Frontenac challenge: challenge accepted

Guest Blogger: Evan Holt, Traversing

I heard about the Frontenac Challenge a few years ago… which is to hike the provincial park’s 11 loops and 160km of trails between September 1 and October 31.  With the park’s All-Season Camping Challenge (camp at least one night in each month of the year for 12 consecutive months) and the Junior Hiking Challenge (Youth up to 12 years of age can take part in a mini Frontenac Challenge where they only need to complete six of the main loops in the park), Frontenac offers some great incentives to take in the sights and smells of the outdoors.

I accepted the challenge, so in preparation I downloaded the .PDF map of the trails (and campsites) from Ontario Parks’ website, but after daydreaming about the hike, I made sure to pick up the more detailed map, created by the Friends of Frontenac (which is available at the Frontenac Park office, and some outfitter stores -be sure to inquire as they might be able to order it for you).

The challenge was created by Park Superintendent Lloyd Chapman in 1993 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Ontario Provincial Park System. If you can complete the 160km challenge by Halloween, then you will be presented with a certificate of accomplishment at the Frontenac Challenge celebratory BBQ in November. Complete it five times, and your name will be engraved on the “800km Club” plaque, and after 10 times, you will be recognized on the “10 Challenge Under Their Boots” plaque.

Drop by the Park’s main office to register for the challenge (completely free) and pick up your log sheet. As you navigate the trails, there will be signs with key words related to each year’s themes for you to jot down in your log sheet and return to the main office upon completion.

Last year I was the 218th person to register, and it was only a few weeks into the challenge, so it is nice to see so many other people interested in this activity. The signs at the beginning of each section are bang-on accurate for how long each loop should take you, so consult them for an approximation of how long your journey is going to take. Here’s a few pointers from what I learned from completing the entire 160 KM challenge…

Start Early: The challenge lasts two months, but you have two things against you the longer you wait. Temperatures last year during the first week of the challenge ranged from +25 to +15, while the last week ranged from +15 to -3. A few nights at the end of October saw a skiffle of snow and didn’t have the comfortable camping temperatures of earlier in the month. Your days also range from 13 hours of daylight at the start of September, to 10 hours by the end of October. That extra daylight can make the difference between finishing Slide Lake, or running into a trickier situation.

Pack light: I brought most of my regular camping gear on the first journey, but quickly learned that this is longer than your average portage. Cut down on everything when camping during this hiking challenge. For the most part, I just brought a daypack with the bare essentials and I found being light and nimble allowed me to cover the most ground without being exhausted at the end of the day. You can also plan your trips around a campsite, retuning each night to it so that you don’t have to keep carrying so much bulky gear.

Good Footwear: Your feet will take a pile of punishment during this challenge.  Frontenac Park was the site of a mining facility which tells you the terrain is going to be rocky. Having good hiking boots and socks will save you lots of punishment.

Hiking Poles: While not essential, they saved me from slipping on wet leaves and moss quite a few times late in the season. If you’re carrying a heavy pack, it will also help you manage the weight a little better as well. Once most of the leaves have fallen off the trees in October, it makes for judging where you are going to step tricky. Poles help you probe a few areas that could be boggy, slippery or frozen.

Enjoy the Hike: It IS a challenge, which means covering a lot of ground, but make sure to stop to take in some of the majesty of the park. The sound of crunching leaves as you hike is an all-time favourite of mine and the smells of Fall with little to no bugs bothering you makes for an ideal adventure. Be sure to take lots of photos and socialize with the other hikers you meet.

Layers: Fall weather is kind of finicky. Have lots of layers, including a good packable rain jacket to stow away in your pack in case of sudden showers. I even found rain pants to help protect you on windy days and keep you warm on the cold days. Even just a thin waterproof/windproof layer can make the difference.

Batteries: Bring a headlamp in case you get stuck on the trail and still have lots of ground to cover while the sun has set. More important yet, make sure the batteries are charged or have extras. Be sure to either turn off your cell phone, or put it in airplane mode as there is no cell phone coverage for about 95% of the park. As your phone tries to search for a signal, it will quickly drain your battery leaving you with a phone that you won’t be able to use to take photos, or better yet, make an emergency call if you run into trouble leaving the park.

Turned Around?: Make sure to pick up a map of the park at the front gate when you sign up for the challenge. I found all 160 KM of the trail very well marked. You will find the familiar little blue diamond hiking sign everywhere along the trail every so often so you won’t stray too far from the path. Once the leaves cover the forest floor though, it becomes a little easier to walk off the beaten path. If you haven’t seen a hiking sign in a while, I found the most reassuring thing to do is just turn around and look behind you. You will usually see a sign for hikers headed in the opposite direction, so you will know if you are on the right path. Bring a whistle with you which is a perfect signalling device if you get lost or injured.  Follow all safe hiking rules – and be sure to leave details of your travel plans with someone.

Travelling?: I live about three hours away from Frontenac Park, which means lots of travelling and camping to complete the challenge. One way to cut down on costs is to purchase an Ontario Parks Seasonal Permit (gives you free day-access to the parks), which also is a perfect excuse to explore other Ontario Parks locations in our province throughout the year as well.

After the challenge had wrapped up, it was great to chat with other hikers at the celebration BBQ and it seems there is growing interest in this challenge. Over half of the attendees at the BBQ were first time challenge attempters and everyone I chatted with expressed interest to attempt it again next year. I’m sure to give it a go this year, and I hope you accept the challenge as well. See you on the trails!