One of my favourite trips from last summer was an overnight to and around the Barron Canyon (we stayed on Cork Lake. It was awesome). There’s something about that part of the Park that feels like you’ve paddled into a secret spot that no one else knows about (well, there are always tonnes of people there, so I guess it’s a secret spot that everyone else knows about). Regardless, it’s a beautiful area to trip through and one that I was happy to revisit when a couple of buddies and I decided to do a weekend trip in mid September of this year.
We arrived at the Achray access point at around noon on the Friday. Our plan was to get over to Stratton and hopefully find a nice spot to set up for the weekend. There was a point where we’d been planning on staying on different lakes each night of the trip, but then again, there was also a point in my life where I thought Sun-In, army pants and a oversized Marilyn Manson T-shirt was the height of fashion. Things change. I realized that we could set up on Stratton for both nights, and still do all the exploring we’d wanted to do without having to lug our gear along the (rocky, narrow and kinda ankle-breaky) portages along the way. So we set off on Grand Lake with Stratton in mind. The sun was shining, the sky was blue and the canoe was floating right side up. You can’t really ask for more.
I’m far too lazy to go back and read what I wrote last year, so I may repeat a few tips here or there, starting with this one: the portage over to Stratton is down a small river at the south end of Grand Lake. Thanks to the angle of the opening and the perspective across the water, it’s kind of hard to see the entry to the river as you paddle south across Grand. This will perhaps lead you to question whether the river even exists. Maybe the river is a metaphor for all the things in life that you are forever searching for but will never find? Maybe the river is that guy/girl from second period Algebra you never got up the courage to talk to back in 10th grade who ended up going to prom with your best friend and it didn’t really work out for them but maybe it would have for you if you’d just – oh, wait, it’s none of those things. The river’s right there, you just had to paddle a bit more to see the opening.
We made our way across the portage over to Stratton Lake in short order. I say short order, but it was long enough for me to pick up a pack the wrong way and royally piss off my lower back which, after a quick conference with my glutes to confirm core solidarity, decided to go on strike.. As a result, my lower back spent the rest of the weekend marching angrily back and forth across my spine shouting poorly constructed slogans like “lift with your legs, not with your back, for the rest of this weekend, you’ll feel like crap”. I dunno, my back’s not super great at rhyming. It is great at letting me know when I’ve pissed it off though.
We paddled down Stratton to the far end, enjoying the summer weather (despite it being mid September). We were hoping to find a site that was close to both the St. Andrew’s portage and the High Falls waterslide area, and we did exactly that. We got a great point site across from the St. Andrew’s portage right at the mouth of the bay that leads up to the High Falls area. It’s a great spot, with good views in pretty much every direction, good tent spots and a decent fire pit. Pretty much the only downside was that firewood was in short supply, but that was easily fixed by paddling along the shoreline. I have to admit, I wasn’t sure how much I’d like camping on Stratton. On the map the camp sites look pretty bunched up, and you definitely do see and hear your neighbours, but despite all that it’s still a very nice spot to set up for a night or two. There’s something comforting about looking up and down the shoreline and seeing the orange glow of different campfires to remind you that you’re not alone.
We set up camp and decided to do a bit of exploring. While I’d seen a lot of the lakes in the area when I came through last year, I hadn’t seen them all. I figured this was a perfect chance to fix that, so we set off for St. Francis Lake, a small, out of the way spot a few lakes east of Stratton.
We left our site and headed over to the St. Andrew’s portage. This is a 45m lift over that exists to take you around a shallow, rocky creek that connects Stratton and St. Andrew’s. The portage is so short there really isn’t any reason to try and paddle through the creek, especially with so many rocks waiting just below the waterline to scratch the crap out of your canoe. Speaking of which, anyone know a good canoe painter, because we tried to paddle through the creek and scratched the crap out of the canoe. This was the first of many times on this trip that we took a look at a portage around some fast water, decided to be heroes, then ended up stuck about 3/4 of the way down the fast water wishing we’d listened to the portage sign.
We got through the creek (eventually) and paddled across the bottom of St. Andrew’s to our next portage, a 570 m carry over to Rouge Lake. This portage starts in the south east corner of St. Andrew’s, and is directly beside the start of a low maintenance 4 km portage down to Tarn Lake. So, yeah, if you’re going to Rouge make sure you take the right path. Or, more accurately, don’t take the right path since that’s the one that goes to Tarn. Take the left path. Left is right. This is confusing.
The good news is that, assuming you’ve made it onto the right (left) path, the portage over to Rouge Lake follows an old rail bed and is flat, wide and easy. The bad news is that this flat, wide and easy portage ends at Rouge Lake. To picture Rouge Lake just imagine a roadside ditch, but like 25x wider. Throw in a shallow, muddy bay choked with lily pads and a slight whiff of sulphur and you’re pretty much there. Rouge’s report card is just a big red D with the words “Come On” scrawled on the page beside it.
Rouge isn’t very big, so we were across it in good time. The portage up to St. Francis starts on a flat, grassy bank and then goes up and over the railway bed. Unlike the Rouge Lake portage, this is a true portage. It’s marked as low maintenance on the map but, although the first 100 metres or so are kind of overgrown, I found it to be in good shape. There wasn’t too much elevation change and the path was clear enough. It’s longer, just under a kilometre, but we got across it pretty quickly and soon found ourselves on St. Francis.
St. Francis is definitely worth the effort. It’s a decent sized lake with only one campsite. It’s also a dead end, meaning that if you want yourself a really private lake that’s not too far from the access point, this is a great option. We weren’t able to actually check out St. Francis’s lone site as someone else had already set up there, but it looked nice enough from what I could see from the water. We paddled around for a bit before heading back the way we came with the goal of getting back to Stratton with at least a couple hours of daylight left.
Once back on Stratton we made our way up to High Falls for a late afternoon swim. For those who haven’t been up this way before, this is a perfect little swimming hole that connects Stratton to High Falls lake, complete with a natural water slide but, sadly, no natural water trampoline. Yet. You get to it by paddling to the top of the small bay that juts north off Stratton’s east end. There are a couple of paths that lead through the woods to a wide open rocky area with various levels of swimming holes. The holes are connected by a small set of falls which includes about ten(ish) feet of sloped rock face that has been worn smooth over the years by the water rushing downstream. The result is a perfect little waterslide that shoots you out into the swimming hole like a tremendously uncoordinated penguin sliding down an ice floe. It’s fun.
We arrived with the sun closing in on the trees to the west. There were only a couple of other folks enjoying the falls at this point, and they left pretty quickly. The result was that we got the entire thing to ourselves, which was awesome. We spent the better part of an hour sliding and swimming and enjoying the end of the afternoon. For anyone planning a trip to this part of the park, put this down at the top of your must see list, then stop writing that list and go directly to High Falls. I don’t care if it’s February when you read this. That’s what wetsuits are for.
That night we enjoyed a pleasant evening sitting beside our (very poorly tended and ultimately completely unsuccessful) fire playing Animalopoly. What is Animalopoly, you ask? Animalopoly is the answer to the age old question “what if we made Monopoly, but like with animals and stuff?” I don’t actually know how we ended up with the game. It was on sale in the permit office when we checked in, and ten minutes later we were back in the car with both our permits and the game (also a copy of Roy MacGregor’s Northern Light). The ten minutes in between are just gone. That’s how Animalopoly gets you. Anyways, it was awesome and I totally won the first half of both games we played that weekend, and that’s all that matters. I’m sure the Atlanta Falcons agree.
I crawled into my tent that night under a starry sky and with the sound of a late night loon echoing in my ears. Our plan the next day was to day-trip along the Cascades to the Barron Canyon and back out. We were covering a lot of ground I’d already seen the year before, but did have one new lake on the list to be crossed off. I drifted off to sleep with thoughts of waterfalls and canyon walls drifting through my head and through them all one overriding question. How oozy would Ooze Lake be?
Very, it turns out. But that’s a story for another day.