This past weekend, Bob and I drove from Oxtongue Lake to the West Gate of Algonquin Park where we planned to ski on the fabulous cross-country ski trail that begins at that location.
The Fen Lake Ski Trail sets off through the hardwood bush and is comprised of 3 different loops so skiers have a choice of the distance they wish to ski. With the trail having been recently groomed and track-set, we were anticipating a fantastic outing!
Bob and I elected to ski the Finlayson Loop, connecting to the Gateway Creek Trail and onwards following the Cabin Trail. It is always fun to have a short rest in the wooden cabin next to Fen Lake since a pot-belly stove is usually fired up making the cabin a warm and welcome retreat.
With the temperature at -10 Celsius when we set out, the conditions were perfect. Brilliant sunshine warmed our faces, and there was no wind to disturb the snow-laden trees.
The hardwood forest was a literal winter wonderland. I have never seen it so beautiful. With each branch, bough and twig supporting a thick layer of snow, the woodland was transformed into an enchanting paradise. We frequently stopped to revel in the views and to take a few pictures.
At times, it felt as though we were skiing through a long tunnel because the undergrowth alongside the ski trail was so laden with snow that it hindered visibility into the depths of the forest, while overhead branches literally bent low with their burden.
Here, I felt like I was skiing into the scene on a Christmas card.
This video that Bob filmed gives you some idea of what I am talking about.
The cerulean sky drew our eyes upwards where it was possible to see through the forest canopy, and sunshine shimmered off the crystalline blanket of snow.
At times, we had to crouch low as we glided beneath low-hanging branches.
These tiny dried seed heads resemble pine cones, but were the size of my little fingernail.
Gateway Creek flows alongside the ski trail for about 4 kilometers, although it is not always visible. In some sections, the vigorously flowing water has kept the creek open despite the brutally cold temperatures of late.
It was reassuring to see that provisions have been made for skiers who might become injured on the trail. Bob noticed numerous animal tracks around the first-aid barrel because animals, out of curiosity, had come to investigate.
Bob and I achieved the cabin around 11 a.m., but before entering the warm confines of its 4 walls, we ventured down to the shore of Fen Lake on the off-chance that we might see an animal. Instead, we found only tracks disappearing into the distance where a lone wolf had traversed the lake from one end to the other.
From whence the wolf came…
The humble warm-up shelter is cozy on the inside, with benches built around the perimeter of the space facing the pot-belly stove. Skiers before us had built a fire in the stove so the space was inviting when we entered into the dimly-lit room.
Basic emergency supplies are made available to skiers…toilet paper, matches and maps…and a good supply of wood is stacked beside the hut, protected from the weather by a roof.
After a small snack, Bob and I signed the Guest Book before continuing on our way.
Looking out the cabin window to the next stretch of the ski trail…
The beauty of the snowy forest continued to amaze me as I rounded each bend in the trail.
A short distance beyond the warm-up shelter, Bob and I elected to ski the Ridge Trail where there is a fair bit of climbing to be done and excellent rides down fairly sloping stretches. It was at this point in the day when we began to see the odd chickadee. Up until that time, the forest was silent with nary a bird stirring.
As I usually ski ahead of Bob, I paused frequently to scan the trees and sky for birds. On one such occasion, I had looked back behind me, and then, when turning to face forward again, I caught sight of a big bird swooping in from my right. It promptly landed about 40 feet in front of me, about 30 feet up in a tree. My first thought was that it was a hawk, but I was soon proven wrong.
I was ecstatic when I realized that a Great Grey Owl (Strix nebulosa) was staring back at me. I knew that sightings had been made in Algonquin Park over the past week or two, but those were nowhere near this area of the park. I observed the owl cautiously, trying to avoid eye contact, but when Bob skied up behind me, the owl took flight and disappeared beneath the veil of snow and tree branches. I suspect that the squeaking of my ski poles or the squelching of my ski boots had attracted the owl from a nearby wetland that was visible through the distant trees.
Bob and I actually skied the Fen Lake Trail twice that weekend, on two subsequent days. The only real difference was that the second day was very much colder with the mercury sitting at -28 Celsius, and a fresh dusting of snow that had added to the accumulation on every horizontal surface.
It was on our second outing that Bob and I spotted a substantial pile of fresh wood chips at the base of a tree. We knew that Pileated Woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus) had recently been there since the chips lay on top of the newly fallen snow.
Pileated Woodpeckers make substantially larger holes in a tree than the smaller species of woodpeckers, and judging by the number of holes in this tree, it is obviously a favored source of food.
A short while later, when I stopped on the trail to listen for any telltale bird noises, I heard, off to my left, the unmistakable sound of two woodpeckers drumming away at a tree. I knew there were two birds because the tenor of each drumming sound differed from the other. I also was pretty certain that the source was Pileated Woodpeckers judging by the intensity of the pecking. The screen of snow-covered branches hid the birds from my view, but Bob soon picked them out on a distant tree. Checkout our posting on this amazing sighting at Two Pileated Woodpeckers sighted in Algonquin Park.
After Bob and I completed the ski trail, we decided to drive further into Algonquin Park to take full advantage of our Day Pass. From the Visitor’s Center nearer the East Gate, we had a lovely panoramic view of the winter landscape.
The sky, by that point in the day, had a threatening look to it, and within minutes, a snow squall began to obliterate the distant tree line.
That is why, as we drove from the park towards Oxtongue Lake, we were not as prompt as usual at spotting a bull moose and cow on the roadway. It was only by the time the moose entered the bush that we had managed to snap a photo. The snowy branches almost totally hid the moose from view.
And so, leaving the West Gate of Algonquin Provincial Park behind us, we returned to Oxtongue Lake where we were staying for the weekend.
Our sojourn at Oxtongue Lake afforded us many opportunities to view birds and animals. Here, I captured a picture of a Common Redpoll (Carduelis flammea), although several were busily feeding at my dad’s bird feeder.
As usual, a pair of Hairy Woodpeckers (Picoides villosus) were feasting on bugs buried deep in the wood of two poplar trees near the shore of Oxtongue Lake.
The female woodpecker eluded my detection even though I could hear her drumming on the neighboring tree. Note the red nape of this male Hairy Woodpecker.
After having spent a thoroughly enjoyable weekend of skiing and bird watching, Bob and I headed down Highway 60 and connected with Highway 35 as we drove towards Dorset. We couldn’t believe how successful we had been at spotting wildlife. But our amazement was about to grow by leaps and bounds.
Between Port Cunnington Road and Birkendale Road, soaring above the highway, was a majestic Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). It was coming right towards us. We were shocked and dumbfounded. There was no mistaking its white head and tail, and at such a close proximity, we could even distinguish its yellow beak. We later learned that there is a colony of Bald Eagles that have established themselves in the area, and they have been seen there since 2002.
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