Day #5: After finishing that last kilometre of the Niagara section in the morning, we ventured into Iroquoia. The day started strong. We crushed the first 11 km by 12:30PM. The terrain was much easier, even with the climb up Grimsby mountain early on. At some point we resorted to taking a break right in the way of the trail because we hadn’t found a good place to sit down in a long while. This forced four women to stop and talk to us as we scrambled to get our stuff out of their way. We had a long chat and learned that one of them is working on her own end-to-end, while some of the others had already completed theirs and were along to support the effort. Two offered to be trail angels should we need them further down the Bruce. The afternoon was easy enough as well, and took us to km 19.8 at Devil’s Punch Bowl where we had parked the van that morning. Mom left me on the side of the road to go collect the van from the parking lot, and discovered the reason for the sirens we’d heard a bit earlier. A man had intentionally driven through the barrier and died. An unfortunate end to the day. Naturally, we didn’t end up doing the side trail that leads there. Afterwards, we spent the evening with my Aunt Rosie, who has been a tremendous trail angel for us several times. We ate Chinese food in her yard in Brantford, did laundry in her machines, and I got to briefly see my two cousins for the first time in years, as well as meet their kids. Then we spent a hot night in the van on her street.
Day #6: Darryn was our trail angel the morning of our sixth day, and he drove us back to where we left off around the bend from Devil’s Punch Bowl. We saw two turkeys before we got back on trail. Early that morning, we came across three young people, in their late teens or early twenties, who had a campfire going under an overpass across the railroad tracks from us. Presumably they were still up from the night before. They yelled across to us, and were excited to learn we were headed all the way to Tobermory. One of them called out “If I get my backpack, can I come with you?” We took our long break at another overpass under Red Hill Valley Parkway, and were somewhat disappointed to discover that if we’d pressed on just a bit further, we could have put our feet in the water at Red Hill Creek after not having seen water in days. We didn’t get to soak our feet until we were back at the van and parked for the night. I just barely pushed through the day’s 27 km across Hamilton. We expected there to be stores or cafés to stop at, but the trail kept us away from the downtown. We did, however, have to go up some of Hamilton’s MASSIVE flights of stairs, which nearly killed me. I did note that the staircases had grooves on the sides for bikes to roll up and down, which I thought was a very clever bit of infrastructure in an escarpment city. Mom rushed me at the end, and was deeply concerned that the van might be towed if we didn’t get out past the gate before sunset (Dundas Valley Conservation Area parking at Artaban Rd). Sunset was a ways off still, which I tried to tell her, but she was past listening at that point. The heat had been hard on her that day.
Day #7: Mom and I disagreed about whether to hike on the seventh day of the Bruce. Between the potential for thunderstorms, and the state of my body, I was keen to take an early zero day, but she insisted. Sure enough, the storm didn’t come, and I was ultimately glad she had forced us to carry on. We did do a shorter day than I had planned, which was a relief. We tackled 22 km instead of the original 27 km. The morning started in the very peaceful Dundas Valley Conservation Area, where we scrambled up some rocks, saw two deer, and chatted with several hikers. A long reroute took us into residential Dundas, so I left mom at a bus stop bench with our packs, and was able to go a few steps off the trail to buy us some cold treats and a Powerade. I slowed our pace down to a crawl for most of the day because of the shape my body was in by then. Seven straight days of hiking is no easy feat. We did have a somewhat restorative break at the lovely Borer’s Falls, but my foot pain quickly returned. I tried taping my arches, which I must’ve done too tightly, because after that my feet and ankles were swollen. The last bit of trail through Clappison Woods before km 68.8 was the type of loose rock that I find very taxing on my feet. When I got back to the van after 11 hours of hiking, I took off my boots and cried for the first but certainly not the last time.
Day #8: Took an early but much-needed zero day. The storm finally hit, and we were very glad we weren’t stuck outside in it. My feet and body really needed the break. Mom got her oil changed, and the tire pressure checked, and afterwards I had coffee and breakfast from the Starbucks across the road. We parked by Popeyes and I used their free WiFi all day to start backing up the hundreds of photos and videos I’ve got on my phone. We took the free time to rework the next week of hike distances and parking spots and I lined up some more trail angels once we had our plans in place. We lost a whole day of distance with these changes, and therefore probably a zero day, but I figure that is better than my body giving out altogether. I also used the time to write the blog on the Niagara section, which is impossible to do in the evenings after we’ve hiked all day. I bought compression sleeves for my knees, as well as pain relief patches for my back. We organized our packs for the next day as we do every evening, and went to bed.
Day #9: Got a ride with Chris in the morning, and started the hike at Snake Rd where I had burst into tears a couple days before. Seeing Grindstone Creek was absolutely lovely. We saw a photographer climb right into the water to get a good angle of some of the falls there, and also ran into two women who we chatted with for awhile about our journey and my writing project. Throughout the day we saw lots of water, and were curious about whether it was due to the rain we’d just had. We stuck our feet into little creeks twice on breaks. At some point over the course of the day I got my THIRD wasp sting of the trip. The terrain was fairly easy, especially compared to some other days. My one blister became full blown, so I treated it, as well as the others that were just starting to come along. I wore the knee compression sleeve for the first time, and it seemed to make a big difference when stepping down. The back pain patches, however, did not do much and I haven’t worn them since. Probably the best part of the day was meeting two women hiking with trekking poles and discovering that one of them was someone I had already started to make trail angel plans with on Facebook the night before. She had told us she would be trail angel-ing for another mother-daughter duo soon, which prompted me to ask, “Are you Karen?!” and sure enough she was. We hashed out some details on the spot, and talked more over Messenger in the evening to finalize everything while we ate a fancy dinner on a picnic table in Carlisle, at a restaurant called Cascata Bistro. I had a delicious chicken parm, and mom had a Portobello mushroom sandwich. That day we did 23.5 km, finishing at the far side of Mount Nemo in just over 10 hours, and still had a bit of steam by the end. We had parked further up the trail that day to avoid having to deal with the conservation area’s 3-hour time block reservation system, and Chris very generously collected us up at Mount Nemo and returned us to our van on Twiss Rd.
Day #10: Aunt Rosie picked us up from our mid-point parking spot at another roadside parking area on Twiss Rd and took us to where we left off at Mount Nemo. We powered through the whole day at our fastest pace yet. After going through the first 10 km so quickly, I put on my leopard print bandana that my friend Esther had lent me, which I am using as a talisman for speed. We were able to carry less water that day because our first long break was at the van, allowing us to top up part way in. Mosquitoes were truly awful for about 2 km before and after our van stop on Twiss, but the terrain was mostly very easy, and included some road-walking. My feet started to hurt after about 25 km, and were pretty useless in the last 2 km of our first 29 km day. It was glorious to see trail angel Karen waiting for us under the 401 underpass. She applauded as we climbed the hill, and brought us cold drinks – water for mom, and homemade iced tea for me – as well as some cookies that mom liked so much we asked for the recipe. The hike took 11 hours that day, which is also how long it took us to do a little over 22 km the day before our first zero. Our pace is definitely improving!
Got onto the Western Uplands Backpacking Trail with my mom on her 67th birthday at about 11:30 AM. After crossing the bridge at the Oxtongue River Picnic Ground (Kilometre 3 on Highway 60, just after the West Gate), and hiking in a short way, we went right at the first junction as a couple we saw in the parking lot went left. They had had a false start when she had forgotten her book and had to return to the car for it. We all chatted for a minute and I noticed she has the same Deuter backpack as I have.
The 4 km hike to Guskewau Lake was by far our easiest day, which I had planned that way since we had to do the drive there that morning. There was lots of mud, but I had been thoroughly warned about it from a variety of sources beforehand. This was only tricky to navigate in a couple of places during this first leg.
We camped at the second site off of the Guskewau Lake side trail, which is actually labelled site #3, since most people do the trail clockwise.
I hauled my watercolour kit all the way around Loop #1 for five days, but only had time and energy to paint at our Guskewau site on the very first night.
Our site, as well as the neighbouring site, had enough room to comfortably host multiple tents. It also included nice benches around the fire pit, about nine different grills (mom counted), and like all of our sites, it got the evening light.
It was such a short hike in that we didn’t feel the need to go for a dip in the lake, which is good, because from what I’d read this lake has leeches. We didn’t see any when we collected water though, and we noted that it had a nice flat bottom in the shallows. The neighbouring site, which is the first one you come across on the side trail when going counter-clockwise, had no water access.
The thunderbox was pretty far back from the site, and I had to keep going past three of the little signs to find it. All Algonquin sites have a thunderbox, so don’t give up looking!
For dinner, we had the basmati rice I had previously cooked and dehydrated myself, along with a single serving package (56g) of Nomad Nutrition’s Caribbean Curry. This was super tasty, but I think it really needed the rice to go with it, partially for added texture, but especially since we were splitting the smaller size and needed to stretch it out.
Overnight the temperature dropped to around 10oC and neither of us slept well. Mom in particular hates the cold, and even I had to put on my new Patagonia Pack In jacket to stay warm. We got a little sleep once the sun was up, and got a late start to our longest day on the trail.
Guskewau Lake to Norah Lake (10 km – 7 hrs plus a 1 hr break)
Aside from the late start, the trek to Norah Lake seemed to be going pretty well… at first. We left camp at 10:30 AM and arrived at Ramona Lake for our planned lunch break just before 1 PM. This was a little less than half way, and I was happy to find that we didn’t have to go down the side trail to the campsites to find a nice place by the lake to eat. We got lucky and just as we arrived at the junction with the side trail we crossed paths with a man who was going clockwise down the main trail so we asked if there was a spot to lunch, and he told us there was a perfect place just ahead.
We ate our fanciest trail meal, since this would be our hardest day, as well as the only day that our cold food would stay fresh. I busted out the cheddar cheese, salami, rice crackers, and a single orange that I quartered with my preferred knife, the Morakniv Eldris.
After eating, we took off our boots and put our feet up. This is my mom’s favourite foot care tip, and it really does seem to make a big difference. We spent an hour by Ramona, between eating lunch and resting our feet.
Then we carried on towards Norah. Somewhere along the way, we met a couple of men who told us that multiple moose had trampled through one of the Oak Lake campsites the night before, and to be on guard when camping in that area. I have been dying to see a moose over all my Algonquin trips, and still haven’t come across one, but that seemed like a bit too close of an encounter even for me.
After awhile we began to understand why the reservation system advises that only experienced hikers should attempt to go between Guskewau and Norah in a single day. It’s a long, hard walk. When planning the trip, I had seen a note on a map I found online that said that much of this section was old logging road, which reassured me that we could do it, but if this is true, it is only true for little bits here and there, and certainly not throughout.
We were pretty tapped by the time we got to Eu Lake. We sat on a log at the junction with the side trail, and ran into the couple who had started clockwise at the same time that we started counter-clockwise the day before. They were camping at Eu, and by then we had heard that it has a lovely campsite. We desperately wished we had booked that one instead of Norah which was still almost 4 km further. It was nice to run into them again. If we had been just a few minutes later, we would have missed them.
Once we got to the Oak Lake side trail, mom insisted we go in to the campsite to have a rest. I hated the idea of duplicating steps, but was just as exhausted, so we went in and laid down for a bit.
At some point near Norah, and actually in a couple places that day, we had a bit of trouble seeing where the trail continued on. The most notable of these was at a little rocky creek. The path seemed to disappear, but mom mustered the energy to scout ahead a bit and followed the creek a ways, then crossed it and veered right. She didn’t see a blue trail marker, but after awhile she was sure it was the trail, so she headed back and called out for me. I followed her, and eventually we noticed a trail marker pointing in the opposite direction. This trail was definitely designed with clockwise travel in mind, as we could see from the Lake signs which all faced away from us when we came upon them. – So when in doubt, it’s always a good idea to scout a little, and then turn around and see if there’s a marker that was hiding behind you.
At long last, we came to the Norah side trail. All of our water (about 2L each) was gone before we even got to that point. We were so relieved to see the sign, but knew from the map that there was still a little bit of a hike to get in to the site. We had no idea how treacherous this hike would be. We were incredibly tired by then, and most of the side trail was headed up, including the last bit, which was so straight up, and had such a sheer drop on our left side that we were not sure whether we’d be able to get back down again. My partner texted the weather forecast (I was able to receive texts on hills, but couldn’t access data almost anywhere on the trail or at campsites), and warned us that there might be rain in the morning around 8 or 9 AM. This was, by far, the most harrowing part of the journey. I was actually afraid that between the weather and our fitness level that we wouldn’t be able to get out on our own.
Cresting what may as well have been a mountain was a crushing disappointment. The Norah site was by far the worst site I’ve ever seen on an Algonquin backpacking trail. The only tent pad was wet, the fire pit had no benches, and the path down to the water was a long downhill that, by the time we’d arrived at the site, actually winded us to traverse. Once you were down by the water though, the lake was pleasant enough. It was a bit tricky to get into, and we gathered water with difficulty, but once we were in, we had a much-needed dip. There was a huge pile of scat along the way to the water, possibly belonging to a moose, though I’m no expert.
We also had a hard time finding a good bear hang tree, and lamented again the fact that Algonquin doesn’t have permanent ropes setup for this at every site.
I had chosen this site because it’s the only one on the lake, but the seclusion was not worth the effort at all. Mom always insists on finding the silver lining in things, so she decided she liked the rocks that provided a couple of decent (but low to the ground) work surfaces. There was also a brand-new thunderbox that I assume was installed during a recent lockdown.
We were so late arriving at the site (6:30 PM), that I was still boiling water and getting organized after dark. The temperature had risen, and we were more comfortable that night in terms of warmth, but I didn’t sleep a wink. I spent the whole night hoping it wouldn’t rain the next day, and that we wouldn’t need to be rescued. A light rain fell during the night while I was laying awake, which made me even more concerned, but it stopped after a bit.
Despite a lack of sleep, we got out of bed around 6:30 AM, and started to tear down so we could beat any rain that might be headed our way. We were very lucky that the climb down was reasonably dry. If it hadn’t been, I think we would’ve been using our rope to lower our packs down.
Norah Lake to Maggie Lake East (6 km – 4.5 hrs)
We left Norah at 8:30 AM, and got down safely. The trail was muddy, as always, but there was only one really challenging spot where you had to balance along a log for a much greater distance than usual. Most of the muddy areas were easy to go through or around, but this one was very wet, and balancing was the only real option.
Several people we passed going in the other direction told us that they had left Maggie just an hour before, but sometimes there was a full hour of hiking for us between these conversations. We quickly learned to double or even triple other people’s estimates.
At one point that day, mom slipped down a rock and fell, but she was fine, and even asked me to take a picture of her down on the ground. That same day, on one of our million micro-breaks, I sat on too low of a rock, and lurched forward when I was trying to get back up. My legs gave out under me, and I had to turn on to my side and use the rock to lift myself back up. I came out with a bruise on my arm, but was otherwise ok.
We were happy to get to the Mink Creek bridge, because it wasn’t much further to the Maggie East campsites. This bridge was somewhat grown over by long grasses, but in good shape and very easy to cross.
The hills near the end of this leg weren’t as bad as the day before, but we did find that the Maggie campsites were further apart than we expected from the map. We were told by another hiker that the first set of sites (#3-5) from our direction were lovely and even had beaches, but the one we could see from the trail was occupied, and we thought we’d be able to get to the others from the main trail, but I guess they are only accessible from that first side trail, which we didn’t venture down. We ended up at the site labelled #2 at about 1 PM. It was a lovely site with a great view of the lake, and very private.
The fire pit there was nice, with lots of benches and a couple standing grills, one of which I used as a table. The water access was off to the right when facing the site from the trail, and although it had a rocky bottom, it was easy enough to get to.
We were able to get settled before the rain came, and even had the tarp ready. It sprinkled off and on a few times throughout the afternoon, but barely touched us between the canopy and the tarp.
It was on this day that mom pointed out the absurd number of bug bites I had down the backs of my legs. This only got worse throughout the trip, and at one point I saw another woman whose legs looked about the same. I had wondered about why the majority of my bites weren’t itchy, and she said exactly the same thing. I honestly didn’t know they were even there until mom pointed them out on day three.
For dinner, we had my dehydrated chili and rice. I had almost no appetite, but was excited that it tasted so good. We had to pack up my leftovers, which mom ate the next day. She was ravenous the whole trip, which to some extent made up for my complete lack of interest in food.
That night, I remembered that I had packed night-time cold pills in the first aid kit, and decided to take one so I could finally get some real sleep. I think it was also that night that I had to treat my mom’s first blister. She did the Camino about a decade ago, and never got a single blister the whole 750 km she hiked because she covers her feet in Vaseline before putting her socks on, but this year her bunion got the best of her, and she needed a bit of protection for the rest of the trip. She also forgot to double up her socks before that, so that could’ve been part of the problem as well.
My feet fared well the entire trip thanks to my combination of wool liner socks with thicker wool socks over top, and my new Salomon Quest 4 boots. On all of our previous trips, mom and I had worn matching Under Armour Newell Ridge boots, but they had too small a toe box for me, which often resulted in blisters. This year I upgraded, and having the new boots plus my new trekking poles really made this trip possible for me to complete.
Maggie Lake East to Maple Leaf North (7 km – 4.25 hrs)
I was expecting this day of our journey to be longer and harder than it was. The stretch between the end of Steeprise and Little Hardy was particularly easy.
During a break by that second Steeprise sign, we ran into a young man who started to tell us about his hiking partner who was lagging behind him. Before he caught up, the first fella showed us a photo on his phone of the slower man’s shoe, which he had melted when trying to dry it by the fire the night before. A few minutes later the second man caught up and we saw the big hole in the top of his shoe in person, and we suggested he put some duct tape around it to hold it in place a little more comfortably.
They got ahead of us a bit, but by the time we caught up to them again at a lovely little rocky creek, they had taped him up, and were only worried about whether he’d be able to get it off and back on again without undoing their efforts. Moral of the story: don’t attempt to dry your shoes or boots by the fire when backpacking. (I strongly suggest wearing wool socks on wet trails, and even insisted my mother have a pair for this trip. Much better to have damp feet than melted footwear.)
We got to Maple Leaf North so early it was actually a bit of a surprise. At 2 PM we started to settle into site #7 after a very satisfying hike. This site is the uppermost one on the map, and although it is very close to site #6, it was not uncomfortably so. Although we really liked our Maggie Lake East site, the site at Maple Leaf Lake was probably the best one we had the whole journey. A good reward for our last full day on trail.
The access to the water didn’t look great at first, but once we were in, we had a good long sit on its sandy bottom and soaked up the sunshine.
It had an excellent level tent pad, and nice benches around the fire pit, including two flat ones, one of which we played cribbage on. Mom won two of our three games.
We had Alpine Aire’s Creamy Potato Cheddar Soup for dinner, which was exactly what I needed with my low appetite. Delicious! We also had the apple crisp of the same brand that I’ve been lugging around for years and never got around to eating, and it was ok, but I didn’t like it nearly as much as I liked the soup. Mom said it was a bit too sweet for her, and not quite enough cinnamon. I didn’t like that it had raisins.
I took another night-time cold pill and had a decent sleep on our last night.
Maple Leaf North to Trailhead (4.5 km – 3.25 hrs plus a 0.5 hr break)
We got a late start on our last day, but it didn’t matter. We headed out at 11 AM, and took the path to the east around Maple Leaf Lake, not completely sure whether there was a junction at the lower end of the lake, and not willing to backtrack. There did end up being a junction there, and I suspect the western trail is easier, as it is closer to the lake. The eastern path was very hilly.
We came to a lovely little waterfall just before the bridge, and mom stopped to dunk the handkerchief she was using to cool her neck, but dropped it in, then dropped a trekking pole in while trying to rescue the handkerchief. Fortunately, I was able to rush in and rescue both before the current took them.
The bridge that’s about halfway between Maple Leaf and the trailhead is a perfect place for a longer break. It has a great breeze off the water. We spent about a half hour there because I was finally able to connect to the internet, and we wanted to plan where we were going to eat upon getting off the trail.
There was one very steep and technical hill, that luckily was not very high, between the bridge and the last junction near the trailhead. After that there were a few more lesser hills, until finally we cheerfully arrived at that junction. The last leg, between the junction and the picnic ground, is a very short and easy stroll.
Boy, were we excited to see that bridge over Oxtongue and change into fresh clothes in mom’s van!
Guskewau = no cell, no data Norah = cell only, no data Maggie East = cell only, no data Maple Leaf North = cell only, no data Bridge between Maple Leaf and Trailhead = cell and data
Packed 10lbs of food (roughly following the 2lbs/person/day rule) Ate around 3lbs of food, and packed out 1lb of trash (some of which we found at campsites)
Consumed over 14L between the two of us over 5 days I recommend carrying minimum 2L per person each day
Starting Pack Weights
My Deuter Futura Vario 45 + 10 pack weighed in at 37lbs this trip, which was 1 or 2 higher than I’d hoped
Mom’s old Vaude pack started at 27lbs, which included the 10lb bag of food (and as we ate she took on a couple of small items from my pack)
My first full trail guide will be about Loop #1 of Algonquin Park’s Western Uplands Backpacking Trail, and it should appear on the blog at the end of August, or beginning of September 2021.
In the meantime, I might post a couple of less detailed guides to Algonquin’s Eastern Pines Backpacking Trail, and the Provoking Lake section of the Highland Backpacking Trail, just based on old journal entries from past trips.