There’s nothing better than setting off under a cloudless sky on a brand new route. Pushing off from the shore, dipping your paddle into a new lake and pointing your bow into the unknown … it’s hard to describe exactly how those first few minutes feel, but it’s the reason I get out there every chance I get. You know what’s also surprisingly hard to describe? I mean, to really put into words just how completely fucking awful it is? The feeling of having a million bug bites scattered across your arms, legs, neck and face, while a million more bugs crawl all over every exposed inch of your body like a wriggling, swarming, biting second skin. But, fun story, I got to experience both those feelings on this past trip, my first ever visit to some of the lakes around the Kiosk access point in the Park’s northwest corner.
The town of Kiosk, sitting on the north shore of Kioshkokwi Lake, used to be the site of a good sized lumber town with a rail station, a post office and, I assume, an embassy for the mosquito hordes who invaded every June. Kiosk’s mill burned down in 1973 and the next year the Park published its Master Plan, which cancelled all existing mills’ licenses and effectively killed Kiosk as a town. By 1996 the last residents had been forced to leave and Kiosk the town became Kiosk the Algonquin Access Point And Black Fly Jamboree Zone. Having never been to this part of the park before, I was excited to explore the area and see some of the ruins and still standing pieces of Algonquin’s history that dot the surrounding lakes.
I convinced my friend Vince (who I’ve dragged on successively more grueling trips over the past two years but who still says yes every time I ask) to join me, and after a 4.5 hour drive from Ottawa, we arrived at Kiosk just before noon. Unlike many of the other access points along the north and west side, the permit office is right there on the water. Well, right there beside the water. The Park doesn’t have any floating permit offices. Yet. There’s also a small parking area, a campground for car campers, a boat launch if you’ve got a motor boat and a nice view down Kioshkokwi. Basically it’s a one stop shop as far as access points go. Or, it will be, as soon as they install the 10 story water slide I keep asking them about. Sadly unwaterslided (not a word but will be soon), but otherwise well taken care of, we grabbed our permits, got our gear in order and were on the water with the sun still high overhead.
We paddled east on Kioshkokwi, headed for the portage to Little Mink Lake and, eventually, our destination for the night, Big Thunder Lake. The western third of Kioshkokwi is mostly cut off from the rest of the lake by an old rail bridge that crosses the water. Knowing that it was a rail bridge, I was expecting something that looked like, well, a bridge. Instead, as you paddle out from the access point, it just looks like you’re headed towards a remarkably straight length of shoreline. I was starting to wonder if maybe the bridge was some kind of Indiana Jones style invisible bridge, when we rounded a small point and saw an underpass built into the north end of that straight shoreline. We paddled under what ended up being a very visible bridge and turned south to the bottom end of Kioshkokwi and the portage over to Little Mink.
The portage up to Little Mink is just over 600m and it’s not bad at all. It’s a bit uphill (basically every portage between Kioshkokwi and Big Thunder is a bit uphill) but nothing to get excited about. It’s a nice, clear carry with good footing and just a shit tonne of frogs. Like, Stephen King’s Rainy Season levels of frogs. But fortunately these ones fall more onto the small and cute side of the frog scale as opposed to the giant and man-eating side. Little Mink is, as its name suggests, little. We were across it pretty quickly and soon facing our first decision of the day. When I’d originally planned the route I’d thought we’d go the White Birch/Waterclear way for no other reason than two lakes > one. However, now that we were out there and actually looking at the 1.3 KM portage over to White Birch my grade three math brain was kicking into overdrive and I had the absolutely brilliant realization that 400m < 1.3 KM and that by going by way of Mink we’d be cutting 400m total of portaging out of our day as well as one extra round of loading/unloading. So Mink won. It wasn’t even close.
The portage onto Mink is short and easy. Mink itself is long (like 6 km long) and relatively narrow. According to Jeff’s Maps, 10-12,000 years ago it was one of the main thoroughfares for water exiting the Huron Basin and travelling to the Ottawa Valley. Looking at the map it’s easy to picture. Mink connects to the Cauchon lakes which connect to Cedar and so on. All these lakes are much longer than they are wide and could have easily been part of one enormous river system back in the old (very old) days. Unfortunately for my hopes of a speedy crossing, the days when water flowed through Mink with “many times the volume of Niagara Falls” are long gone, so I put away my barrel and we started paddling.
Mink’s a pretty nice paddle. About a third of the way down we heard, and saw small glimpses of, a hidden waterfall back in the forest on the west shore. A little further on we watched a bird, I think it was an eagle (definitely not a pigeon), fly across the water and settle in its nest atop a tree by the water’s edge. There’s a spot on the western side where a wind storm or mudslide or a rampaging T-rex has knocked over a section of forest, creating a dead, grey spot in the middle of the trees that’s both jarring and somehow beautiful. The old rail bed follows the east shore, and it’s neat to imagine the old transport and passenger trains chugging up from Cedar on their way to Kiosk. All in all, it wasn’t a bad way to spend the better part of an hour, which is about how long it took us to reach the other end.
When you get to the south end of Mink it’s pretty obvious where to go if you want to get over to Cauchon. It’s less obvious if you want to find the Club Lake portage. It’s like the entrance is playing a fun little game of hide and seek with you, but it’s also being kind of a jerk about it. There’s a small opening to a bit of creek in the southwest corner that doesn’t look like it leads anywhere until you’re almost right on top of it. After that, there’s a very short bit of creek paddle to the start of the Club Lake portage.
The portage up to Club was the longest of the day. And, when I say up, I mean up. It’s 1.1 KM hike that’s pretty consistently uphill the entire way to Club. The good news is that we’re not talking about a double black diamond kind of uphill here. It’s more like a bunny hill. Also, as it turned out, a buggy hill. The Club end of the portage was the first time that day that I really started to notice the mosquitoes. They weren’t swarming, exactly. More like a pre swarm. A swar, if you will. They were annoying, but weren’t bad enough to stop us from checking out some of the (very cool) ruins and relics you can find at that end of the portage.
Club Lake was once the home of the Ritchie Bros. lumber mill, and there are quite a few remnants of those days in the area. About 100 steps from the end of the portage, right beside the trail, there’s what looks like an old vehicle fender, maybe part of the actual old vehicle that’s hidden in the woods nearby (because once you find a good parking spot sometimes you just don’t want to give it up). That’s pretty neat, but you’d be forgiven for overlooking it in favour of the giant, 99% guaranteed to be haunted, still standing shell of an old building just down the shoreline. It’s this wide, flat slab of grey building front emerging from the trees like the T-1000 coming out of the floor (or Homer coming out of a shrub). Trees and plants have grown up inside the walls, giving the whole thing a look of being somehow a natural part of the forest. It’s pretty cool. (Also, I said it’s only 99% guaranteed to be haunted because I don’t want the ghosts who definitely live there to know I’m on to them. I wouldn’t visit this place at night).
Club Lake itself is an okay paddle. The lake is basically two lakes, connected by a marshy portion in the middle. The marshy portion isn’t anything to get excited about, there’s a wide and clear waterway to follow, but it does add a bit of time as you make your way towards Mouse. There are a couple of campsites on Club, but honestly I don’t know why you’d want to stay here. Apart from the whole (and completely legitimate) ghost thing, the sites didn’t look all that great and you’re only a portage away from a bigger, less haunted lake with nice sites and (in my opinion) better views.
You have to paddle through a small bit of creek again to get to the Club/Mouse portage, which, once you arrive, is a really pretty little spot. There’s a small waterfall coming down from Mouse and, at least when we were there, a sampling of wild flowers and lots of great greenery. We took a few minutes to just enjoy the scene and snap a few pictures, then continued on our way. It was at this point that we decided we were going to stop on Mouse instead of continuing on to Big Thunder as we’d originally planned. It was getting later in the day and we wanted to make sure we had some time to enjoy the campsite before turning in. I’d checked with the permit office when we arrived to see if anyone else was booked for Mouse (no one was) so I was confident we wouldn’t be stealing someone’s campsite. That decided, we set off
down up our last portage of the day.
Like all the rest of the portages on this route, the one between Club and Mouse is gently uphill but still pretty easy. We were across to Mouse in no time and out on the water checking out campsites soon after. We quickly found and settled on one of two sites flanking a nice little private (or I guess semi-private since it’s between two sites) beach on Mouse’s eastern shore. We chose the site on the north side of the beach as the fire pit was closer to the water and I thought that it would provide us with a) a better view of the sunset (it did) and b) more protection from the bugs since the site was a bit more open to the wind and water than the south one was (uhhhhh….).
I mentioned before that I’d started to notice the bugs on the portage up to Club. It wasn’t until we were on the site on Mouse and starting to set up that they really came out to play. One minute I was checking out the private beach and looking forward to a relaxing evening by the fire, the next I realized I’d inhaled half a dozen black flies and that the buzzing I was hearing wasn’t a squadron of old timey fighter jets descending from above.
Look, I freely admit that I wasn’t as prepared for camping in bug season as I should have been. I left both my flame thrower and space suit at home and no trip to Algonquin Park in June should be without either of those items. I did however have long sleeves and pants, a bug net and some bug cream and despite that I still came out of the weekend looking like the too many chocolate bars kid, except way worse.
By the time we had our tents set up it was pretty clear that it was going to be a buggy evening. At that point, I still had hopes that once we got the fire going and the smoke billowing we’d be able to at least sit by the fire and enjoy some R&R. I even got super adventurous and decided to go for a swim. The one bonus to being dive bombed by turbo flies while wearing a bathing suit is that there’s no hemming or hawing about getting in the water. You just do it and pray that the relief from the swarm is worth the shock from the spring temperatures. Fortunately, the water was perfect. The sand underfoot was soft and the bugs circling around my head were unaquatic, meaning I could dunk my head for some blessed relief from time to time. I spent a good chunk of time submerged up to my nostrils like a really pale and skinny hippo. I think I could have stayed there all night, but my stomach had other ideas and I eventually, reluctantly, got out.
I wandered back to the firepit, rummaged through my pack and came out with one of my two dinner pacakges for the trip, a dehydrated coconut curry stew that I had been looking forward to all day. I got the water boiling, prepared the ingredients, opened the bag and instantly discovered that my dehydrated meal wasn’t quite as dehydrated as I’d normally want it to be. Like, it was hydrated. Turns out that if your dehydrated meal bag has a tiny, tiny, tinyyyyyy slit in the side, that’s still enough for liquid to slip in like some kind of dinner ruining ninja to … uh … ruin your dinner. But, hey, two small salami and cheese sandwiches are definitely a decent substitute for a two serving bag of coconut curry stew after a long day of paddling.
Long story slightly less long, after that filling and satisfying meal we did manage to get a smokey fire going. It helped a bit, if you were standing directly in the smoke. The problem is, there’s only so much smoke inhalation you can endure before you have to jump out of the smoke and back into bugs.
Thus started a fun cycle of getting smoked out, then bugged out, then smoked out again. We kept it going until about 9 o’clock but eventually we both admitted defeat and retired to our tents. I will say this, if you take the bugs out of the equation this was a great site and a great night. The swimming is great, the view is great, we got a nice sunset and the site is in good shape without being overused. Basically, it’s everything you want in a camp site. Plus bugs. I fell asleep that night with the buzz of the swarm echoing in my head and the thought that at the very least there was no way it could be any worse the next day.
To be continued in Welcome to Kiosk 2: Escaping the Bugocalypse