Worst Campsite I’ve Stayed On, Ever … So Far

NOTE: I normally don’t like to dwell on the negative. We had a great time on this past long weekend, not really stressing about anything because after all, we were on vacation. But for fun, I’m going to focus on some annoyances for a bit. I hope you enjoy it, and that I don’t give off the wrong impression. Nothing in this post came even close to ruining our good time. I hope that if you’ve never run into anything mentioned, this post doesn’t deter you from getting out there portaging. Oh, and there’s also some stuff that might unintentionally offend Germans, and some implied nudity. Enjoy!

Like most of us, I like my wilderness experience with at least the illusion of being away from civilization. Going to one of the big, popular provincial parks, with all it amenities and infrastructure gives you just that, but also offer things that quickly break that illusion. For example, I’m not a big fan of going to the popular areas of the interior on long weekends, but after the long and weird planning and organizing of this last trip I was on, I found myself going to Joe Lake on Labour Day – along with a huge number of other people. Seeing people, hearing people, you expect a bit of that, and I’m far from a back-woods snob who expects to have the park all to myself. In fact, that’s why I advocate portaging so much – with each carry-over, there are less and less people willing to follow. Take the energy you’re wasting on complaining about all the people (and their “evidence, you know what I mean,) and go over another portage. This is where I’ll become a bit of a hypocrite, having a little fun complaining because I didn’t take my own advice.

Taking some time to visit Tom Thomson

The Labour of a Long Weekend

Next to the August long weekend (Simcoe Day or whatever we’re calling it now), the Labour Day long weekend is the most popular for getting outdoors. For a lot of people, it’s the last chance to get out there before they or their kids go back to school. Typically, the traffic’s bad going up, somehow worse on the way back, every stop is crowded and if you haven’t booked your reservations months in advance, the pickin’s are slim. In the portaging world, it’s “prime real estate. ” If you’re wanting to go anywhere good within a Provincial Park anywhere south of North Bay, mark your calendars for the first Monday in April (5 months). This is the first chance you’ll get to book your preferred reservation and not be stuck scrambling. There’s usually a spot somewhere of course, and after some procrastination with the planning of this trip, we took what we could get.

We were trying to create the perfect “Family Trip”, one that made it easy to take the kids on, taking into consideration safety, effort and short attention spans, all without giving up the illusion of being out in the middle of nowhere. (Algonquin is perfect for this because of some of its easy portages, amenities and the fact that you can cover a huge distance without ever being a kilometer or less than the highway.) We had a few plans laid out, but with some procrastination, the time flew by. We had to change from those options to whatever was available, and not too far out. So that basically means one of the spots where there were plenty of campsites, which as you can imagine means plenty of people. This is why I found myself standing in a long line to pick up my permits at the Canoe Lake put-in – somewhere I avoid like an extremely painful plague that corners you and tells boring stories at parties.

Having spent the night before at a local campground, I expected to get up, grab a big breakfast at the Portage Store – one benefit of a popular put-in – and be on the water by about 9 or 10. Because the campsite wasn’t too far off, I figured conservatively to be there by noon, maybe 1:00 – you know, because the kids would slow us down a bit. The kids we brought with us were 5, 7, 13 and 16, along with 3 adults who had never been portaging before, and this would be the perfect easy introduction. We’d keep things slow paced, take a few side trips to see some of the Tom Thomson landmarks, including his cairn on Hayhurst Point, then casually cross over to Joe Lake and pick an appropriate campsite. Absolute worst case scenario, we’d be stopping to feed the kids some granola bars to keep them going until a late lunch around 2:00 after setting up camp and cooking. (I planned out some fun meals for the kids). How naive could I have been?

Our view from the campsite. How can you complain about that, really?

Long lines

Instead, we were just on the water at 1:00. There were tonnes of people waiting in line for permits, loads of them waiting to get their canoe rentals, then another crowd to pick up PFDs and paddles. That’s not even mentioning the hoards you needed to navigate through to get anywhere, including the fun trying to park your car. (I always find it amazing that people are willing to spend the weekend exerting themselves paddling, but will jam their car in ridiculous spots that inconvenience everyone else, just to save them from walking a few hundred meters… but I digress.) Good thing I wasn’t in a hurry.

After a couple of stops to visit some landmark sites (which was quite fun, by the way, but for the purpose of humour, I’m going to focus on the negative), we made it to our first portage. This particular portage is pretty popular (say that three times fast). It’s also the easiest “portage” I’ve ever carried over. It’s 300m, completely flat and covered with gravel. Basically, it’s a road – with the traffic to prove it. While it’s perfect for first-timers, kids or anyone with mobility issues, giving them the experience (and bragging rights) of actually portaging, it also means that it doesn’t fit the rule I mentioned above about keeping people less likely to follow you. In fact, it’s the “exception” portage that allows you to bring along a whole bunch of things you normally wouldn’t on a normal trip because of the bulk or weight. To me, that meant bringing a small cooler for fresh food at the campsite, and for fun, even a camping chair. (I used this as a reward system. Whoever did the most camp chores got the comfy seat. Now that I think about it though, I don’t remember ever sitting on it. Huh….) If we had to make a few trips on this “portage” it’s not a big deal.

Did I mention the traffic? Yeah, this little spot has been dubbed “Young Street North” because of how many people you’ll come across, and the canoe and gear traffic jam that inevitably ensues. As each canoe glided on shore, another swooped in right beside it. You have to pick your spot and get in there – or heaven forbid, wait for one. Normally I preach about the “routine” of portaging: Take out, get out of the canoe, pull your gear out and place it out of the way, then do the same with your boat, then get yourself organized (eat something, rest, have a chat etc.), then carry over. You never know when someone’s going to be coming along, and the last thing you want – they want – is for all your stuff to be plugging up the portage, having to step over all your stuff, assuming they can even get on shore. Of course at a busy portage, this technique is essential, but the least likely place where it’s going to be followed. There’s also plenty of those people who just want to stand in your way. What’s that about?

It becomes very important that you place your gear in the same spot, as things tend to inter-mingle. Coupled with the crowding, accidentally picking up someone else’s stuff, or having to move other people’s stuff to get at yours, things can get tense. Nothing like this happened this weekend, but I’ve been witness to arguments, cursing, shouting, pushing and shoving, and in one case almost a full-blown physical encounter in this situation. (Why!? You’re supposed to be on vacation!) To make things a bit more interesting, with everyone using the same outfitter, using the same canoes, at one point when I went to get the canoe I looked back and couldn’t figure out which one was mine. (One of our canoes even had a blue yoke pad, sitting beside another canoe that had the identical blue yoke pad!)

Nancy certainly didn’t mind this campsite, with squirrels to chase and a nice place to relax.

A break from the negative

The portage was a riot (the funny kind – just wanted to make that clear considering what I just wrote)! With the ease and short length, people were portaging the funniest things: Full sized coolers, enormous tents, inflatable water toys, barbecues, grills (which I – ahem – assume they brought back with them of course), and even a bag of take-out food. They used all kinds of ways to trasport their stuff too, like hockey bags, duffel bags and even a rolling suitcase! Why not. This is about the only place you could get away with that kind of portage (comfortably), so I say have at it. I remember my first trip. This is really how you learn – the hard way, mind you, but that’s often the lessons that are learned best.

… and now back to complaining

Once we stepped over, around and under people and their gear on both sides of the portage, we were on our way paddling Joe Lake. It was a beautiful day on a beautiful lake. The wind on our back. So too were about a dozen canoes, and about the same number in front of us. We were suddenly in that situation everyone worries about: The race to get a (good) campsite. Normally, I’m the type of person who feels bad about this race, knowing that my gain is someone else’s loss. The worst part of this race is often you have one of those “left or right” dilemmas, which means if you go in one direction and don’t find a site available, you have to paddle all the way back to go in the other direction. The kids in our group were getting grumpy by this time, and I knew if we had to double back we’d have one of those little kid freak-out mutinies on our hands. I counted the number of canoes ahead of us, then counted the number of campsites in our direction and didn’t like my odds, especially considering there were probably other campers who were already at camp. I swear to you I didn’t mean to do this on purpose, but we started passing canoe after canoe, and I have to admit I felt a little bad that the slower canoes would be travelling the furthest. When the kids started full-on whining however, my thoughts suddenly turned darker, as my paddle strokes became more enthusiastic, and was determined that the math of canoes in front vs. sites remaining would be soon fixed in our favour. (I wonder if anyone else knew we were racing?)

When we got around a point, the first sites started coming into view. Occupied. Then another, also occupied. The math isn’t working out. Others started asking me about the likelihood of over-booking. “No, no,” I’d say cheerfully, “There’s always a site somewhere.” To be perfectly honest now, I started to have doubts. The seven year old in my canoe had to pee. No, this won’t do, can’t it wait? Nope. We pulled over. I pretended to smile and wait patiently. I think I pulled it off. “There’s one!” someone yelled, “Nope. Occupied, sorry.” There was one site left on this side of the lake, and one canoe ahead of us, with two speedy paddlers obviously intent on grabbing it. I was about to turn the canoe around and hope we’d find something on the other side of the lake (but more importantly that the kids would keep in decent moods), when suddenly the speedsters ahead of us just kept going past the empty site in view. Suckers! We grabbed it up like the last piece of chocolate on the dessert tray left with nothing else but recycled decade old fruitcake. As I unloaded the canoes I felt bad. First, because of the guilt I was trained with having over something like this, instilled in me by all good mothers like my own (really regretting the “Suckers!” comment now). Second, because I realized I got caught up in something that shouldn’t be. Only a place like Joe Lake on a long weekend could cause this, and I shouldn’t have ever agreed to take part. (To further the chocolate/fruitcake analogy, I should have let the little girl behind me have it, and just bought my own chocolate on the way home. I definitely shouldn’t have eating it in front of her, dancing around singing “In your face”/”Losers, Weepers”. Not that this has ever happened.)

We managed to visit the Canoe Lake Cemetery to pay our respects to Tom Thomson. Someone left there homework there. Hmm…

Karma makes you itch (Is that the expression?)

We had originally planned to get a couple of campsites we checked out last year when we stayed there (smartly, off-season). The one we had camped at was great, especially for June, as it had a great open flat space to let the wind take care of the bugs. Later in the season, while we certainly would have been happy with that campsite, further down there was a bigger shaded site that would have better suited our large group. Oh how naive was I, thinking I would have our pick? Yeah… perhaps it was because of the “Sucker!” comment because instead, we were left with a rather small, severely un-flat site. As an added bonus, our view included both coveted sites, each that would barely be used as their occupants were out site-seeing (or whatever) from sun-up to sun-down. (Not that I was keeping track, obsessed on what-could-have-been or anything.) Often when choosing a campsite, we have a group discussion on which we’d prefer seeing, the sunset or sunrise, to determine which we choose. This site had views of neither. None of these things would normally bother me or my other trips, often not being at camp for very long anyway, but all these things taken together (flatness, view, space, etc.) and expecting to be there for multiple days, I can’t say I was thrilled with this site. (We made the most of it though, and it certainly didn’t come close to ruining our trip. Most of the group didn’t even notice.)

Boom Chick, Boom Chick, Boom Chick, Boom Chick, Boom Chick…

I mentioned that the short portage made for some interesting things being carried over, and while I didn’t notice it at the time, this apparently also included a radio with some powerful speakers and some floating fire lanterns. Just after dusk, we spotted some strange lights coming from the other side of the lake, rising into the horizon. It took us a while to figure out what they were. Apparently there was some kind of festival going on over there. I worried about the lanterns burning down the forest, but later I was more focused on the dance music that started. It was loud, and would carry on until the wee hours of the night. There is truly nothing like repetitive, incessant bass to enhance your wilderness experience. Who wants loons, owls or those annoying wolf howls? I had thoughts of paddling over there, really, really early of course, and start singing those annoying camp songs. You know the ones, where they repeat over and over and get in your head. Yeah, if I believed in doing things like that, I would have been over there. Did I mention I’m a horrible singer? Needless to say, a campsite that is dance-club adjacent is not what I would call ideal.

Even the loons get used to how busy this lake can get

Bet it gets better…

The truly worst part about this campsite was that there were trails runing to and from our site. At first, I thought this was neat. When the first hikers came through, I ran up to ask where they were coming from, interested in possibly venturing out at some point to see where the trails went. Apparently the hikers came from the Arrowhon Pines Resort, one of the few roofed resorts located within the park. You can drive right up to the resort, and after a twenty minute hike, be right at my campsite. Neat. Apparently the resort maintains the trails for their guests, complete with ugly orange marking tape every few feet to show you the way. Nothing like periodic visits by hiking resort guests to shatter the illusion of being out in the middle of the wilderness. (On a positive note, this would be a great site for the safety concious, as help is just a run down the trail away. So in a way, this would be good for the “Family Trip”.)

Invaded by Germans

Realistically, the hikers weren’t a problem. Most were just walking by, making their way past us without issue, and the trails were a few hundred feet behind the main campsite area. Except for the illusion, this really wasn’t something to complain about. Except for two particular incidents. The first was a little weird. We were hanging out on Sunday, and with the group going off on a little paddle or swim, I figured I’d take the opportunity to make some videos, in particular one on making coffee in the wild. That’s when a group of loudly speaking German hikers showed up along the aforementioned trail, with one of them continuing on down into our campsite. He proceeded to walk past everyone, right to the shore, then started taking pictures from absolutely every vantage point. I thought at one point he was documenting each and every tree. He had trampled right over our campsite, completely ignoring the occupants and any sense of privacy we might have expected. Thank goodness we were all dressed and decent (this is going to be funny in a moment). It was like we were just part of the scenery, or actors meant to make the campsite look more authentic for the tourists, like those kids they hire and dress up at Disneyland. Perhaps they were a little disappointed to find us not singing or selling keychains. His friend appeared a little embarrassed, staying back on the trail, giving me one of those “Sorry about my friend” looks. I wonder whether he expected to be served the coffee I made. (Maybe I was misinterpreting his friends look.) Strangely, once he was done, our guest simply carried on, saying a rather indifferent “Hello” on his way out. Why mention that they were German? At the risk of offense, it justified the whole “Invading” joke. My apologies.

Watch my face in the video above. I’m a bit notorious for not being able keep my facial expressions from revealing what I’m thinking. These wouldn’t be the only guests we’d receive throughout the weekend, but none made it to the campfire again.

A Much Worse Invasion (of Privacy)

Oh yeah, did I mention that the trails ran right past our campsite privy? Yeah. The trails ran right past our campsite privy. As an added bonus, it was at the crossroads of the longer and shorter version of the trail, so sitting there, random hikers could come from one of three directions. Nice! I’ve been on some sites with a privy in exposed areas, and others that were uncomfortably close to the campsite. With some strategy, this can be resolved by choosing when to use it (like when everyone else is asleep).

We had some close calls, with someone coming down from … using the facilities… when a hiker would be spotted shortly afterwards. Because some of us were back-country camping for the first time, a typical concern was raised about two people visiting the privy at the same time. I offered my usual tip, which is to keep all the toilet paper together in a big zip lock bag. That way, if someone goes for it and it’s missing, they know “it’s occupied”. This led to jokes about announcing rather loudly that you’re using the privy, just in case. We laughed about this. It was funny. That is until it happened. You see, the hikers from Arrowhon don’t know where we keep the toilet paper, and can’t hear you no matter how loud you yell your intention to have some private time to yourself. Yep. You’ve probably guessed already what I’m about to say. I’m just glad it happened to me and not one of the new campers, as this would probably turn into their last camping trip.

I’m not going to get too graphic here, but let’s just say I was seated, alone, and well, still needed a bit of time. This isn’t exactly a position you can easily just get up and leave from, even if you do get enough notice. Needless to say when two hikers came around the corner, we were all speechless. At first, there was a moment of paralyzing shock. I’m pretty sure it was just a few seconds, but it seemed like an awfully long time. I tried my best “Sorry. What can you do” look, waving them on. Their gazes shot down to their feet. What do you do in this situation? They shuffled by, and as you can imagine giving me as wide a birth as they could, and just kept walking. None of us said a word.

When I made my way back to the campsite, I debated not mentioning this to anyone. That’s just not me however. It was too funny not to share, even if it was at my expense. Everyone agreed that this was the highlight of the weekend.

So what do you think? What makes a bad campsite in the interior? Poor view? No space? “Interesting” scenery? Cleanliness? Privacy?

GSI Outdoors Java Press

Do you know why everyone loves going on portaging trips with me? The exotic locations? Good looks? Charming personality? Funny stories? Gratuitous nudity? Sadly, no. You know what it really is? I make good, good coffee. I mentioned in a previous review the first half of my secret, but the second is by using a french press, and the one I’ve been using lately is the GSI Outdoors Java Press.

Java Press by GSI Outdoors

 

Also, I’m kidding about the nudity.

Why a press?

I like my coffee, and I like it good. Having good coffee at the campfire is no exception. In fact, one of my favourite parts of portaging is sitting back, reflecting on the day with a nice warm coffee. It’s a nice moment. So you can imagine those moments are better with a quality cup of coffee, and over the years I’ve tried many different ways to brew a cup. I’ve filtered, dripped and used instant (bleh!) and I’ve even tried Cowboy Coffee, where coffee grinds are thrown into hot water, leaving the grinds to settle on their own. The latter is actually the better of those options, but much more messy, and more often than not leaves you spitting out grinds. Filters are okay, but paper seems wasteful and take away a lot of the oils that really make the coffee taste best. Permanent filters tend to have expanding or clogged pores after a while, and I haven’t found one that isn’t unnecessarily bulky or just breaks. I’ve concluded through a lot of trial and error that the French Press is the way to make the best cup of coffee.

Java Press disassembled then put back together again

What I like about it

I’ve tried several coffee (french) presses over the years, and most of them are big, bulky, heavy, leak, fragile or some combination thereof. Once I bought the GSI Java Press, I haven’t bought another one since. First off, it’s well made. The fact that I still have my original one says that on it’s own, considering how much abuse and negligence my gear gets. I first bought the 20 oz Personal java press (239 g). It comes with a coffee mug with lid (84 g) and the carafe, each having an insulated sleeve to keep the coffee nice and warm, and more importantly, you from burning your fingers. The press mechanism detaches so you can store the whole system inside the carafe. It also has a lip for easier pouring, and a lid that when turned closes the opening to avoid spills and keep the heat in. The filter of the press is also very good, something I’ve found lacking in other presses. One reason for this is rubber edges that create a water tight seal when the filter is being push down.

The bigger, 30oz version

This is the perfect system for your personal use, but I graduated to the 30 oz version (297 g) soon after, finding it a little cumbersome making everyone coffee 20 oz at a time. This one has a soft nylon handle for easier pouring, but doesn’t come with a cup. I like the one from the 20 oz version, and if I pack it right it can sit in the 30 oz version. I’ve since discovered a 50 oz version. However, it has a plastic handle that won’t fold down like the nylon, which I would think lends itself to breaking or at least awkward packing. Each version has the same features, only the size is different. Depending on how much your friends like their coffee, I find the 30 oz makes ample coffee for four to five people in two brews.

This is my well used filter, still making great coffee

How it works

To assemble the press, you just pull the pieces out, push the plunger through the lid and screw it into the filter. To make the coffee you dump the grinds in the carafe, pour in hot water and wait a few minutes. It’s best to put the lid on, with the plunger up, This will keep the coffee hot, and little floaties out (learn from my fail). Just like tea, the stronger you want it, the longer you should wait. I like to give it a little swirl to make sure the flavours are mixing in the water properly, but do so very gently, and make sure the lid is turned so that the spout is closed (again, learned this the hard way). When it’s ready – a couple of minutes usually – gently push down on the plunger Make sure not to fill it too full though, or push the plunger to quickly. Otherwise it might spill a little (yeah, I’ve done that too). When you’re done, simply wash out the carafe, dumping out the grinds and give the filter a little run through the water. I like to make sure to swish it in the water back and forth to get all the little coffee bits out on each side of the filter.

To close the spout, rotate the lid off center

To pack it back up, put the cup in first, then the plunger – handle down – and put the cup’s lid on. Then put the filter in and close the top. Any other order and the carafe’s lid won’t close properly. For the 30 oz version, filter first, then cup, aligning the plunger so that it just slightly sticks out of the spout.

What I don’t like

Okay, I’m going to split some hairs here, as all the complaints I have about the Java Press are hardly worth not having one. First, the cup’s lid is a little tight, and can be difficult to get off sometimes. The cup also gets stuck in the carafe if you put it inside wet. This can be a little problematic after washing and packing them without letting them dry, which takes a bit longer because of the insulation. They’re also much more bulky than some drip or filtered options out there, so you may think this as an unnecessary luxury on long portages or backpacking. I’d still bring it myself though. I do like my coffee, and I like it good.

So there.  Now you know my two secrets to great coffee. If you get yourself a good French Press and grinder, you won’t need me at all. Huh… maybe I’ll have to rethink the nudity.

JavaGrind by GSI Outdoors

I’ve been using the JavaGrind coffee grinder for quite a few years now, and I have to tell you, if you like good coffee, this piece of gear is essential. Full disclosure: I may come across as a bit of a coffee snob.

JavaGrind by GSI Outdoors

What we don’t often think about, just a few generations ago there was no such thing as freeze dried, ready to brew coffee – nevermind “instant”. It didn’t come in big tins with factory sealing, and wasn’t filled with chemical preservatives we’ve all come to accept as normal. This is all to keep coffee fresh tasting. What’s better than fresh tasting? Fresh. What did they do back in the day for coffee? They took un-roasted (green) coffee beans, roasted enough for a serving over the campfire, ground them up on the spot and made themselves a cup of camp coffee. Sound familiar? Why that’s exactly the way of current trendy coffee connoisseurs – brew fresh, per serving. Suddenly there isn’t much difference between a guy who calls himself a “barista” and that old prospector living on the side of a mountain seasons at a time (although often they have the same haircut).

JavaGrind fits over most cups or pots to collect the grids

What I like about it

When I started to use whole beans, ground just before brewing, I never went back to pre-ground coffee. To better my camp coffee experience I tried to grind coffee the night before a trip, so that it was as fresh as possible, and while it was still better than something you buy in a tin, after a few days the coffee wasn’t as good. When I stumbled upon the JavaGrind, I was very eager to try it. It’s a compact grinder that holds about 350ml (1.5 cups) of coffee beans. It weighs in at 315 g, but more like 415 g with beans. Just fill it up, slide the lid closed and you’re ready to go. To keep it more compact, the grinder handle comes off and turned upside down folds nicely over the side.

The burr grinder mechanism and the convex shape with steps

How to use it

In another retro trend, fancy coffee machines and grinders use a “burr” grinding mechanism, that breaks down the beans better than the spinning blades – so again, better coffee, even at the campfire. The bottom is shaped in a kind of convex shape with steps which gives it the ability to sit on top nearly all cups or pots. So to use it, you simply need to pop it on your pot or cup – whatever you use to brew the coffee – turn over the handle and start grinding. Grinds will naturally flow out the bottom as you grind. You can adjust the size of the grind by tightening the fly nut at the top, which will also keep it closed tightly if you choose. No sense letting the crawly things get in there to get hopped up on caffeine. Better yet, I recommend keeping the rubber cap that comes with the grinder and covers the bottom. This way, once you’ve found the perfect size grind you can leave it alone. It only really needs to be just slightly open – unlike the picture above (opened that far just to show the mechanism). You’ll also notice that if the fly nut isn’t lined up to the square part of the bolt, the handle won’t fit on as easily.

It’s also pretty easy to clean, but I should also mention they don’t want you throwing it into the dishwasher. You can take it apart to clean it more thoroughly, but just watch you don’t lose the washers on the bolt. (I just fished them out of the sink, just short of them going down the drain. Whew.)

Fly nut adjusts the grind while the cover slides tightly closed

What I don’t like

It’s hard to think of too much wrong with the JavaGrind, considering the great coffee making it facilitates. Obviously, it’s a heavy luxury that non-coffee drinkers would gladly go without, and casual coffee drinkers wouldn’t bother with on a long backpacking trip. It’s also weirdly shaped, which can make packing it awkward. I keep mine in my food bag, as it’ll fit around naturally shape-able stuff. Remember that this counts as a “smelly” item that will definitely attract unwanted critters, so it’s best to go up the tree with the food anyway. Also, if you’re used to an electric grinder at home – or even if you don’t grind beans at all, tsk-tsk – you’re going to find it tedious or a little laborious. The first couple of times you do it, you’ll be grinding away for what appears like a good while, then look down and see very little coffee for the effort (it would seem).  It may also be the last thing you want to do after a whole day of portaging.

Believe me though, it’s worth the effort. I like a good cup of coffee – spoiled really – and there’s really nothing like getting to camp, finding a nice spot to watch the sunset with a good – good – cup of coffee. It’s soothing and relaxing, and makes the day’s effort worthwhile. The better the coffee, the better the experience. To me, coffee is my luxury, like how others use chocolate or martinis to reward yourself, and I like to make my reward the best possible. JavaGrind makes that happen with freshly ground beans, full of all the flavour and tastes coffee was meant to have. But that’s just me.

Then again, maybe you shouldn’t. It may ruin you for the quick scoops you’re currently happy to throw into warm water. No… no you should really get yourself a camping coffee grinder.

Rock Galeairy Loop

Facebook Photos

The Plan

Red Cliffs of Rock Lake

Sometimes it’s just a matter of timing. My father retired from the Hamilton Police force, and my brother had taken over the Canadian Tire in Paris and so was finally close by after long stints in Ottawa, Timmins and Alberta. My nephew, who I hadn’t seen much during that period had just turned 16. As I was planning my trips for the year I thought about the idea of doing a family trip with the boys. (I say boys only because it was at the time only boys who were interested or old enough.) I didn’t really know how the idea would be received. My brother hadn’t been camping for more than 15 years, at campgrounds for parties at the beach, that sort of thing. My father hadn’t been in a tent for longer than that.I remember my father-in-law asking once if my father liked to go camping, and after thinking about it, I had to say I didn’t know.  We had stopped camping as a family many years prior to that but as a child that’s all I remember us doing for vacations. Did he stop camping because he didn’t have to any longer, did he just grow out of it and preferred other options, or was it just that he didn’t have the opportunity? As for my nephew, like I said he was 16, which apparently makes it biologically impossible to show any enthusiasm.

My brother was the first to respond, and enthusiastically as it turned out. He loved the idea and felt it would be a great experience for my nephew. My father was next, also thinking it would be a great idea. So now all I had to do was come up with a short route that would give us an authentic portaging experience but that wouldn’t be too difficult and give us plenty of time for the family to hang out together.

Rock Lake Campground

A great benefit of the Rock Lake access point, is that you can put in right from the park campground, so we planned to stay the night before right there. Once you get up it’s just a matter of moving the car over to the access point parking lot and picking up your permit at the office. Other benefits include shower toilet and shower facilities on site for both before and after the trip. Better still, we rented our canoes from Opeongo Outfitters, who offer to drop rental gear right off at your campsite. This was a great option that isn’t always available in Algonquin, depending on which campground and access point you use. They said they’d be there at the put in at 9:00 and they were not even a minute late. I had reserved ultra-light weight canoes, but was given light weight. Not a big deal I supposed, but only because they weren’t going to charge me the difference. We paid for them on the spot and we need only leave them there when we were done. Very convenient all around.

To get to the put in and the campground, just travel along highway 60 then turn down Rock Lake road – there should be plenty of signs. The road ends at the campground, however don’t do what both my brother and I did and keep going past the campground sign. The road leads to the Booth’s Rock trail.

So we all met up at the put in, organized our gear onto the boats and took off. The put in is a big parking area with a long dock on a river that separates Rock Lake on the left and Whitefish Lake on the right. The short paddle (600m) along the twisting river gave the boys a refresher on paddling and steering the boats. It had been a while for my brother, even longer for my father and never for my nephew, but they got along pretty good.

Off we go (Day 1)Marker To Pen`s Falls

Entering into Rock lake they got their first real look of what Algonquin Park offers. Throughout the trip we would be surrounded by the a dense forest of tall green trees with 500-600 ft hills over top. Here the Great Canadian Shield juts up to form huge red cliffs. Rock lake has a large number of campsites to the east, and a line of cottages on the west. On a beautiful day, we followed the west shore and everyone seemed to be getting the hang of paddling. We had 5.2km on Rock lake to practice before the portage.

My father is a busy guy, hard worker type, and so kept a busy pace paddling,  keeping our canoe well ahead of my brother and nephew. I wanted to keep an eye on them so I kept convincing my father to take a few breaks to let them catch up. When he grew impatient with that I just stopped paddling, hoping us at half speed would allow the other canoe to keep up and satisfy my father’s need to keep working.

My concern was that the top of Rock Lake is narrow and protected from the winds, but soon opens up to a 2-3 km area  with a few big islands in the middle. I could see the change in the water up ahead suggesting high winds that were blowing  right across our southernly path. Past that point the lake narrows into a river where we’d be again protected. I reiterated the fact that the boat needs to point into the wind, and that we’d be crossing the pretty good winds soon, and that they needed to stay close to shore because if they did get into trouble they needed to pull onto the shore right away and wait it out. Then, as we pasted into the bay, we got blasted.

It was hard to steer when you’re constantly checking behind you, but I managed. My brother and his son were doing great, but I’m not sure not sure they had a grasp of the situation. Once you see white caps, you should probably get off the lake. At that point it was closer to keep going than to go back so we trekked on. Once protected by the west shore we took a little break. “I wasn’t worried because you didn’t seem so,” my brother told me. I’m glad I didn’t tell him.

Pen`s Falls

When the lake narrows it’s a calm paddle though some lily pads where it ends at Pen’s falls, where a 375m portage takes you across. It’s a nice flat trail with a few staggered inclines to climb to get up the 30ft difference between Rock and Pen Lake. Well maintained, there are steps and a boardwalk to help you get across. Less than 200m into the trail there’s a side trail to your left that leads to the falls for a great photo opportunity, and I’ve been told since that there is a spring to the right of the first boardwalk, past a trail where you’ll find a a pipe to help fill your bottles. Before you leave, check with the park to confirm how safe the water would be to drink.

Pen Lake is a long and narrow lake with tall hills on either side. We expected to travel only about 1000m to our campsite on an island, but found both it, and the two nearby were occupied. If you are passing through the area, stay to the east of the island because there are some obstacles blocking most of the way that are just barely passable. We kept travelling another 1700m to find the site on the western side so as to maybe catch the sunrise the next morning. We found out later that the sites on the west side had their own beaches. There was a bit of an step up to get to our site, with little room so we had to awkwardly lug up everything – including the canoes. Once we were there though, our site was a neat little clearing in the middle of a thick forest.

The CampsiteCampsite on Pen Lake

The only instruction I gave to the boys was to pack light. Don’t bring anything you won’t need, and choose the lightest version of whatever you do bring. They had to have followed my advice more than anyone I’ve known, including these tiny blue tents that I couldn’t believe anyone could fit into, let alone anyone the size of my father and brother. They were definitely light, and they went up in no time. Everyone seemed very happy with them, but I wasn’t too sure how well they’d hold out the rain. The “rain fly” for example, was a tiny piece of fabric for the tip, but looked more like a rain cap at best. More on that later.

We had ourselves a great evening. We ate, relaxed and talked. I can’t remember the last time we were all together like that, with no distractions, and nowhere to go. That’s what camping is all about. I believe portaging to be an extension of that because it’s an adventure that creates a bond. That was what I was really hoping for. We chatted about work, about politics, about life, and about the trip. I kept thinking back about how while we were planning the trip, the person who seemed the most exited was my mother, who had no interest in joining us. She just loved the thought of her boys hanging out together like this. I also got a chance to get to know more about my nephew. Turns out he’s pretty funny. He got that sarcasm that our family is known for – especially his uncle. More on this later as well.

On a technological side note, we found out that we had cellphone reception. This is pretty rare in Algonquin, considering how far off (south) we were from the highway 60 corridor. Turns out however, about 12km to our east was the town of Whitney. My father was able to let my mother know we were all okay and how well things were going, which I’m sure made her very happy. Foursquare users, make sure to check in on the Pen Lake Campsite to take away my mayorship. I dare you.

The Long Portage (Day 2)

After a nice evening, we woke to a very pleasant morning and a beautiful sunrise over the mountain across the lake. I mention this because according to the weather it was going to change. We were getting some serious rain sometime in the late afternoon and overnight, so it was important to get to our next campground and set up before all that began. We had lots of time, but we shouldn’t doddle.

To get to today’s first portage we needed only to get over the 700m lake. The portage sign was a little hard to spot at first, but the takeout was a nice beach where we gathered our gear to cross over. Usually my plan for longer portages and beginner portageurs is to carry until you want a break, then turn back for canoes, then repeat as necessary. My father grabbed everything he could carry and started walking. When we got to our first planned break he just kept going. We wouldn’t see him again until he got to the end of the 1680m and turned around to help us. The portage is a very pretty trail under the cover of a canopy of foliage. There are some inclines, and some narrow parts, but overall it’s a very easy portage. It has a couple of boardwalks over some marshy areas, and we passed some lumber which suggests they’re adding more. The end of the portage is a little awkward, as it has a narrow boardwalk that juts out into Night Lake, making it a little difficult for more than one person to put in.

After a 600m paddle we were across Night Lake, where we found some flat rocks off to the side to break for lunch. This area was pretty marshy but felt really isolated which the boys agreed was pretty cool. Of course, like the universe heard us talking about it, some other portageurs showed up going the other direction. We saw more people after we crossed over the short 80m trail with a sharp decline into Forest Bay. These guys had caught up to us carrying aluminum canoes over that 1680m, and the young guys we obviously tired, because they decided it would be easier to just chuck them down the incline and let them slide and slam down to the water. I tried to get a mental image of these guys so I would never find myself lending them a canoe.

Forest bay got us back to being surrounded by more red rock cliffs, though a little rounded in this area. With the sky darkening but protected by the wind, we made our way up the 2km into Galeairy lake. Galeairy lake is divided into two areas by a narrow area, with some maps calling the west side Aubrey Lake. There are two island sites on this lake on the west side, and two beach sites on the north. We choose the absolutely fantastic island site in the middle of the lake (the one more to the west seemed pretty boggy). First of all, it was huge, so much so it had some trails running across it. The campsite was a wide open flat rocky area with views in each direction but north, so having the opportunity to watch both the sunrise and sunset. Further up the island rose providing plenty of soft and flat areas for tents. If you do explore there are some small cliffs that offer great views on the other side of the island.

I Thought I Was the Funny OneIsland Campsite on Galeairy Lake

It was here that I realized my nephew might be having a good time, exploring the island with what – if I didn’t know any better I would call enthusiasm. When I got him to help me put up the critter rope, he asked me why we were doing this if we were on an island. I said for the same reason we’d do it anywhere else, to make it more difficult for animals to steal our food. He looked around emphatically and suggested it was more than a kilometer from shore, and asked how would a bear get over here. “Swim,” I answered, “and besides, it’s only a couple hundred meters from shore”. This amused him so much that he gave me one of those “pshh” sounds teenagers do and said, “Yeah, right. Swimming bears.” I decided not to recount the tale of the Bates Island at this time, instead just telling him that bears can and do, in fact, swim.  He laughed. From this point on, the joke was on me in his mind. Anything I might say that might be hard to believe was followed by him saying “Yeah, like swimming bears.” I told you he was funny.

The evening came and went without the rain, but it was becoming very clear that it was imminent. My father and nephew, not fully trusting their tiny little tents created a tarp cover that would cover their two tents. My brother decided to risk it. It began raining as the sun set, and didn’t stop all night and was still raining when we woke. We ate breakfast watching a patch of the sky clear as the rain slowly let up. I took down the critter rope to another “pssh. Swimming bears”.

A Wet Morning (Day 3)

My brother had spent a sleepless night shifting around trying to find the right spot to lie where a drip wouldn’t be hitting in the face. As he packed up, just after tipping the tent over to drain it as one would a swamped canoe, he paused a second and looked over at me and said “I know this might seem a little sarcastic at this specific moment, but I just wanted to thank you for doing this for us. It’s been really fun.” I guess you have to be a brother to understand this, but that right there, standing in the rain was my favourite part of the trip. “Thanks,” I said, “and yeah, without the preface I wouldn’t have believed it.”

Grey Skies Over Galeairy Lake

Day 3 began with the rain stopped, but dark grey skies to suggest it might not be over. After about 1.5km, we reached our one and only portage of the day: a 100m carry over a dam that separates Galeairy and Rock lakes. From there we traveled west about a kilometer through was is basically a wide river to an obstacle of rocks and old logs left over from the logging industry. Passing it slowly it’s very manageable. Shortly after that, we reach the widening of Rock lake where we saw up close the Rocks that gave the lake it’s name. Completely red, high cliffs line the shore. It’s no wonder there are so many campsites in this area. By this point the sun was showing and brought out all the kids camping in the area. If they weren’t swimming, they were climbing on top of the cliffs, looking – and sounding – like they were having a great time. Considering there wouldn’t be a portage necessary to get out here, this would be a great spot for an over-nighter with the family.

One add-on option for this trip is doing the Booth’s Rock trail, which climbs the mountain on the northeast side of the lake. Another is seeing the ruins of the old Barclay’s estate scattered around below the trail – some of which we passed along the route home.

Back to the takeout was about 5km of paddling, with the skies clearing completely making for a really sunny, warm day. We packed our gear, cleaned ourselves up with the campground’s showers and found a restaurant along highway 60 to have one last meal together. We ate, relaxed and talked. It might be a while before we can do this again.

Nancy Postscript:

Nancy made quite a few friends this trip. They all loved her little life jacket and how easily she bounded over the portages. She had a lot of activity on this trip because we stayed in areas where she had a lot of space to roam around when we got to camp. Even being on an island the second night was okay because of it’s size. Because the group split up on the 1680m, she must have run that thing 5 times to keep an eye on us all. Needless to say she slept most of the next 3 days when she got home.

Coffee Postscript:

I ordered some really nice green Ethiopian Yirgacheffe Organic coffee beans for the trip from Equator Coffee. They have great stuff, which I often buy roasted at my local alternative grocery store. I also experimented using an aluminum foil pie plate over the fire to roast the beans. It worked very well so long as you keep stirring the beans for an even roast. It’s obviously a great light weight option that I’ve folded up and reused on a couple of trips since.