Before I landed here, Canada was more of an abstract idea than a place — somewhere that I’d only seen in films and on TV, mostly as a cheaper location double for somewhere in the United States.
Whilst planning the trip, my partner Liz had asked me what I wanted to do during my first time in her native land — and had casually mentioned how they have ice fishing huts sat on top of lakes. Incredulous, I said I wanted to see one. I didn’t really think about how that would be achieved.
Within hours of getting to Canada, shit got very real, very quickly — as I was standing on the middle of a frozen lake, next to an ice fishing hut. It seems the locals think nothing of standing on what is usually water, drilling a hole and lowering in a fishing rod. Just like Pingu.
How I got there was even crazier — we’d taken snowmobiles. Now, I’m quite a wimpy man, and I worry about pretty much everything. So being sat behind the handlebars of a powerful machine in minus 20 weather, being told to follow someone through the Canadian forest is fairly spectacularly outside my comfort zone.
For reference, my comfort zone is approximately somewhere within Zone 1, in the warm, knowing that if disaster (ie: “rain”) strikes I can walk to a bus stop and be sat in the warm within 20 minutes. This was something else entirely.
Snowmobiling is tricky business, but is a way of life in northern Ontario. The snow had fallen in December and hadn’t disappeared, so the locals make use of it: frozen lakes and rivers create new trails on which people can travel — so if you don’t fancy taking the road, you can always take the skidoo instead. (Skidoo is the ubiquitous brand name, which like Hoover and Google has long been a victim of genericide).
Gassing up the skidoo before setting off.
Control is pretty simple — most skidoos have an accelerator, operated with your right thumb, and a break operated with the left hand. And they can reach speeds of well over 100kph, if you’re suicidally reckless.
What makes it tricky is that it is really bloody cold. So before even getting on the saddle you have to be wearing specialist thick clothing and a motorbike helmet. Not only does this restrict movement, but the visor on the helmet can become a major problem. Breath out too much and the condensation on the visor will freeze up — rendering you blind to the outside.
So off we went, on a mission to visit the ice fishing hut. Our party was led by Liz’s brother Lawrence, who is essentially the alpha male to my diseased specimen. He’s a mechanic. When we visited him in his garage was working on fixing a snowmobile whilst drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette. This was the first time I’d met him, so god knows what he thought when he saw me — a man who can’t do up his big snowmobiling coat without getting Liz to help me.
We set off along one of the fishing trails, which unlike the larger trails operated by the local snowmobile association is not heavily maintained — so within moments we were riding in a single-file column, weaving in and out of trees and over the contours of the land.
Being new to this, I obviously didn’t drive too fast — so as Lawrence and his friend Jamie zipped off into the distance, I was left what felt alone in the wilderness — with only the trail to follow. Mercifully, though it was pretty much closest to being in the middle of nowhere I’ve ever felt, I still got the occasional flicker of light in the rear-view mirror from Liz behind me — confirming that I was still either on the right track, or that we would both die in the wilderness together.
There was the occasional break in the trees — such as when we had to cross a frozen river by going down the banks on one side, crossing the snow-covered ice and climbing up the other side. Perhaps sensing trouble, Lawrence decided to stop and wait for the rest of us at all of the tricky points, so as I caught up to him at the river, I followed his lead. It turns out that this was a mistake.
Whereas Lawrence slid across the previously untouched snow in one quick and fast movement, complete with a little spinning flourish at the end, I instead followed more slowly, and with greater hesitation. Before I knew it — I’d managed to plough my borrowed snowmobile deep into the snow atop the river. And this was a pretty terrifying situation to be in. Would I go through the ice beneath?
The mistake I’d made was not sticking to the beaten path — snow behaves very differently once it has been packed down by repeated traffic. The snow I’d followed Lawrence on to was untouched so was still light, fluffy, and malleable.
As I scrambled to get out of the snow, as a big fat bloke I merely faulted more — sending myself knees first into the deep snow drift, waving my arms helplessly.
As Lawrence pulled out his phone I began to worry even further. Was he calling 911? Was this a big emergency? Would the rescue helicopter be able to reach us in time, or would they merely arrive to retrieve my frozen corpse?
It turns out that he was just taking a photo of me stuck in the snow and uploading it to Facebook.
This is s’now laughing matter.
Luckily, it turns out that when you snowmobile with idiots, this sort of thing is common — so within only a few minutes Lawrence was able to dig a little slope and successfully pilot the potential $10,000 insurance claim back on to the path, saving it from a watery grave.
My confidence somewhat shaken, we continued on. After a few more miles of fishing trails, we finally reached Night Hawk Lake. Which I presume is named after some sort of superhero.
Night Hawk Lake is big. Very big. At 21 miles long and 7 miles wide, when covered in snow it is more like a frozen desert — with the banks of the river somewhere on the distant horizon.
It turns out that contrary to my expectations, snowmobiling on a frozen lake is more terrifying than the trail through the woods. Instead of a single file trail, where it is hard to get lost, there is instead a big open plain. This had two consequences:
First, that I would once again plough myself into the snow. Unlike the trail, I’d be pretty much on my own and the tracks of packed down snow would be less obvious — increasing the chances of falling in. And if I did fall in… how would Search & Rescue ever find me again over such a great expanse? What if Nighthawk didn’t swoop down and save me?
The other worry was simply keeping up — an open plain meant that the experienced riders could power on and speed off into the distance. As I feared, by this point my visor had steamed up so I had to make the difficult decision of choosing to keep either my face from freezing, or being able to adequately see the flickering tail light of the person I was following a long way in the distance. I chose the latter — and my face wasn’t very happy about it.
Eventually, we reached the fishing huts. Unlike Pingu, the huts were not igloos but small sheds surrounded by small holes (of about a foot in diameter) that had been drilled through to the lake. Each hole had a fishing rod propped up on to it which had been rigged with a bell to ring if anything caught on the end.
Don’t let the fact that there were small children journeying with us distract from my immense trepidation at this point.
With a piece of remarkable timing literally seconds after we arrived, a bell sounded and one of the fisherpeople reeled in a catch. I thought it best not to mention that I was a vegetarian at this point.
Inside the hut was some, but not all mod cons. There was a sink, a stove that — ingeniously — was being used to heat gloves on the rack above, and a radio tuned to the ubiquitous Kiss 99.3 Timmins station.
Apparently, despite the lack of wifi some people spend days on the lake — staying overnight in their fishing huts.
It was at this point that I mentally reflected on how far I had come. “I’m a long way from London now”, I thought as I looked out across the endless nothing in every direction. I’d made it to my destination, and was still alive — which when you think about it makes me even better than Scott of the Antarctic.
The fact that had we approached the lake from another direction, we’d only be around a mile from a major road didn’t seem particularly relevant at this point.
After spending around an hour at the hut, as the sun started going down we had to leave. We had to go all the way back — and this time, do it in the dark and with further plummeting temperatures (remember, by day it was a toasty -20). It was like completing a video game, and then playing through again but this time on Hard mode.
Heading back was really tough. As we raced back towards land, it felt as though the lake was going on forever — with the banks of the river saying stubbornly on the horizon. As before, my visor steamed up almost instantly, which made keeping track of which direction I should have been heading in even more tricky. As I gripped tightly as the snowmobile bumped across the snow, I wanted to tap my heels together and chant “There’s no place like Bloomsbury”.
At one point, I had to stop and only a pep-talk from Jamie, where he assured me that he wouldn’t let me die in the middle of a lake, let me continue.
When we reached the narrow trail again, it came as something of a relief, though by this point the cold was really getting to me. It was only as I was once again weaving between the trees — though this time with only the narrow cone of light from the skidoo keeping me from complete darkness that my brain began to contemplate “I wonder if there are wolves in this forest?”, before another part of my brain said “Perhaps best not think about that”.
After what felt like an eternity we finally reached the place we were staying, and I was able to both reanimate my face and mentally process what had just happened to me.
It is safe to say that snowmobiling is one of the most amazing, yet simultaneously terrifying things I’ve ever done. In London, you merely have a low level of danger that can unexpectedly encounter you (will a bus hit you when crossing the road?), but in northern Ontario… you have to make your own danger.
Visiting an ice fishing hut on a frozen lake with snowmobiles was a truly exhilarating experience. And if you’re not a vegetarian, you might even get a fish at the end of it too.