I am writing this post surrounded by camping gear at various stages of dryness: tents spread across the floor, shoes propped up against the radiator, clothes hanging on chairs. It’s one of the less glorious parts of camping – having to sort out the gear after the trip, especially one that ended in frantic packing in the pouring rain. Our cat is enjoying it, though.
During that wet packing experience, my older son accused me of joy-washing all our trips, saying that in my post I will write everyone was happy and dancing in the rain. So let me put it out there: no one was happy or dancing, and the promise of fish and chips was the only thing that kept us going.
Now that we got that out of the way, on to some happier moments.
Day One: Adventure Begins
After months of microadventures and occasional short trips, we got four full days off – courtesy of Easter. It was our third year celebrating Easter with a camping trip. After all, Easter is about spring and revival of nature so that’s where we want to be. (You can read about our previous Easter trips at Pinery and MacGregor Point.) This year, Easter came early, and winter was still very much present but we didn’t waiver. Moreover, we decided it was time to leave our glamping days behind and go back to basics, i.e. our tents.
We booked a site at Algonquin. In the winter, the park has a number of sites available on a first come, first serve basis but we didn’t want to risk it. It turned out to be a good decision as the campground was pretty full when we arrived on Friday. There were a couple of hot tents and the rest of the sites were evenly split between tents and trailers.
On the way to the park, we were admiring the ice encrusted forest on both sides of the road, a beautiful work of the ice storm from the day before. Somewhere north of Barrie, the ice cover began to disappear, and when we arrived in Algonquin it was full-blown winter with knee-deep snow.
Our site had been ploughed by the park staff, waiting for our tents. The fire-ring was hidden somewhere deep under the snow, though, so we got to make our own. Setting up took some time. Tent stakes don’t go into the frozen ground easily so two things are important: a) having strong stakes that won’t bend “under pressure” and b) something to use as a hammer – an axe works quite well.
With the snow on the ground, we added a few extra layers: a folded tarp under the tent, then foam pads, self-inflating pads, blankets and finally sleeping bags. Worked pretty well. The temperature dropped to minus seven on the first night but then it was closer to zero on the other two nights.
We managed to catch some light on the lake before starting dinner and campfire. The latter took a while as the wood was pretty wet. We bought it right outside Algonquin. There was also wood available in the park at a self-serve station (make sure to have cash) but it wasn’t much drier. Eventually, we got the fire going and spent the evening watching the star-strewn sky.
People often think that sleeping in a tent is the most challenging part of winter camping. In reality, with proper preparations and enough layers, it is quite comfortable. Getting out of the tent in the morning is a different story. We were lucky, though, because our site got lots of sun early in the day so it was very pleasant to emerge into the sunlight.
Cooking, on the other hand, presented some challenges, like frozen oil and rock-hard beans. So our mornings usually started with unfreezing our supplies before we could get to making breakfast. We try to keep our food prep in the winter very simple (dry soups work very well), but it’s still nice to have some eggs or French toast in the morning (luckily, our eggs didn’t freeze too).
On Easter morning, we also had a bit of an egg hunt going. We had Lindor chocolates scattered around, because by the time Easter bunny got to our site he ran out of eggs, i.e. when I remembered about the egg hunt, all the chocolate eggs had been swept off the store shelves. Our son didn’t really care as long as it was chocolate, and it was much better chocolate, I must say, than the Easter eggs sold around this time.
Our favourite morning ritual, however, was watching the birds. The park is teaming with birds in the winter, and they get quite close to people in search of food. At one point we counted over 20 blue jays perched in surrounding trees like big blue pine cones. Unlike chickadees, who were fearless and had no problem landing on our hands and even heads, blue jays took time to know us. Eventually, they started coming down one by one, then in groups, trying to grab as many nuts as possible in one go (one of them took eight, not sure how they could fit inside his mouth).
Then a squirrel arrived, first reluctant to have his picture taken but then reconsidered and turned around. After snacking on a couple of nuts, he took one up into a tree to hide between the branches only to have it snatched by a blue jay.
There was also a blackbird with the most beautiful iridescent plumage and piercing yellow eyes. He was watching the whole scene for over thirty minutes until he finally plucked up some courage and snatched a nut for himself.
On one of our hikes, we also met a pair of evening grosbeaks. We’d never seen these birds before so that was pretty exciting.
Our favourite bird moment, however, was a blue jay taking a bath. On day three, we came back from our hike to find this little guy (could be a girl, unlike a lot of other birds, female and male blue jays are almost identical) splashing in a puddle on our site, then retreating into a tree to dry up, all ruffled up and cuddly.
Hiking the Track and Tower Trail
Because there was so much snow on the ground, I was hoping to do some skiing. (Algonquin has 117 kilometres of cross-country ski trails, 85 of them are groomed), but no one supported my suggestion. So hiking it was!
On our second day, we decided to tackle the Track and Tower Trail. The trail is 7.7 kilometres long and features a breathtaking view of Cache Lake plus some interesting bits of Algonquin history.
The trail first took us through the snowy forest eventually reaching Cache Lake and following the shoreline of the frozen lake.
Once we got to the Madawaska River, we decided to take a snack break: hot tea and chocolate, just what you need on a hike.
Unlike the lake, the bubbly river was free of ice, except for whimsical crystal decorations hanging off branches and logs.
Once we crossed the bridge, we came to a set of stairs, which had turned into slides and were a little tricky to climb over. Being so close to the river, any mishap could have ended in an ice-cold bath.
After we passed the rapids, we were on our way to the lookout. The trail took us through the stripy forest, past ice-covered rock faces and up another, much longer, set of stairs that too looked more like a slide.
But the view was worth all the work: a white patch of the lake set amid the dark greenery of the pine forest.
The lookout is the location of an old fire tower, which is no longer there, but there is lots of information and even a replica of a cupola (a wooden lookout structure) available near Algonquin’s Visitor Centre along the Fire Tower Trail.
We took time to enjoy the view and get more snacks before heading back down.
Once we climbed down the stairs (going backwards all the time because that was the only way to avoid ending up on our backsides), it was easy going afterwards: more snowy woods, ice-curtained rocks, and roaring Madawaska River.
When we crossed Madawaska again, we got to the start of the Old Railway Bike Trail. As the name suggests, this 16-kilometre trail follows the abandoned bed of the Ottawa, Arnprior, and Parry Sound Railway all the way to Rock Lake Campground and offers a very pleasant bike ride in the spring, summer and fall, and possibly in the winter with a fat bike. (We did a portion of the trail between Mew Lake and Rock Lake a couple of year ago). In the winter, it can also be used for skiing or snowshoeing .
On our way back, we took a wrong turn and ended up going back the same way we came – along Cache Lake.
When we got back to our campsite, it was ramen noodles, veggie burgers, more campfire and stars at night.
Hiking the Lookout Trail
The next day, we decided to hike a couple of short trails. It meant we didn’t have to carry any food, and with the temperatures rising, we left our jackets behind too. Eventually, we stripped down to our t-shirts. If it wasn’t for the snow, you’d think it was late May, and by the end of the day, we all had a pretty noticeable suntan.
The Lookout Trail is very short, less than two kilometres, but includes a steady climb up the hill. The challenge wasn’t sufficient for our younger son, though, so he scaled a few large boulders along the way.
The view from the top is truly sensational, makes you fall in love with the park all over again.
We hiked this trail once before, many years ago. One of my favourite pictures from that hike features our son perched on his dad’s shoulders enjoying the view. We decided to recreate the pictures, which was a bit more difficult to do this time.
Spruce Bog Boardwalk
This trail is even easier than the one before. The 1.5 km loop is a mixture of boardwalks and level trail sections, and it offers a close-up look of the northern spruce bog.
As we walked along, we started wondering how a bog was different from other types of wetlands. According to the information on The Science Behind Algonquin’s Animals website, bogs are “successional habitats between small bodies of water and forests.” They are very acidic and receive their water and nutrients exclusively from rainfall. The most interesting feature is its floor. Apparently, walking on it feels like walking on top of a water bed. Not that we could test it, most of it was covered in snow, and I don’t think it would be advisable to walk on the bog floor in warmer months either – boardwalks are there for a reason.
It was a pleasant walk with no challenge whatsoever, so our son found ways to entertain himself.
The forest was filled with cheerful chirping. Chickadees must be used to hikers bringing seeds so they followed us along even though we didn’t have any food with us.
Last Day: Water, Water Everywhere
On our last morning in the park, our son woke us up with an announcement that there was water getting into the tent. It had been raining most of the night, and with ice on the ground the water just kept pooling on top of it. It got between the tarp and the tent, and those parts of the floor that were not pinned down with out bodies felt like the surface of a water bed. Some of it was already seeping through. And even though all I wanted to do was to bury my head in my sleeping bag and pretend it wasn’t happening, I knew that the only way home lay through the rain and ankle-deep water. So we had no choice but to get dressed, get outside and get packing. In a way, we were lucky that it was our last day because the temperature was supposed to drop down to minus 10 that night. If we were to stay another night, our tent would have been frozen solid by next morning.
As unpleasant as it was, we only had to endure an hour or so of bone-freezing wetness before hopping into a warm car and heading to Westside Fish & Chips in Huntsville. Am I joy-washing things after all? Maybe, but even our older son, the one who accused me of this practice, admitted on the way back that it hadn’t been the worst camping experience. Apparently, that time when we had to hike the Western Uplands Trail all day in the non-stop rain took the first prize. Then my husband piped in with his own mosquito-infested Everglades nightmare. So things weren’t that bad in the end.
By the time I finished writing this post (it does take me a while these days), all our gear had dried up and is now packed away waiting for the next adventure.