collected just enough wood to get the tent warm and stripped the wet clothing off, crawled into bed in dry clothing and we slowly warmed up. We ate chocolate and drank Gatorade for dinner and passed out. Did I mention it was Valentine’s Day?
We woke up at dawn with a decision to make. We were facing a limited time frame to finish the trip, (8 days - Meghan had to be back at work after two weeks no exceptions), a limited pickup window (Saturday and only Saturday), and 110 km remaining on our trip. All these things could be overcome. It would be hard but doable as we’d finally reached the old railway line which meant a relatively flat trip across the remainder of the park. We would need to maintain the pace we had set the day before. Then it started to rain. As we checked the weather we realized we were in for three days of rain in the next week. We might go from too much snow to none. With all this in mind, Meghan decided she was done and to be honest I wasn’t going to argue at that point. With a bit of disappointment, we called it and sent out a message to be picked up. This trip was officially over.
As I write this I am already planning next year’s trip. I will achieve my goal and complete this trip with the knowledge I learned this trip. I will return next year and successfully cross the park. The reality was with the weather conditions, we could have ended up in real trouble. As disappointing as it is to fail, it was the right decision. Knowing when enough is enough is crucial to any expedition. If you push too far it may end in tragedy. Learning from your failures makes you better next time.
To anyone interested in coming along on our next attempt, we will be fielding a team of four to six. Please contact me. Anyone willing to suffer a little is welcome to come.