This post is Part 2 of our cross-Canada trip from Ontario to British Columbia. Part 1 covers our first 17 days, in which we drove across the country and camped as we went. Coming soon: highlights of all the vegan restaurants we tried on our travels!
Day 17: Goldstream Provincial Park to Nanaimo (99 km / 1.25 hours)
After leaving Goldstream Provincial Park – and our last campsite of the trip – we headed north for Nanaimo.
We found a great little park along the harbour in Nanaimo to have a picnic lunch, Maffeo Sutton Park. We were pleasantly surprised to discover some beautiful purple star fish! The park has walking paths, fantastic playgrounds for kids, and a small (rocky) beach area.
We also explored a used bookstore in town, coming away with a few books.
Next we headed to the small town of Parksville to swim at Parksville beach (along the Straight of Georgia, an arm of the Salish Sea), at the recommendation of my cousin Julie. We were a little surprised to discover that it was a rocky beach rather than a sandy one, but we had fun swimming, checking out all the snails and looking for fish. There’s a playground and splash pad for kids, a skate park and lots of beach volleyball courts too.
Day 18: Nanaimo
In hopes of seeing some marine wildlife, like sea lions, seals or whales, we headed to the Cable Bay Nature Trail (also on the Straight of Georgia) to go for a walk along the water. We spent some time at Dodd Narrows, having read that seals could often be seen playing in the rapids. We never did see any sea creatures, just a Great blue heron at the water’s edge. I also spotted what turned out to be a Pacific banana slug on the hiking trail, as well as a few woodpeckers in trees.
We’ll remember Dodd Narrows for the logging tug boat (the “David J”) that seemingly did a super fast 180 degree turn for our benefit as it went through this narrow space, and for the man in a tiny fishing boat who needed help from people on the far shore to rescue what looked like a wayward seat cushion floating away. We spotted it before we saw him zooming around the corner, and then he clearly caught sight of it! We watched – fascinated – as he approached the cushion, but it was circling in an eddy by then, unreachable to him in his little boat, so he yelled instructions to a couple of girls on shore who were only too happy to throw it out to him… he chased it, grabbed it, pulled it into his boat and the 8 people who witnessed the feat – including us – cheered (for the cushion? for the man? for a happy ending!)!
We hiked back to our car, and then went for a very late vegan lunch at Eve Olive. When we noticed Nanaimo bars on the dessert menu, we knew we had to have one! When in Nanaimo… It was good, but not nearly as good as my homemade ones! And for me, sprinkles definitely do not belong!
We had so much fun swimming the day before that we headed back to Parksville Beach. It was then we realized we had been there at high tide the day before – the water was way out this time, so there was lots of sand (and shallow water a long way out)! We kept our eyes on our towels though, because the tide was coming in and we didn’t want them to get soaked.
Day 19: Nanaimo to Port Alberni
We had been told by multiple people that we had to visit the old growth forest at Cathedral Grove, so on our way from Nanaimo to Port Alberni we stopped to check it out. The trees were indeed impressive – 800 year old Douglas-fir trees, as well as old Western red cedars, and Big leaf maples. The biggest Douglas-fir there is over 76 m tall with a circumference of 9 m. We did the short walking trails on both sides of the highway.
We had hoped to have a picnic lunch in Port Alberni somewhere we could swim, but the only park we found on the water didn’t have great swimming options. We debated driving 40 minutes south to Qualicum Beach, which wouldn’t be quite as far as going all the way back to Parksville Beach, but then we decided to just drive 2 hours to Tofino instead! We already had plans to spend the next day in Tofino, but we figured why not go twice (unfortunately, we weren’t able to find accommodations in Tofino by the time our trip was finalized – Port Alberni was the closest we could get).
So, off to Tofino we went! We were fortunate to see a Steller jay when we arrived – a first for us.
Silly us, we thought we’d be able to swim in the Pacific Ocean at Pacific Rim National Park. But as we drove there, we watched the thermometer drop, and drop, and drop. By the time we arrived it was less than 15 degrees C, and oh boy was the water ever cold!
But Alasdair and I were determined to swim. The waves were pretty big, and the water so cold that we weren’t sure we’d actually submerse ourselves. Everyone else in the water – a dozen or so surfers – were all wearing neoprene wetsuits. Someone called Alasdair brave. We ended up playing in the waves, riding them in, but we didn’t really “swim” and we didn’t last too long! It was fun though!
Alasdair and Ailish built a small shelter out of driftwood so we could spend time on the beach protected from the wind and blowing sand. And then we headed back to Port Alberni.
Day 20: Tofino
In the morning we headed back to Tofino. We stopped at Pacific Rim National Park again to explore the shoreline at a couple of different beaches, and in doing so found some cool things, like shells, Sea anemones, and Tidepool sculpins (fish)!
We had reserved rental bikes at Tofino Bike Co, so we headed there next.
The “Cruisers” were not like bikes we are used to – on these single speed bikes you sit in a very upright position, and you brake with your feet (like when we were kids). They took some getting used to. We rode a paved path into Tofino, and then cruised around town a bit. We locked our bikes together and followed a path to Tonquin beach, where we had a picnic lunch.
From there we got onto the Tonquin Trail Network, and then headed to Mackenzie beach before it was time to return our bikes.
After returning our bikes, we headed to Bravocados for a delicious vegan dinner!
Day 21: Port Alberni to Victoria
We left Port Alberni and headed south for Victoria, where we would spend our last few days. We stopped in Ladysmith for an amazing vegan lunch at Plantitude. This quickly became my favourite vegan restaurant, with a cute patio and delicious food.
We settled into our last Airbnb, this one in Saanich, quite close to Mount Douglas Park, and not far from the University of Victoria, the reason we set off for British Columbia in the first place!
Day 22: Victoria
This would be our last full day with Ailish before the big move! We headed downtown Victoria to wander around. We talked to a man with an emotional support cat – that sadly had no interest in us. Eventually we ended up at Virtuous Pie for a vegan lunch with Alasdair’s former student Connor, now a PhD student at UBC, and his girlfriend. We gave them our leftover MSR fuel, since we couldn’t fly home with it!
We did some last minute shopping for university supplies, and final packing for the move. I was incredibly relieved that none of Ailish’s things had been stolen from the car as we crossed the country. It made me nervous to leave all her prized possessions in the vehicle (except her electronic devices, which we always had with us except when we were swimming). I was most worried when we were camping, because when we stayed in Airbnbs we took everything out of the vehicle.
We went for one last walk to a beach.
Day 23: Victoria
After a vegan pancake breakfast at Fern Cafe and Bakery, we moved Ailish’s stuff into UVic, had lunch with her on campus, and then after helping unpack most of her things, we walked away! Probably because we left her with a friend, there were no tears. But after being in such close quarters for 23 days, it was weird, very weird!
Alasdair and I went to return the car to the rental place, and decided to walk the 8k back to our Airbnb. Once we got there, we changed and headed out for runs. We both ran at Mount Douglas Park, but I chose to stay on easier trails and to make one last stop at the ocean’s edge. Alasdair ran toward the peak.
We packed all our stuff, including our camping gear, into 4 duffle bags. We offered our leftover food, matches and a few odds and ends to our Airbnb hosts, who were happy to keep everything out of the compost and landfill.
Day 24: Victoria to Hamilton, Ontario
On our last day we got our steps in by walking back and forth on the sidewalk outside our Airbnb while waiting for our taxi to arrive (our host came out to comment on how active we were!). Once we arrived at the Victoria airport we checked our luggage and then went for a walk outside, where we had fun trying to photograph some very shy birds (protective of all the babies) – turns out they were California quail.
And then before we knew it, we were home… to a very quiet house!
Excitement (and nervousness) was in the air when we set out mid-August for an epic road trip and the start of a new phase in our lives! This would be a car camping trip like no other, spanning 5 provinces, using scaled back camping gear and relying on a rental car to bring my husband, daughter and I, our camping essentials and many prized possessions to Vancouver Island, with just 2 of us flying home. It would also be our inaugural vegetarian camping trip (vegan for one of us). For Ailish it would be her first time west of Ontario, while Alasdair and I hadn’t been that way since our honeymoon to Banff in 2001!
Part 3 (Coming soon): A review of all the vegan restaurants we tried as we crossed the country (there were many gems!).
A few notes:
Booking provincial park campsites: All campsites were booked on the first allowable booking date for all provincial parks in all provinces. I was already familiar with the Ontario booking system (and the 5 months to the day booking in advance), but I had to create accounts and learn the booking systems for Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia. They each had their own booking timeframes. While we hoped to get waterfront, non-electrical sites where possible, we only really cared about Lake Superior – you can’t beat the waterfront sites and Agawa Bay sunsets. As it turned out, I didn’t manage to snag one, but I did get one a month later when a booking was cancelled (I checked the Ontario Parks website frequently!). We booked a few electrical sites when this was the only option, and did have a power bar with us to charge our devices. Mostly we charged phones, an iPad and headphones using chargers/adapters in the car, as well as with a small solar charger.
Booking national park campsites: Our plans for the trip hadn’t been finalized when the booking window opened, but we got lucky and I managed to grab the last site at the very small Glacier National Park. There were still many options at Banff National Park.
Car rental: We booked the car 9 months in advance, long before our trip was confirmed, because we wanted a larger vehicle and we knew there was a shortage of rentals. My biggest fear about the trip was that there would be no rental car for us on pick-up day!
Minimalist camping: Given that we would be flying our camping gear home, we scaled back what we would normally have with us when car camping. We did not bring a dining tent, our canoe or kayaks, our paddling gear, our bikes, an axe, a big pot or frying pan, or a hard-topped cooler. We brought our backcountry camping kitchen gear (including tarps) and a soft-sided cooler bag, which worked out great. We ended up buying a shallow bin for the cooler bag because when the ice melted, the bag leaked!
Food: Usually when we car camp I pack a Rubbermaid bin and a big cooler of food. For this trip we knew we’d be on the road most days, and therefore able to stop in grocery stores along the way. We often had picnic lunches after stopping at grocery stores for frest fruits and veggies, but we cooked our breakfasts and dinners. And then of course sometimes we ate in vegan restaurants!
Day 1: Hamilton, Ontario to Lake Superior Provincial Park (Agawa Bay Campground), Agawa Bay, Ontario (865 km / 9 hours)
Despite the super long day, when we visit Lake Superior Provincial Park we always drive the entire way on the first day of our trip. Doing so gives us more time at the park! We have visited times and I have written several blog posts about Lake Superior:
As is custom, we stopped for lunch in Sudbury, but this time we had lunch on the patio at Tucos Taco Lounge, dessert at Flurple’s, and grabbed treats to go from Beard’s Coffee Bar and Bakery (all vegan!)! Needless to say we did not need to stop for dinner in Sault Ste. Marie as we normally do!
We arrived at our waterfront campsite at the tail end of the sunset, and ended up putting our two new lightweight tents up in the dark – not ideal, when I had only put them up once before by myself months ago in the backyard! Nevertheless, they went up quickly and no fights ensued. We couldn’t wait to spend two full days in the park before continuing westward.
Day 2: Agawa Bay, Lake Superior Provincial Park
There are many great hiking trails in the park. On this day we chose to hike the Pinguisibi Trail along the Sand River. Ailish sat at the river’s edge and sketched the waterfall in front of her. Later in the afternoon, we swam at Katherine Cove – unlike the rocky beach, quick drop off and freezing water at Agawa Bay, Katherine Cove has a sandy beach, is shallow quite a ways out, and is therefore a tiny bit warmer (this is Lake Superior, after all, with an average temperature of 2 degrees Celsius or 36 degrees Fahrenheit)! We also visited the Visitor Centre gift shop and interactive displays. I always love looking at the book with recent animal sightings listed!
Day 3: Agawa Bay, Lake Superior Provincial Park
On our second full day at Lake Superior, Alasdair and I each went for a run – our goal was to run at least once in each province. In my case, I planned to do 5k runs. Ontario run done! We also went back to swim at Katherine Cove, and enjoyed our last Lake Superior sunset, not knowing when we would be back!
Day 4: Lake Superior Provincial Park to Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park, Kakabeka Falls, Ontario (589 km / 6.25 hours)
After breakfast we set out for Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park, which we had previously stopped at briefly to see the falls, but not to camp. At one point along Highway 17 the traffic slowed – we expected construction or an accident – but as we got closer we saw a small airplane that had landed on the road! It didn’t look damaged. We wondered how it would be removed given its not insignificant wingspan! We stopped at the Terry Fox Monument just outside Thunder Bay.
Usually when we car camp we cook over the campfire, but for this trip we used both the campfire and my MSR Dragonfly backcountry stove. Ailish and I had our share of vegan s’mores over the course of the trip!
Day 5: Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park to Whiteshell Provincial Park (Falcon Lakeshore Campground), Falcon Beach, Manitoba (549 km / 6 hours)
It was a rainy morning, but before leaving the park we had to get a good look at the waterfall!
At some point in the morning we crossed the 90 degree longitude mark and entered the Central Time Zone, setting our clocks back one hour. And then shortly afterwards we reached the Ontario/Manitoba border! The sign marking the spot was the nicest of the provincial signs we saw on our trip.
When we arrived at our campsite at Whiteshell Provincial Park (Falcon Lakeshore Campground), we initially thought that someone was mistakenly set up in our site. But no, our site was essentially shared with another group. We were shocked. It was tiny, and because the majority of the site was gravel (a harbinger of things to come), we had to set up one of our tents right beside our neighbour’s tent. Unfortunately they were also smokers. Suffice it to say this was our least favourite site of the trip. Alasdair and I each went for a run, and then we all went for a swim at the beach. Manitoba run done! With thunderstorms in the forecast along with lots of rain, and zero desire to spend another full day at that campsite, we decided to change our plans and stay at an Airbnb in Winnipeg the next night. Unfortunately our neighbours at the campsite across the road were incredibly loud, playing music at a volume I will never understand. We did eventually fall asleep.
Day 6: Whiteshell Provincial Park to Airbnb in Winnipeg, Manitoba (130 km / 1.5 hours)
When Alasdair and I woke to the sound of thunder early in the morning, we made the decision to pack up immediately and try to get out of there before the heavy rain started. We succeeded! As we were heading to Winnipeg, I caught site of a big sign out of the corner of my eye. I quickly made the decision to exit the highway, and we discovered we were at the longitudinal centre of Canada! A lucky find!
In Winnipeg we checked out The Forks (located at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers), but it was raining so we decided to return the next day. We also had a delicious lunch at Roughage Eatery (vegan), and then we visited my Tante Claire and Uncle Alan, who we hadn’t seen in about 17 years! We had a really nice visit with them in their lovely backyard. That night we were fortunate to be able to do laundry at our Airbnb!
Day 7: Winnipeg, Manitoba to Rivers Provincial Park, Rivers, Manitoba (244 km / 2.75 hours)
We went back to The Forks – this time in the sun – where Ailish got out her guitar and she and Alasdair geeked out on physics and sound waves in a dome area of the skate park (to be fair, it was pretty cool). We were shocked by the flood marker pole nearby and couldn’t imagine the water level ever reaching those levels!
We went into The Forks Market to grab food for lunch, which we ate on the super cute patio area. We headed for Rivers Provincial Park, where the mosquitoes reminded us that we were still in Manitoba! They were horrendous!
We had heard on the radio that conditions were good to see the Northern Lights that night, so at Rivers Provincial Park we went for a walk in the dark away from campsites and lights and did some sky gazing. We got to giggling – apparently loudly – attracting the attention of someone who turned out to be a park warden, coming with his big flashlight to make sure we weren’t up to no good (apparently they had issues with people stealing wood)! We did see the Northern Lights, but they weren’t very colourful. We did, however, see lots of shooting stars! (This wasn’t the only night we star gazed… it was just the most memorable one!)
Day 8: Rivers Provincial Park to Saskatchewan Landing Provincial Park, Stewart Valley, Saskatchewan (650 km / 6.5 hours)
We headed out after breakfast, entering into Saskatchewan (a first for all of us).
We stopped in Regina for a picnic lunch, and couldn’t believe our luck when we spotted several seemingly tame hares!
Alasdair and I went for runs, and then swam in the lake. Saskatchewan run done! We went star gazing again, this time climbing a steep hill to get as far away from lights as we could. We discovered on our way up that there were cacti in the park!
Unfortunately there was a very large group of extremely loud people near our campsite (it was ridiculous), so sometime late that night or early the next morning after struggling to fall asleep Alasdair went and asked them if they could be quieter – thankfully they agreed to settle down.
Day 9: Saskatchewan Landing Provincial Park to Dinosaur Provincial Park, Brooks, Alberta (394 km / 4 hours)
On our drive to Dinosaur Provincial Park we were amazed at the number of hawks we saw on hydro poles along the highway. There were dozens and dozens of them! We crossed into Alberta and into the Mountain Time Zone, setting our clocks back one hour. The truck carrying jumbo wheels seemed like a fitting welcome to the province.
We stopped at the Visitor Centre in Medicine Hat (where I bought some Saskatoon berries for me, and some Saskatoon berries and Saskatoon berry jam for my dad – they were a hit). We checked out the nearby Saasmis Teepee, the world’s tallest teepee, which includes some beautiful Indigenous art. We couldn’t stay in the area long because we had a tour booked at Dinosaur Provincial Park and we didn’t want to miss it! We arrived in time for our “Bare Bones Bus Tour”, and got to see “a fully articulated duck-billed dinosaur fossilized skeleton left virtually where it was discovered by the park’s first Park Ranger and excavated by one of the eminent palaeontologists of his time, Charles Sternberg”. Our guide was fantastic and sitting in the front seat I was nominated to be her assistant (passing information cards around the bus). The tour allowed us to go in an area that we wouldn’t have otherwise been permitted to. I highly recommend booking a tour.
The ground was so rocky in the campground that we had to get creative to peg our tent out, using food containers and lots of rocks! In fact, from Manitoba westward we camped in rocky campsites!
After dinner we joined a fun trivia program for families and learned more about dinosaurs and the park. Later, I decided to grab my camera and run after a couple of girls who themselves were running with a camera (this might sound weirder than it was). Ailish and then Alasdair joined me down by the river, and while it was hard in the fading light to figure out what we were seeing, we (and the family we were with) were convinced they were black bears (not beavers as someone else told us!). Later that night Ailish and I were spooked by eyes in the dark as we headed to the bathroom. We warned people coming our way, then went back with them and their big flashlight to discover the scary creatures were deer. But you might understand our uneasiness if you knew there are bobcats living there (and deadly spiders!). Thankfully we made it back to our tents unscathed.
Day 10: Dinosaur Provincial Park to Banff National Park (Johnston Canyon Campground), Banff, Alberta (353 km / 3.75 hours)
We had an early morning visitor to our campsite – magpies! We don’t have these birds in Ontario, so it was a nice surprise. After breakfast and packing up, we intended to park by the Visitor Centre and do some hiking. But when I tried to turn the car on, this is when our trip went haywire. To make a long story short, I will just say that we didn’t get to hike, and I drove for 2 1/2 hours to Calgary without knowing my speed, and after 5+ hours of stress in the city trying to find a replacement car (remember how I booked the big car 9 months in advance?), we were in a new rental van and on our way to Banff. Sadly we missed our lunch date with our friend Jordan, who initially introduced Alasdair to me at a soccer tournament in 2000 (I was recruited to play on their co-ed team). We had a very late lunch at a cute little vegan restaurant called Pachamama Soul, a great spot to unwind and de-stress. I loved my spicy chickpea wrap and ginger beet smoothie!
We arrived at Johnston Canyon campground at Banff National Park in the pouring rain! We set up our tents in the rain, and joined other campers eating dinner in a picnic shelter very close to our site. We were disappointed that there was a fire ban at the park, but we wouldn’t have had a fire in the pouring rain anyway.
Day 11: Banff National Park
In the morning as we drove into the town of Banff we were excited to see an elk! We took a Gondola to the top of Sulphur Mountain and enjoyed the spectacular views.
We explored the town, and bought a new card game called Forbidden Island (we love to play cards and board games when we camp, and this trip was no exception).
On the way back to our campsite we stopped and went for a hike at Johnston Canyon. Unfortunately the trail past the lower falls was closed, but what we saw was very pretty. When we got back to our campsite we were pleasantly surprised to learn that the fire ban had been lifted (park staff were dumping wood out of a pick-up truck into a big pile). Alasdair and I went for runs, with me turning mine into a cross-training exercise. I did loops past the wood pile (we had paid for a fire permit), taking a couple of pieces at a time and running with them back to our site. Alberta run done.
Day 12: Banff National Park
Not only did our friend Jordan offer to shuttle us wherever we needed to go during our rental car fiasco, and offer to let us stay with him and his family for as long as needed, but he also drove nearly 2 hours to join us for breakfast in Banff so we could still meet up. It had been way too long since we had seen him!
After our 3 hour breakfast, we headed for the Lake Louise Ski Resort, where we would catch a shuttle bus to Moraine Lake. There’s limited parking at Moraine Lake, so we’re glad Jordan suggested the shuttle. We hiked the Rockpile trail and the Moraine Lake Lakeshore trail. While hiking the former, we stopped to have a snack, and spotted this wee one, a Golden-mantled ground squirrel. We did not feed it, but clearly people do.
We also watched part of a very small wedding at this same spot. From Moraine Lake we took the shuttle to Lake Louise, but it was raining when we got there, so we decided to just take a quick look and then take the shuttle back to our car.
I cooked a pizza over the campfire, using pizza dough that I made from scratch – it was delicious and the crust browned perfectly! (Making pizza dough from scratch is nothing new for me, but I’d never done it while camping before. Usually we use tortillas or naan bread.)
Day 13: Banff National Park to Glacier National Park, Columbia-Shuswap, British Columbia (120 km / 1.5 hours)
We set out for Glacier National Park, and it wasn’t long before we reached the Alberta/British Columbia border and the province of our ultimate destination! We entered the Pacific Time Zone, setting our clocks back one hour.
Alasdair suggested that we take a short detour to visit Takakkaw Falls in Yoho National Park, which we had seen on our honeymoon. The road there had quite a switch back at one point. The falls are beautiful, and there are many hikes accessible from this spot.
We continued on to Loop Brook campground at Glacier National Park, a tiny campground with a gorgeous view. We hiked the 1.8 km Loop Brook Trail, an interpretive trail that provides information about the history of the rail line and the local area.
We had yummy wraps for dinner, as well as baked potatoes (a first time for us while camping) and homemade brownies from scratch.
Day 14: Glacier National Park to Sasquatch Provincial Park, Harrison Hot Springs, British Columbia (508 km / 5.5 hours)
On our way to Sasquatch Provincial Park we stopped in Revelstoke for an outdoor visit with Alasdair’s university friend Lisa and her family. Sometime during our trip I learned that my friend Tim and his family would coincidentally be camping at the same provincial park as us at the same time. I met Tim at a youth hostel in Montreal during university while he was travelling with a friend from England and I was travelling with my friend Anne – I hadn’t seen him since. Unfortunately a rainy weekend forecast scuttled their plans and we didn’t get to meet up after all. Next time!
We arrived in the dark and had some trouble finding our campsite, but we eventually found it. As it turned out we set our tents up in the rain, but then the rain stopped long enough for us to have dinner. We even saw a friendly local – a skunk! We learned that there was still a fire ban in the province – the reason it was lifted in Banff and Glacier was that the national parks are under different rules (they make their own risk assessments).
Day 15: Sasquatch Provincial Park to Goldstream Provincial Park, Langford, British Columbia (227 km / 4.25 hours)
We packed up and set out for Vancouver, where we had plans to have a vegan lunch with my cousin Julie, who I hadn’t seen in a very, very long time (pre-kids!). First though, we went for a walk along the water near Science World, and then we went to Catfé, which would turn out to be one of the highlights of our trip! Catfé: “Cat lovers mewnite. Catfe offers up catpuccinos, cat-themed treats, cat supplies and meowchandise, all in the company of adoptable rescue cats.” It was so nice to be able to pet and play with many adorable cats. Note: reservations highly recommended!
From here we met Julie at Chickpea, where we had an amazing meal on the patio and enjoyed catching up. We headed for the Tsawwassen ferry to Victoria (Swartz Bay), which we had booked ahead of time. Alasdair and I spent a lot of the 1 1/2 hour ferry ride doing laps around the ship! There was a bit of wind.
Once we arrived on Vancouver Island we headed for Goldstream Provincial Park, the last stop on the camping part of our trip. Our campsite was in a beautiful forest with some huge trees (big diameter and very tall). We were also very close to a fantastic looking playground for kids, which included a bike pump track and trails.
Day 16: Goldstream Provincial Park
First thing in the morning we spotted a very cute raccoon in one of the trees on our campsite. We were lucky enough to see it again that night.
Alasdair and I went for runs, but there was no lake in the park to jump into afterwards, so showers it was. British Columbia run done! We hadn’t been at a campground with a lake since we were in Saskatchewan! We also did some short hikes in the park, including a trail in the campground to Goldstream Falls.
We headed into Victoria, since we were just 25 minutes away. We visited Beacon Hill Park, including the Terry Fox monument. We went for dinner at Virtuous Pie, an awesome vegan pizza place with a great patio.
Before climbing into our tents for the last sleep of our trip, we gave our camping chairs – well loved but still life in them – to a family at the campsite across from us, as we were not going to fly them home with us. We gave our leftover MSR fuel to one of Alasdair’s former students, who we met near the end of our trip.
Day 17: Goldstream Provincial Park to Nanaimo, British Columbia (99 km / 1.25 hours)
The morning of our 17th day marked the end of the camping part of our trip. Overall we got lucky with the weather – it rained far less than I expected it to. We had a few cold nights in the tent, in particular (and surprisingly!) at Lake Superior Provincial Park, and then again in Banff. We were incredibly fortunate to be able to drive across the prairies and through the Rocky Mountains. The change in landscape as we crossed the country was incredible. I highly recommend it.
From here on out we would sleep at Airbnbs and be able to do laundry again! We pulled out of our campsite, left the park, and headed for Nanaimo, the next stop of our exploration of Vancouver Island!
Don’t forget to come back to read about the next part of our journey, as well as a review of the vegan restaurants we tried.
After such a great experience yurt camping for the first time last winter at Mew Lake in Algonquin Provincial Park, my friend Rebecca and I decided to do it again. This time, we would be joined by Jen, who had never stayed in a yurt before. There is so much to do at Algonquin in the winter!
Our plan was to borrow cross-country skis from Algonquin Outfitters, and in my case, to try them out for the first time in more than 10 years! Last year, we borrowed fat bikes and had a blast!
Unfortunately, Jen was unable to ski due to a knee injury, but she was still keen to get away with us for a few days!
I’ve already written about my cross-country skiing adventures with Rebecca on the Algonquin Outfitters blog, so I’ll skip that part (it was super fun) and focus instead on winter camping in a yurt!
We pulled into Mew Lake and headed for our yurt. Before even parking our car at our campsite, we had already spotted 2 pine martens. Their little faces are so darn cute!
Jen had arrived just before us, so we went into the yurt and decided who was going to sleep in which bed, and where we were going to stash all of our stuff. A yurt is much bigger than a tent, but start piling gear in there and it fills up quickly.
Since there were only 3 of us, Jen and I each had a double bed (bottom bunk) to ourselves, with Rebecca on a top bunk. The yurts sleep 6, and while there are 6 chairs, the table is tiny. As you can see in the pictures below, there is a long shelf above the table, perfect for keeping paper towels and kleenex and other things out of the way.
There is an electric heater in the yurt, which takes the edge off the cold, but you still have to dress warmly. As the heater cycles on and off, I often found that I was most comfortable wearing multiples layers, including a winter hat (I may or may not have worn the same long johns and running pants for 3 days straight)! But at night, I was quite comfortable in regular pajamas and my -7C sleeping bag. There is a single overhead fluorescent light, which is plugged into the only electrical outlet in the yurt. This means you have one outlet to plug in your phone, kettle, etc. unless you bring a power bar.
Insider tip: bring a very long extension cord to reach the power outlet outside and behind the yurt. You can feed this into the yurt through a window (they close with velcro), and then you can have an outlet that works when you turn the light off. Otherwise, when you turn the light off, the other outlet turns off too! Jen read up on yurt camping and learned lots of useful tidbits, including putting a sheet on the double mattress to make the bed more cozy!
Jen also brought a mat for just inside the yurt door, and we all brought “inside shoes” so that we didn’t track snow and water all across the floor. There were a couple of rubber mats to put our footwear on, and several hooks to hang coats. Our door didn’t quite shut properly (it seemed misaligned), so it’s no wonder it never really warmed up in there.
We had a sneak peak at a newer model of yurt across the road from us, complete with newer bunk beds, a wooden table, and a fireplace! It sounds like all of the older yurts will be replaced in time with the newer model.
While Jen wasn’t able to ski, she was able to go for walks, so we walked through the old Mew Lake airfield at sunset, which was just as pretty as always.
Another time we walked through the old Mew Lake airfield to the Old Railway Trail, then back along the Highland Trail to the waterfall, and finally along the Track and Tower Trail back to Mew Lake.
While we didn’t skate at Mew Lake, there is a rink beside the comfort station (hot and cold running water, flush toilets, a shower, and laundry facilities), complete with hockey nets, sticks, pucks (and shovels!) for campers to use. There’s also a warming tent with picnic tables and a fire in it.
While we were camping, the only occupied campsites were the 7 yurts, and 3 sites with trailers on them (including the camp hosts). It quiet – and lovely!
Our 2nd day at Algonquin saw a snowstorm blow in, and when it was all done the next morning, 25 cm of snow had fallen! We couldn’t leave until a tractor came to plow the roads (which happened before 10 AM). We had to dig our cars out, and sadly, head for home!
I love that in a yurt at Algonquin you can hang your clothes to dry, be cozy at night, and have nature’s playground at your doorstep. It was a great 3-day mini winter getaway, with cross-country skiing, hiking, card playing, lots of laughs, tons of sweets (and hot chocolate!) and relaxation! Algonquin, I’ll be back!
If only I could put down on paper the images I have in my mind! I recently spent a week camping at Lake Superior Provincial Park, and the scenery did not disappoint!
My daughter and I signed up for a 3-hour art class at the Visitor Centre, and while she decided to paint the small black bear that we spotted just south of the park along Highway 17, I chose to paint a coastal scene.
The class began with a slideshow of pictures that Heather had taken in and around Lake Superior Provincial Park, as well as of her artwork.
We were given small pieces of paper, pencils and pencil crayons and told to sketch out whatever it was we wanted to paint. There were all kinds of pictures to look at in case we couldn’t decide what we wanted to draw, or in case we just needed a bit more inspiration. We could also try to paint a photo we had taken ourselves.
When most people were done their sketches, Heather gave us a little lesson on the colour wheel (she had a turtle colour wheel) and how to mix colours. We would be given only the primary colours (red, yellow, blue), white, and 2 others if we wanted them (a violet and a turquoise).
The next step was to sketch our scene onto canvas. I changed my drawing slightly, but just the proportion of beach to water to sky.
Then it was time to play with the paint!
I had fun mixing colours, but some colours were hard to create! I’m not sure when I last painted, let alone mixed colours. And then I ran into the problem of running out of the perfect colour and having to attempt to make more!
Ailish kept asking me what time it was, because she felt that she was going to run out of time.
I wasn’t sure whether to paint the background or foreground first, and decided to tackle the island first, then the trees. But I later realized that I should have done the background, because trying to fill in the white area around the trees was really hard without messing up my tree branches. I had to touch the trees up later, but I think it would have been easier to do the trees last.
As we got closer to the 3 hour mark, Ailish asked Heather for help. She suggested ways to make the painting go faster.
I wasn’t happy with the colour of my sand, but didn’t have time to start over mixing a sand colour. And my pretty purple flowers on the beach dried very dark, and aren’t really distinguishable from the sand and rocks. I asked Heather how to make my water look more water-like, so she suggested waves, and showed me how to do them. Then I added white caps.
When we were done, everyone else was pretty much gone, except for a woman from Québec City. Heather took Ailish and I outside onto the back deck of the Visitor Centre for the “Trucker’s Test”. She leaned our pictures against a railing, and we stepped back – way back – as if our pictures were billboards. From that vantage point, we could see what jumped out of the painting, and what didn’t. Heather pointed out that all my colours were dark, and that in future I could work on using darker colours and lighter colours. She added some lighter colour to my trees, and to the island and rocks. It really helped. Ailish’s tree behind the bear got a little bit of a touch-up too.
Ailish and I really enjoyed the painting class. I’m happy with my painting, but it’s far from what I was actually going for. Lots of room for improvement! I like Ailish’s painting better, and she prefers mine. That’s probably normal.
I highly recommend art programs at Ontario Parks! I did a fun one last summer at Grundy Lake too. Many parks have “Friends of” organizations, non-profits which organize different events for the parks. Take a look at the other programs organized by the Friends of Lake Superior.
Ever star in a photo or video shoot? I hadn’t, until recently at Algonquin Provincial Park during a weekend of biking adventures.
Given that I will be participating in a canoe/mountain biking/trail running race on the Bruce Peninsula later this summer with my friend Rebecca, I figured that we should practice actually doing these activities together! Algonquin Outfitters graciously offered to let us borrow 2 mountain bikes for the weekend in exchange for a blog post on their website about my biking experience, and a photo shoot so that they could update their website content. A few days before our trip, we found out that in fact we could try any of their bikes, simply exchanging one kind for another over the weekend.
So Friday night we stopped at the Lake of Two Rivers Algonquin Outfitters store where we borrowed two Specialized mountain bikes. Because the Minnesing Mountain Biking Trail along Highway 60 was closed due to flooding, we had to drive 1 1/4 hours to the south end of the park, where we could try out the Byers Lake Mountain Bike Trail. We stopped quickly at the Pog Lake campground to register for our campsite, and then headed for the trail. When we got there, we were quickly discovered by the resident mosquitoes!! Bug spray and riding quickly were pretty effective, but if you’ve mountain biked before, you’ll know that you don’t always go quickly!! We got stuck in mud puddles at times that reduced our speed to zero and increased our bug swatting immensely! The trail wasn’t super well marked, so we weren’t totally sure that we were on it the whole time (there were lots of trail junctions), but we had fun and rode for just under an hour.
On Saturday morning we met Randy from Algonquin Outfitters at the Lake of Two Rivers store for the photo shoot, which was actually a photo and video shoot. We spent a couple of hours pretending to go through the process of getting out of our vehicle, looking at the bikes, getting help from the bike rental shop, getting explanations of the various bike components, getting a helmet, and finally trying out the bikes. Chris the photographer/videographer had us reshoot some scenes multiple times because of the lighting, where we stood (or didn’t), what we did (or didn’t), etc. We had fun but we felt funny at times doing it over and over. After clear instructions from Chris to ignore stuff around us, we did just that and did not glance over when a vehicle honked its horn long and hard multiple times. It turns out we missed 2 moose crossing just in front of the store!! Randy asked us if we’d be willing to ride the trail-a-bike, which essentially is an adult bike with part of a kid’s bike trailing behind. I rode in the front, and Rebecca on the little kid’s seat! It was so hard to go straight, because our balance was way off – the back seat isn’t designed for an adult!! We were laughing though, and after 3 attempts we managed to smile and wave without falling off or crashing.
After the photo/video shoot was done at the bike shop, we exchanged our mountain bikes for fat bikes and hit the Old Railway Bike Trail. We met Randy and Chris at the old Mew Lake airfield for a few more shots.
The trail is pretty much flat, with just a slight uphill grade one way and a slight downhill grade the other! You can ride it on almost any bike (other than a road bike with a skinny tire – it wouldn’t be so fun on the loose gravel). We even saw a kid with training wheels on his bike. The trail is 16 km long, and quite scenic in places.
We decided to head West for Cache Lake, and stopped at the very end of the trail at a little bridge over a pretty creek for a snack. I had never been on a fat bike before, and thought it would be heavy and unwieldy. It wasn’t at all like that – it was light and maneouvreable. I loved it. While riding, we saw a painted turtle and tons of dragonflies. By the time we returned to the Lake of Two Rivers store, we had pedalled about 15 km. We had a delicious ice cream cone before trading our fat bikes in for a tandem bike.
The Algonquin Outfitters employee gave us some tips on riding the tandem before we tried it in the parking lot. We were pretty wobbly at first! Rebecca started in the front and me in the rear. There is a tandem bike challenge: ride all the way to Rock Lake and back (approximately 25k) and get 15% off the rental fee. We wondered if we could make it that far.
The hardest part was starting, and then slowing down or stopping – we took turns at the front, and had to remember to tell our passenger that we were going to slow down, because the pedals and chain are such that you pedal in sync! If one stops pedalling, the other has to as well. And when you decide to coast or brake, you need to tell your partner to stop pedalling. It didn’t take too long for us to get the hang of it. We actually rode through the Rock Lake campground all the way to the trailhead for the Booth’s Rock trail! By the time we returned to the Lake of Two Rivers store, we were pros!! The tandem was super fun!
You can also rent kids’ bikes, “cruisers” (you sit more upright, kind of old fashioned style, with more padded seats), and bikes for people with accessibility issues.
I can’t wait to go back to Algonquin this winter to try fat biking again!! While fat bikes were originally designed for winter riding, they are great for trails, mud, loose gravel etc.
I’m also looking forward to checking out Algonquin Outfitter’s new pictures and video! In particular the trail-a-bike bit…
My very first winter camping experience was a 3-day car camping trip at Mew Lake, Algonquin Provincial Park. In my guest post on the Algonquin Outfitters blog, I write about that first experience. Wouldn’t everyone go winter camping for the very first time during a cold weather alert?
It only took one camping trip to Lake Superior Provincial Park for it to become my favourite provincial park in Ontario! It may take 12 hours to drive there from my house, including stops, but it is well worth the drive. At Lake Superior I have car camped, canoe tripped and done backpacking trips. I cannot wait to return.
Here are my 10 favourite things to do while camping at Lake Superior Provincial Park, in no particular order:
1 – Visit the Lake Superior Coastline
Park your car at one of the many Coastal Trail access points within Lake Superior Provincial Park, and explore the coastline by walking the trail. In the past, we have walked through knee deep water to an island, where a pool of water collects and warms (sort of, depending on the weather of course). We even brought our backcountry stove and baked brownies on the little island! We have also gone swimming there. We have explored the coast like this many times, and are always amazed at the adventures we have! In fact, this is how we ended up finding bald eagles!
2 – Hike the Orphan Lake Trail
This 8 km long trail starts in a parking lot along Highway 17, makes its way around Orphan Lake, then down to Lake Superior. It’s not an out and back (there’s a loop), so there’s lots to see. More information on this and other hiking trails can be found here in a park guide. There’s a very pretty little spot along the Baldhead River that is perfect for a rest stop and a snack. One year, my daughter “caught” her first leech (on her leg) where the Baldhead River opens out into Lake Superior. Some random stranger helped us get it off of her. This trail has scenic lookouts and it joins the Coastal Trail. We like to swim in Lake Superior at this point – despite the river outlet and leeches!
3 – Watch the sun set on Agawa Bay
It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve watched the sun set on Agawa Bay – it is still gorgeous!!
4 – Attend programs at the Visitor Centre
We have participated in some fantastic programs at the Visitor Centre, from learning about the Ministry of Natural Resources canine unit, to laying on the beach looking up at the night sky, to “ask an interpreter” nights, to listening to a guest speaker’s paddling adventures on Lake Superior, to watching a Bill Mason video. We have learned so much through the excellent daytime and night time programs.
5 – Visit the pictographs at Agawa Rock
As stated on the Friends of Lake Superior Provincial Park website, “The Agawa Rock Pictographs are enduring messages from the past. This is a sacred site where generations of Ojibwe have come to record dreams, visions and events.” You can see the pictographs by hiking a short distance of about 500 m, or you can access them by canoe or kayak. Note, though, that the wet rocks can be treacherous, and caution must always be taken when viewing them. One year, my daughter was convinced she was going to die while looking at them – i.e. that she would be swept away by a wave – she was so worried that she wanted us to take a “last” photograph together.
6 – Swim in Burnt Rock Pool along the Towab Trail
The Towab Trail is a 24 km return trip, but you don’t have to go that far! If you hike about 4 km, you come upon Burnt Rock Pool, which is where the Agawa River opens up a bit and makes for a great swimming place. There’s a current, so it can be quite fun to float down river! It’s an easy hike from the parking lot to this spot. The trail gets tougher later on, and if you’re looking for an overnight hike, consider staying in one of the campsites at the very end of the trail. My husband and I stayed in the one on top of the waterfall – it’s the only one there – and it was amazing!
7 – Do an overnight backpacking trip along the Coastal Trail
We have had such fun hiking along the Coastal Trail to backpacking sites along Lake Superior. One year, the only visitor we had was the resident otter! The hike was tough going though, as it was more like bouldering than hiking. Add big packs to our backs and our balance was a bit off. It was, however, a great experience. The coast of Lake Superior is incredibly beautiful.
8 – Watch for wildlife
We have been lucky enough to spot some incredible wildlife at Lake Superior, including a bear while out running alone (terrifying, not exactly lucky!), and juvenile bald eagles along the Coastal Trail.
9 – Explore the rugged coastline of Lake Superior
Pick a spot, any spot, and go for a hike. Check out the rocks – see the history! Such a beautiful shoreline.
10 – Swim in the huge waves at Agawa Bay
We love swimming in Agawa Bay, but it takes us a few days to get accustomed to the frigid water! The most fun is when the waves are huge.
Trust me when I say that Lake Superior Provincial Park is an amazing place. And then, go see for yourself!
We left at 7:30 AM with a full day of driving ahead of us. After stops in Sudbury for lunch, Sault Ste. Marie for dinner, and a few pitstops in between, we were at our campsite at Agawa Bay by about 7:30 PM (we saw lots of cool Sandhill Cranes on our way). We bought some wood when we registered, because we cook our meals over a campfire. We were surprised by the chilly temperature, and wished we had packed winter hats and mitts like some campers did! Our site on Lake Superior was a great one.
We put up our sleeping tents (for the first time, the kids in one, and us in another), and headed to the Visitor Centre for a program called Night at the Museum. Park naturalists were set up at different stations, where you could ask questions and learn about different topics, such as geology and backcountry camping, and watch a Bill Mason canoeing video. There was also hot chocolate inside and s’mores outside. We stayed for a while, then went back to our campsite and headed to bed.
On our first full day at the park – sunny and 13 or 14 degrees Celsius (in August!) – we had a delicious breakfast of chocolate chip pancakes, oatmeal and fresh fruit. We set up our dining tent after breakfast, and then Alasdair headed out for a 2 hour run. Once he came back it was lunch time, and then my turn to go for a 2 hour run. I decided to run partly on Highway 17, and partly in the campground, because in past camping trips when I’ve run on trails I’ve found it terrifying, expecting bears, moose and other scary creatures to jump out of the bush at me! So… I was running (alone, without my bear spray!) along Highway 17 when I spotted a little black head in the ditch across the highway… yup, a bear! It was a young one, nibbling on something yummy. It saw me, so I stopped, walked a few steps, then continued running away from the bear, paying attention to exactly where he was, knowing that I would be turning around and running back past where the bear was! Yes, he was little, but yes, I was still scared! I kept looking over my shoulder and was relieved that it wasn’t chasing me! My blood pressure returned to a more normal level as I got further away from him, but of course I was looking for other creatures as I ran. Every noise, from a tiny bird to a chipmunk can sound big and terrifying! And then a truck honked at me – “Must be warning me that a bear is chasing me!” I thought. Nope. I turned and headed back… toward the bear… looking out for him… and eventually, spotting him again! Before I got to him though, I clapped periodically while I ran, so at least he knew I was there and I didn’t startle him. When I finally did see him the 2nd time, I clapped a few times and he did what all good wild bears should do – quickly run off into the bush! I continued on my run, getting back to the campground as quickly as I could, and vowing to never run along highways alone again while up north. Soon I’ll be forced to simply run laps around my campsite. Ha!
We all swam when I got back from my run, in the c-c-c-cold water of Lake Superior. It was windy and wavy too!
After dinner I think we played cards, and the kids ate cold s’mores (no one really felt like making a fire, I guess).
Keaghan decided to sleep in the hammock (in a sleeping bag with a blanket on top), and surprised me by making it through the night (he wasn’t cold, and wasn’t scared – I would have been!). Ailish wasn’t too happy about having to sleep alone in the tent.
During a previous visit to Lake Superior Provincial Park, we hiked the Coastal Trail south from Gargantua Harbour, heading for Rhyolite Cove, which apparently had some very cool geological features. We never made it, because it was further than we were able to walk with the kids and still get back to our campsite at a reasonable time. So, this time we decided to try again. It’s a challenging hike, going up and down the rocky face of the coast. The weather was great for a hike, sunny but not too hot (it was about 14 or 15 degrees Celsius). We drove from Agawa Bay to the Gargantua Road, and then 14 km slowly down this unpaved road (20-40 km/h) – we saw a Ruffed Grouse along the road. We started our hike and were quickly rewarded with beautiful views of Lake Superior.
We reached the point where we stopped last time, when we decided to eat and swim in a little cove which we now think is called Fat Man’s Alley. This time we continued on, and after 6 km, we found Rhyolite Cove. Unfortunately, it was very underwhelming! Alasdair talked to someone camping at a backcountry site there, and learned that there were some neat things to see further along. We enjoyed our lunch of bagels and mud, apples, homemade fruit leather and gatorade and then decided to go a bit further to check things out. We did find some neat quartz popping out of the surrounding rock, but that was it. Thankfully, the 6 km hike back to the car went faster than the hike out (we definitely stopped less frequently to pick blueberries!).
We later found out from one of the park naturalists that had we gone further, we would have found other cool stuff, including an in-land pool of water. Next time!!
After our big hike the day before, we decided to take it easy and just hang out at the campsite. We played lots of cards, pine cone baseball on the beach, and swam in the humungous waves (Ailish for just a few minutes, Keaghan not at all – too cold, he said). Alasdair and I had a fantastic time diving into the waves, practising swimming along them (great triathlon training!) and jumping or diving over them. They were so big, that when we surfed them to shore we were sent flying.
Keaghan also spent quite a while carving a piece of smoothly eroded driftwood that Alasdair found on our hike, and Keaghan carried back wedged in his camelbak. He turned it into a sword using a knife that Alasdair found during our hike. We don’t normally take anything out of the park (“take nothing but memories, leave nothing but footprints”) but we made an exception this time.
It started raining on Sunday afternoon, and then rained off and on until we left.
After a night of heavy wind and rain, we awoke to miserable weather, but Alasdair did his fire starting magic and we had a hot breakfast. We kind of rushed through it so that we could make it to the Visitor Centre by 11 AM to attend a program – Mike Buckner of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources Canine Unit brought his dog Rebel, and gave a super informative and very funny presentation about the work of the unit, followed by a demonstration with his dog. The canine unit recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. Afterwards we decided to drive the hour to Wawa for lunch at Tim Horton’s, to avoid having to cook in the pouring rain. We also got groceries and replaced our phone charging adaptor, which started smoking on the way to Wawa!
On the way back we stopped at Old Woman Bay, because it’s a pretty spot and the waves crashing onto shore looked very impressive. We were not disappointed!
It was still pouring when we got back to our campsite, and it was cold – 11 degrees Celsius – so we played cards in the van and later ate a cold dinner in the dining tent.
We played cards for quite a while, until the rain let up enough for us to brush our teeth and climb into our tents.
We woke up to find that it was still raining, cold and windy. The rain lightened up enough for Alasdair to make a fire for a hot breakfast. We decided that we’d go to the Visitor Centre after breakfast to check the weather, and if it wasn’t going to improve, we’d go home early. And that’s just what we decided to do. We packed up and were on the road by 11:30 AM, after making friends with a baby squirrel at the Visitor Centre (smallest squirrel I’ve ever seen).
We had lunch in Sault Ste. Marie and dinner in Sudbury, and were home by about 11:45 PM. A long day, but we were all happy to be home.
We never did get a chance to do an overnight hike this time because of the crappy weather, and the lake was way too choppy to even take the kayaks off the roof of the van.
Despite the cool temperatures, wind and rain, we managed to enjoy ourselves.
Lake Superior, we’ll be back!!! (I’m hoping to hike the entire 65 km Coastal Trail with Alasdair in the next few years.)
I started seriously considering winter camping last fall, and it wasn’t long before my friend Cheryl and I had picked a date and started planning our trip. We agreed that we wouldn’t go if a snowstorm was in the forecast, but hadn’t discussed the temperature at which proceeding with our trip as planned bordered on the ridiculous. Despite Friday’s forecasted high of -17 degrees Celsius (feeling like -29 with the windchill), we headed north, for Mew Lake at Algonquin Provincial Park. List-makers and super-planners that we are, we were still surprised by some of the weekend’s happenings…
Friday – Day 1
After picking up Cheryl at around 7 AM, loading her stuff into the van, and stopping for hot drinks at Tim’s in Waterdown, it was clear sailing until just before Barrie, when the “check engine”, “TRAC OFF” and “VSC” lights went on in my van. This necessitated a short detour to the Barrie Toyota, where we were greeted by a very enthusiastic service person with a clipboard who encouraged us to have coffee, hot chocolate, cookies, and a visit to the bathroom while we waited. This was no ordinary bathroom. In fact, in my opinion, far too much money was spent decorating it! And the TV seems a bit extreme. In any case, she wished us well in our camping adventures and said to us, “Don’t die!” One hour and $90 later, a false alarm was declared and we were on our way! Cheryl thought I was looking quite fashionable in my spandex running pants and hiking boots, but I had nothing on the woman in the waiting room with the huge fur hat. We were thinking it might come in handy in Algonquin…
After stopping at the Huntsville Tim’s parking lot to eat our packed lunches, we filled up the gas tank at the junction of Highways 60 and 35, and arrived at the West Gate of Algonquin (km 0) around 12:45 PM to get a camping permit. We learned that there were “a few people” camping there already. After another few minutes of driving, we arrived at the Mew Lake campground (km 30), the only one open for winter camping. We had a bit of trouble finding our way to the actual campsites, ending up at the wood lot instead, so we grabbed a bag of wood ($6.50) and a bag of kindling ($4.50) from the small wood shed, dropping our money in a little metal honour-system payment box. We drove past 4 yurts (heated permanent tent structures with bunk beds) that all seemed occupied (one even had a “hot tent” set up beside it – a tent with a stove in it with an exhaust pipe), and when we reached sites 83-94, right on Mew Lake, we checked them all out before choosing the one right across from the vault (no flush) toilets (site #90). There were a couple of other tents set up in these sites – we weren’t the only crazy ones! The comfort station (which we soon learned was the warmest place in the campground) was about 650 m away, was heated, had flush toilets, warm running water, a shower (which we did not use), and a laundry room with washers, dryers and a laundry tub. Right next to it was a skating rink with hockey nets, sticks and pucks and a campfire nearby. We didn’t see anyone use the rink, but they did flood it regularly and it seemed to be in good shape. Not too far from the comfort station, a quinzee had been built in one of the sites – I never did remember to crawl inside it!
Within about an hour of our arrival, we were greeted by a pine marten in the snow bank between the men’s and women’s toilets. It didn’t stay long but was quite cute. We set up Cheryl’s winter tent, and put our sleeping pads, sleeping bags, pillows, and blankets in as well.
Did I mention it was cold? Putting up a tent while wearing big mittens is not easy. My hands were too cold to just wear fleece gloves, but I had to keep removing my mittens and expose my flesh to snap things together. It was also challenging putting the tent pegs in, but we managed. For at least one Cheryl attached a rope to the fly and pegged it down away from the tent where we could actually get the peg into the ground. We opted not to set up a tarp (to cover a cooking area), but we did bury a 10 L water bottle in a snowbank, because Cheryl had read that the snow would insulate the water and keep it liquid. We put another bottle in the van, and one in the laundry room. Any thoughts on what happened?
Our feet got pretty cold on Friday when we weren’t moving around. Over the weekend I changed my socks frequently (when they felt damp) and occasionally used foot warmers. I once tried to wear 2 pairs of socks, but no kidding it took about 5 minutes per boot to get my foot in them (and by that time, I was sweating buckets on top!).
We decided to go for a hike, so we headed from our campsite toward the Old Railway Multi-use Trail, which is a 16 km trail from Cache Lake to Rock Lake. We hadn’t been walking long when I spotted a Gray Jay in the trees, so I pulled out some bird seed and we attempted to feed the birds from our hands. They weren’t biting, but once we threw the seed down onto the ground, two birds were all over it. We walked along the old Mew Lake airfield, enjoying a delicious trail mix as we went (I ended up just pouring it into my mouth so that I didn’t get my fleece gloves wet – and me cold – when I stuck the food into my mouth!), and when we reached the Old Railway trail we headed East. We retraced our steps and headed back to our campsite, walking about 5 k in all.
Cheryl used her axe to chop some of the wood into smaller pieces (even the kindling), and we decided that we’d need more kindling so I drove off to get another couple of bags. We built our campfire and discovered that not only was there snow on the wood, but some of it was frozen together and other pieces had thick ice chunks on it. Not exactly ideal for building a fire! We eventually got a good fire going, and managed to heat up the frozen minestrone soup that I had made at home, and toasted our homemade cornbread too. We also boiled water to put in Nalgene bottles to have in our sleeping bags overnight. It was so cold out though that we ate our dinner in the van (which was marginally warmer – we didn’t turn the engine on)!
It was dark by this time, and with a clear sky, the stars were beautiful. The moon was very cool too, just a tiny sliver but the entire moon was still visible.
We gathered our dirty dishes, our washing tub, dish soap and cloth, and made the 650 m trek to the laundry room to fill our tub with warm water. You’re not supposed to do dishes in the sink, and in summer I would never do my dishes there (food could clog the drain), but we did our dishes in our tub and dumped the “grey” water in the toilet next door. Those few minutes in the laundry room allowed us to warm up! We headed back to our site, grabbed all our clothes (mine in my big red bag and Cheryl’s in her barbie tub!) and headed back to the comfort station! We decided we’d rather change there – in the warmth – than in the tent! We knew that we needed to remove all our clothes and change completely to avoid going to bed in anything that might be damp and therefore cold!
To keep our cameras, GPS’s, and batteries warm (and my contact lenses safe in their cases), we put them in bags and slept with them in our sleeping bags! Ever cuddle a camera before? As well, I put the liners of my boots in a cloth bag in my sleeping bag, so that they wouldn’t get frosty! When we got into the tent and finally into our sleeping bags with all our stuff (including our hot water bottles!), I was warm at first. I was wearing 1 pair of socks, 2 long john bottoms, 1 fleece pajama bottom, 2 rain pant bottoms (accidental – I meant to take them off!), 1 long john top, 1 merino wool top, 1 fleece pajama top, 2 fleece sweaters, and 1 winter hat and 1 pair of fleece gloves! I had one blanket under my Thermarest, and 4 on top of me. My sleeping bag is rated to -20 degrees Celsius, and I had an extra fleece liner in it that I made. Despite all this (it’s a wonder I fit in the bag), it wasn’t long before I was feeling cold. From the waist down I was warm, but my upper body was cold. Not so cold that I was shivering, but I wasn’t comfortable, and I was having trouble falling asleep. With Cheryl telling me not to fall asleep if I was cold, and our Toyota friend telling us not to die, it’s no wonder I lay there forever, trying to fall asleep! In fact, I honestly felt like I did not sleep at all Friday night, but in the morning Cheryl said that she had heard a really loud noise in the night (maybe ice cracking?) and asked me if I heard it – I didn’t respond, so I must have been asleep!
Saturday – Day 2
In the early morning we could hear snow falling gently on the tent. I lay in my sleeping bag listening to birds singing. When my bladder was full to bursting, I convinced myself to get up. My boots were frosty in the tent, but not the liners I had slept with! There were a few cm’s of freshly fallen snow, making the trees very pretty. According to the van, the temperature was a balmy -13 degrees Celsius! We walked to the comfort station to change, where the day’s weather forecast was posted as a high of -8 – things were looking up!
It was amazing how fast our 2 L Nalgene bottles full of gatorade started to freeze. By the time breakfast was done, I was drinking slushy liquid.
We tried to use Cheryl’s MSR Dragonfly stove, but it wouldn’t work. The white gas was still liquid (not frozen!) but for some reason we couldn’t get it into the pump, and therefore we couldn’t cook with it. We had brought mine as well, but had the same problem. We’ll be doing some research on using them in winter! So, we ate the dehydrated bananas that we didn’t eat the night before, and we built a fire to cook our awesome oatmeal with nuts and dehydrated fruit. It was 10:30 AM before we ate! We also had tea, and while standing and drinking mine, something flew at my head and landed on it – I yelled “ah!” or something like that and proceeded to shake tea all over my coat! I realized when it flew away that it was just a Chicadee, either thinking I was a tree or looking for me to feed it!
We checked the water jug in the van and it was frozen, but the water in the snow bank was still liquid!
We walked to the comfort station to do our dishes (saw that our water jug was still there), and then got ourselves organized to go snowshoeing (Cheryl has her own but I was borrowing my mom’s). We headed for the trail head, which was next to the big garbage bins on the way to the comfort station. There we found a woman with a camera, a very big lens, and a tripod. She was taking pictures of something in the trees. Turns out it was a pine marten, which she said often went into the garbage bin to get food (and sometimes nap!).
It was adorable. And very hard to photograph, because it jumped from branch to branch and moved so quickly! We chatted with Erika for a while and watched the pine marten, hoping it would come out of the tree and onto the snow to get a better shot. It did eventually, but my pictures didn’t improve!
We headed along the same trail as Friday, but turned onto the Track and Tower trail on our way to the Highland Trail. We encountered some Chicadees who were happy to eat sunflower seeds from our hands. The Highland Trail was meandering and beautiful. I had a déja vu moment and realized that the part of the trail we were walking was the same part I walked with my dad in the fading October light a few years ago when we camped at Mew Lake at Thanksgiving with my parents – Alasdair had gone for a long run and overestimated how far he could go in the daylight remaining – when it got late and dark we went searching for him and were very relieved to find him (as he was to see us)! Cheryl and I are hoping to do a backcountry hiking trip on this trail in the fall. We passed one tent along the trail, with 2 sleds that would have been used to pull gear. No one was there. Later we encountered 2 men snowshoeing in the other direction and learned it was their site (you can backcountry camp anywhere in Algonquin in the winter except on summer camping sites – backcountry camping is a different rate/night than car camping at Mew Lake), and they showed us pictures of a lookout further up the trail, but we didn’t have enough time to make it there this time. We had our mud tortilla wraps for lunch, and then turned around to head back. When we reached a steep hill we had climbed earlier, I decided it would be fun to slide down it on my bum rather than potentially slip on the snowshoes. It was great fun! Later we met the 2 guys at their campsite and asked them to take our picture.
The weather was quite pleasant for our snowshoeing trek – it was probably -8, with lightly falling snow at times. All told we walked about 7 k.
When we got back to our campsite we drove 10 minutes to the Visitor Centre (km 45), which Cheryl had never been to. We had a hot chocolate and briefly looked through the gift shop and museum, but we were pretty tired from our sleepless night! We headed back to Mew Lake, bought more kindling, and headed back to our campsite. Sadly, I discovered that I must have left my green fleece hat behind at the Visitor Centre! I had 2 other hats with me though, so it wasn’t a disaster (just disappointing!). Before making our fire for dinner, we talked for a while to Jane, our neighbour, a woman (50s?) who was camping on her own for a week. She had taken some survival courses and had all kinds of tips for us.
Dinner was chili and cornbread, with Baileys, Reeces Pieces and banana chips for dessert. We could actually sit and enjoy our fire for a while, because it wasn’t freezing cold out! We heated water for our Nalgene bottles and put them in our coats until bed – very nice body warmers! We buried the water jug that had been in the laundry room.
We walked to the comfort station to do dishes, and I watched 2 pine martens chase each other in the trees for a while. Different people were there with huge lenses and flashes taking tons of pictures. We returned to the comfort station to change, where I realized that I had lost a sock – one of two that I had stuffed in my coat. We walked back to our campsite with a headlamp on (we had been walking in the dark until this point) and found it – back at the tent door! Saturday night we both slept much better – I was warm!
Sunday – Day 3
At 6:30 AM I got out of the tent for a quick trip to the toilet – I had the clever idea the night before to put my hiking boots (not winter boots) at the tent door, so I didn’t have to get my boot liners out of my sleeping bag to get up to pee in the night! I went back to sleep and we got up around 8:30. Our half filled water bottle (the one from the laundry room) was quite slushy when I dug it out – maybe we didn’t bury it enough? Cheryl tried her stove again but it still didn’t work. So, we built a fire with the wood Cheryl had prepared the night before. Our fire was slow – painfully slow – in getting going. We ate banana chips and leftover Reeces Pieces, and drank our gatorade while we waited! I even got an ice cream headache from one particularly cold gulp. Eventually the water boiled and we were able to rehydrate our fruit and add some water to our granola/milk powder mix. It was scrumptious, though we had a record late breakfast at 10:45 AM! This time, I was prepared for birds landing on my head while I drank my tea! As we were finishing our breakfast a couple walked by and we talked to them for a bit – they had intended to backcountry camp with a friend, but he bailed and they wimped out, so they car camped instead.
We decided not to do our dishes and to just wash them at home. We packed up camp, and Cheryl noted that my front left tire looked like it was bulging from low pressure. We agreed that we’d fill it up at the first opportunity. We talked to Jane again, who told us that the plank salmon she’d cooked for dinner the night before didn’t quite go as planned – the plank caught fire!
We left Mew Lake and headed for the Mizzy Lake trail (km 15), which we intended to snowshoe before driving back home. There was only 1 car in the parking lot. We knew we didn’t have time to walk the entire 11 k loop, so we planned to walk for a while and then turn around. The trail was another beautiful one.
We followed boot prints for a while, but eventually met the couple after they turned around and then we were walking in newly fallen snow. We didn’t see or hear a single live creature in the woods (though we did see various animal tracks) until we were on our way back – maybe even mostly back – when I heard and saw… a bird. We started looking for a log to sit on to have our lunch, and almost immediately discovered a bench along a boardwalk on Mizzy Lake. We had to clear the snow off of it, and lower ourselves down to it to sit because of the amount of snow on the ground, but it gave us a great view – of trees and snow falling – no animals!
After a quick stop at the Huntsville Tim’s, we were on our way home. And then, as we were driving south on Highway 11, we heard the womp womp womp of a flat tire!! Yes, we forgot to fill the tire. I steered the car into the merge lane, but couldn’t get off the road because of big snow banks. Twice I tried to move the van further to reach a driveway but didn’t want to damage the van any more. After calling Toyota roadside assistance, and deciding that it made more sense to be towed to the nearest Toyota dealership within 300 km, rather than have the spare tire put on (that can only be driven a short distance at low speeds, and wouldn’t get us home), we waited for the tow truck driver to arrive. We were closer to live traffic than we would have liked! Within an hour Chris from Gravenhurst Towing showed up, and Cheryl and I agreed that tow truck drivers don’t get paid enough!
He had to park his truck partly in the live traffic, and was walking in harm’s way. He came to check whether the U hook on the front of our van was factory installed and therefore okay to tow the van up the flatbed truck with. I told him that we had it welded on to hold our canoe (40 lbs, not the weight of a van!) so he decided to attach elsewhere! He towed us about 20-30 minutes to Sunrise Toyota in Orillia, which of course was closed on a Sunday. Chris was great though, waiting to make sure we had a taxi coming before he left us, and making sure we knew to check the key slot to see that our key envelope was actually deposited correctly. I told him I’d be writing a trip report on my blog, so what would he like to say? He said he didn’t know, that he didn’t really know what a blog was. 🙂 In any case, THANK YOU Chris and Gravenhurst Towing!! We got a taxi to the Highwayman Inn, bringing our clothes, cameras and other valuables with us – including our extra food we had packed, some of which we ate for dinner (told you we are planners!).
Monday – Day 4
I called Toyota at 7:30 AM, as soon as the service department opened. I pleaded our case – that we had been winter camping in a tent and were stranded at a hotel. I was told that as soon as “his bodies” were in, they would look to see what the van needed. Leonard from Toyota called during breakfast to tell me that yes, I needed a new tire! Unfortunately, they didn’t have any, and their tire delivery guy wouldn’t do his rounds until 1 or 3 or even later. He said he’d call if they found a tire from a neighbouring business. While waiting for Toyota to call, I wrote my trip report! I started doubting whether we’d get home that day, given that I still hadn’t heard anything after 11 AM. But around 11:30, Leonard called to say that he had driven to Barrie Toyota to pick up a tire (THANK YOU LEONARD!) and that the van was almost done. PHEW! The Toyota shuttle came to get us, and we were on our way home at 12:15 PM. We rolled into Waterdown just after 2 PM.
This weekend I learned 5 ways to warm up in frigid temperatures: 1. wear 2 thick pairs of socks and attempt to squeeze feet into boots, 2. snowshoe up a steep hill, 3. attempt to squish a snowy tent into its factory issued bag, 4. drive long enough for the van engine to warm up, and 5. go to the comfort station!
Despite the rocky start and ending to our weekend, we had a fantastic time and will definitely go winter camping again – and eventually, in the backcountry too. We need to master operating our stoves in the winter, first!