Algonquin Park – Highland Backpacking Trail – Spring 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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Woolpower Base Layers – Review

Woolpower-logoIt’s not too often I want to talk about my underwear (by that I mean never) and I know hearing about someone else’s underwear isn’t high on most peoples ‘enjoyable’ list. Unless perhaps someone is teasing you with something silky or lacy (you can find that kind of stuff somewhere else). So when I take the effort to talk about mine, you should probably take the time to read about it, because in this case, it really is something special. I’m talking about Woolpower under garments.

Woolpower makes a pretty good lineup of under layers including socks, long-johns, shirts, balaclavas, hats, and even mittens. No matter what part of your body you find gets cold, Woolpower has a solution with various degrees of thickness too. By that I mean they come in various weights measured in grams per square metre. The really great thing about this stuff is that it works when it’s wet. Unlike cotton or most synthetics that suck all your body heat away when they get a bit damp from sweat, this stuff still works.

Each winter I find myself standing out in the cold for long periods of time, or worse, sitting in a cold car unable to move around much to stay warm while trying to conserve fuel (I’ll only run the engine for warmth, when I really get cold). This past winter has been especially long, cold and miserable so I’m very grateful that I got a set of Woolpower under garments before the cold really set in. The Merino wool/polyamide fabric has a smooth outer surface and terry loops on the inside. I opted for the 400gram socks and Long Johns and the 200gram long sleeve crew neck shirt and I must say…they really saved my keester this winter. I was especially grateful to have them with me when I had to survive 24hrs in a stranded vehicle this winter. Damn that was cold and if you want to read about it, you can check that out here:

If you like any sort of outdoor sporting or hiking activities or if you’re just an average Urbanite who doesn’t like freezing their toes off while walking to work, give some serious though to getting some Woolpower base layers. You can find them at The Canadian Outdoor Equipment store.

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SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger – Review

Unlike traditional GPS units that help you figure out where you are, the SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger is for telling other people where you are. It’s an ‘active’ GPS unit that transmits your location to your friends, family, or to Search and Rescue (SAR) teams if you’re really in deep trouble.

SPOT GPS01I had the opportunity to try out the SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger while on a two week motorcycle trip in Northern Ontario where mobile phone coverage was a bit thin. I was able to send regular “OK” updates to my friends and family via SMS and email (max of ten) so that they could keep tabs on me. The messages included a custom message I established online to let them know I was ok and it also included my exact coordinates that they could click on to see where I was on Google Maps. At the end of each day, I pressed a different button on the device that sent out a different custom message letting them know that I was hunkering down for the night, again it included my exact location. There is also a ‘tracking’ function that sends out your location every 15min and plots it on a map interface hosted by SPOT. I didn’t use this feature but some people might find it useful. For no additional costs, you can configure it to also send messages to Facebook and Twitter so you can also share your location & status with the whole world.

Being able to send regular updates to people is great if you’re on a trip anywhere in the world and you won’t have to worry about roaming fees or long distance costs on your mobile phone while you are abroad. Just press a button and that’s enough to let people know where you are that you’re doing ok. Although, if you’re not ok, you can press the “Help” button and a message will go out to a pre-established list of contacts (again a max of ten) letting them know that you need some non-emergency assistance. Perhaps you’ve had a breakdown, run out of gas, gotten lost, etc. Then it would be up to your contacts to either come get you or send you some assistance.

In a real emergency, the device has an SOS button that pulls out all the stops and sends a distress signal to the GEOS Search and Rescue service and the call is dispatched to the International Emergency Response Coordination Centre (IERCC) which is monitored 24/7. Once they get your distress signal, they immediately contact your emergency contact list and begin coordinating search and rescue efforts nearly anywhere in the world and provide them with your exact location. As you can imagine, this type of emergency response doesn’t come cheap. Hell the cost of renting a helicopter for half a day must be exorbitant not to mention paying for all the expert personnel that would be required. With that in mind, I would strongly recommend buying the GEOS Member Benefit, including the Search and Rescue Insurance, which is underwritten by Lloyds of London. This added protection only costs $18USD/year and will cover up to $50,000USD in reimbursement for any SAR expenses that you are held responsible for and up to two events per year. If needed, the GEOS Member Benefit will even arrange private aircraft/helicopters, charters, or private search teams to rescue you.

Now this all sounds pretty extreme but in extreme situations where your life is on the line, that’s exactly what’s needed. Can you imagine breaking your leg while rock climbing, getting lost while backwoods camping, or suffering a breakdown in a desert without food, water and no way to reach safety? Ideally though, you would only need to use the SPOT Messenger to keep your loved ones updated on where you are and how you’re doing but in a pinch, you can feel comfortable that if you needed rescuing…you will be (on land or on water). Just be sure you can stay alive long enough for the teams to arrive and get you to safety or medical attention.

Now this isn’t just for the extreme expedition traveler. If you are going to go on a adventure trip, or backpacking through Europe or Asia, or on an extended car or motorcycle trip, this would be a great investment. The unit costs about $130USD and the services start at $99.99USD/year. There are some additional services you may want to consider, depending on what type of trips you will be doing. For example, there is the SPOT Assist which is a roadside service plan for vehicle breakdowns, or get the Tracking option for sending real-time updates of your progress, but you should certainly consider getting the GEOS benefits should you ever really need serious help. It just makes sense.

For more information about the SPOT GPS Messenger and their other products, check out their international website and select your region.

If you want to see some videos about how the SPOT has saved people in the past, follow this link for some real life stories

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Klim Nak Pak – Review

Klim NakKlim first started off making winter alpine clothing and over the years they have started designing other gear that appeals to a wide range of outdoor enthusiasts. Here we take a look at Klim’s Nak Pak that I borrowed from a friend of mine. It’s a nice rugged day pack that fits really well on most body sizes and frames. The padded straps are perforated, as is the ‘air flux’ panel on the back, which really helps keep your body cooler on those hot and sticky days. The adjustable sternum straps are a really nice touch. Not can you adjust the length but also the height along the shoulder straps making for a nice comfortable fit. The added waist strap really sets this bag apart from many of the other hydration packs. Getting the weight on your hips and off your shoulders makes a huge difference in comfort on longer outings.

The large main compartment has mesh accessory pocket and another pouch for the hydration bladder. Klim includes a 3L bladder with the bag, which I must say is one of the nicest I’ve ever used and won’t leak so long as you don’t squash it too hard (that hasn’t happened yet with this bladder). There are also two exit ports for the hydration tube so you can run it along whichever shoulder strap you prefer and each strap has a little pouch that you can tuck the mouth piece into preventing it from getting dirty (the mouth piece does have it’s own cap though).

There is also a removable zippered tool pouch that slips between the large main compartment and the smaller outer one. You can use the tool pouch for pretty much whatever you want. It opens up really wide making it easy to get to your tools, gloves, etc and there is a zippered mesh pocket inside there where you can stow your keys, wallet, or other small odds and ends. The outer zippered pocket has a felt-lined interior for items that you don’t want scratched like your goggles or sunglasses.

On the outside, there are lots of options (sleeves and attachment loops) for storing a shovel, snowshoes, ski poles, etc until they are needed. If you’re a snowmobiler, you can see the plus sides of that. For motorcyclists, there is lots of space for your gloves, rain gear, inner jacket shell, munchies, etc and would make a great addition to your riding gear as you hit the twisties on cool or hot days. This is also a great choice for cyclists who like to go on long rides or do some mountain biking or trail riding. Don’t forget your sunscreen!

This bag can also appeal to many other people as a simple day pack for those who like to go for long walks, hikes in the woods, or weekend picnics. This could even work well for the minimalist camper who only needs a small tent or tarp, small camp stove & cookset, and a bit of food and water (perhaps pack a water treatment kit as well). I might have to give that a try one weekend. The bag retails for about $105 and can be purchased at either quality outdoor stores, or at motorcycle & snowmobile equipment stores, or from the Klim Website. If you spend even a decent amount of time outdoors, this is a great bag to add to your pile of gear. If you know someone who likes long walks, hikes, picnics, is a cyclist, snowmobiler, or motorcyclist, be sure to consider getting this for their Birthday. They will love it!

I would be far more likely to buy one of these vs say a Camel Pack because of the added storage, greater versatility and durability. It’s worth the extra money.

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Garmin eTrex 30 Handheld GPS – Review

garmin-01Several years ago I had an eTrex Legend unit and I loved it (it was instrumental in helping me avoid getting lost in India) but unfortunately it was lost over the years and I really wanted another one. Thankfully Santa was good to me and treated me with the new eTrex 30 adding to my collection of GPS units (I also have a NUVI for the car and a ZUMO for the motorcycle). Yes I’m partial to Garmin units over some of the other ones that I’ve tested.

In the box comes the handheld unit, a USB cable and a quick reference guide to get you started. The actual user manual is stored in the internal memory of the device in various languages so you have to plug it into your computer to access that. Surprisingly, it only has USB 1.1 and not the current standard of 2.0 so uploading large amounts of data to the handheld can be a time consuming process. I was a bit disappointed that the user manual doesn’t clearly explain all of the internal functions of the device, so certain features will need some fiddling about with to figure it out. I was also disappointed that it didn’t come with some sort of strap or lanyard. It does have a small slot to attach your own though, which is what I did so I can secure it to me. This isn’t a cheap device so the idea of losing it in a lake didn’t sit well with me. There is a clip on the back of the unit but the mounts you have to buy separately.

garmin-02The internal storage is a fair 2GB which is pretty reasonable unless you’re like me and like to load in a lot of detail and lots of maps. It also has a MicroSD card slot behind the batteries, so I installed a 32GB card which is more than enough for my current mapping needs. It runs off two AA batteries and you can use either Lithium, Alkaline or NiMH rechargeables. Just be sure to configure the GPS to know which batteries you are using so the device can optimize it’s power use depending on the type of batteries you choose to use.

As with many current GPS devices, this one has a colour display but unlike it’s larger cousins, it is not touch screen. This allows for a very compact unit that can fit into most common mobile phone cases, or your front pocket. It has a water resistance rating of IPX7 and that means it can handle being submerged for up to 30 minutes in water that is 1m deep. You certainly won’t have to worry about getting water damage in heavy rain.

The Base Map that comes pre-loaded is pretty umm…basic. Personally it wasn’t good enough or detailed enough for my needs so I loaded more detailed road and street maps that are of interest to me as well as detailed topography maps and all the trails in my extended area. You can either download various maps online or purchase maps on MicroSD cards that you can install into the card slot. Be warned though, Garmin maps aren’t cheap and you need to take a real close look at which ones provide the information you want for the area you are interested in. If you spend enough time searching around online, you will find lots of goodies that may be of interest to you that you can load into your e30 GPS. Need help finding your nearest StarBucks? Not anymore once you’ve loaded them all into your Garmin.

When added to the BaseCamp software that can be downloaded from Garmin’s website (Mac or PC), you will find a wide range of features and functions when it comes to establishing waypoints, routes, or other points of interest. If you’re into GeoCaching, this is a great little device for taking your hobby to a whole new level. If you’re taking on some world travels, like backpacking through Europe, you can find lists of hostels online and load those locations into your GPS for every country you will be visiting. Be sure to load all the places of interest that you want to visit while you’re away and your e30 will get you there. This is a real perk when you can’t speak the local language.

To my knowledge, this is the only navigation unit (at this time) that combines both the United States’ Global Positioning System (that we know as GPS) and the Russian GLONASS satellite navigation systems. By combining both systems into one unit, you can be reasonably sure that no matter where you are in the world, the e30 will be able to get a fix on your location. With that added coverage, being on the ‘wrong’ side of an escarpment or down in a gorge will be less frustrating. In those situations, most other units give wildly false readings and turns into little more than an expensive paper weight. I know first hand how annoying that can be.

garmin-03At about $350, this GPS isn’t exactly cheap when compared to the e20 model which is one step down and $100 less expensive. The e30 though comes with a barometric altimeter, a 3-axis compass, wireless sharing, and the ability to be paired to wireless accessories like thermometers, speed/cadence sensors for your bike and heart rate monitors. The e2o model isn’t capable of all that. The reason I wanted the e30 over the e20 was largely due to the barometric altimeter, a 3-axis compass, both of which I’ve found very handy to have. Hey…I’m a guy and sometimes need help finding things. Remember though…guys don’t get lost! We just find alternate routes! 🙂

Choosing the right GPS for you can be a daunting task, so you will have to be very honest about how you will be using it, why you want it and what exactly you want it to be able to do. Once you’ve established that, then consider how you may use it down the road and consider features that may come in handy for that also.

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