My oldest daughter loves to trip.
I’ll tell you a story. This summer she did two weeks at Camp Wapomeo, a girls’ camp located on the sunny shores of Canoe Lake. As part of her session, she went out on a four-day canoe trip. Her cabin’s route was the Sunbeam Circuit. First night Burnt Island, second night Sunbeam, third night Tom Thompson. It’s a great route. Burnt, Sunbeam and Tom are all nice lakes and you get a little bit of everything the Park has to offer along the way (including a visit to the soul sucking quagmire that is FML Pond in between Willow Lake and Bartlett Lake).
Definitely. Except, along with the beautiful views on Burnt Island and the great swimming on Sunbeam, she got an absolute deluge for her third day. The rain started overnight while she was on Sunbeam, and it kept going all through the next day as she pushed her way down to Tom Thompson. It rained on Aster Pond. It rained on Willow Lake. It rained on FML Pond. It rained on Bartlett Lake. It rained when she arrived on Tom Thompson. It rained while she was setting up her tent. It rained while she ate dinner. And it rained while she and her cabinmates tried to get some (very soggy) sleep.
How do I know all this? I was on Canoe Lake that day, watching the rain pound against the windows of my in-laws’ cottage and wondering how crazy I would be if I started paddling blindly to the north with a thermos of hot chocolate and a tarp on the off chance that I might run into them. (The answer to that is: very crazy. I’d be the camping equivalent of a helicopter parent. A canoecopter parent?). Sitting there, watching the rain pour down, I was bummed. This was the kind of day that can turn a person off of camping forever. Hell, this was the kind of day that can turn a person off of water forever. I was worried that my daughter was somewhere out there, shivering and miserable, and swearing through gritted teeth that the next time she touched a canoe it would be to add it to a bonfire.
You know where this is going, right? She wasn’t! Later on, when we picked her up, I asked her about that day on trip. She responded with something like “oh, yeah, I guess it rained a bit” and then went right back to telling me all the awesome things that happened while she was out there. In fact, she loved it so much that she wanted to get out at least once more before the summer ended. Which is why, two weeks later, she and I found ourselves pushing off from the docks at Smoke Lake, waving goodbye to the rest of our family, and setting our sights squarely on Rock Lake, some two days and 41 KM to our east.
Man, that was a long intro.
Every trip I’ve done with my daughter (and the other kids) has been a base camping trip. We pick a lake to settle on for a night or two, load a metric ton of gear into our canoe, and set up shop until it’s time to come home. This time around, my daughter wanted to stay on a different campsite on a different lake every night. She wanted to explore waterfalls, rock walls and rivers along the way. She wanted to challenge herself on portages and, apparently by extension, challenge me on portages as well (she didn’t necessarily want to, but definitely got to, watch me swear at the mudslide that used to be the portage between Kirkwood and Lawrence Lakes). In short, she wanted to trip. And I was more than happy to join her in the adventure.
After looking at a few route options, we settled on a point-to-point trip from Canoe/Smoke Lake to Rock Lake. The plan was to start from Smoke, stay our first night on Bonnechere Lake, our second night on Louisa, then come out at the Rock Lake access point. It was a good plan. I mean, it included a portage called the Devil’s Staircase, another portage called Stairway to Heaven and a third portage in between Louisa and Rock Lake that isn’t called anything at all, but only because you can’t spare any breath for talking as you huff and puff your way across it’s three-kilometer distance, but it was still a good plan. It let us cover some ground that my daughter had never seen before (and that I hadn’t seen in a while), as well as giving us a chance to stay on one of my all-time favourite Algonquin lakes, Lake Louisa.
Sounds like fun, right? So let’s get started.
We pushed off from the Smoke Lake access point just after 11 am. It was an absolutely gorgeous morning. Puffy white clouds mixed with blue skies, barely a hint of a breeze, but still not too hot. In other words, perfect paddling conditions. Which was good, because we were about to do a lot of paddling. Smoke Lake is big. At somewhere around 5 KM from top to bottom, it’s a long paddle. And, when the wind’s up, it can feel much longer. As you may recall from the sentence you read approximately five seconds ago, wind wasn’t a factor for us. Monotony, on the other hand, was.
Sigh. Smoke Lake.
I’ve said this before but I’m going to repeat myself. Smoke Lake is a boring paddle. Once, a few years back, I let myself be temporarily swayed by my brother-in-law who sees things in Smoke that I don’t. I was wrong. He was (is) wrong. Smoke Lake is a boring paddle. Why is it boring? Because it never really changes. With the exception of Molly’s Island at about the 2 KM point, Smoke is one long generic shoreline broken up by the occasional cottage. (Ugh, I sound like I belong on a Sorry Algonquin Instagram post). Once you leave the access point you might as well be paddling past a repeating background screen. And 5 KM worth of paddling is a long time to suffer from low grade déjà vu.
Fortunately, I had a fantastic paddling partner to keep me company. My daughter and I chatted non-stop as we paddled south. She filled me in on some of the details of her trip with Wapomeo and we played a bunch of word games (My favourite is the one where you go through the alphabet saying a place, animal and name of the animal that start with the same letter. Ie. “I’m going to Alaska and I’m taking an Aardvark named Annie”. If anyone out there has one for X, feel free to let me know. I don’t think “I’m going to Xanadu with an Xtra large ferret named Xavier” is going to make it past the judges at next year’s Random Word Game World Championships).
Eventually we grounded on the beach at the bottom of the Smoke to Ragged portage and got ready for our first carry of the trip. My daughter is an absolute beast on portages. We had two fully loaded canoe packs and she shrugged one on like it was her school backpack. The portage over to Ragged isn’t all that long, under 300 meters at most, but it does take you up a relatively muddy, relatively steep, hill (it turns out that “Relatively Muddy and Relatively Steep” would be a fantastic title for this trip report). She scrambled up it like a mountain goat while I followed behind with the canoe, our other pack and, after about three steps, a vauge sense that neither of those things used to be this heavy did they?
We stopped at one of the first campsites on Ragged for a quick bite. I was a big fan of this site. It’s on a small point, with a big interior space and a nice mix of lakeside sand and flat rock on the north side. We plunked down on one of the rocks beside the water and ate our salami and cheese sandwiches while watching the world go by. It was early afternoon now, and the sky was clouding over somewhat. The forecast for the evening was mixed, with a chance of rain but, also, a chance of not rain. That said, the heavy gray clouds rolling in overhead and slight uptick in the wind seemed to be tilting things towards the “chance of rain” side of the teeter totter, so we finished our sandwiches quickly and continued on our way.
Ragged is another big paddle, but unlike Smoke it’s not boring. On the map, Ragged looks like a failed Rorschach test. It’s got multiple large bays, a massive island in the middle, and lots of nooks and crannies to explore. This makes for an interesting paddle as you’re constantly changing direction and opening up new views as you paddle through. On top of that, there are (usually) lots of other trippers passing through to say hi to. Ragged is a popular lake, with multiple campsites and relatively easy access to Highway 60. It’s also the gateway to lakes further south like Big Porcupine, Bonnechere and McGarvey, so you’re likely going to see people coming and going. We passed a few trips as we made our way south, and before we knew it we were at the next portage, a chill little 500 meter walk over to Big Porcupine Lake called the, uh, Devil’s Staircase.
Big Porcupine Lake is about 44 meters above Ragged Lake. According to math, that’s a bunch of meters. You start climbing almost immediately and keep on climbing until you can see Big Porc. Unfortunately, the patent is still pending on my robot leg canoe attachment (all hail Canoebot!), which means that your gear isn’t going to walk itself up there. Some very thoughtful Park staff have built stairs into the side of the hill for most of the carry (hence the name Devil’s Staircase). It makes for a slightly better portage than if you were just scrambling up the side of the hill, but it’s a workout nonetheless. Once again my daughter handled it like a champ, lugging her pack up those steps without a word of complaint (I was spewing enough words of complaint for the both of us).
Big Porcupine Lake
Once we reached Big Porcupine we had a decision to make. The top part of Big Porc is separated from the rest of the lake by a large bump of land that juts out to the east. You can paddle around it, but you’re adding almost 3 KM on the water if you do. Alternatively, there’s a P395 that cuts across the bump and saves you a couple of kilometers of travel. Normally, I’d be inclined to do the portage, but having just finished the Devil’s Staircase neither of us much felt like throwing our packs back on our shoulders. After a quick discussion we decided to paddle around, which gave me a chance to see a part of Big Porc that I’ve never seen before, and gave my daughter a chance to experience paddling with me when I’m really frustrated by a headwind.
Remember that wind that was picking up on Ragged? Well, it had continued to pick up while we were crossing the portage. The first part of the paddle wasn’t so bad. Big Porc is relatively enclosed at the northern end. But as soon as we turned into the more open bay that leads to Mud Creek, things became more challenging (but, also, is Mud Creek a name or a threat?). The wind was coming at us head on, and it wasn’t shy about saying hello. I would guess we only had to cross about a kilometer of open water to get to the next sheltered narrows, but that was a tough kilometer. Fortunately, once we were in that next narrows, the wind stopped being an issue, and by the time we were through the narrows and into Big Porc’s main basin, the wind had shifted enough that it was more of a help than a hindrance.
I’ve never stayed on Big Porc, but I think I’d like to. It’s a pretty enough lake, with enough decent looking campsites that I don’t think you’d get shut out of a nice spot even if you’re there on a busy weekend (and I imagine pretty much every summer weekend is a busy weekend for Big Porcupine). We paddled about halfway down, then cut to the east and the P190 over to Bonnechere. After the climbs out of Smoke and Ragged, this was a nice, flat, change of pace. We were across it quickly and then we were on Bonnechere, our destination for the night.
I’ve paddled though Bonnechere before, but to be honest, I didn’t paddle much of it. The last time I was through that way I cut down from Cradle Lake across an unofficial portage through a campsite that straddles both Bonnechere and Cradle, and immediately turned east towards Phipps. In total, I probably covered about 300 meters of Bonnechere. Enough that I could check it off the list, but not enough to get a true sense of the lake. (This was the summer of 2016 when I was trying to get to 100 new lakes in 100 days. My definition of what constituted paddling a new lake was flexible at best). This time around we were paddling all of Bonnechere, and I’ve got to say I’m glad we did.
I liked Bonnechere. It’s not a huge lake. In fact, it feels more like a river that got frisky than it does a proper lake. The western end, which is where we had entered from Big Porcupine, is home to one of the two medium sized basins that form a kind of barbell on either side of a narrow stretch in the middle. There are three sites in this part of the lake, two of which are quite nice (the third could be nice too! There was already someone on it so I couldn’t check it out).
By far my favourite of the sites, and the one we ended up taking, is the southernmost site. This one sits along a gorgeous rock wall that rises out of the lake and offers a spectacular sunset view. The wall rises about 20 feet above the water at its height and is home to a few ledges that look like they might be good jumping spots (we didn’t try them out, and I didn’t check the depth of the water beneath them, so if you head this way, please please please make sure you do a thorough check before jumping). In fact, the swimming was probably one of the highlights of the site. On top of the potential jumping spots, there are quite a few places to slip in and wash the day’s grime off. Don’t believe me? Ask the hordes of leeches who were hanging out there as well.
Probably the only downside to the site is that it seemed to be a bit of a leech magnet. Every spot we picked for our swim had a handful of leeches flitting around in the shallows. You know what takes the shine out your end of day swim? The prospect of re-enacting that scene from Stand By Me immediately afterwards. We eventually found a spot that seemed to be relatively clear, but I’m not going to lie, the swim wasn’t as long as it might have been. Still, it was refreshing, and after confirming that we’d made it through the dip water vampire free, we settled in for the night.
We finished the day sitting at the top of the rock wall, watching the sun set and reading our books. It was a great way to end a great day. Once the sun had gone to bed we followed suit, burrowing into our bags to the sound of a loon calling in the distance and the promise of Lake Louisa on the horizon.
Our second day started much as the first had ended. The rain that had been sort of promised overnight never materialized and the sky was a patchwork of pale blue and gauzy white. We took our time getting packed up and were on the water just after 10. We stopped briefly to check out the other open site nearby, then turned our canoe towards Phipps.
The wind was up as we paddled the first set of narrows after our campsite. It was blowing east to west and turned that relatively confined space into a bit of a wind tunnel. It got really bad after we passed through a chokepoint in the narrows home to set of (barely) submerged rocks called the Devil’s Razor. It’s a good name. The ridge of rock spans pretty much the entire narrows and comes to a sharp point just about at paint scraping height. My daughter navigated us through this beautifully, but we still managed to leave a little bit of white paint behind to prove we’d been there.
The rest of the paddle across Bonnechere got progressively easier as we got closer to the eastern shore and protection from the wind. The next portage, a p175 over to Phipps Lake, went quickly. This was a relief as the Phipps end of this portage has the potential to be a challenge in low water conditions. The portage comes out at a ribbon of water that winds through a grassy field. At the right time of year, or, I suppose more accurately at the wrong time of year, this part becomes impassable and you end up carrying the boat another hundred or so meters through tall grass and muck until you reach Phipps proper. Not this time! The water levels were fine and we sailed out onto Phipps (well, paddled out onto Phipps).
Phipps & Kirkwood
Phipps is a small-ish lake knocking on the door of medium sized. It’s got a couple of campsites and not much else. We made our way leisurely across Phipps, taking a few minutes to enjoy the view from the top of one of the campsites, then headed towards our next portage, a p60 over to Kirkwood Lake. After a quick break to admire the small waterfall in between Phipps and Kirkwood and eat a couple of protein bars with the taste and texture of chocolate covered cardboard, we paddled through Kirkwood (nice enough lake, nothing spectacular or particularly memorable that I can think of) and arrived at the mudslide that used to be the P715 over to Lawrence & Pardee Lakes.
This portage was not awesome. It follows a stream between Kirkwood and Lawrence/Pardee and apparently the water gets confused from time to time and tries to take the portage instead of the stream bed. There was mud everywhere, and it was hungry. It kept trying to take my daughter’s boot. She’d step onto what looked like a reasonably stable bit of earth, sink up to her ankles, then try and pry her foot out of the muck without leaving her footwear, or her foot, behind. She was mostly successful, although there was one time where I had to wrestle the mud to get her boot back (it almost won).
Eventually, mercifully, we reached the Lawrence end, pausing just long enough to admire the weird fact that Pardee Lake and Lawrence Lake are directly beside each other. The put in for Pardee is about 20 steps before the put in for Lawrence, and they both run east west. The only thing keeping them apart is the disapproval of their parents and the long simmering feud between their two fami – wait, no, that’s the plot of my forthcoming romance novel “Algonquin Hearts Can’t Be Broken”. Lawrence and Pardee Lakes are separated by a thin spit of land about 20 paces wide.
We stopped for lunch on Lawrence’s southeastern campsite. In case you’re ever travelling this way and you find yourself wondering if you should stop for lunch on Lawrence Lake, I’m going to save you some time right now. Don’t bother. The campsite we stopped on was fine in the same way that a 2 am hot dog from Seven-11 is fine. It does the job, but you’re going to immediately wish you’d held out for something better. Also, if you’re buying hot dogs from Seven-11 at 2 am you need to take a look at your life choices over the past few hours.
Once we’d finished with lunch, we were ready to tackle the next portage. A short, P470 up to Rod & Gun Lake that looks innocuous enough on the map until you look a bit closer and realize it’s got the name “Stairway to Heaven” beside it and that the height of land on the portage is about 45 meters higher than where you started. And, as it turns out, adding 45 meters of height over 470 meters of terrain means you’re going to be doing some climbing.
I don’t remember this portage. By which I mean I don’t have specific memories from this portage, it’s more a hazy blur that smells like sweat and feels like tired legs on my mental map where the portage would go. I remember it feeling steeper than I wanted it to at the beginning. And according to my camera we took a break after the initial climb. Other than that? What I mostly remember is getting to Rod & Gun Lake and really wishing we’d picked it as our lunch spot instead of Lawrence.
Rod & Gun Lake
I liked Rod & Gun Lake.
There isn’t much to this lake. It’s not very large, it doesn’t have any campsites and I saw no rods or guns. What it does have, however, is a pretty little island in the middle that is tailor made for a lunch break. The island is basically a wide rock shelf that slopes into the water on all sides. There are a couple of pine trees in the middle and not much else. Despite the simplicity, it looks really inviting. To top it off, it’s got a nice view both up and down the lake, including a nearby rock wall near the portage (I’m a sucker for lakeside rock walls).
Once we were through Rod & Gun the only thing in between us and Louisa was a p500 that was primarily downhill and felt like a nice break after the route up. We were on Louisa before we knew it, and trying to decide where on this gorgeous lake we were going to stop.
Remember how I said I liked Rod & Gun Lake? Like, as a friend? Well, I love Lake Louisa.
Louisa is a beautiful lake. I’ve been to over 330 lakes in the Park so far, and it’s stayed comfortably in my top five since the first time I saw it back in 2016. It’s a big lake, around 5KM from west to east and about a kilometer across from north to south on the main basin. It’s got quite a few campsites, and quite a few of those are (in my opinion) well above average. The main basin (west end of the lake) in particular is home to some great spots. I was originally thinking we’d try for one of the island sites, or maybe site 17 on the south shore, but all those thoughts went out the window as we made our way out of the portage bay and came across the first site located at the mouth of that bay.
What a spot.
This site (site 23 in the campsite report archive) is built on a rock wall (told you I loved rock walls) that lines the eastern end of the bay. It’s a huge spot, with a great view south and west across Louisa and plenty of room to spread out. While we didn’t test this theory out, it looked to me like there might be a couple of decent jumping spots as well. My daughter fell in love with it and spent a good twenty minutes mapping out the various hidden spots she planned on sitting and watching the water from. We quickly set up camp then settled in for the night.
The rest of the day passed in a pleasant blur. After dinner we took the canoe out so my daughter could practice in the stern. We also checked out some of the nearby sites and roasted some all important marshmallows. Before long, night had settled in and so had we. Once the stars were well and truly out we retreated to the tent with our books and the memory of a great day of tripping.
We were up early the next morning. The wind had died overnight and I wanted to tackle Louisa while it was calm. Five kilometers of paddling against the headwind we’d had the day before was just below swallowing wasps on the list of things I wanted to do for the next three hours, so we packed up and got on the water as fast as we could.
Louisa was perfectly still as we made our way east. The sky overhead was painted with the thinnest layer of cloud, like someone had taken a white brush and dabbed their way across the blue. Despite the clouds, you could tell it was going to be a beautiful day. They broke apart as we paddled, and by the time we reached the start of the P3000 over to Rock there was more blue than white in the sky.
The portage between Louisa and Rock is long, but it’s not a bad carry. There isn’t much up and down, and the path doesn’t get too technical. Apart from a couple of muddy patches, I don’t remember anything in particular that stood out as overly frustrating. Like every other portage on this trip, my daughter rocked it. She carried a full canoe pack the entire way without complaining or even seeming that challenged by it. There are some good break spots along the way, complete with canoe rests or well placed “V” tree trunks, and we took a couple of opportunities to drop our loads and eat some bars.
Even with the breaks, we were finished the carry in just over an hour. In the time we’d been wandering through the forest, the clouds had pretty much called it quits for the day, and we arrived at Rock Lake to blue skies, a slight breeze and diamonds glinting off the surface of the water.
The highlight of any paddle up Rock is a stop at pictobay to appreciate the massive rock wall that dominates that part of the lake and to try and find the pictographs that give the bay its name. I’d seen them once before, but I wasn’t confident that I’d be able to find them again. As my wife will happily tell you, I’m not the most observant guy in the world (I once somehow didn’t notice the house on the other side of our backyard being torn down, only realizing that something had changed once the new place was built) and the last time I saw the drawings it was because my buddy Vince had spotted them.
We paddled slowly along the wall, searching for the centuries old drawings. There were a few false alarms as I tried to convince myself that various orange streaks of lichen were the actually the paintings, but then we paddled into a small nook towards the east end of the wall and there they were.
I don’t quite know what to say about these. It’s one of those things I think you have to experience for yourself. On the surface, it’s a simple design. A few faded rust coloured spots in the shape of an animal. But then you start to think about what that animal might represent to the person who painted it, and how long ago they lived, and how incredible it is that you’re following in the footsteps (paddle strokes?) of people who have been travelling these waterways for hundreds of years and those few faded spots take on a whole lot of significance.
We took a few minutes to appreciate the paintings, then picked up our paddles for the home stretch.
The rest of the paddle up Rock went quickly. Too quickly. There was a slight headwind, but not enough to be a problem. Before we knew it we were entering the small river that connects Rock to Whitefish Lake, and not long after that we were rounding the final corner and being greeted by the hive of activity that was the Rock access point.
And that was it. Trip over. We loaded the car, snapped a couple of selfies with the river in the background, and hit the road back to Canoe Lake.
What an awesome trip. I could talk about our beautiful campsites on Bonnechere and Louisa, or the waterfall between Phipps and Kirkwood or the island on Rod & Gun or the paintings on Rock, but the true highlight of this trip was seeing what an amazing, accomplished tripper my daughter has become. It’s been 7 years since my first canoe trip with her, and watching her grow and push herself over the intervening time has been incredible. She’s strong, she’s determined and she takes every challenge in stride, usually with a smile on her face.
Can’t wait for next year’s trip.
New Lakes Paddled: 1
Total Lakes Paddled: 10
Total Portages: 9
Total Portage Distance: 5.960 KM
Total Travel Distance: 41.5 KM