Day Trippin’: Tonakela and Sunday Lake

I started my first post of the season in 2020 with a nod to how weird that spring had been. At that point we were about four months into the pandemic, the world was on quasi lockdown and the Park had opened late as a result. I remember being relieved that I’d actually gotten to write a post about a trip, because that meant that I’d gone on a trip and that meant things were getting better. I remember thinking to myself that is was important to acknowledge how different that spring had been and I remember thinking how glad I was that I would never have to start a season the same way.

About that.

Missing these views

It’s been 12 months since Day Trippin’: Westward, Wisp and More. The good news is that things have gotten better. Kind of. We’ve got a vaccine (actually, we’ve got a few vaccines). Cases, at least cases here in Canada, are declining. The light at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter and I’m pretty sure it’s daylight, not a train. The bad news is that we’re now into month 18 of this thing and I’m not holding my breath that there won’t be a month 19, or 20, or … .

Hold on, Drew, isn’t this supposed to be about tripping?

It is! I’m getting there! In fact, I’m there!

Rare photo of a wild Algonquin paddle at rest.

So, all of this is a long winded way of saying that 2020 Drew’s belief that he’d never have to write a COVID themed introduction to the canoe tripping season was, much like his belief that his kids would some day get sick of The Gummy Bear Song, incorrect. Thanks to Ontario’s Stay At Home Order, access to the Park through most of the spring (which happened to be the spring that saw the third earliest ice out in the last 50 years) was off limits. The stay at home order wasn’t lifted until early June, and the Park didn’t open for backcountry camping until June 11, nine days later than it had opened in 2020.

As you might imagine, this put a crimp in any spring tripping plans. At this point I’ve managed to get out on a couple of short day trips, which I’m incredibly grateful for because I know it’s more than most people have had. As with last year, rather than try and wring separate posts out of what was effectively five combined hours of paddling, I’m collecting them here because, well, why not?

Tonakela Lake

I think I have about 500 shots of this view of Drummer. It never gets old.

My first day trip this year was basically the same as my first day trip every year: a short out and back to Drummer Lake. Drummer is west of Canoe, part of a low maintenance route that mostly consists of small lakes and longer portages. I love heading up to Drummer because it is usually pretty empty. Most people heading out from Canoe Lake would find the p300m regular maintenance carry over to Joe Lake significantly more appealing than the combined 2,300 meters across three low maintenance portages it takes to get up to Drummer. From a portaging point of view, this correct! It turns out that 2,300 meters of low maintenance portage is harder than 300 meters of regular portage. (It was also about 2,299 meters more than my legs were ready for on this trip). However, in my opinion, the trip up is worth the effort because Drummer is a really nice little lake.

I arrived at Drummer about an hour after I left Canoe Lake, out of breath and bleeding lightly from a number scratches. Apparently various trees and branches along the P1850 between Gill and Drummer had decided to relocate over the winter and had settled themselves comfortably across the path. I ended up walking around, and through, more than a few branches and as a result my legs looked like they’d been attacked by a small but determined kitten. At one point on the portage there’s a trunk resting across the path that’s just high enough that you can’t step over it, but certainly low enough that you can’t go under it. It was at exactly the right height to make me think that if I swung one leg up over it, straddled it like a mechanical bull, then twisted and swung the other leg over as well, I’d be able to get across without putting the canoe down.

I thought wrong.

I got one leg up and over, straddled the log and realized that if I tried to swing the other leg over I was going to fall sideways. In fact, my perch was precarious enough, with both feet dangling above ground and the canoe still on my shoulders, that I might just fall sideways regardless. I decided to save the acrobatics for my next Cirque de Soleil audition, dropped the boat back on the other side of the log and got across the obstruction the way nature intended: yanking the boat across the trunk with a fair amount of swearing and annoyed grumbling to help grease the way.

Drummer was, as always, a welcome sight. The portage ends at a campsite with both a lean-to and a rope swing. Reading the names on the walls of that lean-to and trying to convince myself that channeling my inner Tarzan on the rope swing is a good idea is, for me, a sure sign that summer has finally arrived. Usually, my first Drummer trip of the year will end on that campsite or, if I’m feeling ambitious, the one about 100 feet away from it on the other side of a small bay. I’ll have some breakfast, maybe boil some tea, and enjoy the peace and quiet. 

Not this time.

This time, I was headed for Tonakela Lake, which is the next lake to the northwest from Drummer. I wanted to check out the sole campsite on Tonakela because I had hazy memories of it being awful and I wanted to see if those memories held up (I have no idea why checking out terrible campsites has become my raison d’etre for some trips, but here we are).

I left my canoe at the Little Drummer end of the p500 that leads up to Tonakela. Although the campsite isn’t on the portage, you can walk to it from where the portage ends. Which is exactly what I did. It turns out that a portage without a canoe on your head or a gear laden pack on your back is just a walk, and I’ve been walking with various degrees of success for 39 years. The portage was decent, relatively clear of debris and not overly challenging or technical. I was across it quickly and soon was making way along the shoreline towards the campsite. 

The campsite was … actually slightly better than I expected? The only other time I’ve set foot on that site was back in 2016, on the very first trip I wrote about for this blog. What didn’t make it into that blog post, because back then I still had some sense of shame, was that I’d only had a couple of minutes to look around the site before I realized that I had some very urgent business to take care of and the nearest roll of toilet paper was ten kilometers away. We’ll save the story of what happened next for volume three of my forthcoming autobiography, but the point is I didn’t exactly take a leisurely look around the site.

This time I was much better prepared and was able to spend a few minutes wandering around. As far as sites go, it’s pretty basic. It kind of looks like someone just dropped a fire pit in the middle of the woods and moved on. That said, it does have its own charm. There’s plenty of reasonably flat ground, nice views of the lake and the fire pit is a good size and nicely built. I came away from my visit to the site with a marginally upwardly revised opinion of the camping options on Tonakela (taking it from Terrible to Not Terrible). It also left me wondering if maybe there are other sites and lakes I’ve misjudged, like Furrow Lake for example, but then I remembered that Furrow Lake is the place that dreams go to die and I shook off that thought like a dog getting out of the water.

There’s no point in recapping the trip home, it was basically the trip up but slightly faster since everything is downhill in that direction. Instead, let’s talk about

Sunday Lake

Sunday, lovely Sunday

I’ve wanted to visit Sunday Lake for a while. It’s part of a string of six lakes just west of Opeongo and just (barely) north of highway 60. Why have I wanted to visit it? Good question. According to the name of this website I should, theoretically, want to visit every lake in the Park. And I do! But Sunday has always stood out on that list. Maybe it’s because I’m a big fan of Sundays? Who knows. What I do know is that I got my chance to check out Sunday (and a couple of other lakes as well) a few days ago, and I wasn’t disappointed.

My wife joined me on this trip. This was basically the first time in about a year that we’d had time to ourselves that wasn’t interrupted every three minutes by one of our mini-humans yelling about something one of the other mini-humans had done.  Even if all we’d done was drive the car ten feet from our house, put it in park and nap for four hours it would have been an awesome break. The fact that I got to drag her along a couple of bug infested portages was icing on the cake.

There are a couple of ways to get to Sunday Lake. The closest official Access Point is Sunday Creek, better known as the Spruce Bog hiking trail parking lot. From there, it’s a 1.4 KM low maintenance portage up to Sproule, and a p500 regular maintenance over to Sunday. However, while Sunday Creek is the closest official Access Point, it’s not the closest point of access. 

A couple kilometers east of the Sunday Creek access point is the parking lot for the Big Pines Trail. A logging road named, appropriately enough, Sunday Road, runs out of that lot to the north. If you follow that road for a couple of kilometers you come to a gate with a big “no entry” sign. Just before that gate the road widens a bit with enough room for two or three cars to park on the side and be fairly confident that they’re not going to get clipped by a passing logging truck. On the other side of the road from that pseudo-parking area is a portage sign telling you that Sunday Lake is just a short 150 meter walk away.

Awesome.

I’ll stop right here and say that I’m not entirely sure if using this road is against the rules or not. There’s a sign at the end of the Big Pines lot that says the road is for authorized users only. My assumption is that someone looking to access Sunday Lake would count as an authorized user because otherwise why would they put a portage there? But I could be wrong. I would suggest checking with someone who actually knows what they’re talking about before using this option.

You can’t see the bugs, but trust me, they’re there. Just ask my wife.

If it turns out that this is an okay place to park and access the lake, the first thing you’re going to find is a short, 150 meter portage down to Sunday Lake (and I do mean down, it’s actually a pretty steep trail to start off with, which is just super good times on the way back up). Once you’re at the end you’re greeted with a very nice view of the lake. Well, as much of a view as you can get through the cloud of bugs that has been accumulating from the moment you set foot on the portage.

Oh, right, June + Nature = Bugapalooza.

Thanks to the ever growing swarm of mosquitoes and God knows what else, we didn’t take a ton of time to appreciate the view. We threw the boat in the water and ourselves into the boat as quickly as possible. Once we were away from the shore it got much better. By the time I had finished drenching myself head to foot in bug spray they were hardly noticeable. We paddled out into the lake with the goal of checking out Sunday’s campsites and then heading over to Sproule.

Sunday has three sites on it. Two are average at best. The third, a nice island spot in the middle of the lake, is well above average. It’s a great location, with nice views in pretty much every direction. The site is big enough that you wouldn’t feel like you’re tripping over each other, even if you had a large group. The swimming is awesome and, thanks to the whole island thing, the bugs are more than manageable, even in early June.

After checking out all three sites, and agreeing that we never had to set foot on the two non-island ones again, we headed over to Sproule. Sproule and Sunday are connected by a relatively easy p500. Once again we didn’t spend a whole ton of time appreciating the walk through the woods, as the bugs we thought we’d left behind at the last portage had apparently decided to just go ahead and wait for us at this one. 

June + Nature = A Good Time To Buy Stock In Afterbite

The face of someone who can’t wait to do another portage.

Once we were across the carry and out onto Sproule, we had a decision to make: should we paddle around Sproule and check out the sites there first, or follow the p500 low maintenance portage up to Titmouse Lake and possibly get blasted by another wave of mosquitoes? I had no idea when if ever I’d be back this way so I wanted to get up to Titmouse, so it was just a question of immediately compounding the bug bites we’d just received, or doing it a bit later. 

After some hemming and hawing we decided to get the bugs out of the way. We left the canoe at the Sproule end of the portage and headed up towards Titmouse. The good news was that the bugs were actually pretty reasonable for most of the hike. The bad news is that they went from pretty reasonable to completely unreasonable about 100 meters from Titmouse. I ended up running the last leg of the portage, dipping my fingers in the lake, snapping a few pictures and running back to where Sarah had retreated. It was, I believe, my shortest visit to any lake in the Park so far. 

Back on Sproule we paddled around the lake, checking out each of the sites. While I wouldn’t say there were any I liked quite as much as the island site on Sunday, there also weren’t any I liked less than Sunday’s other two spots. The sites on Sproule, particularly along the eastern shore, are fairly rocky. This is a good thing. I love rocky shorelines. I find the swimming from these kinds of sites is better. Rocky shorelines usually mean rocky underwater areas, which means you’re not wading through ankle deep muck to get out to where you can start your swim like you might be if the shoreline is mixed between dirt and clay.

Approaching one of the sites on Sproule

The southernmost site on the eastern shore is up on a small ledge and it looked to me like you could potentially jump from a couple of spots. The northernmost site on the eastern shore is at the tip of a point that feels like an island. This was the biggest site on the lake and would probably be my first choice if I was going to camp there. The middle site on the east shore looked deceptively small. The fire pit is right at the water’s edge, at the base of a hill. From the water it doesn’t look like there’s even enough room to pitch a tent. The reason it looks that way is because there isn’t. There are, however, a few decent spots tucked away in the woods just up the small hill behind the site. 

The final two sites on Sproule are on the west side of the lake, not far from the portage over to Sproule. By far the better of these two sites is the easternmost one. It sits on a nice point and has plenty of space along with some great views. It also has a pretty steep drop off right beside the fire pit, so this might be one to avoid with the kids. The last site, the closest to the Sunday portage, is also my least favourite of the sites on Sproule. It’s relatively small and enclosed and, frankly, kind of buggy.

Having finished our tour of Sproule we made our way back to Sunday Lake. We decided to keep going and check out the three lakes west of Sunday: Little Rock, Pond Lake and Kearney Lake. That decision lasted for about half of the portage over to Little Rock (which, FYI, is straight up for about half of its 625 meters) before the bugs convinced us that it would be a much better use of our time to head back to the island site on Sunday Lake for lunch and a swim.

Again, June + Woods = OHGODOHGODOHGODTHEBUGS.

We finished our morning with a nice long break on that island. We ate lunch, went for a swim and generally enjoyed the peace and quiet.

A great spot to relax.

One of the things I’m terrible about is slowing down on a trip. Whether it’s a day trip or a multi-day excursion (I hate using the same word twice in a sentence, which is why we’ve got excursion here instead of trip), I’m generally always trying to get to the next lake or the next portage or next campsite or … just whatever’s next.

I need to do less of that.

That hour we spent on the island was by far the best part of  the day. It was great to just sit and watch the water without thinking in the back of my mind about the kilometers I still wanted to cover or wondering what the next site was going to look like. It turns out that living in the moment is, much like everything else they’ve written on the side of a Lululemon bag, actually pretty good advice.

Someone is paddling. Someone is taking selfies. I got the better part of the deal.

And that’s it. Eventually we dried off, packed up and made our way back to the car. Between the Tonakela trip and the Lazy Sunday visit it was a nice way to start the paddling season. It was great to be back out on the water after a long (read: seemingly interminable) COVID winter.

As I write this, backcountry camping is once again open (as of today) and I’m heading out for my first overnight tomorrow. To everyone else heading out in the next few days, have a blast. Enjoy the feeling of being somewhere, anywhere, different than where you’ve been for the past six months.

242 down, 290 to go. (I’m hoping to get up to 300 by the end of this year).

New Lakes: 4
Total Lakes: 11
Total Portages: 12
Total Portage Distance: 6.81 KM
Total Travel Distance: 17.4 KM

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