Remember those childhood riddles about an animal that carries its home on its back? About a week ago the answer was me making my way along the Highlands Trail in Algonquin. Not only because I was lugging my home, a.k.a. tent, on my back, but also because I was so slow.
Life in slow motion
In the world obsessed with speed and efficiency, going slow feels like a luxury. Maybe even a small act of defiance against a constant imperative to quickly get from one point to another, move from one task on your list to the next without any time to stop and smell the proverbial, and sometimes real, flowers. That’s why I love backpacking. No matter how much you try, you can’t move faster than your legs will carry you. Going slow is part of the game on the trail.
I guess you could make the same argument for canoeing. Physical force is required and it doesn’t exactly propel you across the lake. And yet backpacking feels more intense. A canoe, no matter how basic, is still a mode of transportation. It carries your stuff (except for portages when you have to return the favour). It creates a bit of a barrier between the world and you. It provides a sense of security (even if it’s false) and offers some means of escape should things go wrong. On the trail, there is nothing standing between you and the land. You have to measure every inch of the way with your own feet. You don’t get more grounded than that.
Plus backpacking is an exercise in extreme editing: nothing makes it inside a backpack unless it has a clear function, preferably more than one. Canoeing allows you to take just a little bit extra, just in case. On the trail, every extra item means extra weight, extra time and extra pain at the end of the day. Backpacking is a great reminder of how little we actually need not only to survive but to be happy.
That is why, even though I am a canoe person at heart, I like to mix it up and throw in a backpacking adventure here and there.
Celebrating my birthday, camping style
This year I decided to go on my first solo backpacking trip. A year ago I finally attempted a canoe trip on my own to celebrate my 40th birthday. I loved it so much that I thought why not make it an annual tradition.
41st birthday looked like a good time to hike the Highland Backpacking Trail in Algonquin. This trail was part of my original plan last year but I changed my mind and went canoeing in Killarney instead. I’ll admit I contemplated pulling the same trick again. I even searched the Ontario Parks reservation website for canoe sites availability just a few days before my scheduled departure date. No good sites were available as you can imagine so I decided to stick to my original plan this time.
I only had two days for my trip so I couldn’t do the entire 35-kilometre loop. Before you say anything, I know some people manage to complete it in one day and if I pushed myself I could probably finish it in two. So I guess I should have said “didn’t want to.” The whole point of the trip was to slow down, not rush through the trail.
I thought of doing the first loop but then I got distracted by this lone site on Faya Lake. It was only seven kilometres away from the trailhead, at the beginning of the second loop. Seven kilometres seemed like an insufficient distance from my comfortable chair all the way in Toronto. So I thought I’d take a long way around Provoking Lake to get there or set up camp and then hike around Provoking. But that was before the seemingly flat curves of the trail slowly rose off the map and turned into sweat-inducing, root-strewn climbs and muddy, mosquito-infested descents. “Why don’t you just stay here and enjoy this beautiful day,” seemed to whisper the pine on the Faya Lake campsite when I finally slid the backpack off my shoulders.
Likewise, the campsite’s isolation seemed like an attractive proposition all the way from Toronto. Annoyed by the city’s hustle and bustle, I was craving complete peace and quiet. But as I read various trip reports with repeated mentions of a certain furry visitor, I started questioning the soundness of my decision. In the end I have to credit two beautiful videos for reaffirming my resolve (you can watch them here and here). Plus the same mantra I use every time we head into the backcountry. It is a little piece of information I found while researching our first ever backcountry trip: you are much more likely to be hit by a car than attacked by a bear in Algonquin.
Walk on the wild side (not really)
So with that cheerful thought I headed out the door around 9 am on a Saturday morning. I should have left earlier because the traffic had already built up by then and it took me close to four hours to to get to the park. Talk about slow motion. The good news is that by the time I arrived in Algonquin around one, I was ready to get moving.
I stopped by the West Gate to get my permit but was sent to the Mew Lake campground instead. I promised myself I wouldn’t ask about bears but couldn’t resist. “Any recent bear sightings?” I inquired halfway out the door. “About a week and a half ago. At Faya Lake actually,” replied the ranger. “But nothing since then,” she added hastily. “They must have been doing something wrong.” I was grateful for that last bit. It gave me an illusion of control. I was determined to do everything right.
Permit in hand, I drove back to the trailhead. Shortly after two, I was standing in front of a map, wrapped up in the smell of bug repellent, my backpack gently pulling on my shoulders. I must admit I did a pretty good job of packing. The backpack didn’t feel too heavy even after a few hours on the trail.
That doesn’t mean it was easy. I haven’t done backpacking in a while. Plus the trail did have a fair number of ups and downs. Mostly ups (with the name like Highland should come at no surprise), right from the beginning, leading all the way to the lookout over Mew Lake. By the time I reached it, I was sure I’d covered at least one fourth of the route. One look at the map mercilessly shattered that wishful thinking. I was no more than one kilometre in. That just shows how off my walking sense is.
After that the trail wound down a bit towards the falls. I could hear it before I could see it. Not so much the water, though, but rather kids squealing in delight. Turned out the falls was a popular swimming hole with people hiking in, biking along the Old Railway Trail or canoeing up Madawaska River to splash in the rapids. I can’t believe that after so many years of camping in Algonquin I didn’t know about this place.
It was a great spot to get some rest and cool my feet while nibbling on chocolate. But I couldn’t stay long. The trail was calling.
I hoisted my backpack and was on my way. The trail followed Madawaska River for a while, then started veering off into the woods. There were some rather picturesque parts with views of small lakes and bridges over bubbling brooks. Also more climbs, rocks and roots all the way to the split between Provoking East and West.
The section from this point all the way to the fork between Loop 1 and 2 was probably the worst part of the trail with stretches of ankle-deep, maybe deeper, mud. Luckily I managed to avoid testing its depth. But that required some serious fits of acrobatics: balancing on logs and branches, skipping from rock to rock, using my walking poles at stilts. All that while swatting hordes of hungry mosquitoes.
The Faya Lake campsite sign couldn’t come fast enough.
The campsite was a fair distance away from the main trail. The path to the site started with a descent and after a few twists and turns led me to a peninsula jutting into Faya Lake.
Once I relieved my shoulders of the backpack, I went on a little tour of the site. Mainly to familiarize myself with the vicinity but also looking for signs of recent bear activity. The site was big with lots of room for tents and pretty views of the lake on both sides. No sign of bears.
A few reports mentioned issues with garbage. I didn’t find much at first. Later I went around once again and collected all the plastic tabs, lids, bags, a couple of empty soup packets, even found a dish towel. But nothing like fish innards wrapped in a newspaper and tucked into the fire pit one of the campers mentioned in a forum. No wonder bears like this site.
There were also about ten fire grills scattered around the site. As if every backpacker who stayed there felt the need to stake their territory and leave one of their own. I didn’t have a grill on me so I couldn’t contribute to this rich collection. Some of the grills were used to block the trail leading to the campsite. A smaller trail to the side was blocked by a broken camping chair frame. I wondered if those were fortifications against a bear. That would mean they were expecting some very polite animals that would only use official trails to enter the campsite or would be deterred by a ten-inch-high grill. It made me laugh but also fed into my bear anxieties. So I decided to find a good tree for my food. That way I could feel like I was doing everything possible to discourage a visit.
I could see a few ropes hanging from a large white pine right in the middle of the site, practically above a tent pad. That seemed like a very unwise location for a bear hang so I set out in search of another one as far from the site as possible and away from my escape route. I found a nice branch but it was really high up. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to get the rope up. It took me five attempts to do it.
Tomato soup with a side of nature
Feeling satisfied and a tiny bit proud of myself, I headed back to the campsite to prepare some food. I made tomato soup with lentils and quinoa on my new ultralight camping stove and threw a pita with cheese onto a campfire. A grill actually came in handy.
I enjoyed my meal listening to the forest. After I finished, I washed my pot, which also doubled as a bowl, carefully disposing of grey water away from the lake and the site. Then proceeded to setting up the tent.
After that I could finally relax and enjoy a beautiful evening.
Turned out I was not the only one favouring the rock by the lake. About six garter snakes were savouring the last of the sun warmth, several of them wrapped up into a large, moving knot. As the shadows slowly engulfed the peninsula, my slithering friends started looking for holes and tree trunks to retreat for the night.
I felt abandoned but then a couple of loons showed up to keep me company and a beaver dropped by for a visit.
I turned in early because I was tired. But it took me a while to fall asleep as I kept listening to any unfamiliar sounds and breaks in patterns. All I could hear was a chorus of frogs and a repetitive, dull tapping.
and Then it dawned on me
I was up before 6 the next morning, right in time for a sunrise. I couldn’t see the sun behind the trees but the sky acquired the telling pink streaks. I took a few pictures. Greeted my loon friends. Watched tiny warblers nibbling on pine cones. Met my fellow home-on-its-back carrier – a resident snapping turtle. In one of the videos, they referred to him as a man-eating turtle. But he looked very gentle and shy disappearing underwater the minute I reached for my camera.
After that I started the fire and proceeded to making coffee and oatmeal with freshly picked blueberries. The rest of the morning was uneventful. I enjoyed my coffee by the lake. I packed. I walked around in search of more garbage. It felt unfair that I had to leave just I started feeling comfortable and at home.
My return trip seemed easier and faster. I managed to get back to the trailhead in two hours and that included a lengthy break, and more chocolate, at the waterfalls, which were less busy than the day before.
And here I was again, at the map, only a day later and almost a year older. If I don’t look sufficiently happy, that’s because every little exposed patch of my skin is being attacked by pesky bloodsuckers.
I know you were probably expecting a bear to make an appearance in this story. I didn’t mean to mislead you. I was expecting one too but he never showed up. Can I offer you a moose instead?