Backcountry Camping on the Gem Lakes Trail in Narrow Hills Provincial Park
I slide my backpack out the rear door of the SUV. It’s heavier than I expected. I always seem to pack more than I need when prepping for an overnight backcountry camping trip.
“But,” I argue with myself, “the hammock is a necessary addition. I’m in the middle of the Boreal forest, after all!”
I decide not to remove anything. I haul the pack over my shoulders and cinch the belt tight around my stomach. Walking through the parking lot, I stop to review the map and trail information at the start of the trail head.
My friend Mitch and I are hiking the Gem Lakes Trail in Narrow Hills Provincial Park. It’s a first-time visit to the area for both of us. Although the entire trail is only a 5.5 km loop, we’ve chosen to stay overnight because of the stories we’ve heard about the seven kettle lakes at the bottom of a series of winding ridges. Named after the precious stones pearl, opal, sapphire, jade and diamond, the lakes are said to sparkle majestically in the sunlight, just like gemstones.
Only a hundred metres into our trek, we’ve already come upon the edge of Jade Lake. Mitch and I turn to each other and grin in delight. At the shoreline, stretching along the surface of the water, is a rich green reflection of the jack pine, tamarack, spruce and balsam fir trees that ring the lake. But more stunning than the reflection of the lush vegetation is the spectacular twinkling and glittering of the water – just as we had been promised.
Each of the seven lakes is known for its beautiful shades of emerald, jade and aqua blue colouring. Because there are no streams or springs feeding into the lakes (the water bubbles up from the water table), the sandy bottoms are undisturbed and the water is crystalline.
The lakes were originally formed by blocks of ice that calved off the glacier covering most of Saskatchewan nearly 11,000 years ago. The ice eventually melted and left behind depressions called kettles. Today those kettles are filled with the luminous coloured lakes in front of us.
Continuing our hike along Jade, Little Jade and Diamond Lakes, Mitch and I wind our way through the forest. The hike isn’t very difficult, but the up and down along the ridges gives us a great vantage point. We can’t help but stop multiple times to take photos and admire the views.
There are only three official campsites on the trail and we want to set up our tent at Opal Lake, the site the furthest from the trail head. Considered rustic camping, each site is equipped with a fire pit and picnic table. Lacking an outhouse (aside from one in the parking lot), the “call of nature” is not just a quirky English idiom out here.
After 45 minutes of hiking, we arrive at the campsite. It’s idyllic. Positioned along the edge of the forest, the fire pit is only a few feet from the lake. A previous visitor has conveniently laid down two logs as benches.
We toss our bags on the picnic table and get to work readying our campsite. I set up the tent while Mitch collects and breaks up deadfall from the forest for a fire.
For me, the best camping trips are ones where you only need to sit and enjoy the view to have a good time. Pleased with my decision earlier, I pull the hammock out of my backpack. Despite its added weight, it was worth every ounce to carry in.
I’m delighted to find two trees near the water’s edge that are perfect for setting up a hammock. I loop and secure the ropes around each tree.
As I settle into the hammock, gently swaying back and forth in front of Opal Lake, the sun shines down and warms my skin. And in that moment, among the trees of the Boreal forest and along the edge of a gem lake, I feel like I am twinkling and glittering too.