Monday, October 22, 2012

Review: Whistlers Campground, Jasper National Park

Oh Lucerne campground, you failed us
Location: 10 minutes south of Town of Jasper
Website:  Parks Canada
Map: Google or Parks Canada (Campground)
Camping Facilities: Car Camping (Backcountry in the park)
Grade: D
Stargazing: Low light pollution, but obstructed by trees and difficult to find clearings; apparently Marmot Meadows is your best bet
Summary: Poor service, loops from hell, no privacy, dense sites, but somehow still attracts wildlife.
Thoughts: So you've just spent the day exploring Mt. Robson and you want to set yourself up for a day of enjoying Jasper National Park, just a little ways down the road.  Well, the best bet would seem to be Lucerne campground at the eastern border of Mt. Robson Provincial Park.  The town of Jasper is just a few km east of it and you can wake up as late as 9am and still be on a beautiful trail by noon.  That was our plan but it was not meant to by on that mid September day as the Lucerne campground had seen its last camper of the year and had been gated up for the season.  The next option was to carry on to Jasper National Park itself. The first surprise to us (though it shouldn't have been, as this is the case in Bruce Peninsula National Park as well) was the day use fee.  Not only were were required to pay for camping, but you had to pay $19.60 (per family, the same cost as two adult entry fees) simply to breathe the air in the park.  So if you and your family are sleeping in a camper at Whistlers campground and plan on having a fire, the stay in a serviced site will cost you $66.60 (equal to a night's stay in the house of Hades), which strikes me as a touch steep.
Car Camping at Whistlers Campground
- where privacy is for RVs only
It was already 9 pm by the time we arrived at the gate, we didn't really feel that our $20 was well spent. But alas, thems the rules and the parks system is underfunded.  For those who plan on spending longer than 7 days in any given 12 month period, the best bet is the national parks annual pass; it pays for itself after 7th day or part thereof. We figured it was worth it after the fact and the park staff kindly allowed us to apply previously paid entry fees to annual pass.

Once at the campground entrance (a 20 minute drive from the park entrance checkpoint), we had to the pay our camping fee: $26.40 per night; $35.40 if you want to have a fire...see rant below.  It was no small sum considering that we'd just gotten used to paying BC's low, low camp fees of between $16-21 per night per group.  Again, we just nodded and accepted it, given the state of underfunding that our national parks find themselves (though they're still in much better shape than our American cousins). The agreeable mood we were in was pushed aside by a grumpy replacement upon our arrival at the wood lot (where you pick up all that wonderful unlimited wood you just purchased at the gate).  The wood lot was nearly picked clean, with remaining wood either being spindly kindling or large blocks of wood that would have been stubborn to ignite (I kid you not, there were 1 foot cubed blocks!). As well, much of the wood was half buried within the cold, wet earth, so you needed to pry it out and shake it off before use.  It was a bit ridiculous. The next day, when we went to renew our permit, we opted to just use our own wood (we'd purchased some in BC) but were told that if you burn any wood in the park, you had to pay the $8.80 fee (irrespective if the wood was provided by the park).  It's not a huge deal, but come on.  The payments to the park system were beginning to feel more and more like charitable donations.  

How many neighboring campsites can you spot?
Finally came time to pull into the site itself.  It was dark at this point, so we couldn't really get a grasp of the layout, but the sites were extremely close together, even those in adjacent loops. Heck, even the sites adjacent to the adjacent loops were pretty darn close to us.  Hence, loops from hell.  Ordinarily loops are arranged outwards from the access road (see here), but some genius had decided the campground could much denser if the access road was actually a ring road around the campsites.  So in the end, you have sites coming from every direction (you'll see what I mean by looking at the campground map).  As if car camping wasn't bad enough, this was just the worst density I had seen (but not the worst I would see on my trip out west).  And on top of that, there is no understorey to speak of, so don't expect any privacy other than inside your tent.  As well, what is the deal with these picnic fire pits instead of an in-ground proper fire pit?  Does anybody what to sit around this little doo-dad and chat over burning swizzle sticks at night?  Come on, man!  One has to wonder if it's their way of limiting how much wood you use - I'm all for conservation guys, but don't treat campers like infants. There are better ways to control how firewood is consumed. 

Given that we'd paid to stay in a campground with showers, we thought that we'd make use of them.  While not a totally wretch-inducing, skin-crawling experience, it was not one that I would like to repeat day after day.  While they were as clean as you can expect for a campground shower, a few stalls were broken and a lot of the other campers were kind of creeping me out - one guy "accidentally" forgot to lock his stall, as well as "accidentally" leaving the shower curtain open while standing around buck naked (lure much, fella?), while another dude was talking (well, more babbling than talking) to himself rather loudly for the duration of my time in the shower facility.  Now I know that Parks Canada can't screen for weirdos at the gate, but I kinda wish they could.  
A rutting elk in Jasper National Park
A comment about the Parks Canada website: it's mostly terrible.  Campground maps are nearly non-existent, and some images, such as Jasper park map, are of terrible resolution.  Guys, I know the budget is suffering, but this is supposed to be a world-class nature attraction.  

A warning; Sept-Oct is Elk rutting season, so you need to be prudent about how approach elk.  There were plenty of buggling elk roaming the campground (which the park staff try to control, and I think they do as good a job as they can), so be sure to accompany your children on those late night trips to the washroom.

 In summary, I don't recommend camping here unless you have no other option in the Jasper area.  There are plenty of primitive camping opportunities that are cheaper and, from what I can tell from the maps, less crammed (i.e. WapitiWabasso and Pocahontas, especially Pocahontas) . It's fine for a night or two if you really must come here, but it would make for a pretty miserable vacation spot.


A redeeming aspect of staying in Whistlers campground is that it's close to some great hiking.  Check out this beauty of a hike on Bald Hills, just next to Maligne Lake.  Some incredible scenery, and given that it was mid-Sept, we had the place mostly to ourselves.  Consult this book for more hiking ideas. 

Bald Hills Summit

Review: Pyramid Mountain Campground, Wells Gray Provincial Park

Helmcken Falls
Location: 30 mins north of Clearwater
Website:  BC Parks or Wells Gray Tourism
Map: Park Map or Google
Camping Facilities: Car Camping (Backcountry available in park)
Grade: B
Stargazing: Light pollution low, but mostly obstructed
Summary: Decent privacy, basic services, close proximity to nice scenery
Canyon beyond Helmcken Falls
Thoughts: My experience in Wells Gray park was limited to the corridor, since I was on an extended car camping trip.  While I'm sure Murtle Lake is probably worth the trip to the park on it's own, I can't speak to that yet.  What I can say is that the very short hikes to many spectacular waterfalls gives you a pretty good reason to make the trip to the park for the day.  On top of that, a reasonably well designed car campground at Pyramid Lake is a good enough reason to stay the night so that you can spend more time here.  For a mere $16 dollars, you'll have a hand pump for water and basic bathroom facilities.  If that's all that you crave, then you're golden.  Sorry folks, no showers here.  We were also warned of a black bear roaming around the second campground loop (which was closed at the time), so it's important to behave like you're in bear country (food stashed away in your car, odour free campsite). 

While we wanted to do more hiking while we were here, the trails were deserted on this particular September weekday.  It was making my wife very nervousm, and made me a little nervous too, seeing as all my BC friends were telling my about the necessity of carrying bear spray ("This ain't Ontario, fella!" they'd say).  So we opted to keep to the shorter trails and enjoy the easily accessible scenery.  Fortunately, that isn't a bad thing in this park, with some beauty trails just off the roads.

Dawson Falls
The Pyramid campground itself was pretty nice for car camping, with decent understory, but were positioned directly across from each other at some points which was just strange. Come on guys, stagger them a little!  Still the spacing was good, the picnic tables are rock solid (a common feature in BC parks) and there was only a single loop, not a grid of sites, so you'll only see two or other three other campsites, tops.  The park operations contractor came by around 9pm and picked up our fee, and even had firewood for sale.  Pretty good service and very friendly as well.  The canopy cover is generally pretty thick, and we couldn't really find a nice open area for star gazing, but it didn't matter, we had a great time just sitting by the campfire with a mug of wine.  One final note is that Trophy Mountain would probably be worth a visit if time allows, given that you can drive most of the way up the mountain, then it's a 12km round trip to the panoramic look out above Sheila lake (at Skyline Ridge).  From the Green Mountain Viewing Tower, this seems as though it would provide an outstanding view of the surrounding area.

Wells Gray is a  great destination, though venture deeper into the park if you have the time. 

Sunset over Mahood Lake, Green Mountain Viewing Platform

Monday, October 8, 2012

Review: Steelhead Provincial Park

Location: 1 hour from Kamloops
Camping at Steelhead Provincial Park
Website:  BC Parks
Map: Google Maps
Camping Facilities: Strictly Car Camping
Grade: D-
Stargazing: Acceptable
Summary: A parking lot next to a lake
Thoughts: Being from Ontario, I have a certain expectation of crappiness that comes when one considers a stay in a car camping park.  The sites will be dense, there will be little that resembles a natural ecosystem, and there will be limited privacy.  The baseline expectation I had prior to arriving at Steelhead Provincial Park in BC was knocked a few notches down after my departure.  I don't know if people just have a different approach to camping in BC, but I was shocked at what was considered a campground upon my arrival from Highway 97.  There is little here that meets the low Ontario standard of car camping. 
Hello neighbour! Sites are separated only in spirit.

After the skies started to darken on the first day of a trip through the western moutain ranges, my wife and I started to narrow down the spots we could stay that would represent reasonable progress along our trek, but that was close enough Kamloops that we could just pick up a few last minute items for the rest of our trip (bear spray, we had been told, is essential in BC).  We turned up our noses as Juniper Beach as we passed by, since it looked like nothing more than a parking lot when viewed from the highway. Instead, we settled that Steelhead Provincial Park would be our best bet...which, to our surprise, was also little more than a parking lot. 

You start off by finding yourself a parking stall (each is equipped with a fire pit and picnic table that doubles as your permit post) and the campground host makes their way around to check you in.  The check in is simple (they take credit and debit cards for the $21 fee - 2012) and they also take the opportunity to sell you wood wrapped in plastic.  I believe the price was 2 bundles for $12 or 1 for $8.  We took the opportunity to stock up a bit, because we didn't know if future parks would be providing wood and the plastic wrap prevented a wood splinter mess in the back seat.  Gone are the days when BC Parks provided free, unlimited firewood at their kidding, there are signs everywhere stating that they no longer provide free, unlimited firewood...seriously?  Free?  Unlimited?  Was their operating revenue burning a hole in their pocket?  The host will provide you with a slip that will be clipped onto your picnic table (see above).

The campground has showers (hence the $21 camping fee, rather than the typical $16) and a beach that looked unloved as it was littered with driftwood, coarse sand and was generally unappealing. 

To be clear, the customer service at this campground left nothing to be desired.  However, as you can see from the photos, the designers of this park were not trying very hard; there's hardly any undergrowth, the sites are gravel and it wasn't clear to me where you'd pitch your tent if you weren't sleeping in a camper.  Some of the northwestern most sites were of slightly higher quality, and the scenery was probably the only somewhat redeeming feature. In the end, I can't really thing of any good reason to actually recommend that you stay here unless there is some sort of mechanical trouble with your car that requires you to pull off the road to save the lives of you and your family. 

Monday, August 27, 2012

Review: Mississagi Provincial Park

Trail to lake from Campsite #20
Location: 1/2 hr North of Elliot Lake
Website:  Ontario Parks
Map: Google Maps
Camping Facilities: Backcountry and Car Camping
Grade: B+ (car camping)
Stargazing: Excellent
Summary: Car camping at its best
Thoughts: I've owned the Chrismar map for the Mississagi for probably 8 years without ever having the opportunity to explore the park. The apparent seclusion, availability of backcountry camping and exceptional scenery convinced me that having this map would be a good idea, since I'd inevitably want to check this place out.  The only problem is that the park is quite far from Southern Ontario and the Golden Horseshoe area (where I live), so it took quite a while before I could convince myself to make the trip up past Elliot Lake. And I tell you, fellow camper, the park is well worth the 6+ hour drive (without traffic).

Campsite #20
This trip was strictly car camping, since the park was not my principal destination.  I was quite surprised that I could reserve a very nice site during the peak of the camping season (a Monday night in early August) just days in advance.   As you can see from the pictures, the site (#20) is large, has decent privacy (excellent for car camping) and has it's own direct access to the lake.  Obtaining a site of this quality south of Sudbury is nearly impossible because they either don't exist or would be snatched up so fast on the reservation site that you'd never have a decent chance.  There are plenty of high quality sites here; some of the best seem to be Site #s 1-4, which are actually positioned directly on the lake with good understorey providing segregation between sites.

View from waterfront of site #20
I suspect the backcountry camping is probably exceptional as well, given the limited development in the park, the low traffic and the good dispersion of the sites.  I'd be very interested in hearing from people who have stayed in the interior.
View from 3rd lookout on Helenbar trail

With regards to hiking, I was able to do half of the Helenbar trail during my stay and can report that it is one of the finest hikes I've done in Ontario, with an absolutely outstanding view (including a picnic table to enjoy it from) at the 3rd lookout.  I started at the trailhead at the northern part of the campground loop and just doubled back after reaching the 3rd lookout.  This shortens the time on the trail to roughly 1 1/2 hours, including some time at the lookouts (though I must warn, the first few lookouts are quite obstructed and can't even be compared to the 3rd).  Pictures do not come close to capturing the serenity of the spot, nor the remarkable view.  This would be a fantastic place to just sit by yourself and think/read/meditate.
Resting at the 3rd Helenbar Lake lookout

My one disappointment with the park was the need to boil water at the car campground; I had to make this trip without my trusty water filter (which was out of service at the time), and my chlorine dioxide backup was not sufficient to treat the microbes in the water supply.  The notices at the park suggest that a new filtration system is in the works, but no fixed timeline is given (sigh, the realities of an underfunded parks system).

In sum, if you can justify the drive, you need to make a trip to Mississagi.  The scenery is tough to beat in the central Ontario region and chances are you'll have the trails and interior sites mostly to yourself; in a camping destination as busy as Ontario, it's a rare and amazing experience.

Update - Oct 2012:  It is with great sadness that I must report that this gem of a car campground will be closed in the 2013 camping season, and Mississagi will be available for day use only.   What isn't clear is whether registration will be required for the backcountry, or it will be free to access or if access will be prohibited altogether. 

Update - Mar 2013: From what is currently posted on the Ontario Parks website, this park is now gated shut, with access to the interior by foot only.  It says that this park is for day use only, however, given that this is still a protected area and interior sites require relatively little maintenance, I'm still not clear if the backcountry sites are available for use.  It would be a tragic thing if they were not, given that this government-owned protected space would now be less accessible than crown land.

Update - Jan 2014: From the Ontario Parks site, normal operation of the park seems to be continuing for this year as well.  Great news! It seems the town of Elliot Lake has taken over operation of the park - great to see a municipality pitching in to protect a natural resource, given its touristic value.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Most Useless Set of Instructions...ever.

Just received a replacement for my Platypus GravityWorks water filter (after foolishly leaving it in my camping bag over the winter, which was kept outside...ah nuts).  This extremely helpful installation diagram was provided with it -  so you take the old filter out, and put the new one in. Huh!  Seriously though, I think the diagram was intended to fill space between all their statements absolving them of any liability if you were to fall ill after using their filter.  

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Review: Agawa Bay, Lake Superior Provincial Park

Location: 2 hours north of Sault Ste. Marie
Website:  Ontario Parks or Friends of Lake Superior
Map: Google Maps
Camping Facilities: Backcountry and Car Camping
Grade: A
Campsite on Agawa Bay, Lake Superior
Stargazing: Excellent
Summary: A rugged, beautiful and accessible backcountry camping option
Thoughts: I've been wanting to visit Lake Superior Provincial Park for a long time. Many a traveler has recounted the awe that struck them upon setting sight on the north shore of Lake Superior, reputed to be one of the most beautiful places in Ontario (one person compared the quality of scenery to that of Killarney Provincial Park).  Needless to say, expectations were high when I made the 10 hour drive to the park; I can report that the reputation is well deserved.  The hilly terrain, with cliffs blanketed in mixed forest adjacent to Lake Superior's thunderous waterfront feels very unique in Ontario, leading you to realise that there are indeed "mountains" in the province. The landscape captured by the boundaries of Lake Superior Provincial Park provides an incredible representation of the beauty of this region. If you have not been to Lake Superior, you need to go.

Fire pit adjacent to Lake Superior
The park is defined primarily by the Trans Canada highway (#17) that runs though it; looking at a map, the highway seems to snake through the centre of the park, with side roads feeding further into the park interior. There are plentiful opportunities to do quick day trips to inland lakes or overnight portaging/hiking trips. Fortunately, the highway doesn't hug the shoreline for the entire length of the park, providing a reprieve from the din of near constant truck traffic for those camping along the Coastal Trail. Unfortunately for us, we found ourselves at one of the portions where the highway meets the coastline, at Agawa Bay, just north of the Agawa River, primarily out of convenience - it's one of the few spots where you camp within reasonable proximity of a car so that you can make day trips to do some of the many hikes within the park. If you're parking at the trailhead immediately north of the bridge over the Agawa River (on the south side of the road), the hike into the first site is probably no more than 5 minutes from the access point. We hiked to what we could discern as the second site (it may have been the 3rd since there was a spot that seemed to be an overgrown site), about a 20 minute walk from the car. It was nice to find the site well-stocked with firewood and that had an amazing tent pad right on the sandy beach.  Finding this site is probably more tricky than it needs to be, given that none of the sites are marked with signs (see below). However, relative to the other sites we'd passed, this one was the most obvious.

No reservations are necessary (or even possible) when staying at the interior campsites; when I first contacted the park, they said that even my late arrival (6pm) would not pose a problem if I wanted to grab a site that night.  Upon arriving at the park, we found the park staff at the gatehouse somewhat ignorant of the backcountry (it seemed to be their first summer); when describing our planned hike, they just kind of nodded along without really adding any information. We had to figure out where the best place to park the car would be and the most direct route to the site on our own. In the end though, everything worked out very well once we got out of the car.

Panorama of our Agawa Bay campsite
The first day of our stay was probably an anomaly for Lake Superior weather; there was nearly no wind and sun was shining brightly.  Given the shallow water of the bay and the considerable amount of warm weather that had been experienced up until this point in early August, the water was bearable for swimming (probably around 15 C).  In fact, considering the clarity/cleanliness of the water, that we had the beach to ourselves (campers at the next closest campsites were tiny specks, a good 300-400 metres away) and that plant life cannot likely take root in the sandy, cold north shore, I would say it was one of the best swimming experiences I'd ever had.  It was even more fun when the winds picked up a few days later, some of the biggest waves I've seen anywhere, lake or ocean (well, it's the largest freshwater lake in the world, by area, so it will get choppy).  I thought to myself that Bill Mason must have been one heck of a strong paddler to canoe this shoreline solo.

If I were to have one complaint (other than the highway noise, which was really my own doing by choosing a site that was so close to the road), it is the poor markings of campsites; we didn't even realize that the first site we saw was indeed a campsite until we noticed people setting a campfire there after we'd already settled into our own site.  As well, the park map states that all campsites are marked by a blue diamond with a white "tent" symbol.  We did indeed see the blue diamond shape at our site, but not the site we had passed by, nor was there a white tent symbol on our site's marking - sure, this is a minor issue given how obvious it was that our own site was meant for camping (firepit and benches clearly visible from the trail).  However, since the trail markers are also blue diamonds (with a little white "hiker" symbol), a less obvious site could easily be missed.  Whether or not that is an issue along the trail, we couldn't say, but it is definitely something to be aware of.
We did make a quick trip to the car campground at Agawa Bay and would strongly recommend against staying at any of the sites on the eastern sides of any of the loops as some of these have a clear view onto the Highway 17 (as mentioned earlier, the truck traffic will get irritating).  Most of the electrical sites are wide open (zero privacy), but if you're spending your time in a trailer, then you probably don't mind all that much.  The waterfront sites in the south campground (odd numbers from 227 - 255, even numbers from 322-344) all seemed quite nice, as long as the weather holds up.

All things considered, the scenic, rugged landscape of the north shore of Lake Superior provides excellent camping opportunities in a beautiful setting, with the potential for seclusion with not much work.  The car camping at Agawa Bay should probably be avoided (though nearby Crescent Lake might be an inland alternative since the sites here are available on a first-come, first-served basis).  As well, the hiking opportunities are some of the best and most accessible in the province.  Well worth 10 hours in the car, if you can spend at least 2 full days in the park.

View from Awausee
Hiking: The hiking at the Awausee trail was spectacular; even scattered showers didn't diminish the scenery of the hike. In particular, the second lookout provides an incredible view of Agawa Bay and the Agawa Valley and is a nice spot to grab a bite and gaze blankly at the view below you. The guides to this trail all state that it is 4-6 hours, but we did it in 3 1/2 (excluding the stop for the lunch break, but including stops to catch our breath).  The final 3rd of the hike follows a path within the Agawa Valley which is nice at first, but soon gets monotonous and seems to go on forever.

The Agawa Bay Pictographs trail is well worth the minimal effort that you need to expend.  The pictograph area can get crowded (there's a narrow section of rock that you need to walk along, which can't really hold more than 2 abreast so it's a bit of a bottleneck), and you might have to wait your turn to have a look. You'll be filled with reverence when seeing these images, when considering the importance this area has to the native peoples of Lake Superior.  I recommend that you go early in the day or later in the evening so you can take your time admiring these (though if the winds are really whipping up on Superior, you might want to keep away as it can be treacherous).

Note: I had originally posted photos of the pictographs, but realised much later that this can be perceived as disrespectful to some (in fact, I have read that taking photos of photographs is strongly discouraged). In the end, I think photographs do not properly convey the beauty of these religious markings, so it is better that you see it for yourself (the pictographs alone are worth the trip to the park).

Monday, July 23, 2012

Where to camp in Ontario in 2012

So we are in the midst of the 2012 summer camping season; you might have been out and seen what a great camping system there is in Ontario, or perhaps you've yet to pitch your tent this year.  Either way, you might be asking yourself "where can I go to find a decent campsite at the last minute?". Well, to summarize from my reviews, the following are great spots, with a high probability that sites are available for the weekend of your choosing:

Bon Echo Park - Joeperry Lake
Algonquin Park - Cansibay Lake 
Kawartha Highlands - Buzzard Lake
Kawartha Highlands - Sucker Lake 

In case this isn't where you were headed, the following are a list of campgrounds with low peak-season occupancy rates, but not necessarily low peak-season awesomeness (no guarantee that some of these are devoid of awesomeness).  You'll find the 2011 occupancy rate in brackets next to the park name, as well as if this rate is increasing (+) or declining (-).  

Central Zone - Bass Lake (60%), Mara (57%-), Mikisew  (43%-), McCrae Point (57%+), Sturgeon Bay (65%), Restoule (48%), Sibbald Point (54%)
Northeast - Kap-Kig-Iwan (4%), Missinaibi Lake (29%), Mississagi (33%-), Renee Brunelle (45%+), Tidewater (16%), Wakami Lake (35%), The Shoals (28%-)

Northwest - Macleod (44%+), Quetico (42%+), Rainbow Falls (40%+), Sioux Narrows (27%-)
Southeast - Darlington (49%+), Ferris (22%-), Rideau River (44%+), Voyageur (48%+), Silver Lake (48%+)
Southwest - Earl Rowe (54%+), Selkirk (54%), Wheatley (49%)

I imagine there are some hidden gems amongst these, including Mississagi, Wakami Lake, Quetico, and Renee Brunelle.  The Northwestern parks, with their very low occupancy rates, will likely provide a decent site and excellent scenery, in addition to not being very crowded.  I've heard that Darlington has a great beach, but have to recommend against Restoule (so-so camping and not much scenery).  Have a great 2012 season and watch for the fire bans!

Friday, June 29, 2012

Review: Biolite Camp Stove

Biolite Campstove prior to lighting
Campstove: Biolite Campstove
Recommendation: Buy only  if the cost doesn't concern you too much
Comments: When I first saw a description of this stove in an online article back in 2010, I was pretty intrigued.  Could this be the end of gas stoves and associated canisters?  Zero operating costs?  Practically net-zero carbon emissions from camp stove use (of course, ordinarily, that is a relatively small emission compared to emissions from transporting your stove and yourself to the campsite).  It seemed too good to be true, but I had to try it out.  When the price came in at around $120, I thought it was reasonable enough (given a high quality stove generally runs in the $100 range, and the lifecycle costs would probably be much lower).

An early warning for all Canadians ordering this product - you will be charged both a brokerage fee and HST when ordering this stove directly from the supplier. Living in Ontario, it came to a total of $28.71 + a $15 shipping fee (so the total cost of the stove was in the $165 CAD range).

First Impressions: The stove is larger than expected, bigger than a 1 litre Nalgene bottle, which it is compared to on the website, but not that much larger.  Immediately you have to question how useful it is in wet weather (how many dry twigs are you going to have to lug around in place of fuel canisters?).  As well, simmer control could be a bit tricky; you have to alternate between "High" and "Low" fan settings to change the voracity of the flame.  Finally, if you're cooking dried noodles or something that requires simmering, how many times do to have to refill this combustion chamber before they're finished cooking?  I hoped to explore these questions on my first camping trip with the stove.  

Biolite Stove
The Biolite Campstove upon ignition
First Use: As it turned out, it rained on the first day of my trip to experiment with the Biolite Campstove.  I didn't bother trying to use it after the rain finished for the day, the pine needles I would have used as tinder were too wet, as were the twigs needed for the fire.  It became clear that you need to either have at least a couple meals worth of dry fuel in a water-tight bag ready to go in the case of rain on the first day or have a backup stove or have some no-cook meals.  The question of how much fuel you need to have in reserve is a tricky one. But from my experience, it's quite a bit (see discussion below).  

The next day after the rain, I tried to use the stove for boiling a pot of water for lunch. This was my first attempt with the stove, so mistakes were made.  But roughly speaking, this is the process:
  1. As stated in the instructions, place tinder at the bottom of the stove.  Pack it very loosely or it'll be very difficult to light.
  2. Layer in smaller pieces of branches, about 2mm or 2" in length (1-2 mm or 1/8" in diameter), about 10-15 small pieces
  3. Drop in a match - this can be tricky and they often go out on the first attempt.  Try to aim it so the match falls through the twigs and makes it to the tinder at the bottom.  
  4. As soon as the tinder catches, and you see flames starting to engulf the twigs, turn the fan on low.   This will get very smokey at first, but the smoke will pass after the fan runs for a bit.
  5. Have your larger sized branches - 5 mm (1/4") in diameter - ready to drop in.  As soon as it's clear that the small twigs have caught fire, drop in one or two of these.
  6. Let these catch and drop in a few more, being careful not to over fill (do not fill with twigs more than 3/4 of the way).  Turn the fan on to high.
  7. Place your pot/kettle on to the stove - I hope that you don't mind that these will become blackened with soot by the end of the process.
  8. Keep feeding the stove every minute or two while the water boils.  For the sake of efficiency, take this time to collect and/or break-up more twigs.  See the first video below; after a few minutes, the fire will pick up a bit and will look a little more like the second video (as you'll notice, it's pretty loud, but nowhere near as loud as the MSR Dragonfly).
  9. Time to boiling was approximately 10 minutes for me, though perhaps this decreases with usage as your proficiency with the stove improves.  
  10. The Biolite Campstove after the coals have caught
  11. Given the amount of effort involved in boiling water for this thing, I can't imagine how cumbersome it would be to charge a portable electronic device.  
  • The main benefit of the stove is clear - you don't need to purchase fuel.  Though given the complications stated above, this should be revised - you don't need to purchase as much fuel.  I just don't think it would be a smart maneuver to take this as your sole means of cooking, unless you pack a lot of ready-to-eat meals.  A back-up fossil-fuel based stove is required. 
  • It's easy to maintain.  No priming, no concern over durability (unless the fan kicks off sooner than expected), no gas lines to keep clean. It's pretty well idiot-proof.  
  • Small sized branches/twigs that the stove requires are plentiful.  You basically only need to just wander within a 5 meter radius of where ever you are cooking (I'm in shield country though, with conifers that constantly drop branches...).  It sure beats cooking over an open flame - much easier to control.
  • Once the flame catches, it's easy to keep alive.

Biolite Stove
Swirling flame on the Biolite stove (fan on)
Concerns: Other than the issue of packing in dry fuel, I have a few gripes that should be aired for those who are considering purchasing this stove. These are:
  • Labour intensive - the constant breaking of sticks and refilling of the combustion chamber to maintain output is a bit annoying (but hey, it's free)
  • Not as quick to boil as advertised - 4.5 minutes seems like an awfully ambitious estimate, I can't imagine how this can be achieved with any consistency...maybe after a lot of practice 
  • Simmer control is an art, not a science - it is not just a matter of toggling on high or low fan setting; you need to really watch the flame and the pot, and adjust the rate of fuel consumption accordingly (also by adjusting the rate at which you feed the fire)
  • If the fire dies while you're cooking, it is a pain to restart, so you can't just start the stove and let your focus drift from the task at hand
  • You need to be aware of shifting wind conditions - if the wind starts to shift during the cooking process, the flame can potentially damage the battery/fan pack.  You need to ensure that the flame is downwind of the battery pack.  
  • Biolite Stove
    Biolite Campstove in action
  • Very smokey on start-up - just after the tinder catches and you've started the fan, expect a lot of sooty smoke.  
  • All your cookware will be blackened - though it's camp cookware, so this is not a deal breaker
  • If you're car camping, you're likely out of luck.  
Summary: This stove has the potential to dramatically reduce the amount of camp fuel you consume.  However, don't abandon you gas stove yet; the potential for fuel scarcity/quality issues is great enough that you'll need backup.  Or at least a lot of ready to eat foods (protein bars, gorp, wraps, etc.)  

How much fuel is needed per meal: The stove eats a lot of twigs before you get boiling water.  I would imagine that just to a pot of water to boil, you'll need the equivalent of at least a couple 2-foot branches of 5mm (or 1/4") in diameter), a couple 2-foot branches 2mm (or 1/8") in diameter and about a handful of pine needles or dried leaves. And if you want to simmer or charge a device after that, you'll need to add fuel to this stock accordingly.  

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Review: Buzzard Lake, Kawartha Highlands Signature Site

Location: 70 km north of Peterborough
Website:  My CCR or Ontario Parks
Map: Google Maps 
Camping Facilities: Backcountry Exclusively
Grade: B+
Stargazing: Excellent 
Long Lake Access Point
Summary: A decent backcountry experience, as long as the cottagers are away.
Thoughts: I have been avoiding visiting Kawartha Highlands ever since it has become an operating park, not because I don't want to support the park system, but because of the seemingly cumbersome phone-in reservation process that they had in place in its first year as of operation.  This has fortunately been fixed, and you can even reserve your site online - a first for a backcountry park in Ontario.   The reservation system is impressive, with detailed information about each site in the park, along with photos.

Site 427 on Buzzard (note the marsh)
Regarding the camping, the main issue I have with the park is that it's plunked down on top of previously developed cottage areas.  While these developments are not quite on the scale of the Muskokas, cottages are found on nearly every lake.  To be fair, I haven't had any unpleasant experiences in the park due to cottagers (no rowdiness, no loud generators kicking in at midniht so that they can watch CNN on their plasma TVs), but the potential exists.  And given that most of us rarely get a chance to enjoy a backcountry experience, the last thing we want is for it to be soiled by motorboats or noisy yahoos.

Star gazing is great from this rock
The paddle from Long Lake is not too bad, roughly 45-60 mins, depending on wind.  There were plenty of motorboats, none of which slowed down as they passed us (impeding our progress as we had to reorient our canoe to contend with their wakes).  Once you arrive at the portage into Buzzard (a nice, sandy shoreline access, with two docks to receive you), you have a 300 m trek to cover, which is nice and wide.  A few ups and downs, but generally easy.  The put-in into Buzzard didn't have many nice options for loading up the boat, so you're likely going to have to get your feet wet here.

Tent pads are a bit scattered
Buzzard was an enjoyable lake, perhaps partially due to my stay occuring on weeknights.  The cottages on the lake appeared to be unoccupied on those days, so I can't comment if the owners are the boisterous type or not.  A friend tells me that from her experience, you do get a few motorboats over the course of the day, and even some chainsaws, but she found it generally tolerable. But I would suggest a mid-week trip, if you can do it.

The lake is reasonably big, but somewhat lacking in high quality sites.  We stayed at 427 after being informed by park staff that it was one of the nicest on the lake.  While it had some good features (nice rock on the northern part of the site to catch some breezes or stargaze, in addition to being pretty large), it had awkwardly laid-out tent pads.  We kind of just scattered to any part of the site where we could find a flat spot.  An unfortunate point about this site is that it is sandwiched between two marshy areas, so the bullfrogs can keep you up all night and the bugs can be bad at times.  We also had some whippoorwills visit us each night.  While they are pretty cool birds, with a haunting call, they created quite a ruckus (one morning they stopped in around 5am and called out relentlessly for about 5 mins...hard to get back to sleep after that). (For a video of whippoorwills going bananas, see below).  For those who are curious, there was cell phone network access on this lake, though don't take that as an invitation to watch youtube videos all night by the campfire (seriously, don't do that).

428 didn't seem to have as much space as 427, though its location might be slightly better and I'd recommend it over all others.  Sites 425 and 426 seemed nice (especially 425, which had a picnic table on a 15 ft high rock overlooking the water), though were adjacent to a cottage on a nearby island - again, the cottagers were away, so I can't comment on what their impact would be.  Sites 420 - 424 all are within view of one cottage or another, so exercise caution.  A fellow camper mentioned that 420 has some nice islands close by to the site that make for a nice destination for an afternoon swim.  A note about the fishing, there seems to be plenty of bass here; one of my trip mates caught about 9 smallmouth bass over 3 hrs of fishing (during one particularly productive hour, he caught 5, one of which was large enough for lunch).

Panorama off the star-gazing rock
We made a day trip down to Vixen (just the northern half), which was a narrow lake with a few nice island sites on the north end.  It didn't seem like there were any cottages here, but the topography is quite flat and the lake is small, so it's somewhat lacking in scenery.  However, you really got the feeling that you were in the middle of nowhere here.

All in all, Buzzard is a reasonably nice spot; it's not a far drive from Toronto, there's very little light pollution, the fishing isn't bad and there's some semblance of remoteness, even though you aren't actually remote at all.  A worthwhile trip, though I'm interested to hear what people have to say about the cottagers.  

Canoe Rentals: For those looking to rent a canoe to use during their visit at the part, two outfitters are within close proximity of the park: Wild Rock in Peterborough and Adventure Outfitters in Lakefield.  If it's on your way, Adventure Outfitters seems to be the way to go, their rentals are significantly cheaper than Wild Rock. 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Review: Bartlett / Tom Thompson Lakes, Algonquin Interior

Fantastic site on Bartlett Lake
Location: A day's paddle north of Canoe Lake put-in (which is 60 km E of Huntsville on Highway 60)
Website: Friends of Algonquin Ontario Parks
Map: Canoe Routes Map Google Maps
Camping Facilities: Backcountry exclusively
Grade: A-
Stargazing: Excellent.
Summary: A quiet corner along one of Algonquin's busiest routes

Thoughts: I showed up at Canoe Lake on a weekday at the end of July to find myself a suitable solo trip.  I had been hoping to get a site on Tom Thompson or Little Doe, but to my surprise, everything was booked.  The only available site was on Bartlett Lake, just off of Thompson.  The park attendant assured me this was a good way to go; not only was it secluded, but it also had some really nice sites (the one in particular he suggested I aim for was on a point and it was large and secluded - you can see it in the photos below immediately left of the name "Bartlett" on the online map provided above.
Lonely gull on Bartlett Lake
Seeing as this was only my 3rd ever solo trip (and I was still having nightmares about my first, when my muscles seized up on my first night after a hard paddle against the wind), I was a bit nervous about some of the more open parts of the trip.  In the end, the worries were needless, and the trip was pretty smooth.

Sailers from Camp Arowhon on Teepee Lake
 I suggest you do your best to get to the Canoe Lake put-in as early as possible; it is a very popular lake, especially with newbies and motorboats, so it can be a bit of a fiasco.  The line-up to pull your canoe out of the portage to Joe Lake probably took longer than the act of portaging itself (a minuscule 300 m).  Then you make your way up Joe to Teepee, which hosts camp Arowhon (there were lots of kids out puttering around in their laser sailboats).  Try to get to the western shore as soon as you've passed the bay, it was useful as a windscreen.  After Teepee, the paddle is pretty easy when you're solo, not much in the way of big water to really let the wind pick up speed.  You'll come to a lift-over, which can be a bit tricky when paddling solo, but totally manageable.  It was on the other side of this lift over that I came across a moose grazing in the lily pads on my way back out (see video below).   The paddle across the bottom end of Thompson is pretty easy, not much of an opportunity for the wind to bother you.  Then once you arrive in Bartlett, you're not only sheltered from the wind but all the canoe traffic in this busy part of the park as well.  During my two night stay here, I might have seen half a dozen canoes roll by (perhaps on their way to Sunbeam Lake or Burnt Island Lake.  Bartlett feels like a refuge within the refuge, a great place to relax, enjoy the water and get some reading done.   

Moose on Tom Thompson
My trip to Bartlett was also the first time I've ever fallen out of my canoe.  I've got a Watson Canoe Prospector, 15 ft, and what I thought was a sufficient tumblehome to keep me vertical when I leaned into my strokes in the centre of the canoe; turns out I was wrong on that count.  Even with the calm, peaceful waters of Bartlett Lake, I found myself in the drink on my paddle to harvest a fallen pine on the other side of the lake. Not Bartlett's fault, purely me being too ambitious in getting to know my canoe.  

In summary, a great solo paddle trip, giving you a sense of seclusion and a relatively smooth paddle if the wind cooperates.  And even if it doesn't, there aren't that many opportunities for it to bother you.  

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Free Online Algonquin Map

For those who love Algonquin Park, Jeffrey McMurtrie has created a fantastic (and free!) online map for you to explore the park from your computer.  This is by far the most detailed map I've seen and he's chosen to provide it to the rest of us at no charge; it's a fine example of the excellent work that's be provided on the "open" realm of the internet.

Visit the Park Map Here

Support Jeffrey's efforts here - he uses it to make this free resource better.  Great work!

Screenshot of Jeffrey's Map

Review: Barron Canyon, Algonquin Interior

Location: 1 hr drive west from Pembroke
Date: July 2006
Website: Friends of Algonquin Ontario Parks
Map: Google Maps or Canoe Routes of Algonquin Park
Camping Facilities: Car Camping at Achray or Backcountry in the vicinity
Grade: B
Stargazing: Who knows, you're in a canyon.
Summary: Spectacular scenery, so-so sites, not a great base camping trip.
View from top of Barron Canyon
Thoughts:  The Barron Canyon is mos def one of the nicest areas of Algonquin, one which any camper in Southern Ontario and Southwestern Quebec should make the effort to visit.  With many trails and the deep canyon itself, there is much nature to be appreciated here.  While a great view is found at the top of the canyon on the Barron Canyon trail, it gets even better when you paddle the Barron river itself.  The camping, like most river camping, can be unfulfilling.   Personally, I like having a sense of endlessness in the natural environment, stretching beyond the horizon  past the shores at the opposite end of the lake.  You don't get that sense when camping in a valley of any sort, given the claustrophobic feel inherent in these landscapes (especially on a narrow river such as the Barron).  Throw the bugginess that you can encounter (due to the absence of breezes), plus the lack of a good view of the night sky, there really isn't much to draw you out of your tent at night.   Hence, don't take this as an indictment of the Barron Canyon, more a presentation of the general problems of camping along a river.

View from top of Barron Canyon
The campsites on the Barron (below the falls) are nothing to marvel at.  Ours was a pretty rocky one, with some decent tent pads, but not really much else.  The paddle in is a fun one (if you like river paddles) with plenty of variation in the scenery; you pass through marshes, rockslides, and wind through canyon with the path the river has made.  It's a decent paddle all the way up to the falls.  The single portage you'll have to do if camping in the valley (coming in from just above Squirrel Rapids) is a short 340 meters trek.  It can be a bit rocky in places, but nothing too difficult. I remember when we did this portage going upstream, there was a couple that was new to camping, who had likely just purchased their camping gear (including one of those ridiculously heavy Wind River canoes you get at Canadian Tire).  They were trying to carry the canoe (with all their gear sitting inside it) by using the deck plates as handles.  Ouch.   I tried to explain that its much easier to just put the yoke on your shoulders and carry the rest of the gear by hand, but I think the strain was getting to them and I don't know if they even finished the 340 m portage.  Hopefully they weren't turned off of camping forever, it would have been a shame.

The boredom that struck our group was likely attributable to our poor trip plan; this isn't a great base camping excursion.  Perhaps you can manage a linear trip starting from Achray (leave one car there and one at the picnic area at Squirrel Rapids), and just keep on moving each day (perhaps move up NW of Grand Lake and come back down).  That would probably be the only fun way to see the Barron Canyon from the river.  Otherwise, there's nothing more than a one-nighter here.

Inside Barron Canyon

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Review: XC Skiing - Wasaga Beach Provincial Park

Ski Trails at Wasaga Beach Provincial Park
Location: Wasaga Beach, ON (45 mins NW of Barrie)
Website: Ontario Parks, Friends of Wasaga Beach
Map: Google
Camping Facilities: Car Camping
Grade: B+ (XC Skiing)
Thoughts: Just a short drive away from many population centres in Southern Ontario is the popular summer beach community of Wasaga Beach.  Reportedly a madhouse in the summer of people enjoying the white sand beach, the winter presents a different face.  The town becomes typical of a Southern Ontario waterfront community; sleepy, peaceful and with a generally slow pace of life.   The scene at the local provincial park was no different, with the primary activity being Nordic skiing (both track-set and skate).   It's an excellent beginner's park for XC skiing, with relatively inexpensive ski rentals, reasonably priced trail passes and a number of modest trails.

Snow at Wasaga Beach Provincial Park
While many of the trails we skied on were marked moderately difficult, we (as relatively novice skiers) didn't have any trouble.  There are a few ups and downs, enough to keep it exciting, but nothing too difficult that resulted in any severe wipe-outs.  The beginner trails were flat, and not very exciting (though the weather made up for it as there was plenty of fresh snow and temperatures hovered around freezing).  In addition, it wasn't even very busy, having not seen more than two other parties during our 3 hour stay in the park.  One word of advice is that you might want to consider coming in the afternoon to take advantage of the half day rates, as there probably isn't enough here to justify spending more time than that (and you'll probably be pretty tired if you're a beginner like we were).

This place was a great alternative to Hardwood Hills (which is not far away, but much more crowded).  Plus you can support the provincial park system, which is always a good thing.  My only caution is that it might not have much to offer more advanced skiiers.

Ski Trails at Wasaga Beach Provincial Park

Snow at Wasaga Beach Provincial Park