Welcome to the February 2023 issue of The Thunderbox, our first issue of the year! The Thunderbox is a monthly (except when it’s not) roundup of anything Algonquin related that’s caught my eye. This month’s issue includes a spotlight on a famous painter’s namesake lake, my new favourite pair of pants, campsite reviews and more. (A quick note for anyone receiving this through an email subscription. First of all, thank you for subscribing! Secondly, this post (and all the posts, really) look better when viewed through the website. This link will take you there: The Thunderbox – Volume 2: Issue 1 – February 2023)
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I didn’t get any time in Algonquin this month. I’m not a winter camper and it turns out that canoe tripping is hard when the water is hiding beneath a layer of ice. But just because I wasn’t there, doesn’t mean things weren’t going on. One big piece of news, so big I moved it from the links section and put it up here, is that Algonquin Outfitters has won the bidding to take over operations of the Portage Store.
That’s huge for a couple of reasons.
First, it marks a changing of the guard at one of the Park’s most recognizable Highway 60 landmarks. The P-Store has been run by the same family for decades. Like any business, it had its ups and downs. I once had a server who was so hungover from the night before’s Christmas in July staff party that she had to leave the dining room to puke multiple times, and then told us about it. More seriously, I often thought they needed to take more ownership of what comes after they rent someone a canoe. Too many times I saw novice paddlers fighting against bad conditions in early spring or late fall. I know there’s a larger debate here about personal responsibility, but in my mind there is some responsibility on the part of the outfitter to ensure they are renting their gear to people who can use it safely. That concern aside, it was a decently run operation providing valuable services under consistent ownership with a history in the Park. And losing that is sad.
Now, the good news is that you can use that last sentence to describe Algonquin Outfitters just as well as you could the P-Store, probably even moreso. My experiences with AO have always been excellent. I’m always blown away by the service and knowledge of their staff, and I have no doubt that they will run what they’re now calling the Canoe Lake Store just as well. However, in taking over this concession, AO is now the only outfitter operating in the Park. They’ve got the Opeongo Store, the Brent Store, the Two Rivers Store and the Canoe Lake store. As great as that is for AO, I would prefer to see some more competition in outfitting options within the Park’s boundaries. A little competition never hurt anyone, and I can’t help but think it would benefit the Park’s visitors.
Still, AO is a great business, and if someone is going to have a monopoly in the Park I guess I’m glad it’s them. I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with the Canoe Lake store. As long as they don’t discontinue the Tom Thomson Burger. If that happens, they’ve made an enemy for life.
Hey, speaking of Tom Thomson, let’s check in on this month’s spotlight lake.
Tom Thomson Lake is one of my favourite lakes in the Park. It’s one of the very first lakes I ever visited. I’m pretty sure my first overnight as a 17 year old Counsellor-In-Training with Camp Ahmek was to Tom Thomson. Leaving aside the fact that the group of six year olds I was ostensibly guiding on that trip all had more camping experience than I did, I remember really liking what I saw of Tom Thomson (and the lakes in between it and Canoe Lake as well!).
And what’s not to like? Located 10 relatively easy kilometers north of Canoe Lake, it’s a perfect destination for beginner trippers, groups with younger kids or anyone who wants a nice spot to stop for their first night. The route up to Tom Thomson is about as easy as you can ask for. Aside from a single 300 meter portage between Canoe and Joe Lake (known universally if not imaginatively as the Joe Lake portage), the entire trip between the parking lot and Tom Thomson is by water. Assuming you’re not paddling into a windstorm (and you probably shouldn’t be paddling into a windstorm), it’s a very pleasant half day (at most) to get up to your campsite.
Once you arrive at Tom Thomson, crossing over the iconic beaver dam that has stood between Little Doe and Tom Thomson since the dinosaurs were booking their backcountry permits, you’re greeted with a gorgeous lake. It’s not Opeongo or Lavielle sized, but it’s plenty big enough. It’s a two part lake, with a large south half and a slightly less large north half (here in the All of Algonquin universe halves can be different sizes from each other). These two parts are loosely separated by a brief narrowing point about 2/3 of the way up the lake. There are quite a few sites around its edges, and many of those are decent to good. The scenery is nice, particularly the rock wall that dominates the northeast side of the north half of the lake, and pretty much anywhere you choose to stay you’re going to have some great views.
Over the years I’ve visited many of the sites on Tom Thomson, and I can say that with few exceptions they all have something to offer. Some of my favourites include site 10, site 4 (with an asterisk), sites 5 & 6 and site 2. Why I didn’t list those in any kind of logical order I can’t say, but what’s done is done and I’m not going back to change it now.
Site 10 is a particular favourite of mine because it feels secluded, something that you might not expect to find on a lake with 17 campsites. The reason it feels so secluded is that it’s located at the top of the north half of the lake. There are fewer campsites up there to begin with, and the ones that are there are much more spread out than the ones in the south half. You could almost pretend that you’ve got the lake to yourself on Site 10, as the majority of Tom Thomson’s sites are around the corner and out of sight. Even the ones that are in eyeshot seem a bit better camouflaged than the sites in the south. It’s a smaller site, you probably wouldn’t want to have more than one tent here, but it’s got a nice layout, a small beach and great views. Can’t really ask for much more.
Site 4 is another favourite, although it does come with that asterisk I mentioned. It’s another small site. Built against a cool rock wall backdrop with really nice views south and west. On top of that, it’s got an awesome little set of jumping ledges a short walk back of the site towards Bartlett Lake and, at least when I was there, is home to the gnarliest looking turtle landlord I’ve ever seen. So what’s the problem? Well, Site 3, the next site east, is a close neighbour. Very close. Less a feel comfortable asking to borrow a cup of sugar close neighbour and more a barge into your bathroom and borrow your roll of toilet paper, while you’re using it type of close neighbour. In other words, if you don’t already know the people staying on site 3, you’re going to. While that can be a pain if you’re looking for some privacy, it works extremely well if you’re a large group who needs two permits.
Sites 5 and 6 are similar in that they don’t really have any special features, but they don’t have any specific drawbacks either. Located just across the Bartlett bay from Site 4, both sites offer plenty of room, great swimming and great views. You could put a few tents on either and still not feel tight for space. I’d probably give a slight edge to site 6 for the simple fact that site 5 sits at the start of the narrows leading over to Bartlett Lake, so anyone going that direction is going to be getting a front row seat to your skinny dip (which in my case would be more their problem than mine, but even if you’re not swimming naked it can get frustrating having people paddling right past your site all day).
Once you’re settled into your campsite, there’s a lot to see around the lake. The north wall I mentioned earlier (which keeps the White Walkers at bay among other things) is well worth checking out. It’s a beautiful stretch of Canadian Shield rising up from the water 30 or 40 feet high. The forest rides the top of the wall, rising and falling in a gentle wave along with the ridge. From far way it looks impressive. From up close it’s even more so. Either way, it’s a must see destination on the Tom Thomson self-guided canoe tour.
There are also plenty of nooks and crannies to explore around Tom Thomson. There are a few small bays (and I do mean small) you can paddle into that offer at least a chance of seeing some wildlife. The portage bay leading over to Ink Lake in particular seems tailor made for a hungry moose in search of slimy green stuff to eat. It’s a small, shallow bay with lots of plant life floating on top of the water. The put-in coming over from Long Pond is similarly swampy, er nature-y, and could be a good spot to find some birds or smaller mammals.
Along with all that there is to explore on the lake itself, one of my favourite things about Tom Thomson is that it’s a bit of a nexus point. There are four ways to get in and out of the lake, by way of Little Doe, Bartlett, Ink Lake and Long Pond. The Ink Lake and Long Pond portages are both on the long (and slightly frustrating) side, but Little Doe and Bartlett are connected by water only. If you get tired of exploring Tom Thomson you can easily branch out to these nearby lakes. From a tripping perspective, Tom Thomson is a great destination for an easier trip, and works just as well as a first night for trips heading up to Sunbeam (and beyond) or McIntosh.
I could go on and on about Tom Thomson, but this is already bordering on gratuitous. Let’s just leave it at this: Tom Thomson Lake is a great spot. It’s worth checking out if you’ve never been before, and it’s worth checking out again if you already have.
I’m a big fan of Kuhl clothing. If you’re not familiar with Kuhl, they’re an outdoorwear brand that got their start selling hats to skiers out of the back of the founders’ van back in the 1980s. Over the years, they moved beyond hats (and vans) to all kinds of clothing, including my all time favourite pair of camping pants, the Radikl.
The Radikl has been a staple of my spring and fall canoe trips for a few years now. They’re my go-to campsite pant. They’re made of a blend of cotton and nylon with just a hint of spandex thrown into the mix. They’ve also got panels made of a higher blend of nylon and spandex at strategic spots that provide flexibility to the fabric that you won’t find in other hiking pants. The net result is something that is more comfortable than my daytime tripping pants, warm enough to keep the May and September chill at bay and durable enough to stand up to all the nonsense I tend to put clothing through on any given trip. I like the pants so much that they’ve made it into my regular rotation here in the city, and more often than not are what I’ll wear for a day hike once the snow starts to melt.
Huh, given those first couple of paragraphs, you’d think this month’s review is about the Radikl pants. It’s not! It’s about another Kuhl product, their Transcendr pants.
A couple months back a Kuhl representative reached out to me to ask if I was familiar with their clothing and, if so, would I like to try out their line of wind and water resistant pants. The answer to both those questions was very much “yes”, and Kuhl was kind enough to send me a pair of their Transcendr hiking pants to test out. The pants arrived at around the same time winter did here in Ottawa, which has given me ample opportunity to put them through their paces.
To start with, unlike the Radikl which are regular pants, the Transcendr is a softshell. Different types of pants mean different expectations. As a cotton blend, I try and avoid getting the Radikl wet. The Transcendr is a nylon/spandex blend that is specifically designed to be water resistant. So far, I’ve found them to live up to this billing. I’ve worn them walking, hiking, cross country-skiing and downhill skiing in both snow and (light) freezing rain and my legs have stayed dry through it all. I haven’t had a chance to wear them in a proper rain storm (those are in short supply in Ottawa in January), but the initial brushes with precipitation have been everything I could ask for.
Comfort and Flexibility
For a softshell, I’ve found the pants to be fairly comfortable. The outside fabric feels a bit rougher, as I would imagine it should given the focus on wind and water resistance. The interior of the pants are softer and quite comfortable. Kuhl advertises the pants as having “built in stretch”, and here as well I’ve found them to live up to that promise. I’m 5’10, with a 32′ waist. The pants I got are 32×32 and they fit very nicely. They’re not baggy by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s a lot of give in the material which means you can bend in pretty much any direction without feeling constricted.
From a durability perspective, Kuhl advertises the pants as being abrasion resistant. I can’t say much about the long-term lifespan of the pants, but after wearing them about a dozen times across a variety of activities, they don’t seem to have accumulated any wear and tear. This is backed up by the feel of the pant. The fabric feels sturdy, without being heavy. They’re not going to stop a chainsaw, but they seem to do just fine with sharp sticks, frozen ground and other small hazards I typically run across (including a new puppy that loves pulling at pants cuffs).
I’ve found that once I start to move, the pants do a good job of keeping me warm. They stand up well to the wind, something I’ve put to the test a few times while skiing (I should note, I’ve been wearing a base layer under the pants for skiing). I wore them the other day for an outdoor Beaver Scouts investiture meeting, which meant standing outside in temperatures well below zero for about an hour, and found that between the pants and my base layer I stayed warm and comfortable. I wouldn’t necessarily want them to be my only layer once the temperature gets too much below zero, but they’re certainly enough in cooler temperatures and even some moderate winter weather.
Style and Design
From a style standpoint, the pants look pretty sharp. I got the Raven style (read: black). When I showed them to my wife she couldn’t figure out why I was showing her a pair of work pants. If a casual Friday at the office vibe is what you’re looking for in your outdoor pants, then these ones have you covered. Water cooler casualwear aside, the pants are well designed. They fit comfortably, with everything where you think it should be. There’s a drawstring around the cuffs that can be used to tighten the bottom of each leg around your ankles if you want. I haven’t used this yet, but I imagine it comes in handy on rainy hikes. There are multiple pockets, each with what is simultaneously my most and least favourite feature of the pants, which we’ll talk about in the next section.
A Pro and A Con
One of my favourite features of the pants, and yet also one of the only drawbacks I’ve found with them, is that every pocket (there are six of them) is zippered. This is awesome! One of my biggest worries on a hike is losing something important (like car keys) from a pocket without realizing it. Not with these pants. I put my keys in one pocket, my ski pass in another and my phone in a third and don’t have to worry about losing any of it when I inevitably take a spill. That said, the zippered back pockets are a bit of a problem if you plan on sitting on anything that you don’t want to scratch. They stick out from the rest of the pant and are sharp enough that it left marks on a leather (or leather-like) surface. This was manageable by leaving the back pockets open, transferring the zipper to the outer edge of the pocket where it doesn’t actually touch the chair/seat material, but it’s something to keep in mind.
I like these pants. They’re marketed as a hiking pant but they translate well to any number of outdoor activities. They’re a good addition to my outdoors closet and fill in the softshell gap nicely. They retail for $129.00 US on the Kuhl website, but I’ve found that the Kuhl products I’ve owned have earned their price tag over the years. These are a great option for active winter days, and I’m looking forward to seeing how they hold up to what Algonquin can throw at them this spring.
I’ve added 9 new campsite reports since our last update. All of them are from the Opeongo area, four of them are from Opeongo itself. My favourite of them all, Big Crow – Site 3, very nearly won this year’s Best Campsite Moosie Award.
My annual Lessons Learned and Moosie Awards posts went up through the end of December and beginning of January. The Lessons Learned post in particular is always a fun one to write because it usually ends up that whatever lesson I’ve learned is one I probably should have internalized long before I even picked up a paddle. This year’s lessons revolved mostly around my failed Nipissing Trip last August. Here’s a thought: if your map warns you that low water can be an issue in early August, maybe expect low water to be an issue in early August.
The Moosie Awards bring back old favourites like Best Sunset, Favourite Campsite and Thunderiest Thunderbox, among others. Want to know what my favourite route was this year, or which portage I hated more than all of P.T. Anderson’s movies combined? The answers are waiting for you below!