May long weekend is an important milestone here in Canada. Many consider it the unofficial start of summer and/or the opening of the camping season. It certainly was for us until we started camping year round and May 2-4 lost its special status. So we had to rethink its purpose and for the past two years May long weekend has become the opening of the backcountry season.
To hike or to canoe? – that was the question when we got to booking our campsite this year. We weren’t sure if our older son, who’s not a big fan of canoeing, would be able to come. At the same time, we didn’t want to commit to backpacking if canoeing was an option. We needed some flexibility and Frontenac Provincial Park came to the rescue. Almost all of the park’s campsites can be accessed either on foot or by canoe (except for a handful of sites on the Little Clear Lake that are hike-in only), which meant we could delay making the choice.
Frontenac, located just north of Kingston in the traditional Algonquin territory, is a backcountry park only, i.e. there is no car camping available. However, many of the sites in Frontenac are fairly close so we could take it easy on our first backcountry trip of the year. We booked a site in cluster 4 on Big Salmon Lake, which was only an hour paddle or a two-hour hike away. That turned out pretty helpful since I was fighting a nasty virus complete with congestion, lots of snot and painful cough and don’t think I’d be able to handle anything more strenuous (to think of it, I was sick last year too; looks like it’s becoming a new May long weekend tradition).
Frontenac is a special spot in more ways than one. It is part of the Frontenac Arch UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, a sort of a bridge between the Canadian Shield and the Adirondack Mountains. Its location in the transition zone means a rich diversity of landscapes, flora and fauna, and a rare blend of northern and southern plants.
Plus with 22 lakes and over 100 kilometres of trails, there is no shortage of routes for all experience levels. The park also offers training programs for those who wish to develop their outdoor skills, including Wilderness First Aid, canoeing and kayaking, winter camping and more.
So all in all, a great park to explore. Surprising it took us so long to come here. And in case you are wondering, we came in a canoe. In the end, our son did join us but we managed to convince him canoeing was a better option. I think a short paddling distance worked to our advantage.
We booked canoes from Frontenac Outfitters. The prices were a bit higher than the other locations, like Algonquin or Killarney, and canoes were a bit on a heavy side. But we didn’t plan any portages so weight wasn’t an issue. For an additional fee, they agreed to transport our two canoes to the Big Salmon Lake even though their transportation services are for three canoes and up.
The canoes were brand new. When I saw them sitting by the dock, all shiny and sparkling white, I almost felt sorry getting into them. I hope we offered them a great first paddling experience and they will be happy to come back.
The first canoe trip of the year is always thrilling. I love the moment when I dip my paddle into the lake and feel the canoe gently part the waters and glide across the lake. It was a bit windy when we set out but the lake wasn’t too choppy so it took us no more than an hour to reach our campsite.
As I already mentioned, campsites in Frontenac are located in clusters. Ours was number 4 and had four sites in total. The campsite description did specify that privacy was poor and the next site was less than 100 metres away. I guess technically it is correct – 10 metres is less than a hundred. There wasn’t much in terms of cover between the sites so everyone was in plain view. I felt a bit disappointed at first but the people were keeping to themselves and respectful so eventually it stopped bothering me. Our neighbours even shared their pile of firewood with us. So sometimes it’s good to have your neighbours close.
In terms of the sites themselves, each had a tent pad that could fit two small tents, a table, a fire ring and nice bench. There was a separate food locker for each campsite so no need to do a bear hang.
And there was a pretty decent outhouse with doors and lots of toilet paper so I was free to use our own paper to blow my nose.
When we arrived at the campsite, all of our neighbours were already there. There was a pair of hikers and two canoe parties. We found a nice spot to beach our canoes, unloaded the gear and got to the usual camping chores: firewood, food, tents.
Once that was done, we still had plenty of time so we decided to go on a hike to the Mink Lake. We didn’t get far. I was feeling pretty crappy and the mosquitoes were vicious. That’s when we all fully appreciated coming in a canoe. There weren’t any bugs on the water and thanks to the wind from the lake the campsite was mostly mosquito-free too.
Mink Lake was very pretty with lots islands perched amidst blue waters. We also came across an impressive fit of beaver engineering along the way.
The forest was lush and bright green, the shade that is only possible in the spring. The ground was covered in trilliums. We even found a rare four-petal trillium (quadrillium?) – for good luck.
After we trekked back to our site and had dinner, I hopped in a canoe with my younger son and went for a quick paddle against the backdrop of a setting sun.
We went to bed early listening to loons competing with a saw whet owl.
The next morning I was driven out of the tent by a combination of a stuffy nose and full bladder. The rest of the family was sound asleep so I spent the next three hours with my book, cut of tea and campfire.
By the time the other members of our party emerged, most of our neighbours were gone and we had the whole place to ourselves. Until the next site occupants arrived. This time, we had a young couple of hikers on one side. They spent most of the day huddling in their tent hiding from the rain, except for an occasional foray outside to get some food and one memorable dip in the lake (see, you get some entertainment when you have people close by). On the other side, there was an older hiking couple who spent most of their time huddling under a tarp smoking weed.
We had put up a tarp as well so we had a good cover from the rain and with the campfire going it was a perfect day.
When we finally caught a break from all the wetness, we used it to go for a paddle around the lake. We explored the cliffs and a huge bird nest that we’d noticed the day before.
Eventually we got back to the canoe launch and since we were so close to the car, we decided to grab some beer that we’d left in the trunk (I guess it was a bit like car camping, just the car was parked a bit further away). As we set out to paddle back to our campsite, it started raining again.
The evening was even cozier with the beer. The loon that we’d heard the previous night finally made an appearance. We watched it gliding across the lake not too far from our campsite. Like a nature channel only a hundred times better.
This time we fell asleep to insistent patter of the rain.
Luckily the rain had stopped by the time we woke up allowing us to pack. Before we left, my son and I decided to explore the other side of the lake.
We reached the two campsites at the end of Big Salmon Lake, which looked even closer together than the ones where we stayed. But it would be a great option for a big group of campers.
On the way back, we saw an osprey soaring above its nest and even caught a glimpse of small downy heads among the branches. And our friend the loon was back, this time with a buddy.
By early afternoon, we finally managed to pull ourselves together and away from the serenity of our campsite and set out on our paddle back.
The wind was up again but not too strong so it took us no more than an hour to get back to the dock. My phone battery was dead so my husband drove to the park office to call Frontenac Outfitters to come pick up the canoes. I stayed behind guarding the canoe and gear while swatting black flies away.
On our way out of the park we had a surprise waiting — a deer bidding farewell.