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?