The title of this post is a bit misleading. Finding Carl Wilson Lake isn’t that difficult. It’s a good sized lake just west of Cedar and is easily accessible within a day’s paddle from the Brent Access Point. The portages are well marked, the lakes in between Cedar and Carl Wilson are too small to get lost on and Carl Wilson isn’t some magical lake that appears in different parts of the Park depending on the phases of the moon. Basically, it’s three for three on the “how to make a lake findable” checklist. It is, however, kind of a pain to get to in that some of those well marked portages are pretty consistently uphill in the same way that you’d consider an escalator up the side of Everest to be pretty consistently uphill. Fortunately, Carl Wilson is well worth the effort. But before we wax poetic about how great a lake it is, let’s talk a bit more about all that effort.
I was joined on this trip by a couple of buddies who drove up to meet me at the Brent access point (I was already up there having just finished my Brent Crawl up from Canoe Lake). A blanket of clouds had blown in earlier that afternoon and decided to stay for the night, bringing along a pretty thick mist to keep them company. The result was that my buddies arrived around 9:30 pm to a pitch black access point and me pointing at my canoe with a half crazed glint in my eye, promising that our site was “just” a ten minute paddle away. Ten minutes in broad daylight is one thing. Hell, ten minutes under a full moon is one thing. But ten minutes when you can’t see past the edge of your paddle without the Bat Signal is another thing altogether. Did I mention that this was one of my friends’ first backcountry Algonquin trip? I’m sure he was brimming with confidence as we made our way slowly along the shoreline with me muttering “wait, we should be there by now” every thirty seconds. Fortunately, we eventually made it to the site and, after trying, and mostly failing, to build a fire using the extraordinarily damp wood I’d gathered earlier in the day, settled into our tents for the night.
The next morning dawned grey and wet. It was one of those days where it didn’t so much rain as the air simply condensed on your skin in a constant mist that never. let. up. Paddling across Cedar was like paddling through a cloud. By the time we arrived at the Fry Lake portage we were all good and wet, but looking forward to the first portage of the day. I mentioned earlier that this was one of my buddies’ first backcountry trips. More specifically, this was his first backcountry trip to include portaging. Well, here’s a thought: If you’re introducing someone to the joys of backcountry paddling, there are probably better portages to pick for their first carry than the Cedar to Fry Lake climb. This portage is uphill the entire 1.5 KM from Cedar to Fry Lake. The terrain isn’t super friendly and, when it’s been raining for a day and a half, it’s slippery AF in more than a few places. My buddies were tandem carrying the canoe, which meant that they were trying to navigate this slippery slope while also adjusting for each other along the way. The good news is that they were both smiling when they finished and neither of them tried to dump me overboard for suggesting the route.
Fry Lake isn’t much to look at. It’s basically a small pond that, as far as I can tell, exists only to break up what would otherwise be a 2.5 KM + portage from Cedar to Gull Lake. We were across it fairly quickly and then it was on to the 1 KM portage between Fry and Gull. This is another portage that feels like it’s entirely uphill. Uphill, that is, until you get to about the 80% mark and then it’s very sharply downhill. I was carrying solo and, once again the terrain was pretty difficult. I actually lost my footing at one point and did a slow motion tumble at a place where the path slopes across a small hill. Fortunately both I and the canoe were ok. The rock that I slipped on, however, is probably still suffering from all the verbal abuse I heaped on it that day.
There’s one camp site on Gull Lake but, honestly, I don’t know why you’d want to stay there. Gull is an OK lake, but it’s nothing special. If I was looking for a private lake between Cedar and Carl Wilson there are definitely better options (that I’ll touch on later). There is a neat little island in the middle of the lake, so at least it has that going for it.
It’s a very short portage out of Gull to Glacier, and an even shorter paddle across Glacier to the next portage. We stopped at the beginning of the 345 M portage over to Camp Five Lake for some lunch and to chat with a couple of (I think German) trippers who had been staying on Carl Wilson but decided they’d rather get soaked closer to their vehicle and were heading back to Cedar for the night. While I understand the sentiment, they ended up missing out on a gorgeous night once the clouds (finally) cleared off.
The portage over to Camp Five is another short and easy carry. There’s one campsite on the west shore and there’s also a clearing in the south east corner that seems pretty clearly to be manmade. Jeff’s Map shows ruins in this area, and my guess is that this used to be the site of a logging camp (logging camp # 5, perhaps?). It could also have been the site of a band camp, but that seems less likely.
The portage between Camp Five and Varley is another long one. However, unlike the other two longer carries along this route, this portage is relatively enjoyable. It’s pretty flat, pretty clear and also happens to be the portage where we (finally) started to see some blue sky peeking through the clouds. It wasn’t much blue sky, basically a tiny swatch of colour in a vast tapestry of grey and, uh, more grey, but damn it was good to see. By the time we put in on Varley there was blue in a couple of spots and I was starting to feel cautiously optimistic that we wouldn’t have to spend the night digging trenches around our tents.
Varley is an interesting lake. There’s a ring of dead trees that completely encircles the shoreline and kinda makes it look like a perfect place to shoot a horror movie (like, I don’t know, The Lantern Lake Potato Witch Project maybe? Call me Hollywood, I’m ready). We threw out various theories as to what had caused the die off as we paddled across the lake; none of which ended up being close to the truth. It turned out that, like Mulder always said, the truth was out there. In this case, out there was at the portage leading over to Carl Wilson. Beside the portage is a pretty solid beaver dam that any beaver would be proud to take credit for. My guess is that before that dam went in, Varley Lake was a lot lower. Once the water levels started to rise, the trees along the shoreline drowned, resulting in the ring of dead forest. I have no idea if this is scientifically accurate, and am far too lazy to look it up, so we’re going to say the it is and move on to Carl Wilson (after finishing the short, easy portage over from Varley).
By the time we arrived on Carl Wilson the clouds were definitely breaking up. That was the good news. The bad news was that they were being broken up by a pretty significant headwind that was blowing down Carl Wilson from the north. I was riding in the middle of the canoe for the first part of our paddle up from the portage, and I have to admit there were more than a few times where I thought we might be about to go over as the waves crashed into us. Fortunately, no canoes were dumped until after we’d found our campsite for the night.
We ended up on the eastern shore, at a site about halfway up the lake. As far as campsites go, it was a good one: multiple tent spots, a good fire pit, fantastic swimming thanks to the the soft as silk sand bottom and a great view up and down the lake. We set up with the sun shining overhead, swam a bit, ate some dinner and enjoyed our campfire till long after the stars had come out. It think the highlight of that night was burning pieces of a newly dead pine we’d found. The wood was still pretty green, and didn’t burn that well. But, from time to time, waves of flame would race up and down the branches, seemingly burning just above the wood. Then they’d disappear as quickly as they came, leaving the wood itself untouched. If I had to guess, I’d say it was probably sap boiling through to the surface of the wood, then igniting, but again, I’m no scientist. So we’ll have to agree to call it magic and be done with it.
We woke up the next morning to an absolutely gorgeous day. Blue skies, sun shining overhead etc.. I’m sure if I’d looked hard enough I could have found a few cartoon bluebirds to sing with me as I danced through the forest. We ate a leisurely breakfast then set off to complete our loop back to Cedar.
There are three ways to access Carl Wilson. The first, and closest to Brent, is the one we used to come in the night before through Varley at the south end of the lake. There are two other routes at the north end, one of which takes you up to Little Cauchon and would be handy if you were heading further into the interior. The second route, and the one we took to get out, takes you out through Ironwood and Bug Lakes and back into Cedar by way of Little Cedar. It’s a decent route, and both Ironwood and Bug Lake are surprisingly nice, but man, a couple of those portages are something else.
The portage from Carl Wilson to Ironwood is easy enough. It’s under 400 m with a little bit of up and down but nothing too exciting. It deposits you on Ironwood, which has one campsite and would make a really nice private lake for a night. Then you get to the Ironwood to Bug Lake portage and all thoughts of private lakes disappear in a haze of sweat, sadness and swearing. Saying this portage adds some elevation would be an understatement. Basically, you start walking from Ironwood, and pretty soon you realize that climbing would be a more appropriate verb to describe what you’re doing. The trail goes up and up, getting steeper and steeper, and then, when you’re pretty sure it a) can’t go up anymore and b) can’t get any steeper it c) does both of those things. There’s about 65m of elevation change across that 760m portage and boy, do you feel it. It is, however, nice and wide with decent terrain, so at least the Algonquin Park Portage Design Committee isn’t actively trying to trip you down the hill. They save that for the next portage.
Bug Lake was, surprisingly, not buggy at all. Maybe the air’s too thin for the bugs at that lofty altitude. There are a couple of campsites on this lake but my guess is that the combination of the name and the nearly kilometer of low maintenance portage you have to climb from either direction to get there, means that if you were to book a site on Bug Lake you’d probably have the place to yourself. The portage down to Little Cedar is just as steep as the one up from Ironwood. I found the terrain less forgiving on this one, particularly the final descent towards Little Cedar that follows along what must have once been a stream bed and is now just an obstacle course of slippery rocks, mud and tears.
We arrived at Little Cedar with the sun hot and high in the sky. There was a gentle breeze blowing down from the north and it was perfect conditions for the last leg of the trip. The old CN rail bed passes along the north shore of Little Cedar, and it’s neat paddling alongside it back towards Cedar while thinking about the trains that once brought people and goods into the park chugging along through such beautiful scenery. Once back on Cedar we stopped at the first campsite on the north shore, where there are some fantastic ruins from the old Kish Kaduk Lodge. The lodge operated in the park until 1975 and there are still some impressive remnants in the area, in particular the two stone fireplaces, complete with chimneys, that still stand in the middle of a debris field of fallen walls. I highly recommend checking this site out, as well as reading up on its history here. (If you aren’t getting to Cedar any time soon, check out the many pictures of the ruins over at Tour du Park, then check out the other 80 historic locations catalogued over there. Peek’s a ruin finding machine).
After exploring the ruins we got back in the canoe and headed for the access point. We were fortunate to have a tailwind pushing us along; I don’t want to think about how awful that paddle might have been with the wind coming from another direction. We arrived at the access point at the same time that a group from Salisbury University out of Maryland was finishing up a 7 day trip that had started at Canoe Lake and ended on Cedar. This is a trip that’s open to freshman as a sort of extended frosh mixer (although after seven days without showers and, I assume, no booze, I wonder how much mixing was being done) and it was cool to see the kids paddling in. Great way to start a university career.
As for us, we were pretty happy to be back at the access point and headed towards burgers (which, FYI, are a bit of a drive away. Brent needs to bring back the 50 cent steak dinner). This ended six days in the Park for me, and it was an awesome way to spend the better part of a week. I highly recommend the loop up to Carl Wilson for anyone looking for a nice one or two night trip. There’s a bit of work involved, but the payoff is well worth the effort.
New Lakes Paddled: 9
Total Lakes Paddled: 11
Total Portages: 9
Total Portage Distance: 7.085 KM
Total Travel Distance: 30.4 KM