Algonquin Park - The fun started before we left home. You should have seen the faces when we said we were heading for a yurt in Algonquin Park.
Almost invariably there were confused stares. You could almost hear, "Is that something like yogurt? It must be some sort of health retreat." Or sometimes you could sense rummaging around in the back memory banks for grade four geography class. "You mean Mongolian yurts? Is that like... felt or yak fur?"
Close. These modern variations, available year-round, are described as furnished tents and Algonquin offers eight of them, seven in central Mew Lake campground.
They look like eight-sided, metal-framed tool sheds covered in heavy fitted plastic with widows, a door and padded insulation.
While lacking colourful Mongolian-style mats, rugs and such, the interiors are functionally comfortable. Each has an insulated wooden platform floor, two bunk beds (each with a double below and single above, sleeping a total of six), a table and chairs and a single fluorescent light.
And one more thing: a small electric heater. At -40°C, that little blower keeps the inside not toasty, but sufficiently snug to be able to remove coat, hat and mitts.
Still, a decent sleeping bag is recommended. Cooking isn't permitted in the yurts, but each site has a picnic table and firepit. However, a little meal creativity can be employed with the one electric outlet available. Plug in a crock pot and come back to a hot stew. Or use a kettle to make instant soups and tea. A bottle of wine doesn't hurt.
The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources says there has been a dramatic increase in the winter use of provincial parks, and demand for campsites has doubled in five years.
On our visit, four yurts are occupied, in addition to one family in a camper pickup truck and one even using a tent. There are also vestiges of two handmade igloos. One guy casually sets up his lawn chair on the snow in front of the yurt's firepit in anticipation of the evening's blaze.
Aside from quiet and lack of crowds, overnighting in winter offers other benefits. Cross-country ski trails range from short to extensive, easy to challenging. A couple of trails are designated for the new faster, more physical ski-skating. You can go for miles and never see a soul on trails where conditions are often perfect.
Some trails are groomed and track-set, others just groomed (flattened) and still others remain untouched. Pick up a free ski trail map pamphlet at the east or west park gates. Two trails have cozy huts partway around the circuit where you can stop for a snack, possibly some conversation. You may find a warming wood stove fire in progress.
On snowshoes you can go literally anywhere. The covered lakes, snow-laden evergreens and spectacular frozen waterfalls provide a pristine backdrop.
No snowmobiles are allowed. At night the starry canopy is more dramatic than ever viewed on a humid summer's eve, and you don't have to stay up until 2 am to appreciate it.
Tracks in the snow reveal the movements of active mammals such as moose and rabbits. Red squirrels remain acrobatic and blue jays, almost tame grey jays, nuthatches and chickadees are common. A fox or two is often seen at a yurt door seeking a handout.
Cost of a yurt is $70 per night and includes day use of the park and all trails. Reservations are essential. Firewood is available. Highway 60 through the park is well plowed and maintained, as are the campground and parking lots at ski trailheads. Expect some camaraderie in the campground comfort station, which for once seems aptly named. It's heated, has drinking water and, for the hardy, showers.
Bring an electric extension cord for your block heater (there's an outdoor receptacle) or at least use some gas line antifreeze. We learn this the hard way when morning finds our car frozen.