Inspired by the book “The Tent Dwellers” and our love for Kejimkujik National Park, and with persuasion by budget cuts to our national parks, we planned our longest and most challenging trip yet. While we were OK with the challenge, we really didn’t have any choice for our May 11th trip since the budget cuts dictate that the park not open for overnight use until May 18th. Our trip would take us through the park by day, to our evening destination, Granite Lake Falls, which lies outside of the park, in the Tobeatic Wilderness Area.
To say this trip would be our longest and most challenging to date is a bold statement coming from guys who have pulled overnighters in the Enfield wilderness mid-winter, and been caught on many trails with more kilometres than sunlight would allow. As in the book, we knew we were heading into a very remote area of Nova Scotia, where not many people ever visited.
As planning for the trip took place, the first thing that jumped out at me was a 2.4km portage. Anyone who has spent much time on a treadmill, or doing normal walking or jogging of any sort knows that 2.4km is no big deal. Someone who has spent numerous summers in the woods lugging trees into places that are so remote that humans felt we could quietly annihilate the area without anyone being the wiser, knows differently. 2.4km through the woods with full gear, and canoes equals a significant mental and physical test. Though many people may have tried to plot an alternate route, manly men like us very foolishly welcomed the challenge.
The week leading up to the trip was beautiful. Spring had sprung much earlier than usual, temperatures in the 20’s, sunshine everyday. Glancing at the forecast on Thursday, the cloudy rain icon for Friday, Saturday and Sunday looked overly pessimistic.
As 5am intruded, the alarm went off, and a feeling similar to Christmas morning mixed with pre-game butterflies crept into my stomach. The drive from Halifax took us enough time to arrive just as the sun had risen. Â Rain seemed to hold off the entire drive, and even had some promises of sun. Things looked good through the windows of the car. As soon as we arrived and started to unpack the car, we were immediately introduced to Kejimkujik’s most prevalent spring time inhabitants; black flies. Good thing we all packed bug spray we thought to ourselves, but from my past tree planting experience I knew that a scourge may await us.
As we filled and balanced our canoes with our heavy packs and coolers we were goaded by the flies to launch sooner than later. When we launched the canoes, and escaped the flies, the skies let out a little chuckle in the form of constant light rain, that would not stop for the majority of the journey.
The trip involved paddling across 6 lakes, and pack muling our way through 5 portages. The first 2.4km portage was expected to be a killer and in that respect, it did not disappoint. In fact, not only was it a killer, but it was almost a trip finisher. With the amount of gear we had to carry, and the 2 canoes, we would have to make 2 trips each way, 1 with the boats and 1 with the gear. Just walking the portage one way with no gear took close to 30 minutes, so this whole ordeal was going to take much longer than we had planned. 2.5 hours later, as the kids say: “things got real” . We were much further into the day than we had allotted and at this pace, to escape the park was going to take us past sun down. Turning back was not discussed out loud, and the motivational fire had been lit. We pressed on, making very good time paddling, knowing the extensive paddling were jabs, and the portages were body punches to our breaking points.
The second portage surprised us by being extremely long and difficult as well. We were less mentally prepared for this one, and on any other trip this would be remembered as an excruciatingly difficult one.
As we continued on, the rain lifted and sun began to peak out, as if to point to its wrist watch. It was clear it was now going to be a race to reach our destination before dark. We made really good time paddling, and faced the final, short portages with confidence. The last couple were just a short limp, stagger and a shout from point A to Point B on the map. Of course they came in the form of steep hills, as mother nature took on the role of personal trainer instructing us to do as many lunges as we could handle.
We arrived at the camp site area at a perfect time, as there was still sunlight left. When we arrived in the area where we had planned to camp, all we could see was brush. It was pretty much the worst camping terrain possible. Then we noticed a marker on a tree across the river, and the camping oasis was revealed. The whole trip had been a big test of our limits, and the main motivator was the remote paradise that we were sure to reach at the end. The site was perfect, right off of the river and protected well by the trees. As we docked the canoes, we quickly realized that our camping paradise was more like an insect ridden dystopia.
Stopping to take a deep breath resulted in a mouth full of flies. There was no time to savour our accomplishments and it was immediately apparent that there was a new battle to be fought. Setting up our tents and quickly starting a fire to rebuff our new adversaries was priority number one.
There was a great fire pit there constructed by previous visitors, so starting the fire was quick and easy despite the relentless onslaught. As the flames rose, we expected the flies to bow down to the bigger men that we were. They did not. From my experience, fire keeps flies at bay, but in keeping with the trip’s theme of consternation, this was not the case. Fly spray has no effect when facing such a merciless plague. To escape, one would have to decide between sticking their head in the fire, experimenting with smoke inhalation, jailing in a tent, or just resigning themselves to their calamine lotion fate.
The cooler evening air, and our tents provided some relief, though masses of flies would invade our strongholds any time the screened gates were opened. Despite the obstacles, it was great to be where we were. Far from civilization, in an area where not many people ever go, gives you a feeling like no other. Being surrounded and engulfed by nature puts you in your proper place. The massive sky full of stars gives you a feeling of vertigo that you do not experience with the our modern, light-saturated skies. As you take in the vast expanse of stars you never usually see, you feel as though gravity might cease and you could fall into space. Experiences like this make the entire trip well worth it.
The next day was a free day for us, and the weather was fantastic. It was supposed to be a relaxing fun day of exploring. The flies had other ideas. We walked down the river to explore, and came across a weathered sign dated 1997. It explained the history of the area and even mentioned the Tent Dwellers book. Further down the river we encountered a very old tin sign which succinctly read “WARNING. SANCTUARY. PROSECUTED”. A simple warning from the era of The Tent Dwellers. In the early 1900s when the book was written, the area was a game sanctuary. Kejimkujik was not a national park, and the entire area was just untamed wilderness where only the very bold dared to venture. The game sanctuary then evolved into a wildlife sanctuary in 1968, and later into a protected wilderness area.
While our exploration was short, it was enjoyed and helped make all the travels almost worth it. When I stopped to take some pictures of the river, I wiped hordes of flies off my lens and dropped the lens cap. As I looked down for the cap I noticed some bugs crawling on my shirt. Ticks. A new insect had joined the fray, just when we thought nothing on earth could be worse than black flies. We now had to adapt our defences to include checking each other for ticks, like scenes from a bad horror movie where everyone is afraid to suffer bites from infectious zombies.
That night, the rain kicked in again. It started with a slight drizzle, then formed into a steady rain. We quickly put up an “A” frame tarp over our sitting area near the fire so that we could rejoice in our reprieve from the flies. When the time came to retire to our tents and rest up for the horrific journey back the next morning, the rain really picked up and thoughts quickly turned to the quality of our tents. I had silicone sprayed mine the night before and gave myself a pat on the back. Soon the rain was coming down so hard that the structural integrity of the tent was coming into question and the limits of silicone spray were being put to the test. Next, lightning lit up the pitch blackness of the night, followed by some murmurs of thunder. The thunder slowly became louder until the point where there was a clap so loud that it was exactly like standing next to the noon gun on Citadel Hill as it is fired. The concussion impacted my body like a swift kick, and the acoustics provided by the surrounding environment were unlike anything I’d ever heard. It was fantastic, as long as my tent continued to resist the torrent, and we didn’t become one of the odds defiers who get struck. No one slept that night and every few minutes you would see a flashlight turn on to inspect the seams of the tent, followed by some choice words and phrases. With all the rain falling, combined with the many drinks enjoyed earlier in the night, a new problem cropped up. Â Going outside of the tent was out of the question, as you would be quickly submerged. Now there were many reasons to hope the storm would stop, which it did not until around 7am.
We were lucky that the torrential rains stopped when they did, because the long journey ahead required a large portion of the day to have good enough weather for travel. The skies still looked charged, but we had no choice and had to set out post-haste. The race was on against the weather, and if it turned ugly again, we would have to face the reality of having to camp out for another soggy night with limited food and water (in the park, and face a hefty fine, thanks to the Harper government’s cuts). Luckily the weather held off and we did not face any of the notoriously tough headwinds that some of the lakes can have. We made it back in very good time, bodies battered, mental and physical limits fully tested.
During our trip it was hard to really enjoy many moments due to the many obstacles we faced. Looking back on any difficult journey is always a motivator for the future. It instills new confidence that your mental and physical limits are higher than you ever hoped to discover. What doesn’t kill you, only makes you itchy.