The Quest For Susan Lake

I’ve always wanted to see Susan Lake. Not because I’d heard it was a particularly scenic lake, or because I wanted to learn new and interesting ways to sink knee deep into portage muck (we’ll get there), but because of six words underneath Susan Lake’s lone canoe-in campsite on Jeff’s Algonquin Map:

This campsite is in poor condition

This campsite is in poor condition

Here’s the thing, there are roughly 7 million back country campsites in the Park, and they aren’t all gems. I’ve visited (and, unfortunately, stayed on) more than a few sites that I would consider to be in “poor condition”. However, unlike Susan’s site, none of those warranted a disclaimer related to their extreme shittiness. I was curious. How bad did a campsite have to be to be called out on the most comprehensive Algonquin map I’ve ever seen? (at least until Jeff’s new Unlostify Algonquin map drops later this year). There was only one way to find out.

The problem with Susan Lake, and the reason I hadn’t satisfied my curiosity three years ago, is that it’s kind of a pain in the ass to get to. It’s part of the low maintenance tangle of small lakes and long portages that makes up the Ahmek District, an area of the Park northwest of Canoe Lake. It’s far enough away that a day trip out and back from Canoe Lake was a bit more than I wanted to tackle solo, but I wasn’t really interested in making it an overnight destination what with the “this site is the campsite equivalent of fresh dog vomit ” (I’m paraphrasing) warning. So, basically, I needed to convince someone that they wanted to spend the better part of their day on a low maintenance, portage heavy loop just to check out a campsite that we already knew as terrible. Fortunately for me and my Susan Lake itch (ew) I was able to do exactly that this past Labour Day weekend when my brother-in-law Clark agreed to keep me alive join me on my quest through the Ahmek District to see a shitty campsite.

That’s not unpretty.

We started shortly after sunrise. This late in the summer, this meant we were pulling away from the dock just after 7 am so let’s hold the cheers and applause for our up and at ’em spirit. The sun was a mist obscured fireball over the eastern tree line and the water was flat and clear. In other words, it was perfect. We paddled to the first of our twelve (ugh) portages of the day and I was immediately reminded of how great it is to have someone paddling with you who’s done more tripping than you have, as Clark flipped the canoe up and started up the portage without breaking stride. This left me free for my favourite portage activity,  taking random pictures of trees along the portage that were probably very meaningful in the moment, but now just look like trees.

In between Canoe Lake and Drummer are Sam and Gill Lakes, two small lakes with names that sound like they could be extras on a 1950’s radio mystery show. While these are actually really nice little lakes, there are no campsites on either one of them and, frankly, I wouldn’t want to camp on either even if there were. This is an opinion that was evidently not shared by the guy we found camped at the start of Gill/Drummer portage. Weirdly, he had three canoes there with him, leading to so many questions. Was he alone? If he was alone, why did he have three canoes? Did he bring three canoes in case two got broken? If he’s that redundant with his canoes, how many extra water filters did he bring? If he wasn’t alone, where was everyone else? Did he know he was camping two kilometers from the nearest thunderbox? Did he care?

Gill Lake 1
So many canoes. So few people.

My working theory, which I fine tuned over the course of the 1.8 KM carry from Gill up to Drummer, was that the rest of his party had camped at the Drummer end of the portage and brought their boats over the night before to get a head start on the next day’s travel. Like gravity, it was a good theory. But, also like gravity, I’m only half convinced it was true. There were people camped at the other end, but there was also a canoe camped there with them, so why would they only carry over some of the canoes? And why would they need a canoe guard at the other end of the portage anyway? There have been very few reported instances of canoe piracy in the Park this summer. Anyways, like I said, so many questions.

What wasn’t in question is how beautiful Drummer is (10 points to Gryffindor for sticking the landing on the segue! -10 points for ending an sentence with “is”). We paddled across Drummer, through the narrows connecting to Little Drummer, and stopped for a quick break on Little Drummer’s campsite to shed some layers as the day was starting to heat up. I’ve written about that site on Little Drummer before, but every time I visit it I’m reminded how much I like it. It’s the only site on the lake and the main site area is up on a rock wall, with a nice view of the Drummer narrows and Little Drummer itself. Even if there are people camped on Drummer, it’s got a feeling of seclusion to it that you won’t likely find anywhere else that close to the Canoe Lake access point. Also, one time I saw an otter there and otters are awesome.

Next up was the 540m portage over to Tonakela and my annual reminder that Tonakela is not a lake anyone in their right mind would want to camp on. I mean, it’s not an ugly lake or anything. In fact, it’s really quite pretty. Rounded rocks poke up through the water surface here and there like segments of some terrifying underwater lake monster. It makes for a nice view, but that’s about all Tonakela has going for it. The lone campsite deserves its own “this campsite is in poor condition” warning, and would need to work pretty hard to improve to the point where it would be considered terrible. The lake is shallow enough to have had a speaking role in Clueless and I can’t imagine swimming in it, although I’m sure the billions of leeches that probably live there can. Anyways, it’s nice to paddle through, but maybe not a place you’d want to stop.

Coming in to the  Tonakela/Thunder portage was a reminder that things can get a little mucky up in that neck of the woods. The lake ended about ten feet before the portage started, leaving a mat of tremendously non-walkable mud in between. I ended up hopping from small, not really load bearing log to small, not really load bearing log and somehow avoided sinking up to my hips in Algonquin quicksand. With that auspicious start behind us, we were soon across the portage and drifting down Thunder, enjoying both a Clif Bar (hit me up, Clif Bar maker. I will shill for you like it’s my job, which it can be. For the right number of Clif Bars) and the scenery on Thunder.

There are a couple of decent looking hiking sites on Thunder, but the lake’s lone campsite seems to have taken a page out of Tonakela’s book. We could see the campsite sign from the water, but if there was a campsite buried somewhere in that dense wall of underbrush, it was doing a really good job of hiding from us. Not that we were looking that hard for it. Once the Clif Bars were done our attention was focused on the 1.1 KM portage to Lupus Lake.

The portage between Thunder and Lupus is fantastic. I don’t know if it used to be a logging road or maybe a 400 series highway, but it’s wide, clear and direct. The hardest part about the entire carry is about 10 metres from the Lupus end of the portage, where a large tree trunk has taken a nap across the path, necessitating some unnatural leg stretching to get over (or, if you’re me, passing it off to your much taller brother-in-law standing on the other side of the trunk).

Looking down Lupus Lake

Lupus Lake was my first new lake in almost three months (thank you very much, beer league softball hamstring injury). I have to say, it was worth the wait. Lupus is bigger than a lot of the other lakes in the area and it’s a very pretty spot. There aren’t any campsites on the lake, so unfortunately all you can do is paddle through. The lake doglegs north, so you can follow the shore and admire the stands of silver maple (yay, Trees of Algonquin guide book) as you head towards Red Lake. Once you get to the north end of the lake, there’s a really nice little wetland area directly across from the portage that I imagine would be a good place to see wildlife. That previous sentence assumes you can find the portage, which isn’t the easiest thing to do as the portage sign has been moved by the portage elves and is now lying on the ground. Fortunately, I had Clark with me because he spotted the takeout using, I dunno, portage radar, when all I could see was a wall of green stuff.

The portage up from Lupus is short, but don’t worry, there are a few downed trees and other obstacles to make the carry interesting. Regardless, it didn’t take long for us to get across and out onto Red Lake. I really liked Red Lake. And then I didn’t. See, where the Lupus/Red Lake portage ends, Red Lake looks like a pretty standard Algonquin lake. But, and this important, that’s just Red Lake fucking with you. Basically, Red Lake is two lakes. The first is the nice one you find when you arrive, the second is a lily pad choked quagmire of mud and tears just to the west. As you paddle closer and closer to the next portage it gets harder and harder to, uh, paddle. Eventually you’re just digging into three feet of muck and pushing as hard as you can, hoping that your paddle doesn’t get sucked out of your hand when you try to pull it out. We had to try two different approaches to the portage (which has no sign and is not obvious from the water in the first place) since the first one ended in abject failure at least 30 feet from the takeout. We made it eventually, with Clark pulling both me and the canoe across the last ten feet of mud using one of the thinnest, yet strongest pieces of bow rope I’ve ever seen.

That portage goes down as one of the top five shittiest portages I can remember. It’s only 680 metres, but every single one of those metres is covered with vegetation, deadfalls and the broken spirits of (the very few) people who have come this way before. At times you’re not sure whether you’re following an actual path or just the shattered dream of a path. There’s a fun part about midway where you zig down a small hill through a leg shredding tangle of vines and raspberry bushes, then climb over a groin tearing fallen tree only to zag back up that same hill, once again through a leg shredding tangle of vines and raspberry bushes. By the time I made it to the end of the carry I knew two things: 1) I was never doing that portage again and 2) I really shouldn’t have unzipped the pant legs from my super stylish convertible pants before starting the portage. (the below video in no way does justice to how crappy this carry is).

But you know what? Once the portage was over it really didn’t matter that I was on my way to catastrophic blood loss from the thousands of prickle bush cuts all over my legs. Why didn’t it matter? Because I was on Susan Lake and only moments away from finally stepping foot on Jeff’s “This campsite is in poor condition” site.

Just around the corner from the site. And disappointment.


See, that’s the problem with trying to go anywhere on Labour Day weekend. No matter how out of the way you think a lake is, no matter how many pints of blood you had to lose to get there, if it’s within anywhere close to a day’s travel from an access point, someone is probably already there. Sigh.

With people on the site we couldn’t really pull up and explore, so we contented ourselves with drifting slowly past and staring down the group of guys who were just trying to enjoy a pleasant Sunday morning in Algonquin. Not that they looked like they were enjoying themselves all that much; from the water the site really did seem to live up to its “this campsite is in poor condition” promise/warning.  Most sites in the Park, there’s a clear delineation between where the forest ends and the site begins. In this case, it looked like the forest had decided it wanted to try more of a co-habitation arrangement, but was a really messy roommate. There was stuff growing everywhere. I felt for the guys, who probably hadn’t seen the warning that had piqued my interest and as a result were now huddled around an overgrown firepit while some random dude paddled past, muttering really terrible things about them under his breath as he went.

Susan Lake
Susan Lake. Campsite to the right, better campsite to the left.

Anyways, the disappointment of not getting to actually set foot on the site was tempered by the realization that Susan is actually a really pretty little lake. The east shore rises sharply up from the water. There are a couple of hike in sites along this stretch, one of which at least is perched about 100 feet up the hill with a fantastic view of the lake. The west shore has a small point that looks like it’d be a better spot for a paddle in site than the existing location, but, frankly, anywhere would be a better spot than the existing location.

One last look back at Susan Lake.

Eventually it became clear that our passive aggressive floating wasn’t scaring those guys off their site, so we continued on our way. The portage between Susan and South Snowbird is better than the one between Red Lake and Susan, but that still leaves plenty of room for improvement. About twenty steps in you cross the Western Uplands Trail, which exists solely to show you what a clear path looks like as you instead follow the much less clear portage trail into a wall of leaves. I’m not going to lie. We got lost. Like, Jack Shepherd Lost. Only for a few minutes, and there was no weird smoke monster chasing us, but it still happened. Fortunately, Clark’s portage radar kicked in again and he got us back on the trail fairly quickly. The rest of the portage went a bit better, and before too long I was putting in at South Snowbird, only to discover that what I thought was a put in was in fact not the put in (which was a good thing, because it would have been an awful put in).

I eventually made it to the actual put in and before long we were paddling down South Snowbird, which is another lovely little lake. There are some cool rock walls along the western shore and for some reason I really liked passing through the small narrows at about the halfway part of the lake. The portage between South Snowbird and Rainbow was much better than the two that came before, which probably had a lot to do with the fact that I wasn’t carrying the canoe. Regardless, it didn’t take long before we were pushing off onto Rainbow and looking for a spot to stop for lunch and a swim.

We ended up pulling up on a hike-in site halfway up the western shore. It’s too bad this site is reserved for people who prefer never ending portages, because it’s a really nice spot. There’s a rocky beach that’s got great views up towards the top of Rainbow and also down the western arm. The site itself has a nice fire pit and some good tent spaces. All in all, it seems like a nice place to spend a night and was definitely a great place to stop for lunch. We took a swim, ate some delicious dehydrated fried rice and green curry from Backcountry Wok (SHAMELESS PLUG ALERT! BUT THEY’RE SO DELICIOUS!) and generally agreed that it had been a pretty awesome day so far.

Once the curry and swimming were done, we got back in the canoe for the homestretch. Rainbow seems like it would be a great spot to spend a night. There’s only one paddle-in campsite, and from the water it looks like a pretty decent one. The shores are lined with intermittent rock beaches that make for good places to pull up for a break if you’re just passing through as well. We paddled up the western arm of Rainbow, then back down the main body of the lake to the short portage over to Maybe Pond.

Leapfrogging logs across Maybe Pond

The good news is that the portage to Maybe Pond is short and, theoretically, easy. The bad news is that Maybe Pond hasn’t improved from the last time I came through, which was Labour Day weekend, 2016. Back then, the Rainbow end was a forty foot mat of leg sucking muck surrounding a very narrow ribbon of water that was far too shallow to put a boat in. Now, well, not much has changed. We ended up dragging the canoe through the muck and trying not to sink up to our shins with each step (with mixed success). The ribbon of water finally got deep enough to float both us and the canoe, and we were able to paddle the fifty metres across to the other end of the pond, where we were greeted with an obstacle course of fallen logs and more mud that we had to hop across like drunk mountain goats before we could reach the portage.

So, yeah, maybe skip Maybe Pond.

Along the trail between Rainbow and Potter Creek

The portage between Maybe Pond and Potter Creek was our second longest of the day. I’d been worried about this one as I’d done it once before and not loved it, but it went surprisingly well. Again, probably because I wasn’t carrying the canoe this time. The trail was clear and easy to follow, the scenery along the way was pretty and I didn’t once trip over any portage gremlins, so a clear win. We came out on Potter Creek with nothing but water between us and the end of our trip. Well, water and a pretty significant headwind. It hit us as soon as we emerged from the narrow part of the creek, and stayed with us all the way out to Canoe Lake and home. There’s nothing better than paddling as hard as you can just to not move backwards after 20+ kilometers of tripping.

We did make one final stop before heading home. That was at the site of the old Mowat ruins on Potter Creek, a spot that neither Clark or I had ever visited, despite having spent over 50 combined years on Canoe Lake. Having seen them, I want to build a time machine and go back and visit Mowat when it was a fully functioning town, stopping along the way to smack younger Drew for not visiting them much sooner. The ruin is the shell of an old concrete building, about twenty feet back in the woods on the west side of the creek. It looks like a great place to film The Blair Witch Project 8: More Witches! We walked around and through it, marveling at the size of the trees that have grown up between the walls. It’s definitely worth a visit if you’re down that way.

And that was it. We got back in our boat, battled the headwind down Canoe Lake and were pulling up to the dock eight hours after we’d left. It was an awesome day, crushing disappointment at Susan Lake notwithstanding. I love paddling (er, portaging) the Ahmek District. The lakes are mostly on the small size, but they’re very pretty and feel nicely seculuded (Drummer Lake on the long weekend aside). It was great covering some new ground for the first time in months and I couldn’t have asked for better weather or company. All in all, it was a fantastic way to get back on the water.

img_0671Next up: We’re heading south of 60 in early September. Like, tomorrow. Hooray!

New Lakes Paddled: 4
Total Lakes Paddled: 16
Total Portages: 12
Total Portage Distance: 9.79 KM
Total Travel Distance: 24 KM

Holy shit this was 3,500 words. If you’re still reading, thank you!

5 thoughts on “The Quest For Susan Lake

  1. Elizabeth A White September 5, 2019 — 7:32 pm

    Glad that it was worth it. And yes read it all. Have a good trip this weekend.

  2. What a great read. THank-you so much.

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