Camping in Canada’s “deep south”: Wheatley Provincial Park, Point Pelee National Park and Pelee Island

May long weekend camping is always a gamble. Will it be cold? Will it rain? Will the temperature drop down to freezing at night? Where to go? Which park to book? This year, we decided to go to Wheatley Provincial Park with the intention to also visit Point Pelee National Park and Pelee Island located nearby. When we arrived in the park late Friday night, the trip didn’t look very promising. The weather forecast showed high chance of rain and thunderstorms for the next couple of days. Our campsite was soggy and wet. On top of it, our neighbours turned out to be Top 40 fans (not my type of music, especially in the woods, where I want to listen to birds not Taylor Swift). On the plus side, the weather gods waited patiently till we finished setting up (it started to rain the exact moment I zipped up the tent door behind me) and the sound of rain drowned out our neighbours’ music.

eating breakfast under an umbrellaThe next morning, we woke up to a drizzle that would occasionally intensify to a medium strength rain. After finishing our breakfast under the umbrellas and playing a dice game (I lost), we started wondering whether we should put up a tarp to get some protection from the rain. Miraculously, it stopped raining sometime around noon and the rest of our stay was rain-free. I am even happier to report that our neighbours didn’t turn on their music after that first night. The mud on our campsite never went away, though. In fact, the ground seemed to be getting soggier and muddier the more we walked on it and we brought back a good deal of Wheatley mud caked onto our boots and tents. But then you can’t have everything. Continue reading

Easter Weekend Camping in Pinery Provincial Park

Easter weekend camping is a relatively new tradition. This is our second year, to be exact. Last year, we started pondering over the meaning of Easter and it being the symbol of rejuvenation and rebirth. So we decided that there was no better place to celebrate it than in nature where the magic of rebirth happens every spring. Plus kids love Easter egg hunt in the actual forest even though they have long outgrown the age of believing in Easter bunny.

This year we chose Pinery Provincial Park as our camping destination for a number of reasons. There was more chance that it would be snow free compared to, say, Algonquin or Killarney. The route to Pinery conveniently lies through Waterloo where we could pick up our older son and then drop him off on the way back. We were also hoping to catch tundra swans taking a break on their way north. Finally, it is always fun to see some of our favourite parks during a different season. So far Pinery has been the destination for many enjoyable summer trips and one memorable New Year celebration. This was a chance to see it on the cusp of season change.

Pinery beach   Pinery beach in the spring

We left late Thursday night and with a stop at Waterloo, we arrived at the park close to one in the morning to find our yurt locked. In the hindsight, we should have called the park to warn them about our late arrival but on previous late arrivals at other parks we would find the yurt open with the key left inside or alternately locked but with the key left in an envelope near the registration office. We spent an hour driving around the park trying to locate someone to open the yurt for us, found an emergency phone, alerted the guard, woke up the ranger on duty. In short, it was quite an adventurous start to our trip.

Needless to say, we slept in the next morning. When we finally got outside, it was a nice and warm day. The park was surprisingly busy with almost all yurts occupied, and trailers and a few tents visible on the surrounding campsites.

breakfast   eating outside a yurt at Pinery

We spent the first half of the day biking around the park. In the summer, riding the 14-kilometre Savannah trail and finishing with ice-cream is a long established tradition. But since the ice-cream counter and the store were closed for the season, our younger son proclaimed that riding the trail would be pointless. We biked along park roads instead, explored the Old Ausable River Channel, which was still frozen on one side of the bridge and completely ice-free on the other. We even saw a lonely canoeist on the water and felt quite jealous of him but canoes were chained for the season as well.

Old Ausable Channel covered in ice

canoeist on Old Ausable Channel at Pinery

We then biked over to the beach. Lake Huron looked strikingly different from its usually cheerful summer self. Covered in ice and dusted with sand with a narrow strip of turquoise water in the distance and clouds overhead, it was eerily beautiful.

Lake Huron in the winter, Pinery Provincial Park

By then, the wind picked up and it was quite chilly, so we rode back to the campsite. Right on time too. Because the moment we finished cooking the soup, it started to rain and we retreated inside the yurt. With a bowl of hearty soup inside our bellies and the patter of rain on the yurt roof, we enjoyed restful time reading and napping. Once it cleared up, we ate veggie burgers around the campfire and then back inside played our favourite game, Settlers of Catan, well into the night.

Day 2 was gorgeous, all beautiful spring sunshine and blue skies. We rode over to the visitor centre to watch all sorts of birds twittering and chirping around the bird feeders.

birds

birds   bird

We then hiked Cedar Trail, which is only 2.3 km long and starts right near the visitor centre. It has a great lookout platform over the channel, where we spotted an otter in the water (or at least we think it was an otter since it was pretty far away).

kid on a log   kids under an arched tree

acorn

on the stair, cedar trail at Pinery   Cedar trail at Pinery

There is also a trail extension that leads to the beach. That day, the beach looked brighter with the sunlight against the blue sky. The ice cover alternated between sand dusted frozen waves, long stretches of white and then ice chunks as far as the eye could see. One brave, or maybe just stupid, kid actually rode a fat bike over the lake.

pinery beach in the winter

pinery in the winter

biking on the lake in the winter

That day we also drove to the field behind the Lambton Museum to see tundra swans. Yes, they were still there! Because the winter was so cold, they arrived later than usual this year (so cold winters do have their bright sides). I was really excited to see them, something I wanted to do ever since I read about tundra swans on the Friends of Pinery website. It was quite a sight and a noisy one too. At night, we could hear them honking overhead while the guy at the next campsite played drums. Those were much better sounds to fall asleep to than the humming of cars back home.

tundra swans at grand bend

tundra swans at pinery

birds

On Easter Sunday, winter staged a short comeback as we woke up to a snow cover outside.

bikes covered in snow

Riverside campground at Pinery

coffee by the campfire   shoveling snow

It didn’t stop us from having an Easter egg hunt. In fact, it was quite fun.

chocolate eggs on  a stump   chocolate egg on a leaf

easter agg hunt   easter egg hunt

As always, we didn’t want to leave. After we packed, we decided to do another hike, this time on the Nipissing Trail, which took us to the top of the oldest and highest dune ridge and also provided great views of the park with a bit of Lake Huron in the distance.

Nipissing trail at Pinery   Nipissig trail at Pinery

view from Nipissing trail lookout at Pinery

We stopped at Denny’s Drive-in, our favourite fish and chips place at Grand Bend. We were happy to see that they were already open for 2015 season. We brought our blankets and enjoyed our meal outside.

Good-bye, Pinery, till Labour Day!

sunset at Pinery in winter

Time to Spring into Camping

So spring is officially here! And it comes with warmer weather, longer days and a promise of more camping trips. While April and May with melting snow, uncertain weather, lots of mud and quite often still cold nights may not seem like the best choice to head into the woods, there are lots of things that make spring camping special. Here is what I am looking forward to as we are preparing for our first spring camping trip of the year.

Rebirth of nature

After a long winter sleep, nature finally shakes off its white blanket and springs into a burst of colours, smells and sounds. Even though I know it’s coming, every year I am mesmerized by this magic act of rebirth, by the vigour of spring flowers pushing their way through the ground, by the tenderness of swelling buds. The blues, yellows and purples of spring ephemerals and bright greens of first leaves look like drops of paint spattered by a careless artist around the otherwise still bare forest. So put on a pair of waterproof boots and head to the forest. Walk slowly and look for signs of spring awakening.

boardwalk at Presqu'ile Provincial park

flower   first leaves

spring flowers   spring flowers

tree in the spring   willow in the spring

spring flowers

Trilliums

Yes, it is a flower and could be mentioned above but in my book of spring camping it deserves a separate chapter. It is Ontario’s official flower and spring is the only time when you can see it. Imagine forest floor covered by a blanket of snow-white curvy petals with occasional pinks or reds peeking through. It is a sight worth seeing, practically a must if you live in Ontario.

red trillium   white trillium

trilliums

Twitter

Not the one on your phone, of course, the original one produced by birds. In the spring, woods and lakeshores are filled with chirps, cheeps, peeps and tweets. Ontario Parks offer excellent birdwatching opportunities. Some parks, like Presqu’ile, Long Point or Point Pelee are practically birders’ meccas. So if birdwatching is your thing, grab your camera and binoculars and head to one of the parks. And even if you are not a birder, waking up to a birdsong is way more pleasant than to an alarm on your phone.

heron near the lake

duck

warbler   warbler

family of geese

Wildlife sightings

As more and more animals wake up from their winter slumber and right before summer crowds hit the parks, spring offers a great window for wildlife viewing. For instance, spring is the best season for moose watching in Algonquin. You don’t even have to go far. You are almost certain to see these animals along Highway 60 as they are attracted by the salt in road ditches. As always, it is important to remember that wildlife may pose danger. So exercise caution when you are driving in or close to the parks, and give animals lots of space whenever you come across them in the woods.

moose in algonquin park

moose in algonquin   groundhog

More daylight

Longer days mean more outdoor activities. While there is a certain charm to long winter evenings by the fire and there are lots of enjoyable activities to fill the time, as the days are getting longer I am looking forward to spending more time outside and can now plan for longer hikes or bike rides.

More sun

After a long and cold winter, we all deserve a bit more sun. And with more sun come better moods, warmer weather and more Vitamin D. Spring weather with its gentle sun, a bit of a breeze and without the usual summer humidity is perfect for outdoor activities.

Fewer layers

As the weather gets warmer, we can start shedding all those winter layers. As much as I enjoy winter, I won’t miss extra sweaters, snowpants, scarves, hats and gloves and I am looking forward to spending less than ten minutes getting dressed before going outside. Spring nights can still be pretty chilly so don’t put away your sweaters and hats too far away just yet. If you are concerned about spring chill at night, consider booking roofed accommodations at one of Ontario Parks. They are much easier to book in the spring as more people are choosing to stay in tents.

awenda in the spring   Macgregor point

walking over a log   on the beach at awenda in spring

Cycling

Yes, you can bike in the summer and fall too, but there is nothing like the first bike ride of the season. After a long cycling gap (unless, of course, you are a winter biking enthusiast), the sensation of pushing pedals is always new and exciting. With a breeze in your hair and a birdsong in your ear, spring cycling is filled with childlike joy. So dust off your bike, tune it up and head outside. A lot of Ontario Parks have excellent biking trails, for instance, Pinery, Algonquin, MacGregor Point. Quite a few also offer bike rentals.

biking in algonquin   biking at craigleth provincial park

Canoeing

Just like cycling, canoeing is not a strictly spring activity. But just like with cycling, I can’t wait till the first paddle of the year: the slight resistance of water as my paddle cuts through it, the splash, the feeling of gliding on the surface. Plus rivers and lakes are at their fullest in the spring after the snow melts making them easier to navigate. Some routes can only be paddled in the spring or early summer at the latest and they become almost impassable as the water levels drop later in the season.

paddle in the water

Finally, the best cure for cabin fever

Even though we go camping in the winter too, with only two or three trips over the whole season I feel like we spend too much time in the city. So why wait till summer if you can go camping now. Nothing can chase those winter blues away like the orange crackling of a campfire, the bright yellow of first spring flowers  and the tender green spirals of fiddleheads.

marshmellow in the campfire

yellow spring flowers   fiddleheads

Time to start packing! Remember that Ontario Parks have different opening dates while some are open year round. Check Ontario Parks website for help with your trip planning and to book campsites.