Thursday, June 21, 2012

Food Barrel Harness

A few posts back I mentioned the blue food barrel Chris got at the Barrie Automotive Flea Market and how we were going to try and get a harness for it soon.

Today, we decided to head to Wild Rock Outfitters in Peterborough to check on the price of their harnesses and to get a copy of the Ganaraska Trail Handbook.  Much to my disappointment, they didn't have any copies of the handbook in stock.  To make it even more depressing, the harness for a 60L barrel was $89.99.

We decided to go back to our original plan to make something out of an old backpack or even something from scratch.  On the way back to the car, we decided to check out Sarges Army Surplus which is right around the corner from Wild Rock, hoping we could find a cheap, used pack that we could modify.

Not pretty but it works
Instead, we bought a US army duffel bag because it looked like the opening would be big enough to fit the barrel but we weren't sure.  We figured, though, if it didn't fit, we'd still use it for camping, for lugging sleeping bags and the tent, and if all else failed, we could use it for hauling laundry to the laundromat when things get backed up.

When we got home, I immediately tried it out, and let me tell you it was a tight fit.  I got to the bulge in the middle and couldn't get it any further...Chris got it in there though.  Took a while, lots of wiggling, shaking and tugging but its in there.  We may never get it back out.  Anyway, for $29 its not a bad deal. The straps aren't very padded but I can add to them if necessary.  I'm not entirely sure how much weight it will be able to handle.  You think military gear and you assume it will be tough, but I'll keep an eye on the strap to make sure it's holding up.  We probably wouldn't put heavy things in it anyway, mostly dehydrated food, maybe our little sleeping bags and camp pillows so they don't get wet.

In order to get a copy of the Ganaraska Trail Guidebook, we ended up going to Port Hope, to the Furby House Bookstore.  Its a really cute store, very open and with some really cool journal type books on display.  I also got a copy of Oak Ridges Moraine Trails by Katherine Jacob

Friday, June 15, 2012

Park Review: Balsam Lake Provincial Park

Balsam Lake is one of those parks thats south enough that its easy to get to from the city, but doesn't have much else to draw the crowds.  Not to say it can't get busy, because we've been there in the summer and it can get very crowded. (BTW, it is completely booked for Canada Day Weekend)

To see an explanation of my ranking system, and definition of how I classify site types, go HERE

The main draw at Balsam Lake is the beach - it's a great beach, perfect for people with younger kids because you can walk out pretty far before it gets deep and it's nice and sandy, not rocky or mushy.  The park does have two trails, Lookout Trail which is 2.6km and the Plantation Trail which is 4.2km. We did the Lookout Trail several years ago. It's a nice walk but the lookout isn't spectacular by any stretch of the imagination.

I've never been in the park gift shop, but they do have one.  Chris has been in it, but only to pay for a bag of wood. When I asked him, he said there wasn't much there, a few t-shirts and the odd trinket.  There is also a park store, which is actually outside the park boundaries but is very well stocked, considering Balsam isn't one of the big, famous parks.  They have a good selection of candy, chips, camping gear, beach toys, clothes (including Balsam Lake Provincial Park souvenir shirts) and a few things for basic meals like spaghetti noodles, kraft dinner, Mr. Noodle cups etc.

If you go to Balsam Lake, you should first be aware that there are 7 campground sections plus the walk in sites.  Not all of these sections are the same, in fact, there is a huge difference.  We've stayed in four of the sections but have walked or biked through the rest.

Lakeshore Campground, which is divided further into north, south and central.  South and Central are mostly electrical, and while they have a few of the nicest sites in the park, they also have some of the ones I'd never want to stay in.  That being said, a lot of these sites are pull-through, perfect for larger trailers which is what you usually see here.  But they aren't private. In essence, it's a field with a few scattered trees.

A few summers ago, we came here to camp for the first time, and since we didn't know much about the sites, the staff at the permit office issued us a permit for a site in Cedar Grove, but then circled a bunch of other sites that were available on our park map and sent us out to explore.  She said if we saw another one we liked better we could come back and they'd change our permit information.

So we drove around, and a lot of the ones available were in the Lake Shore Central section.  I gotta tell you, in the summer, when it's busy?  The central rows of this area looked like a ghetto.  The tents and trailers are so close, it can be hard to tell where one site starts and one ends.  The clothes lines set up to dry beach gear flutter against neighbours trailers and kids run rampant all over the place.

There are a few exceptions though. In Lakeshore South, the sites along the far edge are a bit more private and become more like Woodland sites than Field sites.  Especially #125.  Also, if you head to the back, on the opposite side of the main road from the main grid, there are some nice sites down the arms shooting off.  (Example, 110-114)

At Lakeshore Central, the best sites are the ones on the water - 502, 503, 505, 506, 508, 510, 512 and 513.  These ones go fast and are usually booked well ahead of time (actually just checked and all these sites are fully booked all through the summer and most of September.) I'd rank these as woodland sites with a privacy rating of 2-3. But again, if you head to the ones north of the main road, 93-109, you'll get more privacy. (Keep in mind these are non-electrical sites and probably not suitable for a larger trailer.

This is us set up at site 28.  Nice and roomy and moderately private
Lakeshore North is set up like the others, with orderly rows, but these sites are all non-electric.  If you want bit more privacy, the back sites are probably your best bet. 24, 25, 26, 27 and 28.

Hawthorn Valley Campground is actually pretty nice as well.  These are non-electrical woodland sites and a brand new comfort station has just been built for this area.  The sites are a bit more private, at least surrounded by trees rather than a sprawling field.  The only issue you might have with them is that they are on the edge of the park and a cottage road runs along the other side of the fence, so you'll have a fair bit of traffic noise in the summer. On the plus side, you are close to the path to the park store, should you feel the need to make a candy run.

Maple Grove is a mix of electric and non-electric woodland sites mostly ranked 2-3 on the privacy scale.  It's also one area that, even in July, was nearly empty, so if you're looking for a bit more quiet, you might want to consider staying in this section.  The sites are well treed, but there are a few  that are really small, so go online to the Ontario Parks Reservation site and check the dimensions in the pop up box for each site.

The first few times we camped at Balsam we stayed in the Cedar Grove Campground.  These sites are also a mix of electric and non-electric.  Our first time here we stayed on site 342, which is right beside the outhouse.  Normally, I wouldn't have chosen a site next to a vault toilet, but at the time our kids were pretty young and my days at camp went like this...make the long walk to the comfort station with one, get back to camp, almost get to sit down and the other has to go...get back, and start the cycle all over again.  Here, they were excited because we let them go by themselves. Also these vault toilets had sinks outside with running water, so we didn't have to go far to wash their hands after toasting marshmallows. (kids love them...yes, but OMG it can be a pain to scrub all the marshmallow from between their fingers so being able to wash their hands at a sink was a bonus.)  We weren't so close that smell was a problem though, otherwise I wouldn't have been willing to stay at all.

I'm not sure if it was bad luck on our part, or if we happened to go when the same family was there both times, but in the two times we stayed at Cedar Grove, both on the same line of sites, we had kids riding their bikes past our site in a big group, because they'd built a ramp with some old patio stones right in front of the vault toilets.  The second time we were there, after the park warden told them they had to stop, they decided to play a huge game of tag which involved running through anyone's campsite they wished.  It was incredibly annoying to say the least.  When you are camping, especially in an organized campground like this, you expect to have people close by. You expect to put up with some one a few sites over playing guitar and singing badly until eleven at night, and you expect to hear dogs barking, babies crying and someone banging around early in the morning,  but you shouldn't have to worry about a dozen kids streaming through your site, screaming their heads off and jumping over your fire pit every two minutes.  Also, we'd brought our dogs this time, and Dixie, who is afraid of our neighbours chihuahua, was snarling and baring her teeth.  We hadn't taken them camping often, so she was completely bewildered as to why she was tied up and in a strange place.  Having noisy, screaming kids running around her didn't help at all.  I spent half the trip worrying some kid would get bit and we'd have to deal with court cases and someone telling us we have to put our dog down.  I suppose we could have called the Warden to report it, and in retrospect, we probably should have.  Dixie didn't bite anyone, but it was a close call sometimes.   By the way, there is a $150.00 fine for rowdy behaviour that interferes with other people's camping experience, so considering how many kids were there, the park would have made a killing if they'd actually fined the families.

Anyway, that's a bit off the point.  The sites in Cedar Grove aren't super private by any means, but they do have clear separation between them. I'd rank most of them a 3, some only a two.  The electrical sites are woodland type.  Some of the non-electrical sites are meadow sites, very little shade but there is some shrubs and stuff to give you privacy from your neighbours.  Actually, the non-electric sites were mostly empty when we were there in July both times. We were there midweek so I can't say how full they would be on a weekend.

Poplar Plains sounds like it would be more of the open-field-with-a-few-poplar-trees type campground but in actual fact they are a mix of woodland campsites and meadow type.  Though the sites are fairly nice, both times we've been to the park in summer, this section was almost deserted.  If there's a reason for this, I don't know it.  I will say, when we walked through it one morning, the mosquitoes were a bit bad, so maybe that has something to do with it.

I haven't been to the walk in sites, so I shouldn't really comment on them here.  I'll try and take a walk through this small area next time I'm in the park.

Over all, Balsam is a nice place to go, especially in the off season.  Our experiences camping there in May and June were really great.  In the summer, probably because of it's close proximity to several towns and even a few cities, it can get really busy and noisy.  In my experience (which isn't all that vast as of yet) the parks further south attract more party-type campers and less of those who want a quiet, peaceful wilderness getaway.  It might also be that not many families want to endure longer car trips with their kids to get to a more northern camping destination when there's a perfectly good Provincial Park close at hand. Maybe its a combination of both. Either way, be prepared for a not-so-peaceful trip,  For me, Balsam is a great place to go for a few nights, when you want to fit in a last minute trip, but I wouldn't consider it a place to go for a week long vacation.  If I had a week, I'd definitely go further north where there are less crowds and more things to do than hang around at the beach.

Park Review Terms and Rating Guide

I was working on the review for Balsam Lake and realized I should probably spell out some of the terms I use or come up with some officially-written-down rating system so here you go, here's what I'll be using to come up with evaluations

Campsite types

1) Woodland - fairly self explanatory.  A woodland site is one that is surrounded by a wall of trees, usually enough to offer some privacy between you and your neighbour.  There may not be more than a few feet worth, but it offers a clear separation between sites.

Balsam Lake.  Not as private, but still surrounded by tall trees
A woodland site at Arrowhead.  Not much shade, but a good 40 feet of woodland between neighbours, sometimes more.

2) Field - Basically what it sounds like, an open field with a few trees scattered around.  The only real way to tell where one site ends and the next begins is by the placement of number posts.

At Balsam. This is actually more than one can see the road in the back and the sort of bare spot thats sort of a driveway.  The other side of that bare spot is the next site.
3) Meadow - This is sort of a cross between Woodland and Field.  When I say Meadow, I picture what looks like an overgrown farm field with a few small trees and lots of little shrubs and long grass.  A meadow site is one that is a mowed clearing surrounded by scrubby trees and tall grass.  Sometimes, they are well spaced and fairly private but you won't get much shade.


1 - There's nothing between you and your neighbour but an imaginary line or a fallen log
2 - A few trees with high branches between sites. Clear boundary but not much else. I also count those sites that look more like a narrow clearing meant for pulling over to let a car pass.
3 - A few feet of leafy trees form a wall around your site.  You can still see neighbours, and could probably see into their tent with little effort...not that I encourage such things.  I'm just using it as an example
4 - More than enough leafy branches to block visual access to your site and enough space that you can talk without worrying that your neighbour is hearing everything you least during the day.  At night, sound travels further so if you feel the need to discuss plans for a bank robbery or something else illegal...keep your voice down.
5 - You could almost parade around your site naked if you wanted to.  There's lots of space between sites and thick forest as well.  I'd give it a 5+ if the site has a little driveway in then opens up, limiting the visual from the road so people walking past can't see in as easily, especially if you block the view with your vehicle.

So far, the only place I've seen sites I'd rank a 5 were at Arrowhead in the East River Campground.  Some of the sites were so far apart you need a 100 foot extension chord to reach the outlet (spaced halfway between sites, so almost a 200 foot wall of trees between you and neighbours.  We tried going around to the row of sites behind ours to see if we could see our tent through the trees and couldn't see anything that way either.


Comfort Station - A small building with stalls, flush toilets, running water, and dryers.  They may also have showers and laundry facilities.  Many have an electrical outlet so you can dry your hair or curl it if you feel the need to primp for an evening of roasting marshmallows.

Mini Comfort Station - Rock Lake at Algonquin has a few of these.  They are a building as well, but rather than a larger room with a few stalls and a row of sinks, it's divided into four small rooms with flush toilet and sink in each one. There are lights inside.

Flush toilet outhouses - These are flush toilet stalls, but they look like outhouses from outside.  Usually there is two stalls and outside in the entry is a sink. Six Mile lake has these.  Not usually lit inside so bring a flashlight if visiting one at night.

Vault Toilet + Sink - Outhouses with a covered entry where a sink with running water can be found.

Vault Toilet - just what it sounds's an outhouse, no sink

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Almost Solo Camping

Last night, I took the kids camping on my own.  We didn't go far, and Balsam Provincial Park isn't exactly where you'd expect to have many run ins with wildlife, so I wasn't too concerned.  We've camped here many times, so I was able to pick a site fairly close to a comfort station so that my one worry wouldn't be an issue (that being having to make a bathroom run in the night and leaving the kids alone in the tent.)

We got there after the park office closed, so we were told to just head into the park and pick a site, then pay for a permit in the morning.  I'd already picked out a site I thought would be a good one, based on location and the pictures on the Ontario Parks website.  We pulled into the site, set up our brand new 6 person tent (way more than we needed for just us three, but I'll post later on why we got one.)  The tent was easy to set up with the kids help, then we headed to the beach for a swim.

The beach at Balsam is pretty awesome, and was completely deserted.  After our swim we had dinner, then I realized my first mistake...I'd brought the little car and it was packed with stuff, but I hadn't brought any games for the kids.  I'd meant to take Viking Chess (I'll rave about this game in another post) but there wasn't room.  And since the park office was closed, and I didn't have cash, I couldn't buy wood to have a fire.

I had brought books for everyone, and the kids were happy to lounge around in the tent reading so it wasn't the crisis it could have been.  As it grew dark, the kids fell asleep while I kept reading.  There was only one other site in use in our section, but they stayed up very late talking (loudly.) But despite that, I could hear the loons clearly.  There must have been a lot of them, and I've never heard so many loons calling all at once.  It was pretty amazing.  It was like listening to the Dan Gibson's Solitudes CD's I used to have.

Then I heard wolves, or maybe coyotes, a pack of them, howling in the distance.  Also cool, but a little creepy.  We often hear them at my parents house, but inside where it's safe, you don't really think about it.  Inside a tent?  Yeah, I admit, I was a little freaked out.  Then I heard more, this time from in the other direction. Still, they were pretty distant, so I kept reading.

Then I heard something sniffing the wall of the tent about 3 inches from my face.  Probably raccoons, and since I'd been careful to make sure everything was locked in the car, I wasn't worried.  Three seconds later, when I heard what sounded like two dogs snarling and ripping each other's throats out in the vicinity of our picnic table?  I admit it, I almost screamed. We see fox in Balsam frequently, so I wondered if that's what might be out there. Swear to God, I thought I would get out of the tent in the morning and find a dead animal five feet from the door. I spent ten minutes shining a flashlight through the door window mesh but didn't see anything so I went back to reading.

Eventually, the other campers packed it in for the night, and shortly after that, I swear I heard a woman walk past our site talking to herself.  Lots of people had walked by earlier and I always heard footsteps crunching on the gravel, but this time, nothing.  Now I'm lying there freaked out about wolves, coyotes, raccoons, foxes, and ghost campers, plus the usual bear phobia I've been plagued with since I was a kid.   After that, every noise made me jump, from someone coughing at the other campsite to my own stomach gurgling.  I've never heard so much non-camper related noise while camping.  I even heard owls and ducks in the middle of the night.

I know, pathetic right?  Logically, I know that if an animal was going to attack our tent and rip us to shreds, having Chris there isn't going to stop them.  That's not really the point though, I guess.  It's like having a security blanket, knowing that there's someone to help fight off a potential Discovery Channel moment.  Plus there's the fear of knowing my kids safety is totally in my hands, and worrying I might not be strong enough.

While lying there with my heart pounding, I thought of a few things I could have done to make myself feel a bit more secure.

1) I could have parked the car closer to the tent, with the seat forward for quick access to the backseat.  If we had to make a run for it to the safety of the car, the kids could get in easily, then I could push the seat back and jump in as well.  Not really a realistic strategy, but it's the knowledge that safety is close by that makes you feel a bit more secure.

2) I could have found a sturdy stick to keep in the tent. I know, chances are I'd never actually need it, and if I did find myself facing a ravaging wolf pack or a bear, a stick wouldn't do me much good.  Not really the point.  I'm pretty sure I can delude myself into thinking I really could fend off a hungry bear, looking like a mighty amazon warrior while doing so.

3) Keep something in the tent that would make noise.  I only now realized I had my phone with me.  I could have turned up the volume and put on a bit of music or used one of the alarm tones to scare off whatever was rooting around the tent.

4) Call someone.  I knew Chris would still be at work, so I called just so he could tell me I was being silly and that we'd be fine.  I don't recommend this one if the person is going to be fast asleep...they probably won't be all that willing to coddle you.

It was a good experience though, and I'm glad I did it.  Would I do it again?  Of course.  We had fun, and when I woke up in the morning and we were all in once piece, I felt more than a little proud of myself.  I think it'll be a while before I try a completely solo trip in the back country though.  And why would I want to?  The best part of camping for me is sharing it with the kids and Chris.  When I got home I did a bit of research on the internet and decided it was two foxes fighting outside the tent.  Check out HERE to listen to a fox and a raccoon fighting.  The squealing sound is the raccoon.  The dog-like snarling is the fox.

Anyone else have any camping scares they'd like to share?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Great find at the Barrie Automotive Flea Market

When Chris said he'd keep his eye out for camping gear at the Barrie Flea Market this year, I thought he was just saying it so I'd let him go.  I wouldn't have stopped him either way but honestly, I didn't think he'd find anything camping related, so I just rolled my eyes and told him to have fun.  I've been to the Flea Market at Burls Creek Family Event Park and I don't recall ever seeing anything but rusty car parts and...for some reason, tube socks. (Okay, I did get a set of canisters there one year...but that was an anomaly.)

Imagine my surprise when he came home with a 60L food barrel/canoe barrel.  I've wanted one of these for ages but since we haven't managed to do more than single night trips, it didn't seem worth the expense...of course it could be taken the other way, we haven't done longer trips because we didn't have the gear to do them...but that's beside the point. (Ours isn't exactly the same as the one showed in the link, but it's similar.)

These barrels are great for keeping your food dry, even if you flip your canoe, and because this one is pretty big it should be able to hold our clothes and some other things that need to be kept try.  They are also sturdy and therefor are a safe place to store anything that you don't want getting banged around.  Even for car camping, they can be handy.  They are pretty much animal proof. so if you head off to the beach for the afternoon, you can feel confident leaving the barrel at your site without worrying about critters eating your hotdog buns.

It is possible, apparently, to get ones that are about 30L for free if you ask at a grocery store that has an olive cart. The olives come in barrels that are very sturdy and have good tight fitting lids.  I've tried this, but none of the stores around us get their olives that way, but rather in small pails.  I'm wondering if maybe in a larger town or a city, the stores would go through enough to buy them in larger size containers, so I'll keep trying and let you know how I make out.

A while back, Chris brought home a small olive barrel from work.  It's only about 15" high, but we thought it would be perfect for one night trips, to keep food dry, especially if you are taking dehydrated foods. You can try asking at restaurants that serve things like greek salad, or maybe at a pizza place or Subway.

Now, ours didn't come with a harness, but I know a few places where I can get them, or we can take the advice of the man Chris bought it from and cut up an old backpack.

I'm hoping to post a picture of the barrel and maybe see just how much gear I can stuff into it.  In the meantime, does anyone have any advice for making a harness either from an old backpack or from scratch, let me know.  I'm thinking of trying the latter.  If it works, I'll post the instructions here.