Welcome to the December 2022 issue of The Thunderbox, my monthly roundup of anything Algonquin related that’s caught my eye. This month’s newsletter includes a spotlight on Tepee Lake, my thoughts on water filtration options and a recap of my recent trip to Sec Lake, among other things. Hope you enjoy (and feel free to subscribe if you do! You’ll get this roundup plus each trip report as it’s published).
Welcome to December 2022 issue of The Thunderbox, my monthly roundup of anything Algonquin related that’s caught my eye. This month’s newsletter includes a spotlight on Tepee Lake, my thoughts on water filtration options and a recap of my recent trip to Sec Lake, among other things. Hope you enjoy (and feel free to subscribe if you do! You’ll get this roundup plus each trip report as it’s published).
November brought a surprise day paddle out of the Sec Lake access point. I’d already resigned myself to paddling season being done for the year, but then the temperatures in early November hit 15+ (!) and I realized the universe was basically putting a paddle in my hand and telling me to go. I convinced my buddy Mark to come with me, and we spent the better part of the day paddling around Sec Lake and its surrounding lakes. It was a great, and unexpected, trip. (You can read about it in more detail here). Sec is on the eastern border of the Park, and it’s a pretty area. While some of the outlying lakes are a bit underwhelming (looking at you Norm’s lake), both Log Canoe and Little Sec were awesome little side trips.
Apart from the Sec Lake day trip, my Algonquin exposure was limited to driving through the Park along highway 60 to visit my wife’s family mid-month. Strangely, we did manage to work in a new experience on that trip, as we drove into the Source Lake access point. I’ve paddled through Source, but have never seen the actual access point. We were there because my son is enrolled at Camp Pathfinder for next summer and he wanted to see its lake. Ideally, the next time he’s there, there won’t be as much snow swirling around him (we ran into our first snow squall of the year as we were driving down the access road).
December likely won’t give me many chances to get back to the Park, at least not in person. I’ll be writing my annual year in review posts, including this year’s Moosies, this month, so I’ll have plenty of chances to get back to the Park through pictures, memories and the still constant night terrors brought on by my Nipissing Q
uagmire River trip back in August. Before we get to those though, let’s talk about Tepee Lake.
Tepee Lake is one of the cluster of easily accessible lakes just north of the Canoe Lake access point. There’s one portage, the P300 Joe Lake portage, and two lakes in between Tepee and the parking lot, which makes it a (theoretically) great destination for beginner trippers or young families. I say theoretically because, while Tepee is certainly a reasonable destination, it would probably be at the bottom of the my list when I’m looking at staying a night in the area. Why? Well, let’s turn up the spotlight and take a closer look at Tepee to find out.
Tepee is a medium sized lake, about an hour to an hour and a half north of access point #5. It connects to Joe Lake by a short narrows from the south, then opens up into a wide basin before exiting to the north through the Little Oxtongue River. On most lakes, you would likely find quite a few campsites around the basin area, but in Tepee’s case they’re all clustered to the north. Technically, I don’t think they’re even on Tepee but instead line both sides of the Little Oxtongue. (The only campsite that does face onto the basin is actually a Joe Lake permit). The reason there are no campsites around Tepee’s main basin is because Tepee’s western shore is dominated by a much bigger type of campsite, Camp Arowhon.
Camp Arowhon is one of the older camps in the Park. Founded in 1934, it is a co-ed camp that has been under the leadership of the Kates family since the start. I haven’t had any direct experiences with Arowhon, apart from running into their trips here or there, but I’ve heard nothing but good things from people who have. Every time I’ve paddled through Tepee while camp is in session the place has been a beehive of activity. On nice days the waterfront is usually teeming with sailboats, canoes and windsurfers. At meal times, you can hear the bells calling campers to the dining hall ringing out across the water. All in all, it looks like a lot of fun.
The thing is, all that fun is pretty hard to ignore. If you’re going to Tepee Lake looking for some backcountry solitude, you might be disappointed. A couple years back I did an overnight to Joe Lake with my daughter. Arowhon was having a camp dance that same night and we could hear the music from our campsite. I would imagine it would be that much more intrusive for anyone staying on Tepee. That said, there are positive aspects to the camp’s proximity as well, particularly for anyone who is feeling a bit nervous about their first backcountry experience. It can be comforting knowing that help, including a camp doctor during the summer months, is a short paddle away for anyone staying on Tepee or Joe (if you’re on Joe, Arowhon Pines, also owned by the Kates family, is located just to the east on the south shore of Little Joe Lake). In the end, I wouldn’t say that having Arowhon on Tepee is either good or bad, that depends on what kind of camping experience you’re looking for, but it is a factor you will want to consider when planning your trip.
Now, if you do decide to camp on Tepee, what should you expect? From a campsite perspective, not a whole lot. The sites on Tepee mostly fall in between average to below average. The majority of them are cut out of straight shoreline along the river. I typically find these kinds of hole in the forest site can feel a bit cramped. For example, Site 3 covers all the basics pretty well. It’s got enough of a footprint to handle a couple of tents, has easy access to the water and a nice fire pit. However, the view off the site is more or less restricted to the (not very) far shore and the swimming isn’t great (there’s a sandy bottom, but also lots of green stuff floating near the shore). It’s a site that works well if you’re using it as a home base to explore the area (maybe paddle down to the Joe Lake cliffs or paddle up to Little Doe and Tom Thomson) but it would get old fast if you were planning on hanging out around the site (or being forced to because of weather). Most of the sites along this stretch have the same vibe (one of the sites, Site 4, has the same vibe plus also a “this site may be haunted” bonus vibe).
If you are up for exploring, I highly recommend the paddle north to Little Doe and Tom Thomson. The Little Oxtongue heading north out of Tepee is quite pretty. It passes through Fawn Lake, which is really just a small bump in the river, but which I’ve found has also been a great spot for moose sightings in the past. Both Tom Thomson and Little Doe are decent sized lakes with lots to explore on a day trip. If you’re feeling really adventurous you could try a day loop that heads west from Tepee to Potter Creek along the P2020 just north of Camp Arowhon. From here you would head north through Potter, then east to Tom Thomson via Pathfinder Lake and Long Pond before coming back south along the Little Oxtongue. This would be a full day trip, and I wouldn’t want to try it in the later months because Long Pond can dry up to the point where calling it a pond is more wishful thinking than an accurate description (there are a couple of long portages along this loop, so I wouldn’t suggest it for a first trip).
To the south, Joe Lake offers one of my favourite day trip destinations in the Park, the Joe Lake cliffs. The cliffs are a short paddle from Tepee on Joe’s western side. There are ledges for all ages, from a kid friendly five footer to much less kid friendly higher levels. If you want to go a bit further, crossing back into Canoe Lake and taking a turn down Potter Creek offers some cool ruins from the Park’s earlier days, including the remains of an old bridge across the creek and the shell of the old Mowat lumber mill.
And that’s Tepee Lake. It’s a perfectly serviceable lake, and it’s extremely convenient for a first backcountry trip, but if you’re staying there I would suggest planning some day trips to visit the surrounding area as well.
Instead of zeroing in on one piece of gear this month, I’m going to talk about water filters and filtration in general. I’ve used a few different approaches to filtering water over the years, and while I’ve settled on my preferred one, it’s worth looking at them all. (FYI, I don’t have many pictures of the items I’m talking about in this post, but I’ve got tons of pictures of water, so that’s kind of the same, right?).
When I first started canoe tripping with the summer camp I worked at in my late teens and early 20s, water filtration was basically optional. I’m not saying it should have been optional, but that’s how we approached it. Our biggest concession to the fact that there are lots of little bugs in the lakes and rivers of Algonquin that are just dying to set up shop in your gut, was to make sure we never filled our water bottles too close to a beaver dam and that we always filled up with water that was at least an arm’s reach below the surface.
Pro tip: this is not an ideal drinking water safety plan.
Somehow, I managed to skate through those years without picking up a virus or bacterial infection (or maybe I picked up so many I just got used to them). When I started up with tripping again back in 2016, I was at least smart enough to realize that at some point my luck would run out. I knew I had to do something to treat my water, and I also knew I didn’t want to spend too much money on a water treatment solution (yet).
Enter, Pristine tablets.
Pristine tabs (and similar tablets) are water treatment in a pill form. You fill up a bottle of water and drop your tablet in. After 30 minute you’ve got potable water that only smells a bit like a swimming pool. The tablets are effective against viruses and other nasty things like Giardia. They’re also relatively cheap. A pack of 50 (each tab treats 1 litre of water) runs about twelve dollars at MEC. The downside to tablets is that they take some time to work, they can leave a chemical-y scent and they’re not filters. Your water might be free of viruses, but it’s not going to get rid of the floating gunk you might pick up when you dip your bottle. This is maybe less of a concern if you’re sticking to bigger, clearer lakes. If your route is going to take you along creeks and rivers, this gets a lot less appealing.
It wasn’t long before I decided to move on to a filter system. I was doing enough tripping to justify the expense, and I was sick of picking weird little floating green things out of my water. My first filter was an MSR Mini-works hand pump. This is one of the most popular hand pumps out there, with good reason. It’s easy to use and it’s effective. You can’t really ask for much more. Except, you can. While my first few pumps with the Mini-works were great, I found that the flow rate slowed down pretty quickly the more I used it. I’d have to work harder and harder for less and less water. See, these types of pumps use a ceramic filter. The pump action forces the water through holes in the ceramic, leaving the water to flow through its carbon core and into your bottle while the Giardia gets left outside the filter like it’s 18 year old me trying to get past the bouncer at the Brunny. To stretch the metaphor, after a couple of pumps, there would be so many dejected 18 year old mes hanging around the outside of the filter that all the people who had ID they hadn’t bought from some guy above Vortex Records couldn’t get in. I’d have to take the thing apart and clean it. That would restore the flow, somewhat, but it never got back to a decent rate. On top of that, I had to clean it frequently just to get these middling results. This was frustrating. I’d find myself getting pushed to the edge of dehydration on hot days because I didn’t want to bother with the hassle of the pump (which is stupid). In the end, I realized that the hand pump wasn’t going to be a good long-term solution for me.
It was around this time that I was introduced to gravity. I mean, I was already familiar with gravity. It had helped me get to know various parts of the forest floor around Algonquin many times, but I didn’t know how helpful it could be in solving my water filtration problem.
The Platypus GravityWorks filtration system was the last filtration system I ever tried. I started using it in 2018 and am still very happy with it today. As the name suggests, the system uses gravity to filter water. It’s a simple set up, easy to use and easy to understand. It comes with two collapsible water reservoirs, one for dirty water and one for clean. You fill up the dirty reservoir from whatever water source you’re using. This reservoir connects to a filter cartridge by way of some (pretty tough) plastic tubing, which then connects to the clean reservoir through some more tubing. You hang the dirty reservoir from a tree branch or similar, make sure the clean reservoir is below the dirty, and let gravity do the rest. The water flows down through the tube, through the filter and through the tube again before arriving in the clean bag, fresh and clear. It’s awesome. When it’s clean, my filter can get through a couple litres of water in a couple of minutes. Like the handpump, the filter cartridge eventually requires some cleaning, but it’s not needed nearly as frequently and it’s as simple as holding the clean reservoir above the dirty and backflushing through the filter to get things moving quickly again.
I love this thing. I’d highly recommend it for anyone looking to spend more time in the backcountry and who wants add a permanent filter solution to their gear. If you’re only going to head out on short trips once or twice a year, you may not need anything more than tablets. But if you’re looking at any kind of filter at all, go with the gravity filter every time (the cost is about even between the hand pump and the gravity filter too!).
I added 1 new campsite reports in November. At this rate, I’ll get through all the reports I’ve got banked sometime in 2025. I might have to pick up the pace here. In the meantime, here’s site 2 on Opeongo’s North Arm for your camping pleasure.
As I mentioned off the top, I actually got out for one more paddle this season, which means one more trip report as well. This was a day trip that included Sec, Mallard, Log Canoe, Little Sec, Wet and Norm’s Lakes. It was a great capper to the paddling season. It was also really cool (without being too cold) to be out paddling in November. This was by far the latest I’ve been in a canoe, and I could get used to the extended tripping season (albeit without the climate change dread it brings with it). Check it out here!