Just before disappearing into the bush from off the bay, I turned and looked out as far across the lake as I could see and said a final goodbye to Dave, Crystal, and Sherlock. Then I started my gradual climb among the spruce. Soon I had my pull-saw out and was paying my dues as a trail user, keeping things clear so the snowmobilers wouldn’t clothesline themselves. I skied south for the rest of the day under sunny skies and made camp in a pine grove. In the morning I had a nice fire and enjoyed the mild weather. That evening I reached the road that runs east to west across northern Saskatchewan and turned east. I skied off into the bush through about four feet of snow and made camp again.
The next day was warm and the snow had melted off the road. The snow in the ditch was wet and sticky and caked inches thick on to my skis. I was immobilized. I took off my skis and walked and hauled my sled across the wet sand but felt none too good about the damage I was inflicting on my gear. So after six kilometres I stopped and sat on my gear and waited for a car to pass. They had been passing at a rate of about one per hour, so I thought I might be waiting a while. But it was warm and the sun was shining.
It wasn’t too long before I was riding along with two guys from north of La Ronge who were “out for a drive”, which around these parts usually means looking for moose tracks with rifle ready on the centre console. I told them I hadn’t seen any moose for a while, which I hadn’t. They drove me, ever so slowly, to the junction of the Hansen Lake Road, which runs east to Flin Flon. There I was able to get a ride with a fellow by the name of Leon Dorion from Pelican Narrows who had seen me the evening before. He told me stories of firefighting in northern Saskatchewan and about his cabin forty miles north of the Churchill River, where he would be headed by snowmobile that very afternoon.
Another ride with a van full of women from Sandy Bay on their way to buy groceries in town (a three-hour trip) brought me across the Manitoba border into Flin Flon. Flin Flon looks just about how you would expect a mining town to look – a soaring smokestack, barren ground, cheap-looking boxy houses, and a downtown strip that would have Wim Wenders on the next plane into town. The man driving the van dropped the ladies off at the grocery store and then took me to the Royal Hotel, where he helped me to bring in my equipment before going next door to play the slots. I checked in and took my stuff upstairs and then went off to explore the town on foot. I walked up to the top of the hill at the far end of the strip and could see only snow and rock rolling off into the distance. I was on the Shield now.
I wasn’t able to get hold of Dave Price, my local contact, until the following morning, but once I did I had a private full-time guide for the remainder of my stay in Flin Flon. Dave is a retired exploration geologist who originally comes from Wales but has been in Flin Flon since 1970. He told me tales of his adventures in places as far afield as northern Norway, Antarctica, and Nepal, and showed me beautiful old photographs of these travels. He explained to me why the ground was so eerily barren around Flin Flon. For years the copper smelter pumped tons and tons of sulfur dioxide into the air and killed all the plant life around Flin Flon’s centre. Two years ago the stack finally stopped spouting its lethal fumes. Though everyone I met in town seemed happy about this, Dave told me that the one downside from his perspective was that it was no longer possible to determine the wind direction by just glancing out the kitchen window toward the stack.
Dave introduced me to some of his skiing friends and members of the local ski club. There seemed to be such a wonderful sense of community among the neighbours. It felt a bit like living in a university dormitory, where friends walk up and down the hall and pop in for a visit whenever they feel like it, and no one seems to mind. Thanks to Dave I also had an opportunity to talk to the grade-tens at the high school and to see the local visual arts centre, Norva.
One afternoon I talked to Frank Fieber, editor of Northroots magazine. I had been in touch with Frank a few months before and we had agreed to have a chat when I finally got to Flin Flon. We ended up talking for a couple of hours, and about things I never would have expected to discuss with a perfect stranger – things I won’t even talk about on this blog. I talked about my realization early on that I would never be able to make it to Quebec in one winter, and my consequent shifting of the focus of my trip from space to time – how my revised objective was to ski for the entire winter and get as far as that would take me. On my end the most important thing that came out of this conversation was that not only were there deeper reasons than I had initially understood underlying this journey, which I had already discovered, but that I had essentially done what I needed to do on that deeper level. And now it was just a matter of enjoying the last days of winter and letting the trip end where it felt good. I realized that the end of my trip was perhaps now – that it might not end with an abrupt full-stop, but with those three little elliptical dots that signify a sentence that just drifts happily off…
I was seen off on Thursday morning by a local newspaper reporter; Duane Davis, head of the Flin Flon ski club; a local skier called Larry; and Dave and Frank. It was the friendliest and least melancholy departure from a town I’ve had. Flin Flon seemed like a special place and I knew I’d be back.
Sooner than I expected, as it turned out. I skied 112 kilometres to Wanless, MB, following snowmobile trails. Along the trail I met snowmobilers Curtis and Colleen Cook from near Swan River. They invited me to spend some time exploring their local trails and to drop them a line when I got to their area. In the meantime I blew an edge out of my left ski and was forced to return to Flin Flon for repairs. Here I was helped by a cheery and energetic friend of Dave Price’s called Rick Hall. Thanks, Rick!
The next couple of weeks were spent exploring the area just north of The Pas and then around Swan River, where I did end up touching base with Curtis and Colleen, who proved to be inspiringly kind and generous. My dad drove out to join me for a few days of skiing, and the Cooks helped us with the logistics of this stretch, allowed us to leave the truck at their place, and even came out on their sleds one night with Curtis’ folks for dinner. We shared good food, good wine, stories, smiles, and pleasant company around the hot stove of one of their club’s cabins. Curtis and Colleen and company drove off into the darkness at around midnight. The temperature fell off sharply that night so that it was in the low minus 20s by morning. Skiing off it felt like January again. With my dad I had decided this would be the end – fifteen kilometres back to the road. So we skied off at a necessarily brisk pace (I was glad my dad got a chance to feel what most of the trip had been like) and made excellent time. I skied out of the bush, and when I reached the asphalt of Highway 10 I took off my skis and sat down on my loaded sled to rest. And just like that it was over.