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Ski Touring in the Wilds of Northern Ontario

January 25, 1987|KEN TABACSKO | Tabacsko is a Saginaw, Mich., free-lance writer.

A life without telephone and TV, for example, is delightful. Propane lights make not having electricity seem unimportant. A sauna and hot-water shower (propane again does the job) are enjoyable after a long day on the trails.

Hearty meals are served in the dining room of the rustic main lodge. Social activity centers there and in an adjacent room that is filled with well-used but still comfortable stuffed furniture arranged around an always-blazing fireplace.

is the prime entertainment. Wine left over from the meal (Mac has a modest selection available for sale) or a flask that was backpacked in provide the refreshment.

Mac, who looks the role of a backwoodsman with his bushy gray beard, often keeps the conversation going. He has a repertoire of hundreds of stories.

A few people would occasionally drift into games of Scrabble, Monopoly or cribbage, and magazines and paperbacks found their way back into the cabins for some late night reading--by propane lights, of course.

Right after skiing and just before bed the sauna became a hot spot. Some skiers in our party became dedicated in getting the wood stove roaring so the temperature would skyrocket. A plan to allow males, females and couples their turn was easily achieved. A quick shower and the guests would head back to their cabins, lighting the way with their ever-present flashlight--there are no floodlights in the bush. By 9 to 10 p.m. guests were in their quarters, sleep always coming early and easy.

Excellent Conditions

MacEwan took control of the lodge, which is a fly-in fishing camp during warm weather months, 14 years ago, and it has been open to skiers for 10 seasons. Conditions are generally excellent December through March.

"What we're doing is offering a wilderness experience in comfortable conditions," said Mac, who doesn't ski himself, claiming he's too busy. "We don't regiment our guests; people are on holiday and we let them plan their daily skiing trips. This is not a competitive, pressure-filled environment."

More than 50 miles of trails are available to explore, and in a remote land like this, bushwhacking is popular with many of the skiers. Because of the deep snows, trails are often used part of the way to give skiers access to more remote lands.

After a week these adventurous types, topographical maps in hand, find themselves as familiar with places such as Wizard Creek, Montreal River and Overland Lake as landmarks back home.

The varied forest is host to wildlife including beavers, minks, wolves, hawks, owls and an occasional fox. Moose tracks are often sighted, although a look at the animal is rare indeed.

Safety is stressed. A guide leads a trip daily, while others strike out on their own or in small groups, usually led by a veteran Kwagama guest. A sign-out sheet gives Mac an idea where skiers are in case an emergency develops.

Trails Packed for Skiers

Once trips are planned, usually right after breakfast, employees roar out ahead to pack the trails that skiers will be using. Mac said he doesn't set tracks because he fears that injuries would occur when not-so-talented skiers have trouble getting out of the groove as they zoom down some of the twisting hills.

"We really haven't had anything seriously happen here, and one reason is we practice a lot of prevention," he said. "We could get someone to help, but it isn't easy." Work trains occasionally travel past Mile 118 1/2, and Mac can contact them via shortwave radio if an injury occurred. For a serious emergency, a pickup from a helicopter based in Sault Ste. Marie would provide the quickest trip to a hospital.

Although there are some short trails for novices (the favorite is a short three-mile trek around Royal Lake), most are all-day trips of 12 to 15 miles that provide intermediate to advanced skiers more than enough challenge. Favorites include trips to Agawa Canyon, where skiers stand on a rocky outlook viewing the rushing waters hundreds of feet below, and the boundary of Lake Superior Provincial Park, where a waterfall provides a good spot to enjoy lunch.

The highlight of any visit, however, has to be a trek to the top of Kwagama Mountain.

Tent Among the Pines

It's a five-mile climb on a groomed trail to a tent among snow-laden pine boughs. There we enjoyed a warm cup of tea and sandwiches before a rugged bushwhacking trip of about two miles in waist-deep snow to the summit of the 2,200-foot mountain with its commanding view of the countryside.

On a clear day Lake Superior is visible 20 miles west, as is Michipicoten Island about 60 miles away. It's tempting to stay up there for hours, enjoying the beauty that spreads out below. On the day we made the trip, however, a biting wind forced us to make a somewhat hasty descent.

It was a daring trip down the mountain as we tried to thread our way through the trees. We tried to use our ski poles as brakes, but tumbling in the snow was still the surest stopping method.

All too soon we were waiting in Mac's heated shed for the trip back to the train. We made the ski back somewhat quicker this time, helped no doubt by more downhills but also by better technique because of about 15 miles daily on the boards.

Mac waved the train down, goodbys were exchanged, and we were back on our way to our urban existence. Only memories of our trip into the bush remained.

For more information write to Kwagama Lake Lodge, 176 Manitou Drive, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. P6B 5L1, Canada. The price per week is $450 (Canadian), subject to change.

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