When your hinterland hibernation turns into claustrophobic carb-loading, it’s time to get outdoors. The Lake Superior Watershed Conservancy (LSWC) breathes fresh air into the winter doldrums with two different snowshoe interpretive tours: one with an urban flare at Crimson Ridge, and the exclusive Peregrine Valley tour.
“We sometimes feel alone in winter, because everything seems dormant and covered in snow, but there is so much life going on in the forest,” said Joanie McGuffin, executive director of the LSWC. “These are fun experiences where people can take a winter walk, create lasting memories with friends and family, and learn about the importance of these forests.”
Tailored with something for everyone, the tours are two hours of gentle snowshoeing on packed trails based on the group’s ability. The experiences guarantee fresh air, exercise, nature, and interpretation about the forest, tracks, local history and culture. Both also include food and time to socialize.
My recent evening tour at Crimson Ridge showcased the golf course’s snowshoe trails as the shadows of the sugar maples stretched long across the snow. With the sun setting, our group was treated to golden panoramic city views juxtaposed against the trees and animal tracks of the forest.
Even though we were minutes from downtown Sault, it felt like we were in another world talking about red squirrel middens, yellow birch catkins, and direct register tracks. We followed the twists and turns of the trail through coniferous and deciduous stands, marvelled at frozen waterfalls, crossed the Voyageur trail and then saw Embers on the Ridge (literally) beckoning us in with its warm glow. (Headlamps are available for participants on the late evening tours.)
The crampons on the underside of our modern snowshoes provided easy traction to climb that final hill to one of the Sault’s best restaurants. We felt propelled by the thought of the delicious warm food and drink that awaited us inside (included in the tour price). We kicked off our snowshoes and were served a tapas-style meal, including some of Ember’s feature appetizers. We reviewed the highlights of the tour, shared pictures and more laughs. My teenagers opted to add dessert as well, since a hot fruit crisp with homemade ice cream, bourbon peach crème brûlé, amaretto cheesecake, and a tea sounded too good to pass up.
If a more rugged experience calls to you, the Peregrine Valley tour might be your first choice, or an excellent second experience after the Crimson Ridge tour. Hosted on private property 30 minutes north of the Sault, the two and half kilometre trail gently winds up, down, and through a transition forest with the beautiful backdrop of the Algoma Highland hills. We opted for a sunny Sunday tour.
We began by following a narrow, intimate trail where the conifers embraced us and arched over us, until we crested onto the wider open Stokely Creek trail system, which boasts over 100 kilometres of groomed ski trails. To the northeast stood the grand Robertson Cliff escarpment and King Mountain. Blessed with a gorgeous blue-sky day, we had a majestic view of these ancient mountains through the screen of mixed hardwoods. The previous night’s bitter cold caused the snow underfoot to be surprisingly loud and crunchy, yet the warm March sun filtering on us through the trees, gave us a vigorous vitamin D boost.
En route, we learned about the local peregrine falcon recovery program of the 1990s which successfully restored a population of these fast-flying falcons to the Robertson Cliffs. (Peregrines populations plummeted in the 1970s due to the widespread use of DDT, a now-banned insecticide.) We saw tracks of coyote, fox, snowshoe hare, grouse, deer mice, and probably bobcat (unlike the canines that imprint their nails in their tracks, cat prints are rounder and have no claw marks, since they retract their claws while they walk). We stopped frequently along the way as our guide pointed out many winter marvels, including the large oval-shaped excavations of pileated woodpeckers.
Our guide, Ryan Walker, afforded us the opportunity to learn about his passion, trees, and I can now confidently say that I know the difference between a balsam fir and a white spruce based on the properties of their needles (balsam have flat needles and spruce have round ones). “I love the Peregrine Valley tour because you get to brush up against the trees; it’s true forest therapy,” Walker said, before telling us a crazy fact about woodpeckers. “Did you know that their long tongue wraps around their brain to protect it while they plunge their beak into the tree to eat bugs and grubs?”
For those who looked at the right angle at the right moment, the sun and snow crystals worked their magic to illuminate the animal tracks as if with a silver highlighter. For everyone else, we were treated to the postcard-perfect winter day with the sun reflecting off the untouched snow, sparkling like a white blanket adorned with tiny sequins or diamonds.
After crossing a forest dotted with clues to its recent farmland past, like a tree that had swallowed barbed-wire, some old farm equipment, and a few gnarly apple trees, we stopped at a winter camp that was set up with a campfire, hot drinks and home-baked snacks. With bellies full of locally-made apple cider, hot chocolate with whipped cream, and granola treats, we finished the loop back to our cars. On the return drive to town, I was keenly and happily aware that I smelled like woodsmoke from the campfire. It was a glorious day with my teens, and I kept thinking how much better this was than sitting indoors on the couch watching television.
While you can get a trail pass and use the trails at Crimson Ridge, you can’t experience the Peregrine Trail on private property without the LSWC. More importantly, neither wintery walk would have been as memorable without the interpretive guided experience. It was nice to hear that by simply taking a hike, one can be part of conservation efforts in the area.
“Winter is a magical time to be out in nature,” said McGuffin. “We want everyone to get out safely to enjoy it. You get a different perspective on our forests and their importance when you see so many tracks everywhere on the crust of the snow. The forest is full of life and we need these wild spaces.”
The group tours range from $30-50 per person depending on participants’ age, and whether or not they require snowshoes. Both LSWC snowshoe tours can be booked online.