The Barron Canyon Threepeat

Last year I took some buddies from work on a trip to Radiant Lake. It seemed to go pretty well; we got a great site, the weather was perfect and there weren’t any HR complaints lodged against me when we got back. It went so well that we decided to try another trip this year, but this time to the Barron Canyon area in mid September where the scenery is beautiful, the water slides are natural and the trees are just constantly falling over.

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Grand Lake. More impressive than Adequate Pond.

I’ve now done a few trips to the area in and around the Canyon and it remains one of my favourite parts of the Park. The scenery through here is different and, frankly, prettier than in other areas of Algonquin. While the rocky terrain can make for interesting portages, it also provides a beautiful backdrop for paddling and hiking.  The trip up through the Cascades and into the Canyon remains one of my favorite stretches to travel and there are very few things that can beat the water slides at High Falls. All in all, I was looking forward to getting back to this part of the Park and enjoying a lower key type of trip than usual. Also, we had like 20,000 lbs of meat and meat products and I was very much looking forward to eating all of it.

We arrived at the Achray access point at around noon. Leading into the trip the weather reports had suggested, with a degree of certainty that bordered on the Weather Network just flat out giving me the middle finger, that it might rain that day. Despite those dire predictions, it was a beautiful afternoon. The water was calm and the sky was mostly blue as we set off across Grand Lake for the portage over to Stratton.

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Grand Lake. No rain. You lose again, Weather Network.

The paddle across Grand was uneventful, as was the short 50 meter portage onto Stratton. One thing I did notice, as we bounced off one rock after another down the short stretch of the Barron River that starts Stratton, was that the water levels were lower than the last few times I’d been through. This probably had something to do with it being later in the season and this being a hot summer with less runoff and blah blah blah, but I’m not taking the possibility of some kind of wide ranging and high level government/beaver/Illuminati conspiracy to scratch the shit out of the bottom of my canoe off the table either.

Once we had pushed our way through that gauntlet and under the old rail bridge that guards the entrance to the river, it was pretty smooth paddling down Stratton. Our plan for this trip was to set up a base camp on Stratton and then do some exploring in the area over the course of the weekend. My hope was that we had arrived early enough to grab one of two specific sites at the eastern end of Stratton (either the easternmost site near the entrance to the St. Andrew’s portage, or the point site on the western side of the bay leading up to High Falls). Much like my dream that someday they’ll do a shot for shot remake of Jurassic Park using puppies instead of dinosaurs, it turned out that I was asking too much of the universe. Both had been taken and the people on each site were somehow impervious to the long distance stink eye I was giving them. Once it became clear that I wasn’t going to be able to will the other folks off those spots, we continued on up the bay that leads to High Falls, hoping that one of the sites along the western shore would be a decent alternative.

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Being third choice is nothing to be ashamed of. Basically, it’s the Daniel Baldwin of sites.

There are a bunch of sites clumped together between that point site and High Falls (the falls, not the lake) and most of them are pretty underwhelming. We passed three or four that were pretty close together and that were basically just breaks in the shoreline. None were that appealing and I was worried that we were going to end up having to turn around and head back down Stratton to one of the earlier sites, putting distance between us and the Falls and our route for the next day. Fortunately, the furthest north site of the bay ended up being perfect for our needs. There was plenty of flat ground for tents, a great fire pit/kitchen area and, most importantly, it was very close to the High Falls swimming hole. Apart from the occasional whiff of something that smelled like a cross between a rotting carcass and week old trip socks wafting through the air, it was pretty much all you could ask for in a site.

Once we had our tents set up for the night we got back in the canoes and headed over to check out High Falls. I highly recommend trying to get there on a non-weekend day (sometimes referred to as a weekday by people who speaks English goodly). It can be pretty busy on a Saturday or Sunday, but there were only a couple of other people there when we arrived that Friday afternoon. The sun was shining, the water slide was water-sliding and I didn’t fall trying to get across the top of the slide, so that automatically made it the most successful visit to the slides I’ve ever had.

So, here’s the thing. While the water slide is certainly awesome, it’s definitely not high. It’s like eight feet from top to bottom, maybe. I’ve always assumed that High Falls was named for the water slide area by someone who was either a) very, very short or b) some kind of jaded 1930s era hipster who was into ironic names. Surprisingly, both of these theories were wrong. I know this because, once we had had our fill of sliding, we did something that I’d actually never done before and let the current push us downstream. Turns out that there is a set of falls that is a very short float/walk from the water slide pool and that is indeed quite high (and awesome). After spending a few minutes climbing around the falls and taking pictures, we headed back to our site, secure in the knowledge that Algonquin Park Waterfall Naming Subcommittee had been on the ball.

Know who else ended up being on the ball? The Weather Network. That rain they’d been promising for the afternoon decided to show up fashionably late, and oh boy did it make up for lost time. One minute we we were getting down to the important business of cooking up our piles of meat, the next you could barely see the other side of the lake (and the poor folks caught paddling out there). The good news was that we had finished setting up our tarp structure seconds before the first drops began to fall. The bad news was that the rain took one look at that tarp structure, laughed at our hubris, and decided that if it couldn’t soak us from above, it was going to wash us off the site instead. Here’s a tip: Maybe don’t set your tarp up over a low point on your campsite. It took about 30 seconds for the ground beneath us to get covered by a small but aggressive pool of water and by the time the rain had stopped our site was home to Algonquin’s newest lake (which I’ve decided to call Little Stratton and which I am 100% counting as a lake in my tally).

Fortunately, the rain exhausted itself pretty quickly (with our cook fire somehow coming through the deluge still burning) and we were soon able to get our dinner prep back on track. The rest of the evening passed pleasantly enough. I think. At some point I lapsed into a food coma and the next thing I knew it was the following morning and we were getting ready for our day trip to the Canyon.

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Starting out on Stratton.

The weather was pretty much perfect for paddling as we set off: calm water, mostly blue skies and just a hint of a breeze to cool us down. The trip down Stratton and back up through St. Andrew’s was unremarkable. I did notice that the pointer boat that sits just across from the St. Andrew’s/High Falls portage was in a new position for the third year in a row, but that’s to be expected, what with all the pointer boat moving ghosts that live in the area (pointergeists, if you will).

There are a few ways to get to the Canyon from Stratton. The first is to go up St. Andrew’s and High Falls Lake, through Ooze and Opalescent and down into the Canyon. The second is to go up St. Andrew’s and High Falls, then peel off and follow the Cascades to the Barron River and beyond that the canyon. The third would be to go from St. Andrew’s to Cork by way of Marie and Length, and then collapse in a heap of twitching muscles and existential sadness because the portages between St. Andrew’s and Marie and Length and Cork are just awful. We chose the first option, which has the benefit of being the most direct option and is probably the easiest one to portage, the 750 meter climb between Opalescent and Brigham Lake notwithstanding. It’s also got Ooze Lake, but I guess nothing’s perfect.

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Beaver tree, check. Mergansers, check. Nature in all its glory. Check.

The breeze died completely somewhere between St. Andrew’s and High Falls and the water was flat and glassy as we paddled up High Falls Lake. We kept close to the western shore, paddling in between a set of small, rocky islands and past a beaver gnawed tree that looks like it’s going to blow over in the next stiff breeze.  It was at about the same spot that we startled a (school? flight? posse?) of  ducks mergansers who let us know what they thought of us by taking synchronized dumps all over some nearby rocks. Satisfied that they’d asserted their dominance, they took off and we continued on, paddling into the main part of High Falls Lake where evidence of the forest fire that burned through the area two years ago is still very visible. The western shore is dominated by fire damaged stands of ex-trees and makes for a weirdly post-apocalyptic looking landscape. As you get closer to the Ooze Lake and Cascades portages the concentration of burned out vegetation gets heavier until the shore is basically just a tangle of blackened husks and bare branches. It’s interesting to see, but it’s also a reminder of just how much damage an out of control fire can do in the Park. Watch those campfires.

The portage over to Ooze Lake is short and easy. Ooze Lake itself is also short and easy, but also still full of floating clumps of yuck. That being said, it was pointed out to me last year that while Ooze may not be the most appealing lake to camp on, it is home to a wide variety of wetlands plants, which in itself is pretty cool. I kept that in mind as I paddled across and, from that perspective, Ooze Lake is actually pretty interesting. I maintain that I wouldn’t mind if it were like 15% less oozy, but I definitely have a greater appreciation for what it brings to the table than I did my first time through.

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Opalescent Lake. It’s not not picturesque.

After Ooze, we were quickly across the portage into Opalescent, through Opalescent itself and over the portage down to Brigham. The Opalescent/Brigham portage was the toughest one on the route but at least when we got to the other end we could be secure in the knowledge that now that it was done we’d … have to do it again in about two hours, since we were on an out and back route. Which … sigh. On the bright side, we were able to paddle around the short portage between Brigham and Brigham Chute despite the low water levels and without doing too much damage to the canoes or ourselves.

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Paddling into the Canyon

The portage past Brigham Chute down to the Canyon went quickly. The falls at Brigham Chute were still impressive, but definitely somewhat reduced by the lower levels along the rest of the river. Still, they’re a nice appetizer as you make your way into the Canyon. The Canyon, as always, was spectacular. The rock walls rise up from the river, towering over you as you paddle through. I’m always 95% awed by what I’m seeing and 5% convinced that today is going to be the day that those walls collapse. Fortunately, the walls stayed uncollapsed and we soon found a cool spot in the middle of the Canyon to pull up for lunch and a swim.

The spot we picked was a boulder surrounded by other, smaller boulders, just below one of the sheer rock walls that defines the Canyon. It was a really cool spot to take a break. It’s not super easy to get to the top of the boulder, you have to jump from rock to rock like an uncoordinated mountain goat on your way up, but it’s got good views and semi level ground for cutting up your lunch salami. There is a fun little crack across the middle of the boulder than you have to jump across that’s just wide and deep enough to be a moderately terrifying leap. However, if you can avoid performing an unplanned reenactment of 127 Hours, this is a great place to soak up the sun and have a swim. Don’t believe me? Just ask the (rough estimate) millions of snakes who were there before us and who were only too happy to join us while we swam. Speaking of swimming, the water here was cooler than I expected, existing somewhere in the grey zone between refreshing and paralyzing. It was a nice way to cool down after the morning’s work, but I definitely wasn’t spending too much time paddling around (also, the fear of being swarmed by swimming snakes like I was starring in Anaconda 16 might have helped cut the swim short).

Once we’d finished with lunch and swimming, and as it became apparent that  the snakes were regrouping to take back their boulder, we decided to head back to the campsite. The return trip was pretty similar to the trip out. So similar, in fact, that if you want to hear more about it just reread the last few paragraphs, but in reverse.

We arrived back at the site on Stratton  in the waning hours of the afternoon. We were all pretty tired by this point and in one version of this story everyone just collapses into boneless masses of jelly around the firepit for the rest of the evening. That came pretty close to happening, but, fortunately, one of the guys was able to rally the rest of us into a return trip to the water slide. I’ve found that in camping, and I guess in life as well, you rarely regret deciding to do something instead of not doing it (unless that something is trying to ride a bear through a hurricane filled with bees. Then you’d probably be better off not doing it. Probably). This was definitely the case here, as the trip to High Falls was the perfect way to cap the day and, in my case at least, helped refresh and  reinvigorate me for the rest of the night. Also, a bunch of the guys slid down the water slide headfirst and I don’t want to live in a world where I didn’t get to see that happen.

Once we’d had our fill of laughing in the faces of the Concussion Gods we paddled back to the site, gathering wood from the far shore as we went. The rest of the evening passed pleasantly enough. We hung out around the campfire, ate some chili and listened to the calming sound of nearby trees falling over for no reason at all.

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Leaving the way we came.

The next morning we packed up and paddled out through the mist. It was an uneventful trip back to the access point and a great way to end the weekend. It was also, all things considered, a great way to end my tripping for the season. While I did do a short paddle up to Sam Lake at Thanksgiving, and may have one more day trip at the end of the month, weather permitting, this was my last overnight for 2018 (provided I don’t do something crazy in November, and the colder it gets the less appealing the idea of crazy in November seems). Assuming that this is my last overnight for the year, I can think of very few trips I’d rather do to close out the paddling season. The weather was (Friday night ark building aside) good, the company was great and the scenery, as always, was gorgeous.

202 down. 328 to go

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(Aside from Little Stratton, I didn’t cross off any new lakes on this trip. But I got to see Ooze Lake through new eyes, so that counts. Right?)

New Lakes Paddled: 0
Total Lakes Paddled: 15
Total Portages: 14
Total Portage Distance: 5.74 KM
Total Travel Distance: 33.4 KM

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4 thoughts on “The Barron Canyon Threepeat

  1. Loved your write-up – it brought back all the great memories of our Canyon tour 4 years ago, though we did not encounter any beaver Illuminati . We reached the canyon via the Cascades in the pouring rain, so I’d love to redo this trip with a different weather angle. Thanks for your post, funny as always!

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  2. Great post as always, thanks Drew. My daughter and i were in the same area, the week prior I’m guessing – hot all weekend + Monday. Portaging between Opalescent and Brigham I was speaking with a man doing a solo loop out of Achray. On the strength of your prior posts I warned him about the Length portage (Due credit given to AllofAlgonquin of course) . Hope he took the advice but who knows. He’d come down cascades, leaving Ooze as the way back if he skipped Length.

    No head first sliding for us but a great time to visit slide rock is just before sundown. Even on a Sunday we had the whole place to ourselves.

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    1. Thanks Gord. Sounds like a great trip with your daughter. I do hope that guy took your advice, that Cork/Length portage is a beast.

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