When I was three years old, my parents took my brother and I to Tobermory for our first camping trip by the beautiful shores of Georgian Bay. Immediately upon arrival, my Mom tried to coax me out of the van for hours without success. Tear-stained, stubborn and scared of the throes of wilderness, I sat in the backseat all day, clutching my stuffed Barney while my family pitched the tent. We left the next morning.
Twenty-five years later, I decided that it was time to give camping a second shot. I figured that roughing it in twelve-person dorms on firm beds with bed bugs and a symphony of snorers during my solo travels, I’d be well-suited to ditch comfy city living for one night. And this time, I found myself hiking, without hesitation, more than six kilometres away from the car, and I loved it.
My second trip was with my boyfriend, Kyle, my Mom and my Stepdad. Due to overwhelming popularity from the pandemic, we aimed for early autumn when the crowds have mostly dissipated. We had to rebook our site about four times as a result of unsuspecting weather, from two nights starting Oct. 4 to three nights from the 7th to the 10th, eventually settling for one night on the 9th. Even while burritoed inside two sleeping bags, coats, and thermal wear, our tents wouldn’t withstand temperatures colder than four degrees.
With two separate vehicles, our drive was three hours from Whitby to Algonquin Park, located roughly between Georgian Bay and the Ottawa River in sub-northern Ontario. I rode with my Mom in her Mustang while Kyle and my Stepdad trailed behind us. Meanwhile, I watched the early stages of colour changes getting brighter the further north we drove. My Mom explained that the trees had already peaked a week prior, resulting in a five-kilometre long vehicle lineup at the park’s entrance.
Once we passed Gravenhurst, twenty-foot high rocky walls lined the highway revealing the Canadian Shield’s southern tip. It was perfect timing that my Mom’s playlist landed on the Tragically Hip’s Ahead by a Century, as the wind scattered yellow leaves like a twister, bouncing off the windshield. And as she pointed out, a chunk of the forest was laid bare and several branches were completely exposed. Despite the mild disappointment, the absence of heavy traffic at the entrance certainly made up for it.
Our campground was on the shores of Mew Lake, almost halfway through the Park’s interior. The moment I stepped out of the car, I instantly tuned into the sounds, sights and smells of the outdoors. Conifer trees towered over us, giving us ample privacy from our neighbours. I could smell the damp, cool air, the pines and consequently, the pungent fumes of the facilities when nature called. My nostrils hadn’t experienced such a smell in so long, that I nearly regurgitated my Tim Hortons.
I observed the surrounding wildlife which was, as my three-year-old self would be comforted to see, completely harmless. The forest floor was littered with scavenging chipmunks. Kyle saw one with an entire half of a Nature Valley bar sticking out of its mouth. A Blue Jay swooped above our heads and landed on our tent, staring at our roasted hot dogs before flying away. I could also hear the birds chiming up high in the trees, the rustling branches, the shrill chattering of squirrels and…the sounds of traffic? The disadvantage of a last-minute booking meant taking the last available booking and least desired spot, which was 500 metres away from Highway 60, separated by shallow water. City noise never fails to follow me, no matter how far I escape.
After successfully pitching our tent (minus a few hiccups with the fly), our afternoon hike was a five-minute drive from our site. My Stepdad convinced us to skip the easy trails and go straight for the hardest, Centennial Trail. It makes sense, of course. The “Difficult” ones yielded the best views and the smallest crowds.
Although six hours and 10.4 kilometres in total, we opted to hike for two hours, until we reached the third lookout. The trail’s difficulty lay mostly in its steep inclines, where we hopped across twisted tree roots that were entwined along the ground, like giants’ hands. Except for the first stretch, where it was easy to physically distance from fellow hikers, it was just the four of us climbing uphill. There wasn’t a faint sound of unfamiliar voices, but only our footsteps and Kyle and my Stepdad’s laughter and jokes. I could see for longer distances through the forest, as the leaves yellowed and fell off the branches, rustled and crushed by our boots. Occasionally, I would stop and crane my neck upwards, trailing my gaze towards the treetops, a welcome change from glass and concrete buildings.
When we reached the top, we could see for kilometres ahead, with spots of green, orange and gold everywhere, surrounding Whitefish Lake and the Lake of Two Rivers. The four of us were 500 feet up above a steep cliff, and I could hear nothing but the wind’s constant whooshing. The trees below me looked so tiny compared to downhill, like I was on a plane, taking off into the clouds.
We descended shortly afterwards and drove back to camp, ready to open our snacks and beer cans. Of all the jackets, tents, air mattresses, flashlights and bulky camp gear that was sprawled out on the living room floor, we still forgot some essentials. Not the sleeping bags, nor the tents (although Kyle and I used coats in lieu of pillows), but sadly, a wine opener. After scrounging for alternatives and finger-pointing as to who would ask the neighbours, my Stepdad resolved to using a hot dog skewer. Needless to say, digging a skewer into an expensive bottle of Niagara’s Ferox Red made us feel a little guilty. Kyle, who knows the winemaker personally through a family connection, vowed to never tell him what we did. Luckily, we practiced with a Beaujolais first and sampled a cork-infused Cabernet Sauvignon. I learned that going camping is when you can really improvise better than you think.
Kyle and I caught a perfect sunset at 6 o’clock. We watched the rays burst through the trees, shining a bright beam of light over Mew Lake. I locked my eyes to it for a rather dangerous amount of time, taking one last gulp of my can of Lake of Bays Brewing. After sunset, I’d later catch myself staring at the blanket of stars, a rare sight for city dwellers like me. I could feel the temperature dropping and the cold seeping through my Blundstones. I’ve experienced enough icy toes and fingertips from my time in Ottawa and traveling through Europe to appreciate warm socks and mittens. Once the sun set around 7 pm, I crawled into our tent in pitch-black to “winterize” – putting on thermal pants, extra shirts, a second layer of socks, and three layers of sweaters overtop covered by my Mom’s ski coat.
Time flew by that evening, as we roasted hot dogs, potatoes and Beyond Sausages for dinner and S’mores for dessert, sipped cork-flavoured wine and sat spaced apart with a weak campfire in the middle. The fire pit was slightly damp, and we depleted our firewood rather quickly. My Stepdad’s bold attempt to burn an oversized, wet log had succeeded after drying and sizzling for eight hours. By midnight, we burned the very last tinder. The temperature started to warm up from 5 to 10 degrees, and the wind began to pick up with clouds covering the celestial sky above us.
It wasn’t until bedtime when we unrolled our sleeping bags in complete darkness, as doing so earlier would make them cold. After laughing and scrambling in the dark, Kyle and I were nestled below four sleeping bags, thermal socks, toques and coats for pillows. Being a light sleeper, I knew instantly that the scattered roaring of campers and 18-wheelers would keep me up all night. Thankfully, I brought my handy head-band with built-in Bluetooth earbuds to drown out the sounds of civilization. But not before catching an owl’s low crooning from a tree branch, the same owl that awakened my Mom from her slumber.
The next morning we fried up some leftover sausages and scrambled eggs on a portable grill for breakfast and drank some french press coffee. Noticing the darkening clouds, we quickly gathered our belongings and folded our tents in anticipation of rain. My Stepdad’s suggestion for our hike of the day was Hemlock Bluff, an easier trail that guides you through Jack Lake and its busy beaver dams. I was sure to grab my umbrella and borrowed my Mom’s waterproof jacket to prepare for a wet forecast.
Only 3.5 kilometres, the trail at Hemlock Bluff was a little busier and muddier this time around. It felt like a game of “floor is lava”, but instead it was mud, and we were jumping from rock to rock. My attention focused on the tall Yellow Birches that populated the forest, still covered with leaves. Their narrow white trunks guided us through the muddy path, and I could feel the rough peeling bark with my fingers. According to my guidebook, some of these birches were as old as 300 years.
More than halfway through, we crossed a wooden boardwalk across the marshes on Jack Lake. I spotted the first beaver dam made of neatly arranged branches spanning almost twenty feet from one end of the lake to the other. Although April was the best time to see beavers due to the melting ice, I was hopeful that October was also ideal to spot these ingenious animals. I kept a close eye, but unfortunately didn’t see any. Guess that means I’ll have to return in Spring.
After the hike, we briefly stopped at the Park’s gift shop before heading home. On our way, we ended up in Gravenhurst for a quick patio beer and early dinner at Sawdust City Brewery. If you’ve ever noticed that Canada is infamous for its odd oversized objects for tourists, then Gravenhurst has a giant Muskoka chair, eponymous for its region.
Needless to say, the second time around was a huge success compared to the first. After seven months into the pandemic, the absence of international travel was really wearing on me. But perhaps there’s an important reason behind people like me dusting off their old tents and flocking to nature. Although I long for the day when Kyle and I can stroll through the cobblestoned streets of Alfama, my experience at Algonquin Park was just as valuable. The myriad of sights, sounds, senses – whether it’s fresh pines or outhouses, owls or 18-wheelers – creates nuance and brings places to life. Travel is about making connections, but this time I strengthened close ones through shared experience. Travel is also about learning more about myself. I was conscious about reducing my impact on our valuable ecosystems and appreciating the environment around us. Finally, I learned that I can definitely rough it for at least one night.
It was a Campsgiving to remember.
Here’s a bonus picture of my three-year-old timid self and my Barney, taken post-meltdown as I squeezed out an apprehensive smile.