Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Day 4 – Jomolhari B.C. Acclimatization Day

Previous Post: Day 3 – Thangthangka To Jomolhari B.C.

  • calendar date: October 1, 2019
  • time: 3 hrs.
  • distance: about 6.5 km.
  • start point altitude:  Jomolhari B.C. 4044m
  • high point altitude: Tsho Phu lakes at 4350m
  • I used a Sony RX100 III to capture most of the images you’ll see below; a fellow trekker’s Huawei P30 captured the others. (Thanks again, O, for letting me use them!)

The Acclimatization Issue:

The ascent up to Jomolhari Base Camp from Paro over three days is almost 2000 meters.  Those starting the Snowman Trek will hopefully spend a day before the trek acclimatizing with a walk up to the Taktsang Gompa. Still, an 1100 meter gain from Shana to Jomolhari in three days is pushing the limit of 300 maximum per day.    If trekkers are going to experience altitude sickness it will probably be in the first few days.  All trekking itineraries include a rest/acclimatization day at the Jomolhari campground to provide some extra time for bodies to adapt to the thinning air.

As the above chart suggests, if you are okay at Jomolhari then you should be okay until Laya since the altitude of each successive night’s camp spot remains the same at about 4000 meters.  The four high passes of the trek after Jomolhari provide excellent additional acclimatization and illustrates the mountaineer’s motto – “Walk high, sleep low”.

Snowman Trek effective-amount-of-oxygen-at-different-altitudes1

Snowman Trek effective-amount-of-oxygen

There were sixteen trekkers on this trip. No one seemed to suffer from even moderate altitude sickness.  Only three of us – I was one – made use of Diamox, a drug that helps the body in the adaptation process. I had been encouraged by the guide to forget about the Diamox and he may have been right, given that the 13 who did not use it seemed to do fine.  I ended up using it anyway since I had done so on a half-dozen previous high-altitude treks and had no issues at all – not even a headache.  I figured – why mess with something that seems to work for me.  If I do another such trek, I’ll use the Diamox again!

See this blog for some excellent advice on how to deal with trekking at altitude –

Tips for High Altitude Hiking

Scarce Mountain Views!

An early morning (5:45!) call by the guys in the kitchen and those who got up were rewarded with a  clear view of a mountain peak in Bhutan – our first since our arrival four days before!  In front of us was Jomolhari, at  7315m the highest peak on Bhutan’s western border with Tibet.  In the image below it is the peak on the left; the one in the middle is Jomolhari II at 6935;  the sharp peak on the right is the 6850m Jitchu Drake.

I took a couple of shots and crawled back into the tent for another hour of rest.  Given that it was a rest/acclimatization day, we would be starting a bit later.

early morning shot of Jomolhari and Jitchu Drake taken by a fellow trekker – 6:18 a.m.

Day 4 – early morning shot of Jomolhari – Blue Sky!

Acclimatization Hike To Tsho Phu:

The day’s major planned activity was an acclimatization hike with 310 meters of elevation gain, most of which happens in the first hour.  We were going to hike up to the Tsho Phu lakes on the other side of the river.  A clear day and the extra elevation would mean we would get to look back at some nice views of what you see in the satellite image below.

Jomolhari and the Tsho Phu lakes on Day 4

However, it was not meant to be!  By the time we left at 9:00 a.m., the clouds had rolled in and that blue sky that we had seen at 5:45 was pretty much gone for most of the day. The shot below shows the view from the other side of the river half-way up our climb to the plateau and the lakes.

looking west to Jomolhari Base Camp from the slopes on the east side of the Paro Chhu

As we walked up the hidden valley, we did see some Himalayan blue sheep on the slopes. They were far enough away that even with the 720mm reach of my Sony HX80, they were barely discernible!

The shallow lakes we were walking to are said to be full of brown trout but as you approach a sign informs you that no fishing is allowed.  Also discouraged are bathing in the lake and spitting into it!

fishing notice before we reach the first of the Tsho Phu lakes

We did pass by a yak herder’s temporary tarp shelter just before the first lake and heard the barking of a Tibetan mastiff guard dog. Luckily he was chained to a post since the guidebooks caution trekkers about the unfriendly nature of the dogs if they happen to be off-leash!

a yak herder’s tarp shelter on the edge of one of the Tsho Phu lakes

Shortly after we came to the area between the two lakes, it started to rain lightly.

a view of the first of the Tsho Phu lakes from its east end

looking west toward Jitchu Drake from a spot between the two Tsho Phu lakes by Jangothang

the easternmost of the two lakes – Tsho Phu by Jomolhari Base Camp

We did see a few yaks grazing on the hillside above the Tsho Phu but the guides noted that there would have been more up here for springtime.  We had an unexpected cup of tea courtesy of Karma and Kinley, the guys who took care of lunch service during the trek.

While we stood there and sipped on our tea, our guide Tendin described another popular trekking route – the Jomolhari Loop Trek –  that comes up to the Tsho Phu lakes before heading back in the direction of Shana. See below for a description of this shorter trekking route!

yaks grazing between the two lakes with the yak herder’s tarp shelter at the other end of the lake

A Shorter Jomolhari Trekking Route Option: 

Not everyone has the desire (or the time or money) to sign up for the 23-day + Snowman trek.  The trail from Shana to Jomolhari is undoubtedly the one most walked by trekkers visiting Bhutan.  This probably explains why it certainly had the most litter of any section of the Snowman Trek trail.

The most common one-to-two-week Jomolhari options include the following:

  1. Shana-Jomolhari-Laya-Gasa…at 12 days, the most ambitious of the shorter trek options. Coming down from Laya,  the exit is Gasa.  However, a rough road now comes within four hours of Laya.
  2. Shana-Jomolhari-Nyile La-Lingshi- Shodu-Barshong-Dolam Kencho-Dodena (Note: road construction will soon mean a road all the way from Lingshi to Dodena!)
  3. Shana-Jomolhari-Tsho Phu- Bonte La-Soi Yaktsey-Gunitsawa near Shana

The sketch map below illustrates #2 (The Jomolhari Loop Trek). It is Trek 4 in the Bart Jordans guidebook and has the name  Jomolhari Bonte La Circuit.  It makes use of the trail we had taken up to the Tsho Phu lakes and then continues on to the high pass of the trek at Bonte La (transliterated as Bongetela on the map below) and then returns to Gunitsawa near Shana via the Soi Yaksey valley.









And then it was back down to our campsite.

returning to camp – an afternoon view of Jitchu Drake, one of Jomohari’s neighbouring peaks

a view of Jomolhari Base Camp area on return from Tsho Phu

Back At the Jomolhari Campground:

Waiting at the campsite would be a lunch table set up outdoors.  The weather cooperated long enough for lunch and then – in mid-afternoon – it started to rain. Some retired to their tents; others moved into the guesthouse dining area. For a brief period the clouds cleared and we saw some blue sky as we looked towards Jomolhari.

Jomolhari Campsite – a semi-clear view of the peak

afternoon view of Jomolhari from the campground

I turned to the east and looked back at the eastern slope of the Paro Chhu that we had climbed in the morning on our way to the Tsho Phu lakes. Acclimatization mission accomplished – the next day we would be pushing on to Lingshi, crossing our first high pass of the trek.

a view of Jomolhari Base Camp in the afternoon

Next Post: Day 5 – Jomolhari Campsite to Lingshi Via Nyile La

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If Not For Viggo – A Winter’s Day Walk Along The Don River

If not for Viggo, our Icelandic Sheepdog, I’d have sipped on a third cup of coffee this morning. Instead, we headed out for a walk at the tail end of a snow storm!  It was something I was actually looking forward to because the snowfall makes our favourite walk even better! Viggo, of course, loves the snow.

our backyard this morning – Dec 2, 2019 – after the snowfall

We head down into the Don River Valley south of Bloor Street on the east edge of downtown Toronto. The snow means the bike trail will be traffic-free and  I can let Viggo walk off-leash on some of the side-trails that go down to the banks of the river itself.

Another great thing about going down to the Don is that Viggo gets to walk on clean snow instead of the salt-saturated brown mush on the streets of our neighbourhood. This morning I carried him over Broadview Avenue to spare his paws from touching that stuff.

the well-salted road down to Riverdale Park East footbridge

Viggo coming down the steps to the Lower Don trail

I did notice a couple of sets of footprints and paw prints, one set of cross country ski tracks,  and one mega-wide bicycle tire track – but that was it for activity on the bike path itself.

looking back at the Riverdale footbridge over the Don River

As for our favourite side trails, no one had walked them yet this morning so we broke trail!  I have adopted and spent some time maintaining these trails over the past ten years – clearing deadfall, removing litter and garbage, etc.  Some Ontario paddlers adopt portage trails up north that they return to each year and take care of. I figure this trail running along the Don River two hundred meters south and north of the Prince Edward Viaduct is my portage trail contribution!

Here is a one-minute sample of a section of those side trails as it was this morning –

We walk north under the viaduct and continue along the river. This morning we returned on the bike trail. The shot below is taken from north of the viaduct.  Downtown is about two kilometers to the southwest.

the Prince Edward Viaduct over the Don River –

some graffiti art on the Bloor Street Viaduct base

Back at our favourite bend in the lower Don, I take the shot below for the 51st time! If I could only photoshop out that hydro tower and the wires!

a shot of the snow-covered Don River beach. looking south

Back up the steps we go. To the left is the Riverdale Farm and Cabbagetown. We are heading right (east) and our Riverdale neighbourhood. I do a bit of a detour to avoid the salt.

Viggo waiting for our walk up the Riverdale footbridge steps

Tonight we do another shorter clean snow walk in Riverdale Park East below Broadview.  If not for Viggo, I wouldn’t be doing that either!  Along with becoming my constant companion, he has made sure that every one of my days has its share of low-intensity aerobic exercise.  See below for this morning’s benefits.

some stats on the morning ramble!


Posted in Ramblin' With Viggo, Toronto | 8 Comments

Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Day 3 – Soi Thangthangka To Jomolhari B.C.)

Previous Post: Day 2 – Thongo Samba To Thangthangka

  • calendar date: September 30, 2019
  • time:  5 hrs. (including 1 hr. for lunch and more for a few rest breaks)
  • distance: 17 km. (from Bart Jordans’ guidebook)
  • start point altitude: Thangthangkha 3575m
  • endpoint campsite:  Jangothang/Jomolhari Base Camp 4044m
  • Maps: Bart Jordans’ Trekking In Bhutan has useful overview maps of the many possible variations of the Snowman Trek
  • I used a Sony RX100 III to capture most of the images you’ll see below; a fellow trekker’s Huawei P30 captured the others. (Thanks again, O, for letting me use them!)

Snowman Trek – Day 3 Thangthangkha to Jomolhari Base Camp

We left a muddy Thangthangka campground around 8:30 after breakfast in the same room int he guesthouse that we had used the night before.  The day’s weather would feature low-hanging clouds and mist. As for the mostly muddy trail of the two first days, after the first two or three hours the forest canopy was gradually replaced by a more open vista and the trail also improved in walkability.

morning at Thangthangka campground – some rain overnight

The guidebooks talk about the stupendous views of Jomolhari – not only from Drugyel Dzong but also from the Thangthangka campground – but three days in and we still had nothing but cloud when we looked in the direction of that high peak.  The hydro-electric poles and wires, however, were never far away and often visible!

the muddy Thangthangkha campground – the start of Day 3 on the Snowman trek

Day 3 – getting ready to leave from Thangthangkha’s guesthouse

There were a few dogs at the Thangthangka guesthouse.   The  Tibetan mastiff below seemed to have a job as a guard dog; here he is tête à tête with one of our guides as we were ready to set off on the day’s 17-km. walk up to our next campground called Jomolhari Base Camp. (There must be a dozen different ways of spelling the mountain’s name; I chose the simplest version. See also Jhomolhari, Chomolhari, etc.!)

The trail follows the west side of Paro Chhu all the way to Jomolhari B.C.  Every once in a while we would stop and take in a view of the river to our right as its glacial waters tumbled down on its way to Paro and points beyond.

members of our trekking team coming up the trail from thangthangkha

members of our trekking team coming up the trail from the Thangthangkha campground

the Paro Chhu on Day 3 to Jomolhari B.C. – always on our right

low-hanging cloud cover on the other side of the Paro Chhu

In the morning we also walked past a rather ramshackle collection of buildings that served as a Bhutanese and Indian Army trekkers’ permit checkpoint.  While trekkers may be one concern, another is the easy accessibility of the Tibetan side thanks to nearby passes and Phari, a town of some 2000 inhabitants 11 km. away on the Tibetan side.  Smugglers bringing Chinse goods into Bhutan often use one of them to conduct their illegal business. [Clcick here for a map showing Phari in relation to the trekkers’ trail to Jomolhari.]

an Indian army checkpoint on the trail to Jomolhari from Thangthangkha

Along with the Para Chhu,  there are also a number of side streams coming down from those hills on the border side; every once in a while we’d cross one and I would think – “Should I get a shot of this one? – knowing that, as awesome as it is to stand there and take in the energy of the water rushing by,  it would look pretty much the same as all the previous seventeen to my wife when I showed her the pix!

a side-stream tumbling down to the Paro Chhu from the border with Tibet

Given the fairly low population in the region, there were few reminders of their Tibetan Buddhism.  We did see some examples of the following:

  • strings of the multi-coloured prayer flags, especially later in the trip at high passes. Our guide had given each of us a set of prayer flags to string at a high pass of our choice. If this is common practice with Bhutanese trekking agencies, then a lot of the prayer flags that we would see are not even left by locals.
  • chortens (usually square with the khemar, the rust-brown stripe just below the roof
  • mantra-filled prayer wheels (sometimes spun by the water flowing by)

breaktime in a meadow (thang) on the way to Jomolhari

While we set off before the tent and kitchen crews, they would catch up to us later in the morning and by the time we got to the camp in the afternoon, the tents would often be up and ready to take our duffel bags. An hour or so later, so too would the dining tent and the two toilet tents (erected over a 30 cm-deep hole dug by the crew and complete with sit-down seats!)

The pix below capture a few of our 43 horses as they lug all of the stuff mentioned above – the various tents, the trekkers’ duffels, the food, etc.). Each horse carried between fifty and sixty kilograms. In the first two images, they cross a side stream on a rough wooden bridge.  Then the trail was back to the Paro Chhu.

trekkers stepping aside to let some of our 43 horses pass by

a close up of the horse train on the way to Jangothang

our Snowman Trek village on the move! walking up the right side of the Paro Chhu

following the hydro poles up the Paro Chhu to Jomolhari Base Camp

Lunch Day 3 and the same set-up that had amazed us the day before!  The three horses carrying the food and gear got to graze while we had our sit-down meal.

I was impressed with Yangphel’s (the local trekking agency in charge of the trip) choice of a camp chair! It invested in the pricy  Helinox Chair One XL  (US $150. each!)  One the plus side they only weigh 1.5 kg. each and are fairly compact and take some abuse. One horse could carry all the chairs and the three equally compact tables!

We didn’t know it but our lunch spot was only a 4-km. walk away from the Jomolhari campsite, which we reached shortly after 2 p.m.

our Day 3 lunch set-up on the way to Jomolhari B.C.

a serious case of burrs on this poor horse’s head

Day 3  – the Paro Chhu a few km. south of Jomolhari Base Camp

By the time we approached our campsite the forested slopes had been replaced by a mud-free trail through scrub and low-level bush, as the remaining pix will show.

round chorten on a square base and a prayer wheel on the side of the trail to Jomolhari

There are a few scattered settlements (collections of a half-dozen houses) that the trail passes through or under.  We really did not see many signs of life until we came to the very last one, Dangojang (not to be mistaken for Jangothang just north of Jholohari B.C.!)

the trail to Jomolhari-base-camp passes through a few settlements

It is the one closest to Jomolhari B.C.;  in the satellite image below it is located on the top right.  As we entered the south end of the village we passed by a dilapidated chorten and a square open platform covered with a roof to the side. Prayer flags long past their best-before dates draped each of them. It made me wonder how important they really were to the villagers.

a dilapidated chorten at the south end of Dangojang

looking back at the cluster of buildings – and the chorten to the  left of center

On returning home I took a look at some satellite images of the village and was able to locate the chorten and covered platform that we had passed as we walked through Dangojang.  See below for the view.

Dangojang – the last settlement just south of Jomolhari B.C.

Visible in the image below are the hydro poles leading us to Jomolhari; on the right-hand side is a chunk of rock that was turned into a natural chorten!  Draped around the top was a string of prayer flags.

Day 3 – approaching Jomolhari Base Camp

As we came to Jomolhari Base Camp we saw four chortens on a platform to our right and in the distance a couple of buildings and some of our tents. We were now at 4044 meters, having gained almost 500 in the course of day’s walk.  Given that it was only Day 3 of our trek and we had started at 2200 meters in Paro, the 1800 meters gained is about twice that recommended.  To give our bodies a chance to adapt to the thinning air, we would sleep at Jomolhari B.C. for two nights.  [Three of the 16 trekkers were also making use of Diamox as prophylaxis to aid with the process; I was one of them.]

our trekking group arriving at Jomolhari Base Camp

Hearing “Jhomolhari Base Camp” immediately conjures up Everest Base Camp and you picture mountaineers starting off from the flat area at the base of the mountain for a summit of Jhomolhari. However, there is no record of the camping space ever having been used for such a purpose.  It does have a nice ring to it!

Since 2013 it has also been given another purpose when the Tourist Council of Bhutan made it the location of the Jhomolhari Mountain Festival,  highlighting various aspects of local culture and an opportunity for enterprising locals to set up vendors’ tables for the trekkers who happen to be in camp.  This year (2019) it took place on the 14th and 15th of October, two weeks after our stay there.  Recent trekking brochures mention it as yet another highlight of the Jhomolhari/Snowman Trek. One thing the organizers play up is a possible encounter with the snow leopard! There are supposedly some 30 in all of Jigme Dorje Park.  The “festival” does all seem somewhat contrived but, given the mandate of the TCB,  it also makes perfect sense.

Jomolhari Base Camp view from the south

Jomolhari Base Camp view from the south

And that view of the mightly Jomolhari peak, the highest of those on the western border which Bhutan shares with Tibet.  Well, that would have to wait until the next day!  The two shots below capture the little that the mountain revealed that afternoon.

chortens at Jomolhari with Jomolhari hidden in the clouds

As you look up to Jomolhari, you see the remains of a dzong on a hilltop, as well as crumbled bits of what was once a wall.

our Day 3- afternoon view of Jomolhari!

At Jomolhari B.C. there is a guesthouse for use by trekking groups. During our stay, we had use of the building as our dining area. The cook team was also about to set up their kitchen inside the building, a nice upgrade from their blue cook tent.

We shared the Jomolhari B.C. camping area with one other trekking party – a group of Bhutanese students whose blue and green tents are visible in the image below.  The orange tents were ours – they were Marmot Thor 3P tents and they mostly held one person each! Not only did the amount of space we each have make it quite decadent, but add to that the Thermarest Basecamp sleeping pads, the 2m x 1-meter wool carpet,  the pillow, and the also-provided Marmot sleeping bag and you have deluxe accommodation.

a view of the Jomolhari campsite from the west

The next day, as an acclimatization exercise (“Walk high, sleep low!”) we would walk up the hillside behind the tents in the above image and into a hidden valley. The next post has the pix! Included are our first views of Jomolhari!

Next Post: Day 4 – Acclimatization Day At Jomolhari Base Camp

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Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Day 2 – Thango Campsite to Thangthangka

Previous Post: Day 1 –  Paro To Shana To Thonga Samba

Day 2 –  Thongo Samba To Thangthangka

  • calendar date: September 29, 2019
  • time: 6 hrs. (including 1 hr. for lunch and a bit more time for a few rest breaks)
  • distance: 12 km.
  • start point altitude: Thongo Samba  3260m
  • endpoint campsite:  Thangthangkha 3575m
  • Maps: Bart jordans’ Trekking In Bhutan has some useful overview maps of the many possible variations of the Snowman, as well as other treks.
  • altitude profile chart: see here for the high passes and campsites from Shana to Laya
  • I used a Sony RX100 III to capture most of the images you’ll see below; a fellow trekker’s Huawei P30 captured the others. (Thanks again, O, for letting me use them!)

Day 2 – Thongo Samba To Thangthangka

The Morning “On Trek” Routine:

This is how things unfolded each morning:

  • wake up and coffee/tea delivered to  the tent door
  • a bowl of hot water to wash up delivered a few minutes later
  • put back into the duffel the sleeping bag, Thermarest, clothes, jars with toiletries and medications.
  • make sure the day pack had the gear and items needed for the day’s hike
  • head for the dining tent with the day pack, leaving the duffel inside  the tent

On the first morning,  7 a.m. was the official wake-up time. I unzipped my sleeping bag around 6:45 and started by stuffing the agency-provided bag back into its sack. (We were also each given a 1 m x 1.5 m wool carpet, a large size Thermarest Base Camp pad, as well as a pillow!  All of the contents of the tent would go into its own canvas bag and then delivered to the tent at the end of the day after the tent was back up.)  At 7:00 I exchanged good-mornings with the kitchen guys who were on their tea/coffee round and requested a black tea.

At 6:55 I declined the bowl of hot water and continued packing the duffel and also making sure I had what I needed in my day pack. Once the duffel is gone you do not get access to it until you arrive in camp in the afternoon.

Breakfast in the dining tent was an hour after wake-up, ample time to get organized.   I was out of the tent early and brought my packsack and trekking poles to the dining tent and then went for a walk around the site with my camera.

While we had breakfast the tent crew was busy taking down the tents and putting all the contents of each tent inside its own bag.  The total weight of each trekker’s bag would be between 20 and 25 kilograms; those horses carrying the trekkers’ stuff would be loaded with two of them.  Yet other horses carried the various tents themselves as well as the food and other gear. In all, some 43 horses made up our train as we moved from campsite to campsite!  It was a small village on the move!

another view of the Thongo Samba campsite - horses, sleeping tents, and dining tent

a view of Day 1 Thong Samba campsite – the Paro Chhu flows from right to left across the middle of the image

the cook tent at Thongo Samba – the morning of Day 2 of the trek

horse being prepped for the day’s carry

Breakfast done, we hit the trail north at about 9:00.  We spent most of the day walking on the east side of the Paro Chhu. Never too far away were those hydro wires you see in a few of the following images.

the Paro Chhu an the hydro-electric wires

following the Paro Chhu and the hydro-electric wires up the steep valley to Jomolhari

the trail to Thangthangka - letting a local horse train pass by

the trail to Thangthangka – letting a local horse train pass by

Lunch On The Trail:

Somewhere along the way, we stopped for lunch. Since this was our first lunch on the trail we were amazed to see the lengths to which the crew went to make us comfortable. Three horses carried all the stuff needed to set up what you see below –

Lunch Day 2 –  shot taken by a fellow trekker

No matter where we were, this lunch setup is the one we used throughout the trek. [The more common format used elsewhere is a packed lunch for each trekker.] On one occasion when it was snowing we even erected a tent over the tables to keep us and everything else dry!

Thangthangkha Guesthouse and Campground:

Lunch over, we had a short afternoon walk before arriving at the Thangthangkha campground around 3.  We approached on a clear trail running on the west side of the Paro Chhu. Most of the tents were already up; the crew had managed to find a grassy area free from mud.  Behind the tents were three buildings. We would later make use of a room in the one nearest to our tents; it would serve as our dining room.

Thangthangkha – Guest House and Camping Area – see here for the Google Earth view

approaching the Thangthangkha enclosed camping ground area

Four dogs were curled up on the grass as we hopped over the fence enclosing the area; a couple of barks and they stopped and laid back down.

Thangthangkha dogs curled up in the tenting campground

Thangthangkha campground – the end of Day 2 on the Snowman trek

Thangthangkha on the way to Jomolhari – fenced-in campground

A few times during the trek, when there was a building available, we would make use of the interior space as a dining room.  Day 2 Supper/Day 3 breakfast was one of those occasions. Here is what it looked like for Supper on Day 2 –

photo taken by a fellow trekker

Food On The Trek:  Plant-based only, please!

What follows is a bit of a rant about the food served on the trek. Feel free to ignore it!

On signing up for the trip four months before departure I had made it clear that I wanted to keep to a plant-based only (i.e. vegan) diet. I was assured that the local company doing the trek (Yangphel) would know about my food requirements and would be able to meet them. A month before departure I checked again to make sure that my requirements had been relayed.  My World Expeditions Ottawa contact assured me everything would be fine.  The WE  “Essential Information” brochure included the following –

dietary requirements

Provided we are advised in advance of your departure we are able to cater for vegetarian diets and can assist with medically recommended diets (allergies and intolerances). Please ensure you discuss your requirements with us well in advance (at least 1 month prior to your trip) to determine whether we can cater to such dietary requirements on your chosen adventure. Please note that options are likely to be limited in very remote locations or alternatives may be more expensive or unavailable. There may be times when those with special requirements may need to provide their own food.

It turned out that the local company had no idea that there were two vegans on the trek!  I was told that this is only the second year that World Expeditions has worked with Yangphel. If this is the case, they need to do more work on the menu.

Given the $300. US a day I paid to be in Bhutan, I expected more.  The poor cook in the field did not have the resources to deal with the reality of vegans who require the same caloric intake as the other trekkers.  A few days later I was actually worried that I would not be able to finish the trek because of a massive food/calorie deficit.

I had brought along from home about 5or 6  kilograms of mostly snack food –

  • a jar of peanut butter which I used at breakfast
  • a box of 8 single servings of instant oatmeal packages,
  • 16 100-gram zip-loc bags of various types of nuts,
  • a dozen Clif Bars,
  • 24 Clif Shot energy gel packs,
  • vegan cookies,
  • a jar of non-dairy creamer for my morning coffee,
  • 500 rams of raisins, 250 grams of cranberries, 250 grams of dried blueberries

For Day 1 supper the night before I had the plain rice and some chewy mushroom (perhaps not completely rehydrated?) and 100 grams of cashews I had brought from home. That was it.

Day 2 breakfast involved a muesli cereal supplemented with some of my dried fruit over which I poured some apple juice. I also had a couple of slices of toasted white bread with peanut butter.  On the table was some jam which I would also end up using.

Lunch involved more plain rice, boiled veggies – probably mushrooms, cabbage, or broccoli. Since the food was prepared in the morning, it was usually cold by the time the containers were opened four hours later.

Supper meant more plain rice and more streamed vegetables.

Of all the food I have been served on treks around the world, the bland and predictable fare in Bhutan ranks at the bottom for tastiness and variety. I remember our local guide telling us at our final supper at the hotel before departure that on trek we could expect five-star chef’s cooking.  This was definitely hype and hyperbole!  I would rate it at ** at the most. World Expeditions needs to sit down and do some work on the menu for the trek with the local agency it is currently using. Maybe WE or the local agency need to draw on the expertise of Nepalese trekking cooks, who have forty years of experience to draw from.

A positive note – On the three or four times that we were served aloo gobi (a curried potatoes and cauliflower dish),  I complimented the cook team for a delicious supper.  I will admit, however, I had never before been presented with a version that included eggs!  They were good enough to make a separate version for me without the eggs. Another winning dish was the dal, a soupy lentil stew/soup.  Poured over the plain rice, it made it so much more interesting. One supper included a Bengali-style brown lentil dish that was appreciated.  It should have appeared more often!

Next Post: Day 3 – Thangthangkha To Jangothang/Jomolhari B.C.

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Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Day 1 – Paro To Shana to Thongo Samba

Previous Posts:  Bhutan’s Snowman Trek Preview- mostly images

Part 1 From Paro To Shana To Laya
Part 2 – From Laya To Chozo To Sephu

a satellite view of the first three days of the trek - the way to Jomolhari B.C./Jangothang

a satellite view of the first three days of the trek – the way to Jomolhari B.C./Jangothang

Day 1 –  Paro To Shana To Thongo Samba

  • calendar date: September 28, 2019
  • time: 3.5 hrs.
  • distance: about 10 km.
  • start point altitude:  2885m. at the Shana bridge
  • endpoint campsite: Thongo Samba  3260m –  a clearing on the east side of the Paro Chhu just after the side trail to Tremo La and the Tibetan border.
  • Maps: Bart jordans’ Trekking In Bhutan has some useful overview maps of the many possible variations of the Snowman, as well as other treks.
  • altitude profile chart: see here for the high passes and campsites from Shana to Laya
  • I used a Sony RX100 III to capture most of the images you’ll see below; a fellow trekker’s Huawei P30 captured the others. (Thanks again, O, for letting me use them!)

The Dewachen Resort is located on the hillside to the west of the Paro Chhu and about three kilometers to the north of Paro’s small downtown area.  We spent two nights there as we got over the effects of jet lag and did some pre-trip preparation. We also spent a half-day visiting what is probably Bhutan’s #1 tourist attraction – the Taktsang Monastery (aka the Tiger’s Nest).

Taktsang Monastery to the north of Paro

At 8:30 a.m. of our third day in Bhutan, we set off for Shana.  (The Lonely Planet Bhutan guidebook names it Sharna Zampa. Zampa is one transliteration of the Dzongkha word for “bridge”.)) Since it is currently the end of the road from Paro,  Shana now serves as the starting point for most treks going up to Jangothang and Jomolhari B.C.

(We did later meet a group of four Canadian trekkers whose local agency had them start from Drugyel Dzong. The thinking may be that the 300 meters in elevation gain from Drugyel Dzong (2580m) to Shana are enough for Day 1 and that the 12-kilometer road walk makes for an easy introduction to the coming rigours of the trek.)

The Snowman Trek – the bus and pick up truck ready to take us to the trailhead at Shana

On the dirt road to Shana, we would get one more view of Taktsang Monastery, three kilometers away on the other side of the Paro Chu. Click on the image below to see the arrow indicating the Tiger’s Nest location!

Click on the image to see the arrow indicating The Tiger Nest’s location!

Then it was further up the west side of the river until we came to Drugyel Dzong, which was until a few years ago the end of the road and the start of the local/trader/trekker trail up to Jangothang and on to Lingshi and Chebisa and Laya.

a view of Drugyel Dzong as we approach from Paro

We walked up to the hilltop to see the fortress close up. While a photographer’s hope is a clear day so as to be able to frame a shot of the dzong with Jomolhari in the background, the cloud cover nixed that possibility!

Drugyel Dzong – a view from the south

The dzong (essentially a monastery fortress) was built in 1649 during a time of tensions with Tibet and turmoil within Bhutan itself as rival Buddhist sects challenged Zhabdrung for the control of what is now western Bhutan. It was one of a number that Zhabdrung had ordered to be built during the 1640s – e.g. Semtokha, Punakha, Paro.  Not far to the north of the fortress is Tremo La,  one of the passes over which Tibetan armies had come in the past, sometimes invited by those Bhutanese lamas opposed to Zhabdrung.

Over the years, earthquakes and in 1951 a devastating fire left the hilltop in ruins.  It was only in 2016 that work to restore the dzong to its former glory was started.

the Drugyel Dzong interior – a view from the north

After a walk up to the hilltop, we stood in the courtyard with a tall tower in front of us.  It was enclosed by three-storey buildings that served both as enclosing walls and as housing and storage for the dzong’s inhabitants.

Drugyal’s central tower – October 2019

At the site were perhaps thirty people engaged in restoration work, which will apparently be completed by December 2022. (See here for some background info.)

It is twelve kilometers from the Drugyel Dzong to Shana. We had a bit more narrow dirt road to go down before we got there.

building in the traditional Bhutanese style on the road to Shana from Drugyel Dzong

Just before Shana, we stopped for a few minutes at the army-manned checkpoint Gunitsawa while our local guide had our trekking permits checked by the official.

We would be entering one of Bhutan’s largest protected areas, the 4,349 sq. km. Dorje National Park. The trek to Jomolhari starts in the park’s south-west corner.

National Parks and Protected Areas in Bhutan – Jigme Dorje Park in deep blue

the road to Shana from Drugyel Dzong

the road to Shana from Drugyel Dzong

Just before noon, we arrived at Shana.  The satellite image below shows perhaps a dozen buildings in Shana and the broken red line the first 2 kilometers of the trail that we would soon be walking up to Jomolhari and beyond.

We were ushered into the yard on the side of a building where we were greeted by support staff belonging to the Thimphu adventure travel agency Yangphel in charge of the actual trek. [I booked the trip through World Expeditions,  an Australian company specializing in small group adventure travel that I had used before.]

A covered table was already set for lunch.   We didn’t know it at the time but we were not far from the footbridge across the river and the start of the horse trail up the Paro Chhu valley.

the lunch tent at Shana

Under his own umbrella sat a Buddhist monk/priest with all the paraphernalia associated with ritual – incense, special bowls, etc. I did notice that the carboard box which served as the altar had once held a couple of dozen whisky bottles.

a Buddhist priest doing prayers for our benefit

In the background as we ate lunch, I occasionally tuned in to the chanting and ritual gestures the monk was engaged in.  Before we left the grounds, we lined up for him to drape a khata, a white scarf, over each of our necks. I ‘m still not sure why he was the one bestowing the khata.  I figured in this situation it should have been we trekkers in thanks for his petitioning the deities on our behalf.

Here is an alternative explanation which may explain why we were the ones getting the ceremonial scarves –

The white scarf is also used to welcome and bid farewell to guests at places like airport, train station and bus station etc. In these contexts, Khata is a gesture of welcome, goodbye and good luck in the form of best purity and sincerity.

In our case, perhaps a welcome, goodbye, and good luck gesture all at the same time.

photo taken by a fellow trekker

Before we set off, there was one more issue to deal with.  We would be saying goodbye to the drivers who had driven the bus over the past two and a half days.  US$10. from each one of us was the suggested tip – $160. in all.  While I can’t say for sure how much a bus driver in Bhutan earns per day, $30. is I think a reasonable guess. (I base that on what someone in Nepal or India in the same situation might earn.)  Feel free to correct me on the actual wage if I am way off,  but in the meanwhile, I still find the idea of a $160. U.S. tip in this situation astonishing. If nothing else, we helped to raise not only Bhutan’s GDP but also its National Happiness Index number just a titch!

the start of the trek at the Shana bridge –

Day 1 –  Shana To Thongo Samba

  • time: 3.5 hrs.
  • distance: about 7.5 km.
  • start point altitude:  2885m. at the Shana bridge
  • endpoint campsite: Thongo Samba  3260m –  a clearing on the east side of the Paro Chhu just after the side trail to Tremo La and the Tibetan border.
  • Maps: Bart jordans’ Trekking In Bhutan has some useful overview maps of the many possible variations of the Snowman Trek, as well as others.
Days 1 and 2 - Shana To Thangthangkha

Days 1 and 2 – Shana To Thangthangkha

After putting on our rain gear – pants and hooded jackets and, for some, gaiters – it was time to set off.   We set off in the rain at about 1:30 and arrived at the campsite around 5:00 p.m. – a four-hour walk.  The one defining feature was the muddy horse-shit littered “trail” that we walked up. I was also surprised to see the hydro-electric poles; we would follow the wires almost all the way to Laya.  They were a reminder that the isolation and rustic living conditions which once defined this area along the border with Tibet was ending. I sometimes consciously framed my images in such a way that the wires and poles would not be in them, and thus preserving the “used to be” look of the landscape!

hydro-electric poles on the side of the trail – a common site for the first ten days

a rainy – and muddy -introduction to the trekking trails of Bhutan

The Bart Jordans’ guidebook to trekking in Bhutan has this line about the first couple of days of the trek as you walk through the lush forested terrain on either side of the Paro Chhu –

The trail climbs steadily through a beautiful thick forest of oak, rhododendron, bamboo and ferns. Look out for birds: there are many species here.

Given the trail conditions, looking up at the tree canopy for birdlife was the last thing on our minds. Instead, we were focussed on the mix of mud and horse shit that we were walking through.  Every step involved an assessment that involved avoiding the mud and horse shit and stepping on a rock stable and flat enough to allow us to follow with another solid step. A couple of hours of this can get a bit tiresome! I slipped once thanks to a miscalculation!

another of the many muddy sections of the Day 1 trail from Shana to Thongo Sampa

walking the muddy trail from Shana to Jomolhari – Day 1

From stone to stone we made our way up the trail, occasionally rewarded with a stunning view of the Paro Chhu itself (Chhu is the Dzongkha word for “river”) or of streams running down into the Paro from the hillsides on either side.

a bridge crossing on Day 1 from Shana to Thongo Sampa on leaving Shana

one of the bridge crossings of Day 1 from Shana to Thongo Samba (Zampa)

Below is a shot of me walking along with my trekking poles in hand – only one of a very few times that I was not making full use of them!  As I look at the trail in the image I think – “Where is the mud?” It looks totally acceptable!

shot taken by one of my fellow trekkers

shot taken by one of my fellow trekkers

Also evident on occasion were reminders that we were in a cultural world defined by Himalayan (i.e.Tibetan) Buddhism.

We would pass by the multi-coloured prayer flags strung across a stream or alongside the trail. Later in the trek, the flags would be found at most high passes that we crossed, along with a pile of small stones, each one of which would have been carried up by a traveller and left as a sign of thanks for safe passage. See the following post for more on those prayer flags!

Blowin’ In the Wind: An Appreciation of Tibetan Buddhist Prayer Flags

In the video below you can see the water being used to spin a prayer wheel. Filled with thousands of individual “Om mani padme hum” mantras, the spinning action is believed to toss the positive energy of the mantras out into the world.

checking out the Paro Chhu from the trail to Jomolhari

Just north of Shing Karap and south of our Day 1 campsite we came to the fork in the trail pictured below. Take the right trail and, in a couple hours,  you will be standing at the top of the 4600m Tremo La and on the border with Tibet!

We took the trail to the right and after crossing a bridge to the east side of the Paro Chhu, approached our campsite.

the fork in the trail – Tremo La and Tibet to the left – Jomolhari B.C. to the right

Already at the site as we walked in were the tent/cook crew and the horse crew from Shana with their 43 horses! They would move us up the trail as far as Jangothang/Jomolhari Base Camp before they turned back to Shana. Meanwhile, a new horse crew from Jangothang would take over and move us up to Laya before they too would be replaced by a new team from Laya. In this way, the economic benefits of trekking tourism are spread out among the various local communities.  If I got the information right,  each horse earns  US$20. a day, a nice infusion of cash into the region and a good reason to take care of the aminals, each of which carry about 60 to 70 kilograms.

Thongo Samba camp – Day 1 of the Snowman trek

a few of our horses – Day 1 Thongo Samba

Jordans labels the campsite as Thongo Samba.  Thongo may be his transliteration of thang meaning “flat area” and samba his version of zampa meaning “bridge”.  The site is indeed not far from a bridge we crossed to get there from the river’s west side.

a view of our first camp on Day 2 morning

We were now at 3250 meters, about 400 meters in altitude higher than Shana.  While the World Expeditions guide had encouraged me to forego my use of Diamox,  I had started taking the tablets the day before as an aid in the acclimatization process.  While he was probably right,  I figured that I had used them on a half-dozen previous high altitude treks and had not experienced any acclimatization issues, not even a headache. So I continued with the twice-a-day ritual – a half-tablet (125mg.) on waking up at 6:00 a.m. and the other half just before supper at 6:00 p.m.

Snowman Trek – the effective amount of oxygen at different elevations

I was only one of three trekkers – of a group of 16 – who made use of the Diamox and none of us suffered any acclimatization issues during the trek – but then again, neither did the other thirteen.  Make of that what you will!

N.B. If you are going to suffer from acclimatization issues on the Snowman trek, it will likely be in the first week or so. After that, your body should have made the adjustments necessary.

Next Post: Day 2 – Thongo Samba to Thangthangka

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Bhutan’s Snowman Trek Preview: Part 2 – Laya To Chozo To Upper Sephu

Previous Post: Bhutan’s Snowman Trek Preview: Part 1 – Paro To Shana To Laya

The previous post described the trek from Shana to Laya over a 10-day period; this route is sometimes packaged as the Jomolhari Trek and has yet other names.  From Laya, trekkers descend to Gasa and a vehicle ride back to Thimphu.

Now we were off on the second half of our Snowman Trek.  The route from Laya to Upper Sephu Via Chozo or Thanza also has a number of names,  the Lunana Snowman Trek being the most common.  It includes seven high passes and campsites that are mostly at or above 4000 meters.

Thanks to almost daily rain and low cloud cover, the expected views of Himalayan peaks during the first half of our trek were scarce.  After a rather cool and rainy rest day spent in Laya, we hoped for better weather and clearer skies as we set off from Laya for Lunana.

Laya To Upper Sephu high passes and campsites graph

Thanks to our ten days on the trail,  the concern about acclimatizing properly was no longer an issue.  Unfortunately, the combination of dry air and increased breathing rate can cause problems;  one of our trekkers had to end the trek at Laya because of a cough that only seemed to get worse. I had seen a fellow trekker hit by the same respiratory problem on a 22-day Everest region trek a few years ago.

Bhutan - Snowman Trek Route

The day’s 17.6 km. walk was a tough one. Starting in Laya at  3800m, we would descend past a military camp/checkpoint to the left fork in the trail at 3240 m.  and then scramble on some fairly rough and, in the forest sections, muddy “trail”.  Cloud cover and occasional rain had me wondering if we would ever get some decent weather. By the end of the day, we were back up to above 4200 meters!

the forest trail to Rodophu from Laya

the trail to Rodophu – yaks on the way to Gasa

the trail to Rodolphu - a short section gone after landslide

the trail to Rodophu – a short section gone after a landslide

approaching Rodophu campsite

The next day was a shorter one – 11 km. and included another pass, Tsemo La at 4905 m.

approaching Tsemo La on the way to Narethang

descending from Tsemo La

descending from Tsemo La

panorama from the east side of Tsemo La

Narethang camp in the morning

Narethang camp in the morning

our dining tent at Narethang

yaks coming from Lunana on the east side of Karakachu La

a free-roaming dog surveying his Himalayan domain

Just around the corner from where the dog was,  we walked into this stunning vista; it was perhaps the most spectacular of the trip so far.

a stunning Himalayan view from the Narethang-Tarina section of the Snowman route

a makeshift bridge across a side stream on the way to Green Lake (after Woche)  from Tarina

flowers on the hillside above Green Lake campsite (4450m)

Some two hundred meters above is Keche La (4666m). The two following images show the initial section above the campsite and then the nearby Keche La itself.

leaving our Green Lake campsite the next morning

a last view of Green Lake and a second higher one from Keche La (4666m)

Over the pass and down the other side.  Now we were definitely in the isolated district of Lunana with its river, the Pho Chhu flowing down from the three glacial lakes above Chozo and Thanza.

In 1994 a glacial lake outburst flood had a catastrophic impact on the swollen river all the way down to Punakha.  In reading about the event I had worried about our campsite location at Chozo.  The village of Lhedi pictured below sits high above the flood plain.  I remember thinking -“I hope the same is true of Chozo.”  (It was!)

the first view of Lhedi and the floodplain of the Pho Chhu

After a lunch stop at the east end of Lhedi (just beyond the school), we continued on to Chozo, sometimes walking on a rocky but dry “trail” on the floodplain itself and sometimes on one side or the other – as in the image below.

following the Pho Chhu up to Chozo

Chozo was another point on the trek at which one horse team would turn back to its starting point (Laya in this case) while a local team would be hired to take us to the next point (in this case, to the very end of the trek at Upper Sephu).  We spent two nights in Chozo.  Since the second day out of Laya, the blue skies in most of the pix in this post show that the weather had improved. We’d get more sun in the days to come.

panorama of the seasonal village of Chozo in Lunana district – October 2019

our Chozo campsite

the Chozo Dzong

The resident monk would let us enter the dzong and see the second -floor shrine room.

the resident monk at the Chozo dzong

As I look at that team of horses crossing the bridge below Chozo in the image below, I realize now that they may have been some of the horses that the guide had hired for the last leg of the trek – i.e. the section from Chozo down to Nikka Chhu.

a local horse team crossing the Phu Chhu just 1 km downriver from Chozo

a small section of the days 1200 meters in ascent to get to the day's pass - Sintia La

a small section of the day’s 1200 meters in ascent to get to the day’s pass – Sintia La

precarious footing – for horses and humans  – as we make our way to Sintia La (5020m)

The next morning at our campsite to the west of Tsho Chena, a brief shower at below 0ºC put a dusting of snow on everything!

morning snow shower at our campsite above Tshochena

Less than forty-five minutes later here is what things looked like at the same campsite!

twenty minutes after the morning shower at our above Tshochena campsite

A couple of days of dramatic passes – Loju La (5115m) above and Rinchen Zoe La (5300m) in the two images below!

panorama of  Rinchen Zoe La and the glacial lake below

yaks starting the descent from the highest pass of the Snowman trek – Rinchen Zoe La at 5100 meters

No matter where we were, lunch involved a full sit-down with folding tables, table cloths, plates and cutlery, and super comfortable Helinox chairs!  Three horses and three three staff members made sure that it all happened quickly. The food was prepared at breakfast time and then kept on heat-retaining containers until lunch.

Here is what it looked like on the day we crossed Loju La – it was a rather exposed spot on the high altitude plateau we were traversing.

lunchtime a few kilometers after Loju La

In the next couple of days, we would go from the stark and treeless vistas of high-altitude Himalayas – what you would expect to see on the Tibetan plateau – to increasingly luxuriant foliage as more and more plants appeared.

a glacial lake bed drying up as we make our way to Jichu Dramo from Joju La

lake on the way to Rerethang after crossing our last pass Tempe La

approaching our last camp at Rerethang

the lunch table at Sephu – trek done!

On the last morning, we covered almost twenty kilometers before arriving at Nikka Chhu. There to greet us were staff members of – Yangphelthe Thimphu adventure travel agency which had organized the actual trip.  I learned that this was the second year that Yangphel had done the trip for the out-of-Bhutan company through which I actually booked the trip.

[I booked the trip through World Expeditions, an Australian-based company that I have used before. Their website attracts the clients and creates the small groups that make the adventures possible for solo travellers like me. My contact was with one of their sales agents in Ottawa; they dealt with the Bhutan visa requirements and provided prompts on all the other things I needed to take care of before departure – current passport, Indian visa since I was flying to Paro via Delhi, mountaineering-level insurance, special dietary requirements, etc.]

The Yangphel staff had prepared another sit-down lunch complete with red and white wine and beer. I’ll admit I stuck to apple juice and water, knowing how the alcohol would affect me after the 20 km. hike that morning!

the Punakha Dzong – a view from our resort on the west side of the

By that evening we had driven to Punakha and a fantastic hotel (the Zhingham Resort)  overlooking the Punakha Dzong.

Day-By Day Snowman Trek Trip Report

Is the Snowman Trek worth the US $300 a day, given other Himalayan trekking options?

Here are a couple of the treks in nearby Nepal that I’ve done. They rival and perhaps surpass the Snowman as must-be-done epic trekking adventures – and like the Snowman Trek, they include the Tibetan Buddhist cultural overlay that I have until recently found especially enchanting.

The HighPasses of Everest Trek:

The Upper Mustang-Phu Valley Traverse Via Saribung La


Previous Post: Bhutan’s Snowman Trek Preview: Part 1 – Paro To Shana To Laya





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Bhutan’s Snowman Trek Preview: Part 1 – Paro To Shana To Laya

See my Hiking/Trekking Page for other walks I’ve done over the past decade.

I spent most of October 2019 in Bhutan, a small country just south of Tibet in the eastern Himalayas. What drew me there was the long-distance Snowman/Lunana Trek, supposedly one of the world’s toughest. Covering over three hundred kilometers in twenty-three days at high altitude means there is lots of time for something to go wrong –

  • external factors like rain at lower altitudes, snow-covered passes as you get higher,  and delayed horse and yak arrangements;
  • personal factors like aching joints, especially knees; unplanned-for slips and falls; respiratory problems thanks to the dry air combined with increased breathing rate; food or hygiene-related stomach issues; and inadequate acclimatization leading to acute altitude sickness.

Now back at Base Camp Toronto,  I am happy to report no real problems except for

  • some pretty crappy weather for the first ten days (it rained some mornings and overnights and most afternoons) and
  • the puzzlement of the unprepared local cook team at what to do with a vegan who had made his dietary requirements clear months in advance to the non-Bhutan agency organizing the trek and had been assured that it would not be an issue.

What follows is a sample of the 500 images I framed during the first 12 days we spent going from Paro to Laya. The end of this post has a complete list of the day-by-day reports, which include maps, more background info, and a few more pix.

Click here to see how one adventure travel agency, World Expeditions, markets the trek!  It is the agency I went with.  Other non-Bhutanese agencies that cater to the  US$250. a day that Brits, Canadians, Americans, Australians, Europeans will end up paying – include:

The agencies offer different versions of the trek with different start and endpoints so keep that in mind when you compare prices!  Some include a stay in Kathmandu and the Druk Air flight to Paro.  In all cases, the actual agency handling the trip will be a Bhutanese one, probably based in Thimphu. Our local agency was Yangphel Adventure Travel.

Bhutan is a country with a population of 800,000. While Thimphu is the capital and largest city, the country’s only international airport is just south of Paro, a town of 11,000 or so pictured below.  I flew in from Delhi where I had overnighted.

the town of Paro with the Paro Chhu flowing down

We spent Day 2 visiting Bhutan’s single most famous tourist attraction – the Taktsang Monastery (aka the Tiger’s Nest’) perched high on the side of a steep vertical rock face. It is a 10-km drive from Paro followed by a two-hour walk from the carpark at the entrance to the site.

Taktsang Monastery to the north of Paro

The next morning we set off for the trailhead at Shana in the twenty-seater bus you see in the image below. An extra pick-up carried our duffels and backpacks.

On the way to the beginning of the trail at Shana, we stopped for a half-hour to check out the Drukgyel Dzong, currently undergoing reconstruction. Cloud cover meant that I would not be getting my hoped-for shot of the dzong with Jomolhari in the background!

Drukyel Dzong on our way to Shana and the trailhead

The map below shows the variation of the Snowman Trek route we did.

Bhutan - Snowman Trek Route

This first part of the Snowman Trek included four of the eleven high passes that we would cross;  campsites were mostly at the 4000-meter level once we arrived at Jangothang and the camping area at Jomolhari B.C.

It was raining when we set off from Shana around 2 p.m.

a view of our first camp on Day 2 morning

Full Report … Day One: Paro To Shana To Thongo Sampa

There were 16 in our trekking party, most with a tent of their own. As well, perhaps ten locals – guides, cook team, tent team, horse handlers.  The horses made up the single largest group – there were 43 of them.  We were a village on the move!

horse being prepped for the day’s carry

The first three days were spent walking up the Paro Chhu (chhu is “river” in Tibetan). Never far away were the hydro poles and wires that were installed in 2015 to bring electricity to this isolated area of the country.

the Paro Chhu – we followed the wires to Laya!

our Snowman Trek village on the move!

Full Report … Day Two: Thongo Sampa To Thangthangkha

break time by a chorten (i.e. stupa) as we walk up the Paro valley to Jangothang

We got to Jangothang (“thang” means flat area!) and spent two nights there to help with acclimatization. It is at 4100 meters. The big attraction is a view of the 7315-meter Jomolhari.  This is the view you hope to get –

Chomolhari and Jigku Drake from Jangothang

Full Report … Day Three: Thangthangka To Jomolhari B.C./Jangothang

However, the low-hanging cloud meant we were to get only very early morning glimpses of it. Here is the afternoon view from Jangothang!

first view of Jomolhari from the Jangothang stupas

And here is a morning view! It is one of my first pix with a blue sky in it!

morning view of Jomolhari

On our off-day, we walked up the hillside behind the tents in the image below to access the plateau and its two small lakes.

the Jangothang campsite at Jomolhari B.C.

Our morning hike took us up another three hundred meters and served as a good acclimatization exercise.  The image below has us up on the plateau with the lakes just around the corner to the right.

On our way back to camp we got a glimpse of the lower flanks of Jitchu Drake (6850m), one of Jomolhari’s neighbouring peaks.

Full Report … Day Four: Jomolhari Acclimatization Day

an afternoon view of Jitchu Drake, one of Jomohari’s neighbouring peaks

We’d get a better – but not complete! – view the next morning as we set off for Lingshi via our first pass, Nyile La (5090m), the first of our eleven high passes of the trek.

Jitchu Drake the next morning as we set off for Lingshi

a bit of a tease – a false pass before  we actually got to Nyile La

Full Report … Day Five: Jomolhari B.C. To Lingshi Via Nyile La

a stream flowing from a glacial lake on the north side of Nyile La

The next morning we would visit the Lingshi Dzong (4300m) on the hill above our campsite. The fort was built in the 1660s, partially destroyed by an earthquake in 1897, rebuilt in the 1950s, and badly damaged again by the 2011 earthquake.  Some bad karma here? Local workers were busy with reconstruction when we visited.

the Lingshi Dzong – under reconstruction in October 2019

This day we would walk as far as Chebisa (3990m), one of the three biggest villages we would visit during our 23-day walk. Our orange tents are already up as we approach.

Full Report … Day 6 – Lingshi To Chebisa

Chebisa panorama

After putting my duffel and packsack in my tent I went for a walk to the fall end of the village to see the waterfall. It was harvest time and some locals were working in the fields.

Chebisa village and waterfall at west end

A recurring post-supper topic dealt with the exploits and the significance of the Buddhist monk Drukpa Kunley, aka “the Divine Madman”.  His “thunderbolt” is sometimes depicted on the sides of buildings as a good luck charm. With his “crazy wisdom” as perhaps the precedent, exporters of Himalayan (i.e.Tibetan) Buddhism to the West – supposedly enlightened beings like Chogyam Trungpa of the Shambhala Movement and Sogyal Rinpoche of Rigpa – were able to pass off their sexual abuse as Buddha-like behaviour.

Drukpa Kunley's thunderbolt on a chebisa house

Drukpa Kunley’s thunderbolt on a Chebisa house

From Chebisa it was on to a camp near Shakyapasang. On the way, we would cross Gombu La, at 4400m one of the lower passes of our trek.

break time at the top of the day's pass -.Gombu La at 4400m

break time at the top of the day’s pass – Gombu La at 4400m

Full Report … Day 7: Chebisa To Shomuthang Via Gombu La

approaching our Day 6 campsite - the blue dining tent and the sleeping tents are already up

approaching our Day 7 campsite – the blue dining tent and the sleeping tents are already up

flowers on the Himalayan hillside

flowers on the Himalayan hillside

trekkers approaching a makeshift bridge

Full Report … Day 8: Shomuthang To Robluthang Via Jare La

a few of our horses and the end of another day

a few of our horses and the end of another day – Robluthang campsite

The next day involved our highest pass so far – Sinche la at 5000m. In the image below the tent crew and their horse team is approaching the pass.  About ten minutes later it started snowing!

the tent crew approaching Sinche La

the tent crew approaching Sinche La

We ended up setting up a lunch shelter on this side of the pass before continuing. By now everyone had on their rain gear – top and bottom.

Sinche La and our lunch tent just below

Full Report … Day 9: Robluthang To Limithang Via Sintia La

We would lose almost 900 meters in altitude by the time we got to our Limithang campsite. The tent crew was still putting up the sleeping tents. Already up was the blue cook tent on the left, the double green/blue dining tent for 16 trekkers in the middle, and the small army green toilet tent on the right-hand side.  The members of the tent crew really knew what they were doing – our tents were often down by the time breakfast was over and often all up by the time we got to the day’s camp.

Limithang campsite

The first leg of our trek ended at Laya, the layout of which reminded me of what Namche Bazaar in the Nepalese Khumbu may have looked like fifty years ago.

Full Report … Day 10 – Limithang To Laya

the village of Laya on an overcast October morning

We would spend two nights in Laya, using the day off to rest for the second leg of our trek. Meanwhile,  the guide finalized arrangements for a new horse team to take us from Laya to Chozo in the Lunana district.

Once we got to Chozo, the horses and their handlers would return to Laya while a new set of yaks or horses would be hired to take us down to the end of the trek. The local agency – Yangphel –  which actually organized the trek had all of this figured out and everything – the logistics and camp set up and take down – unfolded without a problem.

the dining room of the Laya lodge we used d

the dining room of the Laya lodge we used during our stay

Full Report … Day 11: Rest Day in Laya

horses coming up main street laya on a sunny afternoon

horses coming up main street laya on a sunny afternoon

Next Post: Bhutan’s Snowman Trek Preview: Part 2 – Laya To Chozo To Sephu

Day-By Day Snowman Trek Trip Report

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November 7, 2019: Viggo Checks Out The First Dusting of Snow In Toronto’s Riverdale Neighbourhood

Well, that was early!  We woke up to a light dusting of snow in Riverdale; it is only Nov. 7. I decided to take my camera along on our morning ramble as Viggo and I checked out the first little bit of snow of the 2019-2020 winter season!

Viggo doing his business in our backyard – 8:00 a.m.

off on our morning adventure – garbage day in Riverdale

a light dusting of snow covers Riverdale Nov 7, 2019

looking down Riverdale Avenue

Riverdale streetscape with a light dusting of snow

Our morning walk will take us up the Don River valley; it is hidden in the tree cover that goes from left to right across the middle of the panorama in the image below. It is a favourite ramble Viggo and I have done hundreds of times over the past decade.

looking west from Broadview Avenue

For the past two months, dump trucks and tractors have been working on the slope you see below.  They have been regrading it to eliminate bumps and cavities which were thought to be too dangerous for the many tobogganers who make this hill one of Toronto’s most popular winter sledding destinations.

The Broadview toboggan hillside – under renovation!

We bump into Uba (“little bean” in Estonian) and her owner and Viggo does what he needs to to get a treat!

Viggo and Uba – treat time!

Viggo being incredulous – “You’re kidding? You mean only one treat?” Charming, eh!

We headed down to the bike trail which runs up the Don River valley; it makes for a nice one-hour walk. The occasional Zen moments when I forget that I am in a city of millions of people is my reward. The snow also means that there will be a bit less bike traffic for Viggo to hyperventilate over!  We also make use of the riverside trail and takes us away from the bike path and Viggo gets to walk off-leash for a while.

down on the bike path

The Don River south of the Prince Edward (Bloor Street) Viaduct was straightened in the late 1800s and has all the charm of a canal.  North of the viaduct, the river is still the way it was  – bends and all.  This is our favourite part of the walk! As we head up the riverside trail I do some basic maintenance, putting my little portage hand saw to work to clear branches and fallen trees.

From the footsteps in the snow, I can see that a couple of other dog walkers have already been by this morning.  The two tents south of the viaduct, however, are abandoned, as is the tarp-covered camp spot to the north.  Left behind were also piles of garbage. Over the next month, it will all get moved to the bike path where the City garbage crew will hopefully deal with it.

Viggo approaching the river – will there be ducks?

no ducks – but maybe a dead fish carcass to roll in

Viggo giving me that “It’s treat time”  stare on the banks of the Don

a section of the” trail” along the riverside

a view of the Don River from the trail

the Don River – one of the stretches left untouched

our trail just north of the Prince Edward Viaduct

back to Broadview and another view of downtown T.O.

Just across the street from the view in the image above is the Rooster Coffeehouse, the perennial winner in Now magazine’s “most popular coffeehouse” category.

The Rooster Coffee House on Broadview – Toronto’s most popular coffee spot!

lingering snow on flowers as we walk down Riverdale

We walked by two of the original houses on Riverdale Avenue.  They go back to the 1890s when the street was still called Preston Street. One of them still has a two-storey stable in the backyard.   Our semi-detached house was constructed in 1907, with no stable included!

typical semi-detached houses on Riverdale Avenue – including ours in the middle of the image

The pic below of our backyard 1 1/2 hours since we set off on our walk – and the snow is already disappearing.  By tomorrow it will all be gone and it may be a week or a month before we get another installment of the white stuff!

Viggo and I are looking forward to a more substantial snowfall that will turn the Don River Valley into a bike-free zone for a few months!

In retrospect, that little dusting of snow chronicled in the above post did not deserve all that fuss.  You want fuss – look at this from five days later – the biggest one-day snowfall in Toronto in 70 years –  now that’s snow!

Nov 12 – Viggo scanning the Don River beach for ducks


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Canoeing The French River From Top To Bottom: Days 8 & 9 – Across the Delta From East To West

Previous Post: Days 6 & 7 – From Pickerel Bay to Georgian Bay Via Fox Creek

Day 8 – From Fox Bay CS920 To CS723 W of Whitefish Bay

  • distance: 15.4 km
  • time: 8:45 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
  • portages/rapids: 0/0:
  • weather:  a drizzly morning with some sun in the afternoon; a strong wind (20+ km) from the WSW
  • campsite: CS723 – good shelter for 1 x 4-person; possible for 2-3 x 2- person tents; on the cross channel side of the delta; there is room for more, depending on how fussy you are for a ‘flat’ or sheltered spot.
  • NRC topo sheet: Key Harbour 041 H 15
  • our GPS tracks – 2019 French River (3.2Mb Dropbox file)
Day 8 - From Fox Bay To W of Whitefish Bay

Day 8 – From Fox Bay To W of Whitefish Bay

The big rainstorm we had been expecting the afternoon and evening before never did happen. Instead, we got more of the low-grade drizzle of Day 7 with one added element – a strong wind blowing from the southwest.  We had planned to spend a couple of days in the Bustard Islands but the whitecaps on the waves that we saw rolling our way made us change our plan.

Cantin Point to the Bustard Islands

The crossing at its shortest (i.e. from Cantin Point to Tarpot Island)  is 1.7 kilometers. There are a number of smaller rocks and shoals that can shorten this distance a bit. Given the 25 km./hr.  wind and the waves, even a half-hour in an open canoe to do the crossing was taking a needless risk.  There certainly wouldn’t be any passers-by to help if things went south!

one last shot of CS920 as we head out on a windy morning

So –  a new goal! Instead of a couple of days out on the Bustards, we’d aim for the westernmost campsite in the Park and make use of the many islands en route to provide us with some shelter from the wind.  As we headed west from CS920 in Fox Bay, we made a point of paddling past the abandoned Georgian Bay Fishing Camp.

Georgian Bay Fishing Camp- – an abandoned look

The Fishing Camp – actually quite the complex consisting of a marina, lodge, restaurant, cabins, a store, boat rentals –  closed in 2016, two years after the death of the owner, Dave Bulger.  Bulger had owned and run the camp since the 1980s.  His son Matt tried to keep it open but was unsuccessful.  It had been in operation since 1928.  With its demise, the closest similar camp is probably Camp McIntosh on the French River’s Main Channel.

docks in front of the main service building of the Georgian Bay Fishing Camp

In September 2017 we had paddled by Dock Island just a half-kilometer NE of the Fishing Camp.  Sitting on the south shore of Dock island was a dock and I made a wrong connection between the dock and the island’s name.  A reader of that post (see here) did email to let me know that the dock actually belonged to the Fishing Camp and had drifted across.

Georgian Bay Fishing Camp – main service building

Georgian Bay Fishing Camp – main dock area and gas pump

Georgian Bay Fishing Camp – dock and gas pump

Our brief paddle visit along the Fishing Camp shoreline brought home the transient nature of all things. If time itself is not the ultimate destroyer, then a changing culture and different notions of leisure time make casualties of things like fishing camps and, I hate to say it, wilderness canoe tripping and camping!  Other than maybe ten fishing boats we saw no one on our ten-day trip down the French and across the delta! Maybe parks need to provide free wi-fi and more designated selfie viewpoint spots to lure potential users in!

a last look back at the Georgian Bay Fishing Camp buildings.

We would spend the next hour and a half dealing with a strong WSW wind by deking behind a string of islands and making our way along the Georgian Bay coast to the French River’s Main Channel at Bluff Point. The reward: 5.5 km. of forward progress!

French River Delta – Georgian Bay

Crossing the Main Channel to the west side. we took advantage of the protected passage provided by the long narrow islands which run parallel to King’s Island.  Once past Sand Bay, a couple of times we got blown into bays that looked like channels.  By 1 p.m. we were just west of Whitefish Bay and at CS723.

our tent spot at CS723 on Georgian Bay

We have used this site before and like the tucked-in and sheltered nature of the tent site combined with the easy walk to the exposed shore of Georgian Bay.  Thanks to this year’s high water, that walk was much shorter than it was two years ago!  The wind continued to blow hard all afternoon.

The Bustard Rocks Lighhouses – so close!

In my hands, I have a Sony HX80 with a 24-720mm reach!  I had bought at it Henry’s for $160 CDN for a trip I did to Tanzania.  It came in very handy there on the short safari I did after my walks up Meru and Kilimanjaro.  On this French River trip, I left behind all the heavy gear – the Sony A77, even the Sony A6000 — and just took the HX and my Sony RX100.  I kept the RX100 in a Pelican case and the HX 80 inside two medium-sized Ziploc bags. Max had his Canon SX280 with its 25-500 reach, also in a Pelican case.  Maybe like the Fishing Camp my huge DSLR has seen its day!

Unfortunately, the Bustards were not a part of this year’s ramble. However, if you find yourself anywhere near the islands and the wind and waves are agreeable, the time you spend there will be among the highlights of your trip. See the following post for some background on the Bustard Rock lighthouses on the west side of this group of islands.

Canoeing Georgian Bay’s French River Delta:  Day 3 – The Bustards To Eagle Nest Point

It is 3.5 kilometers from where CS723 is to the Bustard Lighthouses. We walked to the east end of the island we were on and were amazed to see something else.  Well, we could barely make anything out of it but here is what popped up on our camera viewfinders when we zoomed in!

We counted about fifty wind turbines (of a total of 87 planned) on the Henvey Inlet First Nation land some twenty kilometers away!  It was the turbine construction crew working on this project in July 2018 that caused the massive fire labelled Parry Sound 33 thanks to their continued blasting in tinder-dry conditions in mid-July.

While in the long run the energy generated by the wind turbines will be a “plus”, for some reason the notion of corporate responsibility for the costs of the fire has never become an issue.  See this CBC report by David Seglins for more background –

Why it’s difficult to make industry pay when it’s accused of starting costly wildfires

Day 9 –  To The West End of French River Prov. Park

  • distance: 17.7 km
  • time: 8:20 a.m. to 3:35 p.m.
  • portages/rapids/linings: 3/1/1: 
    • 22m – empty the canoe, liftover and repack
    • 60m – over the hump around Devil Door Rapids
    • 40m – short 20-meter  La Petite Faucille portage; repack canoe and line for a few meters
    • 40m – high water level meant very fast water, lined short section to by-pass worst of it.
    • 130m – fast water section above the real ride!
    • 230m – all in less than 2 minutes!! looks rough but rides nice, vigilance still required
  • weather: sunny all day
  • campsite: CS822 – last ‘official” campsite at the west end of FRPP; lots of room for multiple 4 person tents; a couple of nicely sheltered spots, the rest are more open.
  • Natural Resources Canada Topo Sheet – Key Harbour 041 H 15; Collins Inlet 041 H 14.
  • our GPS tracks – 2019 French River (3.2Mb Dropbox file)
  • Unlostify: West French River covers the river from a few kilometers east of Highway 69 to Georgian Bay. It has all the official park campsites indicated.  Click on the title for access to a free digital download – or buy the $20. waterproof copy.  Note: do not rely just on the Unlostify map – make a paper copy of the relevant bits of the topos above for the detail you will need.

The French River Delta East Cross-Channel:

Just a couple of kilometers in from the Georgian Bay shore is an interior passage that allows you to make progress on days when the full force of the wind and waves are hammering the coast.  It presents few difficulties and some incredible scenery to paddle through.

  • The 4.4 km. East Cross-Channel goes from Whitefish Bay to the bay below Devil’s Door;
  • The 3.2  km. West Cross-Channel stretches from Devil’s Door Rapids to Black Bay.

We had done the entire Cross-channel a couple of years ago from west to east; now we would be doing at least a part of it – the East Cross-Channel in reverse. At Devil’s Door Rapids we would be at the bottom of the French River Delta’s three Western Outlets:

  1. the Bad River Channel
  2. the Old Voyageur Channel
  3. the Voyageur Channel

The plan was to go up the Bad River Channel via Lily Chutes all the way to the beginning of the Old Voyageur Channel.  Then we would come down the Old Voyageur Channel to the end of the West Cross-Channel and paddle down the Voyageur Channel to Batt Bay and our campsite at 822.

And that Plan B  – Plan A had been a visit to the Bustards – is what we ended up doing!

a slice of the East Cross Channel in the French River Delta

The map below shows the East Cross-Channel route from 723 to Devil’s Door Rapids and Portage and then the turn into one of the Bad River Channel’s sub-channels.

East Cross-Channel – French River Delta

Fifteen minutes into the day’s paddle and we just had to stop. We were paddling through a very scenic section of the cross-channel when we spotted what looked to be an excellent campsite somewhat elevated from the surrounding terrain.  A minute later we had assigned a grade of A to the site and agreed that if a quieter interior site was what you wanted instead of our CS723 of the night before with its access to Georgian Bay, then this would be an excellent choice.  [Note: I have since learned that camping at FRPP sites other than official designated ones is illegal and subject to a fine. Proceed with caution!]

the view from a potential East Channel campsite – French River delta

We also paddled over to the other side of the channel from the above ‘campsite’ location and found another pretty decent one.

a view of the above campsite from the other side of the channel

Shortly afterwards we faced our first mini-portage of the day – a 10-meter lift-over which the image below somewhat captures!

a 10-meter lift-over on the East Cross-Channel French River Delta

As we approached the bay below Devil’s Door Rapids, we saw our first bit of graffiti since Gibraltar Point on Lake Nipissing.  We did not go up to take a closer look but some of the letters already seem to be fading.  Hopefully next year it will be all but gone.

some graffiti on the sloping rock near the west end of the East Cross-Channel French River

And then it was a paddle into the bay before Devil’s Door Rapids. As we came to the end of the east cross-channel I noticed a No Camping sign on the NE point, a first anywhere in the park. Perhaps it is aimed at sailboaters or larger watercraft that might park in the bay for shelter? There was a sailboat anchored in the bay as we paddled by but no one seemed to be around.

Devil’s Door Rapids (Falls)

We approached the bottom of Devil’s Door Rapids. There was the 1.5-meter drop we remembered from our last time there.  Then we headed to the north side of the bay for the take-out spot for the 40-meter carry around the rapids.  The higher water level meant that the landing we used last time was under water!

Devil’s Door Rapids – a shot from the east

The portage trail was somewhat overgrown and we spend a few minutes trimming the junipers to make it more obvious.  Typical for the park’s portages, neither end of the trail is indicated by a portage marker.

the turtle on the Devil’s Door portage trail

There is a stupendous viewpoint on the rock overlooking the rapids and we spent some time up there taking in the neighbourhood.  Here is a view looking east to the rapids, the bay, and that anchored sailboat.

Devil’s Door Rapids – a shot from above

We turned around and looked west up the cross-channel; it goes all the way to Black Bay and the south end of the Voyageur Channel.  However, the plan this day was to head north up one of the Bad River Channels – the one with Lily Chutes at the bottom. The map below shows our route.

looking west from the great viewpoint above Devil’s Door Rapids

The Bad River Channel was probably named as such by the voyageurs thanks to the larger number of rapids and chutes they would have had to deal with and explains why they avoided its various options.

We did a lift-over and then lined the canoe up Lily Chutes and then were able to paddle up to the top of the Old Voyageur Channel.  Along the way, we did encounter some stretches of fast water coming our way that required some intense bursts of paddling to make forward progress.  We rounded the corner (see the map below) and began our descent of the Old Voyageur Channel.

The French River’s The Old Voyageur Channel

The Old Voyageur Channel runs 3.2 kilometers from top to bottom with only one portage.  Along with the French River’s Main Channel a bit to the east, it would have been the one most used by the voyageurs of old.

Toni Harting’s The French River: Canoeing The River of the Stick Wavers (1996, Boston Mills Press) is by far the best book out there on the French River. It takes you from Lake Nipissing to Georgian Bay and covers everything from geology to history and canoe-specific topics. Included are useful maps, as well as some excellent photos, both colour and black and white.

Of the Channel, Harting writes:

…the Old Voyageur Channel was probably only used by the voyageurs at quite high water levels and by the big brigades of fur trade canoes. Smaller fur-trade canoes and specialized big canoes carrying only passengers, mail, and other important cargo would also have used this channel. These express or light canoes had less weight to carry and therefore enjoyed more freeboard to run rapids and shallow parts. [110]

At the top of the channel are some swifts. A bit more than half-way down you come to a set of rapids named La Petite Faucille.  These rapids were until recently mistakenly identified with the set of rapids depicted in a Paul Kane painting titled “French River Rapids”.  Harting writes:

The existence of the Petite Faucille is mentioned a few times in the notes of the old travellers. The artifacts found in the late 1960’s on the river bottom below the drop are another indication that this route was used by the fur traders. In his 1845 painting, French River Rapids, Paul Kane gives a curious artist’s impression of what presumably is the Petite Faucille. [109]

Harding’s use of the word curious is fitting because the location does not really look like the one that Kane painted!

[In 2006 Ken Lister located the actual site some 830 kilometers to the west in northwestern Ontario between Lake Superior and Rainy River. See here for his account.]

The painting a part of the Royal Ontario Museum’s collection.

Here are a couple of shots of La Petite Faucille – the first is the section below the rapids and the second continues the view up to the top.

La Petite Faucille Rapids on the Old Voyageur Channel

Other than the short 20-meter or so portage around La Petite Faucille there is little to deal with.  Above these rapids are some swifts; below the rapids is a 100-meter stretch of fast water known as La Dalle before you reach the West Cross-Channel.  We enjoyed the ride as we zipped down, hitting a top speed of 11 km/hr. for a few seconds according to our GPS track data!

looking east on the French River Delta's West Cross-Channel

looking east on the French River Delta’s West Cross-Channel

We stopped for lunch on the southeast corner of the island at the bottom of the Old Voyageur Channel and then continued our way westward along the southwest end of the channel referred to as the Voyageur Channel.

Not far from our lunch spot we passed by a landmark identified by Harting as The Fort, a supposed ambush site used by Indigenous pirates to rob the voyageurs of their trade goods.  The site is a jumble of rocks that may or may not look like a fort depending on how much you want it to be one!  Again, to quote the best book written about the French River:

On the south shore of the West Cross Channel, close to Black Bay, there is a peculiar collection of tumbled-down rocks where several circular openings seem to have been constructed. This was possibly used as a shelter by Natives lying in ambush for the treasure-filled fur-trade canoes that would pass down the channel, which is quite narrow at this point. This could well be the “Fort” talked about in some old reports and after which the Fort Channel is named. [Harting 32]

The story itself left us skeptical. How often could it have been used as an ambush site before the fur brigades would clue into the fact that there would be trouble up ahead? It is no more amazing an ambush site than a multitude of others that they could have picked.

Just which Indigenous tribe would be doing the hold-up? If it was an Algonquian (i.e. Anishinaabe) people, they would only be ticking off their many fellow tribesmen who worked with the French?  If it was an Iroquois tribe from upper New York State area, it would seem a long way to come to steal goods that could be taken much closer to home. It would also date its use to the 1600s when the Iroquois were still a military power.

Update: By chance, while reading the  Journal of a John Macdonell in a collection titled Five Fur Traders of the Northwest, I came across this entry from June 26, 1793:

Click here for the online text of Macdonell’s Journal – and of the other fur traders in the collection

It puts a different spin on the story than Harting does. For one, it sounds like a one-off ambush and not an oft-used spot; it makes clear who the attackers were – and also how unsuccessful they were!

As for a photo of the jumble of rocks – as we passed by I figured we would get one the next morning on our way back.  The next morning we amazingly missed it!  Lesson: get the shot while you can!  If you have a photo of the site you’d be willing to share, I would love to insert it right here!  Email me at Also another reason/excuse to perhaps revisit the Delta in the future.

Given the still-blowing southwest wind, we made as much use as possible of the numerous island in Batt Bay as we headed to CS822.  Along the way, we passed by another voyageur landmark identified by Harting. It was known as La Prairie. As with the Fort, we did not stop to take any pix. Unlike the Fort, we did spend fifteen minutes at the site the next morning! [See the next post for what we found!]

FRPP CS822 – the furthest west campsite in the park

822 is the westernmost campsite in French River Provincial Park.  It is easy to imagine it as a stopping place for the fur brigades at the beginning or end of the French River part of their journey.  There is ample room for many tents.  Behind the flat rock outcrop are a number of sheltered sites. We were able to peg our tent down, a novelty at a Georgian Bay campsite.

Next Post: Days 10 & 11 – From Georgian Bay To Hartley Bay Marina Via The Mills Channel


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Canoeing The French River From Top To Bottom: Days 6 & 7 – To Pickerel Bay and Down Fox Creek to Georgian Bay

Previous Post: Day 5 – From E of Cross I.  to Below Recollet Falls (CS522)

Day 6 – The Lower French From CS 522 To Pickerel Bay (CS 633)

  • distance: 12 km
  • time: 9:00 a.m. to 11:40 p.m.
  • portages/rapids: 0/1:  Second Rapids – 5 minutes spent lining
  • weather: sunny all day, light wind from NW?
  • campsite: CS633 – another haul up the hill (~100 m) and totally worth it! the stern paddler’s favourite site of the trip; multiple sites 1 fair, semi-sheltered one at top suitable for 4-person tent, one at the bottom in a pinch; more possibilities in the open and on rock – your choice; 2 boats the whole evening, 2 sea-doos earlier and after that it was just us.
  • Natural Resources Canada topos: Delamere 041 I 02; Key Harbour 041 H 15
  • GPS tracks – 2019 French River (3.2Mb Dropbox file)
  • Unlostify: West French River covers the river from a few kilometers east of Highway 69 to Georgian Bay. It has all the official park campsites indicated.  Click on the title for access to a free digital download – or get a hard copy you will be using often!

Lower French River – CS522 to Pickerel Bay (CS 633)

The sixth day in a row of sunny warm weather!  We slipped our canoe into the water and could feel the noticeable current as we headed down the Gorge section. There were a number of stretches where the GPS device recorded speeds of 14 and 15 km/hr.

Little Flat Rapids: Then it was through a stretch of fast water our Garmin topo map names “Little Flat Rapids”. Another name may be Second Rapids, the First being just after Recollet Falls.  The Friends of French River indicates a portage of 25 meters here.  We spent less than five minutes lining our canoe through.  The June 1793 entry from John Macdonell’s Journal (the quote is immediately below) refers to a Derraud’s Rapids two leagues or six miles below Recollet Falls. Six miles or ten kilometers is approximately the distance from Recollet Falls to these rapids. Breaking a canoe here would certainly qualify as a freak accident!

pictograph or not? iron oxide stain on the French River rock

the north side of the French River – Gorge Section near Ox Island

From here it is 2.5 kilometers to the railway trestle crossing the French River at the east end of Ox Island.  After his comment about the rapids, Macdonell goes on to discuss the presence of Anishinaabe pictographs (images “painted” with a mixture of iron oxide powder and fish oil) and lichenographs (images carved out of the lichen and moss which cover the rock face):

See here for the entry – pp.84-85. The entire journal makes for interesting reading, as do the others included in Five Fur Traders of the Northwest edited by Charles M. Gates.

Given Macdonell’s observation, Ox Bay would have gotten its name from the animal figure scratched out of the lichen on a prominent rock face nearby. It was likely not an ox!

Ox Bay:/Pickerel Bay area French River

We rounded the point at the east end of Ox Bay and headed into Pickerel Bay and one of our favourite campsites ever, the one numbered 633 on the map above. We had camped there for a night in September 2017 at the end of our one-week ramble up and down and across the FrenchRiver Delta.  Day 6 – To Pickerel Bay (The Elephants)

It was not even noon and we were done for the day – an unusual occurrence for us! Adding the 12 km. we had done this morning to the 30 from the day before helped us rationalize it! Being at 633 clinched it. We had thought that the site may already be taken but given that it was a Thursday in mid-June reduced the chances of anyone being there. In fact, the entire area was pretty much devoid of anyone. Over the next day, we would count a couple of motorboats pass by below us as they made their way to or from Pickerel River.

looking east towards the Pickerel River

Those chairs in the image below is where we spent quite a bit of time until past sunset! Every once in a while we would face them in a different direction as we took in the views on a beautiful clear day on Pickerel Bay.  Just behind the chairs was our kitchen/dining area, complete with our overturned canoe as tabletop. And a bit further behind the trees was our tent, sitting on a patch of earth that we were able to use tent pegs on.

French River Pickerel Bay CS633 – the hilltop view looking east

looking south to the start of the Fox Creek route to Georgian Bay

This following bit of video gives a 360º panorama of the view from the top of CS633. It starts looking south to the series of bays in the image above and then pans east up the narrow bay you see two images above. Then it is west into the sun – and you’ll notice the image quality degrade in a hurry.

We took quite a few shots of what we were looking at as we sat there sipping on Gatorade, coffee, and later, our single shot each of whisky – here are a few that you can scroll through quickly. The magic was in being there!

Max and his camera facing west as the sun sets

looking west towards Ox Bay

portrait view of the sunset from Pickerel Bay CS633

looking west to Ox Bay French River

sunset view of Pickerel Bay French River

Day 7 – The Fox Creek/Lake/Bay Route to Georgian Bay

  • distance: 12.2 km
  • time: 8:20 a.m. to 1:10 p.m.
  • portages/rapids: 3/0:
    • 150 m – along the lower ridgeline from the take out spot to a long narrow ‘pond’
    • 230 m – more rugged with  multiple and possibly confusing trails
    • 195 m – likely longer in low water
  • weather: overcast most of the day; some intermittent rain; all added to the gloomy atmosphere paddling through the edge of 2018’s burn area.
  • campsite: CS920 with “thunderbox”! – very sheltered, 1 x 4-person; possible for 2-3 x 2- person tents; with high water (and likely any heavy rainfall) butts up to a swampy area, bugs were not bad though!
  • Natural Resources Canada 1:50,000 topo sheets: Delamere 041 I 02; Key Harbour 041 H 15
  • GPS tracks – 2019 French River (3.2Mb Dropbox file)

One of the highlights of our French River trip was the half-day we spent going down to Georgian Bay via the Fox Creek route, which starts right across from our favourite Pickerel Bay campsite. While we have paddled up the Pickerel from G’Bay to CS 633, we had never made use of the Fox Bay/Lake/Creek route before.

Henvey Inlet Fire 2018 – and east end of French River Provincial Park

There was an additional pull this year – we wanted to see the impact of Parry Sound 33, the 2018 Henvey Inlet Fire which had blown out of control and spread westward to the Pickerel River and to Fox Creek.

Alternative Routes To Georgian Bay from Ox/Pickerel Bay: 

The Fox Creek route is not the easiest way to get to Georgian Bay.  There are alternatives and all of them are quite scenic

  • the Bass Creek Route – arguably the easiest with just a lift-over and an easy 100-meter portage
  • the Main Channel via the Dalles Rapids portage
  • the Pickerel River with just one 250-meter carry
  • the Old Voyageur Channel with a 20-meter portage at La Petite Faucille and some swifts before and after.

See the Unlostify West French River map for a clear visual image of the options. You can download a digital copy of the map for free.

The Fox route is a bit more work than all of the above but is worth it, getting an A+ for scenic views and enchanting paddling.  The more paddlers who use them, the more clear the portages will become.

Unlostify – the two Fox portages at the top end

My copy of the 2012 Friends of French River Park Map (pink cover) does not have any information on the Fox Creek portages, nor does the more recent 2017 third edition (blue cover).

The overall lack of portage information and on-the-ground signage for paddlers is puzzling, given that FRPP has now existed for thirty years.  The Park needs – but obviously will not be getting – more attention than the commendable volunteer service that the Friends of French River provide in campsite monitoring and maintenance as well as map production.

the take out for the first of the Fox portages on the south side of Pickerel Bay

We paddled across Pickerel Bay to the beginning of the portage that would take us into Fox Creek. The Unlostify map above has the portage indicated as a 140-meter carry. It is an easy one; it could use some trimming and signing.  According to our GPS track, we spent less than twenty minutes dealing with this portage and were soon at the top end of the long narrow lake you see in the image above.

One moment of concern –  Max had slipped on a section of sloped rock in his not-very-grippy L.L. Bean boots and went for a tumble, bags and all.  While they provided a bit of a cushion,  for the next couple of days as we paddled to the west end of the park, his hip was a bit sore.

I’m looking south at the take-out spot for the second of the Fox portages

Fox Creek - the small lake between the two portages at teh top of Fox Creek

the lake between the two portages at the top end of Fox Creek in the French River delta

After paddling south down the lake, we scrambled to a hilltop on the southwest end hoping for another “wow” view or two but could not get to that one vantage point that would deliver. Here is what I came up with!

a view from SW of the lake between the two Fox Creek portages

And then it was on to the second portage; the poorly maintained 230-meter trail would require more effort thanks to an initial uphill and then the scamper across a rocky ridge to the final downhill to the north end of Fox Creek.  All in all, we put in about forty-five minutes to haul everything up and over.  We also added some orange duct tape and did some bush trimming to help make the trail a bit more obvious.

Two Portages – Pickerel Bay To Fox Creek

When we got to the put-in we found a collection of four abandoned boats, seat cushions and fishing gear belonging to Camp Wanikewin Lodge located on the Pickerel River just east of Highway 69.

the put-in at the end of the second Fox portage from Pickerel Bay

With the two portages done by 10:15 or so, we now had six kilometers (one hour) of easy paddling until the third and last portage at the south end of Fox Lake.

Fire damage on upper Fox Creek – French River delta

It would not be long after setting off from the put-in at the top of Fox Creek that we would see evidence of 2018’s fire (named Parry Sound 33 to the consternation of people living in the town itself!).  It had started on the Henvey Inlet First Nation land below Key River, thanks to the wind turbine construction crew who continued blasting in spite of bone dry earth and windy conditions.

[A few days later we would count fifty wind turbine pillars from our campsite just east of Whitefish Bay some twenty kilometers away. See here for one of the images.]

some burn on the west side of Fox Creek as we paddle down

fire damage on Fox Creek -a view from June 2019

Fox Creek -French River delta – June 2019

signs of new growth after the fire on Fox Creek June 2019

Fox Creek green and charcoal

heading for the third (and final) Fox portage

The third and last portage on the Fox Creek route to Georgian Bay took us about thirty minutes.  Given the water levels in June 2019 we were able to paddle a middle section of the portage, which may not be possible at other times of the year or in lower water years

Fox Portage – From Fox Lake to Fox Bay

In the image below, I am stuffing the silnylon tarp back into its bag at the top of the portage trail.  As the above images make clear, the weather had changed from sunny to intermittent drizzle this morning and the tarp had covered the bags and duffels. At the start of the portage is a  boat, perhaps left by a fishing lodge for clients.

the south end of Fox Lake and the start of the portage into Fox Bay

At the end of the initial carry, Max is looking at the trickle of Fox Creek and the patch of water we will paddle down to access the final bit of the portage.  The Unlosity map has the entire thing as a 220-meter carry.  With lower water levels you may be walking down that short stretch of water!

the water we paddled across to get to the last bit of the portage into Fox Bay

And that is it for portages on the Fox Creek Route.  Next up – Fox Bay and the hunt for a decent campsite.

heading to Fox Bay after the portage

more dramatic scenery as we head down the narrow channel right after the last of the Fox portages

There are (on paper) quite a few campsite choices.  In reality, some of them are mediocre and will definitely be paddled by. The Unlostify map (see below) provides some info on the condition of some of them.

Fox Bay area in French River Delta on Georgian Bay

Unlostify – campsite locations in Fox Bay/French River Delta/Georgian Bay

We would find our campsite at 920, a well-sheltered spot inside a stand of pines and behind a rock outcrop that rises up to a nice hilltop sitting area. The shoreline to the south is accessible and we went for a walk after setting up camp.

Fox Bay – CS920 NW of Finger Island

our campsite (920)

For the second day in a row, we had stopped somewhat early.  Both our Garmin weather app information and an email from back home were telling us that a heavy downpour and a thunderstorm were expected in our area and we were ready!

the  Campsite 920 – well sheltered

Next Post: Day 8 – From Fox Bay To W of Whitefish Bay CS723


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