Friday, July 17, 2020

Not all Trails are Equal : Orillia to Doe Lake

It has been since the Lanark Link (where we got lost) that we've had long stretches of road walking in Ontario. For this we have felt very spoiled and eternally grateful. Today began with 13 km of highway from Rama to Washago, followed by 13 km of a roadways and concessions from Washago to the trailhead in Coopers Falls. There was an astonishing amount of traffic on both roads, and only very narrow shoulders, leaving us little room to avoid the oncoming traffic. While the walking itself wasn't physically demanding for the most part, we always find walking so close to traffic really mentally draining.


As we made out way up highway 44 we realized that if we were on highway 11 instead, which runs parallel just across the lake, we would be passing the famous Candy Shoppe, Webers restaurant and its iconic orange bridge spanning the roadway. In our former lives we did a lot of camping in Algonquin Provincial Park, and I spent three summers living up there while doing my PhD research. Every time we drove up to the park we would stop at Webers for milkshakes and veggie burgers. Lots of fond memories and things to dream of as we plodded along.

When we finally reached the trailhead for the Coopers Falls Recreational Trail, we had the definite sense that we've left the GTA behind. We found ourselves climbing up an exposed piece of lichen covered granite shield, under a canopy of tall white pines. Ahead of us was a beaver pond, and as we paused to eat a late breakfast overlooking the pond a fox bounded quietly past on the springy ground.


Entering the north woods and being surrounded by forest made us feel like we were mentally exhaling and relaxing. After so long walking on rail trails, surrounded by a pastoral landscapes, we are finally in nature. We can be less worried about moving out of the way of cyclists, crossing busy roads, and hopefully good camping spots with water will be more easy to come by.


The trail was beautiful, but not well suited for the cart. The constant ups and downs of walking across the shield on a narrow, meandering footpath with exposed rocks and roots made for slow going. It took us two hours to get the first couple kilometers done. After that I transferred some of the weight from the cart to my backpack, and we dumped out our spare water to lighten the load. This improved the situation slightly, but as trail conditions deteriorated throughout the day the cart became more of liability than a blessing, and eventually led to some profanity laden thoughts.


As the morning progressed we passed numerous lakes. As is typical of shield lakes, many had smooth black water, which provided near perfect reflections of the pink granite rocks along their shores and the towering, feathery pines beyond. Some had lily-pads floating on their smooth surfaces which were covered in white blossoms. Many kinds of dragonflies skimmed across the surfaces.


It was a hot sunny day, and the fresh, tangy smell of pine needles filled the warm air. The crunch of lichen as we walked over exposed rock filled the air. We could hear the iconic 'Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada' song of White-throated Sparrows, the clear, melodic song of Wood Thrushes, the familiar calls of Black-throated Green and Black-throated Blue Warblers, and the occasional complaint of a Blue Jay. Strangely, we also saw an Eastern Towhee flying about among the pines.

At one of the lakes we passed Sean spotted a noble looking beaver snacking on a nice fresh stick at the water's edge. The beaver let Sean approach pretty closely before getting spooked. He dove with a huge, dramatic splash and smack of his tail before making a hasty u-turn to retrieve his leafy snack.


As we wound our way among the lakes we weren't able to stop for too many breaks. The mosquitoes were pretty bad, but the deer flies were absolutely crazy. We must have each had over 40 of them swarming around each of us. The little sanity we had left at the end of the day was entirely due to Ben's bug nets!

There was one section of trail that proved to be a bit tricky. It was a low section of pathway that was swampy, grassy, and overgrown. Two narrow boards had been placed along the trail, which were rotten in places, partially missing in others, and very wobbly altogether. Beneath this boarded 'walkway' was marsh and muck which was at least two feet deep. As such, we had to carry the cart over this section together, all the while balancing on the boards without being able to see where we were placing our feet. Thankfully there was a bench at the far end, giving us an opportunity to catch our breathes and enjoy the view of a small lake.


As we hiked we were following three sets of trail markers and a rough ATV track which had bent the grasses and raspberry bushes somewhat. There were occasional Trans Canada Trail markers, small blue Muskoka Council diamonds, and white Coopers Falls Trail markers. However, in the sections of trail that were open shield we were mostly following faded white blazes on the ground and small rock cairns that some kind person had left. Without those we would likely have been lost several times.

Shortly after noon we emerged onto a newly paved asphalt road. There was quite a bit of traffic on it, but the drivers were very courteous and pulled way over as they passed us.


A few kilometers down the road we were delighted to find the Summerland General Store. It was open, and a lovely Australian lady provided us with ice cream and iced tea. As we sat and enjoyed it at a picnic table in the parking lot we watched a Chipping Sparrow flying in and out of the eaves on the store's porch, and admired a large collection of metal artwork, including some very creative and cool ironwork birds.

As we continued down the road a man stopped his car to ask if were walking the Trans Canada Trail. He look a few minutes to explain the roads we needed to follow to get to the next trail head, wished us well, and continued on his way. He seemed to know the area well, and said he walked the trail often, but later events led us to wonder whether he might have been enjoying a different section trail than the one he directed us to.


We followed the road for a few kilometers, crossing a bridge, then continuing along a hilly, winding road lined with cottages and tall trees. Eventually the pavement ended and we found ourselves on a gravel road, still passing lovely looking cottages. The road became more and more rutted and steep, and still we continued on. A man in a truck, who had passed us several times by this point, stopped to ask what we were doing, and wished us well.

Finally we arrived at the trailhead for the Jevins and Silver Lake Conservation Reserve and Recreation Trail. About 200 m in from the trailhead the path crossed between two beaver ponds in a narrow band of marshy grass. There was a locked gate stretching all the way across the "trail", its posts in the water on each side. Getting around the gate with the cart without getting entirely soaked was our first challenge.  It turned out to be the easy part of this trail.

On the far side of the ponds the trail was truly beautiful, bringing to mind the iconic images of Muskoka. We seemed to be following an old logging road that was covered in thick green moss and light grey lichen. We passed gorgeous lakes and walked among oaks and pines. Pine needles coated the trail, and a slight breeze rustled the canopy overhead. In one of the lakes we passed, we spotted a beautiful brown duck paddling around.

As we continued, the trail started to become more grown in. At first it was mostly just covered in knee high ferns, with a few fallen trees occasionally across it. The track was wide enough where we could recognize it, even where it wasn't well marked.


However, as we climbed and descended, the trail began to disappear. It became clear we were following a snowmobile track, which is probably groomed and more obvious in winter, but which became almost impassable for us. We began wading through chest high raspberry bushes, wild roses, and incredibly sharp grasses.  Any exposed skin was soon crisscrossed with cuts and our clothes were constantly caught in thorns as we trekked through.  Trail markers were by this point few and far between, and those we saw were mostly on the backs of trees, intended for people travelling in the opposite direction.

The most challenging section came when we had to cross a 'lake.' This turned out to be a meadow of incredibly sharp, shoulder high grass and shin deep mud with no markers or visible trail at all. There was a vague suggestion of tracks from an ATV that went through at some point in the past. Sean led us down those tracks, out into the meadow and back. We couldn't see where we were placing our feet, and at some points the water and very smelly mud was deep. It was a real struggle to get through this section of the trail with the cart. All I can politely say is that that mess did not qualify as a trail under any definition of trail I've ever read - making this perhaps the most difficult section of the Great Trail (including the East Coast Trail, and Fundy Footpath) that we have yet been on.


After crossing the 'lake' and ascending another hill we'd had enough. We decided to find a spot to camp. It turned out to be another few kilometers of climbing up and down though raspberries and grasses, still amidst our swarm of ever hungry deer flies, before we found a lake with water and a place to stop at 8 pm. Our best guess is that we are 2 km south of Doe Lake and the roadway into Gravenhurst,


As I write these sentences midnight has come and gone. We watched a gorgeous sunset on the little lake we are camped beside. We listened to the beeping of a Common Nighthawk and a Whip-poor-will vigorously repeating its own name behind us. We can hear frogs in the pond, and something making enormous splashes periodically in the still water - either large fish or a beaver slapping its tail. Something keeps trying to chew our food bags - probably a red squirrel. Our wet clothes hang above us in the tent and we are both exhausted.  The stars are very bright in the sky, and the night air is cool and fresh. Today was tough, and left us sore, cut and eaten, but it is absolutely amazing to be out here right now!

As our licence plates used to stay 'Ontario yours to discover', and so we are looking forward to pushing on tomorrow!

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