Welcome to the April 2023 issue of The Thunderbox. The Thunderbox is a monthly roundup of anything Algonquin related that’s caught my eye. This month includes a spotlight on Stratton Lake, reading on trip, campsite reviews and more.
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Some day, after I’ve built my toaster time machine but before I go back and sneeze on a dinosaur, I’m going to go ask July 2022 Drew what he was thinking when he decided to start each issue of The Thunderbox off with a “What’s Going On?” section. Sure, it makes sense in the summer when things are, you know, going on. But in March? When the Park is under a layer of snow and ice and my desire to winter camp is lost somewhere back in time with that dead T-Rex? The Algonquin Adventures are few and far between.
I did manage to get a couple of shorter family trips planned out. July is going to take us to the east arm of Opeongo for a couple of days of base camping, and in August we’re heading up to Shirley Lake out of the Shall Access point for the same. Both trips will be fun, but I’m looking forward to the Shirley trip in particular because, if all goes according to plan, I’ll be visiting Mudville Lake for the first time during that trip. What’s so special about Mudville Lake? No idea. But it’s one of the best lake names I’ve come across in the Park and I’m both excited and terrified to find out if it’s a description as well as a name.
Who knows? Maybe at some point Mudville Lake will get its own Spotlight Lake entry. For now though, let’s talk about Stratton Lake.
Stratton Lake is accessible through the Achray – Grand Lake access point (#22) on the Park’s east side. Coming from Ottawa, this is a very reasonable 2-2.5 hour drive. Coming from Toronto, it’s also a reasonable 2 – 2.5 hour drive, but then you need to add another, less reasonable, 3 hours to the trip (in other words, Toronto is about 5.5 -6 hours away). But it’s worth the drive! The part of the Park that’s accessible through Achray, Stratton Lake included, is one of the prettiest and coolest parts to visit.
Centered around the Barron River, which winds its way east through Grand, Stratton and, eventually, into the Barron Canyon, the scenery in the area is different from what you’ll find further west. It’s rockier, and seemingly more exposed in places. The trees grow tall and skinny in the thin soil, and in many places you can find deadfalls where the weight of the tree got to be too much for the root system, and the entire thing has just fallen over (I once stayed on an otherwise awesome site on Cork Lake where it seemed like there was a tree giving up every five minutes. We must have heard three or four trees fall over that night).
Stratton Lake is easily accessible from your starting point on Grand Lake. It’s the next lake to the east of Grand, and requires a short (1.5 – 2 KM) paddle and even shorter (50 meter) portage to get there. Once you’re over the portage, you start with a couple hundred meters of river (watch out for rockbergs! there are a few opportunities to add some scratches to the bottom of your boat along this stretch) before you pass under an old rail bridge and Stratton opens up in front of you.
Stratton is a long and narrow lake. Really, it’s just a widening of the Barron River, and it’s easy to see that as you’re paddling along. The shoreline is relatively straight on either side, and not that far away no matter where you are on the lake. Stratton’s somewhere in the neighbourhood of 400 meters at its widest, and the distance doesn’t fluctuate all that much.
However, what Stratton lacks in width it makes up for in length. It’s about 4.5-5 KM to get from the Grand Lake portage to the next portage east, the 45 meter blip over to St. Andrew’s Lake. This is a nice paddle on a calm day, it can be a bit of a challenge if the wind is coming from the west and you’re trying to get back to the parking lot at the end of the weekend.
The vast majority of Stratton’s canoeing campsites are on the north shore, and there are quite a few towards the eastern end. You’ll note I mentioned canoeing campsites, Stratton is also home to a few backpacking campsites clustered near the middle of the lake and close to the High Falls swimming area. The backpacking sites aren’t marked from the water, so it’s unlikely that you’d end up on one by mistake, but if somehow you find yourself on a campsite that doesn’t have an obvious canoe landing and where the site sign is up in the woods, maybe keep moving.
The highlight of Stratton is its proximity to the High Falls natural waterslide and swimming area. There’s a reason most of the campsites are towards Stratton’s east end: that’s also the end that’s closest to the waterslides. While Stratton is predominately an east west lake, it does dogleg north for about a kilometer at the eastern end. The top of this dogleg is where you can access the High Falls swimming area. This is a series of small waterfalls and pools in between Stratton Lake and High Falls Lake that have been put on this earth for people to swim in. There’s a natural bum slide that’s about 8-10 feet long between a couple of the pools, and some awesome jumping ledges scattered here and there. This is a fantastic spot to bring the kids (in their lifejackets) or just to hang out. On a sunny day the smooth rock surrounding the area is an awesome spot to set up for an afternoon of swimming and relaxing (just keep an eye out for snakes, turns out they don’t mind oven warm rocks either).
If you’ve had your fill of swimming holes and waterslides, Stratton is also a great spot from which to start a day trip. There’s a lot to see in the area, including The Cascades (a series of short waterfalls and rapids further along the Barron River), Brigham Chute (a much larger waterfall leading down from Brigham Lake into the Barron Canyon) and the Barron Canyon itself. The Canyon in particular is an awesome destination. Here the Barron River cuts between massive rock walls on either side, a simultaneously awe inspiring and slightly terrifying sight (every time I paddle through here the thought “I wonder if today is the day all those rocks decide to take a swim” crosses my mind). It feels a bit like you’re paddling into Argonath, but with fewer Orcs. You can cover all of these spots in a day trip that takes you from Stratton, through High Falls Lake, over to the Cascades and down into the Canyon before coming back by way of Opalescent and Ooze Lake. This is a long day though, so I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re travelling with kids or people looking for a low impact day. Along with the distance (it’s about an 18 KM round trip), the portages in the area can be a bit technical thanks to the number of rocks poking up out of the ground along the trail. It’s well worth it if you’re feeling up for it though. There’s a spot about a kilometer into the canyon on the top of a massive erratic that’s perfect for a lunch break and a swim.
Coming back to Stratton, you’re going to want to have a good campsite. The good news is that there are a number of decent sites on Stratton. The bad news is that Stratton is one of the more popular lakes in the Park, let alone this area, so grabbing one of those sites mid-summer might be a challenge. My favourite site on Stratton is probably the lone eastern shore site just before the portage over to St. Andrew’s. This is a smaller spot, but there’s room for a couple of tents, a nice little beach and an absolutely stunning view west along Stratton. If that site is taken, the point site across from it where Stratton doglegs north is a pretty good option as well. I’ve managed to snag this site once and I really liked it for its size, exposures and access to both the High Falls swimming area and the portage over to St. Andrew’s. To be honest, these two sites are probably 1 and 1A on most people’s lists, meaning they might be tougher to get if you’re there in July or August (and especially if you’re there on a weekend). A sneaky good consolation prize site is Site 1, the last site before the entry to the High Falls area. This site isn’t all that spectacular. It’s near some wetlands so the bugs might be bad earlier in the season, but it’s big enough for a large group, a decent distance from its nearest neighbour and gives you great access to the waterfall area. And, every time I’ve been through here it’s been empty (probably because it’s literally the last option you can get to on Stratton).
Finally, if you’re not looking to portage but you wouldn’t mind stretching your legs, the Eastern Pines Backpacking Trail runs through the forest behind Stratton. You can access it with a short bushwhack from some of the campsites, and it also comes out at the High Falls swimming area if you want to join up there.
All in all, there’s a lot to do using Stratton Lake as your starting point. You can stick close to home and enjoy an afternoon swimming with the snakes at the waterslides, or you can range further afield and check out the Canyon or nearby lakes like Opalescent, Cork or St. Francis. If you’re feeling really ambitious you can try out a segment of the Eastern Pines hiking trail or hike south to Tarn Lake from St. Andrew’s (this portage is not for the faint of heart. It’s 4 KM and the first KM on both sides is very steep). Whatever you choose to do, Stratton is a great base of operations. And, as a bonus, when your trip is over the paddle out is relatively tame and offers a few neat spots to stop and sightsee along the way.
Okay. Hear me out. I understand that an E-Reader probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think camping gear. But, trust me, adding a Kindle to my kit has been one of the biggest game changers as far as pack weight, pack space and general trip enjoyment goes. Here’s why:
I read. A lot. I can’t fall asleep at night without reading for 20 minutes to half an hour, and when I’m out on trip that time doubles. On top of that, it’s my go-to activity for an afternoon in the hammock or when I’m killing some time before dinner. If I’ve got a (very infrequent) rest day, odds are I’ll spend half the day paddling around whatever lake I’m on and the other half reading. This means that in the course of a four or five day trip I can usually get through at least one book, if not two. Before I had my Kindle I would usually have a couple of books in my personal regardless of the trip length because I didn’t want to run the risk that I’d run out of reading material. And, while it’s not like I’m lugging War and Peace along with me, it turns out that when you’ve got multiple books in your pack they start to eat space quickly.
I picked up my Kindle in 2018. Back then, the Kindle Paperwhite was $99.00. These days it runs closer to $149.00. I’d say that it’s probably still worth the cost, but the 50% jump over five years is a bit tough to stomach. That said, if you don’t mind the initial outlay, it’s going to be worthwhile in the long run.
My kindle is about the same general size and shape as a closed mass market paperback. Maybe a bit wider and squatter, but close enough. It is, however, nowhere near as thick as a paperback. In fact, it’s less than 10 mm thick. Right here is my favourite thing about the Kindle. I’ve got as many books as I want at my disposal (the Kindle can hold literally thousands of books) for much less pack space than a paperback. It’s not particularly heavy either. The newest version weighs in at about 7 ounces. So, for less space than a single regular book would take up, and what’s basically a rounding error amount of weight, all my reading material is taken care of. Not bad.
I was a tough convert to e-readers. I love the feeling of holding a book in my hands, and you don’t get the same satisfaction of turning pages by tapping the side of your Kindle’s screen (which is how you advance to the next page). I still read real books about half the time at home, and I don’t think I’ll ever go completely electronic (although 20 years ago I probably would have told you I’d never stop adding to my DVD collection either). That said, the e-reader experience is a decent one. Despite the fact that you are in fact staring at a screen, it doesn’t feel like you’re staring at a screen. If I try to read on my phone or on a tablet I end up with a headache. That doesn’t happen with the Kindle. This is because Kindles use e-ink instead of the usual LCD display. And that’s about as far as my understanding of it goes. This is a camping blog, not a technology one. All I know is that my eyes don’t hurt after reading my Kindle, regardless of how long I’m looking at it.
The display is customizable to a degree. You can change the font to make the words bigger or smaller, and you can change the brightness to adjust for lighting conditions at any time of day. This is handy for both before bed reading in the tent and for afternoon sessions in the sun. The Paperwhite uses an LED light that distributes light to the front of the screen, making for a much brighter display without any glare.
Move over Energizer, you’ve been outlasted. (uh, the battery life on these things isn’t infinite, but it sure seems that way. I charge mine about once a month. I’ve had it on five and six day trips and still had over 50% battery left by the end).
Maybe in a post about a book reader I should talk a bit about how you access books? Basically, the Kindle is direct wired into your Amazon account (and, by extension, your wallet). Kindle books are cheaper than physical books, which means you make back your original cost over time. From your reader you log into the Kindle Store (the Kindle doesn’t have its own internet hookup but it does connect to any WIFI) and as easy as that you’ve got pretty much every book ever written at your fingertips. If you’re feeling adventurous you can get pretty good deals on self-published authors posting directly through Amazon. More well known and popular authors/books are also discounted compared to the physical copy, but only by a buck or two.
If you’re bringing a piece of electronic equipment on a canoe trip, you want it to be durable, right? Well, the Kindle seems to fit that bill as well. It’s handled the occasional drops and bumps pretty well and my understanding is that newer models are waterproof. That said, I’m pretty careful with mine when I’m out on trip. It travels in a Pelican case along with a couple of other things I wouldn’t want to break and that’s worked pretty well.
That’s about all I’ve got for the Kindle. As much as this has probably read like an ad for Amazon, it’s not. I’m not affiliated with them or getting compensated in any way for this review (but, hey, Amazon, I can be bought). I expect any e-reader would provide the same benefits as far as canoe tripping is concerned, I just happen to have a Kindle. For me, the space and weight savings as compared to regular books, and the fact that I can bring as many books with me on trip as I want, make an e-reader an indispensable part of my gear. Your mileage might vary, but if you like to read, and you don’t like carrying extra weight, an e-reader is worth looking into.
I added 10 new campsite reports in March and am almost through the backlog. At this rate I’m going to be done with 2022 before my 2023 ice out trip, but it’s going to be close. Of the sites I added, my favourite was probably Booth Lake, Site 10. This is an awesome spot at the north end of Booth’s east shore. It’s one of only two campsites on Booth’s north half and it’s got a lot going for it. A great beach (stone, not sand, but still a beach), gorgeous views, lots of space and did I mention the beach? I stopped there for an afternoon but would happily go back for a night or two.
At the other end of the spectrum is Mallard Lake, site 1. This isn’t a bad site per se, it’s just not a site I’d want to stay on. It’s small, basic and literally steps from the road leading into the Sec Lake access point. There’s a time and a place where this would be a great option. Really early or late season and you want to camp, but don’t want to have to risk paddling anywhere? This would work. Otherwise, there are plenty of better options very close by on Sec Lake (some of which are covered in this month’s update as well!).
Last time I checked there was still a metric ton of snow on the ground, which means no new canoe trips. So here’s another one from the archives. In keeping with the theme from this month’s Spotlight Lake, this report covers an August 2021 family trip to Stratton Lake & the High Falls area. It’s called, appropriately, enough, Stratton Lake & High Falls. This was a fun two day trip with family friends. We base camped at the last site before the High Falls area and basically spent the weekend going back and forth from the site to the water park. Check it out!