As you approach Algonquin’s West Gate, you drive by a lake just to the south of Highway 60. It’s a shallow looking lake. It begins and ends with grassy river sections, and from the road you can see patches of lily pads here and there. It’s not the most picturesque spot I’ve come across. The shoreline is generic and the proximity to the highway is a definite drawback. In short, it’s not exactly a top ten destination. Hell, the only way it would crack the top 100 is if half the Park suddenly evaporated. It is, however, a lake in Algonquin Park. More specifically, it’s a lake in Algonquin Park that, up until very recently, I had not yet paddled.
Why, you may ask, does it matter if I’ve paddled this particular overachieving puddle? Well, if I can direct your attention to the name of this very website, you may recall that my hope is to paddle every canoe route accessible lake in the Park. And this is most definitely a canoe route accessible lake in the Park. (Actually, to get more specific, the lake is half in and half out of Algonquin. The Park’s border bisects the lake; the northern half is part of Algonquin Park, the southern half is where you can go to drink out of glass bottles and light off fireworks). The lake is called Park Lake, and a couple weeks ago I spent the better part of a morning paddling there from Smoke Lake because, well, why not?
I was joined on this trip by my Brother-In-Law, Clark. You may recall Clark from The Quest For Susan Lake. That was a nice, but tough, trip. We spent most of that day paddling through small lakes and carrying across long, low maintenance portages. This time around, I wanted to give Clark a change of pace so I convinced him to join me on a route that had us … spending most of the day paddling through small lakes and carrying across long, low maintenance portages.
To get from Canoe Lake (our starting point) to Park Lake there are two options. The first is to follow the Oxtongue River which runs west from Canoe Lake on the north side of highway 60. The second, and the one we chose, takes you through a string of smaller lakes just south of 60.
We set off from the dock on Canoe Lake just after 6 am. The sun was poking over Canoe Lake’s eastern shore, illuminating faint tendrils of mist rising off the lake. At that hour, the water was perfectly flat. The canoe sliced easily through the water and before long we were paddling into the Portage Store Bay and pulling up on the large beach in front of the Canoe Lake Permit Office.
Clark was finishing off a mug of tea, so I took the boat for the first carry. Typically, when we’re doing a day trip like this, we’ll just switch off each portage. This ended up being a great deal for me as the portage between Canoe Lake and Smoke Lake is literally a road that’s about 300 meters long. Meanwhile, our next portage, the one from Smoke to Norman Lake, clocks in at about 2.4 KM (or about eight times as long as the one I was strolling across). I hope that tea was worth it.
The portage went quickly and soon we were paddling south on Smoke Lake. Unlike the portage over from Canoe, Smoke never seems to go quickly. It’s just so. damn. long. And, yes, I know it’s nowhere near the longest lake in the Park, but there’s something about it that feels like it takes forever. It might be the fact that I’ve rarely paddled Smoke without some kind of headwind. Or it could be that you can see one end of the lake from the other, and somehow that far shore never seems to get closer no matter how long you’ve been paddling. Either way, I’ve never much appreciated the trip through Smoke Lake.
Never much appreciated it, that is, until I paddled it with Clark.
As we were heading south Clark mentioned that Smoke is one of his favourite lakes to paddle. I immediately considered jumping out of the canoe since he’d apparently gone crazy. However, he wasn’t making any efforts to eat my face or do any of the other things I’d expect from someone suffering from Smoke Lake Madness, so I put the jumping plan in my back pocket and asked why he liked it. He pointed out that the topography around Smoke is really interesting. There are a fair number of hills and the gentle rise and fall of the landscape behind the shoreline is really pretty. On top of that, there are some good spots along the shore to stop for a snack and a swim. Molly’s island, in the middle of the lake, is an obvious example, but there are plenty of small, rocky points that are also nice rest stops. Finally, a trip that starts on Smoke is a trip with a lot of options. Smoke has six exits. You can head east towards Source or Little Island, south to Ragged or Parkside bay, west to Tea Lake or north to Canoe.
Looking at it through fresh eyes, I can see the appeal. The scenery around Smoke is quite nice, and I’ve had some great swims off random points and outcrops over the years. On top of that, I’ve used each of Smoke’s exits and they’ve all led to great trips. So maybe Clark was on to something. Of course, Smoke in a headwind is still a nightmare, but nothing’s perfect.
I said a moment ago that Smoke Lake has six exits, but that’s not the whole story. While there are six ways to get out of Smoke, there are seven destinations available to you once you leave. That’s because one of Smoke’s portages, the one leading out of Smoke’s southwest bay, splits at about the halfway point. One fork heads down to Claude Lake and, eventually, Parkside Bay. The second fork, the fork we were about to follow, turns west for about 2.4 kilometers before coming out at Norman Lake (Can we talk about the fact that there’s a Norman Lake and a Norm’s Lake in Algonquin? At some point the Algonquin Park Lake Naming Committee must have just been three guys named Norm who saw their chance and leapt at it).
For a 2.4 kilometer portage, the Smoke to Norman carry wasn’t bad. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it was good. For most of the distance the portage follows a forest road. This meant the trail was clear and easy to follow. There were only a couple of obstacles along the way in the form of downed trees and, as it turns out, getting your canoe over or around a downed tree doesn’t cost you a lot of effort when you’re not the one carrying the canoe.
The only bit of excitement the portage threw at us was when I opened my map app to see how far along we were and discovered that, according to the GPS, we were well south of where the map said the portage should be. This was weird. We’d been following what seemed pretty clearly to be the trail the entire time. There hadn’t been any forks or hidden turnoffs. As far as we could tell, we were on the right track. The map just didn’t agree with us.
This worried me. I wondered if we had somehow ended up on an access road that we’d confused for the trail or if maybe we’d wandered into the Blair Witch woods and were getting closer and closer to filming our own versions of this. This was, I realized, the perfect set up for a horror movie. Two city boys follow the wrong trail and stumble into a clearing filled with cannibal hillbillies, zombears (zombie bears), angry forest demons or some combination of the three. We had to make a decision: double back and see if we could find a trail that we’d somehow both missed, or do our best impressions of an early victim in a Friday the 13th movie and plunge blindly ahead. We decided to continue on, and about twenty minutes later were rewarded for our blatant disregard for the lessons of every horror movie I’ve ever watched, when a welcome patch of blue appeared between the trees in front of us. Take that, technology.
Norman Lake was a microcosm of what lay ahead. It’s a small lake. You can get from one end to the other in about five minutes. There are no campsites and, really, no signs that people have been through that way any time in the last decade. There is, however, a lot of animal activity. We saw a couple of herons, along with a metric ton of ducks. For something so close to Highway 60 you really feel like you’ve found your way into … not the backcountry exactly, but somewhere out of the way. That’s what this entire route feels like. You know you’re not deep into the Park, but you don’t have to work too hard to convince yourself that maybe could be.
The portage out of Norman follows a creek for 735 soggy, scratchy meters. You’re never more than a few feet away from the water, and the ground wants you to know it. The only thing growing faster than the mud patches are the raspberry bushes. You know what’s not fun? Wading through 735 meters of raspberry bushes. Oh well, it could have been worse. The portage could have been twice as long (uh, kind of like the P1425 waiting for us a couple of lakes further on. But we’ll get there. Oh God, will we get there).
The next lake on the map, Bena, was similar to Norman, but smaller. We were across it quickly and soon staring down the P530 over to Mikado. It was Clark’s turn to carry so, of course, this portage follows a road for the first little bit. That road cuts across the east end of Bena and runs north/south. To get to Mikado you head north. Clark, who must have a six sense for finding cool stuff, decided to see what lay to the south before we got started.
What lay to the south was a large gravel clearing. It’s just out of sight of the lake and it looks like it might have been put there to allow logging trucks to turn around or to host the Annual Algonquin Gravel Clearing Appreciators Jamboree. Towards the back of the clearing there was a small fire pit, likely left over from the AAGCAJ, and some moose bones (I think).
Moose bones are a first for me. Well, technically, I’ve seen plenty of moose bones out in the wild, but those bones have been covered by about 600 lbs of flesh and blood and are usually staring me down from behind whatever bit of slimy green stuff it’s eating. These were just bones. What looked like a leg and maybe a clavicle (or antlers, or something else entirely. I’m not a paleomoosologist). It looked like those bones had been there for a while. They had been nibbled down by something and were pretty weathered. It was a cool find.
Once we were finished oohing and ahhing we got back on the trail. I don’t recall the portage over to Mikado as being particularly difficult, although it did end in a fun little patch of green stuff that did its best to swallow Clark whole.
We paddled out to the middle of Mikado and stopped for a quick snack. I liked Mikado. It’s not really that different from any of the other lakes along this stretch, a bit bigger I guess, but it seemed more open than the two we had just passed through. I continued to like Mikado up until we got to the massive beaver dam that cuts the lake off from the portage over to Bluebell. At that point, as we were manhandling our boat down the three foot drop to the other side of the dam, my good feelings started leaking out in time with the water draining from my shoes thanks to me stepping on a bit of solid looking dam that was anything but. I guess what it comes down to is that it doesn’t matter if you’re going to be out there for an hour, a day or a month. The beavers know you’re coming, and they’re going to get you.
The P1425 between Mikado and Bluebell was by far the most aggravating portage along this stretch. For the majority of the carry it follows the creek that connects Mikado to Bluebell, and for the majority of the carry it’s an overgrown mess. There are long stretches where the ground would have to dry out to be considered soggy. Where the mud hasn’t completely taken over, the raspberry bushes have. By the time I got to the other end of the portage my shins looked like they’d been attacked by a horde of garden gnomes with razor blades. I’ve rarely been as happy to arrive at a small, otherwise forgettable, lake as I was when we arrived at Bluebell.
I had another reason to be excited about Bluebell. Along with it being the halfway point of the trip, Bluebell also marked the first lake I would paddle on the back half of my goal to visit all of Algonquin’s canoe route accessible lakes. Once I put my paddle in the water, I had officially been to more lakes than I have left to visit. (Bluebell is the 267th lake I’ve paddled. Last time I counted I had it at 532 that I wanted to get to). As far as halfway points go, Bluebell is fine, I guess. It’s got a neat shape. There’s a large bay on the north side of the lake and it looks like someone made themselves a campsite on one of the points separating the south part from the north part at one time or another. Other than that, it’s probably not the most interesting destination in the Park.
The P165 between Bluebell and the appropriately named Small Lake is another overgrown disaster. It is, however, only 165 meters, so it wasn’t that bad despite being essentially a bushwhack (uh, I wasn’t carrying the canoe, so maybe take the “it wasn’t that bad” assessment with a grain of salt). What was bad was the downed tree across the portage put in on the other side. It was like the tree had looked at the portage, looked at the put-in and thought to itself “I can make this worse.” Clark was carrying the boat and he ended up performing a feat of acrobatics that would have gotten him a walk on with Barnum & Bailey’s just to get the canoe into the creek.
Small lake starts with a small creek. Once you’re through that creek you’re out onto Small and then, very quickly, you’re back into the much longer creek that connects Small with Hilly. As far as creeks go, this one was fine. There were a couple of beaver dams and a couple of switchbacks, but otherwise it was a much better way to get from one lake to the next compared to the last few portages.
Once we arrived on Hilly we stopped to explore the only (Park) campsite along this entire stretch. This site was actually better than I had expected. That’s not saying a whole lot. Based on our experience along this route so far, my expectations were pretty low. But a win is a win! It’s a flat site that’s fronted by a nice wraparound beach area (don’t get too excited though, that beach is pretty weedy, not exactly the north shore of Radiant). There’s room for a couple of tents and a nice enough fire pit. I wouldn’t want to make it a three day destination or anything, but if you’re just passing through and looking for a spot to crash for a night, it’s not bad.
The next couple of lakes, Fen and Shawandasee, are connected to each other by a relatively easy P170. To be honest, neither of them stood out. That entire stretch would be pretty forgettable if not for the pair of herons we saw flying, and landing, among the trees on Fen’s north shore. This was a new thing for me. I always think of herons as solitary birds (FYI, I know nothing about Herons beyond the fact that I’ve mostly only seen them by themselves) and I definitely don’t think of them as birds that hang out in trees. Who knows, maybe they weren’t even herons? They were far enough away that my rapidly aging eyes could have been playing tricks on me. For all I know I was watching a pair of pterodactyls. Regardless, it was a cool sight and fun to see, whatever they were.
The P1060 down to Greenwood Lake is along another forest road. As a result, it’s clear, flat and easy to follow. (So, of course, it was Clark’s turn to carry). It’s also the point where you actually leave the Park for a little while. Greenwood is below the Park’s boundary and you can tell. I made a joke earlier about going to the bottom half of Park Lake to drink from bottles and light off fireworks, but there was literally an empty beer bottle right about where the Park’s boundary would be on that portage.
Greenwood was maybe the nicest lake along this stretch. As we were paddling across it Clark commented that it was the first lake where he’d “reluctantly consider taking a swim” which is a big step up from the flat “Hell no” I would give to pretty much every other lake we’d passed through (except maybe Hilly). Towards the west end of Greenwood the lily pads start to take over. It makes the thought of swimming less appealing, but it sure is pretty to paddle through. There’s a small rocky point on the south shore that’s dominated by a large pine. It looks like it would be ideal as a picnic spot, however I think it may also be the tip of someone’s cottage property.
Speaking of cottages, the next lake on our route was Snow Lake. Snow is another lake that’s outside of the Park’s boundaries. From the portage put-in on Snow, you can see a nice medium sized cabin and a dock set at the foot of Snow’s eastern bay. It wasn’t until we had pulled away from the portage and were heading towards Park Lake that we saw the absolutely enormous cottage that had been hidden just out of sight from the portage. Turns out the cabin we could see, the one that looked like a reasonably sized cottage in its own right, was just an outbuilding. The cottage itself looked more like the main lodge at a small resort. It was pretty impressive.
Snow Lake connects to Park Lake by way of a shallow, weedy area called Hobo Lake and a short riveek (not quite a river, not quite a creek). There’s not much to say about Hobo Lake. Calling it a lake is optimistic at best. I don’t think it’s more than five feet deep at any point; Hobo Puddle would be more accurate.
Park Lake lived up to the impression I outlined 3,000 words ago. It’s long, shallow and nothing too spectacular. The highway running along the north shore certainly reminds you that you’re not far from civilization, and the scenery is nondescript and generic. We had arrived a bit earlier than our ride (my lovely and patient wife, who should be charging for the canoe uber service she’s been running for me this year, was picking us up at the west end of Park) so we pulled up at the crown land campsite on Park’s south shore for some lunch.
I liked this site. It’s small. There’s room for one tent at most, but it’s a nice little spot nonetheless. The main part of the site is enclosed by cedar trees. There’s a flat area just to the east that, if you squint hard enough and ignore the rocks and grass, you could convince yourself is beachy. We hung out there for the better part of an hour, listening to a podcast and enjoying not having anything to do, anyone to look after or anywhere to be (a state that is very rare for both of us these days). Eventually it was time to head out and we paddled the last few hundred meters to the parking area at the end of Park. There we met my wife, loaded the canoe on the car and headed back to Canoe Lake.
And that’s it for this trip. Look, I’m not going to lie, as far as Algonquin experiences go, this route probably shouldn’t be at the top of anyone’s list (or even in the middle). There isn’t much about any of these lakes that sets them apart from each other. They’re all on the small side, they’re all pretty similar, and the portages between them, at least some of them, are downright terrible. That said, I’m glad I did it, and not only because it means I won’t have to do it again.
One of the nice things about such a seemingly little travelled route is that fewer humans typically equals more non-humans, and not in a bad, A Quite Place, kind of way. We found moose bones, wolf scat and all the birds you could ask for. Every time we stopped paddling the only sound you could hear was the wind in the trees and the call of the birds. For something so close to the West Gate, you certainly get the feeling that you’re deeper into the Park, and that’s a nice change of pace from some of the other lakes in the area. Would I recommend this route to someone looking for a nice, relaxing backcountry weekend? Nope. But, if you feel like doing something a bit more adventurous and want to know what it feels like to run your shins through a cheese grater, this is the route for you.
275 down. 257 to go.
New Lakes: 12
Total Lakes: 17
Total Portages: 9
Total Portage Distance: 7.285 KM
Total Travel Distance: 28.09 KM
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