The Frontenac Challenge in Frontenac Provincial Park just wrapped up for 2013. People came as far as Ottawa, and the Bruce Peninsula to enjoy some of Ontario's best Fall hiking. 192 out of 288 completed the entire 160km (including five from the kids challenge who went on to complete the entire challenge!) which was the highest amount of entrants they had ever received. 12 out of 31 complete the Junior Hiking Challenge and everyone was recognized at the BBQ gathering this weekend.
So looking back, how does one prepare? At first, I wasn't sure...
My first stab at covering part of the park's trails was attempting the Tetsmine Lake Loop (12KM) with a friend to see how much land we could cover (as long as the day ended near Campsite #12 which I had already booked for that night). Tackling it from the North opens up the top end of the park with the adjoining Little Clear Lake Loop, Hemlock Lake Loop and Gibson Lake Loop to tackle depending on how ambitious we felt. The signs at the beginning of each section are bang-on accurate for how long each loop should take you, so consult them for an approximation of how long your journey is going to take.
Tetsmine was stunning (it was neat to see historic mining spots as well) and was a good first run, but here's what I learnt from completing the entire 160 KM challenge....
Start Early: The challenge lasts two months, but you have two things against you the longer you wait. Temperatures this year: The first week of the challenge ranged from +25 to +15, and the last week ranged from +15 to -3. A few nights at the end of October saw a skiffle of snow and didn't have the comfortable camping temperatures of earlier in the month. Your days also range from 13 hours of daylight at the start of September, to 10 hours by the end of October. That extra daylight can make the difference between finishing Slide Lake, or running into a trickier situation.
Pack light: I brought most of my regular camping gear on the first journey, but quickly learned that this is longer than your average portage. Cut down on everything when camping during this hiking challenge. For the most part, I just brought a daypack with the bare essentials and I found being light and nimble allowed me to cover the most ground without being exhausted at the end of the day.
Good Footwear: Your feet will take a pile of punishment during this challenge. This was a site of a mining facility which tells you the terrain is going to be rocky. Having good hiking boots and socks will save you lots of punishment.
Hiking Poles: Saved me from slipping on wet leaves and moss quite a few times. If you're carrying a heavy pack, it will also help you manage the weight a little better as well. Once most of the leaves have fallen off the trees in October, it makes for judging where you're going to step tricky. Poles help you probe a few areas that could be boggy, slippery or frozen.
Enjoy the Hike: It IS a challenge, which means covering a lot of ground, but make sure to stop to take in some of the majesty of the park. The sound of crunching leaves as you hike is an all-time favourite of mine.
Layers: Fall weather is kind of finicky. Have lots of layers, including a good packable rain jacket to stow away in your pack in case of sudden showers. I even found rain pants to help protect you on windy days and keep you warm on the cold days. Even just a thin waterproof/windproof layer can make the difference.
Batteries: Bring a headlamp in case you get stuck on the trail and still have lots of ground to cover while the sun has set, but more important yet, make sure the batteries are charged. Be sure to either turn off your cell phone, or put it in airplane mode. There is no cell phone coverage for about 95% of the park. As your phone tries to search for a signal, it will quickly drain your battery leaving you with a phone that you won't be able to use to take photos, or better yet, make an emergency call if you run into trouble leaving the park.
Turned Around?: Make sure to pick up a map of the park at the front gate when you sign up for the challenge (Under $10), but even with a map you can still get turned around. I found all 160 KM of the trail very well marked. You will find the familiar little blue diamond hiking sign everywhere along the trail every so often so you don't stray too far from the path. Once the leaves cover the forest floor though, it becomes a little easier to walk off the beaten path, so if you haven't seen a hiking sign in a while, I found the most reassuring thing to do is just turn around and look behind you. You will usually see a sign for hikers headed in the opposite direction, so you will know you're on the right path.
Travelling?: I live about three hours away from Frontenac Park, which means lots of travelling and camping to complete the challenge. One way to cut down on costs is to purchase an Ontario Parks Seasonal Permit (gives you free day-access to the parks), which also is a perfect excuse to explore other parks in our province as well.
It was great to chat with other hikers at the celebration BBQ and it seems there is growing interest in this challenge. Over half of the attendees at the BBQ were first time challenge attempters and everyone I chatted with expressed interest to attempt it again next year. Frontenac recognizes people that complete the challenge every year, and has a plaque on the wall for people that also complete the 10 year challenge as well. I'm sure to give it a go next year, and I hope to see you on the trails giving this healthy initiative a try!