The “plan”

Ear­ly in March, Lily and I decid­ed to get a head start on the camp­ing sea­son by book­ing a few camp­sites ear­li­er than usu­al. We reserved a back­coun­try site on Tom Thom­son Lake in Algo­nquin Park for late May and a spot at the Hon­ey­moon Bay camp­ground in Geor­gian Bay Islands Nation­al Park for mid-June. 

The end of May rolled around quick­ly, and we were itch­ing with excite­ment to get back to Algo­nquin. We haven’t been there (or camped any­where) since August 2020. Unbe­knownst to us, the mos­qui­toes and black flies were equal­ly excit­ed to get us itch­ing. The insects chased us out in short order, a full day ear­li­er than our planned two-night stay. Lily and I don’t react well to insect bites, and it took a cou­ple of weeks for some of the larg­er welts to sub­side. 

Sub­se­quent­ly, our vis­it to Hon­ey­moon Bay on Beau­soleil Island was so suc­cess­ful and enjoy­able that we decid­ed to give Algo­nquin anoth­er attempt with a two-night book­ing over the Cana­da Day long week­end. See, Lily and I aren’t what you would call ultra-light campers. It wouldn’t be too bold of me to describe us as ultra-heavy. We typ­i­cal­ly pack our 17-foot canoe with as much stuff as your aver­age car camper. (Car camp­ing is how we start­ed camp­ing and the activ­i­ty around which we assem­bled our gear.) This resis­tance to let­ting go of our crea­ture com­forts is why we strong­ly pre­fer few­er and short­er portages. And so I was for­tu­nate to find avail­abil­i­ty around Pen Lake, accessed by a rel­a­tive­ly short 375m portage from the north.

We don’t pack light. (iPhone)

Being the plan­ner she is and dri­ven by the desire to avoid our ear­li­er retreat from Algo­nquin in May, Lily start­ed read­ing about the bug sit­u­a­tion in late June. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, she dis­cov­ered the bugs were as numer­ous and rav­en­ous as ever. Left at a cross­roads, we had to decide whether to feed the insects or alter our plans. We set­tled on brav­ing a new type of expe­ri­ence: Crown land camp­ing. 

In Ontario, “Crown land” is any land owned by the gov­ern­ment of Ontario. The Min­istry of Nat­ur­al Resources and Forestry man­ages it, and it makes up about 87% of the province’s area. Camp­ing on Crown land has spe­cif­ic appeals:

  • It’s free.
  • You don’t have to reserve a spot through a con­vo­lut­ed and bug­gy online book­ing sys­tem.
  • There are few­er reg­u­la­tions than orga­nized camp­sites man­aged by provin­cial or nation­al parks.

Crown land camp­ing also has notable draw­backs: there are no ameni­ties or “facil­i­ties,” the few reg­u­la­tions that exist are hard­er to find, there’s the whole issue of acces­si­bil­i­ty and find­ing a suit­able spot, and the lack of reser­va­tions means no offi­cial body will come search­ing for you in the event you fail to return on time. (So tell your friends and fam­i­ly where you’re going and how long you expect to stay there!) Sure, you can tech­ni­cal­ly pitch a tent almost any­where, but most spots aren’t worth the trou­ble, and peo­ple tight­ly hold the good places secret. 

The secre­cy sur­round­ing good spots is a nec­es­sary frus­tra­tion. Part of this is due to the unman­aged nature of Crown land, where any­one can camp at any time. If your favourite spot grows too pop­u­lar, it can lead to increased con­ges­tion, loss of pri­va­cy and tran­quil­li­ty, degra­da­tion of the nat­ur­al sur­round­ings due to increased use, and arriv­ing to dis­cov­er that some com­mon­ers occu­py the spot. Gross. 

All of this is to say that as wild camp­ing new­bies, we had no clue what we were doing and only the vaguest idea of where we were head­ing. For­tu­nate­ly, the gam­ble paid off, and we land­ed on our favourite camp­site to date! 

The prob­lem with Crown Land camp­ing is that it’s not easy to find spots. There are no apps to guide you to the best loca­tions. I cre­at­ed the plan using Ontario’s Crown Land Use Pol­i­cy Atlas (CLUPA). This help­ful (but bug­gy) site is an inter­ac­tive map pro­vid­ing infor­ma­tion about Crown land, its bound­aries, per­mit­ted activ­i­ties, and restric­tions. I spent con­sid­er­able time on my desk­top mak­ing detailed screen­shots of the land-use bound­aries near the loca­tion I want­ed to vis­it. Google Maps helped me find a suit­able park­ing spot and canoe put-in. It’s all very doable and straight­for­ward with enough effort. Still, the high­er entry bar­ri­er com­pared to man­aged camp­sites cre­ates enough fric­tion to dis­cour­age many peo­ple who would oth­er­wise enjoy them­selves.

The paddle

Once on the water, we mean­dered through the arch­i­pel­ago sur­round­ing Franklin Island on Geor­gian Bay. About an hour into the pad­dle — halfway through, although I didn’t know it then — I start­ed to get a sink­ing feel­ing in my chest. None of the islands we passed nor the shore­line of Franklin Island pre­sent­ed suit­able spots for set­ting up camp. The ter­rain was either too forest­ed, the rocks too uneven, or the shore­line too steep to approach by canoe. 

Halfway to our ulti­mate des­ti­na­tion, although we don’t know it. (iPhone)

At one point near the out­er islands, I saw some­thing sig­nif­i­cant on the hori­zon. The object was either rec­tan­gu­lar or tri­an­gu­lar and had a light colour. Still, it was dif­fi­cult to deter­mine its shape amid the haze. Near the start of our pad­dle, we encoun­tered two sail­ing yachts motor­ing towards land. So, a sail­ing yacht in the dis­tance? We pad­dled along.

At one point, we pulled up to land, and I explored a poten­tial site, but the water near­by was stag­nant and cov­ered with a filthy lay­er of yel­low pollen. Lily didn’t feel like it was the place for us. She point­ed towards an island fur­ther along the shore that she thought had some poten­tial (“Maybe that’s a beach?”). Upon clos­er inspec­tion, the “beach” turned out to be bright yel­low lichen on the exposed bedrock, which was steep enough to pre­vent a suc­cess­ful land­ing with all our gear. And so, we pad­dled a few hun­dred metres fur­ther into a pas­sage between two islands, where we saw a small motor­boat zip by. Sure­ly the pres­ence of peo­ple sig­nals it’s a bet­ter loca­tion.

The arrival

At this point, we were both grow­ing frus­trat­ed by the lack of ade­quate land, and the increas­ing­ly over­cast sky fur­ther damp­ened our mood. Then, as Lily has since told her friends, there was a brief break in the cloud cov­er, and a ray of sun­light shone on the island to our right. See­ing it in a new light allowed us to rec­og­nize its poten­tial, so we pad­dled clos­er to inves­ti­gate. That’s when I noticed a pale wood­en struc­ture on the rocks. Porthos and I left Lily to watch the canoe. I fol­lowed his lead as he scam­pered up the gen­tly slop­ing rocks and beheld sev­er­al excel­lent spots on rel­a­tive­ly flat rocky sur­faces. The struc­ture I saw ear­li­er was a small, crude­ly built wood­en bridge that spanned a deep groove between two large boul­ders. Its builders engraved one of the wood­en planks with “July 2020 C+D Co.” There were at least three out­crops ade­quate for set­ting up camp and evi­dence of pre­vi­ous­ly pitched tents in the form of rough­ly cir­cu­lar arrange­ments of rocks. I returned to Lily and told her we had found our spot. 

Porthos and I explored the island about thir­ty min­utes after set­ting up our camp­site. I want­ed to know whether we had neigh­bours and which part of the island’s cen­tral forest­ed area offered the best “facil­i­ties” — for poop­ing. I even brought a small shov­el! To my pleas­ant sur­prise, I dis­cov­ered we had the entire island to our­selves and that it had at least four more poten­tial camp­sites on its oth­er side. Upon return­ing to camp, I saw two tan­dem kayaks approach­ing the lit­tle bay where we had parked our canoe. 

The kayak­ers seemed like locals, reg­u­lars, or both. They proud­ly admit­ted to erect­ing the lit­tle bridge dur­ing a camp­ing trip with a large group in 2020 because some of their friends had dif­fi­cul­ty tra­vers­ing the gap. They also tipped me off to a seclud­ed thun­der­box deep in the small for­est. After their depar­ture, I explored the less appar­ent paths through­out the woods until I found the latrine. It was in good shape, and a lam­i­nat­ed sign indi­cat­ed The Out­er Islands Project built it. We wouldn’t need that shov­el after all. 

Our first evening

Despite these pos­i­tive devel­op­ments, I’m slight­ly ashamed to admit I wasn’t ful­ly com­mit­ted to the expe­ri­ence by the time evening rolled around. The weath­er was large­ly over­cast, with bits of pale sky and weak bursts of sun­light now and again, there were lots of bugs (mos­qui­tos and bit­ing flies), and we got a cou­ple of pierc­ing tor­na­do warn­ings deliv­ered to our phones via the emer­gency alert sys­tem. On a pos­i­tive note, the bright orange lichen we mis­took for mot­tled yel­low sun­light shin­ing upon dis­tant rocks con­tin­ued to deceive us with its illu­sion. After pan­fry­ing a few veg­gie burg­ers on our new MSR Pock­etRock­et 2 camp­ing stove — pur­chased to sub­sti­tute for our Bio­Lite Camp­stove 2 while the fire bans were in effect — we went to the north side of the island to catch sev­er­al indi­rect glimpses of the sun­set through spo­radic breaks in the clouds.

Fol­low­ing that, and I’m refer­ring to well beyond 21:00, we flossed and brushed (which is the cor­rect order), and each braved the slip­pery rocks and cold water for a skin­ny dip to wash away the day’s sweat and sun­screen. And then we went to sleep.

I was awak­ened by Porthos trem­bling beside us at some point dur­ing the night. He’s typ­i­cal­ly fright­ened by light­ning and thun­der, and there were faint signs of both. This devel­op­ment was slight­ly con­cern­ing because we didn’t put the rain fly on the tent before head­ing in. I checked the weath­er on my phone — this loca­tion had full LTE! — to dis­cov­er a clus­ter of thun­der­storms sev­er­al kilo­me­tres south of our loca­tion and head­ing east­ward. I didn’t take any pho­tos of the dis­tant light show, although I sus­pect it would’ve been glo­ri­ous. How­ev­er, the faint whine of mos­qui­toes swarm­ing our tent’s bug mesh was enough to dis­cour­age all attempts at noc­tur­nal pho­tog­ra­phy. So, I lay there spoon­ing our trem­bling dog as Lily snoozed away. Sleep came slow­ly.

First morning

Sun­rise woke us around 06:00. It was still bug­gy out­side the tent, so I pow­ered up our portable bug repel­lant and stepped out. My mis­sion was clear: make cof­fee. I made an instant espres­so using hot water saved in a ther­mos from the day before. Over the past decade, I devel­oped a taste for Nescafé’s Gold Espres­so (or Orig­i­nal — whichever’s on sale) and brought it on all our camp­ing trips (and some vaca­tions). It’s not the best cof­fee and doesn’t com­pare to any­thing fresh­ly brewed, but it’s bet­ter than the most com­mon alter­na­tive brands sold in Cana­da, which are so sour they can cur­dle soymilk. Beyond acid­i­ty, I’m not so fussy about cof­fee that I’d invest in portable cof­fee press­es or espres­so giz­mos. All I need is a vague cof­fee flavour infused with caf­feine. 

Cup in hand and Porthos by my side, we went on our patrol of the island and its sur­round­ings. We dis­cov­ered fog rolling in across the water from the west and obscur­ing all evi­dence of the hori­zon. Look­ing out over the tran­quil expanse, I could con­vince myself that water and sky were one. As always, I took the oppor­tu­ni­ty to take pic­tures. 

Upon return to the camp, I saw Lily munch­ing on hard­boiled eggs she had packed in our cool­er. We ate pan­cakes with blue­ber­ries for break­fast. Then time became abstract and flowed with ambigu­ous speed, some­times slow and at oth­ers fast. We’re not morn­ing peo­ple. I typ­i­cal­ly wake up around 09:00 most morn­ings, so ris­ing three hours ear­li­er con­fused my per­cep­tion of time’s flow. 

At some point, we explored the bright, fiery rocks upon which we did a minor pho­to­shoot. I had brought my new cam­era, a Fuji­film X‑H2s, capa­ble of cap­tur­ing pho­tos at a mind-blow­ing 40 frames per sec­ond. I set it to a more mod­est 15 frames per sec­ond. Still, that fair burst rate left me with over 200 images to sort through and cull lat­er. 

Afternoon sunlight

Over the next sev­er­al hours, we occu­pied our­selves relax­ing, spray­ing our­selves with sun­screen, tak­ing inter­mit­tent dips in the water, and shel­ter­ing from the sun. The weath­er was serendip­i­tous. The fore­cast call­ing for over­cast skies through­out the entire day was cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly incor­rect. When I look back at my mem­o­ries and pic­tures of the day, I can’t recall any sig­nif­i­cant breaks in the sun­light above us from morn­ing to sun­set, although we had a fair bit of haze up until mid-morn­ing.

There was no nat­ur­al shade at our camp­site. We were near the top of a rocky out­crop, and the small trees and shrubs offered no help. The opaque walls of our tent blocked the sun while it was rel­a­tive­ly low in the sky. How­ev­er, as the sun crept high­er in the sky, it start­ed to peer over the walls and through the bug mesh. That’s when I played around with repo­si­tion­ing the tow­els and clothes we had been dry­ing on the mesh since the pre­vi­ous night. It worked for a while, but the plan’s futil­i­ty grew evi­dent. We set aside our late-morn­ing lazi­ness and installed the tent’s rain fly. (We’ve since bought a large 3×3 m tarp and poles. Expe­ri­ence is the best teacher.)

In the ear­ly after­noon, I heard the dis­tant bark­ing of a dog, and it wasn’t Porthos. He heard it, too. I walked to the island’s north side to see if we had new neigh­bours. A cou­ple was sun­bathing with their black and white dog on our island’s most north­ern spit of rock. They even­tu­al­ly dis­ap­peared, only to lat­er reap­pear on the rocky shore of Franklin Island, this time with anoth­er cou­ple. A motor yacht had backed into a hid­den bay out of sight, and I assumed every­one was part of the same group. How­ev­er, to my sur­prise, both cou­ples and the dog jumped into the water and swam 185 meters to their island. I was par­tic­u­lar­ly impressed by the dog, who barked with every few pad­dles. Despite being a water dog, I’m not con­fi­dent that Porthos would be will­ing or capa­ble of swim­ming such a span.

They inspired me, so I ven­tured to a few rocky islands alone. And although it was fun, it wasn’t the best idea. First, get­ting in and out of the water is pre­car­i­ous because the rel­a­tive­ly smooth rocks are slip­pery below the sur­face. Sec­ond­ly, Porthos has a habit of anx­ious­ly bark­ing at me from shore instead of join­ing me in the water. He even­tu­al­ly did but to much vocal protest.

Sev­er­al pad­dlers, motor­boats, and jet skis passed by our lit­tle island through­out the day. Despite the dis­tant pres­ence of oth­er peo­ple and their ves­sels, there was a notable absence of sound pol­lu­tion. It stark­ly con­trast­ed with our trip to Beau­soleil Island, sur­round­ed by hun­dreds of water­front cot­tages and near a busy water­way. Franklin Island offered tremen­dous peace and soli­tude.

One of my favourite mem­o­ries from the evening occurred after watch­ing the sun­set over the water. As we descend­ed the rocks to our camp, I looked back to find Porthos sit­ting idly at the island’s top, his body in sil­hou­ette against the vivid twi­light sky. He looked so regal and com­posed, which was entire­ly out of char­ac­ter. He typ­i­cal­ly runs along or ahead of us. I’m thank­ful for what­ev­er dog thoughts com­pelled him to pause and sit his rump down.

Departing the island

There were no thun­der­storms that night. Lily and I tried to stream a Tom Cruise movie on Net­flix as we lay in the tent. I start­ed falling asleep halfway through, so we went to sleep.

We awoke at day­break and repeat­ed our morn­ing rit­u­al from the pre­vi­ous day: cof­fee, pan­cakes, and a farewell to the secret thun­der­box in the woods. As I drank my cof­fee and looked out over the water, I final­ly saw that the mys­te­ri­ous form on the hori­zon that I pre­vi­ous­ly assumed was a sail­boat was, in fact, a stout red and white light­house. I point­ed it out to Lily and snapped a pho­to of her sit­ting with Porthos on the rocks. A lit­tle lat­er, I dis­cov­ered its name was Red Rock Light­house, which stood about 5.6 km south­west of our loca­tion. 

Soon after, we bathed in the water and packed up the camp. The day was get­ting hot, and we planned to return by a much longer route that took us around the south of Franklin Island before head­ing north to Dil­lon Cove. By my mea­sure­ments, we pad­dled about 11 km in three hours, with two brief stops to let the dog cool off in the water. 

Parting thoughts

Over­all, Lily and I are delight­ed with this short trip. My pre­vi­ous reser­va­tions about camp­ing on Crown land have been thor­ough­ly squashed. The arch­i­pel­ago of islands was more beau­ti­ful than I could’ve imag­ined. Our spot was sin­cere­ly the best camp­site my eyes have ever beheld – just not on the first day. I sup­pose it’s all a mat­ter of mood, per­spec­tive, and an infu­sion of sun­light. 

Our camp­ing jour­ney is con­stant­ly evolv­ing. It’s been less than a month since this trip, and we’ve already upgrad­ed to more portable chairs and bought a tarp with poles. Those heavy Cole­mans can eat dirt. Last­ly, it’s time to stop bring­ing so much fresh food and pro­duce, espe­cial­ly chopped veg­eta­bles. Pack­ing non-per­ish­able and dried food will leave more space for beer and oth­er indul­gences in the cool­er. 

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *