A week before Christmas, I was scrolling through Instagram, as I frequently do, when a “ping!” let me know I had just received a direct message. @Bongopix and I had been following each other on Instagram since late summer – I knew that Bongo Mike and Andrea had just recently opened a cool, retro-style Airbnb cottage resort near the East Gate of Algonquin Park – but other than throwing each other lots of likes and comments full of nature emojis, we hadn’t really spoken much before. Needless to say, I was intrigued when I saw a message from them and opened it straight away.
They were writing to me to invite Andrew and I up to their Backpacker’s Bunk for a big New Year’s Eve party! As I never have plans on New Year’s Eve, and couldn’t think of a single better way to ring in the new year than up in Algonquin Park with other awesome camping freaks, I said yes immediately. As our Bunk would have two queen-sized beds, we invited our friends and adventure buddies Jacob and Sonia to join in the festivities.
The Backpacker’s Bunk is a very cool concept. Rather than being a stand-alone cabin, or even a lodge-style resort, it’s more of a really neat and convenient jump-off point for exploring Algonquin by canoe or on foot. Each room in the log building has two beds, its own private washroom with shower, a mini fridge, and a lovely big deck. There’s also a Common Room in the same building with two turntables and an excellent record collection, old school Nintendo systems, and hundreds of VHS titles. No cable, no internet… just the way it should be. Considering that one isn’t allowed to head into the backcountry in the evening, staying up in the Bunk on a Friday is the perfect way to get a head start on a weekend Algonquin adventure, for the low low price of about fifty bucks a night. AND it’s only a 45 minute paddle from their dock on Galeairy Lake to the first backcountry campsite, with zero portages! The Backpacker’s Bunk isn’t the only fun place to stay at Camp Bongopix. They also have several cabins for rent, all extremely reasonably priced and decorated in a charming, retro, vintage Canadiana style, with all the amenities of a proper cottage (and running water and plumbing and electricity, which is more than I can say about many wonderful but rustic cottages I’ve visited!).
We began the drive up from the city at around 5pm, with Sonia and Jacob not far behind. We arrived between 8:30 and 9, and were greeted with big hugs from our new friends and hosts, Andrea and Mike. They showed us to our room and let us get settled in (read: stash our beers in the snow to chill), and when Jacob and Sonia showed up shortly after us, we all went to join the party in the common room. Everyone at the party was so much fun! There was a crew of people from the Hammer (Hamilton), a bunch of locals, and some more Torontonians like our group of four. It was great to swap adventure stories with so many other like-minded people! We were having such a blast that in seemingly no time at all it was almost midnight, and we hurried to open bottles of champers as the Hammer Crew set up an elaborate fireworks display. Mike is a photographer, and one of his many creative shoot styles is a “Bongobooth” photobooth (minus the actual booth), with many props and costumes from a Tickle Trunk of treasures. This kicked off right after midnight. Much hilarity ensued.
Eventually we were the only stragglers still standing, and we chatted with Mike and Andrea a bit before heading off to bed. Sonia and Jacob were already asleep, and we tried not to wake them as we tripped over our bags and boots, giggling. We all slept in late the following morning. The four of us flopped around in our beds for awhile, moaning, due to the excessive libations consumed the previous evening. Andrew was the first to rally and he set up a camp stove on the deck to get coffee started. Soon Jacob and Sonia began preparing an elaborate breakfast of bacon, eggs, beans, and toast, and I eventually joined them on the porch where I was not much help. In my defence, every job needs a supervisor. I provided strong words of encouragement, so worker morale was high.
Coffee and breakfast revived us, and shortly afterwards we got dressed in our winter gear, strapped on some snowshoes, and went for a good hike down a snowmobile trail directly across Highway 60 from the Bongopix property.
It was Sonia’s first time on snowshoes, but she got the hang of it immediately and we checked out the Mighty Madawaska river from several vantage points on our little trek. We stopped for a beer break (that’s one way to cure a hangover) and big, fat, heavy snowflakes began to land on our toques. We were all excited to finally experience some winter.. since the freak snowstorm on our ill-fated November canoe trip, we hadn’t seen a single flurry until the drive up north on New Year’s Eve.
Unfortunately, Jacob and Sonia could only stay for the one night, so when we got back to our Bunk we had a few snacks as they packed their things, and then they were on their way. Andrew and I stopped in again at the Common Room to listen to some tunes with Mike, but we were still pretty pooped and feeling haunted by the ghosts of our hangovers, so we retired early to our bunk, warmed up some delicious ribs on our camp stove that Andrew had prepared a few days before and read many of the Friends of Algonquin booklets on places of interest in the park (Andrea works full time for the Friends of Algonquin, so they have tons of maps and guidebooks for visitors to pore over).
We weren’t in nearly as rough shape the next morning, and we rustled up some oatmeal and coffee before packing up and tidying our room. Andrea was off in the park doing the yearly Algonquin Christmas Bird Count, so we said goodbye to Mike and thanked him for inviting us to their amazing party. We left them a little note and a canoe paddle holder as a token of our thanks, stopped in at the East Gate to purchase a day pass, and checked out the logging museum which I was not at all interested in but ended up enjoying quite a bit.
The “museum” is more like an interpretive km-long hike, with many displays and signs that take the visitor through the history of logging in Algonquin Park. I enjoyed walking through the bunkhouses that the loggers lived in and loudly ringing the dinner bell. Andrew was fascinated by a logging alligator and kept telling me little factoids he remembered from the booklet he had read the night before. It does shock me a bit that there is still logging in Algonquin to this day, considering how this enormous park represents the closest thing to wilderness for so many people in Southern Ontario.
Since we had nowhere to be and the logging museum tour only took us about an hour, we set off down Highway 60 to the Mew Lake campground so we could
check out creepily spy on other campers’ winter tents and gear. As we were walking through, we saw Andrea finishing up her bird count, and she told us about a pine marten that was hanging out by the old airfield. It was good to see her and get the opportunity to thank her for extending the party invite to us, and after a quick chat we went our separate ways. It wasn’t long before we found the Mew Lake Marten – a small crowd of photographers was busily clicking away – and I squealed in delight when I saw his cute furry face. My “eeeeeee!” elicited a harsh “SHHH!” from one photographer, who was standing about two metres away from the marten even though she had a massive zoom lens and flash on her camera. She then proceeded to throw food at the marten to draw it nearer, groaning loudly every time a blue jay snatched the morsel before the pine marten could grab it. Not cool, Zoom Lens Lady. Not cool. I guess she didn’t know she wasn’t supposed to feed the wildlife or blind it with a flash, or she just didn’t care.
We left the marten and went for a little hike down the Track and Tower trail, but it was getting late, so after a rest break with some spicy jalapeño smoked sausage, we turned tail and walked back to the campground. I saw a flash of fur run through the forest – I hoped it was the marten, escaping the paparazzi – and we went for one last tour of the grounds.
We saw a winter tent that was very similar to the one we were planning on ordering. We’ve now decided on an Atuk Alaskan model canvas tent, but the one we saw was the Kanguk model. The Alaskan is square, the Kanguk pentagonal, and we realized the pentagonal layout only gains about an extra 3 feet of interior space, which is promptly lost by the placement of the wood stove in the middle. Mission accomplished, though! We then knew exactly what we wanted and discussed it at length during the long drive home to Toronto.
Speaking of the drive home… as we were driving along Highway 60, close to Canisbay Lake, I finally saw that elusive unicorn of the forest, the moose! In fact, we saw three! We saw a bull and a cow first. They ran across the road right in front of us and then paused on a ridge. I tried to take a photo, but as it was dark, it only shows two blobs. A bit farther down the road we saw another HUGE bull! I went from zero sightings in my lifetime to three in the span of ten minutes. What a magical way to start the new year!
I highly recommend Camp Bongopix as a cottage getaway or as a starting point for backcountry travel in Algonquin. Andrea and Mike are just wonderful hosts and really fun people (with excellent taste in music) who love camping as much as we do. The Bunkhouse is very comfortable, the Common Room is excellent for chilling and trading stories of adventure and misadventure, and you just can’t beat the price or location. In fact, we liked it up there so much that we immediately booked a cabin for my birthday the next weekend!
Check out their website here and follow them on Instagram @bongopix. While you’re at it, follow me (@tear_knee), too. I’m always sad to leave a place with good camp vibes behind, but as we drove home I was already looking forward to our next adventure. Who knows, maybe I’ll even get to see another moose.