McCracken Lodge Ice Harvest

I’m fortunate to have an employment position which affords me extensive travel throughout northern Manitoba, Canada. The geography of northern Manitoba is diverse, with ecosystems ranging from boreal forests, wetlands, grasslands, to even subarctic tundra. The people are dignified, rugged, and hardworking all the while exhibiting a tireless kindness that leaves you feeling genuinely welcome. I have never been made to feel more at home anywhere than I have been in northern Manitoba.

Of course, I seize every opportunity to bring my camera with me…

The Event:

When I travel north, I am often invited by the locals to partake in an activity. Many of these activities are likely predictable to most of you; hunting, fishing, etc. However, predictability wasn’t in the cards this year. This year I was to enjoy in an exclusive annual event - the “McCracken Elbow Lake Lodge Annual Ice Harvest”.

Exaggerated accounts of winter folly are a plenty and I acknowledge that we Canucks have been known to do this with tales of Calgarians living in igloos and the “Annual Toronto Polar Bear Hunt”, but I assure you this one’s for real and I have pictures to prove it.

In just one day seven men filled an ice shack, topped with an insulating layer of sawdust, with some 370 75lb-blocks of lake ice. Yeah, just shy of 14 tons of ice… The harvested ice is used to service the Lodge and its clients and will last the entire summer. Life in the north is rarely boring or idle!

The Location:

McCracken's Elbow Lake Lodge

A beautiful wilderness fishing lodge that is completely off grid. North of the 54th parallel on the Canadian Shield at Elbow Lake Manitoba, Canada. www.elbowlakefishing.com

The Gear:

I took my trusty Fuji X-E1 with my XF-23mm and 14mm lenses and three batteries. That’s it, I kept is as light as possible as we had to travel some 40 miles by snowmobile from town (Cranberry Portage, MB) to the harvest site. I know there are scads of X-Series reviews, but none that I’ve seen have taken these beauties where this one was. To be honest, I really had no idea how it would hold up as it is not rated for anywhere near these temperatures, in fact, no camera is except when specially pre-treated for it.

I’ve been shooting as pro, semi-pro, and enthusiast for over 40 years and have had (and loved) Leica, Minolta, Nikon, Minox, Mamiya, Toyo, and Horseman. The truth is the bulk of responsibility for whether or not an image is pleasing or meets its objective lies with the shooter not the gear they are using. So pick the one that suits your shooting style and topic or, if you're like me, one that just makes you want to shoot! Fuji seems to have figured this out and it's the type of comment you'll read over and over again from those that try them.

We stop a couple of times en route to re and de hydrate. The snow and clear sky made for an abundance of light which can mislead a lot of built in light meters. The X-E1 did fine, I left it on aperture priority all day. 

The Bravo, a much respected winter workhorse, sadly now discontinued. The ‘M3’ of snow machines I’m told.

The Yamaha Bravo - Reliable and uncomfortable as hell!

The Conditions:

Our day started at first light with the temperature around -34C (-29F). During the trip it warmed up nicely to around -29C (-20F) and remained there for most of the day. If one was to factor in wind-chill on the machines, it would likely be approaching -50C (-58F) or colder. But in northern Manitoba, wind-chill is only calculated by weather wimps and bored meteorologists trying to complicate cold. The truth is that anything below -30C just plain hurts, simple as that.

Short break & regroup on the way to the lodge

I snuck in one or two shots en route each way, but when we first arrived on site I started shooting quickly as I was sure my poor camera would give in to the extreme conditions. Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong, the X-E1 performed all day brilliantly and without me trying to keep it warm as I feared condensation might set in. 8-10 hours in -29C and it just hummed along without so much as a stutter. In fact, I only used one battery all day (some 200 shots in all).

The Harvest:

Clearing the ice for cutting

Clearing the first of two areas about 30 x 40 feet on the lake to expose the best ice, they used to do this by hand!

Jigged chainsaw for cutting ice

The ice now cleared of snow, we cut the blocks of ice with a custom chain saw rig.

Cutting into the ice to make blocks

The chisel in the background is used to break the blocks from the bottom, then they are loaded onto the skidoo trailer and taken to the Ice shack in the far background to the left of the yellow suit. A proper production setup actually.

Breaking the blocks and loading them into the trailer

The ice shack. Rob, the guy inside, handled every block we cut that day.

The ice shack, about 200 yards from the ice cutting

Taking a short break

Mostly done, they tell me we have to come back in the spring when the lake thaws to fill in the holes so fishing boats wont run into them… Safety First.

Holes in Elbow Lake

Getting a breather before heading home. Check out the detail in the glasses, love that X-E1!

Andrew's new hat!

Todd built it, but make no mistake, this is Donnie’s fire.

Donnie's fire

“Cranberry Sledbenders”

Cranberry Sledbenders

Well, I named them this, but the truth is I was the only one to play tag with a tree on the way home… :-/

Parting Thoughts

There is one caveat that I should share, if you decide to take your camera into extreme cold you need to be patient. You need to give your gear time to adjust to its current temperature and humidity level. Also, it will take longer to adjust when coming from cold dry into moist warm air than it will the other way round. Once your gear has acclimated to extreme cold you must bring it back carefully. When coming in from the cold I will remove the battery BEFORE I go indoors… condensation is especially fearsome in the presence of electricity. Also, I found leaving the lens on helped reduce the condensation on the sensor, I don’t want to have to clean this any more then is absolutely necessary. I find an hour or two is the minimum required to adjust safely, even then I look things over closely to ensure there are no signs of condensation before I replace the battery or remove the lens that was mounted when I came in.

This was an unforgettable, once in a lifetime opportunity and even if invited again, I would not subject my gear to this as I already have recorded it to my satisfaction. But I must admit I was very impressed with this little camera as, when approached carefully, it can survive all but the most ridiculous conditions. I’m sure there are tales of others doing just as well, but this was really over the top. Yup, this lil Fuji has its failings, but it suits my style and apparently is not at all bothered by my reality either. J

A hearty thanks to the Cranberry Sledbenders for a cold Saturday I shall long remember J

They are: Brien Leslie, Donnie Grenier, Todd McCracken, Andrew Single, Rob James, Mike Wesner

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