Winter Traverse: Killarney Provincial Park

To the people who glide by on cross-country skis, glowing in Gore-Tex with their backpacks overloaded and dangling with survival gear, we must appear mad: Ten people on snowshoes, stomping out a snowy platform the size of a suburban building lot alongside Kakakise Creek in Killarney Provincial Park, Ontario. We walk back and forth, hammering our wooden snowshoes into the powder with satisfying thuds. After a half-hour of pacing, Dave Marrone, our guide and co-owner of Sudbury-based outfitter Lure of the North, pulls on his stained, fur-trimmed anorak and announces that the first step of establishing a winter campsite is complete.

 

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By Conor Mihell

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Whereas alpine-style “cold” winter camping is classic man-versus-nature – shouldering backpacks overstuffed with copious layers, sleeping bag and tents, then devouring high-calorie foods and sleeping away long nights – traditional “hot” camping is more elaborate, comfortable and refined. As university students, Dave and his wife, Kielyn, experienced the hardships of the former on a trip to New York’s Adirondack Mountains. “My feet were so cold,” recalls Kielyn. “I had to put them on Dave’s belly to warm up.”

Mutiny nearly occurs when Dave disappears ahead to scout. But we soon realize he’s packed a trail to our second campsite – a rock-rimmed, frozen swamp with dead-standing firewood scarcely arm’s length from the tent sites.

Then they heard about a different approach to winter travel that harkens back to Cree and Ojibwa trappers and early coureurs de bois. The Marrones discovered canvas tents, portable woodstoves, leather moccasins, wooden snowshoes, and slender, flexible toboggans. They found them to be the perfect accoutrements for travelling the frozen lakes and portages of summertime canoe country.

 

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We’re here in Killarney to learn Dave and Kielyn’s methods on a three-day introductory trip along the park’s east side. We packed our coffin-shaped plastic sleds at the park’s main campground and skidded them by tumpline across George Lake—stunning in any season for its quartzite bluffs and wispy pine. As Dave promised, the glazed surface made hauling effortless. A minor challenge came on the short, twisty portage to Kakakise; then it was more smooth sailing to camp.

Now, six of us join Kielyn in pitching two mushroom-shaped canvas tents while Dave leads a group of axmen in gathering, cutting and splitting wood. Finally, two hours after arriving in camp, we lounge by candlelight in the larger tent, which is warmed to t-shirt temperatures by a glowing woodstove.

 

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Winter travel has a way of bringing people together in work and in play. Setting up camp is a joint effort, just as we dine together and sleep side by side like cordwood in the tents. This sense of community is challenged by a kilometre-long portage to Terry Lake on Day Two. The trail ascends 30 metres then twists through tortuous, knee-deep snow. Such a route would be impassable without teamwork. Pushing and pulling in threes and fours, we wrangle the toboggans up the rise and take turns breaking trail in the powder.

Mutiny nearly occurs when Dave disappears ahead to scout. But we soon realize he’s packed a trail to our second campsite – a rock-rimmed, frozen swamp with dead-standing firewood scarcely arm’s length from the tent sites. Dave informs us that this type of place – completely bypassed in the summer – is perfect for winter camping. Sure enough, we pitch camp in half the time.

The next morning, we face the predictable languor that comes at the end of a rewarding trip. We pack up slowly; in a few weeks, all signs of our passage will melt away. As we approach the access point at Carlyle Lake, our trip’s end, we encounter another pair of backpack-wearing skiers. Today, our group no longer feels strange for our old-school toboggans and snowshoes. We look knowingly at one another in silent agreement that this is winter camping done right.

 

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