a peek inside the fishbowl

15 Aug, 2015

Weekend reading: August 15 edition

By andrea tomkins in Weekend reading

I might seem like I’m so down with this camping thing, but I should also tell you that I can’t handle more than five nights of camping. At the beginning of each camping trip I’m thinking: WOW! I love being outside! It’s so relaxing! Outside is great! Fresh air! Nature! By the end of each camping trip I am tired of eating out of a cooler and exhausted from all of that nature and fresh air. But I still love it. And I love that my kids love it and that we can all love it together.

So what else did we do while we were at Achray? I’m sure new campers and non-campers are wondering how we filled our days. Wellll…

We read books and magazines in a hammock we strung up in a spot overlooking the lake.

Feet up and chillin' out

We found a nest of water snakes. Here’s mamma. I think:

Nest of water snakes

The kids went fishing.

Fishing in the morning mist

The fish who silently cried for help

There was rock collecting and minnow-hunting.

Catching minnows and things

We went swimming. The girls had inflatable mattresses and so they swam out with them, which gives one a whole new perspective on the beach. And maybe even life itself.

View of Achray beach from the lake

The beach at Achray

We went hiking.

Mark on the Berm Lake Trail

We rented a canoe.

We can barely fit!

We watched the sun set.

Sunset at Achray

We picked wild raspberries and kept our eyes peeled for local flora and fauna.

The perfect mushroom?

I pose for peanuts!

Toad in a hole

A big family of water birds

I took a few hundred photos of chipmunks. It couldn’t be helped. (You can see more of them here.)

Possibly the cutest chipmunk photo in the whole world

We played Uno.

Campsite card games

We had fun with sparklers and glow sticks.


Glow sticks

We made banana boats.

We cooked our food over the open fire (when we weren’t using the camp stove, that is).

Roasting marshmallows

We built fires. We sat around the fire. We stared at the fire. We let ourselves get hypnotized by the fire.

E by the fire

And sometimes we did nothing.at.all.

The rocks at the end of our site

Suffice it to say, each day was a full one.

(If you like, you can see the rest of our camping photos from Achray right here.)

I have a few parting words for anyone who’s looking to book a site at Achray:

  • Cell/mobile service is almost non-existent. You might be able to grab a very shaky signal near the camp office building, but that’s a big maybe.
  • There is no comfort station, but there are flush toilets and running (potable) water. Don’t let this scare you. There is a lake after all!
  • The camp office is also the camp store. This is where you get your firewood and ice (blocks or cubes), but it’s not a store per se. They sell minimal stuff here: think bug spray, marshmallows, tampons, postcards, a few frozen treats. If you’re out of milk/bread/fuel it’s a 45 minute drive to the nearest store. What they DO have at the camp store is Keurig coffee available to buy and brew on the spot. This came in handy for caffeine emergencies.
  • They do not sell worms. We asked.
  • There’s no kayak rental, only canoe (life jackets and oars are always included FYI)

You can read more about the Achray campground on the Ontario Parks website.

Going camping at Achray? You may want to read part one and two.

I like to write about our travel and camping adventures, but to be honest, I’m never sure how to approach it here on the blog. I want to write it all down for myself, for my own family, but I also want to share some helpful information if you happen to be interested in family camping or checking out the scene at Algonquin Park. I am also very bored of headlines that scream things like: MY DAUGHTER PICKED UP A SNAKE AND YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENED NEXT or TEN WAYS TO SURVIVE CAMPING WITH YOUR CHILDREN AND NOT LOSE YOUR MIND.

I will say this, there’s no shortage of things to do at Achray, although, as I think about it, they may not be the kind of activities families are looking for. There are no camp movie nights here, no playgrounds, children’s programming, gift shops or grocery stores. There’s no bike rental, no laundry, no showers. There are no radios allowed, no motor boats on the lake. There are 45 spots at Achray and everything is pretty near silent at 10 p.m. If this seems like your idea of hell on earth, maybe camping isn’t your thing or you need to consider a place like Sandbanks. If you’re like me, and this sounds like CAMPING NIRVANA, read on.

As I mentioned previously, we like to go for a hike after breakfast and save our relaxing for after lunch. I find this adds a welcome structure to our days and makes those dips in the lake so much more rewarding. There are a few trails at Achray: including Jack Pine, Barron Canyon, Berm Lake, and High Falls.

Jack Pine Trail (which I mentioned) takes you to where the famous Jack Pine painting was sketched by Tom Thomson. It’s quite pretty, and an easy walk.

Barron Canyon is a fantastic trail. It’s very scenic, with an element of danger which is irresistible to some hikers. It is however, important to note that people have died here. So proceed with caution!

Warning signs at Barron Canyon Trail

Here’s my youngest and Mark, peering over the edge together, in 2009 and 2015:

Five years ago, at Barron Canyon Algonquin Park

Mark and S. peek over the edge

Barron Canyon trail is short, only 1.5 km, but it feels longer because of the terrain. It’s totally worth it.

Overlooking Barron Canyon Trail, at Achray campground in Algonquin Park

Barron Canyon from the trail, Achray campground in Algonquin Park

Here’s Mark and I:

Barron Canyon Trail, Achray campground in Algonquin Park

And although I am stating the obvious, I will say that going down hill is easier than up, which makes the hike back to the parking lot a little sweeter.

Barron Canyon trail, Achray campground in Algonquin Park

Mark and I hiked Berm Trail together. It’s 4.5 kilometres, and is also quite pretty with a unique ecological profile. I really recommend buying a trail guide before you set out so you know what you’re looking at! (Do yourself a favour and bring bug spray too.)

I think our favourite was the High Falls cheater trail (yes, this is what it’s called). I must give some backstory first. High Falls is the secret almost everyone knows about. It’s a natural “water slide” that can only be reached by canoe (including a short portage a.k.a “divorce court”) or by a 50-60 minute hike. The last time we were at Achray in 2009 we decided to canoe to High Falls. That trip has become a Tomkins family legend (which I wrote about here) but we decided we would try the alternate route this year.

The “High Falls cheater trail” isn’t marked on maps, but there’s an official sign on Barron Canyon Road that will direct you to a parking lot. The trail is well-travelled and clearly marked at the outset, so you don’t need to worry that you’ll end up stranded in the woods. Funny story: ONE member of our party, who shall remain nameless, neglected to wear runners that day. We decided to forge ahead, knowing we may possibly regret it. The path was level at the beginning but later turned into something a little rougher. Thankfully, young ankles in flip-flops were able to navigate it without issue. Sigh.

Hike to High Falls

The payoff for 50 minutes of sweat and constant mosquito swatting is the kind of landscape you don’t get to see very often. It’s the perfect destination, as it gives you something very fun to see and do for the rest of the afternoon. It’s quite the reward for a hot summer day, especially if you bring a picnic.

We jumped off a mini-cliff into the water, about seventy million times:

Mini cliff jump at High Falls

Swam in deep pools:

Pond at High Falls

And of course, there was that water slide (basically, a very flat rock with water pouring down it):

High Falls

View of "waterslide" at High Falls

Stunning, isn’t it? Suffice it to say we all slept well that night.

Part four is coming next, and I’ll talk about some of the other things we like to do when we camp.

12 Aug, 2015

Camping at Achray, part two

By andrea tomkins in travel talk

If you follow me on Twitter – or was watching the 6:00 p.m. news last night – you already know that a massive tree fell over in our backyard yesterday morning. Thankfully, it fell in the right direction and no one was hurt, but the What Ifs have been filling my brain and I’m still on edge about it all.

This was the scene at around 8:30 yesterday morning.

Tree down

Here’s another view.


In part of one this post I mentioned we had forgotten to pack some critical items for our overall camping success:

1) A frying pan
2) A dust pan
3) Dinner plates

I knew that not having this things wouldn’t destroy our camping trip, but they sure are nice to have, aren’t they? The frying pan is for the obvious. Anything that can’t easily be cooked on the grill can be cooked in a pan. And the dust pan is for the sand which will inevitably find its way into the tent. I’m not dirt phobic by any stretch, but the sand we track in makes me a little crazy. And the dinner plates? I tried to be optimistic about their absence. It meant there’d be fewer dishes to wash, and better portion control as we ate everything on the smaller, lunch-sized plates, right?

We had to make some adjustments. For example, our first breakfast was drawn out more than usual. First, we had coffee and juice. Then, we waited while Mark fried the bacon a few slices at a time on a makeshift frying pan (yes, you read that right) constructed out of a foil tray lined with more foil. When the bacon course was complete, I mixed up the pancake batter. Then Mark made pancakes, a few at a time. And we took turns eating them hot off the ‘pan.’

As per our camping tradition, we always set off on a hike after breakfast, and we always start with the easiest. At Achray, it’s Jack Pine Trail. It’s a short walk that takes visitors out to see the setting of Tom Thompson’s famous Jack Pine. (Which you can see and read a bit about on the National Gallery website.) At the end of the trail, or should I say, the climax of the trail, there’s a rock face you can scamper down to reach a natural beach. If you’re lucky you’ll see a little waterbird or two running between the incoming waves.

The walk back included a bullfrog sighting, wild raspberries ripe for picking, and a monarch resting amid a field of milkweed.

Monarch on milkweed

Camping has permanently changed for us. When the girls were small they required constant supervision, and although they were pretty good at entertaining themselves, they still needed a lot of attention. Now, we are four adults (almost). They take care of their own needs and are very good at helping. I can’t imagine setting up the tent without their help anymore. We let them start the campfire on their own too. This year they baited their own fishing hooks and removed and released the fish they caught. I am one proud momma, that’s for sure.

S. catches a fish

What kind of camping family are we? This is something I’ve thought about. We aren’t one of those families who belt out show tunes around the campfire. We stare into the embers and poke the fire with smoking sticks. We are a family of photographers, minnow catchers, nature lovers, readers, and Uno players. Mark called Achray “an introvert’s paradise” and I think he is right. This campground is radio-free, and since there are no showers here either, it seems to get a pass by a whole segment of the usual camping population.


So I was brushing my teeth at one of Achray’s pseudo-comfort stations (think: a pair of flush toilets and sinks, co-ed) and had a foamy mouthful of toothpaste when I noticed some guy standing awkwardly on the outside of the building, kinda watching me. I looked over at my eldest, who thought he was waiting for a sink so she skirted closer towards me. I looked up, and it was our friend Pete! Mark and Pete have been friends since high school. To make a long story short, we had company around the fire that night and borrowed a frying pan in the process. It was destiny.

I’ll be writing more about the Achray, and some of the things we did while we were there in my next post. As long as more trees don’t fall in our yard. Sigh.

I have so much to catch up on here and I feel like I am falling behind by leaps and bounds, but I have to stop the presses and tell you about a great restaurant in Kingston that knocked our socks off recently: Wooden Heads Gourmet Pizza. Have you ever been? They’re a fixture in Kingston and have been there for over 20 years. (Here’s a little article/review about Wooden Heads FYI.)

The four of us were near starving (I will tell you why later) and ready to gnaw our arms off as we ventured forth from our hotel. Wooden Heads was our destination of choice. My Ottawa foodie friend Paula Roy had recommended it in an article that was published in Capital Parent Newspaper ages ago. And if SHE liked it, I knew I would like it.

It was after 8 p.m. on a Thursday night. How busy could it be? It was a weekday after all, and Queen’s wasn’t in session yet, right? As we navigated the crowded sidewalks of Ontario Street it began to dawn on us that it was not going to be a quiet night in sleepy Kingston. Wooden Heads’ patio was at capacity and the restaurant itself was packed to the rafters. A lineup was beginning to form at the door. We asked the hostess about a table for four, silently hoping for a miracle. She told us it was going to be a 45-minute wait. Hunger pangs aside, we decided to stick it out. But wait! Suddenly the hostess turned around and told us to wait a moment. She left, then returned a minute or two later to let us know that they’d just had a cancellation. She motioned that the table was a taller one, would that be ok? I would have sat beside the washrooms at this point, so we followed her inside.

She lead us to the Wooden Heads back patio. It’s a sizeable area, open to the sky and nestled between two buildings with lots of exposed brick and stone work. Our table was not located near the washrooms after all, it was a cosy corner that was indeed a rise above the other tables, which afforded us a pretty nice perspective. This will give you a bit of an idea:

Woodenheads Kingston

Our server, Annie, was a standout. It’s not often that we experience this level of service. Annie was charming, patient, attentive without being overbearing. We started with battered shrimp and beverages, which arrived promptly. It took us ages to decide what to order, as the menu is extensive and frankly, everything sounded delicious. Pizza is the big draw here, and I now understand why. After some difficulty I narrowed it down to 4-5 choices which, just to give you an idea, included:

  • Vegitariana (tomato sauce, mushrooms, mozzarella, grilled eggplant, onions & green pepper)
  • Guglielmo (porcini cream, brie, pear slices, prosciutto, rosemary)
  • Luminoso (avocado pressed yogurt, cheddar, tomatoes, double smoked bacon, cilantro
  • Capretto (tomato sauce, soft goat’s cheese, basil and rosemary)
  • Prosciutto (roasted garlic, mozzarella, tomatoes, prosciutto, sweet onions, rosemary)

Here’s my dilemma. I really wrestle with the idea of ordering something I know I will love vs. trying something completely new. At the last minute I ordered the Nonna Mela (apple butter, roast garlic, cheddar, sweet onions, blackened chicken).

Oh. My. God.

Woodenheads Gourmet Pizza in Kingston

I was so happy with my order. The crust is the thin, wood-fired variety. This is my personal preference as I have grown to dislike bready crusts. I much prefer to focus on the toppings! And they did not disappoint. The apple butter and garlic and onions provided the perfect contrast to one another. The chicken was nice – thankfully not dried out as can be the case sometimes – and the cheddar, although not a traditional cheese for pizza, pulled it all together very well.

Mark had the Sorrento (tomato sauce, Italian sausage and mozzarella). He liked it, but wasn’t entirely happy with the kind of sausage they used. My youngest ordered a caesar salad with grilled shrimp (two thumbs up), and the eldest ordered a traditional pepperoni, which was also very good.

I wish we lived closer, because I’d like to make my way through the menu. ;)

We had a lovely dinner, and I’m happy to recommend Wooden Heads if you ever find yourself in Kingston. Just remember to make a reservation!

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08 Aug, 2015

Weekend reading: August 8 edition

By andrea tomkins in Weekend reading


NAC Ottawa family events

Saunders Farm annual passes for family fun!

Mrs Tiggywinkle's - the best toy store in Ottawa

Joan of Arc Academy in Ottawa

OMS Ottawa Montessori schools

Sara McConnell photography Ottawa

Rethink Tires - Community Renewal Fund

terra20 Ottawa

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The Obligatory Blurb

My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark and our two daughters Emma (16) and Sarah (14). I am the managing editor of our community newspaper, the Kitchissippi Times, and a regular contributor to MediaSmarts.ca. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger, and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999... which makes me either a total dinosaur or a veteran, I'm not sure which! The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, family travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa for families. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

If you'd like to contact me, please use this form. If you're so inclined, you can read more about me here. Thank you for visiting!


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