As a child, we would always make the trek north once a year to visit my grandparents in Timmins. Our family vacation would always be centered around camping, fishing, bonfires, roasting hotdogs and marshmallows, and spending quality family time together. The drive from Pembroke to Timmins included familiar landmarks as we made our way north: the nuclear research lab in Chalk River, the "Swisha" power dam in Rolphton, the Chief Commanda in North Bay, the mine chimney stacks, and the Big Nickel in Sudbury. Driving north on Highway 17 always brings back these great memories for me.
New Experiences in the North
Now, as an adult, heading north on Highway 17 includes new memories, including ones of Mukwa Adventures. It was happenstance that I met Arthur (Art) and Amanda Trudeau at the Toronto International ATV & Powersports show last year. A friendship quickly developed and before I knew it, I was riding on a track-equipped CAN-AM Outlander 450 for their Men's ATV Retreat weekend—GoPro and DSLR camera in-hand! What an amazing weekend of ATVing and top notch food! When I received a message from Amanda inviting me back as the photographer for their Women's ATV Adventure Retreat Weekend, I was all in!
Mukwa Adventures offers year-round guided ATV tours, operating in and around the area of Spanish, Ontario, about an hour west of Sudbury. They have a fleet of ten CAN-AM Outlander SST G2 450 quads with power steering, six of which are equipped with CAN-AM Apache 360 tracks for winter riding. The adventure doesn't begin and end with ATVing, though. They customize your experience with hot, home-cooked trail-side meals, bonfires to warm up, and ice fishing. And they team up with the top lodges in the area to provide an unforgettable and truly authentic Northern Ontario experience.
I arrived at Ritchie Falls Resort late Friday evening. The last stretch of the drive is down a winding and twisting logging road, complete with single lane bridges over the small creeks. I wasn't entirely sure if I was on the right road or not, but the single set of tire tracks through the fresh snow gave me some assurance. There is no cell service at Ritchie Falls Resort, so when you get lost on the country back roads, you're really on your own! Finally, a sign emerged from the darkness: "Ritchie Falls 10 KM Ahead." Woot Woot!
This time around, a full house of ten women had signed up for a weekend of adventure, completely selling out the event! Most of the guests had arrived by the time I showed up and were hanging out in the main lodge talking, laughing, and having a great time already. Amanda and Art greeted me, introduced me to the guests as the photographer (“GoPro Dave”), and offered me a nice hot bowl of homemade stew—exactly what I needed after the long drive.
The sauna was warming up, and everyone was anxious to jump into their swimsuits and soak up some heat! It felt a bit odd to put my snow pants on overtop my swim shorts, but it was a long enough walk down the hill to the sauna, and the night air was cold enough to chill your bones. The red-hot embers were glowing brightly through the air slots of the sauna wood stove and helped light the way in the dark night sky. The cracking and hissing of the fire grew louder and louder as we approached, only to be replaced by the creaking of the door as we entered. Deep breath in through the nose. Slowly exhale through the mouth … the blissful aroma of cedar and eucalyptus. Pure relaxation and the perfect end to the day.
The next morning kicked off with a gourmet chef-prepared breakfast of scrambled eggs mixed with sweet potatoes, grilled onions and mushrooms, and—of course—bacon! Coffee, juice, infused water, and power bars accompanied the meal. After eating, Amanda handed out gift bags to all the weekend’s participants that were loaded with lotions, lip balms, and other goodies. There was a round of applause when the chef finally joined the group in the main lodge. The breakfast was truly fantastic and people were eager to say so.
Time to Hit the Trails
The plan for the day was to pack up the quads with ice fishing gear and head to the lake. After Art briefed the women on proper ATV safety and operation, we fired up the quads and hit the trails! The scenery was everything you would expect from Northern Ontario: evergreen trees covered with a light dusting of pure white snow, thick moss on the tree trunks, and large exposed rocks. The trail was very narrow so we took our time, meandering along the twists and turns, enjoying the scenery and taking it all in. The air was crisp and fresh and the temperature was a pleasant -5° C.
As we approached a clearing, the trail dipped down a steep grade onto the frozen lake. I was a bit nervous taking my quad onto the ice, but Amanda assured me that the ice was in fact over two feet thick! We hit the gas and charged across the lake to our ice fishing destination.
There were two rules if you wanted to try ice fishing. First, you needed a fishing license. Second was that in order to obtain the true Northern Ontario experience, you had to drill your own hole by hand—no power augers! Art grabbed the hand auger, and with everyone standing around, gave a quick demo on how to properly operate it. Good solid downforce, steady rotation, and cleaning the ice out of the hole seemed to be the recipe for success. It wasn't long before all the holes had been cut through the ice and the women were sitting back, eyes closely watching the tip of the fishing pole.
Quick... grab the camera and the GoPro, and start running! I didn't want to miss the moment of excitement as Brigitte hauled in the first catch of the day. I had only ever gone ice fishing a handful of times in my life, and this was the first time I had ever seen someone actually haul a fish up through an ice hole.
The catch of the day was splake fish, a cross between a male brook trout and a female lake trout, as Art explained to the group. Moments later, Brigitte's daughter hauled in the largest catch of the day, and she couldn't have been more excited!
When I showed Brigitte the photo afterwards, she said, "at 17, I feel that it's more important for my daughter to experience things in life as opposed to having things in life, so I decided to bring her and her best friend. Seeing her joy at catching the biggest fish her first time ice fishing and letting loose on her first time driving an ATV conjures emotions beyond words as a parent.”
The clouds started to break and the late afternoon sun began to shine its bright rays. Amanda and a group of women decided to fire up the quads and go for a nice sightseeing tour around the lake and take in the sunshine. As we drove across the frozen lake bed, the tracks kicked a fine mist of snow into the air, which turned into a beautiful display of sparkling colours as the sun illuminated the ice crystals. There was a wonderful sense of peace and calmness as we travelled around the wide open space of the frozen lake—the soothing hum of the engine all that could be heard.
The sun finally started to dip below the tree lines, signalling the end of our ice fishing excursion. Back at the lodge, we were greeted by yet another fantastic meal provided by our weekend chef: barbecued steak cooked to perfection, steamed green beans, and baby potatoes seasoned with garlic butter and chives. The women sat around the table enjoying their meal, laughing and joking about the fish they had (or hadn't) caught. Once again, the sauna was fired up for all to enjoy.
Sunday morning had rolled around and it was time to pack up and head home. A fresh blanket of snow greeted us that morning, hanging heaving and thick on the branches and needles of the evergreen trees. I said goodbye to Amanda and Art and thanked them for inviting me to attend another of their Mukwa Adventure retreats.
A lot of great memories were rolling around in my head as I travelled southbound on Highway 17, back to the big city. Everything seems to be more in focus up north. The pace is slower, the people are friendly, the landscapes are wider, and the silence is calming. The familiar sights of the road strolled by my truck windshield once again. I was certain that this wouldn't be the last time I'd find myself in Northern Ontario on such an adventure. Now to wait for the next…