Sat Aug 4 – West Gate to Maggie Lake East – 12.1 km
It’s only a two and a half hour drive to Algonquin Provincial Park from Vaughn, Ontario. It’s that fast since there were no other cars on the road at four o’clock in the morning. The parents of my hiking buddy Andrew had drove us up. Andrew’s dad is an avid bird watcher and can name any bird through sight or sound. So it was a win-win for him to drive us up since he wanted to check out the birdlife.
A quick stop off in Huntsville for a Timmy’s breakfast was my last civilized meal of the week. That is if you can call their breakfast sandwich with sausage, egg and processed cheese on a cheese bagel civilized. Oh, and I did have a café mocha. Huntsville needs a Second Cup or a Starbucks. Not liquid drain-o for my intestines.
We arrived at the West Gate Park Office along the Highway 60 corridor at 7 am. They opened at 8 am so we had time to recheck our kit. It was then we discovered a fire ban was in effect so I didn’t need my mini axe and saw, saving me from carrying additional weight from my already heavy pack.
8 am arrived, we got our permits and off we went to the hiking trail entrance which is a 3 km drive East of the West Gate Park Office. Andrew and I said good bye to his parents and off we went on the trail.
There were many reasons for Andrew to be nervous on this trip. It was his first overnight hike. Andrew’s gone on a few hikes with me at Rattlesnake Point and at Hilton Falls. But immediately jumping into week-long, 72 km hike is a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG). The trail can be rough, you have to watch out for bears, bugs and not get lost, injured or run out of water. Andrew wanted to do the hike to get fit and slim down. I wanted to detox and decompress. And there’s no cell reception. This will be my fourth hike in Algonquin’s Western Uplands Trail. I’ve previously done 40, 60 and 100 km versions on this trail.
The contour lines on the map indicated some tough hills at the start and end of the day’s hike.
I estimate that the total elevation of our week-long hike was equivalent to hiking up the Toronto CN Tower three and a half times, then down it while carrying 45 lb backpacks.
This first day was a little tough since our bodies were getting used to the weight of our packs and the hours and hours of hiking along the trails. The sun’s heat added to our reasons for perspiration and exhaustion. Hydration breaks were plenty. The hiking trail looped left and right, wound up and down, next to beaver dams, on top of beaver dams, over streams, next to ravines and swamps and in open meadows. Every so often you’d see a diamond shaped plastic trail marker on the trunk of a tree to mark the way. Though most of the time the trail was clearly visible.
We had met three hikers going in our direction. They were from Ottawa and were wearing those Vibram five finger shoes. They swore by its comfort once your feet get used to it. We had met them again a day later on the trail as they were coming in the opposite direction of our hike. They had taken off earlier and were heading back to their car. They said the bugs were too much to deal with even with bug spray.
We took a break at Maple Leaf Lake North where we met a group of four young male hikers packing up their gear. They said they were doing a 100 km version of the Western Uplands Trail loop, crisscrossing the First Loop’s West to East trail and then up and around to Islet Lake and down again. Their trip was delayed since the only gravity water filter they had broke and their parents had to drive up from god knows where to give them a new one. We had met them again a day later on the trail at a wooden planked bridge while they were taking a break.
After a long day we arrived at Maggie Lake.
As part of the camp reservation process you reserve the lake that you’ll be staying next to, not the specific campsite at the lake. Maggie Lake East has eight campsites. Eight groups can make a reservation at Maggie Lake East and its first come first serve to whichever campsite is available. Some campsites are really nice while others not so much. Passing one campsite and hiking anywhere from 100 to 1000 metres up the trail to the other one is just like the game show, Let’s Make A Deal. You hope the next one is better than the previous one. And there’s no point in hiking back and forth checking out campsites after a full day of hiking. You’re just too tired.
Andrew and I arrived at the second campsite a mere five minutes before two hikers came down from the North part of the trail. They had said the other Northern sites were taken. I told them there’s one more to the South that’s available for them. We were lucky.
We quickly set up camp. Andrew used my MSR Hubba Hubba HP tent and I set up my tarp and bivy sack combo.
Our water purification process consisted of filling up our hydration bladders and using chemical drops to kill waterborne bacteria. The whole process takes about 20 minutes. Even though the chemical drops make the water taste funny I believe it’s better than using handheld pumps or gravity filters which may clog or break. Who wants Beaver Fever? I don’t!
Thunderstorms and lightning were also on the menu that night.
Sun Aug 5 – Maggie Lake East to Pincher Lake North – 15.2 km
The rain had temporarily stopped when we woke up that morning. Andrew was the first to get up. We were Odd Couple hikers. He’s an early riser wanting to hit the trial early and take our time with breaks. I wanted to sleep in then blaze through the trail and relax more at camp. I had started reading World War Z and hoped to finish it by the end of the week. There was a point where I mused that the world was being overrun by zombies but wasn’t sure since I was disconnected from civilization.
An hour into the hike it started to downpour. The treetops protected us from the brunt of the heavy rain but it still seeped through and when we hiked in open areas we became drenched. There was no point in putting on rain gear. A rain jacket would make us overheat. Besides, our hiking clothes smelled and needed a good rinse. In a way, we welcomed the rain since it cooled us down.
It was a long day of hiking. My body was going into automatic mode; one foot in front of the other, then repeat for hours. I was hiking in front of Andrew and we always made sure we were within visual sight. I could hear him behind me with the clank clank of his hiking poles hitting the rocks along the trail. If he didn’t see me then he’d blow his whistle so I could stop or slow down until he caught up.
We passed two hikers coming from the opposite direction on a section of a trail circling a small lake. They told us there was a deer up ahead. Great! It was our first real wildlife encounter aside from seeing birds, frogs and chipmunks. We saw the deer standing in bush between the edge of the lake and our hiking trail.
We arrived at Pincher Lake North tired. Andrew stayed at the first camp site while I recced the other three. If camp site two was good I would blow my whistle twice to tell Andrew to go to camp site two. He would then whistle twice to acknowledge. And if campsite three was good I would blow three times and he would respond with three blows.
The second campsite was taken by a family that was lost off trail in the woods for two and half days and they had just bushwacked their way out. All Steve wanted was a nice family vacation with his wife, Sherida, his daughter, Leah, and his son Oliver. Things turned out differently when what looked like a trail by Brown Lake was not the main hiking trail and they spent 72 hours bushwacking through over 12 square kilometers of forest and swamp. I was the second person to see them alive after their ordeal and they were excited to see me. Their last text message out was to Steve’s sister indicating that they were lost. And they weren’t able to get cell reception since that message. We didn’t know if there was a search party looking for them. I took their information and told them I’d try sending a text to his sister. Though with my service provide I’m sure I would only be able to text out if I was standing next to their cell tower. Andrew’s phone did not have cell service either.
The third site was taken by an older single hiker and by the looks of it he was enjoying his solitary, hermit-like lifestyle. Andrew followed up the trail to find me and went into this hiker’s camp site. The hiker was wearing earphones listening to music not hearing Andrew’s advance and so he was spooked when Andrew suddenly showed up right behind him. This site was the best out of the four but as I mentioned earlier, first come first serve. We settled on the fourth site, taking up camp and rested.
Mon Aug 6 – Pincher Lake North to Islet Lake – 10.6 km
Andrew led the group, followed by Oliver, Sherida, Leah and Steven. I took up the rear since I have a tendency to hike fast and be a little hardcore on pushing forward. Andrew kept everyone at a good steady pace.
It was great to hear more of their story on being lost in the woods; though a few times we had to refocus on the present since we had a few steep climbs to conquer. Andrew didn’t need to use the hiking poles so he lent them to Steve and Leah for the hike. It made a huge difference for Steve since he was carrying a lot of gear. And even though he was a soldier in the army back home it’s hard to maintain an active physical lifestyle when you have to work and take care of your family first while in your mid-forties.
We took a lunch break at Weed Lake. Packs off, eat some food and refill our water packs. Andrew went for a swim. And we found someone’s sunglasses next to a big rock. It suited Andrew fine. I told Steve and the gang that Andrew is dressed like that guy from the Jurrassic Park movie. An hour later we headed back on the trail.
We arrived at the South end of Islet Lake to find a section of the trail faded out. We couldn’t tell where the next part of the trail was. A sense of déjà vous overcame Steve’s family. Andrew scouted up through the bush and found the trail.
About 3 km later we arrived at a short side trail that led to a campsite by Islet Lake. Andrew and Leah recced it and discovered it was a large site with solid wooden planks as benches by a firepit, a sandy beach and the potential for a great sunset since we faced West. It was perfect! There was even a little shell scrape of a spot right by the water where I could set up my tarp and bivy.
We washed our clothes, chilled out with a swim in the lake and ate our dinners. Then we hung up our food away from our camp site so that we would not be visited by bears in the night. This must be done at every site one camps at. Then we called it a night.
Tues Aug 7 – Islet Lake to Loft Lake – 13.6 km
I had tried to get up earlier than Andrew to surprise him. He was the early riser and I wasn’t. It’s like camping with my dad who’s usually up at 6 am on a weekend. I have no idea why.
We ate, packed our gear and hit the trial together. After about 1 km in there was a trail junction. Steve and his family were headed West along Rain Lake on an old abandon rail line that led to a parking lot, their car and their way back into civilization after spending five days in Algonquin. Half of those days lost. Andrew and I were headed East on a 14 km hike to Loft Lake. We said our goodbyes and made plans to meet up after since the family lives in Thornhill. It’s still BBQ season. Err…it’s always BBQ season.
The second half of this trail is a little more remote than the rest. I used my hiking stick (sawed off hockey stick) to bang rocks to make noise as I hiked along the trail. Andrew blew his whistle from time to time. It’s this part of the trail where you may have an increased chance to run into a bear. I know this because I had a bear encounter during my solo hike years before.
We took other anti-bear precautions on the trip. Aside from hanging up our food, I ran 30 feet of thin line (para-cord), knee high around trees on the perimeter at some of our camp sites and hung a bear off that line. If at night a large mammal would wander into our site then it would trip the line and the bell would jingle. This would give us a few moments to respond, or go back to sleep because what are we really going to do if a mother and her three cubs wandered in. I didn’t bring bear spray. I had a hockey stick, a whistle and a knife. Even though the perimeter line didn’t surround the entire camp site, it covered off the pathway to the campsite and surrounding arcs of entry. Animals used the hiking trail as their own backcountry highway. I can’t tell you how many times we saw hoof prints and deer scat on the trail.
Arriving at Loft Lake we recced the campsites and choose the second more Southern one. Then we did our usual camp routine of setting up and refilling our water packs, boiling water on my Whisper Lite Stove for some soup, hot chocolate and instant mochaccino.
Wed Aug 8 – Loft Lake to Ramona Lake – 12.6
While passing another lake and campsite we noticed the smell of burnt ash. Turns out lightning had struck a tree at a campsite during the previous nights thunderstorm and Forest Rangers were helicoptered in to put out the fire.
It’s been a while since we had access to a good enough lake to swim in. You can get water to filter from the lakes but sometimes it’s a little too questionable to swim in it. The lake might not have a good take off point to swim in, there’s lots of leeches or it’s a little too swampy to get that clean and refreshing feeling you’d get from a swim. We swam at Maggie Lake, Weed Lake and Islet Lake. Romona Lake was not one of these “swimmable” lakes. We took a stop off at Thunder Lake for a dip. There was a good camp site on the side trail that had sandy beach access. We took a pack of break there, ate some food and I washed my shorts.
As we swam we had to keep an eye out for leeches. We saw them swim around our ankles ready to re-enact that classic scene from Stand By Me where all four boys are covered in dozens of leeches, head to toe.
Thurs Aug 9 – Romona Lake to West Gate – 8.4 km
The last early wake up for the week. Everything was automatic now. We packed out gear as efficiently as we had done over the last few days.
Andrew’s parents had arrived by 12 pm from their cousins cottage two hours West. We proceeded down the road to the Lake of Two Rivers for a big tasty victory bacon cheeseburger called the Backpacker Burger. I had a side salad.
Back to civilization, until my next adventure.