CAMPING WITH FREE REIGN (Musings about Camping on Crown Land)

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The backcountry of Ontario holds a wealth of vast forests dotted with a myriad of small lakes seemingly too numerous to name. At the shore of one, which, thanks to my friend, Nicky, I know is called Mistango Lake, I delighted in the lapping waves, while observing the not-too-distant horizon of evergreens on the water’s far side. In the open immediate area surrounding us, I let Tessi wander along the bushes and vegetation bordering the fine sand. Nicky stood at the top of the small hill amidst two trailers, where she chatted with the owners. They happened to be enjoying this little piece of camping heaven—for free.

Free? While visiting Nicky that particular weekend, we hit the bush roads (actually called secondary roads) for a tour of the remote region near her home in northern Ontario. She wanted to show me her boyfriend’s cabin, where they spend a fair amount of time fishing. Much of the countryside we were driving through is Crown land. About 89% of Canada is, though some of it is allocated for specific uses, such as for national and provincial parks. Crown land for public use exists across the country; however, I’ll concentrate on Ontario’s. In our province, Canadians are allowed to camp on such land for free, unless posted otherwise—there are restricted zones. (Non-residents need to purchase a permit in certain regions and under specified requirements.) In addition to your free stay, there’s no hassle of making reservations, and nobody to stop you from bringing your dog. Established, unmarked campsites are already in place. They may be in rougher conditions than the offerings in an organized park—it’s left to the campers themselves to take care of them, but that’s all part of the experience anyway. Keep in mind, conveniences and luxuries are unavailable; you’ll only have what you bring and what nature provides. Most travellers use these recognized sites. Fashioning new spots would involve clearing out overgrown and deep-rooted vegetation—a huge undertaking. Another friend of mine, Nancy, has explored much of the wilds of Ontario, mostly from her canoe. She has rarely stayed on Crown

Nancy's Tia naps amongst the pines.

land—usually finding the sites she hoped for have been taken. “You'd see a site across the lake, another canoe on the water and there would literally be a race to try to get the site first,” she tells me. She would rather have the option to reserve one in an organized campground, than to chance not getting one. The more obvious sites are likely snatched up quickly. People tend to concentrate in popular areas, especially where they border our extensive waterways. Nancy adds, “There are probably some really awesome secret spots to camp on out there. One just has to know where.” Wherever you end up, you’re allowed to stay in one spot for only 21 days. But, you just have to move and set up at least 100 m (328 ft) away to extend your camping summer. Nicky finds that many of these summer dwellers scoop up sites very early in the season and park their trailers so they can be already situated when camping weather arrives. She tells me many tend to overstay their 21-day limit. Before we stopped at Mistango Lake, we passed a row of trailers. Their presence under the thick canopy of trees seemed bleak with all their junk and possessions in disarray. Nicky shook her head with annoyance, knowing they are some of those squatters. Free in Dollars, But At What Other Costs? The Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) requests: “When camping on Crown land, all users are asked to undertake their activities in an ecologically sound and responsible manner, accepting the risks associated with their activities. Please remove all litter and enjoy and respect Ontario’s Crown land.” There are too many people disregarding the leave-no-trace practice. As Nicky turned into the woods that day onto the secondary road leading to their cabin, we kept seeing papers tacked to random trees, stating invites to a party. As far as she’s concerned, parties just lead to messes. With dismay, she explains, "The parties on Crown land, more often than not, only lead to more garbage left behind. I've seen everything from broken beer bottles to old vehicles with smashed windshields left behind. The broken glass is not only a hazard for the next campers, but for the animals as well, including people camping with their dogs." Nancy agrees on how garbage is a big issue. She remarks, “Funny how people will sneak heavy stuff like cans of beer in, but can't be bothered to hike the lighter weight empties out!” You may luck out on cleaner sites in the more remote areas, if you can find them. I wonder to what extent dog owners bother controlling their pets? Society’s canine etiquette should still be observed. I have a feeling though that people who are inconsiderate with garbage are likely irresponsible with their dogs. I must admit, I’d be nervous camping in the backwoods on my own with just Tessi’s company—I don’t know if I’d be more afraid of possible intrusion from bears or drunken idiots. It’s a shame there’s little reverence for nature that offers us so much; this is a considerable resource for those who love the outdoors.

At Mistango Lake

The people that Nicky had been talking to at Mistango Lake were switching spots every 21 days; yet, Nicky didn’t mind, since they’re decent and respectful of their surroundings. I could easily discern their sites were clean and tidy. They were spending their summer days fishing and relaxing. And that’s what it should be all about. For More Info 
  • How do you locate Crown land? Several websites and outdoor shops offer maps. And just following secondary roads can lead to many available spots. I came across a couple of videos put out by an enthusiastic crown-land user, who explains thoroughly how to find these places.
  • Camping on Crown Land in Ontario 1 and 2.
  • A bit of info on some of the other provinces.
  • Dogs and Northern Ontario

 (c) Cheryl Smyth, 2014

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