As part of expedition preparation, Will does his homework. He’s an avid reader with a personal library that contributes to his education and motivates his spirit. The titles below are his hand-picked recommendations that offer additional in-depth understanding of the Barren Lands and supplement his upcoming expedition.
Nastawgan: The Canadian North by Canoe and Snowshoe
A collection of historical essays edited by Bruce W. Hodgins and Margaret Hobbs.
“Nastawgan” is an Anishinabai word meaning “the way or the route one must take to get through the country.” This is a favorite book of mine and can be found in print on the Internet in the $20 range. It’s also available on Kindle.
Relevant chapters include:
“The Quest Pattern and the Canoe Trip”
“History Travel and Canoeing in the Barrens”
“Women of Determination: Northern Journeys by Woman before 1940”
Tundra by Farley Mowat
I am not a fan of Farley Mowat, but his book Tundra is well done. It’s neatly edited for a popular audience and he amplifies the text with minimal intrusion. This is one of the best accounts of the fascinating and sometimes spell-binding history of land voyages across the Canadian Barrens. It’s available in print on the Internet and on Kindle.
Relevant chapters include:
“Coppermine Journey: Samuel Hearne’s Expedition to the Coppermine River, 1769-72”
“The Brothers Terrell: Exploring the Interior of Keewatin”
“The Spring that Never Came: John Hornby and Edgar on the Thelon River”
Thelon: A River Sanctuary by David F. Pelly
This an excellent read about the Thelon River. It is well-rounded for the naturalist, covering history, culture, geology and the environment. Unfortunately, the book is out of print and existing copies are super expensive. However, if you search the Internet, you can find some copies in the $20 range. It can also be found on Kindle.
The Legend of John Hornby by George Whalley
This 1962 book is a well-researched historical piece about the Barren Lands and a classic must-read. But it’s very rare. You might be able to find it online. Otherwise, libraries could have copies. Googling “John Hornby” might also be worthwhile.
This year I am expanding on what I learned from my two previous expeditions of traveling on rivers at spring break up. I have doubled the distance I will be traveling and have moved my starting point to Northwestern Ontario, about 300 travel miles north of the Steger Wilderness Center. On the morning of March 7th, I will be boarding the Canadian Railroad (as a passenger) at the small village of Savant Lake, Ontario. The train will take me an hour to the east and drop me off at the bridge that crosses the Allan Water River. From there I will make my way south first by toboggan and then, as the ice begins to break up, by canoe sled.
I am leaving earlier this year with the hope of catching the mid-winter cold. I will be hauling a custom-made 10-foot toboggan with a 160 pound load of food, fuel and supplies. The county is especially challenging because of its remoteness, deep snow and flowing water. There are stretches of rivers where the danger is obvious but the challenge will be on many of the lakes with currents that creep through them. It looks like the break up will be early this year so the travel conditions will be a wild card.
A hundred travel miles into the trip, my route crosses the Trans-Canadian Highway. The village of Upsala is close by and I have made arrangements to cache my canoe sled and water gear there, along with a wet suit, food and fuel. The river section starts here at the Firesteel and the Siene River. I will traverse Lac des Mille Lac, cross the divide and head southwest down the French River drainage into the Northeast corner of the Quetico. I then follow the lakes and rivers south through the Quetico Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
In general, the travel will be slow at first because of deep snow. Five miles might be a good day. As the spring advances, the snow begins to melt down. At times a thick crust forms, providing fast travel. Often the days may be too slushy to travel but the surfaces freeze solid during the cold nights. In these circumstances, I travel at night navigating by the stars. Once the snows melt completely, the lake surfaces become iced and provide very fast travel. I can make up to 25 miles a day under these conditions. In some situations at break up, it is impossible to travel. There may be a two-day wait or a 10-day wait. Because of this variability, I have to travel with extra food and fuel.
I feel well prepared for what lies ahead. I am in fairly good physical shape and mentally I am strong. I am looking forward to living intuitively in the moment again. So please follow along to see how the adventure unfolds as I journey back home toward the Steger Wilderness Center.
See where the adventure will take Will in 2016.
Click to watch an overview of the route!
Northwestern Ontario 2016 Solo Expedition Check back every day for updates!
Will Steger’s Northwestern Ontario Solo 2016
“You have to be at your very best, all the time, totally alert. Totally in the moment. In this situation is where you really learn, one of the best learning experiences, that I’ve found in my life. More than just learning, it’s in the realm of intuition and instinct. You add onto it with experience, but some of it is something like… you always have it, but it’s just being more aware that you have it. Aware of that moment, aware of your self, and your relationship and the relationships to the world. It’s peeling off these layers around your being. These long trips do that for me.”
Northwestern Ontario Solo 2016 – Daily Dispatch #39 – April 15th, 2016
“Made it back. Really quite exhausted. The last three days I’ve been really pushing hard. Unbelievable weather, must have been 73 degrees today… It’s nice being home, sleeping in my bed tonight. Although I will miss the trail life a little bit. I look up at the moon and the stars here and kind of think about what it was like being out there.”
Northwestern Ontario Solo 2016 – Daily Dispatch #38 – April 14th, 2016
“I’m camped in the United States on a very beautiful island, facing south, on Basswood. If all goes right, I should make it in tomorrow. I’m going to try and get up early. I don’t know if it’s going to freeze here tonight. It’s just a gorgeous evening. I’m setting up camp. I’m actually on a campsite, on ground. First time I haven’t slept on ice. Setting up here right at sunset and I heard a song sparrow, it was a really very beautiful song. It’s just kind of nice, in the last 40 days from where I started. I started right in the winter time, right when the thaw started coming. I had this incredible experience all the way down. Now I’m right on the home front. I should make it in tomorrow. I’m feeling really good, kinda tired and I’m not looking forward to anything other than just being right here, at the moment, right now. Checking out here. Will, over and out.”
Northwestern Ontario Solo 2016 – Daily Dispatch #37 – April 13th, 2016
“My skis started sticking and I was ready to stop, because I knew the canoe would probably freeze in, but boy my timing was just right. I got on the portage there, made it over to the next lake called Side lake. This was a climbing site for Outward Bound in 1970-71. I was one of the climbing instructors at that time. The nostalgia of seeing the high cliffs there. It was a very important time of my life. Really those cliffs really empowered a lot of people, including the instructors that worked there. Many people remember that area and not many people see it these days.”
Northwestern Ontario Solo 2016 – Daily Dispatch #36 – April 12th, 2016
“I’m really looking forward to getting up in the morning. I’m hoping it might be clear. It’s kind of partly cloudy right now, but it feels like a thaw coming in. I just don’t trust this weather, but it seems like it’s hanging in there. It’s now 32 degrees, crust is freezing now. So, I’ll check in. Doing really well, I had a really great workout today, really great appetite. Good to be on the move again after sitting around for a couple of days.”
Northwestern Ontario Solo 2016 – Daily Dispatch #35 – April 11th, 2016
“One of these days I’ll get a break in the weather. I’m definitely on fuel rations. I can’t afford the extra heat here to fry anything. Also on the food, I’m eating a little less, just sitting still. It’s a normal situation when you are weathered in and food is kind of questionable. You eat a little less, because you don’t need much, just enough to keep warm. You kind of build up your muscles a little bit, but then once you get moving you eat more. You just eat more to accommodate physically what you are doing. I’m in really good shape, just sitting around. The past eleven days now it’s been bad weather. It’s been a really good experience.”
Northwestern Ontario Solo 2016 – Daily Dispatch #34 – April 10th, 2016
“A storm came in actually last night. This morning, with the usual conditions, the canoe literally froze in when I tried to haul it. So I took a day off, second day in this campsite here.”
Northwestern Ontario Solo 2016 – Daily Dispatch #33 – April 9th, 2016
“I wanted to make it to Sark lake, because from there I can go straight south. Long lakes, very few portages. I can do night travel there if it I got the conditions. What I ended up doing was, I would pull for forty paces and then stop. At this time I was really cold, it was necessary during the haul here to get warm. I would face the sun, rest and then pull another forty paces. Later in the day I also got up to sixty paces. The conditions really didn’t change. I never did paces before, where I actually counted paces. It used to drive me nuts even thinking about it. It was actually a good system, didn’t have to think about anything. It was almost like doing weight training, repetition. It kept me from getting injured. I was concerned about injury in knees or your back, when your pulling. This way I could just do forty, rest, do forty more and eventually like I said, I made it to sixty.”
Northwestern Ontario Solo 2016 – Daily Dispatch #32 – April 8th, 2016
“It was stormy all day, a little bit of sun. Pretty cold, got up to about eighteen degrees. Impossible to travel today. North winds, usual, same weather. I just killed time today. Really didn’t want to be in the tent again, but their wasn’t much of a choice. It was really cold outside. I’m on fuel rations, meaning that I use just the stove now for preparing food, not for heating. So I sat in the tent most of the day. Wrote in the journal.”
Northwestern Ontario Solo 2016 – Daily Dispatch #31 – April 7th, 2016
“I got up at 3 o’clock this morning, it was clear, twenty five degrees, perfect travel. I anticipated an early departure. I had everything all set, so within forty five minutes I had the tent down and canoe loaded.”
Northwestern Ontario Solo 2016 – Daily Dispatch #30 – April 6th, 2016
“Snowed all night last night, into the morning…. quite…. not much wind….real sticky snow…. I wasn’t able to travel at all….*static (LOST TRANSMISSION)”
Northwestern Ontario Solo 2016 – Daily Dispatch #29 – April 5th, 2016
“Still snowing out there right now. Thirty two degrees. I’ll see what the day… I doubt I will be able to haul tomorrow morning, but we’ll see here. Just taking every day as it comes. Actually quite peaceful waiting out the weather, I’m not into making miles, it’s just whatever happens.”
Northwestern Ontario Solo 2016 – Daily Dispatch #28 – April 4th, 2016
“I went down this section, going the other direction last year around this time. I came down the falls chain on my way to International falls, this time I’ll be going up.”
Northwestern Ontario Solo 2016 – Daily Dispatch #27 – April 3rd, 2016
“Last night it cleared off. It was one of the clearest nights I’ve ever seen. All the winter constellations were setting in the west and west of the horizon. The spring constellations rising in the east, and then about midnight last night I started hearing snow.”
Northwestern Ontario Solo 2016 – Daily Dispatch #26 – April 2nd, 2016
“I’m feeling really great, really at peace with things. Solitude, I get some questions, people asking about solitude. You know, I just don’t have any trouble with missing anything. I don’t miss anything at all. I’m usually that way even in the city. I’m pretty much content where with I’m at. I don’t get lonely. Some times you are more in solitude when you are in big crowds or with a lot of people.”
Northwestern Ontario Solo 2016 – Daily Dispatch #25 – April 1st, 2016
“I covered a big share of Pickerel lake. I made camp on the leeward side of a beautiful little virgin island. Just a sweet little island there. It was dark by the time I got the tent up. Pretty good workout today, mostly hauled, didn’t ski, but I paddled.”
Northwestern Ontario Solo 2016 – Daily Dispatch #24 – March 30th, 2016
“Last night I was on French River, canoeing down that. There was a slight halo above the sun, it looked like it was going to clear up, but the halo was an indication of precipitation. I made a night camp and then around midnight I started hearing something real slight, it sounded like rain. It must have been around 2 o’clock it started raining pretty hard. At first I thought it was snow, snow would really stop me in my tracks.”
Northwestern Ontario Solo 2016 – Daily Dispatch #23 – March 29th, 2016
“Another long day. The travel was good in the morning. Once the sun came around, must have been ten or eleven o’clock. The sun started melting the snow, what was left on the lake, got a little difficult. So what I did was I set up a foam pad in the woods and slept for a couple hours in the sunshine. When I woke up the warmth had melted the snow and the conditions were a little better. I haven’t slept good the last couple of nights because of the sun, the intense sun. The ultra violet kind of poison gives you head aches and weird dreams and that. So two hours off was pretty good.”
Northwestern Ontario Solo 2016 – Daily Dispatch #22 – March 28th, 2016
“Another really long hard, twelve hour day. The early travel was pretty good, it was frozen. I did the first three hours, relatively easily, on skis, but then the thaw kicked in again. I made the portage, called the Baril portage, between Mille Lacs Lake and Baril lake. It is actually a historical portage itself, it’s called the Dawson Trail.”
Northwestern Ontario Solo 2016 – Daily Dispatch #21 – March 27th, 2016
“On the clear days I always watch the sun move, sometimes the moon during the day. At night it’s a totally different situation. It’s almost always clear here, incredible stars. I’m looking out the tent right now and you see the whole universe. Mankind, humankind really changed when we lost the night sky, because of light pollution. I remember even as a kid it wasn’t as polluted, even in the city. You could step out the backyard and see the stars. I had a telescope when I was a kid, but we’ve lost that for the most part in the city, where most people live. It really puts you in touch with the universe. We have a tendency of getting too self absorbed in ourselves and the work that we do. We really need a universal view like that.”
Northwestern Ontario Solo 2016 – Daily Dispatch #20 – March 26th, 2016
“Storm last night, it was wet snow. I went to bed at least and I got up about four thirty. I was hoping to catch a crust on the snow, but what happened was, it snowed about another six inches of kind of a light powder. It was fifteen degrees, it was cold enough, but it was really stick snow. It took me about an hour and a half to scrape the bottom of the canoe of, first of all, from the melted snow on it. And then, I couldn’t budge it.”
Northwestern Ontario Solo 2016 – Daily Dispatch #19 – March 25th, 2016
“It just feels so great, this last week on the river. It’s just so challenging. Really exercised everything I had to negotiate this. All of my skills I’ve built up in a lifetime. Especially the last few years on the river. It’s almost like an extended wall climb, where you go from one move to the next move and one pitch at a time. You just keep going for days and days. You don’t know how the next pitch could go. I have no idea how I’m going to get through this thing, but I figured it out moment to moment and I felt safe.”
Northwestern Ontario Solo 2016 – Daily Dispatch #18 – March 24th, 2016
“Not an open section on the river right here, it will be open in the morning. Probably about zero, five below in the morning and I will be paddling that with a dry suit. I should be getting up into the lake, probably shortly after that section. And then, once I’m on the lake, I’ll have a little security and keep hauling and won’t have any open water to contend with.”
Northwestern Ontario Solo 2016 – Daily Dispatch #17 – March 23rd, 2016
“The Seine (river) two, three days ago it was wide open. It all froze now and you can’t paddle on it and you can’t walk on it. All day today I lined along the shoreline. Used about a twenty foot rope and bounced from rock to rock. Very slippery, very dangerous actually.”
Northwestern Ontario Solo 2016 – Daily Dispatch #16 – March 22nd, 2016
“Last night about one o’clock (AM). Usually it’s the quietest around 1 o’clock. The wind dies down. I could hear real heavy rapids, probably waterfalls… especially in the spring, in the cold and calm weather…”
Northwestern Ontario Solo 2016 – Daily Dispatch #15 – March 21st, 2016
“Beautiful morning, five below when I got up. Clear. Coldest day so far on the trip. Which is not really that cold. Cold enough to firm up the ice on the river. The travel, most of the day was really perfect.”
Northwestern Ontario Solo 2016 – Daily Dispatch #14 – March 20th, 2016
“The river was quite intimidating when I first saw it… What seems like something really terrifying in the morning, by evening it becomes really routine.”
Northwestern Ontario Solo 2016 – Daily Dispatch #13 – March 19th, 2016
“I’m resting here in Upsala. The last twelve days I’ve been pretty much in motion all the time, in water a lot. Either freezing rain or rivers and so forth. Yesterday, I was hauling down the road most of the day. The exercise is what keeps me really warm.”
Northwestern Ontario Solo 2016 – Daily Dispatch #12 – March 18th, 2016
“I just did about 20 miles. I got as far as Graham, and a native family picked me up there and drove me, must have been 10 miles or more, to the Trans-Canadian Highway. Then I was going to haul to Upsala but there was no snow on the side of the highway so I waited for a while and a couple of loggers picked me up and got me to the general store in Upsala where Rick was kind enough to store my gear. By the time I got in, I thought it was about 2 0’clock but it ended up being 6 o’clock, I guess they are on daylight savings time. And then I decided I was going to take the day off tomorrow.”
Northwestern Ontario Solo 2016 – Daily Dispatch #11 – March 17th, 2016
“I did a good twelve hour day. I saw a wolf on this fire road. Often on these roads and long trails you will run into wolves. It’s really common. I saw him in the distance. I had to make out the figure, it was kind of panning sideways. I tried to figure out what it was. I stopped a number of times. I got probably within a couple hundred yards. Sometimes the wolfs allow you to get almost shooting distance away. They keep that safe distance, because they know the difference, what a gun is. I didn’t have a gun of course. So, I would move and stop and the wolf would kind of follow the trail a little bit then stop again and allow me to get within a couple hundred yards. This went on for, man, must have been forty-five minutes. Pretty typical behavior. Then eventually it shot off to the side after a rabbit. And then, it came up on my back later on, which I thought was pretty interesting. I kind of felt something, I turned around there it was again, about two or three hundred yards. This time it was following me, ha.”
Northwestern Ontario Solo 2016 – Daily Dispatch #10 – March 16th, 2016
“The conditions worked in my favor today. The ice was all froze up, real slick…. I really breezed through this area that I thought was really going to stop me.”
Northwestern Ontario Solo 2016 – Daily Dispatch #9 – March 15th, 2016
“There is not an option of going out on the ice anymore to avoid the creeks. I have to go inland… I am not sure how I am going to get around this, with the creeks opening up. There is a slight chance I might just get stuck here. Probably less than ten percent. I’ve been hauling a lot of extra food with me, with that intention. I have that as part of a plan. I had no idea that these conditions would deteriorate so quickly. The last five days the winter is just going.”
Northwestern Ontario Solo 2016 – Daily Dispatch #8 – March 14th, 2016
“The lakes are probably about fifty percent of what they normally are, in fact when we cut ice this year it was the thinnest ice I’ve seen in fifty years. Some of the holes in the lake, the natural holes I poked around with the ski and it’s about eighteen inches. The bigger lakes are okay, but the narrows and the currents were quite dangerous. I made one crossing on a narrows and I put my ski through. It really woke me up. It had all the signs of solid ice, so it totally surprised me. It was a beautiful day though, fifty-three degrees. So I probably would have been able to get out okay. The great thing about it was, it was a very warm day. It was a real learning lesson for me. It made me really think here tonight more about things.”
Northwestern Ontario Solo 2016 – Daily Dispatch #7 – March 13th, 2016
“It was clear all day yesterday, it got up to fifty degrees and as the sun started setting the temperature dropped considerably. I went to bed around last light. It was about thirty-seven degrees and it looked like their was going to be a big frost that evening. I went to sleep and woke up a couple hours later to a really strong south wind that blew all evening, which was very unusual… I started traveling around first light or so. The only reason I do these solos each year at breakup is a part of my eye witness. I get a sense, I have an intuition of climate. This wind last night, to me was a sign of the El Niño, real severe El Niño weather we are having right now… The changing climate is really quite obvious and the speed at which things are changing. There is still a lot of hope, but we need to act really quickly.”
Northwestern Ontario Solo 2016 – Daily Dispatch #6 – March 12th, 2016
“Temperatures are up to fifty degrees. I sat around and watched the day go by. The water is just pooling up here and there on the lake. And we are having just the very beginning of the breakup, in fact it might even break up yet. The ice isn’t very safe. At this stage the water will start forming. Still a lot of deep slush on the lake and it was clear all day today so I’m expecting the temperature to drop…. this thaw is going to be around for a while. So I’ve got my alarm set. I’ll be up by four.”
Northwestern Ontario Solo 2016 – Daily Dispatch #5 – March 11th, 2016
“The big thaw has arrived… I travel by the sun, from lake to lake, I don’t use a GPS. With a compass I can get a bearing on the time. For example, the sun is straight south at noon and when it’s west it’s six o’clock p.m. So in between that at southwest would be 3 o’clock, same thing in the morning, at six o’clock in the morning the sun is due east and at nine o’clock it’s southeast. So I use the sun as my bearing and also figure that the sun moves fifteen degrees an hour. So I factor that in. In the polar areas that’s how we travel. It’s a very easy way of doing it. You don’t have to look at any compass or any watch or anything, you just follow the sun.”
Northwestern Ontario Solo 2016 – Daily Dispatch #4 – March 10th, 2016
“Today was extremely rough, as I expected. I did three or four crashes in the bush. Very deep snow, a little over knee deep with the crust. Real thick brush, Alder brush and Spruce. I skied some of it and then I ended up pretty much hauling by foot. I would go one rope length at a time, about twenty feet, I’d walk twenty feet and then pull the toboggan and then walk another twenty feet. Pretty hard going, good exercise, very wet.”
Northwestern Ontario Solo 2016 – Daily Dispatch #3 – March 9th, 2016
“Yesterday afternoon in the fog, I accidentally went in the wrong inlet. It was really tough going deep snow, crust and slush for about 4 miles. It happens. I have a GPS, but I don’t usually use it. A GPS would have definitely corrected the error, but I rely pretty much on the map. I use the compass a little bit, but mainly the wind for directions. Their is a little bit of an issue starting off too, learning the scale and the portions of the map, the surroundings. But, whatever I took the wrong turn there for about 4 miles, so I came into camp really late.”
Northwestern Ontario Solo 2016 – Daily Dispatch #2 – March 8th, 2016
“Last night from about midnight to first light it rained very hard. The temperatures were way below freezing, probably about 24°-25°. Quite an unusual rain. About a half an inch of ice on everything. It took me about an hour to chip everything off. All the lines were frozen up and I got under way. The temperature remained below freezing all day.”
Northwestern Ontario Solo 2016 – Daily Dispatch #1 – March 7th, 2016
“Made a pretty good distance today. First day out it’s best not to really kill yourself and try to go for distances, but that was just the right amount. You don’t always have that option on the first day. Two years ago during the vortex winter, deep snow, I was going to take a short day on the first day, but I ended up…it was just an ordeal. I traveled hard hours that day and I had to relay my supplies. They were too heavy to do in one load. It was on a big lake, I didn’t have a chance at all that whole day to take a break.”
Pre-Expedition Check-in #2 – March 6th, 2016
“It must be about 45° right now. It just feels like summer time. Beautiful blue skies… it looks like some really warm weather coming… It should be an interesting day tomorrow, we’ll see what the lakes and the rivers look like. I’m kind of expecting the worst, but we’ll see what happens.”
Pre-Expedition Check-in #1 – March 5th, 2016
“…trains on time, we have good weather, going up the road conditions were great. There’s a major warm front coming in. Zero degrees this morning. it looks like it’s gonna warm up the next 10 day forecast, it’s pretty warm. So we’ll see what that brings. Checking in here…”