Ice-Out by Ice Road: Fishing Backcountry Manitoba by ATV

The town of Lynn Lake is the farthest up northern Manitoba you can drive during the summer. Lynn Lake is where the pavement ends and the muskeg begins, which means it's a gateway to the best walleye, lake trout, and trophy northern pike fishing in the world. Most visiting fishermen fly out of Lynn Lake from a floatplane base near the airport, heading for high-end trophy lodges you can only reach using wings. There is, however, one road leading north out of town. It is called the winter road, and it's open only in January, February, and March, when it's covered with ice thick enough to support the tanker trucks that carry fuel from Lynn Lake to a remote reservation town called Brochet. The rest of the year, when the ground is soft, this road becomes an impassable swamp. It is little more than a trough in the taiga, a 250-kilometer bog that's home to nothing but ducks, wolves, beavers, bears, and blackflies. Over the years a few locals have tried to reach Brochet on the road during the warm season, just to see if the trip could be done. They've tried it with trucks, with quads, and even with 6-wheeled ATVs. None made it farther than the first 5 kilometers. Until we arrived. This is the story of how four guys spent two weeks on three quads and a Rhino in the beginning of June, trying to fish our way up this road, from Lynn Lake to Brochet, during ice-out. It starts 8,000 feet above a frozen lake …Mike Calabro
Day 1: Rough Landing
Mike Calabro, Jordan Stoddard, and I (that's me at bottom right) are sitting in an airplane, the Perimeter Airlines flight that heads northwest out of Thompson, Manitoba, and lands in Lynn Lake four times a week. Mike (the crazy-looking guy at top right) is our photographer. His work runs regularly in QUAD/Off-Road Magazine, which is co-sponsoring this trip. Jordan (bottom left) is a buddy of mine from college. A former furniture deliveryman who trained in school as an airplane mechanic, he's a good guy to have around in a breakdown. We're about an hour out from the airport, where we'll meet the fourth member of our expedition, a man named Audie Dulewich (top left), the mayor of the town and our unofficial guide for the trip. The plane we're on is a twin-engine turboprop. It's loud -- the stewardess handed out disposable earplugs when we got on -- so we're all looking out the window instead of trying to make conversation. The view is making us nervous. Ice-out is supposed to be the best time of the year to fish Canada's inland lakes. The term refers to the first two or three weeks after the ice breaks up, when the big fish that normally cruise deeper water can be found close to the surface (and within casting reach of the shoreline). Our plan for this trip is to target these fish in the rivers and lakes we encounter while traveling up the winter road. There are hundreds of these, and since nobody's ever gone up the road after the thaw, most have never been fished. What's making us nervous is that the ice doesn't look much melted on the lakes we see below. They're still covered in white sheets of the stuff, and it looks pretty thick. There are a few spots near the shoreline where we can see open water, mostly at inlets and outlets where the water must be moving, and I tell myself we'll be fine -- we can fish those if we don't find anything better. But deep down in my guts the beetles start buzzing. All our research said the first weeks in June would be the best times to fish, but it's looking as if we've arrived too early. We'll find out more when we land -- we're planning to review our itinerary with Audie over dinner. Check back tomorrow (when we post our next report) and we'll let you know how it goes ...
Mike Calabro
Day 2: Loading Up
Last night Audie met us at the airport, then took us to a diner across from the town office called the Lynn Inn Cafe, where we finalized the route we're taking over a meal of hamburgers, poutine (Canadian cheese fries and gravy), and a few cold Kokanee beers. Lynn Lake used to be much bigger -- more than 4,000 people lived there back when the mines near town were still running -- but these days the population is down to about 700. Audie, who is only 47 but has been the mayor for more than 20 years, seems to know them all. He certainly knew everybody in the diner. We'd barely settled into our booth before the regulars started stopping by to check us out. Turns out our adventure was the talk of the town.
Mike Calabro
Most of the people we met were pretty skeptical. Two guys in particular, a couple of hard-looking characters dressed in Carhartt coats and muddy jeans, seemed downright amused at our brand-new boots and mountaineering jackets. After they left Audie told us that they'd tried to beat us to the punch a week earlier, heading up the road on one of those 6-wheeled amphibious vehicles you always see advertised in the backs of outdoor magazines. They only reached the first creek crossing before turning back. "You might make it part the way," one of them said, "but I don't think it can be done." What we've got on our side is time. We have two weeks to make this trip, more than long enough, we hope, to ride to Brochet and back, and to stop and fish regularly along the way. Tomorrow (Day 3) we'll ride toward Kinoosao, a port town on Reindeer Lake that's east of Lynn along the co-op road, and camp at an inlet to Vanderkechove Lake near where the winter road splits north toward the reservation. Day 4 will be our first in the backcountry, and from there the schedule gets a little vague. We figure it should take us at most a week to get to Brochet, and another week back, but since nobody's ever made this trip we can't really be sure.Mike Calabro
Today, though, is a prep day. We spend nearly 10 hours over at Audie's shop packing up our gear and strapping it to the quads, installing winches to each one, and making sure all our fishing gear is ready to go. Audie's shop is the perfect place to rig up. Besides being mayor, Audie is also part-owner of a company called Timber Wolf Trucking Ltd., which hauls gear and supplies into town and works with the government to prepare and maintain the ice road during the winter. His shop is where he stores all the tools he needs to maintain the equipment -- the road tractors, semi-trailers, tankers, front-end loaders, bulldozers, and other heavy machinery -- it takes to keep a road open in the north country. We're starting out with about 700 pounds of equipment, which we need to strap onto two quads (a Yamaha Grizzly 700 and a Grizzly 550), and one Rhino 700 side-by-side. The first thing we do when packing it all up is spread out a big blue tarp in front of the garage. On this we lay out our gear, separating it into piles for packing. One pile for the kitchen bag. One pile for fishing equipment. One for medical supplies and other emergency equipment, and another for tools -- a packable shovel, hatchet, tow straps, a band saw, tie-downs and bungee cords, flat fixing packs, a tire compressor, and other necessary equipment for maintaining the quads and digging them out of the swamp when they get stuck. Each person gets their own dry bag (big 108-liter Bill's Bags from NRS) for clothing, sleeping bags and sleeping pads, and other personal items, and also a small AquaPak in which to store quick-access equipment such as rain gear, extra hats, and gloves. We have one last bag for the tents, into which we also stash a daypack containing loose items such as two-way radios, GPS, spare batteries, and other necessities.Mike Calabro
Packing all of this into the bags is the hard part -- actually strapping them to the vehicles takes no time at all. First, on go our spare fuel tanks, including some 4-gallon flat tanks from Kolpin that we attach to the racks on the backs of the quads, and stack in the bed of the Rhino next to a spare wheel. On top of this we pile our bags of gear. Two dry bags to a quad, four more in the Rhino, plus a big duffel full of fishing equipment and another holding a PakCanoe, a 16-foot folding canoe we figure will come in handy, assuming we can find any open water. This is a lot of gear, most of it on the Rhino, and we are pretty sure we've overloaded the thing, especially considering that two of us have to ride in the front. This concerns us, but Mike, who's done many backcountry trips on the machines for other stories, is confident it can handle the weight, so we tighten the springs on the suspension and hope that will be enough. We'll find out soon. We're heading out in the morning -- check back tomorrow for the latest on our progress.Mike Calabro
Day 3: Fire and Walleye
We're sitting around camp watching walleye fillets sizzle in a hot frying pan and talking about forest fires. It's our first night in the tents. We've set them up on a hill overlooking the inlet to Vanderkechove Lake -- a fast-flowing stream dumping into a narrow cove that's partly cleared of ice. When the meat looks done we pluck chunks of it from the pan, pop them into our mouths, then lick the grease from our fingers. The walleyes are something of a mixed blessing. They're delicious, especially the cheeks -- fried nuggets of sweet meat popped from behind the gill plates that taste a bit like scallops -- but most of the ones we're eating met their end in a gill net. Down by the water we can hear gulls squabbling over bycatch from the net, putrid pike and whitefish carcasses tossed haphazardly onto the bank next to a muddy put-in that's polluted with discarded monofilament and empty beer cans. Getting away from scenes like this is one of the reasons we're heading into the bush. You can reach this site quite easily by heading east out of Lynn Lake along the well-maintained road that takes you to Kinoosao, so it gets fished pretty hard. When we rode up earlier in the day, a couple of Metis kids were getting ready to leave. They'd been spreading nets across the mouth of the inlet, where walleyes would normally be stacked deep waiting to spawn at this time of year. Since this spring has been so unseasonably cold, the fish aren't as abundant as normal, but the gillnetters still had about 50 piled in the bed of their pickup. The guys were very friendly and gave us a few of their fish as gifts, but all that waste on the shore made this a discouraging way to kick off the trip.
Mike Calabro
Still, it's hard to stay down when you're looking forward to two weeks of high adventure, and a couple of the fish we're eating we did catch on our own. When the gillnetters left, we put together our PakBoat, then spent the afternoon and evening bouncing some of Audie's homemade jigs along the bottom of the inlet. The action was slow, but we landed two nice walleyes before the sun dropped. One of the things we decided not to bring yesterday was a Ziploc bag full of fire-starters -- cotton balls soaked in Vaseline. Audie had told us that we wouldn't need them, and he showed us why when we started our cooking fire. Doing this was stupid easy. The land here is blanketed with low pine trees, and the dead lower branches of these are kept dry by the live green needles above. They're also covered with a black, stringy lichen that flares up as if it's been soaked in gasoline when you touch it with a match.Mike Calabro
The drawback to such an abundance of tinder is that the land is extremely vulnerable to forest fires. If you get stuck in one of these you're in big trouble, because they spread very, very quickly. Audie tells us a story about how he was flying over a fire with one of his pilot friends a few years back, watching a burn line advance, and saw it hit a bigger-than-normal stand of timber. "It just exploded. It looked like a mushroom cloud," he says. "If a guy got caught in something like that, well, that'd about be the end of him, eh?" One of the things we'll need to watch for tomorrow is that we don't start a forest fire ourselves. Audie says that a ranger he knows told him we'd need to be careful about clearing off any moss that might collect around the mufflers of our quads, or we run the risk of leaving a trail of burning tinder in our wake as we head north. We hit the winter road tomorrow. Check back for the update around noon.Mike Calabro
Day 4: Breakdown in Wolf Country
We're deep in the swamp, 10 kilometers up the winter road (which is 5 kilometers farther than anyone else has ever made it during the summer), but it's taken us almost seven hours to get here, and now we're in trouble. Our Rhino just broke down while stuck floorboard deep in a suckhole. We're not sure what the problem is -- the engine is running smoothly but the wheels have stopped spinning -- so we start looking for a dry place to set up camp and figure out if we can fix the thing in the field. About half a klick ahead there's a rise in the muskeg and we send Jordan to scout it in the 550. He comes back and says there's a flat stretch of dry sand near the top of the ridge, so we spend an hour unpacking the Rhino and shuttling its load to the site, then hook a tow strap to the poor machine and pull it to high ground. When we get to the top I notice that the sand is covered in fresh wolf tracks. By this time the sun is almost to the treetops and it's getting really cold, down into the 20s, so we pitch our tents and build a fire, then make a quick dinner of some dehydrated Mountain House camping meals.
Mike Calabro
We're guessing this breakdown happened for two reasons. The first is that we overloaded the Rhino by about 200 pounds. The thing nearly bottomed out when we packed it back at the shop, but we didn't want to lose our heaviest nonessentials -- stuff like the 75-pound PakBoat -- so we decided to keep the weight on and take a little extra winching in trade. This brings me to our second mistake, which is that we completely underestimated how nasty the winter road would be. We should have started dumping gear right at the beginning, after we buried both the quads and the Rhino in the first 30 yards of trail -- which is mostly composed of rotting sphagnum moss. When dry, the moss is brown and loamy, with the consistency of sawdust, and we can ride across it as long as we don't spin our tires. Wet muskeg is black, or, when the moss is still alive, bright green, and in it we sink. In most places we found that we could crawl our way out of the wet stuff, inching along and, when we started bogging down, hopping off the seats and walking the vehicles out of the worst parts. In other places we'd hit deep holes that just swallowed the front ends of our quads as if they had no bottoms. We avoided most of these, but some were hidden beneath shallow blankets of drier moss, or below standing water in spots that were flooded by beavers, and when you hit one of them it was time to break out the winches.Mike Calabro
Our two quads handled most of this well, especially after Jordan and I began learning how to read the terrain so that we could avoid the worst of the holes. But the Rhino's load -- all that gear plus Audie and Mike in the bucket seats -- was sinking the wheels so deeply that the vehicle's front end was plowing a trough through the bog. The thing was getting stuck every five minutes, and we spent more time winching it back than we did riding it forward. Somewhere along the way we put too much pressure on the drivetrain. Right now it's late, and cold. We're tired and it's getting dark, so we're going to try to figure out what's wrong in the morning. But we're lucky this breakdown has happened just 10 klicks in, where we can still tow out. Much farther along, if the problem wasn't fixable we'd have to leave the Rhino in the bush for three months, until the ground freezes up enough for Audie to come in with a truck and haul it out. Check back tomorrow for the update.Mike Calabro
Day 5: The Sat-Phone Blues
We spend all morning trying to figure out what's wrong with the Rhino. The first thing we do is pull the CVT plug and check it for water, thinking that the transmission belt might have gotten wet and started slipping. The plug is dry, but we take off the belt cover anyway, just to double check. No luck. We spend an hour trying to scrape out the mud and gravel packed between the skid plate and the floorboards, hoping that this buildup has caused the emergency brake to seize up, or the axles to bind, because that would be an easy fix. Jordan and I have the bed tipped up in the back and are sawing away at sticks and weeds wrapped around the CV boots with our multitools. Mike is chipping away at the gunk behind one front wheel with a screwdriver, and Audie's in there with his bare hands on the other, up to his elbows in partly frozen sludge and swearing like a sailor. It's still cold out and we're all kind of pissed, sore as hell from wrestling with the swamp the day before and worrying about creeping back to town with our tails between our legs. Five hours later and it's not looking good. We have two expert mechanics along -- Jordan, who works on airplanes, and Audie, who's been jury-rigging machinery in the north woods for more than 30 years. Neither can find a way to fix the problem. As a last resort we unpack the satellite phone and spend the afternoon getting a direct line to Yamaha's corporate office, which connects us with one of their top engineers. Audie talks with him for an hour, reviewing everything we've checked, and eventually they conclude that the internal clutch has given out. This is basically the worst-case scenario, because fixing it requires a full-service shop. There's no way we're going to get this Rhino moving under its own power while we're still out in the bush.
Mike Calabro
We talk it out and the best we can figure was that we burned it up while trying to hammer through the muck late the day before. Mike was driving, and in order to make it over the rougher patches he would speed up on the high ground before them in order to gather momentum. He'd hit the slop with the throttle wide open, going full speed, slamming the thing off stumps, logs, and buried chunks of ice. In some places the Rhino would hit a hummock, bounce completely off the ground, then nosedive into a hole and jar to a stop. At times when buried like this the wheels would wedge up against the edges of rough rocks and logs that kept them from turning. When this happened we should have hooked up the winch immediately, but as the day progressed we grew so tired of hopping off the quads and wading through the mud to grab the cable that we began relying too much on the engine to pull itself out. We'd sit there watching blank-faced as Mike put the pedal to the floor, winding out the throttle in 4-low with the diff-lock on, and the wheels weren't even spinning. We think that's where the problem started. The only option left is to pull the Rhino out behind one of the quads, then head back to Lynn Lake for a replacement. We now know why nobody has ever gone up this road in the summertime, and we're sure as hell not going to be the first to make it all the way if we try again with an overloaded machine. We decide to dump the canoe, and Yamaha agrees to send us another Grizzly 700 in addition to a new Rhino so that we can distribute the rest of our weight across an extra vehicle. By the time we nail down these details, it's too late in the day to set out -- we have no idea how long it will take us to tow the thing back to the main road, and we don't want to get caught in the dark -- so we decide to spend another night camping in the wolf tracks and head out in the morning. The plan is to leave all our gear here tomorrow so that the vehicles stay light for better towing, then pack it back up when we try the road again, after the new vehicles are delivered. I just hope no bears find the food bag before we return.Mike Calabro
Day 6: Tow-Strap Retreat
It's about 35 degrees and pouring rain. I'm out in front on the 700, rocking the floorboards to help the wheels reach frost-hardened ground beneath the muck. The front end is slewing from side to side but the quad is still moving forward, crabbing against the weight of the tow strap. Audie is steering the Rhino behind me. Jordan is riding herd on the 550 in case we need to winch backward out of a hole. Mike is stumbling on foot through the bog beside us, snapping pictures and trying to keep his camera away from the rotting moss our tires are spraying all over the trail. We're making decent time today. One reason is that the vehicles float through the swamp much better minus the weight of our gear. The other is that we've learned to stay near the edges of the road. The riding there is easier because the edges are where the snow got piled by the plows and graders that keep the road clear during the winter, along with branches, logs, and other debris. The ground is still partly frozen, so we don't sink as much, and the sticks give us extra traction. It took us seven hours to make it 10 kilometers on the way in; we've been towing now for two and are almost back to the Kinoosao road. This has us feeling a lot more optimistic about our chances when we come back to try the road again. We're planning to stay at Audie's place tonight, and even though we're losing time to this breakdown we're all looking forward to hot showers and soft beds. We get there a few hours before dark, wet, windburned, and shivering. Audie's wife, Sheila, has a big meal of steak and onions already on the table. We peel off our clothes, change into dry stuff, and tuck in. After dinner we head to the basement and fall asleep on couches while watching the Stanley Cup finals. One wall of the stairway down is covered with wolf pelts. A gun cabinet is next to the TV; it's packed so full of rifles and shotguns that you can barely tell which barrel goes with which stock. The room is lined with DVDs and VHS tapes, which Audie lends to his road crews, who stay in diesel-powered trailers when they're working out in the swamp. "It's dark all the time out there in the winter, you know?" he says. "You've got to give them something to do. Otherwise they drink too much." Since we're going to be stuck here for a while we'll have to find better ways to kill the time.
Mike Calabro
Day 7: Exploring Lynn Lake
In the morning we're on the phone tracking down our new vehicles. The Rhino is at Northland Leisure Products, a dealer in a town called The Pas. The Grizzly is in Thompson, at a shop called Rick's Marine. Since Thompson is only three hours away, Audie's driving down today to pick up the Griz, but the trip to The Pas takes at least eight hours, so we'll have to wait two days for the Rhino. Jordan decides to go to Thompson with Audie; Mike and I borrow a truck and spend the day exploring Lynn Lake. The town is a strange combination of modern infrastructure and decrepit housing. It's built on a big sand esker. There's a gorgeous 5,000-foot runway on one end that's big enough to handle huge cargo jets. NASA uses the airport to launch high-altitude weather balloons. "There's times of the year when this place has more PhDs than any other place in Canada, per capita," Audie told us back at the beginning of the trip. On the other side of town are rows of wind-blasted cottages and abandoned apartment buildings. All the windows are nailed shut, covered by weathered plywood. Some First Nations families from the reservations up north have moved into some of these buildings, and their kids roam the roads, bundled up in red and blue down jackets against the cold. They look like bright-colored bear cubs cruising for mischief. In the center of town, giant murals cover the walls of most businesses. One of them, on the front of the Lynn Inn, features a 12-foot jumping walleye and the town's official slogan: "Lynn Lake: The Sportfishing Capital of Manitoba." What's not covered in bright paint is gray and sandy, doused in the grit they spread on the road in the winter. Back when the mines were booming, this was a hopping place. It's located near something called the Lynn Lake Greenbelt, which is geologist-speak for "Big Nickel Deposit." There were five underground mines, five open-pit mines, and lots of hotels, restaurants, and bars -- the standard boomtown luxuries. But when the mines closed, most people left and everything was boarded up. From what we can see, the miners who remain are retired and spend their days in the cafe telling stories and drinking coffee: guys like Horace Cockerill, a diamond driller who, at 76, can still tear a full-size Winnipeg phonebook in half with his bare hands. He showed us his trick after we went to the nearby general store and picked one up for him. Then he asked us where we were going. "You're fishing? And you're heading north? With this ice?" He chuckled, shook his head, and turned back to his plate of bacon and eggs.
Mike Calabro
Day 8: Fishing the Mine
Audie and Jordan got back late last night with the new Grizzly. Jordan's going to stay at the shop today to prepare it, and to make sure that the other two quads are in top shape for leaving tomorrow. But we need to do some fishing. We've got one more day to kill before the Rhino arrives (it's supposed to be here early next morning), so Audie and his 15-year-old son, Brandon, take us to an inlet near town that flows beneath a bridge on a road leading to one of the mines. It's raining again when we get there, then the rain changes to snow. I wade in where the inlet dumps into the lake and start lobbing a chartreuse Rapala X-Rap, hoping for a big pike. Audie looks at my lure funny when I tie it on -- the local tackle of choice is a homemade, minnow-tipped jig, and he must think my lure is too flashy. He and Brandon flip over an aluminum rowboat that was stashed in the bushes and paddle out toward the edge of the ice. They start catching hammer handles, little 20-inch pike, and are hooking fish on almost every cast with their jigs. I'm about to cave and switch to bait when something slams my lure. It's a decent pike -- the biggest we've caught yet. Nothing like the monsters we're here for, but I notice that Audie comes back to the bank and raids my box for a Rapala. Later he tells me that this inlet was one of his father's favorite fishing spots. "He'd come down here in the afternoon to catch walleye. Ten casts, 10 fish. Then he'd bring them home for dinner," he says, and shakes his head. "This place should be polluted with them now. A guy'd have a truck full in half an hour. It's got to be the weather. I've never seen ice on the lakes this late." When we get too cold to fish we pile into the truck and Audie takes us down the road to check out what's left of the mine. There's not much there but a massive tailings field, thousands of tons of rock powdered during the ore-extraction process. When the stuff gets wet it leaks sulfuric acid, and so the land is a moonscape, acres of gray mud on which nothing grows but the rust stains spreading beneath abandoned conveyor belts. One of Audie's initiatives as mayor of the town is getting the government to help them contain this kind of pollution, so that the acid from the rocks doesn't contaminate the lakes and rivers that form the heart of the area's tourist economy. On our way back to dinner, he points out a big filtering plant he helped get the money to pay for and tells us he's looking for more ways to clean up the mess. When we get back Sheila has cooked us another dinner. This time it's fried walleye nuggets. It's our last night in town, so we stuff ourselves near to bursting. In the morning, when the Rhino arrives, we'll fuel up and head out to try the road again.
Mike Calabro
Day 9: Riding Lessons
It's late in the day and we're finally back on the winter road. The Rhino arrived around noon, and with an extra quad to carry our gear we've made good time. Now we're 30 klicks in and taking a break. The sun is out. We're eating moose jerky and talking about how much better we've become at riding through the muskeg. I write down four of the tricks we've learned ... 1. Twist your wheels back and forth when you feel your tires start to lose their grip. Your quad will swim forward through the swamp if the mud is not too deep. 2. If you get stuck, bounce up and down on the handlebars and feather the throttle. Your front tires will pop free of the suction, which gives them a chance to drag your rear end out of the hole. 3. If that doesn't work, try walking the quad out of the trough you're in by rocking it from side to side. This lifts the tires onto the edges of the ruts and gives you extra traction. 4. Don't spin your tires in sphagnum. Ever. The moss grows in thick mats of individual plants that weave together into a kind of mesh. A fresh patch of sphagnum can support the weight of your quad, but you have to creep across it. Holding your breath seems to help. If you try for speed you'll cut through the surface, and then you better hope that there's something up ahead that's solid enough to anchor your winch.
Mike Calabro
We're also getting a better feel for the terrain. Most of the road is swamp, long stretches of lowland spiked with spindly spruce trees that lean in all directions because their roots don't grip well in the soft mud. Every 5 klicks or so we'll hit a kilometer-long patch of high ground.These come in two varieties, sandy and rocky.The sandy stuff is best. On it we haul ass, throwing out big plumes of dust, popping wheelies over ridges, and fishtailing around the corners. The rocky ground is less fun. It's covered in big boulders that slow you down, and there's quicksand in the dips. This last is a real pain because it's very hard to spot. The surface of the quicksand looks no different than the dry ground everywhere else, but if you happen to stop on a patch your tires will sink up to the axles in a soupy sort of dirt that's the color of baby poop, and then there's no way out but winching.Mike Calabro
The swampy parts also come in different flavors. We've crossed plains of flooded grass, giant puddles choked with slime-green scum, and wide holes of deep black muck. When we couldn't go through this stuff we went around it, cutting through waist-high thickets of cranberry bushes and using the front bumpers of our quads to knock down any small spruce trees we couldn't avoid. In one spot the road cut through the middle of a beaver pond. A pair of ducks were swimming down the middle of the thing. We made it through by daisy-chaining the quads to the winch cables, Jordan riding in front on the 550 and the Rhino in the rear. When a quad in back lost traction, the one ahead would winch it forward until its wheels found more solid ground. If Jordan got stuck we'd winch him back, then he'd nose out a new way forward with the cable in freespool, like the head of some mechanical inchworm.Mike Calabro
Audie tells us he thinks these first 30 klicks were the swampiest part of the road, the worst it has to offer, so we're feeling pretty good right now. But we still have worries. One is more creek crossings -- it's possible that we'll reach a stretch of water that's too deep for us to drive through. If this happens we'll have two options: build a bridge, or try to swim the cable over and find something heavy on which to hang the hook (then spend hours afterward drying out our engines). Another worry is fuel. Including what was in our tanks when we started we've brought 69 gallons. We've used up 8 of these so far. The quads get 35 kilometers per gallon under normal riding conditions, but they're only getting 10 in this stuff. This means we can make it about 140 kilometers on the gas we have left. Brochet is now 120 kilometers away; we should arrive with at least 2 gallons to spare. This is not much cushion, so we're keeping a close eye on our gauges. If we use up half our gas before we get halfway up the road we'll have to turn back. After our break we climb back on the quads and push forward. We've lost a bunch of time, so we're not fishing yet, but we're planning to wet our lines this evening after we pitch our tents. I'll let you know how we do tomorrow.Mike Calabro
Day 10: Frozen Water
This freakish spring is killing us. Last night we camped next to a beautiful lake that should have been a perfect spot for big northern pike, except that it was still mostly frozen. We fished it until 11 p.m. (which is when the light finally leaves the sky in June here), bushwhacking along the shore and casting into gaps in the ice. We tried every lure in our boxes, from tiny spoons to giant jerkbaits, but we didn't draw a single strike. Audie couldn't believe it. "They should be thick in here this time of year," he said. "You hook fish on every cast. We're not even catching dinks!" Later that evening we talk out our worries by the fire around pulls from a bottle of whiskey. We have a lot of ground to cover, and because we've lost so much time we can't stay long in one place. But we need to catch some fish. There's a river ahead, and Audie thinks the moving water near its mouth will be open. We plan to reach it by midday and camp on its banks tomorrow if the fishing pans out. In the morning we get an early start. I'm too worried to sleep well, so I wake up at first light and fire up the stove to make coffee and oatmeal for everyone. Frost formed overnight on the insides of our tents, and I have to crack the ice that's formed in our bottles before I can pour water into the pot. By now Audie's up too, watching me cook. "Might help to mix a bit of that whiskey into those bottles at night," he says.
Mike Calabro
We reach the river around noon. It isn't huge, but it's not frozen, and it looks like good water. We're using 1/2-ounce blue-and-white spoons that we can launch from the mouth all the way to the edge of the ice. Jordan catches a small pike on his first cast, then Audie gets one, then me. These fish are great fun on our walleye rods, medium-light Avids from St. Croix. The pike (Audie calls them "jacks") follow the spoons right up to our feet before hitting, and when you hook them they go nuts, jumping, shaking their heads, and zipping through the water like green torpedos. We spend an hour playing around with them, but we need bigger fish for our pictures, so I switch to a large spoon -- the classic five-of-diamonds Dardevle -- and the bite shuts down. None of the little pike will hit the big lure, and it looks like the big pike aren't interested, or just aren't around. The only thing I catch is the back of my jacket.Mike Calabro
Since we've stopped hooking fish, we decide to cover more ground and hop back on the quads. It's slow going, as usual, but nothing we haven't seen before. We reach the 50-kilometer mark at dusk. Audie and Jordan set up our tents at the top of a hill; Mike and I grab our rods and posthole down through a bog to reach a lake we can see below. We find a point that juts into deeper water, miraculously free of ice, and I fish there through the sunset, catching a few more jacks and one nice walleye we'll eat for breakfast in the morning. But no big pike. I'm starting to wonder if we'll catch any picture fish at all.Mike Calabro
Day 11: Point of No Return
It's a gray morning. Cold, overcast, and drizzly. We're eating walleye and oatmeal, sipping instant coffee that tastes like battery acid, and reviewing our schedule. It's taken us two days to make it 50 kilometers up this road, in part because we've spent so much time searching for open water to fish. This spring has been so cold that the only places we've found any openings have been in extremely shallow bays and river mouths, both of which are proving tough to find. Now we have 100 klicks left, and just three days to cover them. Audie tells us there's another river about 60 kilometers ahead that he thinks might hold big fish, so we decide to make a hard push on the quads today and camp there in the evening. We're not looking forward to such a long ride. By this time in the trip our hands are beat to hell. They're sore, the nails and calluses are cracked, and there's black muskeg ground into every pore and cut. Our right hands hurt the most. The meaty parts below our thumbs never get any rest from keeping pressure on the throttle; they start going numb a few hours into the ride. Whenever we stop to winch somebody out of a hole we have shake out our fingers to get the blood flowing again.
Mike Calabro
Around noon we stop at the 80-kilometer marker for a quick lunch of trail mix and dried fruit. This is the halfway point of the trip. If we pass it we're committed -- we won't have enough fuel to go back. Nobody wants to turn around and it looks like we won't have to -- we're still on pace to arrive in Brochet with a few gallons of fuel to spare, assuming the ground doesn't get much swampier. The worst-case scenario is that we hit a really long stretch of nasty trail that burns up the gas we need to power all four vehicles into town. But if that happens we'll just pour our reserves into two of the quads and send them ahead loaded with spare tanks. So we saddle up and keep riding. As we get closer to the reservation, we start coming across caribou carcasses rotting in the muck. Audie says that the lakes along the road attract the animals in the winter, that there are days when you'll see several thousand caribou. They'll huddle together on the ice, where they have a clear view of any predators. Meat hunters from the reservation come down the road in snowmobiles and pick them off, then butcher the carcasses and leave the skins and skeletons behind. During the winter new snow covers most of this carnage, but after it melts, leftover rib cages, legs, and hides are scattered across the road. We start out avoiding these carcasses -- the smell of the swamp is bad enough without adding the stench of rotting hide to the mix. But we get used to it. One boggy stretch at the base of a hill is so thick with bones that we use them for traction. The sound of skulls splintering beneath our tires raises the hair on the back of my neck.Mike Calabro
Toward the end of the day we see a bear, a big one. It's standing on its hind legs in the middle of the road, sniffing the air and trying to figure out what the hell is making so much noise. It's the only large animal we've seen all trip. Our quads are too loud for us to see much wildlife, though we've cut hundreds of fresh tracks -- moose, wolves, lynx, and lots more bears. Jordan and Mike have been a little nervous about the bears. "They're hungrier in the spring, right?" Jordan asks. He's edgy because there aren't any trees this far north big enough to hang our food bags. This doesn't seem to bother Audie, who has brought his .30/30 along and is keeping it in his tent at night. "The proper way to keep your camp safe from bears," he says, "is to sleep next to the guy with the gun." We reach the river around 10:30 with just enough light to set up our tents and boil water for our Mountain House meals. The river looks promising, but we're exhausted from the 13-hour ride. We're going to fish it in the morning.Mike Calabro
Day 12: Warm Weather Pike
It's late afternoon and we've finally found the fish. They're pike. Big ones basking in flooded grass beds growing at the edge of a cove. The water over these beds is shallow, and it's clear of ice because there's a small creek dumping into the lake. The pike are deep in the grass; they've worked their way into the thickest parts right near the shoreline. When we first wade out we spook a few. They swirl and dart toward deeper water, leaving V-shaped wakes that let us know we're in the right spot. We start by casting toward the shoreline across the cove, near where the creek enters the lake. We're using spoons again, reeling quickly to keep the lures from tangling in the weeds, and we're hooking fish every few casts. Most are small, but we land a couple of 10-pounders. This is better than we've done anywhere else, so we decide to camp here and fish through the evening. The lake is about 20 kilometers up the road from the river where we camped last night. That spot didn't fish well in the morning, when the air was cold, but as we rode today the sky cleared and the sun came out. It actually got hot, which made the swamp smell terrible, the caribou carcasses worse, and woke up swarms of huge mosquitoes that bombarded us every time we stopped to winch our way out of a soft spot. But we're not complaining. We think the warmer weather is one reason the bite turned on. We fish the cove for hours. Toward evening some clouds start building again. It's getting dark and we're close to packing it in for the day when Jordan starts hollering. He's been casting a big spoon out toward the edge of the ice and sees a big fish stalking his lure. "It followed it right in!" he yells. He tries to set the hook and his spoon comes flying out of the water. "Damn. I missed it!" Then his voice jumps an octave. "Whoa, it's still there!" He casts again, lobbing the spoon a few feet out, cranks the handle twice, and the surface of the lake explodes. Ten minutes later he beaches the fish in the weeds. Audie gets Boga Grip on its lower lip and Mike snaps a couple of photographs. It's not enormous -- the scale on the Boga reads 19 pounds -- but it's the picture fish we've been looking for all trip. We've got 20 more kilometers to go.
Mike Calabro
Day 13: Home Stretch
It's our last day on the road. By this time in the trip our bodies are hurting. Our feet have been wet for so long that our toes look like overripe grapes, and Audie's boots have shrunk so much from drying too close to the fire at night that the nails on his big toes are turning black. Our lower backs are cramping. Our shoulders are stiff. Our hands are cut from hauling on frayed winch cables, and our butts are numb from bouncing over the muskeg. But we're almost to Brochet, so we grit our teeth and close our ears to the roar of the engines until the pounding begins to fade and we start living in our heads.
Mike Calabro
Jordan's been daydreaming about food. He told us last night that the first thing he's going to eat when he gets home is a Baconater, one of those heart-exploding cheeseburgers you can buy at Wendy's. Mike has been fantasizing about the girls he thinks he's going to meet when we get to the reservation. I'm guessing Audie, who's been sharing a tent with him, has been dreaming about sleeping in a bed away from Mike. Most of my dreams are about my wife and infant son, who are waiting for me back on Long Island, along with my boat and the tail end of the spring striped bass run. It's beautiful there this time of year -- sunny days, fresh leaves on the trees, and the smell of the ocean blowing in from the south. Compared to the freezing, stinking swamp we've almost crossed it seems like a paradise, and thinking about this makes me wonder. What the hell was I thinking when I organized this muddy slog through the tundra? A year ago the idea seemed simple. I was looking for an honest adventure. Something unpackaged. No support trucks to back us up, no fancy lodges to retire to every evening, and no guides to put us on the fish. This sounded great on paper when I was sitting in a cubicle, but there's a reason most magazine stories come from guided trips. It's damn hard to figure out a new place on your own. As we plod down the last stretch of the winter road I promise myself that the next trip I take will be to some beach resort in the Caribbean where big fish bite on every cast, the drinks are served with ice, and I can sleep each night on a clean pair of sheets.Mike Calabro
These last 20 klicks are proving some of the hardest of the trip. An hour after packing up our camp we hit a smallish creek that we have to bridge using logs we find piled on the sides of the road. A few minutes later we're stopped by a stream twice as big. It's too deep to fill with debris, and I nearly flip the 550 into chest-deep water while trying to cross it on a beaver dam upstream of the trail. We spend half the morning cutting spruce poles from the forest with a bow saw and weaving them into a springy green matt that's thick enough to support our weight.Mike Calabro
Later in the day Mike's steering starts binding up -- he says it feels like there's something stuck in his axle and he's having a tough time turning the handlebars. We dig out the muck built up behind his wheels and find a three-inch gash in one of his quad's CV boots. Most of the grease that lubricates his wheel bearing has spooled out of the cut, so Jordan and Audie have to repack the joint with our grease gun, sow up the gash using fishing line, then seal it with Shoe-Goo.Mike Calabro
The repair holds, and we reach Brochet around three in the afternoon. The road enters town from the north. There's one last suckhole at the end of it, right before it turns from mud to gravel at the edge of the reservation. Audie crosses first, then Mike, then Jordan. I'm last and I hit the hole going full speed, throwing a plume of mud into the sky and rocking the bike back and forth until at last my front tires grip the hard edge at the other side. We've made it. We sit there for a minute, enjoying the feel of solid ground, then spin out toward town, fishtailing, spraying dust and gravel, and hollering like a bunch of lunatics who've just broken out of an asylum. Tonight we're going to stay in a trailer over by the reservation's power station, and we're all looking forward to hot showers and real food. Tomorrow we'll explore Brochet and figure out how to get our gear, our quads, and ourselves back to Lynn Lake. But on our way to the trailer we stop for one last adventure. Just past the dump there's a huge rock sitting by the side of the road that's covered in graffiti. It's taller than I am, square-shaped, with "Welcome to Brochet" scrawled across the front in green spray paint. We take an hour to winch one of the quads to the top, then take turns climbing up and posing next to it, like mountaineers taking souvenir photos at the summit on a first ascent. We're done with the winter road.Mike Calabro
Day 14: The End of the Road
Brochet sits on a spit of land that juts out into a bay on the northeastern corner of Reindeer Lake, which is the ninth largest lake in Canada. About 800 people live here; mostly Cree and Dene natives who net fish during the summer and hunt and trap during the fall and winter. Everyone uses quads to get around. Kids race them through trails in the woods. Men ride them to work carrying tools, outboard engines, and fishing nets. Mothers take them to the town store to pick up groceries with their children, hanging the grocery bags from their handlebars and putting their toddlers on their laps. Last night on the way to the trailer we made a quick stop at that store to pick up some grub. As we were getting off our quads, two teenage girls pulled up on a red Honda 250 and parked it next to the entrance. They'd seen us riding into town and followed us to the store to get a closer look. "I bet they came up the winter road," says one of them. "No way," says the other. "Hey, where'd you guys come from?" the first girl asks us, cocking her head and brushing her bangs from her eyes. "Lynn Lake," says Mike. "Holy s**t!" says the second girl. "How long did that take you?" The news spreads, and by the time we finish shopping a small crowd has gathered to ask us questions about the trip. It's gratifying to have impressed these people, but we don't have much time to enjoy the feeling. We still have to get ourselves and our quads back to civilization.
Mike Calabro
When we started this trip two weeks ago our plan was to ride home the way we rode in, on the winter road, but when the first Rhino broke down we lost the time we needed to do this. On our second attempt we'd planned to return across the ice on Reindeer Lake, a longer but much faster route that Audie told us would take about a day to complete. Normally this route, which runs from Brochet to Kinoosao, is too dangerous in June, but we heard reports before we left that people were still taking pickups across the ice. Now that we're here we need to confirm these reports -- to figure out if the ice is still thick enough to support our quads -- so in the morning we find one of Audie's friends, a man named Clifford, to lead us out onto the lake. He takes us to a spot behind the town church where the ice is close to shore. It's right next to the graveyard; there's a big wooden cross standing 10 yards back from the water, and a huge flock of crows flies up from the grass around it when we ride through the shallows and splash up onto the ice. Out in the middle of the bay Clifford chips at the ice with his axe. It's thick where we are, but he points out a narrows ahead where he thinks it's much thinner. "That's where the ice goes out first," he says. "If it's O.K. there, it's O.K. all the way to the south end." He tells us to wait for him, then rides off to check it out. A quarter mile away he makes a sweeping U-turn and comes back, shaking his head. "It's rotten. Candling," he says. "No good." When we get back to shore he finds a chunk of ice floating in the shallows and shows us what he means. "See how it's all a bunch of long, skinny crystals? Like pencils?" he says. "They're not stuck together real tight." He taps the chunk with his axe, lightly, and it falls apart into a mass of loose shards. "You won't see that until you're right on top if it." He shrugs. "By then it'd be too late." The ice route is closed.Mike Calabro
Our backup plan is simple; we're going to have to fly our quads home. This should be expensive, but up here favors work better than cash, and Audie is owed enough of them that he thinks he can arrange for a cargo plane to stop at the airstrip north of town and pick us up. All trip long the only help we've gotten has been from our winches, so this feels a bit like cheating, but with the ice so rotten we don't have any choice. We head back to the trailer and wait for Audie to get in touch with a friend of his who owns Perimeter Airlines, which is the biggest carrier in this part of Canada. Audie's on the phone for a good two hours. "I've got good news and bad news," he says when he finally puts it down. "The good news is that they've got a Hawker that can take out our quads. The bad news is that we can't go with them. They don't allow passengers to ride on cargo planes." Instead, he's arranged for another friend of his who owns a floatplane to come pick us up in the evening. Audie is a good guy to have on a trip like this. We spend the rest of the day power-washing the mud out of the quads so that they don't mess up his buddy's airplane. They go into a hangar at the airport -- the Hawker's crew will load them up after we leave. Around 9 P.M. we pack up our gear and meet the other plane at the only stretch of open water in town. There's no dock there, so we pull on waders and shuttle our bags from the bank to the plane's pontoons. When it's all loaded we climb up after it, buckle into the seats, then settle back for the ride home.Mike Calabro
In the air I look down and see the winter road winding through the land below us. It looks deceptively soft, like a ribbon of velvet on a rumpled green quilt, and I'm very glad we're up here enjoying the view. Taking on the muskeg in an ATV makes for one hell of an adventure, but the next time I fish for pike in Canada I'm going to do it from a floatplane.Mike Calabro

Follow Field & Stream Online Editor Nate Matthews and his crew of three fishermen as they try to take Yamaha Grizzlies and a Rhino side-by-side up an ice road in Northern Manitoba. Click here to read reviews of the gear they used.

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