A cozy cabin in the woods, a wood stove or at the very least a gas fireplace, days filled with snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, evenings filled with board games and reading – for many years these have been our Family Day weekend staples. In 2021, they have become distant memories. With the province in lockdown, our Family Day activities required rethinking. I knew that many of my thoughts over those few days would start with “We could be somewhere in the woods right now…” So I decided that the only way to prevent or at least minimize all the brooding was to throw at it as much hiking, and snow, as I could.
After a pleasant walk at Tommy Thompson Park, where I found lots of beautiful frozen sculptures, but very little snow, or hiking for that matter, I figured we had to venture a bit outside the city in search of snow and some challenge. Together with our kids we headed to Forks of the Credit Provincial Park where we enjoyed a refreshing and invigorating hike thanks to a combination of hills, stairs and double digits below zero temperatures. The weekend culminated in a Valentine’s Day trip with my husband to McCrae Lake Conservation Reserve complete with a campfire and a cookout to recreate that camping feeling.
I’ve heard and read about McCrae Lake for a long time. This crown land, located right off Highway 400 just south of Parry Sound, is a popular paddling destination. Unfortunately, ease of access, both geographically and with no camping fees or reservations required, make it too popular for its own good. According to some accounts, the place becomes a party central in the summer (read lots of noise and garbage). So I’ve always been hesitant to go canoeing there. It is, however, a perfect spot for a quick trip during a shoulder season or in the winter. And while it required a bit of a longer drive than our usual weekend destinations, it was certainly worth it. Only an hour and a half in the car put us amid a typical Muskoka landscape with a surprising remote feeling for a place sitting right by the highway – a perfect spot for a pretend camping day.
Don’t get me wrong I love our weekend hikes and we have quite a few favourite microadventure parks not too far from Toronto. But sometimes they are closely hugged by busy roads, and while Niagara Escarpment offers beautiful views and some challenging climbs, you’d be hard pressed to find signature Canadian Shield jagged rocks, rugged terrain and lakes with squiggly shores this far south in Ontario.
Our first trip to McCrae Lake was back in December when we were looking for a place to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary. The place was practically deserted, partly because it was the middle of the week and partly because the in-between season with its grey medley of snow and mud isn’t the most attractive hiking weather. But we persevered and were rewarded with beautiful views and close-up encounters with two friendly beavers.
In spite of all the greyness and mud, I was taken by the place and it seemed like a perfect spot to return to for a Valentine’s Day hike. This time, the trip had an entirely different vibe. With at least two feet of snow on the ground and a layer of fresh powder from the night before sparkling under the sunny blue skies, the forest transformed into a magical scene right out of a postcard. Snow dressed up trees and rocks in furry coats and hats. It was clinging to brunches and tree trunks in gravity defying acts. Occasionally, the wind playfully nudged one of those snow stacks and sent a shower of glitter across the forest.
No wonder we were far from the only people drawn to this place. With the parking lot full, there was a line-up of cars along the road. Luckily, someone left right after we arrived so we didn’t have to wait or look for a parking spot. I was initially concerned about overcrowding on the trail and inability to maintain a distance. But for the most part, people arrived with their skis and snowmobiles and headed right onto the lake. We had nothing but our feet so we turned them toward a hiking trail.
The McCrae Lake Trail is about eight kilometres one-way and veers through the forest occasionally hugging smaller lakes and ponds and clashing with McCrae Lake in jaw-dropping, breath-taking lookouts. We knew that our chances of covering the entire trail were low – we should have arrived earlier for that. So our plan was to hike one way for about two hours and then turn back. That would give us enough time to squeeze in a campfire and a meal and then get back to the parking lot before sunset. In the summer, we probably would have had no problem covering the entire trek. Winter, however, presents some additional challenges. The packed trail eventually disappeared and we started to sink deep into the snow. At that point, we were past our two-hour mark so we took it as a sign to retrace our steps.
On the way back, we found a secluded campsite. It had signs of someone staying there the night before: packed snow for a tent, a fire pit, even some wood. We made chili and ate it around a smoking fire reminiscing of our past trips. We finished with hot chocolate and sugar cookies our son had baked. By then, sunny skies gave way to steely greys. We quickly packed and in less than an hour were back at the parking lot.
“You smell of smoke,” said our kids when we got back home. A clear sign of a successful trip.