I’ve had weirdly bad luck with trips out of Kiosk. My first trip up that way back in June 2018 was cut short because of a broken seat and a pair of bug induced broken spirits. My second trip, which was in May of 2019, was cut short by Mother Nature’s raised middle finger and a whole lot of wind. With these two disappointments under my belt, my only goal for this summer was to get back up there and finish a route, even if that route was just paddling in a circle in front of the access point. Last week I got my chance. I tossed my canoe on my car, my bug spray in my pack and drove up to Kiosk a couple of days after finishing a trip to Burnt Island with my wife and kids.
This trip was meant to be a sort of redemption of my aborted Kiosk loop from last May. As you may recall, my buddy Rob and I went into the Park shortly after ice out hoping to do a four-day trip through Manitou, North Tea, Biggar, Three Mile, Maple and out. We made it to Manitou, where we spent one very cold, wet and windy night before waking up to a wall of wind and waves coming from the west and deciding that maybe there were better ways to spend our time. My hope this time around was that by going the other direction (starting with maple Creek and going clockwise), and doing it in July, we wouldn’t run the risk of being wind bound on our first day.
Of course, to be wind bound you’d need some kind of wind, and that is a thing that was in short supply for the majority of this trip (until the last day, when we got a month’s worth of wind in a fifteen minute window, but we’ll get to that).
We (Rob had decided to join me in this rematch with the Park’s north west corner) arrived at Kiosk just after noon. To say it was hot is an understatement. (Fun story: I had Smooth by Rob Thomas and Santana stuck in my head this entire goddamned trip because I kept thinking to myself “it’s a hot one” and then my brain, which apparently hates me, would jump in with “like seven inches from the midday sun”). The sun was beating down from directly overhead, the air was completely still and I was sweating buckets by the time I had my canoe off the top of my car. We pushed off onto a glassy calm Kioshkokwi. The only movements in the water were the ripples as our paddles dipped in and out and the occasional fish breaking the surface looking for … I don’t know, bugs? Floating surface gunk? Maybe they just wanted to get a tan? God knows why fish do what they do.
Kioshkokwi is way bigger than I ever give it credit for (a fact that is going to matter a whole lot later on). No matter which way you’re leaving it, you’re going to be paddling for at least a little while to get out. Our destination was the first of six portages along Maple Creek that lie in between Kioshkokwi and Maple Lake. It took about 40 minutes to get there and by the end of those 40 minutes I was actually excited about the prospect of getting the canoe on my shoulders, if only for the shade. That excitement lasted about twenty steps into the portage, as I remembered that there’s a reason shade umbrellas don’t typically weigh close to 100 pounds (I’m adding my pack weight here. Please don’t @ me with “canoes don’t weigh 100 pounds”. If you do, I will spend the rest of my life gradually adding extra bits of material to your canoe until it does indeed weigh 100 pounds).
Maple Lake is about 75 meters higher than Kioshkokwi. Because the Park continues to drag its heels in installing canoe elevators along every portage, this means that you’re going to have to lug your gear up those 75 meters. That doesn’t seem all that bad when you’re looking at the map. It seems a lot less awesome when you’re halfway up your first portage of the day, panting like a dog in a butt sniffing contest and realizing that even when you’re done this carry, you’ll only have knocked off 1/3rd of the climb.
Despite my general dislike of creek paddling, I don’t mind Maple Creek. It’s a very pretty area and while there are a few spots where you drag over beaver dams, by and large it’s relatively obstacle free. There’s also a nice set of mini waterfalls at the north end of the 630 meter portage (the third to last one before Maple). However, the heat of the day made it kind of tough to really appreciate everything around us. There was no escaping the sun as we wound our way south. Each portage felt like a blessing for about 30 seconds, and then the burn in my legs started to outweigh the burns on my skin and I’d be wondering when I’d be back out onto the creek.
Despite the heat, we were both in pretty good moods. We were making good time and before long we had crossed off portages one through three and were making our way to number four, that 630 meter carry I mentioned earlier. We had just put a large beaver dam in our rear-view mirror, and, ironically enough, just finished talking about what we’d do if the canoe broke while we were on trip, when the seat under Rob collapsed. Now, the thing about canoe tripping is, and this is going to sound crazy I know, it turns out it is better if your canoe seat does not break at the start of a 65 KM loop.
Here’s a fun fact: I have had two canoe seats break on me in my tripping career. Both times were on trips out of Kiosk and both times were in canoes that I had borrowed. There’s nothing like giving a canoe back to someone in significantly worse condition than when you took it to instill confidence in the person lending you the boat. Fortunately for us, when we got the next portage we realized that we’d be able to make the seat functional again with a little MacGyvering. It turned out that one of the support screws at the back of the seat had simply reached its limit. It had sheared apart about three quarters of the way down. We were able to get it out and borrow a similar length screw from a much less essential part of the boat. It wasn’t long before we had things back together and were starting up the portage, relieved that we weren’t going to have to make the decision of whether to push on with a broken seat or get beaten by Kiosk once again.
The seat held once we were back on the creek, and we were soon pulling into our last long portage of the day, an 805 meter carry past another nice set of waterfalls. Here’s the thing about that portage: it sucks. It really, truly sucks. It’s only 805 meters but it feels like every damn meter is higher than the one that came before. There is one spot at about the halfway point of the carry where the path climbs a fairly steep hill, turns a bit, and keeps on climbing. It’s at this point that you might be inclined to throw down your canoe and give up on tripping altogether, but if you did that you’d miss the fun extra bits of uphill that the portage tacks on further along the trail, and you wouldn’t want that, would you? Anyways, this portage sucks.
You know what doesn’t suck? Getting over the portage and realizing that there’s only a short bit of creek and another small portage between you and Maple Lake. You know what’s even better? Finishing those bits quickly, arriving on Maple and remembering that for all the hassle it took to get there, Maple Lake is worth the effort.
We paddled out onto Maple just before 4 pm and reached the main part of the lake about 20 minutes later. From what we could see, it looked like we were the only people on the lake, which meant we had our pick of sites. We ended taking the north west island site, as this was the closest to our route for the next day. I really liked this site. While the interior is a bit enclosed (there are trees surrounding pretty much the entire site meaning not much of a view out to the lake if you’re in your tent or by the fire), the swimming is great. There are big slabs of rock leading into the water that get great afternoon sun for drying both people and things. Once you’re in the lake it’s a fairly gradual walk out so you can pick your spot to stand up to your neck in the water and let the heat of the day soak out of your bones. We swam a bunch, got our tents set up, had a nice chili dinner, took our chairs out to the swimming rocks and watched the sun set over the bay across from us. All in all, not a bad way to end the day.
As we watched the sun set we talked a bit about the next day. Of our planned four days, this was going to be the hardest. The goal was to get to Biggar by way of Three Mile Lake. This meant paddling nine lakes and carrying eight portages, three of which would be longer than a kilometre. We decided to get an early start, hoping that we could get the lion’s share of the travel out of the way before the sun got too high. The good news is that we did indeed get that early start. The bad news is that so did the bugs.
We were off the site by 8 am the next morning. Once again there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and, if it’s possible, the air was more still than the day before. The sun, which had been up for about two and a half hours by then, wasn’t yet at full strength, but it was shining bright enough to take the comfort dial out of “hmm, it’s a bit warm” and into “fuuuuuck, this is going to get bad”.
Things started well. Once again we were making really good time on the water. We were across the rest of Maple quickly and the 390m portage into Rattrap was fast and easy. Rattrap was my first new lake on this trip. In fact, everything from this point until we got to Manitou was going to be new territory for me and I was excited to see the route. Rattrap is a medium sized lake that looks like a Rorschach blot on the map. There’s only one site on it, so if you book it you’re going to get a private lake for the night. That’s not bad. Although you might have to share it with all the rats that I assume have been trapped there over the years.
There’s no portage between Rattrap and Dahinda, which is the next lake. Instead, you paddle through a short marshy bit that connects the two. There are also no campsites on Dahinda, but there is an Algonquin pyramid! You can see its tip poking out of the water as soon as you exit the marshy bit. We paddled up to it and took lots of pictures, careful not to get to close for fear of angering the pyramid builders. Once we were done, we pointed our canoe west again and headed towards our longest portage of the day, a 1.4 KM carry over to Boggy Lake.
This is where things started to get tough. In a vacuum, this portage wouldn’t be that bad (of course, if this portage were in a vacuum a canoe wouldn’t be much use, unless it was a space canoe, but those don’t exist. Yet.). Sure, it’s long and sure it’s got some elevation to it, but it’s in decent shape, is easy to follow and the elevation change is gradual. However, it is also home to roving bands of murderous deer flies competing against each other for scarce resources in some kind of post-apocalyptic Mad Max fly world and those deer flies did not take too kindly to us invading their space.
We could tell that the bugs were going to be difficult right away. There were significantly more of them flying around at the start of the portage than there had been on the last carry. At that point, however, they were still manageable. Unfortunately, at about the 1/3rd mark of the carry the trail crosses over an old gravel road. I don’t know what it is about flies and gravel, but it was like we’d walked right into the annual horse fly convention. From that point we each had own personal clouds of tiny biting sadness. We looked like Pigpen, but with canoes. You didn’t want to open your mouth for fear of inhaling three or four. I was carrying the canoe and there was a small horse fly tornado circling my head the entire way. For some reason they all seemed to love the space behind my right ear. My left ear they ignored like day old doughnuts, but my right ear was a box of fresh fucking Timbits at the office on a Friday morning. By the time we got across the portage we both had welts in places you wouldn’t think welts could happen and the sinking feeling that things might be trending downward in the not getting mauled by bugs department. We threw the canoe into Boggy Lake and pushed off, hoping that we could lose them on the water and that the swarm had been a one time thing.
We did not and it was not.
The next two carries, a 660m into North Sylvia and a 550m into Three Mile Lake, were more of the same (with some very inconveniently placed downed trees on both that meant pushing through sharp pokey things to get back to the trail). The horse flies were out with a vengeance, and there were more than a few mosquitoes looking to get in on the action as well. This was too bad because it meant we were rushing through this section of the trip. From what I saw of them, I liked both Boggy and Sylvia Lake, but frankly, I wasn’t super focused on either as we passed through.
By the time we reached Three Mile Lake we were both feeling the impact of the last two hours. Fortunately, Three Mile is big enough that once you get away from the shore you can leave the bugs behind. We turned south and paddled slowly towards our next portage; a 1.2 KM carry down to Upper Kawa Lake. I really liked the look and feel of Three Mile. It’s a good sized lake with some nice looking campsites. I would like to go back and stay there at some point, but maybe this time I’ll use a less buggy route to get there, like being dropped out of the Park plane.
We arrived at the start of the portage to Upper Kawa and were greeted with a really nice underwater beach. We decided to stop here for a break and take a swim. The swimming was great. The portage that followed, not so much. I’m going to be honest, I don’t have many distinct memories of the next few lakes and portages. The bugs were significantly worse along this stretch than they had been coming into Three Mile. I’ve got sort of snapshots in my mind of different moments: Coming into Upper Kawa, crossing a gravel patch and getting absolutely swarmed by flies (seriously, are deer flies and gravel a thing? Every time we crossed a road or patch of gravel the flies got 10 times worse). Filtering water in the middle of Upper Kawa with one hand, swatting flies with the other, wishing I had a third hand to smack myself for picking this route. Finding a spot at the start of the Kawa to Sinclair portage that was somehow free of bugs and not wanting to ever leave. Pushing off on Biggar into a headwind and wondering whether my back was going to give out before or after my arms fell off.
The low point of this stretch was, funnily enough, that fly free spot on Kawa. The portage takeout there is nicely sheltered by a couple of overhanging pines. The branches gave shade from the sun and there was just enough of a breeze that the air actually felt breathable for the first time in hours. Whether it was the breeze or the pine or the … I dunno, magic fly barrier? the bugs were staying away here as well. This meant that we actually had time to sit, relax, have a snack and enjoy the view. The problem was that all this really did was highlight just how unpleasant the rest of the day had been. Knowing that we were still a few kilometres from our destination, and that what we were enjoying was at best a temporary reprieve, was kind of demoralizing. However, we couldn’t exactly stay where we were, so we pushed on.
By the time we arrived on Biggar, we were both exhausted. That being said, even though I was effectively sleep paddling towards our site at this point, I was awake enough to realize that I really liked where we were. Biggar is a big lake surrounded intermittently by small hills. The forest behind the shoreline rises and falls in gentle waves, giving a variety to the view that you don’t see on every lake. We paddled about halfway down Biggar, hoping that we’d be able to grab the point site just past the entrance to Loughrin Creek. I’d seen this site in one of The Kayak Camper’s videos a couple years back and was really hoping to get it. It’s eastward facing, with a big slab of rock that is absolutely perfect for swimming. There’s plenty of room for tents, and the fact that it’s on a point means it gets decent wind from a couple of directions, assuming of course that there is wind.
We were in luck. The site was free, and it completely lived up to expectations. By the time we had arrived the sun had moved into the west enough that we were able to find some shade on the rocks. I spent the afternoon alternately swimming, reading in the shade, snoozing and then swimming some more. As the day wore on, I began to feel better. I had an awesome late lunch from Backcountry Wok, watched a pair of loons fishing in front of the site and, later, sat by the fire while the stars came out. That’s the nice thing about being out on trip, even the hardest day can be redeemed by a nice spot to crash for the night and a little bit of downtime. (At one point during the day, after one of the portages where the bugs had been auditioning for a role in The Swarm 2: Back to the Bush, Rob and I were talking about what people actually get out of tripping. The truth is, in that moment, the answer is absolutely nothing. Every once in a while you’re going to have a day that just sucks and there’s not much you can do about it. But once that day is over, once you’re on your site, swimming and watching the sun go down, it all starts to feel worth it again).
As we wind down day two of the trip I’ll say that all things considered, the stretch between Maple and Biggar isn’t all that bad. It’s about 17 KM, well traveled and well maintained. Sure, some of the portages are longer, but none are too egregious. What made this day so unpleasant was the combination of the distance with the extreme heat and bad bugs. Without those fun little add-ins, this would have been a tough day, but not terrible. With them, the degree of difficulty increased by about 50% and turned a challenging day into a punishing one.
Speaking of challenging days, we realized that night that we would probably have to compress our remaining two days of trip into one and try to get out the next day. Stay tuned for part two, where we travel 35 KM, visit a whole bunch of waterfalls and end up clinging to the side of the seagull island in the middle of Kiosk while waves crash against us and thunder rolls overhead.