Every year at about this time we pack the kids into our car and drive out to PEI. It’s one of my favourite weeks of the year. For those who haven’t been, PEI is pretty much the only place in the world that can give Algonquin a run for its money in beautiful scenery. It also has the world’s best ice cream shop (Cows Ice Cream, if you disagree I don’t want to hear it) and all the Anne of Green Gables related content you could ask for (and a whole bunch more you probably didn’t ask for as well). There are these red dirt roads criss-crossing the province that look like something out of Road to Avonlea. You drive along them expecting to turn a corner and run into Felix King (but you’re glad you never do because you secretly think he was the worst part about that show and you don’t know if you’ll be able to stop from telling him that if you ever do meet him).
Unfortunately, thanks to COVID-19, all that ice cream and early 20th century rustic charm is currently off limits to us. So, what do you do when your annual summer road trip is cancelled? You replicate the experience of travelling long distances in an overfilled vehicle while the kids take turns smacking each other in the face and you book a two night family canoe trip up to Burnt Island Lake.
My kids are pretty good campers. My oldest daughter has done seven canoe trips so far and my son has done three. My youngest daughter had never been out, but she had slept in a tent before and enjoyed it and is also quite adept at yelling at bugs, so I figured she’d be a natural. They were pretty excited when we told them our plans, especially once they realized those plans included marshmallows and portage chocolate. I’m sure they were also looking forward to the beauty of the scenery and the thrill of the natural world, but mostly it was about the sugar bribes.
Our first challenge was figuring out how we were going to pack the five of us, plus apparently a month’s worth of gear and clothing, into a single canoe. We’d thought about taking two canoes and each soloing the kids up to Burnt Island, but we decided to call that plan B (the B stands for Basically The Worst Idea Ever). Instead, we jammed two trip packs, two day bags, one freezer bag, one circus tent (approximate size), two light but incredibly bulky puddle jumper swim vests, a half dozen future temper tantrums, three kids and two adults into a seventeen foot canoe and set off for Burnt Island with our gunnels bobbing along in worryingly close proximity to the water.
We left from Canoe Lake at around 8:30 in the morning. It was the Saturday after Canada Day and you couldn’t ask for better tripping weather. The sun was out, the water was calm and we barely broke a sweat as we motored up Canoe Lake. That’s likely because the motor in that previous sentence isn’t just a beautiful piece of word art for your reading pleasure, it was also an outboard engine attached to the small boat that my father-in-law was using to ferry us to the Joe Lake portage. Look, when you’ve got somewhere between 12 and 15 kilometres of paddling in front of you and three kids who may start playing Throw Your Sibling Out Of The Boat once they get bored, you take any shortcut that’s handed to you.
Once we were across the Joe Lake portage (single carrying portages is so last year. Triple carries are this summer’s hot new portage experience, try one today!) our trip started for real. We paddled under the Joe Lake bridge, tapping it twice for good luck as we went, and out onto Joe Lake proper. The first thing we noticed as we made our way north then east along Joe was how busy the lake was. Pretty much every single site was taken. Even the kind of crappy ones leading up to Tepee. We wondered how that would bode for Burnt Island (not well, as it turned out) but decided not to worry about it. The second thing we noticed was that our boat weighed basically 7 million pounds and we weren’t so much paddling on the water as through it.
Despite our having created a new class of recreational water vehicle, the Submacanoe, we made decent time along Joe. Before long we were through the narrows that divide Joe from Little Joe, and turning north again towards Joe Creek. As we paddled past Arowhon Pines we met a guy coming the other direction in a very fast looking solo boat. He mentioned that the two portages along the creek (river? I don’t even know if that stretch of water is actually called Joe Creek now that I think about it) were skippable if you didn’t mind pushing over a couple of shallow spots in the creek. This was great news, as neither of us were looking forward to trying to wrangle the kids while carrying everything we owned to the other end of the portage more times than were absolutely necessary.
We paddled into the creek a little while later and were quickly at the first portage, a 120m carry that cuts off a bend in the river. Taking solo guy’s word for it, we kept paddling and discovered that, yes, that portage was definitely skippable. In fact, I don’t even know why there’s a portage there at all. It doesn’t seem like that part of the river is any shallower than the rest of it, but maybe I’m missing something. Anyways, don’t bother with this portage if you’re paddling this way (unless you just really happen to like doing portages, in which case, go for it).
The stretch of creek between the first portage and the second went quickly and we were soon at the start of the carry up to Baby Joe. This is a cool looking portage take out, with a big set of steps and lots of room to load/unload. We, however, did not need any of that room since we had decided to follow solo guy’s advice and once again skip the portage. We paddled past the steps and around a bend in the river and almost immediately realized that this time it wouldn’t be so easy. The river gets quite shallow shortly after the portage and it wasn’t long before my wife and I were in ankle deep water, dragging the canoe upstream while the kids lounged and shouted orders. I kept myself going by reminding myself over and over that soon I would be the one doing the lounging and they would be the ones dragging my ass across various portages.
Things got deeper again once we made it to Lost Joe, but only long enough for us to paddle round the corner and start up an even faster moving stretch of creek. Long story short, I may not have had to carry anything between Joe Creek and Baby Joe, but I sure as hell walked it. Still, it was way better than doing the actual portage, and way cooler too (it was about 9:30 in the morning by this point and the day was already hot as … uh … a very hot day. Sorry bout that, I’ll work on my similes for later).
Baby Joe, when we finally waded into it, was fine. There isn’t much to this lake. There’s one campsite, a nice beach at the start of the portage over to Burnt (or Little Doe) and that’s about it. We were across it quickly and soon at the start of a portage we wouldn’t be able to skip. As we approached the take out we were reminded that this is by far the busiest stretch in the park. There were three separate trips making use of the beach as we pulled up, and a couple more behind us. That’s a bit tight in normal conditions, and an absolute nightmare when you’re trying to social distance. We waited til a couple of trips cleared out, then took a spot at the far end of the beach and tried to herd the group of wandering cats who had replaced our kids as soon as they set foot on the beach.
We eventually made it across the portage and onto Burnt Island. The Burnt Island end of the portage was just as busy as the Baby Joe end, and one group had decided to put their canoes in the water and then enjoy a snack. (Dear world, I’m all for snacking, but when you’re on a busy portage like that please don’t take up valuable canoe real estate space if you’re not loading/unloading. Keep the boats off to the side of the trail while you snack. Please). We eventually finished the game of Tetris that was reloading our canoe and pushed off onto Burnt Island, excited to find a spot for the next two nights.
My wife wanted to set up on the island site right across from the portage take out since it was open and looked nice. I wanted to keep going, convinced that if that site was open then there’d be lots of other (hopefully better) options to choose from. Guess who was right? Sigh. We spent the next hour paddling up burnt, getting excited when we’d see a campsite sign on what looked like a nice piece of shoreline, then getting the opposite of excited when we’d get a bit closer and see the people already set up on the site, mocking us with their site havingness.
By the time we were passing Caroline Island we were having a serious discussion as to whether we should be thinking about turning back and maybe just giving up on camping forever. It was at about this time that our younger daughter went pee in her pull-up. This, normally, isn’t the worst thing that can happen. Pull-ups are designed to be peed in. A pull-up that is unpeed in has not fulfilled its purpose in life, and that’s a sad thing. But, and this is important, my daughter hates being in wet pull-ups (which is completely understandable). Unfortunately, the middle of Burnt Island Lake in an overloaded canoe is not the optimal spot to be unpacking bags and looking for new pull-ups, so we told her she’d have to wait a few minutes before we found a place to change her. It was at this point that she started yelling “I PEED IN MY PULLUP” over and over (and over and over). So, to the people staying on the site just south of Caroline Island who got to watch, and listen to, us float past while bickering about who’s idea this was while the I PEED IN MY PULLUP siren went off at full volume, I’m sorry.
The good news is that the very shortly afterwards we saw a site on the south shore that was in the process of being vacated, the previous occupants most likely being scared away by the I PEED IN MY PULLUP war cry coming from the canoe bearing down on them from the other side of the lake. By the time we got to the site it was empty and we gratefully pulled up to find we had scored a spot that I can only charitably call underwhelming. It wasn’t the flattest of sites, or the biggest. Basically, there were two tent spots (if you squint), a fire pit and some very confident chipmunks running around. We debated getting back in the boat and resuming our search (after lunch and a new pull-up, of course) but one thing this site also had was cell service and, after checking the Ontario Parks reservation map and discovering that Burnt Island was fully booked for the day, we decided to count our blessings and set up on that site.
In the end, I’m glad we did. The site grew on us over the two days. It had a really nice view south on the lake, a steady onshore wind that kept the bugs pretty much nonexistent and a perfect set of trees for hanging a hammock by the water. You can’t really ask for much more (although a level spot to set up our brand new, Monster Sized Omega Tent would have been nice). We spent the rest of the afternoon swimming, gathering firewood, getting to know our landlords (the two chipmunks who apparently owned the site) and just generally taking it easy. We finished the night with a delicious steak, potato and asparagus dinner, topped off with some marshmallows and Harry Potter by the water as the sun set in the west and an absolutely massive full moon rose in the east (and the award for run-on sentence of the year goes to …).
It stormed overnight. I woke up to thunder and lightning and the sound of rain on the tent. Importantly, the sound of rain stayed on the outside of the tent, and I fell back asleep secure in the knowledge that our new Monster Sized Omega Tent was doing its job.
The next morning was bright and clear. Our plan was to day trip over to Sunbeam Lake for a picnic and some swimming. It was a good plan. The kind of plan that makes a lot of sense when you’re looking at the map from the comfort of your couch. It made somewhat less sense as we were being swarmed by every insect that has ever lived, and ever will live, on the portage between Burnt Island and Jay Lake. We got halfway up (and I mean up, that portage is straight uphill) the portage and decided we’d much rather not see our three year old carried off by mosquitoes just yet. We turned around and went with Plan B, paddling around Burnt Island and swimming at as many camp sites as we could find.
This was a much better plan. We spent the afternoon campsite hopping, checking things out and swimming as much as we could. It was Sunday afternoon, so the lake had cleared out somewhat. We got to visit quite a few sites, all of which were at least decent, if not nice. Our favourite was one on the north shore, a few sites towards the Otterslides from where we were staying. It was an enormous point site with good swimming and nice views up and down the lake. It also has a really cool kitchen set up that someone has labelled the Burnt Island Bistro. All in all, this was definitely a cool spot to visit (and would be awesome to stay at on another trip). Also, there was a giant turtle hanging out near the shore, which was super appropriate as my son is very much into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles right now.
We ended up back at the site for the latter part of the afternoon. We swam, built some fairy houses (thank you Camp Wapomeo for this campsite activity. My oldest daughter went there last year and she came home with a bunch of cool new skills, along with little games like this for keeping busy on the camp site) and made an early dinner as it looked like there might be a storm coming in.
Turns out, there was indeed a storm coming in.
It was pretty cool to watch it happen. First the wind whipped up the water, pushing waves east down Burnt. Massive grey cloud banks were flying by just south of us, flashing lightning and thunder. We could see them dropping giant sheets of rain a few kilometres away, but for a long time the rain stayed away from where we were watching. Eventually, the drops did start to fall and we retreated into our Monster Sized Omega Tent to wait out the storm and finish off our Harry Potter. (Also, it’s been 15 years or so since I read Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I forgot how grim that ending is. Perfect bed time story material for our three and five year old).
The rain only lasted a short while and we were able to get in one last evening paddle once it passed. We went across the lake to check out the site directly opposite us, then watched the sunset from the middle of Burnt. All in all, it was a great end to our second day.
The next morning we got up early and packed up as quickly as you can pack up five people’s worth of crap. We were worried about a headwind kicking up on Burnt or Joe and wanted to get on the water as fast as possible. This actually worked, and we were pushing off from our site by 7:15. The lake was still as glass as we paddled back towards the Baby Joe portage. We sang Disney songs as we went, which is exactly the kind of off key wake up call the people camped on the various sites we paddled past probably wanted for their Algonquin morning.
The Portage back across to Baby Joe was nowhere near as busy as it had been the day before. Well, more accurately, there weren’t nearly as many humans on it as there had been the day before. Owing to the early hour, there were more than enough mosquitoes hanging out to make the place feel crowded. I did do a quick side trip to check out the waterfall (? Can I call it a waterfall? It’s more like a watertrip) just off the path, which I’ve never done before. It was cool. I’m glad I did it. I’m getting itchy just thinking about the number of mosquitoes that bit me while I was standing there. Let’s move on.
We once again skipped the two portages in between Baby Joe and Little Joe. Going downstream it was a lot easier. We still had to jump out in a couple of places, but it’s a lot more fun going with the flow than fighting against it. We were back on Little Joe fairly quickly and it seemed like no time at all before we were pulling up to the Joe Lake cliffs for some end of trip cliff jumping.
And that was pretty much it. We met my father-in-law at the Joe Lake portage and he gave us a lift back across Canoe Lake, which was great because my back was calling me all kinds of terrible names after two nights of sleeping on the ground followed by 12 km of pushing the submacanoe back home.
This was a really fun trip. I haven’t stayed on Burnt Island in a very long time, but there’s a reason it’s constantly booked out. It’s a big beautiful lake with lots of good sites and plenty to keep yourself busy if you want to base camp for a couple of days. The kids had an awesome time. They loved swimming in front of our site, and didn’t seem to mind the underwater minefield of rocks that I was constantly tripping over whenever I walked into the lake. All three of them got a kick out of our Chipmunk hosts. They would sit quietly for minutes on end (which in itself is a miracle) trying to convinced it to come say hello. Zoe, our youngest, kept walking around the site yelling “Chippy, where are you?”. When this didn’t work, she’d just yell it louder, which is definitely a thing that chipmunks are known to respond to.
All in all, this was an awesome way to kick off the camping season. Can’t wait for the next one.
222 down. 310 to go.
New Lakes Paddled: 0
Total Lakes Paddled: 5
Total Portages: 4
Total Portage Distance: 920 M
Total Travel Distance: 28 KM