My First Kejimkujik National Park Experience

I am ashamed to say that my trip to Keji this past August was actually my first time there. However, that wasn’t the part that had me nervous and anxious about the trip. I’m Canadian, I’m from Nova Scotia. We have so many lakes and rivers perfect for canoeing, but that’s the thing. I’d never really been canoeing.

The only time I can recall ever being in a canoe, I would have been 8 or 9 years old. I was on a little weekend trip with my Dad to a bluegrass festival. The spot where we were camping was on a lake, and they had canoes. We weren’t all that far from shore when we tipped. I can’t remember the situation, whose fault it was. All I remember is suddenly being in cold water and not being very pleased about it.

Since then, I think it’s been a combination of not having many opportunities to go canoeing, and also DEFINITELY not seeking canoeing adventure opportunities. It hasn’t been this haunting thing for me, but I always feel a little sheepish when people find out that I’d never really been on a canoe trip.

So there was that. My mild childhood fear of being in a canoe. Still, Matt and I booked our amazing campsite on Peskawesk Lake when the booking opened back in January. I was so excited for this trip. It was many months of anticipation, and imagining what it would be like, portaging from lake to lake. Then once the trip was near, and we really started to plan things like food, and departure times, etc. Matt thought it was a good time to mention how rocky a lot of the lakes are, and how you really need to watch for them so you don’t get high-centred or tip. HAHAHAHAHAHA. Funny joke, Matt! (Hint: He wasn’t joking)

It had been the driest summer in as long as I can remember. Even as long as the “older generation” can remember. Wells were going dry, etc. So, of course, my mind is thinking about the lake, and how that’s probably down on water, too. Thinking of how many more rocks these dry conditions will expose. BARF.

Anyway, So we get to Kejimkujik on the evening of Friday, August 17th, canoe in tow. We were invited to partake in the Kejimkujik Loon Watch survey, so we first went to the office to get our assigned lakes, and check them out on the map. From there, we got set up at our campsite reserved in the front country. Sunny, beautiful temperatures, but there was some heavy rain in the forecast. Up early on Saturday morning. Had some breakfast, got packed up and cleaned up, then headed to meet our guide before take off. We were able to drive to our launch point, but by the time we got there, it was already raining pretty heavily. We had a long series of portages ahead of us in less than ideal weather, and it was forecasted to only get worse, and continue into the following day. Our gracious guide offered to drive us, and all our gear, into a launch point much closer to our campsite. We happily accepted the offer. The drive in on the park ranger access road was narrow, wet and muddy. Lots of overhanging Hemlock branches to try to swipe your canoe, so we had to be mindful of that. The more we drove, the harder it rained, and the wind was starting to pick up. I started to imagine how choppy the lakes would be, and I started to get a bit anxious.

We got to the launch point that was just tucked around a little cove from our campsite destination. It would have been a very short paddle, but I think the guide was feeling bad for us. Feeling bad that we were going to have to paddle with all our gear, get soaked to the bone, and then have to set up a tent and campsite in a torrential downpour. We were just thankful for the drive in that far, and felt that the rain was all part of the experience. Then her map came out, she started firing off different options and scenarios, tracing routes on the map with her index finger. The thing about all the routes she was suggesting, was that it was much further into the backcountry than we initially planned to go, which meant more paddling. However, when the words “warden’s cabin” came from her mouth, Matt and I both perked up. Not only were we getting this super cool backstage pass drive virtually right to our campsite, but we were now given the opportunity to stay in a historic warden’s cabin that’s pretty much as old as the park itself. She was pretty certain that the cabin wasn’t already spoken for, but she radioed in to confirm. That was that, we continued on towards a warden’s cabin on Peskawa Lake. We got dropped off at a boat launch with the canoe and all of our gear, and literally had to paddle maybe 800m to the rocky point that the cabin is on.

When we pulled up, I felt super fortunate for this chance to ease into the canoeing aspect of the trip. Not only that, but to have a roof over my head that night. We walked up to the cabin and realized that it had a screened in porch. Bonus! The guide came and unlocked the cabin for us, and gave us a rundown of all the rules and how everything worked. We thanked her for this amazing backstage pass, and she was gone. Matt and I hauled all our gear up from the shore and into the screened porch. First thing – crack a blackberry Bulwark Cider. Then we rigged up a clothesline, hung up our wet clothes, and changed into something dry. We had a bite to eat and had a lazy afternoon in the cabin. The rain had cooled things off, and when the sun went down, I suggested a fire in the woodstove. Matt got the fire going and we ate dinner with the front door wide open. Just after dinner, we were sitting around planning our Loon Watch for the next morning, when we started to hear that familiar sound from across the lake. Loons calling to each other in the night. What an amazing sound. The whole scenario was so perfect. The rain finally letting up a bit, the fire going, the fresh air coming in through the front door, the darkness outside, and the sound of the loons made it pretty magical.

No issues sleeping that night. The next morning, I was a bit bummed to see that it was still raining a bit, and there was a bit of wind. I was not really looking forward to the hour paddle to our first portage. We had a slow morning, had blueberry pancakes and loads of coffee. Then we packed up our things, got the canoe loaded down, and set out in search for loons and towards our campsite on Peskawesk Lake.

The rocks. Oh my god, the rocks. The wind and the rain didn’t make them any easier to spot, and being in the front of the canoe, I was the spotter. The potty-mouthed rock spotter. It was such a gross feeling in the pit of my stomach, to look down and see a massive rock, not even a foot below the surface. The f-bombs were flying fast and frequent. Seeing them, that’s one thing, but to actually go over one and hear/feel it graze the bottom of the canoe was awful for me. On one occasion, we actually got hung up on a huge rock, and Matt had to wiggle and shimmy us off. F-bombs flying from the front of the boat. We did see some Loons, though.

When we finally made it to the portage, I was thankful to get my feet back on the ground, if only for a short time. The next launch wasn’t far, but you could see the next portage from there, so it wasn’t super anxiety inducing. Then a longer hike to the next launch, a rocky start, but no loons spotted on the backside of Peskawesk Lake. A windy hour or so paddle to our campsite. Still grey and overcast, but at least the rain had stopped. We landed on the sandy beach of our dreamy campsite, I french kissed the ground again, and we got set up. We then realized that we had to canoe to get firewood, but it was only a short distance. Once we got loaded up on firewood, we got a fire going and some dinner on the go. The sunset that evening was lovely, and I was already starting to feel sad about having to leave the following day.

The next morning, after breakfast, coffee, and packing up, we saw what we thought was a family of loons. Parents and one chick. We watched them swim and dive in front of our campsite, and later saw them fly over the island we were camping on. We got to our first portage on the trek out, and looked back towards our campsite. We counted seven loons on the water, it was an amazing sight to see. That, and hearing them be so vocal was pretty neat. I had never seen so many loons in one place, at one time. It was almost as if they were bidding us a farewell, it was cool.

It was a choppy ride out across Mountain Lake, but I was distracted by the intense concentration on my paddling. Plus, there were a few eagle sightings, and a close encounter with a ticked off Red Tailed Hawk. We saw a few deer, too!

When we arrived at our final portage, I was excited for this longer hike. Not so much because I was on solid ground, but because I had heard lots about this “hardwood carry” part of the trip. I was eager to be surrounded by huge stands of old growth forest. Stands of big trees that you literally will not find anywhere else in the province. Trees you can’t fit your arms around. Trees that Matt and I could barely get both of our arms around. I can’t help but feel so elated in magical places like that. It was definitely a highlight of the trip. It also made me sad to think that all of Nova Scotia’s forests once resembled the kind of forest within Kejimkujik National Park.

We got to our final paddle, encountered a few canoers on their way into the backcountry from which we had just came. It was nice to be able to enquire on the conditions ahead, and I’m sure they felt the same. There were a few rocky heart attacks on the way back to my truck at the Eel Weir take-out, so I was extra glad when my feet hit the ground that final time. I knew it was over, I knew I had made it back in one piece and unscathed.

Was I an anxious, potty-mouthed, sweaty, nervous mess the entire time I was in that beautiful cedar canvas canoe? You bet your sweet ass I was.

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat! However, I can’t promise that I will be able to censor myself, because I can’t say for certain that canoeing will ever be something I’m fully comfortable and confident in. The thing is, is that I did it. I was terrified to do something, and I did it anyway, and I think proving yourself wrong is a good thing at times. Especially when you push past your own self-doubt and prove how capable you are. Am I a pro paddler now? No, but I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and I had a wonderful time, and a great first canoe trip, and a great first Kejimkujik National Park experience!

Things I Learned in Northern Cape Breton the Second Time Around.

I didn’t have as much time to anticipate, mentally prepare, and worry about my most recent three day backpacking trip in Northern Cape Breton. Last time I made the trek in, I had months to prepare and overpack. (HA!) This time around, I had about a week and a half to get my act together.

That really puts the pressure on.

Living in a very rural part of Nova Scotia, you don’t have the luxuries of running down to the local outdoor store and picking up all the things you need. The rural life forces you to plan out the most basic tasks weeks, even months in advance. I hear a lot of people talking about planning their next trip to Halifax to go to Costco, etc. My plan of attack isn’t much different, except the fact that my “city to-do list” looks more like: MEC, Patagonia Halifax, Atmosphere, eat some good food (usually The Coastal) and peace tha eff out. I often feel bad about how little notice I give and how brief my trips to Halifax are. I have lots of friends up there that I’d love to see, but usually my trips to the city are in preparation to disconnect from civilization for extended periods of time. It’s nothing personal, I’m just not a city girl. I find it makes me feel claustrophobic and I usually go into Halifax with a “get in and get out” kind of mentality.

So, I make the two and a half hour trip, and I make my rounds around the city. I stop in at Patagonia, saw some familiar faces! Surprisingly, I didn’t buy anything. First time for everything! From there, I went to MEC. All their employees are so eager to help you. It’s awesome. I found all the things I needed, with the help of staff, and I hit the road back towards the woods.

I slowly started rounding up all my gear and placing it in a pile in the living room. Bit by bit, a little more every day leading up to the trip. The night before we were set to depart, Matt and I went through our gear together and weaned out the stuff we did not need, or had duplicates of. The last trip was an all-girls trip. The boys were coming with us this time, so it was like we each had our own personal sherpa! Most excellent. I knew even though some of us were visiting a place we had already been, we would learn, see, and do things that we would be surprised about upon reflecting.

The following are some of my takeaways.

Something that was much different for me this time around was my backpack game. My last time hiking the 10 kilometres into this specific location, I did it with a big Patagonia Black Hole duffel strapped to my back. That first trip was my first ever backpacking trip. I wasn’t quite ready to commit to at five or six hundred dollar (+) backpacking bag because I wasn’t sure it would be something I’d necessarily do a lot of. LONG STORY SHORT.. The last trip ended with me very sore and bruised from the above mentioned bag. Lesson learned. This time around I was fortunate enough to get a really sweet 70L pack from Osprey Packs. What a difference! My hips were still sore with this pack, but I wasn’t bruised. I chalk my tenderness up to the fact that it was a brand new pack and isn’t broken in yet, and the fact that I haven’t hiked that far, with that much on my back likely since the last trip. The proper distribution of weight, and all the straps/compartments really made it a lot easier.

Another thing that was different this time around, was the fact that we had the guys with us. As I mentioned, having your partner with you on these hikes really is a huge help with packing, but the things that other minds think to pack… well, that’s a different story altogether. Warren packed a literal wooden toilet seat, fabricated to sit atop four wooden dowels over your designated and desired bathroom location. Genius! Not only that, but he brought enough tarps and enforced the idea of building a sweat lodge. LEGIT. We heated up rocks from the river in the campfire to put in the sweat lodge, constructed of saplings and tarps. I can’t even tell you how awesome and refreshing it was after the hike in the day before. A perfect way to relax and mentally prepare for the hike out the following morning. Plus, who thinks to build a sweat lodge in the backcountry? Warren does.

I learned that preheating your sleeping bag with a bottle of hot water is key for summer camping in Cape Breton. I think it was something like 4 degrees Celsius overnight. It’s not freezing, and I know people winter camp and all that, but GOODNESS! The hot water bottle trick is key. I’m actually going to invest in a rubber hot water bottle specifically for camping. I have to thank Warren again for this tip.

Another person I must thank is Kim Wempe. Praise you. I had never heard of making s’mores with Celebration Cookies. LORD HAVE MERCY! When everything, even freeze dried meals, taste better in the outdoors… these Celebration Cookie s’mores were heavenly. Such a treat.

ANOTHER THING. I mean, maybe it’s happened to me before and I just slept through it? Regardless, hearing the sound of coyote’s running past your tent, and even hearing them sniffing and panting is pretty memorable. Another memorable moment for me would have to be when Matt tried to embarrass me in front of everyone by telling them I used to partake in the high school lip-syncs. Little did he know that I roll with a bad crew, and that one backfired on him. It’s the little things! He had no idea he was on a trip with some seasoned lip-sync’ers!

I learned that sharing an experience like that is much more soul-enriching when you can see it through the eyes of your dog. With both Matt and I in my little backpacking tent, it would have been an extremely tight squeeze with Zoey there. It broke my heart to leave her home, because I know she would have loved to go a second time, and I would have watched her enjoy her time there with such pleasure. Dog Mom guilt.

 A definite highlight of this trip was the fact that I actually had a poop. I’ve pooped in the woods a number of times. It comes with the territory, and is ultimately inevitable when you spend a good chunk of your time outdoors. Last trip I wanted to have a poop so bad, but it just didn’t happen for me. LOL! Every pound and every ounce counts when you’re backpacking! Packing out a poop is NOT FUN! Haha. So, when I finally had sweet success the morning of the hike out, I literally did a poop-dance. I was so happy. I felt so free. A poop can be liberating and inspirational. Don’t be too proud to admit that. Everybody poops, dude.

Something that was exactly the same as the last trip, was the desperate urge to get ahold of some “real” food and coffee once back to the car. Or in the case of this trip, a spicy caesar! We stopped at The Rusty Anchor in Pleasant Bay on the way home. I opted for the lobster poutine, and WOW – it did not disappoint! Friendly, quick service and the food was amazing.

There’s one final thing I want to mention, and it’s something that I definitely knew the last time I hiked in Northern Cape Breton with these rad women, but this trip was a refresher. The fact of having the right people with you on a trip like this is so key! It’s not something that I could do with just any group of friends. Each one of the people on this adventure are inspirational to me, in different ways. Much like the last trip, I came away from it feeling rejuvenated, recharged and ready for the other adventures to be had this summer!

Bring it on!