Starting at The Portage Store (Access Point 5) Rob and I set out at Canoe Lake, and headed for Burnt Island Lake. After spending the night on Burnt Island, we headed through Otterslide Creek to Big Trout Lake, where we camped on an island. The next day, we attempted to reach McIntosh Lake by passing through Grassy Bay.
For both of us, it was our first time backcountry camping.
Lugging our gear into the SUV in the morning, Rob and I headed north as the sun rose. Arriving at Canoe Lake around 9am, Chris at The Portage Store reviewed our gear and our itinerary. This was necessary since we chose an advanced route to complete in 3 nights. Near the shore at the Park Permit office an SUV with it’s doors open. A group of campers removing large bags from it and placing them next to their red canoe: the only other canoe that left with us.
Around 10am, we were paddling towards Joe Lake with our cargo: two backpacks, a bear barrel and one equipment bag. The lake was calm and the sun was shining. We passed by the little lighthouse, Tom Thomson’s memorial and other landmarks, and took the east arm of Joe Lake. Now, there were lot more canoes and watercraft on the lake. A loon flew overheard, calling as it moved above us. We were underway in Algonquin.
Our first portage at the dam into Joe Lake was a breeze. Rob and I discussed whether we would single or double carry, as we would at every subsequent portage. We chose to cross in one trip. Reaching the opposite side, a canoe approached the shore. A dog jumped out onto the trail from behind the lead paddler, jingling the bells around his collar as he approached us.
“So you just rented him from The Portage Store?” I quipped. They were returning from the same trip we were embarking on, except they moved in the opposite direction. They also chose to make their journey in 5 days. Instead of going counter-clockwise (Burnt Island>Big Trout>McIntosh), they had done the trip clockwise (McIntosh>Big Trout>Burnt Island).
Our first portage behind us, we set off again through the Western Gap, turning to take the east arm of Joe Lake. Rob was paddling in the back, and I was up front, trying to locate landmarks on the map. We pulled up to the portage after Little Joe, and chatted with two guys from Ottawa who were sitting near the shore. They had just come into the park for the day. At that time, we thought they had moved pretty far into the park for a day trip. I noticed the older of the two men wore a hat with “Temagami” embroidered on the front (one of my ancestors -Daniel O’Connor- is considered the founder of that town.
Proceeding through Lost Joe and into Baby Joe, we witnessed a landscape/ecosystem change. These smaller, narrower lakes were full of lillypad, which gently brushed along the bottom of our canoe as we moved. Spotting another portage, we took a break to have some crackers, cheese, pepperettes and GORP (“good old raisins and peanuts”). Three other canoes pulled up as we stood there marveling at the landscape.
This group had spent the previous night on the campground in Tea Lake. Their canoes were absolutely packed with supplies, even a guitar. They laughed and admitted that they brought their remaining bags of firewood, realizing how much work they made for themselves. At the end of this rather long portage we set off again and noticed a group of three came canoeing around the bend from the direction we had just portaged. They seemed to know what they were doing, and as a result, they managed to avoid taking the portage. The water was a bit low they said, but still manageable from the canoe.
Rob and I crossed the dam at Baby Joe and entered Burnt Island Lake, where we would find a campsite for the evening. The lake was big and we paddled hard, noticing that we had very few other canoes in the area. We hoped to have first dibs on the best sites. Ideally, we would find one that faced west, so we could enjoy the sun until it set. The map showed a site on an island where the lake first starts to narrow, and we set off for it. As we approached, we realized that the canoe of 3, who had avoided the portage into Baby Joe were gaining on us, and heading for this same location.
We beat them, but as we approached we noticed the sign that indicated this island was a campsite had a large, red, line through it, which we all took to mean this site was not available. That was OK, since Rob and I wanted to move a little bit closer to the eastern side of Burnt Island Lake to make for less work the next day. The group passed us, going north around Caroline Island, and we resigned ourselves to the fact that they would choose a site before us.
We went south around the island, encountering another canoe who was passing. They had fishing rods and Rob inquired about the fishing in the area. He told us that he had caught bass near the next campsite, and also informed us that he and his son spent an hour watching 2 moose feeding in the inlet northwest of Caroline island.
We turned south towards the next campsite, pulling in and considering it for the evening. the firepit was still smoking, and we presumed the two we had just encountered may have been staying here. The site was not in great condition, it was messy and dark from a lot of tree cover. It faced north-east, and didn’t have a great water access.
Busting out the binoculars, we could see across the lake that the trio had chosen a site on the north shore. We checked the map, seeing that there were other sites in this vicinity and decided we would investigate. This turned out to be a good idea, since the site we landed on was excellent, with a steep sloping rock that was bathed in the late afternoon sunlight. The water was shallow and warm. A small patch of sand revealed itself in ripples at the very edge.
Right away, we knew this site was the one. After unloading the canoe, we waded out into the lake up to our knees and took the plunge. Diving into the cool water was a great relief at the end of a long day of driving, paddling and portaging. Loons were also in the area, just metres away from us. Getting out, I leaned up against the large rocky landing to dry off. It was still hot and the sun was still shining. The one we chose is labelled campsite #1 on Burnt Island on Algonquin Beyond’s map.
We set up camp, discussing how best to do this, and set off for an evening paddle. We brought our fishing rods, and also intended to seek out the area where the moose had been spotted. As the sun began to sink, flying insects got a little more annoying, and I was ready to sit somewhere other than on a canoe. The lack of back support was starting to get to me after a full day sitting on that seat. So we made out way back to our site and completed setting up camp. Celebrating with a cup of Glenfiddich (bourbon barrel reserve), we began gathering as much scrap wood as we could find. We also decided on where we would hang our food barrel, started a fire and started prepping dinner.
That night, we cooked up Oktoberfest sausages and potatoes. The potato we tried to par-boil before frying, but they still came out a little undercooked. As soon as we started cooking we noticed mice in the waning light, scurrying around our feet and getting absolutely everywhere. It seemed like they lived in the rocks that surrounded the firepit. They were completely unafraid to climb on our plates, into pots that we had already cleaned, and one even got into our cooler bag that kept most of our perishable food items. Rob managed to shake it out of there without much trouble. They were bold. And pesky. They even came out when we busted out s’mores, gathering up crumbs and scurrying along the log benches. We were ready to put everything away and hang up our food barrel just to keep them from crawling all over us.
Rob ties the rope to hang our bear barrel to his Nalgene bottle attempting to toss it up over a tree branch. It missed. His Nalgene hit the forest floor with a thud and a pop. The fall had snapped off the retaining rings that kept the lid attached to the bottle when opened. At least the bottle was still usable. We tried the same technique with a rock, and after a few close calls with rocks swinging on ropes near our heads, tossed the rope bundle over the chosen tree branch.
Success: or so we thought. Now that it was dark, we thought it was just a matter of pulling the rope tightly and lifting the barrel. Not so! There was no way to lift the barrel by the rope. We tried a few different ways before realizing that the way to do this was to have Rob pull the rope taught while I held the barrel overhead. Counting to three, I jumped and pushed the barrel upward, and Rob pulled the rope taught, securing it to another tree trunk.
With that job done, we could sleep and call an end to Day 1 in Algonquin.
Waking up at the same time, Rob and I rolled out of the rented Eureka! tent, with attached rain fly (this was a mistake on such a warm evening as last night). Heading straight for the barrel hang, I pulled it down and began searching for the stove and fuel. Coffee was the goal. Getting that started, Rob and I slowly started the typical morning campsite routine. Loading things into our bags strategically, readying swim trunks, towels, sunglasses and the like.
We sat on the site’s canoe landing rock in the morning sun, sipping our instant coffees and feeling good. Rob pulled out the Scotch, and we topped up the coffees with a splash. It was going to be a good day, we agreed.
Pulling out the cookware, we started breakfast. I took care to try and cook the eggs evenly on the camp stove, which meant I was constantly moving the pan to centre the hot spot under each yolk. Rob did the peameal bacon on the fire to a perfect crunch. As far as Algonquin breakfasts go, this was the best one we had the whole trip. English muffin breakfast sandwiches with eggs and crispy peameal bacon.
Around this time, Rob cast a couple lines into Burnt Island lake from the shore near our site. He was using lures and getting an occasional snag due to the rocky waters. As I was getting camp chores done I heard Rob giving a victorious “wooooo!”. Heading over to see what he got, a nice smallmouth bass. We quickly unhooked him and sent him back into the lake. Rob was feeling good. Having caught my first fish of the year a few weeks prior on Prospect Lake near Bracebridge, I related to knew that feeling of success.
Striking camp, we loaded up the canoe and set off eastward in the direction of our next portage that would take us towards Otterslide. Having trouble reading the landscape, we paddled into the bay at the southeastern end of Burnt Island, probably wasting a good hour of the day, searching for a landmark, a campsite or – even better – our portage. We soon realized where we had to be, and noticed another canoe heading in a similar direction, which often confirmed to us that we were on track.
Approaching this portage, we could see a bird skimming back and forth along the shoreline. It was darting back and forth, zig zagging at top speed, just above the shallow water. We realized it had very long legs, and later when I looked it up, found that it was a killdeer. We did the portages, there were several leading in to Otterslide, and met some interesting folks along the way.
One thing I started to notice at this point was the friendly camaraderie in Algonquin Park. I take notice of this because I had assumed that Algonquin was a way to escape social obligation, to be in solitude. However, the fact that all you have in the backcountry is yourself and your gear, it seemed like good practice to be friendly. As a motorcycle rider, I wave to other riders when I pass them on the roads, and the other campers in the park struck me in a similar way. The impulse which seemed paradoxical was that we weren’t here to ignore strangers, quite the opposite, we were here to engage politely and be friendly with them. I was not expecting to feel that way.
Proceeding through Little Otterslide Lake, we hit the portage that was leading up to Otterslide Creek. We stood there catching our breath for a moment. Suddenly, running up towards us along the trail was a portager with a canoe over her head. Rob and I were quite shocked this, especially the young lady who was doing it. We expected her boyfriend to be close behind, but what came after was a huge group of teenage girls, carrying their packs and canoes as quickly as they could. The young lady was leading this group on a backcountry excursion. They set their canoes in the water, and we moved ours aside to accommodate this large group.
We inquired how the portages were ahead and she said they weren’t too bad. They were coming from Big Trout, the same lake we were heading to. There must have been 8 teenagers or so, all heading to Burnt Island for the night. The group leader then ran back to the other end to retrieve bags. All of the teenagers under her supervision were moving fast too, as if they were in some kind of a race. They were asking her guidance for everything related to setting their canoes back in. That was impressive.
So we hit the next portage and soon the trees started closing in. Padding out onto the small lakes, we soon found ourselves in a narrow river. The map showed a meandering and winding creek, and in reality it felt even more extreme. We were paddling easily and making sharp turns, left and right, passing closely under tree branches that hung over our heads on either side. We ducked and dodged and used our hands to avoid them and pass them by us. This is the Otterslide creek, and is one of the most memorable and enjoyable canoeing experiences I’ve ever had. I felt as if I was getting the hang of paddling as the rudder, and was proud of the sharp turns we were able to pull off in this narrow creek of overhanging tree canopy.
After we twisted our way through the otterslide, we hit another portage, and suddenly, it was raining. One half of the sky looked as though it might rain all night. The other half was sunny and clear. It rained in the sunlight as we paddled towards our last portage.
Rob went ahead of me. I took a minute, organizing my pack and then headed up the portage trail behind him. On my left side I heard a waterfall which increased in volume as I passed. I really wanted to check it out, but after walking for a few moments, I spotted Rob, Frozen in his tracks, staring straight ahead.
“You OK Rob?”
In a half whisper he answered, “No dude, there’s something there, it snorted and snarled and it was getting closer to me for a minute. I think it left. It was big.”
OK, then maybe we ought to make some more noise and load up and move on from here. What choice did we have? Rob also wanted to check out the waterfall that was behind us too though, and we had to go back to pick up our other things on the double-carry that w were doing. Fortunately, there was an alternative route away from the snarling creature and up over the waterfall. I cast a few times because I wanted to catch a brook trout, but we knew we had to keep moving and so we clambered over the waterfall, grabbed our packs and put in to the entrance to Big Trout Lake.
By this point, we were ready to take a break, and we knew we were close to the first couple of campsites. We just had to exit the narrow opening into Big Trout. Rob was paddling in front, and I was steering. Looking way out ahead of us, I saw something unusual. At first, I thought it was a dead tree trunk near the shoreline with four large limbs, two on either side. But soon I realized that it might be an animal.
“Rob, look dead ahead what is that?” I whispered with a hush.
He didn’t see what I was referring to. But then it moved.
“It’s two moose”. A mother and a calf. One was behind the other, facing opposite directions. What I had seen earlier was four ears, two on each end, as they were facing opposite directions.
We made zero noise. Paddling carefully, even letting the current move us, the calf moved up on the shoreline and disappeared. Mama remained, somewhat aware of us, but continued to graze in the shallow water. It was a remarkable wild animal sighting that we savoured, sitting still and quietly watching as we slowly drifted past her and towards our destination.
Continuing on our way feeling very fortunate that we saw not one, but two moose. Rob suddenly exclaimed “There’s another, a big male”. He was right. This thing was huge, with a large antler rack. It stood in the water, drinking. It noticed us, but proceeded to drink nonetheless. He was even more impressive than the two we just witnessed a moment before. Suddenly he started moving, walking towards the shore. Splashing and dripping, his long limbs carried him disappearing into the treeline.
A bald eagle flew overhead, landing in a distant treetop. We were treated to quite the show of wildlife in a very short period of time. A (possible) bear, three moose and an eagle within 30 minutes.
Our map showed a campsite on a nearby island. Even though we thought we might want to paddle a bit further (since there was still some sunlight), we pulled in. We didn’t see a campsite sign, but soon realized that the island was crescent-shaped, and that there was a shallow shoreline in the middle. As we walked the island, we realized that this was an excellent campsite, even better than the night before. We would stay here tonight. Here is a report of the site from Algonquin Beyond.
The rocks on the east side looked like they might be good for fishing, but it turned out they were a little too shallow. We caught quite a few snags here. Also, when we reached the campsite area, we found some personal items that had been abandoned. A pair of shoes, a sweater and a very big (XXL) Seadoo lifejacket. Campsite number 8 at Big Trout Lake is excellent. There were big piles of wood already near the firepit, and a really nice section of pines on the west side of the island (where the thunderbox was located).
Rob and I decided we would place our tent on a nice flat pad near the small beach area (which was littered with food scraps). Prepping up a big log cabin stack in the firepit and lighting it, we placed foil wrapped potatoes in the corner. Rob cracked open the Glenfiddich. Sitting on the big rocks on the eastern part of the island, we took time to chill and reflect on an excellent day.
The potatoes were cooking for about an hour and we started up on the rest of dinner. Tonight it was steak and potato with mushrooms and onion. Using a lot of butter and plenty of Montreal steak spice, we cooked up a beautiful feast. The steaks weren’t the best, they were chewy even though we cooked them rare. It was satisfying to have such a hearty meal as the sun disappeared.
Rob washed the dishes after setting up the tent, and I whittled up a roasting stick and cooked the remaining s’mores. We wanted to finish off a bunch of the snacks in the barrel to remove clutter. Digging through that thing was sometimes a chore. With that done, and our teeth brushed, we were able to pack up and hang the barrel. This time we found a good spot on the eastern part of the island and strung it up with no problem.
Returning to the site, I sat down near the tent pad, leaning up against a large rock. Rob did the same on the opposite side and we sat and stargazed for a while. The night was beautiful and the stars were incredible. Our eyes adjusted to the darkness, and the amount of stars we could see was surprising. We each caught a couple of shooting stars. The moon rose in the east and was glowing a vibrant orange, which reflected on the blackness of the lake. Nighttime on Big Trout is something I would like to experience again. Rolling in to the tent with the rainfly off, we could hear the waves rolling up onto the beaches all around us.
I was asleep in no time.
In the morning, we fished. There were no bites, only snags. We struck camp after coffees and cooked up some breakfast. Today it was omelettes that came in a Freeze dried bag. The egg was in some kind of powdery form, to which I added water and slowly cooked until it reached a scramble. It took some time to get there. Rob made some toast over the fire to go with it, which we ate with peanut butter and jam. This was the first of the ”ready to eat” meals in a bag that we tried, and it was not very good.
The morning was beautiful, and with our gear packed up, we enjoyed the campsite for a while longer. We saw two people pass by on their canoe near our island that morning, but this was the only people we had seen since the group of young ladies at Otterslide the day before. It was also the last people we would see that day.
Assessing the map over coffee, Rob and I determined that today would be a lot of paddling on open lakes, with some portages at the end of the day to proceed into McIntosh Lake. Setting off again, I took the rear seat and we manoeuvred north west, deeper into Big Trout Lake. The weather was perfect, though there was a hint of clouds in the sky. Checking my map frequently, Rob and I started to try and find an ideal fishing spot, as we paddled we tossed several casts deep into the lake. We were hoping to find a shoreline with a steep rock face, which might indicate greater depth, preferably one situated on a peninsula where fish might be turning. We settled for an island with a steep drop off, pulled the canoe up and hopped out.
Digging into the food barrel, I pulled out two Granny Smith apples which we quickly ate before trying our luck fishing from the shore.
The north west side of Big Trout was beautiful. There were many big islands, with large rock faces. The sun reflected off the water and by late morning, it was very hot. After a few more snags, we put back in the water and continued northward. It wasn’t long before we made the turn into White Trout Lake, passing through a narrowing channel.
Everything felt distant by this time. We found ourselves in the middle of White Trout, at the north end of the lake and the shores felt very far away suddenly. Reviewing our map, I could see that we still had a considerable distance to cover, and a portage at McIntosh Creek. Looking south, Rob spotted a ranger cabin far off on the horizon. His eyes were better than mine, even with glasses on. I could not see it until Rob explained very clearly where it was. It also appeared on our map, but I did not realize it at the time. Pulling out the binoculars, I could see it clearly.
White Trout had a feeling of remoteness to it. By this time in the early afternoon, we still had not seen anybody else since that canoe passed by our site on Big Trout in the early morning (going the other way). Maybe that had something to do with it, also the campsites appeared to be few and far between on this beautiful, large lake. The sun was beaming down, with hardly any clouds in the sky. Rob and I navigated our canoe to the north side of an island in White Trout, thinking it was a more direct route to Grassy Bay. Entering the waterway we noticed large masses of lillypads and clumps of dirt that skimmed along our boat, slowed us down, and even risked stopping us completely.
It seemed like this marshy area would have been best to avoid, but soon we would find ourselves completely surrounded by these, and other, aquatic obstacles.
Pulling out my film camera in expectation of wildlife sightings along the shores of the marsh, I snapped the last photo with my Nikon and hit the camera’s automatic rewind. Tucking the film roll into my pack, I reloaded with more film and was ready to continue shooting. There was no wildlife that we could see, and we paddled onward until we exited White Trout and began to enter the Grassy Bay area. There was a campsite on an island as we entered the bay, and although it appeared to be occupied, we weren’t certain.
Pretty quickly, the wide and vast expanses of White Trout began to narrow into a bog, a far stretching tangle of lilypad, reeds and other aquatic plants. They piled thickly in mounds of floating mud that would stop the canoe in it’s tracks unless Rob and I saw them quickly and paddled hard enough to slide over them. This new paddling environment took a lot of focus, since we were both attempting to read the water surface ahead and keep clear of these potential blockages.
Now that it was late in the afternoon, and the sun was blazing hot, Rob and I were in need of water, or a break, or both.
I was purifying water as we paddled, mixing 5 drops of solution A, 5 of B, waiting 5 minutes, adding the yellowish solution to a full Nalgene bottle scooped from the lake, and waiting 10 minutes more. We were thirsty, starting to feel fatigue from the heat, as we applied sunscreen and dunked our hats into the water. On one of Rob’s dunks, the water ran sunscreen into his eyes, restricting (or eliminating) his ability to see.
We did not account for the fact that the Grassy Bay waterway was not able to be passed in a straight line. Instead, it meandered along winding pathways of clear water, surrounded on all sides by the thick reeds and mud piles. Twisting and turning against the current, Rob and I paddled hard to try and make quicker work of this slog. Finally, we saw a place to stop where we took a much needed break to eat, apply sunscreen and purify water. There was a large rock sloping into the water and we were able to park the canoe and climb up to what appeared to be a campsite, though I could not seem to locate it on the map.
Reaching the top, we both had a bit of an eerie feeling about it. “This is the kind of place you just visit briefly”, I said to Rob. We hadn’t seen anybody else all day, had paddled far, and we both sensed big wildlife in the area. An overturned pine with exposed roots conjured visions of bears digging for food underneath. Either way, we took a much needed break here, and I took some photos of the excellent view afforded from this place.
As we got back in the canoe, I found a hawk feather floating next to my paddle and picked it up. I stuck it in my Tilley hat, pleased with my prize, and we continued on the long, winding slog against the current, against the wind, and into the late afternoon sun. As far as we were concerned, the end was close enough, but we were fatigued and ready to rest. That was not about to happen.
As we paddled beyond this last refuge, we cornered around a large island and looking far into the distant shoreline we took in our fourth moose sighting of the trip. A large female was feeding in the shallow water of the bay on our left. Rob and I continued, sometimes turning completely around in order to follow the smooth water highways that curled and twisted through the dense reed beds on all sides.
We noticed signs that seemed to float in the bay, yellow lettering pointing out McIntosh (where we were heading) the Petawawa River, and the Portage into Hawkins Lake. We were hopeful that at least the current -if not the headwind- would let up once we passed the Petawawa, but that didn’t materialize. In fact, it was getting harder and Rob and I were losing steam, though neither of us would admit it, and we kept each other motivated as we paddled hard onward in the heat.
We only felt comfortable collecting water for purification from the moving streams – the narrow channels which moved us circuitously towards McIntosh Lake, and not the dense muddy beds of reeds that surrounded us.
Rob’s eyes were starting to get better -or at least that’s what he said- which helped me greatly since I was in the back and trying to steer and maneuver us along these curvy water channels by looking in front of him. A few times, we saw potential short-cuts, and tried cutting our canoe right through the dense weeds. We were sometimes able to pull it off, but I don’t know if it saved us much time. Once or twice we narrowly avoided getting stuck on a big pile of mud.
Around this time, Rob spotted -and photographed- a muskrat, which quickly slipped back into the water as we approached. I believe we both wondered what kind of mysterious, underwater aquatic world they lived in.
The map was harder to comprehend as the day dragged onward. But as we proceeded, we noticed the water level decreasing. This was not a good omen, since the shore was far away from us on all sides, yet the depth of the water was unknown to us. A fork appeared in the shallow waters and now the current had been reduced to a trickle. We took the left fork, and immediately found ourselves in a small circular body of water with no other way out. Backtracking, by paddling backwards, we proceeded towards the right fork. We were both feeling that something was not right.
The fork on the right opened up a bit more, and soon we saw a small beaver dam that was blocking our path forward. Normally, these obstacles can be overcome by carrying your gear and canoe over top, but this dam did not have enough room to stand on, and Rob and I had never learned how -or had attempted- to try a dam crossing. We also knew that in our exhausted state, a mistake here would be a problem. Judging by the sun’s location in the sky, we had maybe 2 hours of sunlight left, and we still had to make a portage into McIntosh.
Time was not on our side.
I proposed attempting to load over the dam, but I knew that we were very close to the portage and felt we had to push on regardless. Rob disagreed. We could backtrack to the site where we had temporarily stopped. There is enough sunlight if we turned back now. I was reluctant to accept that this was the right course of action. It was now early evening, and another hour or two of paddling sounded like a tall order. Also, I assumed we would have to repeat these efforts in the morning – once again paddling against the current towards McIntosh.
Rob was right. Backtracking was the correct move. Physically, we knew we could do it, and there was likely enough sunlight. The risk was too great to take a gamble at this time. Examining the map, I noticed that the last site where we stopped was actually marked as a campsite. We recognized that if someone else had landed on that site, or had reserved it, we would have to ask to stay with them, or backtrack even further to the previous site we had seen, the island which also appeared to have been occupied.
At least the current was with us, and we realized that staying in the current, and not attempting to shortcut through sections was quicker and easier. We again spotted that portage sign for Hawkins Lake, and both considered that might be a potential option for us to avoid the shallow waters and beaver dams that led into McIntosh.
We pulled up to the campsite with sunlight to spare. As the canoe slid up to the rocks, I saw the hawk feather in the water at the same place I had originally picked it up. I guess when I put it in my Tilley, it fell out. Now it was mine again. I thought that was a good omen, and a reward for the difficult excursion that we had just endured.
This time, the site felt very different. It was a relief. We made lots of noise and immediately set up camp. We purified water, chose a tent pad location, set it up, gathered firewood, inflated the thermarests and found the branch for the barrel hang. The back section of this site still felt a bit wild, as if it was backing up into the densest and most remote part of the forest. Having set ourselves up so efficiently, we were able to start up on dinner and have a sip of scotch.
We were in a celebratory mood, feeling good and comfortable with the decision we made to turn back. Now we could relax and reconsider how we would go about getting out of this mess in the morning. We had to proceed from this site in Grassy Bay all the way back to The Portage Store the next day. That was a lot of ground to cover, and we were going to have to get up very early and get moving.
The food barrel was lighter now, and I pulled out the evening meal: dehydrated Indian curry. Mixing it with purified water, I stirred it slowly over the stove until it thickened. Rob and I poured it into our whiskey cups and ate it on the rock as the sun went down. This thick, hot and spicy stew was the perfect meal for the grueling day we had experienced. We had many good meals while camping, but this one was the best and most memorable. If our spirits needed any more raising, this was accomplished by filling the firepit with dried pine trees, and the needles ignited into a pyre of light and heat.
In the morning, we would decide on our exit strategy. We knew it require the longest portages we had done, and many of them. Either way, we had to get back to Access Point 5 by that evening.
We were up early. The sun was setting over the tail end of White Trout Lake in a flash of red and pink, reflecting off the irregular marshy surface of the water in a band of light. Breaking camp immediately, we pulled down the barrel, and loaded the canoe as we ate breakfast. Reviewing our route, we agreed to take our time and to portage carefully. We still had some paddling to do in order to reach the Hawkins Lake portage, and this portage connected to a series of small lakes that would eventually take us to Tom Thomson.
The sky was overcast, starting to form a bluish-gray. With the canoe loaded, we set out on the winding waters towards our destination. It was still, and as we approached the portage a while later, a gentle rain started falling. It did not affect us, and felt strangely reassuring. Although we knew that these conditions might make the portaging slippery and challenging, especially since the map indicated hilly terrain ahead of us.
Pulling in to the portage, we both felt confident having made a decision on our way out. It dawned on us that we had not really encountered any other people in the park for 2 days. Expecting to see some on some of our portages, we moved on. Immediately, we realized that the terrain was challenging and that we had to climb some larger elevations than we hoped. Fortunately, this gave our upper bodies a break from the excessive paddling we did the previous day. Today was going to be mostly carrying.
The rain was light but steady, and we double carried the first portage, which was 950m into Hawkins Lake. The ground was soft and wet, and we were careful, since it was uneven walking. There were a few sections that had a plank of wood laid down, which helped crossing some of the muddier sections. We did the first portage quite easily, and were through Hawkins Lake and on the 1400m portage into Canada Jay Lake soon after.
This was a long portage, and we saw animal prints in the soft wet ground as we proceeded. As a result, we made a bit more noise as we moved. The problem now was carrying all of our gear while swatting away at the mosquito’s without a free hand to spare, since the insects seemed to find the damp weather favourable for the hunt.
The first leg of our journey was to make it to Sunbeam Lake. This required three portages, all of which were longer than any we had done before. In total, it was about 3.5kms if we had been single carrying. But since we had decided to go back and forth to lighten the loads, we carried our gear almost twice that distance before we reached Sunbeam Lake. Feeling good about the time we were making, Rob and I took a break. We were constantly putting on bug repellant, and in general just letting the mosquito’s do their worst.
It was still early in the morning. Rob and I had made good time and even through a long series of portages in the rain, we were feeling good looking at the total distance we managed to cover.
At the entrance to Canada Jay Lake, I noticed a white container along the trail. It was a bailer kit from the Portage Store, $10 fee if not returned. I threw it in my pack hoping to find it’s owner, or at least hoping for a backup in case we ended up losing ours. It’s also nice to keep the portages clean.
We set out into Sunbeam Lake into the gray afternoon. Several campsites were on Sunbeam, so it maybe should not have surprised us as much as it did to see a human figure in the distance. This was the first person we had seen for 2 days.
The bailer kit I picked up may have been theirs. Either this, or the desire to interact with someone drove us in a direct line towards them. They were standing up on a ridge at the edge of their island campsite, looking down and in our direction. Waving as we approached, we said hello.
“You’re the first person we’ve seen in 2 days” Rob reported. As we approached the stranger, her two young children appeared on the ridge. From the boat, we took a few minutes to chat about the routes we took and the conditions on the way. Telling her our plan to get to Access Point 5 that day, she said we had a long way to go -which we knew- and that there were two options, but that we should ask her husband, because the maps weren’t accurately reflecting water levels/beaverdams. She gestured off into the distance and we could see a man in a yellow canoe paddling towards us.
Waving as his canoe slowly drifted towards us, we noticed the hull was full of gathered firewood. This family had been camped out on an island, and it seems wood was in short supply there. Telling him that our plan was to continue along the portages towards Tom Thomson Lake, he said this sounded like a good plan, since the water levels were low on the route leading towards Burnt Island. Knowing that Burnt Island is a large lake, which might make for harder paddling, and that our first full day in Algonquin involved moving from Canoe Lake to Burnt Island, we did not want to go this way again.
We said goodbye and were wished good luck with our ambitious plan to exit the park that day. A short paddle took us to the portage leading to Aster Pond. In order to get to Tom Thompson Lake, the map showed that we had a leg of 4 more portages into a number of small lakes and ponds. They weren’t as long as what we had just experienced. We were confident in our ability to push on.
Rob was in front of me, with the canoe over his head, and I was following with the food barrel. Suddenly I heard something running behind me. A flash of black and white whipped past me and ran up behind Rob. Unexpectedly, it was a Husky, who walked ahead of us on the portage. When we got to the end, we saw that the husky was accompanying a family. A young boy with a European accent we could not pinpoint, wandered around the portage with a toy bow and arrow. He took an interest in Rob and I, and wanted to show us how accurate of a shot he was. He asked us plenty of questions, and our answers sparked follow up questions. Along with him were two women, who walked without carrying any packs and a man who astonishingly walked the portage, carrying all of their packs and gear, barefooted. He did double carries so that his company did not have to carry anything.
We could tell we were making progress now that we were encountering other people. Hitting the portage into Kooy Pond, there was another group much closer in age to us. They were very friendly, and asked if we saw the “hardcore guy going barefoot”. Somehow, the shoeless man ended up passing us and wandered out into the dry bed that used to be Kooy Pond. Turning back to those of us on the trail, he informed us that the water level was too low. This added quite a bit more walking, but we knew we were close to Tom Thompson Lake at this point, and on our last portage (except for the small one near the dam at Joe Lake).
Double carrying on one of the last portages of the day, Rob and I dropped our gear packs at the entrance to Bartlett Lake. We went back to get the rest of our gear, stopping for a pause where Rob snapped a nice photo of a pitcher plant growing on the dried up shoreline. Because we had to walk around Kooy Pond, this added significantly to the length of the portage. Knowing it was our last one, we were motivated.
It was 1:30PM by the time we completed the portage and put in at Bartlett Lake. Seeing the campsites along the sides of the narrows, we could sense that we were going to make it out of the park before evening. Rob hushed me as we approached a shoreline, “There’s a beaver”.
It took me a few seconds to spot it, somewhat obscured behind young trees. We watched silently, but the canoe was drifting closer. The beaver noticed and slowly walked away, ambling up a hill as we grabbed our paddles and got ready to continue. As we approached the end of the lake, we noticed a person sitting in a folding chair on a rocky outcrop. Following our map, we continued within their vicinity and they stood up to inform us that the way was jammed, and that we’d have to veer slightly to the right. She had been sitting there for a while she told us, giving directions to everyone who made the same error.
We turned a corner and could see that the group of three we had met at Aster Pond was on a campsite, apparently taking a break. We exchanged a smile and wave and continued forward. We could see the way into Tom Thomson, because there were people now coming in the opposite direction. All we had to do was follow this direction. We passed very close to a young couple going in the opposite direction. They had mentioned that there was a beaver dam, but that they managed to paddle right through it. They suggested we try the same.
Rob could see it, and gave the signal.
We paddled extremely hard and were gliding quickly across the water. We skidded along the beaver dam at it’s absolute lowest and most accessible point without a problem. After that, we made out way into Tom Thomson and through the big open waters.
After this long day with numerous portages, my feet were starting to feel irritated. The closed toe sandal was an excellent choice for the whole trip, but a limitation revealed itself. They are not great for really long portages, or at least not for multi-day portaging, as the toe’s don’t get much of a chance to “breathe”. Either way, there was no more walking, just hard paddling against the waves.
The weather, which had remained overcast for most of the day, was starting to darken with storm clouds. It was directly behind us. In front of us: clear skies. Rob and I felt like we were racing against nature, as the weather on the lake was worsening much quicker than expected. We could hear the rain following us, and one or two rumbles of thunder.
It was around this time that we spotted the peak of the Portage Store, so we continued the long and difficult slog towards it. A loon gave a sudden call as we passed and directed the canoe towards the docks. It was busy, there were canoes piled up and lots of people coming and going. We landed the canoe like seasoned pro’s. Rob rolled out of the canoe and laid down on the dock for a moment. When we pulled in the bags and tethered the canoe, I did the same. The rain was about to start, and so we dropped off our equipment as the Portage Store employee’s checked the gear.
I came back with more than I took, since I brought back an extra bailer kit that I had picked up that morning. We still had GORP left, and I took it with me.
Rob and I took one or two last photos as we loaded the SUV. When we hit the highway, our phones received cell service again, and we both called out families to give them an update. It was around 5PM or so, and we decided to go for a meal at a place in Huntsville called Chuck’s. We had burgers and I ordered a Guiness. Clinking our glasses and reflecting on the whirlwind three day journey we had just embarked on, we knew that we would be back to do it again.