Welcome to the July 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 Booth Lake, a mixed review of my sleeping pad and my first campsite reviews of the 2023 season (and other stuff too!).
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You know what’s weird? I spend all winter waiting for ice out, dreaming about that first trip of the season. In my head, that first trip is just the appetizer to a spring that is going to be packed full of paddling, portaging and more paddling (I spent far too long trying to come up with a third camping related “P” word for that last sentence).
And it doesn’t happen.
Sure, I get my spring trip in (like I did this past May), but after that June is a pretty quiet month for all things Algonquin. Between kids activities and the whole *gestures wildly* late spring bugocalypse, I don’t tend to spend much time in the Park in June. Add in the fact that a various points this month the air quality in the Park would have given me flashbacks to nights spent barhopping in Montreal in the late 90s, and this ended up being yet another Algonquin-lite June. My only Algonquin related activity was a day trip into the Park on Father’s Day to visit Camp Pathfinder on Source Lake.
But, you know what? If that was going to be my only Algonquin visit for the month, it was a pretty good one.
Pathfinder is the oldest all boys camp in the Park (the oldest camp that’s still operating is Camp Northway, which also happens to be Canada’s oldest all-girls camp, period). My son is trying it out this year for two weeks, and the camp was kind enough to give him (and the rest of our family) a tour of the property to help alleviate some of his nerves. And it worked! Before the tour he was asking us what he’d need to do to get out of going to camp at all, after the tour he was asking what would happen if he wanted to stay for a month.
I’ve got to say, I was also pretty impressed. Pathfinder is located on a large island in the middle of Source Lake (also known as access point #9 on Highway 60). The facilities are in great shape; the in-camp activities look like fun (the high ropes course in particular looks awesome) and everything seems to be really well thought out. On top of that, the tripping program seems pretty strong. They’ve got a map of Algonquin on the wall of their trip shack (which is by no means a shack) that looks like something you’d find in the White House situation room (if the President was really into planning canoe trips). Kids my son’s age go out for a couple of trips, the second of which the boys play a large role in planning and executing. That’s pretty cool! Also, I am 99% certain that whatever trip my son plans will be better conceived, and go more smoothly, than anything I’ve put together. I dunno. I’m excited for him. And, more importantly, he’s excited too!
I love Booth Lake. Let’s get that out of the way right off the top. If you’re reading this section hoping for an impartial review of J.R. Booth‘s namesake lake, you’re out of luck. Booth is an awesome spot whether you’re a seasoned tripper or out for your first backcountry overnight. It’s a great lake to bring co-workers (which I’ve done) and kids (which I’ve also done). It’s also a great spot for a first night if you’re looking for a longer trip up into lakes like Dickson and Lavielle to the north, or Opeongo and beyond to the northwest.
But what makes it so great? Let’s dicuss.
Booth is accessible from the Shall Lake access point (#17), about 25 kilometers north of the town of Madawaska. If we’re thinking driving times, Shall Lake is on the eastern side of the Park, about 3 hours from Ottawa and 4 hours from Toronto (the Toronto time is from Google Maps, and seems a bit light to me, but who am I to argue with Google?). Once you’ve left the access point (which has a decent sized parking lot, and an even more decent sized upper parking lot for overflow), it’s only about 7.5 km before you’re on Booth. Along the way, you paddle through Farm and Kitty Lakes, and along a short stretch of the Opeongo River. There are a couple of portages, a p90 that is fairly skippable coming downriver, and a p645 that is not skippable no matter which direction you’re coming from. Fortunately, the p645 is a pretty decent carry, which makes getting to Booth a relatively pleasant, and easy, trip.
Booth is a big lake. It’s got two main parts (a north basin and a south basin), connected to each other by a short narrows. Basically, it kind of looks like Booth is wearing a belt. Both the north and south ends would be good sized lakes in their own right, which is what makes the campsite layout on Booth kind of interesting. Pretty much all the campsites on Booth are concentrated in the south end. Of the 18 campsites, 16 on them are in the south end. The other two (sites 9 & 10 in the campsite archive), are just above the belt into the north end. That leaves a huge chunk of water in between the eastern shore where sites 9 and 10 lie and Tattler Lake, the next lake to the west of Booth. I’m not sure why there aren’t any campsites on Booth’s north part, but it means that once you’ve arrived at Booth you’re pretty much immediately into campsite hunting mode.
And, depending on when you’re arriving on Booth, this can be a tough mode to be in.
See, Booth is a very popular lake. On any given summer weekend it’s quite possible that it will be fully booked. This can leave you hunting around the shorelines of the still quite large south part of Booth, looking for that one empty site. I’ve been in that position a couple of times now. Once, I got lucky, and ended up on one of Booth’s nicest sites. The next time wasn’t so lucky, and we ended up circumnavigating most of the south end of the lake before ending up on Site 2. You don’t want to end up on Site 2.
Let me explain.
Booth Lake – Site 2, is where dreams go to die. Or, more accurately, it’s where they go to not happen since you won’t be getting much sleep thanks to the uneven ground and faint “a murder could have happened here” vibe. It’s an enclosed site, barely visible from the water and guarded by one of the more unforgiving approaches I’ve seen in front of a campsite in the Park. If the minefield of half submerged rocks don’t deter you, the dank interior and uneven terrain will try their hardest to pick up the slack. As the only option left on the lake, it’s fine. Barely. Under pretty much any other circumstances it’s a hard pass. This is important to keep in mind, since it’s the first site you see as you’re coming from the Kitty Lake portage (site 1 being all but impossible to find). Keep going. As long as you can find another open campsite, I can pretty much guarantee it will be a better spot.
So, now that we know that we don’t want to stop at our first option once we get to Booth, where should we be headed instead?
Anywhere! The good news is that there are plenty of decent sites scattered around Booth. My personal favourites run along the eastern shore up towards the north part of the lake. Site 6, which is about halfway up Booth, is fronted by an awesome, curving beach and has great western views. Despite its central location, it still feels private thanks to the curve of the shoreline that keeps sites 5 and 7 out of eyeshot (for the most part. Site 7 is at the very top of that curve). It’s got plenty of room for tents and an awesome fire pit area. Can’t really ask for much more.
If Site 6 is taken (and I feel like it will probably be taken), heading up to sites 9 & 10 is a good alternative. These are less likely to be taken as they’re the furthest options from the access point, but they’re both worth checking out. These sites sit on a beach that lines Booth’s northeast shore. The site area for site 10 is perched about 20 feet above the water, at the top of a relatively steep set of steps. Site 9 is more or less at water level. Both sites are nice and flat with plenty of room for tents and decent fire pit setups. They also offer more privacy than a lot of the sites further south on Booth (although, fair warning, Site 10 sits at the start of the Booth to Chipmunk Lake portage, so anyone heading up that way is going to be unloading about 20 meters down the beach from you).
I haven’t yet had a chance to actually get out of my canoe and explore Booth’s island sites, they’ve all been taken each time I was there, but for the most part they look pretty decent from the water. The site I’m most interested in revisiting is site 14 on the southernmost island. It looked like a nice enough spot, and would be off the beaten track as well.
Once you’ve found a spot on Booth you can start exploring. There’s a lot to see and do in the area. McCarthy’s Creek, which exits Booth’s southern half to the west, would offer a chance to see some wildlife if you’re checking it out at the beginning or end of the day. If you paddle it at the beginning, it can be the start of a day trip loop up through Mole, Godda and Rumley Lakes. This is a low maintenance route that’s been on my radar for a while now. I had hoped to check it out last year, but instead opted for the much more kid friendly day trip up to Tattler Lake (which was 100% the correct decision).
Tattler is a fun day trip. It’s a bit of a paddle from the south end of Booth, somewhere between 10-11 km round trip. However, there are exactly zero portages to deal with on the route as Tattler connects to Booth by way of a short narrows (otherwise known as the Opeongo River, which is the river that feeds both Tattler and Booth).
Tattler Lake itself isn’t all that impressive, it looks like, and is, just a widening of the Opeongo River. However, what Tattler Lake does have going for it is that it is home to the Tattler Lake Ranger Cabin, which is a pretty cool spot. The cabin sits on a grassy chunk of Tattler’s western shore. It’s got a nice view north and east and is home to my son’s new favourite book. The cabin is one of the half-dozen or so backcountry ranger cabins that can be booked for a night (there are another half-dozen or so cabins on or near access points). We stopped there for lunch, and it made for a perfect destination for a day trip with kids. It’s not too far from Booth that people start to get cranky, but it’s far enough away that getting there feels like an adventure.
And that’s about it for Booth Lake. I could go on for another thousand words about how much I like it there, but it’s probably better if you just check it out yourself (just stay away from Site 2!).
Sleeping on trip is important (hold on, I’ll give you a second to write that groundbreaking idea down). Assuming you’re travelling any distance at all on your canoe trip, you’re likely using more energy each day than you would normally. And the best way to recover that energy is to sleep (and eat copious amounts of chocolate). So having a good sleeping pad is important. Over the years, I’ve slept on everything from the ground to blue foam to sleeping pads from MEC, Therm-a-rest and other brand names. Some have been better than others, but no matter what I was never quite satisfied. I always felt like I was missing a certain combination of comfort, warmth, weight and packability. And then I found the Therm-a-rest Neoair Uberlite Sleeping Pad and it seemed like all my dreams had been answered.
But were they? Let’s find out.
My top priorities over the years with my sleeping pad is comfort and size. I want the thing to be comfortable, and I don’t want it to take up much room in my pack. The Neoair seemed to check both those boxes quite handily. Packed up, the Neoair is slightly taller than a 1L Nalgene, but with a smaller diameter. This means you can fit this thing pretty much anywhere you want to in your pack. From a pack weight perspective, the pad weighs in at 8.8 oz, which is basically nothing (that’s less than an adult hamster, or five cinnamon pop tarts, if you prefer to compare your camping weights to small animals or breakfast pastries). The good news is that those small dimensions don’t hide a small sleeping pad. The regular version of the pad, which is about 72 inches long and 20 inches wide, was more than enough room for me. I’m 5’10 and weigh about 165 lbs. and I fit on the pad quite well, with room to spare.
On the comfort side of the ledger, the Neoair does also does very well (until it doesn’t, but we’ll get there in a minute). This is an air filled mattress, comprised of multiple horizontal baffles running the length of the pad so that it kind of looks like one of those hot dog roller machines they used to have (maybe still have?) at 7-Eleven. Fully inflated, the pad is surprisingly thick, giving you at least a couple of inches of clearance off the ground. This makes for a very comfortable pad. One of my biggest complaints about sleeping pads over the years was that, once I had it inflated, it still felt like I was sleeping on the ground (or, more accurately, sleeping on the rocks poking out of the ground that I decided to set my tent up on for some reason). Not so with the Neoair. At no point have I ever felt any bumps or lumps beneath me while I was sleeping on it. Basically, if they’d given this sleeping pad to the princess from the Princess and The Pea, the Prince would probably still be single (and once again I’ve gone back and looked up a fairy tale that I vaguely remember from when I was a kid and realized that it’s a really weird story to be telling children). One thing to note, while this is a comfortable pad to sleep on, it’s not the best pad to be sleeping beside. I don’t know why, but the pad crinkles like aluminum foil whenever I turn over. That’s not a problem when I’m solo, it’s more of a problem when I’m with someone who wants to get to sleep without background noises that sound like a jiffy pop about to explode.
From a warmth perspective, the Neoair has an R-Value of 2.3. For those of you who don’t sleep next to an R-Value chart, that’s on the low end of the spectrum. R-Value is the measure of any given material’s resistance to heat loss. The higher the R-Value, the better the material is at retaining heat. In the Neoair’s case, designing sleeping pads for ultralight tripping means sacrificing a degree of insulation in exchange for getting the size and weight down. I’m fine with that tradeoff. You can always find insulation in a slightly warmer sleeping bag, or by wearing an extra layer to bed. On top of that, I found the pad did a decent job of keeping me warm, despite its low R-Value. While I’ve shivered through some cold Algonquin nights in the past, that’s usually been the fault of having the wrong sleeping bag with me, not the pad.
Ok, so far the pad packs up nicely, doesn’t weigh anything, is comfortable and keeps you decently warm. Sounds pretty good, right?
In case you’re wondering, that large, pillow shaped bump about 3/4 of the way up the pad is not supposed to be there. Therm-a-rest hasn’t pioneered some kind of built in mid-back pillow technology that takes your outdoor sleeping game to a whole new level. No, that’s what you get when the internal walls separating the pad’s baffles start to pop. Want to know what’s uncomfortable? Sleeping on a pad that has a mid-back pillow that you did not want or need. My sleeping game wasn’t taken to a whole new level, it was effectively cancelled.
And herein is my problem with this pad.
I’d only had the Neoair for a three seasons when the baffles started to pop. That’s somewhere between 30 and 40 nights of use, before the thing became basically unusable. After my May trip, I reached out to Therm-a-rest through their website as I’ve heard that they have a good warranty, but am still waiting on a response. Regardless, I don’t know that I’d want a replacement one at this point. My concern is that in making the pad as small and light as they did, Therm-a-rest didn’t just sacrifice insulation. I expect an ultralight pad to be on the more delicate side, but I also expect it to hold up as long as you take care of it (and I’ve taken care of mine). That didn’t happen here, and I wonder if some of the materials are on the more fragile side, meaning I may run into a similar issue in a couple of years.
So, bottom line, I loved this pad at first, but I’m now in the market for a new one and I won’t be buying the same model twice. If anyone out there has any recommendations for a lightweight, comfortable, non-lumpy sleeping pad, I’m all ears!
The first campsite reports of the 2023 season are here. We’ve got campsites on Maple Creek and Erables. It was a close race, but the award for “Campsite I will never willingly stay on barring some kind of apocalyptic disaster” went to Maple Creek – Site 1 over Erables Site 8. At the other end of the spectrum, I would go back to Erables Site 7 again and again.
While this section is called Recent Trip Reports (plural on Reports), this month I’ve only got one new report to share. but it’s a doozy. My spring six-day loop out of Kiosk that took me through Birchcliffe, Highview, the Nipissing and back to Kiosk is the longest trip I’ve done in a while, and the longest report I’ve written, ever. But it’s worth the read! This was an awesome trip. We stayed in ranger cabins, got snowed on, tackled Maple Creek (and got tackled by Maple Creek in return), saw waterfalls and historic sites, all while avoiding the bugs. You can read more about it here.