Crossing Algonquin 2018

This past February, Eric Batty, Ryan Atkins and I took off on a 10 day crossing of Algonquin Provincial Park from Shawandasee Lake to Deux Rivieres.  I had originally planned it as a 15 to 20 day solo trip covering 165 km but on the advice of my wife, I scrapped the solo travel plan and was happy to have Eric and Ryan as travel companions.  More guys to share the load, break trail, and much safer while crossing dozens of kilometers of ice in an era of warmer climates.

As luck would have it, this area of Ontario had a thaw in mid January followed by a few days of rain before winter shook itself right again and we returned to temperatures well below freezing.  This took much of the deep powder we had and made it hard and even froze a good crust over the lake slush.  I was still confident we would be looking at a 12-14 day crossing.  I planned on traveling 10 km a day pulling a freight toboggan full of supplies each and a pack on our backs.  I knew that was something I could handle in most conditions without destroying my body and feeling like a trainwreck at the end of the day.  Eric and Ryan, both competitive adventure athletes, would hear nothing of it, they were used to fast travel and we ended up doing between 12-17 km a day.

On a trip like this, our day to day grind was interesting to study.  We had three different styles of camping and much of that could be seen in our gear.  I come from a more traditional style of summer and winter travel.  My father was a trapper and I grew up hunting and fishing in Northern Ontario.  I wear wool, lots of it too. Pants, base layers, socks; thick sweaters as my ‘coat’, a homemade 12 oz canvas Anorak for the wind and a homemade beaver hat and seal hide mitts.  I brought a -40 sleeping bag; cold has no place in my life when sleeping.  Eric brought a mid-weight, high-end down jacket with a one piece hood for the cold and a few layers of synthetic softshell coats and pants and a -30 sleeping bag with a windstopper shell.  Being our photographer on the trip, was constantly skiing ahead and falling behind to unpack his camera gear, take a few shots, repack it all and catch up again.  The steady back and forth all day kept him in a sweat longer than Ryan and I.   Now Ryan on the other hand, is a horse of a different colour.  I’ve never traveled in the bush with an ultralight packer before.  He brought a superlight -18 down bag sleeping bag (with an opening on each end!), one change of clothes, one cup that doubled as his bowl (he takes oatmeal in his coffee), one thin down coat for around camp and that’s about it.  His only clothing luxury was a muskrat hat.  By day six he was sleeping with most of his clothes on as condensation in his bag was inside and out.  He never complained though and thought nothing of it.  Eric and I felt lavish with our warmer, bulkier bags. The boys both had to wait every night for the precious real estate to open at the top of the tent where we had our clothes line for all of my wool to dry before hanging up their light technical gear.  We slept in a Seek Outside tipi tent heated by an XL titanium stove and hauled all our gear on 10’ long Whisky Jack Outdoor Co. Freight Toboggans.

When it comes to route choices, the more options you have, the more ideas you get.  We didn’t firmly stick to one route, we picked a direction and changed it as we needed to stay on good ice.  We’re all friends first and we know that teamwork, remaining a cohesive unit and having fun while traveling through such a beautiful piece of Canada is more important than squabbling over small indifferences.  Every teammate brings a different set of skills, new ideas, experiences and even a sense of humour.  It’s these differences that made the days pass with great conversations and tales of travel.  We put one foot in front of the other, thousands of times, talking about differences in tripping styles, alpine climbing, vehicle choices, the effects of Giardia, shooting with film and even ex-girlfriends.  The tent and stove were set up and torn down 18 times, we hammered 8” galvanized nails into the ice to peg out the tent 180 times (how’s the fingers Ryan!?) and we collected, cut and split hundreds and hundreds of pounds of firewood.  Every moment before bed there was something to do, get this, move that, light this, clean that.

The trip was a huge success.  We crossed Algonquin in only 51 hours of travel.  We learned so much about each other, ourselves and our gear.  Looking back at the trip, there’s almost nothing I’d change.  I loved the route, I loved our gear choices and my two partners were fantastic.  When I’m an old man, I might look back at this trip as possibly my greatest outdoor achievement; but therein lies the problem. When you hang out in the company of Eric and Ryan while crossing Algonquin Park in the winter, inspiration and feeling like I can walk on my hands to the North Pole comes easily.  The boys kicked up some big dreams in me and I’m already planning our next winter excursion for February 2019. Who knows, maybe we’ll cross Algonquin again on the longer, west-east route?  One thing’s for sure, the adventure has just begun.

Buck Miller

Photos: Eric Batty