Fri Feb. 20 (day 12)

  It’s a 6am rising….I don’t hear Neil’s wrist watch but I do sense people rustling around and move to get going. With some relief, it’s a cold breakfast of musli with side dish of bacon. The weather continues to be mild, -5C and the wind is starting to blow, shaking the trees. It’s to be a long day of portaging, we start with a 1320m going into Little Mink Lake…with the heavy wet snow, the trail is packed before we attempt to haul the komatiks across. My leather mukluks are quickly soaked but the gortex socks keep my feet dry inside and I’m comfortable.

To reduce the back and forth of tracking without a load, we make a long train of sleds, each person being in traces as well as grabbing the tail rope of the sled ahead. It’s quite a dance, this coordination of movement between six komatiks and seven people. The system crashes as we encounter a series of log boardwalks, likely wet spots in the summer time. Unless the sleds are exactly lined up in the center, they tip over into the snow. A lot of time is spent righting them back on the trails.

We lunch deep inside the forest just before Little Mink Lake. A small creek is open and water is flowing, easy to scoop up for lunch tea. Birch trees with peeling bark surround us and catch errant flakes of snow. At lunch, I’m finally glad for the fire and it’s heat to dry out damp mitts. I’m not keen on the beef tongue sandwiches and notice the others are not keen to dig in either. Big fat flakes of wet snow start to fall, soaking any thing which has been dried.

There is a big wet spot in the middle of Little Mink where the river flows in and then exits under a raised train bridge. We make a big detour, keeping to the side but the ice surface bows and bends almost like walking on a cloud. I cross as fast as possible into the arms of a welcoming forest.

This train line feels long abandoned with steel rails removed, small trees sprouting from the ditch. The foundation roadbed remains and is a convenient elevated platform slicing through the forest. As well, skidoos have packed a solid trail which helps the komatiks glide. The first 20 minutes of pulling are a joy within the sheltered slopes.

Then we come to a high trestle…thankfully this remnant still stands as it is the only way across the rushing waters of Little Mink Creek, which are flowing hard into Kiosk Lake. We need to cross this while pulling the komatiks. The square cut ties are spaced about 10” apart and seem to be in good repair. There is no chance the sled will fall though and with snowshoes on, I couldn’t slip between either. However, I’m still nervous. Happily, some one takes my sled, I only have to focus on crossing. The sight of  turbulent dark water 30’ below is mesmerizing and I have to concentrate hard, willing vertigo to stay away. Once on the other side, I inhale deeply and wait for my nerves to steady.

For a short while, we resume pulling again on solid ground. Huge Kioshkokwi Lake appears to the left and right of us, bisected by another trestle. However the lake is frozen and better still, we are not crossing the trestle but slide down the embankment to the snow covered shoreline.

Conditions are much different on this vast open expanse. It’s mild but snow is being whipped by winds, plastering onto all surfaces. Visibility is limited, curtains of snow occasionally parting for a view of the far shore. We search for a while, finding it difficult to locate a suitable camp site.

A sheltered bay offers wind protection, good wood for tent poles and some maple or hardwood suitable for the woodstove. For a change, I borrow the camp axe and strip the branches off the tent pole trees which are used to brush the floor. This site is mostly balsam and fir instead of the usual spruce but to me it makes little difference as the softness, insulating factor and smells are similar. Enough branches are hauled back to camp to brush the entire floor. It’s going to be a very comfortable last night.

Tucked inside, we are all enjoying the warmth and drying out soggy clothes when the tent suddenly lurches downward. The stove pipe is thrown out of alignment and seems very low in relation to the tent walls. Heavy wet snow is pushing down the huge tarp in spite efforts to rig it tight. Neil suggests a ‘prop pole’ be used to support the sagging ridge pole. A suitable log is cut, jammed under the ridge pole inside the tent, and supported by a wood platform to prevent any sinking down, it works fine.

The last dinner is mine, it is chili of somewhat under estimated quantity. Luckily, Bob has some spare pasta  which I add to bulk up the meal. With some fry pan bannock and  fruit crisp, that’s it. The cook is also responsible for keeping the fire going and I finally learn the secret of opening the wood stove door without fumigating tent occupants!

But the big task tonight will be keeping the snow from accumulating on the tent fly and weighing down the tarp. Drip drip drip, I listen to the water running off the tarp…