September 04, 2007
2007 February - Agawa canyon solo snowshoeing trip
Posted by zvoni00
Anton Karnoup 02/11/2007
Report on a winter solo hike in Ontario (Agawa canyon)
(February 2-4, 2007)
Preparation and equipment.
Since I realized that I would not be able to ice-climb this season, and after missing the whole rock-climbing season due to injury to my left ring-finger flexor system, I felt that I needed to do something I still can in order to retain some sanity. What I still can do now is not heavily technical mountaineering and alpine climbing, hiking, skiing and such. The nearest area to us that I really enjoy being outdoors is Lake Superior Provincial Park (LSPP) (where we normally ice-/rock-climb as well). Therefore I decided to do something appropriate for the season (winter), so that it would be not very demanding on my injured parts, but still fairly challenging and moderately technical. What could that be? -- Winter hiking and ski mountaineering comes to mind. That's what I had been doing for many years since my late teens, so I had some reasonably good skills and experience. So, winter snowshoeing in Ontario seemed like a logical choice. I have heard a lot about the wonders (i.e. great waterfall ice climbs) of Agawa canyon in the southern part of Lake Superior Provincial park, so I decided to go there to check it out. I finalized my decision in perhaps late November 2006, and started to prepare. Actually, the original plan was to go out in early January, but the trip had to be rescheduled due to unusually warm temperatures (no ice, no snow).
I needed to get some equipment that I did not have at the moment: snow shoes and a winter sleeping bag. Last winter, during an ice-climbing outing, I was also testing my new 4-season tent, so I slept one night in the tent at subzero temperatures (late February), and I used my old light down bag that I normally take for summer/fall trips, and even to the mountains. Despite my attempt to compensate for not enough warmth of the old bag by combining it with some other (synthetic) bag, needless to say, I froze my ass off (Brad R. was with me in the same tent that night, and he can be a witness. After that night we had no other choice other than get obscenely drunk at the lodge). So I decided to avoid the unpleasant experience (of sleeping, not drinking) this time, and prepare seriously. I got the proper bag at REI, and the snowshoes at a local sports shop; both items were on a decent sale. The following is the more-or-less complete list of equipment and supplies that were prepared and taken for the trip.
1. Clothing: For the march: Scarpa Inverno plastic double boots, liner socks + warm socks (polypro/nylon) (2 pairs: 1 for the march, 2nd - spare), storm socks (1 pair), polypro base layers (up and down), polypro underpants, Schoeller water/wind-resistant pants (MEC), wicking T-shirt, polyester thin wicking vest, light down vest, GoreTex shell (The North Face), windproof mid-warm gloves (Columbia), spare windproof gloves (BD Ice Glove), light nylon balaklava (OR), windproof hat (The North Face), gaiters (OR "Crocodiles"). For stopping/camping/sleeping: 700-fill down parka (The North Face), light warm nylon/pile pants, wind-/water-proof mittens (OR).
2. Camping gear: 2-person 4 season free-standing tent (Woods Canada), Superfly propane stove/burner (MSR), 1 small can of isopropane (MSR), 1 small can of propane (Gigapower "SnowPeak"), aluminum 1.5 L cooking pot with lid (lid doubles as deep dish/pan/cup), Lexan spoon, polyurethane sleeping mat, 2 "mirror" emergency blankets (aluminum-coated thin polyethylene; WalMart), down sleeping bag (-20 oC comfort rating, REI), 2 cigarette lighters, matches, LED headlamp (BD "Moonlight").
3. Food: two 1-portion packets of freeze-dried eggs+bacon (MountainHouse), one 2-portion packet of freeze-dried chicken teriyaki pasta (Alpine Foods), 6 chocolate protein bars, 3 Snickers Almond bars, 6 herbal tea bags.
4. Mobility gear: 30-inch snowshoes with quick-set/release bindings (Tubbs Sojourn), trekking poles (Odyssey).
5. Other: backpack (75 L, The North Face "Badlands", 1L Lexan large-mouth water bottle, chapstick, "no-fog" cloth for my glasses, small emergency medical kit, knife (my custom-made "Canadian toothpick", additional prescription sunglasses, maps, magnetic compass, wrist-top computer (watch, alarm, digital compass, altimeter, thermometer; Suunto Vector), orange plastic marking tape (pre-cut and initialed).
Now, there was a question of a partner. I did solo trips before, and although I was fairly comfortable about doing it solo again, having a partner is always great: that means splitting the camp chores (i.e. everything is [typically] faster), having to do only 50% of breaking the trail instead of all of it, relative security of heaving someone nearby, and of course the camaraderie. Unfortunately, when I asked around among those who could potentially join me, I did not find any eager response, and when at one point it seemed that I would have company for the trip, it did not work out due to some objective circumstances (which is totally fine; I understand that, and I did my fair share of bailing myself). Anyway, a couple of days before the set date, it finally seemed that I would be going alone. Being self-sufficient is an important quality in this kind of undertaking, so I did not have any hard feelings about a solo expedition; besides, this was my original plan anyway.
So, in the beginning of the week, my "evil torture chamber" in the basement started to fill with crap (see the list above) (although my wife is of the opinion that it's always full of crap), which then got sorted out and packed in a backpack, plus a small bag of clothing which I would put on just before the go. I had to make a few equipment choices. I was deciding between the monster-heavy but warm (and easier to dry!) Scarpa plastic double boots and significantly lighter leather/synthetic Raichle single boots. Remembering how quickly the Raichle boots got drenched and then refused to dry during the next few days in the Pacific "NorthWet" earlier this year, and taking into account the weather forecast for Ontario, I opted for the heavy but warm/dry boots. I was also considering taking crampons with me, but since I was not going to do any technical ice, and there are no glaciers in LSPP, I decided not to carry the additional 2.5 pounds. Also, I was choosing between the 24-inch MSR Denali Hiker snowshoes, and the less biting (and therefore more prone to skidding) but wider 30-inch long Tubbs snowshoes. I chose Tubbs on the account of forecasted deep snow, although I did expect some hill climbing. All of these choices turned out to be right.
On Wednesday night, everything was packed, so Thursday (02/01/07) after work I only needed to kiss my wife and the kids goodbye and to "shut my mouth and go". The total weight of the pack was 25 pounds -- fairly light.
Pre-start day (Thursday night, 02/01/07).
I left Midland for Ontario at 4:30 pm on Thursday, taking the new Nissan XTerra 4x4 vehicle, a bottle of Ukrainian pepper vodka, and a six-pack of beer for the guys up at the Mad Moose lodge.
Driving up to Sault Sainte Marie was fine, but a bit further north, around Pancake bay area, conditions changed drastically: heavy snow blizzard, near-zero visibility, roads dumped with snow, plow-trucks not being able to clear it up enough. Highway 17 was turned into a one-lane farm road, on which I was creeping at a mere 25 mph at places. Luckily, traffic at Hwy 17 is always low, and that night it was almost none (besides plow trucks, and a few heavy trailers). Having a 4x4 driving machine was a saver.
The Mad Moose.
Finally, I crept into the famous Mad Moose lodge at ~ 11 p.m. The first person I met there was the friendly dog Delta. Then Dale, the seasoned man, crept out of his chambers and told me that Buddy (a huge Alaskan malamute) did not come this weekend. In the kitchen there were Denny and Adam, both looking tired after apparently hard day's work (or was it drinking?). Then another guy swung by (sorry, forgot his name -- I am terrible with names, forget them instantly). I handed Dale a bottle of pepper vodka, mentioning to him that just a day before Russia proudly celebrated the International Day of Vodka (on that day, January 31, 1865, the famous chemist D.I. (D.U.I.?) Mendeleev defended his doctorate thesis "On the Combinations of Water with Alcohol" thus creating the scientific basis for the Russian vodka; not that the Russians did not drink vodka before that though). Dale kindly cooked two eggs and a toast for me, and we had a shot of vodka, which made the eggs marvelously delicious. The other guys refused to drink the vodka -- I still wonder why. With that I told Dale I'd be up for breakfast at 7 a.m., retreated to my room at the lodge, set up the alarm on my cell phone for 6:30 a.m. (or so I thought), and went to bed. So did the other people at the lodge, I think... I planned to be at the trailhead at 8+ a.m.
Plan A: try to drive on Frater Rd as deep into the park and towards the Algoma district railroad (RR) as I could, then start hiking for the RR, follow the RR into Agawa canyon.
Plan B (more interesting, but harder): start at the Awausee trail, cut through the bush to Agawa river at the base of the canyon wall, follow the rived upstream on ice to a point where the Algoma district RR comes reasonably close to the river, climb uphill to the RR, follow the RR into Agawa canyon.
In both cases, the objective was to see and photograph climbable waterfall ice formations and whatever else worth attention I'd see on my way.
The final route is depicted in Figure 1.
Follow this link to Figure 1:
Figure 1. The route. Day 1 (Friday) -- start (Hwy17) to 1st camp in Agawa canyon (by Awausee trail --> off-trail to river --> by river --> uphill to RR --> by RR (from approx. mile 105 to mile 110)); Day 2 (Saturday) -- quick trip further into the canyon (almost to mile 113), then return by RR to 1st camp and further by the river past Agawa falls to 2nd camp; Day 3 (Sunday) -- from 2nd camp back to starting point at Hwy17. RR = Algoma Central railroad. Satellite map by Google.
Day 1 (Friday, 02/02/07).
When I opened my eyes the next morning, it was 7:21 a.m. Darn it!!! I shouldn't have had this vodka last night. Strangely, I did not hear any alarm (it's usually pretty darn loud). But, I though, according to the Surgeon General, alcohol may cause weird things to happen, so I stopped wondering about the alarm. It took me about one and a half minutes to get dressed (which was easy, because I didn't really bother undressing the night before) and I was down in the lobby where Dale was already very much alive and cooking breakfast. He fed me like I was a pig destined for a feast. I was seriously concerned about my ability to move after such a meal. Dale, you are the best, man!
So I needed to get going, because the Sun was already up there in the sky for the whole 20 minutes and it seriously planned to go back down at 5:59 p.m. that night, totally disregarding my ambitious plans.
I left my personal info (phone number (like it would help), trip schedule and route, intended return date/time, description of my car and where I will be parking) to Denny and he assured me that he'd start calling Search-and-Rescue right away.
Getting to the trailhead.
Up to that point I still entertained a faint hope that Frater road would be in some sort of drivable condition, but when I got there (and Denny told me exactly the same thing that morning), I realized that even my 4x4 was not nearly tough enough to handle that much snow on the road. One would need an Abrams tank to have some reasonable chance to plow through that snow. So, quick shift to plan B, which promises to offer far more interesting scenery and physical challenges than the boring Frater Rd and the railroad would ever offer. Five minutes later (at ~8:20 a.m.), I parked my XTerra at the entrance to the Awausee trail. Nearby I noticed a hint of a car -- a Pontiac, I think -- almost completely buried under a pile of snow: long-term parking Canadian style, eh!
I already put on my plastic monster boots, when a man with a strange smile -- a sand truck driver -- rolled in and came over to me. He said that in a couple of minutes a plow truck will be here to clean this "turnaround" spot, and so if I don't want to find myself in a situation similar to that of the other car "parked" nearby, I'd better allow them to plow the spot first, and then park. Really? Well, sure, dude, do what you have to; your argument sounds pretty convincing. The man was trying to be nice though, I think. So I started the car again, and pulled out of the "driveway" to wait for the plow truck (have you ever tried driving in downhill ski boots? -- Good old Scarpa Invernos get pretty close to that). The man was right: a plow truck appeared a couple of minutes later and brilliantly performed a couple of good pushes, clearing the "driveway" and further burying the already hardly visible "Pontiac" on a side of it.
Start. Awausee trail and off-trail.
Finally, at 9:05 am, I made the first steps on the trail. This part of Awausee trail is pretty flat, gently sloping downwards. It looked like an alley from the Snow Queen's park in a fairy tale. Due to cold weather (about -9 oC, 16 oF), the snow was light and crisp, like flour. Nobody else's tracks were visible anywhere. On the snow shoes, I was poking no deeper than a foot. So far so good, and even enjoyable. The sun was bright, there was no wind, and the scenery was great. I forgot about all the petty concerns that I had till this moment. From now on, a different mode of thinking turned on: animal-like action thinking.
In about 40 minutes, I reached the point where the trail curves uphill to the north, and my way lay south-east/east, through the bush and to Agawa river. From that point I started marking my trail with orange plastic ribbons, primarily in only "difficult" places like turning spots etc. The weather forecast predicted a heavy snowfall tonight, and some fresh snow the following day, so there were pretty high chances of not finding my tracks on the way back. That's where the markings would work. The weather quickly changed: the bright sun became dim and scattered, the wind increased, and it started snowing. After some zigzagging through the bush, and fooling around with the map and digital compass, I arrived to Agawa river at ~11:30 a.m.
Up by Agawa river.
The river appeared completely frozen solid in that area. River ice can be deceptive, and I have had unpleasant experiences poking though the ice and into cold water before, one time right before my wife's eyes, who was my girlfriend at the time. So, during the crossing I probed the ice with the trekking poles at every step. Yes, it was really frozen solid. And it should be even better with regard to that because the temperature was supposed to drop even more tonight and in the next few days. That other river bank was better for hiking because the railroad (my intermediate goal) was on that side, plus there was less wind there. As I walked upstream, the canyon became positioned with respect to Lake Superior in such a way that the wind from shore to the lake at that time of the day was directly in my face. I thought: "Hmmm... Agawa, I'd appreciate it if you could turn that wind off." Agawa didn't turn it off completely, but in about half-hour it turned it down to an OK level. "Thank you, Agawa." Today's temperature is quite good for hiking: cold enough to not allow you to sweat like a pig (an important factor, because in the cold your sweat turns to ice immediately when you stop; one's clothing system should be adjusted and operated accordingly to avoid excessive sweating on the go), but not brutally cold like it will become on Sunday. On the left side of me, the big rocky "foreheads" of this prelude to the real Agawa canyon were towering. Some of them looked unwelcome, but still magnificent. According to the map, I should reach about the middle of the third one before turning off from the river and uphill toward the railroad.
Off the river and up the hill.
At about 2 p.m., I decided that it was time to leave the river and go uphill. Besides, the ice in front of me started turning into a mushy mess at some spots, and I didn't like that. The layer of solid ice was still thick enough, so it was safe, but that mushy stuff froze on the snowshoes and brought me discomfort. Anyhow, there was a little creek on the right side, and I went into that little valley and tried to follow it up the hill. The creek was full of fallen trees, so I turned off to the right and climbed the rocky side of the creek valley to get to slightly more gentle slopes. Have you ever tried climbing rock in snowshoes? It goes like this: you step into about a meter (~3 feet) deep snow, and your snowshoe hits the blank rock underneath. With nothing to hold on to, it slides back, with you in it, you fall face down in the deep snow, then an avalanche of powder snow piles on top of you. Fun. I think I employed my full vocabulary of obscenity in both Russian and English, before I finally arrived at the railroad in the vicinity of Mile 105 at 4:05 p.m. The climb was about 500 vertical feet, according to both my altimeter and the map, and it took me about 2 hours of pure S&M. I did put a few markings along the way, because at the time I was still planning to return the same route.
East, then north, along the railroad.
From that moment, I had about 2 hours of light time, so I took the snowshoes off (snow on the RR was packed solid by trains) and rushed east along the railroad, periodically stopping to take photographs. There were some pretty nice-looking climbable ice formations at the right side of the railroad, and rewarding views of Agawa River and the canyon.
I know from textbooks and my own experience that a fit human being walks at a speed of approximately 5 km/hour, but as I measured my time between the "kilometer" marks along the railroad, I wondered, why was that that I was only doing "3 km/hour" ("These have got to be kilometers", I thought. -- "I'm in Canada, right?"). Later it turned out that the railroad markings (as opposed to highway markings) in Canada are in miles, not kilometers. Weird Canadians! -- People, you've got to be consistent with your measuring units!!
Well, it started getting dark rapidly as I ran past the bridge across Little Agawa river, and when I ran under the electric lines and past the point where the railroad and the river sharply turn north, and finally entered Agawa canyon (at ~5:50 p.m.), it got almost totally dark. So, I turned off the railroad up the hill onto a shelf (between the RR and canyon wall), where I decided to pitch my camp.
Temperature dropped noticeably during the past hour, because the cold was now "biting" me. In about 20 minutes (by ~6:20 p.m.), I was in the tent melting water on the propane burner.
Well, typically, it's a good idea to do cooking and boiling water outside the tent (or in the vestibule) to avoid condensation (which then freezes) inside the tent. Yeah. Screw that. It was too cold outside (I think, about -25 oC). By about 8 p.m., I cooked and ate a packet of freeze-dried eggs+bacon, had my tea, and boiled 1 L of water for the night. I tried to call my wife and then Dale at the lodge on the cell phone, but there was no reception. However, as I turned the cell phone on, the alarm sounded! Damn! So that's why I didn't hear the alarm this morning. -- Because there was none; because under the alcoholic spell of the previous night I set the alarm for 6:30 P.M. instead of A.M.! Situation normal... So, with nothing else to do (and it's only 8 o'clock!), I stuck the hot water bottle into my pants and crept into the sleeping bag. With all the warm clothing on me, and the -20 oC-rated bag, with hot water in my pants (contained in a bottle!) it was reasonably warm (I think, reflecting films, between which my sleeping mat was sandwiched, also helped), so I started falling asleep, trying to think of the action plan for tomorrow. Outside, snow began falling heavily.
And then I heard some animal circling around the tent and sniffing it. A coyote? A raccoon? A fox? I said loudly (but lazily): "Boo!", "Shush!" -- The critter stopped sniffing for a few seconds, and then started again. OK, who cares... In about 20 minutes, the animal apparently satisfied its curiosity and left for its warm hole (or at least I would like to think so). I fell asleep.
Day 2 (Saturday, 02/03/07).
Breakfast. Waterfalls near camp 1.
I woke up at 5:30 a.m., then slept a little more. The tent was buried in snow. Since my plan for today was to quickly check out the waterfall ice in the beginning of the canyon (the canyon is big, and I have only a limited time for this trip), and then start the return to the car, I decided to leave the tent and most of the stuff in it, and go as light as possible for the sake of speed. So, after the morning "coffee and a croissant" (i.e., freeze-dried shit and warm water), at 8:30 a.m., I was out of tent ready to run. It turned out that my camp was pitched right at the base of two ice-climbs -- Leisure Creek (40 m, WI2+) and Buena Vista (30 m, WI3) -- which I did not see in the darkness the previous night. So, I waded through deep snow closer to the climbs to take pictures.
North into Agawa canyon. Pain in left knee.
At about 9:00 a.m, I was trudging north along the RR at the bottom of the canyon. I put only my down parka and water bottle in the pack, so it was almost weightless.
It was cold (I think, below -20 oC), but almost windless. Nevertheless, I had to put a down vest and balaclava on, in addition to what I wore yesterday. And move FAST.
That's when I noticed pain in/behind my left knee. Interestingly, there was more pain when I was walking on the hard snow of the railroad (with or without snowshoes), but almost no pain when I tried snowshoeing in soft/deep snow (probably because in the latter case I was keeping the knee bent and transferring body weight forward most of the time). The pain did not appear instantly/acutely as a result of an awkward move or a fall, but rather developed slowly. I probably sprained a muscle during my 2-hour hill climb yesterday. Anyhow, this peculiarity determined the choice of the return route: I decided to return along the river, instead of going back on the RR (i.e. backtracking my initial route).
In the canyon, I also recognized such ice-climbs as Skukum (90 m, WI3), Kate'n'Annie (80 m, WI3), the Victory Daze (130 m, WI3) -- Pins & Needles (200 m, WI+) -- Salmon Run (200 m, WI2+) group of climbs, and The Trestle (100 m, WI3). According to Shaun Parent's ice-climbing map, there was a lot more climbs in the area where I was, but I just didn’t have time to carefully search out these climbs, looking only at the most obvious ones. About half a mile beyond the Trestle bridge I turned around (at ~10:15 a.m. at mile 112+) and ran back south to camp. Initially, when I was planning the trip, I thought I could deviate right (north-east) from the railroad and see such ice routes as Sweating Whiskey and a bunch of other interesting climbs. But on that Saturday morning, I neither had time, nor energy to do that. Deviating from the railroad would require breaking a trail uphill in the deep snow, and I would lose tons of time doing so. So I quickly rejected that plan.
Back to Camp 1 and pack.
I returned to camp, disassembled it as quick as I could, and packed. While I was taking down the tent and packing, I started the propane burner to warm up the water, which already started turning to ice in my bottle. And that turned out to be useful for yet another purpose: the tent poles froze up at some junctions, so it was convenient warming them up on the burner flame in order to disassemble and pack the poles. At the same time I noticed that the propane in this can started running out (flame intensity was low no matter how wide the valve was open). But that was OK. I had another fresh propane can, albeit smaller than this one.
Start heading back south and west.
I started walking back south/ west at 11:10 a.m., and easily descended from the RR to Agawa river, which took me only a few minutes. My left knee was doing OK in the deep snow on the river, so I got the required marching rhythm and breathing to keep warm and stable. I turned on the "autopilot" and as usual started thinking about Life, the Universe and Everything. I tried to estimate how long it would take me to get back to the car. Could I do it by tonight? Hmmm... Maybe. Let's see: it took me 2 hours by the RR to the site where I finished climbing the hill yesterday, then 2 hours from where I started walking on the river to the start of yesterday's hill climb... that's 4 hours... plus the time to go down that hill, say, half-hour... plus the easy walk from the river to Awausee trail and to the car (that should be 1-1.5 hours... So the total comes to about 6 hours... Because for the first 5 miles I am not going on the road, but breaking trail in the snow instead, I should probably add another 2 hours... it's a bit past 11 a.m. now, so I should be back to my tracks and the marked trail by 6 p.m. when it becomes dark, and then I could easily go in the darkness with the headlamp on following my tracks and the marked trail. Hey! That sounds quite encouraging. Life appeared in a very bright light, and I started already feeling the warmth of the lodge, taste of Dale's cuisine and beer; I imagined how I would hit the whiskey with my ice-climbing buddies at the lodge.
Long hike down the river. River rapids and Agawa Falls.
After the first couple of hours, I realized that after last night's snowfall, moving through fresh deep snow became noticeably slower than it was the day before. And then I entered frozen river rapids, which dramatically slowed me down. But it already did not make any sense to go back to the railroad route, so I continued down the river wondering if I could at least meet my own snowshoe tracks from yesterday by the fall of darkness. I will say it here right away: Saturday was perhaps the best day of the trip, despite the long trudge down the river, slowness, cold, and some pain in the left knee. The views and experience of the frozen river rapids culminating with largely frozen beautiful Agawa falls were exceptionally rewarding.
Going through the rapids was pretty much like going through a field of crevasses on a glacier. Well, easier than that, but still pretty interesting. I had to probe the ice with my trekking poles for thin sections and holes covered with snow. In this situation weather was on my side: temperature was dropping, making the ice more stable. Also, because my body+pack weight (~180 lb total) was distributed by snowshoes over a relatively large area at any given moment, moving through these "crevasses" was quite easy, albeit slow. I did poke through small sections of thin ice a couple of times (where there were pockets of air), but on both occasions only a small part of a snowshoe went in the hole, and I never lost my balance. The snow and ice bridges were pretty solid and stable. It was actually a lot of fun. The views of the steep rocky river banks in this section of Agawa river brought joy to my eyes.
The rapids culminated with Agawa falls. At first, only a cloud of mist was visible in the distance (all sound was well absorbed by snow and ice in the area). Then I saw trees all covered with ice and snow (more than in the other surrounding areas). Then I realized that this was Agawa falls (its nominal height is 85 ft (25 m), according to the map). In the cold of the winter, it was acting basically like a giant snow-making machine. I came to the very edge of the drop and looked down: what a fantastic view!!! I spat into the abyss, and my spit instantly froze in the air.
Well, I had to go around this beauty. Even if I had a rope to rappel, I wouldn't do it: ice below looked pretty treacherous and freezing water mist was everywhere, so one would probably turn into an icicle before reaching the bottom.
I had to go around it. I climbed ~3-4 m (9-12 ft) of snow-covered granite on the left of me, extensively using young live trees for "holds", and that took me to what is in the summer known as Towab trail. In the winter, there was waist-deep snow there. I had to follow the trail for at least a mile before the steep river bank became low and gentle enough to allow me to get back on the river ice. When I finally got on the river ice, it was 4 p.m., and there was still a substantial distance left to the place where I was supposed to meet my yesterday's tracks. The last hopes of arriving to the lodge tonight were shattered. No Dale's food tonight, no beer, no whiskey. Just the cold solitude of Agawa. Well, I though, I was originally planning for the second night outdoors, so accepting the reality was not hard.
Agawa river below the falls. Searching for a camp site.
In many places in this section of the river, there were still air pockets in the ice, and they were of course covered with snow. So I had to proceed with caution again, probing the way with the trekking poles. After a while, as I moved further away from the falls/rapids, the ice got stable and boring again.
At 5:30 p.m. the darkness started to arrive, but I still had not reached my yesterday's tracks. In this situation I'd better stop and camp overnight. Hiking in the unknown section of the river in the darkness and increasing cold of the night could be dangerous. I looked around and chose an area on a big river island for my second camp. Right above my head, across this branch of Agawa River, a huge granite cliff was towering (it looked like 400-500 feet tall at least). I thought that it would be cool to climb that big chunk of granite in the summer: it looked like there were multiple 5.8 to 5.11 lines with cracks and roofs there. Of course, it's the park territory, and climbing here is not welcome by the park authorities, unfortunately (I still don't understand why they are so against it).
Temperature was dropping rapidly too, and I now needed to move my ass quickly to set up camp.
The island's low bank on the left of me offered a good flat platform for a tent, so I went there, stomped on the snow with the snowshoes to pack the platform, and took my backpack off. Here comes a funny story.
A comical situation with the cooking pot.
In about the middle of this branch of the river, there was a stream of open water, and the ice near it appeared pretty solid. So, I decided to play it smart and save time and fuel by getting water directly from the river. The benefit seemed obvious: you don't have to burn a lot of gas to melt the snow, and then burn some more gas to boil the resulting water, and thus you not only save time and fuel, but also avoid a great deal of condensation in the tent (since I wasn't willing to do cooking outside due to cold).
Quickly said -- quickly done. I immediately took my cooking pot out and came close to the open water (on snowshoes, for stability). Without too much thought I attached the pot between the snow-baskets of my trekking poles (you can "click" one pole into a notch in the snow basket of the other pole, thereby creating a relatively stable connection), and dipped the pot into the water.
Guess why the river water did not freeze there during the at least two-three weeks of -15 to -25 oC temperatures? Right! – Because the stream is pretty darn fast there. Duh!!! The fast water pulled on the pot, instantly breaking my "secure" connection to the construction of the two trekking poles. The last thing I'd heard from my pot was a sad "blump!" as it went under the ice in a fraction of a second. I will probably see it again only in heaven after I die.
It must have looked pretty comical. I stood there with a moronic smile on my face, thinking: "OK... Now what?" Indeed, I've got to boil water for the night and the next morning. I have to cook, otherwise my experience at these subzero temperatures would be pretty far from fun, and even far from OK. My first impulse was to go back to my pack and try to get water from the river again using the remaining lid (it's about 1.5-inch deep and can hold about 250 mL of water, when full). But then I said to myself: "Hold on, man! You already showed how "smart" you are. Do it the normal way, otherwise the next thing that'll go under the ice will be YOU." OK. So I proved again the old thesis "The Better is the worst enemy of the Good". I thought of saving maybe 15 minutes of cooking time and some fuel, and now not only I had not done that, but I was now also faced with a lot more hassle than before. All of that happened in just a coupe of minutes.
Humble, I went back to my pack, and set up the camp (~5:50 p.m.). When I crawled into the tent, the darkness hid everything outside from view.
By that time, the snow that I packed at the campsite froze into cement, which was actually convenient: I cut chunks of the hard-pressed snow with the knife from right under the tent vestibule and put them in the lid (the only thing left over from my cooking kit) to melt. I had to melt/ boil water three times to more-or-less fill the water bottle with hot water for the night. While doing so, I generated a fair amount of condensation despite my attempts to ventilate the tent. I also tried to cover that lid that I was using instead of the pot with a plastic pouch left over from last night's dinner, but that didn't work particularly well. The tent was like a steam room for some time. Then small icicles formed on the tent walls. I decided to not cook any hot dinner tonight to avoid even more of that steam-room effect. Instead, I just ate a Snickers bar that I was supposed to eat on the go but didn't, and washed it down with some hot water. That was good enough. I wasn't particularly hungry. Going out to pee was quite a feat, because temperature outside dropped to about -35 oC (-31 oF) by now.
Then I used up all of the remaining propane in the first can and some off the second can to heat up the tent (it got cold after I ventilated it and after going out to pee), warm up myself, and dry my inner boots and socks. Life was good again, and I went to bed taking the hot water bottle inside the sleeping bag to keep me warm. It was not possible to stick my head or even just the nose out of the bag because of the brutal biting cold. I had to close up the upper part of the bag leaving only a narrow tiny cleft for the air to get in. Again, the reflecting films did their job well: no cold was troubling me from below. No animals showed up that night, perhaps because they were all busy keeping warm too.
Day 3 (Sunday, 02/04/07).
Awakening. Preparation for an early start.
I woke up at 5:30 a.m. and stuck my head out of the bag. The silence was deafening. I turned the light on, and defrosted lenses on my glasses. The shell of the bag near my head got crusty because of the frozen condensation that I generated breathing during the night. I got out of the bag and started the propane burner to warm up the tent. Then I warmed up my water from the bottle and drank some to get the heat inside me. Then I melted a lid-full (~250 mL) more water to top off the water bottle and cook. I noticed now that the propane in the second (i.e. the last) can started running out, and I still needed to keep warm till 8 a.m. So, I did not boil the water but instead "cooked" my chicken teriyaki pasta in lukewarm water. It didn't really cook to what it was normally supposed to be, and it tasted like Styrofoam, but I didn’t care. I ate it half-raw because I really needed these calories.
I decided to start marching exactly with the sunrise (i.e. at 8:00 a.m.) in order to try and get to the lodge on time (i.e. by noon). So, at about 7:20 a.m., I re-arranged clothing on me for the go, still leaving the big down parka on for warmth, packed everything inside the tent (sleeping mat and bag, remaining food and garbage, cooking supplies, and other remaining crap) in the pack. Still burning the remaining propane, I waited for the sunrise. Because the gloves that I wore the previous two days got wet from sweat and snow and then froze (and didn't provide any warmth anymore), I pulled out another "fresh" pair (BD Ice gloves). The sun started coming out at 7:55 a.m., and so I turned the burner off and rushed out of the tent with my half-packed backpack.
Taking down tent in brutal cold. Start marching.
Now I tried to do everything as quickly as I could for two reasons: 1) I needed to get to the lodge by noon, and 2) you keep warmer when you move. The tent poles froze up at junctions again, so I started the propane stove again to thaw the junctions like I did yesterday. But, alas, at that moment the last of the propane ran out. Well, then I reached for the cigarette lighter, but there were no gas there too. Where is the second lighter? Darn it! I couldn't find it. After a few seconds of desperately trying to find it, I gave up on it and pulled out matches from the emergency kit. Matches were much less convenient than the lighter would have been: any slight wind extinguished them. The cold was bitter: when I was handling the tent poles with my bare hands (I had to do that barehanded for dexterity) the spots on my fingers and hands touching the metal of the poles were instantly becoming white and produced burning feeling. Somehow, using plenty of f-words and other obscenity in both Russian and English, I managed to thaw out the tent pole junctions and pack the tent inside my pack. My glasses also froze again because of the condensing and freezing breath, end even the "no-fog" cloth had been of limited use.
At 8:05 a.m. I was on my snowshoes with the pack on ready to go. Now I noticed that one of the trekking poles was about 10 inches shorter than the other one. How the heck did that happen? These poles are expandable; they have two expanding junctions: in the middle and lower sections. Apparently, somehow one lower junction got loose last night (it's still a mystery to me: how could it happen?) and now it was hopelessly frozen, probably because some water got in it when I was fooling around with and drowned my cooking pot last night. Well, I really had neither time, nor desire to deal with this now, so I just said "F#$&!!!" really loud (the echo cheerfully repeated my call), and went on.
Going down the river. Meeting my old tracks.
After 10 minutes of hiking, I warmed up, although bitter face wind was not adding any pleasure to the experience. Within the next 15 minutes I finally reached the spot where I went off the river and up the hill on Friday. And even my two-day-old tracks were still well visible in the snow. Relief !!! Now if everything goes well, it should be two-three additional hours to the marked trail leading to Awausee trail, plus perhaps another hour to the car. I am doing pretty well!
I thought about the reality of any search-and-rescue operation in this remote place. In the North Cascades, for example, Search-and-Rescue would be out looking for you pretty much immediately after the due date and time. There are a lot more climbers and outdoor enthusiasts there, so Search-and-Rescue is never bored and is always on the alert. But here...? I did not even register anywhere. Guys at the lodge would have to call an office in Sault Sainte Marie and god knows when anyone would arrive here to look out for me, should anything bad happen. Maybe only in the spring... Or am I wrong on this one? Anyhow, I should not be concerned: everything works out quite fine: I am not lost, full of energy, and only a few hours away from the car.
At some places on the river the wind was quite strong and my old tracks were no longer visible. It didn't matter much now: there was nowhere to get lost; I just needed to start looking for my orange plastic marks in an hour-and-a-half or so.
Back to the car.
I saw those marks at about 10:30 a.m., took them off, and turned off the river into the bush. My old tracks were preserved much better in the bush, naturally, because of less wind there. Because of less wind, and because it warmed up slightly by now, walking further was much easier. No route finding was required now: just follow the tracks. At 11:10 a.m. I arrived to Awausee trail. By 12:00 noon sharp (!) I was at the car. That was it. I was done, and I was safe. There was a great feeling of accomplishment. This feeling is worth a lot.
The partially buried car on the side of the parking was now totally buried. One wouldn't even know there was something under that pile of snow.
I started the car, and while it was warming up, took off the pack and snowshoes off me, threw everything in the car and drove back to the lodge. I didn't bother taking the monster Scarpa boots off: it was only a short drive, and I wanted to report back to the lodge ASAP. Besides, in the three days in these boots, they felt quite natural now.
Back to the lodge.
At 12:30 p.m. I was at the lodge, where I met Dale, Denny, and Adam. I showed them the photographs that I took, told them in brief about the experience, and sucked up a bottle of beer (which felt sooooo good!).
Chris Shores and the ice-climbing gang were packing their stuff and getting ready lo leave, so I could catch up with them too. From their tales it sounded like they had a blast climbing this weekend, and even climbed some really cool vertical stuff right across the road in Montreal river gorge (I looked at their photos later: it was really cool stuff).
God, the fact that I cannot ice-climb this season sucks really badly. I really envy those guys. But no worries, I'll emerge from the injured state and be back in the saddle next season. Patience, patience... I am working on it now. And I will not give up. Never ever.
Delta (the dog) was out, and she was obviously freezing: she was periodically pulling her paws off the snow one by one in an attempt to warm them up. She finally decided to go back to the lodge. I agreed with her and went back to the lodge too to get another beer and warm up a bit. Chris and the gang drove off. I paid Dale for the lodging and breakfast, wished him well, finally changed my boots, and drove back south too (~2 p.m.).
Driving back to Michigan.
Highway 17 was in relatively decent condition (meaning no deep snow), but I still drove in 4x4 mode. Actually I had to drive in 4x4 mode all the way to Clare, MI, and even quite a bit south of Clare, for the highways were snowy and icy in all of Ontario and northern Michigan. I saw quite a few cars in the ditch that day. Otherwise the drive was uneventful. I was back home by ~ 8 p.m.
The area behind my left knee swell a little, and I was limping, but it didn't spoil the good mood. Seeing my wife and kids again was a great, great pleasure. Everyone was happy, safe and sound.
Key observations:1. Equipment not used: OR mittens, but they easily could have been necessary. Everything else WAS necessary. There was just barely enough fuel, and a little more food than I really needed.
2. Despite the global warming, Ontario winters are still fu... brutally cold. (I do believe that global warming is a reality; e.g. the arrival of winter this year was unusually late)
3. Although heavy, plastic double boots rule in the cold winter weather.
4. Some people have already asked me if I saw any wildlife during the trip. Well, typically the wildlife (esp. in winter) minds its own business and avoids queer creatures such as humans. So, with the exception of a couple of fat wild chickens and the sand truck driver at Hwy-17, I did not see any animals. Well, there was also that sniffing animal the first night, but I didn’t really see it. I did see a couple of moose tracks, and a coupe of fox tracks. That was it. . Later addition: when we repeated the hike to Agawa falls (all the way up Agawa river that time) with Peter Margl in March, we did see a family of moose (mom, dad, and two little ones); they were hanging in the area of where Towab trail makes a ~90o turn towards Agawa river (when going from Frater road). It was amazing to see how easily those large animals were moving across the bush and in deep snow.
5. To those who are concerned about too much body fat and are dieting unsuccessfully, the following diet program should work. Eat 200 g (>0.5 lb) of some crap like freeze-dried chicken in the morning (it has to taste bad, otherwise you'll eat too much), hike 20-30 km with a pack (preferably in deep snow), or climb, eat a couple of energy bars in the process but no more than that, don't overeat at night. Do this often. It works.
When outdoors, practice "leave no trace" (LNT) ethics.
1. Link to the photographs: http://public.fotki.com/ASK1/2007-february-solo-/
2. The Mad Moose Lodge: http://www.themadmoose.com
3. Lake Superior Provincial Park: http://www.lakesuperiorpark.ca/
4. Agawa Canyon Ice Climbing Map by Shaun Parent, 2005, Granite Publishing.
P.S. We (with Peter Margl) repeated part of this route in March 2007 (to Agawa falls and back by Towab "trail"; in 2 days), when it was much warmer and in a way more enjoyable. See photo-report of that trip here: http://public.fotki.com/ASK1/2007-march-2-4-trip/
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