Three days back in Canada from my year in Europe, traveling to twelve countries and living on an Adriatic island I’m off again trekking in Ontario’s backcountry with my hiking buddy Andrew. No rest for the wicked.
“I’m getting too old for this.” That’s what my body fresh from a sedentary lifestyle was telling me as I hiked over 100 kilometers over 8 days zigzagging through Algonquin Provincial Park’s Western Uplands trail. Though if I’ve met people in their late 60’s doing Double Ironman competitions and people in their 70’s biking across Canada then I shouldn’t complain. The hike was a good way to get rid of the kinks in my body and quoting my hiking buddy Andrew, the hike will “make you lose your brain or bring it back.” We have done the trail together on our previous Algonquin Adventure but a slightly shorter distance (77 km) and a different route.
Day 1 – West Gate to Oak Lake – 13 km (August 8, 2013)
It was an easy start on the first day. I probably got four hours of sleep the night before but had the chance to nap on the car ride up. The trail from the parking lot close to West Gate to Oak Lake was gradual. Easy ups, easy downs, slight curves and a (back)-pack off break at Guskewau Lake.
Then after continuing on after the trail junction by Ramona Lake it became an effort. The initial excitement of being on a hike wore off and my back started aching. This despite years of trekking and biking and traveling I still over pack. My 65L backpack at the start of the hike weighed 50 lbs (23 kg). Though it included 2 litres (5 lbs) of extra water in a dromedary bag, at least 6 lbs of food, axe, my cool flashlight, my backup windup solar flashlight, a large first aid kit and a large heavy pack of Twizzlers that I was eager to eat and lighten the load. Though I did manage to pack well so no one would be able to tell the weight unless you put the pack on. Andrew’s bulky 80L pack weighed about the same as mine. We both used MEC Ibex backpacks. It is sturdy, bombproof and has plenty of pockets and dividers to store your gear.
At the end of the first day my lower back was hurting and Andrew and I discussed aborting the entire hike and instead going to one of the nearby lakes and enjoy the rest of week swimming.
Andrew had three new pieces of kit with him this year. One was an oversized self-inflating air mattress, like the ones you use at a base camp. He does not sleep well in tents and this air mattress did the trick for a good night’s rest. He also received the Bushnell BackTrack as a gift. This basic GPS device stores up to 5 positions and determines distance,average speed, temperature and altitude. We determined from its use that despite what the distances say on the Western Uplands Trail map we actually hiked up to 20% MORE each day. So the map distances were not accurate. And for those wishing to buy a BackTrack device I suggest you spend a little more money and get a basic handheld GPS like a Garmin or Magellan. The batteries last longer and you get more features.
We also picked up the MSR MiniWorks water filter. It’s a handheld pump with a carbon-cored ceramic filter inside. This filter was intended to replace our A-B drops (due to the taste) but after the first day it did a poor job of pumping water into our hydration packs. Fortunately we had our A-B drops as backup and then used them primarily throughout the rest of the trip.
We did notice at this camp site that someone left salad tongs by the fire. This was used to help move the fire wood around when burning. We decided to take it with us over the next four days putting it to good use and ultimately leaving it at an Islet Lake site.
Day 2 – Oak Lake to South Pincher Lake -16 km
My back was better with a good night’s rest, some morning stretches and painkillers. We woke up that morning and left at 10:00 hrs pushing forward during one of the toughest days. The late start would mean we would be hiking in warmer sweaty weather with more mosquitoes. The route from Oak Lake to South Pincher Lake was particularly tough. Steep ascents and descents peppered the trail. Andrew and I carried three litres of water each in our hydration packs. The spare dromedary bag was empty to lighten the load. The threat of dehydration was low since there are enough lakes to avoid it. Andrew carried my gerber mini axe to help me and my sore back.
A lone young more-fit hiker breezed by us on the trail. He carried a pack probably no bigger than 50L. Though I bet he did not have a pack of yummy Twizzlers with him. For a few minutes I felt old.
Three kilometers from Clara Lake the trail was blocked by a section of fallen trees from a recent storm. Slowly we explored our way around to reconnect. And passing by Clara Lake we saw a large group of hikers, some in “boy scout”-looking outfits, complete with neck tie and explorer hat. Like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. This group, as we were to find out later, was the (Canadian) Federation of North-American Explorers (FNE) and their Italian counterparts on an exchange program.
We finally reached our campsite at South Pincher Lake at around 1600 hrs. We had taken a few rest stops during the day to relax and eat snacks. The first camp (eastern) site at South Pincher was decent enough. Time for rest, cup of soup, beef jerky and a café mocha. I brought along my MSR Whisperlite stove which can boil water in about 3 minutes. Unfortunately half of the white gas in my fuel bottle evaporated since the lid was not closed properly (my bad). So we had to be conservative in the use of the stove.
Day 3 – South Pincher Lake to Loft Lake – 13 km
We woke up early around 06:30 hrs. This wake up time became the new standard for our camp routine. That way we can hike in cooler more comfortable air and reduce our exposure to mosquitoes. The first hiking stretch of this day was a breeze. I think I even yawned a few times. The hike was fast and we took a break at West Otterpaw Lake where I ate more Twizzlers and Andrew tried unsuccessfully to use the MSR water filter pump once more. We even bumped into the large group of hikers again from the FNE. They were hiking in the opposite direction. Which means the day before they must have hiked south from Clara Lake and then east along the top of the 1st loop then north to Rainbow Lake and then around the top of the 2nd loop to pass us, making it a very long distance hike.
As we continued to Loft Lake the terrain varied widely with a few steep climbs and descents. The last 5 km was tough. My right knee became sore (old sports injury) and I had starting wrapping it up with a tensor bandage when at camp. Fortunately, the use of my hiking poles allowed for reduced pressure on both my knees.
At Loft Lake I mistakenly hiked past our campsite and had to backtrack. There are two sites at Loft Lake and we choose the one that had a sandy beach that stretched for about 100 metres. The sandy beach meant good swimming. Andrew swam across the lake and I also took dip freshen up. I even did laundry using my dry bag and camp soap. And somehow managed to lose a sock!
Andrew was tempted to pitch his tent right on the beach but that would mean being unprotected from the rain and wandering animals. We did see fresh bear tracks and scat along the trail that day. He didn’t and pitched the tent next to my tarp, staying close to the fire, me sleeping with my axe and our trip line (with a bear bell hanging off) that covers a perimeter section of the camp site.
Day 4 – Loft Lake to Ishkuday Lake – 13 km
A moderate level hiking trail along the top of the 3rd loop which made for a simple hiking day. At this point we were in full hiking mode and any kinks the previous days were ironed out. We took two pack-off breaks. One at East End Lake which looks like a nice place to camp out, though it’s directly on the trail and at Brown Lake which also has potential for good camping as is also right alongside the trail.
We were met with huge disappointment arriving at Ishkuday Lake. There was only a small portion of the lake water available at the south side of the lake. And the only access to it was through a marsh. The camp site is located at the north side. Most likely a beaver dam blocked off the stream that feeds the lake from Islet Lake. After the hike I had reported this to Algonquin Provincial Park staff. They already knew about it and understand it’s a last resort campsite when all other lakes in the area are booked (which was true in our case). I did find it odd that park staff did not communicate the issue of the lake during the booking process. Novice hikers might have safety issues since if they didn’t have enough water left during the day they would be hard-pressed to rehydrate. Though even myself hiking at Algonquin Park I should have remembered this lake. So a warning to all hikers, don’t book here unless you have enough water and don’t plan to start a fire. Andrew and I had enough water to rehydrate but not enough for active cooking and for water safety when starting a fire.
Day 5 – Ishkuday Lake to Islet Lake – 10 km
The plan was to take a short hike to Islet Lake, set up camp at one of our favourite sites from the year back and then hike on the northwest part of the trail along an abandoned rail line from the 1800’s. The campsite was large and has access to the lake via a mini sandy beach. When we arrived a small section of hikers from the FNE were packing up their tents and gear. We hung out and chatted with them a bit, sharing some morning snacks and hiking tips; turns out a gravity filter is not the best for filtering water either. Since after the first few times the water slowly trickles down into your reservoir.
The chemical drops are probably the best method. Maybe a UV light pen too; though anything that takes batteries is a risky since it could break. Regardless, always have a back up to avoid “beaver fever”. One of the FNE hikers also gave me the rest of his camp fuel so I can make more hot meals in the days to come without the worry of running out of gas.
After the FNE hikers left we set up camp then hiked north up the trail and west along the 1800’s rail line. We left our packs and gear at the camp site. With the help of spare compression straps we made a day-bag by converting the top flap of our MEC Ibex backpack into a modified slingpack and buttpack. While hiking the rail trail my right knee was beginning to feel the effects from the multiple days of hiking. Even after some painkillers we decided to cut the day trip short despite already hiking 10 km. Or plan was to go another 10 km (return) to the parking lot and back at the northwest part of the trail.
Day 6 – Islet Lake to North Pincher Lake – 11 km
Rested from a previous day of easier hiking Andrew and I set off to North Pincher Lake. We took a couple breaks here and there including checking out the camp site at Weed Lake. It’s a big site with uneven terrain so pitching multiple tents would need to be spread out over the site. And I noticed Shutter Lake has receded a little. Which is unfortunate because the north part of the lake would have made for a good camp site.
Despite the size of North Pincher Lake its camp sites are rough. One site has no tree cover and room for only one tent. And another site has a fire pit sunk in between large tree roots. Having a fire there would ignite the tree roots and potentially cause a fire hazard. You need to flood the fire pit after its use in order to reduce the risk of fire.
Day 7 – North Pincher Lake to Maggie Lake East – 14 km
Of course the route we had to overlap again is one of the hardest parts of the Western Uplands Trail. An early wake up, skipping hot drinks for breakfast we hiked off with determination to push through the day. Mosquitos were still bothering me and I put on bug juice only to have it sweat into my eyes. My eyes stung so bad I had to keep both my them shut. The spare dromedary bag was full of water so Andrew used it as a portable eye wash station. After dousing my eyes with 2 litres of water I could see again.
There was an issue with the bridging system 1 km north of Maggie lake. The wooden logs weren’t well kept and unless you wanted to step ankle deep in a wet marsh you had to carefully make your way through. Your shoes and feet would not make it through dry. This section of trail needs to be maintained, was reported by another hiker to park staff months ago and had yet to be repaired.
Day 8 – Maggie Lake East to Parking Lot – 12 km
The original plan was to hike 7 km to Maple Leaf Lake and relax for a night before heading out on Day 9. The weather was getting too cold to swim so we decided that it was better to finish strong and spend time at Andrew’s aunt’s cottage where canoeing, card games and good non-hiking food awaited us. Cell phone reception was available at Maple Leaf Lake and Andrew called in his parents to pick us up.
The last leg of the hike was spent discussing post-hike foods we were going to eat: hamburgers, steak, tacos, sushi (that was me) and ice cream.
After arriving in the parking lot we cleaned ourselves up a bit, changed into non-hiking clothes, put sandals on and waited for the pickup. I had some camping fuel leftover so I burned up the rest by making a hot chocolate.
I spent the next two nights cottage hopping. First at Andrew’s aunt’s place close to Port Severn and the next night at my friend’s cottage close to Midland. Now I have been hanging out at Sauble Beach. Jogging on the beach during sunset, swimming, eating chocolate chip cookies, growing a beard then shaving it again.
Sore back on the first day, a sore knee, mosquito bites all over my arms and my shoulders, eating “hiking food” consisting of dried fruit, candy, granola bars, beef jerky, cup-a-soup and some freeze dried food the hike was grueling, fun, scenic and quiet. In eight days Andrew and I hiked over 100 km and with enough elevation to equal about four times the height of the Toronto CN Tower. He even asked me, “Do we have to do this again?” For sure yes!
For anyone who’s interested we will probably be doing a trip like this one again next year. So drop me a line if you are interested. And am also selling my MSR Hubba Hubba HP tent.