Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Review: Algonquin Interior - Big Crow Lake Ranger Cabin

Location: Off the highway 60, North from Opeongo.
Website: Big Crow Cabin or Friends of Algonquin Backcountry Advice or Ontario Parks or OP Cabin page
Map: Scroll down here
Camping Facilities: Backcountry & Ranger Cabin
Grade: A
Stargazing: Excellent
Summary: A bit of a trek, but a great spot with lots of options for base camping. Definitely worth doing once, though be prepared for the expense.
big crow lake ranger cabin algonquin provincial park
Outside the ranger cabin
Thoughts: Algonquin park's backcountry has to be some of the most storied, as well as visited, in the camping universe.  Its wild and rugged (to varying degrees), there are endless options for canoe routes and to top it all off, there's even man-made shelters scattered about to give a sense of the recent human history of the park.  The structures are old ranger cabins that are no longer in operation, but are available for rent by the public.  It should be pointed out right away that there are regulations for their use, and they can get pretty pricey (from $58-134 per night in 2011, more if you have more than a single person in your group).  So these are definitely a once-in-a-very-long-while camping experience, given that they can cost more than a decent hotel room.   The cabins have lots of very handy features, including bunks, tables and wood stoves, which gives an added measure of comfort in the backcountry.  Its also recommended that you book these cabins early, their charm makes them very popular.

Regarding my experience, I highly recommend the water taxi across Opeongo for getting into Proulx Lake (book in advance).  I imagine that Opeongo takes a full day to traverse (longer if you have wind to contend with) while the taxi takes about 20 minutes.  Opeongo seems to be a nice enough lake, but I think it might just be more of an irritant than a pleasure to paddle (especially once you consider that it's open to powerboats).  The portage into Proulx is generally fine, with some buggy portions, and one point where you can walk around or paddle a swampy stretch (I recommend you walk around, the swamp is shallow and you may end up pulling your gear along rather than paddling).

big crow lake algonquin provincial giant white pine trail
A giant white pine off of Big Crow Lake
Getting to Big Crow can be a bit of fun in itself, given that you must paddle the reed-lined path between Proulx and Little Crow (this takes roughly an hour).  Its a joy to paddle on a nice clear day, but frustratingly long if its rainy.  On one trip we made along this route, a thunderstorm moved in while we were about halfway through.  There is generally no shore access along this stretch as the reeds have you hemmed in, so we just paddled hard to try to get out before the thunderstorm reached us.  On another occasion, when we needed to meet the water taxi early at Proulx lake portage at Opeongo, we paddled this spot at around 6am and it was indescribably serene and probably an experience that everyone in our party wouldn't mind again.  

big crow lake ranger cabin algonquin provincial park fire tower trail
Big Crow Lake Fire Tower Trail lookout during the day 
Focusing on the Big Crow cabin, its ideal for my preferred kind of camping (base camping, with day trips) mainly due to its proximity to a number of portages, a stand of huge white pines and a trail from the cabin up to the fire look-out tower.  I have to say the stand of white pines was a bit of a let-down; there just aren't that many and the trail is pretty short.  I have difficulty believing that there are not better stands remaining in the park, but they just might not be this accessible.  The trail up to the fire tower, on the other hand, is not disappointing in the least. I've been up there several times and the view is spectacular.  Photos don't do it justice.

big crow lake ranger cabin algonquin provincial park fire tower trail
View from top of fire tower trail, Big Crow Lake
 The cabin itself is a lot of fun, you can spend the days exploring Big Crow lake and its neighbours and the evenings playing cards by candlelight.  Its also nice not having to worry about where to hang your food at night.  The fire pit area is probably the only disappointing aspect of the campsite, it felt a little cramped to me. The bottom line is that its a great group trip, though a bit on the pricey side when you've included all party members and the water taxi.  You definitely won't regret it.

big crow lake ranger cabin algonquin provincial park
Bunks in Big Crow Lake ranger cabin 
big crow lake ranger cabin algonquin provincial park fire tower trail
The kitchen table
big crow lake ranger cabin algonquin provincial park
Inside the ranger cabin kitchen 

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Review: The Massasauga Provincial Park - Blackstone Harbour

Location: 20 km south of Parry Sound
Website: Ontario Parks
Map: Google Maps or a Comprehensive Site Map (lists and reviews all sites, thanks gmps!)
Massassauga Provincial Park Blackstone Harbour
Welcome to Site 511
Camping Facilities: Backcountry Exclusively
Grade: B-
Summary: Waters can be rough and motorboats can be plentiful on the sites bordering Georgian Bay, though otherwise decent.
Thoughts: I want to like The Massasauga, but I haven't had the occasion to yet.  I think this park has a lot of potential; it has some inland lakes (which book up quickly), beautiful Georgian Bay coastline, and 135 backcountry sites within a 3 hr drive of the Greater Toronto Area.  Alas, I've yet to have a good experience here. My first attempt began at Blackstone Harbour but was foiled by high winds, the remnants of Hurricane Katrina.  The second attempt worked out much better, with easier winds and better paddling.  We were with a few newbies to the backcountry so we didn't venture too deep (site 511).

waterfall at massassauga provincial park
A waterfall not far from Site 511

The site was nothing to write home about, it was large enough for 3 tents and it had a nice view of the Harbour.  It was tough to find a good place to hang our food, which might be an issue now that since it seems to have a bear problem.  All in all, it was a pleasant stay.  Calhoun lodge, just around the corner, was kind of neat from a historical perspective (you can get sense of what was needed to meet day-to-day needs when living in an unserviced cottage), though there was no interpretive information available so the hike is what you make of it.
View from Site 511
 (never hang your garbage/food like that!)

The main problem is that most of the park is accessible by power boats.  Only the inland lakes are protected from the revving of motors.  So I'm not sure you'll ever feel you're in true backcountry in the remainder of the park.  As well, the winds from Georgian Bay can be an obstacle if you have novice paddlers (I consider myself a decent paddler but my canoe was almost swamped on a few occasions, so I don't know how far out into the Bay I'd venture on a windy day).  If you're a new paddler, I suggest sticking to the inland lakes, otherwise make sure everything is tied into your canoe, that you have all the vulnerable gear in waterproof bags and that you have a bailer on hand.  However, I think The Massasauga may yet provide a very nice wilderness experience and encourage comments on others' experiences.