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A Fantastical Imagination in Algoma’s Wintery World

Lake Superior Provincial Park in winter.

Explore the winter landscape by ski or snowshoe but watch out for snowsnakes

I have always had the most wild of imaginations. And growing up, winter was always the best season to express my fantastical ideas. There is something magical and mystical in snow dancing down the streets, twinkling on rooftops as bright as stars, and dotting the evergreens which line our forests. Come the first snowfall, Algoma Country is blanketed in a heavenly white, turning the region into a wintery abyss, similar to the setting of mythical Narnia, in which fabled creatures live.

Once an avid cross-country skier, I spent my winter days and evenings on the trails at the Hiawatha Highlands, averaging over 400 km a year, racing with the Soo Finnish Nordic Ski Team. I was trained in the Jack Rabbit Program, and had the privilege to learn from a beloved doctor in Sault Ste. Marie. He taught me the techniques of freestyle and classical skiing, as well as the essential herringbone needed to scale the vast hills at Hiawatha. Aside from techniques, my coach educated me about a creature that lurks in Northern Ontario, coming out of hibernation in the wintery days and evenings, disturbed by people who venture out onto trails. These "snow snakes" as he called them, date back to prehistoric times in frigid regions. Being young and naïve, I believed every tale he told about these slithering snakes; he spoke of their invisibility and cunning ways, and most important, how they had fun and occupied their time. These snow snakes enjoyed taunting winter enthusiasts, be it skiers, snowboarders, snowshoers, or hikers, by grabbing their shoes, boots, skis, poles, bindings, or boards, and bringing people down to their demise. Needless to say, I was the victim of countless horrible snow snakes in my younger years.

Now 24, and perhaps a little less naïve -- but still equally full of imagination -- I am still on the watch for these snow snakes. Every year, I fall captive to at least one, who manages to seize my Nordic skis, my snowshoes, or my boots, and tumble me to the ground. Never have I been hurt by a snow snake; they are harmless snakes, just looking for fun. Instead, when I fall victim, I find myself giggling with rosy cheeks full of delight, buried in a mound of cool snow. And in that moment, I cannot help but remember how lucky I am to live in an area that has the pleasure of experiencing the snow snakes.

algomacountry winter landscapeAlgoma's breathtaking winter landscape.

I cannot even begin to imagine a life without winter, without snow, and without all the privileged activities that come with the below freezing season. And every time I fall, I can only laugh while I curse those wild snow snakes.

Last year, amidst the cold wintery spell that fell on Sault Ste. Marie in February, I ventured up north to a then closed off Lake Superior Provincial Park to introduce my friend to the pictographs, and one of my favourite hidden gems, Sinclair Cove. It was on our adventure, that my dear friend Jason became acquainted with the snow snakes. After my favourite winding drive along the nearly frozen shoreline of Lake Superior, we arrived at our destination. We parked the car on the side of Highway 17, and broke trail on our snowshoes, climbing down the long twisting road to the trail head of the pictographs. From there, I got to witness Jason's amazement to the labyrinth of trees and rocks, which make up the 400 m descent to the pictographs, a ledge of history dating back hundreds of years, located on the majestic shore of Lake Superior. Having visited the pictographs countless times in the summer, this was my first glimpse at the northern treat under the covers of its winter blanket of three feet of snow. The snow heightened the beauty of the shoreline, and a thin layer of glassed ice lapped against the rock ledge, sparkling in the sunshine that warmed that refreshing day. It was so quiet, so perfect. The contrast between the bright snow and surprisingly placid royal blue waters was so splendid it appeared to have been painted on a canvas before us. It was only the two of us in the serenity of Algoma's most beautiful scenery, and whatever was lurking in the dense forest. I almost felt guilty having disturbed the perfect scenery, leaving our footprints behind in an otherwise unchartered area.

winter lakesuperior park pictographsAt the Agawa Rock Pictographs in Lake Superior Provincial Park. (Photo credit: Meaghan Smith)

When we returned to the path, after Jason shed his snowshoes to brave the ledge to see the pictographs, we broke trail again through immense snow on the Coastal Trail to Sinclair Cove, an often forgot about boat launch, which boasts high cliffs, a scenic lookout, and beautiful crystal clear, sea-green water, in which islands dramatically jar out of. It was on this trek that we realised we were not alone in the Canadian Shield. Something was in fact following us. Stalking us.

On this short jaunt on the Coastal Trail to the cove, the two of us were constantly reminded of the wilderness and animals that made the park their home. Their wild footprints dotted the trails, and heightened our anxiety that we may come face-to-face with something or someone. We were in their naturally beautiful habitat. And suddenly we did. Jason unexpectedly found himself butt-deep in the snow, laughing as his snowshoe lodged under a buried tree, unable to rescue himself from his fallen state. He had fallen victim to a wild snow snake, who out of pleasure, had grabbed his snowshoe and tumbled him to the snowy ground. And I could not help but laugh at his dishevelled state, and tell him about the crafty snow snakes which glide through the deep snow of Algoma Country, looking for their next prey in their game of fun.

Jason may have thought me mad that day, as I rambled on with my fantastical imagination about the infamous snow snakes. I continued on with many tales in which I had been victim to them as we marvelled at Sinclair Cove. No matter where I have gone -- be it at Hiawatha, Lake Superior Provincial Park, Searchmont Resort, or elsewhere -- the snow snakes have followed me and successfully levelled me.

snowshoeing trails algomaThere are so many incredible places in Algoma Country to explore by snowshoe. (Photo credit: Rob Stimpson Photography)

Every season has particular traditions. For myself, summer traditions include lying on a beach enjoying poetry, while fall encompasses a hike at the Lookout Trail at Pancake Bay. Winter, however, always includes an encounter with a snow snake. Perhaps had I not been encouraged to let my imagination run wild as a child, I may have never paid close attention to my coach's fables of the snow snakes. But I am so glad I did. Having always been taught that little things and moments make life enjoyable, these snow snakes make my winter treks unforgettable. Every encounter with these fantastical creatures freezes that moment and memory forever, and makes my winter months not so long, not so cruel, but instead enjoyable, and a slight bit humorous. Somehow, these snow snakes always turn my winter blues into a pleasant adventure.

Next time you are out enjoying the Algoma countryside, hiking the snowy trails, or marvelling in the fresh powder on Nordic skis or a snowboard, and you find yourself on the ground, you may have just gotten tangled up with a snow snake. Let your imagination run wild with them.

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Sault-Ste Marie is a 7 hour drive from Toronto

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