Sunday, June 29, 2014

Review: Backcountry, Charleston Lake Provincial Park

Charleston Lake from Site 505
Location: 15 mins NE of Lansdowne (30 mins from Kingston)
Website:  Ontario Parks
Map: Google Maps
Camping Facilities: Pseudo-Backcountry (and excellent car camping)
Grade: C
Stargazing: Good
Summary: Not to be mistaken for backcountry, but you gotta love tent platforms
Thoughts: (Dear reader, prepare for a rant).
Site 504 - with two picnic tables (grrr...)
Without exception, every lake that's accessible by car in the fair province of Ontario (indeed, the entire continent) must be frequented by those who own motorboats. A boater has got to boat. It's not enough that motorboats have superior stability relative to the graceful canoe (though that never held a true Canadian back, said Pierre Berton).  It's not enough that they're sometimes furnished with seating that is readily interchangeable with that found in the most luxurious of suburban man-caves. And it's not enough that they can travel vast distances through no greater effort than a single yank of a pull cord, on the same water that those with self-propelled watercraft. Sure, we canoeists struggle to displace the choppy water while charging headlong into the pummelling wind (one back-wrenching paddle stroke at a time), while the boaters bombard us with their wakes. The simple truth is that motorboats must be on all lakes, all summer long, buzzing along carefree, completely oblivious to the havoc they play on the nerves of paddlers and campers with whom they share the water. And, of course, a lake the size of Charleston Lake is a special motorboat haven.

Site 503 - swampy and only two tent platforms
(don't bring a third tent)
There is no peace, quiet or solitude to be found in Charleston Lake's backcountry. Note the subtle hint on the Ontario Parks website (the emphasis is my own): "These sites are excellent for visitors who want to see a different side of the park or for those who are developing their interior camping skills."  Motorboats, humming away, swinging by your campsite to gawk at your quaint low-impact ways, fishing in your cove (okay, it's not really yours, but I'm sure they wouldn't welcome you to paddle up to their dock...). So when the Ontario Parks website tells you all about Charleston Lake's "interior" campsite offerings, take that wording with a grain of salt.  I mean seriously, interior relative to what? Lake Ontario? The Atlantic? 

And motorboats are just one of the things to disturb your peace.  Among the list of things that intrude upon your wilderness experience are:
  • Trains (audible from nearly 10km away!);
  • Barking dogs;
  • Large-screen TV screens flickering in the windows of neighbouring cottages;
  • Morons loudly yammering on while they trawl for fish at dusk. 

Taking shelter from the waves in Bob's Cove
Okay, so my rant has gone on long enough.  But here's the bare truth. The sites are positioned in clusters (a la Frontenac Park), which is not apparent from the reservation site (instead, have a look at this map, which is much more truthful about the camping situation). Be prepared to be sharing your quiet patch of wilderness with others (i.e., you're going to have to be considerate and keep your exuberance to a minimum, no matter how many tallboys you've downed to drown the sorrows of your disappointing backcountry experience). As well, to be fair, the boat traffic was at a relatively low level on the weeknights that we were there.

These sites don't even get
individual site markers

Our cluster was housed in the quaintly-named "Bob's Cove", and I'm sure Bob deserves a better memorial to his earthly accomplishments. The website will tell you that each site "comes equipped with three elevated tent platforms, a picnic table, a fire grill and a privy)". This statement is mostly lies. We stayed at 503 (not recommended, as it's nestled right in the armpit of a swampy, mucky mess), which only had 2 platforms, and the same was observed at 505 (also not recommend, as it was a bit cramped and lacking any natural shade for the picnic table). As well, 503's picnic table wasn't even there (some group of ninnies moved it over to 504 - thanks, ninnies). The privy does indeed exist, but it is shared with the campers at 503, 504, and 505 (it is a real outhouse, stocked with toilet paper and dozens of well-fed spiders).  So it's a bit misleading to say that each site is equipped with a privy - in this case it's more like a third of a privy. The saving grace of camping on Charleston Lake is the ease in setting up your tent on the platforms provided.  Beautiful. In the rain, they'll save you from flooding and damp misery. Plus it'll save you the trouble of searching for the flattest piece of ground to sleep on.  

Site 504 in the centre, 503 on the left
Now, I know there is a lot of kvetching going on here, but it's meant to counterbalance the magical imagery that often accompanies one's reverie of peaceful solitude when Ontario Parks carelessly throws out the words "backcountry camping". Let's face it - there just isn't very much true backcountry camping south of Algonquin Park.  Charleston Lake is no exception.  It's a half-assed attempt to eke out an interior camping zone without actually providing the experience one would expect.  The cottagers and pleasure boaters have already conquered this lake.   

If you insist on camping in the "backcountry" here, aim for sites 504, 507, 508, maybe 510 (though there only seems to be one platform on 510 - Please,, accurately disclose on the reservation site exactly what us campers should expect, no surprises).
Site 505 - hope you're not looking for shade
On the positive side of things, I want to point out that the car camping sites in this park seem to be a bit of an anomaly for anything south of Sudbury.  They are roomy, well-treed and spaced appropriately apart (i.e. private).  As well, they're arranged in loops, not grids. I highly recommend this park for car camping, it seems to be well worth the drive. 

Site 505 - just two platforms

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Research: Camping in the Thousand Islands National Park

A bit of a departure from my usual format - I've been doing some research on camping in the 1000 Islands National Park and thought that I would share some of this consolidated information for people who are interested.  The park is an unusual camping experience, where you'd be camping alongside an important waterway of both touristic and commercial value, so you may share the water with cargo ships, speedboats, yachts, sailboats, motorboats, kayaks, and/or canoes.  This is enough to turn off a lot of the backcountry camping set, and with good reason.  But if this doesn't deter the intrepid, adventurous spirit that compels you to explore every last patch of nationally or provincially controlled parkland, then I've created list of pointers from various sources to help get you on your way.  Personally, with all the logistical issues, I'm hesitant to head out to these campgrounds. However, it certainly is a unique camping opportunity in Eastern Ontario, which is sorely lacking in quality camping opportunities (though this one may not qualify). 

Things to consider
  • There are 20 islands of varying distance from the mainland available for camping, dispersed along an approximately 75 km linear stretch of water.  This means that some islands will be very far from mainland pubic docking points, while others might be more conveniently located - consult the following services chart from Parks Canada and Google Maps.  Some docks require payment, some do not (likely watercraft dependent). 
  • There are no water taps at any of the island campgrounds.  This means you'll either want to lug in bottled water or filter from the river. Most sites I've seen are written by folks who are put off by this, as am I; as great as my water filter is, I'm not confident in its ability to remove the potentially wide array of contaminants flowing in from neighbouring municipal wastewater treatment plants, boat traffic, cottages and industrial effluent.  This is likely an overly cautious position to be taking, as the concentrations are likely low and dosages are small, but the uncertainty here is also high - hence I'd choose to avoid it (has anybody seen any testing on St. Lawrence water quality in the area?)
  • The islands typically have multiple docks, with many campsites scattered along their hiking trails.  Some of these require payment, some are free, some are designated for paddlers. Hiking into your site on an island hiking trail sounds great until you consider you're likely lugging in your water.  Fortunately, it seems most sites are located within a few hundred metres of the docks. As well, be warned that many of these sites are clustered together - e.g. Camelot Island, Beau Rivage
  • You're on a busy seaway - you will not find solitude, peace & quiet, nor dark, starry night skies here.  In addition, many islands have mooring buoys just offshore, so the potential for noisy neighbours exists both on land and on the water
  • A few campers have recommended certain islands:
    • From Trip Advisor (lecdm) - Camelot, Aubrey
    • From CCR (Kim Gass) - Endymion, Camelot and Gordon and Mulcaster

Valuable Resources
  • Parks Canada - It's in dire need of a redesign since this website feels very "early 2000s", but we must appreciate that Parks Canada gets shamefully little funding. If you do enough digging, you'll find a lot of valuable information here. Most notable are the pages with the maps for the individual islands and the chart of the facilities and services.
  • Frontenac Arch Biosphere - Trail information, maps, outfitters, route info, etc., just a fantastic resource for this area and the rest of the Frontenac Arch Biosphere
  • My Canadian Canoe Routes - The forum should be browsed for the latest information, though in truth this park doesn't get much discussion.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Review: Snaring River Overflow, Jasper National Park

Location: 4 hrs from Edmonton or 15 minutes from Jasper
Website:  None
Map: Google
Camping Facilities: Car Camping
Grade: D+
Stargazing: Okay, but some interference from Jasper
Summary: Free-for-all car camping madness, with no campfires allowed - but in a nice mountain setting
Thoughts: Planning to go to the campgrounds immediately surrounding the Town of Jasper on a long weekend without a reservation?  Well, this is probably one of your few options.  Most of the other campgrounds will be full, friend.  That's what we discovered when opting to head up to the Jasper townsite instead of the tried-and-true Columbia Icefield Campground along the Icefields Parkway (which did have vacancies).  What we discovered was beyond comprehension for an Ontarian used to the calm and order found in the Ontario Park system. 

If you're early to arrive, find a decently-sheltered patch of dirt near(ish) to a latrine and set up.  If there's a picnic table, bonus.  If there is a flat surface to set your tent up on, double bonus.  Chances are high that if you're late to arrive, you'll find none of these.  We discovered people just setting up anywhere that looked reasonable.  There are no comfort stations, just latrines; neither are there any fires allowed (though many plumes of smoke were observed rising over the enforcement was evident).  The campground has little else to offer.  There are some scenic views of the surrounding mountains, but this isn't where you want to view them from.

We can at least appreciate Jasper Park's management and staff trying to accommodate anybody who is foolish, er, spontaneous enough to come up here without a reservation on a long weekend.  But there's no certainty that you'll get anything that approaches a decent site.  In fact, the night we were there, you'd have been lucky if you didn't end up sleeping on a uneven gravel-laden mound of dirt without a twig of privacy.  Plan ahead, stay out of the overflow.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Review: Two Jack Lake Main Campground, Banff National Park

Bighorn Sheep near lake Minnewanka
Location: 20 minutes outside Banff town site
Website:  Parks Canada
Map: Parks Canada (scroll down)
Camping Facilities: Car Camping
Grade: B-
Stargazing: There are stars here?
Summary: Decent spacing for a National Park, but don't expect much scenery
Thoughts: Once you've spent some time car camping in the mountain national parks, your expectations begin to take form.  What you miss out on in privacy and remoteness, you gain in scenery.  You take the good with the bad, but the mountain scenery makes you forget the bad pretty quickly.  Therein lies the problem with Two Jack Lake's main campground (not to be confused with the Two Jack Lakeside campground); it's the opposite of your typical mountain park, decent privacy (not great), but the canopy blocks any potential for enjoying the mountain viewscapes.

A bit of privacy is provided by the well-spaced loops

Fixed-grill fire rings
- the bane of the national park camping experience
You might see some mountains
through the trees
The accessibility to other more scenic areas (Lake Minnewanka, Two Jack Lake, and all the other great spots around the Town of Banff) is undeniable.  The campground itself is just nice enough.  The main benefit is the price for unserviced sites, which as just under $20 before firewood.  Can't really beat that.  As well, the comfort stations have running hot water and flush toilets.

All told, nice sites, decent camping, less-than-stellar scenery, but good access to some of the highlights around the Town of Banff.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Review: Dinosaur Provincial Park

Coulee Viewpoint Trail
Location: 2 hours east of Calgary
Website:  Alberta Parks
Map: Google Maps or AB Parks Campground Map
Camping Facilities: Car Camping
Grade: C-
Stargazing: Good - especially given that it doesn't rain much
Summary:  Densely populated campground, book tours in advance, spectacular scenery only saving grace
Thoughts: Showing up at an Alberta park without reservations on a long weekend is like smoking a rack of back ribs in your tent in grizzly country during a seasonal berry crop failure - i.e. not advisable.  Throw in the unfortunate situation that you've come to one of the most popular parks for families in the province and you're even deeper in the molasses.  Those of you who have read some of my other posts have probably noticed I take a devil-may-care, spontaneous approach to car camping.  I generally feel like the good spots are usually gone by the time I decide to book a site, I just skip the booking process, save the fees and hope for a last-minute cancellation of a sweet site - I must admit, it rarely works out well, but sometimes good things come out of that strategy.  As it happened, Dinosaur failed to deliver with my approach.  Though, ignoring my poor planning for a moment, it failed to deliver in a lot of other ways too. 

View from Campground Area -
note puddles, flatness and tightly-packed sites
Campground Viewed from Above
- Privacy? Nay.  Scenery? Yay.
First, the place has to have some of the worst drainage I've encountered in a provincial park. I know, it's clay soil, it's flat as a laminated pancake and it really doesn't rain that often anyways, but the last thing that most folks want is to be splashing around in puddles on those chilly evenings in the arid climes.  Next, don't expect privacy.  Wide open, densely-packed sites are the strategy here, with park planners looking to pack the Albertans in tighter than a ring of figs.  Even with the loop design of the site layout that is typically more private (see Figure 2), the sites are so close together and lacking in good understorey that it's hopeless. Third, these had to be some of the worst smelling comfort stations I've ever experienced.  I don't know if these are due to the soils again, but holy ammonia, Batman!  If the sites weren't so close and the drainage so poor, I'd suggest a tree.

Lounging on coulees
Okay, complaining aside, there are some beautiful coulees here, with a few relatively easy hiking trails around for your enjoyment.  While the scenery is fantastic, if you don't have reservations for the guided hikes, your options are very limited.  On the long-weekend of our visit, the tours were booked up in advance, with none of them able to accommodate more than a couple from our groups.  You might have better luck on a regular weekend, perhaps outside of July and August, but be warned, planning will go a long way here, especially if you want to enjoy this park to the fullest.  Just bring suitable expectations for the quality of the camping.

River valley splendor