I don’t know how to start this post. In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past six months, this hasn’t exactly been a normal spring. Ice out this year came and went with little fanfare because it just didn’t matter. By the time the ice went out at the end of April, most of us had been living in quasi-lockdown for about six weeks (I say quasi because we here in Canada were lucky enough to escape the worst of the restrictions that other parts of the world saw). As part of the lockdown, all provincial parks were closed, including Algonquin. This stayed in effect until the end of May, when they opened again, first for day trip use and, as of June 1, for backcountry trips as well. Despite this loosening of restrictions, it’s likely going to be a while before I get out on an overnight trip.
So, uh … why am I reading this Drew? Gonna be a pretty short post I guess.
Except, no! Because even though I haven’t gotten out on an overnight, I have managed to squeeze in a few day trips and even cross some new lakes off the list. Over the past few weeks I’ve done trips up to Drummer, over to Westward and down to Wisp Lake. Drummer is an old friend, but both Westward and Wisp are new territory for me. So, without further adieu, let’s start with the first paddle of the season:
I left the dock on Canoe Lake just after 7 am. The sun was shining, the water was flat and the bugs were as excited as I was to have me out there. I paddled south on Canoe to the Sam Lake portage. This is a low maintenance portage on Canoe Lake’s western shore just at the start of the narrows leading down to Bonita and Tea Lakes. I’ve done this portage more times than I can count, but this is the first time I’ve pulled up to the take out and found a dead chipmunk waiting for me. Know what’s depressing? Getting out for your first portage of the year and finding a dead chipmunk. Know what’s not depressing? Those first few steps deeper into the Park after a quick yet heartfelt memorial for Portaging Alvin. Despite the fact that portages, to put it scientifically, suck, it felt great to have the canoe back on my shoulders and the path under my feet.
The trail was in pretty good shape and it wasn’t long before I was pushing off onto Sam Lake. Sam connects to Gill Lake by way of a 100m portage, or by a slightly longer paddle around to the west and over an impressively long beaver dam. I went the short portage route and was across both Sam and Gill pretty quickly.
The Gill to Drummer portage is kind of a Schrodinger’s cat portage. You don’t know if it’s going to be great or going to suck until you actually open that box and start walking. (I guess that’s true of all portages, but let me have this one). When the trail is clear it’s a relatively pleasant (if uphill) hike through the woods. When the trail isn’t clear due to fallen trees, overflowing streams or rampaging beavers, it can be a bit of chore. There’s nothing more frustrating then stopping every 100 metres to go around, or over, some inconsiderate tree that’s decided to take a nap in the middle of the trail. Fortunately, this time around, it wasn’t that bad. There were a few downed trees, and one stream running higher than usual, but apart from that it was smooth sailing … er, portaging.This is a pretty neat site, as it is home to a lean-to that was originally built in the … hmm, you know, I used to know this. It was built by Ahmek campers back when cars had fins, but I can’t remember the dates. Guess I’ll have to make a trip to the dining hall at Camp Ahmek (when it reopens) to brush up on camp lore. For now, let’s just say it was built in 1954. Unlostify Maps (who will someday, hopefully, release their long awaited Algonquin Map). Carved into the walls and roof of the building you can see the names of people who have sheltered under that lean-to over the years. I recognized more than a few, primarily because Ahmek boys view any untouched wall or roof beam as an insult to nature and will fill that empty space up as fast you can say the multiple swear words they may or may not be yelling at each other as they scrawl their names onto that wood. Thunderboxes in their natural habitats), I paddled over to the island site across the way to check it out. I think this site may be my favourite on Drummer. It’s got a pretty cool fire pit area, some nice views and a random clothesline that’s at just the right height to live out its life’s purpose and literally clothesline you as you walk up from the canoe landing. It’s also got a tree that at some point pissed Zeus off and got itself struck by a lighting bolt. The inside of the tree is charred and you can see how the lighting travelled along the exposed roots, blackening those as well. Greek Gods, they’re jerks.
And that was pretty much it for my first day trip of the season. I mean, I had to get back to Canoe Lake, but if you want to know how that went just read the last thousand words in reverse. While you’re doing that, I’m going to get things ready for my next day trip (and the next day), a paddle down the Oxtongue River, through Whiskey Rapids and up to Westward Lake.
I’ve been looking at Westward Lake on the map for the past few years and promising myself every summer that this will be the year I actually check it out. Up until now, those promises have been left to rot beside the corpses of other lies I’ve told myself. Lies like “It’s okay, just take a handful of chips, you won’t end up lying on the couch coated in crumbs looking at the empty bag and wondering what happened” or “Don’t worry, no one will smell it. Besides, the elevator is almost to your floor”. Fortunately, this year, all that self delusion stops, because I finally got there.
The trip from Canoe Lake down through Bonita and Tea was very quick, partly because I was looking forward to seeing a new lake for the first time this summer and mostly because I was towing my canoe behind a tin boat. Pro tip: this is faster than paddling. After dropping my boat and getting in the canoe I paddled over to the Tea Lake dam where, somehow, I managed to miss the portage put-in on the Oxtongue side. I walked about half a kilometre down the Tea Lake Dam road before I realized that a) I was no longer beside the river and b) it seemed like I was on the world’s longest 200 metre portage. In my defence, when I did eventually find it, the put-in was super obvious (in retrospect, this is a bad defence).
The Oxtongue between Tea Lake and Whiskey Rapids is very pretty. It’s shallow in places, but that only adds to the scenery. It seems like around every corner the water ripples in the sunlight as it passes over stones and rocks that are barely below the surface. It looks idyllic. It doesn’t feel so idyllic as you scrape the crap out of the bottom of your boat after misjudging the canoe channel through this particular patch of ripple, but at least the pictures turn out nice. Some of my favourite bits of scenery are these large dirt walls that rise somewhere between 40 and 400 feet (I am terrible at judging heights, I thought Snow White lived with a basketball team). They tower over you as you paddle past and you’re filled with alternate feelings of wonder at the sight and horror at the thought that those walls look about as sturdy as a sandcastle and you’re right under them.
Wait, no, that’s Westworld. Here’s Westward:
This is a gorgeous lake. It’s big, the water is clear and there are no campsites or cottages. There are a couple of stashed boats at the end of the portage, so it’s not like it’s a totally untouched spot, but if you’re up there alone it certainly feels that way. I’ve heard that the fishing is decent, but that is not a thing I will ever confirm for myself because fish are gross. That’s a scientific fact. I spent some time taking pictures and generally doing very little except enjoying being up there.
Eventually I had to turn around and head home. Coming back along the Oxtongue I spent a decent amount of time walking in ankle deep water, dragging the boat behind. While the Oxtongue doesn’t really have much of a current through here, apparently it’s enough of a difference that you can generally scrape over the shallow bits on the way down, but have to get out and walk coming back up. I actually didn’t mind the stroll. It was a hot day and the water felt refreshing on my ankles. The rest of me was sweating like Jed after Hannah found out about his girlfriend back home (All of Algonquin, for all your slightly dated Bachelor reference needs), but my ankles felt nice and fresh.
But Westward wasn’t the end of my spring day tripping! Two weeks later I was back on the water, heading south and thinking that late May Drew had no idea what he was talking about when he complained about the bugs.
My most recent paddle was a loop out of Smoke Lake that took me through Claude and Wisp lakes, before heading back again by way of Ragged. It was another beautiful day. The sun was shining, the birds were singing … basically it was the kind of day that if it were made into a movie it would be an old Disney cartoon where some idiot dances around the forest for three hours with a bunch of big eyed animals without any kind of plot or character development. Of course, in this analogy, I’m the idiot dancing through the forest, so maybe it’s better to just pretend this paragraph never happened.
This wasn’t a bad portage, all things considered. It was mostly flat and extremely green. There were a couple of spots where the ground was soft or I had to do some rock hopping to keep my feet dry, but nothing too exciting. It didn’t seem to take be long at all before I was putting in on Claude. I ran into a couple who were about the start the portage the other way on the Claude end (not literally, we social distanced like champs as we maneuvered around each other) and they told me they’d been on Parkside Bay for the past two nights and had a great time getting to know the local bug population. This was the fourth trip I saw that morning and I have to admit I was a bit surprised to have already run into so many people given that it was early June at the height (or close to it) of bug season. But, then again, everyone has been stuck inside for the better part of the last three months, so maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised.
Claude is a pretty little lake. There isn’t anything super special about it, but the scenery is quite nice, the water isn’t too swampy and I didn’t get attacked by sharks. That makes it three for three on my “Does this lake not suck?” checklist (as far as checklists go, that’s a pretty unwieldly name, but that’s where we are). I was across both Claude and the 275m portage leading out of Claude fairly quickly.
To right this travesty, I am naming both ponds. I’m sure the Algonquin Park Lake Naming Committee will have something to say about that, but if they’re not going to do their job properly someone has to. Pond number one (in between Claude and Parkside Bay) will now be Soaker Pond, in honour of the soaker I got when I slipped putting the canoe into the water at the portage put-in. Pond number two (in between Soaker Pond and Wisp Lake) will now be Batman Lake, because Batman is awesome. If there was a third pond it would be Ben Affleck Was The Worst Batman Of All Time And That Includes Val Kilmer, Who Was Terrible Lake, but there is no third pond.
Back to the trip, the 580m leading out of Soaker Pond into Batman Lake is a bit of a challenge. There’s some (steep) uphill, and some uncertain footing as well. Based on the amount of vegetation along (and on) the trail, I think it’s possible that I was the first person through that stretch so far this year. There was a whole lot of uncrushed greenery underfoot. Well, it was uncrushed before I stepped on it. Then it was crushed greenery. Batman Lake was, as I mentioned earlier, quite nice. It’s not a long paddle from one portage to the next, but there was something about that lake that I found quite peaceful. I drifted along enjoying the sound of the wind in the trees and the ripple of waves on the water.
The 330m over to Wisp Lake was another portage that looked like it hadn’t seen much (read, any) use this year. It also seemed longer than the promised 330m, but was definitely better than the portage in between Soaker Pond and Batman Lake. Wisp Lake itself was quite pretty. The shoreline is less dense thanks to some big old slabs of Canadian shield that slope down to the water in a couple of places. It gives Wisp a feeling of openness and a sense that it’s bigger than it actually is. There’s also an island towards the Batman Lake portage that looks like a very nice place to stop for a lunch and maybe a swim.
The portage from Wisp back over to Ragged is listed at 155m, but I don’t think that accounts for the hundred or so extra metres you’re going to have to carry through the meadow that fills the bay on the Ragged side of the portage. There was a narrow strip of water cutting through the grass that I was able to walk beside thanks to some well placed logs. Eventually the strip got deep enough for the canoe and I was able to push myself out into Ragged with a minimum of swearing.campsite just at the mouth of Wisp bay (nice site. It’s big enough to sleep an army and has decent views. Cool double fire pit too) and then turned north towards the Smoke portage. That’s when I remembered that the problem with tailwinds is that they become headwinds when you start going the other way. See, while I was gallivanting my way across from Claude to Ragged, the wind blowing down Smoke was gathering reinforcements. It wasn’t too bad as I made my way up the north end of Ragged. I mean, I couldn’t stop paddling without getting blown backwards, and there were a couple of times where my bow got swung sideways, but at least I was making forward progress. Smoke Lake was a different story.
I put my canoe down in the sand on the Smoke Lake side of the Ragged/Smoke portage (which is a nice downhill stroll coming from Ragged but involves a bit of climbing going the other way) and looked out at a veritable army of waves marching my way. And this was in the relatively protected area of that portage bay. Once I got out of the bay it was all I could do to keep myself moving forward. That army of waves had turned into a full scale invasion force of white caps, mixed with the occasional battering ram of drift wood coming at me at warp speed. I ended up hugging the eastern shore, sitting in the middle of the boat and paddling furiously just to stay in one place. There is nothing worse than looking over at the shoreline, paddling like crazy for three minutes, then looking over and seeing the exact same piece of shoreline right beside you. Eventually, I did the only thing I could think of: I set my canoe and paddle on fire and swore never to go near the water again. At least, that’s what I wanted to do. Instead I admitted defeat, got myself to a nearby cottager’s dock that fortunately had cell reception, and called my wife for a pick up.
Once I’d decided to wait things out it was actually a very pleasant half hour. I sat on the dock watching the waves blow down Smoke and feeling very grateful that I was not also currently being blown down Smoke. Once my wife and kids arrived we took the boat over to Molly’s Island and had a fantastic picnic. All in all, not a bad way to end the day (Molly’s Island is in the middle of Smoke Lake and it is a great spot for a day trip. You can’t camp on it, but there are a couple of distinct campsite like areas where you can set up. The views are great, the wind blows right through it so the bugs are pretty much non-existent and there’s a kick ass rope swing on the north side. Definitely worth checking out. This is a long set of brackets).
And that’s it for day trips (for now). To be honest, I don’t know what this year is going to look like from a camping perspective. I’m glad that the Park is open to backcountry again, but it may be a while before I get to take advantage of it. Hopefully things continue to calm down as far as the Coronavirus is concerned and we can get back to something approaching normal (whatever post COVID normal will be) soon. Regardless, I’m hoping to get at least a couple of longer trips in and, if all else fails, I’ll be crossing off a lot of Highway 60 adjacent lakes before the year is over.
222 down. 310 to go.
New Lakes Paddled: 5
Total Lakes Paddled: 12
Total Portages: 18
Total Portage Distance: 9.725 KM
Total Travel Distance: 35.4 KM