During the long weekend of Remembrance Day we visited friends in Duck Mountain Provincial Park. This 150 km2 family-friendly park is set in a lush boreal forest of spruces, pines and birches that blends together the best of the Saskatchewan Prairies and Manitoban Lowlands. More importantly though, it is a haven for adventure and outdoor activity lovers!
Our friends, the young and hip Gagnons, own a small cabin by Madge Lake, the largest of the park’s many lakes. The setting couldn’t have been better, with the cabins and roads all covered in snow like a perfect little winter wonderland. When we went inside the cabin it seemed like time stopped 30 years ago, perfectly preserving the charm of a cabin from the old days. The lack of running water was its least attractive feature, but after a 3 hours drive and temperatures below -10°C, we easily forgot about the minor inconveniences that accompany its old world charm while warming up by the fire with a cup of hot tea. The living rooms almost constantly roaring wood-burning stove easily heated the entire cabin, and we found ourselves needing to prop open the door to let in the frigid winter air more than one would expect. Filling the walls were old wooden skis turned into coat racks, watercolors of Saskatchewan sceneries hanging over wooden figures of flamingos and sailors, charts of local ducks, an assortment of aboriginal illustrations and hundreds of other charmingly peculiar details.
After settling in we went on our first reconnaissance tour of the area. The lake, which is only 50 meters from the cabin, was already frozen, but some wet areas made us doubt whether it was safe to walk on. The boys were eager to get to the bottom of the mystery and anxiously ran out on the lake with an auger to check the depth of the ice. After several attempts, and 3 holes, we gathered that the ice was 7 inches thick. “Totally safe!”, said Casey, encouraging the other two to head out further while he instructed them from a safe distance near the shore.
It got dark early and Matt, who was also there, prepared a delicious chicken pie followed by a dessert of marshmallow butterscotch squares. We spent the rest of the night updating each other about our lives, playing board games, cheering with craft beer and overpriced wine and getting to know little Hazel, the latest addition to the Gagnon family.
The next morning, with the aid of 3 large cups of extra strong coffee and a bowl of porridge with nuts and maple syrup, we put on countless layers of winter clothes and walked to the disc golf course. I will make a small note for those who are not Canadian and have never heard of this bizarre sport. Disc golf is basically Frisbee on a golf course. Each player has a small disk that must score in a metal basket in the lowest number of total throws. I’ll be honest, disc golf isn’t my favourite sport, but I was happy to walk along the shore of the lake with Hazel, taking pictures and enjoying the beautiful views.
Sunday morning dawned with clear skies and much more reasonable temperatures. It seemed like the perfect time to explore the park’s pristine cross-country ski trails.
We put on our skis in the parking lot at Batka Lake. From there, we skied to the warm-up shelter in Moose Lake, 5 kms away. It was my first time cross country skiing. In fact, it was my first time on skis, and just figuring out how to put them on was a great feat for me. During the first 15 minutes everyone encouraged me, giving me their best tips. Bend your knees! Straighten up! Don’t be scared! Look up! I could hear from the distance. Despite their well-intentioned efforts, in less than 3 seconds, I crashed hard and ended up covered in snow, looking like a whipped meringue. But I got up and tried again, and again. Each time with a bit more luck.
The trail from Batka Lake to Moose Lake is surrounded by natural beauty, with rolling hills winding around small lakes in an old growth forest where elks, dears and moose roam freely. The trail is normally groomed, but since it was early for the ski season we were making the trail for most of the way. Luckily, we fond ourselves skiing through sunshine the whole day.
After 50 minutes and a few more slopes and falls, we arrived at a simple and cozy ski shelter overlooking Moose Lake. We stocked the fireplace with wood and made ourselves at home. It was my first time at a Ski Shelter (so many first-times in one day!) and I was quite impressed.
This tiny but comfortable cabin in the woods had all the necessary amenities, including frying pans, a furnace, an axe to cut wood, chairs for everybody, a homemade tin box guitar, an elevated loft with cushions and even a clever solar-powered light connected to a timer. We cooked lunch, walked down to the lake, snow-skated, played cards, had a few drinks and rested while enjoying the views. Before it got dark, we let the fire die and got ready to head back to the cabin.
The sky was full of stars when we arrived, so we went down to the lake to get a better view. In 5 minutes I saw three shooting stars and some faint Northern Lights. We stood there together in silence, only interrupted by the singing of the ice — which is an amazing sound, almost like a groaning whale, that occurs when fluctuations in the temperature cause the ice to expand or contract.
Back at the cabin, after a dinner of homemade lasagna, we worked through some board games before settling of the quirky ’90s comedy “I married an ax murderer” starring Mike Myers, who apparently is something of an eminence in Canada. I will not lie, it is pretty funny even for a non-native English Speaker.
Monday morning brought the end of our adventure in Duck Mountain. We were going to miss waking up to the smell of pancakes and fresh coffee. Also the cute good morning giggles of Hazel. Although we were all packed and ready to go, we needed a final stroll, and settled on a short section of the Trans Canada Trail along the southern shore of Madge Lake.
Along the walk, before saying goodbye, we agreed to make a tradition out of this weekend and promised to do it again next year. Less than a week has passed since then, but I am already excited (and preparing!) for our second annual trip to this secret Saskatchewan gem.