Snow Pants and Short-Sleeves

by Sarah Kelly

The story of an ice fishing trip in Northern Canada captures the art of the staycation practiced in one of the most remote places on Earth.

There’s a razor-thin window of opportunity in the western Canadian Arctic where you can enjoy the return of the sunlight before the vexatious bears and bugs emerge from hibernation. The improbably perfect amount of sun, snow, and longing to leave winter behind converge on a sole weekend every late April. Once a year, thirty-two lucky adventurers from a tiny northern town of eight hundred secure their spots aboard a Twin Otter bush plane on skis and charter two flights deep into Canada’s Mackenzie Mountains for a day of ice fishing, campfires, and revelry. The quick-to-sell-out trip is only announced via a social media post a few days in advance, resulting in would-be passengers calling the airline with the same frenetic energy as trying to score concert tickets from a radio station in the 90s. 

Standing thigh deep in snow with wide eyes and exultant smiles since we’re the lucky ones, we’ve formed an assembly line, throwing our backpacks, ice fishing gear, lawn chairs, and coolers full of good Canadian beer onto the buried shoreline. The coolers are pointless and effectively serve as luggage, as we’ll just plop the beer into the snow around us anyway.

“SKIS!” yells our North Wright Airways pilot as he tries to sort out the chaotic pile of outdoor gear emerging from the plane.

We had just landed on the frozen Carcajou Lake, where the snow remained crisp and untouched, except for a spattering of wolf paw prints and the trail left by our plane. Carcajou Lake is nestled just below the confluence of the furthest Northern reach of the Rocky Mountains and the Arctic Circle and is framed by steep brown and gray shale inclines decorated with snow and scraggly Charlie Brown-like Christmas trees.

“SHOVEL!” as the shovel gets tossed towards the mouth of the nearby river. I exchange a knowing glance with my husband, Hugo, elated that we finally brought something to contribute to the ice fishing community. On our first trip to Carcajou, we had no clue what to bring and depended on the experience and charity of others when it came to needing a shovel for digging into the ice, the tiny two-and-a-half-foot rods, and even the requisite auger (essentially a giant cork screw with a motor on top) for making the ice holes. We are originally from Toronto and already run the risk of being labelled as “city-ots” (painfully rhyming with “idiots”), but this year our shovel puts us in the experienced camp of Carcajou thrill seekers. 

En route to the lake, we pressed our faces against the plane’s window like field-trip bound children on a school bus. We gazed upon everything from a herd of scattering caribou and cavernous canyons to misplaced World War II era vehicles abandoned along Mile 75 of the famous Canol Trail, meant to long ago link Canada’s northern oil supply to Alaska. The juxtaposition of industrial and rugged nature is a hallmark of this region in Canada.

A flight on a private plane is the first leg of an ice fishing staycation in Northern Canada

“Okay! Back soon!” Our pilots clamor back into the plane and prepare for the forty-minute flight back to the town of Norman Wells, Northwest Territories, leaving us alone in the sprawling wilderness until they return with the second batch of adventurers. A cacophonous symphony of activity rebounds off of the sepia-toned peaks. Hatchets break down spruce bows, the ice auger hacks away at the ice, and the Twin Otter roars back to life.

The plane weaves to the opposite end of the lake, and we all pause as it begins its graceful yet daring low take-off directly over us, the white underbelly of the tiny aircraft silhouetted against the warming sun and cerulean sky. Within seconds, the engine noise is lost in the echo of the mountains, and the plane becomes a pin prick among the peaks. It is eerily quiet for a moment as a tidal wave of silence crashes over us. Then, the pssh of a crisp can of beer opening is heard, someone yells out “WOO!” and we all cheers to the day ahead and continue setting up our chosen camps. 

Typically, Carcajou merrymakers break themselves into three groups: the campfire crew on land, the ice-fishers on the lake, and the active hiker/snowshoer/cross country skier crowd that emerge at multiple points during the day. There is a stunning frozen waterfall nearby that drips like a fumbling faucet, as if it’s trying to flow but can’t quite remember how. The river trail also leads to the nearby rustic Carcajou Hilton cabin, where everyone writes their name on the wood inside, serving as evidence that you survived another Northern winter. For us, though, we always start our trip with ice fishing.  

The selection of a perfect ice fishing spot is a fine art, and we often land somewhere between being close enough to the mouth of the river (for the fish), and “good enough,” owing to the sheer exhaustion of lugging gear through unbroken snow. The walk to the ice fishing spot is so hot that we’ve removed parkas, and everyone is dressed in the matching uniform of snow-pants-on-bottom, sweatshirts-on-top, toques-on-heads. Someone approaches our ice fishing hole and asks if they can borrow our shovel, and I am elated at being one of the cool kids. In return, someone else lets us borrow their auger, and for the very first time, I ostensibly help drill the first spot!

Drilling a hole on an ice fishing staycation in Canada

Soon, our small patch of ice is ready for fishing, and we sit facing the sun in our matching Toronto Blue Jays lawn chairs, using the snow pile we shovelled as our foot rest. Over the next few hours, we stare up at the cloudless sky, spot hikers on top of the mountains, take turns skimming slush out of the hole, chuckle when we overhear something hilarious from the campfire crew, and just enjoy each other’s company in the wildest yet calmest place we’ve ever been. And of course, we fish.

In four years, I’ve never caught a single one, but in that moment, clearly ice fishing is the least important part of the itinerary. Someone snaps a photo of us in our matching chairs from behind, and it will later become the photo used in future advertisements for the next Carcajou trip. We naturally get it framed right away. 

Interrupting the serene silence, I enthusiastically proclaim, “Hugo, it’s time!” Even from behind his wide sunglasses, I can tell he’s switching from a look of concentration on his rod to breaking into a grin. I am the kind of person who is perpetually frozen, despite what the furnace says, yet the penultimate moment of the day has arrived: I gleefully peel off my sweater and let the sun kiss my skin for the first time since the previous August. Elated to be rid of my final winter layer, I continue ice fishing in snow pants and a tank top, thankful it has warmed up to a nearly tropical -10 degrees Celsius, and, as Hugo always puts it, “sit and watch the world go by.” 

Fortunately, social permeability between groups is both welcome and encouraged, for the scent of sizzling smokies and moose ribs eventually lures us to the fire. By now, each lawn chair is punctured with an orbit of cans, and we are grateful that it is the beer that is chilled instead of us. The campfire crew asks if we caught anything to grill, and while the answer is hardly ever yes, we come every year. The hikers have returned, and we enjoy great music and even greater company until the pilots sadly but wisely advise that it’s time for the first plane to return home. The only souvenirs we get to take are the new holes in our nylon snow pants from the circulating ash of the campfire.

Much to my chagrin as a teenager, my mum always taught me that only boring people get bored. It can be challenging living year-round in a fly-in only community, and like everyone, the art of the staycation is a skill that needs to be honed. By the following weekend, the lake will be too melted to land the plane on, but we’ll have enough stories to get us through to the next winter. As I gaze at the canyons and aqua-blue frozen rivers below, smelling of campfire smoke with my cheeks candy-apple red from the sun, I think to myself, “Just 364 days to go!” And next year? I’m bringing an auger.

Editor’s Note: This article resulted from our “Your First Published Article” scholarship program. To be informed of more opportunities for travel writers, follow us on Facebook and join our free Newsletter.

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