Then I went on vacation again. It didn't occur to me when I was taking random chunks of time off in late summer that I was only giving myself two and a half weeks between trips. I came back from the Ice Age Trail and I had to vacation again! Crikey! My rashes had barely cleared up. I was planning on hiking the LaCloche Silhouette Trail but a cursory inquiry into backcountry reservations in Killarney quickly taught me that hiking Killarney is significantly more complicated from a bureaucratic perspective than hiking in Whiteshell so I decided to do Whiteshell. The Mantario Trail defeated me in June 2014. Now was the season and all the Canadians on the internet said it was beautiful. I had to watch the episode of Little Mosque where Amar, Thorne, Baber, Fred Tupper, and Fasil, but not Joe, go camping to settle my nerves about the advisability of camping in Canada. And I realized that camping in Canada is about contrasts. One might find a London punk and her insane Ukranian twin in the Canadian wilderness, or an imam and a conservative talk radio host. As a solo hiker, I would need to balance extremes. But I could do it. I'd done half of it already.
My alarm didn't go off and I accidentally slept in 'til 7:00 in the morning. I didn't mind much though. This was a travel day. I petted Guinness for forty five minutes, slung my pack over my shoulder, and headed out. The drive up was uneventful if longer than necessary. I never stopped for a meal. I had rolls and cheese and a clearance organic energy drink, but once I finished that I got into the problem cycle of buying pop at a gas station and drinking it and needing to pee and stopping at a gas station and buying pop. What with road construction, I didn't make Winnipeg until 4:00pm. And that was okay. I had nowhere to be for real, and I didn't know where I was going to sleep. Probably in my car. But I wasn't sure where I was going to sleep. Probably in the parking lot at the trailhead. There was the charming West Hawk Lake Campground, but I would be a forest troll surrounded by old people in campers whose alarms wouldn't go off at 5:30.
I made it up to Winnipeg with the intention of Wilderness Supply, but I took the wrong exit on their ring road and ended up trying to drive through some light industrial zone with a Tim Horton's. I was about to turn left and get back on the ring road and there was Wilderness Supply! Hurray! I bought my Manitoba Parks Pass and got back on the road to West Hawk Lake. The Trans-Canada is a two-lane divided highway for ten miles and then it goes down to one lane for a long time through pine forests and granite blasted away to make room for a road bed. Lakes! Manitoba only has 9,999 but they are spectacular. I was still weighing the idea of camping and there were a lot of potential campgrounds in towns along the road, but nothing tugged at my heart enough to make me abandon West Hawk Lake. Canada has a confusing series of symbols for roadside attractions and they put everything a town has to offer on one sign. Some towns have camping, or camping, eating, or camping, eating, horsie, golf, pool. Some towns have camping, eating, swimming, golf, massage, falconry, cholera, waterslide, mausoleum, pine tree. I stopped nowhere and made West Hawk Lake in the early twilight. Ah, West Hawk Lake! I immediately stopped for gas because in the event that my credit card was cancelled while I was on vacation because some computer decided I'd stolen my card and crossed the border, I wanted a tank of gas. It was 7:50 and the West Hawk General Store was winding down for the night. I bought my gas from the owner, from Forest Lake! and became Canadian in the '80s. She and her husband were flying to Jamaica on Friday to relax after the season. I crossed the street to the West Hawk Diner and it was two minutes from shutting down for the night. I was very sad. I did have one option, the slightly fancier bar and grill next to the general store. (Technically, I had another option: getting into the trail food early.) I walked back across the street and checked on the hours of the fine restaurant. I had hours. It was a nicer place than I deserved, considering I was wearing trail clothes with a blazer . I went in the bathroom and realized I was wearing hiking boots, a teal paisley skirt, a pink striped shirt, and a floral blazer. Three clashing patterns, three weird lengths, three different styles. But there was nothing for it. I opted for the Greek salad, since I was about to spend a week without vegetables. Nom. I enjoyed it immensely. The waitress said they'd had a lot of Mantario hikers the previous weekend. I wondered if I was too late in the season and I would be alone in the woods, but when I rolled through a couple miles of rural roads into the parking lot at the trailhead, there were four cars and I knew that I would have four friends on the trail. No one else was sleeping over. I put down my backseat and got ready for bed. There was a scary time when I thought I lost my InReach and couldn't contact my family and I would have to go back to the telephone box at the West Hawk convenience store and place an international call on my credit card to let my parents know I was okay. Can telephone operators still do that? But I finally found the InReach in my fanny pack. I still had some useful junk in my trunk from the garage sale: a coat, a couple shirts, and some broken shoes I need to recycle in the shoe recycling box. I put the coat under my sleepy bag and made things comfier. I could stretch out well in the trunk. Yaris! There was a weird gap where the trunk floor and the backseat separated for a few inches, but as I slept my coat worked its way in there and I was even more comfortable. The stars shone brilliant.
I woke up to windows all steamed up and a cold morning. Hey, I had an extra coat! I fussed through my stuff and checked supplies. I did not get as much of an early start as I wanted considering that all I fundamentally needed to do was put on my boots and go. But mornings are tough and it's hard to tear yourself from the security of a cozy car and head out into a wilderness that defeated you last time. I did it though. I walked across the parking lot. I took the obligatory selfie. I walked up the sandy gouge where the Mantario starts on a dirtbike track. I walked to where the ttrail shifts off the track and onto a footpath and starts to go up through the forest with pink rock underneath your feet and girding the path and grassy clearings and pines. Then all of a sudden the trail goes downhill and crosses the Whiteshell River on a sturdy little bridge of greying wood. The first thing on my map. I was making good time, and here was water and unimagineable beauty. I crossed the bridge after forty five minutes of hiking. When I attempted before, I'd hiked from my car to a campsite forty five minutes in and then I'd taken another half an hour in the morning. I must've been tired, and very possibly out of shape. And here I was, forty five minutes in and already at the first milestone. I could do this. But maybe I shouldn't? I tried to set an intention and realized I couldn't use Meghan again. I'd done a Meghan hike, devoted to dangling my toes in the water, but this hike needed to be about something else. And I don't believe in hiking for something like World Peace. World Peace can be acheived by concrete actions, not hiking a trail or running a 10k. I didn't have anybody whom I could hike in honor of. Everyone I know is bored of my walkabouts or they're flat-out worried about me. And here I was alone in the woods again. I would at least need to keep my mood up, which is hard when you're on your own. In 2014, this area was so mosquitoey that sometimes I couldn't open my eyes all the way. Now, everything was a pine-scented idyll with a few drying logs from the old blow-down. Through a marsh, and I crossed the first set of railroad tracks and walked down them a bit to find the little orange flag that marked the trail. Mantario is usually blazed blue, and I wondered who'd been through marking orange. A school group in two chunks, maybe, with one adult blazing the trail for the slower kids? A caretaker enthusiast? It was nice, whichever. There were spots where the blue blazes did it, and spots where the orange blazes helped. I went uphill through thick woods and had a snack at the abandoned airfield, built to defend central Canada during the War, now decomissioned. There's a falling tower and a broken trail sign, left for East Caribou and right for the rest of the trail. I ate a Pearson's nut roll and went right. A while later, got my first glimpse of Caribou Lake. My second glimpse of Caribou Lake had a weird rowboat in it. Who leaves rowboats lying around the back country? But there it was, pulled up on a rock with no oars. I continued up and away from the lake , then down and over a stream, up and along a ridge, down more, streams feeding the lake, more lake views. I began to worry that I'd missed the campsite. I didn't need it: I could eat lunch anywhere, but it's nice to check landmarks. I was relieved to find it finally, but it was filthy ! Ugh. I've seen beer cans and old pants in my life, but this was the worst thrashing of nature I've ever seen with a semblance of camping. Most people who hate nature this much just run a bulldozer over it. The bearbox was piled with decomposing garbage. Somebody left their entire foul camping trip. There was a coffee can full of dirt, a busted up tent , a tarp, a cooler, cans, nastiness, food containers. I wished I had the gumption and the resources to pack it out but that was too much and too disgusting. I went down across the big flat rock to the picnic table and a ton of little garbage on the ground, but nothing gross. Little corners off packets of things and tiny wrappers. There was another rowboat with the most ghetto canoe paddle in it: the blade off a kayak paddle attached to a stick with rusting wire. WTF. I ate my PBJ burrito to the lapping of little waves and enjoyed sitting down in nature. I was making good time, but I still had places to be and things to do. My next challenge was walking past a pair of ribs and a skull that I'd seen in 2014, and I spent an hour walking carefully in apprehension of that challenge, but they just weren't there. Do wolves gnaw old bones in winter? Pretty clearings, lush grass, drying mud, pines, and four or five mosquitoes left over from the season. I went in mud up to the top of my boot, and was cheered by somebody's lost hat stuck on a dead tree, and ate another Nut Roll. There was the survey monument, then the trail bears left into thicker woods, and I kept an eye out for the logging camp brick oven but missed it.
At Marion Lake there's a huge beaver dam crossing. The map calls this "treacherous" but there's nothing to it, especially in the dry. Go down a slope, hopscotch over some rocks separating a jewel lake from a lush beaver marsh in wide glacial vistas under an enormous blue sky, and go up the trail, probably. Except there was no up. Orange flagging around the bottom of cliff to the left and a rock ledge over the lake and then there was nothing path-like, just me and the ledge and a grassy cliff with no tread. Flagging, flagging, dead-end. There were about six places on the cliff that looked climbable but nothing that screamed, "I'm the trail! Go up here! You'll know where you are once you get to the top." I decided to ascend. I don't like leaving the trail, but ten feet up isn't getting lost in the bush. There's no way I wouldn't be able to navigate from the lake I was standing next to. I scrambled up the cliff and stood on top of it and it definitely was not the trail. Green and waving grasses up to my knees and scattered trees and mossy branches for tripping over. But there was something thirty feet away along the edge of the cliff that looked like a trail. I walked carefully towards it and it was the Trail. From the top of the cliff, I could see how I was actually supposed to go right from the dam around a curve and up some blue flagged slope to where I was standing now. I had done it the hard way, but that was okay, and now I knew that the orange flagging could lie. So I pushed hard around the lake edge for a long time, because it's a big lake, and finally I found the campsite and I was home! I did think briefly about going on to Peggy Lake but it was 4:00pm already. So I set up my tent in a nice tentsite on the beach and decided to kick back in my chair and sunbathe. It was a little cool out, so I had to put on my sunbathing sweater. There was a frisky little chipmunk running all over the place. It may have been two chipmunks. He or she would run close to my feet and away and into the fireplace and onto the rocks and everywhere. He even ran over to my tent and gave it a good looking-at but I told him not to do that. He wasn't very interested in me while I was eating supper but that night, when my tent was rustling, I was sure it was chimpmunks and not bears. The wind off the lake was strong and some brilliant asshole had built a windscreen at the fire pit. It was an utterly ingenious woven stick work of disregard for leave no trace camping and it really did block the wind. When I woke up at 5:30, as is proper, I was excited to have some windless peanut butter and headlamp time and there were little mice running all over the rocks by the fire pit, nibbling and leaping and being adorable in their mousiness. They were so cute that I dipped a pine cone in peanut butter, which is against the rules. The one who got it thought it was wonderous fare and ate most of it before his friends realized he was up to something. I packed up and was sad to leave my little mouse friends and my sleeping chipmunk friends, but there were more wild campsites with incredible beaches ahead of me and I needed to go to them. I pushed on through marshier terrain and some highs and crossed the power lines and the portage. I was coming up on Peggy Lake around 10:30, walking along some grassy granite way, when I spotted people. I had my fear reaction before they noticed me, and they jumped ten feet into the air when they saw me coming. After they calmed down a bit, we introduced ourselves. Their names were Peter and Curtis and they were doing the trail in five days, this being day four. Peter was excited about my hat. I was wearing a YMCA Camp Icaghowan hat because, after the Ice Age Trail, I was testing out whether I preferred baseball caps to my ladies' camping hat. Peter was a camp director at a Christian camp nearby and he looked similar to Peter the old director at Icaghowan; Curtis looked like Harold from Red Green. They'd met a couple going north in moderate distress: the man leaned against the wrong tree while they were crossing a beaver dam and got fifteen wasp stings. Peter and Curtis camped at Peggy with another couple whom I would probably meet up with because they were travelling slowly and taking their ease. I was so heartened to see people and I felt so much safer. I walked with an extra zing, crossing the next tiny little stream flowing over rocks between blue lakes, and up the massive rock the size of a duplex sloping at a seventy degree angle up onto the bald. I crossed on the lip of soil in the crease of the rock and felt a little bad doing it because other people were climbing there too and it the dirt getting a bit kicked up.
Peggy is one of the most beautiful campsites on a trail where everything is beautiful and windswept and next to some kind of epic Northern vista. You come out over a hill and descend a barren slope with little pine trees past the bearbox, which is well visible from the campsite, and then you have six different options to cross a little stream to the campsite where there are comfortable private tent pads on either side of a gentle ridge up to the privy. I stopped at the picnic table to fill up my water bottles and bask. The mad lasher left some sort of elegant yet non-LNT contraption made of sticks next to the fire pit which someone told me later was a chair. I took off my boots and dabbled my feet for the sake of the sunny day. It was lovely. But I pushed on. My plan was to lunch at Moosehead and make it to Mantario, which left no room for wiggling about on the beach. So I pressed on along the straight, woodsy path and walked by something that looked quite like a picnic table. I kept walking, decided I needed desperately to turn around and find out for sure if that was a picnic table, so I dropped my pack and went back to inspect what turned out to be the Olive Lake campsite, a sweet little spot with a picnic table and one tent pad but no breathtaking vistas. On the IAT, I'd give my kneecaps for a campsite like that, but on the Mantario Trail, it's disappointing.
I chugged on along through forests and a few little marshy spots. There was one place where I went astray. The trail goes down and straight into a marsh and one stands there for five minutes and wonders how the trail goes through a marsh before one decides to backtrack ten feet and realizes that the deer go into the marsh and humans go up and around the lake. There were other footprints down in the marsh, so I knew all my other trail comrades I hadn't met yet were also confused. I walked hard and long and ate a nut roll and it was nearly 2:00pm when I started climbing over the boulder field at the Alice Lake campsite and heard a a funny jingling I thought I'd heard once hours ago right around Olive. I looked around and there were people at Alice starting to cross the beaver dam. I wanted to be their friend but I had a whole basketball court of boulders to get across safely first. I went like a mountain goat but they were crossing the dam while I crossed the bridge. They didn't see me at all. I scurried through the campsite to the marsh and extensive beaver dam system, went out on a flat rock to get to the dam and hit a dead end. I tried another rock and found a dead end. There was only one way to even approach the big beaver dam and I had to skirt a lot of likely looking routes to get to it. My ding-a-ling-a-ling friends were across the dam and disappearing into the trees, and I took myself firmly in hand: if I didn't meet them at Moosehead, I'd meet them at Mantario. I walked carefully around the tide pools and onto the beaver dam, which needed some beaver love, but it was so much easier crossing now in low water season, than when it was when I crossed this dam before and it was one floating stick. I stepped carefully, and there were shoddy bits, but I made it across safely with ease and went up the slope into the woods. Moosehead was up ahead and I was deeply confused about why the lake was on my right when the lake should be on my left and whether something disastrous would happen, when the lake opened out on my left and I was walking into Moosehead campsite in all its beautiful granite-beached slopiness and vastness. My new friends were at the far picnic table out of the chill wind from the lake and I went over and introduced myself. Their names were Scott and Becky. Scott vaguely reminded me of a guy I used to volunteer with and Becky had the black Irish thing going on. They were both lovely. They'd been out for three days already. They slept at Caribou the first night and Peggy last night with Curtis and Peter, and they were heading for Mantario tonight. I said I was too, "...if you don't mind sharing." They said of course, and invited me to sit down at the picnic table with them and all their food that was all over the place and covering the entire table. I didn't want to make them move; I also had my cool reclining ground chair, so I thanked them but declined and impressed them by sitting down in my chair and leaning back. Ah. We chatted while Scott lit their stove, Becky dug out the soup mix, and I unloaded my peanut butter. I took out my InReach to let my family know the exact location of my lunch by magic and Scott asked me if I found the GPS useful. I explained how it wasn't a GPS, or technically it was both a GPS and a Facebook machine but I didn't have those activated, but I could text with my family, and Scott said to Becky, "Let's not tell your mom those things exist." We had a nice lunch, or at least I did. Their soup, delicous though it looked, was still cooking when I ran out of room in my tummy and put away my peanut butter and all the detritus I had scattered around me for the lunching of. I said goodbye to Scott and Becky with the sureness that we would be back together in a few hours and set out.
The stretch between Moosehead and Mantario is one of the most beautiful, the hardest, and the starkest sections of the Mantario Trail. From the campsite, you walk along the shore of Moosehead Lake for a few hundred yards and onto a beaver dam so old it has trees taller than a man growing out of it. The dam has real tread, and beach, and looks more like skinny long peninsula, except the one place where the beaver left a gap and you can see that all this land is built on sticks. From the dam, you hike up and then you stay up. There is nothing but a granite table stretched in front of you with trees far away down steep slopes and the sky and the sun and the wind. Then the sweetest blue lake comes into view like a picture from a storybook, and once that passes, you find Mantario Lake on your right and it continues for ages. Finally, two waterbottles later, the trail starts going up and down, and painfully up, and why am I going up?, there are a couple portages and then you're going through thick woods and walk right into the Mantario campsite. I was disappointed my hike didn't take longer because it was amazing. I love the wind. But Mantario is amazing too. It wasn't a windy day at water level, just on the tops, so there wasn't a particular wind off the lake, which was nice because Mantario is at an inlet on the northern edge of the Lake Mantario and the wind could whip the water into whitecaps and freeze the whole site; Mantario was the farthest I made it in 2014 and I had to sit huddled on the far side of a tree to eat a power bar without the wind blowing through me. But this evening it was calm and sunny. The tiny little island out in the lake was perfect. A person could swim out there under thoroughly different conditions. Then they could stay there and eat pine nuts and lead a miniature life. Ah beauty. Scott and Becky were far behind me so I got first tent padsies and took the one off to the side where there was less space and more privacy and wind protection. After I set up my tent, I went banging through the woods looking for the bear box and gathering firewood. There were a ton of false trails in back of the site but I just couldn't find the bloody thing, or the privy. After I'd collected ample firewood anyway, I gave up. I sat in my chair on my picnic table in the sun with the water laking in front of me and relaxed and the trees rustled and various things happened in Terry Pratchett's head that he wrote down for me to find out later and then I read them. After a while, I started wondering whether Scott and Becky were going to show up, and if not, should I go looking for them? Obviously a night search would be a bad idea but we had hours of daylight left and if they were in peril, I had a device for summoning helicopters. Conversely, if they'd just gotten tired and decided to bivy down, I wouldn't want to search needlessly for safe people. What if they'd stayed at Moosehead because they didn't want to camp with me and then I blundered up and started trying to splint them? Finally, they saved me from worrying by walking into the campsite. They took the tent pad straight back from the picnic area and I continued kicking back. Scott walked down the trail past the campsite and found the bearbox right there, and the privvy a little ways back in the bush. We chatted and ate our respective dinners. I had beans, they had a boil in the bag meal.
They went off to get more organized and I decided to get the fire going because dark was falling and I was getting cold. I'd been worried that I would be camping with adamantly anti-fire green people, but Becky and Scott had made a few comments already indicating that a fire was obligatory. We had a crackling fire going and I was getting something out of my tent when I heard a tinkling bell come from farther down the trail. I hung around to see who it was and two women walked into the campsite. I greeted them loudly since I was covered in twilight and they didn't spook. They seemed a little desperate and very happy to sit down. Their names were Amy and Claire. They had nice puffy jackets on, and trekking poles, and looked like people who knew their stuff, or people who take gear reviews seriously. It was hard to tell in the dark. One of them dug a cook pot out of her pack and the other one pulled out a a hanging water filter. "We ran out of water," Claire said. No wonder they looked so rough even in the dark. It transpired they'd hiked from Richie Lake and Amy hurt her leg somewhere in the morning so they'd been going slowly all day. They'd filled water at some point but hadn't filled it again and they had this retarded hanging water filter. I gave them a bottle of my iodine water to start their food and we chatted. Claire and Amy had such thick accents I thought they must be Quebecois but they were from a town half an hour outside of Winnipeg. Scott and Becky had accents a little bit, and they spoke in kilometres and thought it was fifteen degrees out, but Amy and Claire were from a different land. They were funny too. Claire said, "Should I tell them my story about Pop Tarts?" Amy said she definitely should. Claire said, "I was looking for backpacking food recipes online and it said on this one website, 'Pop Tarts are a great morale booster! Bring some along,' and I decided to get some when I was food shopping. We ate them today and they were gross." I was on my chocolate and apertif course and I offered everyone some tiny booze. I always bring enough that if I make new camping friends, I can share, and this was only the second time ever I'd had camping friends. Amy didn't want any but Claire chose a tiny hard lemonade. She said, "A great morale booster. Ha!" They'd had a rough day. They'd gotten off the trail somewhere up past Richie Lake, climbed a cliff, and found a sleeping bag, a bunch of food packages, and a pair of boxers, shredded up and mauled. They'd gotten the hell out of there. Claire said, "The bear didn't maul the guy. If some man was mauled by a bear, we'd have heard about it, but the bear definitely got his pack." They'd had to climb up a cliff where a scraggly, manky rope was tied to a root to make the ascent, but there was a scramble next to the root where most people avoided the rope and hauled themselves up. They had ingredients in Ziplock baggies and I was horrified when they chucked the empty baggies into the fire. Come on. We sat around the fire a little more. Scott and Becky were yawning. I decided it was really time for bed. Seriously past time for bed. 9:30. What kind of wild night was I having? I left my Canadian friends with the fire and crawled into my tent and my snuggly clothes. Camping is so easy when it's dry. I made a sleepy time mix on my iPod and fell asleep before the first song was done. I woke up cold but pumped. I was only wearing one pair of long underwear, one t-shirt, and one sweater, cold!, so I put on my a long undershirt and my fleece. I listened to my music even quieter in my tent because I didn't want to wake my friendly buddies at this ungodly hour. Out of my tent, it was even colder with damp chill. I put my arm back in my tent and found my other long underwear shirt and my mitten gloves. So glad I brought them. I tied the shirt on my head and rememebered why this was worth it: A mist covered the lake right up to the shore. The island was disappeared but the crescent moon and Venus shone through the haze. My breakfast had a chipmunk friend and I took turns watching him and the mist so slowly disappear while the sun rose. I had my peanut butter tortilla in utter peace. Then I fiddled around a bit and got my tent down with my freezing hands. Amy woke up and said goodbye to me on her way to the bathroom and I set off along the trail uphill in an early morning in thick green woods. I was scared for today. Claire and Amy made the trail sound difficult and I'd already climbed things hard and hiked far and stepped carefully. I have no idea how to freestyle up granite precipes.
The trail climbed through the nice forest up to another granite top and view of the forest. There had been a burn up there and it was an easy mess of tree trunks and low bushes, along with the rock and the astounding view of the next lake or Mantario Lake. It was a little hard to tell. I was descending from Three Lake to Two Lake to One Lake and felt backwards. The important thing was that I was walking on the correct path, which was easy because there's only one path in the whole of the forest. The terrain wasn't so easy but it wasn't any more difficult than before. When I found the place of the helping rope, I was surprised, firstly because when I looked at the trail, it went straight down. I took some vertical trail pictures, and then I looked around and there was another route and maybe another one. There were plenty of ledges and places to rest while descending, and I wasn't afraid to climb down. The rock chimnied and I scooted carefully down past a yellow rope two feet to my left and said, "Oh, that's what Amy was talking about" and then I was at the bottom of the cliff and not worried about getting up again because it was not hard. There was one place where the path stopped. I crossed a little stream and went up and the trail went around on a wide ledge on the side of a cliff and then it ended. I couldn't find the bloody thing at all, and I was definitely still on the trail because it was flagged. But where was the next flag? There was an up climb that could be the trail and it was the most trail-looking thing I could see, so I climbed up the cliff and stood on top of the cliff looking around for more trail, but it seemed that the place I had climbed was not trail at all so there was no trail to follow past that. I tried walking along the edge of the cliff to see if there was any trail around, if I had climbed up in the wrong place and I should've climbed up nearby, but there was no trail, just the wind blowing in the grass and the rocks and the sky and the sun. It was one of the more beautiful places I've ever seen, up there. I sat for a while, looking, and then I got down and tried walking the trail to where it dead-ended again, and found a little bit of trail on the other side of a bush and kept trucking. So much pretty. I had a long haul that day so I kept pushing. There was a lookout on the map and I looked out over it, but it had a view of more trees. I'm not sure why that was the lookout, since I'd seen thirty places of equally spectacular beauty, but it was very high up. Then I met two men walking along a granite top between some trees. The first one saw me, and I saw the first one, and we said hi, and the guy behind him jumped a mile. I'd met so many trail friends by then that I don't even remember their names. They asked me where I was coming from and I said "Mantario, but I left at 7:30," so they wouldn't get over-optimistic. The first man said, "At 7:30, I was trying to get five more minutes in my sleeping bag but he made me get up." They'd camped at Richie and they were doing the trail in four days, heading to Mantario tonight. They'd met the couple who got stung by the hornets on their way out. I told them they'd be meeting Scott and Becky soon. The front man asked me if I was the girl who'd said she was solo hiking the trail this weekend on the Mantario Trail Facebook page. No, but wow. Unicorns! The second guy didn't say much, but he had a hunting knife on his hip and a stubby blaze orange knife on his shoulder strap, which is overkill. We wished each other luck and I headed on for Richie Lake. I hiked along and started seeing lower land, more mud and trees and less granite tops. There were portage trails and places where a tree had fallen and people kicked another trail around it. Everything got a little damper, and the mud crust appeared. I pushed on into the thick forest and the rises and falls, all the clustered pines and the knowing that there was a lake, at least one, nearby, but I'd never see it from here. Richie Lake campsite was meant to be off the trail somewhere and I wanted to find it and have lunch there but I was worried I would miss the turn and never find it and I would never have lunch until supper time. So I was that much more surprised when I came up on a huge blue peeling board sign, "Richie Lake Campsite 400km" in big letters with a big arrow. It was the kind of sign that you could see if you were stumbling exhaustedly through the woods hoping to find the campsite in moonless dark, which was probably the point. I followed the turn-off, went up and around and down through sparse pines past a bear box and a privy off in the woods but not as discreet as these things usually are, and here was my picnic table at Richie. Lunch! Today was a sad day because it was the end of my tortillas and from now on I would be stuck eating peanut butter off Wasa crackers like a health martyr. The lake had a seagull flying off in the distance and I watched it and ate, then checked out the campsite. The picnic table had space for a tent behind it, and then there was a step, as with a sunken living room, up to a perfect campsite with an illegal fire ring and space for one flat tent and one slopey tent, then back through some trees was a lovely tent pad where someone had taken an enormous shit. That explained the flies. Toilet paper too. Then there was another, smaller tent pad and another trail to the privy. I moved on. I was definitely moving faster with better muscles and less food weight. The terrain from Richie was forested and post-muddy. There were massive steep hills to climb, but the trail was dirt not rock. Hemenway was close by, according the map and I got high up again and gazed at the massive Crowduck Lake and then started lowering down onto granite tops that wove around each other like little rooms. I was wearing my stripey t-shirt and enjoying the stripes and my lemonade and all the prettiness. I was a little distracted when two men popped out somewhere and I said hi to them and we chatted a bit. I asked them how far to Hemenway and they said, "You're almost there." From then I walked about two hundred feet and turrned somehow and there I was looking at a picnic table and a little lake and two more Canadians. Friends! They were monkeying around with a kitchen tarp a little ways from the kitchen. The campsite at Hemenway Lake is a vast rock room,one wall the lake, one wall forest, one wall forest and rock, and one wall a thin line of trees separating it from another room. There were two obvious paths into that room and I found out later that the bearbox and privy were in there. The floor of the campsite room was all granite and flat the first ten feet from the forest wall and sloping down to the lake 'til at the end there was a forty degree angle of beach granite. So there was a ton of space, but not many tent sites, unless you like sleeping on igneous rock and waking up in lakes. Cate and Karen already had their tent set up in spot near the kitchen and there were other places where a person could set up the tent if they wanted to chip away at the precious topsoil. I wanted to avoid that so I went and checked out the other room, but stabbing the topsoil with tent stakes was my only hope really. I chose a spot barely bigger than my tent set up. My tent stakes went half an inch into the soil, hit granite and I ended up finding some rocks to hold the ropes down. Then I moved to the picnic table and sat with Cate and Karen, not being too sure if I was intruding or if hanging out by myself by the lake in full view of them would be weirder. Obviously, I chose the expedient of holding a book but not reading it. They were Winnipegers, and fun people. Cate had step-kids and when I said I was Minnesotan, she said, "Winnipegers love Minnesota." She said she hadn't gone down to the States for back to school shopping this year because the dollar was up but she usually does. She talked about all the things you can get for cheaper in the US, like cheese. I said I wanted to spend a day being a tourist in Winnipeg before I went home and asked them what I should see. They said, "The Forks," the new riverfront shopping district and Human Rights Museum. Cate told a story about Duluth last month with her husband and step-kids: she forgot her sandals so she bought some cheap flip-flops, sprayed herself down with bug spray, and the sandals melted. A tingling ding started from the south and I said, "Ah, I wonder if that's Scott and Becky." Karen said quietly, "I wouldn't say this to someone with a bear bell, but they've done studies with black bears and grizzlies in Alberta, and bear bells attract black bears. They're naturally curious so if they hear a rhthymic noise, they'll get closer to see where it's coming from." Scott and Becky came through the trees just then. I was glad to see them, as I had the same questions about what to do if they didn't turn up that I'd had the previous night. They set up their tent on another little patch of dirt closer Karen and Cate and came to sit around the picnic table with us. We checked in on our relative days, hiking the same terrain. They'd also gone off-trail somewhere, and met those two guys with two knives. Karen and Cate had great stories. They were both a little rounder than they used to be, I'm sure, but they'd done adventuring, and not just American things but Candian outdoorspersonship. Cate said, "Never try to cook with a white gas stove in your tent in northern Saskatchewan in winter because it will flare up and burn a hole in your tent and you will spend the night freezing and being snowed on." Scott asked her how they'd survived the night, and she said, "Slept in the tent with twenty dogs. We were far away from everything. Like, the nearest town was three hours away." Cate started a fire to eat supper by, and I was even more surprised. Some people are so anti-fire, but not these people. They weren't anti-throwing their plastic bags in the fire either. Different cultures! I've never seen a massive poop on a tent pad in the States either. But regardless of what is warm, or produces carbon, or the state of a nation's bowels, we had a pleasant evening and sat around the fire until the brilliant sunset in pinks and oranges over the pines. I went to bed around 8:30, which is pretty late for me camping alone, and they tucked in a little later. I wore all my clothes to bed, but the temperature didn't drop as much as the night previous, (we were also on a cute little lake, not a huge lake) so I had a toasty warm night.
I woke up well and didn't dally in my tent too much, because today was the day, and the haul, and the climax, and the midpoint. I followed my headlamp down the eight foot trail to the other granite room. The bearbox and privy were off to the left in a little wooded area. The bearbox was plumb full what with three sets of food bags and the random crap that somebody left in there: a bottle of cooking oil, a huge metal army first aid kit, and a box of crackers. People.
I carried my stuff back through into our campsite and looked around for where to eat. Not at the picnic table, because Cate and Karen were asleep close-by. The nicest spot was near the beach but that sloped enough that if my water bottle fell over, it would wind up in the lake before I could catch it. I went down to the shore to see if there was anywhere flatter, like the illegal fire ring I couldn't see in the dark. I heard a plop. There was a beaver in the water and I'd disturbed him. He was wary of me. I froze and went slowly down on my haunches. He was floating in the water a foot off shore, eating a medium-sized tree branch. The beaver ate the tree and the sun started coming up glowfully. He adjusted and I got to see his beaver tail. Beaver! I watched him for a long time, doing his beaver thing. He was pretty great. Finally, I left him to it and set up my little stove next to my tent's grassy patch. I missed my tortillas, but my peanut butter was just fine and I had cocoa in my coffee and a little bit of fruit. It was a really nice morning. Finally, I rolled up my tent and most of my clothes and food, stuffed them in the bearbox, and I was ready to roll and be back in a few hours. It felt great having a nearly empty pack. I had a couple sweaters, my rain fly, lunch and some sundries, but there was nothing to stop me flying down the trail except that it immediately dead-ended across the rock sheet from the privy and I had to retrace my steps twice to figure out which stand of trees I was supposed to go through. From there I chugged along through thick forest not very far at all before I got my first glimpse of Big Whiteshell. Hemenway is a teeny-tiny kettle lake between Crowduck and Big Whiteshell, and Big Whiteshell is so big that it has civilization. It was a little disappointing to stand at the edge of the forest and see houses far away across the lake, after the wilderness. The first time I came to a sandy beach, I made a sand castle, as is proper. The weather was warm but blowy off the lake, and I started to see fishermen and fisherchildren and fisherdogs out in boats. There was another sandy beach, and a walk through woods ten feet from the shoreline, and an unofficial campsite. I kept weaving between beaches and woods, crossed a few streams with bridges and stepping stones. There was more excrement. Apparently Canadian outdoorsmen subscribe to the laws of Manu (http://www.economist.com/news/asia/21607837-fixing-dreadful-sanitation-india-requires-not-just-building-lavatories-also-changing). Nice unofficial campsite was ruined by poop. There was no chance of stepping in it because of the clouds of flies. But mostly the walk was sunshine, lapping waves, interesting ducks, trees, fishermen, and the sensation of moving quickly. Then there was a road, which was a huge deal. I crossed it and thought I might be getting somewhere, but the trail wove still quite onwards after that. This was the segment that everyone on the internet complains about, the long ATV trail that's all mud. Curtis from Peggy Lake got stuck in mud up to his waist here three days ago. In spring, they say, it's impassable. In September, the middle of the road was glossy wet, but it was easy to walk along the high shoulders. Mantario hikers say this segment is boring, and I hope they never do the Ice Age Trail. Then an elderly couple appeared. Nice people. They said hello and were very much impressed that I was nearly done with the trail. They were from Winnipeg and had a cottage on Big Whiteshell, and were surprised that I was an American. I said goodbye to them knowing that I'd catch them on the flipside and went on. And on. And on. And then I came down a hill and here was the road and the trailhead! It was so uneventful and yet full of accomplishment. The trailhead wasn't too exciting, with no amenities like potable water or a toilet. Just an informational kiosk with a map and a wee bit of history, a shiny black bench dedicated to a Canadian soldier who died in Bush's Iraq, and eighteen cars parked on the roadside. I took an oodle of selfies in front of the sign and sat on the bench and ate a nut roll and wondered where all the people in these cars were, since I hadn't seen them on the trail. I think they were all out in boats. I waved goodbye to the trailhead, took a few more pictures of myself, and turned around to do the entire trail over again. It was about 11:00am. The old couple weren't very far when I found them again. We said hello again and chatted some more. The lady said she'd heard somewhere that Thanksgiving was the most American of holidays and she wanted to know what I thought. I said I supposed it was true, because everyone in America does the same thing and eats the same thing on the same day, unlike all the other holidays which are celebrated variously by culture or family. (Judith Martin makes a compelling argument that high school graduation is the most American of holidays, but that's not annual for all.) She told me about Canadian Thanksgiving, which is completely different and in October. She said, "It's a harvest festival," and I didn't explain that our Thanksgiving is also a harvest festival that just happens to come six weeks late. She said they were Jewish and told me a little about Sukkot, which was also coming up. Finally, she patted my arm and wished me luck and I hiked on, and ran into Scott and Becky five minutes later. They were looking forward to getting out and taking showers, and I assured them that they were twenty minutes from the trailhead, with the conversation with the sweet elderly couple factored in. From there, I hiked on alone, through the wood, across the road and along the shore of the lake. There was one confusion where the trail went into a swamp and dead-ended. It took me four tries to figure out where I was supposed to be going. The crazy ducks were back after I'd disturbed them, sunning on a rock. Some fishermen within waving distance waved at me and I waved back. I ate lunch on a beach with the sun on my arms and it was delightful. My sandcastle was falling apart already when I went past it. Then I was back in the wood and then I was back at Hemenway. It was a little disappointing to walk into the campsite when all my campsite friends had left. I repacked my pack and chugged off quickly, even though it was a pity to say goodbye to the nice slanty beach and the beaver. And then I made my quick and uncomplicated way through the forest to Richie Lake. I was a little worried that I might somehow miss the enormous sign that said "Richie Lake 4600km" but I didn't. I turned left, followed the trail, and met my new friends. They were the two dads I'd met right before I got to Hemenway. They said they didn't mind me staying the night at their campsite. They had their tent pitched close by the picnic table, so I climbed up the little rise to the next tent pad and said hello to my next new friend, Jason, who had his stuff in a pile on the best tent spot. I didn't want to sleep next to the giant poop, so I started pulling my stuff out and setting up my tent on a the sloping tent pad while Jason sorted out his gear. He was solo, which I thought was pretty cool. He went to look around at the other tent pads and then came back and started doing foot care. I had my tent up, so I sat down next to him in my chair and we chatted. He said his wife was actually in St. Paul that weekend to see the Taylor Swift concert. I did not know that there was a Taylor Swift concert on in St. Paul. He asked me if I would have done anything different had I known, and I said I would have stayed out of St. Paul to avoid the traffic. He'd stayed at Peggy the previous night with a group of people who were too rowdy for him and planning to camp at Mantario tonight, so he'd pushed a little farther and ended up at Richie. He went to set up his tent back in the wood behind the poop . I was confused. If he wasn't sleeping on the flat spot, why was I going to spend the night sliding downhill? Still, I'd slept steeper and I believe that sleeping on a hill presents a healthy challenge. I moseyed down to the shoreline and looked around. The giant rock underneath my tent and the unofficial fire ring and a lot of other space stuck out into the lake. There was van-sized rock at the shore and some boulders at its base so a person could climb up onto it and stand there for a while and watch a canoe paddle far off in the evening water, wondering if we were going to have even more camping friends tonight. Then I got bored, slipped down the rock, and wandered up the beach on the other side to fill my water bottles on the dads' side of the campsite. The canoe pulled up, and it had a male and a female in it. The guy was their spokesperson and he discussed with the dads whether they should camp here and where the best spot would be. The girl and I said hi to each other. The guy decided, with the girl's consent, that they should pull around a little bit and camp a hundred feet around the other side of the peninsula. They never came back to visit. For the rest of my camp there, I could see the end of their canoe parked onshore, but they were camped within easy reach but not connected to our site and I didn't want to go bashing around the shoreline invading their privacy just to have a wee chat. The dads had their fire going for an hour by then, and Jason was getting his own fire started six feet from my tent. It was definitely supper time and I was very confused about everyone's campcraft and need for personal fire and where I should eat. I'm no LNT fire hater, but three people needing two fires between themselves when the sun would be up for another two hours, that's excess beyond Americana. Jason was eating next to my tent too, and if I got eaten by a bear during the night, let it be on his own head. I hopped down the ledge, tipped back in my chair at the dads' fire, and heated some water for my soup. We chatted about hiking and stuff. They were doing a two night out and back; they'd hiked to Richie yesterday, today they'd hiked up to the place where it said Lookout on the map, and tomorrow they would go back to the trailhead and get their car. They wanted to know how I filtered my water and what kind of stove I had and these gear questions, which was nice of them but, as much as I'm proud that I camp efficienlty, it's hard to talk gear to people who clearly have better (more expensive) stuff than you. They had a nice hanging bladder water filter like the two girls from Mantario, but they were using it well by staying at one campsite and not wandering around unable to hang it. They'd already eaten and they were drinking cocoa by the fire. I asked them what I should go see when I was a tourist in Winnipeg and they also said The Forks and the Canadian Museum of Human Rights. One of them said that it was a Canadian National Museum, one of only a few outside of Ottawa. The other dad hadn't been there. The one had been there on his son's field trip and he wanted to go back when he wasn't herding fourth graders. He said the Holocaust floor was like a heart attack, and there was a contemplation room on top. I'd had some good soup, powdered Lipton's style, on my Ice Age Trail adventure, and I assumed that a similar powdered soup from Costco would be as nourishing, but I realized after my first few slurps that this stuff was unbearably salty and not umami at all. I tried to get down as much as I could, slowly. The dads switched topics from the Canadian Museum of Human Rights to sheds and roofs and dad stuff. I read and sipped and tried to nutriate myself but the soup was gross. I tipped my cup into the fire, built it up a little, and ate a chocolate bar. The dads laughed when I pulled out my mini-booze. They declined, their froggie water bottle was full of whiskey. I sipped and read and enjoyed the warm until I got too tired and decided it was time to sleep. Jason's fire was dying down and there was an incredible sunset. It was a pity to get into my tent but I wanted to be by myself and not bogart somebody else's camping trip. I fell asleep before the first song on my sleepy mix was over. I woke up warm and cozy because I had all my sweaters on. The morning was beautiful as I snuck quietly around the dads' tent to the bearbox and dug out my food. I had my breakfast next to the illegal fire ring looking out over the lake drinking cocoa in the dark listening to a loon far off. And then the sunrise came and turned the whole sky pink. I shouldered my pack and waved goodbye to Jason, who was sitting on the giant rock heating water on a white gas stove silhouetted against the last colors of the sunrise like a Backpacker ad.
I climbed the high ridge above Ritchie Lake and joined up with the main path. My pack was so light I was going wicked faster. I cruised the thick forests and started pushing upwards a little slower. There was a lot of terrain here. I needed to walk carefully, slow down, climb a rock, choose the real turning out of a few options. But the weather was perfect and I was by myself again, just me and whoever else I happened to come across. I was walking hard downhill past a giant boulder in an area where I'd already passed some wolf scat. On top of the boulder and there was some wolf poo and a jawbone. Just a jawbone. All those little white teeth. Immediately an unearthly howling started and I thought I was going to die. I pulled out my bear mace and remembered that no wolf has ever killed a human bigger than a toddler. Yelling nonsense, I kept on trucking while the wolves moved around me in the near woods. Or they were extra loud and in the far woods. I couldn't tell. I climbed a rugged hill with the bear mace in my hand and came out on top of another bald granite hill. Walking across it through jagged bushes, wondering if the wolves were gone, I saw a pack of humans coming at me. This was the group Jason camped at Ritchie to avoid. There were four guys, and a girlfriend: leader who got the trip organized, the short funny one, two unremarkable ones, and the girl struggling along the rear. Dudes three and four were struggling too a bit. The leader was going flat out. No pacing, no letting the slowest member go first. When the leader stopped to say hi, everyone else fell into line and got a breather. The short funny guy said, "You're the girl who's hiking the trail by herself both ways! You're a legend!" I said, "Thanks." Aw, shucks. I like being called a legend. He said, "There's a wolf pack after you." I said, "I know." We chatted a little and the girl and I had a smile at each other. They'd stayed at Mantario with two women and they warned me that I'd be catching them on the flipside. The short funny one was darn impressed. As we parted ways, he said, "Legend! You're a leg." I could get used to that. It was nice to see them amid the struggles. Like the struggle up the cliff with the ganky rope. It wasn't hard but it was careful, climbing with my legs and my arms and putting my feet in the right place. I like going up cliffs like that. It's fun to scramble. I walked hard. The trail was getting eas... I could do it quickly.
I was up on top of the first big hill looking down at Three Lake when Cate and Karen turned up. I was surprised. Cate said they'd decided to just do a there-and-back. The hiking was a struggle when they really wanted to be swimming and reading. I totally got it. I said I'd heard they'd stayed with a rowdy crew last night. Karen said, "They did have a bottle of vodka, but everyone got to bed by ten o'clock." We said our goodbyes and I hiked down the sloping shores of lake Mantario, which must have been huge when it was a pool of melting glacier. That slope went on forever, not least because I got lost on a deer trail and took ages to find where the trail actually turned off on an undiscernible jog through a tree. Finally I made it to beautiful Lake Mantario around 10:00am. So early in the morning and I had gone so far already and I was so disappointed in somebody. Not sure who was disappointing me, but one of the Mantario buddies left a smoldering firepit full of Alpine meal wrappers. I didn't want to pack out their ashy, gross food trash, so I dumped a few bottles of water on the fire, stirred it around, and ate a nut roll because I needed energy and the lake was beautiful. I gave myself a good sitting down before I pressed on to Moosehead. Mantario to Moosehead, I've decided, is my favorite hike of the Mantario Trail. So many views. It's all view really. It's unbelievable. Just granite descending into sylvan forests and splashy lakes that are so blue. I decided to have my lunch up on a massive piece of solid granite overlooking the last little lake before Moosehead. The temperature was Canadian 30º and sunny pleasant breeze all over. I put my shirts to dry in the sun and kicked back in my chair with the sound of the birds and the air and the great land of Canada and the bear bell. Oh no. I whipped my shirt back on just as two teenage boys and a girl popped through the last screen of trees. I stood up and said hi and we had a slightly awkward conversation. I think shirtlessness is legal in parts of Canada but I don't think it's common. They trundled on and I kicked back again. It was a pity to get up, but I was between getting to Moosehead too early and getting to Peggy too late and I knew I was probably aiming for the Peggy Lake campsite with its windswept bearbox on a hill.
My next surprise was soon and German. I was crossing a big bare expanse of rock when a lone man popped into view. He asked me if I could do him a favor. I said yes, probably, as favors can go in any number of directions. He explained that he, Dietlieb, a German fellow with trekking poles and possibly technical leiderhosen, was supposed to be meeting his co-workers at Caribou Lake but he'd been having such a lovely hike that he decided to ditch them (not his words) and continue on his own. He been trying to text them from the tops of mountains but he didn't have bars in the valleys. If I ran into his co-workers, could I tell them that Dietlieb had continued on without them? I said of course, because why wouldn't I? I was supposed to be on the lookout for Chris and Jeff. Chris had "Asiatic features" and Jeff was not Asian. I assured him that I would keep my eyes out for an Asian guy and white guy. Soonly, I was going downhill through thick marshy forest on the north end of Moosehead lake, which turns wildly through swamps and pines and unmapped lakes until one ends up on the beaver dam so big it has trees growing out of it. A person could live on that beaver dam like on the olde London Bridge. Moosehead had Alpine meal packets in the firepit too, but at least they weren't on fire. Morons. I kicked back on the picnic table on the beach and read the whole trail journal that was still in a plastic bag in a box nailed to a tree. Everyone had been there, people who wanted a beer and lonely people and highschoolers and people with dogs and happy people and me last year, and people who were being eaten by mosquitoes, and Winnipeg Muslims, and people with hornet stings.