One of my favourite things about canoe tripping is that I’m always learning something. No matter how many trips I’ve done, no matter how many portages I’ve stumbled across or lakes I’ve paddled, there’s always something new I can add to the knowledge bank for next time. Sometimes, those things are more important than others. 2020’s Don’t Try to Outrun a Thunderstorm ranks somewhat higher than 2021’s Creek Rocks Are Slippery on the “things you really want to internalize before heading out on a canoe trip” list. 2022’s lessons are, fortunately, closer to the 2021 end of the spectrum than the 2020 end. I didn’t have any full scale disasters this year, but I did have a trip ruined because I didn’t fully prepare myself for the soul sucking obstacle course otherwise known as the Upper Nipissing River in Early August.
You know what? Let’s start there:
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Up until this summer I’d never paddled any part of the Nipissing River. I’ve been looking at it for years, but had never been able to make the timing work. My trips tend to focus on routes that can be done in three or four days, which makes getting any distance down the Nip difficult. Entering the Park across its western border between the Tim and Kawayamog access points, and flowing east, eventually, to Cedar Lake, the Nip runs through the central northwest part of the park, and is decent enough trip just to get to, let alone paddle. As a result, much of the river is about as interior as you can get in Algonquin. Once you’re on it, there are very few easy outs. This requires setting aside a decent chunk of free time if you want to paddle it, and free time is something I vaguely remember from my 20s, but not something I have much of these days.
This summer, however, I managed to set aside a full week for a solo trip in early August. I immediately knew what I wanted to do with that week, and booked a loop starting from the Tim access point and ending, 8 days and 136 KM later, back at the Tim access. In between visits to the Tim Lake parking lot, I planned on paddling the Nipissing from Big Bob to Highview, cutting north through Birchcliffe to Maple Creek, coming back south by way of Nadine and Robertson, then heading home through Shippagew and the low maintenance route just north of the Tim River. It was an ambitious route for me, but I thought it was doable. 136 KM works out to less than 20 KM a day, and I’m generally comfortable with somewhere between 15-20 kilometers on any given day.
Hold on, I need to rework that last sentence a bit.
136 KM works out to less than 20 KM a day, and I’m generally comfortable with somewhere between 15-20 kilometers of lake travel on any given day. Now, in my mental tripping dictionary, “lake travel” doesn’t mean only paddling. It’s basically shorthand for a typical tripping day that would include lakes, portages and even some creeks or rivers. What it doesn’t mean is 20 straight kilometers of river travel. And what it definitely doesn’t mean is 20 not at all straight kilometers of sometimes river sometimes creek masquerading as a river travel in early August. That, as it turns out, I am not comfortable with. At all.
The first part of my route, 30 of the first 35 KM in fact, was along the Nip. In between the Big Bob portage and Grass Lake, and particularly in between the P200 and P165 along that stretch, the Nipissing gets narrow, shallow and crowded. Alders lean in from either side of the river until it can feel like you’re pushing through the world’s scratchiest hedge maze (it’s like the banks are lined with angry cats and they all want to take a swipe at your eyes). There are quite a few switchbacks, which means there are quite a few opportunities to swing round a corner, realize you’re about to ram into the wall of alder on the far side of the creek, overcorrect and instead ram into the wall of alder on the near side of the creek. But, even more aggravating than these two, uh, aggravations, is the constant hopping in and out of the canoe to drag across mud flats, rock gardens and beaver dams. The end result for me was that a 5 KM stretch that would have taken me less than an hour on open water took over three hours along the Nip, and left me feeling like I’d just done 25 KM.
This was day 2 of my trip. I was meant to be ending the day at Highview Cabin, which is another 15 KM of river travel (give or take) from Grass Lake. By the time I arrived at Grass Lake I didn’t think I had another 15 meters in me. I ended up pulling out on the campsite at Loontail Creek Junction, my trip plan in flames. I paddled out the next day, tail between my (very sore) legs. My 8 day epic adventure had turned into a 2.5 day epic fiasco. It sucked.
And it was preventable. Or, at least, it was forseeable.
Water levels decline as the summer wears on. In early spring the melting snow and ice feeds into Algonquin’s rivers, making them higher and faster. A particularly rainy summer can keep that going for a while, but eventually things slow down. Water levels start to drop and rivers become creeks. A relatively pleasant paddle in May can turn into a relatively unpleasant slog by September. That’s what happened for me. I should have realized that water levels were going to be a problem. It was August, and it hadn’t been a particularly rainy summer. Heck, there’s even a warning on the map that reads “low water levels (especially later in summer) and alder can be a problem between Big Bob Lake and Loontail Creek on the Nipissing River”. I should have paid more attention to that warning. But I didn’t, and things went south. Or, more accurately, things did not go south. Or north. or in any direction at all. Things ground to a standstill and my patience ground down to nothing.
I’ve spoken with people who have done this stretch of the Nip in spring. Their experiences have typically been very different from mine. Sure, there are still the twists and turns and occasional run in with the alder spiders, but from what I’ve heard, this section of the Nip is actually quite pleasant to paddle in May and June. Higher water levels mean fewer record scratch stops as your canoe glides above creek rocks and submerged logs, not into them. Your progress might still be slower than on open water, but at least you’ll feel like you’re making progress.
With the benefit of hindsight, I should have given myself more time to deal with this part of the river. If I’d set my first night for Big Bob Lake, my second for Grass Lake and my third for Highview cabin, that stretch between the two portages would have still been tough, but it wouldn’t have been insurmountable. Because I’d planned such long days to start the trip, I had no chance of catching up once I fell behind.
And maybe that’s the overarching lesson here. Sure, being aware of and planning for changing water levels is important, but really that’s just part of making sure you understand your route. 20 KM from Big Trout to Burnt Island is one thing, 20 KM from Big Bob to High Dam is another. The distance might be the same, but the difficulty is likely very different. Water levels matter. Maintenance levels matter. Time of year matters. Terrain matters. I forgot all that. My main focus was on the distance I wanted to travel each day. I’d like to say that all other considerations were secondary, but honestly they didn’t even factor in. Once I’d measured my 15-20 kilometers on the map, I moved on to my next segment with no thought for what those kilometers might hold.
That was a mistake. Hopefully, not one I’ll be repeating any time soon (that sound you just heard is the May 2023 trip I just booked clearing its throat and suggesting I should maybe re-read this section).
This one is more a lesson internalized than a lesson learned.
Back in 2018 I did a trip out of the Kiosk access point in early June. That was my first time camping in June and to say I was unprepared for the bugs would be like saying Pompeii was unprepared for Vesuvius (My Grade 10 world history teacher just got his wings). My primary concession to the fact that there might be bugs (in Algonquin Park, In June) on the trip was … well, I didn’t really make any concessions. I didn’t have bug gear or bug spray. I didn’t even have long pants. What I did have, by the end of the trip, was a comprehensive collection of bug bites covering every inch of my body.
After that experience, I basically wrote off camping during bug season for a couple of years. The problem with that approach to trip planning is a) bug season can last a long time and there are only so many days between ice out and ice-in, and b) the end of May through mid June, which marks the first and strongest wave of the bug invasion, is also a really nice time for camping. The days are long and warm, water levels are up and the Park isn’t too crowded (with humans. The bug population looks like New Years Eve at Times Square). After a couple of late spring layoffs I realized that instead of avoiding the bugs, I needed to figure out how to adapt to them.
I started buying bug gear. All of it. If I was wandering through a store and saw something that looked like it might be useful during bug season, it went in the cart. Bug jacket? Check. Thermacell? Check. Bug shelter? Why would I buy the bugs a shelt … oh, I get it. Yeah, that seems like it might be useful too. Check. By the time this spring rolled around, anyone looking at my camping closet would think bugs were my main canoe tripping concern (followed, apparently, by toilet paper).
And it paid off!
My first trip this year was a five day loop out of Kiosk that started just before the May long weekend. We didn’t run into our first patented Algonquin Wall O’Bugs until day three, but when we did, we were ready. The bugs were waiting for us at the end of the portage into Kakasamic from Lorne. One minute the portage was a relatively nice walk through the woods, the next I was spitting black flies out of my mouth and listening to the mosquitoes sharpening their knives. But, here’s the difference between that portage put-in and the equivalent first brush with the bugs (this one at the Mouse Lake put-in up from Club) back in 2018. While 2018 Drew was wearing shorts and a t-shirt, 2022 Drew had on long pants, long sleeves and a generous helping of bug juice. As a result, 2022 Drew escaped the Kakasamic put-in with at most a couple of bites, while 2018 Drew served his bug hosts a three course meal.
This theme continued throughout the day. After setting up camp on Fassett Lake, we paddled up to Shad because … well, because it was there. Neither of the campsites on Shad were anything to write home about, unless you’re an entomologist, in which case you can write your entire doctoral thesis on Shad Lake, site 2. Arriving at that site was like getting dropped in the middle of that weird rave scene in The Matrix Reloaded, but for bugs. I had my GoPro clipped to the bow of the boat and it kept rolling while my buddy and I got out to explore the site. Watching it back is like trying to watch a channel the bunny ears couldn’t quite pick up (between this and the Matrix reference I’m apparently doing the best I can to date myself). It looks like snow flitting across the screen, but it’s just bugs.
Not ideal, right?
If I’d been wearing 2018 Drew’s clothes I would have been a dried out husk in about five minutes. Fortunately, on top of the long pants, shirt and eau du bug juice, I had on a hooded bug jacket as well. It wasn’t perfect, but it meant I could walk around the site in relative comfort for long enough to determine that, no, I never need to go back to that spot again. The Shad Lake equivalent from my 2018 trip was a campsite on Mouse Lake. While this was actually a pretty nice site, I didn’t get a chance to enjoy it because I spent the entire night walking back and forth trying (and failing) to stay ahead of the bugs.
Back in 2022, we finished day three hanging out on our campsite on Fassett Lake. While this was a nice site (great view west, good swimming, decent tent spots), it was also a buggy site. As the day wore on the bugs got bolder, until we were sharing our site with more than a few uninvited guests. Fortunately, we were ready for them. I’d picked up a Eureka NoBugZone before the trip, and this provided a much needed cube of sanity where we could escape the bugs and eat our dinner in peace. On top of the shelter, I had my Thermacell (if you’re not familiar with Thermacells, they do the same thing as pic, but look prettier). Between the shelter and the Thermacell we were able to keep the bugs (mostly) at bay. 2018 Drew wasn’t so lucky. After his plan of walking back and forth quickly failed, he ended up hiding in his tent from about 7 pm on, listening to the mosquitoes crash against the mesh above his head like a horde of zombies trying to get at Brad Pitt.
I could keep going back and forth between 2018 and 2022, but you probably get the point. My 2018 trip was a disaster. We got chased out of the Park after one night, and there’s a non zero chance that somewhere out there there’s a mosquito that got enough of my blood to finally grow a clone of me (this is why mosquitoes drink blood, FYI. They’re just a bunch of tiny mad scientists trying to build a clone army). In comparison, this year’s trip was a lot of fun. There were bugs, but they were a feature of the trip, not an, ahem, bug. We finished our loop as planned and had a great time (rain-soaked slog down Fassett Creek notwithstanding). With the right gear, there’s no reason that 2018 trip couldn’t have been just as good. The good news is, I know that now. The only way I can be more prepared for bug season is if I hire a crop duster to spray Deet along the route in front of me.
Which I’m not ruling out.
And that’s it for part one of 2022’s Year in Review. I suppose this year’s lessons aren’t all that different from each other. Both are examples of being prepared for the time of year and both drive home the importance of thinking about how the season will affect conditions, be they water levels or bug levels. I did a good job of that for my May trip and a lousy job of it for my August trip.
Up next we’ll have the annual Moosie Awards, the most hotly anticipated made up awards in the canoe tripping universe. The next issue of The Thunderbox will be out at the end of January. Which famous Canadian painter’s namesake lake will we be shining a spotlight on in that issue? It’s not the one you’re thinking of. Unless you’re thinking of Tom Thomson. In that case, it is the one you were thinking of. You were probably thinking of Tom Thomson. Sigh. (Happy New Year everyone!)