Sunbeam Circuit(ish)

Setting off with the sun rising in the east. As it usually does. Almost always, actually.

Early June in Algonquin Park has a lot going for it. The trees are in full bloom, the animals are back from whatever it is that animals do during the winter (audition for Disney movies or sit around the burrow brainstorming ways to get into food barrels, I assume), the water is swimmable(ish)and while the Park isn’t empty, there are certainly fewer people out and about than there would be at the end of the month or into July and August. It’s the perfect time of year to visit some of the Park’s more popular lakes without worrying about finding a decent site or tripping over other, uh, trippers, on each portage. Which is why for this trip I decided to head up to Sunbeam Lake.

Sunbeam is beautiful¹. Close enough to Canoe Lake that it can be reached in one day, Sunbeam is accessible by a number of routes. I chose to head up by way of Tom Thomson and Bartlett, mostly because it is the route I vaguely remembered taking 17 years ago when I was a Counsellor-in-Training at Camp Ahmek. Back then I was chauffeuring six wildly unhelpful 6-8 year olds with questionable personal hygiene and an encyclopedic knowledge of Pokemon. There was less swearing this time around. Just.

Is it the Joe Lake Portage or the Mosquito Apocalypse? Surprise! It’s both!

I started on Canoe Lake at sunrise and headed north. That time of day, the water is still and it was a quick paddle to the Joe Lake portage. The portage between Canoe and Joe is short, flat and fast. The path is so clear you could probably do it with your eyes closed, or, as the case was this time for me, half blinded by a cloud of mosquitos hovering around your head. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was going to become a theme for the trip: pull up to the portage, breathe a sigh of relief at the break from paddling, spit out the fistful of mosquitos that just flew into my mouth, repeat.

Following the Little Oxtongue River North towards Tom Thomson. The lake, not the artist. That’d be creepy.

Once on Joe it’s a bit of a paddle to the next true portage between Tom Thomson and Bartlett (sorry, beaver dam between Tom Thomson and Little Doe, you don’t count. Try harder next time).  Joe Lake turns into Tepee Lake turns into Fawn Lake turns into Little Doe Lake. It’s about five kilometres on the water up to the turnoff to Tom Thomson and, owing to the lack of wind, it was a fairly easy paddle. I saw quite a few birds en route, but no animals at all. That was another theme for the trip: the animals may be back in the Park, but they’re avoiding me like my date on prom night. I’m hoping I’ll see at least one non-highway 60 moose by the time this summer is done.

By the time I was through Tom Thomson and Bartlett and at the beginning of the next portage I was feeling pretty good. I’d been on the water for just under two hours and the travel times on my map (Jeff’s Maps, can’t recommended them highly enough) said it should be closer to three. I figured I’d be up to Sunbeam in half an hour and probably be back home in time for lunch. Then I came to this:

This is the place where canoes go to die.
Where FML Pond drops the “Pond” part and just becomes FML

On the official Park map this pond is unnamed. Jeff’s Map has it called Kooy Pond. On the portage sign leaving Bartlett someone scrawled FML Pond. That works. The good news is that the place is so frustrating that even the mosquitos don’t want to be there. The bad news is that you’re basically poling yourself across a thin layer of water over a much thicker layer of muck. Eventually the water just gives up and decides to try its luck somewhere else, letting the muck win. At that point I ended up portaging through ankle deep crap trying to decide whether I’d rather have my blood drained by the mosquitos or the leeches, because if it wasn’t going to be one it would be the other.

Between FML Pond and Sunbeam are a couple of smaller lakes, Willow Lake and Aster Pond. There are no campsites on Willow, which is a shame, because it’s actually very pretty. Of course, at that point I was so happy to see a body of water more than a half inch deep I probably would have thought a sewage reservoir was pretty if I could get across it without my paddle sinking to its shoulders in the mud.

I arrived at Sunbeam mid morning. As soon as I put my canoe in the water and looked around I knew that the trip had been well worth the frustration. As I said earlier, Sunbeam is beautiful. You could easily spend a day or two camped there, enjoying the water and using it as jumping off place to explore nearby lakes. There is a campsite on the island facing the Vanishing Pond portage that is just perfect. Beautiful views, lots of shade, great spots for swimming. It’s the only site on the island, so lots of privacy. Well, lots of privacy unless you happen to be camping there when I come along and ask if it’s ok to take a quick break. Then it’s a site with beautiful views, lots of shade and a random guy swimming off the rocks behind you.

The guy I spoke with who was camped on that site seemed pretty nice, what with him sharing his space with a complete (albeit handsomely bearded) stranger. He mentioned that the Park staff he had spoken with at the permit office warned them that the water levels between Vanishing Pond and Bluejay Lake could be low, making the route that way impassable. That was a bit of a concern because that was exactly how I was planning on getting home. So I cut my break short and left for the Vanishing Pond portage, figuring I’d need the extra time if I ended up having to backtrack.

Vanishing Pond: totally visible right now.

Fortunately, low water was not a problem at all along that stretch. The water was plenty deep and (mostly) clear of obstructions. I had a couple of lift-overs where some industrious beaver had decided to make my life more difficult, but very little dragging or swearing was required. If there’s any downside it’s that the route along the creek between Vanishing Pond and Bluejay is narrow and winding; it took the better part of an hour to cover what would have been a relatively short paddle if the way was clear. I still recommend going down that way; there’s something very satisfying about gliding between  rows of creek grass, the only sound your canoe scraping through the reeds and your paddle cutting through the water.

View from beneath the canoe on the Burnt Island – Little Doe portage

By the time I had crossed Blue Jay, which feeds back in to Little Doe, I was feeling very tired and very hungry. And my collection of Power Bars and, well, more Power Bars, was not doing the job. I still had the Little Doe to Baby Joe portage (approximately 900 m) in front of me and approximately zero desire to do it. Fortunately, that portage is one of the most user-friendly portages in the park. For a relatively long carry it doesn’t feel that bad. The boardwalks over the muddiest bits are a tremendous help and the wide, sandy beach at the Baby Joe end is a fantastic place to collapse in the water and seriously question whether you want to go on or if maybe you should just live here from now on. Eventually I dragged myself out of the water and set off; a variety of lakes named Joe between me and home.

They call the Canoe Lake to Burnt Island corridor that runs up through the Joe lakes the Park’s “Main Street” for good reason: I saw more people paddling down the Joes than I had the entire rest of the trip. My favourite were the two guys wandering along the portage between Baby Joe and Little Joe with beer in hand, looking for Lost Joe, but with no canoe at either end of the portage or hint about how they had even got out there.

I took my final break on a campsite across from Arowhon Pines. It’s not a particularly nice site, but it did have a pine tree and some relatively flat ground beneath that pine tree.

Given my tired state (read: total exhaustion), it felt like the equivalent to a room in  a four star hotel. I was more than happy to lean against that pine for the better part of an hour while I wished I had brought more lunch, and maybe a bed.

A perfect day to be on the water. Well, in a canoe on the water. I don’t float that well.

From the site on Little Joe it was a straight paddle up Joe Lake back to the Joe Lake portage. Nine hours later that flat 240m path didn’t look nearly as inviting as it had when I’d set out that morning, but I made it back across. The mosquitos were very happy to see me back for seconds.

All in all, it was a great day for tripping. The water was perfect, the sun was warm but not too hot, the wind stayed low pretty much all day and the ravenous mosquito swarms helped me get across the portages faster.

On a serious note, I did make one rookie error with this one. I typically eat very light meals before I exercise, which is fine if you’re going to spend an hour at the gym, but not a great idea if you’re heading out for a full day of paddling and portaging. In case you’re wondering, a banana for breakfast and a backpack full of Power Bars doesn’t quite cut it when you’re pushing yourself for nine hours straight. What I took from this trip, along with some fantastic memories and all the preconditions for some mild impetigo, is the realization that for my next trip I need to eat better beforehand, and bring twice as much food as I think I’ll need. Or maybe just the entire fridge.

Canoe Lake to Sunbeam and the FML Pond sign together at last.

Twenty down, eighty to go.

Canoe Lake to Sunbeam and Back

New Lakes Paddled: 14
Total Lakes Paddled: 16
Total Portages: 11
Total Distance Portaged: 4.085 km
Total Distance Covered: 30.6 km
Mosquitos Flattened: Untold Millions

¹. I’m wracking my brains trying to come up with new and creative ways to call a lake “beautiful”, since I seem to do that for every lake I paddle on. I’m like Chris Harrison clinking his wine glass and promising that next episode will be the most dramatic episode ever.²
². If that reference is lost on you, you’re lucky.




5 thoughts on “Sunbeam Circuit(ish)

  1. Nicely paddled and written Drew!

  2. Thanks for this! I went to Arowhon for many years, and have tripped all over the park, but never did Sunbeam Circuit.

    I remember hearing horror tales of Junior Boys being up to their necks in mud (I’m guessing at Vanishing Pond).

    Will be at the Pines this summer, and hope to do more or less the same for day trip.. but going the ‘long way’ to Sunbeam and Burnt (I don’t think gf will appreciate the ‘vanishing’ aspect).

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