“The island site is really nice … but I have traumatic bear memories from there.”
“Did you hear something splashing in the water last night? It sounded pretty big.”
That first quote is from an Instagram comment on a picture I posted after returning from an overnight to Pen Lake last weekend. The second is from my buddy the morning after our overnight stay on Pen Lake’s lone island camp site last weekend. The third quote is from the bear that I now assume was watching us (and I guess taking a bath?) all night near our island site on Pen Lake last weekend. But let’s back up a bit.
This past weekend I headed out to Algonquin with a buddy for what I am guessing will be my final overnight canoe trip of the season. There’d been a very long (unplanned)¹ layoff in between my Labour Day trip and this one and I was looking forward to getting back on the water. Well, back in a canoe on the water. I can’t walk on water. Yet. The trip was actually my buddy’s idea; he’s an avid hiker but hasn’t done much canoe tripping. He wanted to get the flavor of it (tastes like campfire, sweat and just a hint of dirt) and didn’t mind sleeping outside in one degree weather, so off we went.
We decided on an overnight to Pen Lake by way of Galeairy and Rock Lake. We went in at Galeairy under grey skies and with a bit of a headwind. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of paddling Galeairy before, it’s a very large lake. It’s so large that the first time I paddled it I thought I’d paddled onto another lake at what turned out to be the halfway point of Galeairy. It takes between an hour and a half and two hours to paddle the entire thing, and can take much longer if there’s a headwind (longer still if you put aside time for waving your arms and swearing incoherently at the aforementioned headwind). There are a number of campsites all along Galeairy, and quite a few that look like they’d be good spots to stop for a night or two. This is especially true once you make your way up into the western arm of the lake. The only drawback I see to camping on this lake is that it’s open to boaters and as a result you can get motorboats puttering around. This can be noisy and it kind of takes away from the whole back to nature aesthetic when you’ve got two guys in camouflage vests swearing at sputtering outboard engine twenty feet off your campsite.
One of the interesting things about Galeairy is the amount of history surrounding the lake. Farm Bay at the western end of the eastern arm is the site of an old depot farm that would have fed the loggers in the area. According to Jeff’s Map, there are also the remains of an Alligator boat from the same period somewhere in the bay (every time I hear the word Alligator Boat I picture a pirate ship crewed by alligators waving cutlasses in the air. This is not historically accurate). On top of this, an old railroad embankment runs the length of the north/west shore along the western arm of the lake. It is, I believe, part of the same track system that ran up to Canoe Lake and beyond. I have no idea if it would be possible to follow the track all the way through the park, but if it were, it’d be a pretty awesome hike.
The portage between Galeairy Lake and Rock Lake is little more than a chance to get out and stretch your legs. There’s a dam that separates the two lakes and the portage exists so that you can carry your gear around and maybe step on the garter snakes hiding in the leaves. I’ve already touched on Rock Lake in a previous post, so I’ll just add that I found the scenery heading down towards the Pen Lake portage to be quite nice. The fall colours were on full display and there are a number of rock faces and outcrops along the water that add a nice touch of ruggedness to the landscape.
The portage between Rock and Pen is another short one, marked at around 375m. It’s well maintained, with a few boardwalks and exactly zero spear pits along the way (No Spear Pits is basically the only category on my “good portage” checklist. If I can check that off, we’re golden). From the portage there’s a short path down to Pen Falls, which is well worth a visit. Earlier in the season it would be a fantastic spot to stop for a lunch and cool off in the water. This time of year the water looks somewhat too freezinating for my liking, but the changing colours on the trees and the falls themselves still make it a picturesque spot for a break.
Pen Falls aren’t the only thing to keep an eye out for on this portage. There’s also a small length of PVC pipe in the middle of a creek at the end of the first boardwalk when you’re coming up from Rock Lake. The pipe is supposed to mark a freshwater spring. I’m not saying the water from this spring isn’t delicious, it probably is, but I’ve also seen the movie Cabin Fever on three separate occasions and if watching Rider Strong “act” his way through 90 minutes of a C level horror movie has taught me one thing, it’s that you shouldn’t drink water from random creeks you find in the middle of the woods. Also, that Rider Strong shouldn’t be asked to carry any kind of movie, unless maybe it’s his own home movie, and even then he should probably try and get Fred Savage to make a cameo. Sorry, Rider. I still loved you in Boy Meets World.
We arrived at Pen Lake with about an hour of daylight left and the clouds overhead finally starting to break up. We’d had thoughts about paddling down to some of the southern sites to check them out, one in particular had come highly recommended, but we also didn’t want to be setting up in the dark. As a result, we chose the island site opposite the Pen/Rock portage as our spot for the night. As far as sites go, it’s a pretty nice one. The island is fairly big, and the site is the only one on it, so it’s nice and private. The main site area is well maintained with a nice fire pit, plenty of flat areas for tents and very easy access to the water. My buddy brought a hammock tent (bear pinata) and found a great spot to string that up. There are good views to the north, west and east and lots of spots to go in for a dip (if it’s not mid October).
We set up, made some dinner and watched the fire before heading to our tents. This was the latest in the year I’ve ever slept outside, but I figured I’d be okay since my sleeping bag was a three season bag and I’d also brought an extra fleece blanket, just in case. Thank God for that blanket. Turns out that the makers of my sleeping bag must have meant it was good for three summer seasons, or maybe they thought “three season” was the most marketable part of the bag’s full name of “definitely not three season, like not at all”. The good news is that with the extra blanket I was actually pretty warm and able to get a good night’s sleep. And that’s more than I can say for my buddy who was warm enough, but kept getting woken up by the sound of something big splashing in the water nearby. Based on the comments I mentioned at the start of this post (like, 1400 words ago, crap. By now no one’s reading this but my mom) I figure it was either a bear, shark, or bear shark that he was hearing, with no other possible explanations. Glad I slept through it.
The next morning was absolutely spectacular. The clouds had broken up overnight and the sun was out. The fall colours were vibrant in the sunshine and the air was crisp, but not cold. We packed up and headed south on Pen to the Night Lake portage. This is a 1.6 km portage and a pretty nice one at that. My buddy carried the canoe, which was a treat for me since for the majority of my trips this summer I’ve done most or all of the carrying. This gave me a chance to actually look around the portage as I went as opposed to keeping my eyes firmly fixed on the path in front of me, looking for loose rocks, roots or portage gnomes just waiting to trip me up. There are a couple of canoe rests along the way and the elevation changes aren’t too significant. There are a couple of rocks to dodge around at the Night end of the portage, but all in all I’d say this is actually a pretty decent portage for anyone who wants to try their hand at a longer carry for the first time.
Night Lake is small, but man was it pretty. We arrived with the sun still hanging low above the eastern shore and the combination of the fall colors, the still water, the early morning sunlight and the thinning clouds against the bright blue sky made for a lovely sight at the end of the trail. It is also a place where you can get cell service (as I discovered when my phone started buzzing like a coked up honeybee to let me know the Jays had lost, which, come on phone. Good news only in Algonquin, please).
The portage between Night Lake back onto Galeairy was very short while the paddle back up Galeairy to the access point was very long. I have to admit, I don’t know if I ever need to put my paddle into Galeairy Lake again. It’s a pretty enough lake, especially in the sunlight, but it’s just such a long, exposed paddle that unless you’re camping on the actual lake itself it’d probably be better to go in at Rock Lake to access the nearby areas.
All in all, this was another great trip and a very nice way to end the season (assuming I don’t go crazy and decide to try for one more trip in November). As much as I was just criticizing Galeairy, this is a really nice beginner loop. You get to stretch your paddling muscles, you have a choice of long or short portages and the scenery/camping is top notch. I would definitely visit Pen Lake again, but maybe this time I’d steer clear of Traumatic Bear Memory Island.
New Lakes Paddled: 2
Total Lakes Paddled: 5
Total Portages: 4
Total Distance Portaged: 2.235 KM
Total Distance Covered: 32.00 KM
¹. I sneezed in early September. Usually sneezing doesn’t mean you can’t go on canoe trips for a month and a half, but when you slip a disc at the same time it can be problematic.