Winter 2016, ask any Ontario snowmobiler their thoughts on the winter of 2016 and their response is sure to be four letters long and the antisocial equivalent of “bleep”. Here in the central and southern reaches of the province, this season’s quality sledding days can be counted on one hand, and in many spots, that number never got past one finger, if you get my gist. The only bright spot this season was in Ontario’s north, where winter came late but with a vengeance and tales of a thick snowpack and epic rides trickled their way down the muddy trails of home. Hence the trek north into the heart of Algoma in search of a winter wonderland, blue sky, and spring sun. Our group gathers at the Fairfield Inn in Sault Ste. Marie. With trail access at their front door, the anticipation is boiling over. Patience my friends, we’re almost there. Things are looking oh so promising but this is the winter of 2016 don't forget.
Searchmont to Halfway Haven
The energy was a buzz at the staging area in Searchmont, as we strap bags to racks and filled backpacks. A group of locals going in the same direction expands our numbers to twenty or so, and one by one we disappear into the promised land of wall to wall white stretching to the horizon under a peppery blue sky of cloud and sun. The next 150 kilometres do not disappoint.
Halfway Haven is a backcountry classic. Recently under new ownership and finally open for winter after a couple of seasons in limbo, its resurrection has been fully embraced by the sledding community. With the only gas pump far enough from anywhere, when you get here a fill-up might as well be mandatory. The level of activity here is almost shocking after spending a few hours in the solitude of the surrounding wilderness.
It’s a full house tonight, primarily made up of members of Michigan's tight-knit snowmobiling community. Most of the night’s conversations start with, “Do you know?” followed by a name of a high school buddy or misplaced cousin, an embarrassing recollection and a roar of laughter. Good times.
Halfway Haven to Dubreuilville
The trail hugs the edge of a seemingly never-ending hydro corridor. We appreciate the grand vistas from the seats of our touring sleds all awhile fantasizing about swinging left and disappearing into the powder fields. The Wawa area has become renowned for its boondocking potential (off trail riding) thanks in part to the open space of the hydro corridors. You can easily identify the boondockers at the lodge, big smiles, slow-moving and first to bed, lol. I can’t imagine working that hard all day, but wouldn't mind trying; oh well another item for my someday list.
Turning north from Wawa on D trail it’s a different world. Back in the trees, freshly groomed and silky smooth trails, it’s almost disappointing to have to stop.
Magpie Relay Motel in Dubreuilville is another resurrection success story. Back in the hands of the original family, the property has undergone extensive renovations, bringing it up to resort-like comfort. Sauna, hot tub, games room, comfortable rooms, and a heated space for your toys has made Magpie Relay the talk of the trail system. But it’s the “been friends forever” hospitality of the hosts that makes you sad to leave and a sure thing to bring you back.
We are at the furthest point in our trip and so far the experience has been good trails, good weather and good times. But it’s not all roses, the temperature is climbing and rain is the trending word on everybody lips. We make our way back to Wawa and set up at the Wawa Motor Inn to assess the situation. The forecast is calling for soaring temperatures and heavy rain. Just like that winter 2016 strikes again. Between us and the trailers lies 300 kilometres of trail, 12 hours of rain and the possible end of the season.
We hit the trail early with full expectations of getting soaked, but the rain holds off for the couple of hours sprint to Halfway Haven. No sooner than we step inside, the sky bursts. Watching the rain fall from the comfort of the couch, it’s decision time again. Option one is a three-hour ride in pouring rain and loading sleds in mud and darkness. Option two, well we’re already sitting on it, another night of heavenly hospitality, I can live with that.
Morning. The rain has stopped and left everything saturated with water. You can hear it gurgling under the snow and dripping from the roof. A thick wall of mist separates us from the rest of the world. The trail is officially closed but what are you gonna do, we have to get back to the trucks. The riding is smooth and fun; sure there’re a few bare spots, spotty visibility, light showers and the odd washout but at the end of the trail it’s all smiles and high-fives.
Yes, sunshine, blue skies and fresh snow have the power to take a trip to the next level but what it’s really about is the people you're with, the people you meet and the trail under your skis, and these past few days exploring Algoma have provided all that and more. Nice try Mr. Winter, your attempts to ruin have resulted in a memorable success.