Top 10 Tips I Forget Not Everyone Knows

Quite regularly, I forget how much time I spend camping, canoeing and portaging compared to most other people. I want to say this in the least obnoxious way possible, but sometimes I don’t realize that certain things that are (by now) habit for me turns out to be a helpful tip to someone else. And it’s that very avoidance of being obnoxious that I don’t go around shouting all these things out at people. I mean, there’s some obvious knowledge to convey to beginners. I’m not talking about that kind of stuff. What I’m talking about is the stuff that makes some of your friends – the people with whom you’ve been on countless trips over the years – that say to you “Man that would have been helpful to know a lot sooner. Why are you holding out on us?” (While other friends might just respond with “Duh?”)

So here is a small list of random things that you may or may not know. But just in case, I’ll run them down anyway. Each of these things were realized by or conveyed to me at some point and I thought they were simple but brilliant, wondering why I hadn’t thought of that sooner. Some I’ve known for a long time, others not as long. (As much as I don’t want to be obnoxious, I don’t want to be embarrassed either, so I won’t tell you which I learned when.)

1 – Stabilize. Often.

See how the pack aligns along my back? Pull those stabilizing traps.

See how the pack aligns along my back? Pull those stabilizing traps. Most backpacks have them, not just packs with barrels.

Stabilizing straps are the little ones that are on your pack’s shoulder straps, sometimes called “load lifters”. When tightened, they pull the top of your pack closer to your back, making it vertical and so more properly able to distribute the weight on your waist and shoulders. Or to put it another way, they make your pack more comfortable to wear. These are not necessarily meant to be set once and forgotten. To allow taking your pack off and putting it back on more easily, loosen these straps before you take it off. As soon as you get it back on, connect your belt clip and whatever else you have do, then yank on those straps. (Ever wonder why they’re often a different colour than the other straps?) You’ll notice immediately that you’re much more comfortable, as most people who don’t (regularly) tighten them often hunch over, fighting the pack from pulling you from behind. Bonus tip: You know that strap that goes across your chest (on some packs)? It’s normally called a sternum strap. It’s there just to keep your shoulder straps in place. It’s not supposed to be pulled tight. That just makes it harder to breath, and so uncomfortable. (Also, if you’re helping a woman fit their pack, let them do the sternum strap themselves. Trust me, it avoids the risk of some rather awkward explanations.)

2 – Folding can stuff it!

Don't spend time folding. Stuff that sack instead.

Don’t spend time folding. Stuff that sack instead.

You can save a lot of time stuffing fabrics into bags rather than folding them neatly, especially when fighting larger items in the wind, or keeping them out of dirt. They’re called “stuff sacks” because you stuff, not because they hold stuff.* In fact, when you stuff, you’re not wasting any space in the sacks as everything will be pushed to all areas with no gaps that folding might cause. Larger items, like tents, flys and tarps can be folded once or twice for them to be manageable, then rolled. But don’t go crazy trying to be too neat in your folding. Often a good rule of thumb is to fold an item to the size of it’s bag, then roll it and stuff it. If these items don’t fit into their original bags, get a new bag that they’ll fit into properly. No sense wasting time, having sore hands from the dexterity involved, and more importantly, your losing your sanity. (Sorry to all those compulsive folders out there. If wrinkles are the worst hardship of camping, you’ve had a pretty great trip.)

*Actually, I don’t know that for sure. Maybe that was the original intended meaning, but not how we use it now.

3 – Pee downhill.

I don't have any pictures of me peeing, let alone downhill. You get the idea though.

I don’t have any pictures of me peeing, let alone downhill. You get the idea though.

Most people know not to pee into the wind. What’s not in songs or on t-shirts is that gravity does the same thing as wind. This advice is for keeping your shoes dry (and not gross) in the moment, but also other places. A steep hill, wet (saturated) soil and flat rocks can allow liquids to travel down enough of a distance for a surprise inconvenience. I remember once seeing a mini yellow river make it’s way right into the middle of camp that we had to deal with for the rest of our stay. Obviously, the culprit was well hydrated. There’s a chance that culprit may have been me. I don’t remember. But either way, I know not to do that now. Usually. (*Note: If you practice Leave No Trace, this shouldn’t be  much of a problem as you’re supposed to be “going” at least 200ft away from a water source, so perhaps the camp as well.)

4 – Pillows are anything soft.

There are always alternatives to bringing pillows. Save space by thinking "multiple uses".

There are always alternatives to bringing pillows. Save space by thinking “multiple uses”.

Sure a camping pillow might be ideally designed to hold your head up in comfort, and they make some really fancy ones now. But really, anything you can stuff something soft into and keep your head a few inches off the ground can be used as a pillow. The stuff sack that holds your extra clothes is perfect for this. I keep mine in a compression bag which keeps it small but tight. Before I go to sleep I simply loosen it a bit for better comfort. In fact, I find this even more comfortable and soft than a blow up pillow. If I could find a way to stuff something big and flat enough to use as a sleeping pad, I’d do that too. The bag your sleeping bag comes in is also good, especially if you want a bigger pillow. You have to take out the sleeping bag anyway, so throw everything you have that’s soft in there until it’s comfy for you – extra tarps, rain gear, clothes, even the TP. I almost forgot about PFDs! They’re very good pillows. Turn them inside out to avoid the buckles and zippers, or just throw it in a sack. Just remember, nothing smelly should go in the tent, so avoid using those items to stuff your pillow. (Other people can be soft enough to use as a pillow as well. Just make sure you know them well enough before you try it. Or that they’re sound sleepers.)

5 – Hang Your Food In The Open.

In a dense forest, find an opening in the canopy to hang your food bag.

In a dense forest, find an opening in the canopy to hang your food bag. (It’s on an elbow, and if you look real close you’ll notice it’s upside down, but nobody’s perfect. )

They just told you that your food needs to be hung from a tree. You wander away from camp, into the forest looking for a branch but you now realize there’s no branches within a reasonable height for you to throw a rope over. All the trees in there are tall, skinny, with branches way too far up. You wander around deeper and deeper into the woods, cursing whoever is making you do this, thinking why are all the good branches back at camp, but still nothing. (It’s weird and yet instinctive, but we almost feel like we have to hide the food bag further into the forest. But that’s where the critters come from.)

Yeah… here’s the thing: Under the canopy, trees drop their lower branches as they grow taller. They’re useless to them unless they can get sunlight. With all that tree competition for light, they’re all tall and skinny – and branchless except for at the very top. To find a suitable, reasonably low branch , you need to find an opening in the forest canopy. Those trees will have lower branches. Look closer to a shore or in gaps where trees can’t grow together densely so the ones that do can spread out a bit. Wandering further into the forest is just going to find you more skinny tall trees.

Note: Ontario Parks recommends hanging your food at least 6m (20ft) above the ground.

6 – Marketing Right Side Up.

The tent, its fly, the water filter and even the camp chair all hint which side is up by whether or not you can read the logo.

The tent, its fly, the water filter and even the camp chair all hint which side is up by whether or not you can read the logo.

Ever wonder whether something is upside down or backwards? A sure-fire tip is that if you can read the manufacturer’s logo, you’ve got it right. No need to roll it all out and check which side is up. It’s not a coincidence. The tent maker’s are going to want you to recognize their tent, so if you throw the fly on and you can read it clearly, it’s on right. Same goes for bags, clothes, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, tarps, pots, or anything you have to put together or unravel.

7  – Pool the TP

With their friends off somewhere, it's safe to have some fun at their expense. With the TP in one spot, it's safe to assume their not at the privy.

With their friends off somewhere, it’s safe to have some fun at their expense. With the TP in one spot, it’s safe to assume their not at the privy.

They’re smaller and not as foolproof, but as a non-critical need or backup, ziplocs (or their generic brand equivalent) can keep things nice and dry like little, cheap dry bags. Just make sure you zip them up good. I often use double zip freezer bags, which give you a bit more reliability and are more durable so you can re-use them often. A perfect use for them: I use a big bag to hold all the group’s toilet paper. That way it’s waterproof but can be kept easily accessible. The real tip here is that in bigger or unfamiliar groups, for some people knowing whether someone’s already using the privy can be a little awkward. I’m asked about this quite a bit, and I’ve heard of several less than reliable ways of indicating “Occupied!” Think about it. You have to look, but you don’t want to see – or be seen. And some people might not want to have that conversation, especially shouting it from camp. (“Hey Dorothy! Are you putting up the bear rope or doing what bears do in the woods?”)

What’s easier is simply knowing that if the TP bag is missing, you know someone’s using it. The down side is when you walk away with the big bag, everyone knows what you’re doing with it. Then again, these are the kinds of things you kinda got to get over in the backcountry. Let’s call it the lesser awkward.

8 – Dry Bag = Water Bag.

A collapsible bucket is a great idea to carry water and save space. However to save even more space, use one of your dry bags.

A collapsible bucket is a great idea to carry water and save space. However to save even more space, use one of your dry bags.

And speaking of dry bags, did you know  the same premise that keeps water out of dry bags, water can also be kept in? (I know, genius stuff, right?) For example: Looking around for something to carry water to douse the campfire at the end of the night? Dry bag. Campsite pretty far away from water and don’t want to make to many trips? Dry bag. They usually even have handles to make carrying easier. (Warning: If your dry bag is made from rubbery or other smelly materiel, that will stink up your water, so don’t use it for drinking water.) I know what you’re saying: But if I’m trying to use it to keep things dry, won’t that wet the inside of the bag, defeating the purpose? Sure. But most bags are flexible enough to turn inside out. Do that before you fill it. Bonus related tip: How do you dry-out a dry bag if the insides get wet? Turn it inside out.

9 – Roll out the air.

Start from the bottom and roll your gear towards where the air comes in.

Start from the bottom and roll your gear towards where the air comes in.

I do this so often it’s second nature and forget it can be construed as a tip. If you need to get the air out of little bags, Ziplocs, airmattresses or other types of gear that might trap air, leave the seal open and roll it from the bottom towards the air opening and then seal it. This keeps air out of your gear, making them smaller and easier to pack, or fit back into their containers. (Another good reason not to fold, from point #2.) This also saves you from having to do that air-purge hug with the air mattress that we all do. For more fragile things like Ziploc bags, it also saves them from a potential pop when stuffed into your pack. Some tents can trap a little bit of air. If you roll from the back towards the door, all the air goes out. Another bonus, regarding tents in particular: If you roll from the back, holding it up with the door zipper open, often gravity can sweep some of the dirt, pine needles and leaves out.

10 – Rocks Rock.

The key to a food bag rope is bringing with you fancy rocks from home. Wait... That can't be right.

The key to a food bag rope is bringing with you fancy rocks from home. Wait… That can’t be right.


Another tip about hanging your food: You’re supposed to hang your food 6m high, which means throwing rope up at least that far. Being light weight, on its own, the rope rarely cooperates. You can fix that by tying a rock or stick (or something) to the end, which will give you enough momentum to get the rope over, and most importantly, back down.

I know, I know… You know that one already. Because of this, I’ll give you two bonus tips. First, when you tie your rock, criss-cross the rope around the rock before you tie it. This will keep the rock from slipping out after you’ve tossed it over the branch. This is even more important if you don’t get it over the branch on the first throw (I for one am horrible at that for some reason), and the rock rolls away out of sight.

Secondly, if you’re having a hard time finding a suitable rock, check the firepit and borrow one – just please put it back for the rest of us – and maybe not if you’ve already got the fire going. You could also use a suitable sized and weighted piece of gear as well. Just tie it well so it doesn’t go flying off where you can’t find it, and obviously choose something that is tough enough to survive the fall. (Sometimes several falls.)

Bonus bonus tip: Keep your rope away from the elbow of the branch, where it meets the trunk or where the branch splits in two. Often when you go to pull down your rope it will get caught there. Once your rope is up and over, you can move it back and forth on the branch by holding both ends of the rope rather than pulling the rope down and throwing it over again, or frustratingly trying to do that little rope flick thing with just one end (which usually pulls down the other end anyway).

Ther you have it. Some random tips that I forget that not everyone knows. Were there any surprises?

Moose Sightings

Last weekend, I rode the Parkbus up to Algonquin Park (more on that later) and was treated to quite a few moose sighting. For the most part, I did so from the comfort of the bus, but on one special occasion, I got a bit of a close encounter.


This moose pic was taken from the Parkbus

They say that if you want to see a moose, check the highways in the spring. In fact, if you want to find them, don’t look for moose, look for the line of cars pulled over. (Thanks to Ian H. for coining the phrase for this:  “Post-modern tracking skills”.) After a long winter, they crave the salty vegetation that grows near highways because of all the salt used to clear ice and snow the previous season. Highway 60, where it crosses Algonquin Park is arguably the best place to spot a moose in the spring. With the high population of moose in the park, naturally your chances of seeing them increase. It’s super easy as well – they regularly come to you. As our bus drove along the highway, we were treated to 8 sightings in all. Each time of course came with an array of cars on each side, with tourists vying for the best place to take pictures of the great beasts. Because of this, and how nice our driver was, we slowed down and were able to snap quite a few photos.


Nancy riding in the shuttle to Kearney Lake.

My route for the weekend involved a shuttle after the last Parkbus stop at Lake Opeongo. (I’d be portaging back to that spot for Monday to catch the bus back.) This gave me a chance for one more sighting, and again my driver was nice enough to slow down for more photos. I thought this was going to be the last chance until the ride back, so I took advantage. You see, I was able to bring Nancy on this trip, which I hadn’t done when riding the bus until now. I rarely see moose or deer (or wolves or bears for that matter) in the interior when Nancy’s with me. Or when I do, it’s brief. I thought the photos I got, not great having to take them through glass and while moving, were the best I’d get.


A couple more shots taken from the shuttle.

However, when I got dropped off at the portage to Kearney Lake, a young male appeared. Nonchalant, he fed himself while I unpacked – and tied Nancy out of view. From a safe, respectable distance, I took the photo below (and like a hundred others), when the inevitable tourists were attracted by the site of my friend. They all started to pull over, get out of their cars and try to get closer. A little too close, actually. The moose started to retreat back into the foliage, and I expected the photographers to drive off. But the problem was, I started moving my gear off the shoulder and up the trail. They thought they’d follow my lead. I couldn’t believe how close some of them felt they could get. More importantly, at this point the lines of people coming up the trail was driving the moose towards me. I already annoyingly had to organize my gear in a crowd and awkwardly had to move through them to get to the lake. Needless to say if they weren’t giving the moose any distance-respect, they weren’t getting out of my way either.

As for Nancy, she could now see the moose, and was freaking out. I don’t know if you’ve ever had your pack on your back, canoe on your shoulders and a dog leashed around your waist who’s barking and lunging in another direction, but it’s quite a challenge to move through people.

Close encounter with this moose on the portage to Kearney Lake.

Close encounter with this moose on the portage to Kearney Lake.

No worries though. The moose moved into the woods as I made my way down the trail, each of us not succumbing to our base instincts to act against the crowd. (I may have made a sarcastic comment under my breath and the moose exhaled loudly, which I can only assume is moose-speak for the same thing.) The people were gone by the time I had come back for my second pack, with Nancy left to wait for me at the put in. As I made my way back to the lake, suddenly from behind the trees to my right, the moose snorted at me very loudly. I stopped and looked right at him. He looked at me. I can only imagine he was tired at being gawked at. I wondered just then if there must be an unwritten rule with moose. It’s okay to be watched by the road. After all, they come out knowing the privacy risks. But once back in the forest, that’s another story. I’m sure I’m projecting here, but I believe as he stared at me, checking me out, figuring out what I was doing, he was saying “Now watch it, buddy” in his own moose way. I laughed. “Oh now you’re annoyed,” I (actually) said out loud. He snorted again, raising his head slightly. I turned my shoulders towards the trail and moved on. After a few moments I heard some cracking branch sounds go off in the other direction.

Quite a beautiful moment, actually. But only so because everything turned out okay.

On Love and Paddling

It’s Valentines Day today. Now I’m not all that touchy-feely, and I’m one of those people who is torn on the idea of this “holiday”. But then again, it is a good excuse to show the ones you care about how you feel. So just like any holiday where you’re supposed to do something (i.e. buy something), if done with the right intentions, why not? (Incidentally, did your mom make you give Valentines to everyone in your class? As a kid I found that weird, and embarrassing. I mean, I did NOT want to give the wrong impression – especially to that girl who always wanted to sit beside me during reading time. But at least if everyone got one, the implication of something more isn’t there. That said, I do remember making sure a couple of girls got one just slightly bigger than the others. But I digress….)

Happy Valentines Day

Happy Valentines Day

This isn’t a website about holidays or love or candy, so I’m going to talk about love from a tripping perspective. Whether it’s romantic or parental or even just a strong bond with someone – or a furry friend for that matter – there are plenty of ways love is expressed out in the back-country. Here are just some of the ways I’ve experienced, witnessed or listened to in stories:

Love Is:

  • … Quietly keeping the canoe straight for a new paddler, telling them their doing just fine when asked.
  • … Letting someone think they’re doing a great job keeping you straight.
  • … Compliments, even when “it’s not a big deal”.
  • … Sneaking some of the heavier items into your own pack.
  • … Staying up late the night before a trip to prepare some special treat.
  • … Offering up the last bit of chocolate when the treats have been exhausted.
  • … “You first.”
  • … “I’ll go first.”
  • … Slaving over a campfire to make an elaborate meal.
  • … Telling someone you like it better burnt.
  • … Offering to do the dishes.
  • … Buying someone a piece of gear that makes their trip a little more comfortable – or even fashionable.
  • … Getting into the canoe from the muddy spot.
  • … Not laughing, no matter how hard that might be, and no matter how dirty/wet/ungraceful someone got.
  • … Smiling.
  • … Bringing some things you normally might not on a portage trip.
When you see something like this, you take a quick picture, don't look around for the owners, and quickly move on.

When you see something like this, you take a quick picture (if you must), but don’t look around for the owners. Most importantly, quickly move on.

  • … Lying about how your side of the tent is soft enough when one of the sleeping pads deflate.
  • … What I got, I said remember that. (Sorry, I hate that song too, but it got in my head writing this.)
  • … Taking an extra shift driving home.
  • … Resisting every urge to fall asleep so you can keep the driver company.
  • … Asking for directions, you know, just to be sure.
  • … Telling someone they’re even prettier dirty and natural.
  • … Telling someone they don’t smell that bad at all.
  • … Making sure someone’s little face is clean the whole trip, no matter how an uphill battle it seems to be.
  • … Being vocally impressed by how someone carried that little, but obviously quite heavy bag, almost the whole length of a portage.
  • … Bringing a lot more “Gummy” food items than you would normally.
  • … Being the one who steps up and says it’s time to rest.
  • … Sharing body heat with a plugged nose.
  • … Band aids with Spiderman on them.
  • … Standing guard but out of site of the privy.
  • … Watching a sunset with an arm around the shoulders and a head against a chest.
  • … Checking to see if it was a bear, when you are certain it was a squirrel.
  • … Not saying “I told you so” and packing an extra rain coat.
  • … That look across the campfire. It’s even better when light is flickering.
  • … A welcome home hug, even when it goes against every instinct.

… And of course,  love is, most of all, wanting to share great experiences together.

Paddles Together

Paddles Together

Nancy Postscript

One of the funniest experiences I’ve had with Nancy was on our very first portage trip, shortly after adopting her from the SPCA. We had known each other for less than 10 months by this point and I think finally at a point where she truly started to trust me. It was late September and on one of those really cold spells that happen – you know the kind, where you freeze your butt off for 2 days only to be sweating (off whatever you still have of that same butt) for the next 2 days from all the extra gear you had to bring for the cold. Anyway, Nancy and I had a problem the first day getting out on the water, so we instead drove out to our property in South River to camp out the night and try again in the morning. It was freezing (!) that night. As we lied in the tent, Nancy could not stop shivering, but strangely, kept herself curled in a little ball as far as she could possibly be from me. I took my sleeping bag and spread it out more, to give a second layer for her sleeping mat that was clearly not doing a good enough job keeping the cold ground from sucking up all her heat. I tapped it, telling her to get on but she shyly stood still, probably not knowing what I was asking of her. So I picked her up and put her down on the sleeping bag. She stayed about 30 seconds before getting up and moving back to the corner. (Talk about insulting. She’d rather freeze than sleep beside me? I was certain I had put on deodorant, but then again, it was a long drive.)

I picked her up again and put her back, then pet her so she wouldn’t move, hoping she’d get a little warm and understand it’s better over here. It worked, but she was still shivering. So I unzipped my sleeping bag, wrapped what I could over myself, then took the bit of fabric left over and draped it over her. After a little while she was still shivering, and so was I. Nuts to this. I re-worked the sleeping gear, putting her mat on my sleeping pad, covered it with the sleeping bag, got in and zipped it up half way. I then lied on my side so there would be room for Nancy, grabbed her and put her right beside me and covered us both with the sleeping bag.

Well! She gave me this look that I can only describe as what someone would do when a date was being a little too forward, as if to say “Um… Yeah… I don’t think we’re really there yet.” It was polite, but clear. At this point she got up and went back to the corner of the tent. Then of course, she quickly went back to shivering.

“Fine!” I said, “let’s go.” I opened the tent, grabbed all the sleeping gear and made a crazy-cold dash towards the car. I setup up a rather uncomfortable bed in the backseat, with a little spot made up for the cold dog. It would be cramped, but I couldn’t bear the thought of her freezing on the cold ground. I don’t know if you’ve ever slept in a car, but it always seems like a better idea until you try it. When I finally found a comfortable sleeping position (legs hanging up by the window, neck twisted against the door), and saw that Nancy was comfortable in her little spot near my feet (or where they should have been), I finally dozed off. When I woke, I was pretty sore. Not a fun sleep. I was also a little annoyed, because there was Nancy, no longer in her spot, but in the front seat alone. I wonder how long she’d been up there by herself. For my own sanity, or maybe pride, I’ve chosen to believe shortly before I woke, being too hot from her comfy spot, she decided to cool down in the front. Yeah, that must be what happened.

Little did I know that only a short while later I would be complaining about a certain spotted someone always pushing up against me in bed. (Quiet complaining, mind you. Save for a few moments here and there, I wouldn’t have it any other way.)


Where were you planning on sleeping?

Where were you planning on sleeping?

Portageur Gift Buying Guide

tl;dr version: Gift Cards, Toilet Paper. (And repeating Tina Fey’s name enough in the hopes she’ll read it.)

You can’t go wrong with Toilet Paper or a Gift Card

Giving gifts to anyone can be a bit of a challenge. If a camper, canoeist or any type of outdoorsy person is on your list, it might seem a little more difficult, especially if you’re not one. Not to toot my own horn, but I have been known to get a few hits now and then, and I’m proud to say even the occasional home-run. The reason is that I use a few guidelines I’ve adapted over the years. While this has been written focusing on gifts for the outdoors person, I think you’ll find that these principals are universally applicable. I’ve also decided to focus on things you can get together relatively quickly and cheaply, assuming that if you wanted to buy something fancy you’d probably have an idea of what that is, and would have got it by now.

1 – Acceptance

Accept and remember this:

  • Giving gifts is about your intent and receiving gifts is about the thought behind it. What is given, no matter what it is, is the effort thinking about the gift’s receiver, not whatever the it actually turns out to be. In other words, if you’ve put in some thought to it, there’s no such thing as a bad gift.
  • GIFT CARDS are a totally under-rated gift, when used properly.
  • A hit might not mean your gift gets used, or displayed prominently or worn all the time. Leave it at that, and don’t be giving the person an obligation on top of your gift.
  • Learn from gifts. It’s an opportunity to find out more about the gifter and the receiver, but also what works and what doesn’t, present-wise.
  • Some people don’t accept gifts well. Whether there’s a materialistic reason or an appreciation standpoint, next time, get them a GIFT CARD – or quite frankly, nothing. Which reminds me….
  • Know to whom to give gifts. A pretty accurate rule of thumb is that if you feel you have to give a gift, reconsider. If you want to give a gift, you should.
  • The same thing I constantly say about portaging is the same for gift giving: If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.

Apply those lessons and you’ll be amazed at how stress free the process can be.

2 – Shared interests

I very strongly believe that your gift to someone should reflect a common interest. After all it’s coming from you. It’s like two gifts in one, or a power-up, making your gift a little bit better. So if you’re not an outdoors person, consider finding another shared interest (keep reading for when to break this rule). If you are an outdoor person, then giving gifts should be easy, as you know the kind of gear they’d want and need. If you know specifically what they want, then you don’t need to be reading this. Then again, you may not know what they already have.  An even better power-up to your gift would be to give the gift of doing something with them in the outdoors.

Create a postcard and plan a trip

Create a postcard and plan a trip

Some ideas:

  • You know some things that every outdoor person uses often. Create a care package for next year’s trips with stuff like TOILET PAPER, rope, carabiners, etc.
  • Maps of places you’d recommend, that you know they’d like, or that you’ve both spoke about visiting.
  • Get a card and write in a tentative date and place where the two of you will be going.
  • Instead of a Christmas card, print out a picture of that place and write the details on the back (like a postcard).
  • A coupon, or coupon book detailing what you guys can do together. (This one’s lower on the list because it’s a bit over-done lately and runs the risk of seeming unoriginal. Besides, all the coupons for hugs I’ve given away never seem to get redeemed – I’m talking to you Tina Fey.)
  • GIFT CARD to a store you know that they’ll get something nice. Since you’re in the know, try getting one from somewhere a little less popular and specific.

3 – Avoid getting in over your head

Even if you know the person well enough, you might not know as much as them about their gear interests and preferences. If you’re not into the outdoors, or not as hard-core as your friend, you may be tempted to get them something you think they might like. But the problem is that you might not know what they have already or what they prefer (you’d be amazed at how many different types of the same gear there is out there). Sure, it’s the intent, but if you’re looking to get something that will collect some goodwill and less dust, try to avoid specific gear.

A fun backcountry dessert. It's novel, probably not something they'd buy for themselves, but it'll get used.

A fun backcountry dessert. It’s novel, probably not something they’d buy for themselves, but it’ll get used.

Some ideas:

  • Since you’re not an outdoorsy person, here’s a list of some small stocking stuffers that support their outdoor pursuits: TOILET PAPER, first aid supplies, camp meals, batteries, waterproof matches, dry bags, stuff sacks, etc.
  • GIFT CARD – it turns into a gift from a knowledgable person, the receiver.
  • There are plenty of cross-over items that you can find that you might like or recommend that can be used camping. Think trail mix, granola bars, instant breakfast, instant coffee (though this would be the only stuff I’d personally recommend), or something else that isn’t food, like TOILET PAPER, for example.
  • Books are always a great idea. You can either find one on the outdoors, nature, instruction or how-to, travel guides, survival, anything really. In fact, most campers like to have a book or two on the trail, especially for those lazy, rainy days. Even an off-topic book will do in a pinch (like a biography for example), but in any case, look for small, light paperbacks as they’ll be carrying them into the woods.

4 – Make a statement

What does a gift really say? On face value, it says “I like you enough to buy you something”, or in the worst case “I’m related to you close enough that I feel I need to buy you something”. (I’m really not that cynical, seriously.) But you also have an opportunity to say something. If you buy some camping gear, you’re telling the receiver that you both acknowledge and support their pursuits. In other words, “I know you; I’m interested in your interests, and I want you to continue to have a great time doing them”. You’d be surprised at how good that makes people feel. Note however, that if you buy something that can or should be used by multiple people, the inference might be that you want to join them (and so if that’s not the case, be careful). If you really want to make an impression, don’t leave the receiver of your gift with the job of interpreting your gift. Get a card and write your statement.

"I support your love of camping, and I give you this because want to help you do it. Also, please use before coming back home."

“I support your love of camping, and I give you this because want to help you do it. Also, please use this before coming back home.”

Some ideas:

  • Once again, stuff some stockings with the little things that show your support: TOILET PAPER, zip-lock bags, soap…
  • A compass, with a card that reads something along the lines of “Have fun out there, just make sure to come back home.”
  • Gift Card, inside a card that reads something like:
    • “To keep you paddling – and taking those great pictures.”
    • “Love your stories from the wilderness. Hope this helps making new ones.”
    • “I have no idea why you’d want to sleep on the ground in the middle of nowhere. Hopefully this might help make the experience a little more comfortable.” (Optionally ending with “You Weirdo”, depending on your level of friendship.)
  • Here’s a real novel idea: Why not give the gift of participation? If you’re not into canoeing or camping or portaging, but think you might like to try it, why not let your gift be an offer to go with you? Personally, I’d love this. I’m not sure why no one has ever thought to give me this – I’m talking to you Tina Fey!.

5 – Tell a story 

Remember that time we all … Do you remember that crazy incident involving the … I was laughing the other day about the time we …

If you share a memory with someone from a trip or an experience with someone, why not make your gift a reminder of that great time you shared? Get yourself a card, write out something about that incident, and stick it to something you should have had on the trip, or that was used for something other than it’s original purpose, or that replaces something that broke, or even something that might prevent it from happening again. Don’t worry too much about the “thing” your giving, so much as the laughs and good memories (even if they weren’t so good at the time). Just think about that-thing-that-happened-but-you-can-laugh-about-it-now, and I’m sure something will come to you.

A favourite gift given to me is a framed set of pictures of one of Nancy's first trips

A favourite gift given to me is a framed set of pictures of one of Nancy’s first trips

Some ideas (to stimulate your memory, but inspired by my own experiences):

  • Map, compass, book on orienteering or even a water-proof map holder to that someone who gets you or themselves lost.  Another idea would be to get a topographical map of an exotic, far away location, insinuating that they (or in case they ever) get you or themselves really, really lost.
  • TOILET PAPER – for (or from) that guy who always leaves it at home, or worse, out in the rain.
  • Pepto Bismal – Maybe your friend isn’t a good cook. Maybe you weren’t on one eventful night
  • Aloe, balm, burn ointment, band aids – Someone get burned, cut or pass through (or misused) poison ivy?
  • Bug spray – You have to have a story about a bad bug trip.
  • Some kind of water-proof case – To remind you of that time you donated something to the lady of the lake.
  • Bear bell – Remember that time you spent a night huddled in the tent?
  • Squirrel bell – Same as a bear bell, but you have to re-label it (masking tape will do). Do you have a (or are you the) friend who thinks everything that makes a noise in the woods is a bear?
  • Gift Card – To replace something that broke at the worst time.
  • And for less funny and more sentimental, find a nice frame and put something (or a few things) in it:
    • Pictures of your trips together
    • Pictures of places you want to go
    • The permit from your last great trip
    • Make a story from a frame with a few spots (I don’t know the technical term for the frame spots. Photo holes?), in each tear off something flat from previous trips like a piece of a rain coat, used rope, that kind of thing.
  • Less outdoorsy and more of a novelty would be to print out a fake restraining order, like the one Tina Fey sent me. It looks pretty authentic too. She’s so funny.

Any of these things remind you of a little incident or funny story from last year’s trip? Get it, wrap it, then attach a card reminiscing.

7 – And finally, know when to throw out the rules

As you shop around to fulfill any of the guidelines listed  above, you might come across something and be suddenly hit with the realization that you’ve found the perfect gift. If there’s no doubt, just get it. When you know, you know. And don’t forget, if you find something but it’s too late to get it, you can always get a card and include a picture of what they’ll eventually be receiving. You might seem reluctant to do this because of the impression of giving an IOU, but if you write up your intentions, you’d be surprised at how much that makes up for it. People like to hear you’re thinking about and care for them, and the empty gift might be just the excuse you need to express that.

You know what Johnnie needs: A water proof toilet paper holder! ( )

You know what Johnnie needs: A water proof toilet paper holder! ( )

Some  other, random ideas:

  1. Buy a large can of beer (or any other beverage that would be appropriate for the receiver like those big ice tea things), attach a card with this link: – or choose from any other beer can stove instructions. Alternatively for a group gift, you can buy a six pack, attach a bow and a card that tells the recipients when to come over to help you empty and recycle the cans.
  2. Order up a box of Altoids and include a link in the card on creating a survival kit. Alternatively, if you have the time, purchase all the items in the kit, and wrap them all separately. Make sure they open the altoids first, then the contents of the kit, then finally give them the card with the link.
  3. For the Christmas theme: Get some Gold Duct TapeAction Wipes and Tom’s of Maine toothpaste. Given together, they’re getting something made with Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.
  4. Get a paddle sock (here or here) and stuff it like a stocking (on the chimney with care) with a whistle, small compass.
  5. Get a dry bag, compression sack or a stuff sack and either wrap up little gifts in it or use it like a stocking.
  6. Get a paddle sock (here or here) and wrap it like a scarf around a stuffed animal or other similar gift.

GIFT CARD ideas:

  • Canadian Outdoor Equipment Co. – Neat, unique outdoor items. (This card will make you seem like an outdoor expert, and can even be sent electronically.)
  • MEC (Mountain Equipment Co-op) – Practically everything an outdoor person needs, plus they have a policy that donates “1% of gross sales to environmental causes”.
  • SAIL – They also have plenty of outdoor gear to choose from, constantly having sales, but it also has an in-store or electronic version that you can even customize.
  • Canadian Tire – For all those little things I mentioned above, in particular, they often have deals on TOILET PAPER.
  • Bass Pro – Not my favourite store, but if you’re in a bind and need a gift card quick, you can buy these all over the place, and you can even get one sent electronically.
  • For my American friends:
    • Consider Rutabaga. They sell great stuff and you’ll be supporting small business as well as a fun business. This gift card is promoting an added benefit: “the person you give it to can shop any time, anywhere (as long as they have an internet connection) and they can be wearing anything they want!”
    • REI, The North Face, Campsaver, and Campmor all have gift card options, most with in-store or electronic versions.

I hope you can use some of these ideas, or that they might spark some ideas of your own. Of course if you’ve got some better ideas, I’d love to hear them.

Bragging Postscript

A particular hit I had this year was for a birthday/Christmas gift for the Portaging Niece. I’ve been trying to get her set up with her own equipment the last couple of years and thought it time to she had her own paddle. I contacted Fiona, from Badger Paddles, in hopes we could create a custom paddle made for a 16 year old girl. I wanted her name on it, and something else, though I didn’t know really what that was. Her (properly spelled) name is Saffyre Peace, so we talked about a gem or something blue (to represent “Sapphire”) and a peace symbol, but I left it with her to come up with something. I trusted her as she’s done a bunch of neat things in the past. Also, I have no creative or artistic talent, so I was kind of leaning on her to come up with something. What she did was amazing. First, she came up with a water-styled blue peace symbol on one side, and an Ambigram spelling out her name. If you look at it one way it spells “Saffyr”, but turn it over and it says “Peace”. (It’s a long story, but I’ve been purposely mis-spelling her name since she was born, over a dispute over how to spell her name. It’s now an ongoing, inside joke. Just as all the nieces and nephews call me “Uncle Pest” because of how hard it is for young kids to pronounce my name. The name’s stuck, and I even get called that by many people, even older, unrelated people.)

Fiona is very talented. She even had a personal touch, having me sign the paddle before it was oiled (“From Uncle Pest”), which I sweated over when doing it, filled with anxiety that my poor handwriting and lack of artistic co-ordination would ruin an otherwise amazing work of art. Oh, and if that wasn’t special enough, Fiona included a blue paddle necklace. I knew the Portaging Niece would love it, so I decided to get her reaction on video. In order to keep it a surprise, I tricked her, telling her I needed to take a video of my new paddles, but needed to work the camera. Her reaction is priceless.

Here’s the video:

Take The Parkbus Thanksgiving Weekend

How would you like to spend this Thanksgiving in the Killarney back-country? You’ll experience the cool crisp air, the bright colours, the off-season solitude along with all the benefits that a fall trip offers, and get this: You don’t even have to drive. That’s what I’m doing this Thanksgiving Weekend – taking a ride on the Parkbus up to Killarney on its last trip of the season.

Checkout the sites of Killarney, full of fall colours, riding up in style

Benefits of Riding the Parkbus

I’ve been allowed to volunteer as a Parkbus Ambassador for the trip. I’ve ridden the Parkbus once before, and it was a great experience, something I think everyone should try. In a nutshell, the Parkbus provides both an eco-friendly way to get to Ontario Parks, and/or an opportunity for those without their own cars to still be able to access a great camping trip. With stops at campgrounds, outfitters and interior access points, you can have the same experience drivers would get, but without the worry of fatigue, traffic or gas bills. (I’ve written about the benefits in more detail here.)

The fun of riding the Parkbus

Parkbus began by taking passengers from Toronto into Algonquin Provincial Park, but after a couple of pilot trips, now offers the trips to the Bruce Peninsula (including Bruce Peninsula NP, Lion’s Head Beach Park Campground, Tobermory and the Chi-Cheemaun Ferry that can take you over to Manitoulan Island), and Killarney (with stops at the Grundy Lake PP, French River Supply Post, Bell Lake Access Point, the Town of Killarney, and of course the George Lake campground/access point). Like it did with Algonquin, Parkbus has designed stops to make sure you can access all the activities available in each area, and get you whatever equipment and gear you’d need to take advantage. Take a look at their map of all stops available, including the pickup locations.

Support the Bus

This is a service that I feel very strongly about, and want to support as much as I can, which is why I’ve been trying to volunteer for a while now. Scheduling conflicts prevented me up until just recently, when I reached out in the hopes they needed someone for Thanksgiving. Thankfully, there was a volunteer spot open and I grabbed it. Then I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if we could fill this last trip of the season? So that’s why I’m writing this.

This is how I like to roll

Wanna go?

Why not join Portageur on a Thanksgiving Day trip to Killarney? What a great way to take advantage of me. I know it’s short notice, but that’s why I’m offering up to anyone with a ticket for the the October 5th-8th Parkbus trip to Killarney any advice and help with planning – at no cost of course – assuming time allows (so take advantage, and do so as early as possible). I can even offer to help with organizing gear and reservations if wanted/necessary at a minimal cost above the price of permits, rentals etc. – but again, only if time allows. In fact, to make this a bit more enticing, I may even offer up some neat extra raffle draw prizes. (If you’re reading this and want to get on board this prize giveaway, please feel free to contact me!)

Also, this will be a 7 hour trip up to the park with a group of campers and canoeists, offering up a great opportunity to chat about our favourite subjects on the way, and share our experiences on the way back. Best of all, I’ll be “on the clock”, working for Parkbus, so you might be able to boss me around a bit. (Note: I’m a very poor singer, and I only dance when the tips are large enough.)

If there’s enough interest, we can even organize some group activities while at the park. We could get together for some paddling, maybe take a hike or see some of Killarney’s sites.

So get your ticket while they’re still available!

Or you can nap. Napping’s good. I suppose I cant do that while working.

How to Join Us

  1. Figure out your preferred pickup location and time (York Mills, 30 Carlton St or Dufferin and Bloor).
  2. Get yourself a Parkbus ticket (Choose the October 5th trip, with October 8th for return, then click the “Reserve Ticket” button).
  3. Join the Facebook event to keep up with the latest information. Please feel free to post questions, comments, or suggestions.
  4. Figure out what you’d like to do while at the park.
  5. Either:
    1. Contact me or post within the Facebook event’s wall if you need any help organizing your trip or renting any gear.
    2. OR call the Park and Outfitters (here or here for George Lake and Bell Lake access) and make the necessary reservations.
  6. Get a good night sleep and get ready for a fantastic Thanksgiving weekend!

This should be fun. Hope to see you there!

Hiking up to The Crack might be a fun activity

5 Reasons Paddling Is Better In The Fall Than The Summer

I’ve had a few conversations with Fiona from Badger® Paddles… for those who dig the water, and I’ve found that we share a lot of the same opinions, whether it be about wolves, the need for your own paddle, and even camping in the fall. It definitely has it’s advantages over the cold, wet spring and the hot, busy summer – not to mention the really slow canoeing of the winter (I mean, along with the complete lack of a current, it can be really tough getting your paddle stroke right when it’s clanking off the ice all the time). On that note, Fiona was gracious enough to share with us her 5 Reasons Paddling In Algonquin Is Better In The Fall Than Summer.

If you have never thought of saving a few vacation days for a short September or October canoe trip in Algonquin Park, here are 5 reasons why you should:


You do not have to travel far or portage in to find a quiet secluded spot. Short distance trips are more private and enjoyable. The big crowds are gone, the line ups have disappeared, and all is quiet again.

Vibrant colours dazzle the eyes during the Fall season.


During the summer the best sites always go first. During the Fall season, the best sites are usually open/vacant.

We didn’t have to paddle far to find a secluded bay all to ourselves this September. View from our tent – Rock Lake, Algonquin Park.


The weather is perfect for travelling by canoe at this time of year. Not overly hot during the days, you are also treated to cool nights – for better sleeping – as the humid days of Summer are now fewer and farther between. Some may even find that swimming conditions are still quite tolerable (for those who don’t mind the cooler waters).

A nice chill in the air can be quite pleasant.


This time of the year there is usually enough rain so as to not have to worry about campfire legalities. Fire bans are not usually a problem in the Fall months. Also, there are very few biting insects left during this time of year.

Big, warm fires, without the bugs!


While the summer months give us lush and beautiful forests, the Autumn season brings us Nature in all of her glory. Breathtaking views come alive with colour – a true delight the eye and senses. Seeing the colours of Fall reflected like fire in the still waters of an Algonquin lake or northern river is a mesmerizing sight. One you will definitely be grateful to have witnessed in your life (for those Bucket List enthusiasts).

Fall colours.

Stanley Horowitz once wrote, “Winter is an etching, Spring a watercolor, Summer an oil painting and Autumn a mosaic of them all.”. And the north, by canoe, is definitely the means by which to experience the colourful magnificence of this annual Fall collage. Some may even say, the trip of a lifetime!


Campology About Fiona:

Fiona Westner-Ramsay is the proud mother of Makobe, the owner of Badger® Paddles… for those who dig the water along with her husband Mike Ramsay, and also the author of Practical Information about IBI/ABA for Ontario Families.

Read more about Fiona, her outdoor adventures and all things paddles at

Fire Bans July 2012

This weekend (July 20th, 2012) there is currently a Fire Ban in many Ontario Provincial Parks – or what the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) calls a “Restricted Fire Zone” – including the big three: Algonquin, Killarney and Temagami. I just got off the phone with a representative from Algonquin Provincial Park to confirm some information and figured I’d share that with you in a quick post. I wanted to confirm whether or not I could bring a wood (stick) burning camp stove instead of gas during a fire ban, but kinda knew what they were going to tell me.

Read more

The Pig – Killarney’s Most Infamous Portage

How often in your life do you get to cross a notoriously difficult portage while having a great conversation about portaging, great places to canoe and the adventures in the outdoors with a girl in a bikini? Wait… I should probably start at the beginning.

The Toughest Portage?
The Pig - a rocky roadOn my quest to travel along and rate Ontario’s toughest portages, one portage is constantly being mentioned. It not only has a name – the most consistent way to know a portage is going to be tough – but this name gives you no hint of exaggeration: “The Pig”. Any story I may tell about a tough trip leads someone to reply “Yeah, but have you done ‘The Pig’?” Located in Killarney Provincial park, this route will take you along a path of loose rocks up a steep incline for most of its 1320 grueling metres. In wetter months, this rock bed is a stream making for a wet, slippery ankle-breaking adventure.For us canoe campers, the take out is found after travelling through the south western end of the park to Artist Lake and over to Three Narrows. Keep your eye out for the portage though, as you may, like we did, become distracted by navigating the bogs and pass right on by. (Seeing a makeshift take out further down leads me to believe this is pretty common.)

It’s All About From Where You Came
On the other hand, for the motorized boaters, “The Pig” is just a neat little trail for a half-day hike. Accessible from Georgian bay through Baie Finn, there is a gorgeous cove called “The Pool” where many pleasure cruisers take a scenic tour. (I don’t believe the name=tough rule applies to coves.) Many will often dock to spend a few hours hiking halfway up the trail into one of the park’s hidden gems – Topaz Lake. Its crystal clear waters are legendary, so many people hike up for a scenic swim, others just simply to see the water.
There are also quite a few private cottages on Three Narrows, and no doubt many come from the north end of the trail for the same reason. We also saw ATV tracks on parts of the trail, so we had no illusions of being the only people who’d travel this portage. (Regular readers know just how much I love ATVs.)

The Side Show
The trail is a popular oneWe found out just how popular this area was once we started lugging our gear and canoe up the rocks. We made it only a few hundred meters before dropping all our gear to rest, where we were suddenly greeted by casually dressed hikers and bewildered boaters. For us, it may have been a scorching hot day, but for the boaters, it was a beautiful August afternoon, and there were plenty of people out taking advantage of the ideal weather. One couple just starred at us like we were nuts, another wanted to know why we would be taking so much stuff with us, while another took pictures of us like we were putting on a show for the tourists. A man from Alabama was concerned because after having hiked a good portion of the trail and back not seeing any lake, he figured there was no way we were getting to the other side by nightfall.

When we passed the poorly marked side trail to Topaz, we were barely half way up the incline of the portage, but had left the day-hikers behind us. We rested again further along but could still hear people chatting back down the trail. The area is pretty scenic, and while taking these breaks allows for recuperation, they’re also an opportunity to look around at the view you’re normally ignoring while starring at your feet to avoid stumbling.

Smell The Roses
The worst part of a tough portage (or to some – any portage) is the fact that you really don’t appreciate your surroundings. You’re concentrating on all the wrong things. Your thoughts are focused on the effort, the discomfort, getting through it – not to mention on how that jerk convinced you this would be fun. I’ve often complained that with the canoe on my head I can barely see (or hear) anything but my own feet in front of me. I’ve often joked that for all I know there could be anything behind me and I wouldn’t notice – a picturesque moose, a hungry bear, or even a Swedish bikini team.

“The Pig”, for all its steep trails and rough terrain, passes through some lovely shaded forest, with tall, often wide old trees and cliffs on both sides. The trademark feature of Killarney is the white-capped quartzite hills that surround you, and on this trail you get to see the rock face up close. Do take those rests, for the obvious reasons sure, but also to take a look around. It’s gorgeous.

Speaking of gorgeous views…
So on we went, and just as you pass a culvert you begin your short descent down to Three Narrows Lake. Make sure to keep to the right where the trail splits or your portage will last much, much longer, as the hiking trail heads west and away from the water. With friend Brad well ahead of me with the canoe, it was just past this point where I heard someone right behind me ask “Would you like any help carrying some of your stuff to the lake?” I turned to reply when I was shocked to see a nice young lady in a bikini walking directly behind me on the trail. I politely declined, thanking her all the same as my gear was all packed up on my back. She explained that she understood how tough portaging could be, having just come back from a really great trip in Algonquin where she helped guide inner-city youth who normally don’t get a chance to see the wilderness like that. She then talked about some other great hiking and canoeing destinations she’s been, telling me about locations on Georgian Bay that I really must see for myself.

Are You #$&@ing Kidding Me?
As tough as it was, there was some great viewsSo there I was, in what was supposed to be the middle of nowhere, on one of the most notorious portages in the (south of) the province, being escorted down a beautiful trail on a nice day by a bikini clad lady who likes canoeing and portaging and seemed to love the outdoors as much as I do – not to mention offering to help carry my gear! Was I dreaming? Had I run into some kind of rarely seen but legendary woods nymph or forest maiden (which would explain her sudden appearance)? Was I in a beer commercial? Was I about to wake up, jolted back into reality from being passed out, or did Preston finally crack, delirious from one portage too many? No time to answer those questions, just nod your head and smile. Do NOT do anything to scare her off.

Of Course
We talked for what to me seemed a good while, but realistically was no more than 3 minutes, when suddenly an ATV roared up. Looking directly at my trail companion, the driver blurted out “You lookin’ for Topaz?” She stopped walking to respond. “If you’re looking for Topaz Lake, you missed it,” the ATVer said with almost a sigh, “It’s back up there and to the right.” From the way he spoke obviously this happens a lot. While the trail marker is easy to spot coming from the north, from the way were were heading the side trail is hard to catch as it veers back into a u-turn before it heads west towards Topaz. (Look for a sign that points to Three Narrows. Topaz is behind you if you’re facing the sign to read it.)

Sure enough, that’s where my new companion and her friends were going – of course it was – and they had missed the side trail. Looking back, I saw that they were now getting directions from the ATV guy – that’s right, there were like 5 bikini girls in all – and alas, my new friend turned around to walk back. “See ya,” I called back, waving like some unabashed desperate monkey, “Nice talking to you!” Then they were gone.

Have you ever had that disheartening moment in the middle of a tough portage, exhausted at the effort put forth only to suddenly find out you’re only a tiny fraction of the way? That’s how I suddenly felt, even though I was just a few metres away from the end, going downhill no less.

Yep – One Portage Too Many
Nevertheless, I was quickly struck by how comically absurd this experience truly was. I was laughing when I caught up to Brad at the water, saying “Wasn’t that crazy? Who’d think of all places to be approached by bikini clad women would be on a portage – let alone this one?”

“What?” he asked.

“The girl I was just talking to up there,” I responded, “They were heading to Topaz and missed their turn.”

“What are you talking about? What girl?”

“The girl up right up there… Oh, right. You had the canoe on your head. You probably couldn’t see them. Who did you think I was talking to?”

“Um, I think I heard a voice, but I thought that was just you.”

We debated the existence of the legendary forest maiden for the paddle to find a campsite, and eventually Brad admitted that he saw the ATV, and acquiesced that there was a possibility there could have been someone walking with me.

Um… So What About The Portage?
It's a little easier going down - a littleThe campfire chats we had were about the portage, and our perception of it. Was this one truly worthy of all the hype? We ultimately decided that it was, but not the worst portage we’ve ever done. Don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty tough. Brad is an avid cyclist, rock climber and all around fitness junkie (read: nut-bar) and even he felt that it was a rough climb. (I also started to realize I really need to find some lazier friends to make my fitness level seem better.) I kept thinking about just how much tougher this would have been in the spring, with the bugs, mud and water running down those rocks. Wow. Even still, I believe because of its comparatively short distance it was still a (slightly) easier haul than that of the Golden Staircase.

Two days later we’d cross back over a 2,950m portage from Three Narrows to Killarney Lake (I know, we’re gluttons for punishment). It was a little tough at first, but other than the length it was generally a pretty easier carry-over. It’s even more of a gorgeous trail, with quartzite escarpments on either side.

Final Thoughts?
So what did we learn? First, the Pig is a tough portage, though not the toughest, in a beautiful area of a gorgeous park, and well worth checking out. If you go, try and book a night on OSA Lake the night before so that you haven’t exhausted yourself getting there, but also so you have enough time/energy to get far into Three Narrows for the next night’s stay. There are a lot of private cottages to ruin the feeling of being “out there”, and there is a much better view on the North and East side of the lake. (Also, OSA Lake is incredible and well worth staying a little longer).

Second, if you’re riding your ATV down a trail and you see a portageur having a pleasant conversation with some nice lady, mind your own damn business!

The Golden Staircase

*During lower water conditions, the second 320m portage will have to be used.

It Goes Up

The Golden Staircase 2745mI was half way over what is supposed to be the toughest portage in central or southern Ontario – named “The Golden Staircase” – when I came upon Albert sitting on a log on the side of the trail. He is the most hard-core guy I know, always pushing his body to the limit with all the cycling he does as well as on the portage. We call him the “Portaging Robot”, so I was a little surprised to see him there resting, even though a swarm of black flies surrounded him. “How are you doing?” I asked. “Good. Just taking a break,” he replied. He had come back for a canoe as we were leap-frogging the gear up the trail, while I had caught up to him after I grabbed the last load. The hill ahead was steep, after another just like it. Hoping for good news I asked him, “What’s it like after we get past this big incline here.”

“It goes up.”

“No, I mean after it goes up.”

“It goes up.”

I didn’t make much sense at the time, but sure enough after I got up that hill, the trail twisted a bit, then … well, went up. That is why it’s called the Golden Staircase. Why “Golden”? I have no idea. What I do know is that they don’t name the easy portages.

The Plan

Tea Lake in the morningNormally we portage to get to a place we want to go – figure out how to get there including which portages we’ll need to cross. This time it was the portage that was the focus of the trip, so we were kind of working backwards in a way. I’ve read that there are several alternative options for getting closer to the portage, but everyone in the group decided that this trip should be like any other, the same general distance, otherwise we really wouldn’t be true to the experience. So we decided to start the trip at the Algonquin Access point #14 at Livingstone Lake, travel over the portage and as far in as we could in a day. Strangely, this access point is a 17km paddle through crown land and cottages before you even enter Algonquin park, where you cross the Dividing Lake reserve then into the park. The first problem is that there aren’t many campsites until around 15km mark in Rockaway Lake – and they are unmaintained and unable to be reserved. So the plan was to book a campsite in Dividing Lake hoping to be able to get there, but if we couldn’t make it we were hoping one of the Rockaway sites was available. The second problem was that there wasn’t a proven way back around in a loop, so we would have to return the way we came. We were not only going to see if we could carry over the Golden Staircase, but also again the next day.

The Trip Begins

Livingstone Lake put-inWe stayed at the Tea Lake Campground in Algonquin the night before the trip so that we could get a quick start from a distant access point. From the campground it was a 15 minute drive down highway 60 to Algonquin Outfitters to pick up our canoes, then about 25 minutes down highway 35 to Tower Hill Marine to pick up the permits. From there it’s still another 40 minutes to the put-in on Livingstone Lake. The put in is a small dirt parking lot with enough room for three cars if parked close together.

I may mention this a couple of times, but our timing – the May 2-4 weekend – was probably the worst for this trip. We got quite a reminder of this while we frantically packed up the canoes while fending off swarms of black flies eager to feed. It was unusually warm and sunny, so things started off quite well once we got onto the water and away from the bugs.

Double Paddle

Swift Pack CanoeEven when canoeing with friends, often I still find myself paddling by myself because of the odd number of the group. The biggest problem with this is trying to keep up with everyone. This winter I got a chance to see a demo of a Pack Canoe at the outdoor show. Basically, with this style, you sit on the bottom of the canoe, allowing you to use a kayak paddle. When the man said that it allows you to keep up with a tandem canoe, I figured I had to try it. Also, this would be the best weekend to try it considering the effort required by the portage on this trip. I’ll write more about this in another post, but while I found it taking some getting used to (I don’t kayak), I was able to keep up pretty well with the other canoe. It was also ridiculously light.

So the trip was going great. We reached the 320m portage from Livingstone and crossed over without issue on what is basically a gravel path that gives cottagers access to Bear Lake. Again I thought our timing was great as there were no motored boats of any kind on the lake, I happily pointed out the spot where I had decided to turn back on my previous trip. Even better than that was the fact that the water levels were high, meaning we could forgo the second 320m portage from Bear into Kimball through a small creek. There were a few shallow areas with lots of rocks painted by canoes, but for the most part it was easy going. What great timing indeed.

The Golden Staircase

Lift overs along Kimball CreekCrossing Kimball we had lots of sun and a slight breeze on our backs, and in no time at all we had reached what we came here for: The 2745m Golden Staircase portage that would take us to Rockaway. We had been told that there was a chance to reduce the length of the portage somewhat by travelling up Kimball creek a bit, again only when water levels were high enough. How lucky were we to have chosen this time of year. The water was definitely high enough. Unfortunately after lifting over the fifth beaver dam, and with no indication that we were getting anywhere close to the portage, in fact the opposite it seemed, we cut our losses and turned back. Maybe the water was too high?

So we made our way back to the start of the portage, begrudgingly convincing ourselves that it would be better to say that we did the whole portage as advertised. The take-out was on a nice long beach that is shared with a lodge further down, (I should get their number and stay there the next time,)  where we sat and ate our lunch ready for our task at hand. The black flies by this point had caught up to us, and decided to dine as well. Once we had enough we packed up and set out, but like that chatty guy on the bus, the black flies were conveniently going to the same place as we were, and decided to keep us company.

This isn’t so bad

Muddy bogs along the portage

As it turns out, the section that you supposedly would have by-passed through Kimball Creek, was a pretty easy section. It’s an ATV trail, and we had arrived to hear people chainsawing the path clear for our journey. Unfortunately, at about the 700m mark, the ATV trail veers to the right and over a bridge while the portage trail shrinks and gets much worse. In fact, always stay to the left (North) as there will be a few choices along the way. We all had the same thought up to this point: This wasn’t so bad. There were a few boggy mud pits to cross over but otherwise not too bad. After the fourth or fifth of these areas I realized that this wasn’t, in fact, the best timing, but rather the worst time of year to have attempted this portage.

We carried over one mud pit after another. When the trail began to rise I was actually relieved at first, assuming that would be the end of the mud and slippery footing. No, the Golden Staircase seems to be such a bad-ass that it defies logic and norms. It seemed the further we went up, the more muck we had to cross. On the rare occasions that it went down, well you know there’s more mud. (Gavin decided to count them on the way back and came up with 23 bogs that needed crossing.) Fun!

Sky High Mud

Seriously?Everything you counted as a benefit comes back to bite you on a tough portage. High water levels meant lots of mud. The beautiful day turned out to be sweltering heat, and the lack of cottagers and their motor boats meant that we were the only ones the desperate and volumous bugs could snack on.

Did I mention the Golden Staircase goes up? It turns out it got its name for a reason, and it lives up to it big time. For long stretches, the trail goes up on an angle similar to stairs, with slim trenches to navigate over roots and rocks like, well, stairs. From the lowest point you’ll climb almost 380ft, most of it on the last kilometer. Each step I took with all the gear on my back, I was reminded of all the times during the winter that I could have gone to the gym but didn’t. This was the first real trip of the year, and wasn’t quite at my peak condition to say the least. In fact, I was probably carrying a few extra pounds from the lazy winter. Another reason this trip was so improperly timed.


Albert: The Portaging RobotUnfortunately, with the wet, loose ground, Albert tweaked his ankle. This was a problem for a few reasons. Obviously for him, it meant a painful trip for the rest of the trail. But for Gavin and I, it could mean much more extra work if he couldn’t carry anything. Thankfully, the ankle wasn’t broken or even twisted, so Albert could go on, but we lightened our loads and would leap-frog the gear for the final third of the trip. The other problem was that it was much farther to go back than to finish the portage.  I kept watching for signs that Albert was in pain, or that he was working too hard, but he soldiered through, insisting he was alright. Just in case however, Gavin and I secretly decided that even though we had two more (much smaller) portages after this one, we would simply tell Albert that we had reached Dividing Lake instead of just being on Rockaway.

With about 400m remaining, the trail once again splits, and unfortunately you must stay left again. I say that because when I got there I didn’t know which way to go, and the right appeared to be flat, if not going slightly down. I knew I was nearing the end, so wishful thinking set in and I assumed that this trail was down to the water. More to the point, I had also assumed the water was just around the corner. No, The Golden Staircase wants to play with your head one last time, teasing you. I managed to walk another 200m down the wrong trail before I called out to Gavin, who was surely at the put-in by now, to make sure I was going the right way. I cursed when I heard his voice coming from above instead of in front of me.

The Trail Ends – finally

Rockaway LakeA few minutes later I saw the absolutely most beautiful sight a tired portageur can see: Water. I was so glad that I didn’t even complain that The Golden Staircase had given us one last obstacle in the form of a 45 degree drop to get to the put-in – but that was a good one Mr. Staircase, you got us. Nevertheless, we managed to get a bit of rest before taking off again. Tired as we were, the bugs made staying put unpleasant.

There are two official campsites on Rockaway, and both of them are on the far end of the lake, a good 3.5 kilometers to the first one. Of course there’s also the option of crossing over 965m to Minkey, then another 105m to Dividing lake where you’ll officially be in the boundaries of Algonquin Park. We were in no shape to continue past Rockaway, unfortunately. We set up camp at the first site we found after a paddle across the lake. Rockaway is a very pretty lake, and extremely undisturbed considering being outside the park. It is surrounded by crown land, with the east portion bordering the Dividing Lake Nature Reserve, protected by its remote location. There are a couple of privately owned islands on the lake, one in particular had its owners fly in by plane just as we were paddling through. Why didn’t we think of that?

Once we set up camp, got a fire going and begun to prepare and eat our dinners, we experienced the moment that makes us enjoy what we do, and why we seek out these places. We sat around the fire and recounted the day, with all its hardships, laughing out loud at the obstacles in our path. We each told stories from our perspectives, acting out exaggerated expressions, showed our injuries and counting off the bug bites. It was great. I like to think we were giddy with pride, though I suppose you could argue it was delirium, but we did it. For that moment The Golden Staircase might as well have been climbing Everest, or even reaching the North Pole. We sat and joked and complained, breathed in the fresh air and gazed at the crystal clear waters. We had earned it, and it was all the better because of it. If you’ve done it, you know what I mean, and if you haven’t, you really must try it. I suddenly felt sorry for the group that flew down here by plane. It was just some lake to them.

Return Trip

Travelling HomeWe were early to bed and early to rise, hoping to get out before the rains came that the weatherman had predicted. Even with dark clouds above us our spirits were pretty high knowing that today was going to be much easier. Every hill we had to climb yesterday was going downhill today, and after a short paddle to The Golden Staircase, the trip took much less time, and much less out of us. It’s still a good distance, but we made it back without much fuss. At the trail end, we met up with guy from the lodge beside the portage, who suggested we deserved a medal for our efforts. There’s no better feeling than random validation from a stranger.

It rained a bit on the paddle back, but it was a great relief from the heat of the previous day. Having done the route the day before the trip was pretty much the same and with a much easier go on the portage it went by quickly and without issue. We got back to the Livingstone Lake take-out, packed up and went looking for a restaurant that would serve up a nice big, well deserved meal, and give us a chance to talk a bit more about what we had done.

Nancy Postscript

Nancy along the falls on Kimball CreekThis would be a very different post if Nancy had written it. This might have been one of her favourite trips – all trails and a few tired dudes that needed motivation and herding. Not a squirrel was safe from Kimball to Rockaway. And who doesn’t like to show off a bit? If she had one complaint it would be that the rest of the group was always lagging behind.

DIY Postscript

Some more information if you’re planning this trip: First, go later in the year. Sure you may have an extra portage if the water levels are low, but you’ll want to do the Golden Staircase with less mud, solid ground and fewer bugs. You will have enough on your hands. Because of these factors, we really couldn’t take our time and enjoy the scenery, which makes dealing with a portage much, much nicer – and you may even be able to make it all the way to Dividing Lake. On that note, there are only two official campsites, and they’re on Rockaway. You may find a few spots that might work, but often they’ll be on private land or on the Nature Reserve. One island, Aubrey on Kimball Lake, used to be the traditional stay-over before crossing the Golden Staircase, but it’s privately owned, and sadly been trashed over the years. Finally, make sure to park at the put-in on Livingstone because while it’s tempting to drive up the road to the Livingstone Lodge, it’s private property and I’ve been told  never to park there – several times by several people – as the owners take great offense.

Technology Postscript

Not surprisingly, there was little cell phone coverage in the area, so make sure you call home before getting too far down Livingstone Lake road. Nevertheless, there was plenty of coverage for the night before our trip – Algonquin has pretty good towers all along the highway 60 corridors – so I was able to check in a few places on Foursquare, adding 3 new mayorships:

Tea Lake | Algonquin Outfitters – OxtongueTower Hill Marine


Repelling Bugs

It may be great advice to avoid bugs, doing whatever you can not to attract them, but just like those boring chatty guys at parties, some of them will eventually find you. Basically biting bugs are attracted to carbon dioxide and heat, both of which you expel regularly and by necessity. So often your only choice is to bring out the big guns and find some way to repel them. So let’s discuss some of the ways to keep those bugs away. Read more

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