This trip took place outside of Jackman, an area in northwestern Maine that is a dozen or so miles from the Canada border. I’ve done several summer canoe trips around the Attean Pond/Moose River loop, as well as winter camping in this area.
I was pleased with the rooms and service at the Northern Lakes Inn , smack dab on Route 201 and within a snowball’s throw from a gas/convenience store and two restaurants. In Jackman, there are more snowmobiles around town than pickup trucks and Subarus.
For me, the hardest part of heading out to engage in deep winter camping is getting the gear and food together. Spring/summer/fall trips are no problem, unless it involves canoeing, which invites one to bring additional stuff due to the ability of a canoe to carry hundred of pounds. For a three days to a week of three-season adventuring I can pack in an hour. All my adventure gear resides in one spare room, where I work off a packing list that I’ve honed down to the point where I have 17 pounds on my back (before adding food or water).
Plenty of room = lots of stuff’
Winter camping opens doors that can lead to a pleasant experience due to the extra gear that assists in surviving and even thriving in the frozen north.
Foremost on that winter list is my 9 x 12 Egyptian cotton wall tent, weighing in at 17 pounds — a specialized piece of equipment that dramatically enhances the experience of being outdoors for extended winter periods due to the option of placing a wood stove inside as well as the addition of a pocket for a sheet metal thimble that allows stove pipe to pass through the front wall of the cotton tent.
I bought the tent fifteen years ago from Craig McDonald. MacDonald worked for 50 years for the Ontario Government as a Recreation Specialist, primarily in Algonquin Park. He’s mastered the sport after 40 years of snowshoe expeditions. In his spare time Craig manufactures winter camping equipment.
After parking the car at the end of a plowed side road, we stacked gear on two plastic and one wooden hauling toboggans, lashed down our loads, and trudged one mile over a relatively flat snowmobile track that eventually dropped us entered the edge of Attean Pond.
At this point we are hugging the side of the pond on our left and continuing on over clearly defined snowmobile tracks. It didn’t take long for us to realize that there was much more snow up here than I had even seen before, with absolutely zero areas of visible ice. Instead, there were windblown ridges, berms and at last one hidden slush pocket under the ice, which I found by accident. Snowmobiles are not hampered much by surface irregularities like us humans so we followed tracks the best we were able.
Eventually the flat tracks ahead of us multiplied as riders fanned out as the pond’s width expanded and we were left with much fainter traces that we sometimes could not even make out.
My two adventure partners on this trip were Pat and Mark, both who have been on one of these winter Jackman winter trips before. Each had also participated separately with me on prior trips. Pat is a self-employed contractor who is currently building a house for himself in Belfast and Mark wears many hats over in Vermont: professional sound engineer, Appalachian Trail hiker shuttle service, photographer, and recently a licensed drone operator, who will be putting to use his skills on this mini-expedition.
The sky was flat grey, and the wind down as we wound our way 4.5 miles across the surface of Attean Pond where we entered the mouth of the Moose River and made our way up just past the open falls.
Unexpected things happen when you enter the wilderness. We try to be prepared to deal such frustrations. On this trip we had multiple issues with plastic, which eventually breaks. Before we even got up here I was moving one of the plastic sleds out of the shed onto the top of my car. The upturned front end of one the industrial-grade plastic sleds I made all those years ago snapped off right ahead of the first oak cross piece. We had enough time before the trip left for Pat to fix it in his shop.
It didn’t matter, because Mark’s plastic sled’s front end snapped off on the middle of the pond, and then a short while later Pat’s toboggan broke again. There wasn’t much of an impact, due to the snow being packed by wind and snowmobile tracks. But then all of he plastic straps holding Pat’s MSR plastic snowshoes onto his boots either cracked and broke. Every single one of them.
Both Mark and I favor traditional wooden snowshoes on these flat land winter journeys; he prefers an oval Green Mountain style and I like the traditional Maine cruiser with the beavertail. My bindings are long lengths of lamp-wick, and have 10 years of trips of up to two weeks on the ice without incident. I’m carrying a spare pair of these cloth strips, so it would be a 5 minute deal to replace then when I have to. Mark has engineered his own bindings with elastic cord material that has served him well so far. Mark’s backup elastic cords harness was able to get Pat back pulling his toboggan again.
Our original plan was to advance further up the river to a sheltered area Mark and I had used on previous journeys beside a broad area of expanded river. It had been relatively easy to chip a water hole through the frozen ice the last time we camped here, when we learned the hard way that it was necessary to get out into the middle of the river to reach flowing water.
This time, we fumbled, and eventually tumbled into what I thought might be a reasonable place upstream of the open lead around the falls where I dunked my whole foot and lower leg into a slush pocket. The other two guys pulled me out onto solid snow and we brought in a downed spruce log that we used to support our stance as we filled cooking pots, buckets and canteens with water.
There was much more snow here than on any previous trip, and what was ahead of us with our plan to proceed up river as hard pulling on unpacked snow.
Plan B went into effect: Stay at our present campsite and do day trips out and back to here. This required one whole morning to locate enough dead spruce, harvest it, drag the lengths back to camp and saw, split, and stack enough wood to get us through the next couple days.
Life is good here, it just takes a bit of work to get there.
My Four Dog Stove and stovepipe weighs in at 14 pounds. That’s no burden since I’ve lost more than 14 pounds since I returned from my 2013 thru-hike of the Continental Divide Trail. This stove has proved capable of warming my tent to shirt sleeve conditions at below zero temperatures.
There are real safety issues to consider when using an axe to split wood in this much snow. I suggested that Pat and Mark work together to so this, so we worked out a plan to place a spruce log on the surface of packed snow, which would be the base for splitting lengths of wood, and baton the axe head with a sizable pole so that no one’s leg would be impaled with the axe head (I’ve witnessed one such accident on a previous winter trip).
A few “situations” came up:
#1 I heard Pat scream in terror after he entered the outhouse when he discovered that his new winter glove had fallen down into the hole of the crapper. Neither Mark nor I came to his aid.
#2 Mark’s back is bad, so he came up with the idea of stacking thee mattresses to sleep on, but the tower of power underneath him was tippy, so he lashed a long strap around all three mattresses as well as his legs. Urinating became a confounding variable.
All in all, the trip was a success. We each provided complete dinners-from soup to nuts-for the group, with breakfasts, lunches, and snacks on our own. I had a successful experiment with freezing cracked eggs for frying one morning, and also enjoyed very large and delicious bacon and cheddar cheese sandwiches on fresh seeded rye bread for breakfast. Pat was the coffeemeister, brewing up freshly percolated coffee for us every day.
Mark’s video drone footage is still being edited, so stay tuned for a bird’s eye view of our adventure that I’ll post on this blog as soon as he’s released it.
I’m still hoping for one more winter trip (with heat), and am looking at Blackwoods Campground in Acadia National Park or the Katahdin Woods and Waters National A Monument before all this snow goes away.
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