Winter for paddlers is a beautiful place both mentally and physically. We recover from a summer of hard trail, we relive the relaxing moments when the bugs weren’t out, and so often we creep back to those places in our mind when all the waters align, the sunset a deep hue, the rhythm of travel playing like an anthem in our memory. Winter is also a special place as once again we get to walk the trails we left when the leaves fell, this time with snow under shoe and cold air rushing out the warm memories. Path of the Paddle is synonymous with summer, though it doesn’t have to be.
Winter camping in a canvas tent with a wood stove is a lot of work, yet this freedom to experience warmth in a cold place is the safety paddlers need to travel all winter. The best way to access Path of the Paddle regions in the winter is to know where there is plowed access, what the fishing is like if you intend to do so, and whether or not the distances to portages are too far for reasonably walking to, as well if open water might be present around currents. For this reason, Northern Lights Lake is an exceptional place on the trail to begin winter camping. The lake is a maze of islands and offers seclusion from snowmobile traffic, and the trout fishing off deep water points in exceptional. Here though, you won’t be walking portages over to other lakes, such as Saganaga, without expansive distances to cover. Other roadside access with similar qualities are Lake of the Woods, Eagle Lake, Wabigoon Lake, and Clearwater West Lake.
Quetico remains open all winter for backcountry camping, as well offers both cabin rentals and campground winter tent sites, with groomed ski trails to enjoy.
What makes Quetico so great in the winter is that mechanized devices and vehicles are prohibited, which means your visit to anywhere in the park will be following tracks of moose and forest critters, or local skiers and snowshoers. Access across Nym Lake and into the Jump Lake Portage to Batchewaung Lake is a great day trip or overnight option, and the Lake Trout in Batchewaung are active, aggressive, and a blast catch. It’s important to remember that this is a wilderness park, which means no cutting of live, or green, boughs and fishing hooks must be barbless.
The things to consider most when planning to travel in the winter are different than summer. Campsites should be sheltered from the wind yet be close to a water source (though melting snow can work fine too). Dry wood is more important than a lovely view if you plan to have a stove or a campfire, but if you find a spot that is both sheltered, has dry wood, and a great view, then you are in winter camping bliss. Finding a sheltered cove behind a point, or the inside of a well forested island, means that if you intend to fish, you won’t have to walk far for access to a good spot.
Best of all are the tracks we leave in winter, the trail of snowshoes. In summer, we paddle like ghosts through the landscape, leaving nothing more than the ripples off our stern and paddle. In the winter, the trail of a snowshoe as it winds its way across the frozen lake is a reminder of places we go. To walk where you once paddled is a connection that isn’t afforded in so many other aspects of life, and in the months ahead, as the days lengthen and the darkness retreats with rising mercury, take advantage of a few nice access points along the Path of the Paddle to experience Northwestern Ontario in winter.