Our yellow canoe is pulled up on a narrow beach, perpendicular to deep moose hoof prints. The birch and spruce forest leans over the beach, as if reaching for the sunlight that glitters off the water. Most of the leaves have already fallen and the trees are naked and white, bathed in the warm afternoon sunshine.
Kilvert Lake, in Ontario’s Eagle-Dogtooth Provincial Park, is one of thousands carved out of the 4-billion-year-old rock. This is the Canadian Shield, the largest mass of exposed Precambrian rock on earth; the exposed continental crust of North America, where mountains were flattened and lakes carved from rock during the Ice Age. Eight million square kilometres of igneous rock born from volcanoes grew into tall mountains which were then worn down to rolling hills and a thin sifting of soil by monstrous slabs of ice.
That much ice, or even snow, is hard to imagine – especially today, as we enjoy some late October warmth on the first day of a canoe trip. This park, a 2.5-hour drive east of Winnipeg, has five meandering canoe routes through moraines, boggy beaver ponds and pine-forest ecosystems. My brother and I gambled on a late-season trip and it has paid off as we have the lakes to ourselves, everyone else having already packed up their boats for the winter.
We hoist up our canoe and trudge 1.5km through the forest to Gale Lake, where we drop it with a sigh. I stretch my neck and shoulders as we walk back to retrieve our bags and a food barrel. This is just one of seven portages we’ll make along our 51.5km route, a price that must be paid to reach remote lakes with names such as Dryberry and Kushog.
We set up camp in a stand of tall red pines on the western shore of Gale Lake, a teardrop-shaped body of water that pinches off into a narrow creek in the north. There’s plenty of wood for a fire and I prepare bannock, unleavened Native American bread, which is seasoned with raisins – and wood smoke.
The Canadian Shield is the traditional home of Algonquian nomadic hunters, who once paddled these lakes in birchbark canoes, but the wide expanses of bare rock, poor soil and marshes made it difficult for early explorers and fur traders to push westward through here. On the other side of this rock wall are the prairies, Canada’s wheat land.
Eventually the European colonialists blasted a rail line through the Shield, which opened it to prospectors, who found gold, silver, nickel, cobalt, zinc, copper, iron ore and, more recently, diamonds. Massive hydroelectric dams have been built here, too, to power cities to the south. The Shield looms large in the nation’s history and culture, and canoeing these waters is a rite of passage for many Canadians.
Our good weather holds for two days; just long enough for us to grow smug, congratulating ourselves for setting forth while others stayed at home. Then, as we camp by Little Dogtooth Lake, the nighttime temperature drops. We’ve pitched our tent in the woods, away from the water, seeking shelter from the biting wind, but there’s no hiding from the cold. We pull out thermal underwear and stoke the fire as rain spits from a leaden sky. That Ice Age seems less unimaginable, now.
This winter won’t wear down mountains or create new lakes, but it will put the land to sleep for the next six months or more.
Luck never changes in half-measures, and the wind that brought the cold blows heartily from the southwest, straight on our bow. A day earlier, the lakes were so still the rippled wake of a loon travelled a kilometre across the surface; now, the grey water sloshes into our boat as we claw our way upwind. We’re trying to round a point of land that has compressed waves and wind and I’ve just taken on a lap full of cold water.
“Do you still have control of the boat?” I call back to my brother, who is steering from the stern and who I’ve only heard grunts and curses from for the last few minutes. He is the more experienced canoeist, so surely he will know whether we’re pushing our luck.
“Yea, but we’re on the edge,” he shouts. “Just keep paddling, hard.”
We make it to a protected bay and decide against risking further miles in these conditions. We set up camp in a forest clearing created by gnawing beavers and, every few hours, walk to the edge of the woods to see if the white caps racing across the lake are becoming smaller.
On the far shore are tall cliffs left behind by glacial erosion, topped by scraggly jack pine and poplar. Massive round boulders have been dropped by the retreating ice, like marbles left behind by a child, some on land, others half submerged in the water. Speckled alder and red maple still sport a few blazing leaves, beacons in the grey light.
Our last morning begins before dawn. We’ve promised friends and family we’ll re-emerge from the wilderness at a certain time, and to do that we need to make up the distance lost to the storm. The wind has died, leaving behind a cold mist that blankets the quiet lakes.
I’ve had something on my mind, but have been afraid to say it and jinx things. When we round a corner and catch sight of our truck – and the end of our canoe journey – I double check, squinting to make sure there is no one on the shore.
“We haven’t seen another person in five days,” I finally blurt out. “Not a boat, no people outside their cabins, no one at all.”