Western Uplands Backpacking Trail
A few weeks after Norman and I agreed to take on a camping adventure together, our highly anticipated trip to hike the 32-kilometre loop of the Western Uplands Trail in Algonquin Provincial Park had arrived.
It was late September and the temperature was scheduled to drop drastically that weekend.
In the early morning hours of our Friday Parkbus run, Norman and I met by the York Mills subway station for our first pick-up.
We were both barely awake from caffeine deprivation, but as soon our passengers started to arrive, our volunteering game was on point.
The drive up was full of passengers who were either fast asleep in their seats or chatting quietly.
Norman and I had a similar volunteering approach — to make an effort to talk with all of our passengers, and infuse energy and excitement throughout the bus for our collective ride to the Great Outdoors.
Once seeing off the last of our passengers, it was time to start our own journey into nature.
West Gate to Oak Lake
The Parkbus turned back to drop us off at the West Gate stop. We had to first register here before embarking on the three-kilometre trek down the highway to access the Western Uplands trailhead.
The Western Uplands trail turned out to be incredibly beautiful, especially with the leaves turning colour. It had its share of elevation changes, but was nowhere near as challenging as the La Cloche Silhouette Trail.
Hiking amongst the vibrant stands of trees soon energized me, as being immersed in the woods always does. The weather was just the perfect balance of coolness and warmth for day hiking, and the leaves were at times strewn along the path like a red carpet or paving the way like a yellow brick road.
I just couldn’t stop smiling. I felt like a kid again.
Because Norman was well-versed with the “Wuplands trail”, I for once didn’t have to constantly consult my map to navigate.
It was a long-forgotten, but freeing experience to just follow someone else’s lead without having to think too hard about where I was going.
Every so often, we would take a break, parking ourselves on the trail to munch on some potato chips — Norman’s go-to morale-boosting camping snack — and have a chat.
We eventually reached camp at Oak Lake, a small but cozy site complete with campfire log benches and an iron table for two.
We selected our hammock trees of choice and set up our homes for the night. Dusk was approaching quickly, so we organized the rest of camp and got started on dinner.
That evening, we sat by Norman’s hammock by the light of a makeshift lamp and passed a flask of scotch back and forth while talking about life – our past histories, our current lives, and the big changes we had made and still hoped to make.
I proposed that we reconvene out in the woods the following year for an annual conversation over a fire and scotch. We could reflect on how far we had come in following our dreams for the future. Norman was in.
Some people are easy to open up to after only a short time of knowing them. I knew that Norman hadn’t just become a new camping partner, but also a friend who I could share in the adventures of life with.
Oak Lake to Maple Leaf Lake South
The night turned bitterly cold and the next morning was no less forgiving, having dropped to -2 degrees Celsius.
The fog had crept in and was eerily misting across the entire lake, complimenting the frigid air with a visual chill. It was a scene straight out of Shutter Island.
Norman quickly got some hot water boiling for our life-preserving coffee fix, while I regretfully downed some cold cereal. Norman had brought a coffee-in-a-bag set up that simply required hot water. The grinds could be reused the following day.
Back out on the trail, the frozen morning gradually warmed up as did our limbs from the brisk walking.
As we trekked towards Maple Leaf Lake, where we’d be staying on our second night, Norman sang like a Merry Man in the Sherwood Forest, executing an awesome rendition of “Bonnie Brae.”
Every so often, we would run into a group of campers and Norman would cheerily greet them and inquire about their route.
I smiled, feeling as though Norman was leaving a trail of good vibes along the path of colourful leaves.
We chatted about everything under the sun, but also had our quiet moments of simply hiking. I preferred to let Norman walk ahead so that I could let my brain shut off.
Once in a while though, he encouraged me to take the lead and reassured me that my choice of pace was just fine.
We arrived at Maple Leaf Lake South in good time and after choosing our campsite, hung up our tents, prepped some wood for the evening’s fire, and quietly sat by the glistening water with some miso soup in the sun.
With so much free time before sunset, the world was our oyster! We lazed around in our hammock tents, and laughed hysterically as Norman played songs from the musical Avenue Q on his phone.
A few minutes later, we surrendered to the hypnotizing warmth of the afternoon and dozed off. Lazily napping in my hammock, rainfly tied up to let the soft breeze and warm rays of the sun trickle in, this was simple, blissful happiness.
Alas, with the evening drawing close, we knew to layer on some more clothes and hang up the food rope. Norman set up what he deemed to be his best bear hang yet, instructing me on the PCT method of bear-proofing our food.
We prepared dinner and took our hot meals out to our favourite rock spot overlooking Maple Leaf Lake.
Fronds of unblossomed lilies and frogless lily pads spread out serenely in front of us, as the sun gloriously cast its last amber rays across the dark, glassy water.
Later, we enjoyed the warmth offered to us by both our blazing campfire and remaining scotch, as the cold began to set in.
The sky looked as though it would be completely clear for the night, so we agreed to hit the sack at 9 pm for some sleep and reemerge at 1 am – freezing or not! – for some nighttime stargazing.
Somehow, we stuck to the plan and groggily stumbled out of bed at 1 am to the sound of my watch alarm beeping.
Strangely enough, it was actually the first time this camping season that I had seen such a glorious sky full of twinkling stars.
After trying various shots with his camera, Norman managed to capture the beautiful memory as I took in the Milky Way, shimmering straight ahead of us.
Satisfied with our fill of stargazing, we returned to our hammocks, bundling up in our quilts for another chilly slumber in the woods.
The next morning, we set out for the short remainder of our trek. My self-appointed mission was to collect a handful of leaves in all the different, beautiful shades I had been spotting along the trail during our hike – from yellow, to orange-red, reddish-brown, and apple-coloured red-green.
Perhaps it was a distraction to the impending realization that our time in nature was sadly coming to an end.
Norman and I made it back to the bus pick-up spot early, as planned, and celebrated in the warm sun with our last brew of java.
It was time to don our Parkbus Ambassador hats as we made our pick-ups to bring everyone back to the city.
Once back in the city, Norman and I said a quick good-bye as I disembarked at an earlier stop, but agreed to meet up soon to reconnect.
As I commuted the rest of the way home, I felt satisfied at a great first trip together with my new camping bud Norman. Indeed, I could sense that it was just the beginning of many more adventures together.
Having camped with someone who had been doing his own trips for many years reminded me that there were other ways of approaching time in the Great Outdoors. It reinforced that I could always find new ways to pack lighter or do things differently at camp.
I don’t believe that anyone ever masters the wilderness (I’m certainly nowhere near that!). There are always things everyone can continue learning in the Outdoors, and sometimes the best way to do that is to draw inspiration and knowledge from a new camping friend!
>> Want to find your own Norman to experience the Outdoors with? Read the next post in the Western Uplands series!: Find Your New Camping Friend.
>> View our complete photo collection from our Western Uplands hiking trip here.
Photo Credit: All photos by Norman Goh (except those marked with NatureImmersed.com).