There’s a reason Tom Thomson Lake is one of the more popular destinations in the Park. Actually, there are a bunch of them. To start with, at about twelve kilometers north of the Canoe Lake access point, Tom Thomson is very easy to reach. There’s one portage between the parking lot and Tom Thomson, and that portage isn’t exactly tough. It’s a flat 300 meter stroll between Canoe Lake and Joe Lake, where the biggest challenge is navigating the approximately 700 other trippers who have probably arrived there at the same time you did.
Once you’re over the portage, it’s an easy paddle north from Joe to Tom Thomson. You pass through three other lakes on the way: Tepee, Fawn and Little Doe, plus a short stint on the Little Oxtongue River. The biggest challenge you’re likely to run into along this route, is fishing your mid morning snack out of your daypack without losing your balance in the middle of Tepee. Assuming that you can get your granola bar unwrapped without dumping, the only thing standing between you and your destination is the iconic beaver dam between Little Doe and Tom Thomson. These days, that dam has decided to see how long it can hold its breath and is now pretty much entirely submerged, meaning that even that small obstacle has been removed.
In other words, Tom Thomson is easy to get to. And, oh boy, is it worth the (small amount of) effort to get there.
Tom Thomson is gorgeous. It’s a medium sized lake, trending towards the larger end of the medium spectrum (It’s basically the Sylvester Stallone of lakes, if we assume that Opeongo is The Rock and Drummer is Jet Li). It’s a two part lake, with a large south half and a slightly less large north half (here in the All of Algonquin universe halves can be different sizes from each other). These two parts are loosely separated by a point about 2/3 of the way up the lake. There are quite a few sites around its edges, and many of those are decent to good. The scenery is nice, particularly the rock wall that dominates the northeast side of the north half of the lake, and pretty much anywhere you choose to stay you’re going to have some great views.
Close to a popular access point, easy to get to, beautiful and lots of good campsite options? Tom Thomson was basically put on this earth to be a camping destination. Which is exactly what it was for my wife’s family in mid July.
Last August we did a trip to Burnt Island with my wife’s parents and one of her brothers and his family. That went well, so we decided to try a repeat event. This time around we also added my other brother-in-law, his family and my wife’s aunt to the mix. This meant we had nine adults and a gaggle of kids to plan for, so we needed a destination where we could have a legitimate hope of finding at least a couple of sites close together. Tom Thomson fit the bill perfectly. In particular, there are a couple of sites just after you enter the lake from Little Doe that are right beside each other. They’re set at the tip of a large point and they are great if you’ve got a couple of permits and need to spread out. You can walk from one to the other in about 15 seconds and you can smell the bacon cooking on either campfire from anywhere on the point. I probably wouldn’t want to stay on either if I was there by myself, particularly if the adjoining site was taken by another trip, but for a larger group they’re perfect.
So, we knew what lake we wanted and we knew what sites we wanted, all that was left was to actually get to the lake and get those sites. We were going in on a Friday morning. We hoped this meant that we’d be beating the weekend rush, but it was no guarantee. It was decided by the powers-that-be (uh, my wife) that I would head out early with our son as an advance scout. Ideally I’d get there and find our desired sites empty, but, if not, at least we’d have plenty of time to find decent alternatives.
We were across the Joe Lake portage before 9 am. We had the portage to ourselves (which, in mid July, is rarer than steak tartar), and there were no boats ahead of us on either Joe or Tepee. It was perfect paddling weather. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, the water was calm and the air was still.
The paddle north went quickly. We were through Joe and onto Tepee before the last of the mist had burned off the water. Camp Arowhon was just finishing its morning … gathering? I don’t really know what it was, but everyone was out on the beach and they were singing and cheering loud enough you could probably hear them back on Canoe Lake. It was really nice. Camps were closed last year and it’s great to see some kind of normalcy creeping back into the world.
Before long we were through Tepee, Fawn and Little Doe and turning into Tom Thomson. As I mentioned above, the dam that separates Little Doe from Tom Thomson is underwater right now, which made for a pretty easy transition to our destination lake. We paddled out onto Tom Thomson and beelined for the pair of sites I wanted. It’s not easy paddling with your fingers crossed, but I managed it.
It turns out, however, that crossing your fingers isn’t a foolproof strategy for making your dreams come true. We arrived at the sites to discover that both were taken.
Shoot. (Except, replace shoot with a bunch of other words that aren’t appropriate for a family friendly blog).
I looked around the lake. As it was relatively early on a Friday morning there were quite a few empty sites. That was good, we wouldn’t be completely screwed, but none of them worked as well for our purposes as these two. One of the people on the site was down by the water and I decided to throw a Hail Mary. The group looked like they were settled in for a few days, but I called out to double check if that was the case.
It wasn’t! In fact, they were moving on in a couple of hours. And, as it turned out, they had had the same idea as I had and taken both sites, which meant both were going to be free. On top of that, because they were awesome people, they offered the second, smaller site to us right away as they were just storing their canoes there.
To whoever those people are, if you happen to read this blog, I can’t thank you enough. I owe you a beer. Having someone pull up to your site and ask if you’re leaving soon while metaphorically tapping their foot and looking at their watch is intrusive at best, infuriating at worst. Under most circumstances I wouldn’t even consider doing something like that. However, in this case, it was probably a good thing that I did. The sites ended up working perfectly for our group and it was really nice having a way to keep everyone together without breaking the rules and overloading a single site.
We pulled up to the site and unloaded. We set up a tent to show that the site was taken, then got back and the boat and pushed off again. I figured we were already intruding enough on our hosts, why not give them some space and explore Tom Thomson at the same time?
We decided to visit some nearby sites. As I mentioned, our site was on the north side of the large point right before the turn off to Bartlett Lake. There are a couple of sites in that same area, one at the start of the narrows leading to Bartlett and one on the far shore. I’d never visited either before. They’re both always taken whenever I come through Tom Thomson, so it was great to get the opportunity to check them out.
It turns out that they’re both pretty decent. Better than decent, really. They’re big sites, with plenty of room for tents and people. If the Park didn’t have a 9 person / 3 pieces of shelter limit on its backcountry sites I think I probably could have stuffed the entire extended family onto either of those spots. It might have been cozy, particularly on the further site, but it could have been done. The only major drawback to either was that the Bartlett narrows site seemed a bit buggy. By which I mean it was buggy. That makes sense. There’s a bunch of shallow water and green stuff around it. Still, the nice thing about the site is that it’s big enough for both you and the bugs.
There was one more site, just around the corner into the upper part of the lake, that I’d never visited before. It was also empty so we spent a few minutes wandering around. It was big, but I’m not going to lie, it wouldn’t be my first choice. It’s a pretty enclosed site. There’s growth all along the shoreline except for a couple of small windows out to the water. I like being able to see the lake from the interior of a site. If that’s not an option there had better be something pretty spectacular about the site to get me to stick around. And, actually, come to think of it there kind of was on this site. Someone had channeled their inner Flintstone and built an impressive stone couch beside the fire pit. Toss a couple of sleeping pads on that and you’d have a pretty comfy spot to sit. The couch alone probably wouldn’t be enough to get me to stay there, but it was pretty cool.
Satisfied that we had picked the right spot for our group, we got back in the canoe and headed back to our own site. We ate lunch then, once the other group had moved on, took some gear over to the second site and set up a couple more tents. I think this, more than actually grabbing the sites we wanted, was my wife’s plan all along. By the time she pulled up a few hours later with our two daughters, her parents and her aunt, we had the tents set up, everything unpacked and the firewood collected. Basically, my son and I had become campsite concierges, offering only the finest in Algonquin backcountry turndown services. Of course, most concierges don’t eat all of the snacks before the guests arrive, but what can I say? The concierges were hungry and Smarties are delicious.
The rest of the afternoon passed uneventfully. We swam a bit, took an evening paddle to check out another (forgettable) site on the south shore and our site was invaded by a prehistoric monster from the dawn of time. You know, the usual. (It turns out that we weren’t the only ones visiting that site on Tom Thomson. There was a very large, very impressive looking snapping turtle patrolling the shoreline around the site all weekend. He showed up Friday evening and was still there Sunday morning when we took off).
That turtle did not give a damn. He didn’t care if we were near the water, in the water or on the water. He seemed to approach us the same way 85 year old me will approach driving. He knew where he wanted to go, and the rest of us could just get the hell out of his way. Every once in a while I’d be filling up the water reservoir for my gravity filter and I’d realize the thing was about two feet away, staring me down from just above the waterline with an expression that made it very clear that he was not impressed.
Turtles are cool.
Once the turtle related pandemonium had calmed down we settled in for a quiet night. I had brought my new aerial tent to give it another test run and I’m happy to say I liked it even better this time around. These past few trips with that tent are the first time in years I haven’t woken up in the backcountry with aches and pains in places I didn’t even know existed. It turns out that sleeping above the roots, rocks and dirt, instead of on top of them, is more comfortable. Who knew?
The next morning brought more of the same as far as weather was concerned. The day was dead calm, the sun was hidden behind a filmy haze and it felt like it could turn into a scorcher. I decided to do a quick paddle over to Bartlett Lake to check out the campsites there. This was less ambitious than it sounds. The narrows to Bartlett were about a two minute paddle from our site, and those narrows take about two minutes to navigate.
I’ve only passed through Bartlett a couple of times. Each time I remember thinking that it seemed nice enough but wouldn’t necessarily be at the top of my list of destinations. Now, having spent a bit more time paddling around and exploring what Bartlett has to offer, I can safely say that Past Drew was bang on in his assessment. Bartlett is fine. It’s not spectacular. Three of the four sites are reasonable. One of them, the first one on your right as you come out of the narrows, is the opposite of reasonable and looks like it hasn’t been used since the Park was founded.
That site is basically a glimpse into what the world will look like 20 years after the apocalypse. The art director for I Am Legend could probably sue for copywrite infringement. Everything is overgrown. The fire pit has so much grass growing in it it’s probably a protected tick habitat by now. The site was small to begin with, and the forest is happily encroaching on the few useable areas. Also, the shoreline is basically swamp and the bugs have already staked their claim to the space. In short, there is no reason to stay here. Frankly, there’s no reason to even visit, unless you take some kind of weird joy in hunting down terrible campsites.
Once I’d finished with the I Am Legend site, and checked out the other two that weren’t already taken, I headed back to Tom Thomson for breakfast. By then everyone else was stirring and we passed a pleasant morning swimming and eating bacon.
At around 11 I decided to go for another paddle. My brothers-in-law were meant to arrive in the early afternoon, so I figured I had an hour or so to check out some of the sites on Little Doe. I loaded my son into the canoe and paddled back through narrows, while he regaled me with an extremely detailed rundown of everything he knows about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles so far (a lot, as it turns out).
We arrived on Little Doe at about the same time that we started talking about the fact that there was a time when someone in Hollywood decided that this was a great idea. I like Little Doe. At least, I think I like Little Doe. The truth is, although I’ve paddled across its corners many, many times either on my way into Tom Thomson or coming out of Vanishing Creek and heading over to Baby Joe/Burnt Island, I’ve never actually stayed there and I think I’ve only paddled its full length a couple of times at most. I decided to take the opportunity to head into the middle part of the lake and see what I’ve been missing.
Not much, as it turns out.
The bay itself is fine. In fact, it’s got a neat little water feature about two thirds of the way down the north shore. My son heard it first, a faint gurgle that marks a small waterfall emptying into Little Doe in between two of the sites. There’s a downed tree across the place where the stream meets the lake, so you can only catch a glimpse of the little grotto behind, but it looked quite pleasant as we paddled past.
On the other hand, the campsites around the bay don’t seem like anything special. Of the four we found, the one at the end of the bay was my favourite. It was on the tip of a small point and was a surprisingly spacious site with a decent amount of flat ground, a good swimming area and nice views up Little Doe. The other three were all somewhere between fine and meh on the official All of Algonquin One Syllable Site Rating Meter.
The first site (going counterclockwise from the start of the north shore) was what a real estate agent would call “cozy” and “charming”, when they mean “small” and “beat down”. The third site wasn’t bad. It sat above a small rock slope down to the water and had good views and a couple of decent tent spots. The fourth, and last, site gave me the creeps. I’m not exactly sure why. It’s an okay site, I guess. It’s got a very good little canoe landing hacked out of the shoreline. But the site is pretty enclosed and the terrain is uneven and I got the sense, as I walked quickly through it, that if there were any site in Algonquin where the trees were likely to come alive and eat me in the middle of the night, this was it.
We left quickly.
Having narrowly escaped my overactive imagination, it was time to head back. We paddled out of the bay and back towards Tom Thomson secure in the knowledge that I did indeed like Little Doe, but I also don’t think I ever need to stay on any of those particular sites. The ones lining the shore on the way up from the Little Oxtongue and across from the entrance to Tom Thomson seem much better.
We arrived back at the site to discover that my brothers-in-law had arrived with their families in tow. The rest of the afternoon was spent with the background noise levels turned up to “dull roar” as my kids and their cousins tore around the campsite, thrilled to be seeing each other again after almost a year.
Just before dinner I convinced my daughter to tear herself away from the Thunderdome and come on a paddle with me. We headed up into Tom Thomson’s north end, back towards the site we had stayed at on an overnight two years ago.
I love the north part of Tom Thomson. There’s a large rock wall that dominates the east shore. It’s a gorgeous view from far away, and really cool to see up close. We paddled right to its base and spent some time trying to decide if there were any spots that looked like they’d be good jumping points. We didn’t find anything. The water seemed deep enough, but the walls are pretty sheer. I suppose if you had some experience rock climbing, you could kill two birds with one stone and use that wall as a nice place to climb with a soft landing underneath. However, my climbing experience begins and ends with watching Cliffhanger like 30 times in the mid-nineties, and I worry that that might not be enough to get me up safely. Maybe if I go back and watch it again.
The site my daughter and I had stayed on two years ago is tucked away in the furthest corner of Tom Thomson. It’s a great little site, perfect for a small group. We’d had a great time when we stayed there back in 2019 and it was really nice revisiting those memories. Interestingly enough, there had been a couple of changes to the site since the last time we’d visited. Back in 2019 the site had two fire pits and one decent tent spot. This seemed kind of silly at the time and apparently I wasn’t the only one who thought so. There’s now one fire pit and a couple of decent tent spots. Good work Algonquin Campsite Design Team.
A less welcome change was the deforestation of the small island just offshore from the site. Back in 2019 there was a picturesque little … tree (it was an evergreen and it wasn’t pine, that’s about as far as my tree identifying abilities go) in the middle of the island. Fast forward to 2021 and that tree is gone, blown over along with a whole bunch of other trees along Tom’s north shore at some point in the past couple of years. That’s kind of a bummer. One of my favourite trip pictures is of my daughter standing at the tip of the site, that tree in the background, back in 2019. Unfortunately, like most sequels, the one I took this time around doesn’t quite stack up.
Once we’d finished our trip down Memory Lane (although I guess it would be Memory Bay in this case), we headed back to our actual site. It was a hot evening. The air was still and hazy, the water barely moving apart from the ripples from our paddles. The sun, while on its way down, was still a few hours away from the horizon and had apparently decided to flex its sun muscles before going to bed. By the time we got back to our site I felt like I’d just finished a 2 KM portage, not a half kilometer paddle.
A swim was definitely in order.
I am ashamed to admit that it wasn’t until this point, a day and a half into my stay on these sites, that I realized how awesome the little jumping cliffs off the back of the smaller site were. Follow the shoreline out the back of that site and you eventually come to a small ledge overlooking the water. There’s just enough room here for a tent if you want a great view and don’t mind a walk to the fire pit. I’d found it when we first arrived and scouted out tent locations. I’d even thought to myself, “hey, maybe this would be a good jumping rock”. And then I promptly forgot about it until my brother-in-law set up his tent there and started using it as a launching pad.
Taking a cue from him, my daughter and I decided to give the rocks a whirl. We were joined by my wife and the three of us had a great time jumping, scrambling back up the rocks then jumping again (and again and again). Those rocks had an awesome western view across Tom and with the sun reflecting off the silvery water it felt like we were jumping into the sunset with each leap. It wasn’t terrible.
Once we were swum out and dried off we ate some dinner (chili cooked over the campfire, delicious), and had a brief but enthusiastic dance party. Then it was time to put the kids down, enjoy some time around the fire, put the kids down again because they 100% did not go to sleep the first time and settle in for the night.
The next morning was a lot like the two that had preceded it: calm, hazy and hot. Unlike the two previous mornings, one of our canoes had decided to go on a morning paddle without any of us. It was washed up against Tom’s far shore patiently waiting for us to come and get it while we reconsidered our overnight canoe storage strategies.
Once the boat had been retrieved, we packed up and paddled off as quickly as possible (which, with five canoes and 16 people means we got off before noon. Just.). The paddle back to Canoe Lake was uneventful. In what has become an annual tradition my younger brother-in-law put my cliff jumping to shame and jumped from the top of the Joe Lake Cliffs on the way past. While he was launching himself into space, I was picking all the Smarties out of the trail mix, so we both accomplished something at the Cliffs.
And that’s (*checks word count, wonders who’s going to read 4,000+ words on a two nighter to Tom Thomson*) it. It was a great time. Really nice to see my wife’s family all in one place for the first time in about a year. It was also a lot of fun paddling around Tom, Bartlett and Little Doe and getting a chance to explore lakes that are, usually, just pass throughs for me. I didn’t cross off any new lakes on this trip, but I did cross one turtle off my Giant Turtles of Algonquin list, so we’ll call it even. Next up is my early August solo through the western side of the Park. I’ll definitely be crossing some lakes off the list on that one. Can’t wait.
247 down, 285 to go.
New Lakes: 0
Total Lakes: 7
Total Portages: 2!
Total Portage Distance: 600 M
Total Travel Distance: 30 KM
1 thought on “Tom Thomson Lake”
That was super detailed and informative! Sounds like a lovely family trip. Thank you. Do you have any thoughts on the campsites on the island in Tom Thompson Lake?