Monday, August 29, 2016

Review: Rossport Campground, Rainbow Falls Provincial Park

View from one of the spectacular waterfront sites
at Rossport Campground
Location: 2 hours E of Thunder Bay; 5 hours NW of Sault Ste. Marie
Website: Ontario Parks 
Map: Google
Camping Facilities: Frontcountry / Car Camping
Grade: C+
Stargazing: Good
Summary: Some nice car camping with lake-front campsites, even though it's right on the highway.
Thoughts: Well it served me right for not doing too much research. I had planned to do some backcountry camping in Sleeping Giant PP, so that I could spend the afternoon enjoying its fantastic hiking trails. It turns out that the backcountry camping required a substantial chunk of hiking just to get set up. In fact, from what I could see, it was a 5 km hike just to get into the sites (I've included the backcountry map below - I really wish that Ontario Parks would post these on their website!), which was too far for one night IMHO. So I had to bail on my camping plans and settle for the bumpy drive up to the lookout over Thunder Bay (which is unreal! you have to check it out!).

A nice spot to stargaze if the skies cooperate

So I did the 2 hour drive down to Rainbow Falls instead, and it was a good thing as it would have been pretty miserable drive to Lake Superior PP the next day if I hadn't. I arrived pretty late at Rainbow Falls, getting close to supper time. I had the choice between the Rossport Campground (which is right on Lake Superior) and the Whitesand Lake Campground. So essentially, your choice is a view over shrubbery or a view over Lake Superior - it's an easy one to make. I drove around Whitesand just in case there were some nice ones that actually overlook the lake, but couldn't find any (at least, none that were available), so I just headed back to Rossport.

First lookout on Rainbow Falls trail
The check-in at the gate was typical Ontario Parks - friendly, helpful, trying to make sure you get the camping experience you're after. At both gatehouses they insisted that I roam around and have a look for a site that I like best. (Aside: this is something that will only happen in less busy parks - in Bon Echo or Pinery, you pretty well take what they have, because your site will probably be gone by the time you get back to the gatehouse). Highway noise is again an issue, but that's the price of convenience. I mean, pulling over and camping next to Gitchigumi with no reservation in peak of summer for about $40 - you can make do.

Sure, it's loud but a primo seat for
watching thundering water
A few of the sites afford a fantastic view of Lake Superior as they are right on the shore; but I must say, there are only about 4 high quality sites, and the campsites that are not adjacent to the lake were not very good. Even still some of the sites next to the lake were not actually on the water - in fact, the lake wasn't even accessible for a few of these. However, many of those sites had good under story for privacy though astoundingly, these were sometimes positioned directly across from one another (hello long privacy).

Blueberries in various
stages of development
Rainbow Falls -
photos do not do it justice!
The following day I ventured up to the hike to Rainbow Falls (fantastic) in the Whitesand Lake campground, followed by the two lookouts (which were well worth it, mainly because of all the wild blueberries near the lookouts!). I recommend the hikes, the thundering water of Rainbow Falls takes no time to reach and will keep you entertained for a while (especially if try out your best Ansel Adams impersonation).

Sleeping Giant Backcountry Hiking Map
Backcountry map of Sleeping Giant Provincial Park
(circa 2015)

Review: Fenton Lake, Lake Superior Provincial Park

View South from Fenton Lake Campsite,
a few hours after sunrise

Location: Fenton Lake, Lake Superior Provincial Park
Website: Ontario Parks or Friends of Lake Superior PP
Map: Friends of Lake Superior PP or Google Maps
Camping Facilities: Backcountry
Grade: C
Stargazing: Decent
Summary: A serviceable last-minute backcountry option, but not a reflection on the quality of the park - highway noise is an issue
Thoughts: It was getting late by the time I arrived in Lake Superior, on my way back from my first trip exploring the true "up north" in Ontario. I had the chance to explore Thunder Bay with some old friends and have a peak at Quetico, so I was happy to return to Lake Superior PP for a relaxing evening. As I've said in my other posts, Lake Superior is my favorite Ontario park, mainly because of its diversity of camping opportunities and the unparalleled beauty of its shoreline.

The single campsite on Fenton Lake
There were a few options available to me; I could stay at Old Woman's Bay at the backpacking site on its shore; I could try one of the car camping sites at Rabbit Blanket Lake campground; or I could backtrack (never a desirable option) to Fenton Lake or one of it's interior lakes. Old Woman's Bay was available but looked far too conspicuous for my liking - your tent would be in clear view of anyone who came to visit it's spectacular shores (but yes, Old Woman's Bay is hard to beat for a lunch stop or picnic). Rabbit Blanket Lake's sites were decent, but nothing too exciting (not scenic in any way, but decent privacy). But I didn't know much about Fenton and wasn't sure if it was worth it. I consulted a member of park staff at the Rabbit Blanket Lake gatehouse. We had a chat about the park in general, how underused it was, and how even the summer staff (mostly university students) didn't do very much exploring on their days off. While she hadn't been up to Fenton herself, she said that I'd have it all to myself as nobody else had registered there that night, so I decided to go for it.

Fenton Lake Put-In
By the time I put in at the end of the 500 m downhill, well-maintained portage (score!), it was nearly 6 pm. I decided that it wasn't worth the trip into one of the deeper lakes (Treeby, Shakwa, Junction or Underhill). In hindsight, if I had given myself more time, I would have.

Transport truck roaring by Fenton Lake
Fenton is a narrow lake, especially by the campsite (there is only one site), which means your view of the sky is mostly obstructed. The bigger problem is that the highway is aligned parallel to it, with traffic clearly audible from any site, especially the big rigs. Late at night, when the traffic dies down and the fire is crackling, you can nearly ignore it. The highway noise was mostly gone by 10 pm, and it's peaceful enough that I could hear the sound of a duck taking off on the other side of the lake. But if you're trying to get some peace and pretend like you're actually in the deep woods, Fenton Lake is a bummer. The big rigs just don't really ever stop. Plus I had a hard time finding a flat spot for the tent, and the site itself isn't terribly scenic. It's main saving grace is that there is a beautiful old white pine tree out front.

Not much beats a big stack of firewood
with an hour to spare before dusk
But it's not all bad news. For the anglers - the fish were constantly jumping 2 hours before sunset so I think you might have some luck there. For the swimmers, the water was calm and warm, so you might enjoy a dip. For the campfire lovers, there is so much firewood around the site. As well, there are beautiful hills surrounding the lake. Other than the highway, the lake is very peaceful (cause you'll be the only person on it). Important to note that interior sites are not reservable in Superior PP,  but they are mostly available due to low attendance.

Fenton Lake Canoe Route Map Lake Superior Provincial Park
Canoe route map for Fenton Lake -
erected during Ontario Parks' glory days
Some pointers from the MNR

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Review: Pickerel Lake, Quetico Provincial Park

Location: 2 hrs West of Thunder Bay
Website: Friends or Ontario Park
Map: Google
Camping Facilities: Backcountry (Wilderness)
Grade: A+
Stargazing: Didn't have the good fortune, but probably pretty good
Summary: Wish I had more time...
Thoughts: I remember the first time I heard about Quetico, back in 2001, calling up the Ontario Parks reservation line and being told that "a $100 deposit was necessary for any bookings" in the park. I remember thinking "Where? Why?". It seemed odd that this random park needed an arbitrary deposit fee, but there must have been a good reason. That reason is still a mystery, mainly because I've never bothered to ask anyone up until this point. But I did look up the park to see what all the fuss was about and it is an enchanting concept: imagine a park that's about half the size of Algonquin park, where logging activities are strictly forbidden (i.e., no false vistas for the paddling thoroughfares like those found in Algonquin), where motorboats are not welcome, where the current natural state is preserved in perpetuity, where there are no grandfathered resorts in the interior, where the campsites are unmarked, where the portages are unsigned, and where you can cross the Canadian-American border by canoe. It all sounds like what a backcountry park should be. But this is one of the few in the park system where all this is true.

The call of a calm bay is hard to resist on Pickerel...
I had myself one night to check out Quetico. One night - 400,000ha. Needless to say, you can't even scratch the surface. And it had to be somewhere that wouldn't crush us in our attempt to access the park in the midst of a fierce late-summer storm. Plus it had to be a reasonable drive from Thunder Bay. It's limiting, to be sure, and our first pick (Baptism Creek - a fitting name for one's first foray into the park) was not taking any new campers that night. So we took the next best thing in Pickerel Lake. It's a 30-minute drive off the Trans-Canada, down a pretty sketchy road, till you're finally at the Pickerel Lake parking lot. Then you have to do a long 500m portage. I say "long" because it's one of those ones that feels a lot longer than what's marked for some reason. It's narrow and rocky, plus I found some folks on the trail less than respectful of portage etiquette (the person with the canoe on their head has right of way people). It's also pretty mucky, but staff do their best to keep your boots clean with some boardwalks. Note: there is no park office on this road, so you'll have to check in at the park pavilion / car campground. It's probably worthwhile stopping for in itself, one of the nicer park gatehouses I've seen. Nice facilities too.
A panorama of Pickerel
Pickerel Lake is a monstrous, wind-whipping East-West lake. All the canoeists we met on the lake were raring to go and we all smelt a whiff of competition in the air as the sites are first-come first-served. More so than in the Algonquin or Killarney spirit, because there's no guarantee a good, clear campsite will be waiting for you (at least in those other parks, you book a spot on Big Crow Lake, you know you have a spot on Big Crow Lake). There a quota systems in place which limit the number of people in the backcountry, so there's probably no reason to worry that you won't find anything good; plus seeing as you can technically camp anywhere, well, all  you need to find is an open flat-ish piece of ground.

We set off into strong gusts that nearly swamped us in the first 15 minutes and slowed our progress to a crawl as we tried to make our way east into the Lake. Our fellow canoeists were off to the races, everybody seemed to know what they were doing and where they were headed. We fell to the back of the pack and quickly realised that if we wanted to enjoy what there was to enjoy of the day, we had to take the first campsite that we could get. After two false stops (they looked like sites from the water, but on shore they were not worth unloading for), we found a keeper. And it was a pretty nice one to be sure, but that's the trick of unmarked campsites - you never know where the next one is and if it might be a bit better.

Nothing beats knowing you have
a good stack of firewood
Our site was full of dead fall, even though it was on a narrow point with sparse tree cover. The bugs were kept at bay and we were able to enjoy a roaring fire going for 6 hours while we polished off a bottle's worth of bourbon (no bottles or cans allowed!). There are no picnic benches, no privies, no firepits with accompanying grills. It's all as basic as camping gets. Sometimes it left me wanting, but the benefits outweigh any of the strikes against. Oh, and contrary to what my ignorant Southern Ontario brain guessed, yes, you do get leeches in lakes up north. So watch where you're swimming, a number were trying to make a meal out of my canoe (nice try, jerks).

Quetico Provincial Park
Endless wilderness...
I can't recommend a trip up to Quetico enough. It's the true canoeists mecca in Ontario, maybe Canada. The setting is magical, mainly because you know that it just goes on forever and that it's as pristine a spot as you'll find this far south in the province. The promise of all the countless wilderness lakes, pictographs, old growth forest, giant white pines, waterfalls and human history that reach far beyond the big lake's treeline, it's enough to blow one's mind. Support our great Northern Ontario parks and don't worry about the $100 deposit.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Review: Hattie Cove Campground, Pukaskwa National Park

Playter Harbour, Coastal Hiking Trail
Location: Hattie Cove Campground, Pukaskwa National Park
Website: Parks Canada
Map: Parks Canada
Camping Facilities: Car Camping
Grade: B
Stargazing: Good by the Lake
Summary:Average camping enhanced by being close to glorious Lake Superior and pristine forest setting
Thoughts: The plan was to make my way along the Trans Canada highway towards Thunder Bay, aiming to meet up with some friends along the drive for some camping. I originally had Slate Islands Provincial Park in mind, after reading this article about it's dense elk population (imagine having elk roaming through your site). I was stoked, but then I found out it would cost $500 for a return shuttle from Terrance Bay. Split between 6 couples for one week, you could make a strong case for it. But with just 3 people staying only one night, it would be a total waste. So my friends suggested Pukaskwa (pronounced Puck-a-Saw, as I quickly found out). I had been meaning to see it for quite some time, and figured that it's a low-stress option to enjoy the company of old friends whom I hadn't seen in a while.

Lookout over Halfway Lake
The camping itself was just okay. Some sites are a little more private than others; you'll find that some are inexplicably directly across from one another, with only your cars to provide the necessary screen to avoid any awkward eye contact. But a few sites are large and pretty private. I wanted to see 48, which is a bit off the road and sits next to Halfway Lake, but it was occupied and I was told it's a bit buggy (you can see in the photo on the right that Halfway Lake is a bit swampy). Site 46 would be a winner if it weren't clearly visible from the path to the comfort station. Speaking of which, the comfort stations in the park are clean and comfortable. And as with all National Parks, you pay twice - the entrance "day-use" fee and the camping fee - which I find a bit irritating, but it still ends up being cheaper than car camping in Ontario Parks (by about $3 - 2015 fees). The park staff I dealt with were really thoughtful and allow you to take a drive around to see what site you like best, then register after you've had a gander. You're likely to find something good, but yea, nothing special.

Middle Beach, with it's piles of driftwood
But putting the camping aside, the setting of the park itself is phenomenal. Just a short 5 minute walk from the campground, you're on Lake Superior, with its thunderous waves drowning out any thoughts of the real world that might have followed you on your trip. You could stare at the Lake for hours, watching it play Hot Potato with the beach, as the waves toss the driftwood to the beach and the beach rolls it right back. And at night you'll find that the Middle and North Beaches (probably Horseshoe Beach too) are spectacular for stargazing. The day hikes to Manito Mikana, Horseshoe Beach, and the Southern Headland Trail are all well worth the trip and you'll be entranced by the vistas. I thought the lookout over Halfway Lake (above) was worthwhile (just after you start a counterclockwise tour from the trailhead), but the rest of the hike looked a bit boring so I skipped it. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

Boardwalk at the beginning of the
Pukaskwa Coastal Hiking Trail
The highlight of the park is the Coastal Hiking Trail. With its many campsites and nearly pristine Lake Superior coastal scenery, it is a worthy adventure. There is justification for the use the word "pristine", as you can see from this map that Pukaskwa is one of the last remaining intact forest landscapes in the southern half of the province, as discovered by the IFL mapping team. I was only able to hike to the first campsite, but even that one (Playter Harbour) was something to behold (top of the page here). The backcountry site itself was really spacious, with an outhouse, fire pit and food locker. I'm curious about the other sites, as they contain up to six individual sites - are these clustered together? Or are they somewhat private? Please comment below if you know. As well, I should point out that the trail is well marked and easy to follow, but would be very slippery in spots after a bit of rain.

Lookout from Southern Headland Trail
I'd love to come back and at least make it to the White River Suspension bridge, but it's a full day hike (leave before 10am). A fellow hiker informed me that he wanted to do a one-way hike and get a shuttle back from the North Swallow river, but the guiding company was going to charge him $500 for the trip back so he just walked the whole stretch in a return trip (solo no less!). What is it with $500 shuttling fees in this part of the province? Regardless, Pukaskwa is worth your effort because it's just a beautiful spot - the camping is a means to discover the splendor of this unique wilderness refuge.

Food locker on the
Coastal Hiking Trail
Outhouse on the Coastal Hiking Trail


Review: Canoe-in Sites, Grundy Lake, Grundy Lake Provincial Park

grundy lake provincial park
Backcountry Site Map of Grundy Lake
 (From Park Tabloid, 2005)
Location:  80 km N of Parry Sound
Website: Ontario Parks
Map: Google Maps
Camping Facilities: Car Camping with some pseudo backcountry
Grade: B-
Stargazing: Good, in fact we saw the Northern Lights each time visit.
Summary: Some very easy-to-access backcountry but some sites close to beaches & railroad, eliminating any sense of wilderness
Thoughts: A last-minute interior camping trip from Toronto in August can be a challenging thing to arrange. Joeperry? Full. Frontenac? Full. Killarney? Full. Canisbay? Full. However, there's always Grundy lake; the paddle-in sites are non-reservable (first come, first served basis), and there are often plenty of sites available (twice I've found sites in the middle of the peak season, even on a Labour Day weekend).

Site 119 on Grundy Lake
Like I said in my review for Gurd Lake, Grundy's sites have it all:  short paddles, easy access, some isolation, nice sites, and its reasonably quiet. I would say that Gurd offers a bit more privacy than Grundy, as we found that Grundy is shared with both "backcountry" campers and car campers. But the fishing must be great on Grundy, because there were so many people out exploring the lake by canoe and kayak. Not that it's all that bothersome, since they aren't motorboats. But yea, expect lots of traffic. After nightfall though, it's a different story. On site 119, I would say that you can easily convince yourself you're in Algonquin or some other less densely populated park. As long as you're as far away from the car camping sites as possible, you'll get some peace and quiet.

Peaceful night on Grundy Lake
I can honestly say that you're not going to do much better than Grundy if you want to get a pseudo backcountry site on a weekend where you haven't done any planning. It's a shorter drive from Toronto than most Algonquin access points, and you never need to make a reservation (you can't make a reservation!). So if you find yourself in need of a campsite with some sense of being in the woods, Grundy is a great option. And the park itself has an interpretive centre for the kids, and both Gut and Grundy Lakes attract rock jumpers to their steep, rocky shores. When I visited in August of 2015, there were some issues with bears (we saw a juevenille running through the car camping area, my first bear sighting in a provincial park after camping for 15 years in them), so be diligent with keeping your site odour free.

All things considered, it's your last, best option for a spontaneous camping weekend in peak season. And it's a pretty good one, all things considered. 

Monday, February 8, 2016

Review: Interior Camping, Mississagi Provincial Park

Semiwite Lake
Location: 30 mins from Elliot Lake
Website: Ontario Parks or Elliot Lake Tourism
Map: Google
Camping Facilities: Backcountry (excellent car camping also available in the park)
Grade: B-
Stargazing: Good on a clear night
Summary: Disorganized but easily accessible backcountry camping
Thoughts: I had been dreaming about backcountry camping in Mississagi for quite a while. It's a bit further than the backcountry crown jewels of Algonquin, Killarney or Temagami, but it was smaller and promised smaller crowds as a result of its distance. I finally had an opportunity to get in my boat and paddle out into the interior in the summer of 2015, exploring beyond the excellent car camping that's available in the park. Unfortunately, I must report that I was disappointed.

The first thing I should state is that Helenbar Lake and Semiwite Lake are beautiful lakes. Semiwite
Well-marked trailhead from Semiwite Lake
does host motorboats but Helenbar is free of them. While paddling solo, it took me about an hour to paddle to the portage into Helebar (so it should take 45 mins or less with a partner). The portage into Helenbar is a dream: pretty flat, nice and wide, not very buggy, and relatively short. Plus there are clear markings to the hiking trails that branch off of it, so you won't get lost. Unfortunately, this is where my problems began. I put in to Helenbar and was excited to see this gorgeous lake and know that I had it all to myself. I say "all to myself" because I booked the lake's only site with park staff upon registering. Hence, it was going to be just me. Or so I thought.

Helenbar Lake
As I paddled into the lake, in search of the site, I noticed a splashing in the water along the shore. I thought it must be a deer or a moose going for a swim but I looked more carefully and noticed it was a human being. There were no canoes docked on the shore, so it I was confused. I figured they must have stashed their boat in the weeds, somewhere invisible. I disregarded it and kept searching for the site. I consulted my map and it seemed like I had must have passed the site. I went back to roughly where I saw the person swimming and noticed a campsite sign tucked away on shore. The swimmer was no longer in the water so I started to get the sense that something was amiss.

A horrible campsite on Semiwite Lake
I paddled up to the (my) site and discovered the person had already set up camp and was prepping a fire. She came up to greet me and I explained the situation, showed my park permit as evidence of my booking. She apologized but explained that she was hiking the McKenzie Interior Trail. As part of the permit for the trail, hikers can camp at any site along the way without expressly booking them. It just so happened that the Helenbar Lake site is also a site on the McKenzie trail. She expressed discomfort at sharing the site with me (which would have been a reasonable solution in most cases, as the site was very large), as she was a single woman and I was a single man (awkward turtle, indeed). Besides, both of us came there for seclusion, and we'd both lose that if we shared the site. I could appreciate her discomfort so I decided that the first-come, first-served rule had trumped my booking and headed back to Semiwite. Her apologies seemed sincere, if uncompromising, and she did offer me an energy bar as a consolation prize. I declined and grumbled my way back to my boat.

So I trudged back across the portage trail, I plunked back into Semiwite. Two out of three campsites on Semiwite Lake are terrible. The eastern-most site is the best, hands-down. The other two are rocky, grassy messes and I doubt that you could comfortably pitch a tent anywhere except if you squeeze it up in the fire pit / dining area. Not ideal. The eastern site is along a narrow sandy beach that also seems to be part of the McKenzie trail, so it's entirely possible that hikers will tramp through your site while you eat your lunch or sleep in some morning. It also gets too shallow to paddle about 30 meters from the shoreline, so you'll have to drag your canoe across the sand.

In summary, this is a beautiful spot, and, given it's distance from major urban centres, there is a high likelihood that you'll find seclusion on scenic Helenbar. I sincerely doubt my experience was typical and I imagine you'll have the Helenbar site all to yourself if you book it. But if you're arriving late in the evening and a hiker has usurped your site, you're going to be mightily annoyed. So if you think a late arrival is a possibility, you might want to reconsider, or at least spend the first night in the excellent car camping area (I stress this because so much of the car campground is top notch). There are also other canoe camping options in the area that you might consider, but I can't speak to their quality. Good luck!

The best site on Semiwite
- also has a hiking trail cutting through it

Moonrise over Semiwite Lake

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Review: Mijinemungshing Lake, Lake Superior Provincial Park

View over Agawa Bay, the Montreal River
and the Trans Canada Highway
Location: 1.5 hours from Sault Ste. Marie, 8.5 hours from Toronto
Website: Ontario Parks or Friends of Lake Superior PP
Map: Friends of Lake Superior PP or Google Maps
Camping Facilities: Backcountry (at Mijinemungshing)
Grade: A+
Stargazing: As expected up north
Summary: A large inland lake for jump-off backcountry camping with plenty of campsites and access to lakes further inside the park
Thoughts: I feel like Lake Superior Provincial Park is Ontario's hidden gem. Everyone knows about Quetico, Killarney, Algonquin, Temagami, Haliburton, etc. but I don't know if I've ever heard anyone say much about Lake Superior PP. And that is a great oversight. There are very few camping spots in Ontario that can give any camper everything they're looking for. I am willing to wager that Lake Superior Provincial Park is one of those places. To list the most important features:
  • Reasonable drive from Toronto (well - 8 hrs, but you can do it in a day)
  • Numerous access points to observe the violent beauty of Gitchigumi herself
  • Plenty of car camping and interior camping dispersed throughout the park
  • Rich in interesting natural and human history (in fact, you can observe the native Canadian relationship with the area through the parks pictographs) 
  • A variety of hiking trails providing a range of difficulty levels, with rewarding vistas
  • Incredibly scenic drive along the Trans Canada highway through the park
There is something for everyone here. And it's bound to provide you with some of the best quality experiences of whatever it is that you seek.

I was able to make a stopover in Lake Superior PP on my way to explore Northern Ontario, ultimately reaching Quetico for a few days of camping. You make your way into Mijinemungshing Lake via a gravel road off the Trans Canada highway, which was in better condition than most of the backcountry access roads I've used in my life. After a 15-20 minute drive, you'll reach a parking lot that's just a couple minutes walk up from the docking point. You can unload at the put-in and drive your car back up to the parking lot. The put-in comes complete with a wooden dock large enough for at least a couple parties to launch simultaneously. As well, the park staff have provided a weathered old pavilion just up from the dock, probably installed ages ago when this park saw a lot more visits from our American neighbours. It has a map, a little information about the history and the ecology of the area, but overall, the content didn't seem to warrant the sturdy structure. Be warned: the stony beach next to the dock is very soft - do not attempt to park on the slope here, you're liable to get stuck.

Mijinemungshing Lake put-in
When I first arrived in Mijinemungshing, the skies were dark and ominous. The winds were blowing fiercely from the south and the clouds looked ready to shed their load at any moment. I thought that I should embark as soon as possible, find myself a campsite and set up camp before things got too messy. Mijinemungshing is a larger lake, with islands and lots of hiding plac
es from foul conditions, so I figured that it should be safe. However, when I set out south from the dock, it quickly became clear that in a battle between me and the wind, the wind had the advantage; the minute I tried to make a turn east out of the bay, I would be broadsided by the gusts and either pushed ashore or dumped in the lake. I was having a hard enough time just keeping the boat straight (my canoe has quite a bit of freeboard when paddling solo and no tumblehome, so it catches the wind very well). So after 5 minutes of paddling, I turned around and headed back to shore with the aid of the wind and waited for it to die down.

While I was waiting for the situation to improve, a car pulled up with a friendly man and woman in their 70s from Northern Michigan, a pair of retired teachers. They came to a similar conclusion as I did, to wait until the winds become a bit more hospitable before their leisurely afternoon paddle on the lake. The gentleman had visited this area 20 years before with his late wife and mentioned how impressed he was by the park (which I found surprising, given that they were from Northern Michigan - I had just assumed a similar experience could be found on the other side of the border). He mentioned that the loons on Mijinemungshing Lake would let you to paddle right up next to them, and that the fishing was good here. "But there don't seem to be any loons here now", he said wistfully. He seemed to be attempting to recapture the experience of his visit to Lake Superior all those years ago and I really hoped he would be able to.

We both looked out onto Mijinemungshing in silence for a few moments while the wind pressed against our faces. It seemed to evoke memories of his late wife: "Coming back to this lake, you brings everything back". I clumsily mumbled something like "I can imagine", but it made me think about all the times I had spent with friends and family camping in the outdoors and how they produced deep, vivid memories that can fuse the sentiments towards your traveling partners with the beauty of these places. The quality of the memory seems to be enhanced by majesty of the location, and I guessed that a splendid spot like Mijinemungshing would provide rich, detailed emotions entwined with the feelings you have about the people you experience it with. It made me briefly wish that I wasn't paddling solo, but later I realised that my time here will give me a fond memory of introspection and solitude that I could always come back to, something that would be valuable in the days when I was daydreaming about the Ontario woods.

Tent pads can turn into above-ground swimming pools
if the rains get heavy
The wind died down enough that the couple thought they'd head out. I saw them push out into the waves and thought maybe now I could give it a shot again. The previously relentless gusts had calmed down considerably so I kept pushing while rounding the corner of the bay. Then the weather turned. What had seemed to be the weather calming was in fact the calm before the storm. The torrents of rain were slowly filling up my boat, so I headed to the large island with four campsites that wasn't too far from the dock. I picked the spot on the top-right corner of the island (as presented on the Lake Superior PP map) and rushed to set up camp in the rain. I quickly discovered that my tent was leaky and the fly didn't hold it's shape well when wet, and seemed to funnel rain into one of the vents/windows. As the downpour continued, my tent started to accumulate a nice little indoor swimming pool. Finally, the sound of the rain starting to lighten came like music to my ears and I would have some time before sunset to dry things out. I stepped outside into a newly-formed puddle that had collected during the time I took shelter in the tent. I rotated the tent away from the pool and the rocky/sandy soils soon drained the water away.

I filtered some water and poured a mug of rye, then sat and looked out at the lake. Mijinemungshing was everything I was after; a good-sized, quiet lake with plenty of interior campsites, just a short distance off of the Trans Canada highway. It's possible to portage deeper into the backcountry from Mijinemungshing, but I just didn't have the time; I was on a mission to see as many of the parks between Toronto and Thunder Bay as possible in the 10 days that I had off and I hoped that what I learned about these places would inform future trips back to Ontario. Indeed, I realised that I would have to come back to Lake Superior another time to explore the many backcountry camping opportunities it provides.

Lake Superior Provincial Park Interior Camping

There are tent pads at the sites on Mijinemungshing, in addition to privies, picnic tables and fire pits; all the backcountry comforts that you desire from a provincial park. The water is crystal clear. You can get a sense of wilderness and seclusion, even though my closest neighbour was only 50 metres away. The stargazing is splendid. The effort to get here is minimal, where you can go from the dock to setting up a campsite in less than an hour. Everything a lazy interior camper in search of serenity can ask for. The only thing that left me wanting was the short amount of time I had to spend there.

Loon on Mijinemungshing Lake
As I paddled back to the car the next morning to resume my journey up north, a loon popped out of the water in front of me. It seemed to be a demonstration that this place was indeed still flourishing, still able to support wildlife as it had throughout the centuries. It gave me some comfort and made me think of my friends from Michigan who had paddled this spot the day before. I hoped the loons of their memories found them before they left the park. But I guessed that it didn't much matter - the lake hadn't changed, it still held the aura of twenty years ago, and of the centuries that came before.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Review: Pancake Bay Provincial Park

Location: 75 km North of Sault Ste. Marie (1hr drive)
Pathway to beach at
Pancake Bay Provincial Park
Website: Ontario Parks
Map: Google Maps
Camping Facilities: Car Camping
Grade: C-
Stargazing: Good on the lake shore
Summary: Highway noise, beautiful beach, radio free sites are a downer
Thoughts: When you're making your way north towards the splendor of the upper regions of Ontario, you may be tempted to make your first stop in Pancake Bay PP for the night. It makes sense - it's about an 8-hour drive from Toronto, 9 hours from Ottawa, which is about as much as any average driver can take in a single sitting. But a good location and provincial park status don't always equal happiness in adventuring in Central/Northern Ontario.

View south along Pancake Bay Provincial Park
You might notice from any map that Pancake Bay is sandwiched between the Trans Canada Highway and Lake Superior. As a result, I challenge you to find a site that doesn't automatically provide you with a complimentary Highway 17 white noise machine to lull you to sleep at night (or wreck any sense of being one with nature). The sites are very close to the highway. Highway noise is even cleary audible in the radio free sites, which are nearly as far as you can get from the highway in this park. I was camped on site 25 near the comfort station at the Hilltop Campground and was pretty disappointed. Radio free sites are not scenic and the ones close to the marsh were very buggy, even in August. But if you have a high tolerance for highway noise, or are positioned close enough to the crashing waves of Lake Superior, you might be able to bear it.

To be fair, the park isn't simply a random sliver of sand wedged between water and pavement. The beach is beautiful albeit a bit narrow. I think it's probably a great place for families, due to the shallow waters on much of the beach and the overall quality of the amenities. For a camper who wants seclusion and peace, look elsewhere.

Pancake Bay Provincial Park
Map of Pancake Bay Provincial Park Campground
(Source: Pancake Bay PP Tabloid, 2015)
View north along Pancake Bay Provincial Park

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Review: Car Camping, North Lees Campsite, Peak District National Park, United Kingdom

Peak District from Stanage Edge
Location: 30 mins from Sheffield (10 miles)
Website:  National Park or Campsite
Map: Google Maps
Camping Facilities: Car camping
Grade: C
Stargazing: Good
Summary: Acceptable camping experience in the UK (my first)
Thoughts: After entering the park with little fanfare (the color of the terrain on my GPS changed from beige to green, if I'm not mistaken), I knew that I had to keep my expectations in check.  No park office, no visible change in land use, sheep eyeing you suspiciously -  clearly things are done differently here. As we zigged and zagged along the country roads, we had hopes that the vast wilderness that is the Peak District National Park would eventually reveal itself around the next bend. It does, but not in the way that we're used to. But that's okay. The UK is a small country with a relatively large population (compared to Canada), so one can only expect a certain level of solitude and remoteness. And maybe within the campground itself things would be different. Well it was, and it wasn't.

Sheep and grazing fields
- mainstays of UK National Parks
The flocks of sheep that greet you on the roadsides within the National Park were not welcome in the North Lees Campsite. No sir, gates and fences made their access impossible. A win for conservation! The camping experience, however, was consistently frustrating as the rest of the drive to that point. First off, the site was sloped, and quite dramatically so.  Good luck finding a level spot to sleep comfortably. Second, there is no demarcation of campsites. It's a total free-for-all. Where ever you'd like to stop walking/carrying gear, well, that's as good as any spot, friend. Thirdly, no demarcation of sites also means no privacy.  None. Nor are there many picnic benches to cook your breakfast (most people seemed to be happy to do so on the ground but we grabbed one of the few that there were).  Last, there are no campfires. Given that there are so few trees in the region to begin with, it's probably for the best. But yeah: "sigh".

Nice spot to wash dishes
Bears aren't an issue...
Sheep - you are fenced OUT!
Some good points that I need to bring up. The place is very tidy. You have nice shower facilities as well as running water for washing dishes (a bit of a hike from some of the "sites", so bring a container of some sort, like a bucket or camping sink). You also have recycling facilities and very kinds, friendly staff running the place.  And the connectivity to the splendid hiking trails within steps of the campground is excellent. Another bonus - you can walk to the pubs in Hathersage in about half an hour. In doing so, you'll stroll through quaint English countryside and maybe learn to appreciate it on its own merits, and not in relation to those of a totally different country that has no physical resemblance to the one you're living in, so you might as well stop whinging about it.
A second camping space that is a bit flatter

As a Canadian out on their first camping trip in the UK, I could have done worse than North Lees. Once you have acclimatized to the setting and your eyes have adjusted to the local scenery, you'll probably find that it does what it does pretty well. It's just different, that's all.

Interpretive sign maintenance varies...
Weather may vary as well
View from Stanage Edge

Peak District National Park
Mam Tor

Mam Tor was a gusty spot that day
Some trails veer onto private land,
but the signage will get you back
on track
Roadway carved right into
a drainage channel