|I love the new sign!|
Unfortunately we were far from the only ones who thought it'd be lovely to head to the park - we hit terrible traffic on the 401, the 400, and then got stopped dead for more than a kilometer outside the West Gate. It took over half an hour to get past the lineup of people looking for day permits, so it was 4pm by the time we finally hit Mew Lake for our backcountry permit and got to the trailhead of the Highland Backpacking Trail.
|Let's go already!|
|That's not just fog.|
We hoped it would pass over quickly and it was mild enough (14c/57f) that we didn't bother putting on our rain jackets, but we did pop our rain covers on our packs. Yes, everything inside was drybagged (plus I had the tent in a garbage bag lashed to the outside of my pack), but who wants to lug around a wet pack for 3 days?
|Also makes us highly visible - my cover is neon green!|
Trucking right along, we reached the Madawaska River and paused at the beautiful falls for a few moments.
|Tanker's first time seeing this beautiful spot.|
|Lots of climbing|
|Passing a very low Starling Lake - wide mud flats 'round the edges show the usual water levels.|
We caught another passing shower, but were still comfortable hiking in longsleeve merino shirts with fleece vests overtop. Some of the log bridges over creeks and marshy spots have degraded through the years, and being slippery and wet certainly didn't help, but we made our way through without incident.
|Tanker watching his footing - one of the logs had collapsed.|
|The Western tip of Provoking Lake|
Fortunately, when we tried the left-hand fork of the side trail, we found a campsite that was both completely empty and stunningly beautiful.
|Easy water access.|
|A fire pit with a view, plus a makeshift kitchen counter.|
|Home for the night, below a giant wall of rock.|
|Last of the dying light.|
Arriving with less than half an hour before sunset, we worked quickly to get the tent up, then Tanker went to collect some firewood (which we hoped we'd be able to get burning, as everything was fairly soggy due to rain over the past couple of days plus the earlier showers) as I set up our beds. I thought about foregoing the tarp, but just as I was thinking "we'll probably be ok without" another spattering of rain came down. I managed to get it pitched by myself while Tanker chopped the fallen wood he'd collected, and we stowed our packs under it to keep them dry. Of course, the shower stopped just as I finished the pitch, and we didn't get another speck of rain that evening! The temperature dropped with the sun, though, so I went to work with the stove and got a hot meal into us, piquing the interest of some of the local residents with the aromas of our bacon mushroom & broccoli macaroni & cheez.
|The deer mice weren't afraid to come say hello.|
With a bit of coaxing and a bushel of spruce boughs, I managed to get a fire going so we could warm ourselves and make some s'mores for dessert.
|No graham crackers required - just marshmallow and dark chocolate!|
We snacked quite a bit to get lots of calories into us to keep warm as the temperature dipped below 5c/40f, then rolled into our toasty sleeping bags for the night around 11:30pm after just over 7km/4.4mi of hiking for the day. I was up just after sunrise at 7:25am in need of the thunderbox, greeted by the grey skies we'd heard were predicted before we left.
|Stunning colour beneath the clouds.|
I rolled right back into bed, then woke again to discover it was 9:45am - I never sleep that late in the backcountry! It was brighter out now, but still very chilly, so I got to work on a hot breakfast while Tanker made us a couple of French presses of absolutely scrumptious coffee. We were glad to have brought enough grounds for a second press, especially when another light rain shower came down on us just as I was finishing our bacon & eggs! Looks like the tarp would come in handy after all.
|This breakfast view is worth a bit of a sprinkling.|
Slowly but surely, we got our campsite packed up, and finally hit the trail around 1:25pm - I swear that's the absolute latest start I'd ever had on a trail when not delayed by traffic! We didn't get any more rain, but there was precious little sun and the wind was damp and chilly, so we hiked in our wind jackets for the first hour or so.
|Yes, I'm aware that mine looks like a trash bag.|
|At least the leaves make it look cheerful!|
|I never tire of these random, giant rock formations.|
While it was Tanker's first time on the Highland Backpacking Trail at all, this was my first time seeing the section of the first loop between the East and West sides in at least 20 years. When I did the Highland Trail solo in both 2014 and 2015, I did the full second loop starting from the West side, staying at Head Lake and coming back via Harness Lake and the East side. We wanted a little more relaxed a trip this time, though, so kept the mileage short by just completing the first loop and letting me see a bit more of one of my favourite trails.
|Is there any question why?|
|Tank seemed to enjoy it as well.|
|Never a dull moment.|
We did stop to refill our bottles from our bladder full of filtered water and have some summer sausage, mustard & cheez wraps for lunch along the South side of the first loop, having found a spot with some convenient chunks of downed tree to set down our packs and have a seat. Back in motion after about 20mins. we soon rejoined more familiar ground for me on the East side of the first loop, coming around the Eastern finger of Provoking Lake for another look at the gorgeous fall foliage.
|Warm hues on a chilly day|
|Even the beaver dam is decorated with colourful leaves|
|Looking across at the Southern shore|
Passing the first 3 campsites, we rolled in to the one I stayed at last year and dropped off our packs. We set up our gravity water filter as we'd decided to carry minimal water with us on the trail, then took off for an un-laden side hike to the campsite out on the point. It had always been occupied every other time I'd been on this trail in the past decade, but I wanted to show it to Tank because it's a very beautiful spot. It turned out to be abandoned this time, but we decided to stay put where we'd dropped our gear as the point was totally exposed to the cold breeze blowing in from the West right across the lake. We did, however, grab a folding camp chair that someone had left behind - it would make a pleasant spot to sit while cooking or doing dishes.
|Or just chillin' like a villain, as the case may be.|
We got the tent up again and then both went out foraging for firewood, as we wanted to have plenty on hand for both the cold evening to come and the following morning. We'd had predictions of the temperature dropping as low as -4c/25f on Sunday night and wanted to be prepared! With quite a bit of deadfall collected, we returned to camp and watched the clouds break up as the sun went down over the lake.
|This is what we signed up for.|
Another good, rib-sticking meal and another round of s'mores for dessert as the stars came out in a dazzling array overhead. We donned basically every article of clothing we'd brought with us to stay warm, and kept things burning along until about 11pm, then put our attractants up a tree and rolled into bed for the night after a total of about 9.5km/5.9mi of hiking on the day.
|The birch logs we found already cut at our site were inconveniently green and hesitant to burn.|
For the first time in many years I actually spent an entire 9 hours in my sleeping bag, finally waking in need of a pee just after 8am and delighted by the brilliant sunshine streaming into our campsite.
|The view from my sleeping bag as I awoke.|
|Incredible mist on the water that endured well into the day.|
Our campsite had remained undisturbed through the night, but I was pleased we'd put our rain covers on our packs when I discovered them covered in a thick layer of frost!
|No tarp on Sunday night.|
|Such a peaceful place.|
Despite the freezing temperatures, I managed to maintain my camping tradition of no pants before coffee, though I was wearing two layers of wool longjohns!
|Sunshine and morning fire helped quite a bit, too.|
We had another 2 presses of coffee and a bowl of porridge each to warm up, then packed up camp and said our goodbyes to Provoking Lake around 11:25am.
|We'll be back!|
We had wonderful hiking weather as we made our way through the somewhat technical descents on the East side of the first loop, picking our way through the root wells and rocks.
|So very pretty.|
|Tanker sees why I love this trail.|
We decided to take the side trail past the Lake of Two Rivers portage out to the Starling Lake outlook. I'd gone up there (by mistake) when I did the trail solo in 2014, and I knew that the view would be breathtaking, especially at the height of the fall colours.
|Stunning even with low water levels.|
|Brilliance everywhere you look!|
We had the lookout to ourselves, but only stopped long enough to take a few photos before descending from the overlook and then making the long climb back up to the main trail.
|Totally worth it.|
The freezing temperatures overnight - we later discovered that the low had been measured at -3.6c/25.5f at the East Gate - had brought the foliage raining down from the trees through the morning. Parts that had been virtually bare on our way in were now carpeted in fallen foliage!
|Beautiful in its own right.|
|Back down the tricky bit, now decorated for autumn.|
While the sunshine was warm and the afternoon would turn out to be the mildest of the trip, we were still finding frost in the shady spots as late as 1:30pm.
|No mistaking that it was a chilly night.|
We took our only pack-off break of the day by Madawaska Falls, both choosing to ditch a layer while we had a snack, refilled our water bottles, and basked in the gorgeous sunshine.
|Right down in it.|
|A much nicer day than our way in!|
Half an hour after leaving the falls, we arrived back at the trailhead around 2pm, after another 7.4km/4.6mi of hiking for a total of 24km/14.9mi on the weekend.
|A nice, chill traipse through the forest.|
After a hearty lunch of salami, mustard & cheez wraps (which we'd left in the car as our celebratory post-trail meal), it was time to get back on the road home.
|Unfortunately with just as many traffic issues.|
Despite the bit of rain here and there and the chilly overnight temperatures, it was a perfect way to spend a long weekend. I'm grateful that I have the opportunity and resources to head into the backcountry at this incredibly beautiful time of year, and that I was able to finally share the gorgeous sights of the Highland Backpacking Trail with my favourite companion!
|Perfectly content, and deeply thankful.|
Then for a bit of culture shock: the very next morning we were back into work, and then off to see a metal show that evening in downtown Toronto.
|Possibly still with a faint whiff of woodsmoke about us.|