In each of the past couple of summers my wife’s family has gotten together for a canoe trip. Two years ago we all headed up to Burnt Island and last year we took over Tom Thomson. You’ll notice that both of these are decent sized lakes that are relatively near access points. There’s a reason for this: my wife’s immediate family is now into double digits, meaning we typically need to book a couple of permits. On top of that, the family now includes a number of small humans, which means being close to an access point (or, more accurately, being far from portages) is a must. This is why, this year, we decided to go with the biggest lake we could think of and set our sights on the north arm of Opeongo.
Opeongo Lake is a big lake. Which is like saying that the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man was a big marshmallow. In fact, Opeongo is the biggest lake in Algonquin Park. It’s so big that it’s been split into three segments: the north arm, south arm and east arm, all of which are bigger than most of the other lakes in the Park. It’s about 14 kilometers from the bottom to the top, and almost the same distance from the east to the west.
In other words, it’s not small.
I haven’t actually spent much time on Opeongo. I paddled it once at the end of the summer of 2016 and my 100 Lakes challenge, and I crossed it again in 2018 at the start and end of a loop up through Happy Isle, Hogan and Proulx. And that’s pretty much it. Both times, as I passed through, I remember thinking how much I’d like to stay there at some point. So when my father-in-law suggested it for this year’s trip, I jumped at the idea. We targeted a section of the North Arm near the Proulx portage for the simple reason that there were a few campsites close together and, as I mentioned earlier, we’d need at least a couple of sites to fit everyone. Destination set, we booked our permits, bought out Costco’s supply of marshmallows and got ready for the trip.
The first day of this trip also marked the last day of my two oldest kids’ times at Camp Ahmek and Camp Wapomeo on Canoe Lake. My daughter had been at Wap for 15 days and my son was fresh off of a 4 day try-out session at Ahmek. They both looked great as they arrived at the Portage Store (where the camps do pick up and drop off) and seemed reasonably excited to see us. Thankfully, they stayed excited when we told them we were immediately heading off on a canoe trip. I was impressed at their enthusiasm. If it was me, I’d have been demanding a hot shower and a burger before even thinking of sleeping in the dirt for a couple more nights. Fortunately, my kids are more mature than I am and we were soon on our way to the Opeongo access point.
Opeongo Access Point
The Opeongo access point is about six kilometers north of Highway 60, in between the KM 46 and 47 markers. It’s about a three and a half hour drive from Toronto, and a little under three hours from Ottawa. The access road is easy to find and easy to follow. It’s a nice drive alongside Costello Creek up to the access point, which consists primarily of the Opeongo Algonquin Outfitters, a Park Permit Office and a boat launch.
Right, the boat launch.
Opeongo is one of the lakes in the Park where you can take a motorized boat. This was an important detail, because we had done exactly that. My father-in-law had come ahead of the main group with his boat and had headed up early to scout out the sites in the north arm. The plan was for him to find a suitable couple of spots, set up shop, then flag down the rest of the group as they made their way north in the water taxi.
Right, the water taxi.
Not only is Opeongo one of the lakes in Algonquin where you can take a motorized boat, it’s one of only two in the Park that don’t have any horsepower restrictions on that motor. Which means that if one were so inclined they could slap a 225 on the back of what looks like a World War Two landing craft and ferry people who don’t want to fight 14 kilometers of headwind all around the lake. Which is exactly what Algonquin Outfitters has done (Opeongo Outfitters, too!).
On a windy day, the water taxi is a Godsend. There’s nothing quite like staring down a sea of whitecaps and knowing that you’re going to be flying over them, not pushing through them. It does, however, feel a bit like cheating. That said, for transporting multiple kids, and the mountain of gear you’re bringing along to keep them occupied, the taxi service is awesome.
Still, this was a canoe trip, right? Feels a bit weird to call something a canoe trip if you don’t actually canoe anywhere. With that in mind my brother-in-law (who also happens to be named Drew, making remembering names at family reunions both easy and confusing) had suggested we paddle up from the access point while the rest of the group taxied. I thought this was a great idea. My son, who we bundled into the canoe along with my nephew to keep us company, wasn’t as thrilled about taking the scenic route, but that was smoothed over with a quick trip to the snack section at AO. Nothing makes sitting in the bottom of a canoe more palatable than a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup and some Gatorade.
So, snacks in hand, we loaded into the canoe and started paddling.
My overriding impression of Opeongo is of wind. The one time I paddled it I got to experience winds coming from every possible direction except behind. The next time I visited I used the water taxi to both start and end my trip, and both times we managed to avoid what looked like pretty tough paddles as a result. On top of that, most of the trip stories I hear about Opeongo involve some kind of comment about the wind (and those comments usually aren’t repeatable in a family friendly blog). So I was ready for a breeze. I figured we might have a bit of shelter coming out of the access point bay, and after that we could take turns blaming each other for whoever’s idea it was to paddle instead of taking the taxi.
Things looked calm (deceptively calm?) as we pushed off from the dock. The sky was blue overhead, the air was hot and there were barely any ripples in the water. We made good time getting out of the bay, passing trips coming and going and being passed by water taxis doing the same. It was only a few minutes before we were rounding the large point that hides the access point from the rest of the South Arm, and I began mentally preparing myself for the wind to pick up.
Only, the wind didn’t pick up. I don’t know if it got waylaid up on Cedar or maybe forgot what time we were passing through, but it was nowhere to be seen. Instead the water was as smooth as the air was still. It was like someone had gone over the lake with a rolling pin just before we arrived.
It was awesome.
There are very few things I love more than big lake paddling on a calm day. The kilometers slip by and it feels like you can go on forever. There’s something hypnotic about the water stretching out in front of you, and after a while I usually find myself getting lulled into a kind of semi-trance. The paddle keeps going while my brain drifts away to important topics, like wondering how they could have screwed up the end of How I Met Your Mother so badly. Today, however, there wasn’t much time to focus on the absolutely horrendous creative decisions made by a sitcom that’s been off the air for a decade. Both inside and outside the canoe, there was just too much going on.
The South arm stayed very busy as we paddled north. The water taxi carrying the rest of the family passed us not long after we rounded the Sproule Bay corner, dashing my perhaps unreasonable hopes that our 20 minute head start would be all we needed to beat them in a 14 kilometer race. I consoled myself with the knowledge that, while our two manpower canoe wasn’t going to beat a 225 horsepower water taxi, it sure looked like we were going to beat the 10 person North Canoe zigzagging up the lake ahead of us.
The North Canoe is an 8-10 person Voyageur canoe Algonquin Outfitters rents out for large groups. I’d watched this one loading up and leaving the access point as we were getting ready. It looks like a beast to paddle, but also looks like it would be a fun way to base camp with a group of buddies, which was pretty much exactly what this one looked to be being used for. What it was not being used for was the setting of any speed records. We gained on it steadily, cutting the distance between our two boats fairly quickly. There’s something very satisfying about overtaking a much bigger boat, even if I was the only one in this race who actually knew we were in a race. Regardless, we managed to pass them just before we passed the point site on Bates Island. With that historic victory behind us, we stopped for a quick snack before continuing on.
Man, Opeongo is big.
We spent the better part of the next hour pushing north across wide open water. You don’t really think about how big Opeongo is until you’re sitting in the middle of it and you realize that the nearest piece of dry land is about 20 minutes away. Eventually we made our way into the island spotted narrows that separates the North Arm from the rest of the lake, and from there into the North Arm itself. We knew exactly where we were headed thanks to the water taxi driver who had spotted us on his way back and stopped to let us know which site the rest of the group was on. From there, it was just a matter of putting the paddle in the water and hoping we made it to the site before the kids got too restless.
The site the others had chosen as our primary site was an awesome stone beach site just east of the Proulx portage. It’s a gorgeous spot. It’s wide and flat and dotted with tall spindly pine trees just begging you to hang a hammock between them. Which I did. Three, in fact. Every year I bring one more hammock than the year before in the hopes that maybe this year there will be enough that I can get to one before the kids do. This was not my year. Looks like I’m in the market for hammock number four. The site has a great view south and enough room to sleep a small army. As an added bonus, the next site over, a smaller site a few hundred meters down the beach towards the Proulx portage, was also free so we were able to set up a secondary site that let us stay within the Park’s occupancy rules.
The rest of the afternoon passed in a blur of setting up and watching the kids and their cousins burn enough energy to power a small city. While we were sleeping in our Omega Tent, the 6 person orange behemoth we’d bought a couple years back, I’d also brought my aerial tent. I didn’t sleep in it, but it was awesome to have as a place to store my gear away from the dirt and clothing explosion that replaced the floor of the Omega Tent within about 10 seconds of setting it up.
Dinner was homemade chili my wife had cooked up and frozen a few days earlier. I’m not one to exaggerate, but this was the best chili anyone anywhere has ever eaten.
After dinner my oldest daughter and I went for a paddle along the shoreline and checked out a few of the campsites that were open. We chatted about her time at camp and her own 3 day canoe trip up through Joe Lake, Burnt Island and Otterslide Lake. It was pretty cool hearing her talk about the trip, especially the pride she took in completing some tougher fully loaded portages. We campsite hopped as we compared notes on the gear the camp is using now compared to what it was like when I was working there and we both agreed that the wannigan is a giant wooden misery box that needs to go.
Having visited all the sites we could, and with the sun close to the horizon, we turned around and headed back to our own campsite. The rest of the evening passed quickly. We eventually convinced the kids that sleep wouldn’t be a bad idea and, after taking a few minutes to appreciate the star speckled sky from down by the water, we soon convinced ourselves of the same.
The next day looked a lot like the last. We woke up to blue skies, calm water and, most importantly, the smell of bacon cooking on the fire. My other brother-in-law, Clark (who you may remember from The Quest for Susan Lake or the raspberry bush stroll that was our day trip to Park Lake) woke up early and had the cook fire sizzling. After a delicious breakfast that included lots of bacon and I’m sure things that weren’t bacon but are nowhere near as important, we spent some time figuring out a plan for the day.
My goal was to get up to Red Rock Lake. I’d never been before, and the portage was less than a kilometer from our campsite. Clark thought that sounded like a good way to spend some time, so we loaded his two oldest boys and my son into a canoe and set off (the rest of the family was headed towards Hailstorm Creek, which is also high on my list of places to visit, but apparently not high enough to get in the way of a trip to Red Rock).
Red Rock Lake
The portage up to Red Rock Lake is not short. At just under 2 KM, it’s a nice, if lengthy, walk along gently rising terrain. This is a pretty long hike for kids, but the boys handled it like champs (my younger nephew got portaged for parts of it, but to me that’s just a sign of good planning on his part. Why walk when you can ride on someone’s shoulders? Canoes figured that one out years ago and we’ve been carrying them ever since). The portage ends with a sharp downhill segment and then you’re walking along a short boardwalk and dropping your boat in the shallows of Red Rock Lake.
My initial impression of Red Rock was a semi-heartfelt “meh”. The portage comes out in a small, lily pad filled, bay. The shoreline you can see is dense and dominated by mid sized evergreens. It’s pretty, but in a kind of generic Algonquin way (which is still prettier than 99% of the rest of the world, IMO). We loaded into the boat and set off to find a campsite for lunch. The first site we passed, a hole in the forest just up from the portage, served to reinforce my opinion as, from the water, it didn’t look like much of a site at all.
Then, as we paddled out of the portage bay and the lake revealed more of itself, things started to change.
There’s a large island that dominates the middle of Red Rock. The eastern end of the island, the part we were paddling towards, is a tall rock face, the top of which must be at least 100 feet above the lake. It’s very pretty to look at, and it gives the lake some character. It’s also directly across from an absolutely awesome campsite. The site is on a point just east of the island. It’s big, with a great fire pit set up and nice views in a couple of directions. This is where we stopped for lunch and it certainly helped change my mind about Red Rock. I would 100% go back to that site for a weekend.
Lunch was fried salami sandwiches. Clark had brought along a cast iron frying pan that weighed at least as much as the canoe, but it sure got the job done. If you’ve never tried fried salami, you’re missing out. It’s my favourite trip lunch. If I didn’t think it would give me a heart attack, I’d make it my favourite trip breakfast and dinner as well. After we’d eaten, the boys busied themselves building … actually, I’m not sure what they were building but it kept them occupied. Meanwhile, Clark and I took advantage of a very nicely placed secondary bench set up to sit back and do nothing for a few minutes (which is absolutely the greatest treat you can offer someone with younger kids).
We hung out on that campsite for an hour or two before turning and heading back the way we came. The uphill out of Red Rock along the portage was no joke, but it was over fast enough and the rest of the carry was a nice, gradual decline back to Opeongo. The only hiccup came when we got to the Opeongo end and realized that not all of our life jackets had made it back with us. This gave me the unexpected opportunity to reexperience the portage as I doubled back to find the missing PFD, which had decided it liked the ambience at the halfway point of the portage so much that it wanted to stay there.
We arrived back on the site in the late afternoon. The rest of the evening went much the same as the night before. We had a delicious dinner (steaks this time), swam, watched some loons learning how to fly and tested the tensile strength of our hammocks repeatedly. The older kids took turns taking the canoes out on their own or with each other. This was the first time I’d seen my oldest daughter and son solo, and it was awesome watching them (along with one of my nephews) navigate the boats back and forth in front of the beach. The kids also put on a clinic of how to skip stones. My son and nephew had those rocks bouncing off the water like it was a trampoline. I tried to show them some vintage skipping form from back in the day, but mostly ended up showing them the best form to get fast tracked for Tommy John surgery.
Eventually it was time for marshmallows and bed (although good luck to you if you try to put those two events too close together). For the second straight night the stars were out and they were beautiful. Once the kids were down I hung out by the water for a while just enjoying the night sky. Starwatching is always one of my favourite things to do on trip, and I can now safely add the north end of Opeongo to my rapidly expanding list of favourite Algonquin sky watching lakes (the list is basically all of them).
I started the last day on Opeongo with an early morning paddle. I wanted to check out some of the campsites in the area that had been taken when my daughter and I went through, and I wanted to add one more lake to this trip’s tally. See, Red Rock Lake was the 299th new lake I had visited in the Park. According to math, this meant that my next lake would be number 300 and I didn’t want to wait to cross that one off.
Just across from the Red Rock portage is a low maintenance P560 that goes up to Baldwin Lake, a small, dead end lake just north of Opeongo. The mist was still rising as I set off from the site and it wasn’t long before I was pulling up to the portage takeout. The trail up to Baldwin is a hike. The height of land is over 30 meters above where you start, and you can feel it as you climb. The good news is that Baldwin was worth the effort. The morning sun lit up the far shore as the last tendrils of mist burned off. The water was a perfect mirror for the sky, its glass-like surface dotted with clouds and reflecting a beautiful blue. It wasn’t ugly. And it was a great way to see my 300th lake! (230-ish to go).
On my way back I stopped in at each of the sites I hadn’t been able to visit with my daughter. This string of sites, about six in total in between the Red Rock and Proulx portages, has quite a few decent spots. There’s a massive beach site right at the entrance to the Proulx Lake portage that would be almost ideal if it didn’t have a front row seat to the comings and goings of anyone using the portage (which also means that anyone coming and going from the portage has a front row seat on the site).
Further up the shore towards the Red Rock portage are a pair of decent sized sites fronted by the same kind of sand/rock beach on our own site. These would both do for a larger group. They’ve got plenty of flat ground, nice fire pit set ups and great views looking south.
Finally, just after you round a point and just before the Red Rock portage is another nice spot. Like the others it’s a decent size. Unlike the others it would feel a lot more private as it’s not in sight of any other campsites and it’s facing towards what looks to be a less busy part of the lake. That said, while it may feel more private, the reality is it’s only steps away from a less than awesome site on the Proulx side of the point. I’d love this spot if that other site were empty, I’d probably give it a miss if it weren’t.
The rest of the morning was occupied by packing up. Drew and I were going to paddle back to the access point, which means we had to get out a couple hours ahead of everyone else to make sure we arrived at around the same time. I’ll say this, packing up five people is very different than packing up one. It took me a couple of hours to get everything squared away, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a couple of overlooked socks now permanently relocated to that site.
Once we were as packed as we were going to be, Drew and I loaded his son and my oldest daughter into the canoe and set off. We were running behind schedule, so my father-in-law very kindly gave us a tow to the start of the island narrows, saving us about five kilometers and close to an hour of paddling. The paddle back to the access point was uneventful. The water was as calm as it had been the day we arrived, making three days in a row of pretty awesome paddling conditions. We stopped briefly for a break on a campsite on Fish Island (nice site, a bit enclosed, doesn’t have any benches or even any semi-decomposing logs masquerading as benches, which is kind of weird) but other than that it was a straight shot home. We passed the time by ranking the Star Wars movies (Rogue One is #1, this isn’t open for debate) and agreeing to disagree on where we’d put The Rise of Skywalker. In other words, it was a perfect paddle.
We pulled up to the access point just after 1 pm, and that was it. Another (short) trip in the books. I have to say, Opeongo suited this trip perfectly. It’s a beautiful lake with tons of options. You could spend a week campsite hopping along the various arms and not get bored. For a large group with lots of young kids, not having to portage while still feeling like you’ve gone somewhere is a huge bonus. I would go back to Opeongo for a base camp in a heart beat.
New Lakes: 2
Total Lakes: 3
Total Portages: 2
Total Portage Distance: 4.88 KM
Total Travel Distance: 39.32KM