Anyone who has ever tried backpacking knows that it comes with many challenges. Trekking through the woods with a heavy backpack is a major trial of physical fitness and stamina. It is also a test of character: ability to keep going even if your backpack seems to be getting heavier with every step, readiness to pitch in with campsite chores even when you’d rather collapse in your tent after a long day on the trail, willingness to adjust your expectations, remain patient and find ways to enjoy the experience through every rugged turn of the trail, pouring rain, relentless mosquitoes and occasional complaints from the youngest members of the group.
Backpacking also comes with major rewards: the sense of pride and accomplishment, growing confidence and strength, but mostly the feeling of being present and connected to yourself and the world around. After spending so much time in the virtual world of Google searches and Facebook updates, fretting about the future and worrying about the past, hiking grounds you both literally and figuratively. There is something extremely satisfying in using your own body to transport yourself over long distances, knowing that everything you need can fit into a backpack on your back, realizing that all that exists at the moment is the climb right ahead of you, connecting with the ground under your feet every step of the way. And at the end of the day, as you take inventory of your aching body parts, discovering muscles you never knew existed, you gain deeper appreciation for your body and what it can do.
Those were some of my thoughts as we were nearing the end of our three day backpacking trip at Algonquin Provincial Park.
We first tried backpacking last year at Bon Echo Provincial Park (read about hiking the Abes and Essens Trail here). In spite of a sprained ankle, the trip was a great success so this year we were looking for a more challenging experience. We decided to try the Western Uplands Backpacking Trail at Algonquin. The trail has three loops – 32, 55 and 88 kilometres in length. We settled on Loop 1 breaking it into three days with stops at Maggie and Ramona Lakes.
Day 1: Trailhead to Maggie Lake – 12.5 km
After spending the night at Tea Lake Campground, we did another inventory of our gear and supplies, readjusted our backpacks, picked up our permit at the West Gate and arrived at the Western Uplands Backpacking Trailhead/Oxtongue River Picnic Ground shortly after 11.
The map at the trailhead was nothing but an abstract squiggle at that point. We studied the wiggly line trying to imagine the route we had to cover in the next three days. At 11:35, we crossed the bridge over Oxtongue River, and the adventure began.
Our first major stop was at Maple Leaf Lake about two and a half hours later. There was a very helpful map at the intersection of the main and side trails, one of the many posted along the route. The two closest sites were occupied but the people on the first site allowed us to use their little beach where we had our lunch and replenished our water supplies.
The rest of the trek on that first day was uneventful with an occasional drizzle. We made frequent stops to rest, get some snacks and enjoy the beautiful lakes and tranquil forest.
We hit the split between Maggie West and Maggie East shortly after 6. My original intent was to camp on the western side of the lake. However, when booking a site over the phone, I mixed up my East and West and we ended up on Maggie East. After a long day of hiking, everyone was happy about my mistake because Maggie West required a detour and would have added a considerable number of kilometres to the route.
The first campsite on Maggie East was free and it was easy to see why: there was no good space for even one tent, no good access to the lake, and the thunderbox was in plain view of the main trail, which would mean greeting every passer-by while doing our business. A few members of our group were insisting that the site was perfect because the alternative was to keep going. My husband and I decided to check what lay ahead.
The next two sites looked great but both were already occupied. After about 25 minutes, we arrived at the last two sites on Maggie East. They were very close together and both were perfect with ample room for tents, easy access to water, and beautiful views all around. Most importantly, both were available. We chose the one on the west side to enjoy the fading light of the afternoon sun.
The rest of the evening was spent on campsite chores: setting up camp, collecting firewood, making dinner, and hanging up food.
The night was warm, the sunset was beautiful. As we were going to bed, the moon inched its way into the sky illuminating the forest like a giant flashlight.
Day 2: Maggie Lake to Ramona Lake – 11.5 km
We woke up to a beautiful, sunny morning. In fact, it was so beautiful that we lingered not ready to leave this wonderful place. By the time we hit the trail, it was almost 1.
Choosing a campsite further down the road the night before helped us shave off about a kilometre and a half from the distance we had to cover on Day 2. What we couldn’t foresee, though, was a more challenging terrain with more frequent and much steeper climbs and a more challenging weather with pouring rain most of the day.
We arrived at Ramona close to 7:30, soaked through but surprisingly upbeat and happy (well, most of us). We were looking forward to dry clothes, warmth of the campfire and a hot cup of soup.
There were four sites on Ramona Lake, all within a close walking distance, and only one of them was occupied. The last site of the four was the best. It had a bit of a slope but enough room for our three tents (could potentially fit even more) and a great view of the lake. Someone had left a kettle near the campfire, and the rope was already hung up between the trees for our wet clothes. Not that they got any drier by the time we left but definitely acquired a nice smoky smell.
By the time we arrived at the campsite, the rain was tapering off and we had good two hours to set up camp and make dinner before it started again.
The lake was ethereally beautiful with white vapour swirling above the surface.
We fell asleep to the rumblings of thunder and drumbeat of rain against our tents.
Day 3: Ramona Lake back to trailhead – 8 km
We woke up to the drip of water from the trees. The rain had stopped but throughout the morning the clouds would drift in and out of view eliciting debates about the weather ahead. In the end, the sky cleared up and it was a glorious sunny day with a rich smell of the post-rain forest.
The hike on Day 3 was the shortest so we stopped to enjoy the radiant forest, sparkling streams and the little inhabitants of the magical woods.
We stopped to check out one of the campsites on Guskewau Lake and immediately fell in love with the place vowing to come back and spend a few days at this campsite.
As I was walking back feeling the extra weight of our wet clothes on my shoulders, I was torn between the desire to finish the trail and not wanting it to end at the same time.
We reached the bridge over Oxtongue River shortly after 4. The map at the trailhead hadn’t changed – same weird shapes and wiggly lines. Except a little part of it was not so abstract any more: it had our steps, frustrations and joys imprinted all over it.
I slipped the backpack off my shoulders, took off my boots and stuck my aching feet into the cooling waters of Oxtongue River. I felt sad about leaving this place but also happy and excited about adventures ahead.
Before heading back home, we stopped at Westside Fish and Chips in Huntsville for our traditional post-camping celebratory meal. The food was delicious, as always!