When a canoeist goes on a backpacking trip
In 2014, I turned 40. I knew I wanted to do something big. The movie Wild had come out, I had read both the book and watched the film. Something about the passion to jump head first into a quest inspired me. I wanted to answer to something more than just ‘mom’. I had gone solo camping before, leaving the family behind and camping in organized campgrounds but had never gone backcountry.
A plan hatched with a newly minted friendship with a new neighbour who was also turning 40. Our destination was the La Cloche Silhouette trail in Killarney Provincial Park, a very ambitious choice for 2 inexperienced backpackers with a ton of canoe tripping experience. The Silhoutte trail is a very rugged, yet scenic trail. Reading thru the trail guide, there are ‘precipitous drops’ (read cliffs), you climb up an actual water fall along the trail and there is no accurate description of climbing what seems like one after the other of never ending hills.
My trip mate had a husband and 2 kids, I myself had spent more than half my life with my husband and devoted my time to raising our 4 kids. We jumped into the planning and when we actually booked the trip, it seemed like there was no turning back. We bought new backpacks, sturdy hiking boots and put together a shared food menu.
That trip took place in September 2014, we kissed our husbands and kids goodbye and head off. We had fantastic weather, only saw one bear on the trail but our lack of backpacking experience was proving to be our down fall. We continuously didn’t make it to our campsites until dark almost too tired to do more than put up the tent and eat more than a power bar. One night we didn’t make it at all and had to camp atop a ridge in the full moonlight, I sat sipping wine (yes, I said wine) and eating beef jerky for dinner cause we were desperately low on water. That night the wolves ranged along the ridge, howling too close to us for us to comfortably fall asleep and not worry about being dragged from the tent. We were both plagued by horrible blisters and had clearly packed too much food (and wine). Both our water filter and stove failed in the first 3 days, leaving them dead weights in our backpacks (thank goodness for the water tabs I had packed on a whim). My pack alone topped out at 75lbs which would have been fine slogging it along a portage trail but was completely wrong for backpacking let alone the unforgiving ups and downs that make up the La Cloche trail.
On our last day, atop the crack we struggled to hide the weight of our packs in front of a group of very handsome younger guys that were chatting and taking pics for us, praying we didn’t topple over in front of them. While the weight of our packs and failing gear was a constant struggle it didn’t matter to me, actually hitting the trail and accomplishing what we had started was what kept driving me to put one foot in front of the other. While I missed my husband and kids, I was having a fantastic adventure. Killarney is my happy place, as a family have canoed all over the park and it keeps drawing us back. But the trail was new and exciting to experience as a first time. The vistas are stunning and the lakes are blue, the La Cloche range used to be taller than the Rockies.
When we finally finished, opting to hike 17km all the way out rather than stay 5km from the end of the trail on our last night it was a feeling of elation. We had done it! After a 5 1/2 hour drive home, I slept for a solid 12 hours. It was when I woke, over coffee with my husband that I decided to do it again this time with him as my partner with a much, much lighter pack!
Since that first trip in 2014, I have hiked the trail 3 more times. I decided that I would hike it once a year for every year in my forties. I completed it in 2015 with my husband and hiked it twice in one year in 2016. Once with my 14 year old daughter and again with my husband. Last year in 2017, 8 days before my planned hike with my daughter, I sprained my ankle and tore ligaments on a canoe trip coincidentally in Killarney. I guess hiking it twice in one year made up for that missed trip, although I was very disappointed to not have hiked it with my oldest daughter.
This year in 2018, I’ll be heading out with my youngest girl. At 12 years old she is super excited to hike it, she loves Killarney as much as me. My oldest girl will join us at the beginning hiking 8km in for one night and then back out to the trailhead.
What have I learned since that first trip that I’ve changed or done differently?
- Buy the lightest gear you an afford or borrow or rent it, trust me your feet and your back will thank you!
- I’ve learned to set goals to be done early in the day to enjoy where we are, including being off the campsite by 7-7:30am
- I have learned that it took hiking the silhouette twice to break in my boots properly
- I have moved away from carrying a water filter to strictly using water tablets, way lighter and more reliable
- I use a twig stove, no more carrying fuel or worrying about it getting knocked around in my pack (we haven’t had a fire ban, yet)
- We weigh our packs, no more than 30lbs! (about 35lbs with full water bottles)
- Learned to take shorter but more breaks
- Lightened our food, carrying freeze dried food and divided it the same way I would for canoeing, allotting both food and snacks per day to have a better estimate instead of carrying too much
- No wine! I take a very small flask of vodka to add to some crystal light
- the trail is well marked, we still take a paper map along but jeffs maps online download will pin point your exact location using no data
I think the biggest difference I’ve noticed since that first trip when every bend in the trail was new, every view was seen for the first time is that every trip is different every time and each time I hike the trail I spot something I hadn’t noticed the previous time. I’ve also realized that hiking with my husband or my daughters is very special, its not something to get away from but the feeling of independence of going it alone can be very powerful, knowing you can do it and there is a difference. Maybe one day I will hike by myself, who knows? I still have 6 more years of hikes to complete my goal of a hiking trip a year for my forties.
I’ve learned that I love canoeing more than hiking, especially when I can throw the pack in the canoe and take a break from it (hiking for a canoeist can feel like one never ending portage!) On the other hand there are parts of the park I would never have seen by just canoeing it, the scenery, views and forest along the trail are unique to the trail.
I’ve also learned that a lot like child birth I forget how difficult and unforgiving the Silhouette really is every single time I hike it but is always worth it in the end.
Difficulty: Strenuous! But not impossible with good, proper preparation
Trail length: 78km (don’t forget to factor in distance to and from actually campsites off trail, it can add up)
Days: recommended trip length is 7-10 days, I have completed every trip in 7 days and 6 nights. I have also met crazy people completing the entire trail in overnight challenges, 2 days and younger, fitter set in 3-4 day weekends. My point of view is that I don’t want it to be a death march and I want to enjoy the experience and views, not rush thru it.
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