Friday, October 3, 2014

Well, that escalated quickly.

I had a simple plan. I was going to go do my first solo backpacking trip in almost 15 years, taking it easy by doing the 19km first loop of the Highland Trail in Algonquin Provincial Park over 2 nights. Get on the trail Friday early afternoon, hike about 5-6km (90mins?) out to a campsite on the West side of Provoking Lake, then another 8km-ish across the top of the first loop to the East side of Provoking for Saturday night. Sunday I'd do another 5-6km stroll out to the Mew Lake campground where Tanker would be camping at a drive-in site, spending the weekend terrorizing the local fish population.

Orange line going counter-clockwise - looks good on paper.

So we're a bit late getting on the road to the Park, and on our way up there's a lot of traffic. I mean, it's supposed to be gorgeous weather - like the summer we never really had - but it's only Friday, it's not a long weekend, and it's the end of September. But damn, there seemed to be an awful lot of people headed to Algonquin. I hadn't made reservations for our campsites because I didn't think it would be too busy, you can't reserve interior (backcountry) sites online anyway, and the campsite we wanted for Tanker was non-reservable.

This turned out to be the start of the fail. We got to Mew Lake around 1:30pm, and when there was just 1 person ahead of us in line to register, the girl at the desk asked another staff member to go flip the sign to read CAMPGROUND FULL. Not a single site left to be had. So, we stomped out of there...then I stomped right back in (with 2 other people now ahead of me) because I needed to get my interior permits from this office.

I still held out some hope that the trail wouldn't be too busy, so asked about sites for that night. The girl told me she only had sites available on Head or Harness, to which my response was "Whaa?". She pulled out the trail map and showed me.

I did some quick math in my head and discovered that Harness Lake looked pretty much out of the question. I might, however, have a shot at reaching Head Lake before dark. It was 12.6km from the trailhead, and it was just before 2pm. I asked about a site for Saturday night, and found there was nothing at all available. I'd have to go to the Eastern Pines Trail (which would require no less than a 2hr drive to the access point) or the 2nd loop of the Western Uplands Trail, which would leave me with too long a hike to extract on Sunday. We'd done Western Uplands' first loop last year anyway.

I decided I'd take the site on Head Lake, boot my butt out there Friday, then just hike back out Saturday. The girl's opinion - direct quote - "I don't think that's a good idea".


My feelings on the matter.

Having made a call to the Park office, I found out that there were no sites available at the next-closest campground (Two Rivers was full), but that Canisbay Lake had tent sites on offer. We raced down Highway 60 past the Highland trailhead to Canisbay, waited in line and discovered they'd just opened up a section of the campground that had been closed since Labour Day due to the demand. The girl at the registration desk offered to let us go scope out the available sites and come back to tell he which one we were taking, but there was no time for that so we chose Tanker's lucky number (13). A few minutes later we had the permit and jetted off to the site so I could help Tank set up his tent.

With my sweetheart accommodated (admittedly at a campground whose water taps were all posted with a boil water advisory), it was back to the trailhead to get me moving. After one last washroom stop and admonishing Tanker not to worry about me, I set out at 2:40pm. Sunset time: 7:03pm.

As I started out, before even really getting out of the parking lot, I found someone's trail map in a zipper baggie. Ooh, that's bad luck. I decided I would bring it along - if I could find the person who dropped it I'd return it, otherwise I'd actually have a map that showed my whole route. You see, I was only carrying photocopies of the first loop with me. Yep, fail.

The Highland Trail does not mess around. Right from the very start you're crossing ridges of land that climb steeply and descend precipitously through endless roots, rocks and wet patches. I was kind of cursing the hard running I'd put in the weekend before and earlier in the week, as I'd woken up exhausted (too many nights of too little sleep) with legs that certainly weren't 100% despite taking Thursday off training. I hadn't worried too much since I had planned to nap on the way up and didn't have to cover much ground to the West side of Provoking. I was, however, too stoked to catch any Z's on the way up and now faced a much tougher day, with trail conditions that didn't look too promising.

I did manage to make the falls in decent time, though, and paused to drink some water and take a photo or two.

Gorgeous spot on the Madawaska River, near where the Track & Tower day hiking trail meets the Highland Trail.

Knowing I didn't have time to lose, I rolled onward until I reached the junction with the rail trail. There was a group of kids there (maybe later years of highschool?) stopped with packs off. I asked if they'd dropped a map, and they were incredibly grateful to have it returned. I bade them good luck, then set off in the direction of the arrow on the sign for the Highland Trail.

Turn right. Ok.
And off down the rail trail.

I saw a few cyclists coming the other way, and thought that I might be on the wrong track. I tried looking at my map but it wasn't that helpful - I was supposed to turn West to get around Provoking Lake, and I was definitely headed West. I finally came to another bridge over the Madawaska that had a sign with a map, and with the assistance of another cyclists I determined I'd come more than a kilometre the wrong way. Possibly to make me feel better, the cyclist did tell me it's not very well marked.

Walk of shame back to the junction.
So I get back to the sign, and discover that the group of kids had been blocking my view of the little goat path that was the actual continuation out to the first loop of the trail.

There was more climbing and descending. A lot more. I found myself overlooking Starling Lake.

I had started down at lake level.
The down some more steep and technical stuff, then back up.

Like this.

And this.
I made it to the Western junction of the 1st and 2nd loop in about 2 hours, so stopped to take off my pack, refill my Nalgene (from which I'd been drinking every 20mins), and have a snack.

It was a hot day, so yes I'm soaked.

It was at this time I discovered my own map had fallen out of my pocket. Between this and going the wrong way after diligently returning a dropped map to the group of kids, I have determined that karma simply doesn't like me.

And a bit pissed off.
The box at the junction hadn't had its map stolen, though, so I was able to take a look and see I still had over 7km to cover. I estimated I'd already done about 7.5-8km with my extra excursion down the rail trail, but I wanted as much time as possible to set up camp before dark so I only took a 6 or 7 minute break before trekking onward. I tried to stay moving as consistently as I could, only pausing to drink water or to figure out the best line to take through the particularly difficult sections.

Ok, and to take a couple of photos at the lookout past Faya Lake.

The trail continued to challenge me, though, even bringing me to a complete halt a few times as I tried to figure out a way forward. I came to a part of a steep downhill section that was just a sheer 3' drop from the top of a smooth rock, so had to sit down on my butt and scooch myself forward in order to make it through without breaking my neck. I needed to move fast, but couldn't afford to make any mistakes as I hadn't seen another soul on the second loop.

I eventually reached Head Creek, and could hear fast water. Within a few minutes I found the portage sign for Head Lake to Head Creek, and then the reason for the portage.

Beautiful spot

Yep, I'd definitely portage around that.

By the time I reached Head Lake itself, the sun had dropped below the tree line and the light was fading fast.

Still and silent but for the rushing water.
I found a campsite marker, but much to my chagrin it was already occupied. I asked the fellow if there were more sites further along (what with not having a map to check and all), and he said he assumed so but was "too worn out to investigate". I feel ya, buddy. With daylight wasting, I hiked on another 250m or so until right at 7pm I found the best sign in the whole wide world after a long day on the trail. 4 hours and 20 minutes to make what later turned out to be 15km.

Oh look - I'm home!

I quickly set up my bear hang and tent, then went looking for the thunderbox. No dice on the latter - the well-worn path on the side of the trail opposite the lake was blocked by a downed tree, completely obstructing the way to the logical place for the facilities. D'oh. I walked back down to my site and saw the last of the sunset fading over the lake, but couldn't find an access that would take me down to the water's edge. I still had plenty of water to last me the night, though, so I'd work on that in the morning.

Dusk at Head Lake

I settled myself in, making up my bed in the tent and then cooking myself some dinner (corn semolina with dried mushrooms, garlic & onion plus a foil packet of tuna), then wrote an entry in my trip log as an owl hooted away nearby. The deer mice didn't seem fussed by me or the owl, though - they were all over my site, and all over me! I had one try no less than 3 times to climb up my back to get to something sweet-smelling in my breast pocket. I thought I heard some larger animals huffing around as well (moose? bear?), and caught what was very likely a wolf howl off in the distance. The stars were incredible but my site was so tree-covered that I couldn't get much of a view, and I'd had no time or inclination to gather wood for a fire. I had picked up a bunch of birchbark along the trail and stuffed it into the pockets of my shorts, but it had all gone the way of my map. Once I'd hung all of my animal attractants up in a tree, I rolled myself into my tent with my bear banger flares and launcher, completely knackered by 10:30pm.

Snug as a bug.
I slept right through my watch alarm, which had been set to wake me at 6:30am so I'd have time to make a cup of coffee before watching the sun come up. The theme for National Forest Week 2014 was "sunrise in the forest", so I wanted to see if I could get some good photos. While I didn't get my cup of joe brewed until after, I did manage to find an access right down to the water's edge and was in for a breathtaking display.

This here? Totally worth it.
After the sun was well up, I brought down the bear hang and got to work on coffee and breakfast. As I set up my stove on the split log "work table" set at 90 degrees to the main bench log beside the fire, I noticed something that made me believe I'd found this site for a reason and would have been perfectly safe here no matter what - my father's initials were carved into the wood. While there's no way it would actually have been him that did the trail work, my Dad is the one who cultivated my love of the outdoors, so it just felt...right.

Upside down, but the best photo I have.

As I drank my coffee and ate a good, hot breakfast of rice porridge with cinnamon, raisins, honey & cashew butter, I did a bit of a self-check. I'd slept well, only waking up a couple of times to turn over, and while my quads were sore from yesterday's exertions they were that functional kind of sore with which I've put in some surprisingly hard workouts.

My campsite in the morning light - bench left, fire pit centre, tent behind, clothesline at right.

I'd had a really stupid idea as I approached Head Lake the day before. I had arranged to meet Tanker at the trailhead at 4pm on Saturday afternoon - that meant I'd have 6 hours if I could get moving by 10am (I'd wanted to be on the trail earlier, but sleeping until 7:10am and spending half an hour or so watching the sunrise meant a later start). I thought I remembered that the whole trail was estimated to be 34km, and I'd done around 15k (13 of trail + 2k of rail trail) in 4 hours the day before. That meant I had about 21km left to complete the whole thing.

The West end of Head Lake as I filtered water and contemplated.

I knew I didn't want to go back the way I'd come. I hate retracing my steps, and there were some things I'd descended that I didn't want to climb (remember the scooching?), plus some things I'd climbed that I didn't want to try descending. Hell with it - let's do the damn thing! At 10:05am, I walked out to the main trail and turned East.

Rocky section

Sketchy boardwalk through marshland

Huge moose prints abounded

The trail wasn't quite as tough as it had been between the Western junction of loops 1 & 2 and Head Lake - I swear that is the sketchiest part of the entire hike - and I made decent time to Harness Lake.

4.2km down.
 There were still plenty of challenges, though, between downed trees, boggy bits, stream crossings and the relentless undulation of the land.


When the bear poop is still so fresh it's shiny, you start singing even when wearing a bear bell.
My recommendation is Dead Kennedys

Trying to do the math on another hot, sunny day, I reckoned I had about 8km to go from my campsite to the Eastern junction of loops 1 & 2. After all, if the 1st loop was 19km and the full trail was 34km, that meant loop 2 was 15km, right? Since it was 7km from the Western loop junction to Head Lake, that meant 8 kilometres. Seems legit.

The fall colour had hit its peak just before we arrived in the park and was simply stunning in the sunshine.

After 2.75hrs I still hadn't hit the Eastern loop 1/2 junction, but met a group of 4 mature hikers (looked like 2 couples) who offered me the lunch spot they were just vacating. Since it was shady and I needed to refill my Nalgene from my water storage bladder and knew I should eat something, I happily obliged. They also let me know it was still a couple of kilometres to the trail junction, which was a bit demoralizing as I thought I was moving quite slowly (despite them being amazed at my progress).

I also tried out the timer function on my camera with our Gorillapod.

A couple of handfuls of trail mix and 15mins later, I was back on the trail, which continued to challenge me. I met up with the group of kids again - they had come across the top of loop 1 from their campsite on the West side of Provoking Lake and were headed out toward Harness Lake on loop 2. I asked if they'd found my map - they said they had, but had left it at the Western loop junction in the box with the "You are here" map. I wouldn't be going back that way, despite it being almost 2.5km shorter to get to the trailhead. They did let me peer at their map, though, which was reassuring - it was actually 12.1km from Head Lake to the Eastern loop junction, so I wasn't actually crawling along at a snail's pace. One of the kids - a young fellow of not more than 20 - actually made me feel pretty good about myself after I explained that my ability to keep pushing the pace on the trail was due to my background in triathlon and ultrarunning. His exclamation of "Now I don't feel so bad! You're killing it!" was enough to put a smile on my face as I scooted off North toward loop 1.

Really sketchy crossing of Mosquito Creek, after which the trail is pretty tough to spot.

I passed the bunch of hikers who'd offered me their lunch spot again, working steadily up the hills while puffing & sweating. Finally after 3 hours and 40mins of hard hiking, I hit the Eastern junction of loops 1 & 2. The map in the box showed I still had 10.7km to cover - a total of 22.8 kilometres for the day. I knew I wouldn't make it to the trailhead by 4pm (though the other hikers seemed to think I would, based on how fast I was moving - king folks!), but I could damn well be there as close as possible. Cha mule!

Time to rock'n'roll
There was still plenty of elevation change, even more balance-beam action on sketchy boards and logs through swampy sections, more creek crossings (Mosquito Creek is like a bloody piece of dropped string! You cross it at least 3 times), and a whole lot of sweating going on. I even found another spot where I had to do the bum-down scooch to get through another rocky descent! Eventually I emerged at the campsite I'd originally hoped to snag for Saturday night, right on beautiful Provoking Lake.

This would have been my view from the fire pit.

I was trying to move as quickly as I could, but kept getting sloppy as I was being hasty. Catch a toe on a root, have a muddy boot slide on a log or rock - I kept having to tell myself to be mindful as all the speed in the world wouldn't help me if I hurt myself and was left helpless on the trail. Due to yet another navigational snafu, I ended up doing the 250m down a really technical descent and up a tough climb to the Starling Lake lookout point, then having to do the same 250m through the steep defile in reverse to get back out to the main trail.

Totally worth it for this view, though.

Eventually, I did make it to the actual East/West split of loop 1, with 3.8km to go to meet my sweetheart. I actually passed the foursome of hikers who'd offered me their lunch spot again - they'd taken the shorter route across the top of loop 1 and were headed for the trailhead, so I bade them happy trails once more. I didn't want to stop again, but by the time I got to the falls my Nalgene was empty and I wouldn't make the final 2.8km to the parking lot without drinking. I paused for a couple of minutes just before 4pm, filled my bottle and was much obliged to a couple of ladies who'd hiked in from the Mew Lake campground for offering to get a non-selfie of me by the falls.

Good, now let's go!
I made that last section in just a hair over half an hour, all the while hoping that Tanker wasn't losing his mind wondering if I was injured or lost somewhere out on the trail. A couple of final steep climbs and descents and I could hear Highway 60 again, then past Pewee Lake and out to the parking lot to ask my darling love if I was fashionably late.

This trail? Yeah, I got this.

Total time for 22.8km to complete the trail was 6 hours, 25mins - my whole trip of 37.9km had taken me 10 hours and 45mins including all pauses to drink and my 3 pack-off breaks to eat and refill my bottle. This equates to approximately 3.52kph/2.19mph for ~37.9km/23.5mi of technical trail with ~40lbs (including food, water, camera & trekking poles: starting carry weight was 41.6lbs w/5L of water) on my back - around 27% of my bodyweight.

Plus half the damn trail in my boots.
Note to self: buy and wear gaiters.

The actual route I ended up doing.

Then it was back to Canisbay to spend a wonderful night glamping with my sweetheart, and we even had the delightful company of a couple of friends whom he'd run into while getting firewood! A fantastic way to spend a night I'd otherwise have been alone on the trail. While I'd have been happy to sleep out in the forest by myself again, it was also lovely to sit 'round a blazing fire with excellent company.

Date night just got postponed by a day.

This may have been my first solo in almost 15 years, but I sincerely doubt it will be my last - the call of solitude in a gorgeous forest is powerful and there's no chance that Tank would want to do a blitz of a trail like that. While it would have been fun to slow down and take things easy - take a bunch more photos along the way and have a nice break at the lookouts to snack & soak it all in, as I would if we'd gone together - I derived a lot of satisfaction from having completed a fairly tough challenge. My revised plan was pretty ambitious given just how gnarly the trail turned out to be, and the penalties for failure were pretty steep: I'd either have been setting up camp in the dark (which is doable but miserable), or making Tanker worry unnecessarily (which is inexcusable to me). I'm glad that I was pushed into the trek up to Head Lake, and even happier I was strong enough to take it on!

Because this.


  1. Wow thanks for the detail in your post & the beautiful pics! It will definitely help in planning our trip out there :)

    1. Thanks for reading - glad you enjoyed the pics! I was just back out on the 1st loop last month: if you're interested in a more recent recon, I wrote a trip report here:
      Hope you have a great time!


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