Monday, August 1, 2016

Bon Echo Provincial Park: Camping, canoeing, and the lost spiritual history of the Algonquian pictographs

Camping seems to be a Canadian birthright, one that I, as a child of immigrant parents, seem to have missed out on during my childhood.  However, when I was in my early twenties, I was invited on a camping trip with my friend and her sisters, and it is an experience I'll never forget.  We would spend the day canoeing and portaging the backcountry of Algonquin park, and set up camp somewhere new each night.  To someone that had never even been car camping before, this had a profound impact on me and likely spoiled me for car camping.

Nevertheless, car camping is better than nothing, and it is that that I have been doing for the past few years.  This weekend's camping adventure was at Bon Echo Provincial Park, a place of stunning scenery and plenty of locations to swim, hike, canoe, and explore.

We booked our campsite way back in early spring, and even then it was the very last campsite available for the Civic Holiday weekend.  It was nevertheless quite a nice campsite with ample room (we could have fit at least 2 other large tents on our site) and with enough trees and space to partially hide us from our neighbours and the road.  One of the main downsides of car camping versus backcountry camping is that during peak times, you tend to feel a little like you are sardine-canned into a small slice of nature along with all the other nature seekers right beside you.  We were lucky in that our neighbours were pretty quiet, and it let us experience the illusion of true wilderness a little easier.

Mazinaw Rock

We arrived mid-day Saturday and set up our tent quickly, then set off to try and find the lagoon boathouse where we could rent a canoe for the afternoon.  Parking was limited and signage scarce, but we eventually found our way.  Canoe rentals were cash-only, but prices very reasonable ($35 for 24 hours, $20 for 4 hours, and $10 for a quick 1 hour rental).

We paddled quickly out of the lagoon and towards the narrow channel appropriately named "The Narrows", and caught our first good sight of Mazinaw Rock.  This iconic piece of land is the gem of Bon Echo.  It is quite a feeling to be able to canoe alongside the base of it and stare up at its towering 100 metres.  We were joined on the lake by several other canoers, kayakers, and the occasional motor boat or ferry.  Everyone was there to see the pictographs - the impressive ancient aboriginal drawings on the rock that were painted to mark images seen in Vision Quests and other spiritual journeys.
As we paddled alongside the rock, we weren't quite sure what we were looking for.  We encountered a few other people who asked us if we had seen any of the drawings, as they hadn't either.  We were confused, as we knew there were over 200 along the rock that were easily viewable by boat.  Eventually, we finally spotted one.  A mysterious animal figure alongside some other markings, in ancient red ochre (ground hematite mixed with oil or animal fat).  We saw a couple more unidentifiable red markings after that.

We then paddled past where most people were looking for the pictographs and were soon quite alone on lake Mazinaw.  Just us and the impressive rocky shoreline of ancient rocks and mixed trees.  After paddling to the first portage point (which we weren't prepared to do), we slowly made our way back.  A very inviting flat rock called to us as a resting spot, and after a few minutes of struggling to point the canoe the right way and dealing with the waves caused by the motorboats, we managed to land the canoe on the rock without tipping.

We spent a good hour on this beautiful rock, just watching the water and feeling this wild place.  While we were there I took off my flip flops and hopped bare-footed up the series of boulders to a higher viewpoint.  The dried forest floor of pine needles was actually quite comfortable on my bare feet, and I leapt easily from one place to another.  My foot muscles seemed almost to sing with ancient memory of the way feet are actually supposed to move, and I admired how effortlessly I made my way up what would have been otherwise more challenging terrain had I been wearing any sort of footwear besides hiking boots.

Eventually we had to leave our lovely resting rock and make our way back along Mazinaw Rock.  Now that we knew what to look for, we paid closer attention to every faint red marking along the rock, and suddenly the pictographs were revealed to us.  We easily saw over 50 images painted on the rock as we paddled.  Sometimes we had to paddle back to take a second look or get closer or farther depending on how the angle of the sun was accenting or fading the more difficult to see images.  We were enthralled with these mysterious pictographs and tried to guess what each image was.  Later on at the visitor's centre we would learn that many of the horizontal straight lines in a row were thought to be tally marks that possibly counted the days each individual spent on their vision quest.

After this lovely afternoon of paddling, we went back to our campsite to start a fire and make our dinner.  We forgot a metal coat hangar for our sausages but we are not fussy - a sturdy branch shaped like a Y was a perfect device for cooking both sausages at once.

And it was after this dinner that I discovered the secret to making a perfect s'more.  I've had many a s'more in my lifetime, and have not once been able to say I've had a PROPER s'more, where the chocolate was actually melted.  Either the chocolate was too thick, or my marshmallow was not hot enough, or any number of other reasons.  However, we both had what turned out to be a brilliant idea - use two marshmallows, one on each side of the chocolate.  Using thin Lindt milk chocolate squares also helped the situation, I'm sure.  Regardless, my perfectly constructed s'more of goey marshmallow, melted chocolate and crunchy graham cookie was a delicious success.  These simple moments are what I live for - a campfire, a s'more, a warm night with a star-studded sky, after a full day of playing in the sun and on the water...
View of The Narrows from the top of the Cliff Top hike

The next morning we had our sights set for the Cliff Top hike, which takes you to a viewpoint on top of Mazinaw Rock, but requires boat access across to the lake to start your hike.  After a few false starts of not knowing where to buy ferry tickets, hearing the ferry's motor had stopped working, driving to get cash to rent another canoe to go there ourselves, and finding ourselves in a likely hours-long line up to wait for a canoe, we changed our plans around, abandoned the line, and headed for the beach.

Bon Echo has 3 beaches.  None of them are very big, but the water is generally clear and easy for swimming.  We avoided Main Beach which was full of noisy children and headed to South Beach, which had grass instead of sand but not nearly as many people.  We were glad for a refreshing dip in the water and swam around for a bit before relaxing on our towels and sipping on a cold beer (shh).  We did go and have a look at North Beach, and while it is smaller, you get to swim in full view of Mazinaw Rock, which much also be a very neat experience.

By this time the crowds at the boathouse had died down and we got a canoe fairly quickly.  The good thing about the boathouse is that even though it closes at 6pm, you can return boats after hours, as long as they're back before dark.  We set off across the lake (about a 10 minute paddle), tied off the canoe, and started the Cliff Top hike.  The hike is steep in parts but has a lot of staircases and handrails to help with the most challenging parts, and takes only 1 hour roundtrip, so it is quite doable.  At this point most of the crowds (it was the long weekend, after all - I imagine it's not this busy the rest of the year) had died down, so we were able to enjoy a mostly solitary hike the entire way.  A few friendly chipmunks and Chipping Sparrows kept us company as we hiked up the rocky terrain.  Most of the large rocks in this area are lined with thick veins of quartz, which makes them quite interesting to look at.
Clutes Lake
Cardinal Flowers

We reached the last viewpoint after about a half hour, and enjoyed the impressive views over Lake Mazinaw and The Narrows as we rested and had a snack/water break in one of the viewing platforms.  I am not the most agile or speedy hiker - I get out of breath, I trip a lot, I go very slowly uphill - but my determination and desire for the experience propel me forward, and I love challenging myself to ever longer and more difficult hikes.  The Cliff Top hike is a perfect "small taste" of a larger hike for anyone that wants to work up to more difficult ones, as it really is quite do-able and has the impressive views as a reward when you get to the top.  It is definitely a must-do when going to Bon Echo.

After hiking back down to our boat (have I mentioned that I adore using a canoe as a method of transportation?), we enjoyed a very liesurely paddle in the opposite direction of Mazinaw Rock (going southbound) where we discovered a handful more pictographs!  They were a pleasant surprise.  We assumed that the park doesn't bother to point people towards them because the main collection is in the other direction.  It was nice to be the only boat out this way and have the beautiful shoreline and mysterious pictographs to ourselves.  We imagined what it must have been like to have been in the shoes of the Native aboriginal people that painted these images.  If we tuned out the occasional motorboat int he distance, we could almost grasp something of that feeling of immense solitude, spiritual searching, and connection to the earth that long ago led the vision-seekers out to this secluded spot to paint their visions on the rocks for others to learn from.

The sun was slowly setting, and we quietly paddled back towards The Narrows and let ourselves float on the lake for a while as the clouds changed golden and light pink.

Children playing at The Narrows

That night, another fire, some Alphaghetti heated up in a pot on the campfire, more perfect s'mores, and another good night's sleep in the tent.  The next morning was another slow breakfast of coffee and muffins, and then we packed up our campsite before heading off to do one of the other hikes in the park - the Chutes Loop of the Abbes & Essens trail.  This is a backcountry hike that requires you to drive for a while down a dirt and gravel road.  The trail is not too challenging, but you do need a good pair of hiking shoes.  There are a few uphill spots but not too many.  The loop goes around a nice lake, and you are rewarded halfway through the hike with a little bridge that gives you a perfect view of the whole lake and provides some nice shade and cool breeze before continuing onwards.  We were lucky to be doing the hike in August when the Cardinal flowers are out - stunning deep red flowers that seem to grow near the lake and other watery areas.

Our hike back down the rest of the loop was mostly flat ground and continued near the lake for a bit.  The woods were full of noisy bluejays flying all around us, and one of them even seemed to accompany us for a good few hundred metres, flying from tree to tree just ahead of us, waiting for us to catch up, then flying ahead to the next tree, calling loudly each time, as if to tell us "come on guys, this way, this way!"

And thus ended our Bon Echo camping experience.  This is definitely a special part of Ontario.  While I enjoyed everything we did while here, my favourite part was paddling around looking at the pictographs and contemplating the spiritual history embedded in the paintings and in the towering rock itself.  They are a gentle yet powerful reminder of the lost histories of the people who lived here long before any of us ever set foot on these shores.  As the years go by, the pictographs will continue to fade.  If you have a chance, go for a day of paddling and quiet contemplation of these spiritual images painted long, long ago.  Understanding and experiencing the lost cultures of this land is possibly the truest Canadian birthright.