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…

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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.

Meltdowns and Mice in Charlevoix, Quebec

The fifth leg of our Woods Explorer journey was, in a word, eventful.

For more than a month, we’d been exploring the beautiful Maritime provinces (two legs in PEI, a leg on Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, and a leg in Fundy National Park in New Brunswick). We’d had an amazing time, but we knew there was so much more of the country to explore, and we were itching to check it out.

We actually had two legs in Quebec. This post will cover our first one, which took place in the Charlevoix region. Next time, I’ll cover our time in Gatineau.

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Looking stoic in Quebec after having a minor trailside meltdown. Details below. Photo from the Woods Canada Twitter

Of course, being in Quebec – especially this part of Quebec – meant that we would have to navigate this leg of the journey in French.

Let’s talk about the French thing for a moment. I had largely pumped up my French speaking abilities in the selection process, and it’s true – I do speak French. I was born in Quebec and my mom’s side of the family has its roots planted firmly in la belle province. I went to full-on French school (not immersion) from junior kindergarten through to Grade 12. I even took a French course at UBC. But sometime after second year, I’d stopped speaking French almost entirely. There weren’t as many opportunities to practice in BC as there had been in Ontario, and I just sort of got lazy about it. Truthfully, I think I took it for granted.

Throughout my quarter life crisis of 2012, I spent a month in France, and during this time I became completely aware that though I had completely hung on to my comprehension skills, my speaking skills had decreased significantly. I can actually pinpoint the moment that I realized I now sucked at speaking French. I was visiting a wine store in St Remy de Provence. My parents were friends with the owner, and my sister had been the summer before. I was meeting the owner for the first time. He was incredibly kind (he later gave me two free bottles of wine!), but when he learned who I was, he said “Oh! Your sister had such a nice accent!”. OUCH!!!!!!!! I’d never had a particularly appealing French accent (try having a mother from Quebec, going to French school in Ontario, and having Acadian/West African/all kinds of teachers), but now it was full on ugly.

Despite my lack of confidence and repulsive accent, the fact was that I still understood French and spoke it well enough. It was terrifying producing French content for Woods, only because I feared the Quebecois audience (who were considerably unsettled about the fact that no Quebecois people had even made the top 10 that year) would tear me apart.

En bref, Quebec was a stressful leg because I felt like a lot was resting on my shoulders, since I had to do the in-front-of-the-camera French stuff and I had to lead any conversations about ordering foods, booking tours, calling information centres, etc. – and I didn’t feel like I was any good at speaking French at all, so my confidence was wobbly (at best) throughout all of this. We reached a boiling point on a day hike on the sentier Mestashibo near Mont Saint Anne. See this picture?

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The breakdown bridge. From the Woods Canada Facebook page.

This picture caused A LOT OF TENSION! While I was busy stressing out over everything, Cedric was stressing out over snapping the perfect shot. He was repeatedly having me do things like walk across the same spot over and over and over. This is totally understandable (in hindsight), since our job was to produce content for Woods Canada’s social media channels. But I had been doing this constantly for over a month now, and on this particular day, things were just very stressful. I was already annoyed about something (funny how I can’t even remember what it was), when Cedric asked me to walk across the little bridge in that picture again. And again. And now with the tripod. And now with him in it. And again because our steps weren’t quite right.

I really lost it, and all the stress from the journey thus far came spilling out. It’s easy to remember my five months as a Woods Explorer as a fun, carefree time of traipsing across the country, but there were also tough times. This metaphorical eruption ended up being a very good thing, though. It allowed us to take a step back and realize that even though some aspects of this job were tough, it was supposed to be fun – not stressful. We realized that we could obsess over being perfectionists and worry about things we couldn’t control, or we could just live in the moment and do our best without beating ourselves up. From that point forward, whenever I got worked up, I’d remind myself to slow down and just enjoy the experience.

An odd challenge about this leg of the hike was finding the Trans Canada Trail. It was somewhat disjointed in this area and we had a really hard time finding out where, exactly, it was. After some sleuthing, we discovered that there was a 105 km trail called the traversee de Charlevoix that was part of the TCT. This trail sounded awesome, but it was a little weird:

  • You could not camp along this trail. Instead, you had to stay in huts along the way.
  • The trail went right by some really cool terrain, but the trail itself was flat and didn’t explore the surrounding mountains. This would be AWESOME for a multi-day cross country ski trip, but it was not so awesome for capturing compelling content.
  • There was quite a bit of red tape to jump through in terms of bookings, fees, etc.

We only discovered the traversee de Charlevoix partway through our stay, and we didn’t have time to hike the entire trail. We came up with an alternate plan instead: make a reservation for the closest hut (a short hike in from where we could park), and explore hikes that ran off the main trail into some more scenic looking areas.

We proceeded with this plan, dropping our gear at our designated hut and heading out for a day hike up a mountain. The first part of the trail was great – it was relatively well-marked, the weather was fine (if a little overcast), and we had the entire place to ourselves. As we approached the summit, the clouds really started to roll in. We found ourselves staring into super dense fog – and then it started pouring rain. The trail was a loop, not an out-and-back, and navigating the second part of the trail was considerably more difficult, particularly when we were standing on a rock and couldn’t see more than a foot in front of us. Luckily, we ran into a lady and her dog (the only person we saw the entire day) who pointed us in the right direction.

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Before the clouds started to really roll in. I guess I was feeling the intense poses in Quebec. Photo from the Woods Canada Instagram.

We got completely soaked. The trail took us through thick brush that was covered in rain. Every step meant water dripping off leaves and into our socks. At one point, we pulled off our boots and wrung out our wet socks like sponges. It was also getting super cold, even though it was June.

After a long, cold, wet hike, we were elated to return to a dry hut – setting up a tent in this weather would have been utterly dismal. Cedric started a fire in the wood burning stove (bliss!) and I lay out the dinner we’d brought with us: saucisson, cheese, bread, and local berries. We changed into dry clothes and feasted like kings.

The sleeping quarters were in the lofted area of the hut. We climbed up and set up our sleeping bags, feeling that most wonderful feeling of being dry, warm, and comfortable after having been wet, cold, and decidedly uncomfortable. We switched off our headlamps and shut our eyes.

And then I heard it.

The pitter patter of mice. Mice in the walls, mice below us, mice very likely around us in the dark. You may have read this blog post about the mouse/squirrel invasion of my old house. As a result of this incident, I am uneasy about mice.

The mice were physically harmless, but they prevented me from catching a wink of sleep. It was a long, long night.

A few days later, we were wrapping up our Charlevoix leg and getting ready to take a road trip to Gatineau. Cedric had dropped me off in the old Quebec City while he went to find a filter for the camera in the ‘burbs. I moseyed through the tourist shops in search of the perfect ornament to commemorate our week.

When I saw this little guy, I knew it was PERFECT. I hate mice, but I love this one. It’s so cute – I just picture it skating gracefully across my sleeping bag in that little hut along the traversee de Charlevoix. Its little winter get-up seems appropriate, too.

Good times.

Souvenirs of Fundy National Park in New Brunswick

Recap: Two summers ago, Cedric and I became Woods Explorers. We were paid to explore Canada in of its outdoorsy goodness for five glorious months. I’ve blogged about our time in PEI and on Cape Breton – now, we’re four weeks into the trip and in New Brunswick’s Fundy National Park.

Let me make one thing clear: Fundy National Park is beautiful. It is a UNESCO site with gnarly tides and stunning oceanfront hikes and there is plenty to explore. But I would not recommend going in early June.

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Pictured: Gnarly Tides. Photo Credit: Woods CanadaWoods Canada

To be fair, there are many places in Canada that are miserable in early June because of bugs. It’s part of the Canadiana experience, I suppose – even the European settlers complained about the waves of bugs this time of year.

The bugs in Fundy were terrible right off the bat. I remember setting up our tent in one of the park’s campgrounds on the first day. Part of our role as Woods Explorers was to film lots and lots of content to be used on their social media channels, particularly content that featured Woods gear. Our task on Day 1 was to film a video about the tent that we were using (a mighty fine tent, might I add – we actually used a Woods tent on our West Coast Trail Hike because we grew quite fond of them.)

The only problem is that our campsite was swarming with itty, bitty, bitey black flies. We took turns “starring” in our Woods videos, and this time, it was Cedric’s turn to narrate. He demonstrated incredible patience as we attempted to tackle each “scene” in one take. I don’t think the camera really captured it, but bugs were attacking his face and flying into his mouth.

(If you can click the above video to view it on Facebook – around :48 you can start seeing some of the bugs).

Although I was behind the camera, I was also having a tough time. I don’t know if it was because the camera was black or because it was warm, but the black flies LOVED IT. I was battling my own swarm while attempting to capture somewhat steady footage.

Interestingly, we found that the bugs were not actually all that bad while we were hiking. As long as we were moving, they were tolerable. We spent the entire week doing day hikes around the park – the Coastal West Trail was a particular highlight. But around the campsite, the flies were maddening.

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The Coastal Trail in Fundy National Park. Photo from the Woods Canada Instagram.

This meant that we did not spend much time chilling around camp. Instead, when we weren’t hiking, we could most likely be found seeking shelter from the black flies in the town of Alma. Alma is a little town with two excellent places to eat.

The first is Kelly’s Bake Shop. A friend from New Brunswick had sagely advised me to stop by Kelly’s to sample the sticky buns. HOLY HECK – they were unbelievable. I’m disappointed with myself for having not taken any photos of them – but I wasn’t sure how these sticky buns would align with the Woods Canada brand. Instead, we attempted to make our own version over the campfire back at camp. The flies mellowed out a bit when the campfire was going, thankfully.

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Our grossly inferior attempt at the Alma Sticky Buns – although they were still super good. Photo from the Woods Canada Instagram.

An aside: I had some FABULOUS food items on my journey as a Woods Explorer, despite the fact that my diet consisted 95% of peanut butter and banana sandwiches and backcountry curries. Here is a list of the top seven things I ate as a Woods Explorer:

  1. Battered and fried lake trout in Quetico, Ontario – we’d caught the fish ourselves earlier that day.
  2. Home-cooked duck and a hand-shaken cocktail at our canyoning guide’s home in Quebec, near Baie-Saint-Paul.
  3. Fudge from a fudgerie (who knew there was such a thing?) in Beausejour, Manitoba.
  4. The aforementioned sticky buns in Alma.
  5. The most delicious burger and yam fries in a dark lounge in Hay River, Northwest Territories.
  6. Persians in Thunder Bay (you’re nodding along if you’ve ever had them).
  7. Hot chocolate in a bowl in Quebec City.

Back to the story.

We spent a bit of time at Kelly’s, but we spent a LOT of time at Octopus’ Garden in Alma. The food is delicious, and the staff are really nice. One time, we loitered for HOURS after a hike until we knew the bugs would die down a little. They did not kick us out – bless their hearts.

Black flies were the primary nuisance in Fundy, but there were also brazen squirrels patrolling the campsites. Cedric and I keep a very tidy, minimalist campsite, so they didn’t bother us a lot – but they were very much there. That’s why we decided to pick this particular ornament to commemorate our leg in New Brunswick:

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Squirrels bathing a moose – classic.

Although, let’s be real. Had there been a black fly ornament, we would have bought it in a heartbeat.