Winter on the Painted Waters: Across the Wilds of Missinaibi

On a sunny mid-March afternoon on Bolkow Lake, a frigid winter has seemingly come to a sudden end. The temperature soars into the positives for the first time in months and the lake’s frozen surface turns to mush—pleasant conditions for spring downhill skiing, maybe, but far less desirable for Day One of a 100-kilometre snowshoe and toboggan trek in northern Ontario’s Missinaibi Provincial Park. We’re depending on solid ice, dry snow and crisp days to stitch together frozen lakes and rivers, hauling a canvas tent and wood stove on a weeklong trip.

 

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Words & photos by Conor Mihell

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It’s fitting that our traditional means of winter travel began with a ride on the VIA Rail Budd Car, an old-fashioned, two-car passenger train that runs from Sudbury to White River. After being dropped off at a railroad siding near Bolkow Lake, my wife Kim and I planned to trace an obscure canoe route linking a series of lakes to the Little Missinaibi River, which tumbles raucously into Missinaibi Lake. Among canoeists, this sprawling, Y-shaped lake—the source of the renowned Missinaibi River—is famous for its pictographs, age-old Native rock paintings made on the smooth granite of Fairy Point. Visiting this sacred monolith in winter was the objective of the trip.

 

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But now, the outlook is tenuous. Kim carries a backpack while I drag a narrow, 10-foot-long, plastic toboggan containing most of our kit. The morning goes smoothly. With the shore in shadows, the toboggan glides easily. By noon, however, the sun is beating down. Our feet become soaked, the toboggan bogs down and it’s all we can do to slog across Bolkow’s last bay and struggle over the portage to the next body of water, a meandering swamp. Wet, crotch-deep snow gives us little choice but to set up camp early and hope for cooler conditions in the morning.

 

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For the next two days, the pattern repeats itself. We awake before dawn to take advantage of relatively cool temperatures; by afternoon, we’re marooned by slush, having covered only a fraction of the distance we’d intended. The break we’re waiting for comes on the evening of Day Three. The wind changes direction and the pines moan over our tent. Gusts from the northwest buffet our shelter’s broad canvas walls and the wind causes the stove to belch smoke into the tent. By headlamp, I rig a shovel blade to shield the stovepipe, and pause to glance worriedly at the tall trees arcing and bowing overhead.

Read More: Mountain Life’s Tips for Winter Camping / / Winter Paddling in Ontario

 

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We survive the night, and all but fly the next morning on the crusty surface of Elbow Lake. We reach the Little Missinaibi by way of a long portage. Before setting out, we anticipated this swift-flowing waterway would be a crux. I know that across eastern Canada, “snowwalkers” dating back to Native hunters and French Canadian coureurs de bois used frozen rivers as travelways—but a dark blot of steaming water, flowing like a pool of blood from the base of a rocky rapid under a sheet of ice, makes me nervous. For her part, Kim refuses to leave the safety of the shore. This is a problem, since it’s obvious the only passage downstream lies on the opposite side of the river. Equally evident is the fact that it’s my job to test the ice. Kim spots me with a rescue line while I walk gingerly, probing the surface with an ice chisel at regular intervals and gaining confidence as the blade reveals uniform, solid ice.

 

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After this shaky beginning, the Little Missinaibi proves friendly. More than ever, our journey mirrors a summer canoe trip. We tiptoe carefully to the brink of numerous rapids and waterfalls, scouting for a portage. Dragging the laden toboggan overland is just as difficult as shouldering canoes and packs; and once back on the river, we glide effortlessly on the downstream side.

 

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Five days after setting out, we reach Missinaibi Lake and camp on the south shore. That night, the northern lights play over Fairy Point, transforming the sky into a pulsing lava lamp of white, yellow, green and red. The impressive display reminds us of a Cree story which describes the aurora as the dancing spirits of ancestors.

 

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It’s a fitting climax to our trip. The next morning, we approach Fairy Point in silence—a stark contrast to the incessant waves that roll here all summer long. A spear of ice hangs over the mysterious, crimson renderings of animals, spirit forms and a bizarre, misplaced smiley face—perhaps a prehistoric emoticon. We linger over lunch, until the warming sun urges us to travel fast on winter’s last breath.

 

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