Year in Review – Part One: From Ice Out to Ice In

For those who don’t know, I live in Ottawa. It’s a great place to settle down. The vibe is kind of a mix of big city and small town and there’s green space everywhere. It takes me 15 minutes to get from my front door to Gatineau Provincial Park, 20 minutes to get to a ski hill that’s bigger than anything Ontario has to offer and you can’t walk for more than 30 seconds in any direction without tripping over a Beaver Tail stand. It’s also the world’s seventh coldest national capital (full disclosure, I thought it was the second coldest capital. This line was way better before I looked that up. Basically, I was going to say that it was the second coldest national capital, then say “I see you Ulaan-Baatar” because Ulann-Baatar is the coldest capital in the world and hilarity would have ensued. Except now if I want to do that I have to list off five other capital cities as well, and that would get long and tedious. Kind of like this explanation.) and this year it started snowing in mid November. Why is this important? Because this also means that it was mid-November when any dreams I had of getting out for one more trip were officially buried under three feet of cold, blowing white stuff.

Through the leaf framed looking glass.

The good news is that the end of paddling season means I get to scramble for content write my now annual Year In Review posts. For those of you who just started following along this year, the Year in Review posts are an exhaustive and emotionally draining introspective into the very fibers of my soul that looks and sounds a lot like a quick recap of the trips I did this summer, followed by the Moosie Awards, Algonquin Park’s most coveted and highest honour in made up categories like Best Moose Sighting and (new this year!) Thunderiest Thunder Box. As I did last year, I’ll be splitting this into two posts. The first will recap the highs and lows of the various trips and the second will focus on the Moosies. So, without further ado, let’s climb into this upside down transmorgifier and time travel back to mid May and the start of paddling season.

Starting out in a beautiful Brookie by Backcountry Custom Canoes.

As you may recall, ice out came late this year. When I made my original prediction on Algonquin Adventure’s ice out guessing thread  I guessed April 14, which only ended up being off by about a month. The result was that my early May trip got pushed back to mid May and it was only four days after the ice had finally swum north for the summer that I pushed off from the Achray access point on the Park’s east side for a three night loop down through Clover Lake and back. I was joining fellow Algonquin Adventures forumite Uppa, otherwise known as the Kayak Camper, on his second attempt to navigate the mess of creeks and low maintenance portages between Grand Lake and Clover. He’d turned back the year before at the portage between McDonald Creek and Turcotte Lake mostly because he couldn’t find the portage. He figured a second set of eyes might help pick up the trail or, at the very least, there’d be a second voice to harmonize on a cover of Blue Rodeo’s “Lost Together” if the portage stayed unfindable.

Hey look, it’s the portage to Turcotte!

The good news was that someone had come through between his late summer trip and our early spring trip and cleared up the trails between Grand and Clover. We found the portage easily enough and, apart from some double carrying and a mild case of trail disappearance, had a relatively disaster free trip down to Clover. Along the way we got to explore the ruins of an old ranger cabin on Guthrie Lake (this was really cool!) and also confirmed through trial and lots of error that it is not possible to paddle around the 660m portage onto Clover. For our effort we were rewarded with a lake to ourselves, a fantastic campsite and one of the coldest swims I’ve ever taken.

The next day was meant to be a relatively easy trip up to Tarn Lake. Like the route from Grand to Clover, it looked like someone had come through to clear out the trails heading back up to Tarn. This was a good thing, because even with a (mostly) well marked trail, the stretch in between Clover and Tarn isn’t exactly a walk in the park. Well, technically, it is exactly a walk in the (Algonquin) Park, but it’s not an easy one.  The portage in between Pogonia and Grasspink was particularly unawesome. Whether you’re looking for a hard to find portage entrance, inconveniently placed downed trees, trails that kind of flat out disappear in places or a large, very cold, trek across a sodden beaver meadow, this portage has it all. Oh, also, there’s a fake put in on the Grasspink side, just to add to the fun.

We eventually ended up at Tarn Lake where we were planning on staying the night. Unfortunately, no one had bothered to tell Tarn Lake that we’d be visiting and the end result was that we arrived to the campsite equivalent of a student apartment the day after St. Paddy’s, except instead of pizza boxes, empty bottles and depressingly detailed homemade “kiss me, I’m Irish” t-shirts on the ground there were fallen branches, downed trees and broken dreams littering the place. We took one look  and decided to push on.

Taking a break/rethinking every life decision we’d made up to this point. (Photo by Kayak Camper)

The thing with pushing on meant that we now had to cross the 4.5 KM low maintenance portage between Tarn and St. Andrew’s. Here’s a fun fact: crossing the 4.5 KM low maintenance portage between Tarn and St. Andrew’s is hard. The first KM is straight uphill, the second KM is … more uphill and by the time you get to the halfway point where, theoretically, the downhill begins, you feel like … well, you feel like you’ve just climbed 2+ KM of low maintenance portage. Basically, you’re so tired that 7 months later you still won’t have the energy to come up with a good analogy for what that climb is like. We eventually made it across in more or less one piece and, as a reward, ended up with a pretty great site on Stratton Lake to pass out on. Despite the challenges of the route, this was a great trip and the perfect way to kick off tripping season. I headed back to civilization the next morning very happy with what we’d accomplished and looking forward to my next trip.

As it turned out, that trip came in early June. My buddy Vince and I headed out to the Kiosk access point to check out the northwest part of the Park and introduce ourselves to the local bug population who were very gracious and welcoming hosts. In fact, they were so welcoming that they invited all their friends, relatives, high school classmates and random bug acquaintances from all over Northern Ontario to come say hi. Basically, it was a mosquito and black fly family reunion and we were the main course. In other words, we got bit.

Our trip was originally meant to be a two night loop down through Club, Mouse and Big Thunder then over to Three Mile by way of Erables and Maple and back up through Manitou. It ended up being an overnight on Mouse Lake that was equal parts sadness, swearing and swatting, followed by a sprint back up through Erables, Maple and Maple Creek. In some ways it was a shame we had to cut the trip short; that was my first time in that part of the park and I really liked the scenery and history on display. The ruins on Club were a particular highlight, and both Maple and Erables are beautiful lakes. In other ways, I was much happier at home, on my couch, swaddled in a cocoon of Afterbite and very loose fitting clothing than I would have been toughing it out another night on Three Mile. The good news is that Three Mile Lake isn’t going anywhere so I’ll see it someday. Just not in June.

Swan Lake. The lake, not the ballet.

Having (barely) survived the bugocalypse, I didn’t get back out until the Canada Day long weekend. This was a short day trip (really, a short morning trip) loop through Swan Lake. For those who are unfamiliar with Swan Lake, it’s a decent sized lake close to the Canoe Lake/Smoke Lake access points that doesn’t actually have any official canoe routes leading into it. This was my first time going off the yellow lines in the Park and it was a really good experience. Although there aren’t any official routes leading to Swan lake, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any routes at all. Someone has marked a pretty clear trail between Coont Lake and Swan, and there’s something similar between Swan and Smoke.

The highlight of this trip, apart from not breaking my leg in the middle of a bushwhack, was arriving on Swan Lake and being greeted by a chorus of Osprey chicks serenading me from their nest on a small island in the middle of the lake. While there might not be any actual swans on Swan Lake,  that hasn’t kept the rest of the bird population away. I saw osprey, seagulls, other birds that probably weren’t seagulls, more seagulls. In fact, I got dive bombed by one particular seagull who was channeling its inner pterodactyl and protecting its territory.  Basically, it was like paddling through Jurassic Park for birds. But no swans.

Waiting for Kevin Bacon

My next trip was my biggest one for the summer. A four day, three night loop with my friend Andrew that started at the Tim River and ended at the Magnetawan access point. Day one was basically a straight shot from the access point to Longbow Lake along the Tim River. What I learned from that day is that your enjoyment of paddling the Tim is probably going to be inversely correlated to the number of @#%$!$@% beaver dams you have to drag across. And the number of beaver dams you have to drag across is directly related to water levels in the area. Given that our trip fell smack in the middle of a month long fire ban, you might imagine that water levels were low. If, in fact, you were imagining such a thing, you would be correct. The water levels were low and the beaver dams were plentiful. Fortunately, we ended the day on a beautiful site on Longbow Lake and were treated to a pretty sunset across a lake that, despite the clear skies, looked like it was being pelted with raindrops thanks to a horde of minnows channeling their inner Jaws and grabbing bugs from the surface in front of us.

The next day found us once again setting off on the Tim and once again running into all kinds of fun obstructions, including dams, downed trees and moose. We made our way steadily downriver, picking up a helpful guide duck for part of the trip and some unhelpful sunburns thanks to our having forgotten to pack sunscreen. From the Tim we portaged over to Queer then, eventually, headed south to our destination for the night, Moccasin Lake. This was a tough day, probably the toughest of the trip. Winding down the Tim in the sun was draining and the portage between the Tim and Queer offers a great opportunity to remind yourself how much climbing hills with a canoe on your back sucks. There were some highlights from the day though as well. We stopped for lunch and a swim on Queer at the mouth of the bay leading to the Queer/Tim portage. The chance to lie on the rocks, soak up the sun and enjoy being in the Park was much needed after the morning’s work. Also I had a delicious salami sandwich, and that’s always a plus. There was also had a great moment of just sitting and watching the water at the Little Misty end of the Queer/Misty portage (while also appreciating the lost piece of Santa’s sleigh that hangs out there) and we had another nice evening watching the sun go down over Moccasin. It was a tough day, but a good one as well.

Our third day wasn’t quite as tough, although my legs and arms were well into the third page of a long, angry letter to their union rep by the time we settled on our campsite for the night. Our route took us east to Rain then north through Casey, Daisy and Hambone to Eagle Butt Ralph Bice. This was the busiest part of our trip, we saw more people in between Moccasin and Rain than we had the entire rest of the trip. Highlights from this day included taking. a break on the beach that starts the Sawyer/Jubilee portage, taking a break on Casey Lake and seeing some the of the relics there and, uh, taking a break on our campsite once we’d made it up to Ralph Bice. I’m sensing a bit of a theme here. For anyone looking at doing a trip in the area, I recommend checking Casey. The portages getting up there are long and uphill, which might scare some of the crowds away, and the lake is very pretty. It’s not a bad place to feel like you’ve got some privacy even though you’re very close to two access points. Also, someone left a giant rusty wheel thing at the start of the Daisy portage and you never want to pass up seeing a giant rusty wheel thing if you get the chance.

I see you Magentawan Lake.

The last day of the trip was much more low key than the other three days. We were leaving from the Magnetawan access point and our ride wasn’t going to arrive until late afternoon. This gave me time to paddle over to Little Trout in the morning, then to explore Little Eagle and Magnetawan Lake after we’d dropped our gear at the access point. While I enjoyed checking out both Little Eagle and Little Trout, and I will never forget my epic standoff with the guard leech at the start of the Ralph Bice/Little Trout portage, I think the highlight for me was the 20 minutes I spent lying in the sun on the campsite just west of the Magnetawan access point. I’m kind of biased against campsites on access points because I assume they’re going to be, to put it politely, garbage. Too close to the access point usually means heavily trafficked and, probably, beaten down. That being said, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this one, at least, was really nice. Lots of space to sleep, a good fire pit set up and the swimming was phenomenal. As far as ways to end a trip go, you could do worse than relaxing on the sun soaked rocks of that site and listening to the water lapping against the shore beside you as you contemplate telling real life to screw off for another few days before disappearing back into the interior.

img_5656I was back on the water a couple of weeks later, heading up Potter’s Creek with my kids. This was an overnight to Potter’s Lake, otherwise known as the only lake we could get a reservation on for that night. We ended up on a site that, while maybe not my first choice if I was travelling on my own, was kind of perfect for kids. The kids loved picking the nearby raspberry bushes clean and I really enjoyed being able to light a fire thanks the the (very) recently lifted fire ban. We decided to go back to Canoe Lake by way of Tom Thomson, which was a great idea in theory, but not so great in practice given the 1.4 KM portage between Long Pond and Tom Thomson. Screw Heart Attack Hill or the Bonfield-Dickson, if you want to challenge yourself try portaging three kids six and under across that thing then tell me all about it when you finish kicking yourself for making such a bad decision (although, in all seriousness, I’m really glad we did it because it meant we got to enjoy a beautiful lunch site on Tom Thomson and see a moose having its own lunch on the Little Oxtongue as well).

The year ended with back to back weekend trips in September. The first was a three day loop out of Opeongo with my buddies Gordon and Dan. This was (spoiler alert for this year’s Moosies) probably my favourite trip of the summer (non trip with kids division, because that’s always my favourite trip of the summer). We took the water taxi up Opeongo, spent a night on Merchant, another night on Hogan and came back along the Crow River for an absolutely gorgeous weekend of paddling. Along the way I inadvertently tricked Gordon into carrying the entire Hogan to Big Crow portage in one go, resulting in the most impressive feat of endurance I’ve seen since I sat through Magnolia. This trip had a little bit of everything: big lakes, small lakes, creek lakes, Starship Enterprise trees, interesting portages, semi-frozen piles of human pooh that I slept on by accident … anything you could possibly want out of a weekend of tripping and more. The highlight was probably the night we spent on Hogan Lake, poop sleeping aside. Our site was one of the best I’ve ever stayed on; a perfectly located island spot with beautiful views and great swimming. I’d go back in a heartbeat, although this time I’d probably bring along some poop bags.

The second of the back to back trips, and the last of the year, was a long weekend visit to the Barron Canyon area with some buddies from work. We set up on Stratton for the weekend then made a couple of trips to High Falls and a day trip down to the Canyon. The waterslide at High Falls was, as always, a highlight, as was learning that there actually is a high falls for which High Falls is named. Up until this trip I’d thought the waterslide was High Falls, despite it being neither high nor a falls. I also learned that it’s best not to set your tarp up over a low point on your site if the goal is to stay dry during a downpour. If the goal is to make yourself a nice little wading pool, however, then tarp away.

And that’s it. 3,000 words to cover 18 days, 50 (new) lakes, 265.5 KM and untold millions of bug bites. It was another great summer of paddling. I’d hoped to get to 125 total lakes for the year but only ended up at about 75. I did hit my (much more achievable) goal to paddle in the Park in every month between May and October, so at least there’s that. I’ve still got a few hundred lakes to go to hit my overall goal (the site’s called All of Algonquin of a reason), but the good news is that by the end of next year I’ll very likely be well over the halfway point.

Dan won the long arm contest, so he took the selfie.

Every summer brings with it new experiences and new lessons (for example, always pack the TP). If I learned anything from this year’s trips it’s that, while I still love solo paddling, the people you are with can make a good trip great. I had a blast on each of my joint trips this year and am so grateful to everyone who has come along for the ride so far. I’m also grateful to my wife who continues to make it possible for me to do any of this, and am very much looking forward to next summer when we plan to take our first full family trip.

I also learned to check my tent pad for semi-frozen poo.

I’ll be back next week with the Moosies. Until then, here’s a bunch of pictures from the summer to look at while pretending not to notice the six inches of snow falling outside the window right now.

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3 thoughts on “Year in Review – Part One: From Ice Out to Ice In

  1. By far my favourite trip writer, thanks for your efforts & sense of humour Drew! Long after you’ve achieved your goal this will continue to be a great resource for trippers to The Park.

    1. Thank you very much! Glad you’re enjoying following along and I very much appreciate the kind words.

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