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.  

Review: Jacques Cartier National Park

Location: 30 mins north of Quebec City (40 km)
Website: Sepaq
Map: Google Maps
Camping Facilities: Car Camping and Pseudo-Backcountry
Grade: B
Summary: Disappointing camping area, though the park is beautiful and full of activities, geared towards families.
Jacques Cartier River
Thoughts: My first thought when I arrived at this park is that, this would a great place for families.  It's very close Quebec, less than a 30 minute drive.  So it's inevitable that this will attrach a lof of urban/suburban families.  As well, the park operates a fun-looking inner tube (or kayak or raft) ride where staff bring the tubes upstream and allow people to float down the river to a destination further down.  It looks like it would be a great time on a hot summer day.

Still waters on the Jacques Cartier
Regarding the camping though, from what we saw, we were pretty disappointed.  We stayed at the Heron campground and upon our arrival, we found out that we had to hike out gear in across a foot bridge (which wasn't a big deal at all, but it was a suprise, that's all).  However, the sites at Heron were a huge let down.  There was hardly any undergrowth and the sites were close enough that it felt like a communal car camping experience without the convenience of having your car next to you.  If park planners opt to create walk-in sites, it doesn't hurt to spread them out a bit, les gars.  As far as we could tell, there was only one good site (#1) in that campground.  There are a few other campgrounds that were a further hike in, but we didn't end up inspecting them.

Bridge to walk-in sites
One note regarding camping in Quebec's provincial (stated as "national") parks is that the online reservation system is unbelievably convenient.  If only Ontario Parks' contractors could learn a thing or two from these guys.  Detailed information, easy to use, and the "rustic" sites (the equivalent of backcountry, though the ones I've seen have been pretty clustered) are reservable online.  Mind you, they also state that the sites in Jaques-Cartier that we stayed at are "more private".  I guess it's all relative.

Jacques Cartier River
We all know that walk-in sites can be hit or miss when it comes to seclusion, sense of ruggedness, and general beauty.  The sites we found at Jacques Cartier were none of the above.  Well, that's a bit harsh, one can argue the forest in itself is beautiful.  But the campground could have been so much more.  The park itself was very nice and it merits further exploration.  I imagine some of the hikes will afford spectacular views over the valley.  But we were in a rush on this visit, so I can't say first hand.  Overall, it`s a  worthwhile trip to visit Jacques Cartier; it`s a mere 30 minute drive from Quebec, and you`ll feel like you're in the middle of nowhere...until you get to your campsite.  

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Review: Bruce Peninsula National Park - Stormhaven

Location: 21 km SE of Tobermory, 300 km from Toronto
Website: Parks Canada 
Map: Parks Canada or Google Maps
Camping Facilities: Backcountry and Car Camping (at Cyprus Lake)
Grade: A-
Summary: Beautiful Georgian Bay coastline, plus a fun and scenic hike into the camping area; a great backpacking trip
Halfway Log Dump "beach",
just off the parking lot
Thoughts: Probably the second most scenic natural area in Southern Ontario, Bruce Peninsula National Park earns its federal protection, and the country-wide recognition it gets as a result.  With the cliffs towering over Georgian Bay's cold, blue waters, you can get lost in the seeming endlessness of the landscape.  And with its backcountry hiking trails, there's a wilderness experience where you can bask in its scenic glory while leaving the tourists behind.

Once you arrive at the park, you'll have to first check in at the Cyprus Lake entrance, get your permit and backtrack to the backcountry access points (for both Stormhaven and High Dump).  This is a bit annoying, as it eats a good hour out of your trip, but on top of that you're charged a parking fee.  I mean really, are we supposed to bike up to Tobermory?  Or hike the length of the Bruce Trail?  Seems like a bit of a cash grab, but I can understand the rationale, considering that Parks Canada seems to have budget issues.  Anyways, the grumbling over expenses are quickly forgotten once you get the Georgian Bay shoreline.

On the way to Stormhaven Campsite 
Your first sign that you haven't made a bad decision in coming here is found on the arrival at the Halfway Log Dump beach, which is a bit rocky for swimming but a welcome respite from the trail very early on.  After that, you're hiking on a very nice rocky path typical of the Bruce Trail.

This was my first solo backcountry hiking trip and I think its a good place to start.  The trail up to Stormhaven is pretty rugged, but its doable.  I recall one point where the trail hits a wall, so to speak, where you have to scale up a 6-foot rockface.  That was the only portion where I wished I had some help from a buddy, other than that its completely manageable with one person. Its important to note that if the rocks are wet after or during a rainful, this hike could be downright treacherous. So be warned, watch your step, especially along the cliff tops.
View from one of the many vistas

There are some spectacular vistas along the way, where you can look out for vast distances across the bay, so schedule some time to take breaks.  All told, I think the hike took me between an 1 - 1.5 hrs, and I think I was traveling at a pretty moderate speed.  There are sites on the ridge and at the shore; I stayed at the shore but didn't get a look at the other sites (they were occupied).  But I imagine they're all pretty nice.  Since this is bear country, you're provided lock boxes to stash your food during the night and outside of mealtimes, which is pretty handy.  To be frank, this is something that we should probably see more of in backcountry parks (some Quebec parks have considered this and provide hanging poles).  As well, the endangered Eastern Massassauga rattlesnake calls the peninsula home, so keep your eyes (and ears) open, and if you see one, leave it be.

A typical campsite at BPNP
Sunset at Stormhaven
You have a wooden platform to set your tent up on (which can be tricky if you need to use pegs for anchoring), which ensures a nice, level sleeping place.  The one issue with Stormhaven is that many campers from the Cyprus Lake campground come here to escape the hordes who come there.  As a result, you don't exactly get the type of serenity you might find in Killarney or Algonquin. This is what leads to its less-than-perfect grade.  However, their presence is understandable; its a beautiful, quiet beach and great for taking a dip (hopefully in late July and early August, the water has warmed to a level where you don't become mildly hypothermic upon entry).

You would probably find more solitude at the Halfway Dump, if that's your goal.  Either way, this is a beautiful spot and well worth the trekking up and down over rocky trails to get here.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Review: Killarney Interior - Bell / David Lakes

Location: Bell Lake Access Point - 40 km from Highway 69, 90 km from Sudbury
Website: Ontario Parks and Friends of Killarney Park 
Map: Google and a Rough Map of the Park as well as Google Maps
Camping Facilities: Backcountry and 126 Car Camping at George Lake
Grade: A
Summary: Easy access to Silver Peak, a sampling of all the highlights of Killarney.
The paddle in from Bell Lake
Thoughts:  If you've found your way to this site because you are looking for trip planning information, I don't think I need to waste your time telling you how beautiful Killarney is.  You know.  In fact, everybody knows.  That's why you can't get a site here without booking the minute your trip becomes eligible on the parks reservation system.  Booking a site on a weekend in July and August here requires setting your alarm at 6:55am five months prior to departure, with trip itinerary in hand and getting ready to hold for the Ontario Parks reservation agent.  But for those who haven't been to the park yet, you have to go.  In my view, there's nothing in Southern/Central Ontario that can compete with respect to natural beauty.  In addition, with its wilderness park classification, you can expect that development is minimal and the planning has been focused on preserving as much of the natural state as possible.

Sunset on David Lake
On this trip, we started early in anticipation of the relatively long drive our Guelph starting point.  Even with the early start, the put-in time is always later than you expect.  The trip along the 637 feels longer than it is, so does the 8 km drive along the unpaved road from the 637 into Bell and once you have your rental sorted out, you're twitching from the desire to just get on the water.  Believe me though, its well worth it once you take your first few paddle strokes and Silver Peak is in sight.

We stayed at a very buggy campsite that might as well have been on a stagnant pond at the south western terminus of Bell Lake.  This was a pretty big tease; you could see the white quartzite peaks from this spot on Bell, but the lake itself is a bit of a letdown, as its is home to a resort, which uses powerboats. As well there's a strong glow from the City of Sudbury visible to the northeast visible in the night sky. You definitely don't get any sense of seclusion on this lake.  But the next day, once we arrived on David Lake, it was a different story.  We stayed at a great site on a point, just off the trailhead to Silver Peak.  David Lake gives you everything you want from Killarney; the crystal clear (acidic) waters, the remnants of what once were mighty peaks, and the sparsely scatted campsites that ensure nobody tramples on anybody's backcountry camping experience.  There's great swimming as well (though I imagine that the fishing is still pretty poor).

View from Silver Peak, facing north 
We started the hike up to Silver Peak later in the day, around 3pm, which is getting on a bit for a hike this strenuous and long (its not really that long, about 3 hrs return, but you definitely want to take it slow to catch your breath and enjoy the scenery, stretching it to 4-5 hrs).  As a result, we were getting on to sunset by the time we returned.  The peak itself is probably worth reserving an hour for, but don't forget your sunscreen as there shade is hard to come by there.  Bring binoculars, you can see for many miles in each direction.   Even without assistance, you can see the Sudbury super stack on a clear day.

I've started the trail from David and from Bell and I have to say the David access provides a far more satisfying hiking experience than Bell.  You spend a good 1/3 of the hike from Bell walking on a relatively flat and densely forested trail, with plenty of mosquitoes and not much to see. Access through David has an initial hill that must be climbed which gives a splendid view of both David and Clearsilver Lakes, as well as a full view of Silver Peak to give you some notion of what you're just about to climb.  Its more open and much more rewarding.
View of Silver Peak and Clearsilver Lake
- Scoping out the climb ahead
I can't stress enough how magnificent Killarney is as a park, just from glimpsing the southern portion.  Its blue lakes, the La Cloche mountain range, the serenity, the seclusion...the whole package just makes for an unforgettable backcountry experience.  If there is one complaint is that the proximity to Sudbury can smudge out the night sky with an orange glow.  That being said, there are plenty of other reasons to visit Killarney, other than stargazing.  It's the only park that we in Southern Ontario can hold up next to those in the more mountainous regions and suggest that our province does indeed hold some unspoilt natural  beauty.  

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Review: Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park - Sucker Lake

Location: 60km N of Peterborough
Website: Ontario Parks or My CCR
Map: Google Maps
Camping Facilities: Backcountry Exclusively
Grade: B+
Summary: Probably one of the best lakes in Kawartha Highlands, with no motorboat access and well spaced sites.
Kawartha Highlands Ontario Provincial Park Sucker Lake
From site 120 on Sucker Lake
Thoughts: I had the idea to go to this spot based on a Kevin Callan recommendation, in his excellent book "A Paddler's Guide to Ontario Cottage Country".  You can access Sucker from Catchacoma, then through Bottle, with some very short portages.  The short portages, proximity to Toronto and smooth paddles were some of the reasons I decided to make this trip my first solo camping trip.  Also, being my first time into Kawartha Highlands, I was curious as to the quality of the backcountry here.

Kawartha Highlands Ontario Provincial Park Bottle Creek
Bottle Creek
There are no sites available on Catchacoma (though plenty of cottages and motor boats), so you'll want to get past this one as quickly as possible.  When I did the paddle, it happened to be a very windy day and Catchacoma is a relatively large lake compared with others in the park.  It was a real battle getting through to Bottle Creek. Once you do find your way to Bottle Creek, though, its a solo paddler's dream;  just a very smooth and sheltered paddle, with a high probability for wildlife sightings (though I didn't see any). I wouldn't recommend Bottle Lake because there's a summer camp located in the NW corner, across from many of the sites.  I can only imagine it detracts from the sense of wildness and seclusion (if that's what you're interested in).

Kawartha Highlands Ontario Provincial Park Portage Sucker Lake
Portage into Sucker Lake
Kawartha Highlands Ontario Provincial Park Bottle Lake
Bottle Lake
Sucker Lake, is much quieter.  In fact, it's the only lake in all of Kawartha Highlands were no motorboat usage is permitted (the only one! Yet many others seem completely inaccessible by motorboats...suspicious...).  The sites have privy boxes and park staff even put up picnic tables on each site.  All in all, its a nice lake.  I stayed at the site on the western point (120), which had a gulls nest a few meters out from the island.  They must have perceived me as some sort of threat, because they were cawing out without mercy.  Given that I was the only one on the lake (it was mid-week, in June), they tarnished what would have otherwise been a very peaceful experience in what felt like a remote location.  UPDATE: I've visited the site again in August, and this time the lake was fully booked; this greatly diminished the quality of the camping experience.  I was located at site 126, which is VERY close to 125 and 127 - in fact, the sites all face each other.  Yet the island site (127) is nearly continually booked.  I don't get it.  It makes it somewhat difficult to recommend this lake during peak season if you're seeking any sense of remoteness.

Kawartha Highlands Ontario Provincial Park Sucker Lake
Gull nest directly across from site 120 on
Sucker Lake - they never ceased calling
The other odd thing is that much of this lake seems to have cell phone reception.  You may be wondering how I know this and I assure you it was purely by accident, I had no intentions of making phone calls in the backcountry.  It just so happened that I left my phone on and noticed it buzzing after receiving a text message.  In fact, much of the park has cell phone reception, according to the park map.  So this could tarnish your wilderness experience a bit, especially if some yahoo on a neighboring campsite thinks its a great idea to call up his buddies to tell them all about the amazing wilderness experience he's having.  Conversely, if you're nervous about going on your first backcountry excursion, the ability to access a cellphone network in case of emergency might set your mind at ease.  Asides from that, I still strongly feel that cellphones have no place in the backcountry.

In summary, I think this was just about the perfect place to try solo camping on my first attempt.  It's accessible, the paddling isn't too hard, the portages are downright easy and you can get a sense of remoteness here.  Just stay away from the gulls nest.