Here’s a helpful tip: If you’re planning a canoe trip in the Park over the Labour Day weekend, particularly one that’s going to start off from the Canoe/Smoke Lake access points, don’t wait until three days before the weekend to book your permit. If you do, you’ll find that not only is your first choice of lake booked out, so is your second through tenth choice. Your eleventh choice is closed due to a chipmunk stampede and your twelfth through fourteenth choices don’t actually exist. By the time you get down to choice number fifteen (“so, maybe we’ll just pitch a tent in the backyard? What do you mean someone already booked that out too?”) you’re left with something like Furrow Lake. Protip: if you want a friend to go on a second overnight canoe trip with you at some point, don’t make the first one a trip to Furrow Lake.
We set off from Canoe Lake and paddled north. There’s a fork at the northern end of Canoe Lake, offering you the choice of heading right towards Joe Lake or left up Potter Creek. It’s basically the Park’s version of a choose your own adventure story, but hopefully with fewer options that end in some kind of untimely demise or abrupt and nonsensical deux ex machina. We chose the Potter Creek option, and went directly to page 63.
Page 63: Potter’s Creek follows an old interior road up and past a few interesting landmarks from the Park’s earlier days. In the early 1900s there were a number of small towns in this part of the park. That number was 2. Mowat stood on the western shore of Canoe Lake and Brule stood on the northern shore of (surprise!) Brule Lake. A railroad connected Mowat and Brule to the rest of the world and and as you paddle up Potter Creek you pass the site where the Canoe Lake station once stood. Towards the beginning of the creek you also pass under (well, through) the remains of an old wooden bridge that at one time people actually drove across to get to the cottages and homes around Mowat. Which is just nuts. Looking at the remains of the bridge, I can’t imagine crossing that thing on a scooter, let alone some 1950s tank with speed fins and a salmon paint job. Regardless, it’s cool to see theses pieces of the Park’s history still standing and that alone makes the trip up Potter Creek worthwhile in my opinion.
Once you reach the end of the first segment of Potter Creek you come to another choice. There’s a short 390 m portage that takes you further north and puts you back on the Creek (not Dawson’s, Potter still), or there’s a much longer 1.5km portage that takes you northwest and puts you onto Rainbow Lake by way of Maybe Pond. Both routes will eventually deposit you on Potter Lake, but only one promises you the fun of many kilometers of unmaintained portages and low water drags. If you choose to spend the next three hours slogging along those portages and wondering why you didn’t just stick with the creek, go to page 97. If you choose to just stick with the creek, congratulations, you win.
Page 97: The portage off of Potter Creek to Rainbow advertises itself as “the new and shorter route to Rainbow”. Someone has literally written this on the portage sign, as if some ad exec with a sharpie happened by and decided this was the perfect opportunity to make sure their dish soap marketing skills don’t get rusty while they’re on vacation. I’ve never taken the (presumably) older and longer route to Rainbow, but I can say that this particular portage feels a lot longer than the 1.5 km marked on the sign. It isn’t particularly difficult, it just feels like it should be over about 500 meters before it actually ends. This portage also continued this trip’s fun theme of presenting us with choices, both of which seemed equally ok. At about the halfway point it looks like you have two options, go to page 48 and continue straight ahead or go to page 872 and veer left. We went to page 872, which ended up being the right choice, but the way isn’t obvious.
Although the portage sign promises Rainbow Lake, it actually ends on Maybe Pond. As far as I can tell, Maybe Pond is short for Maybe Don’t Bother With This Pond Because It’s A Cesspool Of Mud And Tears. Not that you can avoid it if you want to go this route, but be prepared to take a while getting across if the water level is low. The portage ends at a jumble of sun bleached logs that look like they’ve been there so long they’ve petrified. The muck here is really deep, more than waist high in places beneath a thin layer of water, so you can’t really carry the canoe any further. However, it’s thick enough, and the water shallow enough, that you can’t get in the canoe either because it won’t go anywhere. We ended up jumping from log to log like the world’s least graceful log drivers, pushing the canoe deeper into the pond with our paddles. Eventually we reached a point where we could get in the canoe and paddle the rest only to have a bit of a repeat performance on the other end of the pond, although the ground here was firmer. So, I guess the moral of this story is Maybe Pond sucks.
Rainbow Lake, however, doesn’t suck. It’s very pretty and with only one canoe access campsite (there are also some hiking campsites off the western arm) it provides seclusion that’s not easy to find this close to Canoe Lake. It’s a straight paddle up Rainbow to the next portage, where the sign looks like it hasn’t been updated since the park was opened in 1893. It’s faded to a pale yellow that’s almost white, and whatever tree it was originally attached to has gone to that great lumber mill in the sky. In its place, someone has helpfully jammed the sign into the branches of a young pine whose needles pretty much obscure it from view from the water. On the plus side, the ink is so faded that even if someone had written “hey, this next portage is actually pretty hard to follow” it wouldn’t be visible, so at least you’d have that fun little surprise still there to find out for yourself.
There are no campsites on either Loft Lake or Ground Hog Lake. I don’t know why that’s the case, particularly for Loft Lake as to me it looks like a nice place to spend a night. I suppose the water is a bit shallow (particularly the last 100-200 meters leading into the Ground Hog portage), so maybe the lack of sites is related to water quality concerns. Or maybe the team that got sent up to build a site on these lakes got lost in Maybe Pond. I don’t know. Both seem possible.
From Ground Hog Lake we followed an 850m portage that took us out at about the halfway point on Potter Lake. There are remains of an old footbridge across a creek at about the quarter point of the portage. I’m not sure if it’s a relic from when people would have been using this part of the park regularly in travel between Brule and Mowat, something left over from the logging days or something more recent, but it’s a neat little ruin to stumble across (literally) in the middle of the woods.
Potter’s a nice enough lake, although we didn’t spend much time there. After a short break at the end of the portage for a snack, we paddled north to the Brule portage, the entrance to which is hidden behind a large beaver dam (the first of many on the day). The portage between Potter and Brule is actually just the Brule road. This is nice as it’s a very easy 750m carry between the two lakes. It’s also, apparently, a popular roadside lunch destination for the discerning moose. About halfway across the portage there was a tremendous rumble in the woods directly beside us and a moose the size of a moose exploded out of the undergrowth. Fortunately, it turned and ran down the road ahead of us instead of running us down in the road. To say that my heart skipped a beat would be to imply that at this point it was beating at all, which would probably be inaccurate since I’m pretty sure it just stopped altogether for a few minutes there. Regardless, once the moose had run a safe distance from us, and we had checked our underwear, we agreed it was actually a pretty cool thing to have seen.
Brule Lake was once the site of the town of Brule. It’s a very pretty lake that would be a great place to spend a night as it is a decent size and fairly private. There are only two campsites, both of which are on the southern half of the lake. The meadow where the town once stood is on the northern side, and even though we didn’t find any ruins, it’s still worth a visit to the spot. Brule is also a bit of a crossroads, as you can access it from north, south, east or west. Furrow is to the west, accessible by following Potter Creek again as it takes a hard turn west.
At this point Potter Creek becomes more difficult to navigate than it was further south. There are a number of beaver dams that you have to pull over (including one directly beneath a bridge that leaves you about three feet of clearance) and there eventually comes a point where the creek bed gets so shallow and rock strewn that the only real option is to get out and wade, pushing the canoe in front of you. You know the look in someone’s eye that says “I may forgive you for this, but I’ll never forget. Also, I hate you.”? That’s what I was seeing in my buddy by this point as we stumbled through the knee high water, tripping over rocks and wondering how so little water could be so damned cold on such a hot day.
We eventually came to the start of the Furrow portage, but instead of going across immediately we dropped our canoe and gear and continued wading up the creek. This was because we were looking for Brown’s Falls, marked on Jeff’s Map as being a popular destination for the residents of Brule back in the day. We found it not far past the portage. The water wasn’t running high , so the falls is more a collection of mini falls and some large stumbles. Regardless, it’s well worth the extra time for a visit, no matter what the water levels. It’s a very peaceful spot to sit and relax in the sun while listening to the water pour down the rocks and my buddy mutter under his breath about creeks and rocks and screw you Drew.
After we’d had our fill of the Falls we went back to the portage over to Furrow. The start of this portage makes it look like it’s going to be a much worse carry than it actually is. There’s a tree down about twenty metres up and right after there’s a steep uphill with rocks all over the place. After that it’s not a bad portage, despite it being just over a km of unmaintained trail. And then you arrive at Furrow Lake. Which … I just … *Sigh*.
There are two campsites marked on Furrow Lake. One is on the north shore towards the center of the lake, just across from the portage up to Falcon Lake. It might have once been a very lovely place to stop for the night, but that was before the fire. It’s now a collection of ash, charcoal and charred/downed trees that no longer resembles a campsite unless you’re living in some post-apocalyptic world and you’re looking for a place to finally stop running that even the zombies will avoid. Maybe not even then. The second site is halfway down the creek that leads into the portage over to Lady Slipper Lake. It’s on a small island that includes exactly zero flat spaces, the worst firepit ever constructed and a demon chair that haunts my nightmares every time I close my eyes. If you pick the post apocalyptic wasteland go to page 109 and maybe also pick up the Zombie Survival Guide. If you pick the creek site go to page 128 and get ready for disappointment.
Page 128: We stayed on site two. Our tent was pitched on a 20 degree angle. The water lapping gently at the rocks in front of us was a shade of brown outside of a teapot that’s been left to steep for a week. There were weird little white bugs. So many weird little white bugs. Like, all the weird little white bugs. But, even in the middle of an angle sleeping, swampwater slopping, bug infested hellhole, there can still be beauty. Like, tremendous beauty. I woke up the next morning as the sun was rising and wandered over to the other side of the island because, well, it was there. And what I found was spectacular. The island backs onto a wide meadow of tall grass and stunted trees. The meadow was full of tiny white winged moths fluttering in between stands of grass. The trees were laced with dew covered spiderwebs glittering like diamonds (CLICHE ALERT) in the sunrise. Behind all this a fine mist was rising off the creek winding through the meadow, casting a soft filter for the early morning sunlight. It was perfect. Which was good. Because, barring that ten minutes of serenity, Furrow Lake kinda sucked.
After a quick breakfast we left Furrow and went back the way we came. The creek between Furrow and Brule was better going the other way, but mostly because we decided to wade with the canoe instead of getting in an out every three minutes to drag over another shallow spot. We followed Brule down to Potter Lake but instead of branching off at the portage to Groundhog Lake, we went paddled all the was down to the bottom of Potter. We had decided to go back a slightly different route than we came up, portaging down to Potter Creek then paddling a very small distance on the creek before taking a 2km portage over to Tepee Lake.
The portage to Tepee was surprisingly difficult. The path was mostly clear, but there seemed to be a fair amount of up and down. The first few hundred metres in particular are a very steep, uphill climb. The portage ends by passing behind Camp Arowhon, which I’d never seen up close before but looks like a pretty nice and well-maintained camp. From Tepee we paddled south onto Joe Lake, past the Joe Lake cliffs (if you’re ever heading north on a day trip, the cliffs are a great place to stop for a swim and a snack), over the Joe Lake portage and back down Canoe Lake (I’ve touched on all these lakes in previous posts, and this is long enough as it is, so, yeah).
All in all, it was an interesting trip. The water levels at certain points along our route made life more difficult than I would have liked. This might be a better route to take in the spring when the water is higher, although the water was actually pretty high for Labour Day. That being said, I do recommend getting up to Brule and Brown’s Falls. Both are well worth the trip (and aggravation in the case of Brown’s Falls).
108 down. More to go.
New Lakes Paddled: 7
Total Lakes Paddled: 13
Total Portages: 12
Total Distance Portaged: 10.410 KM
Total Distance Covered: 40.10 KM