Friday, February 25, 2011

Spring is in the air...wishful thinking.

Last week a huge warm front had people in the Great White North (aka Sandy Lake area) nervously chewing their fingernails.  Unfortunately, the winter road in it's 2011 infancy was forced to be shut down due to unseasonable weather.  Temperature in NW Ontario peaked at a balmy 40 degrees and caused the once solid road to turn to mush.  Flashbacks to 2010 quickly arose, where a tanker was lost to the Flanagan river after a brief warm spat.  Freight companies that were hauling thousands of pounds of desired fuel and freight didn't hesitate to postpone shipments and patiently wait for cold weather to return.

To say the ice road is a "life line" to northern communities is an understatement.  These communities rely heavily on the ice highway, and cold temperatures for that matter, for cheaper transportation of goods and fuel.  Building materials for housing, fuel for communities generators, airplane fuel and vehicles are some of the most important goods transported on the highway.  At current costs of $1 per pound for flying goods, a simple one dollar can of soup instantly costs $2 when placed in an airplane.  Furthermore, this is the one time of year where northern families are able to drive off the reserve and stock up on groceries among other goods.  With gas pricing at $8.65 a gallon, milk costing 10.99 a gallon, soda at $24 a 12 pack and steaks costing around 15 bucks a pound for simple sirloin most families save a considerable amount with just one trip.  Also, this is the only time of year people can purchase a vehicle.  Just imagine driving 10 hrs to reach the nearest grocery store.  And I thought the Target five miles away is a long haul!

Fortunately, cold weather has returned to the north country. The tankers are once again transporting goods northbound to Sandy, North Spirit and Deer Lake.  Trucks utilizing giant augers three feet in diameter have been testing and flooding the Berens River and North Spirit Lake for quality ice.  Also, as I mentioned in my previous blog, helicopters with radio imagery are now able to determine ice thickness just hovering over the water for a short period of time.   

Personally I am ready for spring.  Come to think of it, didn't the ground hog see his shadow?  Which means winter will be over in three days. Oh, I hope Punxsutawny Phil was correct. On a similar note, the spring thaw in the Big Hook area should be much different from last 2010, due to the fact there is ample amount of snow.  This means we should expect high water levels this spring.  I like high water in the spring, mostly because the fish are drawn to the gushing rapids like a moth to a flame.  I realize it is still at least two months before I have the chance to cast a line in Canadian waters, but just mentioning spring fishing makes me want to rummage through the closet and prepare my gear.  Maybe in the next blog I'll discuss some spring fishing tactics.

Hope the winter is treating everyone well.  Remember to practice CPR (catch, photo, release).
Big Hook Wilderness Camps

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Winter Road 2011

Overall, the 2011 Winter Road from Red Lake to Sandy Lake was a successful trip.  Although, every winter road has various unique problems and challenges.  This year uncertainties of ice thickness was a main concern.  Like most of the Midwest, NW Ontario received record amounts of snow in December.  The massive amount of snow combined with mild temperatures throughout December and January lead to slow developing ice.

Our original plan was to begin travels on the 31st of January to NW Ontario.  However, as of January 28th vehicles had not ventured forth on the ice highway towards Sandy Lake. In previous years, the road was opened around January 15th.  With a sigh of relief, Dad received a phone call from Sandy Lake Seaplane on January 29th indicating several 4x4 half tons had completed the run.  Two days later Dad and I arrived in Vermilion Bay ready to load the trucks with our supplies. On HWY 502 in transit to Vermilion Bay from the States, we managed to chase down a small bull moose that was unwilling to depart the smooth highway into the deep snow.  Dad was practically bumping the heels of the moose while I was scrambling for the camera in the passenger seat.

On Feb 1st, Dad, Ed Carson and myself ventured into Dryden and loaded our three trucks with approximately 4000 pounds of lumber, 5 new 4-stroke Yamaha engines bound for West Lake, and various other supplies.  Two miles west of Dryden the Dodge Ram 2500 started coughing, sputtering and jerking.  We begged the local Dodge dealer for an emergency appointment and after a quick diagnosis it was determined the truck needed a coil and wiring.  Even more amazingly the part was flown in the very next day. Looking back, we were fortunate the truck didn't break down in the middle of nowhere on the ice highway.   

After our brief set back, we departed Vermilion Bay on the 3rd at 4:30 am towards Sandy Lake.  A brief stop in Red Lake for a hearty breakfast the the infamous Lakeview restaurant and we were on our way.  The first trip to Sandy Lake was rather uneventful.  Two moose and 19 chickens were spotted along the journey. It was noticeable that very little traffic had traveled the road thus far. The snow was packed well and had very few ruts.  We encountered only two vehicles during the 10 hour drive.  Arriving to Sandy Lake around dinner time we were flattered with a moose roast prepared for us.  

The following day we unloaded the vehicles and fueled up.  Not surprisingly, the gas station was only open two hours that day. At 3:00 am on the 5th, we departed Sandy Lake ventured back to Red in vehicles stocked with empty propane bottles.  Driving the road during the evening hours is optimal because oncoming traffic is visible along with the moguls in the road.  

After watching an amazing Superbowl and cheering the Packers until my throat was raw, we ventured back along the winter highway.  The final two legs of the trip were fairly non eventful. We witnessed helicopter flying over various parts of the winter road utilizing sonar imagery to record ice thickness.  According to several sources, ice was reported 22 inches at the thinnest spots.  As a rule of thumb, semi's and fuel tankers will begin traveling the highway at 20-24 inches of ice.  During our final trip back from Sandy we encountered 6 fuel tankers heading northbound.

For a neat Google Interactive map of our latest winter road journey click here.

A couple of numbers from the 2011 winter road:
  • $8.65- the current price for a gallon of gas in Sandy Lake.
  • 21-number of grouse spotted along our travels
  • 1424-kilometers (882 miles) driven on the winter road
  • 41-number of hours it took to drive the 1424 kilometers 
  • 21-average mph along the winter road
  • 10650-the we weight of goods transported along the winter highway.  Current price is $1 per pound to ship via air.
  • 4-moose spotted 
  • 3-average number of stops per cup of coffee consumed.  
  • -33-average morning temperature in Celsius (-27 F) in Sandy Lake. The wind chill our last day at Sandy was a bone chilling -44 Celsius (-47 F)