Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Park – Wyoming, USA

Map of Yellowstone National Park

In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant, signed into law, the establishment of the first national park in the United States…Yellowstone National Park. This massive national park covers a whopping 3,468.4 square miles; larger than the states Rhode Island and Delaware. 96% of the park is in Wyoming, 3% in Montana and approximately 1% in Idaho. The stories of Yellowstone and its spectacles are well known to people from all over the world – Old Faithful, the roaming bison, the brilliant springs, and the massive waterfalls.

Minh is thrilled once we reached Gardiner, Montana. The gateway city to the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park.

I wanted to see for my own eyes, the landscapes, wildlife and magic, that inspired a country, to begin protecting and celebrating these areas known as National Parks. In today’s turbulent political climate, it seems as if our country has forgotten about these places, and we are unfortunately heading in the complete opposite direction. More and more wilderness areas are under threat each day, as efforts to seek new resources take priority.  At this rate, who knows how much of our planet will be left in 40 years. I wanted to get away from work, politics and the debates and go explore the wild west for myself.

A photographer captures a moment in the black sand basin of Yellowstone National Park

Sarah and I were fortunate enough to be able to rearrange our schedules to have 8 days (5/19-5/26) off together to explore Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. We realized this was an ambitious trip, considering the fact that we were bringing our 7 month old boy along; but we were eager to adventure as a new family. I quickly learned that traveling with a baby, turned simple trips…into expeditions. We carefully thinned out our luggage so that we could make room for all of Minh’s clothing, toys, food and milk. He did remarkably well over both legs of the flight (Richmond to Atlanta then Atlanta to Bozeman) and then the three hour drive to Yellowstone National Park. We stopped frequently along the way to make sure he could eat, crawl around, and get some fresh air. I actually preferred the slower pace of traveling with a baby. It helped removed us from from our hectic daily routines and pace of life back in Richmond. Minh taught us to slow down and take everything in. We often found ourselves parked next to the road feeding and playing with him in the back seat or trunk. We took in the serene, roadside skylines of Montana and Wyoming without much care for anything else.

Yellowstone, a geothermal wonderland

When planning a trip to Yellowstone, the lodging options are both varied and abundant. We were traveling with a baby so we knew that we wanted to be in the actual park. This would help cut down our travel time each morning and allow us to see as much of the park as possible. For those traveling with some more flexibility, there are several good options to explore, such as small towns just outside Yellowstone (ex. Gardiner and West Yellowstone) or even camping options within the park. We booked one of the last spots in the northern section of Yellowstone at the Canyon lodge. Despite traveling during shoulder season to avoid the crowds, all of the lodges seemed very busy. I could not imagine what it would be like during the summer (peak season).The next morning, we were eager to explore the raw and rugged spaces of Yellowstone in broad daylight. There certainly is a palpable pulse in the earth of Yellowstone. This massive park is centered over the largest super volcano on the continent. The landscape never lets you forget that you are treading over a sleeping giant of a volcano. From the steaming hot springs, bubbling mud pits to the spitting of geysers, this place is certainly alive……..and mighty.

The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone landscape

As the first national park to be created, Yellowstone certainly makes you feel as if you are at the heart of it all. I’m glad that we packed for all different types of weather, because at 7500ft, things could change really quickly. In the early morning hours, the park is draped in a blanket of fog which clears usually by about 9:00am. We had sunny days for all of our time at Yellowstone which was very lucky considering the forecast predicting light rain and cloudy skies. In true mountain fashion, we were hit with a snow flurry as we were leaving the park. I was surprised to learn that it is not uncommon to get snowfall as late as July!I was also surprised to learn that it took me quite some time to get used to the high altitude. Strenuous activities tired me out faster than usual and I had a very mild headache the first 24 hours. The decrease oxygen concentration is certainly noticeable in my opinion and it is not recommended for people with pre-existing coronary artery disease to travel at such heights. This lower oxygen content could put the coronary arteries of the heart in a dangerous scenario of supply and demand mismatch, leading to worsening ischemia and therefore angina. So if you have pre-existing coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, or pulmonary hypertension make sure you get cleared by your physician before. (my only medical plug in for this article).

Yellowstone is divided into villages which are centered around main attractions such as Yellowstone Lake, Old Faithful, Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and Mammoth Hot Springs. As a result of this set up, I feel like Yellowstone has a more “touristy” feel, than most national parks. During peak season, cars are lined up back to back and alongside the roads, with frequent stops as visitors often pull to the side for photos of bison or landscapes. One could always take the beaten path and venture into backcountry Yellowstone, for a more secluded experience. With Minh coming along, we actually wanted the “tourist” experience, with access to bathrooms, restaurants and drive-up landmarks to visit. I don’t think he’s quite yet ready for backcountry Ontario canoe camping ;).

We spent the next 4 days and nights exploring all quadrants of this magnificent land. We started each day at the Canyon Lodge for an early, hearty breakfast. We would then drive to the farthest part away from the lodge and then starting working our way back at each site. Although the main attractions (Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring etc) were spectacular sights to see, I think my favorite parts of the park were the lesser known attractions such as the mud volcano and the mouth of the Yellowstone River as it opened up in to the grand canyon of Yellowstone. These were areas where you could get away from the crowds and listen to the breathing of earth below us.

Idaho

The second leg of our adventure took us to Jackson Hole, Wyoming where we spent the next two nights at the Lodge at Jackson Hole. This was our home base for exploring the Grand Tetons and surrounding Jackson area. We were skeptical that we would actually see the tetons because of the predicted rain for the next two days. Still hopeful, we packed our lunches and head out to explore Grand Teton National Park. A short 30 minute drive from Jackson Hole, the teton range certainly has a different vibe than yellowstone. It had more of a national park “feel” that I was used to. The crowds were not as intense and the pace a little slower.

Miraculously, and I don’t know how, but we were blessed with unexpected sunshine that cut it’s way through the clouds and parted a view for us to the teton range. We watched in marvel as more and more of the Tetons emerged into fire before us. The sunshine stayed with us for the rest of the day. Unlike yellowstone, Grand Teton National Park is not situated over a super volcano. As a result, the landscapes are less raw, and more majestic, it appears a bit more hospitable to wildlife but I’m not a geologist or biologist. Within the first few hours in the park, the locals felt like showing off, we caught sight of a mother grizzly and her cubs, moose, elk, antelope and of course bison. We spent the day driving from site to site and sitting in the back of our car, playing with Minh and watching the sun, and clouds revolve through the most gorgeous landscapes.

Before we knew it, our time out west was drawing to a close. We had one last night left in Belgrade, Montana ahead of us before we went home. The drive from Jackson Hole to Bozeman, Montana was one of my favorite parts of the trip. The drive through Idaho was spectacular. We climbed high into the mountains before traveling through some of the flattest land I’ve ever seen. The 4 hour drive brought us just outside Bozeman where we would spent the night at Ross Creek Cabins, a set of charming small cabins run by a very nice couple, Steve and Karen. I highly recommend this place for anyone looking to exploring Bozeman and the surrounding areas. As we sat by the campfire reflecting on the past 7 days, we both realized that this was the first time that we were going to see a sunset out west! We put Minh to bed every night around 7:00pm so we haven’t seen a single one prior. As we sat there watching the orange and purple hues collide, with a gentle dry breeze across our face, I just thought one thing……I love this land.

There are 60 National Parks in the United States. How many have you been to?

Torres Del Paine, Chile – Patagonia

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Map of Patagonia, from National Geographic

At the very end of the world, in the most southern tip of South America, exists the land of wind, fire and ice known as Patagonia. This landscape of spectacular mountains, deserts, glaciers and alpine meadows spans across both Argentina and Chile, from the western pacific coast to the eastern atlantic coast. Curiously, the name Patagonia translates roughly to “land of the big feet”. It originated from the word “Patagão” (or Patagoni) – a name Magellan gave to the natives of this new land he encountered on his expedition in 1520. The Patagoni he described were actually the Tehuelche people, who in general, were much taller than the average European. Their large footprints found in tracks led the first explorers to believe that this was a mystical land of giants. The footprints were in fact large because of the leather skinned guanaco boots that they all wore during the cold winters.

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View from the small Puerto Natales airport, staring into Patagonia

Patagonia is a land of secrets and wonder – even the story behind its name I found fascinating. It has long been at the top of my list of places to visit and finally on January 20, 2017 (inauguration day), we left Virginia to explore this untamed land.Traveling to Patagonia was no easy feat. After a 2 hour drive to Washington DC, we flew 5 hours to reach Panama City, and then 6 hours to Santiago, Chile. From there, it was a 3.5 hour flight to reach Puerto Natales followed by a 2 hour drive to reach Patagonia Camp. We broke up our traveling with a day’s rest in Santiago on both legs of our journey.

Map of Torres Del Paine National Park

I will never forget the flight to Puerto Natales Airport in Patagonia. The harsh winds created fierce turbulence and a hair-standing landing. Upon opening the cabin doors, our faces were hit with the howling winds and cold air of Patagonia. All around us in this desolate airport at the end of the world, were mountains as far as the eye could see…mountains, fields and emptiness. We would now have five full days to explore this mysterious land.

We grabbed our luggage amongst the dozens of hikers from all over the world and hit the road to Patagonia Camp (our base camp and home for the next 5 days). From here, we could rest and relax and plan our excursions into Torres Del Paine National Park each day. I hope to one day write a review about our experience at Patagonia Camp, but for now, all I can say is that it was simply an unforgettable experience with fantastic staff members.

Torres Del Paine National is one of the most popular attractions in Chilean Patagonia. It is one of the 11 protected areas of the Magallanes Region and Chilean Antarctica. The park’s 2422 square kms of mountains, glaciers, lakes, and rivers attract thousands of visitors each year. The centerpiece of the park are the Paine (pronounced PIE-nay, meaning “blue”) mountains and more specifically the Towers of Paine (Torres Del Paine: spanish translation). These are three distinct granite peaks in the Paine mountain range that many consider to be the 8th wonder of the world.

Lago Pehoe

Our first full day in Patagonia was spent on an easy 8.5km hike through pre-Andean xerophilous scrubland. There was plenty of wildlife to see; guanacos, flamingos, condors and grey foxes. The most elusive animal in Patagonia is at the top of the food chain. The puma. I found this to be an unusual terrain for this predator, but clearly it was very successful. The fields were scattered with guanaco skeletons that were picked clean by condors after the pumas have had their fill. I was most in awe at how different everything was from any other place that I had been. The terrain, the geology, the wildlife, climate, and of course the flora.

One of the symbols of Patagonia is the evergreen shrub know as Calafate (box-leaved barberry, berberis microphylla). It is a plant native to southern Chile and Argentina  They were scattered through the fields during our hike and we were able to taste its edible blue-black berries. These berries were used frequently by the locals to produce all sorts of goods, such as jams, flavoring and even beer. Legend says that anyone who eats a Calafate berry will one day find their way back to Patagonia.

We continued our trek through the scrubland and explored caves with prehistoric paintings that dated over 6500 years old. We came back to camp that evening and met many of the other visitors. They were really from all over the world, Denmark, Canada, Britain and the USA. Most who come to Patagonia, travel here to hike the trail to the base of the towers, in the heart of the park. And some talented hikers showed us their watercolor creations of the towers once they reached the base. We were definitely excited for what lay ahead.

In Patagonia, the unpredictable weather makes trip planning essential, and you should always a back up option in mind if your primary objective does not follow through. In this sense, I felt that Patagonia camp did an excellent job of laying out potential options for the next day’s event. They were checking on the weather constantly to decide which trails when be optimal of the next days travel. This was of course a land where you can have all four seasons in one hour. The variability in weather was also drastic even in the smallest distances throughout the park. For instance, it could be pouring rain in the west end of the park and bright sunshine and clear skies on the east end over the mountain ranges. We had originally planned to go to the base of the towers on the second day, however storms had washed away the bridge access. We decided to shoot for the French Valley as the second option, however once we arrived, the ferry (which had been out of commission for the past 3 days) was full.

We went to our third option the Lazo-Weber trail. A 12km hike with a little bit more elevation climb than our first day but not incredibly strenuous. We hiked this trail in the opposite direction from west to east. This particular day ended up being one of our most beautiful days in the park. We were able to get great angles of the paine mountains and had amazing lookouts at the lagoons and meadows. This hike allows for one of the best views at Almirante Nito (8759ft), Los Cuernos (8530ft) and Cerro Fortaleza (9514ft) and the Paine Grande (10006ft). Our hike took us through meadows, forests and mountain tops. One of the most memorable moments for me was eating lunch inside a quiet forest, to shield us from the harsh winds. At the end of the 12km, was a small Patagonian ranch where we sat, ate lunches and drank.

On Day 3, we were itching to get into the heart of the park. We woke up early and head to the ferry to finally reach the segment on the “W” trail known as the french valley. It was a strenuous day of hiking, but the breath taking views, kept us pushing forward.

The French Valley – Patagonia, Chile

As we approached the glacier, we scaled rocks up melting glacier waters and crossed several wooden bridges. This is when things started to get interesting. At several parts of this trail, we were just basically fording through ankle deep glacier water. Once inside the French Valley, we found a quiet spot to eat lunch and gaze in awe at this magnificent glacier. We sat, ate, and listened to the cracking the glacier, as it continued it’s melt and freeze cycle in the summer time. After lunch, we filled our bottles with some of the best tasting glacier water I’ve ever had and caught the ferry to the mainland.

Before we knew it, our time in Patagonia was coming to an end. I can see how someone could easily spend several months here and still not see everything they wanted to. Although we were disappointed about not being able to see the base of the towers, we were grateful for so many things. Most importantly, no one got hurt and the weather was absolutely perfect. It had rained 50 days straight shortly before our arrival so we knew we were incredibly lucky. We visited during the Patagonian summer, and although we had incredible views. Some tour guides suggested to come back in the fall when the park is much quieter and the scenery is even more colorful with the fall foliage. The winds were also apparently less intense. It was not in our fate to see the base of the towers this go around, but I hope that the story  of the Calafate berry holds true – maybe one day, we will find ourselves back to this amazing land.

La Vérendrye 2016 – Quebec, Canada

It is part of the human spirit to be curious. Our desire for exploration has helped define us as a species. When traveling through new lands, the rush of having your senses engaged in something new and unpredictable is hard to describe. For this reason, I often wonder if I will ever canoe trip the same routes again. While returning to a familiar park may offer comfort and reassurance, the allure of paddling new waters and trekking unfamiliar lands is always stronger. This need for exploration brought our latest trip to the great, Canadian, province of Quebec.

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Richmond to Maniwaki, Quebec

Quebec, similar to Ontario, is a paddler’s dream. It is Canada’s largest province, (almost 3 times the size of Texas), and is 12% fresh water by surface area, holding 3% of the world’s renewable fresh water. The parks in Quebec, however are far less visited than Ontario’s, allowing for even more of a remote excursion. For our trip, we decided to venture into Réserve Faunique La Vérendrye (La Vérendrye Wildlife Reserve). The park covers a massive  12 589 square km, with over 4000 lakes to explore. One could spend months at a time exploring this park without ever retracing your path. I was excited to bring along my good friend Min, who has been with me on countless trips in Virginia but never to the Canadian shield.

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Breakfast with the locals

Our drive was 14 hours straight up north to the town of Maniwaki, Quebec in the provincial riding of Gatineau, Population 3930. On the last leg of our road trip, we found ourselves cruising through the back country roads of Quebec on a nearly empty gas tank. We arrived at 11:15pm with only 4 miles left in the gas tank…. (Rule of the northern road: never let the tank drop below half)….we got lucky. After a long day of last minute packing, wrapping up phone calls and e-mails from work, and a worthy drive, we were finally free from human society. We all slept soundly that night. A shot of whiskey with the local First Nations people helped too.

The next morning, we enjoyed a nice breakfast at a mom and pop diner and made a quick stop at Canadian Tire to pick up some last minute supplies before making our way off the grid and into Le Domaine.

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Min charts our course over the next 5 days

Day 1: Le Domaine to Campsite (distance traveled 15km)

The wonderful sight of racked canoes, maps and photos on cabin walls, and sapphire blue waters greeted us when we reached Canot Camping La Verendrye. The staff was very helpful in helping us choose a suitable route. We sorted through the laminated maps and decided on Circuit 15, a short 45km loop.

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Approaching the big waters of Lac Poulter

When we originally set the date for this trip, we were well aware, that we were going during peak black fly and mosquito season. I just don’t think any of us knew how bad it would actually be. As we started to unload our gear, we were greeted with swarms of black flies. We scrambled for our bug jackets and finished the gear load-out in our newly christined bug jackets, spotted with a little bit of our own fresh, blood. We left the Canot Camping beach at approximately 12:30pm and battled headwinds to get to our campsite. With an odd number crew, we would have one person paddling solo. Brian braved the first leg. This proved to be quite the challenge in the windy open waters. We lashed the canoes together for the second half of the trip to keep him from straying into the wind.

The portages in this park were short with the longest being approx 400m. Nevertheless, the black flies made us pay; we suffered heavy bug bite casualties. We realized that in order to have any peace from the bugs, we would need to choose our campsites wisely.  We searched for a site that faced the wind and as far away from dense vegetation and moving water as possible. We were lucky enough to come across one of the pristine beach sites that La Verendrye is known for.

 

We pulled our canoes up on the sandy beach and felt the powerful and liberating, gusts of wind against our faces as we emerged from our bug jackets. It seemed to keep the bugs at bay…for the moment. We left ourselves plenty of daylight to set up basecamp. Our most important piece of gear on this trip was Brian’s treasured Eureka Bug Shelter. It is basically a tarp with a fully enclosed meshed area that can be pegged to the ground, allowing us to live in a bug free zone and carry out basic camp chores. The last time we used the bug shelter was on Little Joe Lake in Algonquin Park (2014). We each set out to accomplish our camp chores, filtering water, chopping firewood, setting up tents, and unpacking bedding.

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First Verendrye sunset

Min had the tall order of preparing meals for the trip. He has never let me down in the past and he certainly did not this time. He had elaborate menus arranged for us, ranging from pastas,  variety of meats, corn breads and dried fruits. We ate like kings and slept early that night to the familiar cries of the loon, officially signifying our return to the northern land. We had made it.

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wannigan and sleeping gear

Day 2: Campsite “15-15”

We awoke leisurely the next morning. Our objective this trip was to take things slow and simply enjoy the wilderness around us. Instead of moving to a new campsite, day after day.  We found that 2 nights per campsite suited our tempo. It felt luxurious. We cooked meals, boiled coffee, and looked over the maps. The bugs limited our activity to mostly the bug shelter, so we turned it into the most comfortable place that we could. We dug a small hole to have a modest fire to keep us company.

Min made quick work of some pine with handy axe work to give us a bench to sit on. It certainly felt like a home away from home. While the flies and mosquitoes buzzed at the bug shelter, we were able to sit and relax and enjoy good conversation. We discovered that interestingly, every night, at approximately 9:30pm, the bug activity just suddenly stopped….no more buzzing, no more swatting at each other. After this time, we were free to enjoy the night without the jackets. We took this opportunity to brush our teeth, bathe in the freezing waters by moonlight and enjoy a large campfire  by the stars. Life was good in La Verendrye.

Day 3: The Best Day

In my mind, Day 3 will go down as one of my favorite days of camping ever. It was my turn to paddle solo, and it was going to be a monster day. 26km ahead of us to the next campsite through some big waters. We set off early in the morning, having packed down the bug shelther the night before. The water was still calm when we launched and we made amazing time. Once we reached the main lakes, it was once again a battle upwind. we paddled against chop and waves to gain only feet at a time. At the halfway mark we came across an unusual set of small island rocks in the center of the lake. In the heart of the wind, we pulled ashore and lashed together the canoes. It was time to refuel.

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Middle of Lac Poulter
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island eggs

We needed to get food and water back into our sun beaten bodies. We hungrily devoured tuna wraps with onions, with generous helpings of dried fruit and plenty of water. Food had never tasted so good. We could feel our bodies recharging and our spirits lifted. We pushed on afterwards towards the second half of the trip. We all dreaded the 3 short portages that waited ahead for us. As we continued to paddle, the unmistakable sound of white water became louder and louder. We had reached “Les Rapides”, the short white water section of our trip.

This left us with two options: Portage around the rapids, or run it. No brainer. Running the short white water segments was exciting and the reward was two fold….we got to skip all portages. We estimated that we were able to shave at least 1.5 hours by running the rapids. This spirit boost was what we needed to finish the final leg of the journey to our next campsite. 26km done.

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Min sneaks in a quick rest before approaching “Les Rapides”

 

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Northern lights signify the beginning of summer

We didn’t speak much as we set up camp. We had only been out in the wilderness for 3 days but it our actions felt deliberate and well coordinated. It was clear that we were getting acclimated to our surroundings. This campsite was at a higher elevation with much less vegetation, the wind broke through camp easily and kept the bugs at bay. We were all exhausted and passed out for a nap shortly after dinner. I awoke around midnight to do some night fishing with Brian. While collecting some water by the shore, the unmistakable emerald hue of the northern lights danced over the forest canopy. We stood there and watched in awe. I have never considered myself much of a religious man, but I do believe that such moments are simply too beautiful for coincidence. They truly touch the spirit. We paddled 26km that day, ran whitewater, found a killer camp site, fished and were treated to a beautiful display of the northern lights. It was the best day of camping.

Day 4: Campsite “10-53”

One thing is certain when you’re out on a camping trip. It will reset your circadian rhythm. Having just come off a night float rotation, it took only a couple of days for me to be fully adjusted. Out in the wilderness, there are no alarm clocks, you simply obey the sun in the sky. When it rises, you rise. We woke to the early cries of loons and the sun beating on our tents. It was a relaxing day of swimming, fishing, photography and paddling. Life out here is pretty simple, and I certainly love it. No busy schedules out here, no pagers, no phone calls, no e-mails. When you’re thirsty, go filter water. You’re hungry? Get the fire going and heat up some food. Dirty? Go swim in the lake. That afternoon we paddled out and fished on different islands.  None of us claim to be great fisherman and only had a few bites here and there. Nevertheless it was still a great time. Maybe one day we will land that giant northern pike.

Day 5: Paddle out

I guess all good things must eventually come to an end. Before we knew it, our time in La Verendrye had approached it’s end. After 5 days in the sunshine, it was time to head home. The water was calm that day as we packed up the remaining bits of gear and tied up the wannigan. It was a good half a day of paddling to reach the Le Domaine beach. We arrived at approximately noon where we met with some fellow canoeists. We chatted briefly and shared our experiences of the circuit. These experiences are what make canoe camping so special. The launch sites are always filled with interesting people from all over the continent, who have traveled great distances to enjoy the same beauty.

Our time in La Verendrye felt far too short and we were able to explore only a fraction of this gigantic wilderness area. I am truly glad we decided to come here and canoe in French Canada.  I don’t think any of us could have asked for anything more: no rain, no accidents, and a spectacular viewing of the northern lights on the first day of summer. I will always remember this land for the incredible scenery, the blue waters and the magnificent sunsets. Au revoir La Verendrye.

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Temagami 2015

Watch a video of “Temagami 2015” here

I have always wanted to share the magic of the north with those who have never been there. Stories and photos could only tell so much; the feeling of sitting on a rock island, drinking hot coffee while listening to the cries of a loon can only be experienced. When I stopped by Toronto to visit my cousins after Killarney 2015, they took one look at the photos and decided they wanted to go on the next trip. All I needed was the spark of interest to set the trip planning in motion. After setting the launch date for August 22, 2015, I began mapping out the route. I’ve always wanted to paddle the waters of Temagami in Ontario, what I better way to experience it than with two first timers.  I wanted it to be a trip they would never forget. I went all out and designed t-shirts for the trip on CustomInk. It actually turned out halfway decent.

So, on August 22, 2015, Brian and I left Richmond, VA to head to Toronto to pick up our cousins Andrew and Eric. From there, it would be another 4 hours to Temagami. We spent the night of the 22nd in Toronto, helping my cousins pack and trying on watershoes and prepping our gear. In the morning, we finished the drive, stopping only at North Bay to take a quick look at the town and eat some lunch at a restaurant called Cecil’s.

We arrived in Temagami at about 6:00pm, from there we head to our lodging for the night, a place called Loon Lodge nestled on an island on Lake Temagami. The lodge is owned and operated by a very nice couple, John and Jenny. I had never stayed at a lodge like this before, it was Canadian in every way. Outside were forest green, restored Keewaydin Camp canoes resting by the dock, plaques of trophy Pike and Walleye hung from the cabin walls, hummingbirds drinking from the feeder and a portrait of Grey Owl displayed proudly in the dining hall. Needless to say, we were in love with the place. We spent the evening swimming and diving off the docks, racing canoes and enjoying the glory of a Northern summer.

August 23, 2015: Monday morning, we each ate a giant breakfast at the lodge. I had forgotten how good Canadian sausages were. A couple of boys related to the lodge owners joined us and told tales of their fishing victories against giant Northern Pike. After breakfast, we packed up our gear and began navigating through Lake Temagami. Our journey had officially begun. We battled choppy waters and headwinds towards Diamond Lake. Halfway into the paddle and several hours later, we came to the realization that we would have to chose a different route.

The water was far too rough and we raced against threatening storm clouds that turned the water black. With such an open view of the wilderness,  we could actually see the rain approaching. The drumming of rain hitting the water became louder and louder until it was finally right over our heads. After paddling a total of 20km that day, we made our way past the Keewaydin camp and into Upper Kokoko Bay where we found a nice rock campsite. I could tell Brian was excited, he’s been interested in the Keewaydin camp for quite some time now. One of the oldest camps in North America, they teach traditional camping and canoeing skills; paddling with woodvas canoes, hauling wannigans and portaging with tumplines. Their camps are broken up into sections of boys and girls. Some of the more experienced sections even take expeditions up to the James Bay. I was surprised to learn that Grey Owl actually was a member of the camp in his youth.

It was pouring by the time we reached the campsite. Brian and I worked quickly to set up the tarps while Eric and Andrew gathered firewood to dry our clothes. We had spicy curry chicken and chickpeas for dinner with a nice loaf of bannock, salami and cheese. The boys had ferocious appetites. As the night wound down, it was clear we were all exhausted. The sound of wind and rain rapping on the tents didn’t even hinder our sleep.

August 24, 2015: We woke up to a chilly morning and lowered the food barrel from the trees. It was time to make some breakfast. Scrambled eggs with cheddar cheese slices in tortilla wraps. Eric and I later took the canoe for a paddle around the bay in search of walleye, while Brian took Andrew for some canoe lessons. He was a natural paddler and was even starting to get down the J-stroke. This afternoon was actually the longest stretch we had on the trip without rain. We found a small rock island where we set our canoes and soaked in the passing sunlight. For dinner we decided to cook some chili with baked corn bread using the reflector oven. The corn bread is definitely something I will be adding to my camping menus, very easy to make and actually really good. For desert we ate smores and drank tea, coffee and hot chocolate. The clouds passed just long enough for us to get a great view of the big dipper.

August 25, 2015: We woke up to yet another morning of overcast. It actually took us a few hours to eat breakfast and pack up all of our gear for the paddle home. At this point, we polished off the remainder of the food. I actually originally planned for an additional day and night out in the backcountry, but our food supplies were low, the fishing unsuccessful and the rain persisted. We decided to head back and get an extra day in at the lodge. We had a 6 hour paddle ahead of us and it was time to feed these guys. We made all 12 packs of oatmeal, as well as the mac and cheese with tuna.

SONY DSCWith satisfied bellies, we made the easy paddle to the portage site. It would be a 570m portage and we were dreading it. It was wet, slippery and the mosquitoes were out. The fiberglass canoes were much heavier than kevlar. In addition, the yokes were not formed very well. We decided to assign two men per canoe for the portage and it ended up saving our spines. The paddle home was much more scenic than the way in. Kokoko Lake had several beautiful island campsites with Jack Pine scattered throughout. There were also shallow marsh regions which reminded me of Algonquin. We then reached our second portage a short 120m that was even rockier. After a quick snack break of gorp, salami and dried fruit we paddled through the beautiful and peaceful Kokoko bay. The water was calm and the paddling was smooth. The boys have come a long way since the beginning of the trip. Their paddle strokes were now powerful and consistent. Despite the rain and overcast, the beauty of Temagami was overwhelming.

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Jack pine
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the crew

Upon reaching Loon Lodge at 7:10pm (closing time at 8:00pm), we were happy to see John and Jenny once again. We were all starving. John fired up the grill and we ate massive meals of fish and chips, burgers and poutine. After the feast, we carried our gear to the welcoming and familar common room of the lodge. We were cold, our faces weathered from the wind, our muscles sore from paddling. We each took turns taking hot showers and felt like kings. I don’t think the feeling of dryness and warmth could never be appreciated enough. We hung our clothes by the imitation fireplace and watched Steven Seagul movies on Canadian television. It amazed me how easy it was to get dry indoors. While we were out in the upper Kokoko bay, hanging the clothes out to dry was basically futile against the  intermittent showers and wind. Even during times of sunshine, there was an invisible mist of humidity which kept things damp.

The next morning we packed up early and said our goodbyes to John and Jenny. John gave us a boat lift back to the access point and we loaded up the car. They seemed likely truly genuine nice people. As we were driving down the Temagami lake access road, the corner of my eye caught sight of a whole family of bears. One mama bear and 4 cubs. The tradition holds true! An epic wildlife sighting at the end of every trip. Tradition recap: Algonquin 2014 (moose), Killarney 2015 (black bear), now Temagami 2015 (family of black bears). The perfect exit to our time in the Temagami wilderness. We decided to explore the town, and hit up markets and local businesses. Andrew ended up buying a dreamcatcher, a necklass and bracelet. I ended up buying some local gin by a distillery near the Georgian bay. Brian picked up a case of beer. We picked up grapes as well and ate lunch in the town, fish burgers with poutine. We also visited an old site where they made wood canvas canoes many years ago. It appeared that the shop was no longer in use.

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grocery store with wood canvas canoe

Before leaving the town, we decided to make the climb up the Temagami firetower. It was a high climb with 157 steps to reach 100 feet. It stands on top of Caribou Mountain 400′ above town and 1300′ above sea level.  The scenery was beautiful as we marveled at the boreal forest and Canadian shield while a beaver plane took off for an adventure.

The main reason I wanted to go on this trip was to immerse my cousins in the experience of true backcountry camping. By the looks on their faces, I knew they had a good time despite rain for four straight days. In a short time, they learned the basics of canoeing, they learned how to make fire with wet wood, they filtered water, they looked after one another and they cooked meals in the wilderness. They portaged difficult trails and carried heavy fiberglass canoes from lake to lake. I think most importantly, they learned the lesson of delayed gratification. If it’s raining, it’s okay to be uncomfortable, wet and cold, as long as you are working to improve the situation.

DSC_0160Setting up tarps, gathering firewood is all hard work under wet conditions, but knowing that we will be warm and dry once again is something to work for. Portages are difficult, but they too are conquered one careful step at a time. By enduring these difficulties that not many people are willing to take on, you are rewarded by being present in the splendor of Canadian wilderness.

Killarney Provincial Park – Ontario, Canada

Watch “Spirit of Killarney” above.

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Road trip to Killarney from Richmond VA.

July 21, 2015 : We embark upon a 15 hour road trip to Killarney Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada. Our mission, to answer the calling of the La Cloche mountains and sapphire waters of OSA lake.  We left at 1:15pm and arrived to Barrie, Ontario at 2:00am spending the night at a Best Western, apparently the only hotel room left in Barrie. Thankfully my brother was able to find us this hotel from his desktop in Virginia. In the morning we completed the final 3.5 hours of the trip to the town of

IMG_5436 Killarney, picking up our canoe along the way at Tyson Lake Marina. Our vessel was an old but sturdy Scott Kevlar canoe weighing in at 52 lbs. The small town of Killarney has a population of less than 1000, it sits on the coast of the Georgian Bay which opens up into the mighty Lake Huron. It is hard to describe the beauty of this town. The air is fresh with a similar atmosphere to a coastal city although without the hint of salt in the air. Just fresh water. It was a warm 27 degrees celsius, dry and sunny with breezes from the lake. We couldn’t believe the water when we saw it, a crystal blue unlike anything we’ve seen before. Most of the people who come to Killarney Provincial Park, stop by this town to visit Herbert’s Fish and Chips, a place where they serve fresh fish caught right out of the Georgian Bay. We had walleye that was simply superb. I now know what they mean when they say that Walleye (pickerel) is the best tasting freshwater fish. After filling our bellies, we headed into the park.

Prior to entering the park, we saw signs warning us that Killarney is open bear country. We took all the necessary precautions before entering the park to camp safely, including a water proof food barrel to tie up a tree at night, we hung bear bells on our duluth packs while we portaged to create noise and not startle any bears. I have always been interested in bears and their behavior, I used this trip as an opportunity to learn more. Fortunately, only black bears are present in central Ontario. They are definitely the least aggressive of the species in North America and will avoid human contact 99% of the time. It is the rare 1% of black bears that have developed a predatory instinct toward humans that we must be wary of. Although there has never been a fatal bear attack in Killarney Provincial Park, this is unfortunately not true of all Ontario parks. The following is a link to all of the fatal bear attacks in North America (notably two incidents at Algonquin Park).

In addition to the predatory bears, one must be cautious of bears that have become too comfortable around humans. Due to the frequent use of camp sites and the improper disposal of food, some bears can develop a habit of lingering around campsites in search of food. These bears can become dangerous when they are defending food or if they are feeling threatened by campers. The best defense one could have against bears is to practice safe camping measures: stay in large groups, make noise while you portage, hanging your food and all scented items in a food barrel suspended high in a tree. Needless to say, LEAVE NO TRACE. Some portagers even had their toothpaste snatched by a bear from their packs in between trips! When all measures fail and you find yourself face to face with an angry bear, bear spray is probably your best defense. I bought it for this trip and fortunately never had to use it against a bear.

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George Lake

While obtaining our camp permits, we were surprised to find that a spot had opened up on OSA lake for our 2nd and 3rd nights instead of our initially reserved Muriel Lake. We were pumped at the prospect of camping in the heart of Killarney. We unloaded our car and packed up our gear at one of the George Lake access points. In terms of size, Killarney is much smaller than Algonquin, yet both are totally different parks. The climate in Killarney is dry with relatively little rainfall throughout the year. It is usually sunny and the quartz mountain range provides a totally different backdrop as well.

The voyageurs in the past used to implement the Hudson Bay start before beginning on a big journey. Basically, on the first day of multi-day trip, they would paddle a very short distance and set up camp for the night, this way, they could get accustomed to the gear and the loads they would be carrying and also could turn back if they noticed that they forgot something. We decided to use this practice as well and it worked perfectly. We camped the first night right on George Lake, we needed as much daylight as possible to set up and cook dinner, and of course to swim! I couldn’t pass the opportunity after seeing young campers plunge from cliffs into the blue waters. We cooked up some hot chicken curry and had some tea, watching the beautiful late sunset.

The next morning, we made our way to the first portage, a short one at only 45m to enter Freeland Lake. The Scott canoe was surprisingly very easy to portage. I attribute this to the well designed yoke which rested comfortably on my shoulders. The Freeland Lake area was more consistent with Ontario backcountry canoe camping that  I was familiar with, hundreds of lily pads and flowers in full bloom.

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First portage of the trip

Sarah spotted a snapping turtle the size of a sewer grate swimming under our canoe. After another 410m portage, we were on Killarney Lake. We noticed that as we went further into the interior, the water became even clearer. Killarney Lake is surrounded by the white mountains and was clearly a popular site for campers. We saw a family of campers settled comfortably on one of the islands. We then traveled across a swampy area with numerous beaver dams, after hauling our canoe across one, we made our last 120m portgage of the day to OSA lake!

Upon first laying eyes on OSA lake, I suddenly understood why the Group of 7 artists visited Killarney for inspiration. I don’t think any camera would ever do this place justice, the clear blue waters allow visibility up to 20ft. The white quartzite mountains seemed to enhance the blue by reflecting even more sunlight. The clouds were spectacular.

After a hot day of paddling, there’s nothing like splashing your face in the crystal blue waters of Killarney

Amazingly, this giant lake only has 4 campsites. As we paddled around, we found that several were already occupied. We took our time searching for a place to set up camp and stopped to have lunch on a small island. We even contemplated staying on this island to camp but decided it would be much too windy without the trees to shield the wind. Finally, We found a perfect island campsite at site #32. A beautiful spruce island inhabited by red squirrels that were apparently tagged with white collars.

Our time on OSA was simply bliss. Perfect weather, with a cool shade among the pine and spruce. We were exhausted and slept for 10 hours after dinner, it was still light out. We swam and sunned on the rocks without a care in the world. There was tiny island just off the shore that we could swim to. Seemed like someone already built a little Inuksuk on it.

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Campsite #32 on OSA lake.

The next day we packed up and we paddled to the unofficial portage trail, a little tricky to find but we found some canoes parked on the trail already. I must commend JeffsMaps once again, this portage is not official and we would have never knew about it without JeffsMap. It was a tough one, at 1285m with an elevation gain of about 65 ft. The trail also had many downed trees along the path. I think it is tradition for me to see a wild animal during the last portage of a canoe trip. The previous year in algonquin park, I longed to see a moose on our 7 day trip. By the 6th day I was starting to lose hope, it was only till the last portage on the 7th day did we see young moose grazing by Tom Thomson Lake.

Such moments I believe are truly religious. It’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t spend a significant amount of time outdoors. In Killarney, a part of me wanted to see a bear, but a bigger part of me did not. During this last portage of Killarney as I heaved the canoe over a down tree, I spotted an adolescent bear at the corner of my eye, running away from us as it heard us approach. After all of my years camping and hiking, this was actually the first encounter I’ve had with a wild bear. It was pretty awesome. I decided to tell Sarah at the end of the portage about the bear sighting. We kept conversing and making noise during the rest of the portage.

The rest of the paddle home was relaxing. As we came closer to civilization, it was nice to see occupied campsites on George Lake and kids jumping from cliffs into the water. As we packed up and headed to Toronto for the night, I couldn’t help but think what amazing luck we had during this trip. Clear skies, warm and dry weather, no injuries, and tons of memories. Killarney is really a magical place unlike any other park in Ontario, truly deserving of the title of the crown jewel of Ontario.

Killarney 2015 Preparation

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Firing up the trangia. Testing with 91% isopropyl alcohol.

The smell of expedition is in the air. Preparing for a canoe trip in the backcountry of Ontario is no easy feat. We decided to plan a trip to Killarney Provincial Park with our 7 day vacation period. What draws us there is the amazing geography, with white quartzite hills, sapphire blue waters and solitude. The La Cloche mountains run through Killarney and are thought to be some of the oldest mountains on earth. At one point in time, they were taller than the Rocky Mountains. The park owes it’s existence to one of Canada’s Group of 7 Artists, A.Y, Jackson. When he heard that the area was to be logged, he petitioned and lobbied and eventually won his way. The birthplace of the park is Trout Lake later to be named OSA Lake after the Ontario Society of Artists. The region was inspiration for countless paintings by Canadian artists.

To start planning for such a trip, one would need to map out the canoe routes and portages. Thankfully, a ridiculously dedicated outdoorsman by the name of Jeff (not sure what his last name is) has created a series of incredibly detailed maps of Temagami, Algonquin and Killarney Provincial Park called JeffsMaps. They include portage elevations, fishing areas, secret trails, historic sites, old trapper cabins etc. I can’t imagine how much time he has spent in each of these parks to create such elaborate maps. The guy actually even posts ALL of the maps online for free (http://jeffsmaps.com).

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Dehydrating beef for sphaghetti. Dehydrator borrowed from my brother Brian, the dehydrated meals connoisseur.

Either way, I wanted to plan a relaxing route that was not too strenous. This is the first extended canoe trip I would go on with Sarah. No heroics this time. I planned a Hudson Bay start, basically no portages the first night, we will paddle out and sleep on George Lake on night one. The next two nights will be spent on Muriel Lake. OSA lake and Killarney lake were as expected, completely booked. Still much to prepare to get ready, but this time of year is like Christmas: Duluth canoe packs in the living room, maps sprawled out and camping gear to tune up. Killarney here we come.

DAY 1: Paddle out to George Lake. NIGHT 1: Camp on George Lake. DAY 2 (Biggest Day): Start the day with an 80m portage, paddle through Freeland L. Portage 455m. Paddle through Killarney Lake. Portage 130m. Paddle through OSA lake. Portage 595m. Paddle through Muriel Lake. NIGHT 2: Camp on Muriel Lake. DAY 3: Hanging out! NIGHT 3: Camp on Muriel Lake. DAY 4: Go back through 595m portage, paddle OSA lake, and make a 1000m portage to George Lake back home.
DAY 1: Paddle out to George Lake. NIGHT 1: Camp on George Lake. DAY 2 (Biggest Day): Start the day with an 80m portage, paddle through Freeland L. Portage 455m. Paddle through Killarney Lake. Portage 130m. Paddle through OSA lake. Portage 595m. Paddle through Muriel Lake. NIGHT 2: Camp on Muriel Lake. DAY 3: Hanging out! NIGHT 3: Camp on Muriel Lake. DAY 4: Go back through 595m portage, paddle OSA lake, and make a 1285m portage to George Lake, back home.

Algonquin Park – Ontario, Canada

Watch the documentary of our trip to Algonquin Park (above)

algonquinMy brother and I last paddled the lakes of Algonquin Park over 20 years ago. One day, we decided it was time to return. While designated a provincial park, Algonquin definitely feels more like a national park. Every year, people from all over the world come to Algonquin to canoe, camp and fish in these pristine waters. The size of the park is immense, at almost 3000 square miles, it is larger than Canada’s smallest province, Prince Edward Island. For an American reference, it is larger than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined.

On the southeast coast, in Richmond, VA, we spent weeks planning our trip, looking at camping gear, watching Kevin Callan YouTube videos, and reading books on Algonquin Park. I don’t think we’ve ever been this excited for any other trip in our lives. The thrill of adventure was invigorating and kept us energized during long days at work. On September 6, 2014, after a 14 hour work day, we made our way north to Ontario. I took the first leg through the night, in the old Honda CRV powered on red bulls and AMP.

We arrived at the Portage Store in Algonquin Park with only half an hour left before the store closed. Thirteen hours of travel and it came down to the last half hour before they stopped renting out canoes – typical Le Brother style. We rented out a Souris River Canoe Prospector 16, a kevlar canoe.

The sun was already setting as we paddled across Canoe Lake, and Little Joe Lake. The cries of the loon welcomed us home as we paddled across glass-like waters. Not a cloud in the sky, nor a breath of a wind.  The small, red flickers of distant fires marked the Canadian shield around us. It appeared that most of the campsites on Little Joe were already occupied. We were worried that we would have to travel much further to the next lake of campsites. As we passed around a bend of forest, we found the last campsite hidden on Little Joe Lake. Both of us were far too tired to get a fire going. We heated up some stew in the Eureka bug shelter and turned in for the night.

The following morning, we woke up fully energized. After a nice breakfast of bacon, eggs and bread, we set forth for our first full day in Algonquin Park. We traversed beautiful portages, streams, beaver dams, and massive lakes to reach Little Otterslide Lake as the sun was beginning to set. We spotted a couple of old men camping who practiced some Canadian hospitality and asked us if we wanted to join and eat dinner with them at their campsite. I’m sure they would’ve had cool stories to share but we politely declined and paddled on to our own rock paradise campsite overlooking the beautiful lake. This was probably my favorite campsite of the trip. We baked some pizza for the night, which looked much better than it tasted. As we cleaned dishes by the lake, frogs and turtles approached us because of our headlamps. A pretty magical night on Little Otterslide.

The sun was out in full force the next morning. We utilized this to our full advantage and swam in the cold but refreshing waters. We washed off the grodiness of a 13 hour road trip, and 2 days worth of paddling and portaging. We picked up and headed off for Big Trout Lake at about 3:00pm. It was a late start to say the least and we knew we were in for a long night. We made our way through amazing marshlands. We traveled deep into the night and used headlamps and navigate our way through the swamps. We had some tough portages during this leg but the arrival to Big Trout Lake was epic.

We paddled out onto the biggest water we have seen yet. We traveled by moonlight which was shining incredibly bright across the still lake. Not a single ripple for kilometers ahead of us. Such moments are religious. Remarkably, we were able to find an island campsite in the dark and unpacked our gear. As I took off my water shoes, I went to brush off some bark on my feet. It did not come off so easily. This confirmed my fear….it was a leech. We grabbed some matches and burned off the sucker.

The next morning we were able to enjoy a full day of rest. No traveling today. It was time to refuel and take in our surroundings. We were able to make a large dent in our food. We fried potato pancakes, baked pies, chopped fire wood and we tried to fish unsuccessfully. Before I knew it, our time at Big Trout Lake had come to an end. At this point, we were half way into our trip and were now on the return loop. It always impresses me how much one can accomplish in a day of camping. I feel like so much happens in one day and no day is like the one previously. No schedules to follow, no traffic and no people. Your lifestyle pace is suddenly changed. You are no longer in control of the day, but you build your day around nature. The weather, the animals you encounter and the elements. It is a soothing experience.

The sky was overcast and rain fell upon us as soon as we started paddling. As night came, the storm descended upon us. We were forced to pull off the lakes because the water was far too choppy and we risked capsizing. We set up camp in the middle of a storm, our headlights were dimming and the wind ferocious. As we staked our tarp poles into the dirt, the gusts of wind would blow them clean off. We lashed them to spruce roots instead. As we continued the fight to tie the tarp, the wind picked up and the storm intensified. We breathed a sigh of relief when the tarp was finally up. Next, we set up the tent right underneath. By this point we were both cold and shivering. We slipped into the tent and took off all of our wet clothing. To be dry again was one of the most satisfying moments I have felt in a long time. Amazing how one can feel after being dry. We felt ready to put on some dry clothes, and face the next obstacle ahead of us. We fired up the snowpeak stoves, and made some delicious sphagetti; such a simple but satisfying meal.

The next morning we woke to explore our surroundings in the daylight. The campsite was a beautiful one under spruce trees and a clean flooring of pine needles. We set out to make a fire to dry our clothing. We ate some chicken tikka masala and rested for the day. We originally planned to paddle that day, but the weather was still overcast and the waters still choppy. We opted to stay an additional day.

The next morning we started the final leg of our trip. It was a big day of paddling culminating in a 2500 m portage. We were rewarded for our efforts. At the beginning and end of this tough haul, we saw a moose eating in some reeds. The perfect goodbye to our time in Algonquin Park.

Upon arrival to the portage store, we felt a sudden sadness as we pulled the canoe out of the water and onto the deck. The park gave us so much in the 7 days we traveled and unforgettable memories. We packed up our gear and found a hotel in Huntsville, Ontario to spend the night. As much as we missed the park, a hot shower and a warm bed was incredible. We spent the next day exploring the town of Huntsville, eating sausages from the hot dog vendors and chatting with the locals. We found an old laundromat to do some laundry in order to have some clean clothes to wear. We then ventured back into the park to pick up some gifts for friends and family from the souvenir shop. We lingered at the portage store to enjoy burgers and poutine before officially departing.

It is easy to see why people from all over the world come to Algonquin year after year. There is a certain magic to it that you can already feel when you’re at the park boundaries. The sheer size of the park and the endless possibilities of adventure that lay ahead is more than enough to create an atmosphere of excitement. The cry of loons that echo in the background, and the gorgeous sunsets particularly stand out in my mind. The place is unlike any other, the sight of canoes on every car, and groups of campers pouring over maps and prepping their gear, each party with a unique adventure in store for them, waiting to be fulfilled.