Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Being one with nature is for the birds

Mantario Trail trek a walk on the wild side

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It would be an understatement to say I do not enjoy camping.

My big problem with camping is that, as a rule of thumb, it is conducted in the outdoor environment, which is home to many majestic creatures, most of which want to eat you. But not everyone shares this enlightened view of the Great Outdoors. My close friends Cathy and Paul are perfect examples.

For years, Cathy and Paul had dreamed of hiking the famed Mantario Trail, a rugged 63-kilometre wilderness trek that meanders through dense wildlife-intensive bush near the Manitoba-Ontario border.

It's a challenging journey even for experienced backpackers and takes the average person three or four days to finish, assuming they aren't eaten somewhere along the way.

Two weeks ago, accompanied by their daughters, Laura and Allie and three more relatives, Cathy and Paul set out to turn their dream into reality. They had just bought an RV the size of an aircraft carrier, but left it behind because that is the sort of rugged outdoorspersons they are.

My friends agreed to let me share their camping adventure with you on the condition I would not reveal their last name is MacKinnon and that they live in Charleswood.

The exciting part of the story begins on the fourth day when, after dinner, our heroes realized they were footsore and weary of dragging their aching bodies through the Canadian Shield. By their calculation, with just a couple of hours of hard hiking they could reach the end of the trail, where their vehicles had been parked for them by some helpful friends.

"We thought we'd be out of the bush before dark and home in our beds before midnight," is how Cathy put it. "It had rained that day and the trail was muddy and wet, so we were filthy."

Filled with hope, the intrepid hikers strapped on their headlamps and trudged along a mucky trail. Suddenly, as these things tend to happen, four large bears lumbered across the path just yards in front of them. "You want the bears to know you're there, so we started singing Christmas carols and blowing our whistles," Cathy said.

Fortunately, her resourceful husband, Paul, who was marching in front, had wisely taken a can of bear spray. Unfortunately, slipping in the mud, Paul accidentally blasted the spray in the direction of his loved ones.

"I got a full face-load of it," Cathy snorted. "OHMYGAWD! It was the most painful thing in the world. It ranks right up there with childbirth and I don't want to do THAT again!"

Riding to her rescue came the couple's daughters, who doused Mom's stinging eyes with water. "I wondered why Paul didn't come to console me but he was stuck in mud up to his knees," Cathy, who has a forgiving nature, explained.

Cold, wet and anxious, they pressed on, with Paul in the lead, confident they were near the end. Eventually, in the dark, they arrived at a swamp, which forced them to detour back into the bush. Fortunately, they had an electronic tracking device with a "help" button in case they ran into trouble. Unfortunately, they'd already lost it in the woods. Fortunately, they also had a GPS system. Unfortunately, they had the wrong batteries.

"We kept going around in circles," Cathy said.

Let's recap: It's around 3 a.m. and our heroes are lost in bear-infested woods. It can't get much worse, right? Ha ha ha! In your dreams.

"That's when my sister stepped on a wasp nest in the dark," Cathy blurted. "We all got stung quite a few times. My niece had them all stuck in her hair. They were very angry. It's not nearly as bad as the bear spray, but it still stings."

Finally, after more stumbling around, they emerged from the bush and discovered -- Hurray! -- they were right back at the swamp. "We were wet, cold, tired and lost, so we decided to just stay put until morning," Cathy noted.

The next morning, glad to be alive, they made a shocking discovery -- they'd spent the night wandering in circles just minutes away from the parking lot at trail's end. So they hopped in their cars and drove home.

Just kidding. When they got to the parking lot, their cars were nowhere in sight. "Our FRIENDS had parked them in the wrong spot, about two kilometres away," Cathy sniffed, sadly.

So, yes, there was some hardship involved but, in the end, my brave friends were able to scratch a dream off their bucket list. I suspect the next time they go camping, they'll do it in their new RV. Cathy will probably do the driving, whereas I'm guessing Paul and his bear spray will be under the wheels.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 29, 2012 A2

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