Welcome back to 2020’s Year in Review. This is the third post in our series, which kind of defies belief. How I’ve managed to wring three separate pieces of content out of jokes about Thunderboxes is beyond me, but here we are. Previous posts have covered the lessons I learned this year (spoiler: don’t f*ck with thunder pretty much covers it) and some of my highlights from the summer including my favourite sunsets, waterfalls and ruins explored. This post will cover the final categories in this year’s Golden Moose Awards: Best Campsite, Best Lake and Best Route. Thanks to my somewhat reduced tripping schedule last summer there are fewer options to pull from for each category, but the good news is there are still some clear winners for each one. Let’s start with:
This one wasn’t easy. I only stayed on seven sites this summer, and visited a handful more, but of those few sites two really stood out compared to the rest. The first contender is a site I stayed on on Bigger Lake back in July. This is an awesome site. It wraps around a bend on the southern side of the lake where the shoreline turns 90 degrees towards Loughrin Creek. The majority of the site faces east and gets pretty spectacular sun from sun up to late afternoon. It’s got an enormous sloping slab of smooth rock leading into the water that makes for a great swimming area and plenty of flat, sheltered ground for tents. The fire pit is where the rock meets the rest of the site and is a great spot to sit and watch the daylight fade away. The only downside I can see for this site is that if you manage to get it on a hot day with no clouds or wind, it basically turns into a pizza oven. But that’s why they invented swimming, so maybe stop complaining.
The second contender for Best Campsite is one I stayed on in August. This was a trip back to Burnt Island, this time with my wife, kids and in-laws. We had seven people between two canoes and I was a bit worried about finding a big enough site for all of us. Our site from July had enough flat ground for about 1.5 tents if you squinted hard and I had slightly unnerving visions of finding the lake booked out again and having to get real cozy with our tent placement.
That, fortunately, wasn’t a problem.
We ended up on an island site about a third of the way down Burnt coming from the south. It was an absolutely awesome spot. There was tons (and tons) of tent space, a beautiful raised fire pit and some of the best swimming I’ve had in the Park. There’s a secondary landing (or maybe it’s the primary one, I’m not the boss of the site) on the north side of the island that makes for a great spot to take a dip and swim across the small channel between the site’s island and a smaller one about 100 meters away. The kids and I swam back and forth quite a few times. That landing is also a really great spot to pull up a chair and watch the sun go down (well, watch the direction in which the sun is going down. The actual sunset was obstructed by the second island). Still, it was pretty great.
Between the two it’s a tough call, but I’m going to give the nod to … screw it, we’re calling it a tie. They’re both great sites and easily crack my top ten. Each was perfect for what I needed it for and each has it’s own minor drawbacks (Biggar gets really hot, a strong wind blows right through the Burnt Island site and makes it the opposite of hot). But, if I had to stay on either again I’d do it in a heartbeat. So, there you go, the first ever (and hopefully last) Golden Moose tie. (Remember how I said at the beginning of this post that there were clear winners in each category? Apparently that was a lie).
This time around I’ve got a clear winner, but before I get to it I want to throw an honourable mention to Westward Lake. Westward is about a kilometer north of Highway 60 just past the Whiskey Rapids hiking trail. The only way to access it is by paddling the Oxtongue River, either coming from Tea Lake or from further east on the Oxtongue. I’ve been meaning to check it out for a few years now, but never got around to it. The delayed start to the tripping season brought on by COVID had me doing day trips when I might normally be doing my first backcountry trip of the year and I used the change as a chance to check out Westward.
I’m glad I did.
Westward is surprisingly secluded feeling spot given its proximity to Canoe Lake. It’s a dead end lake, there are no routes in or out apart from the portage up from the Oxtongue. There are also no camp sites or cottage leases on it, meaning that the only reason someone might go up there is for a day trip and maybe some fishing. It’s also beautiful. I spent a pretty relaxing morning hanging out up there (followed by a somewhat less relaxing late morning as I dragged the canoe back up the surprisingly shallow Oxtongue).
As much as I liked Westward, I’m giving Best Lake to Burnt island this year. Wait, hear me out. I know there are better lakes in the Park, but honestly Burnt Island has a lot going for it. It’s a big lake and even though there are a ton (like 54 or something) of campsites it’s possible to get spots that feel at least a bit secluded. There are some really nice campsites up and down the lake and it’s a great place to take young kids. It’s about 13-15 KM from the Canoe Lake access, but there are only two portages you actually *have* to do (two others that you can drag around). It gives the kids the feeling that they’re on an adventure without giving your back the feeling that maybe it should be applying for a new position in other bodies after you make it triple carry the Devil’s Staircase or something. You can spend a couple of days there and not run out of things to explore and the swimming, at least in the places we visited while we were there, is awesome. Burnt Island was perfect for what I needed it for this year (except when I was trying to get home on Labour Day) so it gets this year’s Best Lake award. (Shout out to Biggar and Maple, both of which I really liked as well).
I really only did three overnight routes this year since I went up to Burnt Island twice. And, as much as I enjoy my day trips, you’d have to stretch things like Gumby on the rack to consider one of those as a possible best route. That doesn’t leave a ton of choice when it comes to the best route of the summer, but fortunately the choices I do have were pretty good.
With apologies to my family trips to Burnt Island, I’m going to narrow this down to my two longer routes for the summer: the three day Kiosk Loop that took me from Kioshkokwi down to Maple, across to Biggar by way of Three Mile and then back to Kiosk through North Tea and Manitou and the four day Big Trout Loop(ish) that took me from Canoe Lake to McIntosh, across to Big Trout, south through the Otterslides and then out at Canisbay by way of Alder, Iris and a string of smaller lakes between Burnt Island and Canisbay. (And the Golden Moose for worst and most convoluted run on sentence of the year goes to the previous sentence).
If I strip out the things that went very wrong on each of my longer trips (so, no near death experience on Kiosk and no broken paddle on Grassy Bay) both of these routes were definitely closer to awesome than awful on my patented Route Judging Scaleometer (patent pending). Of the two, the Kiosk loop was definitely the more challenging. Maple Creek is very pretty, but it’s bit of an uphill battle (literally) heading south to Maple Lake and all things considered it was a pretty tiring way to start the trip. In comparison, the first day of the Big Trout Loop was pretty nice. The Ink Lake portage is a beast, but even with that and a stiff wind on Tom Thomson that day was nowhere near as taxing as the Maple Creek day.
The second day of the Kiosk loop was flat out brutal, whereas the second day of the Big Trout Loop would have been pretty nice if not for us suddenly finding ourselves down a paddle about a quarter of the way through the day. McIntosh connects to Big Trout by way of a couple of easy portages and some very scenic paddling through Grassy Bay and White Trout. In comparison, there were eight portages in between Maple and Biggar and about a billion times that many bugs. The scenery along the way is fine, but also doesn’t change all that much.
The third day of the Kiosk Loop (near death experience aside) was awesome. Both North Tea and Manitou are beautiful to paddle through, and we got to see three separate sets of waterfalls along the way. The third and fourth day of the Big Trout Loop (which equaled in distance the third day of the Kiosk Loop) were also pretty good, but the string of small lakes and long portages between Burnt and Canisbay can wear on you pretty quickly.
All in all, if I have to give an edge to a route I think it’s going to be the Kiosk loop for a couple of reasons. First, I’m a sucker for waterfalls and there are quite a few pretty ones along this route. All things being equal, more waterfalls = better route. Second, this route hits pretty much every note. There’s some creek paddling (but not frustrating creek paddling), big lakes, small lakes, waterfalls (as I may have mentioned already) and lots to see along the way. The Big Trout loop also offers pretty much the same things, but if we’re getting really granular I find Maple Creek to be much prettier and less annoying to paddle than Otterslide Creek. Finally, and this is really the deciding factor, this route is not as busy as the Big Trout Loop. Starting from a northern access point means you’re not going to get the same crowds you get coming out of Canoe Lake. We didn’t see anyone at all the first day, saw maybe one other trip the second day and really only crossed paths with one other solo paddler the third day. We saw more people in the first ten minutes of our Big Trout loop than we did the entire Kiosk trip. That alone tips the scales for me as otherwise these are both really great routes.
Normally this would be the end of the Golden Moose awards but this year we’re making Moosie history and for the first time ever handing out a:
Lifetime Achievement Award
This award goes to an old friend, my Ray Kettlewell paddle. I’ve had this paddle since the early 2000s and it has gotten me to some awesome places. It came with me to Quetico Park in 2005 where I spent five weeks growing a beard that would make a sasquatch jealous while paddling to pretty much every corner of that Park. It’s come with me on most of my trips in Algonquin over the past few years, getting across Opeongo in a headwind, up to Cedar from Canoe in two days and around and across innumerable beaver dams (Goddamned beavers). And it came with me to Grassy Bay this past September, where it took one look at the 40 or so kilometers of paddling it had in front of it over the next couple of days and said “Nah, I’m good”.
I don’t have the words to adequately describe the feeling of disbelief and mild but growing panic you feel when you suddenly find yourself holding two pieces of what you’re fairly certain is supposed to be a one piece paddle. See, at the end of McIntosh Creek there is a beaver dam separating the creek from Grassy Bay (Goddamned beavers). The top of the dam is just close enough to the water that you feel like you can get your canoe across it if you can build enough momentum. So that’s what we did. We backed up, dug in and started to paddle. It was a great plan for about two and a half strokes, then there was a loud snap and it turned into a very bad plan very quickly. Turns out I either don’t know my own strength or 20 years of benign neglect is not the best way to care for a paddle. I’m going with the strength thing.
Thanks to some kindly passing trips we were able to cobble together a kind of budget bionic man version of the paddle with duct tape and zip ties, but it wasn’t ideal. But we’re not here to complain about the paddle, we’re here to celebrate it! It was a great paddle. I wish Ray Kettlewell hadn’t retired a few years back because finding one to replace it is going to be tough. But that’s a problem for another day. For now, here’s a picture of my Raykay back in the good old days.
Farewell old friend. I wish you all the best in your new career as a pizza peel.
And that’s it for both this year’s Golden Moose awards and my year in review posts. It was a good year for tripping, all things considered. Hopefully by next summer the world will be feeling a little bit more normal, but even if it isn’t it’s good to know that Algonquin is always there waiting for us. With any luck, my next trip report will be some time in May after my first trip of the year, but if the past year has taught me anything it’s that long-term planning means figuring out what tomorrow is going to look like, because things can change pretty quickly if we’re looking at anything further out. All I can say for sure is that I can’t wait to get back out there. Whenever it happens.
(PS. Happy New Year! Here’s one more sunset on Burnt Island!)