Christmas in Killarney Story – now a tradition

I used to dread that moment in the Christmas holidays when all the gifts under the tree had been opened and all there was to do before New Years is either get stuffed eating left-over turkey or become stressed out at Boxing Day sales. The anxiety of it all was overwhelming at times and it wasn’t until I spent Christmas in Killarney, camped out beside some frozen lake far away from the hustle and buster of the holiday season, that I finally began enjoying that special time of year. It’s true that cold turkey tastes better than it does fresh out of the oven and that you can get a darn good deal at the mall the day after Christmas. But there’s definitely no comparison to spending a few magical days of snowshoeing across crisp snow and enchanting nights sleeping under a magnificent star-lit sky, in one of the most scenic parks the province has to offer.

It was over twenty years ago when my love affair with cold camping in the park began. My time was spent camped out beside a small pond on the top of Blue Ridge, a crest of white rock overlooking the eastern end of Baie Fine’s The Pool. It was dreamlike. I spent my days walking along the quartzite ridges and visiting remote lakes such as Topaz, Spark and Pearl. It was frosty. The temperatures went down to minus thirty Celsius a couple of nights. But I was rewarded on the last morning of the trip by witnessing a pack of five wolves attempt to chase down a deer out on the frozen ice of Baie Fine. The deer escaped, the wolves went hungry, and I went away determined to return each and every holiday season.

Since then there’s been quite a few trips. Two were spent traveling in and out of O.S.A. Lake, the place where the protection of this natural gem was initiated in 1962 by Group of Seven member, A.Y. Jackson. There was a failed attempt to reach Silver Peak, the highest point of the La Cloche Mountain Range. And a handful of sporadic treks were taken across the South La Cloche Range. Some trips were just as good as the first. And others had endings similar to the historical North Pole Expedition farce where a group of adventures headed out from Killarney in 1863 to reach the North Pole and only reached the nearest ridge top just outside of town before they returned for more “medicinal whiskey” supplies.

My latest outing had to be the best overall. It was slightly different then all the rest — a short five kilometer trek to Lumsden Lake and back, making use of the west end portion of the La Cloche Silhouette Hiking Trail. The equipment used was also a little more traditional, and a lot more comfortable. In the past I had slept under a tarpaulin or crawled into a make-shift quinzee at night. This time I brought along a roomy canvas tent heated by a wood stove. I also chose not to travel alone. Joining me was Boris Swidersky, and his dog, Bandit. Boris was a great companion, who also happened to be the owner of the cozy tent and stove. Bandit was also a welcomed escort since he hauled the tent and stove stored on the top of Boris’ sled.

Our first day out we only managed to travel less than a kilometer. The same distance on a summer hike would have taken twenty-minutes. Winter touring is totally different though. There are the obvious barriers, like cold temperatures and the excessive amount of gear needed to make things comfortable while you’re out. But it’s the snow that’s the biggest stumbling block. I used to think snow was snow. But it isn’t. There are days when the conditions actually improve travel; when the crust is hard and your snowshoes hold you up and your sled slides easily. Then there are aggravating times when the crust is brittle and you break through unexpectedly every now and then. There are also the days of extreme cold, when the snow squeaks and crunches like sand and the hauling of the sleds are once again delayed. But the worst condition is when the temperatures are too mild and the snow becomes a sloppy mess. It’s like walking in wet cement, and that’s when a twenty minute summer hike soon becomes an all day affair.

Setting up camp also takes time. It’s usually a two hour ritual of packing down snow for the tent, chiseling a hole through thick lake ice for fresh water, and gathering enough dead wood to fuel the stove all night. It’s all hard work. But in a weird and wonderful way, it’s all worth it at the end. Most of the first night we spent in comfort, playing Scrabble or reading by candlelight; we even made a turkey dinner, complete with powdered potatoes and instant stuffing. Boris, who has a striking resemblance to Santa Clause, also dressed up as Saint Nick and handed belated Christmas gifts out to Bandit and I. The dog received a large chunk of prime rib and I got an extra pair of dry boot liners. We ended the evening by filling the night air with one or two Christmas carols, and then stacked the stove up with wood before zipping up tight in our mummy sleeping bags.

The temperature dropped dramatically through the night and Boris and I played a quick game of Paper, Rock and Scissors to see who would get up first to re-light the fire and begin cooking cinnamon bannock for breakfast. Boris lost, but that left me the job of going down to the lake to break the fresh layer of ice over the water hole and fetch a pot full for morning tea. On the way back to the tent I spotted half-a-dozen spruce grouse perched on the branches of a popular tree, looking oddly enough like Christmas ornaments. It was such an incredibly calm moment that I stood there for several minutes watching them, long enough for Boris to start wondering where his tea water was. He hollered out, but even his bellowing voice (and Bandit’s bark) was muffled by the snow and did little to break the silence of this wild place.

Camp was taken down in record time. We wanted to head out early and take full advantage of the hard crust of snow that formed overnight. Our plan worked. The trail softened up just as we reached the shores of Lumsden Lake. We made camp well away from the two designated summer campsites (it’s what park staff asks winter campers to do so they minimize their impact on the area). The centre of a birch grove was chosen to put up the tent. It was well protected from the wind and had plenty of dead wood hanging around to fuel the wood stove. It also ended up being our base camp for the rest of our trip, and from here we explored all the neighboring ridge tops; the favourite being a mound of quartz on the southeast side of Lumsden. It was relatively easy to climb, considering we had to keep our snowshoes lashed to our feet while we scrambled all the way to the top. From the highest point we could see most of the South La Cloche Range and even a distant view of Georgian Bay. We could also make out the wooded valley we had walked through to get to the lake. It was dominated by stands of second growth hardwood – birch, poplar and maple – and trimmed by slabs of rock crowned with scrub oak.

Although we didn’t spot a pack of wolves from the summit, Boris and I did manage to see three white-tailed deer feeding down in the valley below and oddly met up with a moose near the very top of the ridge.

If it wasn’t for the harsh frosty wind blowing across the crest of rock we would have stayed longer. In retrospect I was glad to make haste for the comforts of camp. By the time we returned the light was steadily leaving the birch grove and the air was cold enough to sear our lungs. We quickly began preparing for a cold night, cutting enough wood for our last night out and gathering one more pot of water for evening tea.

The contrast between the inside and outside temperature of the canvas tent that night was extreme. It was a brisk minus 32 degrees Celsius outside; cold enough to make the trees pop and crack as the liquid inside the trunk froze and expanded. But being eager to warm up we stoked the camp stove with a little too much enthusiasm and turned the tent into a sauna. It peaked at a high of 92 degrees Celsius. Boris and I would have to take a dash outside now and then for a breath of fresh air, and on our last trip out before going to bed we caught a glimpse of the night sky lit up with northern lights. They were a ghostly green colour, surging and rippling high above the silhouetted birch trees. If it wasn’t so brutally cold we would have stayed out longer gawking at the astonishing light show. But the chilled temperature only allowed us enough time to glance up and sing a quick chorus and two verses of Silent Night before escaping back into the warmness of the tent and spend one more night in the wilds to dream of our next Christmas holiday camped out in Killarney Provincial Park.