Thursday, July 17, 2014

Mississagi Provincial Park : Paradise Amidst the Swarm (or Every Martin Short Film I saw as a Kid)

I know some people don't like camping because of bugs and I always think, "Suck it up butter-cup.  If they are bothering you just start a fire or wear bug repellent."  That was before.  This is now.  Bev and I are still swatting at ghost bugs on our bodies a month after leaving Mississagi Provincial Park.  If you didn't know any better you'd think we had nervous ticks -- and not the sort of ticks you keep until you can show the MNR.  Seriously there was no fire big enough and not enough bug spray in the world to avoid getting bit at Mississagi (until they create a 100% Deet cream or spray that doesn't melt flesh).

Only now do I realize I have never talked about the non-human pests you can encounter while camping.  Personally I always carry a flyswatter just like Grandfather Elwin did, but that was just for house flies.  Here at Mississagi Provincial park I carried it constantly and used it while doing everything -- hiking, swimming, and even for fanning the fire.  Suffice to say I need a new flyswatter as mine is now broken.  For most people the worst pest while camping is the Mosquito:

Seriously if I was taking this picture the mosquito wouldn't live.  But I would never take this picture.
I can hear the photographer now, "Honey a mosquito is biting me, what are you waiting for, get the camera."
The first morning in Mississagi we awoke to five hundred of these little beggars on the mesh of our tent in the first of three Mexican stand-offs.  They were licking their own proboscises waiting for us to come outside.  It was like I was El Guapo and Bev was Hefe and the plethora of mosquitoes were the Three Amigos and the rest of the townsfolk surrounding us.  When my ears woke up the hum was so loud I thought we were under the hydro wires, but then I remembered Mississagi doesn't have hydro -- they're off the grid and all I could think is that no matter where the bug repellent was, because it was not in the tent, it was too far away.  Female mosquitoes are the ones that use a vampiric proboscis to suck your life blood, while the males are out drinking nectar and other sugary liquids.  Hmmmm.  The best bug repellent we have found is called Watkins.  It's a cream that goes on smooth, seems pleasant on the skin and works for four or more hours.

You can buy it at MEC or the Trading Posts and it's distributed out of Winnipeg a place that knows about bugs.
Early in the season (May to early July) mosquitoes are not the only problem, you also have to look out for black flies too.  Wait are there green, blue, and purple flies?  Because all the flies I know are black and yet this is the only one called black fly.  But I digress, my mother, Margaret, will be the first to tell you black flies germinate wild blueberries and that's a good thing, but that's the males of the species working all day on that, where as the females feed on flesh and blood.  Right.  In my experience, if you wait until after a week of plus 20 degrees or about mid-June all the black flies are gone.

"I'll die with the black fly picking my bones in North Ontario I-O, in North Ontario." Wade Hemsworth
I really don't understand these photographers.
Now much to our dismay, Mississagi had not gotten a week of plus 20 and therefore these little beggars were still around.  The worst part of these bites is the female flies take a chunk of your skin with them, but on the plus side -- no West Nile Virus just a beautiful welt.  If you've not seen the NFB video for The Black Fly Song please, please I demand you to check it out.  It's part of the 1970's animation boom Canada was known for and therefore a part of our heritage.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qjLBXb1kgMo   The only reason why I know about it is because they'd show it in between Hammy the Hamster and Rocket Robin Hood when I was a kid.  Again check it out.  It's as easy as hitting the link above.  Lastly there are deer and horse flies.

There is nothing really dear about these flies and again what is with people photographing these flies.
Part of the same family these flies use their mandibles and cut a razor sharp X into your skin then lap up your blood using an anti-coagulant in their saliva.  A key to the wild deer fly or horse fly is that they commonly go after your hair as they are use to biting animals so if you have a light coloured hat on they will pester you less.  I can't say any deer or horse flies actually got me at Mississagi, but I killed over 20 that were caught in my hair or in the eating tent.  Again the males of the species collect nectar and the females need the blood to have babies.  To sum up when it comes to the flying pests: While the men are working or getting drunk on sugary liquids and nectar's the women are sucking the life out of you so they can take care of the kids, but you can't have one without the other.  It's something almost like a lesson there... or a mirror in nature... I'm not quite sure.  Maybe someone can point me in the right direction.  Ah there it is.

NOW ONTO THE PROVINCIAL PARK...

Flyswatter at the ready.  While I took this picture I was bitten over 30 times.

Here is a little recent history of Mississagi Provincial Park which was created as a natural environment class park in 1965 and is 4900 hectares or 49 square kilometres in size.  A funny thing about this park is that they boast about it being quiet and not having many visitors.  "Mississagi Provincial Park sees as many campers over the course of a year as Algonquin receives in just one long weekend." or "At Mississagi, there's no need to reserve a campsite.  You can just show up whenever you feel like it."  Seems like the reverse advertising team was on this job.  Like you're supposed to say, "Well if no one is going there, it's the place for me."  Hence in 2012 the Ontario Provincial Park system announced they were closing the gates on Mississagi because of low visitation rates.  Because of this, the city of Elliot Lake, outraged as a retirement community can be, stepped in because old people with boats love to fish and if they closed the gates they would close off Semiwite Lake, and Flack Lake to the public (you could walk in but motor boats would be out).  So now Elliot Lake and the Ontario Provincial Parks are working together to keep the park open, but Elliot Lake has to pay for any operating shortfalls.  You'd never know any of this by going to Mississagi, with the only differences between this park and others being a glossy park guide (Bev was very upset) and the park store wasn't quite set up when we arrived June 2014 (No ice -- you have to go into town;  25 minutes there and 25 minutes back.  If no one is coming why would they need ice?).


Our Site #1.  Not much shade and the fire pit is backwards, but otherwise I think it's perfect.
The campsites at Mississagi are split into two groups; there are four walk-in sites (#1-4),


Site #1. Not all walk-in sites are made equally as Bev makes the 10 foot stroll in from our car.

And then every other site is a pull-through site for RV's or vehicles with boats.  That being said there were a number of great sites at this park.  In my opinion 1-4 are the best and the only issue with them is there is a path along the front of all of the sites, but I don't think any reasonable person would use it unless they knew the people on the next site or they were being chased by a black fly covered bear. If you did camp at one of these sites you could easily block off the path with a tent.


Our view right into site #2 and 3 and if you have eagle eyes 4.
As far as the pull-through sites go #5-7, 9, 11-16, 19-24, and 26 are all great sites.  If you want to be close to a beach then #1, 4, 9, or 11-14 have ten foot walks to one of the two public beaches.  You may look at a map and say there isn't a beach close to #1 but if you refer to my first picture of the site you can walk off site #1 into the water.  It is a little mucky, a little weedy and you have to watch out for the vicious tadpoles, but if you are looking to cool off  or get away from the bugs it is perfect.  (Bev did it.)
The Bullfrog tadpoles visited everyday-- those pests.  The middle one we named Clifford and the one with the eye patch is Captain Ron.
Planning to go to this park I knew there was an enormous amount of hiking (60 km of it) you could literally hike for seven days and we did get four of the seven trails in during our three days there.  On the first day we hiked the Semiwite Creek Trail (1.2 km) a lovely trail from the gatehouse right to our site (where we applied more bug repellent) and then back to the gatehouse (wish we had known this when we started then we wouldn't have driven).  This trail looked at the old logging run from Semiwite Lake to Chris*man Lake.  If it wasn't for the black flies and mosquitoes, this would have been fun -- not Pure Luck fun, but fun all the same.  It says to allow 30 minutes for the trail but I would suggest that it takes more like 45 minutes to an hour with a lot of slapping in between.  


A 50 year old logging chute.
Second we hiked the Helenbar Lookout Trail (7 km) a fantastic journey, like Inner Space, through some pristine wilderness.  Along the trail there are a couple of stand out stops, the first being some 'erratic' boulders that were dragged by glaciers to strange locations, like half way up an old mountain.


Erratic Boulder: a boulder that differs from the surrounding rock.  I've never seen two the same.
Then you follow a ridge with some truly stunning views of Helenbar Lake and what's nice is they have picnic tables so you can stop and relax to soak up the view.


What a Hell-enbar view of the lake.
I don't know about you, but I've gotten into this weird habit of when I'm startled (you can say scared, but I won't) I let out a loud half giggle, half laugh until I know what I just about stepped on.  About twenty metres from the view above this happened and then I got this...

A Ruffed Grouse getting Ruffed. And my second bird for the blog!
Ruffed Grouse were abundant during our trip to Thunder Bay this time and I have to assume it has to do with the time of year, because every time we saw them they had a brood of Cheepers with them.  My understanding is that a lot of Cheepers don't make it to adulthood that's why Ruffed Grouse lay Cheepers by the dozen.  After that excitement and about three quarters of the length of the trail you come upon a back-country campsite that has the nicest beach in the whole park. Too bad it is a 30 minute hike from the closest campsite.

Now, Bev try to give me the most fake smile you can muster.  Perfect!
Helenbar Trail says to allow 4 hours, but Bev and I did it in 2 hours with a couple breaks.  At one point you follow the portage between Semiwite and Helenbar lakes and if you choose to go left and visit Helenbar Lake there is part of a Gloster Meteor plane that Lt William 'Hugh' McKenzie crashed there in 1946.  We didn't know until after, which is always the way, so we didn't go to see it.

Part of the HelenBar Lookout Trail follows Semiwhite Lake Trail (12 km) which is a difficult trail that travels around Semiwite Lake.  The reason why this is a difficult trail is because you are hiking on rocks and roots for most of the hike, so it is a great work out for your ankles as you slip and slide over these modernly ancient obstacles.  We only did parts of this trail so I cannot comment on it fully, but by our calculations it says to allow 6 hours for this hike and we figure you could do it in 4 and a bit.

Pink Lady's Slipper and Bunchberry plants were everywhere on the Semiwite Lake Trail. 
Lastly we did the Flack Lake Nature Trail (0.8 km) which is an easy trail with a couple of picnic spots and really only one point of interest which is the "ripple rock" right beside another old logging chute.  On the "ripple rock" where an ancient ocean once was there are fossils that can be found, but we looked and didn't find anything really cool.  This "ripple  rock" should not be confused with the underwater mountain that use to be in Seymour Narrows off the coast of British Columbia.

The not exploded "Ripple Rock" with picnic area, logging chute, and hard to find fossils.
The other three hikes are:

The McKenzie Trail (22 km) they say allow 2+ days for this hike and it sounds like a doozie.  Named after the Pilot that crashed into Helenbar Lake.  This hike we didn't plan for, as one would have to carry everything needed to camp for the night.

Jimchrist Trail (11km) the blasphemous trail goes by Chr**tman Lake and then to Helenbar Lake.  Since we already saw Helenbar Lake and could check out C**istman Lake from the campground and the highway we decided to skip this trail.  If we had more time we definitely would have done it just to say "Jim Christ-man that was a good trail."

Cobre Lake Trail (11km) is a funny one and not just because of the way they spell Cobra, but because it's not even part of Mississagi Provincial Park.  It is 11 km north of the park just off the highway and seems to have more to do with mining than hiking.  There are stops along the way at copper exploration sites, an old diamond drill camp, and a chalcopyrite mine.  This one would have to be a day trip and therefore we chose not to do it.

Dragon Fly making a nest of my boot means no hiking until he's ready to feast on mosquitoes. We were like Three Fugitives waiting for it to grow up. Which like the movie only takes about an hour and a half from this...
To this...
And finally to this.
All in all Mississagi was a great way to start our long camping trip for 2014.  Great hikes, some fishing -- nothing worth keeping, but we caught something every time we cast into Flack Lake, and some great memories with Bev and a red fox that visited every night -- not the comedian.  The only down side to this trip was the bug bites, but my boot buddy will hopefully turn the tide.

Site Cleanliness:  Site #1 was very clean for being so big (more space = more places for garbage) and the layout was good except for the fire pit facing the wrong way.

Privacy:  Again our site and many of the sites here were private as is the norm with the northern provincial parks.  The difference between this park and others is the pull through sites open your site up on two sides instead of one which can make it more open than some campers desire.

Hiking and Activities:  Simply one of the best.  With so much hiking there is always something to do -- seven trails with four of them 11 km's and over.  Something I didn't talk about are the canoe routes which they have 6 planned routes you could take ranging from simple day trips to trips that can last for five days.  The fishing, even though we didn't have any real luck, would have been great if we had the proper equipment like a motor boat and down riggers.  The swimming was good even though a local asked right away "You out-of towners?" when we didn't jump right in the water.  He said they had been swimming since May to which I silently thought to myself 'I'm too old for that stuff.'  There are no planned talks or walks, but since Elliot lake has to pay for any short falls it is not surprising.  However if you are in the area for the August long weekend they hold Lumberjack Days at the Provincial Park.

Park Class:  A Natural Environment Park meaning Ontarians are saving it for future generations.

Beach Quality or Ease of Getting to the Water:  For most of the sites its a hop, skip, and a jump to get to one of the two beaches, unfortunately the best beach (because of the sand) is a 30 minute hike from the campground.

Recommended Length of Stay:  This is the tough one.  I would honestly say that 7 days would be a great length of time to stay at this park.  Two days of fishing from a canoe and four days of hiking and swimming with a day to relax.  You could stay a lot longer if you were canoeing, but 7 days of camping and using a single site at the park is about right.

Overall Impression:  I really loved this park because of all the things it had to offer, but the insects were a giant pain on our skin.  I really wonder wether it was the time of year or the year itself, but make no mistake - come prepared for the bugs.

Rating out of 103:  I'm probably being generous but I'm going with 40 because this park is unquestionably in the back forty of Ontario.  A hidden gem that I hope we don't lose due to low visitation even though that looks like what they and the bugs are advertising.


If you are keeping score;
#2 Algonquin
#3 Quetico
#19 Sandbanks
#21 Neys
#22 Wakami Lake
#23 Nagagamisis
#26 Pancake Bay
#30 Chutes
#40 Mississagi
#51.5 Silent Lake
#52 Restoule
#53 Point Farms
#56 Inverhuron
#92 Rainbow Falls
#101 Turkey Point
#102 Bronte Creek