There were two reason why I chose to drive over 3,000 kilometres in ten days around northern Ontario and pitch my tent in various provincial park campgrounds (Marten River, Kettle Lakes, White River, Sleeping Giant, Neys, Lake Superior and Mississagi). The first was due to a back injury on a previous solo canoe trip, which left portaging out of the question for the time being. The second was the fact that Kristine, my camping partner, hadn’t been north. The second reason certainly outweighed the first. Northern Ontario Provincial Parks must be experienced by all outdoor enthusiasts. They’re more majestic, massive and mythical than any of the parks to the south—and they’re generally less crowded and mostly free of the pandemic camping newbies that have recently been filling southern campgrounds.
Our first stop over was Marten River Provincial Park, located just south of the town of Temagami. It’s been a regular stopover for me over the years, before and after canoe tripping in Temagami. It’s still a nice park, with private campsites, a nice beach and great hiking trials. But it’s now showing some signs of neglect. A good number of sites were closed and some have been turned into seasonal sites—which I guess generates guaranteed revenue when provincial parks budgets get cut; however, it can also represent the nail in the coffin for the “true” Ontario Parks experience.
The plan was to stay two nights here and spend some time hiking Temagami Island’s Old Growth Trails. A crazy heat wave, a massive thunderstorm and a group of rowdy neighbours camping behind us forced Kristine and I farther north to the next park, Kettle Lakes.
We drove through the rich, fertile Clay Belt of northeastern Ontario—a rare patch of flat farmland stuck amidst an ocean of typical northern granite and muskeg. It’s an oddity to see up here, and something Kristine had a hard time grasping. She was expecting the large stands of Temagami’s white pine to dominate the landscape all the way to Timmins; not cow fields, patches of poplar trees and a random billboard promoting the birthplace of Shania Twain.
Immigrant farmers were encouraged to settle here after World War I. Under the Soldier Settlement Act of 1917, settlers received grants, a free homestead, guaranteed loans and a payment to clear their land. Less than three years later, only nine of the original 100 settlers remained. The growing season was short, winters were long and the black flies and mosquitoes were horrible. Mining and logging eventually took over farming.
The Clay Belt ends south of Cochrane and the boreal forest begins, made up mostly of jack pine rooted in patches of sand. I love this delicate ecosystem and I loved living and working up here in my youth as a forest technician. Kristine kept commenting that it all looked the same the further north we drove. I guess it takes time to soak in the solace of this place.
Kettle Lakes was our favourite campground of the lot. Sites were spacious, the “kettle lakes” are aqua blue, neighbours were far away and the evenings were quiet (except for a far-off camper singing John Denver’s “Country Roads”). We stayed two nights at Kettle Lakes and enjoyed every bit of it—except for another thunderstorm that raged through most of night two.
The plan for day four didn’t go the way Kristine had worked out for us. She booked our next campsite at Sleeping Giant Provincial Park. That’s quite the distance away from Kettle Lakes; it’s about a nine-hour drive. Again, Kristine had yet to experience the north and had difficulty grasping the sheer size of it. She figured it would take us only half the day to drive there and didn’t realize there’s nothing much except trees, lakes and river crossings between remote towns like Foleyet, Chapleau, Hawk Junction and Shrieber. The biggest parts of the day were a brief stop to gawk at the Wawa Goose and take a selfie with the Winnie-the-Pooh monument in White River—marking the birthplace of Christopher Robin’s best friend. The orphaned female bear cub was purchased from a trapper by Harry Colebourn, a soldier who was travelling across Canada on his way to fight in WWI. “Winnie” was named after the soldier’s hometown Winnipeg, Manitoba, and became a mascot of The Fort Garry Horse, a Militia cavalry regiment. Winnie would sleep under Colebourn's cot, and then later was donated to the London Zoo, where she captured the heart of writer A.A. Milne’s son Christopher Robin Milne. The rest is history.
Kristine and I pulled the plug on staying at Sleeping Giant on night four after the Winnie-the-Pooh pit stop. It was nearly 5:00 p.m., road construction and another thunderstorm was slowing us down; so we stayed at White Lake Provincial Park instead. This is another park I’ve liked to stay at before and after northern canoe trips. It doesn’t have the majestic scenery of other parks situated along the north shore of Lake Superior. It’s more inland and wooded. But it’s clean, and the staff are amazing. I highly recommend it.
We were supposed to stay two nights at Sleeping Giant Provincial Park to take in the amazing hikes it has to offer. There are breathtaking views of Lake Superior from the top of the Giant, Nanabijou, the Spirit of the Deep Water. We could only stay for a single night due to our delay getting there and all we got out of the place was an overcrowded party experience. The evening was spent dealing with drunken youth who took over the place, trashing the beach with beer cans and tumbling down full-size trees to burn in their fire. I’m still left wondering where the heck the park wardens were that night.
The journey doesn’t end here! Stay tuned for Part 2… coming next Monday.
And check out the new KC Happy Camper YouTube video below.