SAULT STE. MARIE, Canada — It's 8 a.m. but that doesn't stop them. The train has hardly cleared the station and it's time to pull out the six-packs. While we're dreaming of breakfast, these guys are about to start some serious beer drinking.
Except for these ice fishermen, a few trappers, a couple of other north-woods residents and some train personnel, the cars are deserted. We're on the work train because the tourist trip on weekends is jammed.
A few miles down the rails and it was easy to realize why a trip to Kwagama Lake Lodge in northern Ontario Province holds the distinction of offering one of the most unusual ski touring experiences in North America.
The rugged terrain--where snow depths can reach in excess of 40 feet and temperatures can dip well past minus 30 degrees--offers plenty of challenges for the skier who wants to experience the beauty and solitude of winter wilderness.
But being miles from even a trace of civilization, especially in extreme weather conditions, can be dangerous. You need to know your way in the wilderness, that's for certain.
A Measure of Safety
The cozy Kwagama lodge, which primarily plays host to Nordic enthusiasts from the Midwest and Canada, allows even novices the chance to enjoy the experience with a measure of safety.
Getting to this ski experience is half the fun. The week-long trip begins for most visitors with a Sunday ride on the famed Algoma Central Railway Snow Train from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., a ride that offers breathtaking vistas of the rugged land from the warmth of a passenger car.
Four hours later the train is stopped, in true north-woods fashion, by someone flagging it down from the middle of the track. This middle-of-nowhere spot is simply called Mile 118 1/2, more as a guide to the railway than anything else.
Finally Kwagama visitors jump out in waist-deep snow, with the cold air snapping everyone to attention. Skis and duffel bags are tossed out to the waiting arms of Mac MacEwan, an ex-newspaper photographer who serves as owner, manager, luggage hauler, trip planner and chief storyteller.
Mac greets everyone with a handshake and an invitation to use his small railside cabin, complete with wood stove, to warm up and enjoy some tea while he packs bags onto a sled attached to a powerful Alpine snowmobile for transportation to the lodge nine miles away.
He was going to pilot the snowmobile there and pack down the snow with a trail groomer. Everyone was there to ski and that's exactly how they would get to the lodge. The distance was filled with tough terrain that would make golf-course skiing back home seem like a breeze.
"It isn't a race to the lodge or an endurance test; take your time and enjoy yourself," said Mac with his usual grin. "It will likely take you anywhere from two to three hours."
The trail climbed about 900 feet the first three miles from the rail tracks and eventually twisted around a couple of mountains. Thecontinuous exertion made heart rates climb and seem thundering in this land of complete silence, where the only sound was that of skis squeaking against snow.
The home stretch crosses Kwagama Lake and then the lodge, tucked neatly behind the pines on a one-acre island, looms ahead. We made the trip in two hours, 10 minutes. Novices need not fear; Mac keeps tabs on his charges and says there is no disgrace at being brought in by snowmobile.
"After a week of practice, those same people ski out a week later," he remarked.
A Pot of Hot Tea
Once guests arrive, they are met with a pot of hot tea and welcomed to warm themselves in front of the dining room's wood stove--wood is the only source of heat. Mac's wife Grace, who handles correspondence and the business end of things, greets everyone if she's staying at the lodge. She divides her time between the couple's home in Sault Ste. Marie (the Soo) and the lodge.
Rest assured that a week at Kwagama isn't for everyone. But the guests, most of whom are middle- to upper-class professional couples ranging in age from 30 to 50, are enthusiastic about the experience. Many return year after year. Capacity is only 24 skiers, so reservations have to be made early.
It's a Spartan existence. There's no electricity, no telephone, no maid service, no running water, no central heat, and, yes, there are outdoor privies--a real experience at 10 degrees below.
The wood stoves make cabins toasty but guests are responsible for keeping the fire going and dragging in wood from piles outside. You also get your own water from a hole in the ice. It's a self-service type of operation, but once you get into the swing of things it's kind of fun.
If you want creature comforts, go to a luxury resort in the Caribbean somewhere. Kwagama makes wilderness living as comfortable as possible and has plenty of its own charms.
Modern Amenities Not Missed