Cross-Canada camping trip from Ontario to British Columbia

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 2: A week touring Vancouver Island (while staying in Airbnbs).

Part 3 (Coming soon): A review of all the vegan restaurants we tried as we crossed the country (there were many gems!).

Sunset at Agawa Bay, Lake Superior Provincial Park

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.

Terry Fox Monument, Highway 17 near Thunder Bay, Ontario

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)

Not pictured: our 3 camping chairs and the fire pit.

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!

Gorgeous hare!

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.

On the bus tour at Dinosaur Provincial Park

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!

Chickpea buffalo wrap and ginger beet smoothie at Pachamama Soul, Calgary, Alberta

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.

View from the top of Sulphur Mountain, Banff National Park

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.

Golden-mantled ground squirrel, Moraine Lake, Banff National Park

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.)

Homemade pizza

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.

Takakkaw Falls, Yoho National Park, British Columbia

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.

Loop Brook, Glacier National Park

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!

Ailish sketches Guppy. A cat is in the cubby above “MEOW MEOW MEOW”.

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.

I kept moving in the open air and didn’t feel sea sick.

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.

“Why, hello there!”

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.

Goldstream Falls, Goldstream Provincial Park, British Columbia

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.

Follow me on Facebook: Kyra on the Go: Adventures of a Paddling Triathlete

Follow me on Twitter: @kyraonthego

Follow me on Instagram: @kyraonthego

1st Time Winter Camping: Mew Lake, Algonquin Provincial Park, February 20-23, 2015

Sleep in a tent during an extreme cold weather alert? Why not?!

Shortcut to the full slide show:

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…

At Barrie Toyota

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.

Tent pegs + frozen ground = a challenge

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.

Gray Jay

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)!

Building dinner fire

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!).

Pine marten

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.

Going down hill the fun way

Our backcountry friend took some nice shots!

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.

Mizzy Lake

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!

Mizzy Lake

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!

Not exactly how I envisioned the return drive

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.

Sign at school upon our return

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!