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