An Intro to Backcountry Camping at Bon Echo Provincial Park
If you are looking for a park that has it all; family and pet friendly beaches, fishing, canoeing, hiking, history, full service and backcountry sites – Bon Echo Provincial Park is your answer.
My friends and I have been going to Bon Echo a minimum of 3 good trips a year since 2011. We’ve done it all, from opening week to closing week to the heart of summer.
There are 30 backcountry sites in total – 4 on Pearson Lake, 21 on Joe Perry Lake and 5 on the Abes and Essens hiking trail. The lake sites are great if this is your first time wandering away from the electrified comfort station and flush toilets of the full service sites.
Perry Lake and Person Lake
Bon Echo’s Joe Perry Lake and Pearson Lake ease you into the experience of backcountry camping rather than throwing you into the deep end right away.
Make your first backcountry experience here, and feel free to make mistakes. This is a forgiving place with an easy escape plan. Easy canoe in and out (max. 30mins) and easy trek or portage back to the car lot (500m). Getting to Pearson may not be navigable in low water times so check with the park before you book your site on Pearson.
Drive from Ottawa
We drive the two and a half hours to Bon Echo from Ottawa. It’s a beautiful drive through classic valley farm towns starting out along highway 7, passing Arnprior and Calabogie and getting off at the town of Renfrew. This is where we usually load-up on Tim Horton’s and maybe some extra supplies at the Canadian Tire or Super Saver. We then head over to the LCBO for a flask of rum, a bottle of wine, some ice, then hit the road for the 132 – just on the southwest side of town.
The 132 turns in to the 41 at Dacre – you’ll be at least one hour and a half from Renfrew to Bon Echo and there’s not too much in between so make sure you have enough fuel for the trip out there.
Brown’s Tent and Trailer Park signals the beginning of Mazinaw Lake, called the Upper Mazinaw. Mazinaw is the 25th deepest lake in Canada at 476 feet and the second deepest in southern Ontario.
Ten minutes up the road from Brown’s we enter the main entrance for Bon Echo Provincial Park. We check in with the friendly staff, find out where the canoe rentals are and ask for the latest developments on weather, bear/animal problems, and anything else we can think of in order to avoid surprises.
The Lagoon Area and Canoe Rental
We head over to the Lagoon area to rent our canoes, PFDs and paddles. The Lagoon is situated right at The Narrows, the division between Upper and Lower Mazinaw Lake. Here you can get a good overview of the myriad amenities that Bon Echo has to offer; beaches, boat rentals, swimming, walking trails, picnic area, etc. Here, the whole lake narrows to about a 15 foot wide channel that’s maybe 6-8 feet deep and all boat traffic going to and from slows to a wakeless halt while navigating the pass. The Lagoon is home to the Mugwump Ferry that transports folks to the other side of The Narrows to access the hiking trail that goes to the top of 100m high Mazinaw Rock.
When we are not backcountry camping we’ll sometimes rent a canoe or boat and head over to the base of Mazinaw Rock to check out the native pictographs – with over 260, it’s the largest visible collection in Canada and makes Mazinaw Rock a National Historic Site.
We get our key to unlock our two canoes, PFDs and paddles and head back to the other side of the park, towards Joe Perry Lake (the canoe rental is $35 per day).
Joe Perry Lake Parking Lot
We head towards Hardwood Hills, a beautiful, quiet, radio-free campground in the forest about a 10-minute drive on a dirt road from the Bon Echo park entrance.
Just past Hardwood Hills there’s the Joe Perry Lake parking lot. This is our load-in-and-out point from the car. Beyond here is a 500m easy, low grade, downhill walk to the canoes. This is where you will get backcountry lesson number one.
If you have packed too much you will need to do multiple trips, or just one long, very uncomfortable one. Now, if you can’t do it in one shot you will have to do multiple trips (as we did because we bring so much damned camera equipment J). So now you are doing 500m plus 500m plus 500m for two trips. That’s now 1.5kms, 1km at least with the weight of your gear. If you haven’t tried carrying all your camping equipment before I strongly advise you to do so before you get there and end up cursing and crying in an exhausted heap in the middle of the trail. It should also be understood that you need to be in reasonable shape to make the trip enjoyable.
Coming down the trail towards the canoe launch we noticed people using an off-road wagon. Picture the red Radio Flyer your parents pulled you in as a kid and just add big knobby tires. Light bulbs immediately went on in our heads, we had a great ‘a-ha’ moment, swallowed our pride and made a note for next year that read, “Get wagon!”
The experienced campers here at Bon Echo had these wagons to put all their gear in, then simply pulled it down the trail to the canoe launch and tied it to a tree with a bike lock where it would be waiting for them on their return – BRILLIANT! Another smart crew put portage wheels on their own canoe and filled it with gear and pulled it down the trail. Again, BRILLIANT!
June: Mosquito season
We did this trip in late June and I must say the trail was a war zone, a war zone between us travellers and the mosquitos waiting for our flesh and blood to arrive. The campsite was no better. If you hate the mosquitos then do this trip in August and you won’t be devoured.
At one point it got so bad that our friend Chuck had put on his mosquito-net hat and was running down the path at full speed with his gear.
Once the gauntlet of mosquitos was cleared we loaded out canoes to the gunnels and headed out onto the lake. The lake was perfectly calm for our 10minute ride to the site.
Packing for backcountry
If this is your first time doing backcountry camping via canoe be sure to pack any sensitive items in dry bags. Dry bags are watertight rubberized bags that will float and keep your gear dry if you happen to take a spill. We have two or three 35L bags that we put camera gear and some warm clothes in. When on land they come in very handy as food bags to hang in a tree for the night – more on that later.
We had site 22, one of the closest to the canoe launch and located in a quiet little bay on an island with seven other sites.
We tied up the canoes, unloaded our gear, set up camp and watched the sun go down as we feasted on campfire Lobster Etoufee and rice, steaks and potatoes and some wine and rum. Yes, we managed to live like kings in the backcountry. A good meal at the end of a hard day lugging gear, where everyone is around the picnic table laughing and talking is what keeps morale up and makes for good times.
Bon Echo and Joe Perry Lake’s ease of accessibility makes this all possible. You can bring a heavy cooler and not have to endure its weight for a multi-hour canoe ride. You can also canoe 10minutes back across the lake to get more ice if you need. As I said before, forgiving is Joe Perry Lake’s middle name.
Settling down at the campsite
Before it got too dark we ventured about 100m away from camp to find a good tree to hang our food bags from (these were nothing more than two 35L dry bags). You will need to tie your food, and anything else that has odour such as toothpaste, deodorant, creams, etc. up as high and as far away from the trunk of the tree as possible. If the food is on the ground, what the raccoons don’t eat the bears certainly will I guarantee it. It’s always good to remember to pack a couple good, sturdy ropes (ideally 100ft. worth), a knife, and maybe some gloves to avoid rope burn. Find a good tree with a solid branch about 4m, minimum, from the ground. Tie the rope to a stick or a rock and throw that end over the branch. The weight of the stick or rock should bring it back to the ground. Remember to hold on to the other end so you don’t lose it.
Exploring around the site
The next day, our only full day, we spent exploring the lake. We headed to the north end of the lake to check out the sand beach and suntan a bit. It’s shallow and warm and good for swimming. We headed back for lunch threw some fishing lines in the water, trolled for a bit, made lunch and basically relaxed for the afternoon. In the early evening, when the sun was getting nice and yellow, we ventured out around the island to fish, take photos, and just explore. There are plenty of opportunities for spotting wildlife, fishing, hiking and canoeing around.
The sites are huge and clean and come with a picnic table and communal, open toilet in the woods consisting of nothing more than a toilet-height plywood box on the ground with a hole in it. Remember to bring toilet paper and some alcohol-based hand sanitizer. The area is super quiet and the only people you will see are canoeists who venture by your site every now and then. Being away from a major centre we enjoy seeing the massive amount of stars in a clear nights sky before we head to bed.
After our weekend on Joe Perry we reluctantly packed up and headed back to the mainland. We secured our canoe and trekked the 500m back to the lot, packed the car and hit the road back to Ottawa and it wasn’t long before we started planning our next trip.
Here’s a video of a fall trip we did to Bon Echo in October last year.
Article by Jacob Fergus
Based in Ottawa Jacob Fergus is a photographer, videographer, writer, outdoor enthusiast and lover of all things Canada.