This past week, Danielle and I spent two nights in the backcountry of Algonquin Park. We hiked over 32km (17km in a single day) with all our camping gear on our back. We had sore knees, sore backs, bruised shoulders and hips but still came out of the woods refreshed and better parents and life partners than before.
Ever since we decided to start a family seven years ago, we always made sure to keep taking time for ourselves as a couple. We try to get away at least two or three times per year while getting the kids babysat. This allows us to have uninterrupted conversations, uninterrupted meals, and uninterrupted everything… With young kids at home, it is sometimes very hard to connect with your partners and take the time to discuss important things about the kids. Small things like: Is Quinn ready to start potty training? Are Caleb and Mia getting enough of our attention? How can we help them thrive even more academically, socially etc.?
Our couples getaways not only give us time to be alone and enjoy some peace and quiet. It gives us the chance to plan for our future. Away from home we sometimes engage in deep conversation about the directions we want to take in our life together. That’s why I also like to see them as a Venne Family strategy retreat. It was during these retreats in the past, that we came up with the ideas and the plans for the greatest drastic changes our family undertook in our short seven years into parenthood. During a weekend away in 2015, we discussed what we had been reading recently about extreme early retirement and we came up with a plan that would allow us to quit our jobs, move to a smaller town closer to family, and become full time parents. On other weekends, we decided to transition our family to a healthier and vegetarian diet (later striving for more of a vegan diet) which brought us enormous health benefits or we made the amazing decision to have a third child.
We always come back from a two or three night getaway with big picture ideas to enhance our life as well as some small term changes that we adopt that continue to make us better parents and partners.
This time was no different. We came up with a better strategy for handling the potential uncertainties that will arise this school year. We planned out how we will divide our time with regard to parenting and household duties for the coming months, now that our two oldest are in school (or will be homeschooled). We decided to start building a backyard ice rink in the coming weeks. We discussed our plans to do a West Coast camping trip next Summer. On top of all this, we also practiced a few spiritual exercises that Danielle studied recently. These meditative activities in the wilderness provided us lots of clarity and helped us enjoy our backpacking adventure even more.
Ever since I became interested in backpack camping I have been reading about what the pros do. I’ve really been fascinated by the idea of trying to go on long overnight hikes with everything you need on your back. In the last year, we have been upgrading all our camping equipment to specific backpacking gear, to try to get ourselves as light as possible and to allow us to camp in colder temperatures.
When we were all packed up for this trip, our backpacks combined weighed about 40lbs. I was pretty satisfied with this number considering we are still considered amateurs in this sport. Some traditional backpackers always carry very heavy bags but the guidelines are to try to aim to carry 20% or less of your body weight. Some expert backpackers these days go out with as little as 10lbs on their back. So there is a wide spectrum of strategies when going out on the trail. The lighter your backpack, the easier the hike will be, but the more luxuries you may have to sacrifice.
At 40lbs combined we were just carrying the equivalent of about 16% of our body weight. Our 7’ x 6’ tent was 5.5lbs, our zero degree sleeping bags were 1.5lbs each, our insulated sleeping pads were 1lbs each. We had approximately 10lbs in food and water at the beginning of the trip.
Algonquin Park is Canada’s oldest provincial park established in 1893. It is also one of the largest, measuring over 7,500 square km with over 2,400 lakes within its boundaries. There are a number of campgrounds within the park, but what it is mostly known for are the numerous backcountry trails and canoe routes.
The largest trail is the Western Uplands Backpacking Trail with loops ranging from 32km to 88km long. On this trip we took on the 32km stretch and would attempt to hike it over three days. The trail is rated as “difficult” and described as having many slopes to climb and descend by most reviewers and websites so we knew it would not be easy. Although we have been camping a lot as a family in the last five years, this was our first summer where we really ventured into backcountry camping. Earlier in the Summer, we did a 10km 2 day trip in Algonquin Park with our oldest child. Then later in the summer we did a 20km, two night backcountry canoe trip with all three kids.
This would be our most difficult attempt though. I had already done this route a few years ago with a friend when I was a very inexperienced camper. I had relied a lot on my friend who was a lot more of an expert and I finished my trek with a very sore everything. This time, we didn’t have any backcountry experts with us.
After dropping the kids off at school and at Grandma’s we arrived at the park by 11AM and hit the trail shortly after. We hiked 12.5km on our first day and made camp at Maggie Lake. Every designated campsite on this backpacking trail has a privy which was nice. A privy is a wood box with a hole in the ground that acts as sort of an outhouse with no walls or doors. It sounds rough compared to a toilet with running water and a sewer line, but when you're in the middle of the woods with no one camping within several kilometres of you, privacy is overrated. It definitely beats the alternative of digging individual holes and burying them yourself every time nature calls. That was our reality when we did a canoe trip as a family in August. Not only did we have to dig our own holes, we had to dig several ones per day for the kids who still had a healthy amount of bowel movements even in the wilderness. Anyways, the site we chose on Maggie Lake had a beautiful 180 degree lake view and a privy that was pretty well tucked into the forest for added privacy.
After setting up the tent, we spent twenty minutes collecting dead wood branches to make a fire. We enjoyed a very nice, warmer than average Fall evening by a fire while we ate our dehydrated rice meals in peace.
The next morning was a bit cool so we boiled water in the tent and had our coffee and tea while in our sleeping bags. We enjoyed some reading and journaling for a couple hours before we decided to pack up our things and embark on our longest hiking day. On day 2, we hiked 17.5km over 5.5 hours. We camped at Guskewau Lake. Our campsite was even more secluded than our first night. We were surrounded by a really calm picturesque lake. We enjoyed another evening fire. We succeeded in making fires without any newspapers or fire starters. We just used a lighter and some moss and bark to get the fire going. This is a skill we want to become better at.
We planned our trip so we would only have a short hike out on our last day so we were left with a leisurely 4km walk to get back to the car the next morning. Shortly after leaving our campsite at 8AM we saw a large animal start running frantically. Through the trees it was hard to make out but it was black or brown and stood pretty tall. By the sound of it running I had the impression it was a moose awkwardly getting startled and taking off into the forest. This would make sense as Danielle heard moose calls on the other side of the lake during the night.
Overall we had a great trip. I would definitely recommend the Algonquin backcountry trails. I would also recommend any type of camping as a good couples getaway. It’s cheap, lets you be outdoors the whole time and you feel a lot more grounded. The added bonus of being far off out of the city is that you also lose cell phone reception. We always enjoy being disconnected from society for a few days. Next fall, Danielle and I will be celebrating our 10 year wedding anniversary so we decided that we will try to get away for a few extra nights and attempt the large 88km stretch of the Algonquin Backpacking trail.