It was the 8th of March 2010 in Temagami, and the mercury showed +14 Celsius.  The weather had been quite warm for the past twelve days in the area, and the MNR was just about to call the end of snowmobiling season, a good three weeks early.  Our last trip of the season was scheduled from March 12-20, and six Italian travelers were on their way to discover the Great Canadian Winter by dogsled. Or were they? 

Mind you, dogs are a lot lighter than a snow machine, we still needed snow and ice, for show and for the safe unfolding of the trip.  After consulting with local folks, and with the trip organizer, we agreed to re-route the trip to be more flexible about the uncertain conditions, and just had to trust that winter was going to be back in full force. 

The group arrived at our base on the 12th.  They had driven from Toronto, and after looking at brown fields and open streams for five hours, saying they were in a bad mood is a bit of an under statement.  The first snow they saw was at our place!  We were able to appease them somewhat with a visit of our base camp, which fit exactly with their idea of a little cabin in Canada, the northern dogs, a good cup of tea, and the assurance that we were indeed leaving for the trip the next day, so let’s get on with packing folks!

The next morning was busy with introduction to the material and tools we were going to use on our six-day trip.  We also spent some time on dogsledding theory and instruction: some of them would be driving a team in the woods in a couple of hours!  It was a bright sunny day, and thankfully the temperature had dropped to mild –7 C.  We had our last sit-down-at-a-table lunch for a while, and it was soon time to hit the runners. 

The afternoon went by smoothly. My partner Nadia and three of the guys left first on snowshoes, carrying their own backpack.  They also had a snow shovel, a small saw and a machete from the tool bag, to clear any fallen trees and branches, making a clean trail for the dogs.  Marco, Enzo, Anita and I left about an hour later, having packed the sleds and hooked up our teams.  We all met twelve kilometers later, on Three Sisters Lake, where we had previously set up our prospector tent for the first night.  Everyone was exhilarated, the walkers from great panoramas on the windswept lakes, and mushers from the twists and turns of the trail, and that last downhill to the lake.  Spirits were up as we fixed up our camp for the night, and slowly got into the rhythm of a winter camping trip.

It was a clear night, and the temperature dropped down to a respectable – 20 C.  Was winter on its way back? We all hoped so.  At 6am we fired up the woodstove again, and after a good breakfast of sweet couscous and bannock, four of us headed out on snowshoes, while the others finished taking down the tent and packed the sleds.  We knew that soon after we got off the lake, we were going to encounter a stand of poplar that had been hit by a tornado some time ago leaving many, many dead fall across the trail.  Earlier in the season, the snow had covered the fallen trees, and the sleds could go easily if handled carefully.  But how were we going to get through with a lesser snow cover? I was suspecting a lot of trail work ahead. 

When the sleds met us, we had just finished to work on the 100-m tornado section.  We had to saw a lot, and shovel a lot, and I mean a lot!  The crew watched proudly as the dogs, sleds and mushers made their way safely across the section.  Well, we still had twelve kilometers to go for the day, so we started out again, until we came to another section of fallen trees.  The sleds caught up with us before we had time to clear the way, so we decided to take our lunch break.  Nadia and I walked the trail further to see what was ahead.  We came across many other patches of fallen trees, so we decided our best option was to find a secondary trail to Thieving Bear Lake, some 300 m to our left.   

The descent to the lake was very rough, too rough for our novice mushers.  I took the first two teams down the hill working hard to miss boulders and huge pine trees on both side of the path.  The dogs were really excited and the usual command “easy” was not holding them back.  Nadia brought the last team to the lake, and caught some good air when the whole sled went over a pine stump after a blind turn in the path.  Thankfully, it was an upright landing, and a straight run to the lake. 

Traveling the next couple of kilometers on a flat, open and peaceful lake was much appreciated. We were able to get back on our trail shortly after, and fortunately this time, no trail work was needed. It had been a demanding day, and it was now snowing, so we stopped to set up camp, earlier than initially planned. For those whom have never tried traditional winter camping, this means finding poles for the tent, getting firewood and water, setting up the woodstove, making the balsam bough floor in the tent, and bedding and feeding the dogs. This takes a good two hours of teamwork, and is really worth the effort for a cozy night. Enzo was lying down on the balsam floor, after chipping through 18” of ice for the water hole. I looked at him, and his body was steaming like a kettle! He was exhausted but what I saw on his face was a big smile.

The cooks for the night put on a great four-course dinner, and after a restful sleep, we awoke the next morning to four inches of fresh snow on the ground. It was –15 C, conditions were gorgeous, and winter like without a doubt. We were ready to go again.

We were traveling on a wide trail today and I knew no work would be required from the crew, but we had much longer to go. We had traveled 24 km by mid afternoon, a strong northwest wind had picked up, and it started to snow again. The big hills and fresh deep snow had taken their toll on the dogs. We stopped often to give them a break and a snack, but what they really needed was water. We were still 10 km away from Wanapitei, a canoe tripping camp on Lake Temagami, where our friend Bob had a warm cabin waiting for us.

It made sense to keep going.  If we stopped now, we would spend hours setting up camp in a storm; probably more time than it would take to get to Wanapitei.   So we asked the dogs to do this last stretch, and the mushers to run besides the sleds, as much as they could.   The going was slow; the hills seemed to get bigger, the sleds to grow heavier, and the snow to fall thicker.  When we got to Wanapitei, it was almost dark.  The group unloaded the sleds, and carried all the gear inside the cabin.  Nadia and I spent a long time with the dogs, checking their feet, massaging their muscles, and giving them a well-deserved and much appreciated meat broth. 

While we were enjoying our dinner and evening, the sky cleared up. The Big Dipper, Cassiopeia, Orion, and so many others were looking down at us, and the temperature dropped down to –30 C. Bob treated us to a sauna, after which we all jumped in the river! Boy the crazy things we do!!!

It was day 4, and we were all excited at the idea of taking a day off to go explore the surroundings.  The new snow was squeaking under our feet in the cold morning, as we were walking on majestic Lake Temagami. Picture a cloudless deep blue sky, against the pristine white snow and the green of the pine forest on a beautiful sunny day.  It was gorgeous.  We snowshoed the trails of Mount Ferguson through a beautiful stand of Old Growth forest, took in the view from one of the peaks, and had lunch at a small secluded lake.  We were all enjoying ourselves immensely.  I was especially relaxed thinking that the dogs were resting too, basking in the sun.

The next day was once again beautiful, and people and dogs were all full of energy and eager to go.  Our destination: Devil Mountain.  Andrea, Claudio, Maurizio and I headed out on snowshoes to break trail.  The technique is very simple: We walk in a single file, to pack the snow as much as possible, and to make a clear path for the dogs to follow.  There is nothing quite like being in the lead on snowshoes, opening your path in untouched snow, the silence, and the beauty all around.  Andrea asked to be in front for a while, and as soon as he passed me, I realized how fast he walked.  In a couple of minutes, he was far ahead of us.  We met him again in the afternoon, just a mile away from Devil Mountain.  I guess he was wondering where we were going to set up camp. 

We picked a beautiful campsite, and set up our tent at the foot of the mountain.  Camp was ready in less than an hour, and it was the best so far.  The group was getting better every day.  After a good tea and a snack, we decided to go watch the sunset from the top of the mountain.  The hike is short and steep even in the summer time, so we were as close to ice climbing as we wanted to get!  We got there in about half and hour, just before sunset.  The sky was amazingly clear, and we watched the snow turn pink as a bright sun was going down.  The view was breathtaking. 

On the trail, the evening brings its own ambiance.  A toasty fire dries out our clothes, while the smell of dinner fills the air.  Outside, as the temperature drops, a majestic sky lights up, and the dogs howl, curled up in the snow.   There is something magical in all this; the strength of winter, the beauty of the land, the peace and freedom that fill our souls. 

We spent one more night on Lake Temagami, before what Nadia calls “Francesco’s Run”.  Each year, after we meet our van at the access point and load the gear and the group on their way back to our base camp, there is a last stretch of twenty km to do.  It runs the length of the northeast arm of the lake, along a hard-packed snowmobile trail, all the way to the town of Temagami. For many reasons, we don’t race our dogs; but as we train our teams, we develop an immense pride and respect for them, a feeling we could do well in a race.  Bringing the dogs back to town is my time to reflect back on the trip, and on the winter that is almost over, and I am thankful for the kind of life I chose.  And when we solemnly pull in, I allow myself one more act of pride as I look at my watch and grin.