Woods Explorer Stories: Banff and the Canadian Rocky Mountains

We are lucky to have some pretty phenomenal landscapes in Canada, but the Rocky Mountains has to be one of my all-time favourites.

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Even though I live among the Coastal Mountains of BC – and I love them, truly – there’s something about the Rockies that humbles me every time I see them. I was very excited to visit them in Banff on the 12th leg of our trip of outdoor exploration across Canada.

We arrived in Banff right around Labour Day, fresh from an 8-day canoe trip along the Mackenzie River in the Northwest Territories – and we’d stumbled our way right into winter. It was seriously cold, and I won’t lie – I was exhausted from our previous leg.

Arriving in Alberta also meant that we were nearing the end of our five-month journey. Half of me wanted to squeeze every outdoorsy moment out of this trip, since I knew it wouldn’t last forever. The other half of me sorely missed my warm, comfortable bed.

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How I felt about taking photos at this point on our trip…

And so, our time in Banff was kind of a hybrid between outdoorsy and not. If you’ve ever been to Banff, you’ll know that if you stay by the town centre – as we did (in a campground, at least) – it’s hard to feel like you’re truly “out there”. It is pretty touristy and there are lots of shops, restaurants, hotels, and even a movie theatre. (We may have gone to see Straight Outta Compton – that’s the not-so-outdoorsy part.)

We toured the eternally busy Johnston Canyon (when in Rome, right?), then attempted a more challenging hike up Mount Bourgeau. It felt weird crossing through gates at the trail head – the gates are to keep grizzlies and other critters off the highway and main populated area, so when you cross them, you’re leaving your safe(ish) little bubble and entering no man’s land.

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The first part of the hike was no harder than many of the hikes I’ve done in BC, but man, I felt winded! I couldn’t determine if it was the elevation (we’re not a sea level anymore, Dorothy!) or just the fact that most of the hikes I’d been doing that summer had been pretty flat and not, you know, scrambling up a mountain.

We passed Bourgeau Lake and continued to head up. Now, things were getting more exposed – and stormy conditions were a-brewing. Clouds were rolling in and we were getting socked in. It rained. It hailed. It even snowed!

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We continued onward and upward until I couldn’t feel my hands anymore (remember – Raynauds!), and then we assessed our situation. Cedric was steadily on the “let’s get to the summit!” train, but I thought the weather was making things sketchier than we were probably prepared to face. Eventually, I convinced him that the dense fog meant we wouldn’t have any views even if we made it to the summit, so we turned back and made our way back down.

We had been leapfrogging with another couple on the way up, but lost them after we turned around. Shortly after we arrived back at the parking lot, they popped out. They, too, had turned around – they told us they had visions of being a headline: “Dumb Tourists Fall Off Side of Cliff in Fog”. I laughed – and very much related to the sentiment.

Nights weren’t great. The campsite was busy (being Labour Day weekend), so it was hard to feel like we were truly “out there”, as we had been in the NWT. Plus, the temperatures dipped well below zero. There was a lot of tossing and turning and it was hard to feel enthusiastic at all times, if I’m being perfectly honest.

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However, it was VERY easy to feel enthusiastic about one particular adventure: HORSEBACK RIDING!

We were both very green to the sport (activity? sport? what is it at this level?) of horseback riding. I had memories of riding a horse in a circle outside the IGA – can that be right? Was there such thing as horses in grocery store parking lots when I was little? I also vaguely remembered riding a horse named Raisin at my cousin’s stables around the age of 7. Nonetheless, we had been signed up for a full day of horseback riding in the Banff backcountry – and we were STOKED!

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Our horses were amazing. I had a fella named Caesar, and he was sassy and perfect. Cedric rode a horse named Possum. Possum was fantastic – he had to stay in the back of the pack because he annoyed other horses. Caesar was the only horse who could tolerate Possum, so I rode ahead of Cedric. When Possum would get too close to Caesar, Caesar would just swiftly kick him.

Shortly after we left for the trails, we were reminded that horses are actual beings, not just methods of transportation. Here’s what happened: a trail runner came up from behind and spooked Possum, who was at the back. Possum took off at full sprint (gallop? canter?!?!), Cedric hanging on for dear life. Possum’s freak out, in turn, startled Caesar, who also took off running. Thankfully, I held on tight as we passed the three horses ahead of us, and eventually Caesar and Possum chilled out. I was very weary of sudden noises and movements after that, but we didn’t have any more excitement of that genre.

Here’s one kind of excitement we did have: WOLVES! Thus far into our Woods Canada adventures, we’d seen bears, moose, deer, porcupines, porpoises, and even a whale – but no wolves. A way’s down the path ahead of us, we spotted a wolf and her pup before they tucked into the woods. They looked a lot like huskies from where we stood. In hindsight, it is kind of sad that we saw them, because there has been a lot of conflict in Banff with wolves, making it not so safe for them to be around. It’s kind of like bears in Whistler – they’re just chilling in their habitat and checking out the treats the people are leaving behind, but by being so close to people, they’re putting themselves in danger.

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Possum and Caesar had no problem navigating the terrain, even the steep and muddy bits and river crossings. The most nerve-wracking part was right at the end, when we walked them by the Fairmont and there were cars and buses and people everywhere. I was worried that the beep-beep-beep of a bus backing up would startle the horses, but we made it back in one piece.

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Earlier in the day, our guide had mentioned that it was rutting season for the elk, and that one male had been making a regular appearance late afternoon around their stables. We hung around (from the safety of our car – you do not want to mess with an elk in rutting season) and indeed, out he came, kicking up grass with his antlers and stomping around. He was on the cover of our Christmas card that year.

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Our time in Banff was more about micro adventures than one big one. It included hikes, wildlife, horseback rides, alpine explorations, waterfalls, a couple of trips to the movies, and yes – a trip to the Grizzly Paw brewery in Canmore (which also serves CRAFT SODA – a dream come true for me!). Leaving Alberta was bittersweet – on the one hand, it meant our adventure was coming to an end. On the other hand, it meant that I was getting closer to a night in my own bed and a FRESH CHANGE OF CLOTHES (I had been wearing the same two or three tops and bottoms on repeat for nearly five months).

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But the trip wasn’t over yet – we still had a couple of legs in our own neck of the woods to cap things off. Stories to come… some day…

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Woods Explorer Stories: Northwest Territories, Part 3 and the Conclusion

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Umm… yeah. More on this shortly.

Do you know what I just realized?

I never finished writing about my summer spent camping, hiking, paddling, and otherwise making my way across Canada as a Woods Explorer!

In fact, I just left the stories about our trip down (up, technically – we were going north) the Mackenzie River in the Northwest Territories totally unfinished. YIKES!

These trips happened two and a half years ago, and I won’t lie – the memories aren’t all that fresh. However, I originally wanted to write them down so that I could revisit them down the road and remember all the good times (and a few of the not-so-good ones). So here we go.

If you missed it (or need a recap, because the last time I posted about this was more than half a year ago):

  • In Part 1, we delayed our canoe trip on the Mackenzie River due to winds and made some friends in Fort Providence.
  • In Part 2, we hit the river for many relentless days in the most wild country I’ve ever been exposed to.

Reading Part 2 with fresh eyes, I realize I made paddling the Mackenzie sound kind of unpleasant. The truth is that it was Type 2 fun: somewhat miserable while it happened, but pretty incredible looking back.

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These are the types of photos we didn’t share on social media originally. But this is what it was like day in day out: cold, flat, sparse, and grey (this is actually pretty bright grey for the trip!)

There is something unnerving about being so totally alone in nature. Cedric and I saw a ferry going upriver one of the first days of our trip, but that’s it – that was the only sign of active human life that we saw. The trees were so, so dense on either side of the river that it felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. I guess we kind of were.

But as long as the days were, as cold as the nights were, and as muddy as everything I owned was, it was still pretty magical. Case in point:

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The Northern Lights, ladies and gentlemen.

We were in the NWT in late August, which is not prime Northern Lights time – that would be mid-winter – but man, what a spectacle.

Despite the heavy cloud cover that plagued our entire trip, we lucked out with two nights of Northern Lights.

These Northern Lights were unreal. Both times we saw them, I had awoken in the night to go for a middle-of-the-night bathroom break – and even without my glasses or contacts, I could tell that something amazing was happening in the sky. Indeed, once I popped my glasses on, I saw the sky dance with green. That’s the best way I can describe it – dance. The sky was fluid and the lights were constantly moving and changing shapes.

It was cold as heck standing outside watching it all go down, but man – what a show. And to enjoy it by ourselves in the middle of the Dehcho was something I will never forget.

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Our second to last morning, we woke up to dark grey skies – again. As we took off to paddle, I could see a teeny, tiny opening of clouds way up on the horizon. It was the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, and I paddled like crazy all day hoping that the clouds would break and all would be well.

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We spotted this bad boy (the antler, not Cedric – heheh) on the side of the river towards the end of our trip

This day was monumental because we were approaching Jean Marie River, a small town of about 200 people. This was a potential exit point – if we weren’t able to make it all the way to Fort Simpson, the Canoe North people could pick us up here. At one point, we stopped for a snack and checked our map – and it looked like Jean Marie River was still a long, long way away.

Even though the weather was starting to clear up a little and – best of all – the river was starting to narrow and the current was helping propel us along, I felt totally, utterly defeated. I had kept up my spirits for most of the trip, but for some reason, I broke that afternoon.

The funny part is that we’d actually underestimated how far we were (this NEVER happened – we always thought we’d come further than we actually had), and we pulled into Jean Marie River less than an hour later.

We had planned on phoning Canoe North when we landed in Jean Marie River to give them a sense of whether we needed a pick up there (for instance, if we’d had an extra day of weather delay) or if we would make it to Fort Simpson. I won’t lie – part of me wanted to call it quits and have them pick us up the very next morning. But we didn’t quit. We phoned them on the satellite phone, told them we were right on schedule, and arranged for a pick up two days later in Fort Simpson.

We had kind of hoped that Jean Marie River would have some kind of store where we could buy hot food or a cold drink, but nope – it’s just a few houses with people! We ended up camping a little way down the river (this was the second night we got Northern Lights).

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Finally, we woke up for our last official day of paddling. We’d read that the distance between Jean Marie River and Fort Simpson was a solid day or two of paddling, but it took us less than a full day, thanks to the flowing current that helped push us forward. On a rare sunny day, we pulled onto a beach in Fort Simpson and caught a ride to the local campground. We’d made it!

Fort Simpson is small by our standards, but is considered a large-ish community in the NWT (according to the lady at the post office, anyway). We gobbled burgers at the only restaurant in town, visited the information centre, and enjoyed a solid snooze at the campground.

The next day, our ride from Canoe North arrived. It was a long, bumpy ride (and we saw a bear – despite not having seen one on our entire canoe trip!) and we made it back to Hay River just as it was getting dark. I enjoyed a glorious shower and we had another burger – this one was way better than the one in Fort Simpson. And the next morning, we flew out of Hay River and out of the Northwest Territories altogether.

Just like that – the biggest leg of the trip was done.

This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime kind of adventure. Traveling up North isn’t cheap, and frankly, there are so many places in the world to discover that it’s hard to repeat places you’ve already been. I don’t know if I will ever make it back to the Northwest Territories, but I do know that my short time there changed me profoundly.

Life in the territories is considerably different than anywhere else I’ve seen so far in Canada. Communities are small and distances are incredibly vast. It’s hard to wrap your head around without experiencing it – and I know I’ve only experienced a very small part of the territory. If you ever get the chance to visit, do it. Do it, do it, do it.

Our next leg took us to Banff, Alberta – for a very different experience than the one we’d just had. Hopefully, it won’t take me another year to write a blog post about it!

Northwest Territories Nostalgia, Part II

In case you missed it: I started recapping our Woods Explorer adventures in the Northwest Territories here. Check it out to find out how various strangers saved the day at the start of our trip down (part of) the Mackenzie River, better known as the Dehcho.

We woke up at our campsite on the outskirts of a little town called Fort Providence, hoping that the weather today would be a little more cooperative than it had been the day before. It did look a bit better – less stormy, though still pretty windy. We decided to give ourselves a few hours before making the call of whether or not to officially start the journey.

We really, really wanted to get going. For one, Fort Providence was cool, but it was tiny. We didn’t have a car to get us out of the campsite, and we were getting a little bored. Plus, the canoe rental company folks were going to pick us up down the river in Fort Simpson in 8 days time. Delaying our trip any more meant we’d really have to hustle to get there in time.

Around lunch time, we made the executive decision to start paddling. Conditions weren’t perfect, but they were better than they’d been the day before and we were itching to start. The lady working at the campsite gave us a lift back to the boat lunch. Mercifully, our canoe was still there.

In theory, paddling the Dehcho sounded pretty easy. Any time you’re paddling down a river, you’ve got the current giving you a little help, right? WRONG! Not the Dehcho – at least, not this part of it. The wind was blowing very strong. If we lifted our paddles out of the water, the wind would push us backwards – it was much stronger than any current.

We aimed to camp on a little island the first night, which meant straying from the safety of the shore. This made me nervous. I was sitting in the bow and the canoe was doing some serious bobbing. Sometimes, the boat would rock in such a way that the nose pointed down and the water would splash up and over – I was sure that we’d tip. Thankfully, we didn’t, and after an afternoon of tough paddling, we made it to our island, set up camp, ate some food, and hoped for nicer weather the following day.

I was so, so, so, so relieved to wake up to blue skies. Let me tell you – the weather did NOT cooperate with us on this trip, and this was the only full day of sunshine we had. But it was the most important day, weather-wise, because at this point, the river widened into Mills Lake, which is notoriously tough to paddle in bad weather. We’d been advised to paddle along the opposite shore, so we made our way over. It was shallow – very shallow. The tips of our paddles grazed the muddy bottom with every stroke. There was thick grass on either side of us and we’d been told not to try to go towards the middle of the lake, or else we’d get stuck. So we paddled forward – and it got shallower and shallower.

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Good old Mills Lake.

 

I was starting to get nervous. (Are you noticing a pattern yet? I was OFTEN nervous on this leg of the trip). There were points where the canoe itself was touching the mud below and we used our paddles to propel us forward, rather than making actual strokes. I pictured ourselves getting stuck, having to turn around, and having to retrace our steps entirely. And they said paddling the Mackenzie would be “easy”!

I was extremely relieved to make it past Mills Lake.

The days blur together after Mills Lake. The landscape was pretty, but very monotonous – it didn’t change one bit for many, many days. It felt raw and wild in a way I’d never experienced before. It wasn’t at all like the wilderness of BC or the Rockies. It was wide, flat, muddy, and heavily treed. The trees on either side of the massive river were so dense that it was difficult to imagine anything beyond them other than more trees.

Since it was late August, we escaped most of the bugs that plague the area earlier in the summer. It was cold – I wore a toque and gloves almost all the time. The gloves helped keep my hands functioning. They were so, so dry, and I constantly squished a finger between the boat and my paddle or bumped on something that would make my knuckles bleed.

The paddling was, in a word, relentless. For several days, we continued to battle the stronger-than-the-current wind. The scenery never changed, and what looked like a short little section on the map actually took hours to paddle. Since the landscape looked the same, it was very difficult to tell where we were on the map. We often thought we were further along than we really were – only to take a closer look once we were at camp and realize that no, we were still waaaay back here on the map.

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Camp life.

Speaking of camping, there were no actual campsites. For hours, we’d pass sections of the shore that were far too narrow for setting up camp. Eventually, we’d pull over after we were took exhausted to continue, seeking anything that looked flat-ish and wide enough for us to safely separate our cooking and fire area from our sleeping area.

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The good kind of wildlife encounter. Photo from Woods Canada.

The distance between the two areas was necessarily to prevent wildlife encounters. We were extremely careful about keeping our cooking areas clean, sealing all food and smelly stuff into our barrel, and tucking the barrel underneath the canoe, which we kept far away from our tent. The reality was that we were very exposed to wilderness – and it was out there. We saw wolf tracks everywhere in the sand/mud at our various camping spots. Sometimes, we’d even wake up to see various tracks (not wolves, thankfully) that hadn’t been there when we’d gone to bed the night before. I was strangely at peace with the wild animal aspect. I figured that we were definitely the intruders in this scenario, and if one really wanted to kill me and have me for dinner, then that was a fate I was willing to accept. “Here lies Magee, who was mauled by a pack of wolves on the shores of the Mackenzie River” – I mean, that’s a pretty epic way to go.

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Here lies Magee… Photo from Woods Canada.

The wildlife didn’t wear me down – but the weather did. Aside from the sunny day crossing Mills Lake, every day was cloudy, windy, cold, and sometimes rainy. Everything – and I mean EVERYTHING – was caked with mud. I would scrape out the bottom of the canoe with my paddle, scooping out thick and heavy mud without making a dent on the mass of mud covering the boat. Everything was damp all the time.

Talk about character building.

It was hard – but it was also amazing. By now, Cedric and I worked as a perfect unit. When one of us was feeling demoralized, the other would boost him/her up. He didn’t complain when I needed to pull the boat over to pee. I didn’t complain when he stopped padding to take photos. We knew our roles at camp – we’d pull in, Cedric would start working of fire/boiling water/making food, while I set up the tent and our sleeping stuff. We functioned like a well-oiled machine – it was a real partnership.

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Breakfast on Day 2 before tackling Mills Lake. I can tell because the sky isn’t an angry shade of grey. Photo from Woods Canada.

We ate alright, too. The first few days were pretty luxurious – we even got to enjoy eggs for breakfast. We had the luxury of carrying a great big barrel of food with us since there were no portages to tackle. I’d picked up most of our food back in Hay River, and even though it was August, they already had Halloween candy on display. We ate a lot of chocolate. At 10 o’clock every morning, we’d devour our Clif bars (almond fudge for Cedric, chocolate mint for me). I’d watch my little purple wristwatch like a hawk, counting down the minutes ’til Clif time. I’m not sure if I was actually hungry or just very, very bored.

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This sums up day to day life on our Mackenzie trip, but I’m approaching 1,400 words, so let’s stretch the NWT adventures into a third post for another time…

My Favourite Woods Explorer Destination: Quetico Provincial Park

I have been recapping my 5-month journey as a Woods Explorer for the past few months, but today, I finally get to talk about my favourite leg of the trip: Quetico Provincial Park.

Never in a million years would I have thought that my favourite corner of the country would be in Ontario – but alas, it is.

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This is Quetico Provincial Park. Would you look at all those lakes? I’ve never been anywhere like it. Unlike the other provincial and national parks I’ve visited, Quetico is for paddlers. No hiking, no biking, and definitely no motor boats. You canoe or kayak from lake to lake, partaking in all kinds of portages. The portages are marked on a map, but there are no signs in person. You have to locate them on the map and do your best to figure it out. There are campsites everywhere, but they aren’t marked on the map or with any signage. Again, you kind of just have to figure it out.

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To give you a better sense of where Quetico is located, it’s about 2 hours west of Thunder Bay.

Back when we had been in Toronto (for the Summer Camp for Grown Ups), we were told that we’d have a guide accompanying us in Quetico. You would think we’d have enjoyed the idea of spending time with another person – after all, for the majority of our trips, it had been just Cedric and me, and we’d had a lot of together time.

But we didn’t warm to the idea of a guide. Melba and Adam had already had their leg in Quetico, and they hadn’t needed a guide. They had suggested that having one would have been beneficial, but we felt like we having a guide would “baby” us a little. Not to mention, having a third person would totally change the dynamic of things. Throw in the wrong person, and we’d be in for a long, horrible week.

We actually tried to talk our way out of the guide, but we were told he’d already been hired. When we arrived in Atikokan, we decided that we’d meet with the guide, get some intel from him, and tell him that he was welcome to keep his fee but that we would be able to carry on alone. (I bet the people at HQ would have loved that!)

And then we met Bob.

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Bob & me

Instantly, having a guide seemed like a brilliant idea. Bob was about my dad’s age. He told us that there was a designated Trans Canada Trail course through the park, but that he knew way better lakes and campsites that he’d rather take us to. He organized all of our food for us (which was amazing after having eaten Tim Hortons and camp food for a few months now). He told us of the excellent fishing that lay before us – he even told us we’d get to do a fish fry. Suddenly, I couldn’t remember why we had fought against the idea of a guide.

What followed was one of the best weeks of my life.

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I don’t even know where to start. First of all, the park was incredible. I felt like I was immersed in a Group of Seven painting. Days would pass without seeing a soul. We’d paddle, sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly, taking in the lakes, the trees, the occasional wildlife sighting (eagles, moose, a bear, tons of loons). There was something about being in a canoe all day that made me feel so gosh darned Canadian.

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Morning views from one of our campsites. Photo Credit: Woods Canada

Each campsite was more spectacular than the last. They consisted mainly of small clearings overlooking one lake or another. Many were located on little islands that were fun to explore. Nearly every day was pleasant weather – not hot (although it was August), but not-too-hot, not-too-cold, partly cloudy and partly sunny.

I never though I’d care about fishing – but suddenly, I did. I caught my first walleye seconds after dropping my hook into the water. That is not an exaggeration, though it must have been beginner’s luck because it was not quite so easy to replicate later. Though I didn’t quite share the passion that Cedric and Bob had for fishing, I did really enjoy it and didn’t even mind when we decided to dedicate an entire day to fishing.

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Perhaps the best part about fishing was the dinners that we’d eat afterwards. I believe we had fresh fish every night except the first. We’d watch Bob fillet the fish with the precision of an Iron Chef, then we’d watch the eagles eat the guts. We’d help chop veggies and set things up, then we’d devour the freshest, tastiest fish I’d ever eaten.

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Photo Credit: Woods Canada

I’ve always enjoyed canoeing, but Bob taught me how to appreciate it in a whole new way. At first, we were hesitant to abandon the old j stroke style we’d grown up with, but when he introduced us to the Quetico hut stroke, we were hooked. It took a bit of time to get used to the style – which involves the person in the stern emitting a periodic “hut” sound, then both parties switching which side they were paddling on – but we quickly learned to love its speed and efficiency. We’d end up using the hut stroke later on in the Northwest Territories.

The three of us alternated between a conventional two-person Kevlar canoe and a super sensitive one-man model, which was wobbly and a lot of fun. The days were full, but not exhausting. We covered plenty of ground but never felt rushed.

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Photo Credit: Woods Canada

Beyond being an excellent navigator, instructor, and chef, Bob was a fascinating person. He didn’t ruin our dynamic – he enhanced it. He knew the park inside out and had crazy stories about everything from wildlife to poachers. Around the fire or in the canoe, we’d talk about relationships, dogs, family, and just about everything else under the sun.

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At the end of our trip, we headed back to the main lodge, Camp Quetico. We ate dinner with other visitors in the dining room and slept in a rustic but comfortable cottage that I loved more than any hotel I’ve ever stayed at (except maybe the Fairmont in Jasper…). It was perfect, all of it. After a few months of getting my bearings as a Woods Explorer – of becoming accustomed to living out of a backpack and broadcasting every moment through photos and videos – I felt like I had finally found my groove.

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Our Quetico ornament is a simple, kind of old-fashioned canoe. I love it. When you’re on a canoe trip in a place like Quetico, you’re in a different world. A major news event could happen, and you’d never know about it. You develop routines and habits that are so different than your everyday life – yet, in a way, they become your new everyday life for a short little while.

It’s hard to describe it all. I wonder if I’ll ever get to go back to Quetico. On the one hand, it’s absurd to think that I might not ever return to one of the best places I’ve ever been. On the other hand, my memories of it are so fond that I wonder if any return visit could ever live up to the memories.

Moosey & Woods Exporer Musings of NW Ontario

I spent roughly 16 years of my life living in Ontario, so I thought I knew the province pretty well – that is, until I experienced the 8th leg of our trip as Woods Explorers in the summer of 2015.

To recap, Cedric and I (along with another couple, Melba and Adam) had been selected to hike, paddle, and bike across our great nation, hitting 14 predetermined spots along the Trans Canada Trail. To date, we’d tackled parts of PEI, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Quebec (twice) – and we’d spent a week reuniting with Adam and Melba, who had been doing the journey in reverse – and now, we were in Thunder Bay, getting ready to check out the Coastal Hiking Trail a few hours away in Pukaskwa National Park.

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Photo from Woods Canada

Prior to the Woods Explorer trip, I had never heard of Pukaskwa National Park (which, best as I can tell, is pronounced “Puck-a-saw”). Never in a million years would I have planned a trip to visit it – and that would have been a real shame, because it ended up being one of my absolute favourite destinations.

The Coastal Hiking Trail is a 60 k one-way trek along the shores of Lake Superior. Typically, one would approach this hike with the same level of planning and preparation as, say, the West Coast Trail. Cedric and I only had a couple of days to get our bearings, check out the route, and learn about camping options – it was trip planning on triple fast forward. Before we knew it, we were hitching a one-way ride on a boat to take us to the trail head.

I haven’t done many multi-day backpacking trips, but I (and many others) have done the WCT. Here’s how I compare the two:

  1. Well, first of all, you absolutely cannot compare the two. They are both so vastly different and incredible in their own ways. I cannot pick a favourite between the two. The experiences are incomparable but equally fantastic.
  2. Whereas the WCT is quite busy (with permits limiting access), the Coastal Hiking Trail is utterly, fabulously quiet. We did it in the middle of summer, and we saw: 1 father-son duo on our first day (hiking the opposite way); nobody for about 3 days after that; then one guy, a couple, and a few day hikers on the last day-and-a-half (some people do day hikes, or one-nighters, from the car-accessible trail head, where we ended our trip). If you’re looking for peace and tranquility, the Coastal Hiking Trail is a good bet.
  3. Both are situated in climates where anything can happen. Just a few weeks prior, Melba and Adam had been in the same area, though they had explored it via kayak. Their trip had been postponed due to torrential downpour, whereas we mostly had lovely, sunny days. My experience suggests that the Coastal Hiking Trail is less damp than the WCT, but I know that we just had a lucky week.
  4. The terrain is tough to compare. I would argue that the terrain on the Coastal Hiking Trail is more difficult. The WCT is muddy, wet, and mucky. Though the Coastal Hiking Trail doesn’t take you up mountains, it consistently winds up and down, up and down, rarely flattening out until the very last bit. Much of the terrain is on rocky outcroppings, which is covered in green mossy algae stuff. When this is wet, it becomes incredibly slick and hiking through it is quite perilous (so I’m told – we didn’t have to contend with this too much).
  5. The WCT is a breeze to navigate, but the Coastal Hiking Trail requires a little more ingenuity. There are no traditional trail markers – hikers have to rely on following what appears to be the path most taken, and rock cairns guide the way on the extensive rocky sections. Having said that, we didn’t have much difficulty staying on the right path.
  6. The WCT is longer (75 k vs 60 k). We did the Coastal Hiking Trail is 5 days/4 nights, whereas we did the WCT in 7 days/6 nights. In Pukaskwa, we typically started hiking around 9 AM and arrived at our campsite around 2:30 or 3 PM. The days weren’t terribly long, but we were bagged when we arrived at our campsites.

Which leads me to the story of our Pukaskwa ornament.

The campsites along the Coastal Hiking Trail are stunning. Except for the very last night, we always had the entire campsites to ourselves. It felt like we were in the middle of nowhere, but the sites were actually very well set up with bear bins (that you didn’t have to fight over for a little real estate, unlike the WCT!), “pit privies” (camping toilets), and a fire bin. All of the sites we stayed at were directly on the water with gorgeous sandy private beaches. The water was super clear – if you squinted a little, you could almost pretend that you were in the Caribbean or something.

Upon arriving at our campsite every night, our ritual was as follows: drop our packs, peel off our sweaty clothes, and run into the crystal blue – BUT INSANELY FRIGID – waters of Lake Superior. How long we lasted in the water varied; Cedric was typically able to brave it a little longer than I could. Emerging from the ice cold water was like a hiking baptism – it washed away our sweat, cooled us down, and somehow made us invisible to the bugs. We would hang out in the buff on the sand letting the sun – which we were pretty much seeing for the first time the entire trip – dry us off. It was total bliss.

Our last night, we camped at a campsite about 16 km from the end of the trail. A note here – the distances are extremely misleading. While we sped through those final, relatively easy 16 k, a seemingly shorter 10 k day could be twice as difficult and nearly twice as long. As always, we arrived at our campsite and performed our habitual skinny dip. Cedric went to start the fire or something, but I hung out on the beach a little while and went back into the water. I came out and took my time drying off – when I noticed two people walking along the shore towards us.

I was suddenly very aware that I wasn’t wearing any clothes, so I zipped quickly over to the outfit I’d worn every day for the better part of a week and threw it back on. Close call. We later talked with the couple, who were staying a few tent sites over from us – they swore they hadn’t noticed anything, but I feeling like they may just have said that to make us feel better.

We actually didn’t have time to pick up ornaments in Ontario (the places we stayed didn’t have the most touristy gift shops), but we found this guy two legs later in Manitoba – and we knew he was perfect.

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We call him Moosey, and he’s more of a figurine than an ornament, so we keep him out year ’round on our shelves. There’s something about the way he’s lounging – the way there’s a leaf covering his private parts even though he’s a moose and they’re always in the buff – that makes it perfect.

Pukaskwa opened my eyes to how incredible northwest Ontario really is and how I’d completely underestimated this part of my home province. Luckily, our next leg – what would end up being my favourite of the entire trip – would take place nearby, so we’d get to enjoy it a little longer.

Adult Summer Camp, Woods Explorer Edition

The 7th leg of our Woods Explorer journey was most interesting.

In case you missed it:

It was now the halfway point of our journey – the leg during which we would meet up with our fellow Explorers, Melba and Adam, who had been navigating our great nation from West to East.

We met up in Toronto and headed to a place in the ‘burbs that is best described as Summer Camp for Grown Ups. Here, we would be meeting up with a few dozen Canadian Tire employees (because CT owns Woods Canada) on a retreat of sorts. I actually really liked the first part of this event. It was fun meeting a bunch of new people – after having been largely isolated with only Cedric, we were eager to have fresh conversations. I have fond memories of an ice breaker activity that involved launching each person into the air on this parachute trampoline thingy, plus eating an entire summer’s worth of s’mores by the campfire one night.

But then the CT crew left, and it was down to business.

We had to film approximately one million videos, including several overviews for products that were too large or impractical to actually take with us on our trip. These weren’t really reviews, as we hadn’t had the opportunity to use the products (therefore we had no real opinion on them) – they were more “how to use this product” videos.

I have a distinct memory of filming one particular video – this one:

I was trying to be a good sport, but in the moment I was SO over filming all of these videos – even though I knew it was part of what I’d signed up for. Here is where my head was at:

  • I hadn’t washed my hair in maybe 3 or 4 days.
  • It was pouring outside and incredibly humid.
  • I felt ghostly white. Adam and Melba were rocking serious tans, but our trip thus far had been cursed with pretty ugly weather. Plus, I’m allergic to sunscreen, so I try to stay out of the sun. But I was so. so. white.
  • I couldn’t remember what it felt like to wear makeup.

In short, I felt totally gross. My greasy hair was frizzing up and my clothes were damp and everything felt sticky. This is not really how you want to feel while broadcasting images and videos of yourself into the depths of the internet.

So when you watch my cot video, what you don’t see is how gross I felt (though you can hear the rain). You also don’t see the outtakes where I’m laughing hysterically because when you lean back on the cot, it teeters back (you have to do a cool karate kick to launch it back upright). I remember making this video and feeling slightly crazy.

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Just casually staring into the fire with my follow Explorers (photo: Woods Canada’s Instagram)

Eventually, we wrapped up and were able to drive off into the sunset – or, more specifically, to cottage country to officially kick off our 7th leg. The sun was finally shining, the cameras were turned off, and we were feeling pretty good.

Now, it just so happens that Cedric’s family has an awesome cottage in this neck of the woods. And it also happens that nobody was staying in it at that moment. So it is entirely possible that we took a slight detour and enjoyed a brief stint as cottagers before proceeding to our designated campsite.

It felt glorious to turn off the cameras for an evening and hang out with Melba and Adam. We hopped into the boat and took a spin on the lake, where we tested out a pair of water skis. Cedric, Adam, and Melba rode them like pros. I, on the other hand, was unable to actually stand up on the skis. This is entirely unsurprising, as it took me two summers to figure out how to get up on a wakeboard (and then once I did it, I couldn’t seem to get up again). Still, it was ridiculously fun.

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This is a screencap from a later adventure the same leg – rope swinging, which happens to be another athletic thing I am HORRIBLE at. (But it was still fun.)

After our mini vacation day, we did eventually head to our campsite. Cedric ended up getting sick, but Melba, Adam, Callan (of Woods Explorer Top 10 fame, who went on to work behind the scenes on the campaign and joined us for a few nights camping), and I had a fun day of paddling, which culminated in losing our car keys by some mucky docks, successfully retrieving them, and celebrating with some ice cream.

It was a strange leg – definitely one unlike any other – but we found the perfect ornament to commemorate it.

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A Muskoka chair, much like the ones we’d curled up in at Cedric’s cottage. How fitting!

Gatineau and Mountain Biking in General

Last week, I told the story of the mice in the hut on the Charlevoix leg of our journey as Woods Explorers. Today, I’m recapping the second half of our Quebec trip, which took place in Gatineau.

Our Woods Explorer adventure consisted of 14 different legs, but we only picked up 12 Christmas ornaments. We doubled up in PEI, because both our trips there were very close together, and for some reason we decided to double up in Quebec, too. I’m not sure why we did, because Charlevoix and Gatineau felt completely different from one another.

Since I usually centre my Woods Explorer recaps around the story that inspired the ornament, I’m not sure what Gatineau story I should tell. It was an interesting leg – we spent Canada Day on Parliament Hill, we explored a cool cave, we talked a lot about fantasy baseball – but no one story really stands out to me.

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Photo from the Woods Canada Instagram.

For our time in Gatineau, the powers that be had reserved a pair of mountain bikes for us. Cedric was excited about this. I was … hesitant.

For the vast majority of my life, I have enjoyed biking. I haven’t done a ton of it, but I did the whole training wheels thing and happily biked to my summer jobs in high school and university. When I lived in Vancouver, I bought this gorgeous red Peugeot that is probably at least as old as I am. I 100% bought it for looks and not for its technical abilities, and I struggled like CRAZY to bike from my house in Kits up the hill to my softball games at UBC (though the ride back home was awesome). The red bike came to Whistler with me, and I used it is a valley hill cruiser. I still have my red bike.

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A fuzzy photo from my old Kits home of my red beauty

My first non-fabulous biking adventure happened a few years ago (2013 I think) when I decided I would try downhill mountain biking at the women’s ride nights hosted by Whistler Blackcomb. (I should clarify that the program is actually amazing and I highly recommend it.)

I desperately wanted to love downhill mountain biking. I never really knew any girls who were into it until I met Cedric’s roommates. A few of his girl roommates, and their friends, were super passionate about mountain biking. They spoke excitedly of learning new skills, conquering awesome trails, and having such a great time exploring Whistler. I wanted to have as much fun as they were having, so I signed up for the ladies’ night.

As we sorted ourselves into groups, I told the coordinators that I have absolutely zero experience mountain biking – but that I was a “quick learner”. I have NO IDEA why I said that. I love being active, but I have never been naturally athletic. I am a quick learner at, say, board games – NOT at new sports.

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Note how my butt is covered in dirt. And how my left hand is permanently stuck in brake position.

I failed at loading my bike onto the chairlift, even though the very first thing we were taught was how to load the bike onto the chairlift. Somehow, I made it to the top (and so did the bike). We went into a little side area to learn some basic skills.

The instructor informed us that in downhill mountain biking, you spend very little time actually sitting on the bike sit. As soon as he said that, I remembered how I have NEVER mastered the art of biking standing up. (I also never mastered the art of riding with no hands.) This was unsettling, to say the least. I practiced a bit and it seemed okay. We got ready for our first run.

IT WAS TERRIFYING!!!!!!!!

I couldn’t keep my hands off the brakes. I knew that I needed to let go – but I physically could not force myself to loosen my death grip. The worst part is that my brakes squeaked, so the instructor could obviously tell that I was braking the whole time. He’d say all the right things – how it would actually be easier if I just released the brakes – and I’d nod in agreement, but still, I couldn’t stop. Luckily, there was one girl who was slightly worse than I was. I’m pretty sure she just had a shoddy bike, but it helped me feel a little better.

We made it to the bottom and got ready for our second run. My hands were cramping hard – but I thought I would probably have the hang of it for the second run. Spoiler alert: I did not. The instructor had warned us that pumping the brakes would actually make us more likely to fall than just letting it go. I knew he was right. I believed him 100%. BUT I COULDN’T STOP BRAKING. And I fell.

It was not a hard fall (because I was going slow, because I was non stop braking), but it rattled me. The girl who had been worse than me on the previous run was now better than me. There was also a girl in our group who was doing amazing, despite it being her first time on a mountain bike. She actually was a fast learner. I was not.

I had fun – but not enough fun to want to do it again (plus it’s a little bit expensive, especially with rentals).

My second time on a mountain bike had been just a few weeks earlier in Cape Breton. We were biking on a pretty flat dirt trail. The bikes weren’t fancy, but they didn’t need to be. Happily, I did not fall – but my knee went bezerk. I don’t know what happened, but it hurt so bad I wanted to puke. It was not an awful experience – the trail was beautiful – but it did not excite me about an entire leg that revolved around mountain biking.

Here we were in Gatineau Park, ready for some mountain biking adventures. Third time’s a charm, right?

Gatineau Park had two things going for it: we’d be doing cross country, not downhill, mountain biking, and the level of difficulty there is considerably less challenging than it is in the Sea to Sky corridor. I was cruising blues and actually enjoying myself, though my knee would throb a bit on the uphills.

Looking at this picture makes me laugh. What is my body doing? Why is my back so hunched? Why is it impossible for me to stand up on a bike? Why are my shorts so short?

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I think I’m actually standing up on the bike here! Photo from the Woods Canada Twitter.

I sometimes think I would enjoy XC mountain biking here in Squamish. Cedric enjoys it and so do a lot of my friends. I’m reluctant about giving it another go. I’m afraid I’ll suck again. I’m afraid I’ll love it and I’ll need to spend all my money on a fancy bike. I’m afraid I’ll smash my fancy bike and need to replace its fancy pieces. I’m also afraid I’ll smash my hands and not be able to work. With mountain biking, it seems like it’s not a question of if you’ll hurt yourself, but when you’ll hurt yourself.

I’m happy I’ve found a way to enjoy the local trails – on foot, not on bike. Maybe I will give it a solid go one day. For now, you can catch me on the pavement on my speedy and incredibly inefficient Peugeot.