Armstrongs’ Bushcraft Adventures in Ontario
Bushcraft Adventures in the Northern Ontario Wilderness with Ray Mears
John and Jo Armstrong from Manchester where the lucky winners from last year’s contest and embarked upon a bushcraft survival trip to Ontario with Ray Mears in August 2014. They were selected at random from over 26,000 entries! They kindly shared with us their experiences in Ontario with Ray Mears…
Landed in Canada. A lovely warm welcome awaited in the form of Paul and Stephanie from Thunder Bay Tourism and Steve Bruno from Ontario Tourism. We were treated to a lovely meal in one of Thunder Bay’s many excellent restaurants. We finally got to meet our travelling companions: Doug and Levon, our fellow bushcraft competition winners; Ray Mears, legendary bushcraft expert; Dan Hulme, Woodlore bushcraft instructor; and Becky Mason, canoe instructor. Ray Mears is well known in the UK. He has dedicated his life to learning and teaching bushcraft. Throughout his career he has shown an obvious love for his subject and empathy and respect for indigenous peoples and their cultures. He has a fond affection for Ontario and a love of the Boreal Forest. A lasting memory from our first night in his company will be him saying “I can feel the forest”.
Our first day in Ontario started with a shopping trip. We headed off to purchase our bushcraft knives…….. our excitement was growing. We then had a private tour of Fort William Historical Park. Set in the 1800s, we ventured 200 years into the past to the headquarters of the North West Company. Talented actors dressed as their ancestors told the fascinating story of how the fur trade played a key role in forming the foundations of Canada.
A three hour journey by road and we arrived at the Wabikimi Lodge in Wabikimi Provincial Park where we excitedly re-packed for our canoe trip the following day. We also met Michael Hyer, our guide on the trip and the eighth and final member of our group.
After a hearty breakfast and being fitted up with life jackets and paddles it was time to head to the jetty to meet the sea plane. Unfortunately the cloud had come in and it was too low to fly.
To pass the time we took part in some team building tasks including guiding a blindfolded partner over an obstacle course. As well as being great fun it made us realise the importance of good communication which would be crucial when in our canoes. At last the cloud lifted, the plane arrived and we loaded our luggage, complete with canoes strapped to the bottom of the plane.
It was our first trip on a sea plane and it didn’t disappoint.
We drank in the view: trees as far as the eye could see dotted with lakes of varying sizes. A huge wilderness and no signs of civilization – a breathtaking glimpse of the Boreal Forest.
The landing was so smooth we didn’t realise we’d landed! We got straight out into our canoes and as bad weather drew close we paddled straight to the forest. Here we made our camp just in time for the heavens to open.
While Michael cooked our evening meal, Ray gave us an important lesson on how to sharpen our bushcraft knives.
As night time fell we drank hot chocolate and rum around the campfire while Michael strummed his guitar. We felt more than comfortable with our home in the forest for the next two nights
We woke to a gorgeous view over the lake followed by a wonderful morning of bushcraft instruction by Ray and Dan. What an amazing experience learning bushcraft skills from a master of his craft in the depths of Canada’s beautiful Boreal Forest. We learned how to make a fire using birch bark scrapings, fuzz sticks, shaving clusters and feather sticks with only a knife and magnesium stick to make a spark.
We ventured further into the forest where Ray showed us how you can use natural resources to make strong tripods (for hanging cooking pots), tooth brushes, soap, and antiseptic dressings.
After lunch was a canoe lesson with Becky, an expert in her field. We learned the strokes we’d need over the next few days and how to lift and carry our canoes. We then had time to practise our new found skills.
There was time for more bushcraft before dinner. Ray and Dan showed us how to make different teas from the leaves of trees and how to create little pieces of art by “birch bark biting” – a skill used by the First Nations.
It had been a wonderful day and we slept soundly, our heads filled with new knowledge of wilderness and paddling skills.
Up, breakfasted, packed and on the canoes before 9am. The weather was cloudy to start but soon picked up. We soon came upon our first portage trail. This is where you get out of the canoe and carry the upside down canoe over head along with all your luggage over a trail through the forest. This is to avoid rapids/rough water. Pretty tough going when you have heavy packs but we’re sure it doesn’t compare to the packs the voyageurs of old used to carry. Along the way we also got to practise dry lining which is where one person stays in the canoe while the other gets out and grabs the rope to guide the canoe over rocks and fast water.
By the time we stopped for lunch on a small island the sun was shinning. Ray tasked us (the competition winners) with making a fire using our newly acquired skills. He told us we’d done a good job which was high praise indeed coming from Mr Mears.
After setting up our own individual camps, Ray taught us how to make “bannock”. A delicious type of bread that can be made sweet or savoury.
Jo’s effort was also tasty – a splash of rum over the top finished it off nicely.
We then headed off in the canoes for a spot of fishing.
Unfortunately, Jonny and Levon’s efforts were in vain but Doug managed a catch and on returning to camp, Ray had also landed a fish. The fruits of their labour were cooked up as a tasty treat for dinner. As we headed over to our camp for the night, a golden eagle flew down to feast on Ray’s fish leftovers. What a magical sight.
Again cloud gave way to sunshine by late morning. Today was all about the paddling. What a wonderful way to travel as you soak up the scenery. So peaceful and relaxing that you forget you are exercising. We can see why Ray and Becky love it so much.
We went through some gorgeous stretches of water surrounded by lilies, bullrushes and wild rice plants.
Ray pointed out different flora and fauna and a beavers home or “lodge” built at the water’s edge.
Ray and Doug tried a spot of fishing from their canoes and Doug caught a large pike.
After 15km we reached our destination – Allen Water Bridge where we were due to catch the train the following day. We felt thrilled to have had such a wonderful trip in Wabikimi Park but very sad that our canoe journey had finished and our trip was drawing to an end.
On our last evening in this beautiful forest, we camped close to the railway line, ready for our early start. After dinner, Ray regaled us with tales of his travels through Africa and Australia while we drank our last hot chocolate with rum. Michael serenaded us with his beautiful guitar playing. We gazed our last view of the stars and what a view. With no light pollution they shine brighter than we’ve ever seen. What a wonderful magical place the park had been.
We carried our canoes and all our packs along the track to wait for the train. in good spirits but with heavy hearts we were leaving a very special place. We listened for the last time to Michael strumming out folk tunes and one last “Duelling Banjos”.
The train arrived and we quickly loaded the canoes and all our packs on board. We sat in a domed carriage with glass roof so we could gaze our last views of the forest and lakes.
The hour long journey flew by and before we knew it we were back to civilisation. The Armstrongs arrived back at Armstrong station!!!
A quick turn around at the Wabikimi Lodge and we were back on the road for the three hours back to Thunder Bay. Time to reflect on the last few days and consider how lucky we’d been to be part of the whole experience. We certainly agree with something Ray said to us several times: “this is a very special place”.
Once back in Thunder Bay we were again bowled over by the hospitality we were shown by Thunder Bay Tourism. We were wined and dined in another of the city’s excellent restaurants before heading back to the beautiful Valhalla Inn hotel. The night ended in the hotel bar with our fellow competition winners Doug and Levon. We recounted our unique experience and shared our favourite stories from the trip.
We felt very said saying goodbye to Doug and Levon. What wonderful travelling companions they had been. We would love to return to Canada and Ontario and a return trip would not be complete without a meeting up with those guys.
For us the journey had not quite ended as again Thunder Bay Tourism ensured we were well looked after. We, along with Ray and Dan were treated to a private tour of the Thunder Bay Art Gallery where we saw some superb examples of local art. Sadly a boat trip on Lake Superior was not possible as it was fully booked but we were not disappointed with a stroll around the very picturesque harbour and waterfront.
We bid a fond farewell to Ray and Dan whose company we had thoroughly enjoyed. We were extremely grateful for the time they had given and the skills they had taught us. Ray’s love of this part of the world and for the Boreal Forest was infectious and has stirred in us a longing to return. A quote of Ray’s we will remember, from a character who came to Canada named Grey Owl is “we must remember that at the end nature does not belong to us, we belong to it”
So that was it. Our adventure had come to an end. It was time to leave this amazing place. We had loved every minute of our trip: Ontario, the Boreal Forest, our travelling companions, the warm and friendly Canadian people. We have wonderful, happy memories to return home with and we will definitely be back one day to this special place.
John & Jo x
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