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.
Anyone 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.
I went on my first hiking trip when I was ten. We just finished grade four, and our homeroom teacher, an avid outdoorsman, decided we were ready for a few days in the woods. To get to our camping destination, we took public transit and then walked for two hours or so. Most of us had never been camping before so our teacher taught us how to pack our backpacks, what to bring with us on a trip, how to set up a tent, collect wood and cook food over the campfire. We stayed there for three days, making short hiking trips into the forest and gathering medicinal herbs, which we later donated to the pharmacy. By the end of the trip I was hooked. Luckily, he remained our homeroom teacher till we graduated from school six years later, and those camping trips became an annual tradition. He would take us backpacking in the Carpathian mountains every summer and skiing in the winter. The trips would get longer, tougher and further away. And every year I would enjoy them more and more.
The tents we used were old army tents, extremely heavy when dry and weighing about a ton after getting wet. They were hard to set up, especially after we lost or broke all the poles and had to find suitable sticks on every trip. There were no zippers on those tents, just some loops and hooks, so they offered little in terms of protection from cold or mosquitoes. We didn’t have any pads, only sleeping bags, also heavy and big, and we used our backpacks as pillows. The backpacks themselves were nothing like sleek modern contraptions with padded straps and back supports. They were weirdly rounded, bulky and extremely uncomfortable. The straps were narrow, and after a day of lugging the backpack around felt razor-sharp.
Somehow none of those things mattered. When I think of those trips, my most vivid memories are of sitting around the campfire and listening to our teacher’s fascinating stories about his travels. Or one of my classmates playing the guitar and singing the same two songs (I think he only knew two) over and over again. I can still picture breathtaking views from mountain tops, which were even more special because they required so much work. I remember warm summer nights when we would decide to forego sleep altogether and stay up all night waiting for the sunrise. Morning haze over the mountains, the thrilling song of nightingales, and the hot red orb of the sun rolling out from behind the hills. Fresh smell of woods and multicoloured flowery carpets of high mountain meadows. Card games with my classmates on long winter nights. The excitement of flying down a toboggan hill on plastic sheets, and all the pain and aches afterwards because plastic offered little in terms of protection from bumps and gaps.
Most importantly, I remember the growing confidence and satisfaction that came from accomplishing something that hadn’t seemed possible before, the feeling of community and knowing that you can rely on your friends. While we learned a lot of practical camping and survival skills from our teacher, he taught us way more than that. We learned to watch out for each other and provide support when someone was tired or hurt. We learned to share by pulling all our food supplies together to make some weird but always delicious concoction and then distribute it between all of us making sure everyone got enough to eat. We learned that you had to keep walking even when the mountain top seemed too high up or the road way too long. We learned that even the longest routes seemed shorter with your friends around.
My teacher died a few years ago from a heart attack. I never got to tell him how much all those trips meant to me and that they inspired my lifelong passion for the outdoors. I can only hope he knew that while we enjoyed his Ukrainian language and literature classes, the most important lessons he taught us were outside the classroom.
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.
For 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.