Welcome to the May 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 Tonakela Lake, wilderness first aid, a new but old outfitting option in the Park and more.
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The Park is open! The official ice out date for this year was April 23, 2023 and the Park opened to backcountry camping as of April 26. As I write this, someone is likely feeling very cold, but very happy to be there, somewhere on Maple Lake (or Big Trout, or Stratton or …). While there are a few caveats to that opening (you can’t get to a number of access points by road right now because those roads are trying out life as small lakes), it doesn’t change the fact that paddling season has officially begun. This is good news for any number of reasons, but for the purposes of this newsletter it’s extra exciting because it means that next month’s “What’s Going On?” section is going to have some genuine Algonquin goings on to report. For now though, this month’s outdoors activities were Algonquin adjacent at best.
Probably the biggest outdoors things I did this month was attend a two day Wilderness Fist Aid course with Boreal River Rescue in Wakefield, Quebec. My thoughts on the course (spoiler: it was awesome) are going to take the place of this month’s Gear Review section, but the main takeaway is that there are a whole lot of ways you can hurt yourself in the backcountry, and I’m extremely happy to say that I now feel like I wouldn’t be a complete liability in an emergency situation.
Other than that, the first trip of the year is getting closer. Even with the Park opening earlier than expected, I don’t think there’s room in my schedule to sneak in a true ice out trip, but mid May is coming soon enough. There’s a hot date with a dehydrator in my future. Well, not hot I guess. Warm? There’s a warm-ish date with a dehydrator in my future. But that’s the future. For now, let’s talk about this month’s spotlight lake.
It’s obscure lake month here at All of Algonquin. Tonakela Lake probably isn’t on anyone’s list of top 100 lakes they want to visit. It’s a small lake nestled in the Ahmek District, just west of Canoe Lake. The Ahmek district is a collection of small to slightly less small lakes connected by long, low maintenance portages. It’s probably better known by Algonquin’s hiking community, as the Western Uplands trail visits (and has campsites on) quite a few of the lakes in the area. That said, you shouldn’t discount this part of the Park as a paddling destination as well. While the portages can be a bit of a challenge, the lakes are fun to explore, the scenery is beautiful and you’ve got a good chance at getting yourself a private lake if you head up this way for a night.
Tonakela is the fifth lake in from Canoe Lake. While it does take a bit of hiking with boats to get there, Tonakela is certainly accessible from the access point as a night one destination. To get to Tonakela, you pass through Sam, Gill, Drummer and Little Drummer. Getting through Sam and Gill isn’t much of a challenge. Both of these lakes are basically glorified puddles. There’s a p455 up from Canoe Lake and a P100 in between Sam and Gill, neither of which are particularly challenging (although the p455 can be wet in early season). Getting from Gill to Drummer is a bit more of an adventure. There’s a P1850 in between the two, and a good chunk of it is uphill. Not Tarn to St. Andrew’s uphill, but uphill nonetheless. Drummer and Little Drummer are connected by a short narrows and after that it’s a relatively easy p540 to Tonakela, just in time to catch the sunset over the western narrows.
But, do you want to catch that sunset? Would you want Tonakela to be your night one destination? Let’s find out.
Arriving at Tonakela from the Drummer direction you’re greeted with a 50 meter stretch that, depending on the time of year is either very soggy wetland or just kind of spongy mudland. Basically, the portage trail ends before Tonakela begins, and in between is a creek area that you have to navigate. As you can see from the picture above, the Park has put a small boardwalk in to get across the worst, but that dry looking ground at the other end of the boardwalk can be anything but dry in the right conditions. Whether or not you’re still sporting the dry boot look by the end of this section will depend on how nimble you are and the time of year.
Once you’re through the ankle bath, you’ve got a choice to make: set up shop for the night, or continue on to Thunder Lake. If you continue on to Thunder, you’re not going to be spending too much time in the canoe. Tonakela is a small lake. Small to mid-size if you squint. It takes about 10 minutes to paddle Tonakela’s length, if that. If you decide to stick around for the night, your choices are somewhat limited. By which I mean they are completely limited.
Tonakela is home to one campsite. This is both good and bad. It’s good because it means that if you book Tonakela, you know you’re going to get the lake to yourself (which is pretty cool!). It’s bad because one campsite means you don’t have a lot of options if that campsite turns out to be a lemon. You get what you get and you don’t get upset (thank you to my kids’ preschool teachers for getting that one stuck in my head for the past 8 years or so).
So, where does Tonakela’s campsite fall on the spectrum between Furrow Lake – Site 2 and Lake Louisa – Site 17 (Under All of Algonquin’s Patented Campsite Rating Scale, Furrow Lake is shorthand for a dumpster fire in the middle of the fungus zombie apocalypse. Louisa – Site 17 is whatever is the opposite of fungus zombie dumpster fire)? Truthfully, probably closer to the Furrow end, but not by too much. It’s a basic site. The terrain is a bit uneven (in my campsite review I described it as being like a waterbed that someone kicked then flash froze). Despite the uneven-ness, it’s a decent sized site and you could get a few tents on it pretty easily. It’s located on the north side of the Drummer Lake portage bay. The site itself doesn’t offer much in the way of views, the far shore is not very far looking directly out, but if you walk a minute or two through the woods you come to the tip of a small point with a nice western view across Tonakela and towards Thunder.
Tonakela is split into two parts in my mind. There’s the lake proper, where you arrive coming from Drummer and where the campsite is located, and then there’s the western tail. The western tail is a shallow inlet dotted with smooth rocks that narrows towards the Thunder Lake portage. I’ve only ever paddled this part of Tonakela in the early morning, and one thing I’ve noticed is that it’s a very pretty stretch to paddle as the sun pokes over the trees behind you and burns away the morning mist. It’s very peaceful. Peaceful, that is, until you ground your canoe in about a half inch of water a good 10 meters from where the portage to Thunder is supposed to start. Then it’s not so much peaceful as it is aggravating (and damp) as those boots you tried to keep dry on the way in from Drummer end up getting wet anyways.
And that’s more or less it for our tour of Tonakela. In the amount of time it took you to read this section you could probably have paddled from one end to the other. So, now that we know everything there is to know about Tonakela, here’s the question: do we want to stay there?
I can make arguments both ways on this one. Truthfully, there are better sites on nearby Drummer Lake. If I was going in for a couple of nights and base camping, I’d probably want to stay there instead. On the other hand, if I was looking for a place to spend the night before pushing further into the Ahmek District, Tonakela would be a decent option. Tonakela is a good first day’s work out from the Canoe Lake access point, without being either too easy or too hard. It gets you one portage further in, you get the lake to yourself and the campsite is basic but decent. But you know what? Don’t take my word for it. Tonakela’s right there waiting for you to check it out. And when you do, you can tell me if you think it’s more of a Furrow or a Louisa.
There are so many ways you can hurt yourself in the backcountry. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of things that can wrong:
Cuts, punctures, sprained limbs, broken limbs, broken and strained limbs?, burns, infection, allergic reaction, hypothermia, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, lightning strike, heart attack, shock, inhaling things that shouldn’t be inhaled, *squints* pit viper bite?, … the list goes on.
Up until now, I’ve prepared for these possibilities by assuming that a) nothing would ever go wrong and b) the Bronze Medallion course I did 20 years ago had set me up for life in the lifesaving skills department in event that something did go wrong (which it wouldn’t, see assumption “a”). This probably isn’t the planning for someone who likes to do things that keep them at least a few hours (but likely many more) away from from the nearest hospital, medical practice or witch doctor. Add to this lack of preparedness the fact that I’ve started bringing my kids out on longer and more involved canoe trips, and it was clear I needed to up my first aid game. The only question was how was I going to do it?
This is where Boreal River Rescue comes in.
Boreal River Rescue is an Ottawa/Gatineau based outdoor adventure and first aid skills company. They run all kinds of guided trips through their adventure arm, and offer all kinds of wilderness first aid courses through their rescue arm. While the Costa Rica: Sea to Sky trip sounds pretty appealing, it probably would have been a tough sell to my wife (“Hey, I’m going to Costa Rica for 10 days, you’re good with the kids and everything, right?”). Instead, I settled on one of their closer to home courses, the two day Wilderness First Aid course running on location in Wakefield Quebec in mid April.
Wilderness First Aid is the most beginner first aid course Boreal River offers. They run it based on a curriculum from Wilderness Medical Associates, who provide an internationally recognized standard in wilderness first aid. While the course is labelled beginner, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. There’s a lot to learn. Each day of the course ran from 8 am to 6 pm, and it used every minute of that time. While these might sound like long days (which, let’s face it, they are), they didn’t feel like long days. The course was run out The Barn, a gorgeous spot just beyond the border of Gatineau Park near Wakefield QC. The vast majority of the instruction took place outside (which makes sense, it’s not called Living Room First Aid) and thanks to well planned days, a beautiful weekend weather-wise and engaging instruction, the hours went by quickly.
I arrived at The Barn about 15 minutes before the day was scheduled to begin. I pulled in behind another attendee who also happened to be a reader of this blog and recognized me as we were getting out of our cars. That was pretty cool! And if nothing else it was a sign that at the very least I was probably going to have some things in common with the other students.
We started the day sitting in a wide semi-circle with the sun rising above the trees behind us. We went through introductions as a group, and talked a little bit about why each of us was there. I was interested to see that the vast majority of the attendees weren’t there voluntarily. Wait, that sounds like it was some kind of prison sentence. More accurately, the vast majority of the attendees were there because they needed to be thanks to work or school requirements. I hadn’t realized how many different areas of study get you out doing and learning cool things in the woods. One of the attendees was an earth sciences prof who had spent time hiking with students down in the U.S. southwest. Another pair were researchers who are about to spend their entire summer fishing for and studying the patterns of Muskie along the Petawawa between Travers and McManus. Not a bad reason to brush up on your first aid skills.
I’m not going to give a play by play of the entire weekend, that would turn this into a novel, but I’ll touch on some highlights. The course was led by three instructors. Boreal has been running these courses for a while, and it shows. The three instructors passed along a tremendous amount of information given the time allotted, and they did it in a concise, easy to understand and engaging way. Among other things, we learned how to assess a scene, assess a patient, deal with primary and secondary issues, make a plan and keep track of information in a way that would be useful when other, more experienced, rescuers took over. We learned about shock, how to assess vitals and maybe most importantly how to determine if an issue is serious or not serious (this, in particular, would have been great information to have that time I evacuated my son for what turned out to be a mosquito bite).
Each segment built on what had come before, and there was plenty of hands on practice to go along with the instruction. I learned how to improvise a pressure dressing, use a tourniquet, clean a wound, make a splint, treat hypothermia and heat stroke, move a patient, perform CPR on adults and infants and identify various medical issues, among other things. I also learned a fair bit about how our bodies actually work and, conversely, many of the terrifying ways they can stop working.
By the end of the two days it felt a bit like I’d been drinking from a fire hose. There was a lot of information to retain. It felt like we could have spent two days on any one of the concepts we covered, and we covered a lot of concepts. That said, I think the course was designed in a way that gives you the best chance at retaining the important parts. Boreal River offers longer, more intensive options (Advanced Wilderness First Aid and Wilderness First Responder) for people who want to go deeper, but as a practical survey to help convert you from a liability to an asset in an emergency situation? This course certainly ticked that box.
I added 4 new campsite reports in April and I am finally caught up on 2022! For those keeping track at home, I finished the last report two days before they opened the Park for 2023. Sometimes you just need a deadline for that final push, you know?
Of the sites I added in April, I’d probably say Crow Bay – Site 1 was my favourite. It’s a smaller site, tucked away on a small point and surrounded on all sides by trees. I wouldn’t want to be there with a big group, but it felt nicely secluded and for a small trip seemed like a nice spot to spend a night.
We still don’t have any new trip reports just yet (I mean, the Park’s only been open for four days and the closest I’ve been to a canoe is navigating my garbage cans around the one in my garage last Friday). So, in honour of ice out, here’s my May 2018 Clover Lake ice out trip. This was a great low maintenance route out of the Achray access point that included some beautiful lakes, a great campsite on Clover Lake, the remains of an old ranger cabin on Guthrie Lake, the biggest, wettest beaver meadow I’ve yet to hike across and some of the hardest portages I’ve ever done. Check it out here!