Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Review: Chilkoot Campground, Sierra National Forest (Yosemite National Park)

Location: 4 hrs from San Francisco
Website: USDA Forest Service
Map: Google Maps
Camping Facilities: Car Camping
Grade: B- (Chilkoot)
Stargazing: Heavy canopy, so not great
Summary: Limited services, friendly staff, painful drive into Yosemite
The crowds in the valley
can get dense
Thoughts: If you want to camp in Yosemite National Park during peak season, book early.  As early as possible.  Otherwise, you won't be camping in Yosemite National Park.  That was the lesson I learned when trying to book two weeks in advance to stay in this beautiful park.  No, as the title above suggests, two weeks was not early enough.  So instead I stayed at the closest available public campground, in Sierra National Forest.  If you want to explore Sierra National Forest, I imagine this campground is quite convenient.  If you want to explore Yosemite, it is not.  You'll have to drive roughly 30-45 mins before you even enter the park.  Once you arrive at the park, depending on where you want to go, the drive can get much longer. You're at the Mariposa Grove of Sequoias when entering here, but getting to the valley is likely another hour (depending on how slow the car you will get inevitably get trapped behind is going) and so is Glacier Point.

On-site water source
at Chilkoot
The Chilkoot campground, other than being a little tricky to find since the directions that you receive upon booking tell you it's on Beashore Rd, though GPS data and Google Maps call this Beasore Rd.  But once you've figured that out and make it to the campground, you're fine.  It's then just a matter of settling into the site and getting a visit from the campground host who will register you.  This was a very pleasant experience with our host, who was friendly and helpful (we were able to purchase firewood for $7 a bundle, two of which lasted the 3 night stay).  The main inconvenience is getting water; we lugged water up the steep, unmarked path from the creek (which you can find mainly because its audible from all sites).  Our host kindly offered to supply us with some water (though I'm not sure what the cost would have been, or if there even was a charge), but other than that, you'll have to get your water in the nearby hamlet of Bass Lake (which also sells gas cheaper than you'll find in the park, or even just outside of the park on the highway 120).

Sites are in close proximity,
but not uncomfortably dense
The sites themselves are better than average for car camping, even with the limited services.  There is a reasonable amount of privacy, considering it is car camping.   The privacy stems from there being only 14 sites in the campground, making a single loop around a few outhouses.  The sites themselves are very large, and since it's a single loop, you aren't completely surrounded by sites, just adjacent to and/or across from them.  However, the sites are wide open, as you can see from the picture.  Additionally, there is no scenery to speak of at the campground, just trees and the creek (which isn't visible from the sites, but is audible).


Wildlife in the Mariposa Grove
Yosemite is a spectacular spot.  The natural beauty of the park is breathtaking, though the crowds and staff in the valley detract from the experience.  The valley was extremely busy when we went (mid-June), and, while beautiful, it has an amusement park feel due to the hoards of tourists.  Try to allot a single day to visit the valley; that way you can see its many great views in one shot (it's easy to drive from one to the next), then you don't have to make the trip back down.  Regarding the staff in the valley, most that we encountered were somewhat ignorant of the park.  Often they wouldn't have answers to questions on the locations of trails or where to get a park map or if the park store had wifi (it does, and you don't need to pay), and there are large line-ups to access staff that seem better informed.  Many of the staff were volunteers, possibly seasonal, perhaps in their first season at the park.

View from Wawona Point
If you want to escape the crowds, all that needs to be done is to travel a little further up the trail head.  After you're about 500 meters (1/3 of a mile for my American friends) down most trails, you'll lose most of the more laid-back park visitors; most seem to have the few main attractions to check off their lists (Grizzly Giant in the Mariposa Grove, Yosemite Falls, Bridalveil Falls, Glacier Point, maybe Sentinel Dome) and don't make it much further.  But fortunately there is much more to see.  A great hiking resource can be found on this site, so that you can plan accordingly.  Some spots where we found very few other hikers on the trail, but that were very nice include:
  • Upper Mariposa Grove (much nicer and more densely populated with giant sequoias than the lower grove), and Wawona Point (provides a spectacular view that you'll have all to yourself)
  • Taft Point (though it was covered with snow so we didn't make it very far)
  • Artist Point
View of the Valley from Glacier Point
Many fallen trees on
the way to Artist Point
The biggest issue with hiking in Yosemite is the grossly insufficient trail marking.  There are very few trail blazes, in fact some trails didn't have a blaze to speak of, just signs pointing the way at the trailhead.  If a trails isn't well trampled, it would be easy to get lost...just as we did on the Taft point trail (the trail was buried in snow).  In addition, less popular trails are very poorly maintained, with fallen trees and limbs blocking the path (see the photo of the trail to Artist Point on the right).  Considering the number of inexperienced staff, poor maintenance and terribly marked trails, I suspect the culprit here is under-funding.  While this might be expected in less popular parks during these turbulent financial times, to find that this is the case in the 3rd most visited park in the US was a shock and a great disappointment.
Museum at Upper Mariposa Grove

View from Artist Point - worth the trek

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Review: Galeairy Lake, Algonquin Interior

Location: 100 km from Huntsville (1.5 hrs), 240 km from Ottawa (3 hrs)
Website: Friends of Algonquin Park or Ontario Parks
Map: Google Maps Canoe Routes
Camping Facilities: Backcountry
Grade: C+
Cloud Lake - Centennial Ridges Trail
Summary: Uneventful paddling on a lake filled with tourists on pontoon boats.
Stargazing: Good   
Thoughts:  I'll keep this brief, because I didn't venture far enough to have much meaningful material to provide.  We did this trip with the aim to base camp while making day trips around the highway 60 corridor, specifically to hike the Centennial Ridges trail.  As a result, our campsite would ideally be a short paddle from the highway, quiet and in a scenic spot.  Two of my first options (Rock Lake and Canisbay) were completely booked up, Galeairy didn't really fit any of these criteria.

First, the access point is actually located outside the park so you drive past the west gate to get there and paddle back into the park.  The paddle back into the park was manageable on the occasions we did it mainly because the winds weren't to fierce.  If this hadn't been the case, I can imagine it being a bit of a struggle.  Either way, its an hour-long paddle going against the wind, and 45 mins in its absense, till you reach the first site.

Second, you won't find much peace and quiet here, due to relentless motorboat traffic all the up until sunset.  I think this is primarily due to the resort on this lake, but not entirely; on our way out at 6am, some cottagers were already out to try water-skiing on the otherwise calm and peaceful lake.

Finally, there's nothing worth seeing here. We stayed at the first site; though we checked out a few more sites further in, the first site was quite nice and the others would just tack on further paddling to our day trip.  But what we did see during our paddle wasn't noteworthy.  It might get more interesting closer to the portage into Rock, but I suspect it doesn't given that the topography.

Whitefish Lake  - Centennial Ridges Trail
Regarding the Centennial Ridges hike, I was pleasantly surprised at both how nice and short it was, given what I'd read.  The signs post a 6-hr estimated completion time, though my wife and I did it in 3 1/2, with plenty of breaks to enjoy the scenery.  Admittedly, the trail pretty well gives you a single landscape to view (overlooking Whitefish and Lake of Two Rivers), but from many different view points.  The best view point from my perspective is the final one (signpost #10) overlooking Whitefish Lake.  The most unpleasant signpost was at Cloud Lake, due to the clouds of mosquitoes that descend upon you as you approach (this was early July, I'm sure its much better after mid-August).  A fun and worthwhile hike, though if you don't want do the whole 10 km hike, just head south toward signpost #10 where the trail splits.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Review: Ragged Lake / Parkside Bay, Algonquin Interior

The bay into the portage from Smoke
to Ragged Lake
Location: 55km East of Huntsville (~ 1 hr)
Website: Friends of Algonquin Park or Ontario Parks
Map: Google Maps Canoe Routes
Camping Facilities: Backcountry
Grade: B- (Ragged), B+ (Parkside Bay)
Summary: Congested, but less so than Canoe Lake. Ragged has few high quality campsites, but better options are available on Parkside Bay.
Thoughts:  The less desirable cousin south of Canoe Lake, Smoke Lake is a nice introduction to Algonquin, with smaller crowds at the portages due to fewer canoe route opportunities south of Highway 60.  As far as the challenge of the paddle, crossing Canoe Lake is likely easier than crossing Smoke, due to the winds and waves that can whip up on Smoke.  These can be especially strong in the southern 1/3 of the lake after passing the narrower northern portion, where the lake gets suddenly wider in the east-west direction.  Once you throw in the wakes of the many motorboats whizzing by, it can be a pretty choppy ride (but not altogether unpleasant).

View from site NW of island on Ragged
Remnants of a
mussel dinner
Things get better once you get to the portage into Ragged Lake.  Though there's a sharp incline right at the beginning, its a very short portage.  Its one of those instances when you wonder if the length was accurately recorded on the map, as it seems even shorter than its 250m.  The put-in on Ragged has some historical significance as it was once the site of a log chute between Smoke and Ragged, though not much remains.  There is a trail that is perhaps 15-20 m north from this put-in, along the east side of the portage, where you can hike down to the rapids and have a look at the old chute site.  Its a nice, peaceful set of rapids, but don't expect to see any remnants of the chute.

View from south "point" site
on Parkside Bay
The sites on Ragged are hit and miss. While many will suit most needs (decent site sizes), they are extremely tightly packed, especially around the island.  We stayed on a site on a NW point, just across from the island and 6 other campfires were clearly visible (and audible).  A few exceptions are the northern most site, just after the portage (though you're bound to see plenty of paddlers come by your site on their way further south or to other lakes) and the two southern most sites (the southeastern sites have very nice private beaches, making great docking points, in addition to swimming/sunbathing opportunities).

Parkside is even tolerable in the rain
Parkside bay is slightly better, though I haven't been here on a long weekend (in fact, only on weekdays).  Its much wider, with greater space between the sites.  There are two sites on long points on the east side of this bay that are winners, get them if you can. There is also good fishing on this bay, where we've tangled with some feisty bass.

Family of ducks on Parkside
While the variety of routes is often much greater north of Highway 60, the availability of sites is probably better to the south.  We booked our stay about one month in advance on Ragged Lake, and that was booking for the August long weekend.  While it's best to stay away from Ragged if you can, you'll still have a decent camping experience, with loons, large sites, and clear views of the night sky still possible.  Be warned however; you may have to share this with experience with a few dozen others.  

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Review: Sherborne Lake, Frost Centre

View from Campsite 20 (Source: Camis)
Location: Off of Highway 35, 15 mins from Dorset
Website: Online Reservations
Map: Google Maps
Camping Facilities: Backcountry Exclusively
Grade: B
Summary: Probably one of the best spots in the Frost Centre area, though it's expensive and not free of cottages either.
Thoughts:  Though this lake also lies within the old Frost Centre area (and is governed by the same management system), it might be an easier sell to the typical backcountry camper than the rest of the Frost area.  First positive item - no portages. Second, I believe there's one cottage on the lake and it wasn't much of a disturbance.  Third, reasonably good fishing (not on my line, but my more skillful friend caught many a bass). Fourth, plenty of nice sites.  Sadly I don't have any photographic evidence of this, but you can have a look at the online reservation system, which has a few pictures for each site.   We stayed at site #21, which is now closed (unfortunately).  Hopefully it recovers and opens again soon.

One item to note is that when we stayed here back in 2003, the road off of the 35 was in terrible shape.  Luckily I was driving a car that was near the end of its life, so I wasn't too worried about long-term impacts.  But some eroded sections of the road are pretty brutal.  As an alternative, you can also access Sherborne through St. Nora, though I don't think it's worth the effort.  The drive into the lake aside, a satisfactory backcountry camping experience, you might want to consider it in place of some of the more congested areas in Algonquin (it is a shorter drive, at least).
View from Campsite 20 (Source: Camis)

Review: Frost Centre - Margaret Lake

Location: 15 km south of Dorset, off of the 35
Website: Online Reservations
Map: Google Maps
Camping Facilities: Backcountry Exclusively
Grade: C-
The only site on Margaret Lake
(Source: Camis)
Summary: Cottages and power boats detract from the serenity, but probably a good place for first-time solo paddlers and those who are new to the backcountry
Thoughts:  This lake was the destination for my first trip back to the Frost Centre Area in over 5 years,  during which much had changed.  Most notably, campsites were no longer free to use, but were subject to a $13 per person, per night fee.  That seemed pretty outrageous, and the outrage is justified.  As stated in my review of St.Nora, a lot of these lakes are cottaged lakes.  Margaret was not an exception.  While I recall there being only a few cottages on the lake, forget the sense of wilderness.  However, the neighbours were friendly and didn't make us feel too out of place given that we were at the only campsite on the lake.  We were even treated to a fireworks show (as it was the Canada Day long weekend).  I don't know if it might have been better on Little Margaret (not sure if there are cottages there as well, but my maps suggest there is not), but it's tough to recommend further inspection.  At prices higher than provincial park fees, and this area not being the most scenic spot in Central Ontario, why bother?

View NE of the Margaret Lake Site
(Source: Camis)
A closer look at the site
(Source: Camis
An anecdote about this place; when my wife and I made this trip, it was in the midst of the 2010 World Cup.  It was the quarter-finals and she wasn't too pleased about missing that part of the tournament.  However, we noticed a restaurant (the Fire House) on our drive in and stopped by to inquire whether they were showing the matches. Luckily enough, they were and the combined driving/paddling distance was no more than 45 minutes.  We paddled back out in the morning to have breakfast and watch the first game.  Then we took a hike in the afternoon, made our way back to the restaurant for a late lunch, watched the second game, drove back to Margaret Lake and paddled back to our site.  I know, ridiculous.  I can hear the true hardcore backcountry campers gasping and hurtling insults.  But we had a campfire and watched the stars at night, and drank Guinness from a keg while watching a live soccer game half the world away during the day.  What an age we live in.  By the way, Ghana was completely ripped off.  

Review: Frost Centre - Lake St. Nora

Location: 15 km South of Dorset 
Website: Online Reservations 
Map: Google Maps
Camping Facilities: Backcountry Exclusively
Grade: D
Summary: A cottage-dense lake that is not worth the nightly camping fee
View from Put-In at Frost Centre
Thoughts: This was the site of one of my first backcountry camping experiences, and while there are some nice campsites on this lake, it is a cottager's lake, first and foremost.  Keep that in mind when you're considering booking here.  Expect everything that a cottage-dominated lake will generally provide: plenty of power boats, generators running at odd hours, raccoons, etc.  If that doesn't bother you, great.  If it does, it's hard to justify the rather high nightly camping fee ($13 pp).

View East from Site #10 on St. Nora
St. Nora Lake belongs to the old Leslie Frost Centre, which has been closed for nearly a decade.  At one point it was a training centre for professionals in fisheries and resource management.  Now, it's a jumping off point for canoeists and cottagers who want to enjoy this easily accessible alternative to the provincial parks.  It is currently operated by the municipality of Algonquin Highlands, which began charging for backcountry camping in the area in 2010.  On a positive note, the new reservation system is easy to use, includes pictures of each site and allows online bookings - Ontario Parks could learn something from this system.  However, the nightly fee is a huge deterrent, given that the area is neither rustic, nor particularly scenic.
View West from Site #10 on St. Nora

In three words: Don't camp here.

Review: Eels Creek (Near Petroglyphs Provincial Park)

Location: 50 km (1 hr) North of Peterborough
Website:  My CCR
Map: Google Maps or look at the bottom right corner here, starting from Haultain
Approaching the 1st portage
Camping Facilities: Backcountry (Crown land)
Grade: B
Summary: A nice day/overnight river trip, which is easily accessible.
Thoughts: A very fun river trip, with just a few short portages and some whitewater that can be run in high season (though not by me).  One of my regular camping buddies and I thought we would give this one a try, since its relatively close to his home.  This was the first trip where we'd done the shuttle arrangement, with a car stashed at both the put-in and the take out.  Kevin Callan provides instructions on where to do this in his book "A Paddler's Guide to Ontario's Cottage Country" (I highly recommend this book for trips within a few hours of Southern Ontario's major population centres).

The route starts under a bridge on Highway 28, with a paddle some reedy sections that the river winds through to ease you in.  Admittedly, this is kind of nice, especially when the water is high.  After a while you get to some tricky looking whitewater (in May it looks tricky, at least).  So this means a few portages around rapids and then a longer portage just before High Falls.  High Falls provides the only serious portage on the trip (and its not really that bad, just a few hundred metres).  Once you're past the falls, you most of your way through the trip.  We stayed at the campsite just below the falls, which was a nice, spacious site (see the video).  However, if I do recall, there is no thunderbox available at this site (and I would also presume the other sites as well), so bring your trowel.  Around the falls, there is a trailhead which provides access into Petroglyphs Provincial Park.  This is worth the hike (though we didn't end up doing it due to time restrictions), since the historical and cultural significance of these carvings is awe-inspiring.

We actually ran the last set of rapids, with great hesitation and trepidation,  and were quite sheepish when all was said and done. It was somewhat anticlimactic, after all the scouting and determining the safest path to take, just to avoid a 50 m portage.

Falls at the 1st portage
River paddles are a lot of fun; there's scenery that is continually changing, you really don't have to worry about wind and there are inevitably lots of water falls to enjoy.  This trip is very easily accessible and as a result, we noted a bit of litter around (broken beer bottles); It seems to be a fine place for teenage kids to enjoy the spoils of raiding their parents beer stocks, from what we saw.  As well, something about this place gives you a sense that you're never far from civilization, but I can't put my finger on it.  However, I think I can recommend this trip if you want to get an easy river paddle in and don't have much time.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Review: Rain Lake to Bandit Lake, Algonquin Interior

Location: Rain Lake Access, 60 km from Huntsville (1 hr drive)
Website: Friends of Algonquin Park or Ontario Parks
Map: Google Maps or Canoe Routes
Camping Facilities: Jump-off Camping, Cabin and Backcountry
Grade: A-
Stargazing: Excellent
Summary: A pretty long trek, which gets you reasonably deep into Algonquin Park.  If you book both sites, you have the lake to yourself.  The sites are nice, the lake has some good swimming and you can easily access other lakes.  
Campsite on Bandit Lake
Thoughts:  Another base camping gem, which I think should be reserved for a group with moderate paddling experience.  Not because its particularly challenging, but it can be a slog.  This trip took 6 hrs, from put in to arrival on site. We did it as a base camping trip as means to introduce some friends to the backcountry.  The great thing about this trip is that you can reserve both sites and have the lake to yourselves (which is nice, because things can get as loud or as quiet as you like).  As well, the paddling is pretty easy (well maintained, no huge lakes to cross, pretty easy portages).

Island site on Bandit Lake

You need to cross 5 lakes in order to get to the Bandit Lake destination. This sounds all well and good in theory, since the longest portage is around 550m, but you quickly learn how tricky this can get in large parties (we had 14 people); the continuous loading and unloading of canoes at docking sites can take time and causes a bottle neck.  If the docking sites are small, you will have to load/unload one at a time.  Along the way, we noted that Jubilee and Sawyer were also pretty nice looking lakes that have some well-spaced sites. 

"Mainland" site on Bandit Lake, plenty of room for tents

The sites on Bandit are pretty spacious.  In fact, were even tossed around the frisbee a bit on the island site (probably the superior site).  The thunderbox on the other site is somewhat close to the best spots to set up tents.  However, this can be overlooked, especially when camping in smaller groups.  The lake provides the opportunity to do some day tripping to neighbouring lakes, but those that are relatively close are small (north branch of Moccasin, Cranebill, Wenona, Muslim), and the more interesting day trips would be challenging to keep within a day (Petawawa River to Misty loop, Brule Lake, Misty).
You can see the thunderbox at the bottom of the hill,
in plain view of the tent spots

I think all those who ventured out on this trip appreciated the backcountry experience.  The 6-hr paddle into Bandit is probably more strenuous than you'd want to do as a novice, but its a rewarding trip.  This part of Algonquin is also not terribly scenic (no vistas or sheer rock faces), but you benefit from equally flat portages as a result.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Review: Rain / McCraney Lakes, Algonquin Interior

Location: Rain Lake Access, 1 hr north of Huntsville
Website: Friends of Algonquin or Ontario Parks
Map: Google Maps
Camping Facilities: Jump-off Camping, Cabin and Backcountry
Grade: B+
Summary: 1800 m portage aside, this is a nice part of the park that can feel pretty remote.  However, there's not much more to see, unless you're ready to really trek.
View from island site on McCraney Lake
Thoughts: I don't think there has ever been an instance where I've tried to book McCraney Lake and it wasn't available.  What it is about this access point or this lake that repels people, I'm not exactly sure.  It could be the 20 km drive along the dirt road after you leave Kearney (it feels like 50 km).  It could be that it is difficult to get to the park office in Kearney on a Friday night before it closes.  It could be the 1800m portage between Rain and McCraney.  These are just a few guesses.  But all of these issues in tandem could make backcountry campers opt to go elsewhere.

The Rain Lake access is pretty busy, there always seems to be a shortage of parking spots.  As a result people are parked along side the roads, causing it to become a bit narrow.  The access point also provides "jump-off" camping, allowing you to stay at the access point on your first night (in case you arrive late).  These sites aren't formal, you just set up on the grass in a spot that pleases you.  Its handy but should be avoided if possible. There's also a cabin at the Rain Lake access, which can't be much fun, given that its pretty close to where people are loading up canoes and parking their cars (in addition to being next to the jump-off location).

Dinner prep on McCraney
The paddle to the McCraney portage is nothing spectacular.  Its very narrow and calm in the narrow sections,  then it opens up briefly before you arrive at the portage into McCraney.  You can spot the hikers on the Upland Backpacking Trail as you paddle along, which seems to follow a rail trail.  The portage sounds arduous, at 1800 m.  But in actuality, its probably one of the easiest 1800 m portages around.  It's very flat and reasonably wide.  I seem to recall a bench halfway through, but I may be getting my portages mixed up.  I imagine in the later summer, its even better, if its cooler and dryer.  You get to McCraney, before you know it.   I recall my wife and I once heard a wolf howl just as we paddled into McCraney, which made for a pretty exciting entrance.  This lake can really give you a wilderness feel.

Cooling heels in the crisp waters of McCraney Lake
The paddle into McCraney from Little McCraney takes some time, longer than you'll probably be interested in.  Once you get to McCraney, you'll have to make your decision of where to stay.  Though we have only stayed on the northern island on our two visits here, I don't recommend this location; while you'll probably find enough wood there, its limited and takes some work.  As well, the two sites there are pretty close together and are connected by a footpath.  It might be fun if you're with two groups who want to be able to access each other's sites relatively easily.  From paddling around the lake, I imagine most of these sites will meet your needs (though I'm skeptical of the southern island).  Activities on this lake are somewhat limited, its reported to have decent fishing (haven't cast a line in myself), there are a few portages to other lakes if you want to make a loop out of it, or if you want to make day trips from a base camp on McCraney.   But just sitting back and communing with nature is always an option.

A note about the drive into Rain; I've seen cars that have gone off the road on the gravel section (not that far after Kearney).  Drive slowly, especially at night.  As well, parking at the Rain Lake access can be brutal.  The lot fills up fast and things get pretty messy after that.

All said, I don't fully understand why its so easy to reserve a site on this lake, but it is.  It's a nice lake, relatively easy to access and it provides seclusion.  If you're making a last minute reservation to get away, this is a suitable destination.

(The photo quality on this post is quite poor, attributable to the use of a disposable waterpoof camera.  Let this be a lesson - this is par for the course from what I've seen from these cameras). 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Review: Killarney Interior - George, Killarney and OSA Lakes

Location: 90 km south of Sudbury
Website: Ontario Parks or My CCR or Specific Campsite Reviews
Map: Google Maps
Camping Facilities: Predominantly Backcountry, with some car camping at George Lake
Grade: A
Stargazing: Not great, Sudbury's orange glow greatly diminishes the Northern sky.
Thoughts: The George Lake access point is clearly Killarney's busiest.  This is attributable to the presence of a car campground there, in addition to it being a southerly access point, allowing for a shorter drive for those of us coming from the south (though not a short as accessing through Bell Lake).  As a result, your first impressions may be that it's crowded and full of amateurs who don't know what to do with a paddle.  But this changes after one portage.  George Lake is in itself a nice lake where you get some good views of the quartzite hills, but you'll really enjoy the serenity once you've made it to Killarney Lake.

Loons on Killarney Lake
The paddle across George can be an excruciating one, as you just want to make it across this lake due to its propensity to get very windy and wavy.  Its oriented W-E, so the winds coming off of Georgian Bay can find their way into this wind tunnel. On a calm day, though, it can be a fun paddle.

Then you find yourself on Freeland Lake after the tiny portage (almost a lift-over, its really short).  Freeland is a swampy, reedy, mud pile of a lake.  One of my wife's flip-flops was sucked into the mud at the take-out to the Killarney Lake portage, never to be found again.  Its as though it was just devoured by the muck. I don't know if there is a solid piece of ground to step out onto. Just take off your shoes before trying to get out.

Doe on Killarney
Killarney Lake itself is very nice.  On our first visit here, we paddled out of the enclosure where the portage is located to find a deer feeding in the shallow water.  It mostly didn't mind us paddling by, just one of those awe-inspiring moments in the backcountry.  From what we could tell, the sites are all pretty good.  We had an expansive site just around the corner from the portage (site 21), which was nice but not a stitch of dry wood was available due to the scattered showers we'd experience the day before.  

A break from the rain on OSA
Crystal clear water on OSA 
The real highlight of this trip is OSA lake. Due to its high acidity, nary a creature, plant or animal, microscopic or macroscopic, seems to be able to live in this lake.  As a result the water is crystal clear and it feels like your swimming in a massive unchlorinated swimming pool.  Its almost worth making a day trip here just to go for a swim.  There are two portages into this lake from Killarney, a 130m and a 450m.  You have to paddle a bit further to get to the 130, and take you canoe over a lift-over (which you can almost do without getting your feet wet). I recommend the this route though, anything for a shorter portage.  For me, a km on water is worth 50 meters carrying a canoe on land, let alone 300 meters.
Quartzite Ridges over OSA Lake

View of Killarney Lake (fore) and
OSA Lake (back) from "The Crack"
Another great hike from Killarney lake is the trip up to "The Crack".  This hike can be rugged in certain sections and very slippery when wet (when you get to upper portions towards the lookout, which are mostly rock surface) but I don't think anybody in our group was disappointed.  In fact, you don't need to portage in to get to this hike, there is direct access from highway 637.  If car camping at George Lake, this is probably the easiest route to take.  It should be noted that the access to "The Crack" from Killarney Lake is horrendous;  I don't think I've waded through deeper mud in my life, let alone tried to dock a canoe in it.  Don't wear any clothes that you'll miss and secure all gear.

This is an amazing section of a beautiful park.  Book early.  You won't be disappointed.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Review: Hautes Gorges de Malbaie National Park

Location: 160 km (~3 hrs) NE of Quebec, QC
Website: Sepac
Map: Park Map or Google Maps
Camping Facilities:  Backcountry and Car Camping

Paddling up the Riviere Malbaie
Grade: A
Thoughts: This park is a good mix for those who are new to camping and even some moderately-skilled backcountry folk. It has good hiking, seemingly unspoiled wilderness, river paddling opportunities, car camping and backcountry camping.  Its a reasonable drive from Quebec, so it can be counted as accessible too. It centres around the Riviere Malbaie, with its high valley walls providing a sense of majesty when you're wandering inside it on foot or on water.

La Chute de Ruisseau Blanc
Our stay at L'Equerre campsite provided a very nice backcountry feel, with a rewarding paddle up the Malbaie. It can be an hour and a half paddle upstream (but nearly half that downstream), but you won't mind because the scenery make the time fly.  Once you arrive at L'Equerre, you find a campground with sites that are well spaced out and sheltered.  Many are also close to the river, which provides a nice spot to enjoy nature, the wildlife and the landscape of the valley.  You can also hike up to La Chute de Ruisseau Blanc from this campground, an added bonus if you're going to be camping here anyways.  I don't think the trail is worth making the paddle if you didn't intend on going up river anyways; if it you wanted to paddle the river or if you're staying at L'Equerre, then you could probably justify it, its a very short hike even if the waterfall disappoints you.

View SW from L'Acropole des Draveurs 
Another great thing about this campsite is that they provide a hanging pole inland of the campsites.  That way you don't have to find the perfect tree with the thick branch jutting perpendicular to the trunk.  It makes storing food very easy, and more backcountry sites that are clustered together.

The other main hike, L'Acropole des Draveurs, is one that is well worth doing.  The panoramic views are outstanding.  It's a relatively crowded hike, and the path up to the lookout is rather uneventful, but once you get to the top, you'll probably forget all that.  Pack a lunch and stay awhile.
View NW from L'Acropole des Draveurs

I recommend this park strongly for a few reasons;  the sites are relatively well divided, the scenery is beautiful, the paddling is fun, there's easy backcountry food storage and the hiking (especially L'Acropole des Draveurs) is memorable.  In truth, you won't get much sense of solitude here, but as in other parks with outstanding natural beauty, that can be forgiven.

View E from L'Acropole des Draveurs
(Photos courtesy of Adrian Mohareb)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Review: Mauricie National Park - Edouard Lake

Location: 3 hrs (200 km) north of Montreal
Website: Parks Canada
Map: Parks Canada
Camping Facilities: Backcountry and Car Camping
Grade: B+
Setting sun on our
 Lac Edouard campsite
Thoughts: With national parks, I have this expectation that the quality of the scenery and uniqueness will merit national attention and provide shining examples of significant Canadian natural environment for visitors from abroad.  Of the few that I've been to, this has generally been the case.  La Mauricie, however, was a bit of a disappointment.  Its not to say that La Mauricie wasn't beautiful, but compared to other parks in the Laurentians, its not the brightest jewel in the crown.

Mist over Lac Edouard 
La Mauricie is a long 3-hr drive from Montreal, with lots of winding, two-lane roads.  Once you arrive at the park, probably the first thing that strikes you is the pleasantness of the staff.  All of my encounters with staff at this park were very positive and I appreciated that entrance of the park was the gateway to all of the attractions, with no backtracking necessary (take note, Bruce Penninsula National Park).  There are plenty of hiking opportunities, backpacking on the Laurentian Trail and some serious looking canoe routes (complete with 5 km portages), but we had about 20hrs to spend in the park and hence didn't get a chance to do any serious canoe camping.  We settled for Lac Edouard, which was nice and, even mid-August on a weekday, we had the lake to ourselves.  The campsite had been drenched the night before so there really wasn't much chance to enjoy a campfire.
View over hilltop lake

Regarding hiking trails, we did the Mekinac trail, along the Mekinac River.  Its a worthwhile hike, though I imagine one of the less scenic ones. It gives you a great view along the Mekinac, then takes you down to water level to an inlet. You then head back up again (up some stairs, I believe), and then come to a lake which is a nice spot to stop for a water break or some lunch.  There is also the Laurentian backpacking trail that seems to provide some excellent camping, with single sites on lakes scattered through La Mauricie's backcountry.

Lac Edouard at dusk
As far as wilderness goes, you definitely get a sense of it here, being so far from the major urban centres.  As well, its plenty quiet and I'm not sure this place ever is completely booked (though it could very well be on some summer weekends).  This could be because there are a number of high quality camping opportunities in Quebec and roughly half the population of Ontario (and without the wilderness bottleneck found in Central Ontario).  This is all conjecture, but I suspect it has some validity to it.
Mekinac River
I would also guess that anglophone tourists also tend to stay away from Quebec's national and provincial parks (provincial parks are also referred to as national parks in Quebec, so this can lead to some confusion in terminology) due to concerns over communication difficulties.  This shouldn't limit anybody, as many Quebecois are bilingual and those that aren't will meet you halfway (you can use your broken French, they'll use their broken English).  If you stay away from  Quebec's parks due to an inability to speak French, you'll miss out on some of the most amazing scenery in the country, so I urge you to go.

In summary, there seems to be a lot more to La Mauricie than I was able to see, with some very rugged looking backcountry canoe routes and hiking trails.  Considering the terrain, I would guess that travelling along these routes would be quite scenic.  However, from just seeing the easily accessible trails, there's little to inspire when considering other opportunities (see Jacques Cartier & Haute Gorges).  You probably have to venture in much further to justify the drive from Montreal.