Year in Review – The Good, The Bad and The Unicorn Hill

It’s December. Right now there’s a four foot tall inflatable Troll on my front lawn. She’s holding a candy cane and has a tendency to fall over in a light breeze.  I’ve caught my three year old taking ornaments off our Christmas tree and trying to feed them to our six month old twice already. It snowed a couple days ago and I get the feeling that this is the kind of snow that arrives with a U-Haul stuffed full to the brim with everything it’ll need to move in to the neighbourhood for the next six months, asking if we mind if it invites its friend ice and windchill to hang out for a bit. In other words, paddling season’s over.

img_2388However, just because I won’t be making any more canoe trips this year, doesn’t mean I can’t take a trip down memory lane (I’ll just pause here and let that golden nugget of wordplay sink in). I had another fantastic summer of paddling. I ended up crossing 42 new lakes off my list, which was a bit more than I’d hoped for and meant I got to see a lot more  of what Algonquin has to offer (awesomeness. It has awesomeness to offer).

Those of you who were around last year might remember the Moosie Awards. Basically, it was a way for me to go over the highlights (and lowlights) of the year while also shoehorning in a bunch of Friends references. Consider these posts the second annual Moosie Awards, albeit with a slightly different structure. This first post will go over some of the best and worst moments from each trip, while the next post will be where I declare the official winners in such hotly contested categories as Worst Portage, Best Campsite and Favourite Trip Route. I’ve got Price Waterhouse guarding the results, so don’t be surprised if La La Land wins most of the categories.

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Not the kind of water canoes work best with.

Paddling season started for me a couple of weeks after ice out. I’ve never actually seen the ice go out in the Park, but I picture it as a horde of little icicles marching down highway 60 with their hobo sticks slung over their shoulders, singing like they’re the seven dwarfs on the way back to their (mines? logging camp? What exactly did the dwarfs do?). Regardless of how it happened, the ice did go out and it left behind some extremely high water conditions. Add in the about six metric tonnes (approximate) of rain that feel in early May, and the possibility (well, probability) that it was going to snow a bunch, and you’ve got terrible godawful abysmal interesting conditions for the first trip of the year.

This trip took me to the Shall Lake access point just north of Madawaska in the eastern half of the Park. You can, of course, read about the trip in all its glory here, but the short version is that it rained a lot, snowed a bit and I now have at least one friend who I’m pretty sure I’ll never be able to convince to come paddling with me before Canada Day again. While we actually had pretty decent conditions for our paddle in to McKaskill Lake, the weather turned the first night and after that … ugh. It rained constantly for the rest of the (shortened) trip.  The only time it wasn’t raining is when the rain had turned into light snow. Which, fyi, wasn’t an improvement.

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The McKaskill Ranger Cabin

We were fortunate in that we were booked into the McKaskill Lake ranger cabin for the second night, which at least provided us with a roof and wood stove. I can’t even begin to imagine what it would have been like in a tent that night. Seriously, I try to imagine it and my mind shuts down and the next thing I know it’s four hours later and my wife is asking me why I scribbled “oh God no” on the walls all around me. Regardless, even with the roof and wood stove, one night was enough. We decided to cut the trip short and head back to the access point. Which brings us to a strong contender for one of my favourite awards, Worst Portage, because we decided to head back to the access point on foot, which meant a 9 km portage along an access road in the wind and rain. I’ve had better ideas. By the time we were out I was pretty sure my buddy was never going to speak to me again, let alone go paddling with me. On the plus side, we got to have a roadside fried salami and cheese sandwich that was to die for. So it kinda worked out.

After that trip I needed a couple of months to recover and  for my gear to dry out (and, also, to hang out with our new baby girl who was born in June), so I didn’t get back out into the Park until mid July. That was a quick, day trip to Sec Lake with my two oldest kids and my sister and her partner. I don’t know how many of you have paddled or portaged with a two and a half year old, but it turns out that it’s hard to cover too much distance when the other person in your canoe is throwing everything they can overboard, then laughing as you nearly dump the boat trying to rescue their paddle/water bottle/shoe. Anyways, it was a fun outing, but beyond my second straight unplanned portage down an access road, and a brief side trip to the most accurately named lake in the park (Wet Lake) and the most Norm named lake in the park (Norm’s Lake),  there wasn’t much exploring done on this trip.

There was, however, some exploring done on my next trip. This one came in mid August and was my big trip for the year. I spent the better part of seven days travelling across the Park, starting from Canoe Lake and making my way up to and around Cedar Lake. This stretch started with an overnight to Joe Lake with my daughter, a sort of make up trip for the Sec Lake one that was cut short due to my inability to distinguish between a bug bite and a life threatening head injury (it was a bug bite). We paddled over to Joe, ate some hotdogs and marshmallows and swam until we were equal parts water and more water. We also saw a moose and its mooselet swimming down the middle of Joe, before coming ashore near us for an evening snack. Between that and the absolutely gorgeous sunrise we got the next morning there was a lot of cool nature stuff packed into that overnight.

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Sunshine on Sunbeam. Not bad.

After I’d dropped my daughter back at Canoe Lake, I turned my canoe north for the Brent Crawl, three days of solo paddling up to Cedar Lake. I made my way up through Sunbeam to Grassy Bay and White Trout where I stopped for the first night. That day brought a mix of sun and cloud (read: massive thunderstorms), strong contenders for the worst portage of the year (hate is not a strong enough word to describe how I feel about the portages from Sunbeam to Canada Jay to Hawkins. Let’s go with super hate), and a very nice little campsite on White Trout Lake which gave me a great sunset and, surprisingly, cell reception.

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Heading towards Big Trout. And bad decisions.

The second leg of that trip took me from north from White Trout through Big Trout and Longer Lake to Burntroot … and then much further. This leg introduced me to Snake Ivy Run, a small 40m portage between Longer and Red Pine Bay that’s covered in poison ivy and snakes.  This leg also introduced me to the joys of running rapids instead of portaging (note: when I say rapid I mean slightly faster than normal water. Anything harder than that I define as terrifying).  Finally, this leg introduced me to my own very flawed decision making process as I time and again made the wrong choice, stretching an easy 20k day into a not so easy 30k+ day that ended with me shooting a blind rapid into Catfish lake with the sun setting and the nagging suspicion that I might be having a heart attack. Anyways, it was a long day.

The third and final leg of the Brent Crawl was notable in that it brought me contender number three for the worst portage of the summer in the form of Unicorn Hill, which is a side trip through hell in between Narrowbag Lake and the Petawawa River. It also brought me to Cedar Lake for the first time, introducing me to one of my favourite lakes of the summer as well as a lot of really interesting Park history and some pretty exceptional waterfalls. For those who haven’t been, Cedar Lake is enormous. No matter where you are on the lake, you’re probably only looking at at best half of it. It can get pretty gnarly in the wind, but the options for exploring in the area make it well worth braving the hundred foot tall (estimated) waves that can spring up on a breezy day.

Following my Brent Crawl I spent a day exploring in and around the town of Brent as well as a couple of small lakes just off of Cedar. While it was a pleasant enough semi rest day (notwithstanding my run in with the Lantern Lake Potato Witch) I was really just killing time waiting for a couple of buddies to arrive so that we could make our way over to Carl Wilson Lake for the weekend.

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Swimming in Carl Wilson. Best underwater beach I’ve seen.

That trip to Carl Wilson is a strong contender for my favourite trip of the summer. I wouldn’t have guessed that starting out; the weather was pretty miserable and the first couple of portages off of Cedar up through Fry and Gull are the opposite of awesome. It’s still an interesting route in, particularly the last two lakes before Carl Wilson which offer snapshots of the Park’s history (Camp Five Lake) and its beaveristory (Varley Lake). And, most importantly, Carl Wilson is worth the effort, especially if you happen to arrive as the clouds are clearing after a long day of tripping through a seemingly never ending, soul-sucking wall of mist. It’s a gorgeous lake that’s quite big, but feels secluded due to the low number of campsites. The site we stayed on is another contender for favourite campsite of the summer and I would love to head back there some day,  maybe after they invent portage robots.

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Radiant Lake. Also sand and a tent. Hopefully not sand in a tent.

My next trip was a weekender with a few buddies from work. We went in to Radiant Lake for the weekend and I’m kinda surprised we ever left. As you may recall, this summer was less than optimal as far as weather was concerned. Basically, the rain that chased me out of the park back in May didn’t let up until the end of August. Fortunately, this trip happened to be at the end of August and gave us the first real summer weekend of the year. We got ourselves a fantastic site on Radiant (complete with a private beach and stadium fire pit seating) and spent a relaxing weekend paddling and fishing in and around the area. We ran the Squirrel Rapids a couple of times, almost dumped in the Squirrel Rapids once (if you’ve seen the Squirrel “Rapids” you know how embarrassing that is to admit) ate like kings and, on the way out, had the unusual privilege of paddling a glassy Cedar Lake on a perfectly calm day. Good food, good fun, good company and no ten foot tall wall of waves on Cedar? That’s a good trip in my books.

After the Radiant trip I had a bit of a layoff until my next one: a visit back to the Barron Canyon with a couple more buddies in mid-September. We set up on Stratton Lake for the weekend and used our site as a launching spot for some day trips and a couple of visits to the natural waterslide at High Falls. If you haven’t been to the Barron Canyon area yet, you’re missing out. The scenery is spectacular, there’s tonnes to do, and the possibilities for bottoming out your canoe along a set of rapids that looked much more shootable than they actually were are endless. This trip gave me some of my favourite memories of the summer, including sliding into the high falls pools, watching the sun come up from my site, meeting up with a swimming deer in the middle of Stratton Lake and experiencing the wonder that is Ooze Lake.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was my last trip for the summer. I fully intended to get out and do at least one fall trip but I also fully intended to finish writing my crossover Twilight/Hunger Games fan fiction novel and that hasn’t happened yet either (Spoiler: Katniss and Edward 4 Ever). Even without that fall trip, it was another great season of paddling. I visited 42 new lakes, covered over 230 KM of canoe routes and got to spend quite a few days in the most beautiful place on Earth.

Not a bad way to spend a summer.

Hungry for more Algonquin excitement? Well then you’re in luck, because we’ve got the  Year in Review Part 2 – The Moosie Awards coming soon to a computer/tablet/smartphone screen near you. Stay tuned! In the meantime, here’s a bunch of pictures from the summer:

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