Solo Backpacking Trip in the Bruce Peninsula

A couple weekends ago I went up to Owen Sound to deliver work for a show at the Owen Sound Artist's Co-op. It's almost a 3 hour drive each way from my house, so I figured I'd make an extended stay of the trip and take myself out on a date.

Although I love people, I am most definitely an introvert, and I find time by myself incredibly fulfilling, refreshing, and rejuvenating. After a couple busy months in the store and teaching classes three nights a week, I was really looking forward to some time alone with my thoughts, or simply some moments of silence.

 
The Bruce Trail, Tobermory ON
 

I decided it was a good time to go on my first solo backpacking trip.

I've camped by myself before, and I've backpacked before, but I've never done both, together. Our usual backpacking trips are portage excursions, so we travel most of the distance in our canoe, and other than our Grand Canyon hike, I really have not done a lot of long distance hiking. This was an opportunity for a lot of "firsts".

I picked up the Bruce Trail at the end of Crane Lake Rd, just south of Tobermory, and hiked the 8km trail to the High Dump sidetrail leading to Georgian Bay. The trail started off relatively flat and gravelly, with markers along the side of the path counting 1, 2, 3... I thought "Wow, I've gone 2km already? This is a piece of cake!"

That was until I reached "8", and there was no sidetrail to be seen. So I kept going. 9, 10, 11.... The trail became more rocky and undulating. I passed three lakes and crossed a river over a log bridge. I had to slow my pace to avoid slipping on patches of ice, and to clamber under fallen trees. By marker 13 I started to wonder if I was lost. "Did I miss the sidetrail?" "Did I even take the right trail to start with?" "Worst case scenario, I will set up my tent in the middle of this trail and sleep here."

Bruce Trail, Tobermory ON

Turns out those numbers were 1/2 km markers, and the trail was not quite the "piece of cake" I had thought. But I still made it, albeit with a couple blisters on the bottom of my left foot.

By the time I got to the side trail (a steep, ice covered scramble down a rocky cliff) and made it to my site, I was beat, and ready for some dinner. I set up camp, sat on the beautifully white stone beach, and listened to the waves while my dinner cooked on the campstove. I sat there watching the sunset, reading my all time favourite book "THE ROAD", and then zipped myself up into my tent with my raincoat on. (Note to self: buy a one person tent for the next solo hike - the two man tent loses too much heat). I slept relatively soundly through the night, listening to the crash of the waves on the smooth rocks. I wondered about bears, but I had my hunting knife and bear horn next to my head if needed.

Bruce Trail, Tobermory ON
Georgian Bay, High Dump
Bruce Trail, Tobermory ON

It's a really interesting feeling - to be a little nervous, a little scared. I've felt this way before, on many occasions walking alone through the city at night. It's not like watching a scary movie, where you know something is going to pop around the corner but you just don't know when. It's less knowing than that. It's quiet. You know the likelihood is that all will be well, and you'll wake up in the morning and pack up and watch the squirrels and birds and walk back to your car without seeing a soul.

But there is a sense of vulnerability being out in the woods by yourself. And I kind of love it.

Georgian Bay, Tobermory ON

At 7am I was up, packing up my tent, sleeping bag and ground pad, and setting out for my car. It was a beautiful weekend for a hike, and just 2 hours later I was back at my little Toyota, stripping off my stinky sweaty clothes and tending to my blistered feet.

It was a successful first solo backpacking excursion, and the only thing I forgot was my toothbrush.

Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend

Page AZ is a wee little city with an incredible number of places to visit. Between the lakes, canyons and hiking spots, you could spend several days in this one city and keep yourself entertained. We only had the morning to explore, so we decided to splurge and take a tour of Upper Antelope Canyon.

 
Upper Antelope Canyon | Emma Smith Ceramics
 

Both Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon are exclusively visited through tour guides, for a number of reasons. Located on the Navajo Reservation, the canyon (sometimes called "Corkscrew Canyon") is a quarter mile long and 130ft deep. Like Jesse mentioned in his blog post about Spooky Gulch - slot canyons are Dangerous with a capital D, in rainstorms. With the volume of visitors that Antelope Canyon gets every year, you wouldn't want to be trapped in a 130ft deep canyon with dozens of people when a flash flood hits.

Upper Antelope Canyon | Emma Smith Ceramics
Upper Antelope Canyon | Emma Smith Ceramics

Visiting in the winter time meant that we didn't get the same bright colours or light beams that a summer visit would provide - but there were fewer people, and for a cold January morning there were still more people than I really preferred.

Upper Antelope Canyon | Emma Smith Ceramics
Upper Antelope Canyon | Emma Smith Ceramics

Antelope Canyon is the most photographed slot canyon in Arizona - photographers travel from all over the world to spend time in this canyon and capture its beauty. And for good reason - it makes for remarkable photographs! National Geographic once asked to capture the flash flooding in the canyon and secretly bolted their cameras to the (millions of years to carve out) canyon walls. When the flash flood came through, it ripped their equipment off the walls and carried it away - the cameras (and footage!) were never seen again. (Karma's a bitch, National Geographic.)

Upper Antelope Canyon | Emma Smith Ceramics

We got some spectacular photographs, but to be honest, the atmosphere was a let down. I can imagine the canyon would be a very spiritual, serene, and moving place to be - if you were alone. But we weren't. We were shepherded along in a group of 6 (we were told this was a small group) with a tour guide chattering on about all the different rock formations, where exactly we should aim our cameras, and what filters to use. We got some great photos, but the photos are much more incredible than the experience was. There was no time to quietly enjoy, reflect, or wander off on your own.

If you're going to visit Arizona, Antelope Canyon is worth visiting - but only if you have extra time. There are so many other sites to see that (for an adventurer) would be more rewarding.

On our way to the Grand Canyon, we stopped at Horseshoe Bend - another famous landmark where the Colorado River (the same river that carved out the Grand Canyon) makes a sharp horseshoe curve. The short hike to the bend brings you to the cliff's edge where you can look down and see the river wrapping like a snake around the rocks below.

Horseshoe Bend

And then we were off to the Grand Canyon - the highlight of the trip (for me) and a place I will go back to, MANY more times.
That's up next, and until then, thanks for reading!

GUEST POST: The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Day 9 Soundtrack:

Traveling to the Canyons - George Harrison, All Things Must Pass

When Emma first mentioned to me that she wanted to visit The Grand Staircase, I envisioned a rock formation, in the shape of a staircase. I was not wrong, but my imagination was not completely right either. The Staircase, similar to “Balanced Rock” at Arches National Park, or the Hoodoos at Bryce Canyon, was formed over millions of years. (Geologic time-scales almost completely unfathomable to this big-brained monkey.) Unlike these other awe-inspiring rock formations, however, The Grand Staircase does not fit into one’s field of vision (or even a “pano” shot on the iPhone). It is not the “naturally formed” set of stairs that you might see Rocky Balboa running up in a montage, so much as it is a metaphorical geologic construct that stretches over millions of acres in Southern Utah and Northern Arizona. The “steps” in the staircase refer to the layers of sedimentary rock that begin around Bryce Canyon National Park, and stretch down through the National Monument in Escalante, through Zion National Park, and finally reach the Grand Canyon.

The “Grand Staircase National Monument” is about 2 million acres of public land in the desert of Western Utah. It is rich with streams, monoliths, and slot canyons. Again, I was naive to the meaning of a “National Monument”. When I think “monument”, I think “statue” or “plaque”, not 2 million acres of mostly primitive, completely gorgeous land, protected from development for the sole-purpose of public use. America is serious about their public land – and good on em’! In that neck of the woods (or desert, in this case), one may set up camp, free-of-charge, almost anywhere, at any time, and stay for up to 14 days. There are some stipulations to be aware of if you are going to do this, but they are straight forward and make sense. (Fire regulations, proximity to developed areas/parks, etc..) There are also some areas that have been intentionally developed into campgrounds, that do charge a small fee to offset maintenance costs/up-keep. These are great value, often the designers of the sites are very creative about working within the confines of the landscape with minimal impact. Pit toilets can also seem like a luxury after you’ve been shitting like a bear for a few days.

Escalante

Escalante

Calf Creek Campground, which we could have easily driven right by without any clue that it was there, may be my absolute favourite car-campground of all time. As we were driving through the landscape pictured above, up and down switch-backs, and along cliff-sides, there was a small side-road down to the camp. Upon arrival, we felt at home. Cosily nestled between two large red cliffs, beside Calf Creek, there are maybe a dozen beautiful little campsites. It was $7 per night. Each site has a cast-concrete picnic table, coloured to match the surroundings, and a heavy-duty iron fir-pit/grill. (As we learned is standard practice in the U.S.) There is a wonderful suspension bridge for pedestrians to walk over to the pit toilet. Each campsite has its own, unique features.. 2 have man-made pole-barns for shelter, and all have amazing views of the wild formations that have been carved out of the red cliffs all around.

There were 2 other campers on the first night of our stay. On night 2, it was just us and the coyotes (and the possibility of a mountain lion).

Emma's whippin' up some hot din.

Emma's whippin' up some hot din.

This is normal, right?

This is normal, right?

Just a typical Utah campsite.

Just a typical Utah campsite.

 

From Calf-Creek (where I wish we had spent a few more days), we day-tripped out to some slot-canyons. Apparently in the summer-time these things are so full of tourists that you can’t move. Not so in January. We didn’t see a soul out there all day. We visited Peek-a-boo Gulch, Spooky Gulch, and the Dry-Fork Narrows, all slot canyons, located in the Dry-Fork area of Escalante.

 

Goin' fer a rip in our 1994 Mazda MPV.

Goin' fer a rip in our 1994 Mazda MPV.

As we started heading down Hole-In-The-Rock Road, we realized why all of the canyon-tour shops back in town (closed for the season now) had jacked-up Jeeps and giant, 16 seat dune-buggies parked beside them. This place is “Goin’ fer a rip”-ville USA. We stuck to the main road, as the directions said, but there were intricate networks of side-roads for all levels of off-roadin’ vehicles (and their crazy drivers). Even the main road got pretty rough at times. It was no match for ol’ Vanny though. Save for the odd, seemingly wild, cow, we didn’t see nothin’ ‘r nobody for a good 26 miles on our way into the “parking lot”.

 

MPVs only.

MPVs only.

The trail to the slots is about a 3.2 mile loop, with each slot canyon accessible from the main loop. There is a “check in” station at the trailhead with a book to sign in and out. This makes sense, considering the trail is not super well defined. It’s not ultra difficult to navigate, but there were a few moments of minor confusion as we looked around for the next pile of rocks (cairns) to guide us in the right direction.

Spooky Slot Canyon is aptly named. It can be pretty dark, even in the middle of the day, down in the depths of the canyon. It is also very narrow (10’’) at points. Bringing a backpack was a poor decision.

Good thing she's small.

Good thing she's small.

Better shimmy.

Better shimmy.

The canyons are prone to flash-floods in heavy rain, and there are no warning sirens. If it starts pouring.. get the hell out! All of the surrounding desert basically funnels acres and acres of surface water down into these canyons. It is the extreme force created by all this water that keeps eroding away the walls and carving out the beautiful, sculptural forms.

Just chillin'

Just chillin'

The canyons do require a certain level of agility, determination, and willingness to traverse. There is some climbing, and there is the odd pool of water that may require some creativity to navigate without getting wet. The kid inside me loves it. In a way, it is a giant, beautiful playground. If we ever have kids, I’ll wait until they are 10 or 12 years old, I will definitely bring them here. Mabe ol’ Vanny will even still be kickin’ around.

 

The entrance to Peek-a-Boo requires about a 20’ climb.

The entrance to Peek-a-Boo requires about a 20’ climb.

Don't get wet...

Don't get wet...

Once inside, rock scrambling skills required.

Once inside, rock scrambling skills required.

She got wet...

She got wet...

All in all, I highly recommend this little venture if you’re anywhere near the neighbourhood. Don’t go in peak tourist season. A local man was telling us that tempers can flare up in Spooky Canyon when dozens of folks are trying to squeeze by one another in the 10” wide sections. For me, much enjoyment was derived from the atmosphere of the experience as a whole. This included the sense of adventure that came from the solitude in such a vast, open space as the gulch. Obviously there is some risk involved, so a jeep tour is good for those who’s vehicle isn’t up for the challenge. I wasn’t joking when I said the road is rough. It is in no way maintained. We absolutely took advantage of the 4 wheel drive. There were some very deep sandy spots, huge bumps and cracks, and some pretty tilty spots. Had it started to rain hard, a 2 wheel drive vehicle would definitey have gotten stuck. (There may be a story about such an event coming up after our visit to Sedona.. stay tuned.)

Thanks for reading.

Jesse

If there were ever a suitable selfie spot - this was it.

If there were ever a suitable selfie spot - this was it.

Dry Fork Narrows

Dry Fork Narrows

Up and through.

Up and through.