Year In Review (2020) – Lessons Learned

March 304th, 2020.

This has been a weird year. Back in the spring the world went on March Break and never really came back. Pretty much any plan that was in place at the start of 2020 went out the window at around the same time that we all started using social distance as a verb. Summer plans were no exception. The canoe tripping season started later than usual, and when it did get going there were new layers to navigate.

Algonquin rush hour

According to the numbers I just pulled out of thin air, roughly 7 billion people flocked to the Park this summer. As camping was one of the few activities available that felt both safe and normal, many (many) people discovered a newfound love of portages and dinners under the stars while simultaneously discovering that mosquitoes also love portages and dinners under the stars.  This meant that at certain times the Park could feel as crowded as Times Square at New Years (well, Times Square at New Years every year except 2020). Booking a trip near any of the most popular access points could be an exercise in frustration as you constantly refreshed the Park’s reservation system to see if a spot had opened up. Planning around this could be a challenge. Paddling around it could be an even bigger challenge if you happened to arrive at the Joe Lake portage during rush hour. All in all, the increased interest in the Park made it a good year to plan a couple extra portages and try some of the lesser used access points if you wanted to escape the crowds (which explains why three of my four trips this year were to popular, easy to reach lakes out of the Canoe Lake access point).

I usually write this post as a straight recap of the trips I’ve taken over the year, hitting the highlights and lowlights and generally giving thumbnail sketches of each trip. Because everything about 2020 is a little different, this post is going to be as well. I learned quite a few things from this summer and this post is going to highlight some of those lessons. Many of the things I learned, most even, are pretty benign. For example, I learned that in a contest of wills between myself and my three year old over whether or not she is going to shove a metric ton of marshmallows into her mouth, I’m going to lose every time. However, a few of the lessons were a fair bit to the right of “don’t argue with three year olds” on the “if you do this wrong you could get seriously hurt” scale. I made some bad decisions and forgot some basic rules this year, and I think it’s a good idea to take another look at them in the hopes that my mistakes can help others make the right calls at some point. Let’s start with:

Always Have, And Be Willing To Follow, A Plan B

Back in July I did two two night trips more or less back to back. The first was a family trip up to Burnt Island Lake where, among other things, I learned the above marshmallow lesson. The second, which started about three days after the first ended, was a two night loop out of Kiosk that took me and my buddy Rob through Maple, Three Mile, Biggar and back to Kiosk by way of North Tea and Manitou.

Dahinda Lake

This was a pretty challenging trip, made more so by some poor planning and decision making mid trip. As you may be aware, early July can be hot. It turns out that the Earth’s yellow sun not only grants Superman his powers, it also saps the hell out of my own. And I’m not starting with the same hand Clark Kent was dealt. Our first day, from the Kiosk access point to Maple Lake, was hard but ultimately not terrible. Our second day, from Maple to Biggar, went from hard to terrible to soul-crushing and back again multiple times thanks to a relentless combination of heat, bugs and portaging. There are eight portages in between Maple and Biggar, three of which are over a kilometer and all of which were absolutely swarming with bugs. Under different circumstances, eight portages, even with a few longer ones sprinkled in, isn’t the end of the world, but in this case when you combine the portages with extreme heat and extremer (no, you’re using ungood English) bugs, it zaps you like … well, like a bug who’s just been hit by a bug zapper.

By the time we reached our (absolutely awesome) site on Biggar we were both exhausted. I felt like I’d been run over by a truck, then run over again by a much bigger truck carrying the first truck back to where it came from after it broke down under an onslaught of dive bombing mosquitoes. It put a damper on the rest of what should have a been a very nice day.

That site on Biggar is fantastic. It’s got great views and great swimming and that’s about all I want in a place to spend the night. However, as much as I enjoyed that site, I think it would have been smarter to call an audible at Three Mile Lake and stop there for the day. By the time we got to Three Mile we were both hot, tired and aggravated. Had we stopped we could have cut out the worst of the portages and about two to three more hours of baking in the sun and being mauled by bugs. It would have left us in much better shape for the rest of the day and may have changed our eventual decision to try and leave a day early (a decision that had serious ramifications the next day and ended up putting us in the single scariest situation I’ve ever been in on a trip, but we’ll get to that a bit later). But, we didn’t stop. We pushed on and as a result the entire tenor of the trip was changed. I guess the point I’m trying to make here is that it’s important to be flexible and adapt to conditions. I probably didn’t give as much thought to stopping as I should have because I had a pre-set route in mind and I wanted to cross some more lakes off the list. That was a mistake.

Two months later I found myself standing at the end of a wind tunnel that used to be Burnt Island Lake. The waves were crashing up against the portage put in like a horde of extremely motivated Orcs trying to get into Helm’s Deep. I was with a different group of buddies for this trip and we were on the last day of a four day loop that had taken us out of Canoe Lake, up through McIntosh, east to Big Trout by way of Grassy Bay and White Trout and then, supposedly, back home to Canoe Lake through the Otterslides, Burnt Island and the various Joe Lakes. We’d picked this route in part because it’s a fairly easy route from a portaging perspective. There’s less than 7 KM of carrying along the entire 73 KM loop and my inner portage slacker was in heaven (but, also, before we go handing out any route planning awards it was pretty much the only route we could get as this trip was over Labour Day and half the province had already booked their trips out of Canoe Lake by the time I got around it it). Standing on that beach, with the wind blowing my steady stream of swear words back towards Little Otterslide, I realized that my nice relaxing paddle out was going to be neither nice or relaxing. In fact, it probably wasn’t going to be a paddle at all. Or, at least, it would be less of a paddle than I’d planned.

New plan!

The night before I’d woken up at around 2 am to the sound of wind and rain blowing through our site. I realized at that point there was a chance that Burnt Island might be a problem if the weather stayed suboptimal. I lay awake for a while thinking about this and staring at the map, in particular at the string of small to mid sized lakes dsouth of Burnt Island that came out at the Canisbay campground. It was a viable alternative to get out, if an unappealing one. It had the benefit of keeping us off of big water and, hopefully, out of the wind. It had the significant drawback of adding almost 7 KM of portaging to our day. This effectively doubled the amount of carrying we had expected to do for the entire route and crammed it all into one long, rain soaked slog of an afternoon during what was supposed to be the easiest part of the trip.

Which sucked.

But, what would have sucked more would be getting halfway across the eastern part of Burnt Island, hitting a wave the wrong way and taking an unscheduled swimming break in the middle of the lake. In the end, although it was definitely not our preferred option, we realized it was also by far the better one and we hiked our way south over the next few hours.

I wish I’d made the same type of calculation on Three Mile Lake two months earlier. Although heat and bugs aren’t maybe as in your face as being a reason to reroute as a strong wind that is literally blowing in your face, they’re still factors that should be considered. Routes and plans are nice and all, but you’ve got to be able to take what the Park is giving you and adapt to it. If you can’t you might end up in a similar situation to the one Rob and I found ourselves in on the third and last day of our July trip: clinging to the side of an island the size of a school bus in the middle of Kioshkokwi Lake while thunder and lighting crashed around us and the waves did everything they could to snatch our canoe out of our shivering hands.

Or, to be more concise:

Don’t Fuck With Thunder

The original plan for the third day of our Kiosk trip called for us to go from Biggar to Manitou by way of North Tea and stay the night on Manitou before heading out the next day. Depending on where you stop, this is a decent distance to go, but the fact that it’s almost entirely paddling makes it much easier (provided you don’t get hit with an unfavourable wind on either North Tea or Manitou). We covered the route between Biggar and Manitou pretty quickly (and that was with a long and refreshing stop at the falls between Tea and Manitou. Can someone please explain to me why the they haven’t installed some kind of water feature on every portage in the Park?). By the time we got to the east end of Manitou is was barely past noon and we made the decision to have lunch then do the final 10 KM of the trip and head out a day early.

Things went well until we got to Kioshkokwi. By this point the decision to turn our 25 KM day into a 35 KM day, throwing in an extra 1.3 KM portage for fun, was coming back to bite me (which probably surprises no one reading this but somehow comes as news to me every time I do it). I was tired and just wanted to get across the final stretch of open water between the portage onto the Amable du Fond and the access point. The problem is that stretch of open water is a couple of kilometers wide and the sun that had been beating down on us all trip was rapidly disappearing behind some very nasty looking clouds. Oh, and there was thunder rumbling in the distance. Lots of it.

I’m going to let July Drew take it from here:

As we started to cross the main part of Kiosk we could hear thunder in the distance. What we should have done was stop, find a spot on shore and wait to see what happened. But I was .. Stupid? Arrogant? Ignorant? I don’t know the right word, probably some combination of all three. The thunder was far away, the sky above us was still blue and I figured it would take us ten minutes at most to get across the open water.

The problem was, we only had five.

For those of you who have paddled Kiosk, you probably know the rocky seagull island in the middle of the lake. We were paddling on a line with it, the wind behind us. We were probably 150 metres from it when I realized what a mistake I’d made. The wind, which had been a nice tailwind when we started, was picking up and those clouds that had seemed so far away were a hell of a lot closer. I heard it before it hit us, this rushing, roaring wall of wind that turned a worrisome situation into a complete nightmare. All of a sudden the waves around us were three feet high, rain was pelting us, lightning and thunder were crashing overhead and our boat was being pushed around like a bathtub toy. We got swung around 90 degrees so that we were suddenly broadside to the wind and within seconds waves were lapping over the sides. I am saying this without a touch of hyperbole: I have never been more frightened in my life than I was in those minutes as our canoe was being blown sideways, the waves were doing everything they could to swamp us and I was realizing that the situation was completely and utterly out of my control.

It got worse from there. Long story short, we ended up huddled on the side of the small seagull island in the middle of Kiosk, praying that the lightning wouldn’t hit us and the wind wouldn’t wreck our boat on the rocks. (If you want the long story long, go here).

We got lucky. Things could have ended much worse than they did. Nine times out of ten I might have been right in my guess that we could make it across the lake before the storm hit, but that’s the problem. It was just a guess. I had no way of knowing how fast that storm was moving, or what kind of wind was driving it. The smart decision, the only decision, was to paddle the boat to shore as soon as I heard the thunder behind us and wait and see what was coming.

This doesn’t look promising.

The good news is that two months later I once again got the chance to put the lessons learned from that July trip to practical use. The second day of our Labour Day loop took us from McIntosh to Big Trout by way of Grassy Bay and White Trout. Once again there was a decent breeze behind us and, as we learned once we got to Grassy Bay, that breeze was blowing in some weather. Just past the portage down to Hawkins Lake I looked up and realized that the sky to the north of us was a shade of grey that even E.L. James hasn’t seen. We kept as close to shore as possible as we made our way east and as soon as the thunder started to rumble we paddled to a nearby campsite and did the only reasonable thing we could: we made lunch.

I can now tell you from personal experience that it is much better to be eating a bowl of steaming refried rice under the branches of a wide pine tree while watching a storm come in than it is to be paddling frantically (and somewhat fruitlessly) against that storm.

Most of this post boils down to the same basic idea: pay attention to the elements. Whether it’s too much sun, too much wind or too much whatever it was that hit us on Kioshkokwi, I realized this summer that I need to do a better job of assessing both current and future risks. Conditions can change faster than you think and what seems like a manageable situation can become unmanageable very quickly. The sun doesn’t care if you really want to make it a few extra kilometers and the storm doesn’t care if you think you can outrace it across the water. I was too confident in my ability to adapt and it put a friend and I at risk. The good news is that I can look back at that July trip as a learning experience and not something worse. Not everyone is that lucky.

Those two aren’t the only lessons I learned this summer, but they are probably the most important (although, “make sure you have a spare paddle in case yours snaps on day two of a four day trip” is definitely up there). I’ll have another post up in a few days covering some of the other highlights from the summer, as well as handing out the annual Golden Moose Awards. Until then, here’s a waterfall because waterfalls are great.


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