South of 60: A Rock Lake Loop

I usually love the sound of rain on the roof. Whether you’re in the city or the country, a house or a tent, there’s something very soothing about the patter of drops hitting the roof above you. It makes the world seem small and cozy, a reminder that you’re inside, warm and dry, while the outside world is anything but. It’s a great sound. Well, it’s a great sound as long as the roof above you doesn’t happen to be the roof of your car, and that car doesn’t happen to be winding down an access point road to the start of your next trip. Then it’s not so great.

Sigh.

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This sign is confusing if you don’t look at the pictures.

My latest trip was a two night loop out of Rock Lake with my friends Gordon, Dan and Vince. I’ve tripped with each of them in both of the last two summers, but this was the first time all four of us had gone out together, combining forces to conquer the Algonquin Southlands like a soggy Voltron. Our goals were to spend the first night on Pen, the second on Louisa and to not come out carrying an extra ten pounds each in soaked in water weight. We managed two of those goals.

We arrived at Rock Lake at around the same time as the rain did. The first drops hit the windshield of our van somewhere in between the permit office and the boat launch. We didn’t know it then, but those first few drops were just the advance guard from a much larger invading force waiting to attack from the clouds above.

Thank God for rain gear.

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Say “City Boys!”

I kept hoping that the rain would pass while we were getting set up, but pretty soon we had the packs loaded, boats in the water and our picture taken by a guy who told us to say “city boys” instead of cheese, and the rain still hadn’t stopped. We pushed off onto the stretch of the Madawaska River in between Whitefish and Rock in a steady drizzle, heading south towards more rain and, eventually, Pen Lake.

We paddled down Rock to the bay on the eastern shore that’s marked as Pictobay on Jeff’s Map.  It’s marked as Pictobay because the bay is dominated by a large set of cliffs and, on those cliffs, are some pictographs. Allegedly. I say allegedly because I like to use big words that make me seem smarterer and because in the past I have had zero luck finding these supposed pictographs. They’re like the Polkaroo of awesome Algonquin artifacts. Everyone else had seen them but whenever I came around they flat out disappeared. But not this time! Thanks to some great advice from the Algonquin Adventures message board, and Vince’s eagle eye, I finally found them. Well, more accurately, Vince found them. If he hadn’t been along I’d probably still be paddling back and forth in front of that cliff face trying to decide if what I was looking at was a pictograph or lichen.

Once we’d finished marveling at the ancient artwork (and appreciating the slight shelter the cliff provided from the rain) we turned south again. The rain kicked it up a notch as we made our way to the Pen Lake portage, and by the time we reached the takeout there was a respectable puddle sloshing around in the bottom of our boat (and soaking in to the fabric of my backpack. Which seems like a minor complaint, but by the end of the trip the strap of my pack had started to rip at the seams and I think it was partly because it got so wet).

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Pulling up to the Pen Lake portage. The lake seems to have a lot of holes in it.

The good news is that the portage over to Pen was just as easy as I remembered it being from a few years back. Since this was my first fully loaded portage since messing up my hamstring, I was happy to be finding my feet on a path that was relatively free of tripping hazards. I made it over to the dock on the Pen Lake side and I have to say it was a pretty successful portage. My hamstring stayed intact, I didn’t trip over any portage gremlins and Pen Lake hadn’t been replaced by a seething cauldron of lava and brimstone (in fairness, this rarely happens). As a bonus, in the time it had taken to get across from Rock, the rain had slowed down to a fine drizzle. By the time we had come back from a quick hike back along the portage to find Pen Falls and pushed off into Pen’s northern bay, it had pretty much stopped.

We moved quickly, hoping to take advantage of the lull in the rain to find a site and set up shop. It was about 3:30 on the Friday after Labour Day and I was surprised by how many spots were already occupied. I had thought we’d have our pick of the litter, but we ended up passing site after site that was either A) already taken or B) objectively terrible (I’m looking at you, western shore sites). We ended up on a nice, but hilly, site on the east shore, almost directly across from the portage we’d be taking the next morning over to the Galipo River.

The rain obligingly held off while we set up our tents and got the best tarp structure in the history of tarp structuring strung beside (and partially over) the fire. You might have just read that last sentence and thought to yourself, “well, hold on Drew. I’ve strung some damn fine tarps in my day, how do you know yours is the best?” and I suppose I can understand why you would think that. But, here’s the thing: as great as your tarp structure might have been, as wonderful a feat of polyethylene engineering as you think it was, it wasn’t being used to keep me dry, and my tarp was. Therefore my tarp > your tarp. Also, the support rope doubled as an awesome drying line over the fire so the next morning we had socks that were both bone dry and well preserved with a delightful smokey taste.

Again, my tarp > your tarp.

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A sunset(ish)

The tarp got some use thanks to some intermittent cloud bursts, but for the most part it was a very pleasant night. There was even a sunset of a sort. I mean, the sun definitely set, we just couldn’t really see it behind the wall of clouds still hovering in the west. There was, however, a brief, shining moment (literally) when the underside of some of those clouds lit up from below, leaving me hopeful that the rain would have moved on by the next day. I don’t want to spoil the rest of this post, but in 2016 I was also hoping that the U.S. wouldn’t end up with an insane Oompa Loompa as President, and we know how that turned out. We passed the rest of the night beside the fire, drying various items of clothing and eating from Dan’s magnificent stash of snacks. Eventually, full of Doritos and jerky, I retreated to my tent for a restful yet somewhat slanted sleep.

It seemed the next morning that my hopes for a nicer day had come true. The skies were blue, the sun was no longer just an abstract concept and there was a decided lack of airborne water landing on my head. We packed up the site and paddled across Pen, excited to have dry shoes and be heading off into new territory. Our plan for the day was to head up to Lake Louisa by way of Welcome, Harry, Rence, Frank and Florence lakes. Along the way there’d be some river travel along the Galipo River and, although we didn’t know it at that time, some mud travel as well. While the excitement of seeing a new part of the Park didn’t fade, the excitement of dry shoes disappeared along with the creek that leads from Pen Lake to the first portage onto the Galipo.

Basically, to get from Pen Lake to the Galipo River you have to paddle part of the river’s outlet through a marshy bit on Pen’s west side. The river’s current, combined with general low water conditions this late in the season, had combined to create a sandbar under about two inches of water in between the main body of Pen and the creek. For those keeping track at home, it turns out that those two inches of water were the exact right height to ensure that my shoes were well and truly soaked by the time we’d dragged the canoes across the sand and onto the creek. Fortunately, that was the last time we’d have to drag … one of the few times we’d have to drag… probably the best of the many times we had to drag that day. The rest of the creek went fairly smoothly (with a couple of additional drags thrown in for good measure) and before long we were at the portage takeout/rock minefield that begins the 275m carry up to the Galipo River.

Given that it was only 275 metres, that portage seemed kind of difficult. Maybe it’s the fact that there’s a bit of a climb along the way, but it definitely felt like I was carrying for longer than 275m should. Regardless, we eventually arrived at the Galipo River where we spent a pleasant 15 minutes acquainting ourselves with the local beaver dam architecture before embarking on the 2 KM carry up to Welcome Lake.

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The beach on Welcome.

I don’t remember much about that portage which probably means that it’s not bad for a 2 KM hike or that it’s so bad I’ve blocked it out of my memory. What I do remember is finishing the portage at a pretty fantastic beach that also ended up doubling as our lunch spot (more Backcountry Wok for me, the Bibimbap version this time. Still delicious!). The wind had picked up while we crossed the portage and by the time I was pleasantly full of rehydrated Bibimbap it was strong enough to make things interesting as we pushed off.

Thanks to the wind, I didn’t spend much time looking around Welcome, but what I saw seemed pretty appealing. One site in particular on the eastern shore, with a wide beach and what looks like a great western view, definitely seemed worth coming back to on another trip. Not on this trip though. This trip was just about pushing through the wind to the place where the Galipo River connects Welcome with Harry Lake.

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Paddling into the Galipo River

When I planned this route back in June I didn’t give much thought to water levels. I also didn’t give much thought to werewolves, but, unlike werewolves, water levels are a real thing that can impact a trip [ed. note: So are werewolves]. I continued to not give too much thought to water levels up until my Labour Day trip to Susan Lake at which point my trip across the mud flats of Red Lake left me thinking about pretty much nothing else but water levels. See, there are no portages between Welcome, Harry and Rence Lake. Instead, you follow the Galipo River between each lake. This seems like an ideal way to cut down on the canoe carrying when you’re planning things in June, but starts to seem like a recipe for tears and broken friendships when you’re contemplating a potential slog through a low water quagmire in early September. As a result, it was the water levels on the river between Welcome and Harry and not the multiple 1.5+ KM portages that had been my biggest concern leading into the trip.

Fortunately, the paddle between Welcome and Harry was actually very nice, leaving me thinking that maybe I’d been worrying a bit too much, kind of like that time I stockpiled 17,000 cases of Dr. Pepper after watching the John Cusack documentary, 2012. The river was wide, the water was deep and we saw a bunch of frogs. The only place we had to get out was at the mouth of the river on the Harry end where there’s a bit of a sand bar and, to be honest, I didn’t even get out at that point. Instead, I relied on Vince to drag us over the sandbar, while I took pictures and offered words of vague yet meaningful encouragement.

The paddle across Harry also went smoothly. The wind had become more manageable and we were able to stick close to the south shore, which helped cut things further. As we paddled I pointed out a campsite on the north shore and noted that it looked a nice spot, made all the nicer because, according to the map, there were only two sites on Harry so you’d probably have the place to yourself if you booked it. This vision of lovely solitude got blurrier as we passed a second site not far away, then quickly found a third and a fourth as well. It turned out that I’d been looking at the wrong lake on the map when we’d started down Harry. Pro tip folks: if you want to inspire confidence in your trip partners in your ability to navigate them safely through the Park, maybe make sure you know what lake you’re on before offering up some Interesting Facts about that lake. Fortunately, and despite my map issues, we found the next segment of the Galipo River without any difficulty, at which point we discovered that my concerns about low water levels hadn’t been overblown, just mis-located.

It turns out that the stretch between Harry Lake and Rence Lake was less awesome than the stretch between Welcome and Harry. Water levels were lower, the beaver dams were dammier and there’s a fun little stretch at the end where the only option is to drag across an ankle deep sandbar while it rains on you. Oh yeah, it had started to rain again.

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Rence Lake we hardly knew ye.

Fortunately for us, crossing that sandbar meant we were now on Rence and starting the final leg north towards Louisa. I wish I could give you a detailed breakdown of Rence, but it’s taking me about as long to type this sentence as it took us to cut the north east corner of the lake and start down the short creek that leads to the Frank Lake portage. Now, I might not be able to tell you much about Rence, but I can tell you everything you could possibly want to know about that creek, because we were on it forgoddamnever.

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Out for a nice relaxing mud walk.

The fun started as soon as we hit the mouth of the creek. Or, more accurately, as soon as the mouth of the creek hit us. It turns out that we were no longer paddling through water so much as crossing the event horizon of a massively dense mud based black hole that was hell bent on swallowing our paddles, canoes and Dan’s legs (Dan got intimately acquainted with about three feet worth of mud on multiple occasions. It was awesome. For everyone else. Less awesome for him probably). We made it through eventually, thanks to a combination of pushing, pulling and vigorous, vigorous swearing.  I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to see a portage than I was to see the 320 up to Frank Lake.

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Paddling up Frank. Exciting times ahead.

The portage was easy and Frank Lake was a sight for sore eyes. All we had left was a short paddle through Frank and Florence Lakes, which connect by a small narrows, and a not so short portage up to Louisa, and we’d be done for the day. That was good feeling. It was an even better feeling when the rain gave up as we paddled out of the small southern bay leaving us with patchwork blue skies and a beautiful little lake to paddle through. There’s only one site on Frank Lake and under normal circumstances it looked like it would be a great spot to spend the night. Not this time though. This time it was on fire.

Literally.

Let’s back up a bit. The site faces the north end of the lake on a small island just past the mouth of that small southern bay. The site is on the right as you paddle out of the bay, and it slowly reveals itself to you as you pass. I had wanted to stop and check it out and was disappointed to see smoke rising from the fire pit, thinking that meant there was someone already on the site. Except, we couldn’t see anyone. There were no canoes, no tents, no slumbering dragons, nothing to explain the smoke. Figuring that someone had just done a lousy job of putting out their campfire, Vince and I detoured over to the site to check it out. However, instead of the smoldering remnants of last night’s camp fire, we found the smoldering remnants of a trench that had chewed its way through the ground for about ten feet from the fire pit. It was a root fire, and it was still burning.

Damn, this’d be a good place for a cliffhanger.

(To be continued)

(Right after this picture)

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We called Gordon and Dan back and started dumping bottles of water into the trench. The wind was blowing fairly steadily onto the site, acting a bit like a bellows and keeping things hot. Occasionally a pocket of flame would shoot up from the edge of the fire like fireworks from a goalpost after a touchdown, but for the most part the fire was charcoal embers and grey smoke. Lots of smoke.

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Pouring water in the trench.

I was able to contact my wife on my InReach and, shortly after, get an actual bar of cell service. Between the two of us we got in touch with the fire department, who told us that they’d send someone to deal with the fire and that running around a burning campsite probably wasn’t the smartest thing to be doing. I guess the thing with root fires is that they can flare up unexpectedly anywhere the root system goes. This means that even if the ground you’re standing on feels solid, it might be swiss cheese (very hot swiss cheese) a couple of inches below the surface. The last thing you want to be doing is walking across the site and suddenly find yourself shin deep in burning crap.

So, with that thought in mind, and the knowledge that we were losing light and still an hour and change from our destination for the night, we packed up the boats and left. (FWIW, both Frank and Florence, are quite pretty. I’d go back and stay on Frank/Florence in a heartbeat, provided the site isn’t on fire). As for the fire, I think we managed to put a small dent in it before we left. There was certainly less smoke than when we’d started, but there was also certainly more work to be done. Someone must have come and done it though, because when I checked the Ontario forest fire map the next afternoon they had the fire marked as under control.

So, yeah, that was exciting.

Less exciting was the final 1.7 KM portage from Florence Lake up to Louisa. By the time we started this last carry of the day we were all gassed. It had been a long day even before the unexpected excitement on Frank Lake, and I don’t think any of us were looking forward to another kilometer plus of walking with heavy shit.  But, walk with heavy shit we did. The trip between Florence and Louisa is well marked, easy to follow and clear of debris. I think with fresh legs it would actually be pretty enjoyable. However, it is also consistently, if slightly, uphill pretty much the entire way and with unfresh legs it kind of sucked.

Arriving at Louisa left me feeling equal parts relieved and nervous. I was relieved that we were finally on our destination lake for the night and I was nervous that we’d end up having to paddle for a while before finding a site. I was also hungry, but that’s less relevant to the narrative at this point. I had in mind a specific site that I’d never stayed on myself but that had been recommended to me by both my brothers-in-law. It also happened to be the closest site to the portage put in. Combining the fact that it would be a nice site, and the easiest site to get to, I was 100% certain it would already be taken. I was pleasantly surprised to discover, after what felt like a very long and very slow paddle out of the portage bay, that the site was indeed free and was indeed awesome.

It didn’t take much convincing to get the other guys to stop for the day (read: they may have shot me into the sun if I’d suggested trying for another site) and before long we were unloaded and setting up for the night. I can’t say enough about how much I liked that site. It’s huge, on a nice long point, with space for quite a few people without seeming crowded. The fire pit is pretty awesome and the swimming is excellent. There are great views for about 270 degrees, along with some ledges on the western side that are great for watching the sunset and may even be good for jumping from (we did not do this and did not check the depth. Don’t jump without checking). We built another world class tarp structure over the fire pit, ate some dinner and watched the sun go down and the stars come out. All in all, it was an awesome end to an unforgettable day.

The next morning was our last. I hate last mornings. No matter what I’ve got in front of me I wake up feeling like the trip is already done. This always makes for a weird trip out, as I’m only half present in the moment. The other half of me is already driving away from the access point, wondering if I remembered to set my fantasy lineup or if a zombie apocalypse has happened while we’ve been gone. The answer to both those questions is usually no.

Anyways, last days suck.

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Dan and Gordon, winning the great Louisa Race, 2019.

We packed up and paddled out under grey skies and into the teeth of a pretty strong sidewind. Fortunately, Louisa narrows as you head east, and that helped cut the wind once we were out of the large western basin. With the wind at manageable levels, the paddle across Louisa was fairly uneventful. Fun fact: I really, really like Louisa. It’s a big, it’s beautiful and it’s got a bunch of really nice sites on it. I would happily spend a few nights in a row there, maybe even some days too.

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Along the portage.

In between Louisa and Rock Lake is a 3 KM portage. The last time/first time I went from Louisa to Rock I spent the night before worrying about this portage. I was convinced I was going to get to the halfway point and just melt into the forest floor as all my muscles simultaneously disintegrated. It turned out to actually be a really nice carry. I was across it in no time and spent the next three years telling everyone who would listen, including Gordon, Dan and Vince, how easy it is. I may have used the words “flat and road-like” on numerous occasions. Turns out that may have been oversimplifying things a bit. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a nice carry, but if you go into it expecting a conveyor belt to get you from one end to the other it may seem harder than you thought it would. We made it over eventually, but I think that’s probably the last time any of those guys will believe me when I tell them a portage is basically made of puppies and cotton candy.

 

The trip ended with a paddle up Rock Lake into that same sidewind that, thanks to the fact that we were now heading north instead of east, had become a headwind. It made for an interesting paddle back to the access point. On the plus side, as we were pulling up to the parking lot the sun decided to come out for what felt like the first time in two days. By the time we had the canoe on top of the van, and had eaten a jumbo bag of Doritos, there was barely a cloud in the sky and it felt more like mid summer rather than early fall.

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The End.

And that’s it. Despite the imperfect weather this was a perfect trip. The route was challenging without being soul destroying (the creek in between Rence and Frank notwithstanding), we stayed on some great sites (and fought a fire on another) and the company was stellar (well, the human company. The ever present rain can fuck right off next time).

And, for the first time in three years, I didn’t lose at Animalopoly. (Because we didn’t play).

Awesome.

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Map courtesy of Jeff’s Maps

214 down, 316 to go.

New Lakes Paddled: 5
Total Lakes Paddled: 9
Total Portages: 6
Total Portage Distance: 7.76 KM
Total Travel Distance: 41.2 KM

PS. Welcome to Allofalgonquin’s first 4,000 word post. This are getting out of hand.

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3 thoughts on “South of 60: A Rock Lake Loop

  1. Great story, brought back lots of memories — people trying to drown in mud, even extinguishing the root fire (although ours was on Laveille). As it happens, we were one of the parties already on Pen Lake that night — we had the beach site!

    Like

  2. As always, a fun read. We were contemplating this route for Thanksgiving weekend but after reading your story, I am having second thoughts. I think we used up our mud-trudging quota in Killarney this summer.

    Like

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