Winter in La Ronge: Snowmobiling to Nistowiak Falls and Back
A misty cloud sprays behind us as we crack the throttles on our sleds and roar across the flat expanse of Lac La Ronge. Parallel tracks imprint in the soft snow beneath, crisscrossing with those who have come before. Overhead is a bluebird sky with puffs of white clouds. The weather is perfect as the temperature hovers around -10 degrees Celsius.
Eight of us geared up at first light, donning bibbed-ski pants and lined jackets, rubber-soled snow boots and gloves thick enough to keep our fingers warm. We are heading out on a 150-kilometre loop from the town of La Ronge up to Nistowiak Falls, across to Stanley Mission and back. It’s one of the most popular routes leading out of La Ronge - a place where you’re more likely to see snowmobiles than vehicles in the winter months.
The town’s namesake lake is big. It’s the fifth-largest in Saskatchewan and dotted with more than 1300 islands. Despite being so far north, the lake doesn’t always freeze uniformly and depending on the time of the season, varies from open water lapping at ice floes to ice up to three feet thick in places.
The family I am adventuring with is well-versed in the topography of the region. The Watts are locals and we confidently cut straight across the lake and skirt along the east side of a narrow peninsula and up into Thomas Lake. From there, we hop on the portage trail into the boreal forest on our way to Iskwatikan Lake. A short ride further and we pull off to park our sleds for a hot dog roast in the snow. We’ve made good time in the morning daylight hours.
The region’s landscape is dominated by jack pine, spruce and larch. Despite knee-deep powder swirled between the trees, it’s quick work to scavenge branches for our fire. We grab arm-length sticks and scrape the ends into points to make the perfect roasting sticks. The fire crackles and pops, hazy smoke wafting between the trees and drifting out over the lake. Sitting in the snow next to the heat of the fire, it doesn’t feel like a winter’s day at all.
Bellies full of warm food and drink, we pack up and head the short distance to Nistowiak Falls. Nistowiak is a Cree word that refers to the convergence of waters - where the Rapid River flows in from the south to join the Churchill River.
We can hear the thundering of the water before we see it - even over the thrum of our engines. We park and walk down the snowbank towards the water. The falls never freeze over and the water plummets 10 metres down a rock ledge in a spectacular display. The resulting spray has entombed everything within reach and crafted an elaborate ice formation on the eastern ridge of the river. Giant icicles hang from a massive concave arch. It’s impossible to tell where the rocky outcrop of the Canadian Shield ends and the ice structure begins. Nistowiak Falls in the wintertime is one of the most magnificent natural wonders of Saskatchewan.
Moving from natural history to man-made history, we chase daylight and continue another twenty kilometres to the town of Stanley Mission. The sky has turned overcast and the sentinel-like Holy Trinity Anglican Church pops white against the mottled sky. Completed in 1860, this Gothic Revival church is the oldest building in Saskatchewan and a Provincial Heritage Property.
We stop long enough to peek inside and sign the guestbook. By now, the sun is swiftly dipping towards the horizon and most of our 80-kilometre ride to La Ronge will be in the dark.
As we navigate our way back along the route marked by the local snowmobile club, the moonlight helps guide our way. Following the bumping taillights of the snowmobiles ahead, I reflect on how grateful I am to experience just a little of what northern Saskatchewan has to offer.
Author & Photographer: Ashlyn George
Ashlyn George is an adventure travel writer and social media influencer based in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. By 30, she visited more than 60 countries and all 7 continents while documenting it on her blog The Lost Girl’s Guide to Finding the World. Today,Ashlyn creates content in partnership with world-renowned brands like NFL Canada, McDonald’s and CLIF Bar and has been featured in the New York Times and listed by Kayak as a Top 10 Travel Hacker. Find her online at @thelostgirlsguide or www.thelostgirlsguide.com