Lots of people have spring traditions. Maybe it’s that first hike along your favourite trail after the snow melts. Maybe it’s opening up the cottage and counting the squirrel nests in the rafters. Maybe it’s getting knocked out of the playoffs by the Cavaliers. Whatever it is, it’s probably something you look forward to more and more as the winter months wind down. For me, that tradition is booking a stupidly hard first trip immediately after ice out. As far as traditions go, it’s not the smartest, but it’s apparently the one I’ve decided on.
This year’s plan was to go in through the Achray access point on the east side of the Park. This trip would include a number of firsts for me. My first time paddling in one of Backcountry Custom Canoe’s solo Brookie canoes. My first time paddling with someone from Algonquin Adventure’s fantastic forums. And, most importantly, my first time visiting Clover Lake, a gorgeous lake separated from the rest of the Park by a number of portages that I would call soul-crushing, if I didn’t think that was understating how tremendously non-awesome they are.
My partner for this trip was Bob, better known to the world as The Kayak Camper. He’s known as the Kayak Camper because he uses his kayak as his primary way of accessing the Park’s interior. Let’s stop and think about that for a minute. Kayaks, while fast on the water, are not exactly designed to be carried for any great distance. Or any distance at all. Or even picked up. Basically, if you see a kayak anywhere but in the water, just leave it where you found it. It’s already lost. Except, Bob’s got kayak camping down to a science. He’s faster on portages with his 55 lb kayak than I am with no boat at all. His Youtube channel is filled with trip videos of him accessing the most remote parts of the Park. And he makes it all look easy. Which is good, because the route we followed this time was anything but easy.
I arrived at the Achray access point on Grand Lake at around 6:00 pm. This early in the spring, the permit office at the Sand Lake Gate was already closed, but I left them a note telling them that I’d gone in and would settle up when I came out, and that didn’t seem to cause any problems. It was a beautiful evening. The sky was blue, the sun was warm and there was a fresh breeze blowing onshore. By fresh breeze, I mean a pretty strong wind that would be great as a tailwind, not so great as a headwind, and kind of terrifying as a sidewind less than a week after iceout.
I kept close to shore paddling around Grand Lake, headed for Carcajou Bay. This added a bit of time, but the conditions and the water temperature meant that if I dumped while cutting straight across I’d be, to put it politely, fucked. I was really pleased with how my new boat handled in the wind and the waves. The Brookie is less than 30 lbs and I was a bit worried it would be blown around, but it stayed straight and well balanced, regardless of the wind/waves hitting me. Between how it handled on the water and how light it was on portages, I was pretty happy to have it along for this trip.
Grand Lake in the late evening is very pretty. I think I’ve said this every time I’ve written about paddling this area, but Tom Thomson did some of his best work in this part of the park, and it’s easy to see why. The entrance to Carcajou Bay is just past the turn off for Stratton Lake and the Barron Canyon beyond. To get in to the Bay, you paddle past an impressive looking rock wall and then down a short narrows. And, if you’re me, you stop to take a picture of the narrows and almost drop your wife’s camera, the one you promised you would treat like it was your fourth child, overboard the first time you take the lens cap off. Shh. That’s just between you and me.
I arrived at Carcajou Bay with the sun setting in the west but still plenty of time to get set up. Carcajou Bay is big enough to be its own lake, and I was wondering if I’d have to paddle to each of its four sites in order to track Bob down. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case and I found him right away, visiting with some people he knew who also happened to be camping on Carcajou that night. Because of course you’d expect to run into someone you know on an obscure lake in Algonquin, four days after ice out. They were staying on the northeasternmost site, while Bob had staked out the site just to the south of that one for us. After I got set up I made my way back to the other site and we spent a very pleasant evening chatting around the fire and talking about how awful snakes are (well, I talked about it. Richard and Christina, our hosts for the night, also happened to be biologists who thought that maybe I was being too hard on those slithering nightmare machines. They were wrong). Anyways, it was a great night and a good way to ease back into the Park after the winter’s break. I slid into my sleeping bag just the right amount of tired while also excited for the next morning, when we’d start our assault on Clover.
Here’s the thing about the route down to Clover. It’s not easy. In fact, if the Park were to assign ratings to routes the same way ski hills assign ratings to runs, this would be a triple black diamond, on top of a double black diamond, all of which would be encircled by a really angry looking frowny face emoji. It’s a portage heavy route and the vast majority of those portages are low maintenance. And, unfortunately, these portages earn that low maintenance designation. At various times you’ll find yourself wading through knee deep muck, climbing slopes that most mountain climbers would avoid, dodging downed trees/branches/swinging log traps or just plain lost. On the plus side … I don’t know. As far as the portages are concerned there is no plus side. Thank God the spaces in between the portages make it all worth while.
We pushed off the next morning under grey skies, the kind that hint at rain to come but actually make for perfect travelling conditions. We spent the paddle down Carcajou chatting about what was ahead. This was Bob’s second attempt at reaching Clover. The year before he’d run into problems on one of those triple black. double black, frowny face portages I mentioned and had ended up having to turn around. You can see the video he made about it here.
Things started well. The first few portages, first to get onto Carcajou Creek and then to get onto McDonald Creek, were short and relatively easy. And, thanks to the early spring high water conditions, the creek paddle in between them all was damn near perfect. The promised rain had arrived around the time we finished the second portage, but it was the kind of rain that cools you down without drenching you, which was super, because I’d realized earlier that morning that I’d forgotten to pack my rain gear (FYI, this is usually a suboptimal thing to realize in the middle of a rain shower). Both Carcajou and McDonald Creek are very pretty in the early spring. We saw quite a few birds as well as the occasional beaver. Or maybe it was a full time beaver. I don’t know how the beaver union works.
As you work your way down McDonald it starts to feel more and more like a creek, with tall(er) grasses on either bank and more twists and turns. The winding route gives you plenty of time to think about what lies just ahead: a 2 KM low maintenance portage onto Turcotte Lake. This was the portage that Bob had run into trouble on last year. For those of you who didn’t watch the video, his problems started with the entrance to the portage itself, which was very difficult to find along the creek’s banks. When he was able to finally find what he thought was the start of the portage, the trail disappeared about 300 metres into the woods and proved impossible to pick back up. While he was fairly certain he’d be able to find the portage pull out again, neither of us were looking forward to what we assumed would be hours of searching and bushwhacking en route to Turcotte.
So, here’s the good news: finding the portage this time was easy. Like, as easy as if someone had come through last fall and put up fresh portage signs all along the route. Because that’s exactly what must have happened. We came round a bend in the creek and, not only was the main portage sign easy enough to spot from the water (it’s on a tree about thirty feet back from the bank), there was also a smaller marker right where you need to pull your boat out. It was almost like the portage wanted us to find it.
Now, the bad news: just because a portage is easy to find, doesn’t make it easy. You start off by making your way across an extremely soft path of rotted logs and sloppy ground. Once you reach the forest proper, the trail opens up a bit and you’ve got just enough time to believe that it will be smooth sailing from there before you find yourself standing in the middle of the woods wondering where the path went. The terrain is uneven at best, and the trail is easy to lose track of. When we went through, the leaves hadn’t yet appeared. I honestly don’t know how you would find the path once that happens. There’s a ton of small, brushy crap just waiting to sprout and hide the trail like it’s the last entrance to Narnia. Fortunately for us, Narnia must have been open for business, because we did manage to find our way through. We arrived on Turcotte Lake two hours after we left McDonald Creek and congratulated each other on never having to do that damn portage again.
Turcotte is a small lake that is basically only memorable to me for it not being a portage. There’re a few beaver dams on it I guess. I don’t know. It’s not that big and not that exciting, but at least it’s there. The portage between Turcotte and Guthrie is also pretty unexciting, in a good way. It’s 120m that you barely notice, and then you’re on Guthrie, which is interesting enough to make up for the snoozefest that is Turcotte.
There’s one campsite on Guthrie, a pretty basic site that also happens to be the home of the ruins of an old ranger cabin. The cabin is still standing, although I’m guessing that when it was in use the roof wasn’t quite so completely nonexistent. Apparently a tree fell on the cabin some years back, and the Park hasn’t bothered to either fix it up or tear what’s left down. It’s a shame that the cabin isn’t one of the rentable ones, because the view from its front door is pretty great. Guthrie’s eastern shore is dominated by a series of tall cliffs and sheer rock face and both the cabin and campsite both look out on those cliffs. Once we were finished exploring the ruins, we paddled over to the rock walls and checked them out as we made our way to the next portage.
The portage out of Guthrie is only about 120m, but it’s steep. It deposits you at a small body of water that’s just called “Pond” on the portage signs and doesn’t seem to have either an official or unofficial name. As such, I’m hereby naming it Almost There Pond, in honour of the fact that if you’re reached it, you’re almost to Clover. Second choice was Swampwater Garbage Pond, but I feel like option one has a better chance of becoming official.
The final portage into Clover is a 660m carry that I honestly don’t remember much of. I was probably delirious at this point. My notes from this part of the trip just say “Clover portage was fine” so we’ll leave it at that. One thing, on the Almost There Pond side of the trail, it looks like you should be able to follow a creek to paddle around the portage. Looks can be deceiving. There’s a beaver Hoover Dam just a few paddle strokes up the creek that puts a stop to all thoughts of skipping this last portage but puts a start to a whole series of unkind thoughts about beaver dams and beavers in general.
So, after fighting your way across 3+KM of mostly low maintenance portages, dragging across beaver dams and maybe accidentally drinking some unfiltered creek water, what do you get? You get Clover Lake. And holy shit it’s worth it.
Clover is the biggest lake on this route. There are five campsites on it but I think it’s a pretty safe bet that if you make your way down there, you’re going to have the place to yourself. It probably helps that the skies cleared as we paddled around the lake, but maybe that’s just how it is: the sun always shines on Clover. We found a site on the western shore that I’m already guessing will go down in the history books as one of my all-time favourite sites. It’s got everything a tired tripper could ask for: good tent spots, fantastic swimming, beautiful exposed rock faces to catch the sun on, a good fire pit set up and, of course, a not-disgusting thunder box. It’s the perfect place to relax, enjoy a fire, and think about the day you’ve just passed. (Or, if you’re so inclined, you might want to start thinking about the day to come. Because it’ll be a doozy. But more on that later).
Stay tuned for Part Two. In the meantime, check out Bob’s trip video below: