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Generally Recognized As True: Algonquin - Highlands Backpacking Trail - May 2017

Friday, June 16, 2017

Algonquin - Highlands Backpacking Trail - May 2017

Following last year's mosey around Algonquin Western Upland Backpacking Trail, in May 2017 I did the Highlands Backpacking Trail. This trail is shorter than the Western Upland trail and so this trip was only 3 days instead of 5 days for the former trail.

My write-up of the previous trail contains a lot more detail and I did most of the same things this time through, as well as followed all of the things I said I'd want to change on my next backpacking trip.

Trail closure
Both of the large backpacking trails opened much later than normal this season due to the late thaw and prolonged periods of rain that Ontario experienced in early 2017 (also linked to record-setting levels in Lake Ontario). The trails were flooded as a result and the trip was delayed until May 17th, which was the first day of the trail being open.

There were quite a few fallen trees blocking the trail along the way, and some muddy sections, but none of these were a problem.

Because of the late start, this increased the risk of running into the region's notoriously annoying insect season (blackfly and then mosquitoes). Ultimately, there were a lot of blackfly and a smaller number of mosquitoes, but the blackfly were not biting in large numbers and were more of a swarming nuisance (near the lakes only) than a literal pain.

Spring backpacking
This was my first time backpacking in Spring. Combined with the late onset of spring, there were a couple of interesting features:
  • Cold overnight temperatures: very cold and damp following a major thunderstorm passing through ahead of a cold air mass and then down to near-freezing the following night.
  • Leaves not fully out on the deciduous trees: in the deciduous parts of the forest, this meant that the trails were exposed to the sun where they would normally have been in near full shade.

After last year's trip and the resulting knee and foot injuries, I made the following changes:
  • Regular daily knee exercises
  • Being more conscious of how I am using my knee while hiking: it wasn't even on my mind on the previous hike. I used it however was most expedient.
  • Larger, proper backpacking boots: Scarpa Zanskar GTX. Nothing bad to say about these. They did well in the wet sections and after breaking them in for weeks ahead of the trip, they fit and wore well. I got a slightly larger boot (EU size 46 where I would normally wear US 11.5) and found that while these were a bit loose at the beginning of the day, when my feet were at "hiking size" after some activity they fit very well. They were heavier than my light trail boots and didn't vent as well, but that seems like an unavoidable tradeoff.
  • Better socks: last time, I wore cotton sports socks which was a mistake as they are both abrasive and take a long time to dry out. This time, I had a pair of very thin synthetic nylon liner socks as well as a Darn Tough light blended merino wool hiking sock. I didn't find that the liner socks made a big difference and stopped wearing them after day 1. The wool socks were more comfortable overall. Combined with the larger boot, I didn't have any sole or toe blisters. I did nearly get heel blisters but I'm starting to thing that is a physiological thing that I'll have to deal with with moleskin or something similar.
Overall, for one reason or another these were all of benefit. I didn't feel any oncoming knee issues after Day 3 and my feet were still in good condition. However, though it's wasn't what's normally classified as an "easy" or "moderate" trail in Ontario Provincial Park nomenclature, I'm not sure the trail was as challenging as Western Upland.

  • Day 1: trail head to east end of Provoking Lake
  • Day 2: Provoking Lake to Head Lake
  • Day 3: Head Lake to trail head
Day 1 thunderstorm
A significant thunderstorm rolled through at the end of Day 1 which gave quite a lashing of rain. This revealed known problems with my MSR Hubba tent, where the inner fly coating has deteroriated and lets water through. However, this sort of thing is only a serious problem during incessant rain rather than large volumes in a short time, and there were opportunities to dry things out on Day 2.

So, a new tent may be in order for the next trip. If I can confirm that the fly is better-made in the newer MSR Hubba models then I may get the same again - it is a very good backpacking tent that is easy to setup, fits into small spaces, and is relatively light.

Compared to Western Upland in September
As with the Western Upland trail, the visible wildlife was quite minimal, though there was plenty of audible wildlife. No bears; no moose; lots of birds, and some close-up loons.

The terrain did not seem to be quite as challenging as Western Upland, though there were definitely constant elevation changes that turn the 14km you'd in 2-3 hours in the flat land of the GTA into something significantly longer.

The days are longer in May - about 1 hour extra on each end. However, the nights were significantly colder. Last year's WU trip ran into an unusually warm September - low-mid 20C in the day and low teens at night. This trip was cooler during the day and much cooler at night - getting to near-freezing overnight after Day 2.

Next time
I can't think of much else I'd do differently next time through, which is a pretty good result. I would use something to guard against heel blisters, but that is about all.

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