Photos and Story submitted by Michelle Caddey Maclean
Summer weekends in the Hastings Highlands enchant us with heat, swimming, boating, and picnics but winter weekends can be just as beguiling. Our family, which includes two adults, a teen, and a tween, usually spends two or three weekend at our cottage on Baptiste Lake in the thick of winter. Together, we’ve travelled to a dozen countries in the past five years, but Hastings County holds a special place in our hearts. At the lake, we take pleasure in the slower pace and the simplest of things – hearing the ice creak and moan, chopping wood, doing puzzles, playing board games, sitting by a crackling fire, socializing over a fondue, reading, and sipping hot drinks while watching the weather out the picture windows. Only in Bancroft do we put aside the phones, computers, game consoles, and TVs and instead stave off boredom with the natural world around us. On a recent trip to our cabin we set aside our electronics and went tobogganing and tracked beasties on the lake ice. By reading this post you may find yourself inspired and itching to make a trip!
After a delicious breakfast, you head outside. The toboggan is heavy, so heavy, as you drag it in your bulky restrictive clothing up the “mountain”. When you finally reach the top, the view is spectacular. You adjust your hat sloppily out of your eyes, wipe your dripping nose, quickly scan the horizon, savour the crisp breeze on your cheeks and sticky eyelashes, and plan your route.
You can barely keep the sled from starting the journey without you. You struggle to keep it steady enough to hop on, as it fights you to succumb to the unending pull of gravity. You square the sled’s front edge and in one swift movement, you’re crouched and hurtling down the hill. Only somewhat successfully trying to steer, you dodge a bump and bounce and fly over another. You lean as the toboggan starts to tip and regain the centre.
In mere metres, you see ahead a building that could change this little excursion from riotous fun to a hospital visit. You drag your hands and feet to try to slow down but instead realize that the only way to end this journey is to bail, Bail, BAIL!!! You lean, the sled tips, you scream, and suddenly your body folds and your legs are flying above your head. The sled glides past you as the snow goes down your coat, in your boots, and on your cold, red wrists where the mitten has exposed skin. You’re lying still and stunned while looking up to the sky, checking that your limbs are still intact, and resolving to make the next run even better.
Wolf Tracking on the Lake Ice
After lunch, you step apprehensively on the ice, half expecting it to give under your weight. It holds. You bravely take another step. The ice holds again. Glancing around for branches or structures to grab just in case, you jump on the ice with both feet. Safe. Again! Safe. You call to your family members to join you. They do so promptly, bringing with them an ice auger to truly understand the lay of the land – or, in this case, the thickness of the ice.
You pick a spot about 10 feet from shore and poise the corkscrew tip of the auger for action. You turn and crank the auger as if you’re opening a giant bottle of wine. The ice slices, grinds, and churns until 6” later you reach the water. The water bubbles up over the ice edge and you peer into the hole, wondering whether you may see a fish returning your inquiry. You pick a new spot to test the ice thickness – this time about 20 feet from shore. The ice is a tad less thick, but still safe for walking. You venture out a little farther, try again, and find that winter has taken its toll and the lake is safely sleeping beneath this crust until much warmer weather.
You tire of drilling holes in the ice and start exploring the shoreline. You peek and peer into caverns carved by washed-out roots and rocks looking for signs of hibernating beasties. Nothing. You keep walking along the icy lake edge and, from a unique perspective, admire your neighbours’ properties – the handiwork of their silent bunkies, saunas, decks, and docks. You spot tracks…probably a rodent. Another set of tracks…deer this time. And, another huge set…must be elk! Then, as you keep walking, you spot a familiar yet unfamiliar track. Could it be? Is it really? A wolf? No way! To hell with the fear of actually facing the wolf in close proximity, follow these tracks you must.
The canine tracks are clearly imprinted in the fresh snow. The claws are visible, each print about palm-sized, the gait roughly one foot in front of the other. You follow a solitary set of tracks for almost a kilometre on the ice, toward the spot where friends saw a pack crossing the lake a few years ago. The wolf tracks meander occasionally to sniff a tempting hole, an exposed rock, a hidden nest among some cedars but, largely, they progress consistently forward toward the former wolf crossing. You wonder -- is this the pack alpha, an exile, a mother hunting for her pups, or a young male looking for new refuge?
Eyes peeled, you keep following the tracks, enjoying the silence of the lake and the time to let your curiosity run free and contemplate topics far removed from city life. A half hour passes, and the ice eventually gives way to open water. You could hack your way through the forest to follow them farther, but your fingertips burn with the threat of frostbite and the hot chocolate (with Baileys) back at the cottage awaits. You head back the way you came, thinking about these forest friends – not once experiencing the FOMO (fear of missing out) and anxiety that electronics spawn.
Before we know it, the weekend is over. What a terrific mental break! And, aside from the fuel to get here, we haven’t incurred any new expenses or responded to a single email. Winter in the Hastings Highlands has undeniable charm.
Other winter activities you can try are: snowshoeing, snowmobiling, stargazing, and dog sledding.
Story and photographs by Michelle Caddey Maclean
Michelle Caddey Maclean is a seasoned professional writer, corporate communicator, website creator, and hobby photographer enjoying weekends at her cottage on Baptiste Lake, a large lake near Bancroft, Ontario. Michelle, her husband (Alasdair), and their two kids love to travel and have adventures in the Hastings Highlands, across Ontario, and around the world. When she’s not relaxing at the cottage or gallivanting around the globe, Michelle creates content and websites for professional services, government, healthcare, and technical organizations in the Greater Toronto Area and beyond under the name of Whisk Marketing Communications. Follow Michelle Caddey Maclean’s adventures on Baptiste Lake on Instagram at @bancroftbaptistelake .