Burnt Island Redux

Back in July my wife and I took the kids up to Burnt Island for a two night trip. It was great. The kids had a blast, the weather mostly cooperated and we didn’t need to file for divorce at the end. All in all, I call that a successful trip. It was so much fun that we decided to do it again at the start of August.

This time around my in-laws joined us. They had seen how much fun the kids had had in July and wanted to experience the joys of watching sugar filled mini-humans flinging burning marshmallow around like the world’s most delicious napalm bomb firsthand. With the larger group, my hope was to book another of the lakes close to Canoe Lake and save a couple of portages. but as it is pretty much impossible to book anything within 15 KM of an access point these days, our only available option ended up being Burnt Island. That wasn’t so bad. Burnt Island is a big lake with some very nice sites. It’s a much better repeat option than say Potter Lake or, God forbid, Furrow Lake.

Unlike our last visit to Burnt we were only going for one night this time. This meant that if we got stuck with a dud of a site we wouldn’t even be able to console ourselves with the thought that we might get a better one the next day. It was all or nothing, which meant an early start to try and snag one of the prime sites before everyone else arrived. We set our alarms, got up with the crack of dawn and promptly went back to sleep.

Here’s the thing about early starts: they’re a lot easier to plan than they are to execute when you’ve got three mini-humans actively working against you. The kids were pretty excited to be heading back out, which meant getting them down wasn’t the easiest. Imagine three puppies who have just downed a bowlful of espresso each and been dropped into a squirrel convention and you’ll get about halfway to where the kids were in terms of activity. By the time we’d got them down and finished packing it was late (late by the standards of 38 year old me. By the standards of 20 year old me it was just about time to start getting ready to go out for the night). Anyways, long story short, our early start turned into a fashionably late start and soon enough we were setting off from the dock on Canoe Lake with seven people, one dog and enough gear to found a small yet vibrant town jammed into our two canoes.

Getting back into the boats after the grueling Joe Lake portage

The paddle up Canoe Lake went smoothly and before long we were arriving at the Joe Lake portage. We were over it in pretty good time. Unfortunately for us, so were the literally (read: figuratively) hundreds of other trips who arrived at the same time we did. We did some gentle probing as we passed each other on the portage (HI WHERE ARE YOU GOING PLEASE SAY YOU’RE NOT GOING TO BURNT ISLAND) and determined that, yes, seemingly every single person within 10 KM of where we were standing was heading to Burnt Island that morning. This meant that the race for Burnt Island was on as was the race to see which of my kids would eat their portage chocolate the fastest (the kids get a chocolate egg each time they finish a portage. They think of it as a treat. I think of it as buying ten seconds of peace at the end of what was very likely a triple carry).

We paddled up Joe and into Little Joe, keeping pace with a couple of other trips as we went. This in itself was impressive as I’m pretty sure our boats were the only ones with a) passengers and b) passengers who from time to time decided to paddle backwards. As we paddled out of Little Joe towards the start of Joe Creek we passed near a heron who was likely very impressed with our singing skills. That or it was deaf, because it barely moved an inch as we paddled past belting poorly harmonized camp songs at the top of our lungs.

Dragging On Joe Creek

As with our July trip, we were able to skip the first two portages along Joe Creek. The first was an easy paddle, the second was a bit of a drag, but still very passable. Before long we were through the Joe Lakes (Lost Joe and Baby Joe) and carting our gear across the last portage of the day, the 200 metre carry from Baby Joe to Burnt Island. This is a really easy portage. It’s flat, it’s short, it’s clear. It basically ticks every box you need it to on the “Does This Portage Not Suck?” checklist. It was also super busy, making for a fun put-in on the Burnt Island side that felt more like I was trying to find parking at the grocery store on Christmas Eve than putting a canoe into the water in Algonquin Park.

One upside of busy portages is that the chances of running into someone you know are higher than they would be on a low maintenance route in the back end of nowhere. As I was making my way back across to the Baby Joe side for load two of three I ran into a couple of old camp friends who were heading into Burnt Island as well. The last time I’d seen these two on a portage was 15 years ago, at the end of a five week canoe trip through Quetico. 15 years is a long time, and everyone looked older, but somehow I seemed to have taken on the grey hair for all of us.

We pushed off onto Burnt and started searching for a site. Despite my fears of the lake being overrun, there were actually quite a few open spots as we made our way east. None of them looked that exciting, so we ignored the lessons from our last trip (where we passed up an early open site and ended up paddling for another hour because every other spot on the lake was taken) and pushed on.

No picture of the dragon boat race, so here’s my wife on Little Joe.

In the back of my mind I was hoping we’d be able to get the island site about a quarter of the way down Burnt, but it was a faint hope. The site looks great from the water and is directly on the main route. I figured the chances of it being empty were about the same as the chances of Taylor Swift releasing an album that’s only sort of perfect, not entirely perfect (so, basically zero). But, apparently the Tripping Gods have heard Reputation, because the site was empty. We realized this at about the halfway point between it and the portage and from that moment on my wife, who had been taking a fairly relaxed approach to the paddle up until this point, started channeling her inner dragon boat racer. All of a sudden the whirlpools coming off her paddle were big enough to sink ships and the canoe was leaping forward, leaving a trail of white water and a surprising number of swear words in her wake. The reason she was paddling so hard was that there were a couple of other trips nearby who had apparently realized the same thing. Despite my wife’s efforts, we lost the race for the site. The good news was, we lost the race to our friends who we’d seen on the portage. They took a look at the site and decided to move on. They said it was something to do with the amount of sun the site was going to get, but I’m pretty sure they (very kindly) realized that our kids were seconds away from full scale mutiny and gave us the site.

And what a site! I’ve stayed on a couple of decent sites so far this year, but I’m pretty sure this was my favourite (so far). You’ve got the entire island to yourself (well, you’ve got the entire island to yourself provided there aren’t three random dudes camping off permit ten feet from your thunderbox, but we’ll get there). There are multiple good tent sites and multiple good swimming sites. The fire pit is this raised platform affair backing onto a large rock that’s absolutely perfect for kids and the views are pretty damn nice. All in all, it’s a really nice spot. Oh, and you can hang a hammock down by the water and, frankly, that’s pretty much all I need out of a campsite.

We got ourselves set up (Omega Tent made another appearance. I don’t want to go back to the time before I had a tent big enough to stand up inside), and explored the island. It’s a cool spot. There are paths all around the island and you get some nice views both east and west down Burnt depending on where you’re sitting. Part of our exploration involved looking for the site’s Thunder Box, which was clearly going to be a pretty important thing given that we were seven people and I had eaten enough oatmeal that morning to feed a small army.

Finding the Thunder Box is basically job one whenever I arrive at a site. Usually it’s a short distance down a very obvious path, and job one is quickly checked off in favour of job two, stuffing my face full of various snacks. This time, however, the thunderbox was kinda tough to locate and my snacking was put on hold. The reason it was tough to locate was that a group of guys had decided to camp off permit at the southern tip of the island. While the spot they picked was pretty nice, it was also about ten feet from the Thunder Box. It took me a while to realize that they were off permit, so in my first couple of rounds of the island I didn’t want to infringe on their site. Once I realized they weren’t supposed to be where they were I felt a bit better about strolling past their set up and quickly found the Thunder Box. Here’s a handy tip: if you’re going to pitch your tent within ten feet of my thunderbox, be prepared for some very uncomfortable (for you) eye contact while I’m dealing with last night’s dinner.

Thunder Box now located, we spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the site. The kids all loved our island. I could barely keep my oldest daughter out of the water. There’s an awesome swimming spot on the north side of the island. It looks like a secondary camp site and is directly on the main route heading east/west. There are some decent underwater ledges for jumping from and you can swim across the channel to the much smaller island that’s about 100 metres away. My daughter and I did quite a few laps between the two islands and my son and his puddle jumper joined us a couple of times as well.

The only thing my son had wanted to bring on this trip was his Beavers uniform. He put it on as soon as we arrived at the site and spent most of his day doing Beavers type things. He helped gather firewood and pinecones to start the fire, helped set up the tent (and then seemingly worked pretty hard at unsetting it up throughout the rest of the day) and practiced his camp craft skills.

My youngest daughter seemed to alternate between sneaking as many marshmallows into her mouth as she could get away with and kicking me out of my camp chair or hammock whenever I had the temerity to sit down for a minute. I swear to God that kid is going to be running the world within the next 30 years.

At one point later in the afternoon my oldest daughter and I snuck away to explore some of the nearby sites. The thing with Burnt Island on a Saturday is that the likelihood of finding an unoccupied site close to happy hour is about the same as finding a full bag of ginger snaps in my cupboard (As this is a pretty abstract reference, let me make it clear, ginger snaps don’t last thirty seconds in my cupboard, I love them with the fire of a thousand suns). We paddled around but were only able to check out one other site, and that one only because we arrived at it at the same time as a couple who were actually going to camp there for the night who were kind enough to let us explore a little. It was an okay site. A bit dark and kind of damp seeming, but it did have two things going for it: a decent beach and possibly the most badass stick structure I have ever seen. It was near the fire pit and was either meant to be a tarp support system or an AT-AT Walker. Either way, it was cool.

Around supper time my brother-in-law, who was also staying on Burnt, arrived with his family. This was the first time my kids had seen their cousins since the start of COVID, and to say they were ecstatic would be an understatement. My son in particular loves his younger cousin like a brother, and they had a great time running around the site, bouncing into and off of each other before running in different directions. We spent the rest of the evening catching up, eating some delicious camp fire steak (and in the case of one of the steaks that fell into the fire, some delicious camp fire as well) and roasting a metric ton of marshmallows. (One thing, the random dudes we were sharing our island with brought a drone with them. Please do not do this. Apart from the fact that this is very much against Park rules, it is also tremendously intrusive and annoying to have some refugee from a Terminator movie hovering over your site while you’re trying to enjoy the sunset. Where’s Sarah Connor when you need her?).

It rained a fair bit overnight. This was fine, as Omega Tent laughs in the face of rain (and only whimpers a little bit in the face of thunder). Everyone stayed nice and dry and by the next morning the rain had moved on in favour of mist heavy enough to star in The Mist 2: More Mist. There was also a decent amount of wind blowing in from the west, which isn’t ideal when you’ve got 13 KM of paddling into that wind coming at you after breakfast. Fortunately, by the time we had worked our way through the mountain of bacon we brought with us, the wind had died down enough that we were able to get on the water without too much worry that we’d be taking an impromptu swim halfway across the lake.

We stuck close to the shoreline and made it back to the Burnt/Baby Joe portage in decent time. The rest of the trip back went similarly well. We got rained on a bit as we crossed out of Little Joe and onto Joe, but not enough to dampen anyone’ spirits (SEE WHAT I DID THERE?). We stopped by the Joe Lake Cliffs and watched my brother-in-law prove that he’s still cooler than me by jumping from the top of the cliffs (I ate some trail mix while he jumped, so we both accomplished our goals for the day). The Joe Lake portage was an absolute zoo, as pretty much everyone who had been camping in that part of the Park had apparently decided to leave at the same time. We ended up putting in at the secret (read, not secret at all) secondary put in just past the dam and managed to jump the line (yes, there was an actual line) to get back onto Canoe Lake.

And that was it, our second trip up to Burnt Island went just as well as our first. Despite the crowds, Burnt is rapidly climbing my power rankings of favourite Algonquin lakes, if only because the kids love going there so much. Hopefully next summer we’ll be ready to do a two or three night trip where we change lakes, but for now these two trips up to Burnt were kind of perfect.

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