Welcome to the October 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 Clamshell Lake, a review of Columbia’s Facet 25 Alpha OutDry Hiking Shoe, and some news and updates.
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Hey. How’s it going? Been a while, right? If you’ve been paying close attention you may have noticed September’s issue of The Thunderbox was a quick read. Like, a very quick read. Because there was nothing to read. I didn’t write it.
I could make something up here about how I started writing it but then had to pick between finishing it and saving the world from some kind of extra-dimensional creeping horror (with tentacles), but the truth is I just ran out of time. August was a busy month, and the start of September even busier. Between the start of school and a 2023 tripping season that finally jumped into top gear in the last two weeks of August, there was just too much going on.
The good news is that a lot of that goings on was Algonquin related. The better news? It means I’ve got a hefty “What’s Going On?” section for you to kick of The Thunderbox’s triumphant return.
Let’s hop in the way back machine and go back to the start of August when I dropped my two oldest kids at sleepaway camp at the start of the month. Why is that relevant here? Because those camps are both in Algonquin and are both (I’m happy to report) awesome. My son went to Camp Pathfinder and my oldest daughter went to Camp Wapomeo, and two weeks later we picked them both up beaming and filled with fun stories and memories. They’d both loved their canoe trips (my son did two three day trips in a 13 day session!), made some new friends and generally had a great time exploring Algonquin.
Being down two kids made sneaking away for some short paddles a bit easier. Over one weekend I got up to Drummer Lake for a day trip out of Canoe Lake, followed the next day by a paddle with my wife from Canoe Lake to Cache Lake and dinner at Bartlett Lodge (more on that trip in a little bit!). Day paddles are great, but they’re not substitute for a proper canoe trip. And proper canoe trips had been in short supply up until that point. Between my May ice out(ish) trip and mid-August I spent exactly two nights in a tent; base camping on Opeongo’s east arm which, while fun, doesn’t exactly scratch the canoe trip itch either. Fortunately, that changed in a hurry as August wore on.
First up was a point-to-point trip with my oldest daughter. Fresh out of a great Camp Wapomeo experience she wanted to get back out and do another multi-day trip before school started. We decided on a two night trip from Canoe Lake to Rock Lake, with stops on Bonnechere Lake and Lake Louisa along the way. It was a great trip; the weather was perfect, the route was just the right level of challenging and the company couldn’t be beat. The trip report for that trip, like the trip reports for every trip I’m about to talk about, is coming (slowly. Turns out that having three kids in roughly seven million activities cuts down on the amount of time someone might have for writing … or eating, or sleeping).
Next up was a two night basecamp on Shirley Lake with my family and some family friends. We had a big group for this one, including six kids running around the campsite. It was a fantastic couple of days of organized chaos that included a day trip to the wonderfully named Mudville Lake and a sunset hike up to the aptly named Fog Lake, among others.
Four days later found me pushing off from the Brent access point for a four day loop out of Cedar Lake. This was my annual buddies trip and goes down as one of my top five canoe trips, ever. The weather was perfect and the route was (insert any or all of fun, challenging, beautiful, varied, interesting here). We visited three of the best campsites I’ve seen in the Park, sat beside waterfalls and rode the waves across Hogan Lake. So, yeah, it was okay.
Finally, and recently, I got out for a two night basecamp on Pen Lake as September turned into October (I told you it was recently). I was out this past weekend with a couple of buddies for one of the best weekends of fall camping I can remember. The day time temperatures were in the mid 20s and the fall colours were in full swing. I was swimming on September 30th by choice (and the water was … well it wasn’t freezing! Which is a win for September 30th).
Phew. That was a lot. And now you know what’s been going on. Looking ahead, I’m likely done with camping for the season, save one possible overnight mid October (if the weather cooperates). And after that? Well, it’s never too early to start planning for next spring.
In our recent Cedar Loop Showdown, I had Clamshell Lake as the number three seed in the tournament. To put it in perspective, this was out of 13 total seeds, and was above better known waterways like Radiant Lake, Cedar Lake and the Petawawa River. While the voters apparently didn’t agree with my putting Clamshell so high, I stand by my love for this little lake. In the immortal words of Seymour Skinner. “Am I so out of touch? No, it’s the children who are wrong”.
Clamshell Lake is located about 20 kilometers east of the Brent (Cedar Lake) access point (#27), and about 14 kilometers south of the Wendigo Lake access point (#25). Either way, you can get there in a day. In fact, if the wind isn’t blowing on Cedar, the route in from Cedar might be a nicer option. (If the wind is blowing, it could be a nightmare). Whichever route you choose, it’s certainly doable as the first day of a trip, even if you’re not getting started at the crack of dawn (for context, it took us about four hours to get from Clamshell to Cedar, but that was with a perfectly calm day on Cedar. If the wind is up, it could take a lot longer).
Once you arrive at Clamshell you’re greeted with a small, oval(ish) shaped lake. Coming from the Shoal Lake direction, you might be feeling a bit of trepidation. Shoal Lake is basically just a lily pad habitat masquerading as a lake. As you paddle through you could be forgiven for wondering exactly how mucky Clamshell is going to be. The answer is, not at all! Clamshell is a really nice, really clear lake. Sure, there are some shallow spots along the shoreline here and there, but the surprising thing about Clamshell is that it’s actually a really deep lake.
Many, many, (many) years ago Clamshell was the outlet for a large waterfall. The force of the water (over eons I imagine) carved out a deep basin so that the lake bed is 210 feet below the surface directly in front of Clamshell’s sole campsite. Speaking of that campsite, it’s a great little spot. Located in Clamshell’s northeast corner, just across from the portage leading up onto the North River, the site is set on a rocky outcrop with great views across Clamshell and the sound of a nearby (much smaller than before) waterfall gurgling in the background. It’s not a huge site. The majority of it is a sloping slab of bare rock that is great for watching the water and not so great for tents. While there are a couple of level tent pads towards the back of the site, they’re not that far from the site’s fire pit and I’d be worried about errant sparks on a windy day. The best place to set up a tent is by the water, where the rock flattens out and is covered in a layer of dirt and long grass (there’s room for one tent only here, so if you’ve got more than one tent on the trip maybe keep the fires a couple of levels below roaring).
The highlight, however, of the Clamshell site is the swimming. It turns out that 210 feet is pretty deep. Pair that with some tailor made jumping ledges and you’ve got an awesome spot to swim. But, you know what’s even better than jumping ledges? Rope swings. Rope swings are better than jumping ledges, and Clamshell has one of those too.
Once you’re well and truly water logged, there’s plenty of exploring to do around the lake. Heading south along the eastern shore, there’s a trail that (eventually) takes you up the hill that dominates that side of the lake. If you’d prefer less bushwhacking with your hiking, you can walk the p330 just across from the campsite that leads up to the North River. There’s a very pretty set of falls/rapids that this portage goes around, and if you don’t mind a few mild pokings, you can cut through the forest near the North River end of the portage to check them out.
And that’s about it for Clamshell Lake. Without the (exceptional) swimming off the front of Clamshell’s site, I don’t know that Clamshell would be more than an overnight stop on your way to somewhere bigger. With the swimming, I’d happily stay here for a couple of nights. You could easily day trip from Clamshell to Radiant, or further up the North River, if you started getting cabin (clamshell?) fever. And if you didn’t? If you just wanted to sit on Clamshell’s shelf of Canadian Shield reading your book in between dunkings? Well that works too.
If I was going to put together a tiered list of most important pieces of gear for tripping, footwear would be right up there with your paddle and a bag big enough to hold all my portage chocolate. I’ve traditionally leaned towards trail runners for my day shoes for comfort, traction and to cut down on the weight from typical hiking boots. That said, there are aspects to trail runners that aren’t ideally suited for canoe tripping, including less ankle support, not as much protection against random sticks and underwater rocks to the ankles and (sometimes) durability. So when Columbia asked if I would like to try out a pair of their Facet 75 Alpha OutDry Shoes, their lightweight waterproof hiking shoe, I jumped at the chance*. Combining characteristics of both trail runners and hiking boots, the Facet 75 Alpha OutDry Shoe is meant to give you the best of both worlds. So far, I’ve found they live up to that billing, here’s why:
To start with, these are very comfortable shoes. I’m a size 10.5 and my foot is probably a bit wider than average. While the shoes don’t come in a specific “wide” sizing, I found the fit to be true from the heel to the toe box. Between the Ortholite EcoLT insole and Techlite Plush midsole, there’s a lot of cushioning here. What exactly are the Ortholite EcoLT insole and Techlite Plush midsole? Basically, Ortholite is a third party insole maker who specialize in light, breathable insoles that still provide decent cushioning. They claim that their insoles provide a decent amount of cushion without making your foot overheat, and so far I’ve found that to hold true. The Techlite Plush midsole is Columbia designed and provides a mid layer of foam between the insole and the outersole. Combine the two together, and you’re left with a fairly comfortable boot that feels like it’s well cushioned while still being somewhat breathable.
So, the Alpha OutDry is comfortable, but is it going to help you avoid rolling an ankle or keep your foot stable in the shoe? The answer here is yes, but maybe a qualified yes? It’s a low cut shoe, the support structure stops below the ankle, but even so it didn’t feel overly unstable. I missed a few steps while I was testing it out and rolled over on my ankle once. While it’s not going to provide the stability of a high cut boot, the (seemingly) wide base provides some additional side to side stability that I don’t get from my trail runners. There is an ankle cover element to the shoe, but that’s purely for water protection purposes and provides little to no support.
The traction here is solid. The shoe uses Columbia’s Adapt Trax traction technology that they say is their best for keeping grip in wet conditions. I haven’t had the chance to hike in the rain yet (not something I’d normally be unhappy about but I was looking forward to seeing how the shoes handled those conditions), so I can’t speak to how they’d handle a downpour. What I can say is that they provide excellent grip over all kinds of terrain. I’ve had them out on a couple of steep, gravelly trails, as well as a more Algonquin-like forest environment, and in each setting they held the trail well. I didn’t find myself slipping on any of the steep sections, and I even managed to keep my footing on the hike I did with my excitable, and strong, golden retriever/perpetual motion machine who has never seen a squirrel she didn’t want to immediately chase. If a shoe helps you keep your footing while being dragged by 50 lbs of enthusiasm moving at top speed, it’s got decent traction.
These shoes are made with Columbia’s OutDry technology that Columbia bills as being “absolutely waterproof” before qualifying that as meaning in medium to heavy rain and snow and further qualifying it to mean “moderate conditions”. In other words, nothing is perfectly waterproof and, honestly, I wouldn’t want it to be. If you’ve ever worn any gear that is truly 100% waterproof you’ve likely also realized that that usually means 0% breathable. I’ll take increased breathability as a trade off, for a little dampness.
As I mentioned, I didn’t get to hike in the rain, but I do own a hose and spent some time drenching my foot in the front yard (which is a fun thing to explain to passing neighbours). The shoe held up pretty well to the soaking. The sides and bottom stayed bone dry (as you’d expect) and the mesh layer across the top was certainly water resistant. I eventually noticed some coolness seeping in at the top of my foot, and when I checked afterwards it felt … I don’t think damp is correct, maybe predamp? Either way, it held up pretty well and I’m fairly confident that these shoes will stay comfortable regardless of whether the sun is shining or not.
Another waterproofing feature of these shoes is a snug, flexible collar that fits around the top of the ankle. This fabric seems to be decently water resistant as well, and the main benefit I see is that it will stop errant splashes from puddles from soaking your ankles and heel, which is something I truly hate.
One of the things I like best about these shoes is how light they feel given their fairly sturdy construction. While they’re not going to outclass a pair of minimalist trail runners, they’re nowhere near as heavy as some comparable hiking boots I’ve owned. They are quite cushiony without being overly soft, and despite the collar around the ankle that theoretically should trap heat, stayed at a comfortable temperature throughout my hikes.
The one aspect of these shoes that I’m not wild about is the lacing system. The shoes use an elastic lace with a lock that tightens across the top of the foot. This makes getting a tighter bind towards the toes harder, and can mean more movement at the front of the foot. This isn’t a deal breaker. The trail runners I’ve been tripping in for the last three years have the same system and it works. I would just prefer a system that lets me tighten the laces uniformly across the top of the foot.
From a canoe tripping perspective, I had them out with me this past weekend. I’m happy to report that they were just as good on portages as they were on hiking trails. They gripped well regardless of whether it was dirt or rock or mud or some mix of all three. The one thing I didn’t get to test, thanks to a healthy desire to not have wet feet at the end of September, was how they dried out after a full submersion. I am curious as to what the shoes will be like following such a soaking. It’s very rare to go a full trip without stepping into the water along some creek or at the start or end of a portage, and I wonder what the shoes will feel like post soaking? How will they dry out? They dried pretty quickly after I hosed them down, but after an interior drenching along with an exterior one? Stay tuned.
I’m a big fan of these shoes. They’re comfortable, lightweight and stable. They handled relatively steep trails and rocky paths nicely, and are great on level ground as well. They’ve got great traction, and breath well. From a design perspective, they look sharp. They come in a kind of grey-green colour called “Cypress” along with a more traditional black option, and they look great (IMHO). Long story short, I like these as hiking shoes, and would be happy to use them on most trails and in most conditions.
Bartlett Lodge is a resort on Cache Lake, about 24 KM from the west gate. It offers a bunch of activities, lovely cabins and cottages for overnight guests and a fantastic restaurant if you’re looking for a more civilized visit to Algonquin. That restaurant is also open for dinner reservations to non-guests, and back in mid-August my wife suggested we take advantage of the few minutes of quiet we had while our two oldest kids were at camp and treat ourselves to a dinner out. In return, I suggested we treat ourselves to a 13 km paddle to get there. After checking the return policy on our marriage and realizing that she was well past the exchange-by date, she agreed and our date was set.
To get from Canoe to Cache there are a couple of routes. The most direct, and the one we were going to follow, goes through Smoke Lake, Little Island, Tanamakoon and into Cache. There are a few portages along this stretch, but nothing too challenging*. The goal was to get a bit of time on the water and work up an appetite, but not exhaust ourselves before we got to the beet salads.
We left Canoe Lake mid morning, with a reservation on Cache Lake for 6 pm that evening. While we didn’t plan on it taking us 8 hours to get the 13 kilometers from Canoe to Cache, we had packed two hammocks in our day pack and were very much hoping to find a place to set them up for a few hours if things worked out the way we wanted.
It was a beautiful day. It’s hard to remember now, given that the latter half of August and pretty much all of September have been spectacular weather-wise, but the end of July and beginning of August were pretty wet. I wasn’t convinced our trip wouldn’t be rained out until we left that morning, and even then I kept watching the (clear, blue and gorgeous) skies for a hint that the thunder clouds were going to roll in. They didn’t, and we made our way down Smoke Lake in near perfect conditions.
In no time at all we arrived at our first, and longest, portage of the day, the P860 between Smoke Lake and Kootchie Lake. This portage actually makes you work a bit. The height of land is just over 40 meters above Smoke Lake and there’s a steep-ish climb towards the beginning as you’re coming from Smoke. That said, there’s a huge difference between portaging a canoe while wearing a day pack and portaging a canoe while wearing a fully loaded trip pack. Turns out, the day pack option is much better. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend an 800 meter portage as a pre-dinner walk on a first date, but for a five hundredth date? Sure, why not? If your partner hasn’t walked away by now, they probably won’t after this one either (they won’t be able to, their legs will be too tired).
The portage ends at Kootchie Lake, which is a pretty little lake (emphasis on little) in between Smoke and Little Island. There are no campsites on Kootchie, and really nothing of much interest. The scenery is about what you’d expect in Algonquin; dense shoreline dominated by softwood with some deciduous trees sprinkled in for colour. Despite that, I really like Kootchie’s vibe. The south shore is dominated by a hill that rises quickly up from the water, and it makes it feel a bit like you’re paddling into a secret space. I dunno. I just like it.
Little Island Lake comes after Kootchie, and it’s a more substantial spot. It’s home to five campsites, all of which were in use as we paddled east across the lake. Despite it’s name, Little Island is dominated by a massive island smack in the middle of the lake. That island is home to four of the lake’s five sites and because it’s sitting smack in the middle of the lake makes you decide if you want to go north or south of the island to get to the next portage.
The most direct route is to go north, but we wanted to see if the sites on the island’s southeast corner were free, and we weren’t in a rush, so we went south. The sites were taken, but that didn’t matter. While there weren’t any free campsites, there was an actual little island near the east side of lake that was empty, flat and had a handful of trees that looked like they’d been waiting for us to hang our hammocks on them since the day they sprouted (is that a thing? Do trees sprout?). That was all the invitation we needed. We tied the canoe off, tied the hammocks on and spent the next couple of hours reading, lounging and basically doing nothing (in case you don’t happen to be the parent of three small children, I cannot overstate how much of a gift a couple of hours of doing nothing is). The highlight of this stop was working our way through an entire bag of sponge toffee that our oldest daughter had bought for us earlier in the summer. Hammocks and enough sugar to give an elephant a heart attack? Can’t really ask for much more.
By mid-afternoon we were good and relaxed. Which made packing up and hitting the water again a bit of a chore. But also a necessity! We had a date with some beets and there was no way we were going to stand them up.
In between Little Island and Tanamakoon Lake is a thin layer of water called Sheriff Pond. Sheriff Pond is both mucky and pretty, if that’s possible. The pond is about the size of a football field and is almost wall to wall lily pads. The portage put-in wouldn’t be out of place in a pig pen, there are floating clumps of muck everywhere and shoreline is ringed with dead trees. None of that should work from an aesthetic standpoint, but it somehow does. Maybe I’ve just got a thing for roving islands of dirt and weeds, but I love the vibe of paddling through Sheriff Pond. It’s a quiet place, and not in a terrifying there are aliens everywhere kind of way.
After the solitude of Sheriff Pond, Tanamakoon Lake felt like party central. This was partly owing to the hive of activity that was Camp Tanamakoon, an all girls camp spread out along the lake’s northern shore. It must have been free swim as we were paddling past, because the waterfront was bustling. I know I’m biased on this one having spent a few years working at one of Algonquin’s camps, but I love seeing those places alive and humming. You know you’re watching kids make memories that are going to last a lifetime, and it brought back some fun memories for my wife and I as well.
You know what else brought back some fun memories? Running into a Camp Wapomeo canoe trip as we were leaving Tanamakoon for the narrows that connects that lake to Cache. The Wap trip was camped on the island campsite just before the narrows, and it turned out the girls on that trip knew our older daughter. We chatted with them for a bit and they told us about their trip which sounded like a great time, minus the fact that two of their staff had had to paddle out to Cache to pick up replacement food after an animal had gotten into their food packs the night before. Hang those packs folks.
Once my wife had finished subtly interrogating the girls for any and all information they would give up about our daughter, we said goodbye and headed into the narrows.
The stretch in between Cache and Tanamakoon is pretty. There’s a pine tree hanging out over the water towards the Cache end that’s been stuck in my head since the last time I paddled through there, seven years before. For whatever reason, I love the look of that thing, and I was happy to see it was still in one piece as we paddled through.
And then we were on Cache Lake. Cache is a busy spot. It’s dotted with a number of islands, and those islands are dotted with a number of leases. There were people swimming and paddling and boating and lounging on docks and … you get the picture. It was a nice atmosphere, and a reminder that we were back into civilization. We paddled up to the access point docks and loaded our canoe onto the hard driving, pavement chewing, ready to star in the next Fast and Furious beast on four wheels that is our Kia Sorrento (which we’d parked in the lot the night before so it’d be ready for us). Once that was done, we took a quick swim before changing into some restaurant appropriate clothing (apparently my sweat soaked trip shirt doesn’t meet my wife’s dress code) and met Bartlett’s guest launch for the short boat ride over to the lodge.
Dinner was fantastic. Bartlett offers a four course set menu. Once you’re over on the island you have the run of the place while you’re waiting to be seated. My wife and I sat in a couple of Muskoka chairs on the dock and watched Cache Lake go by until it was time to eat. The Bartlett dining room is a cozy, wood paneled space that feels like you’ve sat down to dinner in a friend’s cabin. The food was delicious, although the portions weren’t exactly sized for someone who had spent the day paddling to get there, and the ambience was fantastic. We had a great time, and it felt like dessert arrived and went far too quickly. And that was it for dinner. Once dessert was in the books (or, more accurately, in our stomachs) we hitched a ride back across to the parking lot and headed for home.
And that was it. Day trip over. This was a fun way to spend a day, and a very welcome chance to get back in the canoe after a surprisingly lite start to the tripping season. It was fun retracing the steps my wife and I had taken 7 years earlier, and that little island on Little Island was a great spot to relax away a summer afternoon. I would happily do this route again for a day paddle, and just as happily stay on either Little Island or Tanamakoon if I was looking for an easy spot to camp with kids (and maybe wanted access to some of that fantastic beet salad as well!).
* After getting my wife’s buy-in to make the trip I figured my original plan of doing an almost 30 KM swing down through Big Porcupine, Bonnechere and back up through Hilliard maybe wasn’t the best idea.
I mean, you just read one, right? Other than that, I’m behind on my trip reports. I’ve got three reports at various stages of written, but the formatting is still very much a work in progress. So, for this month, if the Canoe to Cache Beet Exploratory wasn’t enough, check out my three day base camp on Opeongo way back in July. This was a great trip. We went in with my wife’s extended family and took over the east end of Opeongo’s East Arm. This report has it all: thunder, campsite pirates and, of course, s’mores. Check it out!