Eastern forest-boreal transition

In Canada, Food, Personal, Philosophy on 2013/09/07 at 17:44

Most of the time I don’t even have to leave my apartment to see dozens of people every day. I can hear their conversations in an always impressive array of languages, examine their clothes and faces as we politely pretend to ignore each other in the elevator, or watch them work through the windows of their offices directly across from my window. I live in Toronto, the fifth most populous city in North America, and it’s amazing, it’s exciting and, often, it can be completely overwhelming. That’s why, for quite some time, my friend Ian and I had been planning a trip to Algonquin Provincial Park.

Algonquin covers an area more than ten times the size of the City of Toronto, yet the permanent, off-season population of the surrounding area is counted in thousands, perhaps even only hundreds, while Toronto is home to almost three million.

In four days in the park we only saw six or seven other human beings, and we saw all of them from a distance. Sometimes in the early evening we could hear people across the water and catch a glimpse of their campfires through the trees, but whenever anyone became aware of our presence they acted with an unspoken code of back-country etiquette, which we always reciprocated, and tried their best to keep quiet, as if their presence in our vicinity ought to be a source of embarrassment. The loudest noises we heard with any regularity were the sound of wind through the tops of the trees and the calls of a pair of loons.

Provoking Lake

For two underemployed, city-dwelling 20-somethings there is no greater and more affordable getaway than a good camping trip. We already had or could easily borrow most of the gear we needed- which was fairly minimal anyways, back-country permits are reasonably priced, we were going to have to pay for food no matter where we were, and if we went for a back-packing trip instead of sticking to the water we wouldn’t have to pay to rent a canoe.

The only real obstacle was transportation. I own a car but realized some time ago that paying over 100 dollars per month to park it was not worth it when I live half a block from a subway station. The car now lives at my parents’ place. I considered renting or borrowing a car and Ian talked about getting a ride from someone headed in that direction, but no easy and cheap solution made itself immediately obvious. That is until Ian found out about the Parkbus.

Parkbus is an amazing service that takes you from downtown Toronto (and now Ottawa too I believe) to one of several different park destinations. It’s a fair price and there’s plenty of room for your gear and usually even for your bike as well. We had found our solution, but it got even better. Parkbus was looking for volunteers to confirm passenger lists, help people load their things on to the bus, and answer any questions anyone might have. It sounded like a really fun way to help out a great service that we were really happy to have found and, amazingly, volunteers get a free ride. It was settled immediately. Ian took a ride up and back to try it out and had a fun time just riding the bus, so we signed up as volunteers and our trip was set.

There was one thing left I had to deal with before I was ready to get out into the woods. Last Christmas, one of my younger brothers started playfully mocking the state of my shoes as I was packing up to leave my parents’ house after my holiday visit. My shoes were filthy and full of holes. I think you could see my feet through them and they probably didn’t smell great but I was too cheap to buy new ones. My brother took me into the garage and gifted me an old pair of running shoes that, despite being his lawn-mowing shoes for many months, were in far better condition than what I was wearing. So now it was August and I was still wearing those shoes, with fresh holes and the same grass-stains.

During a recent visit they made to Toronto I playfully guilt-tripped my parents into giving me money for new shoes, this involved a lot of squealing in a cockney accent about being used to feeling the cold grime of city streets on my bare skin, and how I really don’t need shoes and not to worry about me. I probably called my dad “guv’nah.” My parents agreed to subsidize the purchase of a decent pair of shoes. God bless us everyone.

As I have mentioned before, I’ve recently started getting sucked into many aspects of  the “primal” or “paleo” lifestyle. The diet has been the major change so far, but I’d also been reading and thinking a lot about minimalist footwear. It should go without saying that I’m not a doctor, but I feel the need to include that disclaimer as many forums and comment sections on articles about barefoot running and minimalist footwear contain an astonishing amount of vitriol. It seems obvious to me that the human body evolved over millions of years to work in a certain way, and that changing the way your feet and legs work from what they do naturally can’t be good for you. A cushioned shoe encourages heel strikes when running, bypassing the natural shock-absorption capabilities of the foot and sending the energy of the impact straight into the knee where it doesn’t belong. However, like I said, I’m not a doctor or anything.

As I was doing research on just what kind of shoe I wanted I kept coming across disclaimers about how I would need to give myself lots of time to adjust to minimalist footwear. I read about all the different types of injuries I was going to give myself by over-exerting myself without “proper” shoes. I ignored all those warnings completely. I’ve gone barefoot whenever possible for quite some time and I’m not a very hardcore runner so I figured I would probably be fine. Rather than “taking it easy” and giving my body time to “adjust” I decided to immediately start wearing the new shoes all day to break them in before the trip and then go on long hikes through the woods for several days in a row. I think I went for a 1-2km jog in them the first or second day.

I was torn between the Vibram FiveFingers Komodo Sport and the FiveFingers Spyridon LS. The Spyridons specifically say they are for the trail and have a slightly thicker sole than the Komodos, but they suffer the same drawback as many of the Vibram shoes in that they look absolutely ridiculous. The Komodos felt comfortable and even though I was worried they might be too thin for hiking I was planning on wearing them for normal every-day use after the trip and I found their design less flashy, so I decided to risk it. Most Vibram shoes seem to be designed to draw attention to themselves; They scream “hey everyone, look at these crazy shoes I’m wearing! Look! Toes!” The mens Komodos are mostly black. I got them on clearance at MEC and blacked out the material between the toes to make them even more subtle. I was ready.

Fantastic to wear but goofy-looking

Fantastic to wear but goofy-looking

Ian and I prepared gigantic bags of trail mix after a trip to Bulk Barn and started getting psyched up for our trip. The bus leaves Toronto fairly early in the morning. Being a volunteer meant travelling to the first stop it makes in the city, even though the second stop was much closer to where I live. Getting up earlier than usual made the whole thing more exciting, almost like Christmas. Taking the Parkbus was a great experience. All the passengers were friendly, as was the driver, everyone on the bus seemed to be in a really good mood. Why wouldn’t they be? They were going camping.

Ian and I disembarked at the Lake of Two Rivers campground, then walked along a short trail to the Mew Lake campgrounds where we picked up our back-country permit. We then hiked in to our site on Provoking Lake. We had discussed a basic plan for our trip but had been unsure of how long the trails would take. The Algonquin website rates the Highland Backpacking Trail as “difficult” and we weren’t sure what that really meant. It turns out that “difficult” really does mean difficult. We hiked over a variety of different surfaces and gained and lost quite a bit of elevation at near 90° angles in places.


The new shoes felt great, though I did start to develop a blister on one heel. Our campsite was on a beautiful spot and  I wasted little time getting in the lake for a swim. We had brought in a small amount of meat to eat for the first day so we had sausages for dinner and when I went to hang the food-bag out of reach of any bears that might show up I discovered something about the FiveFingers that I had never seen mentioned anywhere; they are excellent for climbing trees.

View from the tree

View from the tree

I am a very amateur astronomy enthusiast and was excited to get a decent look at the night sky after spending so long in the glare of Toronto. Unfortunately we were about a week late for the Perseid meteor shower, it was a full moon and was mostly overcast. I was hopeful conditions would improve by the end of the trip. Unfortunately it didn’t get much better while we were there.

Through photo-magic; here are more stars than I could actually see.

Through photo-magic; here are more stars than I could actually see.

Something we accidentally left around the campfire attracted a small animal in the middle of the night and I was awakened by sounds of rummaging. I got up and ran out of the tent clapping and yelling and it made a hasty retreat. I only realized the next morning that I was lucky it wasn’t a porcupine. Getting stuck with a bunch of quills would not have been a fun start to the trip.

Handsome woodsmen

Handsome woodsmen

For our first full day we headed to a nearby lookout where I was pleasantly surprised to find I had cell service. I made a quick call to my girlfriend to let her know I was alive and then we started on the small loop around Provoking lake, which we figured was about 10-11km.

A very intimidating sign. We did the loop in 4 hours at what felt like a very relaxed pace. We have pretty long legs and weren't carrying any weight that day though.

A very intimidating sign. We did the loop in 4 hours at what felt like a very relaxed pace. We have pretty long legs and weren’t carrying any weight that day though.

The forest is beautiful. I was amazed by the chaotic variety in the types of vegetation we passed through. Whenever you see forests depicted in art they are always fairly uniform, but walking through just a small portion of Algonquin we passed through a wide array of areas that could have convincingly played completely different forests in a movie.

One of our favourite unique spots. A stand of what we thought was birch.

One of our favourite unique spots. A stand of what we thought was birch.

I was already loving the shoes after the first day, but going on a long hike without a pack really convinced me of how fantastic they were. I felt like I was much more in touch with my environment. I could feel the different textures and materials I was walking over in a way I’d never experienced without worrying about cutting the bottom of my feet before. It added a whole new layer to the sensory experience of exploring such varied terrain. There were areas where the ground was mostly made of tree roots, there were squishy, muddy sections, places where the trail was mostly a thick, soft bed of pine needles, and even parts where the trail cut over an exposed rock-face and formed what looked and felt just like a city sidewalk except that it was bordered by lichen.

Natural sidewalk

I felt light on my feet and completely free. I found that the FiveFingers made me more conscious of where I was putting my feet rather than trudging through everything in normal hiking boots. I also discovered another unadvertised perk of the toe shoes; sometimes adorable bits of foliage get stuck in between your toes for you to save and appreciate later.

We returned to our campsite with a lot of day left and I went for a swim and spontaneously decided I was going to head out to the small island out nearer to the middle of the lake. It ended up being almost completely caked in bird droppings, probably from the lone gull I had seen standing on it earlier, but it still afforded an interesting new perspective on the lake. I rested in the shallows around the island for a while before starting the swim back to the campsite where we built a small fire, ate our dinner and cracked open the two small books we had brought along; Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and the Tao Te Ching, both of which are excellent reading material for the end of a long day exploring the wilderness. I slept very well that night.

Waking up the third morning was a wonderful feeling. Realizing after such a full first day the day before and realizing that I had two full days left to enjoy made me indescribably happy. We mostly stayed in the vicinity of our campsite, swimming, reading, napping, and checking out the surrounding, unoccupied sites. We ended up convinced that we had made the right choice and picked the best one available. A lone hiker walked past our site sometime in the evening.

We found this tree shaped like a bench. It was quite comfortable.

We found this tree shaped like a bench. It was quite comfortable.

The fourth day, our last full day in the park, started off rainy. We had planned for this contingency and were ready to relax in the tent and read, but the sky cleared quickly and we decided to head out and try to find  a waterfall marked on the map. We failed in our quest but still had a satisfying hike anyways. Sometimes the maps aren’t super reliable as far as pointing out places of interest, and one of the other Parkbus volunteers that I met on the ride up makes and sells his own maps of the park. Unfortunately, we didn’t have his map.

My observation of the day was that the most diverse part of the forest is in relatively open areas where nothing has grown higher than 5-10cm yet. Nothing has a real lead on everything else in the race towards the sunlight and you get a miniature preview of everything that might end up dominating that section of the forest months or years later.

The next day we packed up our site early in the day and hiked back towards the highway to get picked up by the bus. We met a couple more cool Parkbus volunteers who had rode up and then we started loading peoples’ packs into the bus and we were on our way back to the city. It was very strange to drive back into the city during rush hour. Our driver handled the traffic really well and being a passenger was completely stress free, but I did joke with Ian about having been transformed into a wild person and not being able to cope with civilization any more. I think we said something along the lines of “all this…this is the real wilderness man, it’s a spiritual wilderness… you call this ‘civilization?’ This traffic jam isn’t civilized at all.”

I spent the next few days coming down off of my nature-induced high and immediately started planning for what my next trip would be like. First, I would be sure to try to coincide my trip with good star-gazing conditions and any notable astronomical events if possible. Second, I would think about some different choices for gear. If I had unlimited resources I could spend a small fortune at MEC, but I think the items at the top of my list include a Hennessy Hammock (our MEC tent was great but using a two man tent isn’t as comfortable as it should be for the hassle of carrying even a very light tent) a Platypus Gravityworks filter (boiling water was a hassle and we think using iodine aqua tabs may have been causing some gastric discomfort) a headlamp with a red light option for preserving night vision, and I think I would like to try the Vibram Spyridons if I got the chance. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed just moving around in the forest and think I could get really into a more minimalist set up. My girlfriend and I recently made a big purchase of grass-fed beef and were given a dehydrator so I’m imagining a very light food-bag full of starvation rations of homemade beef jerky and little else.

For now I am back in the city for the foreseeable future, but I am fantasizing about my return to the woods. I’m especially glad that Parkbus exists and will be able to get me there and I look forward to volunteering with them again.

Next time I’m in the park I’m going to try harder to see a moose. That was a bit of a let down. Though we did see some evidence of beavers at one point.

Beaver dam

Beaver dam


“Thus spoke Zarathustra, and he left his cave, glowing and strong as a morning sun that comes out of dark mountains.”

  1. This is great! I love your writing, and am looking forward to seeing more of your adventures. 🙂

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