words :: Conor Mihell.
After years of roaming the northern Ontario bush with my friend, Enn Poldmaa, I should know not to doubt his sense of direction. But in the midst of an intense Lake Superior snowsquall battering the Algoma Highlands like the waves that sank the Edmund Fitzgerald, I’m convinced we’re skiing the wrong way. I thrust a map and compass in his face. “See, we’re here. There’s Mamainse Hill—to the north,” I implore, gesturing with my pole into the snowy hardwood forest. “We need to go that way.”
Enn barely takes note of the map. “No way, man,” replies the 63-year-old co-owner of Bellevue Valley Lodge, a bed and breakfast specializing in backcountry skiing, located just outside of my hometown of Sault Ste. Marie. “Just follow me.”
Enn’s stubbornness is just as ingrained as his internal compass. My frustration dissipates when it dawns on me that I don’t have a clue where I am—save for being somewhere on the flank of a 200-metre hill, way up an epically snowy forest access road, northeast of Batchawana Bay. Logging activity on nearby slopes opened up this region in the winter of 2015; normally, it’s a long 15-kilometre tour or snowmobile ride from the Trans-Canada Highway. To hell with maps and compasses—I have no choice but to follow. Enn’s like a bloodhound, sniffing out a beer bottle–shaped couloir we glimpsed from afar a couple of hours ago during a break in the storm.
“A break in the flurries reveals a steep, 35-degree apron of immaculate snow. Higher up, a gulley parts a granite buttress.”
We bypass numerous choice runs where the mature maple forest opens up into natural glades, complete with pillow hits and dry, fluffy snowpack that’s at least a metre deep. I envision Enn’s computer-like brain tallying up the powder runs while navigating, sans instruments, to the crown jewel. At last, the forest thins out. A break in the flurries reveals a steep, 35-degree apron of immaculate snow. Higher up, a gulley parts a granite buttress.
Our switchbacks start wide, cutting waist-deep terraces into the hillside. Then they become increasingly narrow; we shuffle back and forth, each line gaining a metre or two of elevation. It would be easy to peel off our skins and descend from here—logical even, to not bother with the remaining 20-odd metres of elevation. But the beautiful couloir draws us upwards.
Finally, we linger at the summit, watching the snow clouds part and the sun light up the ice-covered expanse of Lake Superior. When a gust of wind blows in the next squall, we drop into the best run of the winter. –Conor Mihell
Check out more from the Mountain Life Ontario Winter 2016 issue.