Winter Camping in Ontario: A Weekend at Windy Lake Provincial Park
Many people around the world don’t quite understand the joys of winter. Now, that’s not altogether surprising considering what percentage of the world doesn’t experience winter. Furthermore, I’d also be downright lying if I didn’t mention that San Diego doesn’t actually sound all that bad on certain bitterly cold winter eves. Yet, when I went winter camping in Ontario it was clear to me that I'd been missing out on experience well worth pursuing.
It's still quite peculiar - whenever I mention that I’m from Canada, it seems that, more often than not, the first thing people do is mention the cold temperatures, and just how tough that must be. Let’s get two things straights. Firstly, winter is only one of our four respective seasons. Secondly, some of the best times in my life have been had in winter. When I look back on my childhood memories of winter, whether that be playing hockey, tobogganing or anything in between, I almost never recall the cold, and that's powerful when you stop to think about it.
That love of winter is something I’m trying to rediscover in my adulthood, as living in Turkey over the past three years has me sorely out of practice. To be honest, since the snow has hit, I've been diving in headfirst. I've brought out the old North Face jacket, and wiped the dust off my favourite toque. I'm ready.
If you’ve been following along with my blog, then it’s no secret that I’ve spent much of the last half a decade (or even decade if you think about it) exploring nations that aren’t my homeland. Since I moved back in August, I’ve made a conscious effort to explore what it is that I love about this country (of which, thankfully, there’s a fair bit to work with.) I’ve been diving into the cuisine and local produce, and taking part in lesser known festivals. I’ve been heading up north, and spending more time up at my cottage. Taking a trip up to northern ontario and doing a bit of winter camping seemed to be the most logical next step in my geographical and and personal exploration.
Ontario Camping Reservations and More
And that’s where Ontario Parks comes in. If there was a more perfect partner to aid me in my aforementioned rediscovery, then I haven’t met them. I had always thought about my beloved provincial parks as places to visit in the dog days of summer, to go camping and all that comes with it. Last summer, I did just that in Algonquin Park. However, shortly after I arrived back in the country this August, I started to talk to Ontario Parks, and they let me know that they had their eyes firmly set on showing Ontarians, Canadians, and, well, anyone, that Ontario Parks are well worth keeping in the forefront of your mind when it comes to winter as well.
Let's get to the nitty gritty though to help you get out there and explore on your own!
The truth is Ontario camping reservations are easy as pie to make. You can make Ontario camping reservations by phone 363 days a year, and online 365 days a year, so you've really got no excuse. You can check out the in-depth rules here, but it's all pretty straightforward.
In sum, you can make reservations up to 5 months before your arrival date. You'll pay 11 bucks to reserve on online and 13 bucks via the phone. You'll be using these services to book campsites, backcountry sites, cabins, yurts and cottages, so the whole gambit. Reservations can't be changed more than 4 months before your arrival date. As I said, I've noted the rules page above if you want to check it out, but it's relatively straightforward. Not to mention every person I was in contact with at Ontario Parks was a treat to be in contact with. The love they have for the parks is clearly evident, and they want to show you what they're all about as much as you want to get out there and explore.
You can search for days and years for the best Ontario provincial parks, but I think you'll find that, for the most part, they all accomplish the same goal - getting you out in nature. It's also a relatively inexpensive experience, so don't stress so much about it. You can do it 5 times in 5 different places, then decide for yourself what your preferences are. You can do the northern ontario campgrounds, then check out the southern ontario campgrounds after. There's no limit, my friends, especially considering how easy Ontario provincial park reservations are to make. I'd start with destinations closer to you, then go from there. Windy Lakes Provincial Park was near Sudbury, which, personally, I didn't feel like was too bad of a ride.
In general, there are plenty of provincial parks worth your time in Ontario, though, such as MacGregor Point Provincial Park.
If you’re looking to spend a day in another province, you can also take a peak at what one winter day in Quebec city is like.
Yurt Camping in Ontario/Cabin Camping in Ontario
You'll note from the picture above that we opted for the cabin. In summer I'm all about the thin tent to get that summer breeze, but that doesn't quite work as well with winter camping in Ontario, now does it? First, let me talk about the "we" in this particular experience.
When I decided to pursue some Ontario winter camping I tapped my best buddy Neville on the shoulder. We packed up the car, and headed north towards Windy Lake Provincial Park. I know what you’re thinking – “Chris, you went to a place called Windy Lake Provincial Park in winter? That sounds freezing.” The answer is your question is that it was indeed cold, but I also revert back to a saying that quickly became my favourite when I lived in Norway.
“There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.”
Our lodging was perfection, honestly. We had a winter cabin right on the edge of the lake. It was the sort of cabin that I imagine you’d draw in elementary school when asked to draw “A perfect Canadian winter cabin.” The picture at the top of this article is actually the view from our cabin. As you can imagine, we never got tired of it.
Let's get some facts out there as it relates to the winter cabin. You’ve got a double bed, and two sizeable double bunk beds, which would be comfortable for a family, or really even three couples. The fireplace offers a reprieve from the wintry climes, and the barbecue (with a stovetop) offers a reprieve from the grumble of your belly. You’ve got a fire pit out front, a little porch, and my personal favourite – the lovely (and surprisingly stylish) indoor picnic table.
By the way, if you’re into the outdoors, you may want to be a part of the Outdoorsy People Club!
The cabin (and winter yurts for that matter) are the perfect place to be able to observe and appreciate Ontario's winter without suffering from it. You can go out during the day, and appreciate all the activities that winter camping in Ontario affords, but at night you can hang up your coat, and perhaps open a bottle of your favourite beverage.
Cross-country Skiing with Onaping Falls Nordics Ski Club
Cross-country skiing is something I didn’t know that I loved until I did. In my youth, I craved the intensity of the downhill slopes, and yearned to weave in and out of people with less bravado than I. Now, it’s hard for me to think of anything more pleasant than moseying through the serenity and calm of the Canadian forest.
In some ways, I know that’s personal to me. Being a travel blogger has a way of making you feel like you always need to be “on” or are behind on the million things you need to do online. I mean, that’s an inherent truth, I am behind on a million things I need to do online, but that didn’t even come close to occurring to me when I was on the trails.
Onaping Falls Nordics Ski Club has over 15km of groomed trails that suit skiers of all ages and experience levels. It was about a five minute drive from our trusty cabin, which couldn't be more convenient. If you like cross-country skiing, then having this fantastic nordic ski club so close to your winter cabin or yurt is going to be a huge bonus. The yurts, in some cases, are built into the sides of the ski trails. A day pass is also less than $15 a day, and it's just over $100 for the year, so you don't have to break the bank.
It’s headed up by a warm, kind lady by the name of Lise. We were inadvertently a few minutes late in meeting her, and I can tell you that I felt awful the moment I realized she’s in the running for the sweetest lady in Ontario. She’s the president of the club, and she took time from her day to make sure Neville and I got a proper feel for the trail, and understood the significance of the trail to the community. Devon Kershaw, a Canadian olympian cross-country skier, actually learned the ropes at this very ski club, and he's got a trail named after him. It's a beloved staple of the area, and it should be.
The trails were beautiful, well maintained and a joy to experience. Lise was patient as Neville and I tried our best to not embarrass ourselves, and I wouldn't hesitate to head up there again to go for another spin.
I spent time chatting with Lise after and she brought up some things that really resonated with me, especially considering how I was framing this whole experience.
"It's being able to go out there and just get lost in thought, and meditating in a way...just feeling so good about being out in nature. It's a really great community. We're all in this because we want to be. If people want to come and cross-country ski, we're here to help them learn. If you can walk, you can start cross-country skiing!"
I'm not sure we looked all that cool doing it, but that's besides the point.
We loved it, just loved it.
Ice Fishing at Ontario's Windy Lake Provincial Park
How could we sit in our cabin the whole day and not want to get out there and get on the ice? Well, that’s a question we asked ourselves, and the obvious answer was that we needed to get out there and do some ice fishing.
I’m not sure Nev nor I are particularly proficient when it comes to ice fishing (in fact I'm sure we're not), but Rob from Ontario Parks went through painstaking efforts to help us out. We had a hut with the penultimate view, and two rods going, both inside and out. Did we catch anything? Nope, unfortunately not - just a newfound love for the sport of ice fishing, I suppose.
There’s something about being out there and having nothing but nature as far as the eye can see.
The ice offers a vantage point that you can’t get in the summer without the aid of a boat, when all you need in the winter is a decent pair of boots, or snowshoes if you’ve got them. For me, this was the highlight. The sun was setting on our hut, and we had some tunes playing while the conversation flowed, and the fish did their best to entirely ignore us. I would definitely consider going ice fishing again, and I’d recommend it If you haven’t ever given it a shot.
I've been thinking about it since, and I can't recall that many excuses we have to just be alone in nature by ourselves and with our friends. Something like ice fishing buys you a few hours to be off the grid, and to not worry about the trivial things. You focus on good conversation, and you focus on where you are, and why that might matter to you.
As we exited our little ice fishing tent, the sunset was astonishing, and it was a reminder that winter camping in Ontario is an experience to rival some of my favourite adventures from the past.
I think in many ways that’s what renting out a cabin like that for a few days offers. It’s an escape from the realities of your daily life (for me blogging, emails, and social media), and an opportunity to discover another side of yourself (for me the ice fishing, hunting, the expert cross country skier I am most certainly not).
In this day and age of fast paced decisions and endless to-do lists, it’s nice to simplify things. It’s nice when your to-do list is essentially :
1. Wake up in warm cabin
2. Go cross country skiing and try not to injure yourself
3. Spend time peering out over the lake and have a profound introspective moment
4. Enjoy music and conversation in an ice fishing hut with unparalleled views
5. Act like you were okay not catching a fish when secretly you’ve already planned your next trip to make sure you do the next time around
6. Cook some food, start a fire, and get out the bourbon.
7. Have a fruitful conversation with your best friend.
8. Sleep like a newborn babe beside the fire.
Winter, in my opinion, offers a different level of quiet. In the summer, you might hear the birds chirping or the lapping of the waves, but in the winter, you can appreciate the absence of sound itself, which is something that everyone needs to experience…regardless of their feelings about the oft-misunderstood season of winter.
I was received as media by Ontario Parks, whom I humbly thanks. Are you a fan of camping and hiking? Have you ever been in the winter? Have you ever thought about winter camping before in Ontario or Canada? Did this article change your mind? I'd love to hear any and all of your thoughts below!
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