“You are crazy!”
I’ve heard those three words more often over the past 3 months than I ever have. Given I’m a bit of an adventurer, it comes with the territory for me. This time felt different.
I’m not sure why the idea of a woman going out into the wilderness creates such apprehension, but it does. I heard those words from men and women, friends, family and colleagues. “I could never do that! Seriously! Find someone to go with you!” was the typical response. Who would ever go alone, and why?
I’ve been hiking and camping in Algonquin Park a lot more over the past 4 years. It’s become a bit of an “Important Place” for me; an escape from the fast paced life of living in Toronto, a place to energize.
Having completed most of Algonquin’s bigger day trails, I wanted a new challenge. I also wanted to prove to myself that I could hack it. I set my eyes on the first loop of Highland Trail, 20km over 3 days, and made it a personal goal for the summer.
Backcountry camping isn’t something you should do on a whim; at least if you are smart about it. It takes the right gear, thoughtful preparation and a decent level of fitness.
MEC was my one stop shopping spot. I had a backpack but that was pretty much it.
After doing a bit of research (online reviews are the best!), I went with an MSR Elixir 2 tent, MSR Pocket Rocket stove and stowaway pot, Black Diamond walking poles, Reactor Sleeping Pad and Intrepid Traveller Sleeping Bag; all of which worked really well for me.
Given everyone was scared I’d be eaten by a bear, I tried to be smart about deterring them. I splurged on a URSack Bear Bag and granted myself some peace of mind. In hindsight, a dry sack would have sufficed and saved some money. The quality is undeniable though and, when there are no branches to use around your site, it’s good to have.
Downsizing my sleeping bag and buying walking poles were two of my best decisions. It was super hot and the compact Intrepid bag, meant for 15-25 degree temperatures, cleared a lot of space in my bag. The poles saved my butt on numerous areas of steep and rocky terrain. I am forever sold on walking poles! FOREVER!
I never did weigh my bag, but I’m guessing it was around 35-40lbs. I definitely took too much stuff with me, but lesson learned for this newbie. I wore the same clothes for 3 days! No shame!
Hitting the Trails: Trail Head to Provoking Lake West
You learn pretty quickly that Highland Trail is no piece of cake. While the first 5km is some of the easier terrain, it doesn’t come without quite a few ups. If you’re loaded down with a backpack, like I was, your heart will be pumping within the first 10 minutes.
The trail as a whole is fairly shaded, which provides a considerable break from the heat, but carry LOTS of water with you. I drank about 2-3 litres a day and used Pristine purification tablets. Purification tablets have mixed reviews. People say they can make water taste like chemicals. I couldn’t taste them and will definitely use them again.
The entire trail is very well-marked and tread. As a first time hiker, I found the marking really helpful. Unless you somehow get yourself turned around in the wrong direction, it’s pretty hard to get lost! I think there was only once that I got a bit confused.
On your way to Provoking Lake you pass by Starling Lake. It wafted the scent of waterlilies! Beautiful! I took a quick water break while there and happened upon a shoreline covered in wolf footprints. How cool is that!?
Not long after Starling Lake, you will come to the first fork in the road. At this point you choose whether you head to the east or west side campsites. This sign also warns day hikers that the full trail takes longer the 8 hours to complete. Be prepared to camp or go home basically!
The 1st Loop of Highland Trail circles Provoking Lake. Whether you stay on the East or West side, the distance to campsites is about 5-6km. I chose to stay on the west side for the first night, which is the more popular route because it leads into the longer 35km loop.
Being completely new to backcountry camping, I didn’t realize that “Side Trail” signs were directing me to the campsites. My initial instinct was that they were simply offshoots of the trail. I didn’t want to walk more! I passed 3 signs before it dawned on me. Duh! Ha!
I decided to go to the next one that I came across, which appeared after an awesome graveyard of timber tucked away on a bay of Provoking Lake. Seeing all the timber piled up reminded me of my trips out to British Columbia. I’ve always loved the sight of driftwood!
The next side trail came within a couple of minutes hike and it turned out to be the last site on the west side. There are two others about a 1km hike further around the lake, but by the time I arrived my shoulders were hurting pretty bad. I was lucky it was empty.
Once settled, there wasn’t a heck of a lot to do but relax and enjoy the scenery. I quickly learned that my campsite had a resident, Chippy. After a quick walk to refill my water bottles, I returned to find him rummaging through my backpack. Rather than shew him away, I decided to play nice and share some of my peanuts. Instant friends!
Provoking Lake is truly beautiful. I spent most of the afternoon on the smooth rocks leading down to the water’s edge. As time passed, I could hear the other sites filling up.
Campers were swimming out to the island and in the bay. I was happy to soak up the last remaining bit of sunshine, listen to the random loon call, watch the ripples appear in the water from fish feeding and prepare myself for an iconic Algonquin sunset.
Luckily, I visited just before Algonquin instituted the fire ban. I was able to enjoy sitting by my fire until the mosquitoes got hungry.
All was quiet until about 3am when I was awoken by the feet of, what I can only assume was, a wolf running up beside my tent. I literally sat straight up and covered my mouth thinking, “Oh shit!” I would have thought I was crazy had it not been for the sound of panting, similar to a dog. I figured it must have been chasing some kind of food source.
I quietly laid down, heart racing, and fell back to sleep. I still can’t believe that happened!
Hitting the Trails Again! Day 2 – Provoking West to Provoking East: 10km
I knew the second day of hiking was going to really show me what I was made of. The weather was calling for a peak of 35 degrees, so I was up early and on the trail by 8:00am.
While I didn’t find mosquitoes bad on the way in, they certainly drove me crazy in pockets of the hike over to the east side. I had picked up a five dollar mosquito net at Canadian Tire on a whim one day and I was glad I did. I roughed it out for the first 5km, dosing myself with insect repellant, but I gave up and wore the net for the rest of the hike. Not the most attractive look but, unless the squirrels cared, there was no one else to please!
To say that this section was hard for me is a bit of an understatement. I consider myself a pretty fit woman in most scenarios. That said, I’m not used to carrying 40lbs of weight on my shoulders for nearly 4 hours, up, up, up and down, down, down, backcountry terrain. I swore under my breath a lot, took breaks a lot and rested leaning back against trees A LOT!
I think the most important learning, for me, was to take my time. Unless it’s dark and you need to find a place to camp, there really is no need to rush. Take your time, enjoy the experience and don’t push yourself too hard. You’re bound to trip and hurt yourself and it’s just not worth the risk.
Throughout the 10km east-ward section I learned how invaluable hiking poles can be. I’d never used them prior to this hike, and like I said earlier, I am completely sold on their benefits. I don’t think I could have completed this trail, without hurting myself, had I not used poles. There are some very tricky and technical ridges to maneuver. With a heavy backpack you can lose your balance easily. Definitely purchase or rent poles for this trail!
My shoulders and lower back were pretty much in agony at the 8km mark, but I made it to my site after seeing only one person on the trail. I literally slept for 2 hours once I got my site arranged. I was exhausted, hungry and so incredible sore! Sleep and rest did the trick!
The second to last site on the east side is HUGE!!! Not only did it have the site where I camped, but room for others and another site atop a beautiful point on the lake! I would easily bring a group of friends here. A perfect spot to relax, swim and watch the sunset!
Regardless of what side of Provoking Lake you stay on, you’re treated to the most beautiful scenery and sounds. I loved hearing the loons calling in the distance or when they meandered into the bay. Seagulls were cawing at each other throughout the mornings as I was drinking my tea. Wolves howled in the evenings as I was falling asleep. It doesn’t get much better than that. It’s what we all hope for when we visit Algonquin Park.
I awoke to loons calling at 6am (the BEST sound!) and, once again, I was on the trail by 8am. Having not been in touch with anyone in 3 days, due to no reception, I was looking forward to getting back and touching base. I was sure family was wondering how I was and eager to hear my voice.
The way back was surreal. The build up to going on the hike was so big and now it was almost over. I recognized certain trees and landmarks. I stopped to relax and eat a leftover apple at the waterfall. I had it to myself for about 15 minutes, which was nice.
Quite a few day hikers, including a nice couple from England, passed me on my way out. I was sweaty and hot, but proud and smiling. I was so happy to see the sign when I arrived at the trail head. I was done. It was over.
There is a special joy in taking off your boots after a long hike; the kind that stinks of accomplishment and leaves you feeling alive. I peeled my bag off, ditched my boots and socks, found my flip-flops, washed and changed.
Exhausted and full of glee, I took one more photo and told myself I’d be back for the Second Loop. And I will, someday…
Wild and Found