Year In Review (2021) – Lessons Learned

Last year I added a Lessons Learned section to my annual year-in-review posts. It made sense. I learned quite a few lessons last year! Ignoring the fact that most of these lessons were the kind that I really should have internalized before heading out on a canoe trip, not while in the middle of one, I found this to be a useful exercise. It was a nice way to recap some of the highs and lows, and hopefully having it written down in black and white will be enough to keep Future Drew in check the next time he thinks he can outrun a massive thunderstorm (or decides he doesn’t need a spare paddle, or dramatically overestimates how far he can go, or … Jeez, 2020 Drew was a tripping disaster).

The good news is that 2021 Drew did a whole lot better. Pretty much every one of my trips went off without a hitch. I didn’t make any objectively terrible decisions (apart from eating Alpinaire’s dehydrated Mountain Chili for dinner one night) and the lessons I took away from this summer are more along the lines of Hammock Tents Are Awesome as opposed to If You Do This You Might Die.

Still, there were a few things that are worth talking about. So, let’s talk about them:

1 . Double Carrying is The Worst

I got two new fairly substantial pieces of gear this year. Back in January I ordered my very own solo canoe. Jon, the builder over at Backcountry Custom Canoes, had let me paddle one of his boats on a couple of trips a few years back and it was love at first sight. Jon’s canoes are super light (my Brookie comes in at under 30 lbs), super durable (there isn’t a rock on Potter Creek that I haven’t rammed that boat over) and look awesome. I was thrilled to get my new Brookie just in time for my four day solo from Rain Lake to Canoe Lake this summer. It was going to be a relatively portage intensive trip, so having less than 30 lbs of canoe on my shoulders to add to my pack weight sounded like a dream.

Except, it didn’t quite work out that way.

See, my other major gear purchase this past offseason was the A1 Aerial Tent from Opeongo Camping. This tent is awesome. As the name suggests, it’s a hanging tent. It’s basically halfway between a traditional tent and a hammock tent. Like a hammock tent, you string it between a couple of trees and Voila! you get to spend your night hovering somewhere between 2 and 4 feet off the ground depending on your level of confidence in how well you secured the tree straps. Unlike a hammock tent, the aerial lets you lie flat thanks to a spreader bar system. If, like me, you’ve always wanted to try a hammock tent but your back goes on strike at the mere thought of sleeping in a weird C shape all night, this is a great alternative.

So, what do my two new pieces of gear have to do with double carrying? Well, as it turns out, everything.

The only drawback to the Opeongo Aerial is that those handy spreader bars mean it packs up longer than my usual tent. The night before my trip I spent an increasingly swear-word-filled amount of time playing pack Tetris. I couldn’t fit the tent inside the pack horizontally as it was simply to wide for the bag. I couldn’t fit it vertically as it was taller than my pack and stuck out like a periscope above my head. That wouldn’t be the end of the world with a tandem canoe, but when you’re carrying a solo canoe you’ve got the only seat in the boat directly above your shoulders on the portage. This meant that the tent was constantly smacking the seat and pushing everything off balance. So inside the pack was no good, but what about outside? I tried strapping it the tent across the top of the pack but that still sat too high. It didn’t hit the seat, but it sure did hit the gunnels.

In other (fewer) words, by the end of the night I was staring down the realization that I couldn’t carry both my canoe and my pack at the same time. I had to double carry. (This was, of course, wrong. I did not have to double carry. I just didn’t figure out how to pack everything so I wouldn’t have to double carry until about five minutes after the end of the trip).

Double carrying isn’t the end of the world, I suppose, if you haven’t planned a trip with a bunch of portages each day. It also isn’t terrible if you’ve planned a trip with only short portages. If, however, you’ve planned a trip with multiple portages per day, a bunch of which are 1 KM+, it’s not ideal.

On a completely unrelated note, here’s a list of my portages for this trip:

Day 11,695m65m570m635m2,965m
Day 22,120m415m440m540m370m1,030m4,915m
Day 3845m405m655m1,015m175m3,095m
Day 4725m740m390m1,855m

In case you don’t feel like doing the math, that’s just under 13 kilometers of portaging over the four days. That’s not excessive, but it’s not exactly a bunch of rest days either. Also, it’s actually closer to 39 kilometers when you’re double carrying.

That is excessive.

I realized just how much of a pain my decision to double carry would be on my very first portage of the trip, the P1695 from Rain Lake to Little McCraney. As far as portages go, this one isn’t bad at all. It’s a cart trail, which means its wide, flat and well maintained. It’s basically a road. It is, however, over a kilometer and a half long. That’s a decent enough distance if you’re only doing the trip once. If you’re doing it three times … sigh.

That pack looks lonely.

On the bright side, neither my pack nor my boat were particularly heavy, so none of those three trips were all that challenging. I suppose as long as we’re reaching, I can also say that double carrying gives you a chance to really appreciate a portage. Usually I spend every carry with my head firmly in the middle of my canoe hat, my eyes focused on the path in front of me (or, depending on how recently I’ve watched The Grey, panic-scanning the forest on either side of me for ravenous packs of wolves or Liam Neesons). I don’t really see much of the portage, or the forest I’m passing through. And that’s a shame! Portages can be beautiful (they can also be despair filled muck slogs, but we’re focusing on the good right now). It’s amazing how quickly the forest goes from being a half-remembered indistinct green blur in between two lakes to a unique and integral part of the overall trip experience when you don’t have to direct all your attention to not cartwheeling over an unexpected root.

The P2120 in between Islet and Cranebill was a nice example of this. The forest changes a couple of times along this path. There are places where the trees crowd in on you, and places where it’s spaced right out. There are pine and maple and birch and a bunch of others that are going to feel very upset that they didn’t make the list. There are some really cool rock formations beside the path, a couple of mini fern gullies and at least one dead old tree that’s been colonized by massive fungi disks. On top of all that, there are a couple of spots where you cross small creeks (TBH, calling them creeks is probably reaching. Let’s go with moving puddles), or memories of small creeks. Normally, if I was huffing along with both my pack and my canoe, I would have no idea what kind of trees I was passing, how they were spaced, where the rocks were or that there were ferns are growing nearby. I might notice the creek, but only because I’d slipped off a rock I was trying to use to cross it and nearly wrecked my ankle. But, when you don’t have to do your best pack mule impersonation? When you can just enjoy a walk through the woods on a beautiful summer day? It’s amazing how much more you can see.

Along the Islet/Cranebill portage

Unfortunately for the odds of any future portages getting the full on nature appreciation treatment from me, what I mostly see when I’m double carrying is time slipping away. Double carrying just eats up so. much. time. Too much. The feeling that you’re wasting seconds is made worse by each step you take backwards. There is nothing worse than reaching the end of the path, seeing that new patch of blue, and knowing that you’re only a third of the way through the carry. I find that first step back the way you came is the hardest of every portage just because it feels so unnecessary.

But, you know what, don’t take it from me. Let’s hear what Day Four Drew thinks about it:

You know what? I don’t think I can add any more to what that guy just said, so let’s leave this one here. (Of course, just because I’m not the biggest fan of double carrying doesn’t mean it isn’t an absolutely reasonable tripping choice. There is no right way to get yourself and your gear across the portage. Single carry, double carry, elephant baggage train, it doesn’t matter how you do it, just that the way you do it works for you).

2. Start Slow

My first canoe trip this year wasn’t really a canoe trip. Back in early June, I went to Basin Lake for an overnight. Basin Lake has the distinction of being both an access point lake, and the only lake you can access from that access point. There are six campsites, two of which are good, two of which are meh, one of which is in the parking lot (literally) and one of which seems like a good place to be murdered. My campsite was one of the good ones. It was also about 100 meters from where I parked my car.

That’s closer than I would usually prefer. A lot.

But, here’s the thing: I loved it. Despite being close enough that I could remote start my car from my tent, the site was actually really nice. Lots of room to spread out, flat ground, a nice view up Basin. You couldn’t really ask for much more. I paddled around the lake a couple of times and drove up and down Basin Lake Road to check out the Park’s oldest standing structure as well as Buck and Little Norway lakes. It was a super relaxing way to get into the tripping season.

This is not how I usually start the year. Usually, I start planning my spring trip sometime around, well, now. That gives me five months to talk myself into a longer and harder route every time I look at the map (and I look at the map a lot). So I end up doing something like this or this or maybe this. I’d say I bite off more than I can chew, but that assumes I can even fit my mouth around my trip plan to take that bite in this increasingly awkwardly phrased analogy.

Sometimes it works out. My 2018 trip down to Clover is still one of my top five favourite trips (honestly, can you beat this view?). Usually, it ends up being too much. I’ll have overestimated my fitness or how far I actually want to go or my capacity for dealing with crappy weather and somewhere along the way the trip turns from an adventure into misadventure.

Not this year! By starting (and middling and ending) on Basin Lake the only things I could do were stretch my paddling muscles, explore a bit and get used to sleeping in a tent again. It was great.

That said, I don’t know that every spring trip needs to be the equivalent of a base camp going forward. But an easy overnight with a couple of short portages to start things off? That sounds about right (let’s see if I’m still thinking this way in mid April when I’m staring at satellite images of the ice sheet in Algonquin and wondering how long an extension cord I’d need to get up to Opeongo with a hairdryer to help the process along).

3. Creek Rocks Are Damn Slippery.

Back in September I did a four day loop out of Pinetree Lake with some buddies. Day three of this route took us along Rock Creek in between Rock Lake and Jean Lake. About two thirds of the way up the creek there’s a P55 that separates the pleasant paddle part of Rock Creek from the less pleasant rock hop part. It’s also the spot where I cam closest to having a serious situation on a trip this summer.

That portage is a nice little spot to stop for lunch. It takes you around a rocky narrowing of the creek and you can set up right there on the rocks to cook and eat. The problem is, those rocks can get pretty slick.

While the other guys were setting up their lunches I carried one of the boats along the creek to the other end of the portage. There were a couple of times where I looked like I was trying out for the part of Bambi on ice, but I managed to get across without too severely stretching things that aren’t supposed to be stretched. I made it back to the others in one piece and started working on my own lunch.

Meanwhile, one of my buddies was attempting to filter some water from the creek. He was filling the reservoir from a flat ledge where the creek bed dropped about a foot. It was a good spot to fill from, I’d done it there myself a few minutes earlier. Unfortunately, something went wrong when he stood up. His feet went out from under him and he went backwards into the creek.

The creek bed wasn’t exactly smooth where he fell. There were quite a few rocks of varying size and shape under not a lot of water. There was also the ledge of solid rock he fell from; his head missed that by inches at best as he went down. Basically, there were about a dozen ways he could have landed that would have resulted in potentially serious injury, and he managed to find the only one that let him come out unscathed.

Thank God.

That fall got me thinking. At that point we were at most 4 KM from highway 60 as the crow flies. The Rock Lake access point was maybe 6 KM behind us and I’d guess we were less than 8 clicks from the Visitor’s Center. On top of that, I had my satellite communicator and my cell phone was getting full bars. In other words, we were about as close to help as we could be and still be in the backcountry.

And I don’t think it would have mattered if he’d fallen the wrong way.

Those rocks were hard. That fall was fast. If he hadn’t managed to protect his head as well as he did, if he’d fallen in one of those dozen other ways … well, to be honest, I don’t like to think about it.

That mishap was a reminder that things can happen quickly. It was a reminder that creek rocks are slippery, that portages have roots, that the wind can gust at just the wrong time. Basically, it was a reminder that, no matter how benign the situation, how in control things seem, the unexpected happens. And when it happens far from help, it can be a problem.

Hopefully I take that reminder with me next summer. I like to think I’ve learned my lesson about taking unnecessary risks, but it’s not a bad idea to keep an eye on the necessary ones as well. Creek rocks are slippery. Watch your step.

4. … There is no 4!

What can I say? This was a good summer for not learning things the hard way. My trips all went smoothly and I was able to deal with any (minor) issues that came up. Here’s hoping every summer goes so well.

I’ll be back in a couple of days with the annual Moosie Awards, which the New York Times has not called “An award season extravaganza to rival the Oscars” but is perfectly welcome to do so.

Keep paddling!

1 thought on “Year In Review (2021) – Lessons Learned

  1. Spring is on the way!

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