St. Patrick Day River Hike in Northern Ontario

Someone once asked me where “my people” were from.  I quickly turned around to check and see if a crowd of folks had taken up behind me.  No one was within 10 feet of me, so with a quizzical brow I glanced back and asked, “my people?”.  I was perplexed by the question, totally unaware I had people.  “Your family didn’t originate from Canada – where were they from?”  Ohhhhh…. “my people”… my heritage.

If you look at the bottom of the Canadian Coat of Arms you will find four plants.  A fleur-de-lis or lily flower for France, roses for England, thistles for Scotland and shamrocks for Ireland.  Each symbolizes the founding nations of Canada.  If your family has been in the “land of the free” for any good amount of time then you’re bound to have most if not all of these countries in your family lineage.  I am English, Scottish and Irish.

clover, pub, signNow there is one day a year when everyone claims to be Irish.  Whether it’s cool to hail from the clover covered land or they need a reason to drink excessively is debatable, but I am of Irish descent.  My aunt alleges my father’s family arrived off the boats fleeing Ireland during the great famine in the 1840’s.  A fantastic tale about Irish immigrants looking for work, food and a better life, it is hard to substantiate since the source of the family name originated in France and is linked to England.  The paternal side of my mother’s family is pure Irish.  A direct descendent, my great grandfather’s surname has no other origins but Ireland.

St. Paddy’s day is celebrated in Canada, like most parts of the world, with an over abundance of all things green.  Green parades, green hair, tacky green clothing, pub stumbles… I mean pub crawls, to engorge oneself on green ale and Irish cuisine.  It is a time of drunken stupor, good ol’ Irish tunes and usually ends with some questionable dancing and possible praying to the ol’ porcelain Irish Gods.  St. Patrick was a patron saint who is credited with bringing christianity to Ireland.  Why we celebrate him in such a drunken fashion is bewildering for sure.

This year we decided to do something a bit different for St. Patrick’s day.  Oh sure there would be red neck music, booze, cursing and swearing but this all would be combined with a day river hike to my sister’s cabin in northern Ontario.  Convinced the river would be frozen even on a sunny, fairly warm spring day – my sister Laurie, her husband Tim, Q (my hubby) and I were about to depart on a great expedition.  Ok, so it was only a 3 km hike across the river but we were great explorers, daring the dangerous frozen waters of the north.

For days leading up to our St. Paddy’s day hike my mother warned non-stop of the dangers of hiking the waterways in spring.  Oh mother… we’re explorers and sometimes you have to throw caution to the wind.  Like the ancient, prehistoric nomads who crossed the Bering Strait, which offered a bridge from Asia to North America, we were adventurers heading to a whole new world.  Like the Irish who descended upon North American shores looking for a better life, we were in search of unseen snowy lands.

Of course we loaded up our backpacks with essentials – cameras, water, munchies, rope, fire logs, anti-freeze, a

ice, snowshoe, winter, hike, blue, snow
safety plan – Tim walking ahead

bucket and if celebrating St. Patrick’s day of course we had booze.  I know it is not the gear of great Irish pioneers that you’d expect, but every item had its purpose.

Just as the weatherman had predicted, the cloudy overcast day broke as we parked our car on the mainland, and the sun shone high in the blue sky.  Unlike the hike from hell that almost killed me, read about it here, we had snow shoes this time (thank you Peter!!!).  Our safety plan consisted of a rope in case of an emergency and my overloaded brother in-law leading the way.  Should he fall through the ice then the rest of us knew it was unsafe to continue.

With our route planned, we left the comfort of land and headed out onto the ice.  The trek began with us bundled with scarfs, doubled layers of mitts, clothing and hats.  Within 10 feet of the shoreline we all began stripping down as the sun beat down hard on us hitting a high of 8º celsius. Undeterred by the negligent amount of water beginning to appear on the surface of the ice we trudged ahead.

We made it down the first stretch of the river, stopping every once in a while ensuring all was well.  These “check ins” were necessitated from the paralyzing fear my sister experiences when pushed beyond her comfort zone.  Her freak outs are legendary and involve hysterical crying, screaming and cementing her feet wherever she may be when fear has gripped her.

falling, ice, snowshoes, snow
Tim taking a tumble
ice, snow, winter, hike
Tim laying on the ice
picture, snow, ice, snoeshoes, hike, winter
Tim taking a picture of us having a good laugh at his expense!

Half way across the river the snow on the ice was melting faster in the midday sun and water was now pooling at our feet causing us to sink a bit into the ice.  Our confidence regarding our safety was beginning to wane.  A good sized area near shore, around the river bend, was especially wet and precarious looking.  We steered clear of this area, intent on reaching our destination.

river, ice, hike, snowshoes, melting
ice melting at the river bend at the left of the photo

Now I did not hear it the first time, but I definitely heard it the second.  We had made it a considerable distance from the river bend when suddenly, while crossing in the middle of the river, within spitting range of the cabin, the ice made a loud cracking noise.  The crunching started at our feet and encircled us before trailing off in the distance.  Almost instantly the surface dropped a few centimetres.  We all stopped moving, fearful any noise could sink us.  We had started off this journey as four explorers on a conquest to beat the odds and survive the Canadian wilderness in the harshness of winter.  Reality?  We were four city fools, dumb enough to attempt a 3 kilometre hike on a slushy, water covered, half frozen ice in early spring, loaded down with enough food and booze to sink us to the bottom of the river should we fall through.

Tim and Q began debating whether the sound was the snow dropping under our weight on the ice shelf below.  The snow compressing in such a fashion would imply we were still safe.  Now common sense and the laws of probability would assert that if your safety comes into question then maybe its time you get the hell of the ice.  But as we all know most people are terrible at math and common sense isn’t common at all… and when I say this I am really referring to the male half of our species.

ice, melting, river, winter, hike
ice melting fast on the hot spring day, with a hole in the ice to the right of the photo

Far from shore while “Twiddle Dee” and “Twiddle Dum” chatted about our odds, I turned to see my sister trying to suck in as much oxygen as possible.  Dear Lord she’s going to faint I thought.  She yelled at my brother in-law, “I need to turn back!”.  Men pick the most inopportune time to assert their manliness and Tim insisted he had to keep going.  As he turned to continue hiking, selecting his path carefully, Q and I looked at each other.  I knew if we didn’t get my sister off the ice as quickly as possible she may have a melt down mid river and we may not get her to shore.  I grabbed the rope and gave it to her to hold, wrapping the other end around my arm.  If one of us was dropping in the waters below we were now linked to one another – ensuring we both sunk.  I turned back towards the river bend simultaneously yelling at Q to follow Tim.

Here I was, in the middle of a half frozen river, my sister tied to my arm about to lose it mentally, all alone and I’m thinking – shit, if I fall through I’m a goner.  She’s a basket case, no one is here to help me.  My only saving grace would be if she fell to the ice in terror upon my submerging, maybe the weight of her body might keep me from sinking to river floor.  I hauled ass at the realization I was now the rational one in this situation.

Back safely at the river bend, my sister and I climbed up on the front yard of a neighbour’s cottage.  We still had the rest of the river to cross to total safety but we were relieved we had made it this far.  With our gear sprawled across the lawn, snow shoes torn from our feet, we collapsed.  What followed was a frenzy of unladylike eating,

gear, picnic, snow, hike
our gear flung across the lawn

wine swilling and giddy chatter.  My sister admitting she was terrified, unsure she could make it the rest of the way back across the river.  We discussed how we would like to be rescued.  An obvious and safest choice would be by helicopter.  Yeah… yeah… we wanted to be airlifted from this tiny plot of land we had now claimed squatters rights too.  Aware an airlift would not be possible without an injury, my sister’s thoughts were revealed when she noted I would survive if thrown from the hill we were perched on.  Ok….  now she’s delirious from an adrenaline high and I’m all alone with her on a 20 x 20 sq foot of land surrounded by melting ice.

Luckily for me while my sister was envisioning my impending doom and her rescue, we saw Tim and Q returning to the river bend.  Apparently the closer they made it to the cabin, the softer the ice became.  Now they will pound and puff their chest like an excessive amount of testosterone was pumping through their veins and say they only turned back to ensure the safety of their women (yeah.. sure)!!!  But we know they were scared like little girls.  They joined us once seeing that us ladies had salvaged our hike and were enjoying ourselves with an impromptu potluck complete with beer and wine.

beer, sky
Q cracking open a beer
feeling relieved we goofed around with a scarf... ok beer and wine might have had something to do with it!
feeling relieved we goofed around with a scarf… ok beer and wine might have had something to do with it!
Me getting in on the silly scarf poses
Me getting in on the silly scarf poses
Q trying out the scarf
Q trying out the scarf

Knowing that the hot sun, beating down on the ice all day would make the rest of our journey precarious, we encouraged Laurie to throw back as much wine as possible.  Being drunk may not make her less scared but hopefully would prevent her from becoming frozen in place from fear.

wine, hike, winter, sky
Laurie downing the bottle of wine!

As we set out on the last portion of our journey, the ice was very slushy and wet.  Q leading the way stopped for one “check in” which was quickly greeted with “Don’t STOP!!!”.  In record time we made it back to the mainland, a bit weary and physically exhausted.  With the luck of the Irish coupled with some bottles of booze, we were now out of harm’s way.

stump, river, ice , snow, hike, winter
stump at the river bend
cliffs along the river edge
ice clinging to the granite wall


road, winter, driving, snow
road taking us home

That night when we made it home, we ended our St. Paddy’s Day the best way we know how.  With much gratitude, we cracked open some good ol’ Irish Guinness and put up our feet by the fireplace.

As the old Irish toast goes…..

Here’s to a long life and a merry one.
A quick death and an easy one.
A pretty girl and an honest one.
A cold pint and another one!

Whether you are from Ireland, an Irish descendent or hail from somewhere else and are only Irish for the day – drink hardy but be safe!  Happy St. Paddy’s Day!

What did you do this St. Patrick’s day?

~True North Nomad

Acknowledgement – Thank you to Cooper Photography for the supplemental pictures!

8 thoughts on “St. Patrick Day River Hike in Northern Ontario

  1. Reblogged this on Beyond the Precipice and commented:
    I have waited for over two months to reblog this article, with a reminder set in my calendar. The location, Ontario, is near and dear to my heart, since it is where I grew up. Lakes, camping, hiking, and scenic highway drives were a way of life.

    Besides, I like the toast. Read it below in True North Nomad’s article.

    Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Already my hero, and now my savior! Thanks for ropping yourself to me…a demonstration of true love and ultimate sacrifice. I still think the air rescue would have been an incredible finish to our adventure…can’t imagine that fall would have resulted in more than a minor break. Thanks for the good times. Happy St Paddys!

    Liked by 1 person

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