The camping gods were really smiling down on us this week. Somehow in this thunderstorm-bashed soggy summer, we picked the only stretch of five rain-free days to set up a tent and get woodsy. Bon Echo Provincial Park had long been on our list to visit, but, the five hour drive from Cambridge always deterred us. There was also our undeniable love affair with the dunes of Long Point where we had migrated every summer.
What Kim and I were rewarded with was a Group of Seven landscape. Campsites designed with the discreet camper in mind. We’ve been to parks that seem more like suburbia with radios blaring, blinding floodlights, car alarms sounding off at all hours and competing cell phone ringtones.
Bon Echo’s soundtrack: The Barred Owl’s infamous “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” call through the tall stands of beech. The maniac laugh of loons on Lower Mazinaw. Pileated woodpeckers at 6am, like a construction crew framing a house. Birch logs snapping and sizzling in the fire ring.
Bonus: Radio-free zone camping.
Mini history lesson: Bon Echo became a provincial park in 1965. Situated north of Kaladar (home of a Philly cheese steak and poutine food truck and designated dark sky preserve), the park’s Instagram backdrop is Mazinaw Rock, an unexpected and startling 330-foot cliff. It gets better: this rock face doubles as a historical canvas of over 260 aboriginal pictographs (rock paintings—now designated as a National Historic Site of Canada). If you hop in a canoe, you can paddle through the Narrows and J-stroke along the length of this gallery.
Prior to being a coveted park to pop a tent, the land was owned by a lumber baron (Weston A. Price) who built the Bon Echo Inn, a boutique hotel before boutique was a thing. The desired clientele were wealthy, God-loving teetotalers. That is, until the property was sold to Howard and Flora MacDonald Denison who spun the hotel on its heels and turned it into a retreat for thinkers, social drinkers, painters and writers. Flora was a Toronto writer and suffragette with a literary crush on Walt Whitman. The crush is evident in her open chiselled tribute to him smack dag on Mazinaw Rock. In the summer of 1919, two Scots stone masons chipped away lines of his poetry in foot-tall letters.
Flora’s son inherited the inn after her death in 1921, and in 1936 the bake house was struck by lightning and a fire destroyed many of the outbuildings in its hot path. The inn was never rebuilt but her son continued to summer at Bon Echo. His conservation interests led to the in demand land being donated to the province for the purpose of a provincial park.
Mazinaw is the second-deepest lake in Ontario.
Bon Echo is home to Ontario’s only lizard, the five-lined skink. (*Photo below is of a red-backed salamander, not a skink.)
A tin of tuna and tzatziki with a little kale rolled up in wrap is pretty sensational. Is it weird to segue from skinks to tuna + tzatziki?
Flora, Fauna, Fungi
Dotted along the India ink waters of Mazinaw Lake, mushrooms abound. Egg yolk yellow mushrooms sit in the ferns. Beatrix Potter toadstools list in the long grasses and lichen.
At Bon Echo, many of the sites are walk-in (versus pop the trunk and empty contents two feet away), allowing for a thorough Thoreau experience.
The bird life abounds, and in Hardwood Hills, even the deer flies are the size of hummingbirds.
There’s a guaranteed firefly convention each night and we counted four falling stars whizzing towards the earth. Be sure to check your log pile for red-backed salamanders too!
Blackboard Menu Highlights
Buttermilk pancakes with dollops of vanilla yogurt and genuine Mennonite maple syrup
Caberneigh scrambled eggs and Bush Beans (Bush is a sponsor of Ontario Parks and donated pyramids of free cans for campers)
Falafel balls with red-wine reduced sweet onions, red peppers and yogurt tzatziki
Sirloin burritos with salsa and mosquito-flecked sour cream
Basil pesto penne with sundried tomatoes, sausage and sunflower seeds pinch hitting for pine nuts
Suggested Road Trip: We decided to check out Bancroft (1hr and 15 minutes from the park) on the only temporarily cloudy morning. We needed ice, and, because we’re moving 5 hours in the opposite direction, we knew it would be awhile until we revisited these parts.
What to do: Be sure to drop into squeaky new Bancroft Brewing Co. and work your way through their effervescent line-up. The best of the lot: their rich coffee-licious Black Quartz, ruby red Logger’s Ale and special patriotic tribute—the “150.” Growlers are $9 plus a $3 deposit and necessary for fireside. Pair with handfuls of pistachios, honey garlic sausages, jalapeno Monterey Jack and surprise friends who text and say, “We fixed the starter on the VW! We’ve booked a site in Hardwood Hills! See you tonight!”
While you’re in Bancroft, have an impromptu picnic along the creek and don’t miss the curio at The Tin Shed just off the main drag. Sniff all the “clothesline” and “cedar cabin” scented candles. Marvel at the door knockers, rod iron hooks, hinges and salvage. Buy that blank notebook that says “Find what brings you joy and go there!”
There are several mercantile and thrift shops, the classic Stedman’s, token fudge shop and fresh produce stand for sausage and wiener-fatigued campers. The green beans, bunches of radishes, gooseberries and thimble-sized raspberries beckon!
Nostalgic side note: My greatest thrill as we cruised along Highway #28 to Bancroft wasn’t Moose FM playing Billy Idol’s Mony, Mony (but that was great too). It was passing by a sign that indicated Camp Walden was the next right hand turn. CAMP WALDEN! This was epicentre of my high school years! In grade nine I went as a camper and then returned like a boomerang for the next four years as counsellor in the (fittingly) Journalism department. With a dedicated crew of future Dharma Bum Kerouacs and Burroughs-in-the-makings, we cranked out the mighty “Camp Log” on a daily basis. I loved this art camp right down to the Three Blob Lunch (blob of tuna salad, blob of egg salad and blob of potato salad) and no-erasers-allowed sketchbook policy.
Suggested road trip in the other direction: On Highway 41, south of Cloyne (20 minutes from Bon Echo), Graybarre School House Treasures (look for the plastic Fred Flinstone outside) is exploding with whimsy and inventory. Salt and pepper shakers, pewter pig napkin holders, squirrel nut crackers, tin watering cans, lanterns, backcatcher masks, old goalie pads, 7-Up glasses—STUFF. It’s easy to lose an hour and a hundred bucks here.
Otherwise, hightail it back to Bon Echo, because outside the park it’s just worms, ice cream and fireworks. Oh, and a fish and chip joint cleverly named The Codfather.
Rent a canoe, walk the wilds and recalibrate. Like that blank book cover in The Tin Shed said, “Find what brings you joy and go there.”
Hint: Bon Echo