I can’t believe the thermometer today. It shows -20C, but the shining sun makes it feel much warmer. I want winter to last forever, even when it already occupies half of the year. My friend Seth is visiting our cabin outside Yellowknife. He’s considering setting up a wall tent in the vicinity, and we would love to have him as a neighbour. I’m excited to take him on a quick snowmobile tour of the lake. We’ll be gone about an hour, I tell my spouse Leanne.
We pop into a couple of small bays, scouting possible sites for a wall tent, and then head for home. We’ve been gone perhaps a half-hour and the sun is still glowing warm in the sky. That’s when I feel the machine bog down. For a moment, I think we’ve encountered deep, drifted snow next to the island we’re passing. I keep steady on the throttle, trying to maintain speed. But the machine comes to a sinking stop. I look behind us to see a 25-metre track of slushy snow. Overflow— the water that pools up over ice that’s been pushed down by the weight of snow—it might as well be a four-letter word. In the deep snow, there’d been no warning signs.
I’ve had my machine stuck countless times in loose powder, but never in overflow. We hop off and we’re halfway up to our knees in cold slushy water. (There’s another foot of snow on top.) Our thick boots, liners, and socks provide some protection, but still the water trickles in slowly. We push on the machine while I give it some throttle. The track spins but it’s resting on the lake ice with zero traction. This must be what studded tracks are for, I muse. We pack down the snow under the belly pan, but the skis are still embedded in slush. We try once more. No luck.
If we can put a few trees under the track maybe we can get it floating on the snow again. We wade over to the nearby island to break some small standing dead trees, each a couple inches in diameter at the stump and ten feet tall. The machine is some 500 pounds normally; now it has an extra hundred pounds of slush stuck in the track. We heave and grunt and eventually manage to get a few trees under the machine. We try to move it, but even with immense effort, we can only budge it a few feet. This could take all day, I realize, and we’d become frozen statues. We have no rope, no ice screws, no come-a-long, and no waders.
By now I’m completely soaked to the knees. There’s no time to hesitate. “Let’s lift the machine out of the water so it doesn’t freeze in, and walk home,” I say. We tromp to the island once more, and each bring back an armload of whatever dead branches and trees we can break free. We lift one ski at a time, shoving sticks underneath until the skis are above water. I manage to produce a stiff section of tree just long enough to prop under the hitch and keep the track above the water level. I start the machine and run the track for a few minutes to expel the slush. We say ‘see you later’ to the snowmachine, and start walking. We’re more than six kilometres from the cabin.
About a half-hour in, I realize I have to warm my feet or risk losing my toes. My boots have frozen solid. Seth is further from home and better prepared—he has matches and a cell phone. I’m the idiot who left for a quick jaunt near home completely unprepared. We light a fire and he calls Leanne. (We’re lucky to have cell reception.) She’s on her way. I remove my socks, wring them out, and suspend them near the fire to dry.
Leanne arrives an hour later on foot with the toboggan and our toddler. It’s dark and -30C and falling. We throw on the dry socks and boots she brought, while thanking her profusely for walking so far with the baby to rescue us. We take turns pulling sleeping Emile back to the cabin.
I’m lucky to only have suffered a couple blisters on my big toes. Now I carry a survival kit on my snowmachine: ice screws, pulleys, carabiners, rope, a small bow saw, matches and a tarp. And spare boots. Always spare boots.