Ice out came late to the Park this year. Opeongo wasn’t declared ice free until May 10, and the Park didn’t open for reserved trips until a few days later. This worked out pretty well for me, as my first trip of the year was scheduled to start on the 15th. The plan, which I’d fine tuned over the long winter months, was to do a loop out of Kiosk, through the Northwestern part of the Park, taking five days to cover mostly new ground and cross quite a few lakes off the list. Of course, at one point in my life my plan was to be living on Mars by the time I was 15, so I should have realized that plans don’t always work out the way you want them to.
The thing about spring canoe trips is you don’t really know what you’re going to get until you push off from the access point, and even then whatever you think is going to happen probably won’t. The temperature can be anywhere from “mid-summer” to “what the fuck Drew? You didn’t say anything about hail”. The portages can be clear and easy to follow, or they can be littered with broken branches, downed trees and, occasionally, piles of snow that haven’t been convinced that winter’s over yet. The lakes can be calm and quiet or they can be … well you get the idea. If things work out the way you want them to, you can end up with a fantastic trip with summer-like temperatures but without the summer-like crowds of bugs/people. If things don’t work out the way you want them to you can end up on the edge of Pine Island, staring into the teeth of a headwind screaming down Manitou Lake at you and wondering if that’s rain or ice slapping you in your semi-frozen face.
Guess which one this was?
I was joined on this trip by my buddy Rob, who has come with me on a few trips over the last couple of years. The weather forecast leading into the trip was less than ideal in the same way that falling into a pit full of angry cats and angrier bees would be less than ideal. The first few days were meant to be cold and rainy with fun little touches of frost overnight. After watching things get steadily gloomier, we decided to shift our start date back to try and avoid the worst of it. So, having delayed our start, we drove into the Kiosk access point just after noon on our new arrival day and were greeted with blue skies, a perfectly calm Kioshkokwi Lake and high fives all around for our brilliant decision to outwit the weather Gods.
Here’s the thing about the Weather Gods: they don’t like being outwitted. And they’re vindictive jerks.
We pushed off onto Kioshkokwi and headed west towards the Amable du Fond river and, eventually, our destination for the night, Manitou Lake. It was shortly after ice out and the water would have had to warm up a few degrees to be considered freezing. As Carmen in the permit office reminded us, going into the water this time of year can be deadly. If you’re any distance at all from the shore your chances of surviving a dunking go down exponentially. Neither of us had any desire to become a cautionary news story, so we were only too happy to hug the shoreline as we made our way along.
The nice thing about hugging the shoreline is that you get a chance to see and experience the lake in a way that you wouldn’t if you were cutting straight across the middle towards your portage. Kioshkokwi has at various times been home to lumber operations, cottages and a small town, among other things. As a result, there are plenty of things to see as you make your way (slowly) around its edges. We passed some nice looking cottages, a few of spots of historical interest (including an old lumber mill site and an old Junior Ranger camp) and quite a few ducks who must have been wearing duck wet suits, because otherwise I have no idea how they were floating in that water without turning into bird shaped blocks of ice.
Look, the best practice for early spring trips is to stick close to shore. That’s the only advice I will ever give people if I’m asked because it’s the best advice. Even in situations like the one we were in, where the odds of tipping are low, the odds of surviving a tipping in the middle of the lake are probably even lower. Stick close to shore. It’s the smart thing to do. (But, also, we decided to make the crossing and it went well and we probably shouldn’t have done it but we did so now I’m really sending mixed messages.)
We followed the shoreline the rest of the way through Kioshkokwi to the first portage onto the Amable du Fond River. Here we got our first reminder of just how high the water levels are right now and how much water is flowing through these rivers, as the rapids we were portaging around could only be described as (thumbs through well used book of descriptive writing crutches, finds the right page, sighs contentedly) thunderous. You could hear them quite a ways down the stretch that leads up to the portage and it was pretty cool listening to the water crash its way down the narrows as we paddled up to a small point sticking out from the shore and what we thought was the portage take out (but wasn’t!).
In our defense, the space we pulled up to looks very much like a portage take out. There’s also a path leading away from it that, eventually, meets up with the portage. The only thing missing was a portage sign. So, basically, it’s the portage equivalent of one of those bars in New York that’s so cool it doesn’t need a sign. As we prepared to follow our very own VIP portage over to the river, I noticed that the little point of land sticking out just past the VIP portage landing wasn’t actually a point of land at all, but a very old crib structure that had been there long enough for a small island of trees, plants and moss to grow up on it. That was pretty neat, and it’s a testament to how persistent nature can be if its given enough time.
The first portage of the year is always a fun little reminder of how much more time you should have spent at the gym over the winter. Fortunately, it’s a relatively short portage, marked at 265m on Jeff’s Map, and it’s very clear and easy to follow (this goes for both the boring old regular portage and the VIP portage). There is a bit of a climb at the Amable du Fond end of the carry that wouldn’t feel like much at any other time, but to legs that haven’t walked under a canoe and pack in 8 months felt like the goddamned Matterhorn.
It’s a very short paddle between the first and second portages along the river. There’s also a low water portage that connects the two. I imagine that coming through this way in late August or September would likely mean following that path, but low water was definitely not an issue for this trip. We paddled along the river to the next portage takeout nestled at the foot of a (pulls out writing crutch book again. Can’t find anything. Shakes head in sadness) waterfall. The water cascaded towards us across a wide stretch of hillside, much of which I would imagine is not usually covered by hundreds of gallons of rushing water. Little islands of rocks and trees poked out of torrent here and there and I found myself wishing I had a bit of Tom Thomson in me as it was definitely a painting-worthy scene. Unfortunately my painting talent is more drunk three year old with a bottle of ketchup-esque, so I satisfied myself with a few pictures and moved on.
We eventually reached the other end of the river and were greeted by another set of rapids, a campsite that would be a great place to record a white noise sleep album and the start of the 1.3 KM portage over to Manitou. As far as kilometer plus portages in mid May go, this was an unexpectedly good carry. The first third was flat and free of obstruction. There are quite a few boardwalks set up over the marshy bits (boardwalks that can be quite slippery after a rain, as I found out the next day) and it feels like no time at all until you’re taking a break at a canoe rest that looks like it’s going to break the next time someone uses it and contemplating the rest of the portage. From this point on the carry got a bit more difficult. The middle part is a climb across the side of a hill and the final third, the part that cuts through the remnants of the old Du Fond farm, had quite a few downed trees and branches to navigate around (or trip over, whatever suits you).
The portage comes out on one of the widest beaches I’ve seen in Algonquin. It’s got a great view down Manitou which, unfortunately for us, meant a great view of the waves being whipped up by the surprisingly strong wind that was now blowing directly in our faces. The wind brought with it the promise of rain, and we packed up and pushed off as quickly as possible, hoping to make it to a campsite before the rain hit. Spoiler alert: we didn’t.
The problem was that, once again, we were following the shoreline instead of travelling in a straight line. If we’d been able to head directly for our site (we’d targeted the island marked as Pine Island on Jeff’s Map), we may have beaten the rain. However, with the wind as strong as it was we weren’t going to take any chances on open water. We ended up following the southern shoreline, which included a distressing amount of dipsying and even some doodling as we went along.
The rain started to fall as we rounded the last bend before Pine Island, and by the time we had pulled up to the site we were both well and truly soaked. The good news was that our site for the night was kind of perfect for a rainy night. The site is well enough sheltered, particularly around the fire pit, that we could stand around the fire and not get too drenched. We set up our tents and tarps, made a pretty damned delicious dinner of steak, potatoes, asparagus and mushrooms, and explored the island. We checked out the island’s other campsite, hung our food bag, marveled at some multi coloured tree fungus and found one of the biggest damn woodpecker holes in the history of woodpeckering, all while the rain beat down on us like we were Phil Collins getting his fondest wish.
The thing about being cold and wet on trip is that, in the moment, it feels like you’re never going to be not cold and not wet again. As the night wore on and the weather wore us down, it got harder to fight off the creeping suspicion that we were completely fucking nuts for being so far from a central heating system. I was able to get a decent fire going by propping the grill across the fire pit, then covering the grill with a thick piece of tree trunk to provide a roof for flames and build a bit of an oven. With this protection even the wettest wood eventually caught, but beyond throwing off enough heat to dry out the front of my pants, the fire wasn’t much consolation from the elements. On the plus side, thanks to my tarp and my trusty Tarn 2 tent, I was able to stay nice and dry once I gave up and retreated to my tent for the night.
I slept well, grateful for my -7 sleeping bag and extra blanket as the temperatures dipped below zero (well, felt like they dipped below zero according to the Weather Network. I have no idea what the difference is between what a temperature feels like and what is actually is. Regardless, it was cold). The rain gave up some time around 3 am, but the wind decided to stick around and keep the party going for another day. We woke up to a headwind on Manitou, skies that looked like they were about to open up again at any minute and the sound of the weather Gods laughing at our hubris from the day before.
I don’t like giving up on a trip, particularly one that had been in the works for so long, but this was the right decision for us. We could have stuck it out for another couple of nights, but I don’t think either of us would have gotten much enjoyment out of it. Having decided to beat a hasty retreat, we loaded up the canoe and pushed off for home. Or, more accurately, the wind pushed us towards home.
It was even windier on the return trip across Manitou than it had been the day before. At least this time we had the wind behind us, but that didn’t help all that much as one of the consequences of hugging the shoreline is that we spent a decent amount of time paddling sideways to the waves. We eventually made it back to the portage and after some good old fashioned procrastinating loaded up for the carry back to the river (where we found a 95% beaver gnawed birch tree at the other end. I don’t know why that beaver decided to leave that tree standing with basically a tooth pick worth of trunk left to keep it up, but I do know that I won’t be hiring it for any tree felling purposes in the near future).
We stopped at the waterfall on the P310 for a lunch of fried salami, cheese and pita slices and spent some time hiking up and down the falls. We found a series of (slippery) rocks that we could walk across to get to one of the islands closer to the middle of the water. It was pretty cool (both literally and figuratively) seeing the froth up close and feeling the mist that permeated the air. Less cool was the secretly tippy rock that I found as I clambered back across to the mainland, but fortunately I was able to overcome that obstacle through a combination of balance, cat-like reflexes and high pitched yelping. It was mostly the yelping.whatever this was. My guess is it’s an old piece of chimney or foundation, but I’m not ruling out the possibility that it’s all that remains of an ancient Algonquin pyramid.
If I took anything away from this trip (apart from the beginnings of a cold) it’s that I think in the future I’ll keep my ice out trips confined to smaller lakes to try and avoid some of the complications from strong winds and bad weather. My hope in picking the route that I originally did was that I’d be able to ease my way back into portaging by spending more time on the water, but I didn’t account for the fact that more time on the water also means more opportunity for unfavourable conditions to put a serious crimp in our plans.
Regardless, it was a great trip and it’s great to be back on the water after a long (looooong) winter.
203 down, 327 to go.
New Lakes Paddled: 1
Total Lakes Paddled: 3
Total Portages: 6
Total Portage Distance: 3.86 KM
Total Travel Distance: 26.8 KM