Stratton Lake and High Falls

This was a good year for family canoe trips. I was out with my kids four times this summer, definitely a record. Up until this year, all of our trips have been in the Canoe Lake area (with the notable exception of the ill-fated Sec Lake trip of 2017. If you want to see what happens when you confuse a mosquito bite with a concussion feel free to read that report). That’s not a bad thing. Canoe Lake is a great area for families. But it’s not the only family-friendly backcountry option the Park has to offer, not by a long shot.

Looking down Stratton

You can find decent, kid appropriate, camping out of many of the Park’s access points. Along the Park’s western border, both Rain Lake and Magnetawan Lake get you to gems like Ralph Bice or Islet Lake without too much portaging. Up north, the water is bigger, but for an older family, the trek from Cedar to the beach site on the north shore of Radiant or the trip over to Manitou from Kisok would be pretty good. Booth Lake, just to the east of Opeongo and north of Highway 60, has plenty of great sites and is easy to get to from the Shall Lake access point (#17). However, in my opinion, if you want the most bang for your buck, you need to go further east. Along with being smack in one of the most beautiful areas of the Park, the Achray access point (on the Park’s eastern border and accessible through the Sand Lake gate) puts you less than an hour’s paddle away from one of the best places to tire your kids out explore with your kids in Algonquin: the natural waterslide and swimming hole area between Stratton Lake and High Falls Lake.

I’ve been wanting to take the kids to Stratton for a couple of years. I’ve been through that way a few times, and each time I’ve had an absolute blast swimming and sliding at High Falls. I wanted the kids to be old enough to enjoy it and for me to enjoy them enjoying it without being constantly worried that one of them would smack their head on the slippery rocks, so we held off the visit until this year.

We were joined on this trip by family friends who we have gotten to know through our kids. It was great being able to share the trip with them. As a family they’ve done a lot of camping and canoe tripping and are also very familiar with Algonquin. It’s fun being able to share experiences and stories, and the kids had a blast talking about … well, ninja turtles and frogs, mostly.

This trip happened at the end of August, as summer was flexing its muscles one last time. You may recall that the latter half of August this year was tres chaud. We got an entire summer’s worth of heat crammed into about ten days. Ottawa was, as Ottawa tends to be, particularly gross and sticky. I had hoped that it might be cooler in the Park. I’ve also hoped that they’d make a second season of Firefly. Dreams don’t always come true.

Algonquin Park or a mirage on Tatooine?

We arrived at the Achray access point around noon to find Grand Lake perfectly flat. The sun was directly overhead and turned up to broil. Normally I’m all for flat water and sunny days, but in this case that flat water meant that there was no breeze to cut even a fraction of the heat. I was sweating by the time I had the car unpacked and the canoe in the water. Fortunately, my kids seem to be impervious to heat. They were tearing it up with their friends and didn’t seem to notice, or care, that we had somehow ended up on Tatooine. It was great to see them having so much fun, and it made the rivers of sweat running down my cheeks as I tried to cram all of our gear into the canoe worth it.

Eventually, we had our canoes packed and were ready to set off. Our destination for the night was Stratton Lake. Stratton is a short paddle from the access point, but a medium sized paddle if you want a decent site. What does that nonsense mean? Well, Stratton is a long and relatively narrow lake. Really, it’s just a widening of the Barron River. The (50 meter) portage that takes you from Grand to Stratton is only about a kilometer and a half from the parking lot, but once you’re on Stratton you’ve got another three to four kilometers of paddling before you reach the other end. This is the end where most of the decent sites are and, more importantly, where you can access the High Falls waterslide area. In other words, this is the end you want to be on if you’re heading to Stratton.

I was a bit worried as to how this would work out for us. We were going in on a Saturday. Stratton is one of the Park’s most popular destinations and had been booked solid for months. Most people had likely come in on the Friday, and I was concerned that there wouldn’t be many sites left to choose from. As a result, I didn’t spend as much time enjoying the scenery around Grand and Stratton as I normally would, instead focusing on getting down lake as fast as possible.

That’s a shame! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I love the scenery in this part of the Park. It’s different from other parts of Algonquin. The terrain is rockier. In places there’s only a thin layer of earth over the bedrock. This means that you’ll see more than a few trees that have just fallen over, their roots exposed and pointing towards the sky. You’ll also occasionally hear those trees fall over which, in the middle of the night in the middle of your tent, is not the most comforting sound you’ll ever hear.

Arriving at the site

The good news for us was that Stratton wasn’t that full. Sure, the two sites I’d hoped we would get were taken, but there were plenty of B-List options available. We ended up paddling all the way down Stratton and then doglegging left. The river turns North here, towards High Falls, and there are a few sites along the western shore as you head in. Most of them are average to below average at best, but one, the last one along the shore before you get to the High Falls access, is actually pretty good. I’d stayed there before and I knew that if it was available it would be a decent option for two families looking to spread out.

The site was free. Hooray! We unloaded our gear, got the site set up and then headed over to the High Falls swimming area.

If you haven’t been to High Falls, you should go. It’s awesome. The High Falls area is a series of pools along the river in between Stratton and High Falls Lake. Time and a benevolent tripping god have shaped this stretch into a chain of perfect little swimming holes. The highlight of the area is probably the natural waterslide, an eight to ten foot slide in between two of the pools. The river pours over the lip of the slide with a nice, steady power and, depending on the time of year, can give you quite a boost as you go down. I’ve been there when the flow has been too strong for me to even walk across to the other side of the sliding area, and I’ve been there when I could sit comfortably at the top of the slide and let the water rush past and around me. Regardless of the time of year, the slide is always a good time. Don’t believe me? Ask the giant water snake that had taken up residence directly beside the waterslide when we arrived.

Ugh.

The only picture I have of the snake because snakes are terrifying.

So, this snake, which appeared to be a Northern Watersnake, was big. And not in the way that every snake I see is huge because snakes are terrifying. This one was legitimately long. A few feet at least. That’s a lot of snake, especially compared to what I’m used to seeing in the Park (granted, we’re not talking Anaconda here. But when most of the snakes I’ve seen in the Park are a couple of feet long at most, finding one that’s twice the size, and eight times the scary, is worrisome).

When we arrived, the snake was bobbing against the rocks at the bottom of slide. It was clearly trying to get out of the water, but was being buffeted a bit by the current coming down the slide. Eventually it managed to get enough of its body out of the water and began climbing up the rock face just beside the slide. My guess is it picked that spot because the rock there was wet and cool and more comfortable to slither up, but, honestly, who knows why snakes do anything? It made its way about halfway up and then just kinda hunkered down.

Yay water slide! Boo nearby snake!

Throughout the snake’s climb, people who were braver than me kept on sliding. My hat’s off to them (and being held like the world’s most ineffective shield between me and the snake). While that snake was playing inverse Snakes and Ladders, you couldn’t have paid me enough to slide down that rock for fear that it would decide to slide down at the same time. Once it settled on a spot it seemed a bit safer. Eventually, I screwed up my courage and did one slide, keeping my eyes firmly fixed on the snake as I went by. I don’t speak Parseltongue, but I didn’t have to. It was clearly giving me the finger as I went past.

Still, I’d made it down without any snake related disasters. Maybe I was overreacting?

I was not overreacting.

It happened just after our friend’s daughter had done a slide. One of the other folks at the falls (it was quite crowded that day) decided they wanted a close up picture of the snake. Apparently they got too close. The person took one step too many and startled the thing. I’ve never seen a snake jump before, but this one might as well have been auditioning for the NBA dunk contest. It landed in the stream of fast moving water and went shooting down the rocks, getting caught up in the current and pushed quickly, pants wettingly, towards the spot on the far shore where there’s a rope that people use to help pull themselves out after a slide. A spot that was, at the moment, where our friend’s daughter was climbing out of the pool, blissfully unaware of the (approximately) 700 feet of undulating terror heading her way.

Ugh. It’s been over two months and just thinking about it makes me want to dig up my backyard, put in a snake proof bunker and never come out again.

Our friend’s daughter handled herself significantly more rationally than I would have. She managed to get herself out of the pool using the tow rope before the snake reached her. She also didn’t seem at all fazed by the brush with terror, whereas I’m still waking up at night in a cold sweat screaming about cobras.

Jumping into the second pool

Anyways, that kind of put an end to our sliding for the day as the snake was still hanging around the pool and we figured we’d used up our supply of snake free slides. Instead, we went over to one of the other awesome features in the area, a set of jumping ledges over a surprisingly deep pool just upstream from the slides.

I’ve been to the High Falls waterslide area quite a few times and somehow never realized that this was a decent jumping spot. I’ve always been focused on the sliding pool or exploring downstream a bit to check out the falls that give the area its name.

I was missing out. That jumping ledge is fun. We passed some time taking turns hurling ourselves into space, then packed up and headed back to the site to get dinner going.

One of my favourite things about camping with new people is seeing how much better they do things than I do. Our friends had volunteered to take care of dinner for the night, and had brought with them a larger stove set up. Turns out that when you’ve got something bigger than an MSR pocket rocket for cooking you can get a little bit more creative than simply dumping boiling water into whatever bag of dehydrated sodium you’ve picked for the night. The net result was that I got to enjoy a delicious quesadilla, which is not something I’ve had on trip before but is something that will definitely be getting into the rotation going forward.

The rest of the night was pleasant enough. It was hot as stink; there was still no breeze to speak of, but that was easily fixed by a few extended swims. The water, if you dove down a few feet, was at least sort of refreshing. The kids spent some time playing in and out of the water, then, eventually, settled down for the night.

Sunset from water level on Stratton

The next day was just as hot and clear as the day before. We spent the morning hanging around the campsite, the kids collecting treasures from the forest (read: sticks and leaves) and the adults watching to make sure that no one poked themselves in the eye with those treasures. Around noon we headed back to the waterslide for another visit, sticking this time pretty much exclusively to the jumping ledges.

The snake did end up making another appearance (or maybe it was one of its snake buddies), this time swimming nonchalantly around the jumping pool after we’d been there for an hour. This was fine. Snakes need to enjoy some quality aquatic R & R as much as the rest of us, and it showed up just as we were deciding to call it quits for the day, so everyone won.

Heading home.

After that it was time to head home. Unfortunately for us, my family only had one night free for this trip, so we had to pack up and head out while our friends got to hang out for a couple more days. We left around 2 pm with my son sobbing in the middle of the canoe because he didn’t want to leave. Our friend’s daughter ran along the shoreline, keeping pace with us until well after we’d left the bay and turned west towards Grand.

On our way out we made a couple of stops to check out some of the historic sites on Grand Lake. The first was the long point on Grand’s east shore that I had always thought was in some way related to Tom Thomson but which I learned on this trip was actually a frequently used indigenous campsite long before the Park was created. The second was to check out a spot that is actually related to Tom Thomson, the site where he painted one of his most famous paintings, “Jack Pine”.

How do I know that this was the site where he painted “Jack Pine”? Well, partly it’s because I’m a keen observer of nature and art and I could see the world around me in those 100 year old brush strokes. But mostly it’s because there’s a giant plaque and information board on the spot that tells you this is the place where he painted “Jack Pine”.

The lookout is a cool spot to visit. You can get to it either by canoe or by hiking. Either way, it’s a short trip from Achray (the hike is an easy to follow and well marked trail that starts at the access point). If you do paddle, you’ll get to pull up on one of the bigger beaches I’ve come across in the Park. You could pass a very nice day just hanging out on that beach and taking in the views.

And that was it. By this point it was getting later in the afternoon, and we still had a couple hours worth of driving ahead of us. We loaded up for the final paddle over to the access point, got ourselves packed into our vehicle and said goodbye to Stratton Lake and High Falls.

This was a wonderful trip. It was really nice to be able to share it with friends, and to give our kids a chance to both explore one of the Park’s most beautiful spots and to do it with their buddies. I’m already looking forward to our next trip to the area. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a snake proof bunker to finish digging out.

Map Courtesy of Jeff’s Maps

New Lakes: 0
Total Lakes: 2
Total Portages: 2
Total Portage Distance: 0.10 KM
Total Travel Distance: 16 KM

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