Friday, October 9, 2015

Flying solo

..or at least walking.

Radio silence on the blog last week because I'd gone walkabout on Friday.


Just like 2014, I threw a pack on my back and wandered into the forest. Whatever hay I'd been able to cobble together in September (just over 250km of running) was already in the barn for Vulture Bait, so now it was time to absorb the work and put in some time hiking under a load. I'd gone backpacking a week before the Run for the Toad 50k in 2013, a few weeks before Horror Hill last year and again this spring prior to Sulphur Springs in May - I feel like wandering up steep hills with 30+lbs on my back is actually pretty decent training for ultrarunning.

Not to mention just plain pretty.

The plan was more or less the same as last year - do the full 2 loops of the Highland Trail in Algonquin Park over 2 nights. Because I'd actually reserved everything months in advance, I was in fact able to execute that plan this time rather than having to do the whole thing in 1 night like last year. We also got Tanker situated at the Mew Lake campground so he could drive-in camp with friends of ours and do some fishing and cycling while I went and climbed steep things.

Like this, which I damn near fell backward down within the first hour on the trail.
I tried to smarten up a little.

With Tanker at Mew Lake, this meant I could go up the West side of loop 1 and loop 2 from the trailhead, camp at Head Lake Friday night, then come past Harness Lake and down the East side of loop 2 then loop 1 and connect with the Track and Tower Trail extension and walk directly into Tanker's campsite on Sunday morning after spending Saturday night at the East side of Provoking Lake. My sweet husband even promised me a fresh cup of coffee and a hot breakfast of bacon and eggs when I arrived - love that man!

Nothing to grouse about.

I set off in cool but fair weather, only marginally disappointed that the fall colours weren't nearly as advanced or spectacular as they'd been last year.

Still plenty of moss, though.

I got on the trail by 2:20pm and made pretty decent time on the way South past Provoking Lake & Faya Lake, stopping periodically to take pictures of the local flora and fauna.

"Who, me? A snake? Nah, I'm a stick. Really. Keep walking."

The trail was much drier than last year, owing to a fairly rainless summer, so there was seldom any delay due to unsure footing or boggy patches. Some parts of the trail were a bit overgrown and some places could have used a couple of additional trail markers - not that the yellow ones employed in the 2nd loop are that easy to see when the foliage is turning in autumn - but by and large it was as easy going as you'll ever get in the proper backcountry.

I'm willing to work a bit to visit places like this.

I knew I was getting close to Head Creek and was wondering why I couldn't hear the falls rushing - they'd been audible from at least a kilometer away in 2014. Once I passed the West end of the portage it became readily apparent why I wasn't hearing much but a trickle.

All of this was a torrent of water last year.
Finding a quartet of hipsters at the first Head Lake campsite, I made my way East along the Southernmost portion of the trail to the same site I'd camped at last year, arriving 3 hours and 30mins after leaving the trailhead at 5:50pm. Unfortunately, the campsite was in poorer condition than I'd left it.

My nice little worktable with my dad's initials carved in it is rather less than level.

With an hour before sunset, I set to work getting my tent up and bed laid out, then went in search of the thunderbox I'd been unable to locate in 2014. To my dismay, it was exactly where I'd thought it was last year - underneath a big fallen tree that still hadn't been cleared. Looks like I'd be catholing again.

Can you spot it?

With camp set up and a few rocks from the firepit propping up my work surface, I collected an armload of sticks to use as firewood against what was predicted to be a very chilly evening - temperature just over the freezing mark with wind chill just below it.

Not a huge supply, but enough for a cheery little blaze.

With my bear hang line set and full of a delicious dinner, I started my little campfire and sat in its comforting glow as I wrote page after page in my trip log. By the time I'd run out of sticks to burn it was still just 9pm, but I decided to turn in as I'd most likely be awake at dawn the next morning. I'd hiked about 12.6km out from the trailhead, and had a longer day to look forward to.

Constantly hungry for pieces of stick, but a welcome source of heat and light.

I awoke at first light after a night of fitful sleep - I had stupidly forgotten the pad straps for my down backpacking quilt, which meant it would gape open and allow drafts in when I'd move in my sleep. I tried to burrito myself as best I could, but ended up being a BRR-ito repeatedly.

Yes, that was terrible. Here, have a dawn photo to make up for it.

I rolled myself into my trousers and my down jacket and headed down to the water's edge to watch the morning sky put on a show for me.

I will happily endure a chilly night for a daystarter like this.

I made coffee and breakfast in the chill air, then filtered what I figured would be enough water to get me to my next campsite as it was BLOODY COLD with a stiff wind coming in across the water - I'd rather do the rest of my filtration after the day had a chance to warm up. By 9:45am I was back on the trail, heading past Harness Lake and up the East side toward the junction with loop 1.

Some of the sugar maples were flaring with colour.

I love how lush this spot is down toward the South end of loop 2.

I met a few other people out on the trail, including a young couple whom I passed, then saw again as they passed me (while I took a 10min pack-off break and had a few handfuls of trail mix for lunch), then passed one last time as they stopped for lunch by Fly Lake.

They had a great view, despite the overcast day.

They let me know they'd been out on the Western Uplands Trail earlier in the year and the Mink Creek crossing that had been such a mess when Tanker and I hiked it in 2013 had been fixed! So this might call for a return journey in the near future - Maggie Lake is calling to me.

I continued on my merry way, happy to have a fleece vest on overtop of my longsleeve merino wool shirt to keep me warm on a cooler day than Friday had been. I'd still sweat on the climbs, but could easily have become chilled without the extra layer to keep my core warm.

Don't let the sunshine in this shot fool you - the day was mostly overcast and definitely not summery.

I took my chances and kept on hiking as I passed the two Easternmost Provoking Lake sites, then the two closer to the point. I would have liked to snag the campsite on the point itself, as the view is unparalleled, but knew it was likely to be occupied as I'd be arriving mid-afternoon. With 17.5km to hike from Head Lake, anyone starting from the trailhead a mere 5km away was likely to beat me to the punch. A couple of hundred metres past the last campsite before the point (all had been unoccupied so far), I met a couple of young fellows who were out doing a day hike around the first loop - I asked if they knew if the 2 sites closer to the trailhead had already been taken, and they told me they had seen people at both. So, I turned around and hiked with them for the couple of minutes back to the site I'd just passed, and was happy to offer them the photo of my map that they requested: turns out they hadn't brought one with them. Having had mine fall out of my pocket last year, I could sympathize, and wished them the best of luck as I arrived at my campsite (which had a functional thunderbox, though it was a fair hike uphill to access) by 2:45pm - almost exactly 5 hours after I set out.

This seems absurdly large for just me.

With rain predicted to start overnight and continue through into Sunday afternoon and a really cold wind blowing, I pitched my tent in a little hollow between some trees and threw my tarp up over the entrance so I'd have a dry place to brew up a cup of coffee and munch a granola bar the next morning. I put on my wind jacket and had a pot noodle to warm myself back up as the afternoon marched onward toward evening - it was really cold without the sun to warm me! But just before sunset a most welcome sight appeared: an ever-widening swath of blue sky on the South side of Provoking Lake.

This bodes better.

As the sun set out of my view and behind the remaining cloud cover to the West, I made myself a delicious hot dinner and had just finished cleaning up my pot/bowl when I heard some splashing just down the shoreline from my campsite. When it resolved itself into a rhythmic pattern I decided to go investigate, and was rewarded both for my curiosity and for always keeping my camera in my pocket while in the woods.

This grand lady waded into the water for an evening drink.

Returning to my campsite after such an awe-inspiring sight, I quickly built up a fire as darkness fell. I sat by my little fire and wrote about my adventures in my trip log, then had a brew up and relaxed by my cheerful little blaze with a mug of hot chocolate and felt completely satisfied with myself. The silence of the evening was only broken by the occasional rustling of tiny feet in the forest as woodland creatures went about their business, and millions of stars emerged from the twilight to put on an incredible show above me.

Nothing like a hot choddy by the fire for a nightcap.

By 9:30pm my food was stowed up a tree and my fire had dwindled to a glowing bed of coals, so I rolled into my little tent and wrapped myself in my quilt and down toque hoping for a warmer night's sleep. The 17.5km I had hiked today, added to the 12.5km of the day before, were taking their toll on my legs. Worse than that, I had failed to lace my boots tightly enough when leaving from the trailhead, and the steep climbs with my feet moving in my boots had rubbed up nasty blisters on both my heels that had only worsened through the 30km I had hiked so far. I hoped they wouldn't be too much of a hindrance in the morning.

I am a feathery burrito.

I slept relatively late (having woken up multiple times through the night again, including a 5am pee break that couldn't be delayed any longer), waking to the sound of a red squirrel chittering just as the sun was cresting the horizon around 7:15am. In an effort to be on the trail - and back to Tanker - as soon as possible, I immediately started packing things away and was in my hiking clothes with all my other gear in the tent already in my backpack by the time I stepped outside at 7:30am. I'd been sleeping with my pack under my feet, both in an effort to keep warm (as I only use a shoulder-to-knee length sleeping pad) and to try to keep my legs elevated for recovery, so it was easy to tidy up as I went along. 

No rain yet, but as I boiled water for a cup of coffee to ward off the chill and dropped my tent, I left the tarp up and ensured that all of my gear stayed under it - if it should start to precipitate it would be easy for me to dart underneath and sit on my little folding stool while I had my pre-exit beverage and snack. Fortunately the dry weather held as I drank my coffee, polished off the last couple of handfuls of trail mix, and visited the conveniences one last time before hitting the trail again by 8:55am.

On my way out.

It was pretty easy going past several landmarks down the Eastern side of loop 1 - first the campsite on the point, then the unmarked (!) side trail to the last campsite, then the portage between Provoking Lake and Lake of Two Rivers. Onward past the Starling Lake lookout side trail, which I didn't bother with: I had lovely photos from last year when it was clear and sunny with stunning colour, so the predominantly green foliage in overcast weren't much of a draw (especially since it meant 2 more big climbs for my poor, blistered feet). 

Turn right at the East/West split to head down, down, down the hill I'd nearly tumbled on, emerging at the Old Railway Bike Trail. From there things become very flat and non-technical as you pass the West end of Starling Lake, then the falls on the Madawaska River. A couple of minutes further, and you come to the junction with the Track and Tower Trail, which leads directly into the Mew Lake campground where my darling awaited.

The Track and Tower Trail is rather easy going after the Highland Trail.

I arrived at our friends' campsite next door to Tanker's at 10:15am, 1 hour and 20mins after I set out, for a total on-trail time of 9 hours and 50 minutes. A light mist had begun to fall in the final 10mins or so of my hike, and while it wasn't enough to make me stop to put on my rain kit, I was happy to throw on my Gore Tex jacket and sit under the tarp at Tanker's campsite to sit with him and enjoy a hearty, hot breakfast. We chatted with our friends and Tank told me all about his cycling and fishing adventures - it turns out he'd seen a bull moose the day before, also having an evening drink - while I regaled him with stories from the trail.

Definitely a great way to end a backpacking trip.

Had a super time all 'round, and now it's time to get the hell out of here - we're off to Bon Echo tomorrow morning to spend Thanksgiving on Joeperry Island!

Happy Campsgiving!

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