Lost food, howling wolves, whipping wind, mystery footprints, snow fleas, a campsite visitor, rolling sleds and snowshoe adventures – what more could a 1st winter backcountry camping trip need?! Last weekend I spent 4-days/3-nights camping at Algonquin Provincial Park, with a basecamp of Provoking Lake West along the Highland Trail.
Shortcut to the full slide show: https://goo.gl/photos/jBny8ZzMowQHoo6T9 (click on one image, and then on the little “i” to read the descriptions)
After paying for a backcountry permit at the West Gate, my friend Cheryl and I headed for the Mew Lake campground, where we bought 2 bags of kindling, ate our lunch, loaded our sleds (see our packing list here), put on our snowshoes, and headed for the Track and Tower Trail, which would take us to the Highland Trail and our campsite for the weekend. I had borrowed a pair of Tubbs Women’s Elevate 25″ snowshoes and Tubbs snowshoeing poles from Algonquin Outfitters in Huntsville (snowshoe and pole review here).
We weren’t sure exactly how far we would walk before we set up camp for the night, but we were aiming to be close enough to a campsite that we could use the toilet.
In comparison to last year’s winter car camping trip during an extreme cold weather alert, this weekend promised to bring more reasonable temperatures! Daytime highs were to range from about -2 degrees Celsius to -9, and nighttime lows down to -15. Minimal snowfall was in the forecast.
Having never pulled a sled with gear before, we weren’t sure how difficult it would be. My sled was approximately 70 pounds, and really, it wasn’t too hard to pull it behind me (see my sled review here). However, going up very steep hills was another story! At one point we had to help one another get up the hill, me pushing Cheryl’s sled from behind, and then her doing the same for me.
Sometimes our sleds tipped over (and rolled!) as we walked, but after righting them, we were on our way again. We didn’t realize until dinner time that at some point in our trek to our campsite, our dinner and evening snack fell out of the sled (it was packed separately, not in the canoe pack with everything else)! We didn’t starve, but we did have to raid food from future snacks for dinner. See our menu here, and what we ate that first night!
We ended up choosing a spot on Provoking Lake West to set up our tent, after hiking for approximately 4 km. We changed from our hiking boots into our winter boots, set up the tent, cooked our dinner, “washed” our dishes with snow, hung our bear bag, and went to bed! Normally we tie a rope around a rock and throw that over a tree branch to hang the bear bag, but with small rocks buried under the snow, we spotted a cooking pot that someone had left behind, and I threw that over the tree branch! It worked great. I was cool that night (not shivering, just not quite comfortable), so I didn’t sleep as well as I could have. And getting out of the tent twice to pee didn’t help!
After breakfast, Cheryl made some adjustments to her sled, because some bolts fell off and rendered the hooks useless – she replaced them with rope. We headed out for a day hike, wondering if we might find our lost dinner and evening snack! We never did (did a person find it? an animal? we’ll never know!), but we enjoyed hiking along the Highland Trail (6.2 km) and looking for wildlife in the woods – we saw lots of different kinds of footprints, but no animal sightings other than a few birds. We didn’t even see any people! We ate our morning snack and lunch along the trail, and cooled down quite quickly when we stopped to eat! All weekend we were removing layers of clothes and adding layers depending on what we were doing. When we returned to our campsite, we had a hot chocolate with our afternoon snack, and then took a sled with us to gather wood for a fire. Cheryl used her saw to cut bigger branches from fallen logs. We made our dinner, and while it cooked we built our fire. When we weren’t actively doing something, like gathering or splitting wood, we got cold quickly!
In fact, we were in our tent for the night by about 7:15 PM – it was warmer in there! We boiled water to put in Nalgene bottles so that we could have hot water bottles in our sleeping bags overnight – that, and slightly milder temperatures meant that I slept much better. The hot water bottle made for a cozy sleeping bag! That night we heard wolves howling very far in the distance!
First thing in the morning when I got out of the tent to pee, I saw movement on the hill and thought it was a squirrel. I later saw that it was a pine marten looking for food. Unfortunately, I wasn’t wearing my contacts so I didn’t get a great view of it! I did grab my camera from the tent and got a few (blurry) photos – they move so fast! Once again, we headed out for a day hike after breakfast. This time we headed for the Lookout over Starling Lake and the Lake of Two Rivers. From there, we took a portage down to the Lake of Two Rivers, and walked along the Old Railway Trail toward the Mew Lake campground. I decided to check to see if I had a cell signal, and when we discovered that we both did, we called home for a quick chat. During our 7.1 km hike, we saw only 2 people – a couple walking dogs on the Old Railway Trail. Once again we had our morning snack and lunch on the trail. Back at camp, we had our hot chocolate and afternoon snack. Since we didn’t really wash our dishes (dish soap was frozen), I had 3 drinks in 1 – remnants of gatorade and tea when I drank my hot chocolate! We gathered wood, chopped more of our kindling, started our chili, and built a fire. Despite a whipping wind and snow blowing horizontally in the afternoon, the evening improved and we managed to last until about 8:30 PM before we headed for the tent with our hot water bottles! The temperature must have been even warmer overnight, because we were both warm and could have shed layers!
On our last morning, we spotted 3 people crossing Provoking Lake West, but fairly close to the shore. They were wearing snowshoes and either wearing big backpacks or pulling sleds (or both!). After breakfast we packed up camp and headed out, with Cheryl spotting a snowshoe hare not too far from our campsite – it’s a wonder we didn’t see other bunnies, since there were tracks everywhere! It was a 3.6 km walk directly back to our vehicle. I had hoped to be able to feed sunflowers to chickadees, grey jays or blue jays, but no luck. The few chicadees we saw couldn’t be coaxed closer, we didn’t see grey jays, and the blue jays were in the midst of the paparazzi – we arrived back at our vehicle to see 10-15 people with cameras and huge lenses photographing pine martens in the trees. It was a funny sight.
We ate our lunch in the van, and then we headed back to Algonquin Outfitters, where I ended up buying the snowshoes and poles!
It was a great 1st winter backcountry camping experience. For future trips, we would:
- bring kindling again
- not bring a 10 L jug of water
- camp within reach of a toilet again
- make slight modifications to our sleds
- pack all food in the canoe pack – no loose things!
- hike the Highland Trail again, or perhaps try another trail!
We’ll be back!
Related posts for this trip: