Tarn Lake And A Whole Lot Of Walking

Welcome to part two of my 2018 Ice out trip report. If you haven’t read part one, Four Lakes to Clover, you’re missing some pretty important backstory. You wouldn’t read Twilight New Moon without having read Twilight Slightly Older Moon first, would you? So, if you haven’t, go, read part one, I’ll still be here when you’re done. If you have read part one, I hope you’ve got your portage pants on, because we’re doing some walking.

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Sunrise over Clover. Or an asteroid. One of the two.

Day three of our trip started beautifully. Our site on Clover had a fantastic eastern view and I woke up just before 5 am to the promise of a gorgeous sunrise on the horizon and a long and involved internal debate as to whether I wanted to get out of the warmth of my sleeping bag just yet to go pee. Eventually, I dragged myself out of the tent and started preparing for the day ahead, which mostly involved eating dry granola and wondering which portage on our route  was going to bring me to tears.

Our goal for the day was the sole campsite on Tarn Lake. It actually isn’t that far from Clover to Tarn, just 7.5KM on Jeff’s Map. But, like the route down into Clover, the route out of Clover is made up entirely of low maintenance portages and existential despair. One portage in particular, the 1.4km between Pogonia and Grasspink Lake, was looming  thanks to an account we’d both read by Mark in the Park of getting stuck up to his waist in a boggy beaver meadow in the middle of that portage. I wasn’t super thrilled about the prospect of slowly sinking into a swampy mess of tears and beaver shit, but it’s not like we had a ton of options. We definitely weren’t going back the way we came, so we powered down our breakfasts, packed up our gear and at around 7 am we said goodbye to our fantastic site on Clover Lake and headed north (well, east, then north. Or maybe northeast. I don’t know. I’m not a compass).

 

The sun was well and truly up by this point and, despite the early morning chill, it was clearly going to be a beautiful day. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky as we paddled across Clover to our first portage, a pretty easy 440m onto a small lake called Pogonia Lake. To me, Pogonia seems more like a pond on steroids than it does a lake. It’s pretty small, pretty shallow and there’s a lot of vegetation both in and around the water. There were also a ton of these weird logs in the water that kinda looked like water logged palm tree trunks but also kinda looked like pieces of a massive water snake. Since palm trees don’t grow in the Park (yet), and my therapist keeps telling me there’s no such thing as an Algonquin Anaconda, I’m going to guess those logs were the work of beavers and move on (there’s a good life lesson in there kids: when in doubt, blame beavers (ooh, bracket inside a bracket. I’m writing this after I posted the original post. One of the nice things about having people who are much smarter than me reading this blog is that I now know that the snake/palm tree things were water lily rhizomes. Which … nature is weird. I never would have guessed those things were in any way related to water lilies).

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Start of the Pogonia to Grasspink portage.

The start of the portage over to Grasspink wasn’t obvious from the water. Something, either the wind or an Algonquin Anaconda, had knocked the portage sign off its tree (we found the sign on the ground and put it back up, but we didn’t do a great job of it. It’s probably already down again). Still, Pogonia isn’t a huge lake and we were able to find the trail pretty quickly. About 50 feet into the woods there’s a downed tree across the path. It’s resting about waist height, which is the perfect height to make it a pain in the ass to go both under and over with a boat. It’s not the end of the world to get around, but it takes time and adds a nice touch of aggravation. If I’d had my ninth grade English teacher with me on this trip we could have had a nice, long discussion on foreshadowing, because getting around that tree was a sneak preview of the rest of the portage. The obstacles it throws at you aren’t insurmountable by any stretch of the imagination, but each of them eats a bit of time and before you know it you look up and you’ve been on the damn trail for close to two hours.

The first third of the Pogonia to Grasspink portage is pretty standard low maintenance track. There are a few downed trees across the path, a few places where the trail just kinda disappears, but nothing too difficult (there’s one spot where a massive tree has fallen across the path and, instead of cutting it up, the Park has just posted a detour up a hill around the tree. That part sucks). I wouldn’t want to be trying to find the trail once the leaves have come in, but for early spring it wasn’t bad.

 

The second third of the portage is dominated by Mark in the Park’s beaver meadow. There comes a point where the portage meets up with a good sized pond that, at first glance, makes you wonder if you might be able to paddle at least a part of the portage. I’m going to save you a bit of time and some acrobatic jumps across a small creek, you can’t. The pond is the result of a massive beaver damn, which has created a picturesque, yet completely useless from a paddling perspective, little body of water on one side, and Mark’s Meadow on the other.

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Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to the other side of Mark’s Meadow, then back again to pick up the canoes, then back to the other side, we go. (photo courtesy of Kayak Camper)

Marks’ Meadow is a very cool looking expanse of flattened swamp grass with the occasional stand of small trees and a lazy ribbon of water winding through it. We stood at the edge of the meadow and admired it just long enough for admiration to turn into procrastination, then we picked up our packs and began to wade through the grass. It was kind of like wading through snow; My feet sunk into ankle deep ice water/mud with pretty much every step and my toes were quickly numb.  We double carried to save weight, and stuck to the edge of the meadow where the ground was, theoretically, a bit firmer. Eventually, we both managed to make it across relatively unscathed and without getting sucked into a never ending pit of Algonquin quicksand. Satisfied that we’d found a decent path, we went back for our boats and repeated the process. All in all, I’d say we had a better experience in Mark’s Meadow than Mark did. That being said, I’m betting the conditions there change pretty frequently, so it’s definitely worth scouting ahead before trying to do it fully loaded, no matter when you go.

 

The final third of the portage is similar to the first third, although if I’m remembering right it’s a bit easier to follow. The Grasspink end is a pretty easy put in, although once you’re on the water you almost immediately hit a beaver dam that requires disembarking and dragging over (unless you’re in a kayak. Then you can just steamroll the thing and laugh). Grasspink is a cool little lake. There’re no campsites, although there’s a spot on the eastern shore that looks like it would make a decent one.

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A Backcountry Custom Canoe in the backcountry. 

Grasspink ends at what is marked as a short (35m) portage. The portage sign is on the right side as you approach it, but we found it much easier to do the carry from the other side of the bank.  The portage ends on a beaver creek that would probably be unpaddleable in low water and isn’t super awesomely paddlable even in the higher water conditions of early spring. We walked our canoes through knee high muck and water for the start of it before Bob almost got sucked under by what I’m assuming was a beaver built trap door in the bottom of the creek. After that, the water was high enough to paddle and we wound our way to the other side and our last portage  (hold that thought) of the day, a 440m onto Little Tarn.

The portage onto Little Tarn feels longer than its marked distance. It’s one of those trails that’s specifically designed to torture you by showing you the water on the other side way before you reach the put in. There are few things worse than walking along the bank of the lake you’re supposed to be paddling, knowing you’re not supposed to put in just yet, but not knowing why (in this case the answer was the same as it was for so many of the questions on this trip: beavers. Goddamned beavers.).

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Bob, checking out the Little Tarn campsite.

We eventually reached the end  of the portage and set off onto Little Tarn. I don’t have much to say for Little Tarn as a lake. It’s got a pretty cool view of the Tarn cliffs along the eastern shore, and that’s about it. We were going to stop on Little Tarn’s sole campsite for lunch, but the site is protected by an uphill slope up from the water that might as well have been a sheer 30 foot wall given how tired we were from the last few hours of portaging. We took one look at it and instead headed to the far shore where we found a nice piece of exposed rock to sit and enjoy the view.

After lunch, we paddled into the short river that connects Tarn and Little Tarn. The scenery through this part of the paddle is very pretty. Golden grasses line the banks for about 30 feet on both sides, dotted by stunted evergreens and the occasional stump. Behind the banks the forest fills in, and over top of that you can see the Tarn cliffs looming in the distance. It’s not awful.

 

But you know what is awful? The campsite on Tarn Lake. It’s a dark hole of sadness that’s littered with blowdowns, branches and broken dreams. There’s maybe one usable tent spot, the swimming possibilities range from “nope” to “isn’t there a nice sewage pond nearby we could use instead” and the one kinda nice feature of the site, a small stream that runs right through it, would very likely be a bug factory at pretty much any other time of the year. Also, I couldn’t find the thunder box. And I really wanted to find the thunder box. The site is so awful that, despite the fact that we had reached our destination for the day, this post isn’t going to end for another 1,000 or so words, because we took one look at that disaster and decided to trade it for a different kind of disaster: the 4.5km portage from Tarn to St. Andrew’s Lake.

 

Here are some fun facts about the Tarn to St. Andrew’s portage. It’s officially listed as 4,305 metres. You climb about 130m from the Tarn Lake side and about 150m from the St. Andrew’s side. The first 800m on either side are steep as fuck, and the next 1.4 km aren’t much better. Sir Edmund Hillary considered scaling it back in 1953 but then decided to move on to something easier. At about the halfway point of this portage, you will forget that there was ever a time that you weren’t on the portage. The portage will be all. Also, it’s hard.

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The beginning of the end.

I think we both knew almost as soon as we saw the Tarn campsite that we didn’t want to stay there, but it still took us about half an hour of checking things out from the base of the portage to decide we were actually going to do the thing. We knew we were going to double carry for at least the initial uphill because, as Jeff’s Map had promised us, it really is steep at the start. The good news, the only good news, is that the path is mostly clear and easy to follow. Sure there are parts during the 4.5km where you wonder if maybe you’d wandered into Blair Witch territory, but it’s never too hard to find the trail again.

We carried our packs up the first 500m, found a relatively level plateau, then went back for our boats. We did this … a lot. Every time we thought we’d reached a point where the path leveled out enough that we could begin to single carry, we’d walk a few steps down the trail, turn a corner, and find yet another soap box derby hill to climb. We stopped at about the quarter point and ate a snack. By this point we were about an hour and a half in, seriously regretting our decision and facing up to the sad reality that we sure as hell weren’t going back, so the only thing we could do was go forward (or, I guess, just give up and live there forever).

 

We reached the height of land about 2.5-3 hours after we started. At that point it’d been close to 8 hours since we left Clover, without much in the way of a break along the way, and we were both pretty tired. Bob pulled out his GPS, confirmed that we were indeed at the highest point of the portage, and we both pretty much collapsed. I don’t know how long we lay there. Whole civilizations rose and fell in the time I spent lying on the side of the path, watching the little patch of shade I’d found get slowly eaten up by the sun moving across the sky. I’m pretty sure I fell asleep for a minute or two, I know I drooled a bit. But, eventually, we got back up and continued onwards.

Knowing that we were on the down slope, and that we still had a little over half the portage in front of us, we started single carrying. God that makes a difference. From that point on, every ankle breaking patch of mud and rocks, every path that disappeared right in front of us, was that much more bearable because we knew that once we were past whatever the obstacle was, we’d never have to see that garbage again.

 

We settled into a rhythm. Walk 500 steps (counting only the right foot step) then collapse in the shade and wonder if maybe this was the time we weren’t going to get up. Fortunately, this method works pretty well for eating distance. The down slope went much faster than the up slope and before long we were picking our way carefully down the last 800m of (really steep) trail leading into St. Andrews Lake. Here’s the thing about St. Andrews Lake. It’s a nice lake. Probably not that high on my Definitive Power Ranking of Nice Algonquin Lakes, but not that low either. That being said, as I stumbled down those (rocky, slippery, kinda crappy) last few steps, I have never been happier to catch that first glimpse of blue through the trees (and sweat and tears). For a brief moment in time, and probably for the first moment in the history of time for anyone, anywhere, St. Andrews Lake was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

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Sunset on Stratton Lake.

Thanks to some reservation gymnastics I’d done, I actually held a permit for Stratton Lake for the night. We packed up our boats, paddled across St. Andrews and double carried crawled the 45m portage between St. Andrews and Stratton. The tripping gods must have taken pity on us at this point, because the first campsite out of the small river that leads to St. Andrews, the easternmost site on Stratton, was free and clear and looked like a five star hotel compared to the black pit of despair that was the Tarn site. We set up (slowly), took a swim in water that was basically just ice that hadn’t yet solidified (slowly), ate dinner (slowly) and watched the sun set (really slowly) while saying some variation of “what the hell did we just do?” every time either of us could muster up enough energy to speak.

I’ll tell you this though, I slept well that night.

That was, for all intents and purposes, the end of the trip. I said goodbye to Bob the next morning, paddled back to the Achray access point, got in my car and was back in civilization before noon. It was an awesome trip. I’m glad I did that route with someone else, and Bob was a great partner to paddle with. The route, while challenging, is full of interesting sights and gorgeous scenery, and Clover lake is a beautiful spot to spend a night or three. I loved paddling the Brookie and can’t tell you how happy I was to have something that light and manageable given all the portaging we did. I wouldn’t pick this as a first (or second … or tenth) back country trip, but if you’ve got a few trips under your belt, and don’t mind getting lost on portages, give the Clover Lake loop a try, you won’t regret it. Much.

 

 

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Clover Route160 Down.

New Lakes Paddled: 8
Total Lakes Paddled: 12
Total Portages: 15
Total Portage Distance: 10.38 KM (19.88KM with the double carries)
Total Travel Distance: 36.1 KM

You’ve read the book, now see the movie. Here’s Bob’s video for this part of the trip.

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