The central part of Algonquin Park is dominated by big lakes and big portages. You could fit many of the lakes in other parts of the Park into any one of Hogan, La Muir or Merchant and still have room to spare. And you could fit any of those three into Opeongo and still have plenty of lake left over to get windbound on. I haven’t spent a ton of time exploring this part of the Park, but it’s been on my list for a while. Of course, saying that it’s on my list would probably mean more if I didn’t have literally every single other lake in Algonquin on my list as well, but at least these lakes made it into the top
For this trip I was accompanied by my friends Gordon and Dan. They had joined me in the Barron Canyon last year and were up for a return engagement despite the fact that last year I’d put my back out on the first portage, leaving them carrying the boat the entire weekend. This year I had the courtesy to put my back out a couple of weeks before we left, so at least they knew what they were getting into before we left (this is the third straight year I’ve messed up my back during tripping season. This year I slipped a disc three days after straining my shoulder. I should probably take up yoga).
As much as we enjoyed the Canyon last year, we decided this year to try something a bit more challenging and start from the Opeongo access point. Crossing Opeongo looms large in any trip plan. Saying it’s a big lake is like saying Andre the Giant was a big guy. It’s accurate, but it kinda undersells the immensity of the thing. It’s a 15 KM paddle from tip to tail and each of the various arms would be a larger than average Algonquin lake in their own right. You could spend a summer paddling nothing but Opeongo and probably still not see everything it has to offer. I’d paddled it once before, from the Happy Isle portage to the access point at the end of a trip, and I remember being blown away by the size and sights along the way. I also remember being literally blown away by the worst combination of head/side/headside winds I’ve ever dealt with. The memory of that paddle was streaking across my mind like a drunk frat boy at a baseball game as we set off from the access point dock.
The wind was up as we made our way out of the South Arm. Looking ahead I could see a never ending series of waves bearing down on us, blown down the lake by a strong and consistent north wind. Despite that wind, and despite the water rolling towards us like it was a bad day at Hell’s wave pool, it felt like barely any time had passed before we were pulling up to our destination, the dock at the Happy Isle portage in Opeongo’s north arm. It’s hard to say what made the trip seem so easy. I think it had a lot to do with the sheer joy of being back on the water and that ineffable feeling of power that comes from working with your buddies to overcome the elements. Also, the water taxi we booked probably helped a bit too.
Thank God for water taxis.
Algonquin Outfitters (and other folks as well) run a water taxi service out of the Opeongo access point that will take you and your canoe to any one of the many portages that exit Opeongo further north. It’s hard to find the words to describe just how valuable this is until you’ve paddled Opeongo in a headwind. After that, you’ll have plenty of words for it, but none will be repeatable in polite company. Our driver was friendly and polite and was more than happy to share some trip stories with us (well, until he pushed the boat up to warp five and all speech became impossible for fear of opening a mouth and swallowing a low flying seagull). We made it from the access point to the Happy Isle portage in about fifteen minutes and it was worth every penny of the fare.
Once again, thank God for water taxis.
Once we were settled on the portage dock it was time to start the actual trip. We were using my 17 foot Swift Winisk for all three of us and our gear this time around. While it meant that our gunnels were somewhat frighteningly close to the water once the boat was fully loaded, it also meant that we were splitting one canoe between three strapping young men on the portages (well, two and a half strapping young men. My back was still semi-pretzeled). With our taxi receding into the horizon we picked up our packs and the boat and started off along the 2.2 KM portage over to Happy Isle.
Wanna hear a secret? Turns out portaging is much more enjoyable when you don’t have a boat on your shoulders. Who knew? Gordon had grabbed the boat after we all played the canoe equivalent of slowly reaching for the restaurant bill and hoping the other guy takes it first. This meant I got to follow behind and just appreciate the sights I usually miss when I’ve got my head in my canoe helmet and my eyes firmly on the ground in front of me. It’s a nice portage too. Lots of trees and rocks and … well … more trees. But they’re great trees! The only thing remotely challenging about the carry is its length. Otherwise, it’s a clear, solid trail without many elevation changes or swinging log traps. We arrived at Happy Isle in short order and then took twice as much time at the put in as we had on the portage playing pack Tetris while we figured out how we were going to fit everything into the canoe.
Eventually we managed to stuff everything in and push off onto Happy Isle. After a couple of fun minutes getting the feel for the balance of the boat, we turned ourselves around and headed west. We passed the island in the middle of the lake and I was surprised to see a couple of empty sites. The last time I was on Happy Isle there was a bachelor party going on on one of those sites, and I guess my mental image of that island has been one of perpetual partydom ever since. I just assumed that I could paddle up at any time and find a healthy supply of liquor and some folks to drink it with, kind of like Jack Nicholson strolling into The Gold Room at The Overlook, but less ghost filled.
Having passed Party Island, we turned north to the Merchant Lake portage. This is a short, easy 340m portage that is notable mostly because the put-in at the Merchant end is wildly inconvenient. It’s dominated by a massive boulder right in the middle of where you’d want to stand to put your pack in the canoe. If it just so happens that there’s a pretty strong wind blowing directly onshore, you may find yourself struggling (and in our case failing) to stay dry as you try to load the boat. You may also find that, once the boat is loaded, shifting the bags around from an awkward sitting position can lead to the canoe capsizing in slow motion. Not that this happened to us. Theoretically, however, if the canoe had tipped over, we probably would have had to shift it back upright and decide how much water we could live with in the bottom of the boat before continuing on. Again, theoretically, we probably would have decided that emptying the boat of water was more hassle then unpacking it, then pushed off with our fingers crossed that we’d gotten our tipping over for the weekend. Theoretically.
The wind was quite strong as we headed out onto Merchant, to the point where I was a bit concerned about what would happen if we hit one of the waves at a bad angle. Fortunately, we were booked to stay on Merchant for the night, so at least we wouldn’t have to paddle the entire thing. We headed east first, hoping to grab one of the two sites on that side of the lake, but unfortunately both were already claimed. We did, however, use this detour as an excuse to check out Chickaree Lake, a small lake that’s accessible by an 80m portage out of Merchant’s southeast corner.
Chickaree is a really nice little spot. The scenery around the shoreline is quite pretty and it feels like you’re stepping into your own little world as you come across the portage. There’s one campsite on its eastern shore that is, as far as I can tell, unbookable through the Park’s reservation service. It’s listed as an official campsite, but every time I’ve looked it up it shows as unavailable. I have no idea what that’s the case, but in the absence of information, I’m just going to assume it’s because the site is infested with rampaging Sasquatch(es? What’s the plural of Sasquatch? Is it like deer?) and move on.
The majority of the sites on Merchant are scattered up and down the western shore. This meant that, in order for us to find a spot to settle in for the night, we had to paddle across the lake, broadside to wind. Know what’s not super fun? Paddling across a large lake, broadside to the wind. We picked a spot on the far shore, pointed the bow towards it, and started paddling. Gordon was in the stern and he did a good job keeping our bow angled just right to cut through the waves. Still, it was an interesting paddle in the same sense that running naked through a forest of angry bees would be an interesting run and I was glad when we reached the other side.
After an exhaustive search (read: taking the first site we found) we settled on a site on a small point, about halfway up the lake. As far as sites go, it wasn’t a bad one. There was plenty of room to set up our tents, a really nice fire pit set up complete with some extremely sturdy benches and lots of easily accessible firewood. It was, however, a pretty enclosed spot. The only view of the lake was a small window where we pulled the canoes up that looked out on some nearby, seagull poop covered, rocks. Apart from that we were looking at trees, trees and, more trees (also, for some reason, a stashed MNR boat that had been pulled up into the site proper and turned upside down). The problem with such an enclosed space is that you kind of forget that you’re near the water. Your world shrinks down to the clearing around you, the fire pit and the game of Animalopoly that you are losing in the most frustrating way possible.
The night ended with us sitting around the fire, enjoying the warmth of the flames and the star filled sky above. The wind stayed strong into the evening. As I crawled into my tent I remember hoping that it would blow itself out before the morning, because otherwise it was going to be a tough paddle up Merchant. The good news is that some day there will be good news again. The bad news is that the wind did not blow itself out and, yes, it was a tough paddle up Merchant the next morning.
We woke the next morning to find ourselves socked in by a thick wall of mist, despite the continued wind. It made for a cool and damp start to the day but it could have been worse. As the documentary The Mist has shown us, sometimes a mist is composed of condensed water vapour, and sometimes it’s composed of bug-eyed tentacled horrors from beyond the abyss. Since this was an extra-dimensional horror free mist, I considered myself lucky and drank some hot chocolate to warm up.
By the time we had packed up and finished breakfast, the mist had lifted enough to show us that it was going to be another beautiful, albeit windy, day. We set off onto Merchant and turned north towards the portage up to Blowdown Lake. We felt the effect of the headwind almost immediately. I’ve generally been pretty happy with how my Winnisk tracks, but in this case the combination of the load and the wind made steering from the left side very difficult. Unless I did a full draw with each stroke, the bow would swing left like a college kid at an NDP convention. It made for a frustrating paddle up Merchant, but eventually we arrived at the portage.
The portage takeout wasn’t perfect. The shore is lined with rocks and balancing on them while pulling the packs out of the boat (at this point we all had dry feet and were trying to keep it that way as long as possible) made us wobble like circus clowns trying to stand on top of a rolling ball. We eventually got the boat unloaded and everything set up for the trip across to Blowdown, which would have been great, if this had been the portage that actually went to Blowdown. Turns out I had taken us to the Merchant/Big Trout portage instead of the Merchant/Blowdown one. So, with Gordon and Dan, presumably, feeling increasingly less confident in my ability to lead them through the Park in one piece, we reloaded the boat and set off.
Once we’d found the actual Merchant/Blowdown portage (with a much better portage take out than that earlier, fake Merchant/Blowdown portage), we quickly unloaded and set off along the first of a few low maintenance carries for the day. Gordon was carrying the boat, so this gave me a chance to appreciate both the portage and, you know, the whole not carrying the boat thing. The carry starts with a nice little boardwalk over some softer ground and, for a low maintenance trail, is in pretty good shape all the way through. The path is easy to follow and there was only one major obstruction, a downed tree directly across the path that’s at just the right height to make going both over or under kind of awkward. Gordon avoided this Sophie’s choice entirely by going around the downed trunk, but the nearby trees and bushes made him pay for that decision by clawing into him like a horde of zombies and, maybe, stealing his sandal.
Blowdown Lake could just as easily be called Blowover in that a strong breeze could push you from one side to the other. The lake basically exists to break up the portage up to Hemlock and, I guess, to act as a gathering place for all the random floating clumps of muck that live in the neighbourhood (it kind of reminded me of Ooze Lake in this sense. I have no idea where these floating muck islands come from, but I still think they’re gross). The portage over to Hemlock is fairly short, between 300-400 metres, but it’s actually a bit of a climb, no matter which direction you’re going. There’s a spot just over the top of the hill on the Hemlock side where the trail plays hide and seek with you for a second. It’s easy to pick up coming down towards Hemlock, a bit harder if you’re going up the other way. Either way, it’d be pretty tough to get properly lost on this portage, so if you do lose the trail just keep going downhill, you’ll hit water eventually.
The wind had strengthened as we’d made our way across the portages and through Blowdown, and it turned Hemlock into a wind tunnel. While I may have wanted to test out the aerodynamics of an experimental airplane wing there, paddling up it wasn’t super enjoyable. It’s not a long distance over the water to the next portage, a 1,470m carry up to Deer Yard Lake, but it definitely took a bit more time and effort than I was hoping it would.
Remember how I mentioned the sandal stealing zombie trees a minute ago, but then didn’t really elaborate? That’s called planting the seed folks (it can also be called bad writing). Well, now that seed is ready to sprout because it was at this point that Gordon realized that one of his sandals, which had previously been strapped to the outside of his pack, had decided to forge its own path of adventure and self-discovery through the wonders of Algonquin and was no longer travelling with us. Since dry footwear = important, Gordon and I headed back to the previous portage to see if the sandal had been dropped there while Dan started across the new portage with the plan of doubling back to pick up one of our packs once he was done. Unfortunately, we were unable to find the sandal on the previous portage and, after walking back to the Blowdown Lake end, we decided to cut our (well, Gordon’s) losses and continue onward.
Godspeed, wayward sandal.
The portage over to Deer Yard Lake wasn’t particularly difficult or memorable. I met Dan on the way across and gave him my pack while I continued on with the boat. Deer Yard itself is on the small size. It’s an interestingly shaped lake, that I think must have once been shallower based on the number of dead trees ringing the shoreline. About halfway up the lake there’s a small point that’s pretty scenic, and even the lily pad choked bay at the north end has a certain appeal (that appeal is mainly to frogs, but it’s there). All in all, I found Deer Yard to be quite pretty. I had plenty of time to confirm that impression as we paddled back and forth along the north shore, looking for the portage up to La Muir. Despite the fact that the portage entrance is exactly where the map says it should be, it took us (read: the guy in charge of the map. Read: me) like 20 minutes to actually find it. We did, eventually, about three paddle strokes past where we’d first looked for it, and I can now safely state that I am an expert on the many different sights that Deer Yard lake has to offer.
The portage up to La Muir starts with a boardwalk over some soft ground and ends with a road. In between is a really nice stroll through the woods. Along the way you’ll see such sights as the Star Trek tree, which is a giant oak (I think) tree covered in fungi shaped like the saucer section of the USS Enterprise. If you’re a fan of Star Trek, and a fan of carrying heavy things through the woods, then the Deer Yard portage is located at the exact center of your personal Venn diagram. The portage is also a great spot if you’re a fan of paths to nowhere that are just begging you to follow them instead of the actual portage. The path in question is about halfway through the portage at a place where the actual trail zigs left and the fake trail, which looks much more inviting, goes straight ahead for 50m before petering out into nothing. I’m not saying that we got caught by the fake path’s web of lies, but I’m not not saying that either. The good news is that it becomes apparent that you’ve gone the wrong way pretty quickly, so we were able to turn around and get back on the real path without losing too much time (sadly, the same can’t be said for our self-respect as path following portage masters. That kept going along the right path and never waited for us to catch up once we’d gone the wrong way). (I know the video below looks like it’s upside down, it’s not. Just hit play).
We arrived at Lake La Muir just after noon. La Muir marked (more or less) the halfway point of our day and also marked a return to larger lakes from the smaller ones we’d paddled on our way up from Merchant. If anything, the wind had only strengthened as we’d made our way north, and just past the bay that shelters the portage we could see whitecaps blowing down the length of the lake. We took one look at the mess that was awaiting us and decided to do what anyone should do when confronted with something difficult: eat. We pulled out our lunch supplies and set about cooking up a storm in the hopes that the wind might have subsided by the time we were done. The portage was a good place to take a break for lunch and is also a good place to take a break in this narrative (ooh, smooth). So we’ll leave things here, with Dan heating up some chili, Gordon searching for sandwiches and the God of Headwinds rubbing his hands together with glee as he waited for us to finish our meal and get back out on the water.
To be continued in Into The Wind Part Two: Homeward from Hogan.