A late winter's hike

Paul Smith
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I've been getting in a wee bit of snowshoeing of late. It's kind of an in-between time for many outdoor pursuits.

With the exception of coyotes, there's nothing to hunt in the woods, and salmon fishing is still a ways off. But it's a great time to walk the country, breath the fresh air and see what the moose and caribou are up to. The days are getting longer, so there's more time to soak in the atmosphere, and enjoy a cup of tea and a rousing warm campfire.

Cameron Gosse and I had a fantastic snowshoe hike just a few days back. It was the day following the Wednesday snowstorm that forecasters touted as the nastiest low pressure disturbance of winter 2012. It fizzled a bit, didn't quite cut the mustard, but still managed to pile up 20 cm or so in most areas.

There's nothing I like better than fresh snow in the woods. What an opportunity it presents to take account of tracks and wildlife movements in your hunting area. Like a slate wiped clean, anything you see is fresh and new. I could not resist a walk in the country.

Cameron and I left my truck not long after daylight, breaking trail through fresh snow, with our packs and rifles slung over our shoulders. It would be a long day - 14 km on the racquets - before hitting the remote start to warm the truck while kicking off our snowshoes in the fading light of a sinking sun.

According to Environment Canada, the daytime temperature was supposed to hover around the freezing point. In actual fact, the mercury rose well above zero and caused us several measures of discomfort.

Sticky snow is perfect for snowmen and snowball fights, but wickedly tough on the knees of snowshoe trekkers. The snow sticks to your shoes and makes them heavy as lead. Luckily we were wearing modern aluminum framed shoes which are relatively lightweight and Teflon-like, even in wet snow. Traditional snowshoes weigh a tonne in soggy snow. My legs are getting too old for that gig.

Notwithstanding the latest space-age technology strapped to our feet, by the end of the trail our joints were weary and stressed from the extra weight on each and every leg lift. A day of rest would be needed before hitting the snow again.

Another calamity afforded us by the plus side temperature was melting snow falling from the trees. It was just lovely in open country, the warm March sun warming your cheeks, but in the thick woods, water fell like a tropical thundershower. That's a bit of an exaggeration, but you get my point.

So, it wasn't going to be easy, either to stay dry or get a good fire going. But these are the sorts of challenges that drive the art of woodcraft.

Our cabin was along our planned route, so we dropped in for a bit of rest and a mug up. You don't want to get too carried away with roughing it. I suppose I'm making excuses for wimping out, but I do love the comfort of my cabin. And besides, we had already trudged four kilometres, mostly uphill on an empty stomach.

The plan was for breakfast at the cabin. So we made bannock while melting snow for a cup of morning Java. I've been working on my bannock recipe both in terms of taste and nutrition. Whole wheat flour is best because it releases energy at a steady, slower pace and sustains your body during intense activities like snowshoeing or canoeing. Added raisons, nuts and fruit fortifies both the taste and quality caloric content. It's good stuff.

On this day, Cameron and I were putting bannock to a travel light endurance test. Our total sustenance was a two-cup bannock mix and a small chunk of cheddar. Man cannot live on bread alone.

We left the cabin with a spring in our step, half the golden brown bannock loaf wrapped in paper towel for a woods lunch at the base of Nicky's Ridge.

Not far from the cabin, we walked upon a moose that wasn't a bit fussy about leaving his cozy resting spot. We discovered why when he limped off with one of his front legs dragging in the snow, maybe crippled from an ill-placed bullet. I don't know for sure, but it's likely he might meet his end when those coyotes find him.

Speaking of coyotes, we didn't see a track for the whole day. A week earlier, they were all over the place. I guess they are moving about and covering a fairly large area in their never-ending quest for food.

Under a canopy of big timber, we set about making a fire to dry out a bit and brew tea to wash down the remainder of our bannock ration.

On this day, there would be no fire for anyone not toting an axe. Everything combustible was soaked from the melting snow. Never go in the wilderness without an axe; even a tiny one is better than nothing.

The only dry wood was at the core of dead standing trees. We bucked and split junks to get at the dry inner seasoned wood that would readily burn. With my knife, I made thin shavings that would ignite at the touch of a match. Then we added progressively bigger splits as the flames grew stronger.

You can breathe easy when you hear that heartwarming sound of crackling wood. Then you know hot tea is not far off.

Cameron and I covered a lot of ground, and enjoyed to the fullest a spirited day of adventure. We got the fire going with nothing but natural materials in the toughest of conditions, pushed ourselves physically, travelled light and became more confident in our ability to survive. We weren't even terribly hungry after eating just bannock and cheese all day.

No surprise, I suppose. That's how the voyageurs did it.

Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard's Bay, fishes and wanders the outdoors at every opportunity. He can be contacted at flyfishtherock@hotmail.com.

Organizations: Environment Canada

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