This is part two of my four day trip up to Big Trout over the Labour Day weekend, 2020. For part one, click here.
When we had originally planned Day 3 it was meant to be a pretty easy day. This was partly because we wanted a low key travel day at some point and mostly because when I went to book the route the only lake I could get between Big Trout and Canoe Lake for that night was Otterslide. There’s only about 8 kilometres of travel between Big Trout and Otterslide so we weren’t in much of a rush. We woke up relatively late to find a bit of mist coming off the water and what was looking like a better day weather-wise than the one before. We had a leisurely breakfast, admired the views and in general took it easy. Eventually we packed up and were back on the water heading (very carefully) south.
The night before we had tried to splint my broken paddle using duct tape and prayer. We taped the shaft and blade together, leaving about a foot of overlap and ended up with the saddest looking quasi-paddle I’ve ever seen. The good news was that it was actually semi-functional! I sat in the bow while Gordon took the stern and I was actually able to contribute (slightly) to our forward motion. I had to switch sides pretty frequently, as my forearms were aching from gripping the two pieces of the paddle as tightly as possible to keep them together (duct tape is a miracle, but even miracles have their limits), but we actually made pretty decent time across the rest of Big Trout.
In between Big Trout and Otterslide is Otterslide Creek and five relatively easy portages. The longest is just over 700 metres and none of them are particularly challenging. The scenery was pretty nice along the paths, particularly the 730 metre carry that follows beside the creek for a while. There’s also a nice little waterfall at the start of the first portage, a 105 meter climb (and it is a climb, you basically just walk up stairs for 100 metres) from Big Trout to the creek. So, yeah, the portages along this part of the trip didn’t suck.
The creek itself was also pretty easy. In fact, by the time we got to the end of it I felt as refreshed as if I hadn’t been paddling at all for the past couple of hours. That was partly because of the general sense of well-being and peace I get when I’m out on the water and mostly because I had in fact not been paddling for the past couple of hours. See, just after the second portage along the creek I realized that the duct tape holding my paddle together was starting to tear. We decided to put the paddle away for the time being in hopes of finding some more tape to shore things up later on. The plan was that Gordon and I would take turns soloing the other through the creek. This, it turned out, was an excellent plan. See, there’s really only one long stretch of paddling along Otterslide Creek. For the most part it’s short portages and short paddles. Gordon was in the stern when we realized there was a problem with the tape, and it just so happened that we were also at the start of that long stretch of paddling. Long story short, I spent the next 45 minutes or so leaning back, enjoying the view, pushing away the occasional alder, taking pictures and generally being about as useless as a broken paddle.
We emerged onto Otterslide in the early afternoon. After stopping briefly to check out the site immediately south of the portage, we decided to move on in the hopes of finding a spot to stay for the night that wasn’t complete garbage. I’d give us a moderate success on that front. The site we ended up on is at the southern end of the lake, just past the opening to the river that connects Otterslide to Little Otterslide. It was better than the first site we checked out, but that isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. A small clearing in the middle of a tire fire would probably be better than that first site.
If I were grading the site we picked I’d give it a solid C+, maybe even a B-. It was small, but there was enough space to pitch three tents if you squint. The fire pit wasn’t spectacular, but it wasn’t terrible either and there was an underwater beach that actually made for a decent entry spot for swimming. However, it’s a pretty uneven and enclosed site and, frankly, on first glance isn’t all that appealing. My guess is that most people coming through Otterslide from the south, if they even bothered to check it out, would take one look and hope that they could find something better further north. As a result, despite it being Labour Day after one of the busiest summers the Park has ever seen, the site was in pretty good condition and there was plenty of easy to find firewood nearby. All in all, not bad.
Once we were set up we actually had a bit of spare time to enjoy the day, which is a thing that doesn’t happen very often on my trips. Mark, Gordon and Dan channeled their inner lumberjacks and went wood collecting while I channeled my inner freeloader and left them to the hard work while I took the canoe back out. I paddled around the south end of Otterslide and ended up exploring down a small creek on the western shore a little bit. According to the map, the creek would eventually come out at a reasonably sized lake somewhere west of Otterslide, but long before I got anywhere close to that lake I came to a beaver dam that would have required me actually getting out of the boat to get over. Since I had already flipped my trip switch from “willing to work” to “lazy AF” I turned the boat around and paddled slowly back to the site.
The rest of the day passed in a pleasant sort of half speed daze. We set up our chairs by the water and watched people coming and going on the lake for a while. We drank some hot chocolate and then, later, drank more hot chocolate. We played some Euchre, which Dan and I won again (I mean, we won the only game that counted. As everyone knows, when you play a three game series of anything the first game doesn’t count because it’s a warm up and the third game doesn’t count because it’s stupid. Game number two is what matters, and we won the crap out of that one). The fire was bright and warm, the dinners were filling and delicious and the night was crisp and clear. All in all, it was a pretty awesome evening.
We called it quits relatively early. Day four, our last one, was also going to be our longest of the trip thanks to the extreme booked outedness of everything within 20 KM of Canoe Lake. It was mostly paddling, which made the 20+ KM out day seem slightly more palatable, but we still wanted to get an early start to try and get on the water before the wind picked up. For the first time all trip we crawled into our tents under a cloudless sky. I took this as a good omen and I drifted off actually looking forward to the next day’s paddle.
My first hint that things weren’t going to work out exactly as we wanted them to came at about 2 am, when I was woken by the faint sound of something hitting my tent. I had time to think to myself “who’s dropping pebbles on my fly” and then the rain started in earnest. The rain brought some distant lightning and thunder and I spent the next hour listening to the sound of the wind picking up while I ran through Plans B through Z for getting out (Plan B was heading south to Canisbay from Burnt, Plans C through Z were cry). Remember, at this point we were still looking at paddling Little Otterslide, Burnt Island, Baby Joe, Little Joe, Joe and Canoe Lake with three paddles between four guys and two canoes. We had shored up the splint job on the broken paddle with more duct tape and some zip ties that we had begged from a couple of very kind trips we met along the Otterslides, but I wasn’t looking forward to testing that against a headwind on Burnt. I eventually fell back asleep with the wind rustling through the trees overhead and the faint hope that maybe it would blow itself out by morning.
It did not blow itself out by morning.
We woke up to grey skies and the wind blowing north up Otterslide. Unfortunately, our plan to beat the wind amounted to nothing as the wind had apparently been planning to beat us as well and was much better organized. We packed up during a lull in the rain and got off the site in pretty reasonable time. The paddle out of Otterslide wasn’t all that difficult as we were already at the south end of the lake so the wind hadn’t had had much open water to really pick up strength. The river in between Otterslide and Little Otterslide was decent as well as it’s a pretty sheltered stretch of water. In fact, all in all the first half hour or so of the day went about as well as you could have hoped given the grey skies and broken paddle. As we came into Little Otterslide and passed between the two enormous pines that stand guard on either side of the river, I allowed myself a few minutes of hope that maybe Burnt Island wouldn’t be as bad as I feared.
Then we stopped paddling south and pivoted west and all that hope was blown out the back of our canoe by the headwind bearing down on us from that direction. See, Little Otterslide has a bit of a dogleg to it coming from Otterslide to Burnt. You start off paddling north/south but to get to the Burnt portage you have to head west for a bit. This, it just so happens, is the exact direction you’ll be paddling once you get to the Burnt Island side, so it’s a good taste of what’s coming. In this case, it tasted like tears and regret. The wind was blowing directly in our faces. It wasn’t bad enough to completely kill our momentum, but it was a worrying sign given that it was decently strong and Little Otterslide is much more sheltered than Burnt.
The portage between Little Otterslide and Burnt stuck to the general portage theme of the trip: probably a pretty decent carry under most conditions, but mucky AF and kind of annoying given all the rain we’d been having. At one point I heard the sound of something large falling over that was either a moose fainting or one of Dan or Mark falling with the boat. Turns out there were no narcoleptic moose in the area and it was indeed Dan who had hit a patch of mud and had his legs go out from under him. Fortunately he wasn’t hurt, but it certainly made me pay more attention to my footing for the rest of the portage. Then we reached the end of the carry and the muddy crap under our feet became significantly less attention-grabbing than the onslaught of white caps rolling towards us from across Burnt Island. It was like standing in the middle of a wind tunnel. The waves were crashing up against the rocks in front of the portage put in like they were Bernard Pollard going after Tom Brady’s knee. I tried to pick the canoe up to put it in the water and I ended up doing a full 360 as the breeze caught the boat and spun me around. It was, in a word, windy.
We stared out at the scene in front of us with varying degrees of dismay. None of us were looking forward to testing that wind, particularly not with only 3 1/2 paddles between us. Burnt Island is a big damn lake. You’ve got somewhere between 7 and 8 KM of paddling to get to the other end, and then you’ve got Little Joe and Joe which aren’t exactly puddle sized either. In other words, it was looking like a really miserable few hours. And possibly dangerous too! The waves were bad enough that it seemed like a real possibility that one of us could end up catching a bad wave and going over. Having already dumped
once twice this trip none of us were eager to hit that particular trifecta. Fortunately, we had options.
Remember when I mentioned lying awake coming up with Plans B-Z? Well, Plan B was starting to look like a real option. This would have us cut across the eastern end of Burnt to Birdie Lake. From there we’d go south through a string of small and medium size lakes before eventually coming out at Canisbay campground. As far as backup plans go, it kind of sucked. It was adding nearly 7 KM of portaging to our day and making a mockery of my promises of a portage lite trip. On top of the extra KM, it was also adding some elevation as most of the portages had a fair bit of climbing. But, and this was important, carrying those 7 KM meant we weren’t paddling them and at that moment, looking out at those waves and having communal visions of unscheduled swimming breaks in the middle of Burnt, this seemed like by far the better option. In the end, it was an easy decision. We called the audible, got in the canoes, pushed off, pushed off again after the wind blew us back onshore, and headed for Canisbay. (Fortunately I was able to get some cell service on the portage and reach my wife (who is lovely and kind. Have I mentioned that already?) and who agreed to come meet us at Canisbay to help get our gear back to Canoe Lake. Thank God for understanding spouses).
Cutting south across the east end of Burnt was all the proof I needed that we’d made the right call. The waves were difficult in the same sense that slow dancing with a rhino is difficult. One wrong move and you’re going to be spread across a few metres of whatever surface you’re on. I don’t know if the waves were the same size as what we saw back in July on Kiosk, but if they weren’t they were pretty damn close. We took on water a couple of times and had a couple of “uh … shit?” moments when it felt like the boat might be destabilizing, but we made slow progress. We hugged the shore as best we could which provided a bit of comfort in that if we did dump we’d only be swimming for a few minutes. Eventually we made it to the lee of a small island in the middle of Burnt’s easternmost bay. We took a break there and generally enjoyed the novel sensation of a canoe that wasn’t rising and falling like we were stuck on the world’s worst merry-go-round.
The rest of the trip across Burnt went a bit smoother. I think the shape of the southern shore protected us a bit on the homestretch as the wind wasn’t as bad for this part. I could still see white caps in the middle of the lake, but we must have drawn the JV squad where we were, because the waves hitting us were grey toques at best. Before too long we were on the south side of Burnt and paddling into Birdie Lake.
There’s no portage in between Burnt and Birdie, just an opening in Burnt’s south shore. You’ll know you’ve found the right one if you see a stump with a yellow triangle in the middle of the water. We paddled past the stump and almost immediately the wind felt more manageable. Don’t get me wrong, it was still hanging around like that kid no one actually invited to the party who keeps trying to convince you that Star Wars Episode 1 was actually the best Star Wars movie, but it was easier to ignore. We paddled the length of Birdie and were soon up and over the 160 metre portage into Alder Lake.
Birdie and Alder were both new lakes for me, and I have to admit, I didn’t spend as much time appreciating them as I might normally have. I was mostly focused on the upcoming 2.1 KM portage (complete with 70+ metres of climbing) between Alder and Iris. what I do remember of them both is that they’re relatively unmemorable. Frankly, it seems to me that you could trade them for any number of small to medium sized lakes and you wouldn’t notice the difference.
The portage from Alder up to Iris is a bit of a beast. It starts off with a fairly swampy area that is, thankfully, covered by a (slippery) boardwalk. Then you start climbing. Dan and I were switching off the boat for this carry and he had decided to take the first leg of the trip. I’m not going to lie, at about the five minute mark of the portage, when I’d been climbing for about 4:55, I was very grateful for that arrangement. Of course, it’s not as if the trail got much better when we switched. Like every other portage we’d done this trip, the ground was mucky, muddy and slippery. There are stretches where the mud sort of takes over the trail like some kind of 1950s horror movie monster and you have to step from rock to root to rock to try and avoid sinking in and losing a shoe.
By the time we made it to Iris I was pretty much done with portaging for the day. Unfortunately, portaging was not done with me as we still had about 4.5 KM of carrying left in front of us. Iris isn’t a very big lake, but that didn’t stop the wind from trying to make things difficult for us again. To get to the next portage we had to paddle west and the wind was only too happy to let us know how much it had missed us. We made our way down Iris as a light rain started to fall again and, eventually, found ourselves at the start of the 875 metre carry over to Linda Lake.
To be honest, I don’t remember much about this portage. Apparently I took a break about halfway across because I have a picture of my canoe jammed into the V between two trees and my pack lying haphazardly in front of it. Apart from that, let’s just assume that things were muddy and generally crappy and move on. Linda Lake, when we arrived, was a bit concerning. Linda is the biggest lake in between Burnt and Canisbay and the portage from Iris comes out at the eastern end. This means that there’s a fair bit of runway for the wind to pick up speed if it happens to be blowing towards the portage. Which it was. The waves weren’t as bad as they had been on Burnt, but they weren’t exactly kiddie pool sized rollers either. Even getting the boat off from the portage was a bit of an adventure.
Once we were on the water we beelined for the far shore. The shape of the shoreline meant that there was a tiny bit of protection from the wind if you hugged the south side of the lake, so we clung to it like a kid to their parents’ leg on the first day of kindergarten. We made our way towards the portage to Polly Lake, stopping whenever we could find some protection from the wind for a quick break and to figure out our next move (that next move pretty much always boiled down to “just try really hard not to tip”). I don’t want to put words in the other guys’ mouths, (but, well, they’re not the ones writing this thing so I guess I can do what I want). I would guess, however, that if they felt anything like I did by this point they were tired, wet and seriously considering moving our annual trip to somewhere drier, like Death Valley, next year.
Once we arrived at Polly Lake we took a quick break to catch our breath and eat some lunch. Fun fact about me and food on a canoe trip: I hate cooking. I also hate cleaning. Basically, if I have to wash more than a spoon for my meal I’m not interested. This means that I generally subsist on a diet of dehydrated meals and jerky. For dinners I’ll usually boil up something from Alpineaire and for lunches it’s Backcountry Wok. Dan, on the other hand, always comes with some pretty impressive home-cooked meals he’s prepared and dehydrated ahead of time. One of the benefits of these meals, I mean besides the fact that they don’t deliver a month’s supply of salt in one sitting like most of my dinners do, is that they don’t take too long to get warmed up and ready to eat whereas my bagged meals can take some time. Time that, when you’ve got an empty stomach and everyone around you is eating some delicious looking chili, can seem like an eternity. All of this is a long-winded way of saying that those guys have no idea how close they came to me shouting “look, a bear” then leaving a me sized hole in the underbrush as I ran off through the woods with their lunches.
The paddle down Polly was pretty uneventful. We arrived at the portage to Canisbay, unloaded the boats, realized we weren’t actually at the portage to Canisbay, reloaded the boats, then paddled the extra thirty feet to the actual portage and wondered why we’d bothered to reload the boats when there was a perfectly good path from the fake portage start to the real one. Confused? Well, so were we. Basically, there’s a break in the shoreline just before the actual portage take out that looks like it should be the portage take out. There’s even a small sign in the spot that looks like a portage marker but is in fact a marker telling you the portage is thataways. My guess is it’s some kind of Park IQ test. That we failed. Spectacularly.
This was our last portage of the day. I was cautiously optimistic about the carry, despite it being over 2.5 KM long. I had done it a few years earlier and remembered it being a nice trail. And, for what felt like the first time all trip, my memory was bang on! It was a great portage. It’s basically just a road through the woods. It wasn’t even that mucky compared to some of the crap we’d waded through earlier in the trip. Gordon and I started with the boats and at about the 1/3 mark we passed a group of three guys who were all carrying a canoe together. I’ve got to say, while I admire anyone who carries anything across a portage, that’s probably not the most efficient way to do things. I’d much rather take frequent turns solo carrying than try to move in tandem with 1 (or 2!) other people under the same boat. But, to each their own. As long as whatever carry method you choose gets you from one end of the portage to the other it’s hard to be too critical.
Dan and I switched off the boat a couple of times along the way, and before long we were wading into Canisbay, our last portage of the trip done. All that was left between us and a warm shower was a (hopefully) short paddle to the Canisbay campground. We pushed off into relatively calm waters and for a few brief, beautiful minutes I was able to convince myself that the paddle down Canisbay would be relatively easy. Then we came round a small point about 1/4 of the way from the portage and the wind decided to hit us up with one final F-You. From that point on we were paddling pretty much directly into the wind. It wasn’t as bad as what we’d dealt with on Burnt, or even Linda, but I was about 30 times more tired now than I had been on those lakes. I could barely keep the boat straight as we made our way south and by the latter part of the paddle I was basically just doing draw after draw while Dan provided all the forward momentum from the bow. But we made it!
And that’s about it. My wife (who is lovely and kind) was waiting for us at Canisbay. We said our goodbyes, took some pictures with the broken paddle and generally agreed that we were all very much looking forward to some kind of fast food on the drive home. This was an awesome trip. I would do this route again in a heartbeat (well, without the Canisbay detour on the final day). While there are definitely some drawbacks to starting from Canoe Lake (the crowds mostly), this is a really nice tour through that part of the Park. McIntosh through Big Trout is a beautiful stretch to paddle (and, apparently, to break a paddle on). The cliffs on White Trout are awesome and the little nooks and crannies around the Otterslides are fun to explore if you’ve got the time. Just make sure you bring some duct tape.
238 down. 294 to go.
New Lakes Paddled: 5
Total Lakes Paddled: 19
Total Portages: 14
Total Portage Distance: 13.045 KM
Total Travel Distance: 65.2 KM