There's something special about fall camping that I can't quite explain. There's about a two week window where the Canadian wilderness just lights up, and the sheer beauty of it is breathtaking. I had been trying to get out for some fall camping with my friend Ron since the beginning of October. We got weathered out several times but eventually we got a small window of opportunity after Canadian Thanksgiving.
Fall Camping Hike at the Cottage
Unfortunately, the weather window wasn't as great as we hoped for as a front came in the day we headed up north. We were each going to fly our own planes - my Cessna 180 and his custom built PA-12.
On the first day I was able to get as far north as my cottage before hitting the front. Ron was fogged in further south and unable to get in the air. The next few days were forecasted to be hot and sunny, so we didn't take any risks trying to get to our destination on the first day. The summer-like weather would make up for the fact that we were going to get there a day later than planned.
It was just Maverick and I at the cottage so we decided to do some exploring on the trails nearby. Maverick always loves a good hike - he's either running way up ahead or trailing 50 feet back sniffing every inch of the forest. I brought my camera equipment so we stopped for a couple photo shoots along the way. Mav is a great model and it's always easy to get shots with him. In the above shot I asked him to "look off wisely into the distance", and then he actually did. It was awesome! He's one smart cookie. One smart, stick hunting cookie. Did I mention he likes sticks?
Mav and I (mostly me) lost track of time and hiked quite far into the forest. It started to get dark shockingly fast. We left early afternoon so I hadn't even thought to bring a flashlight. I was confident that I could get back to the main trail in the dark, but in situations like this you can't help but second guess yourself. Every time I saw something unfamiliar I was wishing I had my tent with me in case I was going the wrong way. Fortunately, I was able to put those second guessing thoughts aside and kept going. Why does it always seem so much longer on the way back?
Finally, things started feeling very familiar and I eventually got back to the main trail, easily making it to the cottage from there.
I got up bright and early after a good nights rest and headed to campsite that Ron and I were going to meet at.
Parking a Floatplane in the Wilderness
As I've mentioned in a previous post on camping in Quebec: I try to find beaches to camp at. They are much easier to park the plane than parking it up against the rocky Canadian shield. This spot is one of my go-to spots and it's always a little tricky parking the plane here.
After I landed and put the plane into idle, I took off my seat belt and stomped on the left rudder. While I had the plan spinning in circles on the narrow lake I tried to rush to get my hip waders out of the back and on. If someone was watching from above, they may have thought this was a dead man's circle - whereby an unmanned boat typically goes in a circle until running out of fuel. I have to put the hip waders on after landing, so that I could egress in the case of an upset. If you have them on and try to escape from an upside-down aircraft in the water, they will fill up with water, seriously hindering your ability to swim out of the plane.
Once the hip waders are on, I head to shore as slowly as possible. The idea is to shut the engine off at the exact moment so that you slowly drift into shore. It is different every single time due to wind conditions and the major effect of wind on idle floatplanes in the water.
I cut the engine and jumped out of the plane onto the float. The wind was pretty strong and perhaps I cut the engine just a bit too early because I had to jump into the water a bit deeper than I was hoping. My hip waders filled with water up to my knee before I got shallow enough for their tops to be above water. Now that I was standing comfortably, I was able to spin the plane around and start guiding it to the shore.
Eventually, I got the plane all organized, tucked away, and tied up. Unpacking and packing the plane when not parked on a beach is a huge pain as you have to go in the water to get to shore. Maverick, as you can see above, was obviously a huge help patrolling the waters of northern Ontario protecting camp from an aquatic invasion.
Ron had arrived in his PA-12 by the time I had finished unpacking my plane. Maverick marshalled him into shore and I helped get his plane settled in. It didn't take us long to get camp set up once the planes were empty and tied down to our satisfaction. It made for a pretty beautiful view from above, I can't imagine backcountry camping getting much better than this.
Setting up Camp
Unpacking and tying down the planes is a lot of hard work. Once we got our tents set up, next on our agenda was a fire and collecting the wood we would need for the trip. That's another big job, so we decided to go for a swim to cool off first. It was almost 30 degrees Celsius - it felt like summer. Maverick took advantage of the summer-like weather by swimming for hours on end. Plus, you know, he had to patrol the waters for sea monsters.
After the swim it was back into the bush to collect wood. My two favourite lightweight saws to use while camping are the Sven Saw and the White Horse saw. I absolutely love the Sven saw because it's great for big logs and folds extremely compact. I really wish I wasn't so unorganized and remembered to bring it on this trip. The White Horse is great for small pieces, but in most scenarios I'd rather use the Sven.
Now that we had wood we could get a fire going for the rest of the evening. It was time to start thinking about dinner - ribs were on the menu! There's nothing quite like ribs cooked off-heat over a campfire out in the bush. You have to make sure that they are far away from the heat and the flame to make sure they cook nice and slow. If the ribs are over the flame or too hot of an area, they will burn quickly.
These CAT gloves are also multi-purpose and I'd hate to leave them behind while camping. I use them for heat protection from the fire when grabbing wood, food, or pots from the fire. They are also great for cutting and carrying firewood. My cooking utensils are usually my Wetterlings hatchet and Ontario Black Bird knife. I love this knife so much that I lost it once on a trip and I bought the exact same knife.
The plan for the morning was to go fishing. One of the reasons I love this spot so much, despite not having a beach, is because there is a boat. Ron brought his little 2hp motor so that we could use the boat for fishing. We sat around the fire after getting the motor on the boat and our fishing gear organized for the morning. It wasn't a very nice night for viewing the stars so we headed to bed early.
Ontario Fishing in the Fall
We got on the water very early the next morning. Ron caught a bass immediately while I was too busy playing with my drone. Totally worth it though - it's a really cool shot! Maverick is a great fisherdog - he will sit in the boat and stare at the end of the rod waiting for a bite. The second the tip moves, whether it’s a fish, a snag, or just got caught on something, he jumps up and starts wagging his tail.
As he waits there, wagging his tail harder and harder as I real in, I often feel like I've really let him down when there is no fish on the end of the line. It's very upsetting for me, because he is so excited he can't contain himself, and then, no fish. The look he gives me after an empty reel-in is a look I don't like to talk about. It makes me feel like I've taken his favourite toy and thrown it out the window of my plane.
Eventually, Maverick got his wish as we hauled a couple more fish in. We headed back to camp after we had caught enough for lunch.
I believe the reason Mav loves fishing so much is that he usually gets a boiled fish as a snack. You can see him here dreaming of the fish on the MSR Alpine plate. I took the fish 50 meters or so downwind to fillet them. I brought my cell phone with me to listen to music, which as it turned out was a terrible idea. When I got to a nice spot, the ziploc I had with me blew into the water and I had to quickly climb down rocks to get it. As I leaned into the water, I put my phone down near the water's edge, and grabbed the ziploc. Then I climbed back up the rock to fillet the fish, leaving my phone below. That's where my phone stayed for the next 10 hours. I noticed it was missing about 6 hours later and then it took me about another 4 hours to think back there. Maverick was watching the whole situation unfold and he never told me I left my phone down by the water, what a goof. I asked him so many times where my phone was he just kept giving me a funny look.
Nothing beats a shore lunch with the morning's catch! On the menu today was a light breading on the fish made from smushed potato chips! It makes for a great way to enjoy gluten-free fish and chips. Maverick's serving of fish, of course, was just boiled in water.
I cooked the fish in a Lodge cast iron pan, which I love to use while cooking over a campfire. The fish and chips came out a little burned this time though. Nobody's perfect.
Backcountry Hiking in Ontario
It was about time for an after lunch hike, Maverick's favourite part of the day. Although, I suppose Maverick is on his own hike or swim all day, every day while camping. He often goes off for 30-40 minute hikes or swims before coming back to camp. I like to think he enjoys it more when I come along though. I think mainly because he likes having his photo taken.
After a couple hours of exploring the forest we decided to head back to camp. We were pretty tired with the early morning fishing and lengthy wilderness hike. We made a light dinner and sat by the fire for a bit before turning in.
I woke up in the middle of the night to howling winds and rain; I guess that was the end of the summer-like fall weather. A big storm blew in overnight, which made me pretty nervous about flying home the next morning. I was pretty confident in how I tied my plane down, so I didn't bother getting out of the tent during the night to double check on it. I've learned from many mistakes in the past where I doubt my tie-down job and then go investigate in the middle of the night during a storm. It sucks.
Beating the Storm Home
By the time morning came it had stopped raining but the wind was still gusty and the clouds were stormy looking. One of the challengers of floatplane camping in the bush is not being able to check the weather. Weather is a very important part of flying as you need to ensure that the weather is adequate at your point of origin, destination, and along the route. After a few days in the bush, the only information you have is what you see with your naked eye. You cannot even tell the height of the clouds, which is the most critical information on marginal flying days.
One risk with leaving when the weather is gloomy is that taking down the site and packing the plane can take hours. If you pack it all up and then a storm rolls through then you are stuck without shelter. You have to make a decision, commit to it, and move quickly.
In an effort to get going as quickly as possible, we started taking down camp and cooking a quick breakfast at the same time. Mixing scrambled eggs and a bunch of vegetables together on a cast iron pan is one of my staple breakfasts for camping. I've had this MSR Alpine cooking kit and Snow Peak Titanium Sporks for years. They've definitely been through a lot of storms and abuse themselves over the years but they're still going strong. If you are looking for any last minute Christmas ideas for someone who loves the outdoors - these are great!
We decided that we could get in the air and evaluate the ceiling (cloud height) and see if we could get further south. If we couldn't make it all the way back to the city, we would have to stop along the way and set up camp at another location. That's just part of the game when fly-in camping.
Pictured above is my Flight Outfitters Bush Pilot bag - which is very adequately named. It's the perfect size for fly-in camping and fits a surprising amount of stuff in it. Flight Outfitters makes some great stuff for pilots and adventurers.
Once the planes were packed, I helped Ron launch his plane. It's especially challenging launching a plane from the bush by yourself on a windy day. We decided to launch Ron's first as my plane was facing into the wind - so it should be easier to launch solo.
After he got going, I untied my plane and got in ready to start the engine. As I fired it up and the prop started to turn, a big gust of wind came and turned my plane into the shoreline. Worrying that I wouldn't have time to get the rudders down and turn - I quickly killed the engine.
Dealing with the plane on the water is one of the most stressful parts of taking your floatplane into the wilderness. Strong winds can ruin a floatplane pilot's day. A floatplane is essentially a 3000 lb kite.
At this point I was sweating and nervous about getting away amidst this gusty storm. Still wearing my waders, I got out of the plane and back into the water and pushed my plane away from shore and facing out into open water. The hope was that I could start the engine and get rudders down before wind blew my nose back into the shore. With one final push I dislodged the floats from the bottom and quickly hopped back on the float and into the cockpit. There was going to be no third chance as I was now free floating in the water, victim to the gusty winds. I turned the key and the engine fired up right away this time. As the plane started pointing towards the treeline again, I dropped the rudders quickly and aimed out into the open water.
Crisis averted! The strong winds worked to our advantage on take off and Maverick and I were up and on our way in no time at all. We were fortunate enough with the weather to make it all the way home.
If you've ever wondered what fall floatplane camping and fishing is like, I hope my post filled you in on how great it is! Subscribe to Setting North for more posts about me and Maverick camping and fishing in Ontario. In the mean time, give us a follow on Instagram and enter the Christmas contest to win a free acrylic print of any of my photos.