There comes a point in your tripping career where you might say to yourself, “you know what, I only decided I never wanted to go camping again three times on that last trip, I think it’s time to take things up a notch and try something more difficult”. For some people, that may mean spending a couple extra days in the wilderness, adding a few extra kilometers to your route or trying a more challenging route. For others, maybe that means coating yourself in honey and setting a goal for how many literal bear hugs you’re going to get on this trip. But if you really want to up the ante, there’s no better way to test the limits of your physical and emotional endurance than by taking small children into the back country.
Every year I do a canoe trip with my kids and, jokes in the previous paragraph aside, it’s my favourite trip of the summer. My kids love camping, and it’s a blast watching them explore the Park. This year’s trip was an overnight up to Potter Lake with my daughter, son, brothers-in-law and nephew. Both my son and nephew were heading out for their first ever back country overnight, while my daughter was by now a seasoned pro with three years of canoe trips under her belt. We chose Potter Lake because, well, every other lake in a 15 km radius from Canoe Lake that didn’t require multiple low maintenance portages to get to was booked out when we went to make our reservation. I don’t know why this was the case, but it does mean that Potter Lake is The Dud of the Algonquin Park Mystery Date Game.
You get to Potter Lake by going up Potter’s Creek. You get to Potter’s Creek by braving the crowds at the Canoe Lake access point, paddling north with the crowds past Camp Wapomeo and Ahmek, admiring the Tom Thomson Cairn with the crowds about three quarters of the way up Canoe Lake then, finally, splitting off from the crowds at the northern end of the lake as they head towards the Joe Lake portage and you try to stop your son from throwing his sister’s paddle, and possibly himself, overboard. In case you hadn’t guessed, Canoe Lake on a Saturday afternoon in mid-August can be busy. Who knew?
Potter’s Creek is a cool slice of history from the days when people lived in the Park year round. The town of Mowat stood on Canoe Lake just past the mouth of the Creek (Potter’s, not Dawson’s). As you make your way into the creek you very quickly come across the remains of an old log bridge that townsfolk (I’ve always wanted to use the words townsfolk in a sentence, and now I have. HOORAY!) and cottagers used to drive across back before scientists discovered that cars are heavy and shouldn’t be driven across rickety log bridges. A little further on, as the creek narrows, you pass under an old rail bridge that marks the site where the Canoe Lake train station once stood. If you listen carefully as you pass under that ancient structure you can still hear the echoes of my kids arguing over who got to sit in the bow seat (they both won).
Once you get past the rail bridge Potter’s Creek becomes much more creek-like. There’s some winding back and forth, lots of close-growing vegetation and plenty of time to remind yourself that even though you supposedly hate creek paddling you’ve somehow managed to find yourself on not insignificant stretches of creek every goddamned trip this summer. The good news is that it doesn’t take long to get to the first portage, an easy carry that still somehow feels longer than the 390m it’s listed at. The bad news is that once you’re done that portage the creek decides to double down on its creekness and throw some beaver dams and other obstacles at you as well.
The next hour or so involved some paddling, some dragging and some PBJ sandwiching. By my count we hit about four or five dams/obstructions along the way, none of which were all that difficult to get around but all of which reinforced my dislike of creeks. There are also a couple of short portages, the second of which comes out about 50 metres from a sizable beaver dam. As far as dams go, it’s actually pretty impressive. The water beyond the dam is a good two or three feet higher than the water in front of it and, as a result of this miracle of beaver engineering, the creek opens up a bit once you’re past it.
The portage from Potter’s Creek to Potter Lake is as flat as a road. In fact, it is a road. If you’re driving along highway 60 there’s a turnoff between KM 13 and 14 that leads to, among other things, Arrowhon Pines Resort, Camp Ahmek and, depending on whether or not there have been campers riding horses along the road recently, intermittent piles of horse shit. If you follow that road past all these landmarks, past the Joe Lake bridge, Past Camp Arrowhon, past the big warning sign that tells you not to follow that road any further on pain of being shot into the sun, you’ll eventually come to Potter Lake. In fact, the road runs all along Potter’s west shore and continues on up to Brule (and I assume beyond, but I haven’t followed it that far). All of which is to say, the portage between Potter’s Creek and Potter Lake is super easy.
Potter Lake is nice enough. I guess. It’s longer than it is wide, it’s shallow and you can’t shake the feeling that it’s less a lake than it is what would happen if Potter’s Creek got sick of being passed over for the Algonquin Varsity Team every year and went on steroids, but like steroids that were slightly expired. It was while having these thoughts at the Potter end of the portage that my son announced he had to pooh. What followed was a dramatic race against time to find a suitable campsite (read: any campsite). Fortunately, this was easy enough to do and very shortly we were pulling up on the sandy shore of what would become our campsite for the evening.
After confirming that there was indeed a working thunderbox on the site (actually, it’s a full on outhouse, complete with an authentic outhouse scent), we got ourselves set up for the evening. The site we picked was the first one on the western shore in the south end of the lake. As far as sites go it’s not bad. Toning down on the faint urine smell that seemed to drift across the site every once in a while would go a long way towards moving the review needle from “not bad” to “good?”, but other than that it was okay. There’s a decent number of tent spots, a nice fire pit and a good view up Potter from the beach.
We cooked up a delicious pasta dinner, enjoyed a post fire ban fire and took turns throwing rocks in various directions, sometimes alarmingly close to other rock-throwers heads. The highlight of the evening, according to my kids, was finding a clump of raspberry bushes just a short walk from the site. The bushes are along the road that follows the western shore and are easy to get to from where we were camped. My daughter was a raspberry picking machine, repeatedly emerging from the bramble with a handful of ripe, red berries. My son, with a less discerning palate, went with a “I don’t care what colour it is, if it’s growing on the bush, or near it, I’m eating it” approach that, frankly, is a pretty good metaphor for how he approaches life. Once the kids had come down from their raspberry high, everyone settled into their respective tents and, eventually, fell asleep.
The next morning dawned bright and clear. After a breakfast of oatmeal mixed with hot chocolate (a delicacy, I will fight anyone who says otherwise) we set off for home. We had originally thought we would simply retrace our steps to get back, but I somehow convinced my brothers-in-law that it would be a much better option to add 10 KM, and a 1.4 KM portage, to our day and go back via Tom Thomson Lake. This was … well, it was a decision. And it was one that we made.
In order to get to Tom Thomson from Potter Lake, you have to make your way across a couple of smaller bodies of water. The first, Pathfinder Lake, is fairly big, but seems more like a pond that ate a bunch of other ponds than it does an actual lake. About half of the surface is covered by some kind of plant life or another, and the water is, at least in the parts we paddled, pretty shallow. It’s very pretty though, and well worth a visit if you’re in the area.
The portage between Pathfinder and Long Pond is just under 500 metres and not terribly difficult. While the portage itself isn’t too tough, the put-in at Long Pond isn’t ideal. Basically, the portage trail doesn’t so much end as it melts into a muddy quagmire that you can’t really walk through, but you sure as hell can’t paddle out of. We ended up putting the boats in, pushing them across the mud, ferrying the kids across the mud, getting kind of stuck in the mud, then realizing we’d left a paddle behind somewhere and waiting in the mud while my brother-in-law Drew (we’re name twins. That’s a thing, right?) went back to find it. Basically, there was mud.
Long Pond is an extremely accurately named body of water. It’s a pond, and it’s long. There’s a path through the reeds and lily pads that, frankly, I wouldn’t have been able to pick out if my life depended on it. Fortunately, Drew (Name twin Drew, not me) had been through this way before, so he had an idea of what to expect and where to go and got us safely across to the next portage, our last before we’d reach Tom Thomson.
There’s a few things to know about this portage. First: It’s marked at 1.475 KM on Jeff’s Map and it feels even longer than that. I can’t tell you how many times I convinced myself that there’d be a break in the trees and a patch of blue just around the next corner, only to round that corner and find more trees, but no break and no blue. In fact, the end of the portage, when it comes, is something of a surprise. I’d finally given up on ever seeing water again and then it just sort of materialized in front of me. There’s a lesson in there kids. Give up on everything and you’ll always get what you want.
The second thing to know about the Long Pond/Tom Thomson portage is that there’s a flooded out section about 100 metres in from the Long Pond end that offers a great opportunity to test your acrobatics skills. At some point in the (I imagine) distant past, the Park put down a bridge of half cut logs to help people get across this part. Those logs are now under about three to six inches of water and are basically just submarine teeter totters. I wouldn’t recommend trying to get across this part fully loaded. Losing your balance here with a pack and a canoe on your back would be a recipe for sadness. We got the boats and packs across and then brought the kids across one by one. The good news is that, after this part, the path is clear and dry. The bad news is that, after this part, you’ve still got 1.3 KM to go if you’re coming from Long Pond (if you’re coming from Tom Thomson you’re golden).
The third and final thing to know is that if you’re going to do this portage with kids, be prepared for it to be less a portaging with kids experience and more of a portaging kids experience. I’d gone ahead with one of the boats and a pack and once I (finally) got to the end, I doubled back to find my other brother-in-law Clark carrying my son in one arm and my nephew in the other. This is basically the equivalent of crossing a portage while doing a constant curl of two 30 lb. weights and I’m kind of surprised his arms didn’t just fall off when he finally put the kids down. Fortunately, we had a cookie break at the end of the portage and cookies make everything better.
Once everyone was sugared up we got back in the boats and paddled out of the small bay at the end of the portage and onto Tom Thomson. I always forget just how pretty Tom Thomson is (the lake, not the man. The man was more ruggedly handsome than pretty, IMO). It’s so close to the Canoe Lake access point that I never really consider it as a possible spot to spend a night, but it’s definitely a worthwhile stopping place. There are quite a few campsites, and many of them are quite nice. We stopped for a snack and swim on one of those sites and enjoyed the views and the afternoon sun for a while. It would have been nice to spend a couple of hours lounging around the water, but we were already pretty late getting back so we had to push on.
After ramming over the beaver dam that separates Tom Thomson from Little Doe, it’s an unobstructed paddle all the way down to the Joe Lake portage. It’s also a very pretty paddle, with lots of different scenery to enjoy. Along the way we saw plenty of birds and also a few non-birds. One of the best non-bird sightings we had was of a moose, hanging out in the shallows on Fawn Lake and enjoying a delicious lunch of slimy water plants. My daughter and nephew, sitting side by side in the bow of Clark’s boat and having a fantastic time, were pretty big fans of their friendly neighbourhood moose. My son was largely indifferent, mostly because he was sound asleep in the bottom of the canoe by this point. He stayed that way as we paddled the rest of the Oxtongue River then down through Tepee, and only woke up when we arrived at the Joe Lake cliffs. This is, in my opinion, the best tripping strategy I’ve ever come across. If anyone out there wants to ferry me around Algonquin and wake me up periodically for some cliff jumping I will 100% get on board with that plan.
If you’ve never visited the Joe Lake cliffs I highly recommend making it part of your next trip out of the Canoe Lake access point. There are multiple levels, ranging from a kid-appropriate ledge about four feet above the water to a not as kid-appropriate ledge about 40 feet above the water. They’re an easy day trip from the Portage Store and a great place to stop for a break if you’re coming or going from a longer trip. Both my kids love stopping there. My daughter is fearless and jumps the kid ledges with mad abandon. My son, who is a few years younger, would do the same, but at this point he’s three and has the self preservation instincts of a drunk lemming, so I’m trying not to encourage his throwing himself off of high places just yet. He is, however, a very accomplished pfd user and has a blast floating around in the water below (but not directly below) the jumping area, cheering his sister on. Anyways, all of this is to say that if you haven’t been the cliffs, you should check them out. And, if you have been, check them out again.
After our stop at the cliffs it was a short paddle down to the Joe Lake portage and the end of our trip. My wife and father-in-law were waiting for us on the Canoe Lake side of the portage and we gratefully accepted a ride the rest of the way home. All in all, it was a great trip. The weather was perfect and the kids had a blast. I was proud of how all three of them handled the portages between Potter and Tom Thomson and am already looking forward to next year’s trip. I highly recommend checking out Tom Thomson Lake and the Joe Lake cliffs if you’re looking for good spots to visit with young kids. I less highly recommend Potter Lake, but if you do end up there, make sure you’ve got access to the raspberry bushes.
192 Down. 338 To Go.
New Lakes Paddled: 2
Total Lakes Paddled: 10
Total Portages: 8
Total Portage Distance: 3.695 KM
Total Travel Distance: 24.4 KM