It has become a tradition: every year we embark on a back country expedition with some very dear friends and our troupe of littles. With the kids getting older and more capable, each year we take our journey a little bit further and a little bit longer, exploring bold and exciting new areas of the great outdoors. Our ventures, for the past three years at least, have taken us to the eastern arm of North Tea Lake, where sandy beaches, serene islands and whisper-quiet winds have taught our children, and ourselves, that pure beauty and pure joy do not require swim up bars, boutique shopping, or a passport, though they do admittedly require a decent amount of hard work, careful planning and, of course, plenty of ooey, gooey marshmallows.
Camping has always been a part of my life, and while I do completely respect that it is not an activity for everyone, it is personally one of the highlights to any summer vacation. Being surrounded by uninterrupted beauty and, well, nothing else, provides me with a sudden sense of where I stand in the world. The fact that one has no choice but to be ‘unplugged’ in the deep recesses of nature, allows for a true feeling of being away. No work or business can interrupt my thoughts, there are no notifications or reminders, I can’t even blog if I want to! I just. Slow. Down. I love travels to all corners of this planet, but the places where wifi can’t reach me are, in my humble opinion, particularly special.
The first summer when COVID shut down the extent to which we can travel, people needed to find some sort of salvation and retreat from the isolating confines of their homes, and for many that reprieve came through wilderness adventures and exploring our own backyards. The sites for the upcoming summer were scooped up and reserved before the second week of February, the lakes were crowded, and every shelf at MEC was picked clean. At first this frustrated me because it meant that our quiet and private getaway suddenly came with neighbours, but I then came to appreciate that it also meant that more people were getting themselves outside and into activities they might not have otherwise thought to do. Yes, it meant hearing Dock Rock anthems from across the serene lake when I’m trying to find peace and quiet, but I still found myself smiling at the thought that whoever it was that brought their stereo across multiple portages, was nevertheless discovering something new. Still, fortunately this year’s excursion saw a return to normal, with the lake empty, the loons sharing their song, and nary a note from the Summer of ’69 could be heard.
The trip itself, for those curious or perhaps interested in trying it out, starts at the Kawawaymog Lake access point, in South River, about a 4-hour drive from Elora. We split it up to spend the night before in Huntsville, which allowed us to hit the water earlier in the day so we could take full advantage of our time. A paddle from the access point will take you to a beautiful winding river, which is where the world truly starts to shut down and all interruptions melt away. You then have a quick 135 metre portage, another stretch of river, followed by a slightly longer 255 metre portage. This is where North Tea Lake begins: standing on the western arm, which has plenty of wonderful campsites to explore, but our preference is to continue on to the Eastern Arm, where one can discover the mythical, magical Candy Island (circled in yellow in the image above), and it’s sisters: Adventure Island and Candy Island 2, all of which have provided us shelter for three solid years now. All told, it’s an approximate 15 kilometre paddle and it’s worth every effort. The portages are quite manageable and the kids have been great at helping out with carrying their fair share of paddles, bags and water bottles. Likely motivated by the aforementioned suggested magic of the island that awaits them…
It’s important to be prepared when one heads out onto a back country trip, remembering to pack light, pack smart and research what you’re doing ahead of time. Most importantly: keep your eyes peeled along the way for gummy worms and gummy frogs, which seem to pop up in the most curious of places, and always in numbers equal to the head count of the kids on the trip. No-one really knows where these candy creatures come from, but they seem to appear most commonly after a light rain, along forest lines, and when discovering new lands. We’ve been lucky enough to find them on all of our sites, and though I can’t promise you’ll have they same fortune, I do assure you that the magic, play and imagination these little critters bring out in our children brings a joy to my heart that I’ll never fully be able to express.
Candy aside, I also recommend being prepared for a few day trips out on the lake; while settling in on a site is great, it doesn’t mean you need to stay put the entire time (even though Candy Island is private with only one campsite and has not one, but two sandy beaches to play on). If I were to make one recommendation above any other with regards to a quick day trip, it would be to paddle on over to the portage that connects North Tea and Manitou, where you’ll be rewarded with an amazing waterfall/rapids experience. It was something we’d not done in past years and I wish now that we had, because it’s where my daughter encouraged and inspired me to be brave and try something I’ve never done before.
I consider myself a confident and comfortable swimmer, having taken lessons growing up and spending my fair share of time in various pools, waterparks and lakes across my 40+ years. That said, I also have a deep respect for how quickly water can turn the tides and work against you. I admire the beauty of a waterfall and the sheer power of rushing rapids. As such, it had never really dawned on me that these venues, when treated with respect, can be a fabulous playground to interact with. So when Nora wanted to trek out into the rushing water, I was, to put it lightly: apprehensive. Once assessing the risk (which I want to stress here was done with scrutiny) and venturing out, however, playing in the rushing waters and scaling up the falls resulted in one of the most memorable parts of our whole trip. Seeing and hearing the delight and wonder from my daughter lit up my life, and her bravery pushed my comfort zone in a very positive way. By no means were we the first to do this, nor will we be the last but it’s no less a precious memory for me and, should you decide to take this trip, I can’t recommend this little aside enough.
Our trip this year may not have seen the best weather, but as Alison and I work really hard at with all aspects of our lives: we made the most of it. Cooler mornings meant hot chocolate for the kiddos and the campfire that much cozier. An early morning rain storm meant we stayed in our tent for cuddles and stories just a little longer than normal. The choppier waters likely contributed to a quieter time on the lake and tranquility in the hammock. We are not naively optimistic people, but we do believe that adapting to the conditions leads to happier results than succumbing to them. Regardless of what adventures you find this summer, I hope that, at least for some portion of your time you get the chance to remove yourself, completely, from the day to day stresses and pressures we all face from those pesky devices we hold so tight. Be it for a week, and day or even an afternoon, we all deserve to be off the grid and explore the new, rediscover the familiar and sink into the silence.