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Algonquin Park – Highland Backpacking Trail – Spring 2014

Posted on April 7, 2014

DSCF2856Algonquin Park is one of Canada’s great treasures. It’s nestled in the middle of Ontario and is home to a wide range of wildlife, from the smallest of mammals such as field mice, all the way up to the majestic Moose, as well as everything in between like rabbits, squirrels and their predators like foxes, coyotes and wolves. Bears are also common in Algonquin, but they aren’t so much of a concern until early to mid May when they start coming out of their dens.

I decided it was time to get out of the city for a couple days, so I loaded my backpack with all that I would need (all 50pds of it) and head off to Algonquin Park for some backwoods camping. The idea was simple enough, hike in to the campsite and then hike out again. The reality turned out to be somewhat different.

On my way to the park, I was curious about needing snowshoes because I knew that in many places, the snow was a few feet deep. As usual, I saw the large signs for Algonquin Outfitters and saw that they rented snowshoes, so I decided to stop in and see if they had any information about the condition of the trails. DSCF2862It seemed reasonable that they would since they would be getting reports from other hikers whom they had rented equipment to already this season. Sure enough, the friendly young lady at the counter advised me that the trails had for the most part been packed down by other hikers with snowshoes but if I stepped off the trail I would likely sink in up to my waist. She also advised that the warmer temperatures expected the next day would make the snow very soft and I had to expect some serious sinking. I inquired about renting some gear but in the end I decided to just buy a set of snowshoes and I was lucky enough to get a 20% discount. Every time I visit the park, I always take the time to stop into this shop; If the Algonquin Outfitters don’t have it, you probably don’t need it.

Once I arrived at the West Gate of the park, I had to stop in to purchase a permit. It’s Park policy that anyone who visits the park, checks in with the office and lets them know exactly where you will be hiking or camping and for how long, so that if something happens, or if your overdue, they will have some idea where to send a search party. Over Algonquin’s long history, many people have got lost or seriously injured and unable to get out. In some cases, their body’s have never been found. It’s a beautiful place to stop for some pictures and have a picnic, but if you’re going backpacking or canoeing, you need to be damn sure that you’re prepared to survive and be able to find your way out again. I was prepared with everything that I needed and I had backups of most things. If my GPS failed, I had a waterproof map and compass (be sure you know how to use them), If my flashlight died, I had extras. If my stove failed (and it did), I had several ways to make a fire if I really needed one (which I really didn’t). The list goes on and on..

After arriving at the Highland Backpacking Trail Head, I started suiting up with all my warm gear and prepared myself for the long walk into the campsite. It wasn’t long before I realized just how unprepared I was for this. Not because it was below freezing and I wasn’t dressed warmly enough, or that I didn’t have the right equipment for the job, but I was totally unprepared physically. I’ve had two major leg surgeries in the past two years and they aren’t as strong as they used to be. Actually, my whole body was deconditioned and the steep slopes, deep snow, and patches of ice was turning out to be a serious challenge. After a couple hours, I was starting to wonder if I had bitten off more than I could chew. The answer would come just before sunset.

Onward I hiked and my trusty Garmin was telling me exactly where I was. I pre-loaded it with the topography of the area and the GPS version of Jeff’s Maps (a sample of which is the feature image at the top of this article and shows the actual trail I was on). My GPS was also keeping track of my altitude and was showing just how high I was climbing. After ascending 100ft, it’s no wonder my legs felt like rubber. I was also working up a serious sweat and in cold temps, this is bad and it could make it harder to fight off hypothermia. I was starting to think about finding any good flat and clear spot that I could find and pitching my tent. There was a lot of loose wood around here that I could make a fire with but onward I pressed. Just a little further. Take lots of rests. You’ll make it Shaun. Pace yourself.

It was getting very late in the day and I could see the light was beginning to fade. My GPS showed that I still had about 1km to go. I figured I would get there after sunset but that’s ok since I will be staying at an established camping spot. Eventually I came across an old abandoned railroad that had been converted into a walking trail and a ‘show stopper’. On the other side of the rail-trail was a very steep, very high hill. My heart sank. It was a treacherous climb of about 80-100ft and of course…it too was covered in deep snow and ice. There was no way I would be able to handle that hill; Not with my legs in the condition they were. At this point nearly every part of my body was screaming in pain (except for my fingers, which I couldn’t really feel anymore because they were so cold). This was it…I had to stop here and setup my tent. Light was fading fast so I had to work fast. Several minutes later (and a few times sinking into deep snow), I was setup. Wouldn’t you know it though…it was the one bloody place I had passed all day that didn’t have loose wood that I could collect and start a fire with. So much for the nice psychological boost of a nice warm fire. I crawled into my tent and hunkered down for the night. I was exhausted, very sore, and very disappointed with myself for having not reached my goal. I had indeed bitten off more than I could chew.

I pulled out my windup radio but I was so deep in this valley, I couldn’t really get a lock on good stations. It was nice to at least hear a bit of music even though it was heavily mixed with the sound of static. Once again my trusty headlamp allowed me to sift through my gear as I needed and I activated my SPOT GPS Messenger to let people know where I was and that so far I was doing ok. Well…mostly ok. I was hurting badly but I wasn’t injured. I was defeated psychologically also but a good nights sleep should help that. Not that I got a good nights sleep though. My hearing became acutely aware of the sounds of my surroundings. I could hear the snow falling on my tent from the trees above. I could hear the sound of small to medium sized animals scurrying around in the brush. And I could hear something else…and it was big. I lay there curled up in my tent wondering if it was a Moose coming to check me out. I took a mental stock of pretty much anything stinky that could draw them in but it was all sealed. Great…just what I needed…to be attacked by a bloody Moose! I was so tired though, I just didn’t give a damn anymore and I’d rather get trampled to death by a Moose in the woods than at a Black Friday sale at some shopping mall.

Eventually the sun came up and I began to assess the aches and pains in my body. I felt like I had been hit by a car. I really didn’t want to leave the warmth of my sleeping bag but a full bladder made it necessary. While I was outside, I began walking around taking in the scenery. It really was beautiful. Cold yes, but beautiful. Then I found the Moose tracks not far from my tent. Those were NOT there last night and my tracking skills are good enough to realize just how fresh they are. Wasn’t hard considering the tracks were directly beside my own foot prints from the previous night and in some cases on top of mine. I was indeed visited by a reasonably large Moose last night. He or she must have come walking along the rail-trail and came within about 15m from my tent, then turned and bolted off the way it came from. Since I heard something large during the night, perhaps it was just my smell that scared it off. Luckily…most animals don’t really care for the smell of humans.

I was hoping to fire up the stove and rehydrate some breakfast but since my entire supply of water was frozen solid by this point, I would have to melt some snow. This was going to take a while since it takes about 20 cups of snow to melt into one cup of water. Well…I have plenty of snow and lots of time. Assuming of course I could keep the stove lit but alas…this would not be the case. I’ve used this stove before without any issues but this time it was a hell of a lot colder. Add to that, that some condensation was dripping off the pot into the burner, I couldn’t keep the damn thing lit. Screw it. I have some energy bars so that will have to do for now. Time to take another look at that hill.

I climbed the first 20ft and looked at the rest of the hill before me. Slowly my eyes raised higher and higher into the sky. Oh hell no. For a brief moment I thought about trying it anyway but I realized that I will most certainly lose my footing and fall and if I break a leg here (or anything else) there would be no way I could get myself back to safety. I would have no choice but to hit the SOS button on my SPOT Messenger and it could be at least a day before I’m found. I came here to test my camping skills…not my survival skills (although in a way I tested both). I wanted to walk out on my own…not be airlifted out. The choice was made…I was going to turn back and after packing up all my gear, which was caked in a layer of ice, I hoisted my pack up onto my back and I started hiking back the way I came.

Why the hell are my legs so much more sore today?? Ah yes, because I beat the hell out of them yesterday and now I was doing it again. I really was hurting badly and I had to stop every 20m or so to stop for a rest (sometimes less). Eventually I came across the river that I crossed the previous day. Time for a much needed break and for some cold water. The hydration bladder in my pack was still frozen, my water bottle was empty and I was getting dehydrated from sweating so much. I reached into my pack and fished out some paracord, tied it around the neck of the bottle and tossed it into the river to collect some water. I had to either boil it or filter it though and since my stove wasn’t reliable right now, there was little point in unpacking it. Time to put the Sawyer Filtration kit into action and it worked like a charm. Finally some fresh water to drink and I stocked up so that I could filter more as I continued hiking as I needed too.

DSCF2863Every once in a while as I hiked along, I would pass a large depression in the snow where I had collapsed the previous day for a 10min break. Eventually I came across a strange distance marker which was one of two massive piles of Moose dung right in the middle of the trail that I had passed the day before. Strange to say it but seeing that pile of Moose scat was heartwarming because I had basically reached the halfway point back to the car. I was very much looking forward to seeing the next pile of poop and I eventually came across it. That is one big pile of crap!

I kept encouraging myself mentally “Ok Shaun…keep pushing…you’re only about 1km away from the trail head”. My legs and my butt felt like they were on fire. Even my biceps were ablaze. At least I could feel my fingers today as the temps went above freezing and continued to climb.

IMG-20140406-00113At some point I heard something ahead of me on the trail and I froze in my tracks. It continued toward me and I thought maybe…Moose? Deer? I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw it was another hiker! I figured I might come face to face with another mammal eventually but I wasn’t expecting a human. Not on the trail at least. We talked for a bit and he was really struggling hard. He was trying to make it to the same campsite I was aiming for originally but there was no way he was going to make it. He had only gotten 700m in from the start of the trail and he had a very long way to go. To make things worse, he too was a tad out of shape and he was already seriously suffering. My serious handicap was my legs still recovering from surgery…his was the sled he hoped to drag behind him. He had left it behind him a ways in hopes of finding a spot to camp, ditch his pack there and go back for the sled.

My thoughts of getting to the campsite were at the very least ambitious and in the end I couldn’t make it. His thoughts of getting there with all that gear was nothing short of delusional. I kid you not…this sled could have stored enough gear, food, water, etc to have lasted me over a month in the woods. He was only going in for two nights. Hell I wouldn’t have tried to drag that sled behind me even if I was as fit as I was back when I was in the Infantry.

I wished him the best of luck and I carried on and it wasn’t too long before I emerged out of the woods to the sight of my car. I’m not sure I’ve ever been so happy to see that car. At this point I could barely lift my legs into the car to drive away but eventually I managed to get my rubber legs in.

Before I could really head for home, I had to stop in at the Park office and return the permit. Usually, you can just leave your permits in the drop boxes at the trail heads but considering the time of year, it seemed better to stop into the office in person to let them know I was alive and ok. This was very much appreciated by the Park staff and after talking for a bit about the trail conditions, the clerk was amazed at how far I got considering not only how challenging the trail is this time of year but also how challenged I was with my legs. I certainly left feeling a lot better about myself and what I had accomplished. The next stop was back to Algonquin Outfitters. I told the young lady there that I would stop in when I was leaving and she wasn’t surprised to see me so soon. It turns out…most people don’t make it as far as I did. Those who make it to the campsite are extremely fit and healthy and fully equipped with arctic gear.

After the long drive home, I reviewed the maps and my progress in detail and I realized that not only did I do pretty darn well but also, that there was no way I would have made the campsite. I’ll try again in the Fall when my legs are stronger and I’m more fit. Not to mention…warmer temperatures and no snow!

I was able to take some video, so please watch and enjoy.

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