Backcountry Gourmet

Cheesler and I recently adventured into the wilds of Algonquin Park for our first foray into backcountry hiking and camping. We ambitiously chose the Western Uplands Backpacking Trail, a loop-shaped route that we estimated would take us 4 days of hiking and 3 nights of camping to traverse. Note that there are three loops of this trail, and we chose the smallest one – approximately 37 km in length.

SUNDAY

Always wary of crazy traffic jams in Ontario over the summer, we thought it would be prudent to drive up a day early and stay in a motel near the gate of the park so that we could get an early start in the morning. To our dismay, the park would not allow us to pick up our permits a day early, and they didn’t open until 8 am the following morning. So we were granted one last sleep-in at the luxurious and accommodating Algonquin Bound Inn, a mere 6 km from the west gate.

MONDAY

Monday morning, we entered the park all bright eyed and bushy tailed, ready to face anything that the wilderness might throw at us.

As this was the end of a long weekend, the park administration had advised us when we checked in that most parties on the trails were leaving, and only 7 new parties were checking in, and we were the first. Which is good for us, as the campsites are first come, first served.

Let me take a moment to explain a little bit about the administration of Algonquin park, and most Ontario provincial parks in general. You have to reserve everything ahead of time, even the privilege to use the backcountry trails. You must purchase:

  1. A permit to park your car in the lot;
  2. A permit for each hiker to be on the trails for the duration of your hike;
  3. A permit for each hiker to use a reserved campsite each night.

I thought at first that this was overly complicated and yearned for the days of camping on Vancouver Island which meant driving 25 minutes to an isolated lake to camp for free, and enjoy nature and beer with friends. But now I realize in order to accommodate the millions and millions of people who flock to the closest “wilderness” to Toronto every summer, they must have some sort of organization, otherwise it will be chaos and will likely burn down.

To select your campsite, you must purchase the official Algonquin park backcountry map which indicates the campsites, and call to reserve ahead of time which one you would like to stay at. The “sites” are all situated around the bazillion lakes along the trails and tiny triangular icons indicate how many separate “clearings” there are, each clearing can support one camping group, and contains a small fire pit and some sort of access to the lake. Sometimes, but not always, there is a facility nearby which the park personnel lovingly refer to as a “thunderbox”. This is a hole in the ground, with a lid over it, and no walls, roof or floor to speak of. Guess what it’s for.

The first group to arrive at the site can choose which clearing they will set up camp at. This is why they must be reserved in advance. You can’t have 7 hiking groups arriving at a site that can only support 2. And many of the sites had only one or two clearings. Note that the clearings are usually quite far apart, often outside of earshot and sight of each other. This is isolation camping. No people, no amenities – just you, your tent and the loons on the lake. You must provide everything required for survival for yourself. You must pack out what you pack in, including all garbage.

Having finalized all of our paperwork, we drove to the entrance of the trail, hefted our packs onto our backs and set off into the woods.

We were immediately greeted by swarms…no, plagues…of blackflies, deerflies, mosquitos, and I’m pretty sure I saw a brundlefly or two in there. As stated earlier, however, we did not come unprepared, and immediately doused our entire bodies in 25% DEET OFF Deep Woods spray, which seemed to work pretty well, but not for the promised duration of 8 hours  – It was more like 90 minutes between re-DEETs.

We trundled along, screaming only occasionally when a snake or giant toad would cross the path and scamper into the undergrowth. The first big climb involved scampering up a steep embankment, over roots and rocks, trying to avoid poison ivy – and this is when I realized we were in for a real challenge. This trail was no leisurely walk in the woods. It was HARD. Up, down, closed in by trees and weighed down by our packs.

The woods were hot and the bugs were plentiful that day. When we arrived at the first lake we were immediately relieved by a strong cool breeze which eliminated both heat and bugs, so we stopped for a moment to munch trail mix and take pictures.

We had budgeted a hike of 12 km to our first campsite at Lupus Lake, and we stopped for lunch about halfway, at a charming campsite at Ramona Lake.

 

We fired up our tiny lightweight camping stove and boiled up a mess of Mr. Noodles, which were ridiculously satisfying after burning about 8000 calories in the last 3 hours.

 Attempting caution against parasites, at first we deemed it necessary to boil our drinking water which we obtained from the lake.

  But then we realized we now had stainless steel water bottles full of boiling hot water that we couldn’t drink. Or carry, even. So we waited for them to cool down slightly and set off once again. We determined then that in future we would just stick to lake water filtered through a dishcloth and purified with chlorine tablets. (Which sounds crazy, drinking chlorine, but hey, it’s the same stuff they use to purify tapwater and it’s in such a small amount that it’s not harmful to drink. And it’s a hell of a lot better than getting beaver fever)

As we heaved on towards our camp site at Lupus Lake, we only occasionally came across other hikers who were headed in the opposite direction (we were hiking the loop backwards). Towards the end of the first day, I was in so much pain from my backpack and my aching feet that poor Cheesler had to put up with my mewlings of protest and claims that I couldn’t go on. When we arrived at our campsite, he heroically carried my pack and his own for the last couple of hills.

I had decided that this was not for me, and we had been too ambitious in thinking we were in good enough shape to do this. It was too hard, and I wanted to go home.

After starting a fire, setting up the tent and cooling my poor burning feet in the lake, however, I settled into that feeling of wholesome simplicity that you can only feel when you’re camping, far away from any sounds of civilization.

I decided that the next morning, I would re-distribute the weight in my backpack and hope for the best.

Backcountry camping is nothing like car-camping. You must carry everything you need on your back. Which means a small, lightweight tent and sleeping bags. Lightweight cooking gear and fuel. Food that is dehydrated and can be reconstituted with water. There is no beer, no hamburgers, no readily available firewood.

 The menu for dinner that evening featured spaghetti with meat sauce.

Here’s my breakdown of how to prepare this delicious and satisfying dish: Boil 2 cups lake water. Open bag containing dehydrated spaghetti and meat sauce meal. Pour boiled water into bag. Seal bag at top and let sit for 10 minutes, according to directions. Check bag after 10 minutes. Note soupy consistency and distinct lack of spaghetti noodles. Confusion. Let sit another 10 minutes. Check again, and note no change from before. Poke fork into bag and stir. Note chunks of still-dehydrated stuff come swirling up from bottom and that water is no longer hot. More confusion. Pour contents of bag into pot and stir to combine solid bits with liquid. Note that dish still resembles soup and noodles are actually macaroni. Note tiny brown meat chunks, still dry. Boil on open flame for a bit and note that consistency seems to be thickening up ever so slightly. Allow another 10 minutes to boil spaghetti (macaroni) soup, then remove from heat and cover 5 minutes. Check again, and almost collapse from hunger before fetching spoon and slurping up macaroni tomato soup with meat bits. Feel sad and still hungry. Eat trail mix for dessert.

Bear precautions indicate that you must store all food, cooking utensils and toiletries in a bag suspended between two trees, at least 4 metres from the ground.

Once our bag was suspended, this got me thinking about bears and how much I achingly hoped we would not see one on our trip. Earlier, I had noticed a large pile of purple poo just outside our campsite and was feeling apprehensive.

As soon as darkness fell, we retired to our tent (read:  bug sanctuary) to sleep off our pains and exhaustion. Cheesler drifted into unconsciousness almost immediately, while I was treated to a night of paranoia and an animal cacophony outside. As soon as I could feel my eyelids sinking, I heard the tell-tale chirps of racoons as they  pawed at the tarp, which woke me up in alarm. Okay, I thought to myself, racoons are fine. I can handle racoons. I slowly drifted off again, then woke up suddenly to heavy hoofbeats pounding down the trail and into our campsite. They stopped, and were replaced by heavy ungulate breathing sounds, then took off again in the opposite direction. Okaaaaay, I thought again…a deer. Deer are fine. Deer are running around. Running…away. Away from something. OHGOD WHATISITRUNNINGFROM?. I poked Cheesler to alert him to the situation, already searching for the knife and flashlight, and received only a disinterested grunt in response. I froze, not breathing, for approximately 40-50 minutes. Nothing happened. Turns out deer just like running around the trails at night. Later, I heard other things like plops in the water (Bears jumping into the lake? No, it’s frogs, Sophie, just frogs), rustling in the bushes (Bears, searching for human flesh? No, Sophie, just birds or otters or racoons or muskrats or something. Go to sleep.), and ungulate grunts (Bears eating deer? Nope, just deer being assholes and grunting in the middle of the night by the tent). The only solace was the haunting and familiar call of the loons on the lake throughout the night, which for some reason I found to be very comforting. Probably because they could not be mistaken for bears. At first light, when all is still completely silent, the loons are the first birds to make a sound. They are basically the roosters of the forest. As soon as you hear their goofy gobbling, the other birds in the trees wake up and start chirping to each other. These are the tender moments you hope for when you are in the wilderness. The first songs of birds in the morning.

TUESDAY

After awakening from slumber we immediately began the essential morning activities of camping:

  1. Get water.
  2. Boil water.
  3. Make coffee.
  4. Drink coffee.
  5. Feel alive.

We had found the perfect little single serving instant coffee packets to bring with us, which I hold 95% responsible for getting us through the whole thing. I had only gotten about 6 minutes of sleep the night before due to my overactive imagination, and the fuel really helped bring me out of my stupor. And why is it that instant coffee always seems more caffeinated than real coffee?

Anyway, after a wholesome breakfast of fruit bars, apple sauce and snickers bars we broke camp and set out once again, towards our second night’s destination of Oak Lake. I had redistributed the weight in my pack and given the cooking gear to Cheesler to carry, the huge and powerful packing beast that he is, and was feeling good, even great, in spite of my blistered feet and the new plague of bugs that greeted us as soon as we stepped back into the heavy woods.

The trail was still very difficult, even more so than the first day. We had only scheduled a 7 km hike on Tuesday, but there were ups and downs that evoked sobs from both of us as we scrabbled over them. And it was, once again, very hot and sticky going. We thought that since we weren’t going too far, we wouldn’t need to stop for lunch, so we just sat down on logs every now and then and inhaled trail mix.

I don't usually look this haggard

 We arrived at Oak Lake early, about 1 pm, resembling haggard cousins of our former city selves. I was greatly feeling the need for a wash (two days of built-up sweat and DEET feels really gross on the epidermis, ladies) so I plunged into the lake and gratefully sudsed myself up with our organic and biodegradable camping soap, which pretty much returned me back to the human race.

Two day’s worth of hiking had rendered our muscles into stiff and decrepit lumps. We hobbled around the site, setting up the tent, finding firewood and an adequate place to hang the bear bag. A neighbouring chipmunk popped in to borrow some peanuts for a parfait he was making back at the midden, and hung around for a while to angrily squeak at birds as they rustled in the treetops above.

We savoured a flavourful and fabulous lunch of spicy beef ramen and more trail mix, and pretty much just lounged around, enjoying the experience of being outdoors.

We saw a large reddish hawk sitting on top of a nearby tree, but it flew away before I could get my camera out. Cheesler and I took turns sitting wordlessly on a log, gazing out over the lake for long stretches of time, watching the loon family or just looking at nothing but water and sky and trees.

Around twilight, shit started to go down in the animal kingdom around us. Frogs sitting around the lake made single “knocking-on-a-door” sounds. The loons on the lake moaned. Some jays screeched dramatically at each other in their horrendous garbling voices. Tiny sparrows flocked to the tops of the trees in our campsite to roost for the night. Large and violent-looking wasps with black bodies, red faces and yellow antennae buzzed around, invoking yelps of alarm from me. I dreaded the night but looked forward to sleep in the way of someone who is completely physically exhausted but mentally content.
As soon as lights-out took place, again, my imagination got the better of me and every squeal, plop and rustling in the surrounding forest scared the bejesus out of me. I was getting bolder, however, and would occasionally shake the tent and yell “SCRAM!” into the night the scare away all the critters who had come to investigate our homestead. Eventually, sleep came and was only interrupted at dawn by the loons, once again waking the forest as was their duty.

WEDNESDAY

We heard the rain begin just before we got up and out of the tent, but it was only a few drops and we weren’t too concerned. Following Les Stroud’s sage advice, we had brought a long a plethora of orange garbage bags which we could strap over our backpacks. After breakfasting and breaking camp, the rain really started to come down, but only once everything was packed away and secured under the waterproof bags. Thank goodness. I took a moment to admire how pretty the raindrops looked as they hit the still and sleet-grey water of the lake, then we set off for the day, hoping that the rain would not continue much longer.

The rain did not stop. Rather, it turned into a torrential downpour that lasted 5 hours. We had set out to hike about 9 km that day to the next campsite at the ominous-sounding Steeprise Lake, but just an hour into our walk we were soaked through – outside our raincoats from rain, and inside our raincoats from sweat. It was gross, and very uncomfortable. Our shoes were saturated with mud and water. And somehow, the bugs were still at it, only now they seemed more desperate and would fling themselves into our eyes and try to burrow into our ears under our hoods or try to wiggle up our sleeves. They bit right through our wet pants and socks.

We were forced to stop at a campsite only 2 km from our destination, at Maggie Lake, to cook some lunch and try to regain some energy. The campsite had also been affected by the deluge and featured nothing but waterlogged logs and puddles that used to be fire pits. As soon as we sat down and tried to sort out what to do, the wind picked up and we started to get cold. Weirdly cold. Like, shivering uncontrollably and not feeling our fingertips and turning blue. I remembered the stories I had heard about people dying of hypothermia in the middle of summer that I thought were so improbable. We couldn’t start a fire, what with the lack of firewood, and anything that was remotely burnable was completely soaking wet. So we set up our trusty camping stove and broke out the Macaroni and Cheese bag meal. You can guess how that turned out. Cheese-flavoured soup with undercooked macaroni noodles. We slurped it up anyway, and followed it with a  steaming cup of taster’s choice, both of which did wonders for our cold and shivering bodies.

At this point, decisions needed to be made. If the rain continued as it had been, we could not set up camp, here or at Steeprise lake. Everything would just get soaked and we wouldn’t be able to start a fire to warm up, and we would probably be facing a survival situation. It was still early in the day – about noon. Our options were to wait out the rain then try to set up camp, or to make a break for the west gate a day early, which would mean hiking another 12 km on top of the 9 we had already hiked. We thought it best not to leave it to chance. If we waited too long, we might run out of daylight and be stuck in the woods in the dark, no where near a campsite and soaking wet, which was the last thing we wanted. So, wearily, we packed up again and off we went. At least the physical activity would keep our body temperature up and we would not get hypothermia. If we left immediately, we could hike the 12 km n about 5 hours, making it out before dark.

Passing our intended campsite at Steeprise lake, we stopped to reconsider. The rain was lightening up and we could almost see some blue in the bits of sky visible through the tree tops. But it could always start again. We pressed on.

The next few hours are a bit of a blur to me. I remember a lot of physical pain, tired muscles and feet pruning up exponentially. The sun eventually came out again and the rain stopped, but we were still really, really wet. Things improved when we came across the first group of people we had seen in days, a family who had begun their hike that morning at the West Gate. There was one more lake and set of campsites at Maple Lake, so we decided to check them out and see if we could camp there, reservation system be damned. At this point we were stumbling haphazardly across the trail. Both Cheesler and I were starting to lose it. We had to stop, there was simply no way we could hike another 4 km. We had reached the limit of our endurance.

When hiking through the woods of Algonquin in the summer, the trees and heat press in on all sides, keeping in the bugs and humidity, and only green and brown can be seen in all directions. You always know you’re coming up to a lake and/or a campsite when you start to see bits of open sky through the trees, and this heavenly breeze picks up, drying your sweaty body and blowing away the hordes of bugs. You start to feel more optimistic. We’re almost there, you think, and your pace quickens ever so slightly and you start to think about such luxuries as sitting down, not having 40 lbs of weight on your back, and bare feet.
When we started feeling these sensations close to Maple Lake, tears literally came to my eyes as I realised we would get to stop walking soon. Heading down a few side trails, we eventually found an empty campsite on a small peninsula jutting into the lake, in earshot of our neighbours but blissfully just there, now. I don’t know how to describe it. As we entered the campsite, the bags fell off our backs and we collapsed on the damp pine needles covering the ground. We had just finished 18 km of hiking in 8 hours. You’ll note there are no photographs taken during this time and that is because my camera would have been drenched or hucked into the forest, should I have taken it out of its little pouch.

Necessities of food and drying out needed to take place right away, so after only a few seconds rest we got the tarp out, laid out our belongings, slipped into flipflops, and got the stove going. We would be having Mr. Noodles for dinner, and I can’t describe how happy I was about this. Nothing like burning 5000 calories that will get you in the mood for a mess of instant noodles flavoured by msg and sodium.

After dinner we admired our surroundings, which turned out to be the most scenic, functional and beautiful campsite we had stayed at so far. It was large, with good access to the water, big pine trees all around so it created a floor of pine needles, and there was a real live outhouse (with walls!) about 100 feet away in the woods. We would be able to watch the sunset over the lake. And it had an incredibly ideal spot to hang the bearbag. Perfection, at last! The only problem was, everything was still so damp we could not start a fire, even with some handy firestarter from Les Stroud’s survival book.

We puttered around, and hung up our wet things in the sun that was now beating down over us.

That night I slept very well, and only had one night terror when I heard raccoons surrounding our tent and picking off the slugs that had inexplicably stuck themselves to the fly. Occasionally, the coons would creep inside the fly and pick off bugs that had become trapped between the outside of the tent mesh and the fly. I assume these were racoons, as they would chirp softly to each other on either sides of the tent but they could have been any small woodland creature, harvesting our tent for their meal.

THURSDAY

As we would only have a 4 km hike on our last day, we slept in, then sat for a long while on the edge of the water, drinking our coffee and chatting. We talked about what junk foods we would eat as soon as we were out of this wilderness, and settled on Big Macs. We stretched our leisurely morning as long as possible before packing up and setting out for our final hike.

 It turned out to be the most scenic part of the trail, with wonderful views , babbling brooks and beaver dams galore.

When we emerged to the parking lot, we breathed a sigh of relief, and inwardly felt a sense of accomplishment and achievement. We had done it. We might never do it again, but at least we had survived to tell the tale.

After stocking up on beer and hot dogs in Huntsville, we drove back into the park for our final night  in Algonquin – a stay in one of its developed campsites at Lake of Two Rivers. This was the polar opposite of backcountry camping.

Our desert-like campsite featured no trees, a picnic table and an old half-barrel that was to serve as a fire pit. Our neighbours were 15 feet away, and boasted a trailer camper, a mesh tent in which they would take their meals and a full sized stainless steel barbecue.

After we set up camp, our site held the following:

    1. A car
    2. A lightweight two-person tent
    3. A styrofoam cooler full of beer
    4. Two haggard-looking campers, beer in hand

We didn’t even have chairs. We sat at our picnic table, roasting hot dogs in the barrel and drinking beer until darkness, then went to bed around 9 pm. We had planned on going to the Public Wolf Howl, but were reluctant after we had read in the Algonquin newsletter that these events typically draw over 1800 people. The last thing we wanted after four days almost complete isolation was to be surrounded by 1800 people. So we skipped it, and were glad of our choice when we saw the cavalcade of cars go by on the highway after dark.

FRIDAY

We woke early on Friday after trying to sleep through about two hours of incessant grackle-calls, packed up our meagre belonging and hit the road once again. Our neighbours must have been confused to see us arrive once day and be gone the next, with nary a hoopla or even a hello.

Luckily, we had received word from a friend who would be spending the weekend at a fantabulous cottage in nearby Bancroft, and we were invited. After the last few days of toiling and staggering through our outdoor existence, a little lakeside luxury would be a fine treat. The weather held up, and the weekend was sunny and hot, and we spent most of it floating on noodles (the floatation kind, not the Mr. kind) in the lake.

Coming up soon, I’ll be posting about Cottage Cookin’!

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  1. Perfect Camping in Quetico Provincial Park | Maggies Photography - September 16, 2011

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