Five Picture-Perfect Postcard Moments—Reflections on Camping in a Yurt in Algonquin Park
Moment One— Getting Out of the Urban Jungle and Into the… Yurt!
In an effort to expand our hiking season, a hobby that has kept us happy and healthy all summer and autumn long, we decided to try YURT camping in Ontario ’s best-known Provincial Park . In all honesty, we had never even heard of yurts before reading an Ontario travel magazine last New Year’s eve. We were sitting on the couch at a friend’s cottage, perusing their reading materials, when we spotted a picture of a green tent-like structure in the middle of a winter landscape. This visual oxymoron drew our attention and we plunged into an article about this fantastic winter camping experience.
Essentially, a Yurt is an all-season tent—a tent with a hexagonal wood and aluminum frame, plywood floors, one electrical outlet and a space heater. The walls of the tent are an insulated (quilt-like in appearance from the inside) green plastic tarp with heavy plastic windows and a lockable, metal-framed door. Inside, you have enough sleeping space for six on two bunk beds, each with a double bed base and a twin top mattress. You’re also provided with a patio table and six chairs, a shelf, and an overhead light. Outside, you can use the picnic table and fire pit, as well as a little roofed area for cooking. For light housekeeping and winter maintenance, there is a shovel, broom and dustpan as well. During the summer months, each yurt is accompanied by a BBQ. Who needs an RV when you’ve got a sweet set up like this?
The drive up to Algonquin Park is pretty smooth, even though it can be a bit long depending on the time of day you decide to leave the city. However long it takes to cruise up Hwy 11 and onto Hwy 60, the Canadian Shield will provide some amazing landscapes for you to enjoy along the way. Huge boulders and rockwalls line highway 11 and highway 60 (the highway that runs right across the park) is one way to sight wildlife. On one of our trips across Hwy 60, we saw a deer and on the way back we caught sight of a family of moose. Take caution when driving along Hwy 60—the signs that tell you that wildlife is near aren’t just for your information—slow down and you’ll ensure that you won’t be involved in an unsightly accident with a majestic animal.
The park staff are incredible people—knowledgeable and friendly people that you can tell really love where they work. We had tons of questions as first-time “yurters” and they had all the answers! For example: Which are the best trails for hiking? Are the x-country trails groomed yet or are we too early? And, the most important question… how far is our yurt from the washroom? To summarize the answers: Any trail is ideal for hiking in winter provided that you have the proper footwear and clothing. We were too early for groomed x-country skiing. Our yurt was about a ten minute walk from the comfort station (though a pit toilet was a shorter 5 minute walk away).
There are 7 yurts for rent in the Mew Lake Campground, which is about half-way into the park from the West Gate (there’s an 8th yurt in the park at Achray Campground). These tents are really gaining in popularity and it’s best to reserve as early as you can. You can reserve your site online or by phone for a $12 charge. You’ll also need to put down a $100 deposit at the time of reservation. There is a two-night minimum stay (about $75 per night) and you’ll have to pick up your key at the West Gate of the park. Be sure to arrive before the office closes because you’ll need that key to gain access to your yurt!
Yurts are fairly low-maintenance and provide great comfort from the winter cold. There are a few quick rules to follow—no dogs, no cooking inside the yurt and no smoking. Also, don’t forget to pick up some firewood—you’ll want a hot fire to warm you up at night! On that note, it’s also a good idea to bring an extension cord for your car’s block heater in the event that the temperatures dip really low overnight—you’ll want to make sure that your car will start when you need it!
At the office, there’s a wealth of information; trail guides, maps and books about the area and its wildlife to leaf through. We picked up a bunch of trail guides to help us plan our itinerary for the next few days. The trail guides have been produced by the Friends Of Algonquin for the hundreds of thousands of people that visit the park each year. Once you’ve asked your questions and have loaded up on the guides of your choice, it’s off along Hwy 60. Take note of the km markers along the route—they’ll help you find the trail heads later on (i.e., each trail begins at a certain km mark, as outlined in the park map and guides).
Moment Two— Walking In A Winter Wonderland
“In the lane, snow is glistening… a beautiful sight, we’re happy tonight, walking in a winter wonderland…” As Christmas was fast approaching, this seemed like the perfect fit of a song to have roaming around in my head as we ventured along on the untouched snowy trails. Big glops of snow resting on tree branches, the soft gurgle of the river escaping through gaps in the ice, provided such sheer solitude. The crunch of our footsteps seemed to echo through the trees.
There are 17 day trails to choose from in Algonquin Park , many located right off Hwy 60. Little wooden sign posts with km markings are key to successfully navigating the trail network. For example, the Bat Lake trail begins at km 30 and Mizzy Lake is at km 15.4. As suggested by the friendly office staff, we opted for the 5.5 km Bat Lake trail that’s “full of ups and downs.” They weren’t kidding—the trail definitely takes you up inclines and down slopes and you meander along past hardwood, coniferous trees, and small streams. In this case, we were really lucky that a couple had been through earlier that day, leaving very helpful tracks in the dense snow because we could focus on our surroundings instead of keeping a lookout for the next trail marker.
We really hadn’t done much winter hiking before this trip and found the experience to be so relaxing (yet a workout at the same time J ). We were very thankful for our multi-layered approach to clothing and as we moved along the trail, we seemed to remove or open one layer at a time. Good footwear is essential—not just because the trails can be long (i.e., ranging from about 1 km to 11km)—but because you’ll need to keep your feet as comfortable and as dry as possible to deal with the elements. We also invested in some SmartWool socks for the trip, which proved to be marvels of sock technology! They aren’t that thick but they kept our feet warm and dry, wicking away any humidity from our skin.
For this trip, we also decided to try out some reusable hand warmer packets. They turned out to be a good purchase too, especially for the longer hikes. Mountain Equipment Co-Op has some neat things for hiking trips. We’ve convinced many of our friends to invest in a little travel pack for day hikes (either a backpack-style or purse-like style). We’ve had ours for 7 years and it’s till in great condition! Winter or not, we stocked our pack with water, trail mix, a packet of Kleenex, a mini safety kit, an emergency blanket (secured in a very tiny packet that weighs next to nothing) and an extra pair of socks (just in case of accidental “creek exploration”).
You can check out Algonquin’s trail site for complete descriptions of the trails and their exact locations at http://www.algonquinpark.on.ca/mustrails/daytrails.html
Moment Three— Silent Night, Fiery Night
We weren’t prepared for how quickly it got dark in Algonquin—before 5 p.m. , it was like night had fallen! So, we put our fire-starting skills to the test and were proud of the bonfire that resulted. In contrast to the stark darkness surrounding us, it was nice to have a constant light source that would help us navigate the campsite and assist us with our meal preparations. Instead of a whole cookstove, we opted for a single element that runs on portable mini-fuel canisters.
With our one pot and one element, we prepared our meals and cups of well-deserved hot chocolate in the covered cooking “shelter.” The “shelter” is a high-roofed, wooden platform with a shelf for your gear along the inside of its perimeter. As the snow came down, it was great to have a little area to cook in without worrying about the snow.
Later on at night, we set up our camp chairs around the fire and nursed our hot chocolates as we gazed into our fiery masterpiece. The sky was finally clear and full of stars for us to admire. About an hour into our relaxing fireside chat and star gazing, and despite our clothing and blankets, we became very, very cold. So cold, in fact, that we decided to warm up for a
little bit in the car with our hot chocolates and a bit of Harry Potter’s Order of The Phoenix on the radio. We figured a quick five-minute warm-up would be good not only for us, but for the car as well!
Moment Four— Chicka-dee-dee-dee-dee-dees and Other Critters
We’ve been very surprised (and sadly disappointed) in the lack of critters that we come across when we’re hiking. That wasn’t the case in Algonquin! We befriended some downright cheery birds (and a few bossy ones) during our stay at the park. Whether we were just chilling out (no pun intended) at our site or out on the trails, birds of all colours and sizes seemed drawn to us. That being said, I think that the colder weather makes it very difficult for them to readily find food and perhaps that they were looking at us as large natural grocery stores. At any rate, they were happy to land on our shoulders or hands to check us out, even moreso if we had some seeds or bread to share. Of course, with little friendly birds come the big, bossy birds like blue jays. So, when one brave little bird would approach us for some grub, the jays would often chase after them for it instead of paying us a visit (those cowards!).
On our way to the comfort station one morning, we stopped quickly in our tracks to get a glimpse of the peculiar animal that was crossing our path. We couldn’t quite place it— it looked a bit like a weasel but not quite. Later on, we quizzed the park ranger we met at the comfort station and he believed that we had come into contact with the resident martin. The park is said to be full of marten and fishers.
As we were driving along Highway 60 one afternoon, I suddenly asked Rob to stop the car. Ok, so it was more like “Oh my God! Rob! Stop the car! There’s a family of moose over there!” Yes, just to our right, there was a family of moose fast approaching the side of the highway. They came close but kept a safe distance from us and from the road. It’s REALLY important to observe the highway’s speed limits for yours and their safety. Unfortunately, later on that night, we passed by a deer and a driver (and their car) that had been involved in a very sad accident. Though the driver was okay, his car and the deer were not.
Overall, Algonquin is full of wildlife and you’re sure to see animals of all kinds during your stay!
Moment Five— Road Trippin’… to North Bay
A sun set a short half-hour after we arrived at Algonquin Park , leaving us in darkness. As we weren’t really familiar with our new environment, between discussions about starting a fire or cooking something to eat, a third option was formed—a road trip to North Bay ! Of course, we had no idea just how far away North Bay was from where we were but since it was only 5 o’clock in the afternoon, we figured that we had a bit of time to kill! So, we hopped in the car and we were off in search of North Bay . Well, about two and a half hours later, we found ourselves on North Bay ’s Main Street and decided to check out the local scene. A restaurant called The Moose whose sign boasted “Your Northern Roadhouse—Ten million Wings Served” seemed like an appropriate choice for dinner and in we went! The place had a cabin-like feel to it; lots of wood, brick and booths. The staff was very friendly and they offered us their very own “Subzero” beer which is apparently brewed at -2 C. For under thirty dollars, we were stuffed to the gills and very happy. There are lots of cool shops along Main Street : The Nutty Chocolatier (homemade candies and chocolates), Mud Shark (a used CD and DVD rental shop), Taste of the World (a multicultural grocer), and a variety of bars, including The Wall (the student bar and touted as THE place to be).
After exploring Main Street and driving around North Bay (just to check things out), we settled back into our car for the ride “home.” Once we arrived at our yurt, we prepared our bunk and got cozy. We turned on the space heater and hopped into our sleeping bags, unsure of what a night in the yurt would feel like. As it turned out, my sleeping bag in combination with the heater kept me far more toasty than I thought possible, so I had to unzip to cool off a bit—which I really couldn’t believe! That being said, I invested in a bag that guaranteed to keep me warm into the minus 10 range. Without a decent bag, I would have been comfortable regardless—perhaps not toasty—but definitely comfortable enough to sleep. Rob was just fine in his regular bag and fell asleep way before I did!
In the end, as we were packing up our gear on the day of our departure, we couldn’t help but feel that we had accomplished something. At the very least, it felt like we had tried something new and that we were able to cross something off our very long “To Do” list. Winter camping in a yurt was a fantastic experience. Next time, we’re going to try tenting it! Wish us luck (or at least warmth)!