Sunday, October 1, 2017

Central Ontario Loop Trail

A few weeks back (I know, this post is long overdue) I embarked on a new touring experience for me - bikepacking - and took off for Ontario, Canada.  The website has become one of my favorites and has provided a lot of inspiration for a new way of bicycle touring for me.  One of the bikes I have, a Surly Krampus, is the perfect vehicle for this type of touring that is generally done on singletrack, gravel and unimproved roads as it's the right type of geometry and has 29" x 3" tires.  Bikepacking can lead to a bit more of an adventure, has some challenges but the places you can go and see are flat out incredible.  The setup on the bike is pretty different but in the end it still comes down to putting some gear on your bike and getting out there.

The Central Ontario Loop Trail and GPX track (the file you can input into a GPS and follow the whole way) were put together by a guy named Miles Arbour by connecting a network of rail trails, ATV trails, gravel and dirt roads and a bit of pavement thrown in for good measure.  All told, the route is around 280 miles and meant to be ridden over five days.  Stubborn 'ol me thought I could do it in four...I have a feeling you, the reader, already know how that will turn out!

I took a couple days to drive up to Fenelon Falls, Ontario.  It's a beautiful little town along the Trent River and a bunch of waterways.  The route I would be doing would be along a large part of the Trent River and Lake Ontario.  It was a chilly first day that didn't get above 55 degrees but once you got moving it was all good.

Revelate Designs makes some great bikepacking gear that is really easy to use and lightweight.  So what was I all carrying in each?
  • Handlebar harness -  Inside the dry bag I had a compressible pillow, sleeping bag, camp towel and tent body (not the poles or stakes) along with some toiletries
  • Top tube bag - Camera tripod and snacks
  • Small bag along top tube and seatpost - Various tools, spare batteries for Garmin eTrex 30x
  • Frame bag - Mini pump, lock, tent poles and stakes, spare tube, inflatable sleeping pad
  • Seat post bag - extra shirt, clothes and shoes for off the bike, some other clothing, rain jacket
  • Camelbak - 100 oz. water bladder, long sleeve shirt, merino wool quarter zip (lightweight but very warm), stocking cap and warmer gloves and things I wanted to keep on me all times like truck keys, cash/cards, passport, etc.
Pretty minimal setup.  The route went through a bunch of towns so I didn't bring any food (other than snacks) and a camp stove. 

Some of the rail trails up there are like the ones here.  Smooth, graded and in great shape.

This is in Lindsay, Ontario.  Canadian flag was everywhere due to the year-long celebration of Canada's 150th birthday.

While riding along the Trent River they have a lock system that allows boats to come through and it's really neat to see.

Other parts (the majority, honestly) of the rail trails are not like the ones at home.  They aren't graded, have a lot of loose rock and are open to ATV traffic so they get chewed up and are rough.  I had a decent number of ATVs pass me the first day.

It had rained a bunch this year and the trails are ridden more by ATVs so they can be in rough shape.  I ended up turning around and heading back to the town right before this (about a mile back) and took some gravel backroads to hook back into my route.

This was the start of a fire route.  They're unimproved roads and while this part wasn't fun (it's steeper than the picture shows and huge, loose rocks...I walked my bike up this) the rest was great.  Just enough mud puddles to keep it fun and roads of packed sand.

I then entered the Garanaska Forest which began the real adventure for the first day.  It started out innocently and was kind of fun.  Packed sand roads which my bike handled well with the 3" wide tires. 

Then...ugh.  The next couple photos don't give enough justice to the difficulty level.  With the rain and ATV traffic (these were pure ATV trails, not rail trails) it chewed up the sand to three inches of deep, soft sand and there were giant rocks throughout.  Some grades up and down were greater than 10% which I walked since the bike kept coming out from underneath me and there were washouts over a foot wide and deep at times.  This was slow traveling and a lot of hike-a-bike.  I went about five miles in two hours.

Miles, who developed the route, ended his day after the Garanaska Forest and camped.  I had planned on going to Coburg which was another 30 miles.  I made it, but I got in later than what I wanted and was wiped and opted to get a hotel to recover.

Lake Ontario was a nice respite from the adventures in the forest.

The next day involved 30 miles on paved backroads along Lake Ontario and called the Waterfront Trail.  It was signed the entire way.  As I was leaving Coburg I saw in one of the city parks the start of a cycling event that was a fundraiser.  I ended up riding with a lot of the pack for a while and met some really nice people.  One person made the comment: "I'm not sure if I should be impressed you're keeping up with us on that type of bike with all that gear or disappointed in ourselves that you're keeping up with us."  Maybe a little of both!

That's actually a road - Canal Road.  Looks to be a nice one!!

Maybe not.  I backtracked and went a different route.

Once I got back on track and through a town my GPS told me to make a turn into what looked like a random field.  I wasn't sure what I was getting myself into.

I ended on some awesome singletrack and through a city park.  Was a highlight of the day!

The Lower Trent Trail was also a highlight.  A great rail trail that didn't allow ATV traffic so I knew it would be in great shape and I could make up some time.

That photo was taken along the Hastings Trail which was riding on softball sized rocks.  My mistake of trying to ride too many miles in a day was catching up to me.  I was still 20 miles from my camp, the light was fading pretty fast and I wasn't in a great mood.  When I was researching the route before I went up I knew the Trans Canada Trail was close to where I was.  I also knew the northern half of the loop I still had to ride was going to be rough and meant two more 75 mile days.  I made the decision to ride the Trans Canada back to the start which took off 50 miles and would be easier riding.  Ended up being a smart decision.  Had I done five days and been more strategic with where I stopped each day I could have easily done the whole loop but I overestimated the pace I felt I could travel with the bike and setup I had.  Oh well - learned something for next time!

Start of day three was great.  Smooth trail and through a lot of farmland.  Reminded me a lot of home.

Day three ended in Peterborough which was a good sized town and had some great places to eat.  Also had one of the best city campgrounds I've stayed in and since I was on a bike they only made me pay $10 instead of the normal $35 for a tent site.

The next day was smooth sailing back to the truck in Fenelon Falls.  A bit of climbing took me to a long trestle that was an awesome view over the tree line.

Until next time!

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

In early June my buddy Justin and I trekked up to Ely, Minnesota for a weeklong adventure in the Boundary Waters.  For those not familiar with this area it is a collection of lakes and streams in the Superior National Forest and represents one million pristine, undeveloped acres on the United States-Canada border.  Directly across the border in Canada sits Quetico Provincial Park which adds another one million acres of lakes and wilderness.  The area is administered by the US Forest Service and National Park Service and contains 1,200 miles of canoe routes, 2,000 backcountry campsites and a lot of hiking trails and portages.

We had talked about doing a river camping trip in the kayaks but got the idea last fall to do the canoe trip instead.  Go big or go home, right??  This meant five days in the wilderness with no running water or showers, cell reception and the possibility of running into moose and bears.  Sign me up!!!

We went through an outfitter (Ely Outfitting Company) so all we had to do was show up with clothes and a first aid kit.  They provided a two person, lightweight kevlar canoe, camping gear, a backwoods kitchen setup, packs, food, fishing rods and tackle, etc.  It made it pretty easy to plan.

We drove up and took the scenic route through Duluth so we could see Lake Superior and camped at Tettegouche State Park.  I had camped there five years ago on a cycling trip around the lake and it was such a great spot.

The next morning before we took off to Ely we did a short half mile hike to High Falls within the campground.  It's the biggest waterfall fully in the state of Minnesota and pretty cool to see.

Off to Ely!  After arriving at the outfitter we watched a short video on the Boundary Waters that showed how to handle various situations (black bears seem pretty friendly) we got an overview of our gear, how to move the canoe and we would then be off to launch the next day.  Here's our approximate route:

The red/yellow spots are crossings where you have to take all the gear out of your canoe, carry the canoe across what is essentially a hiking trail (anywhere from 20 yards to over a half mile) and then get all your gear.

Finally - we were off!

The first portage after Snowbank Lake was ridiculously busy.  It was also the second longest portage we had in the entire trip so we had to jump right in.  After a few portages, however, we got our system down and started to get through much faster.

We stopped at one of the open campsites along the way for lunch.  Why am I drying my shirt on the left?  Probably because it was warm and DEFINITELY not because I fell into the water after losing my footing on a mossy rock getting out of the canoe.  Yeah, definitely not that...

Action shot of the man, the myth, the legend...

For those that asked how much gear we took - a lot.

This is what each portage looked like.  Some were more obvious than others and we navigated mostly by looking at the map, setting our direction with the help of a compass and trying to identify various land features to make sure we were on the right path (i.e. a small island, against a shoreline, spotting a marked campsite, etc.) but we did use offline maps on our phone's GPS as a backup at times.

Our campsite the first night.  We were tired boys.

Most of the food we were given was backpacking type food where you just have to add water and re-hydrate.  The first night we had fresh food like steaks (they were, uh, a little tough) and baked potatoes.  But the rest of the food was pretty good.  And we were also introduced to a little slice of heaven called Fry Bread.

Hanging our food packs from bears.  Notice the claw marks on the tree.  We didn't see any on the trip but there were signs of bears in spots.  To avoid the chance of coming across one in your tent you're supposed to hang your food pack 150 feet from your tents and the latrines are 150 feet away from that as well.  No bears that night but we were treated to a great, calm morning on the water.

All water has to be boiled or filtered.  We were given a pump filter but for drinking water Justin and I brought LifeStraw water bottles.  The filter is part of the lid and straw so all we had to do was dip the bottle in the lake, screw the cap back on and we were good to go.  Highly recommended.

Our next campsite was on a small island so we had it all to ourselves.  Justin thought it would be a good time to bust out the hammock which was a perfect idea.

Even had some time to do some fishing!

Everything is scenic out here.

The lake the next morning (Lake Insula) started out very serene but the wind picked up and we fought some wind and current while we paddled two hours to get through that very big lake.  After the two hours we entered the burn line.  Six years ago 10% of the Boundary Waters caught fire (from lightning, not someone that didn't put out a campfire, thankfully) and the re-growth is coming back very quickly.

We pushed on and somehow made it all the way to Lake Two on the third day.  This meant we could stay at the same campsite for two nights in a row and we lucked out on an incredible one.  We were on a peninsula and had a great spot for a hammock, a really good fire pit and a rock ledge on the back that had great views.  We even had cell phone reception which was a nice surprise and could check in back home.

Who doesn't like hammocks??

The next day was spent laying around, fishing and relaxing.  On our last day we only had about an hour of paddling to arrive at our pick up spot.  Since we had cell reception on the peninsula (but not 100 yards away from it in several directions oddly enough) we requested an earlier pick up time and got on the road.

It was a trip we'll never forget.  It was hard work in spots (all the portaging, fighting wind at times, things like that) but unplugging for a week and getting back to some simplicity was well worth it.  And surprisingly, two accountants that sit behind a desk all day didn't get lost!  I call that a win!  Unless next time...