I was on the top of a snowy hill when my phone rang. Actually, I was in the middle of a photo shoot with my chameleon companion Pascal. It couldn’t be helped. He stands out so vibrantly in the white landscape. I love the juxtaposition of the colours (really, I just love the irony).

“Hey! How was your hike? You said you’d call me when you got back!”

There’s a few reasons why this is funny:

#1) I didn’t even know I had cell service. Plus, how did my gramma know I was stopped at that time? My ringer was off & if I had been hiking, I would never have noticed the call.

#2) She’s right. I had planned to knock out the trek in 3 days, which is a normal estimate at any other time of year. In the winter – it was laughable. It would mean either hiking faster over the slippery terrain, waking up really early (no thanks) or hiking a few hours in the dark because of the shorter days. I’m already hiking alone, I didn’t want to be grouchy when I only had myself as company!

#3) I was giggling from the excess of fresh air & the general absurdity of the moment, so everything was funny. It was great to talk to someone other than myself or Pascal or the birds or the trees. She probably thought I was losing my marbles.

Taking my adventure chameleon for a walk!

I whipped this trip up last minute. 3 days earlier, I had no idea that I’d be chasing daylight through the Canadian Shield later that week. The forecast was unreal for December in Manitoba: high of +4/low of -4. It called for a bold celebration.

So I packed my bags to do the longest hiking trail in Manitoba – the 64km Mantario Trail – for my second time.

My first time on the Mantario trail was kind of a nightmare. Circumstances seemed like it should have been great! It was the week after Thanksgiving during a particularly mild fall. The forecast was perfect for hiking; 10 to 15° during the day & hovering around freezing at night. We had one day with a bit of snow, one day with a cold overnight, & most importantly: no bugs, no bears, & no people.

By the time we hiked out however, our friendship was pretty much over.

There was some oversight about gear that we hadn’t considered; we decided to bring 2 stoves just in case one stopped working, but we only had one Jetboil pot that my friend was borrowing & didn’t want to chance scorching it on my stove. That means suddenly we had half the fuel we meant to, plus the dead weight of the extra stove, extra fuel & the fuel-intensive food that wasn’t going to be cooked – like oatmeal.

Looking back, this trip was a recipe for disaster. I had just bought new hiking boots & me, in my brazen go-get-em-ness, decided that there’s no better way to break in a pair of boots than on a 64km hike. What could possibly go wrong?! About halfway through the trail, I started to get knee pain. I’ve never had a problem with my knees before & it scared me. This was also during a time when I scoffed at the idea of using hiking poles (“The forest is filled with walking sticks that are just as good!”). I gradually became conscious of each extra ounce in my pack & it was all bearing down on my mental & physical state. It made me grouchy.

Oh, and we were sharing a tent. Great.

I haven’t even mentioned the transportation snafu. This is a one-way trail, so most hikers either leave a car at either end or swap keys with other hikers heading in the opposite direction. Since we only had one car between us & we were the only ones on the trail, so the plan was to hitchhike back to Winnipeg, which a mutual friend had done in the summer.

This turned out to be almost impossible because it was October in cabin country & there were simply no cars on the road. After a long 4 day hike through the woods, we plodded along the road for over an hour faced with the prospect of spending another night out when the tension between us was at its peak.

This was 100% my fault – I said I would arrange transportation. We did finally get a ride from the only car we saw. The next day I hitchhiked back out to the trailhead to get my car because I couldn’t ask my partner for a ride because he was mad at me….which a whole other can of worms.

All-in-all, it was a pretty horrible experience.

I could use a redemption arc.

After the amazing forecast made me hallucinate adventure ideas, everything fell into place. I got the time off work & miraculously arranged a drop-off at the south trailhead with my car waiting safely at the north trailhead. Before I knew it, it was happening.

I made sure to pack some extra gear for the colder overnight temperatures; an extra sleeping pad, extra base layers, cozy socks, & extra extra flashlight batteries. This time I packed hiking poles – I always carry hiking poles on a long trip now. This is a testament to the personal growth that comes with experience.

However, a recent purchase meant that I would be breaking in new hiking boots again. Maybe I haven’t learned anything.

The note left in my vehicle at the North trailhead

The day we drove out was miraculous. It was one of those gentle winter mornings with hoarfrost & lavender skies that reminds you that dawn is a gift to those who wake up early.

I was energized by the cool fresh air, the sun on my back & more than a bit of adrenaline from making foolhardy daydreams a reality.

Laughing again, I shocked a group of day-hikers by suggesting I may have dropped my car keys somewhere along the way. For a brief moment, it was conceivable that I could successfully reach my vehicle & have everything go according to plan, only to lose my keys some 50kms behind me. That was just my mind playing tricks on me (“They’re not in my pocket…did I put them in my backpack?”) – I was already in my own world.

Getting to the first campsite, Caribou East, I felt good. I looked over my first pick of virgin campsites & checked my watch. I’d come 12kms & it was around 2:30pm. Tricky timing – too early to stop for the night, but far enough away that it’d be dark before I got to the next campsite. So I continued on..

Overlooking Caribou East campsite. Still time to turn back…
Agreed. Let’s take a quick snack & keep going!

Hiking in the dark was a trip. I knew that the trail could be hard to find in sections with a bit of distance between markers. Mostly I was surprised at how easy it was to find; this trail got a lot of use in the past year & sometimes it was either well-defined through the brush, or well-trafficked by a variety of animals. I found myself often following fox tracks to lead me towards the path of least resistance.

The trail design seems highly intuitive. That is, until the hairs stand up on the back of your neck – a subconscious suspicion you’ve gone the wrong way, which happened occasionally even during the day. Only mildly disconcerting, it’s easy enough to follow your own tracks in the snow & backtrack to another marker.

Following the fox tracks

Marion Lake was a chance to practice my winter camping skills. I decided to melt snow for water over the fire to preserve fuel. The balancing act of sourcing clean, fresh snow to drink, constantly refilling the pot so it doesn’t burn dry & keeping the fire hot enough was a chore that kept me busy for hours. Luckily, I had a random plastic grocery bag with me, so I would scoop a bagful of clean snow off the ice instead of going back & forth with my little one-person pot.

I got the best campsite that night, sheltered from the wind & close to the edge of the lake. I had used a couple pages from my book as firestarter, but never actually sat down to read it. Between the unsettling sounds of the ice groaning, the halo of stars & the mental quiet that comes with doing what needs to be done, it was enough to be immersed in this wild wonderland; I didn’t need an escape.

The morning glistened with hoarfrost. I had hoped this mild weather would create the perfect conditions for moisture to crystalize the landscape. The sun was already up. I always have the best intentions of getting up early, but I am notorious for over-sleeping in my tent – even as the summer sun bakes me alive.

Morning at Marion Lake
Home sweet home

Even though the sun was shining, black clouds were forming in my mind. This was my worst day. I pressed on even though I was achy. (“Whose idea was this anyway??”) I assumed I was in good hiking shape. I was not. No sign of knee pain though, which is a good thing.

My anxiety was triggered by a change in the weather forecast. The road into the north trailhead was steeper & icier than I’d realized, & I was worried that a little bit of snow might defeat my 2-wheel drive & leave me stranded. There was no precipitation in the forecast when I left. That morning when I asked about overnight temps, I heard the last thing I was expecting:

Overnight freezing rain.

I stopped in my tracks & checked the skies. Sure enough, I could see the clouds coming in on the horizon. I spent the day hoping I could literally out-run the weather if I got further north. That was my motivation for the day; I was sore & alone, but if I kept going as best as I could maybe I could beat the weather.

When I approached the campsite, the light was growing dim. There was a bridge to cross & I could see the sign marking the campsite. My backpack was feeling particularly heavy but rest was within sight.

The sign read Olive Lake. I was supposed to be at Moosehead Lake by now! Groaning, I let my bag fall to the ground. I sat down on a picnic table, grabbed a Clif bar & weighed my options. According to the map, the next campsite was less than 1km away over mostly flat terrain. After Moosehead Lake was the most arduous section of the trail. I was hoping to get as far as I could before the rain, but I had only done 13kms that day – 5kms less than the day before. And I didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks like hiking the hardest section in the dark.

I gave myself a second-wind & kept on to Moosehead Lake. Actually, I immediately got lost & just thought about staying the night at Olive Lake. Once I found the trail, it was straight-forward as the map suggested. After a quick 20-minute hop, I had finally reached the halfway point.

It was an uneventful evening. I set up my tent before anything else, & was flipping through the hikers’ logbook when the rain started at 6 pm. I listened to the rain spatter on my tent for an hour or so before I decided to just go to sleep. Had some trail mix & a bar for dinner. I expected a fitful sleep of waking up shivering again, so may as well get started early.

Perhaps not the most inspiring message…

During the night, I woke up with a surge of energy & a brainstorm idea. The rain had made the snow nice & sticky, so I used it to build a wall around my 3-season tent to help with insulation. I felt like a genius.

Am I a backcountry survival expert now?!?

I woke up refreshed. I stayed warm & had a pretty good sleep. My body was acclimatizing to the exercise. (Or maybe it was because I slept for ~12 hours… Who knows?)

It wasn’t as sunny & beautiful as it had been, but it was a great day. It was hard work, but it wasn’t as icy as I’d feared. I felt strong & the fog was gone. My mind was a jukebox of all the music I’ve ever heard & when I stopped for a snack break, it was also a dance break. I even stopped to get a Geocache at the North end of Mantario Lake!

My feelings exactly! 😀

I was in love with the world. There were tracks from so many different families of animals – rodents, weasels, canines, & hoofed mammals. I kept a my head on a spindle, hopeful to catch the sight of an owl or fox or lynx or anything there is to see. One time, my head was in the clouds as I scanned the area & I caught sight of something that made my stomach drop. It was a big black wolf standing still on the rocks above me. As I watched, I shifted my weight side-to-side & realized it was a fallen tree that was perfectly aligned to create this illusion. (Did I mention I was alone?)

Alas, the only animals I can confirm to have seen (other than Pascal) were red squirrels, woodpeckers & ravens. Maybe I was singing too loudly.

What are you, little creature?

I got to the first pick of campsites that night too, & I even arrived before dark! Actually, the best campsite at Ritchey Lake was too exposed, so I chose something more tucked into the woods. There was already a hole in the ice which was surrounded by shells, where an otter had had a meal. I was struck by my good fortune. (“This campsite has everything!”)

This was supposed to be the coldest night, so I prepped my tent with another wall to help with insulation – this time built with fallen logs. I had my comfort food of spaghetti for dinner & felt an inner warmth as I tucked into bed. When I woke to sounds outside my tent during the night, I pictured them coming from a deer or a wolf that was drawn by curiosity. I figured that they meant no harm & went back to sleep.

Big bad wolf did not blow down my wood-reinforced tent

The final day was a blur. It was colder than it had been during the day at -5° & the air was still. Couldn’t ask for better hiking weather. The northern section of the trail is boring since a large portion of it follows an old road. Up until then, my mind swirled over the signs of other people! Like footprints, & snowmobile tracks & a call from my gramma who sounds like she’s somewhere warm where her bootlaces aren’t frozen with ice chunks.

Big Whiteshell Lake – finally!

Suddenly, I was done. I had my keys, no pain in my legs & had no problem on the roads after all. The Mantario is a mental challenge as well as a physical one. Not gonna lie, it was tough. There were times when I would have been terrible company & I was glad to be alone. There were also times when I had to muster up the strength to do it myself & conjured up hugs from my friends through their motivational text messages. <3

I am relieved to hike out on a high note, in better shape than I went in.

I finally found redemption.

Still smiling