For the past four years I’ve done a trip with my buddies Gordon and Dan the first weekend after Labour Day. This trip is rapidly becoming one of my favourites of the season. We always end up doing something new and interesting and the company is excellent (except for the three hours each trip where I’m losing at some kind of board game, in which case the company is terrible). This year, however, going on a trip for the first weekend after Labour Day was not an option as my 10th wedding anniversary happens to fall right in the middle of that weekend, and I’d very much like there to be an 11th. So, instead of going out post long weekend we bit the bullet and planned our trip for Labour Day itself.
Don’t get me wrong, early September is a wonderful time to take a trip. The weather is still pretty nice (hopefully. Depends on how much you’ve angered the Weather Gods that year). The Park is not as busy as it is during the height of summer and, probably best of all, there are no bugs (unless you count spiders as bugs, in which case there are way too many bugs, many of whom were in my tent, all of whom can f*ck right off). It’s just that Labour Day is kind of a massive exception to point number two. Booking a trip over any long weekend can be an exercise in frustration. Booking a trip that leaves from the Canoe Lake access point on Labour Day blows past frustration and leaves you firmly in the grips of existential despair. I’m not hating on Canoe Lake here. There are lots of great routes out of that access point. The problem is, if you haven’t planned your trip months in advance, a lot of those routes might already be booked up. The last time this happened to me I ended up at Furrow Lake, wondering why the Tripping Gods hated me. However, thanks to a few logistics issues (read: all my gear was already at Canoe Lake and it’s hard to go camping without a tent or canoe), we were kind of tied to Canoe Lake as our starting spot.
Joining Dan, Gordon and me for our trip this year was our buddy Mark who was getting an introduction to both back country tripping and to my somewhat overly ambitious style of route planning (it’s amazing how much closer together things look on a map than they are in real life). As soon as we realized our trip would involve both Labour Day and Canoe Lake I booked a three night placeholder loop with the intent of fine-tuning it later on. The thought that I’d be able to fine-tune was wildly optimistic, as pretty much everything was already booked solid by the time I put the reservation in. The good news was that one thing I had wanted to build into this trip was a minimum of portaging in the hopes of saving our rapidly aging backs for future use and, apart from one long portage on the first day, I mostly succeeded in this goal. When the dust had settled I had permits for McIntosh, Big Trout and Otterslide. I’d been hoping to get Burnt Island for the last night so that the final day wouldn’t be a 20-25 KM paddle from Otterslide, but apart from that I was pretty happy with our (portage lite) route. At the very least I wouldn’t be going back to the soul-destroying cesspool of terrible that is Furrow Lake (I’m not being fair to Furrow Lake, it’s more soul-crushing than soul-destroying).
We left the access point at around 10:30 on the Friday morning. The beach in front of the permit office was already pretty busy with quite a few trips loading up and quite a few more milling about near the Portage Store. My kind and lovely wife had agreed to ferry us to the Joe Lake portage to get a jump on the day (and hopefully the crowds). We piled our gear into the boat, balanced a couple of canoes precariously across the gunnels and set off for the north end of Canoe Lake. It was a pretty quick trip and before long we were passing the Potter Creek/Joe Lake sign. We transferred from the boat to the canoes just past the split. It was at this point that I realized that the life jacket I had brought for myself must have been made in the early 90s and probably would have fit me better back then as well. I could still get it on, but only in the sense that you can get anything on if you swear at it enough (just to save anyone the effort of sending me emails about using an improper PFD, it was a serviceable life jacket, just wouldn’t have been my first choice under different circumstances). After saying goodbye to my wife (who drove off with a look in her eye that I like to think was “I’m sure going to miss you” but was more likely “you guys are trusting him to get you through the next four days alive?”) we got into the boats and paddled the short distance over to the Joe Lake portage.
Remember earlier when I said we had gotten the lift so we could get a jump on the day and the crowds? Well, the good news was that we got that jump on the day. The bad news was that we weren’t the only ones who did. There was an honest to God line up just to get out at the portage and, somehow, it was even busier on the Joe Lake side. We did our best to get over quickly, then loaded up and set off for what felt like the true start of the trip.
Once we were on the water the crowds melted away. Mark and I were in one boat and Dan and Gordon in the other. This was Gordon’s first trip with his brand new Souris River Prospector and it handled well (looked sharp too). I had my trusty Swift Winisk and together we made pretty good time heading north through Tepee, Fawn and Little Doe. Along the way I showed Mark various places where I had seen wildlife in previous trips, because as everyone knows the only thing better than seeing a moose for yourself is having someone tell you about the time they saw a moose.
Before long we had reached the dam between Little Doe and Tom Thomson. We were making great time and I said as much as we passed through the dam. The guys reacted to this news with an appropriate amount of interest (which is minimal). The wind on Tom Thomson reacted to this news with an “Oh, you think so do you?” and a raised middle finger. Next thing we knew we had paddled out of the narrows onto Tom Thomson and into the teeth of a pretty sucktacular headwind (well, more like a sideheadwind. Or a headsideheadwind. I dunno. Whichever direction it was, it sucked). The waves were decently high and rolling towards us from the other end of the lake. Unfortunately for us, the other end of the lake is where we had to be, so we gritted our teeth, stuck close to shore, and started paddling.
Surprisingly, the paddle was actually pretty fun. The waves weren’t bad enough to be scary but were certainly big enough to make you feel like you were on your own personal roller coaster. Apart from the wind the weather wasn’t bad, and we were close to shore, so it didn’t feel like we were in any particular danger even if we did dump. We took a break in the lee of one of the points on the north shore, then pushed on again. It was slow going, but eventually we made it across the south part of the lake and into the more sheltered northern half. From here things got easier and it wasn’t long before we were standing at the start of our only real portage of the day, the 2.3 KM carry up to Ink Lake.
I don’t know what to say about this portage that is printable in a family friendly blog post (although I think I probably lost the “family friendly” designation about 25 reports ago). Let’s start with the positives first: uh … well … it ends? Yeah, I dunno. My guess is that it was slightly worse than usual thanks to the recent rains, but I found this carry to be a bit of a chore. The terrain is constantly rising and falling. Straight, flat stretches, when they come, are usually just long enough for you to get your hopes up that maybe the hill training is finally over before you round a bend and start climbing again. It can also be a fairly technical portage, depending on how determined you are to keep your shoes out of the muck. If you’re like me, you’ll start with every intention of hopping from rock to rock through each muddy patch, then give up about ten steps into the first one and reacquaint yourself with the delightful sensation of mud squishing between your toes with every step. On the bright side, the trail is pretty clear and easy to follow! So there’s that.
Eventually we made it to Ink Lake. This was a new lake for me, and I was pretty happy to be checking another one off the list as it has been a bit of a light summer in that respect. Ink’s a cool little lake. It’s oval shaped and surrounded by dead trees along the shore. I guess it’d be kind of like paddling into a horror movie if you’re a tree, but for a human it makes for a scenic paddle as you cross the water. Once you’ve finished admiring the views, you start up a short-ish creek that connects Ink to McIntosh. This is a nice paddle as well. There aren’t too many twists and turns and the scenery along the way is quite pretty.
The creek empties into McIntosh (or maybe McIntosh empties into the creek, I’m not a lakeologist). McIntosh was another new lake. At least, it’s a new lake for this century. I think I may have paddled through it in 1999, but as with most of my memories from the days of the Willenium, that part’s a bit hazy. New water or not, it’s a pretty spot. It’s dotted with little islands that somehow turn the view from generic Algonquin into something special. We found a point site not far from Ink Creek on the east shore. As far as sites go, I’d say this one is solidly average. It’s a big site, with a nice fire pit and a cool little beach at the tip of the point. It’s also fairly enclosed, meaning that it can feel a bit dim and once you’re on the site you kind of forget there’s this big, beautiful lake less than ten feet away. Regardless, it had the most important quality I look for in a site in that it was free, so we took it and got ourselves set up for the night.
There was an awesome sitting spot looking west across the lake courtesy of a thick root that sits at just the right height above the water’s edge. From there you could watch the sun go down behind the trees and, if you were wearing enough layers, watch the stars coming out as well. It did get pretty chilly once the sun went away. There was a persistent wind and, well, it’s September in Ontario. I’m just glad it wasn’t snowing. Fortunately, we had a roaring fire. Dan had brought along a pocket chain saw which did an awesome job of cutting up some bigger logs we found back (way back) of the site. By the time I crawled into my tent I was both toasty warm and freezing cold, depending on which side of me had been facing the fire. As I was drifting off I remember thinking about the next day’s route, a 20 KM (ish) paddling day over to Big Trout. I was looking forward to the trip, thinking that despite the distance, it would be a nice, easy paddle through some great scenery. This was, of course, wrong. Not the scenery part, that was indeed great. But the nice, easy paddle part? That … uh … well that didn’t work out so well.
We woke up the next morning to a pretty strong wind blowing out of the west. This wasn’t a problem. In fact, it was the opposite of a problem. An unproblem? It was a perfect tailwind given the direction we were going. Up until this point in my life I had always understood tailwinds to be a theoretical possibility, but I’d put them in the same bucket with warp drive and unicorn powered battle wagon in terms of the likelihood of me actually travelling with one in my lifetime (of the three I would have said the unicorn battle wagon was clearly the most likely to happen). But here one was! And it was just sitting out there, waiting for me. There are no words for how excited I was. Well, one word. Very. We pushed off onto McIntosh and almost immediately went from pushing off to being pushed across the lake by the wind. Dan and I were paddling together and it didn’t feel like long at all before we were pulling up to the first of our two portages of the day, a 510 metre carry onto McIntosh Creek.
To be honest, I don’t remember much about this portage, or the 745 meter one that came shortly afterwards. I remember them both being damp, but that’s about it. The paddle along McIntosh creek is similarly unspectacular. There’s some nice scenery, but by this point I wanted to be out on open water and I didn’t have much patience for the twists and turns you find along a creek. After the second carry, McIntosh Creek gradually widens into a marshy area that in turn becomes Grassy Bay. Just before you get to that marshy area there is a beaver dam that kind of marks the exit; a final speed bump to slow you down before 15 kilometres of relatively obstruction free paddling. I had no desire to actually get out of the boat and drag over the dam (I didn’t want to give the beavers the satisfaction) so we decided to turn the dial up to ramming speed and try to get across based on momentum alone. We were strong enough paddlers, right? We could get the boat moving so fast that dam wouldn’t even know what hit it, right? Right!?
We backed up so that we’d have a good running start, waited until Gordon and Mark were clear on the other side of the dam, then started paddling. After the first stroke I was feeling pretty good. The boat didn’t exactly leap forward, but it was definitely moving in the right direction. After stroke number two I was feeling great. The boat was picking up speed, we were slicing through the water and I’m pretty sure I could hear the dam whimpering in the face of our powerful approach. After the third stroke I was significantly less confident, partly because it’s only natural for some doubt to creep in about even the best laid plans but mostly because I was now holding half a paddle, as the blade had snapped off from the shaft mid stroke.
There’s nothing quite so disconcerting as staring at the place where your paddle blade is supposed to be and seeing a bunch of jagged splinters instead. I’d like to say that I immediately came up with six different ways to salvage the situation, but in reality the only thing going through my head was “ohshitohshitohshitohshit” on an endless loop. We weren’t even halfway through a paddling heavy trip and all of a sudden we were down a paddle. For those keeping track at home, you generally want to have a working paddle for a paddling heavy trip. Hell, you probably want a working paddle even if it’s a portage heavy trip. In fact, let’s just go out on a limb and say that working paddles are good on pretty much every kind of canoe trip. But that’s where we were: looking at another 40 kilometres or so of travel with fewer paddles than people and wouldn’t you know it I’d left all my paddle whittling materials at home.
Oh, and we didn’t get over the dam.
After a quick conference that was basically just me verbalizing the train of ohshits that had been running through my head, we decided we’d take turns soloing for now and try to figure out a longer term solution as we went. This began a fairly slow trip out of the marsh and into Grassy Bay. It’s too bad that I was so focused on the problem of the broken paddle at this point, because this is a lovely area to paddle. The route meanders through the lily pads and there’s some great scenery as you go. At one point an eagle flew across the water in front of us then landed in a nearby tree. I probably would have appreciated it more if the eagle had been carrying a new paddle for us, like some kind of canoe trip Harry Potter delivery owl, but still it was pretty awesome.
Just past the portage that leads down to Hawkins Lake we realized that the day had gotten somewhat darker than it should be given that it was noon and not dusk. Turns out that wonderful tail wind from McIntosh was also blowing in a pretty impressive storm system. The sky to the north was black and there was a distant rumble of thunder that seemed to be stuck on repeat. I immediately flashed back to July’s Kiosk debacle. The last thing I wanted was to be stuck in the middle of the water with a storm coming in. The problem with Grassy Bay though is that you have to follow a predetermined route through the grass in places, meaning you can’t always stick close to shore. We held another conference (two conferences in one day, who says you have to miss all the fun of being in the office when you’re out on a trip?) and decided to pull over on one of Grassy Bay’s camp sites if things got any sketchier.
Things got sketchier.
About ten minutes after making that decision the rain started to fall and lightning flashed to the north. The good news was that instead of being a kilometre from shore we were only about 50 metres from a campsite. We pulled up to the site as sky opened up and did the only reasonable thing we could under the circumstances: we made lunch.
I have to say, I’m glad we stopped. The storm never got anywhere near what we dealt with in July, but it certainly felt much better to be sitting under the wide branches of a large pine, watching the rain and enjoying a hot lunch than it would have been to be out on the water. As far as sites go, this one was pretty basic. It was small, with maybe enough room for a couple of tents. As a spot for lunch, it was great. As a spot for eight people and four tents, which was the size of the group we passed a little later who were heading for that site, it would be super cozy in the same sense that being stuffed into a locker with the rest of the D&D club would be cozy. The one great feature of the site was that because of its general unimpressiveness, it seems like it doesn’t get much traffic. As a result, there was firewood everywhere. We decided to pirate a few pieces by sawing up a downed tree and taking it with us to our next site on the theory that anything on Big Trout was likely to be more picked over than there. I could try and make this breach of campsite etiquette seem less egregious by saying that we left some cut wood for the next users of the site we were stealing it from, but then I’d be both a liar and a wood thief, so let’s just move on.
The worst of the storm eventually passed, leaving a patchwork of blue sky and dark cloud overhead. With the thunder and lighting gone we decided to get back on the water and continue the trip to Big Trout. This was the start of a long stretch of paddling interrupted every once in a while by cloud bursts that would leave us incrementally more drenched than we had been a few minutes earlier. It rained on us on Grassy Bay, it rained on us on White Trout and then it super rained on us as we were paddling through the narrows that connect White Trout to Big Trout. Somewhere about halfway up Big Trout I handed the unbroken paddle to Dan and started paddling with the blade of my broken paddle. It turns out that this both ridiculous looking and not the most efficient way to move a canoe forward. It was, however, better than nothing. Slightly.
Despite the broken paddle and the semi-broken spirit from the chilly off and on rains, I enjoyed the trip through White Trout. It’s such a cool, big lake. I love the history (not one but two depot farms!) and the cliffs on the eastern shore are incredible. Every time I pass through there I tell myself that next time I’m going to stop and climb them. Some day I’ll be telling myself the truth. Unfortunately, thanks to the added time from the rain and the broken paddle, that day was not this one. We passed under the cliffs and I once again promised myself that next time I’d climb them. Hold me to it Future Drew, please.
We arrived on Big Trout as the last of the rain bursts subsided. Knowing that we were almost done for the day, and that the rain had moved on at least temporarily, put me in a better frame of mind and I was very much looking forward to sitting down by the fire and reaping the rewards of our ill gotten wood. We ended up on an island site just south of the narrows. It was the first open site we saw that didn’t look awful and it ended up being a nice choice. We didn’t realize that at first though. Despite the fact that the site checked most of the boxes on the “should we stay here” checklist (box one: Is the site open? Box two: Is it overrun with angry bears? Box three: well, are they super angry or just annoyed?”) we decided that it might be a good idea for a couple of us to hop back in the canoe and paddle to some of the nearby campsites to see if we could get something better.
It was not a good idea.
I don’t know if it was because we were all tired from the day, or because the spirit of the site didn’t want to let us go, but things did not go well in the checking out other sites department. At first it was going to be Gordon and I who went for the paddle. However, as I was stepping into the canoe, which is a thing I have done literally thousands of times without falling overboard, I somehow managed to do exactly that. One minute I was moving towards the bow of the boat, the next I was falling backwards out of the canoe with the grace and style of a drunk elephant. I landed in about two feet of water and narrowly missed smacking my head on the side of the other canoe (which still gives me the shivers when I think about it. I fell ass backwards, there would have been a lot of momentum working against me if I’d hit my head). I took my fall as a sign and decided to let Dan take my place in the campsite search. He and Gordon got in the boat and set off without incident. Well, until there was an incident. About ten seconds after they started paddling, the boat decided to try its luck as a submarine. In other words, it dumped. One second they were upright, the next they were taking an impromptu swim thirty feet off shore. It was pretty funny for the three seconds it took me to realize that my In Reach communicator had been sitting loose in the bottom of the boat that had just dumped. Then it became tremendously unfunny.
Here’s the thing about In Reach communicators that I already knew but only really processed in the seconds after I watched them go over: those bad boys don’t float. In fact, they sink. Like stones. Or, more accurately, they sink like $400.00 pieces of very sophisticated communication equipment made out of heavier than water materials.
I’m pretty sure that between the broken paddle and the lost communicator, this ended up being the most expensive day of trip I’ve ever had. I tried diving for it but the bottom drops off pretty quickly where the boat had dumped and I’m a terrible duck diver. I couldn’t even touch bottom, which made the prospect of finding a small, mostly black piece of electronics very unlikely. (For the record, I usually have my In Reach zipped into the pocket of my life jacket, which I’m pretty sure floats. I had taken it out earlier to send a message to my wife and for some reason put it down instead of putting it back in the jacket. Because the day was all paddling I wasn’t forced to re-zip it at a portage, which is why it was still sitting in the bottom of the boat. So, uh, if you’ve got an In Reach, maybe don’t do this).
After the dumping we realized that the site wasn’t going to let us go and gave up on our quest for better digs. In the end, I actually really liked the site! Which makes the near head injury, multiple dumpings and lost equipment seem slightly unnecessary. It had both sunset and sunrise views, and plenty of flat ground for tents. The small gravel beach at the front of the site is good for both loading and involuntarily unloading, and it also makes for a nice swim/In Reach search and rescue entry. The only complaint I’d have is that the wind cuts through it and the fire pit is little more than a circle of rocks, meaning you’re not getting any reflected heat off of a high wall. Other than that, it’s a pretty great spot to sit back, dry off and beat the pants off of Gordon and Mark at Euchre. I eventually crawled into my tent to warm up and fell asleep wondering what fresh
disasters adventures awaited us the next morning.