McKaskill Lake: The Long Portage

Continued from McKaskill Lake: Ice Out, Rain In. If you haven’t read that yet this is going to seem like a really strange way to begin a post.

It rained the next day. Like, all the rain. It started in the middle of the night and didn’t stop until the middle of the next night. And we’re not talking about intermittent cloud bursts or general dreariness. We’re talking about rain that just. didn’t. stop.

Calvin’s dad would say this builds character.

Fortunately for us, we were booked into the McKaskill Lake Ranger Cabin for the day/night. I can’t tell you how much easier it was to wake up Friday morning and listen to the rain beating down on the tarp over my tent knowing that I wouldn’t be spending the entire day huddled under that same tarp, writing angry letters on water logged toilet paper to whoever invented weather.

We packed up the site and made our way over to the cabin around noon. The wind and rain made for a pretty hairy crossing, and we stuck to the shoreline most of the way. At one point, when we were crossing the largest open space we would have to, I’m pretty sure I heard the wind whispering “fuck you Drew” before it pushed our boat sideways about ten feet. Or maybe that was just my buddy for dragging him into that mess. Whatever it was, I was relieved to pull up to the cabin’s landing and know that I wouldn’t have to go back out on the water again.

Roof, check. Walls, check. It’s perfect

The cabin is on a small bump on McKaskill’s south shore and has a great view of the lake. It’s a pretty basic structure: one room with two bunk beds, a wood stove, a couple of counters and a picnic table. But, and this is important, it has a roof. And it’s a roof that doesn’t leak. So it looked like a goddamned five star resort when we compared it to the other available options (tent, tarp, hollowed out Tauntaun).  We spent a fair amount of time getting the fire going in the wood stove; unsurprisingly all the wood in the area was wet. We eventually developed a system to dry out the wood (find wet wood, yell at it until it dries out, repeat) and soon the cabin was warm and cozy.

We spent the rest of the day cabin-bound. Fortunately we had picked up some Archie comics (essential trip gear, always pack an Archie) and brought along a couple of board games. The games and Archies helped pass the time, but there’s only so many rounds of Carcassone you can lose before you start questioning every choice you’ve made in life that’s brought you to this point. By nightfall cabin fever had set in and it was still raining. On the plus side, it’s not as if the weather could get any worse.

Right? RIGHT!?

Clearest view of the trip.

Along with the Archies and board games, I’d also brought my new InReach communicator. This allowed me to stay in contact with my wife, who was warm and dry in Ottawa, and who provided us with the wonderful news that it was only going to get colder and wetter as the weekend progressed. Also, it was going to snow on Sunday. Armed with that completely unwelcome yet useful knowledge, we decided on Saturday morning to cut our trip short. Neither of us had any desire to paddle out in a snow flurry; we figured we’d already built enough character for one trip.

The Road
What I wish the map had looked like.

So, having decided to leave, we were now faced with the question of how we wanted to go. Our preferred option, transporter beam, seemed unlikely as this is a technology that does not yet exist. That left paddling … or walking. My buddy had read in the cabin’s guestbook about a group that had canoe carted into the cabin along a nearby access road (actual list of things they carried in according to the guest book: 40L of beer (in a keg), 4L of wine, all the whiskey, horrendous hangovers (I assume)). On the map it looked like about a 9 KM portage if we were to go that route (putting back in, eventually, at Robin lake). That’s … a lot of portaging. But, it also meant we would avoid the open water, which was looking choppier and choppier by the minute as the wind picked up. After a conversation that went something like this:

“Walking out is totally going to suck”
“Paddling out is also totally going to suck”

We decided to try the access road because, I dunno, we’re idiots?

We walked back from the cabin to the access road, joining the road just after the km 37 marker. The thing that had pushed us towards the road options was the thought that the road would be nice and flat and obstacle free, which was totally true, except for the parts where it was super hilly and washed out. Which was a lot of parts. The road follows a hydro cut for a large part of the portage, and with the bare hills, high winds and aggressive mist it felt a bit like we were walking through the Scottish highlands. I kept expecting Sean Connery to come charging out of the hills screaming “there can only be one” but the only screaming being done was by my back.

With the rose coloured glasses of hindsight planted firmly in front of my eyes, the hydro cut part of the portage was actually pretty cool. The weather and topography along the cut made for scenery that was stark and harsh and somehow quite pretty. There’s something otherworldly about walking through clear-cut rolling hills along a barren gravel road that stretches out both ahead and behind you and looks like it’s never going to end.

Lunch of champions. And bears.

This part of the road did eventually end, however, and turned away from the hydro cut into a more sheltered area. We had a quick roadside lunch of fried salami (the choice of 2 out of 3 road adjacent bears, as my buddy kept reminding me) before pushing on to the km 29 marker where we joined up with the portage between Robin and Kinglet lake already in progress. The joy and happiness I felt at seeing that turn off was matched only by the depths of despair I felt when I saw that the last 500 metres or so that we would have to walk, the part that was along the actual portage, was entirely and relentlessly uphill. It did, however, make our eventual arrival at Robin Lake that much sweeter. I think. I was pretty delirious by that point.

Dick Grayson Lake

We sat for a few minutes at the put in to Robin Lake and watched a couple of loons swim around just offshore while they watched a couple of idiots huffing and puffing just onshore. When the spots finally faded from in front of my eyes I realized that Robin Lake actually looks like a nice spot to camp. There’s only one campsite so there’s privacy (well, except for the loons, everyone knows loons are nosy AF), and there are a couple of cool places near the portage down to Crotch where some beaver dams make it look like the lake just falls over a ledge. If you’re going to go there though, I recommend arriving by way of Crotch Lake instead of by way of McKaskill. The portage in is much less likely to give you a heart attack. But more likely to give you a beaver attack, judging by the nearby dams, so really you’re taking your life in your hands either way.

Eventually, we paddled across Robin and followed our last portage of the trip back down to Crotch Lake and the permit office (the same one we’d gone to accidentally the first day, thus bringing life full circle. Well, full weird oval shape with a couple of tangents if you’re actually looking at our route on the map). I have never been happier to see a parking lot in my entire life.

And that’s it: the first trip of 2017. Despite the shitty weather and our unintentional reenactment of The Road, I really enjoyed this trip. It felt really good to be stretching those paddling and portaging muscles again. Our site on McKaskill on the first night was great and  the McKaskill cabin is a really cool spot to spend some time. On top of that, the high waters provided some interesting sights and obstacles. And there were zero bugs. So let’s just put this one in the win column and never speak of it again.

McKaskill map118 Down.


New Lakes Paddled: 8
Total Lakes Paddled: 9
Portages: 8
Portage Distance: 13.985 KM*
Total Travel Distance: 24.4 KM*

* Approximate. I measured these distances using a twig. It was not a straight twig.

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