The First Was Almost The Last
It was almost thirty years ago that I experience my first back country camping trip. When I look back on it I wonder why it was not my last.
It was spring. Four young guys decided that it would be fun to go backpacking in Algonquin Provincial Park. Our group included myself, my friends Morgan an John, and John's friend Dave. It was the first trip for myself and Morgan, and I believe the second or third time for John and Dave. We had chosen to hike the Western Upland Backpacking trail. This is a trail that has multiple loops of differing distances. We would do the first loop of 33 km over three nights.
Being my first time I did not have all the necessary gear so borrowed most of it. I was lent an old external frame backpack with rather narrow straps that were not padded. It was very uncomfortable. Combine that with my inexperience in packing light and my shoulders became very sore over the four days. I tell everyone that is going to try backpacking for the first time that they will over pack. Even when you think you are packing only the necessities you will inevitably have more than you need. With experience you will be able to get your pack down to a reasonable weight. I was not experienced and thus had a very heavy backpack. I even packed silly things like a bag of six bagels. I don't even really like bagels. I just thought that they would be good because they don't go stale fast. But they are heavy and take up room in your pack.
The timing of this trip was also not good for me. I had been sick the whole week up until we left. I had a bad cold, with a fever and chills up until the morning of our first day. I thought that I was feeling fine so I decided that I would go anyway.
The drive to Algonquin is about three hours from where I live, just east of Toronto. We arrived at the West Gate before 10am, got our permit then drove to the start of the trail. The trail begins in a nice open area that is also used as a picnic spot. It was a bit cloudy out and looked like it could possibly rain. We got our backpacks on and began our hike. When you start this trail from the highway 60 access point you begin by crossing a bridge over the Oxtongue River. At this point it is a nice calm meandering river and the view from the bridge is pleasant.
The trail from here is mostly flat for a little while. The first thing of note that you come across is a fork in the trail where the return trail meets the in going trail. You can choose to go either way. We were heading to Maggie Lake which is between 12 to 15 km from the start depending on which site you camp on. Our plan was to stay at Maggie Lake night one, Ramona Lake for night two, and finally Guskawa Lake on the last night.
From the fork, the trail continues to be mostly flat. In places it can get a little wet and there are log bridges over the worst spots. Then the trail begins to climb as you ascend the first ridge. It is quite steep and this is where you first really notice the weight of your backpack. It was also as we climbed the first hill that it began to rain. We stopped, took out our rain jackets and continued up the hill. Fortunately the rain didn't last long. You get very hot when doing strenuous exercise while wearing a water proof jacket.
Between the bridge at the start of the trail and the first lake, Maple Leaf Lake, there are a few landmarks that stand out to me, and I have used them to judge my progress on future trips. The first is a little creek that you have to cross. It has banks of reddish brown dirt and it's easy to cross using the rocks in its bed. I'm not sure what the creek is really named or even if it has a name, but I now forever refer to it as Fever Creek. It was at this point that my fever quite suddenly returned. I began to sweat, and to feel chills and my muscles ached. But I was here and was not going to stop, although any chance to rest I would certainly take.
Across Fever Creek, you turn to the right and begin to climb a long hill. The hill is pretty big but not too steep. Before you reach the top of the hill there is a large rock and a fallen tree. The perfect place to sit and take a break. I call it Resting Rock and this marks pretty much the half way point from the start to Maple Leaf Lake. We did rest here for a little while before continuing our journey.
The rest of the hike to Maple Leaf Lake was a bit hazy to me. I was struggling to just keep going and didn't really pay much attention to the landscape around me. So I really didn't appreciate the other cool landmarks like the small log bridge that we had to use to cross a fast flowing creek, and the waterfall we had to cross using stepping stones. Both of these became places I looked forward to on later trips. But for now I just wanted to get to our lunch spot.
Finally we made it to Maple Leaf Lake. To get to the lake you need to take a side trail from the main trail. It gets a little boggy in places if it is wet, but fortunately there are logs laid for you to walk on. The sight of the lake and of a place to rest was amazing. The packs came off. It's hard to describe just how good it feels to take the backpack off after hiking with it for a couple of hours (it's even better after a whole day). You feel suddenly light and a bounce is in your step.
We opened our packs to get some food. I wasn't hungry and just sat. Then came the news that normally would have been terrible, but for me turned out to be the best news ever. John was rummaging through his pack trying to find something. John is diabetic and he was looking for his insulin. He had forgotten it in the car! He had no choice but to go back and get it. This meant a hike of just over an hour without a pack to get back to the car and the same time to return. We would lose three hours. This meant that we would also not likely have enough time to make it to our destination at Maggie Lake. What this meant for me was that I could set up a tent and lie down which is what I did. I bundled myself in my sleeping bag and went straight to sleep. So John and Dave hiked back to the car and I slept. I'm not sure what Morgan did and honestly, at the time time, I did not care.
The sleep really did help. When I woke up in the late afternoon, I was feeling far better. John and Dave were back and we had some dinner and made a nice campfire. We discussed what we would do the next day. The delay meant that it would be hard to catch up and make it to our next planned lake. We intended to stay at Ramona Lake on the second night. We figured we would see how things went.
Day two was a very long day. We were up at a reasonable time. I felt way better although my nose was still a bit plugged up. We had breakfast, packed up, then began our trek. The first thing you notice when you put your backpack on is how sore and bruised your shoulders are from the first day. It also doesn't help when your straps have no padding.
The hike from Maple leaf Lake to Maggie Lake is seven or eight kilometres. It covers some pretty rough terrain. At one point we noticed on the map that we were going to be heading west for a while before turning back east, essentially going around a hill. We thought that this would be an unnecessary bit of hiking. Why not just go straight over the hill and pick up the trail on the other side? A word of advice. Short cuts, especially when you have to bushwhack, aren't really shortcuts. It took us quite a while to get over this hill and all we had to show for it was scratches and even more tired feet.
I would say that it took us about three or four hours to reach Maggie Lake. Maggie is a good sized lake and there are campsites all around it. So if you a planning a hiking trip to Maggie Lake, you will be hiking anywhere from 12 kilometres to get to the first campsite to 15 kilometres to get to the site furthest north around the lake.
We stopped at Maggie and had some lunch then continued on our way. Not too far north of Maggie you cross a creek that is in an open marshy area. It is always nice to come out into an area that is open after being under the trees for so long. After that you head up a hill. You tend to notice the up hill portions more than the downhill parts. A couple of kilometres north of Maggie Lake we came to the point where the trail splits. At this point you can either continue north and do the much longer second loop, or turn to the east for the first loop. We were doing the first loop.
It's interesting how your brain works. The trail to the north went down a nice gradual decline. It was straight and easy. The trail to the east immediately went up a steep, rocky hill. Now of course we knew that the north way is a much longer trail and would also have some difficult parts, but psychologically, your brain is saying, “please go that way. It looks so much nicer.”.
We went the way we were supposed to go, to the east and trudged up the hill. A check of our time showed that we probably would not make it all the way to Ramona Lake. The back-up we had chosen would be Oak Lake which was about three kilometres closer. We had another four kilometres to go. The trail wasn't too bad. There were of course many hills to go up and down. The only spot that caused a little bit of a challenge was a low area that was very muddy. We had to carefully pick our steps to avoid sinking. I did attempt on step that was farther than it should have been and ended up falling against a tree. I got a nice scrape on the inside of my arm from that.
It was close to dusk when we arrived at Oak Lake. The campsite at Oak Lake was at the bottom of a steep hill. It didn't feel like a friendly site. We noticed one tree in the campsite had claw marks on it, like something had used it as a scratching post. We were thinking bear.
We set up out tents and had some dinner. I think I had some noodles or something. We had a good campfire going and sat out for quite a while before deciding it was time to hit the sack. Just as we were getting into our tents we heard something banging against a tree and then the sound of the tree falling over. It sounded like it was somewhere within a hundred meters. What did it? We didn't know. It could have been anything, but we immediately assumed it was a bear. Bear or not, just the fact that you are now thinking bear meant that it was impossible to sleep. We decided to take turns keeping watch and the fire going. So in pairs we took watches of a few hours each.
It is cool to sit up late into the night. You notice all the creatures that actually come out at night. We had a few mice running around the place. Then during my watch there was the sound of heavy footsteps coming down the hill behind the camp. I picked up a stick and shined the flashlight toward the hill. The footsteps kept coming. Closer and closer. Then out of the brush hopped a snowshoe hare. I was quite relieved. Although I knew that it was not a snowshoe hare that had knocked down a tree or made the scratch marks in camp. After my shift, I was able to sleep relatively well.
I the morning we got ready to hike again. As I packed I looked at my bag of bagels. I had eaten one of them and knew I would really eat any more. They were heavy and took up space. So one by one I threw them into the forest. I'm sure some animal would enjoy them more than me. We packed and went on our way.
This was a much nicer day. It was sunny and fairly warm. The hike wasn't too extreme. We got to Ramona Lake for lunch. This is where we had intended to spend night two. I would camp here in the future. After lunch we hiked to Guskawa Lake. It's a small lake with a few campsites on it. That night was the most peaceful of the trip.
The last day was a fairly easy hike. Except for a few climbs just after Guskawa Lake, it was mostly downhill. The last part before you reach the end of the trail is mostly flat.
Then a beautiful sight. The Bridge over the Oxtongue River. I never thought just seeing a bridge could bring so much joy. But after a long and at times arduous hike it feels so good to realize that you are almost at the end. Once we crossed the bridge, the packs came of and we sat at a picnic table just enjoying the feeling of being done.
The only thing that subdues that feeling of joy a little is the pang of sadness that comes when you realize that you are done and will be going home.
This happens on every trip. It happens on the trips where everything goes great, you have great weather, and no problems. It happens on the trips where everything goes to hell, there is rain, you are sick, or are plain exhausted. Either way, it is always a little sad to be leaving.
Perhaps it is that sadness that brought me back, that made me do another trip, and another. I am so glad that I didn't let the experience of the first trip stop me from trying again. To this day I still enjoy it, even when things don't go well. And, as you will see, it is often the trips when things are hard that make the best stories.
So please join me as I share my adventures in the back country and if you have never tried it, hopefully I can inspire you to do so.
NOTE: The photos in this post are not from my first backcountry camping trip but they were taken on the same trail.