Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Saga of the Mantario Trail, vol. 1

I hiked the Mantario Trail in eastern Manitoba for six days starting on my birthday. I had originally planned to leave the day after my birthday, but I decided that I would be better off driving to Canada on my birthday than spending my birthday hanging around cleaning and then going out for drinks that would necessarily have to end by nine in the evening so that I could be up early to drive to Canada the next day. As it was, I managed to be out of my house before six in the morning. I petted my rabbits goodbye, which is always very sad, and I went, and I was pleased to make Fargo by eleven. I remembered reading that, on one's birthday, one receives a free meal from Denny's. Fargo has a Denny's just off the freeway, near the Hobby Lobby, which I, of course, snarled at. The good people at Denny's were very kind in their bestowing of free food. On a birthday, one recieves a Grand Slam, which is a breakfast combination platter. I was nicely full of pancakes for the rest of the drive, which was convenient as I didn't feel compelled to stop at any more chain restaurants.
After Fargo, it was all prairie. The sky did get bigger; the horizon spread out and rushed out to the edges of the sky and there was nothing to break it but the occasional tree or bit of farm and I wanted to stare at it more than I could because I was driving. It was smashing. I crossed the border around two, and forty minutes later I was being confused by Winnipeg. Winnipeg has the Trans-Canada and a ring road, but they're both in rougher shape and oddly bendy. The road signs are confusing as well. I was looking for Highway 100 and the speed limit was 100. The highway signs and the speed limit signs were identically shaped and white in color. When I finally got to Highway 100, I could only guess that it was the Highway and not another speed limit sign because the number was in a cartouche. I needed to leave the highway, go to Wilderness Supply, buy a Manitoba Parks Pass, and get back on Highway 100. Wilderness Supply was great, and I got my parks pass and a headnet. Buying a headnet was one of the best decisions I've ever made. The kids at Wilderness Supply were nice, helpful, and had serious Canadian accents. I asked them if they'd ever done the Mantario Trail or knew anything about it. The girl said she'd hiked it years ago, and it was up and down all the way. The guy said that his brother hiked it a few weeks ago and it was bad, like fording water up to his waist bad. That scared me. The main thing I'd been worried about on this trip was water crossings, either attempting them or assessing them too dangerous and turning back, and I was going to die now. Or leave early. I crossed a river up to my waist last year and I didn't like it at all. I probably shouldn't have, but two British girls were ahead of me and I could assume they'd made it as they weren't still standing on the riverbank when I got there, so I did it, but it wasn't a good time. Most backcountry fatalities involve bodies of water. I'd found the Manitoba flood report and asked people on the internet, since Minnesota is all flooded up right now, but on the other side of the Laurentian Divide, they said, everything was normal to dry. Now I wasn't sure. I spent the two hours driving on the Transcanada (which is narrow and has stoplights) deciding whether I should attempt this or just drive on top of Canada to Wisconsin and go hike there. I decided to stick with it, but if something was too dangerous, I'd leave.

West Hawk Lake is the cutest holiday town. I loved it. I stopped at the gas station to buy expensive Canadian gas, and it was the perfect vacation supply store, with all the little food and souvenirs and a book rack and toothbrushes and postcards. The store was across from the RV campground and signs for the tent campground. There was some other vacation infrastructure, and deer grazing across the road. I drove another seven kilometers to the big sign that said Mantario Trail. Three other cars were in the lot. I double-checked everything, ate my banana, put on my pack and went.

The first twenty feet of the trail were wide and gravelled. Then I was on an ATV trail for ten minutes. Two dirt bikers stopped and I stood by for them in case they were going in my direction, but they turned around. The ATV trail ended and then I was on a footpath in the wilderness, well-marked and deep tread. I had, however, some days of impracticality and danger ahead of me and I was in Canada. I spent the winter of 2012 marathoning Degrassi Junior High, so I know how dangerous Canada can be. Rick and Tara taught me about the danger of slippery rocks. Shane taught me about the peril of water crossings. Lucy and Wheels taught me not to drive in rural areas. Emma taught me never to talk to strangers or be nice to be people I already know. Plus, I know what happened to Franklin, Mackenzie, David Thompson and the rest. I do have a fear of dead things, and I've run across some in my travels. The worst was a decomposing moose that Raia helped me get around. That was the worst thing ever. I almost stepped on something's skull once, probably a deer, and it's something I'm aware of, and wary for, all the time. So: water crossings, dead animals, lighting, people. I worry about my rabbits when I'm gone. They're at the very upper limit of rabbit age. I worry about my house catching fire. Hiking by oneself is terrifying and there's nothing to do except wait until the fear ends. So I was scared, and I was hiking away from my car into the great Canadian outback. My wonderful dad and brother gave me a Delorme Inreach for my birthday, so if I broke my leg out there, I could press the big red button and a nice helicopter would come for me, which is better than my usual emergency plan of plaintively blowing my whistle and catching rainwater, but I was worried that the safety of the big red button might encourage me take unneccessary risks.

Forty-five minutes of hiking was enough for that day. I'd been up since five and I'd driven nine hours. I passed two good tent spots by and settled on something decent a little down the trail. I set my tent up on some lovely soft moss, the kind that won't die if you sleep on it, and did all my little camping things, and then I kicked back with Soul Music by Terry Pratchett and ate some peanut butter and jelly. It was a good place to be, even though the mosquitoes were viscious. Thank God for that headnet. I hung my bear bags badly, as always. (I generally divide my food into two bags and do two bear hangs, as I have such bad luck finding trees with branches more than six feet and less than thirty feet up, that I simply hope a bear will find and eat only half my food and leave it at that.) My sleeping moss was soft. I did have that "Oh no, what if I'm on an animal trail?" panic as I was getting into my tent for the night. The trail crested a hill and everything to the east of the trail, including my tent, sloped gently downward. I was camped in a grassy, mossy area as big as my parents' backyard, with trees all around except to the south, where the grassy, mossyness continued. Clear areas can mean animal trails and I could've moved my tent a bit, but there wasn't much of anywhere to go and I was probably fine, so slept well and cozily until 5:30 in the morning, which is the proper time to get up when hiking.

It took me my usual two hours to get ready. The problem with solo hiking is that you can't share tasks or delegate. When you're camping with somebody, they'll make breakfast while you pack up the tent, but when you're alone, you need to do every little thing one by one. The only time savings I've found is boiling my coffee water while I'm doing something else, and drinking my coffee while I'm taking down the tent. That is the only way I can shave ten minutes off the two hours it takes to get packed up. But I was ready at 7:30 to face the obstacles on my path, the nearest of which was the Whiteshell River, which I assumed was one of the things the guy at Wilderness Supply's brother had forded up to his waist, and I would turn back there. It took an hour to get there, meaning I'd barely gotten anywhere the previous evening, and when I saw the Whiteshell, it had a bridge. I was so relieved. It wasn't the best bridge in the universe: one side looked like it was cobbled together with whatever pieces of tree the trail maintenance crew had handy after some damage, but it was bloody sturdy bridge and I got across it fine.

The thing about hiking is that nothing very much happens, and so it's difficult to write about without going in any one of a number of directions that are painfully tedious to read about. I don't remember every stump and loose rock I walked across. The terrain was easier there than it would be later, although the official map says, "These steep valleys are a challenging portion of the trail." They were, but only in the sense that I'd descend, then ascend a valley every half hour and they were indeed steep, but nothing that a ten-year-old in good shoes couldn't get up safely.

To be clear, everything was beautiful. There was a long run of red pines on fairly flat terrain. Manitoba had a big blowdown in '05 and there were vast expanses of downed timber, although they'd managed to keep everything from catching on fire. I was mostly walking on dirt, with some of those muddy pine lowlands that are so stunningly beautiful but you can't stop moving to gaze at them for more than two seconds at a time because the mosquitoes come after you. The muddiest patches of trail had two or more saplings layed parallel so that a person can walk across those instead of sinking into the muck. It's mostly shallow muck, but it's ever so mucky Which is better: balancing on two saplings while walking forward, or being wet to the ankle? It's a different decision every time.

The distance between the trailhead and the airfield tower was 7.2 kilometers and I got there midmorning. The airfield was one of the person-made historic sites on the trail, along with two sets of train tracks, and the brick oven from an old logging camp that I walked right past without noticing (twice). The airfield was built in 1937 and closed in the '50s. The base of the tower was still there, and it had a sign pointing left for the easy overnight campsite at Caribou Lake East and right for the rest of the trail. I went right. At around noon I made Caribou Lake and the first official campsite on the trail. It was beautiful. I came in by the bear box and then I found the tent pads and a picnic table for real. The Boundary Waters doesn't have picnic tables. I sat down at the table like a dignified adult and dug around for my lunch food. And I heard voices. Voices! People voices. I was quite excited considering I'd last seen people less than nineteen hours ago. I figured they might be paddlers and looked around to see if I could spot a canoe without getting up, but there wasn't one. Had a good lunch and explored the campsite a bit. It was gorgeous. And huge. There were three fire grates in different areas, and a random rowboat tethered to a tree. I also found a lot of little garbage and tampons lying about, although none, thankfully, were used.

I was leaving past the bearboxes when I saw people looking into them. People! I could tell by their high-end clothes and packs that they were too invested in outdoorsmanship to be murderers. I said "Hi there!" quickly so I wouldn't come off as some kind of weird sneaking woodland shadow pervert, but I scared the hell out of them anyway. Their names were Mike and Tyler and they'd spent the night in the parking lot to do a three day hike of the Trail. They worked at Mountain Equiptment Co-op, which is an outdoor store in Winnipeg, and they were both heavily into climbing, although Mike said Winnipeg doesn't have anything to climb. Tyler said he made it out to the Canadian Rockies once a year. We started hiking, Tyler leading, and they were going faster than I would. Besides being in more of a time crunch than me, they had light packs, twenty-five pounds, Mike said, and freeze-dried meals, and they were just generally more put to together than I ever am. Mike and I chatted but Tyler was a little too far away for me and him to have a conversation. He did ask me if I was a Vikings fan. I wasn't sure how to put it, but all I could say was, "That fucking stadium." He said, "It got you a Superbowl though." I tried to remember when we'd last won a Superbowl and realized he meant that shower of morons who're going to descend on Minneapolis in 2018. I was surprised that they both had egg-crate style sleeping pads strapped to their packs; Mike said the advantage to inflatable was that you could stab one of those four or five times with a knife and it would still work. Fair point, although I don't believe in sleeping pads. We ascended a hill and passed some ribs sticking out from behind a downed tree. You don't see ribs lying around very often, but when you do, you know they're ribs. I took a wide bearth and noted the fur all over the rocks there. It looked like a wolf kill. I made a note to watch for fur and avoid the spot again on the way back. We'd been hiking together about an hour then and I wasn't paying as much attention the the trail as I wanted to be, I was just following Mike's back and trying not breath heavily like an out of shape person, so I told them that I was going to slow down a bit and let them go on ahead. If I saw them again, that would be great, and if I didn't, have a wonderful trip. They told me to have a great trip too. I tried to hang back a bit, but I had just followed them into a muddy stand of pines and we weren't sure if we were on the path or not. It turned out that we weren't. The place Tyler had walked us onto was a muddy patch of ground, and the Mantario Trail was water with a couple parallel logs floating in it. We about-faced, so I was first. I said, "You guys go ahead," so I could take my time, but they were polite so I had to go first anyway. Like I said, you get your feet wet on a muddy path but you never know how deep the mud is until you find out the hard way. I stepped down and went up to my knee in muck. I pulled up on my foot, and it started to come, but my boot stayed where it was. My boot was stuck in the muck. I put my foot back down and tried force my foot: I pointed my toe up and shoved, but the muck was too thick for me to kick slowly up through at a bad angle. Mike and Tyler were watching me with concern. I needed to pull my leg out with my toe pointed up so my boot wouldn't slide, but the mud was too hard to be shoved through with my toe. I tried to rotate left and push but there was no give. My foot was free to go but my boot might be lost forever. Tyler said, "I'm glad I wore hiking boots." He must have thought I was wearing trail runners, but I had solid hiking boots up to my ankles just like him. I braced myself on a log and heaved and my foot stayed where it was. Tyler asked if I needed help, but I didn't think so. He could pull me up with my toe pointed to keep the boot but I might torque my foot that way. I could lose the boot and stick my arm in up to the shoulder and find the boot before the mud oozed in and my boot was entombed forever. I rotated my foot a quarter turn right, braced myself on a root and pushed up. My foot, boot and all, slid out of the splodge. I got back up and balanced on the logs to the end of the mucky patch. Then Mike and Tyler made their careful way over the oozing mud. They had trekking poles to test the depths. We wished each other luck and said goodbye, and then I was alone, but it was comforting to follow their footprints for the rest of the trip.

All by myself, I slowed down to a happy pace and walked. I was scared, of course. My map said I was coming up to a "difficult creek crossing." This was where I was going to face fording water up to my armpits, I was sure. Turning back would be the right decision, but it's hard to give up on something you've driven nine hours to get to. And safety. I could try the creek crossing, but how? And then I crested the hill and saw the crossing and wanted to punch my alarmist map maker in the face. This creek crossing was unbridged because it didn't need a bridge. Everything was fine. To cross the creek, which was really one lake pouring into another, lower lake, I had to descend a hill of boulders, which is fun, then I needed to extend my foot about eighteen inches, step over the creek, and stand safely on the other side. Not difficult. Ascending the hill up from the crossing was a bit of a bugger. A big slab of granite at a seventy five degree angle with a ridge of soil and bushes clinging to its upper shelf below a bit of cliff face. Should I walk up potentially slippy granite or abuse the topsoil and grab some plants who were trying to eke out their marginal existence on a slightly less exposed patch of rock? I decided to bash plants and ascended carefully, trying not to step on anything. From the top, I could see that if I'd crossed the creek a wee bit further down, there was a wider patch with stepping stones and some grippier terrain on the other side of the granite slab I'd avoided ascending. Live and learn. And that was my difficult creek crossing.

There were two tourist attractions coming up, a survey monument and the brick oven from an old logging camp. The survey monument was a circle painted on the rock with a pole sticking out of it capped with a sign that said "survey monument." I walked right by the brick oven, although I did see wide, flat spots of trail that ran over the old logging railroads. I was on my way to Marion Lake, the next campsite. Marion Lake is huge, and I skirted buggy hills for quite a while before the trail dropped into the campsite and I met... Mike and Tyler. Tyler was turtled out on a rock and Mike was sitting on a picnic table looking at the water. We were happy to see each other. Tyler shared his Skittles with me. Skittles are his camping thing. They were resting prior to pushing on to Peggy Lake. I was impressed. Peggy Lake was an estimated three hours away and it was five'o'clock already. It crossed my mind that I could push it and get to Peggy, but I didn't want to enough. I was told once that most canoeing injuries happen after five and I have taken that to heart. One needs to get up early and relax in the evenings. Mike and Tyler were impressed by my newly acquired picnic table, as I was staying at Marion so this was my campsite. Little did we know, all the sites on the Mantario Trail have picnic tables. We said goodbye for the last time, and I went about setting up camp, which was easy because all the sites on the Mantario Trail have bear boxes. I set up my tent and relaxed, which is an important part of camping. I had my own beach and granite bottomed-lake. I don't swim alone, but Marion Lake would be killer for swimming. I did dandle my toes and wade a bit. Trains kept coming by on the other side of the lake, with big train whistles hooting in the distance. They were too far away to wave at by a lot, but it was nice to know there were people over there. The weather was warm and a slight breeze blew the mosquitoes off as long as I stayed near the lake. The futuristically-designed toilet was a molded plastic testament to what outdoor restrooms can be, and it was bilingual. Oh, Canada. I ate mashed potatoes with dehydrated vegetables and was in bed by nine.

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