Late Season Winter Camping In Algonquin – Who Needs Snowshoes?
There’s something about the calming white abyss and the feeling of complete isolation that forges a passion for winter camping within a person. For my girl and I, it’s pristine wilderness without the bugs or people; a place where a warm fire really does make or break the night, and a place where the sky is never more alight with stars, and your heart never more content with the warm meal in your belly.
We’d been told that this late in the season there’d simply be no need for snowshoes. Having been in the park in the previous two weeks I thought this a completely viable option myself. They didn’t even get loaded into the car. We hit the road with the sun glinting off the glass and warming our faces. Stopping at Algonquin Outfitters we posed the same question to someone at the front desk, who promptly assured us that, “Yes, snowshoes are still a great idea!” But it was too late for us.
However, it’d be difficult at this stage to dampen our spirits, so we parked the car and hit the Highland Backing Trail after snapping the classic “starter gate” picture. Clearly there was still some ice on the trail, but it was mostly compacted and provided no difficulty in walking aside from the odd slip here and there. However, the deeper we got into the trail the less the winter’s foot traffic had stamped everything down and we soon began to punch through once every few minutes or so.
We eventually reached a fork in the road and it became clear that the blue loop we’d planned on taking had maybe been trekked by only a few people throughout the whole season, and was incredibly soft.
You could hear river flowing beneath our feet. Each step carried with it a calculated weight, hoping at each moment that you wouldn’t feel the snow give way and your foot plunge into the cold wet abyss beneath. It became a sort of game really, and we were still only punching through a couple times every few minutes – to worst was yet to come.
Although I’d expected to be the only people camping on Provoking Lake we stumbled across a few others fella’s that seemed just as surprised to see us. We exchanged a few words and we set off another 400ft or so to our first campsite. It was a beautiful spot, hidden from wind, open, relatively flat, and with a dry campfire. Food, as with most things is just better when you’re camping, especially when cooked over a fire. With full bellies and happy hearts we stargazed until the fire died into the coals and crawled into our tent.
Waking up comfortable but with clear knowledge that everyone outside of your little cocoon is freezing is not always the most pleasant feeling – so we decided to keep snoozing until the sun warmed the fabric of the tent. We decided we’d make a solid 6km that day. However, there was a rain shower warning for the afternoon and it was already 10am. We hummed and hawed until we finally packed up and hit the trail.
Perhaps our very first first obstacle was a small river that didn’t seem too daunting at all. When Rose went up for her attempt however the snow gave way enough that her boot was plunged directly into the freezing cold stream and the term soaker became quite fitting. Realizing that this might put a damper on the days hiking coupled with the threat of impeding rain we simply stopped at the next campsite and decided the next day would just have to be a big one!
We spent the next chunk of the day relaxing in the tent and enjoying the sound of rainfall on the tarp as we cooked food in the vestibule and napped. Soon darkness took over and after a brief fire we called it a night. Waking up early the next day we knew we really had to make time. So we ate some oatmeal, packed up our camp and took off on the trail.
A combination of the rain, the heat, and the fact that not many people had made this loop in the last month lead to the base being completely soft. In maybe one of every four steps you found yourself standing on a patch of snow and not with your boot plunged into a stream of ice melt. We’d stopped yesterday because of a wet boot, little knowing that the next day would begin with soaking feet, with another 9km staring us down!
I will say that at first it was a struggle, the slippery hills, the wet feet, the feeling of just being past the point of no return, what were we doing? But it took only a slight shift in perspective and bumping into a Bull and Cow moose and their calf to realize that the wet feet, and strenuous hike were fully apart of the enjoyable struggle that is backcountry camping.
We soon found ourselves laughing along as we fell into deeper river systems and tried to navigate the washed out path. We enjoyed the warm pockets of sun that dried the sweat on our backs and flushed our faces, and the small critters that were coming out to embrace the same feeling. Stopping for a ‘Harvest Chicken’ Sidekick we laughed as we tore our socks off and dried them on the hot stone and relished in all the beautiful things that’d happened in the last few days.
It took the majority of the day, but we finished our hike and smiled as we began the final approach to our vehicle. Tucked neatly inside the driver’s door handle was a note from the fella’s we’d met on the first day and it simply read, “Happy Hiking – Your Neighbors in the Woods.”
I believe there’s a shared commonality among most people that find themselves outside in harsher conditions – that the beautiful struggle of simply surviving day-to-day provides a welcome rest from the hectic environment we typically surround ourselves with. A way of grounding yourself and realizing that at the base of any existence lay simply in the drive to feel comfortable, and it’s in uncomfortable situations that you recognize where this comfort truly is found.