Race report: Muskoka Winter Bike Festival fat bike race (my first!)

Less than a week before heading to Algonquin Provincial Park to stay in a yurt with 2 friends so that we could spend the weekend fat biking and snowshoeing, I stumbled upon the Muskoka Winter Bike Festival 11k fat bike race, and decided to register! Who cares that I had never ridden a fat bike in the winter, or that my only experience fat biking was last summer at Algonquin? I would have Friday to try out fat biking in the snow before Saturday’s race!

My friend Rebecca and I took the bikes that we had borrowed from Algonquin Outfitters out for a test spin on Friday night at Algonquin, and spin we did! We had some serious issues getting any traction, and spent 90 frustrating minutes not going very far. We later learned from our friend Kristin that we had too much air in our fat bike tires! We let a whole bunch of air out, and Saturday morning did another test spin – success! We would be able to ride the bikes after all.

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We headed for Deerhurst Resort in Huntsville, found the race site and registration table, picked up our race bibs and hand warmers, and after attaching the race bibs to our bikes, we were ready to go. Since there was no building nearby and lots of time before the 2 PM start, we headed back for the main building to relax until just before the race was to begin. I did catch the 1 PM race start for the experienced racers, because I had forgotten my water bottle in my vehicle at the race location and had gone back for it. It was then that I heard that the “newbie” race would be quite a bit shorter than 11k. The race organizers made the executive decision to ensure that us newbies had a fun race experience. In fact, part of the 11k course that we weren’t going to ride had a hill so steep that only 1 of the experienced riders made it up (and won a prize for doing so).

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Algonquin Outfitters was one of the event sponsors.

Our race course was to be 3 laps of a heart-shaped course. Just before the race began, we had a very short pre-race meeting while everyone was lined up at the start line. There appeared to be about 20-30 people in the race – men, women, and a couple of kids.

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My ride!
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Kristin and I before the race.

And then, the race began! Kristin, Rebecca and I had lined up near the back of the pack, so there was some congestion at the start.

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At the start of the race. [Photo credit: Andy Zeltkalns]
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[Photo credit: Andy Zeltkalns]
As I discovered on the first lap, there were hills on this course! I managed to ride up them without stopping, though I did wonder whether I would spin out on the steepest bits (I didn’t). There was one sloped spot (higher on the left, lower on the right) that I approached from the right on the first lap, but that resulted in me sliding into deep snow and having to put my foot down. On the second lap, I intended to ride it further to the left (higher up) but there was another rider beside me so I couldn’t, and again I had to restart. It took my 3rd and final lap to perfect that spot, to ride far left (high) and be able to pass through the section without sliding down or crashing as others did!

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[Photo credit: Andy Zeltkalns]
I was chasing another woman on the first lap, and passed her toward the end of the second lap. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to hold her off for the third lap. I figured I was probably slowing down, but she may have been as well. With less than 100m to go on the last lap, I passed another woman. I wasn’t sure if any others had been ahead of me. It’s hard to tell when you’re riding multiple laps. I was surprised to see that the big inflatable arch was gone – I thought that it was the finish line.

So I stopped (rather than ride into the spectators), confused, and wondered if maybe I had to go back onto the course to finish somewhere else. I asked someone, who clarified that no, I was done, and that they had written my bib number down (they were checking us off as we finished each lap – it was a race with manual timing, not timing chips). According to my watch it took around 28 minutes.

The race was hard work but super fun!

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Rebecca and I after the race.
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Rebecca, Kristin and I after the race.

After the race, we were treated to some delicious chili – with shredded cheddar cheese, sour cream, and bacon as toppings! There was also hot chocolate with chocolate bits and whip cream to add on top. Yum! And for others, there was beer.

During the awards ceremony I won a $50 gift certificate for Algonquin Outfitters, but I don’t know if it was a random draw prize, or because I did well in the race. I was congratulated on a great race for a new racer when I got my prize. There are no results posted on the race website, so who knows? I did follow up with the race organizers, and apparently I was 9th out of 31 newbie racers, but I’m not sure how I placed compared to the women in the race.

In any case, it was a fun race and I hope to be back next year!

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Winter food planning for camping adventures

Are you considering going winter camping for the first time, or are you looking for new food ideas to make your winter camping trips easier?

Check out my guest blog post on the Algonquin Outfitters blog, “Winter food planning“.  I give tips for simplifying and pre-trip planning.

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Biking at Algonquin Park: mountain, fat, and tandem (or, that time I became a movie star)

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.

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Ready to hit the trails!

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.

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At the end of the Byers Lake Mountain Bike Trail, on an old logging road.
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.

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Map of the Old Railway Bike Trail.

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.

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Yummy salted caramel.

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…

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More photos, and eventually the videos, here.

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So many adventures, so little time: Planning for the future at the Toronto Outdoor Adventure Show!

This weekend I attended the Toronto Outdoor Adventure Show for the first time, and I came away with lots of ideas for things I’d love to do! I also returned home with a new toy…

No, the toy isn’t a boat, but my friend Cheryl and I did check out the canoes on display at the Swift Canoe and Kayak and Souris River stalls, both Canadian companies with some great options for canoe-tripping! We also talked used canoes with Randy from Algonquin Outfitters.

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Continuing with the paddling theme, I spent some time at the ORCKA booth (Ontario Recreational Canoeing and Kayaking Association), where I learned about the many certification programs they offer. I’m particularly interested in the MOVING WATER LEVEL 1 – Canoe Skills, and RIVER RUNNING LEVEL 1 – Skills courses. I also chatted with someone about personal locator beacons (to call for help if need be), the different kinds and the pros and cons of each. I own one, but am interested in the kinds that allow 2-way communication.

I grabbed some helpful handouts at the ORCKA booth too!

  • Know your knots and how to use them
  • Eight ways to pitch a fly-tarp
  • Wilderness trip plan (a helpful form to fill out, taking one on your trip with you, and leaving one with family or friends – to be used if you don’t return when expected)

At the Madawaska Kanu Centre booth, I checked out their whitewater canoeing courses, and chatted with Rachel (I think!). It’s been years since I was there, but I had a fantastic experience doing their 5-day whitewater kayaking course. I’d love to go back and get some whitewater canoeing experience, which would allow me to expand my canoe trip options by making me more comfortable in moving water! As you can see, I’m already a natural in a solo canoe – the only thing missing? A PFD!

When I spotted the One Axe Pursuits booth, I was drawn in! No, I didn’t buy an ice axe or crampons, but I did talk to two friendly women about the rock climbing, ziplining, and ice climbing one-day adventures that they run! I’d love to try ice climbing at the Elora Gorge next winter, and maybe the ziplining and rappelling before that with my husband and kids.

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Like a pro!

In addition to walking around and checking out the things for sale, and the various adventures on offer, I watched a few presentations – all of them at the Adventures in Paddling Stage. I listened to Mike Ranta talk about his 200 days of paddling across Canada from the West Coast to the East Coast, to raise awareness for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (in particular in Canada’s veterans). And I listened to David Lee (The Passionate Paddler), talk about one of his many crazy canoe trips, which involved carrying and dragging a canoe up rivers with very little water in them.

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The Passionate Paddler

One spot that drew me in more than once was the KIHD Products booth, where I drooled over these Canadian made stick stoves! In the end, I decided to buy the lightweight titanium version – a new toy that I can’t wait to test out.

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I may not wait for my next camping trip before I try this out!

I spent hours wandering around the exhibits, and was inspired to try some new things!

Thank you to the Toronto Outdoor Adventure Show for choosing me as one of their guest bloggers.

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Trip report: 4-day girls only canoe trip on Rain Lake, Algonquin Provincial Park (rope swings and snapping turtle friends)

Who knew it was possible to not only become emotionally attached to a snapping turtle, but to then witness its near demise all in one trip? But I’m getting ahead of myself! Earlier this year my friend Cheryl and I decided to take Ailish (mine) and Anne and Mae (hers) on a 4-day canoe trip. We settled on Rain Lake at Algonquin Provincial Park because 1) it was available, 2) it involved no portaging, and 3) Cheryl and I had been there before.

Shortcut to the full slide show: https://goo.gl/photos/HCWnS3Rv3MY6kYff7

Day 1: Thursday, August 6 – Huntsville to Kearney to Rain Lake, Algonquin Provincial Park

Before we could start our canoe trip, we needed one more canoe, so after a 7 AM departure and a few hours of driving, we stopped at Algonquin Outfitters in Huntsville where Cheryl rented a Swift Prospector 17 to go along with my Swift Keewaydin. We continued another few minutes to Kearney, where we picked up our backcountry permit, and then drove the last 23 km or so to the Rain Lake access point. After loading everything into the 2 canoes, we were off – Ailish and I in one canoe, and Cheryl, Anne and Mae in the other (we switched up the seating arrangements over the course of the 4 days). We had read good things about the island campsites (there are 2), but we thought it was unlikely they would be available. We headed for them anyway, keeping in mind another site 2 before the portage to Sawyer Lake that apparently had a lake behind it you could swim in and have all to yourselves. It turns out the island sites were taken, so we checked out option B. The “rear” lake didn’t have good access to it and swimming would have been very weedy (read leechy) on the “rear” lake and on Rain Lake. We decided to check out the site next to the portage, which was available, and maybe less desirable because of the canoe traffic passing by to reach the portage. It was a large site, had great big boulders for sitting down by the water, and seemed perfect! Plus we had no desire to backtrack and go to one of the sites we had already passed. This campsite was 5.89 km (approximately) from the put in. We set up 2 tents, with the girls (10, 11 and 13) in one tent, and Cheryl and I in the other. We also put up a tarp in case of rain, and after about 30 minutes of attempting to throw a rock (wrapped up in rope) over a tree branch 15 feet in the air (and re-tying the rope several times as the rock hurled itself into the woods), success! – a safe place to store our food. This was definitely the highest branch I’ve used for a bear bag – there weren’t many options at this campsite! At some point, we first encountered a snapping turtle in the water at our site, who the girls later named “Buddy”. Despite his presence, we decided to swim – with some trepidation.

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Buddy the snapping turtle

The girls strung ropes between trees to walk on, and also made a very fun rope swing. We cooked hot dogs on the fire for dinner, and roasted marshmallows later on for s’mores. All in all, a good first day!

Day 2: Friday, August 7 – Rain Lake to Islet Lake via Western Uplands Backpacking Trail

In the morning, Buddy reappeared! After a delicious oatmeal breakfast, we paddled a couple hundred metres over to the portage to Hot Lake, where we left the canoes and joined the Western Uplands Backpacking Trail. We intended to hike until we reached Islet Lake or Ishkuday Lake, swim, have lunch, and hike back to the canoes. The “hike” was really a “walk”, as it was along a flat old rail trail. We met a woman and her 12 year old son on the way, and based on her recommendation, decided to check out the first backpacking site on Islet Lake – if it was unoccupied, we would eat our lunch and swim there. We were in luck! It was a big, beautiful site, complete with an awesome rope swing that swung over the lake. We had walked at the most 3 km to get there, maybe less.

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Thank you to whoever put this up – and left it! [Photo by Cheryl]
We swam, ate our lunch, and even had a small fire because the previous occupants had not doused it – with just a few big breaths and some birch bark, we had a flame! When a couple of hikers came into view, we waved them over since we hadn’t paid to stay at that site, and while it might have looked occupied, it wasn’t! We finished our lunch and cleared out as quickly as we could, despite the very generous offer to stay for 2 hours if we wanted to! We walked back to our canoe, collecting firewood as we got close to the canoe so that we could have another evening campfire. We paddled over to a little beach at the end of the lake (very close to our site and the portage). The girls swam, but the sun wasn’t out, it was cool, and Cheryl and I were wimps. We had a delicious pasta dinner, during which Buddy convinced us that other campers must feed him, as he came out of the water and attempted to climb up the rock to share our food with us. So sad. Thankfully, the rock was too steep and he kept sliding back into the water. That night, while I was filtering water from the lake, Cheryl and the girls witnessed Buddy get attacked by a larger turtle. He went for Buddy’s head or neck, climbed on top of him, somersaulted around, and then seemed to pin him to the lake bottom. We all feared for Buddy, and two girls were in tears. Thankfully, about an hour later we saw 2 turtles surface (in different locations), one of them definitely Buddy, as he had a distinctive wheezing/snorting sound and only one nostril. However, we never saw him again…

(Since being home, I’ve done a bit of research and it seems that our “Buddy” may actually have been a girl, and the bigger turtle may have been a boy… and the violence may have been part of snapping turtle mating behaviour!)

Day 3: Saturday, August 8 – Rain Lake to Sawyer Lake

Day 3 started with a yummy pancake breakfast, and fun around the campsite. We headed over to the beach to swim, build sand castles and swat deer flies.

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Fun at the beach on Rain Lake [Photo by Cheryl]
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Ailish practices her solo canoeing skills

Next we did the short (300m) portage to Sawyer Lake, where we looked for a beach or rocky area to stop and have lunch. Before finding somewhere, we stopped at an unoccupied campsite to use the bathroom! We eventually found somewhere to eat, but it wasn’t a great spot – just enough room to get out of the boats, sit to eat, and watch helplessly as a roll of precious toilet paper tumbled into the lake (my bad)!

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Mergansers on Sawyer Lake

We headed back to our campsite, collecting firewood along the portage for a third and final campfire. We spent the rest of the day at our campsite.

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Doing dishes in the setting sun [Photo by Cheryl]
When we first arrived at our campsite on Day #1, we found a hat and pair of sunglasses that had been left behind. On closer inspection, the hat belonged to “Kathleen”. So on our last evening, we each took turns sporting the hat and glasses and doing what we thought Kathleen would do.

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Clearly I am not a dancer [Photo by Cheryl]
Day 4: Sunday, August 9 – Rain Lake to Huntsville

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Early morning view from our campsite on Rain Lake

On our last morning, we had fantastic egg/veggie/bacon wraps to start the day. After packing up camp, we swam one last time, trying out a fallen tree as a jumping off spot. We also walked along the shore to the portage to Sawyer Lake, looking for a lost ziplock bag of Anne’s kleenexes and some rope… but we never did find it. We loaded everything into the 2 canoes and headed for the van. We really lucked out with the weather – it rained on 2 separate occasions over the 4 days, but for no longer than 2-5 minutes, and only a light sprinkle! We didn’t see any moose, bears or foxes, but we were amazed at the number of mice running around the campfire as the sun went down!

Canoe tripping with kids adds its own challenges, but we had tons of fun!