Ragged Lake deserves its name. It looks like the lake building committee started with a big island, dropped it a bit off center in the middle of a regular lake, then started adding bits and pieces over the years. The end result is a lake that, on the map, would make the guy who invented the Rorschach test look at it and go … “I mean … it’s just a blob, right?”
It’s also a really nice lake.
The raggedness of Ragged gives it an awesome aesthetic that you don’t quite get from some of the other lakes in the area. Canoe, Smoke, Joe, Tepee … the list goes on. They’re all great in their own way, but they’re also mostly wide open lakes where getting from point A to B means pointing your canoe in one direction and paddling. Not Ragged. There are over 20 sites on Ragged (not including the sites on nearby Parkside Bay) and you can take multiple routes to get to most of them.
I’ve visited Ragged quite a few times over the years, but somehow I’ve never realized this. For the most part, I’ve ended up sticking to the first little clump of campsites you find when you paddle south from the portage, or heading straight south to the leg day nightmare that is the Devil’s Staircase and, later, the Double Devil’s Staircase.
Not this time.
This time, I was heading to Parkside Bay (for the first time) with my family for a quick, weekend overnight. This meant navigating Ragged in a new direction and giving me ample opportunities to impress my wife with my ability to paddle ten feet, stop, look confused, stare at the map blankly and mumble “I … uh … I think we’re going this way. Maybe”.
But let’s back up just a bit.
The plan was to start from Canoe Lake and make our way south through Smoke and Ragged before arriving in Parkside Bay. We spent the night before watching our gear pile slowly grow until it was rivalling Manitou Mountain as the highest point in Algonquin. Once we had gathered together the essentials (read: TP, backup TP and backup backup TP) we began the process of allocating that mountain of gear to various packs. By the end of the ordeal, we had two full canoe packs, one full daypack, a bright purple children’s knapsack, a freezer bag for the food and our massive Omega Tent that is too big to fit into a pack but thankfully comes with its own carrying strap.
That’s … a lot of gear for an overnight.
Just how much gear it was became apparent as I began my annual game of canoe Tetris the next morning. After an unreasonable amount of shoving and a reasonable amount of swearing I was able to get everything into the boat.
Great. So our gear had a way to get to Parkside Bay, but what about the rest of us?
The thing about kids is that they tend to grow. No matter how many bricks you pile on their heads, those stubborn little bodies keep getting longer and heavier. Miracle of nature aside, this is problematic if you’re still trying to stuff a family of five, and enough gear to outfit a trip to Mars, into a single 17 foot Swift Winisk. We did it though! I don’t know if Swift builds a pocket of extradimensional space into their boats that makes them able to carry more than you think they could, or if the kids are just really good sports, but we managed to get everyone, and everything, into the boat (this is, however, definitely the last year for the clown canoe).
There are two ways to get from Canoe Lake to Smoke Lake. The fastest is to just cross over Highway 60 between the Portage Store and the Smoke Lake parking lot. This is an easy carry. You’re following a paved road the entire way and the biggest challenge is navigating the sometimes incredibly busy beach in front of the Canoe Lake permit office. However, as easy as this portage is, it’s still a portage. On a family trip, this means at least a double carry and, if you forget something at the start of the portage (which is pretty much par for the course on one of our trips) it can be a triple carry.
I prefer to keep my double/triple carry experiences to a minimum, which is where the second way to get to Smoke Lake comes in.
Smoke Creek passes under highway 60 at the Tea Lake campground. You can get to it by paddling south out of Canoe, through Bonita then turning east from Tea. This lets you avoid the portage and gives you a chance to wonder what the load limit on the Tea Lake bridge is as you paddle under it while a transport truck roars overhead.
So, given the two options, portage over to smoke from the Portage store or paddle Bonita, Tea and Smoke Creek, we chose option three: cheat.
I have mentioned in the past that my in-laws have a lease on Canoe Lake. This is where we were mustering from and this is where my father-in-law very kindly agreed to save us about an hour and a half of pushing our canoebarge through the water and give us a lift to the bottom of Smoke.
I know. This probably isn’t in keeping with the true spirit of a canoe trip. I also know that if we got caught in a headwind on Smoke, the true spirit of our canoe trip would be both frustrated and exhausted before it even tackled its first portage of the day. So, Canoe Uber (Canouber?) it was.
We arrived at the P240 between Smoke and Ragged just before 11 am. The first part of this carry climbs in a gradual curve before leveling off for the last hundred meters or so to Ragged. It had rained a bit the past few days and that uphill part was mucky. It was like the portage couldn’t decide whether it would rather be a small stream or a large mud bath. What it definitely did not want to be was a dry trail.
My wife and my oldest daughter (who was on her 8th backcountry trip, and is now a seasoned hand at portaging) strapped on a couple of packs and started up the portage while I wrangled the two younger kids. A few minutes later my son, younger daughter and I were loaded up and heading up the trail. My son, who is enthusiastic about pretty much everything, greeted the mucky conditions with interest. He spent much of the carry giving me a running commentary on how he was approaching each step to ensure he didn’t slip. My daughter, who had decided that she would be doing this canoe trip while wearing a dress that looked like she had borrowed it from a 19th century pioneer woman, held my hand tightly as we picked our way up the hill and let me know in no uncertain terms that portaging was fine but the mud could take a hike.
Once we had arrived at Ragged I dropped the kids off and doubled back for the canoe. I’ll say this: the Smoke to Ragged portage isn’t long and it isn’t difficult, but walking up that mud slick hill with a canoe on my back was a pain in the ass. My foot slipped out from under me at least a couple of times on that short rise and at one point I ended up teetering awkwardly and ankle deep in what had looked like a piece of solid ground but was in fact a deviously placed sink hole.
Portages, they’re out to get you. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
After a quick break for some portage watermelon, we loaded up the boat and set off on Ragged. I love paddling that first little part of Ragged. You leave the portage bay and head south through a narrower section. The first clump of campsites you come to (excluding one just at the mouth of a portage bay) are a set of four sites, two on each side of the lake, spaced like the four points of a compass with a small island in the middle. I’ve stayed on the northeastern site and loved it. I’ve checked out the northwestern site and liked it as a friend. It’s been 20 years since I’ve checked out the other two, but they both look decent from the water. These are good spots to stay with kids. They’re bigger sites with great swimming and, thanks to that island, don’t feel like they’re too close to their neighbours, even though there are likely going to be three other trips camping close by.
We passed by the sites on the eastern shore and said hello to the people staying there. Unbeknownst to them, by coming into our line of site they had tacitly agreed to a game of 20 questions. We were in earshot for maybe a minute, but that was more than enough time for the kids to give the folks there a complete rundown of every site they had ever stayed on and to ask some probing questions about those people’s plans for their site and life in general.
Once we had moved on from our new friends, we followed the east fork around Ragged’s large island and headed for Parkside Bay. About a minute later I looked at the map and we turned around. It turns out that we could have reached Parkside Bay by going east, but that would require circumnavigating the world to get there. It seemed easier to just turn the boat around and take the west fork.
From here on everything was new for me. What quickly became apparent was that Ragged is a really nice paddle. The water was flat, the sky was blue and the arguments over who got to hold the portage chocolate were kept to a minimum. The sites we passed as we worked our way southwest all looked varying degrees of decent, and the scenery was beautiful. There’s a site in the west bay that sits on top of a bisected sand dune. It’s absolutely gorgeous to look at and my guess is that it doubles as a not half bad beach site.
As we turned into the narrows that lead up to the entrance to Parkside Bay, we passed a trip coming the other way. They told us that a) Parkside was pretty crowded, but b) they’d just left a nice island site, complete with its own mini beach. Hearing this, my wife hit the NOS and we powered into Parkside Bay at speeds that would have earned us a spot on Domenic Toretto’s crew.
The good news was the site was still open. The better news was that it was even better than we had hoped it would be.
The site ticked pretty much every one of my boxes. It’s on an island, the only site on the island in fact. It has a nice little sand beach area that’s great for younger kids to wade in. Beside the beach area, a few slabs of flat rock stick out into the lake. The drop off is quicker here, making for a good spot for older kids (and grown ups too!) to slip in. You can even dive if you keep it shallow and maybe start from knee deep on the slope.
The interior of the site is big, if a bit uneven. That didn’t stop us from finding a good spot to set up the Omega Tent, but for such a big space you might end up sleeping a bit slanted if you have more than a couple of tents. If I have any complaints it would be that the site feels pretty enclosed. There’s thick growth between the site area and the lake, which means that you’ve only got a couple small windows for view. It also means that there isn’t much airflow through the site, which is definitely a selling feature if you’re a mosquito but is less appealing if you’re mosquito food.
Still, we were lucky to get any site, and doubly lucky to get one that nice. Parkside Bay was packed. We weren’t the first trip there that weekend. In fact, we were one of the last. Before long every site was taken and I saw at least one trip paddling fruitlessly around the Bay looking for a spot. (Assuming these people had valid permits, this suggests that at least one of the trips already on a site was camping off permit. Unless you’ve got a really good reason, like sickness or being windbound or something, don’t do this. Especially somewhere as popular as Parkside Bay on a weekend. It’s a jerk move).
We passed a pleasant afternoon. As soon as we were set up the kids started swimming. My older daughter, in particular, is part fish. She was in and out repeatedly and seemed to be having the time of her life. At one point she turned to me, dripping wet and grinning from ear to ear, and said “Daddy, I really love camping”.
So, that’s a win for me.
What wasn’t a win for me was the hammock situation. I love my hammock. I bring it on every family trip. I set it up on every family trip. I happily climb into it on every … wait, how are there already a bunch of kids in here?
The problem with hammocks is they’re awesome. And everyone knows they’re awesome. Every time I tried to sneak away for some hanging between two trees time I’d find someone had already beaten me to it. I think I managed about five minutes of hammock time all day, most of which was after the kids had gone into the tent for the night. Oh well, some hammock time > no hammock time and at least I’ve got a low bar to beat on our next trip.
Dinner was bacon wrapped steak with fried potatoes, asparagus and mushrooms (I eat better on night one of trip than I do pretty much any other time). One of the cool features of the site is that it has two fire pits, one in the middle of the site and one down on the beach. Most of dinner we cooked in pans on my stove, but I did cook one of the steaks using the beach fire pit and it was by far the tastiest of the steaks. After dinner the kids roasted some marshmallows, then we went for a sunset paddle around Parkside Bay.
Parkside is a cool little lake. It’s not huge. It took us about 20 minutes to paddle around most of the lake. We checked out the other sites from the water. Most of them looked pretty decent. Just to our north was a string of three sites set on three successive points. They all looked like they’d be good spots to set up as long as you don’t mind your every move being visible to your neighbours.
By far my favourite find of this paddle was a small waterfall on the south shore. We heard it from a good 150 meters out, but couldn’t see it. As we paddled closer we realized that the reason we couldn’t see it was because a massive tree had come down directly along the stream flowing away from the falls and into Parkside. We pulled up on shore and I picked my way through the branches to see what was on the other side.
This was what I found.
The video doesn’t really do it justice. Blame the cinematographer, not the subject. The falls were basically a trickle of water spilling down a wall of moss covered rocks. They’d never be confused for Niagara, but it was a beautiful little spot. The setting sun filtered through the trees and cast a golden glow over the green tinged pool. It was nice.
The falls were a great way to end the day. We paddled back to the site and got the kids settled into the tent for the evening. I stayed out a bit longer to watch the stars come out, then retreated to the tent as well once the mosquitoes joined the stars.
The next morning we made an easy breakfast of pancakes and packed up as quickly as we could. We were on the water before 10 and back at the Ragged to Smoke portage an hour later.
The portage was busy. Lots of people leaving after their weekend, but also quite a few coming the other way. The trail was still mucky. Just how mucky became clear when my son slipped and took a spill on the downhill slope. He ended up covered in mud and looking like an extra from The Swamp Thing. He wasn’t thrilled, but his mood improved when we told him he’d get first pick of portage chocolate once we were on the water. Unfortunately, his mood improvement was directly offset by my younger daughter’s displeasure at finding out she wasn’t getting first pick (just to clarify, portage chocolate is a bag of Maltesers. Every single piece looks the exact same).
As we loaded the boat, my daughter flopped down in the bow, crossed her arms and said loudly “I hate Smoke Lake”. Granted, she’s probably not the first person who has said those words. But usually they’d be spoken somewhere in the middle of the lake, fighting against a headwind with the other end somehow getting further away with each stroke, not at the Smoke/Ragged portage on a beautiful, clear day. Also, this really wasn’t Smoke Lake’s fault, but you try explaining that to a four year old who has just discovered they are victim of a great injustice. Fortunately, her mood improved once we were underway and the portage chocolate was flowing freely.
We finished the day paddling up Smoke to Molly’s Island. My Father-In-Law met us there with cold drinks and a lift back to Canoe Lake. As we headed for home I reflected on what an awesome trip it had been. The weather was absolutely perfect: blue skies, bright sun, just the hint of a breeze when you wanted one. The site on Parkside bay was great and the kids had an absolute blast. It’s been a ton of fun watching my kids fall in love with camping these past few years and I’m looking forward to getting out with them on a few longer trips soon. Once we were home my oldest daughter asked me if we could do a multi-day trip next year and try out a couple of sites, and I’m already looking forward to introducing her to the joys of Sunbeam Lake (and the horrors of Vanishing Creek).
Next up, another family trip, this time to Tom Thomson. I’m also gearing up for my big trip of the year, a six day loop in early August. I’ll be testing out my brand new solo boat from Backcountry Custom Canoes and I can’t wait.
247 down, 285 to go.
New Lakes: 1
Total Lakes: 2
Total Portages: 2
Total Portage Distance: 480 M
Total Travel Distance: 17.5 KM