Exploring The Pinery Provincial Park

The Pinery Provincial Park has a bit of a mythical status – hard to get in, forget it on a long weekend, it is supposed to be one of Ontario’s most beautiful Provincial Parks. The Pinery is home to North America’s last surviving oak savannah habitat, the dunes along the shoreline were formed more than 6000 years ago, when the last glaciers that had been covering the area retreated, leaving the Great Lakes behind.

We had been in Grand Bend before, the next town along the coast, and at the time thought it too touristy and a little tatty – think cheap tattoo parlours and dollar stores selling beach toys. Still, we figured that we should at least try for ourselves if the Park was as good as its reputation, so we went ahead and booked a site from Friday until Monday in late May.

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What a difference two weeks can make. Whereas our trip to Point Farms was still somewhat chilly, now the trees were in full spring foliage and the sun was strong and warm.

We set out in the morning and after hitching up at our storage facility in Hamilton, we were soon on our way towards Kitchener, and then, leaving the major highways behind, Stratford and beyond.

Shortly after Kitchener the kids started to get hungry and we started to look out for a large parking lot, or picnic area, where we could break for lunch, a chance to let them run around, and perhaps even a nap. The next small town on Highway 7 turned out to be New Hamburg and as we slowed down to take a photo of the town sign (Anja is originally from close to the original Hamburg, in Germany) she spotted a large parking lot next to a cheese factory just off the highway.

Pulling into New Hamburg, a typical small Ontario town, with a 34′ trailer was a little nerve wracking. We had nowhere for a quick stop so we could check google maps to make sure there was an exit for us, but as it turned out there was no need to worry. Right next door to the cheese factory was a huge fairground, with tents indicating that there was an event of some sorts going on. Lots of space to turn around if we had to.

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We pulled in, stopped on the grass and walked over to a couple of guys in a pickup truck at the entrance, to ask if we could stay for an hour or so. What we learned was that the event that was being set up was the annual Mennonite quilt auction, raising funds for Mennonite Relief organizations.

Instead of just getting permission to have lunch, we were invited to stay overnight, free of charge, and directed to a lush, grassy field by the river at the edge of the fairground. Anja being an avid quilter herself, we decided that the opportunity was too good to miss and pulled up. We could always decide to pull out later in the day, if we wanted to move on towards Lake Huron after all.

We had a picnic lunch on the grass and the kids got ready to explore the playground. When we bought our Airstream, this was exactly the kind of thing we had been hoping for – having a home on wheels that could help us make the most of opportunities as they presented themselves. Not having to worry about finding accommodation for the night, or a place to eat or rest, gave us the flexibility to explore as much as we wanted; to make spontaneous decisions.

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Not too shabby for a free campsite.

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Risotto from our new gas grill. Gotta eat well when on the road.

The event was supposed to start at 5:00 in the afternoon, with auction proper starting the following morning at 5:30 – the Mennonites tend to be early risers during summer, and this was no exception. Soon it started to get busy and some huge rigs were setting up close to us; one especially large 5th wheel unit arrived with a commercial truck as a tow vehicle.

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How to make a 34′ Airstream feel small.

While we were ok for power, our newly serviced solar panels are working perfectly now and our batteries were fully charged, we had no fresh water in our tank and the area where we were the only trailer at lunchtime was getting increasingly busy. We decided to take a look around, grab dinner and then drive the remaining two hours to the Pinery.

The quilts we saw were beautiful, in the traditional Mennonite style. Anja’s work is far more modern, which we both prefer. Still, it was great to see what was going on, the weather was warm and the people friendly.

Chips and grilled lamb sausages made for a delicious (junk food) dinner, and we were on our way again.

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Sometimes only chips and ketchup will do.

Two hours later via nearly deserted country highways, and way past the kid’s usual bedtime, we backed into our wooded spot. Our first impression was that the park was huge and the camp sites closer together than we would have liked. While there was ample greenery and trees separating us from our neighbours, we preferred Long Point Provincial Park which has a smaller, more intimate feel. The ground was sandy and on a little bit of a slope, just enough that for the first time in a Provincial park we broke out the levelling pads.

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Site 115, in the Dunes campground

On the plus side, the nearby shower block was spotlessly clean and steps across the dunes to the beach were less than a minute’s walk away. A quick snack later the boys went to bed, one more reluctantly than the others, and we cracked open a beer.

One great step forward this year is that Oscar is sharing a bedroom with the twins. Last year he was too little to sleep in his bunk, so we had his bed made on the dinette. This meant that we couldn’t really use the trailer once the kids were asleep, now that they all have one private room we can just close the doors and watch a movie or read a book if we feel like it. It made a huge difference.

The night was chilly, so much so that we turned on the heat, but the next morning was warm and sunny again and after a pancake breakfast we set off towards the beach.

I’ve always preferred charcoal to gas grills, but our new Magma Marine Grill with the griddle top was a wise investment. We used it all weekend long, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Quick, controllable heat, there’s something to be said for that.

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Pancakes for breakfast. Also, probably the only Alessi kettle in the world to be used on a campground.

After herding the gang along the boardwalk that crosses the dunes, the boys settled in for a morning of throwing driftwood back into the lake. The beach turned out to be deserted, the water still a little cool but that didn’t stop anybody from splashing around.

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Crossing the dunes. Also, an excellent way to tire out the boys.

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Stick throwing. Endlessly entertaining.

And that was really all we did for the next couple of days, apart from a quick run into town for provisions and a new camp chair. Got up, went to the beach, napped at lunchtime, back to the beach, dinner and bed.

The campground emptied out on Sunday morning, removing a couple of the noisier parties who had clearly come to party. Although it never got loud enough to be really annoying, until Saturday evening there was always a background hum of music in the air. Next time we’ll make sure to camp in a radio-free zone again, where the sites also tend to be wider spaced. Once we’ve got more solar installed, hopefully next year, I will also get an inverter, so that we can run small 110V appliances for a while. This will really give us the freedom to camp on completely unserviced campsites, except during the hottest and muggiest months when the AC is much welcome.

There were of course several occasions where the Airstream, and the tow vehicle, attracted attention. Several guys inquired on how the Honda could tow a trailer that large and one gentleman shared that he was thinking about selling his house and start travelling full time in his own Airstream trailer.

We liked The Pinery well enough, in fact the longer we stayed the more we liked it, so much so that we even contemplated to stay for an extra day. But in the end we still preferred our stay in Long Point on Lake Erie last year – we’re already looking forward to the ten days that we’ve booked for summer. Partly due to its size, partly due to the neighbours we had it all felt just a little less friendly and personal than the other Parks we have stayed in.

Monday morning, with the thread of thunderstorms in the air, we broke camp and started on our way back. Knowing that the fairground in New Hamburg would be empty and easily accessible, we decided to stop there again for a quick lunch and playground break. The brothers instantly found an unlocked water tap, which kept them amused for quite some time, while we prepped for lunch.

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Pulled up on the empty fairground
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These boys will find water anywhere

All in all it was a great, fun, weekend. In two weeks we’ll be trying something completely different, going from a huge Provincial Park to a tiny one, Bronte Park.

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