The Best of 2019

Here we are again: another year, another “best of” post. 2019 didn’t feature any big road trips but it doesn’t mean there were no memorable adventures – they were just shorter and close to home. The only exception was our trip to Ukraine with my younger son. The trip didn’t involve any camping so didn’t make it into this blog but it did bring some interesting insights. It was a disconcerting experience at first – I felt like a tourist in my home country. Everything looked familiar, yet unrecognizable, as if I lost the key and could no longer decipher the code.

Near Kyiv sign in Ukraine

My trip to Ukraine was a little disorienting at first – I felt like a tourist in my home country

One afternoon we took a break from sightseeing and decided to hike down to the River Prut that runs through my home town of Chernivtsi. I’d walked that path so many times before with my older son, back then still a baby, but it was as if I landed in a new place. What used to be open fields was now a tightly woven jungle of trees and grasses. Yet, in this disorienting landscape, I felt less lost and confused than when I was twenty or so years ago when the surroundings were open and clear. That twenty-year-old person didn’t feel like me; she was more of a faint memory, someone I once knew. We all change as we grow up but usually that transformation is slow and gradual and not immediately apparent. It is only when we return to the places that knew us when we were younger, that we are confronted with those distant versions of ourselves.

walking through the grass

The trail I often walked with my older son when he was still a baby looked completely different this time around

It wasn’t until we reached the river that I started to feel at home again. And I thought that home for me doesn’t have exact geographical coordinates. It’s wherever there is water and hills and trees – be it the river of my childhood, the lakes of Algonquin, the forest behind my grandparents’ house, Killarney’s white cliffs or the Carpathian Mountains where I hiked with my classmates. Every camping trip for me is not just an adventure or escape from the city. It is about coming home.

River Prut in Chernivtsi in Ukraine

Once I got to the river of my childhood, I finally started to feel at home

And with that preamble, here is a list of the best “coming home” experiences of 2019.

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Waterways to solitude and adventure: Camping at Point Grondine

We huff and puff as we make our way down a muddy, rocky path to Mahzenazing Lake at Point Grondine Park. Mosquitoes and all sorts of flies take advantage of our constraints: it’s hard to swat bugs when your arms are full of paddles and dry sacks or if you are carrying a canoe on your back. These feel like the longest 1,200 metres in our lives. The blue of the lake peeking through the trees is the most welcome sight.

But let me backtrack a little.

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Queen Elizabeth II Wildlands on Victoria Day weekend: an unlikely combination of queens and backpacking

Our younger son likes to share stories, solve math problems and study new scientific concepts while hiking. So during last weekend’s backpacking trip his dad was teaching him about factorials and permutations. Don’t ask me to explain what those are because I wasn’t really listening. I was working on a scientific formula of my own, one that would explain why backpacking works so well as a de-stressor. My theory is that there is only a certain amount of baggage our bodies can handle. So the more weight you pile up on your back and the longer you lug it around, the faster you shed the other kind of weight, the one that is made up of schedules, deadlines, to-do lists and digital noise. Add a few dozen bug bites and there is little else you can think about.

Ganaraska Trail at Queen Elizabeth II Wildlands

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It’s not all fun and games: Our worst camping moments

In one of my previous posts, I mentioned that my son accused me of always focusing on the positive aspects of camping while consistently ignoring everything that ever goes wrong. And he is not the only one who has charged me with practicing “joy-washing” as I called it. My friend says that whenever she asks about a trip, my answer is always: “It was great!”

Well, I’ve never denied that camping involves certain hardships and inconveniences but to me they are insignificant compared to all the joys that every trip brings.

However, in the spirit of total disclosure, I decided to pull together some stories when things didn’t exactly go as planned starting with…

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Four Days in Paddling Heaven: Canoeing in Quetico Provincial Park

Humbling is the first word that comes to mind when I think of our canoe trip in Quetico. Our most challenging camping experience so far, it was also exhilarating, spectacular and awe-inspiring but, first and foremost, it was humbling. The couple that we met right after finishing the route echoed our sentiments. As the guy put it, any delusions he may have had about being a tough outdoorsman that never gives up and keeps battling the elements were put to rest. And I have to agree. If I were to pick the most important lesson learned, or rather reinforced, during our Quetico canoe trip, it would be respect for the power of nature.

Quetico Lake

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Hiking the Western Uplands Backpacking Trail in Algonquin Provincial Park

backpackAnyone who has ever tried backpacking knows that it comes with many challenges. Trekking through the woods with a heavy backpack is a major trial of physical fitness and stamina. It is also a test of character: ability to keep going even if your backpack seems to be getting heavier with every step, readiness to pitch in with campsite chores even when you’d rather collapse in your tent after a long day on the trail, willingness to adjust your expectations, remain patient and find ways to enjoy the experience through every rugged turn of the trail, pouring rain, relentless mosquitoes and occasional complaints from the youngest members of the group.

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A Different Side of Bon Echo: Hiking the Abes and Essens Trail

Every year, we like to try a new outdoor activity. Last year, we went white-water rafting at Glacier National Park in Montana. The year before, we tried sea kayaking at Hopewell Rocks in New Brunswick. And before that, it was our first multi-day canoe trip through Algonquin’s Barron Canyon. This year, we decided to go on an overnight backpacking trip. We’ve done a fair share of hiking but all of the trails were short and could be finished in one day.

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Abes EssensFor our overnight adventure, we picked the Abes and Essens Lake Trail in Bon Echo Provincial Park. It seemed like a good opportunity to experience a different side of Bon Echo. We camped at this park before but stayed at one of the campgrounds close to Mazinaw Lake and those tend to get overcrowded, especially on weekends.

The trail is only 17 km long and can certainly be covered in a day but also has five campsites along the way for those who’d like to camp overnight. We booked site #530 on Little Rock Lake. Our plan was to cover most of the trail on the first day. That way we wouldn’t have to rush packing the next morning and still have plenty of time to finish the trail and drive back to Toronto.

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We arrived in Bon Echo late on Friday and stayed the first night on one of the sites at the Hardwood Hills campground. In all our years of front-country camping, we have never been anywhere this quiet. That was probably why we slept in. Even our younger son, who usually wakes sometime between six and seven, slept until 11. So if you are looking for peace and quiet but without all the work of back-country camping you should check it out. Plus the campsites are pretty big and private, especially further away from the comfort station.

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The next morning, we packed up our tent, made our favourite Power Breakfast to keep us going, picked up our permit from the office and set out on a trail around 1:30. We started at the trail end, which is a bit down the road from the trail parking lot. The Abes and Essens Lake Trail has three loops: 4, 9 and 17 km. At the beginning we met quite a few people finishing the first loop. As we passed the first fork, the number of people dropped significantly. We met lovely campers at site 526 and there were a bunch of tents set up on site 527. Once we got to loop three, we stopped for lunch and some rest.

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The scenery wasn’t breathtaking but it was pretty with small lakes, rocky shores and beautiful flowers. As for the terrain, there were some ups and downs but overall the trail was not difficult. We had to take off our shoes to cross the stream leading into Abes. There were a few rocks you could use to skip across but we didn’t want to risk getting all our stuff wet.

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There were two more sites on Abes Lake, both occupied and looking pretty big. Once we got past Abes, the trail became really overgrown and that’s where I tumbled over and hurt my ankle. Even as I was falling down, two thoughts shot through my mind: What if I broke something? How are we getting out of here? Once the pain became less intense, we figured it wasn’t a fracture after all and since the only way to get out of there was to keep walking we had to move on. My husband piled up my backpack on top of his own, my kids found me a nice stick and I just hopped along.

The chunk of the trail between Abes and Little Rock Lake was probably the worst part of our trip. And not only because I was hurting and slow. It was really overgrown and at times hard to see the trail. Mosquitoes were ruthless and after a while our younger son, who is a human mosquito magnet, got really cranky. So after two hours of mosquitoes buzzing, my ankle throbbing and my son complaining, an orange campsite sign was a welcome sight. Since it was already almost seven and my foot didn’t look too bad, we decided to stick to our original plan and camp there.

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Site 530 is the only one on the lake and since no one seems to be hiking along loop three, not a single person passed our site during our stay there. As I was lying on the rocky shore with my foot stuck into the lake, breathing in the solitude and tranquility, I realized that’s what happiness felt like. There were clouds of dragon flies and damselflies swooshing above and it made our son very happy since they eat mosquitoes. The way he put it: this is a blessing and it’s beautiful too.

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Just to recap the rest of our stay. The site had a beautiful view of the lake but hardly any space for a tent. After some turning this way and that, we managed to squeeze it onto a tiny piece of soil between the rocks. On our way out, further down the trail, we did find more space that could be used for a tent and someone had obvious done that before. After the tent was up, we made a minestrone soup but added too much lentils and dried vegetables so it turned into a minestrone stew. Our kids proclaimed it the best meal ever. The next day, while my husband and kids were packing, I was soaking up vitamin D, cooling my ankle in the lake and making friends with minnows and tadpoles.

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It took us two hours to finish the trail. We stopped at Mazinaw Lake for a swim to wash off dirt and sweat, grabbed some ice-cream in Cloyne, dropped off kids at home and headed to an emergency room.

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Ah, memories…