I plied across the field-strewn landscape until sunset (not that I could see the sun), when I noticed an abandoned house on the other side of the highway. The wind was stiff and the shelter the house might afford was enticing, so I decided to cross the road to investigate, despite the inconvenience of having to unload everything and carry my sled and gear across the still exposed asphalt.
It was immediately apparent that the house was not a viable shelter, but I wanted to have a look around nonetheless. Poking my head inside, I saw that the floor was gone, so I had to tiptoe carefully across the spines of the few remaining intact (though rotting) joists, which were dangerously studded with prodtruding nails, to keep from falling into the debris-filled cellar. I crossed the main room this way to explore the two smaller rooms at the back of the house. I found their floors slanted and cracked and thoroughly littered with animal excrement. Definitely not sleeping here, I thought.
I stepped back outside. Now that I hadn't been skiing for a few minutes I could feel that the temperature was plummeting - and that the wind was biting with shark teeth. I knew I had to make a decision fast, so I opted to use the partial wind shadow (this is the prairies after all) of the house and a broad-based spruce tree to set up my tent in. I worked as quickly as I could, but my fingers were soon in pain.
Once my tent was up I felt better, as I always do. My last cold tasks were measuring the snow depth and topping off the gas on my campstove. Then it was into the vestibule for my cozy nightly ritual of snow melting, hot cocoa drinking, and supper preparation. Before going about all this, however, I slip into my parka, wool socks, and quilted camp booties.
The next morning it was not -27 but -32 (-25F). Darn chilly, especially with an unobstructed 40 km/h wind tearing through it all. Breaking camp required frequent stops to stuff my hands up against my belly for warming. But eventually I was on the trail again. To stay warm at these temperatures, one has to maintain a brisk pace, and my two or three snack breaks over the course of the day lasted no longer than about thirty seconds apiece.
The temperature did come back up over the following days, as I skied into High Prairie, where I spent a night, and then east along the southern shore of Lesser Slave Lake. For the first five days out of McLennan the air was snowy and grey, but the going was steady. No graders had been used on the tracks, so I was ploughing through about four inches of powder. This meant I couldn't cover much more than about fifteen miles a day, but at least it was consistent.
One evening, at the end of the first perfect sunny day of my whole trip, I slid into a little hamlet called Kinuso, surprised to find it was something more than just the railroad siding I'd expected to find. Along the tracks stood one of those iconic wooden grain elevators, and opposite it the town's main street stretched back perpendicularly from the tracks. The side streets were dotted with cozy little houses whose lights were flickering on as people busied themselves outside, whether shoveling, blowing, or playing in the newfallen snow. Who could resist popping into explore such a place?
I skied up the main street, causing fewer heads to turn than I would have thought, and parked my sled in front of the little grocery store. Inside I bought some sweet snacks for energy and asked the cashier if there was a place in town where I could get a hot meal. She directed me to Real Country Steak and Pizza, where I subsequently devoured a salad, a considerable pile of poutine, and a loaded pizza, and drank as many cups of hot coffee as the waitress had the patience to bring me.
As I was labouring though my pizza, approaching capacity, I saw two men stop outside the front window to look over my loaded sled and skis. They came in to eat and asked me what I was doing with all that equipment. And so we began to talk. By the end of the conversation, Barry, one of the two and the owner of the local hardware store, had offered me a warm place to sleep at his home outside town.
So I had a pleasant evening of chatting and TV-watching with Barry (whom I baffled with my abyssal ignorance of the world of television) and his wife Heather in their spacious living room with the biggest picture window I have ever seen looking south out over the range, where they keep thirty horses, towards the wooded hills. I even had a nice soak in the tub with some special muscle-relaxing salts.
Next morning Barry bought me a big protein-rich breakfast and we had a good talk during which I learned a lot about oil - lots of things you probably don't hear much outside of Alberta. Barry then drove me back into Kinuso, gave me his card, and wished me well.
The next two days were sunny and clear too. The snow glimmered like a billion tiny crystals suffused with the soft yellow light of the low winter sun. I finally got to the lake and found it to be excellent for both camping and skiing. The windpack meant that I didn't have to spend twenty minutes tamping out a tent platform, and it also meant that I didn't have to force my skis through four inches of powder.
Skiing on a big lake is much different from skiing on small ones, which is all I had ever done. Owing to their constant exposure to the wind, big lakes like Lesser Slave hold very little snow. What snow they do hold is in drifts and is densely packed. This means the going is pretty bumpy, especially if you've got a sled jerking around behind you, but it also means that your skis don't meet with a lot of resistance. What's more, you encounter pressure ridges that are hundreds of metres long, where two sheets of ice have collided and one is forced up, one down, like subduction in miniature.
Approaching the town of Slave Lake over the ice was quite exciting for me. Because of all the features of big lake ice I just mentioned, and because the shore is so far off, you can almost imagine you are skiing in some polar region. Dreams of Nansen, one of my personal heroes. Sometimes the snow has been swept clear off the ice, and there are windows into the dark water below where the water happens to have frozen solid before being contaminated by the snow, which blurs its transparency (and compromises its integrity). At one point I stopped for a snack and a hot drink and saw a lone wolf crossing the lake about 100 metres behind me. He was headed north across my eastbound path and seemed mostly unfazed by my silent presence. I followed him with my eyes for a few minutes and watched a raven drop out of the huge empty sky to tease him. Probably just lonely, I thought.
As I drew closer to town I became conscious of the fact that my muscles were quite stiff after eight consecutive long days on the trail. It occurred to me that I could do with a break, so I decided I would hole up for a while in Slave Lake, which is what I'm doing now.
The temperature is falling again. It's expected to hit -29 tomorrow, -39 with the windchill. While I wait I'm contemplating my next move, dreaming of the lakes and silence of the Saskatchewan bush, ready to leave Alberta, where black gold has made the north almost as peopled as anywhere else.