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Winter in Desbarats, New Years, 1970-71 by Jake Dann

Most of our adventures and memories happen during the summer, so I decided to share a winter visit to Desbarats, New Years, 1970-71.


As a senior in high school, I drove with three friends and Rottweiler Hermann from Buffalo to St. Joseph Island, and we snowshoed the unplowed Ferry Road across Campement d’Ours to the Main Camp with backpacks full of food. Staying at the Main Camp meant huddling around the wood stove in the kitchen, sleeping in front of the fireplace on mattresses pulled from around the house, and shivering upon waking. But the winter landscape was breathtaking, I think, even more so because one’s eye races around an open and simplified version of what’s so familiar in the summer.


What would an adventure be without Hermann getting into a porcupine upon arrival in the camp? Fortunately, we found pliers, and as he sat for his food, I pulled out all the quills (Forty years later when the old kitchen was torn down, dried-up porcupine carcasses filled the space under the floor).


Day one, we snowshoed in and around Picture Island, where we found a huge wind-blown cornice on one of the many cliffs. Peter decided he wanted to snowshoe over the cornice until it collapsed. Best defenseman on our HS hockey team, Peter was fearless, and we could dig him out, so we set up the camera position, and snapped a perfect shot with him ridding an avalanche of snow down the cliff face. Decades later in mapping the Island’s geology, I never came across the cliff, perplexing to question one’s memory, until a few years back, dog Ziva insisted on dismounting our paddle board near a beautiful small pool just above lake level, and looking up, I found the historic cliff face. How we see a landscape depends on the season, mode of transport, and especially our companions!


The biggest day was snowshoeing down the Lake to Escape, Windmill, and the Lighthouse. A gray day, snowing, the ice was windblown with patches of glare ice, hard walking with snow shoes, so we were carrying them—fortunately. Walking the stretch back to Agate, I fell right through the ice, no warning, no cracking, just swoosh up to my armpits. Buoyancy made it easy to push and get back on the good ice behind us. But, Peter beside me kept walking and fell forward into a bad patch of snow-covered slush, flailing around up to his neck. Yelling for him to come back, I grabbed Hermann’s color, leaned over the water with a snowshoe, and pulled Peter out.


At this point, we were in a blizzard, so I decided to take a wide loop around the bad ice (above current?) to Agate and then Campement d’Ours, smudges on the horizon in the white-out conditions. Walking in snow up to our waist, our wet pants froze, stiff like stove pipes, but sufficient adrenaline powered us back to camp. We were leaving the next day and strapped the frozen coats and pants on top of the car, looking like dismembered bodies, which we thought would be funny at the border crossing. The final challenge was digging our car out of the plowed drift along the road. Was I the first in our family to visit Desbarats in the Winter? Nope. Cousin Alden Meyer with Jane and Art XC skied to their camp on Portlock Island when he was 9 years old. More recently I have made winter visits with son Jesse in Feb and March. Needless to say, local inhabitants have abundant winter stories, and let’s not forget the two frozen mailmen on Picture Island…


Cheers, Jake Dann

PS. Great Lakes ice coverage has decreased on average over 50 years due to global warming.

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