Sec Lake Exploratory

In last month’s issue of The Thunderbox I wrote that my paddling days were done for the year. It seemed like a reasonable thing to write. November is when all the water around here decides to try out life as a solid for a few months and I turn my attention to warmer sports, like competitive space heater hogging, while waiting for spring. However, much like the time I wrote I’d never again fall asleep on the couch with the dust of a thousand Cheetos sprinkled across my chest, this turned out to be incorrect. While I may have thought my paddling days were done, the Weather Gods thought otherwise.

So. Much. Orange.

The first half of November was warm here in Ottawa. Really warm. The kind of warm where you put on your shorts to rake up the leaves and try not to think about all the polar bears standing on their steadily shrinking ice sheets and wondering where they’re going to get the ice cubes for their next bottle of Coke. One of the upsides to this warm spell is that it turns out that existential climate dread warm is also spur of the moment paddling trip warm. With temperatures expected to be in the mid-teens that first weekend, and no sign of rain in the forecast, I reached out to my buddy Mark to see if he would be up for a last minute day trip up to Sec Lake. Mark was in, and a couple of days later we were pulling into the Sec Lake parking lot just after 9 am with a canoe, day packs and a pair of the brightest coloured t-shirts we could find.

The canoe and day packs are probably self-explanatory, but you may be wondering about the t-shirts. Well, here, I’ll let the Park explain:

There’s a scene in 1991’s thought provoking and essential study of combat aircraft and the men and women who fly them, Hot Shots, where a pilot crash lands in a forest in the middle of deer hunting season. It doesn’t end well for the pilot. Given that we were going to be in Algonquin smack in the middle of hunting season ourselves, I didn’t want to risk the same fate. It’s why I left my Bullwinkle costume at home this time.  Instead, Mark and I decked ourselves out in orange and yellow shirts that would have been too bright for a rave, started talking very loudly about how we were not moose, and got ready for a day of paddling. 

The Route

This was going to be a quick trip. There are six lakes accessible from the Sec Lake access point, including Sec Lake, and we planned on visiting all of them. We wanted to check out Mallard, Log Canoe and Little Sec, which are out and back lakes connected to Sec by their own portages, then finish off with the Sec-Wet-Norm-Sec triangle. That’s less ambitious than it sounds. Sec Lake is small, and it’s the biggest of the lakes we were visiting. The rest are spread out around Sec like spokes out of the center of a wheel or, more depressingly, like the last remaining hairs jutting from the top of my head. So, with our plan firmly in place, we put the canoe in the water and set off for the portage over to Mallard Lake.

Table of Contents

Sec & Mallard Lake

It was an absolutely beautiful day for paddling. The sun was bright, the sky was blue and the wind … well, actually, the wind wasn’t ideal. There was a pretty strong breeze blowing from the west, right into the access point put-in. The waves were up, but not enough that paddling them seemed too risky. I might not have wanted to be on Grand Lake in that wind, but Sec seemed safe enough. 

Mallard Lake

It felt great being back on the water. After a couple of strokes we found our rhythm, and soon we were working with the wind rather than against it. Our fist stop was the P160 over to Mallard, which is about 200 meters from the access point put-in. We pulled the canoe up, then hiked over to Mallard to take a look.

Mallard’s an interesting lake in that it’s half in and half out of the Park. You can take a power boat out on it, if you’re so inclined, and there are a couple of crown land campsites down the east shore. There’s also a Park campsite at the north end, just off the road into the access point, and I suppose it would be a good spot if you wanted to car camp on an ostensibly backcountry site. But, honestly, why would you when there are (free) crown sites nearby?

Having put Mallard firmly in the “we’ll call that Plan B” bucket of potential camping destinations, we walked back across the portage and started off towards Log Canoe. 

Paddling on Sec

We hugged the eastern shore as we went. There are quite a few campsites along this stretch, all of which looked pleasant from the water. Only one of the sites in this part of the lake was in use, the north facing site on Sec’s eastern island. Whoever was there had picked an awesome night for some November camping. I think the overnight low was around 15. I’ve had colder nights in August.

We had to cross Sec to get to the Log Canoe portage, which meant tackling the wind more or less broadside. Not ideal, but still manageable. Sec isn’t a huge lake, and it took only a couple of minutes to get from one side to the other. 

Once we were out of the wind I took a minute to appreciate the view from this part of the lake. Sec’s eastern shore includes a gorgeous exposed rock cliff covered in pine and spruce. The cliff face is jagged, like someone built it out of different sized blocks of stone and didn’t care too much about how evenly they slapped them together. The jumble of rocks at its base adds to the impression that this version of the cliff may be on the newer side (new in rock years being some time since they built the pyramids). Looking across the water I could imagine the rocks sloughing off the side of the hill, like icebergs calving.  Cool to think about. Probably less cool to be standing underneath it while it’s happening.

With that bit of rock appreciating done, we paddled out of the wind and into the bay where the P770 up to Log Canoe Lake awaited us.

Log Canoe Lake

Log Canoe and Little Sec

Both Log Canoe and Little Sec Lake are tiny little out-and-back lakes jutting down from Sec’s southern shore. The portage to Log Canoe is marked at 770 meters, and the one to Little Sec is about twice as long at 1,420 meters. Weirdly, of the two, the Little Sec portage felt shorter. That likely has a lot to do with the fact that the portage up to Log Canoe is more or less entirely uphill.

Both portages were beautiful. The leaves were off the trees, blanketing the forest floor in gold and orange. Sunlight poured past the bare branches, reflecting off drops of morning dew that lay on top of the leaves, glittering like ice crystals in the sun. Happily, although it may have looked like ice, the trail wasn’t acting like ice. The footing was solid and, apart from a couple of detours around some deadfalls along the path, the hikes were easy and quick.

The portage up to Log Canoe ends at the only campsite on the lake. It’s a nice site, perched on top of a small cliff with a good view of the lake. Like most low-maintenance sites, it’s pretty bare bones. There’s a fire pit and that’s about it as far as man made amenities are concerned. To me though, it’s the beaver made amenity that really makes this site. Just a few steps back of the site there’s a large … tree. I want to call it a maple, but that’s because I call all trees that don’t have needles maples. The tree is around a couple feet in diameter. Well, it’s a couple of feet in diameter for the most part. Right at the bottom, at about beaver chomping height, it’s decidedly less thick. Apparently somewhere along the way a hill climbing beaver decided to try for the motherlode, but got bored halfway through and left behind a very cool looking, but also slightly worrying, bit of beaver bushcraft (beavercraft?) within falling distance of the campsite.

Unlike Log Canoe, there is no campsite on Little Sec. Looking at it on the map it’s hard to see a reason for heading up there, unless you’re staying on Sec and you’re a fan of longer portages (or you’re doing something tremendously silly like trying to visit all the canoe route lakes in the Park). Sometimes, though, the map doesn’t tell the whole story. Little Sec was well worth the visit. It’s a pretty little spot, and the portage up is a nice walk. Once we arrived we strolled along the shoreline a bit and found a really pleasant place to sit and and enjoy the sun. Sitting there, with the sun on my face and the sound of the wind in the nearby pines, was probably the highlight of the entire day. It was an extraordinary peaceful feeling, interrupted only sporadically by nature’s version of the whoopie cushion, the call of the Canada Goose flying south.

Once we were done basking in the sun, we made our way down to Sec for some lunch. We decided to stop on one of the west facing campsites on Sec’s westernmost island. There are three sites along this shore, two of which are nice enough if somewhat close to each other. The third site, a point site at the northernmost tip of the island, is better than nice (in a cool coincidence, it turned out that this site was the first backcountry site Mark had ever camped on in Algonquin, many years ago). It’s big, has a curved beach-y area facing west and some great views. It was also, on this day, colder than Arendelle after Elsa’s meltdown. While the wind hadn’t been a factor down on Log Canoe or Little Sec, that didn’t mean it had gone away. It was still strong, whipping through the exposed site and trying to blow away anything that wasn’t nailed down, including our canoe. 

I’d originally planned on taking some time on the site, maybe brewing up a tea, but the wind made that less appealing. On top of the chill, it was blowing in some unpleasant looking clouds from the west. Our day, which had started out clear and sunny, was now grey and chilly. After a quick pitstop we decided to push on and complete the Wet/Norm triangle before whatever was on its way in with those clouds arrived.

Sec Lake - Site 14
Beach on Site 14

Wet and Norm's Lakes

The portage over to Wet Lake was only a couple hundred meters from our lunch site. It’s a P890 and unlike the Little Sec and Log Canoe portages it’s flat as a pancake. I don’t think there’s more than a couple meters elevation change along the entire trail. What it lacked in uphill it made up for in obstacle course training. The end of the portage in particular was a challenge. The trail is narrow here, and the tree down across the path is the opposite of narrow. Mark and I manhandled the boat across/through the deadfall and a couple minutes later arrived on the shores of Wet Lake, eager to see what our efforts had delivered. 

I’m glad getting the boat across that tree wasn’t too much effort.

Wet Lake

While Wet Lake is a tremendously accurately named body of water, it’s not the most exciting place I’ve ever been. There’s nothing wrong with it, and I’m sure that somewhere right now someone is picking up their angry letter writing pen to tell me why I’m totally wrong, but, honestly, it just doesn’t seem very interesting. On the plus side, there’s only one campsite on Wet Lake, so if you’re staying there you’ve got yourself a private lake. On the unplus side, there’s only one campsite on Wet Lake, and it’s the campsite equivalent of lukewarm tapioca. It exists. You can make use of it. You’re probably not going back for seconds.

Wet Lake is also where my phone ran out of space. Probably because even it didn’t see the point in memorializing Wet Lake. As a result, there are very few pictures from the rest of the day. Fortunately for posterity, there wasn’t much left in the day.

Wet Lake Campsite

Our final lake on the loop was Norm’s Lake.  I’d been up this way in 2017. Back then, I’d had a pretty tough time finding Norm’s Lake. The portage up from Wet was playing hide and seek that day and doing a damn good job. I ended up walking out along the old logging road back to Sec Lake, then heading up to Norm’s from that direction. I spent the next five years wondering if that portage really was that hard to find, or if it was just that hard to find for me. I got the answer to that question this spring, when my buddy Gordon went through that way and couldn’t find the portage either. Apparently Norm’s Lake really valued its privacy.

Well, sorry Norm, those days are gone. 

I guess we weren’t the only ones who had trouble with that portage. Between Gordon’s visit and ours, someone must have gone through that way with a stack of portage signs and maybe a steam roller?  There was a fresh trail cut through the forest just behind Wet Lake, along with a couple of signs making it clear that this was indeed the portage. From there on, it was smooth sailing. Steady, leg crushingly, uphill sailing, but smooth nonetheless. It wasn’t long before we had arrived at Norm’s Lake and were putting in for our last paddle of th … uh, wait, the paddle’s over already?

Norm’s Lake is small. On top of that, the portage takeout to head down to Sec Lake is about 20 meters down the shore from the put-in from Wet. In fact, I’m pretty sure you could just keep walking from the Wet side to the Sec side and not worry about putting in at Norm’s at all. Still, it was nice to get that last paddle in, even if it was only for another 20 seconds or so.

Sec Lake – Site 3

The p1005 back down to Sec Lake is pretty much all downhill (which, given the uphill coming from Wet makes sense I guess. The Park’s not an Escher painting). It’s a nice carry; wide and clear and easy to follow. It wasn’t long before we were back at the parking lot, having stopped briefly to check out a parking lot adjacent campsite that would be a great option if you wanted to sleep within reaching distance of your vehicle, but otherwise has very little going for it (I can write the exact same thing about the Mallard Lake campsite, which we checked out on our way back up the access point road. If you want to be near a road, this site’s for you. Otherwise, pretty much anywhere else would be better).

And that was it, a really nice spur of the moment November day trip in the books. This was the latest I’ve been paddling in the year. It was a ton of fun getting back on the water, and it makes the start of next year’s season seem not quite that far away.

Sec Lake is a nice little spot. You might not be going on any crazy multi-day adventures here, but it’s a great option if you’re looking for an introduction to backcountry camping or taking the kids out for a first trip. I was surprised by how much I liked both Log Canoe Lake and Little Sec. Both are worth checking out on a day trip out from Sec, and Log Canoe might be a nice spot for an overnight if you want some privacy (that said, I don’t know that I’d bother carrying the canoe up there. Grab yourself some kind of inflatable unicorn and paddle around your private lake in style instead).

Next up we’ll have the November Thunderbox newsletter, followed by this year’s Moosie awards. After that, it’s planning season. I’m looking forward to pulling out the map and planning out increasingly unreasonable routes as the winter drags on and my desire to make up for the long, cold, paddling-free months outweighs unimportant considerations like, time, distance and skill level. Kiosk to Kingscote in 3 days? Sure, why not?

Until next time, thank you for following along with me this year. I love writing these reports, and the fact that there are folks out there who enjoy reading them blows me away. 

Thanks again, and have a great winter! 


New Lakes: 3
Total Lakes: 6 
Total Portages: 5
Total Portage Distance:  7.025KM
Total Travel Distance:  16.96 KM

Map courtesy of Jeff’s Maps

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