Highland Backpacking Trail - Algonquin Park, Ontario
Updated: May 27
Type - Thru-hiking
Length - 25 mi / 40 km
Elevation - 1780 ft
Elevation Gain - 5052 ft
Time - Three days, two nights
Hiking Partner - Jaimie Reeves
All photos are my own unless otherwise specified.
They can't all be winners. My three-day hike in the Algonquin Highlands, AKA the time I hiked for nine hours on a broken toe, was needless to say, a pretty rough trip. I underestimated the effects of living a mostly sedentary lifestyle under quarantine for the last four months, which became evident about four miles after leaving the trailhead. This terrain is by no means the most difficult landscape I've hiked in, not even close, but relatively, this was the most challenging under the circumstances. Regardless, there were some major positive aspects to this trip: beautiful landscape, perfect weather, learning experiences, and most of all, getting the chance to
expand my horizons again in the outdoors.
photo by Jaimie Reeves
10 mi / 16 km from the Highlands Backpacking Trailhead to Head Lake.
We arrived late at the trailhead due to some car trouble: not the most auspicious start. The weather, however, was a perfect 28 degrees and sunny with low humidity and just a light breeze. Mosquitos? Not unbearable, but at this point in my hiking career I have settled on a combination of tactics that seem to work. More on that later.
Some beautiful marshland only a few miles from the trailhead.
First break, three miles in from the trailhead and a chance to collect and purify some water. Despite the look of it in this photograph, there was some moving water running out of this river that we were able to safely treat.
2.4 mi from Head Lake to Harness Lake
Smooth as butter. This was Head Lake first thing in the morning on day two.
To be honest, the Head Lake campgrounds were not spectacular. They were right on the trail, and the views of the lake were obstructed by a dense tree line. Something fun did come of camping on the densely forested trail though. Animals are often known to frequent established trails because it's simply easier to walk on a worn path, and all through this trail I was seeing signs of animals in the form of bear tracks, deer tracks, fox scat, and huge piles of deer droppings. I didn't get any sightings this trip, but I got the next best thing...
Isn't this cozy? I woke up around 6am on the first morning and lay still, listening to the forest. The lake wasn't making a sound, but as I was nestled into a bush only about ten feet away from the trail, I could clearly make out the sounds of cracking branches and rustling leaves a little further west when it started at about 7am, and assumed it was a deer eating leaves or pulling on a licking branch. Before I had the chance to skulk out of my tent to try to get a look, I heard the sound of a deer bleating once, then the weighty rolling thud of it galloping down the trail, and another bleat as it passed my tent.
After hiking to the next campground, we arrived at the spectacular Harness Lake site. It was such an incredible relief to see this beautiful home-for-a-night, a quintessentially Ontarian landscape of rugged rocks outlining a deep dark lake, surrounded by evergreen trees.
It was even better to be able to relax for the rest of the day, recover from the hike the day before, make a fire, eat Kraft Dinner with chilli flakes, and wash my hair in the cool lake water, while tiny fish (central mudminnows, I think) tried to bite my ankles.
Some of the highlights of this trip:
MEC Spark 1 Tent - For any backcountry trip where I need to walk in multiple miles to get to any one campsite, I always take the Spark 1. It weighs less than two pounds, and when compressed I can fit it into the water bottle holder of my pack. It also take about a minute to set up, and most importantly, even though it's a lightweight tent, it has 5000 mm waterproofness on the floor, and 3000 mm waterproofness on the fly, more than twice that of the albeit lighter-weight Big Agnes Fly Creek, which I also love, but only if I'm going somewhere with very little wind and rain. The downside, well, as you can see, it's a little cramped in there. It has one door, no vestibule, and while it is freestanding, it's also so light that if you don't peg it down it will blow away in even a light breeze, even with sleeping gear inside of it.
MSR Pocket Rocket Stove - It doesn't really matter what kind of trip I'm taking, I never have much need to take anything other than my 73g Pocket Rocket. Think about it, 73 grams!! It takes up less room than a sunglasses case, it simmers, and it boils in under five minutes with a lid on the pot. While it is too small to do much else than boil water, the reason this suits me is because I don't actually cook on the trail, I rehydrate dried food. For this trip I made a huge batch of Kraft Dinner and used my dehydrator at home to prepare it for the trail.
Watkins Insect Repellent Lotion - While the bugs are starting to thin out for the season, they were still making their presence known in the Algonquin woods, and while they are terribly annoying no matter what, I managed to get by with less than a dozen bites in all three days. The trick is to cover yourself in the lotion before you put your clothes on, so that they're not even tempted to land on you. I only ever had to reapply bug repellent spray to my face and hair, everything else was lotion territory. Yes, it rubs the lotion on its skin.
12 miles from Harness Lake to Highland Backpacking Trailhead
This was a day that truly tested me. My hiking partner and I were already dreading the long hike back to the trailhead, which we knew would be hot, and tedious, and frankly exhausting, but when I woke up that morning I was in good spirits. I had got to bed early and had an amazing sleep, lulled to rest by the bull frogs (one of my favourite sounds to fall asleep to while I'm camping by the water), and after a relaxing day before, my feet were feeling good and my energy was decent. And then it happened... I crawled out of my tent, stretched my arms to the beautiful blue sky, felt a bit of morning sun on my face, turned around, and walked right into one of those little lightweight DAC aluminum tent pegs. I thought it would be a good idea to put them down in order to secure my tent from any possible wind in the night. My toe crumpled into it, breaking it, and pushing back the nail.
Now, I wanted to save the honourable mention of the Adventure Medical Kits Ultralight Waterproof .5 First Aid Kit as essential gear on this trip for this section of the blog. I've carried this kit around with me for four years without having ever opened it. I take it on every day hike I go on, no matter what, just in case, and that commitment really payed off.
The thought had vaguely occurred to me that if I called for help, maybe someone could have canoed out and and brought us back in over the water, and all I would have to hike would be the portaging sections. This was only a passing thought, and never one that I really entertained, because I wasn't about to call emergency services over this. I knew, and my hiking partner knew, that we were hiking this trail and that was the only option.
Before we set out, I sat down, used the scissors on my multi tool to cut off half the nail, then used the disinfectant wipes from the medical kit to clean it up, and the medical tape to secure the rest of the nail, and keep the toe straight before I put my shoe back on with great difficulty and started what would be a nine hour hike back to the parking lot. Downhill was the hardest part, every push into the toe box was excruciating, and I found myself letting out completely involuntary screams a handful of times when I accidentally pushed my foot into a hard root or unflinching rock in the exceedingly bumpy trail.
After our final and longest break just three miles from the trailhead my foot was throbbing so badly that restarting the hike was only bearable after about 30 seconds of cathartic wailing. I'm extremely grateful that Jaimie was there, collecting water for the both of us, and calling me an asshole for stubbing my toe in the first place. I'm used to hiking alone, but I can't imagine how much worse it would have been without her there.
All in all, I'm happy (now) that I had this experience. It's something of a right of passage, and despite the difficulties, I'm already wanting to get back out there. Not this trail specifically, but out there somewhere.
photos by Jaimie Reeves