Thursday, March 29, 2012

Trail Review: Emily Tract - take 2

We returned to the Emily Tract for another hike the other day and decided to do the full 2 loops totaling 2km. The second loop starts after the bridge halfway through the first loop. We went to the left, and right away noticed this loop was a bit hillier than the first (there is one fairly steep hill that takes you to a bit of a look out over a farm at the very back of the loop) but it was also quite pretty.

One interesting thing about this trail was the plaque with information about musclewood trees, also known as the blue beech. If you run your hands over the bark, it feels like rippled muscle. Very cool. You can find more information here. There were also a lot of areas where you're going through cedars which I love. Cedar trees make a kind of clattering sound when the wind picks up and it always reminds me of the scene in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves where the Sheriff's men come into the forest and there are bones hanging from the trees. It's eerie and gives me goosebumps every time. I can't help but look out for ghosts.

There were a lot of side trails that were marked with pink tape but we weren't sure where they went and didn't have time to explore them. Also, after the hill and look out, we saw a lot of sap buckets obviously belonging to the farmer whose house we could see from the look out.

There is one geocache on the Emily Tract. I haven't tried to find it yet but will on my next time through.
---That "Loony" Skunk GC1983M

I'm Back

Okay, I wish I could say I'd been absent from posting because I'd been out camping but the truth is, we've had internet issues for the last 5 weeks or so. It nearly drove me crazy, not being able to go online to check out available camp sites at Ontario Parks website or to find more information on a canoe route so I could try and plan for our first trip of the year.

All was not lost though. We did a few short hikes, and I'll be posting those soon. I still have to load up the pictures from them. I've also done some sewing, tested some apps related to outdoor activities, and read almost a dozen books.

The weather is perfect for hiking right now, not too hot, no bugs and just brisk enough to motivate you to get your blood pumping. Hopefully we'll be out on the trail quite a bit in the coming weeks.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Trail Review: Spruce Bog Boardwalk - Algonquin Provincial Park

Trail Review: Spruce Bog Boardwalk - Algonquin Provincial Park
Length 1.5 KM
Location KM 42.5 highway 60 corridor

The Spruce Bog Boardwalk trail is probably the best hiking trail to take kids on during the winter while in Algonquin. Rule 1: Take a bag of bird seed or trail mix with you. Rule 2: Bring a camera.

From the parking lot, go to the left to start, not towards the section of trail that parallels the highway. At the start of the trail as you head over the bridge, you will immediately see bird seed all over the snow, mostly the hulls of sunflower seeds. Go a little further, to the first bend, and put some of your trail mix in your kids hands and get your camera ready.

Chickadees will probably be your first customers, but if you’re lucky, you’ll also get a visit from some Gray Jays. They’ll first fly to a tree nearby (close enough to take great pictures) then swoop down and land on your hand and snag some choice treats.

When I was a kid, I used to sit outside for ages with a hand full of sunflower seeds, hoping to lure some chickadees to land on my outstretched palm. It would take hours, but if you kept it up every day, they’d soon come down within a few minutes. Obviously, people have been feeding the birds on this little spot for a long time because both times we’ve been here, we had to wait only a minute before being visited.

The rest of the trail is a nice little walk across a long board walk and through some pretty forest. Though we tried enticing the birds at other areas around the loop, it never worked. Still, it’s a nice easy hike where a lot of people spot moose around the bog in the spring.

Trail Review - Somerville Tract

Trail Review: Somerville Tract
Length 3.9-8 KM depending on the route you choose

The Somerville Tract is located on highway 45 between Kinmount and Norland, on the south side of the road. There is a fairly large sign and a good sized parking lot with outhouses available. (Snowed in when we were there. They aren't maintained in winter even though this is also a cross country ski trail) The Somerville Tract is also part of the Ganaraska Trail. If anyone is trying to hike the entire trail in bits and pieces, this is an easy, well marked section with some interesting features.

We hiked this trail when the snow was beginning to melt. We hadn't bothered to bring our snowshoes because where we live, only about 45 minutes away, there was almost no snow left. I had figured there would be some on the trail, since the tree canopy would block the sun and slow melting but there was at least 2-3 feet in most spots. Because of that, it was a little tough going as we kept falling through to our knees. That being said, it is a trail that is definitely worth checking out for a few key reasons.

1)We saw a ton of moose tracks in the snow, and they were fairly recent, probably the previous day. I’m hopeful this means I might one day spot a moose while hiking there.

2) Tornado damage. One part of the trail takes you through a swath of downed trees, I presume the result of the tornado that hit the area a few summers ago. It’s actually quite interesting to walk through and will give you an appreciation of mother nature’s power.

3) Jack pine plantation. We drive past the jack pine forests near Kinmount quite often, but it’s quite nice to walk through them. Orderly rows of trees, almost all the same size has a very different feel than walking through natural forest.

We only had time to do the first loop, and took the short cut because sinking into the snow really tired the kids out. Still, the hike totaled 3.9KM of gentle rolling hills. The second loop is classed as moderate according to cross country ski rankings, so I’m assuming it’s more hilly. The strangest part for me was on the short cut, when the path ended at a frozen swamp. As I’ve said before, I’m not a big fan of crossing frozen water, but it was clear the path continued on the other side. The map showed no bridges or boardwalks but I’m guessing there has to be something to get people across when the water isn’t frozen. I’m looking forward to going back now to see what’s under that ice.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Book Review - Cottage Country Canoe Routes by Kevin Callan

I love Kevin Callan's books. When a new one comes out I let out a little excited squeal in the bookstore that has all the other customers looking at me funny. Cottage Country Canoe Routes has a special place in my heart, however.

My mum first bought this book when it came out in 1993. I was in high school, living smack dab in the middle of cottage country and was determined to try everyone of the trips described in the book. Ignore the fact I'd never gone on a canoe camping trip in my life. I read that book so many times I memorized it, and spent ages making lists of gear I'd need, sample menus and of course, trying to convince my parents to let me go.

I'm convinced the reason I didn't get to actually fulfill my dreams back then was because none of my friends were willing to go with me and my parents wouldn't let me go alone.

When I moved out, I bought my own copy of this book and though I haven't done all the routes yet, I have done some. This book has gone on many a day paddle, and has fallen in the lake, gotten rained on, and had food spilled on it, but I can't bring myself to buy the updated version even if it might have more accurate data (especially considering at least some of the areas where you could camp for free when Cottage Country Canoe Routes came out, you now have to pay to camp at.) The written descriptions are humorous and full of information beyond simple portages and put ins. The pictures are beautiful, and will surely inspire you to head out and see the splendor of cottage country for yourself.

The areas covered in the book are Georgian Bay, Muskoka, Haliburton and Kawartha Highlands. There is a good sampling of possible routes for each area, and most are novice to moderate level routes.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Kids Adventure Journal

Every September, I send my kids off to school feeling a bit proud of myself for filling their summer with hikes, days at the beach, camping, canoeing and other trips. I settle myself on the couch, the house quiet as I sip my tea, and wonder which of their adventures they'll talk about when the teacher inevitably asks what each student did during the summer.

Then, a few weeks later when one of them has left something at school that they desperately need, I walk into the classroom and see a list the class made of their summer fun. Lots of kids went swimming, or to Grandma's house and what did my little one's say? "Played Super Mario" or "Watched TV." I stand there a little stunned, and mortified that the teachers think my kids are deprived and I'm a horrible parent. We'd been swimming almost every day, had gone hiking, to the zoo, they'd rode their bikes, gone to carnivals, fairs, camped and had even taken art courses, and all they could remember was playing video games?

To try and prevent this, I would start the summer by giving the kids each a notebook, with the intention of having them keep a summer journal, then on the first day of school they could take it in and say "see all the awesome things we did this summer!" But alas, after our first camping trip, the notebooks are forgotten, or lost, or water logged from having been left in the rain.

Not to be deterred, I gave this some serious thought. I want my kids to keep a record of their activities, not just so I don't look like a neglectful parent but because when they are my age, they'll be able to look at them and remember. Maybe a simple notebook was too simple. While my kids are both good at writing, they aren't always keen to do so when they could be playing at the beach or riding their bikes. What I needed was something customizable, so I could make little work sheets that would only take them a minute to fill out. I considered binders, but their size would be awkward to take on hikes (since I'm the one that usually ends up carrying everything from lunches and cameras to extra sweaters and packs) I wanted something smaller, but with the durability of a binder.

That led me to the idea of a day planner. I thought it would be perfect to have them tote leather bound journals with them...then I saw how much they cost. Yikes.

In the end, I settled on small format binders. They are relatively inexpensive ($6.95 at Staples) and you can buy the basic accessories for them for a few dollars.

To start, you'll need:
1 small format binder per child
1 pkg of 5 1/2 X 8 inch insertable dividers per child (5 pkg size)
1 pkg of 5 1/2 X 8 1/2 inch sheep protectors (15/pack)
1 pkg of small format lined paper
A pen
A single whole punch

My dividers were labeled
Trip Logs
Wildlife sightings

How you divide your child's journal will depend on the types of trips you take but it's very easy to make up your own forms for them. Open up a word processing document and set the page to landscape format. Use the column option to create 2 columns.

I created 3 worksheet type pages
1) Trip Log - to be used for overnight trips
2) Hike log - to allow them to write their thoughts on individual hiking trails
3) wildlife sightings

For the Maps section, you can print or photocopy maps of your destinations if you want, or if you arrive at the trail head an there are maps available you can use your whole punch to simply pop a few holes in them so the kids can have a copy. If you print full page size maps, you can accordion fold them to make them fit. Fold them in half, then fold the top half in half again.

Put the lined paper in the notes section and the sheet protector in the misc. section.

I also printed out calendars, full size, and folded them accordion style. Although the worksheet pages I had created had a space for them to put in a date for each trip, putting a simple entry like "Hiked Booth's Rock Trail" would give them a better visual of how their summer had been filled.

In the Misc. section, I simple used sheet protectors but you can stick a few pages of lined paper here as well. This is for those attraction pamphlets that you can't hole punch, for if they make friends at a campsite and want to share email addresses. Algonquin Park sells patches for each of their interpretive trails, bumper stickers for some of the campgrounds etc. These kinds of things can be kept in the sheet protectors as well. We sew the patches onto their adventure bags, but I'm notoriously bad for losing them *blush* so this will keep them safe, and in a logical place until I get around to it.

The last step is to let them create a cover page if your binder has the clear cover that allows you to slip a sheet of paper in on the front. You could also sew binder covers, but I know my kids would end up getting them filthy within minutes of our first trip...I might work up a washable cover for them though.

Remember to pack pencils and pens, and to take a single hole punch so you can add any available pamphlets or maps that are available. If anyone has any ideas for other worksheet pages, different divider categories or how to expand on this idea, I'd love to hear from you.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Having fun without blowing your budget

Every spring, I make a vow to get the kids out doing lots of fun things during their summer break. Lots of swimming, hiking, geocaching, and camping, with some visits to places like the zoo or the science center. My plans usually fall apart when reality hits and I realize, after our first trip, just how much gas it takes to haul our camper any distance, or how expensive it can be to stop at the grocery store to grab a few things for a last minute picnic lunch.

Compared to a lot of other trips, camping is fairly inexpensive. If you look at the cost of spending a day in an amusement park with a family of four, and how much it costs to spend a day hiking, with a picnic, the difference is significant but it can still get pricy.

Two nights of camping in a provincial park costs about $100 for the site. On a trip to Algonquin last summer, where we didn't do much extra driving, we put about $160 worth of gas in our SUV (keep in mind we were towing a 13' fiberglass camper) and food wise, we probably spent another $150 (including a lunch at the Visitor Center cafeteria.) Compared to 2 nights in a hotel, dining at restaurants three meals a day, it's still cheaper, but it was still a good chunk of money for us at the time.

With the price of food and gas rising, a summer full of even day trips to places that don't charge admission can tax your budget. Then there are the times unexpected expenses crop up that leave little for fun trips. I know it's advised to have an emergency fund to cover those costs, but lets face it, not all of us do. If you plan ahead you can enjoy lots of outings without dipping into your normal grocery budget, or taxing your normal gas budget.

1) Start a summer-fun-fund
By putting money aside every month, all winter long you can cover the cost of gas, at least some it, for those times when money is tight.

2)Book campsites early when possible.
By booking early (Provincial Parks let you book up to 5 months in advance of your arrival date) you aren't paying for reservations while also covering the other costs of your trip. Not only that, but you get a better range of sites to choose from. Those beautiful sites on the water, with lots of privacy? They go fast, so plan ahead. If you want to arrive on July 13, you can book that site as of 7am on February 13th. It doesn't always mean you'll get the site. Since you can book a trip for more than one night, (up to 23 nights I believe) it's possible someone has already booked it as part of a longer trip.

3) Create a camping stock pile
When pancake mix comes on sale, grab an extra box. Make a list of foods you usually take with you camping, or items you usually pack into a picnic. A lot of them have long shelf lives, so when they come on sale if you grab a few and set them aside, you'll be reducing the amount of money you'll have to spend last minute. We tend to be really bad for this. We stop at the grocery store on the way to the campground to buy our supplies. Not only are we paying full price for things, we tend to add impulse items that we don't really need. Also, keep in mind the things you tend to pick up at the campground's store (if they have one) the prices tend to be a bit higher there, so if you know you'll probably end up buying candy or chocolate bars, it makes sense to have bought some before hand for a lower price. If you can get them on sale, and add some coupons, you'll be saving a lot of money. The only issue now is not to eat them before hand. Try keeping these items in a storage box, or hidden somewhere. If you can't see them all the time, you'll be less likely to dip into them.

Keep in mind expiry dates, and don't go overboard. This isn't Extreme Couponing, you don't need 150 boxes of granola bars, or 800 bottles of sports drink. Don't buy things you won't use.

4) If you do a lot of back country camping, consider dehydrating your own meals. There are a lot of good videos on youtube with recipes and how-to-advice. There is a bit of a learning curve, but it can save you a lot of money compared to buying the dehydrated meals sold in stores. Think drying your own food will limit you to basic, boring fare? Think again. There are some fabulous books full of recipes that are anything but boring. Think Sweet Potato and Red Pepper Soup, Shrimp and Herb Pasta, Blueberry Pancakes and so much more. You can also make your own fruit roll-ups and know that your kids aren't getting a bunch of added sugar and preservatives. I'll be writing more on this topic in the future.

5) Find local trails and destinations. I bet there are more options close to home than you might think. Check out Ontario Trails for your region and see what you can find. Also, there are still some places where it's possible to backpack or canoe camp on crown land, so there is no permit required and no fee.

By planning ahead, it's possible to enjoy a summer full of exploring and adventure, without hurting your budget.