Riding the Parkbus
Last Traveled July 2012
Last year I got the chance to use a great new service that allows people to get to Ontario Parks by bus called, appropriately, “Parkbus” (you can read more about it here). I may have a car, but for me this was an idea worth supporting. Not only does it allow those without cars to get up and experience places like Algonquin Park, but it’s also quite a great eco-friendly way to do it.
Since riding the Parkbus seemed like such a great environmentally friendly way to get to Algonquin, friends of mine decided try to prove you can have a great back-country portaging trip without the use of a car at all – from beginning to end. Whether your reasoning is because you don’t have a car, or you want to lessen your carbon footprint, you’ll see that it is completely possible, and has some other great advantages as well. Because of the stops that are made within Algonquin Park, it would be very easy to be dropped right at an outfitter to pick up our permits and canoes and set out into the back-country.
However, while Parkbus begins it’s route in Toronto, very close to a transportation hub, I hang my hat in Hamilton, Ontario. I still had a few more things to figure out to make this a completely car-free trip.
What time do I have to get up again?
4:00 AM comes early – I don’t care who you are. We had to be at the Parkbus 1st stop (30 Carlton St.) at 7:30 AM and had a 80km to cover to get there. In order to do this, we had to get to the closest GO bus station for the 5:35 AM bus to Union Station, then take the subway up to Carlton Street. Now I should probably mention that we didn’t complete this trip technically car-free. Sadly, because of how early we had to leave, the Hamilton buses weren’t running yet. However, we made sure to carpool (cab) to our first bus stop. (There was some talk about walking, but we couldn’t risk missing our first bus, and besides, 3:00 AM comes even earlier.)
Did I mention we were lugging all our stuff? Yeah. We decided it would be fun to have the full experience and bring along our own preferred gear. This isn’t necessary – at all. As I mentioned, the Parkbus stops at a few outfitters along highway 60 (Algonquin Outfitters at Lake Opeongo and the Portage Store at Canoe Lake) where you can rent whatever gear you need. If you’d prefer, you can get dropped off at some of the campgrounds and have your stuff delivered as well. Whatever you decide, you can quite easily pack some clothes in a bag and head out.
Not us though. We carried our gear, portaging from the get-go. It was easy on the buses, but it got a little dicey trying to balance on a busy rush-hour subway. Those turnstiles were not meant for barrel packs. The most fun we had was talking to people while making our way through the city. Here we were among the regular commuter crowd, walking down the street fully loaded, packs, paddles and all. A lot of friendly people wanted to know what we were up to. “Where’s your canoe?” and “I don’t know where you’re going, but can I come too?” were the more popular sentiments.
Our ride is here
I was glad to have brought with me two guys who are pros at commuting. Seamlessly, we had made our way up from the subway to the Parkbus stop just a few feet away. In five minutes our guide would arrive – Alex Berlyand one of the two co-founders. Alex was our chaperone for the trip. He was there to make sure everyone got their gear safely stored below the bus and got a seat. Sadly, one passenger failed to show. We waited as long as we could, but after attempts to contact the person and what was an obvious tough decision, we took off for our next stop. (Note: Starting this year Parkbus has a policy not to wait more than 5 minutes past departure time.)
We hit traffic running through the city at 8:00 on a Thursday, so it was slow going for a while driving to the next two stops in the city, but much less so than I expected. Also, our driver was a pro and we were on the highway soon enough. This was when I really started to appreciate going up north by bus. I didn’t have to deal with the traffic, and could just sit back, lean my seat back and enjoy the view. The stress was all taken away by our gentleman bus driver. Did I mention we had the coolest bus driver? His hair was white, with a matching mustache, complete with a British accent. A classier gentleman we could not have chosen.
To sleep, perchance to dream
Knowing we were in good hands, I took the opportunity to take a little nap. I was up early, and I had planned a busy afternoon once we reached the park. This brings me to another great thing about riding the Parkbus: instead of being tired out by a four hour drive to Algonquin, after a quick nap and some scenery watching you’re pretty much good to go. This means you can plan on a half day in the backcountry after your bus ride. If you’re dropped off at the outfitters, you can realistically expect to be on the lake by 2:00PM. Give yourself a bit of a buffer though. You never know about traffic, and if it’s busy at the outfitters it might take a little more time.
Our ride didn’t really experience much traffic. In no time we made our halfway rest stop at Weber’s. This is a perfect location to stop. Not only is it pretty much half the distance, it offers you a chance to use the restroom and grab something to eat at either Weber’s, Subway, Tim Hortons or even New York Fries. Be careful though, Weber’s is clearly the stand out choice for good food, but you have 20 minutes before the bus leaves and when it’s busy summer day, you won’t get out of line that quickly. (Alex did a great job giving us this friendly but effective reminder without sounding like a drill sergeant. That’s hard to do.) Also, everything sold there tends to be a bit sloppy to eat on a moving bus. Be safe and grab a quick sandwich if you need to. Even better, bring a sack lunch. It was a bit early for a big meal when we got there.
After another quick nap, the next thing we knew we were in the park. We dropped off some people at the Wolf’s Den Hostel, then on to the Portage Store at Canoe Lake, then quick stops at Mew Lake and Lake of Two Rivers campgrounds. My friends and I were going to the last stop of the route at Opeongo Lake, where we arrived on a great sunny day ready to hop onto the lake. We easily grabbed our gear, picked up our permits and our canoes from Algonquin Outfitters.
Rested and relaxed, we were able to get a pretty good distance into the back-country. The Parkbus ran from Thursday to Sunday, so I planned a trip trip for 1 half day, 2 full days, then another short day to get back in time to be picked up at noon on the last day. (NOTE: The schedule has changed for 2012; see below.) The great part about our location at Opeongo, was that not only could we pick up a few supplies that we may have forgotten, but on the last day we could grab a shower, a snack and some drinks for the road (Algonquin Outfitters has surprisingly good coffee) while waiting to be picked up by the bus. Canoe Lake offers the same, but a full restaurant at the Portage store as well. If you’re really looking to get far into the interior, there are two outfitters that offer water-taxis from Opeongo, so consider that when planning as well.
The ride back
Our bus home came on time, and the trip back ran just as smoothly. We even stopped at Weber’s again, and at a time of day more appropriate for heavier meals. It’s funny, Weber’s is so popular that they built a bridge over the highway so people wouldn’t try and cross the busy highway to get there. In all the years I’ve passed that bridge, I’ve never once been on it before this trip. Our host Alex, got himself some poutine for the ride home. After 3 days of canoeing I sure was tempted. (But not for poutine. I seem to be the only one who knows this, but cheese is actually quite gross.)
It is at this point where you’ll especially like riding the Parkbus. After a tough weekend portaging, often the last thing I want to do is drive home, dealing with all that end-of-weekend-at-the-cottage traffic. Instead, I left that again to our classy, mustached driver, leaned my seat back and … as you might have guessed … had a nap. There was some heavy traffic (apparently) getting into Toronto, but again our worldly driver came through and (apparently) changed our route to get home more smoothly. (I say “apparently” because again, I as napping.) We were dropped off near the subway station and we were back to our urban portaging again. After a short subway ride, a bus, then finally a carpool, we were all back at home. Take that carbon footprint!
So would I do it again?
I would absolutely do this again. I really appreciated the eco-friendliness of the trip, and I loved the fact that I was able to travel into Algonquin without the stress of driving up there. Another planning tip: You can buy tickets on different weekends. This way you can still take advantage of the Parkbus service for longer trips. Overall the trip took a bit longer, but the trade offs were worth it. It wasn’t all that difficult either, as I think we proved. There are a few things you’d probably have to consider when planning your trip:
- You have to carry everything with you for your whole trip. No leaving stuff in the trunk of the car (like the clean set of clothes for the travel home). Perhaps if Parkbus gets popular, someone will rent out lockers or something. I often have all my gear in the car and choose what to bring right before I leave, which obviously you can’t do with the bus.
- If you do the math, it may appear more expensive for a ticket than to drive yourself (as long as you carpool). But even if that’s true, it’s worth the cost. (Currently a return ticket from Algonquin is $70.76)
- Obviously, you don’t have a car with you. This means your schedule is set, and you won’t have the flexibility to come and go as you please. For the perpetually late among us like me, that means greater concentration about the time. Oh and for campground users, no side road trips into town for breakfast on rainy days.
New for 2012
Last year Parkbus introduced the same service to Killarney Provincial Park, with stops at Grundy Lake Provincial Park, the Bell Lake access point, the George Lake campground and the town of Killarney. I was very excited to hear about this, as I feel that if you haven’t been to Killarney, you really should. This year, they’re doing some trips to the Bruce Peninsula National Park, even stopping at Tobermory where you can pick up the ferry to Manitoulan Island. And as mentioned, the schedule for this year is Friday to Monday (instead of Thursday to Sunday) with a few exceptions.
So not only would I do this again, I am doing it again. I’ve done Algonquin, so this year I’m going to see how the Parkbus rides to Killarney. Not only will I be going as a passenger, but I’m also working on volunteering to chaperone a trip myself. Hopefully on one of these trips, you can ride with me. I’ll let you know as soon as I do, because I’d hate for the bus guided by portageur to be empty. I promise to stay awake – for most of the trip anyway. Oh, and one last thing, check out the Parkbus website and you just might see a couple of recognizable, some might even say handsome, faces.
What about the camping?
Oh, right. Yeah… we actually had a canoe trip between bus rides. Unfortunately my perfect plan was foiled when we lost the daylight never having found a so-called portage. I wanted to prove that you can have a pretty hard-core experience and investigate new trip plans even when entering the park through some of the more popular access points. We can laugh about it now, but after crossing the 3400m portage from Opeongo to Sproule, then down the 1435m to Norway, the park planning map failed us as we couldn’t cross where we were supposed to. With the light disappearing (this was our half day), we had to make our way back over the 1435m and hope there was an open campsite on Sproule. We made it just in time for a moonlit paddle to camp. At least I’m pretty sure my friends can laugh about it now.
This is now better reflected on the Algonquin Online map. I went back a few months later to find where we should have portaged, and even sent my GPS info, so hopefully it’s some help to the online map. We still had a great time though. We hung out on Sproule and spent the day puttering around on a very nice lake, then went exploring Opeongo on the last day. You can see the photos of this part of the trip here.
Nancy wasn’t able to come along this trip. It is probably the only deterrent to riding the bus again. The problem was that I had looked into getting special permission from Parkbus (and Hammond Transportation) to bring her along, but in order to make this trip completely car-free, I’d have to use two other transportation companies (bus + subway) and neither were too happy about Nancy coming along. One would allow her to be in a crate, which not only would Nancy hate that, but I’d be stuck with having to carry it around with me over the portages. But even if I was willing to do that, the subway people made it perfectly clear that there was no way I could bring a dog with me. I can’t tell you how many commuters I’ve spoken to since our trip who have come up with new and unique ideas of sneaking Nancy along next time.