This trip was to facilitate some testing and fun with some new gear a bunch of us had acquired over the winter months. Our friend and most-excellent knifemaker Aaron Gough was even bringing along a few of his Resolute knives for us to bash around camp.
You can study the forecast from the comfort of your home. You can talk to friends and family in the area you’ll be visiting/camping in. You can even anticipate the weather to some degree. But until you get out there, you really have no idea. Hope for the best, plan for the worst… or something like that.
I departed Kitchener around 6:30am on Saturday, March 19. I arrived at Serkan’s in downtown Toronto at 08:00hrs. and soon after was greeted by the smiling faces of Aaron and Serkan’s friend Murat. After we packed up, it was off to the races (ie; Hwy. 400/11). On our way North towards Arrowhead Provincial Park and the Crown Land located above the Park, we witnessed more and more snow cover on the ground the farther we drove into the Muskokas. By Huntsville, we were sure there was at least one- to two feet of snow on the ground. This would make for an interesting hike in – or so we thought.
Because of the previous days’ rain and subsequent flash-freezes, the snow was hard-pack, and we were pleasantly surprised that we had little trouble navigating the trail with our winter hiking boots. In fact, friends of ours had just visited the area the week previous, so we managed to walk in their (snowshoe) footsteps for most of the way in.
We discovered that Tierney and Andy had ventured up a steep incline to (presumably) poke around in the woods off the beaten path, so we took a few minutes to poke some good fun at their navigational skills and move right along ourselves… (We know you guys are good with navigation and you were just curious about that “No Trespassing” sign, right?)
We arrived at our camp around 12:00pm to be greeted once again by signs of our friends’ prior inhabitance, and they were kind enough to leave a heaping pile of spruce and pine boughs as well as some nice long, stripped wood lengths for us to use for our own shelters. We also noted the distinct outline of their newly acquired hot tent. Thanks for the materials friends! We made quick work of distributing the boughs underneath our tent tarps to raise us off the snow and cold and provide a little bit of loft between us and the convection of body heat to the frozen ground. Unpacked our sleeping systems and allowed the bags and sleeping pads to loft-up for the rest of the afternoon.
On to firecraft and wood processing!
We knew we’d need a stockpile of wood to see us through the cold night, so we set about collecting and processing dead-standing trunks and branches from the area. We were actually quite efficient at this, and the four of us had a system in place in no time at all. Serkan and Murat took to chopping and transporting back to camp the large trunks and pieces, while Aaron got to work on sawing the larger lengths into smaller, more manageable rounds that could be batonned with a knife or split with the axe. I made myself busy with constructing a fire reflector that would serve as a wall to bounce heat back from the fire towards us and our tents during the evening, also allowing us to dry out any wet or semi-frozen wood.
Once we had a sizeable pile of birchbark (which we had collected during our hike in), starter twigs, kindling, split wood and rounds, I laid down some larger pieces a foot or so away from the fire reflector and used one of Aaron’s knives to light the fire by firesteel. Really enjoyed using the GobSpark Armageddon firesteel I purchased from Firesteel.com – utilizing the sharp edge of Aaron’s Resolute knife, it threw a large bundle of sparks at the birch bark igniting the pile of tinder almost immediately. Impressed by both tools!
Serkan was amped to try out his new Cold Steel Trail Hawk. He wasn’t exactly pleased with the poorly made sheath, but, I digress.
After a bit of trial-and-error using the Trail Hawk to split larger rounds, we decided the ‘hawk needed a bit of TLC (it wasn’t very sharp out of the box), so we gave it a bit of attention with the Worksharp 2.0 sharpening system, and we found it performed better. We relegated the Trail Hawk to splitting smaller pieces of wood and trimming branches from trunks, but to be fair to the ‘hawk, this was mostly due to a much larger issue we became aware of much later in the day – the wood we were attempting to process and burn was frozen solid/impregnated with ice. The Trail Hawk is definitely a great tool – especially because you can replace the handle in-field if necessary, but the one thing it was missing for heavier-duty camp tasks, was weight in the head. We noticed a great difference in splitting action and efficiency when compared side-by-side to the Gransfors Bruk Scandinavian Forest Axe. The weight/heft that the Trail Hawk was lacking was very evident. But overall, a great tool and I suspect once profiled with a proper edge, Serkan will be even more impressed with it during Spring and Summer trips when the wood is seasoned.
Aaron demonstrated the versatility and beefiness of his new Resolute knife – A2 tool steel and tough as nails. As I recall, we pretty much used his knives in every stage of wood processing. From the largest of wood rounds to the stripping of small twigs and branches… it performed like a champ. After it was all over, the edge was still hair-popping sharp. Aaron was quick to demonstrate this on his arm. Do yourself a favour and pick up one of these amazing knives!
As the afternoon sun peaked (around 15:00hrs.), we decided it was time for a brief hike to explore the area around camp. Murat and Aaron hadn’t been properly introduced to the area. We let the fire die down, and set out on the trail that continued on from basecamp into the Park interior before breaking on a logging road, which led to hundreds of acres of Crown Land. We walked around the Northern tip of Arrowhead Provincial Park, and through the bush to the logging road. The group travelled along the logging road for a few km’s and ended-up at a bridge that we had seen mid-construction last September (2015). The road was under oppression by a heavy torrent, and the overflowing banks of the river that run underneath the junction bridge were impassable. We goofed around a while at the end of the road, filmed a bit, then decided to head back to camp and grab some grub.
The fire needed to be re-lit, and some of us set about snacking. Serkan discovered an exciting new way to prepare a frozen Chocolate Chip Clif Bar – it’s ruined us for good. Simply remove the Clif Bar from the packaging, toss in an Ikea fry pan and heat over the fire for a few minutes each side. Melty, ooey-gooey warm goodness. Nothing quite like it. Even better – add the spritz of an orange slice and you’re in heaven. Terry’s chocolate orange ain’t got nothin’ on this.
Serkan reported to all that he’d seen (via his weather app), that the temperature was expected to dip down to -13 degrees celsius. (We would later discover this was a conservative estimate). Since none of us brought sleeping bags rated for colder than -10 degrees celsius, we knew there was a chance we’d have to tap out at some point during the night. We all agreed that if even one of us was uncomfortable during the night, we’d leave at a moment’s notice. After all, trips like these are about enjoying yourself – not trying to prove your mettle.
We gathered a bit more firewood and made dinner.
While the gents ate their Alpine freeze-dried packets, I made the guys a tad jealous with a nice Striploin steak, and a Yukon Gold potato that I’d prepared at home with minced garlic, butter, salt and seasoning wrapped in tinfoil. Just toss it in the fire and you’re good in about 30 minutes! (Or so I thought). Because the fire wasn’t near hot enough, the potato was undercooked (even after 35+ minutes), and the steak was lack-lustre. It was most definitely missing that nicely seared fat cap and flavour from properly seasoned wood smoke.
Because of the previous weeks’ rain and flash-freezing at night, all of the wood we had spent hours harvesting and carefully stockpiling for the evening was beginning to show it’s true colours. It just wouldn’t burn. We went through stages where the fire would begin to catch, then suddenly die off without warning. We would strip the firepit of all the large pieces, reformat with a pile of twigs and small branches, it would catch, flare up, we’d add the larger pieces gradually, then just when we thought we were in the clear, out it would go again.
This went on for hours and hours.
By 21:00hrs. we were becoming quite worried. Our small tinder/kindling pile was dwindling, and the only dry wood we had access to, belonged to our fire reflector, which had taken all afternoon to dry out. Our conundrum was that if we gave-in and used the wood from the fire reflector, we would surely suffer a colder evening. However, it was a means to and end. Just as we were discussing solutions, the whole wall caught fire, and we decided to let half of the wood burn. It was an easy decision, as the warmth from that reflector wood was infinitely toastier than what we’d become accustomed to. We ended-up removing a few logs to use the next morning, and burned whatever would light until approx. 22:30hrs. when we turned in.
We did have some drunken fun with a green laser than Murat had smuggled in, and I have to say; I’m not much of a Whiskey fan, but I was pleasantly surprised with Canadian Club’s recent effort – the Classic 12 Year Old Whiskey.
Stepping away from that fire was a very difficult thing to do. The night cold furiously crept in on us.
We were greeted to a chilly -15 degrees celsius the next morning, but we had survived the night despite the setbacks of the day prior. I was surprised at how well my sleep system had fared. I did have to pull my Uplink hoodie hood over my head and snug my face under the sleeping bag during the coldest hours of the morning; between 05:00hrs. and 06:00hrs.
Here’s what I used to keep warm:
For breakfast I had brought some portioned ziplock bags of my bannock recipe, and had planned to cook some to accompany some slabs of double-smoked bacon. Alas, a protein bar would be my meal for the morning as we hurriedly packed up camp. Serkan, the accomplished camp chef that he is, concocted a Babybel, pepperette and toast open-faced sandwich that definitely suited our environment, and made us all drool just a li’l.
We cleaned up basecamp, removed all of the boughs from under the tents and neatly piled them below a jack pine. We gathered any wood we hadn’t used and stacked it neatly for the next trekkers that stumble onto the camp, and we were off.
On the way back to the truck, we couldn’t help but marvel at what a gorgeous day it was turning out to be… it was already 3 degrees celsius by 11:00am, and we were tempted to park ourselves along the trail and enjoy a hot tea, but civilization was calling.
Overnights are good education. Sometimes best-laid plans require quick adaptation and I’ve learned that you can’t always count on what you think you know once you get out into the backcountry. You need to be situationally aware, resourceful and nimble to make the most of what you’re given.
We may think we’re exempt from mother nature’s rules, but trust that she never fails to surprise and teach us humility.