The Worst Portage EVER

At the bottom and ready to tough it out

At the bottom and ready to tough it out

The Pig, the Hump, the Grind, call it what you will, it is a beast.  Stretching on for 1320 meters and uphill both ways, this stretch of interior that runs between Artist Lake and Three Narrows in Ontario’s Killarney Provincial Park is a rock laden ankle-twister.  We had the not so pleasurable pleasure of completing this exercise in masochism both coming and going.  The first time we hiked it, the ground was fairly dry, the air temperature was comfortable and it was sunny.  It still sucked.DSC_0290

You may recall that Fraser and I disagreed as to whether we could claim to have portaged this portage if there was no canoe present.  I’m here to tell you that the point is moot.  I promised all within earshot that I would carry a boat up and over that monster when pigs could fly… and maybe not even then.  Because I will never truly portage the Pig, I don’t have the credentials to weigh in on the matter.  I do however want to express my deepest respect for all who have battled the beast for real and won.

As I watched the worst portage ever get smaller in my rear-view, I was sure that would be the last I’d see of it for, well for forever I hoped.  I was all too wrong.  When we later came to a washed out river crossing and had to make the painful decision to turn around, it didn’t even occur to me that meant having to do battle again.  This time however, the portage was running angry.  We’d get a second crueller kick at the can.

The "are you kidding me?!" face

The “are you kidding me?!” face

The first time we climbed its rocky stairs, it was the worst.  The second time we climbed it, it was the WORST.  After days of rain, the narrowed corridor ran like a river.  The ankle deep water poured down the incline and we were herded straight up the middle by its impossibly deep bathtub sides.  With no escape to higher ground and unable to avoid a total soaker, we could only give in and trudge along beaten by the Grind…in the rain, in the cold and already defeated from our failed hike.  This is however, something that every Ontario tripper must attempt at least once in their career in order to check it off the list.  You can’t call yourself serious and avoid this one.   At the best of times, this portage was awful.  At the worst of times, this was the worst portage EVER.

A little bit damp

A little bit damp

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La Cloche: Denied.

It happened again. I don’t know why, but I can only imagine that we are going to have awesome tripping weather in our next lives. Unfortunately in this life, we got shut out again. We hit the La Cloche Silhouette Trail with overcast skies. The air was cool, which is great for hiking, and the bugs were thick like a perpetual fog…which is not so good for hiking. We knew going in that this would be the case though. We will choose black flies and mosquitos over crowds and heat every time.

There were a ton of little river crossing that involved balance walking across logs, rock hopping and using beaver dams as makeshift bridges to make it from one side of hazards to the other. These were fun and felt like mini adventures breaking up the entirely inland hiking at this point. We made great time that first day and set up camp without any troubles. A good day.

A big first step

A big first step

During the night it poured rain. The boys and I love sleeping in a tent to the sound of rain pelting the fly. It’s a bit of a pain when your gear gets wet, but it’s manageable if you get a break every few days to dry it out again. We didn’t get that break. The rain that first night in addition to the spring run-off, was the beginning of our troubles.

Not too far into day two, it was time to pull out the pack rain covers. The trail quickly began to wash out. The low-lying areas became flooded and the ground turned from rocks and roots to a downright swamp. We tried our best to keep our feet dry by finding the highest ground and weaving our way around, but this made for very slow progress. We were on trail for a very long time and didn’t make our next destination before deciding that nine hours on our feet with fully loaded packs was enough. We grabbed a very unpleasant emergency site to hunker down in for the night. We were wet. We were cold. We were hungry. And for the first time in twenty years, Fraser had developed a blister. It was an ugly one. It turned my stomach just to look at it. He never complained and after taping it up, we barely mentioned it again. That’s one tough trooper.

Yup. The majority of the trail became this wet.

Yup. The majority of the trail became this wet.

After packing up our wet gear and pulling on our wet boots…I HATE wet boots, we carried on. It was half-way through day three that we hit our downfall. As we approached what should have been a routine river crossing, we could hear even before we saw, that there was trouble. The roaring sounds coming up from behind a crest sounded like a waterfall. When we came around the bend, my stomach dropped. Surely this wasn’t the place that we were supposed to cross. There must be a bridge or a crossing further up? But no, the raging river we were looking at was indeed where we were supposed to be (check out a video of the craziness). Fraser and I looked at each other wide-eyed. The kids just looked sick. After studying the problem and Fraser managing to cross the torrent back-and-forth a couple of times trying to rig up a rope system for safety, we asked the kids what they thought. “Do you want to give it a try?” They said they would, but the terror in their eyes said otherwise. Don’t let your ego rule, be a good parent, turn around.

THIS is where we're supposed to cross?

THIS is where we’re supposed to cross?

Sometimes the hardest decision to make is the one to turn around and go back. Going backwards is always a difficult thing. Making progress means moving forward, one foot in front of the other and all that. Going back to the beginning is something that has to be done from time to time and when that choice has been made with thoughtfulness and consideration and for the right reasons, then it is right decision. With a deep sigh, we turned on heel and headed back with a new goal. We didn’t have campsite reservations so we’d have to move quickly to limit our chances of arriving at a site that was already occupied. If we could manage to get out in two days we’d only need to stay one unauthorized night and also avoid the coming weekend. Off we went, hiking double-time.

Here is where the story gets crazy. Do you remember all of those straight-forward river crossings that we did on the way in? Well, by the time we reached them again on the way out, they were all two feet under water. Raging, swirling, angry water. The air temperature was only 4C at this point and it was obvious that we were going to have to get wet to get home. That first step in, up to your knee in water doing its best to pull you down, so cold that it takes your breath away…it was the first step of hundreds more like it still to come.

This wasn't here before...

This wasn’t here before…

We got to experience the “hump” aka the “grind” aka the “pig”, in all of its watery glory on the hike out (see Don’t Worry Honey…It’s Still Gonna Suck). Needless to say, that section alone deserves its own post, for now I’ll simply say that it did indeed suck. In the end, we got out in two days, staying one night at a thankfully unoccupied site. Hundreds of bug bites, a couple of blisters, wrinkly feet, runny noses (did I mention that three of us got colds on the trip?), frozen fingers and legs so stiff that we drew attention from strangers at the fast food joint we hit for dinner. It was CRAZY. And yeah, we’ll probably do it again. Soon.

We can have fun anywhere in any weather

We can have fun anywhere in any weather

Go Get ‘Em Zach!

As I was dumping the soggy discards of today’s school lunches out of their respective sacs, I found the note that had been tucked away between Zach’s sandwich box and the sticky cellophane of a smushed granola bar.  In Fraser’s scrawl it read “Go get ’em Zach!”.  “Em” being the multitude of friendly rivals at the track and field meet that our nine-year old attended earlier today.  I grinned at the yellow stick-it square, so plain yet so thoughtful and sweet.

Beaming with pride after last year's eighth place finish.

Beaming with pride after last year’s eighth place finish.

When I had picked up Zach from school he was glowing with the pride that comes with a shiny ribbon and expectations exceeded.  He had come in seventh in running long-jump, one place higher than last year.  And as a late sub-in for a teammate with a twisted ankle, his relay crew had pulled a second place finish.  He was over the moon!

Waiting by Zach’s side was his favourite teacher.  He shook my hand and paid our little one a glowing compliment.  “Zach has such a great positive attitude.  He’s such a happy camper!”.  I couldn’t have said it better myself.  Thanks for the dedication of teachers who readily lend their time and energy to help give our kids the chance to find pride in achievement.  Thanks to the parents who pack lunches late at night after long days working, who still find the time to write a few words of encouragement.  And especially thanks to the kids whose enthusiasm for long jump outweighs their enthusiasm for video games.  Go get ’em!

Living the Northern Dream

There are only two places on earth that I’ve always dreamed of visiting, but never thought I would.  One is Norway.  I had a childhood friend whose family was from Norway and she’d tell me amazing stories of home that planted the seeds that dreams are made of.  The other place is Canada’s North.  I want to see the taiga and the tundra.  I want to see caribou run.  I want to fish the icy rivers and climb the white-capped mountains.  I want to fall asleep in the midnight sun.  Last week I found out that I am going to get the chance to do just that.  I’m going to the Yukon.

Canoeing on Kluane Lake - photo courtesy of travelyukon.com

Canoeing on Kluane Lake – photo courtesy of travelyukon.com

This is the first trip since my older son was born almost 12 years ago, that I’m not doing with my family.  I am both exhilarated and terrified.  It is going to be like nothing I’ve seen before with people whom I’ve never met.  I’m going on a 30 day NOLS Outdoor Educator course.  Half of our time will be spent on a looong hike (12 days?) and the rest of the time will be running whitewater in canoes.  Luckily these aren’t new concepts to me, but we will be learning a whole bag of new skills and how to break them down and teach them to others.  What I most hope to gain from this experience is the ability to help others safely navigate the outdoors with confidence.

My ultimate dream is to run the Nahanni river with Fraser and the kids.  This is one big step in that direction.

I want to thank my wonderful employers (Mountain Equipment Co-op) who fund this amazing experience for two staff every year.  This was my lucky year and I’m going to take full advantage of this unbelievable opportunity.

I haven’t even gone yet, but I’ve already learned this…dream big, do what you love and no matter where you are in life, never stop growing.

First Family Canoe Trips : Where to go in Southern Ontario

So you want to take junior on their first canoe trip…good for you!  I often get asked for suggestions on where to take the kiddies for their first outing in Ontario.  For a first canoe trip with younger children, I suggest lakes that have paddle in sites to warm up to the paddling experience, or try one short portage into a second lake.  You can get a sense for how your little one is going to “take” to the boat without the risk of pushing it too far.  You can always take a longer trip next time.

The following lakes don’t see super big water like some larger ones and if needed, can have you back to your car in an hour or less.  May I also suggest sticking to the summer months so the water and air are warm and inviting?  If circumstances require that your first trip happens in the spring or fall, remember that it can be really cold and you MUST dress and gear-up for the elements.  Stay warm out there!

all together in one boat

all together in one boat

Algonquin Provincial Park

From the west side of the park near Kearney, enter at Rain Lake (really pretty) and stay at a paddle in site or do a short portage into Sawyer Lake.

Enter at Magnetawan Lake (also on the west side) and portage into Hambone Lake or push on into Ralph  Bice.

Off of the Hwy 60 corridor, you can check out Cannisbay.  It doesn’t feel very backcountry, but it’ll get the family into a canoe and into a tent.

Use the Achray Campground access on Grand Lake and stay, or pull a very short portage (30m) into Stratton Lake where there are numerous sites and you can visit beautiful High Falls, a swimming area with a naturally formed water slide.

Killarney Provincial Park

This park requires a bit more portaging, but you can still go to Bell Lake.  Use the Bell Lake access point and stay, or paddle through into Three Mile Lake.

Two words…George Lake.

Frontenac Provincial Park

Stay on Big Salmon Lake.  The lake has paddle in sites and no portages.

If you have any suggestions of your own for getting out on a canoe trip for the first time, be sure to let me know!  For all those families who are getting out for the first time this year, good luck and have fun!

Don’t Worry Honey…It’s Still Gonna Suck

We were out at dinner the other night and an interesting debate ensued. As you know, our family will be hiking the LaCloche Sihouette Trail in May. Fraser was hyping up the trip for the boys and stated proudly, “now you guys can say that you’ve done “The Hump”!”. The Hump AKA The Grind AKA The Pig, for those not in the know is a grueling 1320m portage that runs between Artist Lake and Three Narrows. It’s a stretch of rocky, ankle twisting, uphill slogging that tends to run like a river in the wetter months (read: when we are going). It is painful and soul crushing and only the most devoted portager (read: crazy, read: Fraser has done it a few times) would do it with a boat on their shoulders.

NOT the Hump/Pig...it's way too hard to take a pic and portage it at the same time!

NOT the Hump/Pig…it’s way too hard to take a pic and portage it at the same time!

I turned to Fraser with a look of skepticism. “No they can’t!”. And so the debate begins…

We can’t possibly claim to have done The Hump because we won’t be portaging it, we will be hiking it! Fraser looks back at me and says that he’d like to see me say that to the face of someone who carried the portage pack and not the boat…would they not be able to claim to have done it just because they were boat free?

My argument? Portage packs are WAY heavier and don’t provide the same support, nor are they loaded as impeccably as a backpack that you’d be carrying for days on end. Portaging involves carrying an unreasonably heavy load in an imperfectly fitted pack that while thoughtfully arranged, hasn’t been “Tetris-ed” the way a hiking pack has been. The reverse would be saying that it is equally difficult to HIKE the whole trail with a canoe or portage pack!

We've hiked our share of steep hills!

We’ve hiked our share of steep hills!

We went back and forth on the issue (I truly believe that Fraser agrees with me and was just trying to get my goat) much to the amusement of the rest of the family. In the end he settled the debate with the simple statement… Don’t worry honey, it’s still gonna suck.

And so it will dear. So it will.

Anybody out there done this section of Killarney?  Who do you side with?

Lead Me To An Outdoor Adventure and I Will Follow

This past Saturday I grabbed the kids and headed over to the Outdoor Adventure Show here in Toronto.  What an inspiring day!

Our first stop was to watch a presentation by Lyn Elliott on the Top Ten Adventures in Ontario’s National Parks. Loved it!  While I proudly thought to myself, “done that, done that”, there were a number of things that have been added to my “must do” list…namely visiting the St. Lawrence Islands National Park. The kids took one look at the new oTENTik accommodations that are being offered and their eyes lit up.  If you haven’t seen one, picture a soft sided rustic cabin.  Truth be told, after our amazing trip to Georgian Bay Islands last year and the cozy cabin we stayed in there, it wasn’t a hard sell to get me to agree that we must go and try an oTENTik…and soon!

oTENTik accommodation available in St. Lawrence Islandsphoto: Parks Canada

oTENTik accommodation available in St. Lawrence Islands
photo: Parks Canada

As we made our way up and down the aisles of the show, I picked up maps and planners for all sorts of dreamy places, the kind of places that I’ve pictured exploring since I was a kid.  Gros Morne National Park out in Newfoundland looks absolutely gorgeous and I guarantee we’ll make it there some day. But the most intriguing and bucket list worthy destinations (because of distance and exotic local) are the National Parks in Northern Canada. Wild, breathtaking and untouched, the Yukon, NWT and Nunavut seem so out of reach to the average “southern Canadian”.  Getting there is possible though if we put our minds to it.  With some planning, saving and training, Fraser and I have every intention of making it there with the kids.

In the meanwhile, there are oodles of fabulous places in my beloved Ontario that are calling out to me.  I walked away with an Ontario Parks Guide and a pamphlet listing the National Parks Historic Sites and Marine Conservation Areas here. Now I’ve got a couple more maps for the house and we can start checking off all of the places that we’ve visited.

The show was a great way to spend a day and inspiration for how to spend a lifetime.  And to that woman who looked skeptical that I was going to run out and buy that yogurt after she gave me a sample…I did.  It was good yogurt.  Reeeally good.  Thanks for another great show!

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