Lessons from my misadventures in cottage country

hiker, lessons, misadventures Photo from lzf/Shutterstock

W hen I think of the cottage, I imagine a sparkling blue lake, surrounded by laughter and serenity. However, my last few cottage-country experiences were anything but peaceful. Our explorations outside the city started with high hopes and ended with us feeling humbled by our surroundings, but would I trade these misadventures with smooth sailing? I would not.

Our first summer mishap started when my partner Behrad and our dog Popsie planned a two-week all-Ontario road trip from Toronto to Thunder Bay. Dotted i’s and crossed t’s, the itinerary was perfect. We were going to conquer the most exciting hikes, and visit Northern Ontario’s hidden gems. Our first stop? Killarney’s “The Crack.” 

We made it to the first lookout. We walked to the edge of the flat windswept rocky terrain, where we breathed in the fresh air and admired the sea of evergreen trees, appreciating the silence. No cars, no horns, no city hustle and bustle. Only a couple of minutes passed before Behrad suddenly turned sharply, towards the steep rocky path, riddled with large boulders, big and small cobblestones, and exposed roots, calling over his shoulder “Let’s goooo!”

Slow and steady was my usual approach, but Behrad and Popsie were eager to reach the top. After stretching our limbs past comfort and scraping our elbows and knees along the dusty sharp rocks, we finally made it. Gorgeous 365-degree views left us speechless. No longer did the mountains tower over us, but instead they looked like foothills in the distance. The Crack, a four-metre wide divide between giant rocky walls, was a bonus, framing the view, nature’s own Van Gogh at play.

I thought the way up was challenging, but the way back down was worse. Gravity thrust us forward, increasing our momentum, as we tap danced our feet in little steps, trying to slow our speed down the mountain. Popsie was showing off, leaping from one boulder to another, without any effort. The decline eventually became more manageable, easing into a flatter, rocky lookout point. Behrad took this opportunity to jump from rock to rock, but scrambled at the last minute, before hitting the ground, and letting out a giant “AHHHHHHHHHHH!” Man down! Man down! On the ground, he was still and in shock. I saw the pain in his eyes as he reached for his ankle, panicking about how big it was getting, so quickly. I wasn’t sure what to do at this point. We didn’t have any first-aid supplies, and there were a few kilometers of walking to get to the car. At first, I tried supporting him as he stood up, but it hurt too much to put any weight on the ankle. What were we going to do?

After a few minutes of resting, an ex-firefighter and ex-paramedic came to our rescue. They just so happened to be hiking and spotted us in the distance. (Our troubled looks must have given it away). Rushing over to assess the ankle, they assured Behrad that it wasn’t broken, but severely sprained. They offered ice packs and a tension band for support, and even offered to help him down the rock-ridden path, but Behrad politely declined. Half walking, and half sliding down the steep dirt paths, we made it to the trail. What should have been a two-hour hike back to the car, turned into a then daunting five-hour trudge. After many ouches and pit-stops later, we did it, Behrad did it—what a champ!

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This vacation took an unexpected turn, not for the worst, but for something far better. For the rest of that trip, we cruised along the winding and smooth highways that border Lake Huron, taking mental pictures of the tree-lined roads, nothing in sight but rolling hills, flourishing fields, and clear lakes. We jammed out to class radio tunes, listened to too many podcasts, and visited towns we had never heard of. (Did you know Plummer Additional exists? And that it’s close to beautiful sandy beaches? Me neither.) We learned to make the best out of a crappy situation with good company, breathtaking views, a good attitude, and a full tank of gas. 

T hat following fall, we packed our bags for a weekend hiking trip in Huntsville, settling by a lakeside cottage in the evenings. The first thing that went into our backpacks? A first-aid kit and proper hiking boots. No way were we having a repeat of the summer. I can’t recall the name of the trail that we hiked on, but I do remember how beautiful the scenery was. Red, yellow, and orange leaves covered the trees, crisp autumn air filled our lungs, and the cool breeze made for the perfect temperature to combat the heat that radiated off of us from the hike. We couldn’t have asked for a better start, no injuries; just incredible lookout views and elevated heart rates from the hilly paths along the mountain tops. 

It was on our way back that things went awry. Following what we thought was part of the loop we found ourselves wandering aimlessly in circles. “I recognize that tree,” I thought, after confirming that I’d seen it for the third time. The blue cards posted on the trees that should have directed us seemed to be making the situation worse. After a while, we had to admit it to ourselves: we’re lost. I swear that at first, we tried to be positive, but the novelty wore off and the smiles drained from our faces when we realized we had no clue where to go next. Hungry, tired, annoyed, and impatient, we couldn’t help but wonder how we got into this situation. As the sun set, the temperatures lowered, sending shivers down our spines. Not just because of the chilly evening, but suddenly those lovely nighttime sounds you hear while safely inside a cabin became creepy and uncomfortably close. 

We all get lost sometimes. Here’s why

But, ah ha! We were lucky to have spotted a family in the distance. Little did we know fate plays cruel tricks because they too were lost. For the next hour, we dragged our feet through the pitch-black trails, trying any direction, but the right one. We kept finding our way back to a muddy dead-end trail, at the edge of a stream, bordering a dense wooded area that we could barely see ten feet into. We grew more distressed and panicked, and then, when all seemed hopeless, Behrad asked, “Does anyone have cell service? Can we call for help?” After a scrambled and lengthy call, the park rangers were on their way. 

Not too soon after, we saw the light. Well, we saw the flashlight of two experienced hikers. We were so relieved to be with someone who knew the way out, and as we followed behind them one-by-one, we realized our mistake: that muddy stream on the edge of a deep-dark-never-ending forest? Yeah, that was the path.

Forty-five minutes later we were huffing and exhausted, but finally safe in our cars. Here’s the thing, we thought we were well prepared with first-aid gear, but we failed to remember flashlights, a map, park office numbers, and a few extra snacks. Although we are still amateur hikers, you bet your bottom that we now hike with a backpack full of safety equipment to avoid getting lost and injured again. 

T he first time is a fluke, and the second time is a coincidence, but the third time’s a pattern. Our string of unfortunate cottaging events took a turn for the worst in the Kawarthas in May 2022. Behrad, Popsie, and I decided to go on another weekend trip, starting with a hike on a Ganaraska Forest trail. The hike itself was glorious, with scenic views of towering lush green trees, along a curved path of rich soil. Each turn there was something different—like a skinny edge walk beside a small waterfall with one trickling and relaxed stream. We even brought our essential hiking backpack with all of our equipment and wore our hiking boots for optimal grip. Back at our car, we breathed a sigh of relief, no bumps or hiccups on this hike. As we put our bags in the car, the first drops of rain hit our noses, as gray skies crackled in the distance. A storm was on its way. Crash! Loud and booming thunder shook the skies, as lightning pierced through the clouds. The storm was approaching faster than we thought. Just minutes after driving down the road, it started raining cats and dogs (and lions and tigers). In one fell swoop, gusts of wind slapped our car, rocking it side to side, almost pushing us off the road. With a tight grip around the steering wheel, I was shaking, not even considering the lineup of cars that accumulated behind me as I crept along at ten kilometres an hour. I had no choice. I couldn’t see the hood of the car.

The rain eventually slowed and then lifted, but what we saw as we drove back to our home-away-from-home was shocking. Broken hydro poles, snapped-in-half trees, and flattened barn roofs lined country roads. We turned into the host’s driveway and saw the greenhouse destroyed, pieces of trampoline littered about like matchsticks, and the yard in total shambles. It was heartbreaking to see a moment’s storm turn into inevitable weeks of repair. That night we stayed in their bunkie (instead of the teepee that we were planning on sleeping in that night), afraid of another weather tantrum. The next day, Kawartha Lakes and the surrounding area were powerless and littered with debris. People were outside starting to clean up their yards, and emergency services were fixing broken hydro poles, and clearing larger fallen trees. We were thankful for our safety during our brief stay and compassionate for those that had to face weeks and months of the aftermath of the derecho that swept through Ontario that May long weekend.

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That weekend we learned a third very important lesson, to not only watch the weather carefully but to be aware of any storm alerts. Being prepared for different weather conditions shouldn’t just be a lesson they teach you in Scouts, but one that all hikers and outdoor enthusiasts should know. 

On reflection, aside from discovering just how stunning our province is, and how helpful the folks are who live here, what we learned throughout this string of unfortunate events is that mishaps don’t always have to be unfortunate. We laughed without control, pondered without boundaries, chatted without any intention, made the best out of our situation, and learned the importance of being prepared with equipment and up-to-date with weather forecasts. Each of the trips weren’t what we planned, but I look back at those memories with kind eyes, and a greater appreciation for a different type of cottaging and road tripping. You win some, you lose some, and in our case, with a little luck and the goodwill of strangers, we won more than we bargained for.


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