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

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