Welcome to The Thunderbox, my (hopefully) monthly roundup of everything Algonquin related that’s caught my eye. This newsletter includes a spotlight lake, recent trip and campsite reports, reviews of any new gear I’ve been trying out (or maybe just old gear that I’m a huge fan of) and links to any relevant Algonquin related reading I’ve come across recently. Hope you enjoy!
Welcome to The Thunderbox, my (hopefully) monthly roundup of anything Algonquin related that’s caught my eye. This newsletter includes a spotlight lake, recent trip and campsite reports, reviews of any new gear I’ve been trying out (or maybe just old gear that I’m a huge fan of) and links to any relevant Algonquin content I’ve come across recently. Hope you enjoy (and feel free to subscribe if you do! You’ll get this roundup plus each trip report as it’s published).
October marked my first month since May without a canoe trip. That doesn’t mean I didn’t get to sleep in a tent or get any portaging in, but it does mean that my backcountry paddling is done until Spring. Which is a bummer. On the plus side, it means I get to pull out the map and start planning next year’s trips (which will get progressively more unrealistic as the winter passes and trip withdrawal sets in). On the negative side, well, May is a long way away.
In early October I got to take part in this year’s Le Grand Portage. Together with my wife and two friends, we portaged a canoe 13 KM in support of Multiple Sclerosis research. This was the second year of the canoe relay, and my second year taking part. Our route was the same as last year, a segment of the Trans Canada Trail ending in the middle of Stittsville. Like last year, it was a great afternoon for the carry. It was perfect canoe carrying weather and both the trail and the company were excellent. Overall, this year’s Le Grand Portage raised over $300,000.00 for MS research. I’m happy to say that we hit our personal fundraising goal and were able to be a small part of that effort.
My last night in a tent came a week later, when my daughter and I went to our Beaver colony’s fall camp. I’ve been volunteering with Beavers for a couple of years now, and it’s been great being able to get back to some of the events that were suspended thanks to COVID. I will say, Beavers camping is a bit different from my normal camping, but it’s still a ton of fun and I still end the weekend exhausted. And, as an added bonus, I got to pull out my Opeongo Aerial tent for one more night! And, bonus on top of a bonus, because the camp is drive in, I was able to bring four sleeping bags with me, which came in handy as the temperatures dipped to zero overnight. It may have made getting untangled for my bathroom break in the middle of the night a bit of a challenge, but at least I was toasty.
And that’s it for October’s outdoors stuff. With the kids back in school time is once again at a bit of a premium. My hope for November is to get into the Park for a day to do a hike or two, but we’ll have to see how that goes. In the meantime, let’s talk about Joe Lake.
Joe Lake is one of the busiest and most accessible lakes in the Park. Separated from the Canoe Lake access point by 4 kilometers of paddling and a 300 meter stroll of a portage, Joe is an ideal spot for first timers, young families and people who want a backcountry canoe trip without really leaving the front country.
Depending on the conditions on Canoe Lake, it’s about an hour paddle from the access point to the Joe Lake portage. Once you’re over the portage (which is effectively a short, flat road through the trees), Joe Lake offers plenty of campsite options (provided you get there early enough to beat the crowd).
Joe is a big lake. It’s broken into two segments for reservation purposes: the western narrows and the eastern arm. It’s about four kilometers of paddling to get from the end of the Joe Lake portage to the end of the eastern arm, but it’s not a straight shot. The western half of the lake is dominated by a large island that’s home to a couple of cottage leases, a couple of campsites and one of my favourite spots the in the Park, the Joe Lake jumping cliffs. The eastern half doglegs away from the western basin and gradually narrows as you approach the next lake to the east, Little Joe Lake.
Joe has plenty of campsites to choose from. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll have much of a choice when you arrive there, particularly if your visit is in July and August or on a long weekend. Joe is consistently booked through the summer months, meaning that you likely have to arrive mid-week (or get really lucky) to snag one of the better sites. The good news is that there are very few sites on Joe that would really disappoint, so even if you don’t grab a top tier spot (looking at you Western Arm sites 2 and 4), you will probably end up with something workable.
I’ve visited most of the sites on Joe, and those I haven’t actually set foot on I’ve been able to check out multiple times as I paddled past. As a result, I’ve got a pretty clear hierarchy in my head of sites I’d want to stay on (and sites I’d want to avoid) if I somehow managed to get my pick of the lake.
My favorite site is site 2 on Joe’s western arm. It’s a massive rock face of a site sitting on Joe’s north shore. It’s got tons of space to spread out and really nice views in every direction (except north, unless your idea of a nice view is the forest directly behind your site). It’s also nice and close to Joe Island and those jumping cliffs I mentioned. You could easily paddle over for an hour of cliff jumping and be back on site well before lunch. The only downside to this site is that it is probably the most visible spot on the lake. If you’re a fan of wandering around your site naked, this is probably not the one to do it on as anyone paddling past, or staying on a nearby site, will have a front row seat to the show.
Site 4 in the western arm is also a great spot to spend a night or two. It’s not as open as site 2, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s still big enough for a large group and it’s got a nice fire pit and swimming area. A particular highlight for me is a west facing rock ledge that makes for a great spot to sit and watch the sunset or use as a spot to slip in for a swim. As an added bonus, the area directly behind the fire pit area has quite a few nicely spaced trees, which make for a good spot to hang a tarp in the event that you stay on this site during an apparent monsoon (if there’s any downfall to the site it’s that I couldn’t figure out how to turn off the rain while we were staying there).
Rounding out my top three is site 12, also on the western arm. I’ll be honest, I don’t even know if this should properly count as a Joe Lake site or a Tepee Lake site (Tepee is the lake that’s just north of Joe Lake and connects by a short narrows). The majority of the site looks out onto Tepee Lake from the south, but my understanding is that the sites that qualify as Tepee Lake sites are the ones at the north end along what is actually the Little Oxtongue River (so, to recap: this Joe Lake site is on Tepee Lake and every Tepee Lake site is on the Little Oxtongue River and up is down). So, assuming site 12 is actually a Joe Lake site, it’s worth checking out. It’s another larger site, with plenty of flat ground and a really nice view across Tepee. The swimming area is shallow and sandy to start, making for a great spot to wade into the water. The only downside would be that it’s in full view, and earshot, of Camp Arowhon, which sits on Tepee’s western shore, so this wouldn’t be an ideal spot from a peace and quiet standpoint (although, really, you can say the same about any campsite on Joe. Joe Lake is busy).
Sites to Avoid
Like I said off the top, there aren’t that many sites on Joe Lake that I’d actively avoid. That said, the three sites that line the western shore and look across to the Joe Lake cliffs (sites 9, 10 and 11) would be my last picks for an overnight. There’s nothing wrong with these sites, per se. They’ve accessible, flat and don’t have any swinging log traps or hidden spear pits. But they’re not very inspiring, either. They’re all pretty small, without a ton of room to spread out. The shoreline here is kind of mucky, which makes the swimming kind of mucky as well. On the plus side, they’ve each got great proximity to the cliffs, but that’s about all they have going for them.
The other site I wasn’t blown away by, but for different reasons, is the western arm, site 6. On the surface, this is a decent spot. It’s on the east side of the western basin and is somewhat removed from the rest of the campsites. This, plus a well treed shoreline, provides a bit of privacy. It’s got a good amount of flat space for tents, and a nice fire pit area (complete with some cool relics of the Park’s past in the form of some old concrete foundations). However, what it also has is a ton of grass. And that grass, at least in June and July, is home to a ton of mosquitoes. This would be a great spot later in the year, but I would avoid it like the plague before mid-August. I made the mistake of visiting it in late June and lasted about three minutes before the swarms drove me off.
You’ll have noticed that all the sites I’ve talked about in depth are on the western half of Joe Lake. I’ve found the sites along the eastern arm to all be variations on the theme of “this is a decent to good spot to stay for a night”. There aren’t any that I’d actively avoid, and there aren’t any that I’d really try and target. In general, I’d be happy to stay on each of them.
Things to Do
One of the nice things about Joe Lake is that it’s not short of things to do. The Joe Lake cliffs on the western island are my favourite feature. The cliffs face west, and offer multiple levels for cliff jumping that range from a kid friendly 5/6 foot ledge to a definitely not kid friendly 40 foot jump from the top (Please please please double and trip check your landing area before jumping from any ledge at all. Please.).
If hurling yourself into thin air isn’t your speed, there’s plenty of paddling and exploring to do in the area. Joe Lake is a bit of a nexus in that you can get to quite a few other lakes in the area without having to do a single portage. Little Joe and Joe Creek are to the east and Tepee, Fawn, Little Doe, Tom Thomson and Bartlett are all accessible to the north by paddling only. If you’re feeling really adventurous, and don’t mind a few portages, you can do a day trip loop up through Tepee, Fawn and Little Doe, then cross a P1140 to Baby Joe and head back to Joe Lake through Lost Joe and Little Joe.
If you’d rather take it easy, there’s lots to explore along Joe’s shoreline, including some historic sites and a couple of quieter feeling bays off the eastern arm. On top of that, Arowhon Pines is just around the corner on Little Joe Lake, and they take dinner reservations (in case you get sick of charred hot dogs).
And that’s about it for Joe Lake. But don’t take my word for it, go check it out yourself. You won’t regret it.
Back in 2018, Jon, the owner and builder at Backcountry Custom Canoes, lent me his own solo boat to paddle for an early spring trip. The route was on the tougher side, a predominately low maintenance loop down through Clover and Tarn Lakes, complete with narrow creeks, long portages and a football field sized beaver meadow that was auditioning for the role of quicksand in the next Jumanji movie. Jon’s boat, a 15 foot Brookie, was a Godsend on that trip. It was light on the portages, maneuverable on the creeks and relatively quick on the open water. I finished that trip thinking that, at some point, I wouldn’t mind having a Brookie of my own.
“Some point” came in the Summer of 2021. Jon, like every other canoe builder through 2020 and 2021, had seen a huge spike in demand thanks to the pandemic. After a couple of false starts, I got my boat just in time for a four day solo from Rain Lake to Canoe Lake. This ended up being a nice shakedown trip as the route I followed threw a little bit of everything at me. Longer portages? Islet to Cranebill Lake says hi. Lakes of every size? There’s everything from Wee Lake (which lives up to its name) to Canoe Lake (which is about 4 KM tip to tail and probably half as wide). &#(*%) Creeks? Potter Creek is what you’d get if you asked someone to design a creek with all the typical minor creek-related annoyances they could think of.
I’m not going to rehash that trip in full here, (but here’s the trip report if you’re interested), but there are certain stretches that were illustrative of the Brookie’s features (and bugs).
I’ll start with the portages, because that’s why I wanted a lightweight solo boat in the first place. I have done a fair bit of solo tripping, and plan on doing a fair bit more before I hang up the paddles. The one thing that’s always on my mind when it comes to planning a solo route is portaging. I hate double carrying. It adds a ton of time to the day and it feels like a momentum killer every single time. That said, I like my back, and one of the best ways I can think of to stop my back from liking me is to load myself up like a pack mule and try to haul too much across a portage in an attempt to save time. The Brookie was supposed to help with this problem. Weighing in at just under 30 lbs, the boat was more than light enough that I could comfortably carry both it and my pack without straining myself. So, portage problem solved, right?
The problem I ran into is that, while I could certainly manage the weight of all my gear combined, I couldn’t pack it in a way that let me carry a canoe and a pack at the same time. One of the things about carrying the Brookie that is very different from carrying a tandem boat is that you use the Brookie’s only seat as part of your carrying bar. In other words, the seat (or removable yoke attached to the seat, which is what I had) rests on your shoulders. This means that the top of your backpack has to be even with, or maybe even slightly below, the top of your shoulders so that it doesn’t push up on the seat and force the bow end down. For the life of me, I could not figure out how to get my bag packed to avoid this issue. After a few packs and repacks I gave in and double carried the route, adding about 25 KM of extra portage distance.
That wasn’t ideal.
On the plus side, double carrying meant that each leg of a portage was quick and easy. On the negative side, well, 25 unplanned for kilometers is a lot of kilometers.
I should note that I’m not blaming the Brookie here. I should have been able to figure out a way to pack so that I could single carry properly (and, in fact, I did figure out a way to do this about five minutes after finishing the trip), but it is an important thing to keep in mind if you’re going from portaging a tandem boat to a solo boat.
Packing issues aside, the Brookie was awesome on the portages. It’s light enough that you can pick it up with one hand. Jon made a removable yoke that fits comfortably on my shoulders and, now that I’ve figured out my packing strategy, single carrying is a much more comfortable experience.
Portages are only half the battle though. Ideally you’re going to spend a bunch of time with the canoe in the water, not on your shoulders. Here I’ve found both positives and negatives with the Brookie.
On the positive side, I’ve found the Brookie to be a really stable paddle. In calm water it handles really nicely and you can get up a decent pace if you’re paddling consistently (it does start to swing left or right almost the second you stop paddling, which can be a frustration if you’re trying to put your paddle down to take a picture or grab a sip of water).
It’s a bit more of a mixed result in windier conditions. That same Rain to Canoe Lake trip ended with a pretty fierce headwind on Canoe Lake. The waves were high and the wind was blowing directly in my face as I headed back to the access point. At no point did it feel like the boat was unbalanced. It handled the waves well and felt stable even in the worst of the wind. That said, being such a light boat meant that while everything felt stable enough, if I let the boat slip even slightly out of facing directly into the wind, it would get pushed around in a way that other boats I’ve paddled in tough winds do not. Again, I wouldn’t say this is a design flaw with the boat itself, just something to keep in mind when looking at any ultralight boat.
I think my favourite feature of the Brookie (apart from the weight) is the durability of the material. Brookies are skin on frame boats. Jon stretches a layer of ballistic nylon over a latticework of narrow ribs and ties it all together with lashing. The end result is a gorgeous looking boat that resembles tissue paper and is tough as nails. I’ve paddled my Brookie down a few creeks (and rivers that should be creeks), including Potter Creek on that Rain to Canoe trip and the Nipissing River, Loontail Creek and Latour Creek this past summer. On each of these I’ve rammed the boat into, over and through any number of creek rocks, alder branches, logs , beaver dams and whatever other of nature’s versions of a spiked tire belt Algonquin wants to throw at you. I’ve hit edges that would put a hole in most materials. I’ve dragged the boat across rock gardens and deadfalls. I once tripped on a portage and dropped the boat directly onto a nearby, and very pointy, rock. Each and every time the Brookie has bounced off whatever obstacle I’ve rammed it into and come out laughing. For me, this durability is a great feature. I’m not always the most observant paddler when it comes to underwater obstructions, and knowing that I can smack into a rock or 30 without worrying about putting a hole in my boat is a huge benefit. (The only other point I’ll make where creeks are concerned is that being 15 feet long makes the Brookie much easier to navigate through the twists and turns of particularly narrow waterways).
All in all, I’m happy with my Brookie. My main complaint is that it stops tracking as soon as you stop paddling and it’s not going to win you any speed records. Apart from that, it’s a nice, durable, lightweight boat that handles well on portages and well enough on the water (and is pretty nice to look at as well!).
I added one new campsite report in October. I know, shameful. Right now I’ve still got about 20 reports waiting to be written, and the only one I could throw together was Opeongo Lake – North Arm – Site 1. On the plus side, that makes determining the best site of the month pretty easy. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you: