A first-timer's guide to winter camping in Algonquin Provincial Park
A yurt makes for a warm retreat, writes Shuang Esther Shan , but there's nothing like a cookout in the snow
Our car quickly veers into the next lane and back to avoid a pack of charcoal-feathered wild turkeys on the snowy Highway 60. I lean across the car to catch a better glimpse of their vibrant red faces and jokingly propose to my friends and boyfriend that if we see a moose, we should head back to Toronto because that would mean we achieved the ultimate goal of our winter camping trip.
As we pass by more icicle-draped rock cuts and snow-frosted pine trees, the moose-crossing signs become a true foretell. Even though we come to a gentle halt to take in the moose spotting, we didn't turn the car around. Despite the recent extreme cold alerts, our lack of experience with winter camping and my sarcastic proposal to return home, we head toward Algonquin Provincial Park with excitement for a two-night double-date winter escape.
According to Jeff Brown, a representative from Ontario Parks, we have the right attitude as first-timers for winter camping at Algonquin – thanks to its yurts. This year, Ontario Parks is 125 years old and camping has come a long way.
"Yurts were one of the first forms of glamping, and we are always working to improve the experience," Brown says. (Glamping is a form of camping with some amenities provided.)
The yurts are located at Mew Lake Campground. They are available year-round, heated by electricity, equipped with bunk beds and have an electrical outlet inside. The campgrounds are populated with comfort stations, with heated washrooms, showers and laundry facilities. Mew Lake is located right off Highway 60, so campers will have cellphone reception during their stay.
As we pull into the narrow snow-concealed roads of Mew Lake Campground, I wonder how these modern-day additions would aid or distract us. The ample trees are tall and encompassing, giving us a reality jolt that we are far from home. We follow the campsite markers on the road to find our yurt. Though we comment on how warm and cozy the yurt is, our curiosity leads us outdoors to explore the surroundings. The grounds are quiet, with no one else in sight. Much of the services are self-serve. For those who want a spontaneous tent camping trip, they can pay for permits on site via an honour system mailbox, and same goes for buying firewood and kindling.
The sun sets on our first night and we purchase firewood and kindling for a fire. I was trying to avoid a cooking session on an open fire by bringing a butane powered hotplate but the weather was too cold for the burner to stay lit. With some improvisation and tin foil, we set our pan on the fire to cook a stew. All the fumbling with firewood, newspapers and barbeque lighters didn't deter us from the outdoors. Although the yurt is just steps away, we opt for eating outside by the fire to hear its crackles and feel its warmth.
After a short jaunt to a comfort station, we settle into the yurt for board games, snacking and chatting. Although we joke about turning in early because of our limited space and activities, our yurt hangout leads us past midnight.
Without the noise of any alarms, we naturally wake up from sufficient sleep. As the temperatures warm up, our butane hotplate is back in commission to fry up sausages and eggs as a pair of blue jays flutter nearby.
With our stomachs full, we go on a hike. The snow is light and fluffy, providing a snow globe effect to our snow angel making, animal print spotting and photo taking. The stillness of the surroundings offers a relief from the noise pollution we usually experience. It also amplifies the slight occurrences, allowing us to notice the crunch of snow under our boots.
Even after our hike, we opted for an elaborate meal on an open fire instead of sandwiches and a nap. We build up the fire with some additional trips to the self-serve firewood and kindling station. Our midday feast includes lamb chops, beef and pork kebobs, shrimp skewers, bacon wrapped scallops, and potatoes. The multiple grilling rounds, fire management and satisfying food take us to dusk and instead of staying in for another night of games, we venture to the ice rink. With muted rink lamps and leftover Christmas lights, we skate faux dance routines and teach each other tricks on the ice.
The next morning, we depart with a sense of relaxed lightness and a realization that our yurt, comfort station facilities and phone usage were minimal. The modern-day additions lured us with a sense of comfort but then led us out of our comfort zones and farther into the outdoors.