Welcome to the November 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 Baby Joe Lake , a review of my newest (and most spacious) two person tent, some new for 2023 campsite reviews and one of the most nonsensical articles on Algonquin Park I’ve come across.
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It snowed this week.
Yesterday morning I woke up (too) early for my weekly “keep my back from completely self-destructing on the next portage” session with my buddy Frank (Frank is a former national team kayaker who has forgotten more about paddling and core strength than I will ever know. He’s the only reason I’m not currently shaped like a pretzel). I went out to my driveway to head over to Frank’s workout space and discovered my car was encased in snow. And I wasn’t as thrilled about it as this guy.
Why am I telling you this? Because the annual rite of passage that is me scrambling around the garage at 5:45 a.m. to find the car brush also marks the day I finally give up any hope of getting back out on the water before the spring.
So, that’s what’s going on.
Now, if we’re talking about what went on, specifically what went on in October, there was one final Algonquin related thing I got in before (and briefly while) the snow fell.
I spent a chunk of Thanksgiving weekend on Canoe Lake. In case you weren’t in the Park over Thanksgiving, it wasn’t the best weather. The weekend before had been gorgeous, but had also apparently used up all the nice weather left in the tank for that part of October. I arrived at Canoe Lake in the drizzle, and I left in the drizzle. In between, there were enough breaks in the rain that I was able to get out with my sister-in-law for a run up the Track and Tower Trail. This was my first time doing the complete trail, and I liked it. It’s a challenging run, lots of twists and turns and uneven spots (and some serious climbing to get to the lookout), but the lookout over Cache Lake, and the little bits of history such as the remains of the old rail bridges that you pass by, make it very much worth while.
Other than that, my Algonquin time was pretty limited this month. We’re back in the full swing of school and kids’ activities, which means that the time for sneaking away to the Park is past (for now). On the plus side, it means that the time for planning next year’s trips has very much arrived. I’ve already got my eye on a couple of possible spring routes and … actually, let’s make this a group effort.
Every spring I take the better part of the week to explore a part of the Park I haven’t seen before and to remind myself that I really need to do more to stay in shape over the winter. This year there are two areas that I’m most interested in. The first is the southernmost part of the Park and the second is north of the Shall Lake access.
Route Option 1 – A point to point trip. Starting at Canoe Lake, paddle south to McGarvey, east to Galeairy, then south to Kingscote by way of the Dwyer Lakes, Cauliflower, Scorch etc.
Route Option 2 – North to Lavielle from Shall Lake by way of Booth, Round Island and friends. East from Lavielle to White Partridge Creek. Then back down to Shall by way of White Partridge, Animoosh, McKaskill etc.
Both options would let me see a bunch of the Park I haven’t seen before (the southern option would be more new ground than the Shall option). Both would be pretty challenging thanks to some longer portages and smaller creeks/rivers. Which one would you do? Leave a comment below and help me decide (or let me know if there’s some awesome third option I haven’t even considered).
While you’re thinking about that, let’s look at this month’s spotlight lake.
Baby Joe Lake is part of the string of lakes with some variation of the name Joe in between Canoe Lake and Burnt Island. Heading north from Canoe Lake, you paddle through Joe Lake, Little Joe Lake, Lost Joe Lake and finally Baby Joe before arriving at Burnt. Baby Joe isn’t a big lake. It’s not the smallest of the Joes, that honour goes to Lost Joe, but it’s not going to be confused with Opeongo any time soon. At less than a kilometer from top to bottom, and much narrower than that from side to side, it doesn’t take long to see as much of Baby Joe as you’d want to see. And it doesn’t take long to write about it, either, which is why it’s the perfect option for a spotlight lake in a month where I’m already 10 days behind in publishing this thing.
Ok, despite what I said in the previous paragraph, there’s a legitimate reason for taking a quick look at Baby Joe beyond the fact that it’s an easy lake to write about. Baby Joe happens to be smack dab in the middle of one of Algonquin’s busiest corridors. In such a busy area, someone might look at Baby Joe with its one campsite and think to themselves “hey, I’m going to get myself some privacy and take the only reservation on Baby Joe”. This would be wrong. Not that you can take the only site on Baby Joe, that’s correct. But if you think you’re going to get some privacy there? That’s a different story.
On any given summer day I would guess that there would be no fewer than 10 trips passing through Baby Joe on their way to or from the Canoe Lake access point, and that’s probably an underestimate. On long weekends, the entire area around Baby Joe is a sea of red triangles on the Park’s reservation system (red triangles mean that all the permits on a given lake have been issued), and many of the trips heading to and from those red triangles are going to be following a route that takes them within fifty feet of Baby Joe’s only campsite.
So, is staying on Baby Joe worth the traffic?
Maybe? (How’s that for a strong and decisive answer?)
Here’s the thing, Baby Joe as a destination is a bit of a mixed bag. The campsite is fine. It’s not spectacular and it’s not a dumpster fire. It’s a smaller site, with room for a couple of tents at most, and it’s located midway up Baby Joe, at one of the narrower spots, so you’re that much closer to canoes going past. There’s a fire pit, there’s a thunderbox, there’s … well, that’s about it. I guess that’s covers the basic definition of everything you want in a campsite, but nothing here stands out. It’s more a place to spend a night on your way to somewhere better than it is a final destination.
Along with the average campsite, Baby Joe is an average lake. It’s small, shallow and narrow. It’s got a sandy bottom and can be a bit weedy in places. Despite this, it’s a pretty enough lake. I love the beach at the north end of the lake that doubles as the start of the portage up to Burnt Island (or over to Little Doe depending on which direction you’re going). The shoreline is mostly dominated by softwood, and it grows pretty thick in places. There’s a small spit of rock poking out from the eastern shore about 2/3 of the way up to Burnt Island that would work for a lunch break spot if you didn’t want to deal with the traffic coming and going on the portage.
Probably the best thing Baby Joe has going for it is that it’s convenient. Getting here from the Canoe Lake access point in decent time is manageable for most trippers. Baby Joe is just over 10 KM from the parking lot, and the only portage you absolutely have to do is the p300 Joe Lake portage that would be the top seed in an “easiest portage in the Park” elimination bracket (there are two other portages between Canoe Lake and Baby Joe, but they’re both skippable if the water on Joe Creek is high enough). The paddle through Joe and Little Joe is quite pretty, and can include a stop at the Joe Lake cliffs for some swimming and cliff jumping if you want a bit of adventure along the way. On top of that, the stretch along Joe Creek (between Little Joe and Baby Joe) is quite nice. I’ve twice seen moose snacking in the shallows where Little Joe turns into Joe Creek, and even if you don’t run into 800 lbs of plant eating forest tank en route, there’s still plenty of pretty scenery along the way.
In fact, let’s talk about that stretch of Joe Creek. One of my favourite things about Baby Joe Lake is how you leave it (heading south), which probably doesn’t speak all that well for the lake itself. To get from Baby Joe to Little Joe you can follow a 435 meter portage, or you can wade/paddle a narrow section of Joe Creek that connects Baby Joe to Little Joe by way of Lost Joe Lake. This is by far the more fun of the two exit options. The creek is rocky, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to put some new racing stripes on the bottom of your canoe, but it’s deep enough to wade beside your boat, and on a hot summer day walking through cool water beside your boat beats the heck out of walking along a hot portage underneath it.
And that’s about it for Baby Joe Lake. It wouldn’t be my first choice in the area. I’d rather stay on any of Burnt Island, Little Doe or Tom Thomson. But it’s not necessarily a bad choice either. On the positive side, if you stay here you’re getting a private lake. Unfortunately, that private lake has a whole lot of traffic passing through it on any given day. The campsite is serviceable, but unspectacular, and my favourite thing about the lake is leaving it (from either end. The creek down to Lost Joe is fun, the portage over to Burnt Island has stairs and goes past some pretty rapids/small falls). Go Baby Joe!
Since the early 90s, Napier Outdoors has carved out a name for itself in the vehicle tent space. If you’re ever wandering around the Mew Lake or Achray campgrounds and you see a tent attached to the bed of someone’s pickup or SUV, odds are it’s a Napier tent. While a tent that you can drive away has some benefits, there are a few drawbacks as well, particularly if you want to do anything in the backcountry. SUVs don’t portage all that well.
Enter the Napier Lite Pack Camping Bundle.
Napier recently launched a standalone camping kit that includes a (spacious) two person tent and footprint, along with two sleeping bags, designed for people who want to leave their vehicles in the parking lot. They very kindly reached out to me to see if I’d like to try it out, and I got to do exactly that on a recent two night trip down to Pen Lake.
Long story short, as a first entry into the backcountry camping space, this is a solid package. There were aspects of this tent I liked, and aspects that could maybe use some refining, but you know what? Let’s do the long story long and really dive into it.
The package includes two -4 celsius rated sleeping bags, a free standing two man tent (with fly) and a tent footprint. The tent is a fairly typical design for this capacity, with three shock corded poles that have reinforced sleeves where the poles connect. The tent footprint attaches to the bottom of the tent, meaning you can move both the footprint and tent around at the same time if you’re testing out a couple of different tent spots. There’s a clear set of instructions for setting up the tent attached to the bag that contains the entire bundle. This is both good and bad. As long as you’ve got the bundle bag you’re not going to forget the instructions. However, if you’re like me, you may not want to use the bundle bag for your trip. While the bag does come with a carrying strap, I found it more efficient to pack the various components separately into my canoe pack. This meant that if I hadn’t taken a picture of the instructions I wouldn’t have had them with me. The good news is that a lack of instructions wouldn’t be a deal breaker. The tent set up is fairly intuitive. In fact, let’s talk about that now.
This is a three pole tent, and one that can be easily set up by one person. There are two longer poles that form the bulk of the tent’s skeleton, and a third shorter pole that crosses the center of the tent and gives it a roomy, rounded shape. The two longer poles feed through sleeves across the top of the tent, and slot into eyelets at the corners. It took me two tries to get everything aligned properly. I’m used to pole set ups that cross the tent body in an X from front to back. In this case, the poles slot into the front and back eyelets on one side, but go through the sleeve on the other. Once I realized the set up, I liked it. It seemed to provide a wider peak, and gave the impression of leaving more room to move around.
The fly buckles into the corners of the tent, and can be stretched out with two guy lines at the front and back. The guy line anchor points are one thing that could be improved with this tent, and by this I mean adding more of them. Ideally I’d like a couple extra guy lines, or even just ground level straps, to peg sections of the fly further from the walls of the tent. There are a couple of spots where the fly is loose and rests against the tent wall, with no way to stretch it out, and I wonder how that would do in a rain storm. Speaking of rain, the weather was maddeningly (for tent review purposes) perfect on this trip, so I didn’t get a chance to test the fly out in wet weather. Next time!
The only other thing I’d add about the overall structure of the tent is that it does not have a vestibule. There are zippered flaps in the fly across the doors that can be closed to provide protection against the elements, but it means that you’ll either be storing your gear in the tent with you or you’ll want to have a tarp on hand to cover whatever’s not in the tent. My main concern here is what this would mean if you’re entering or exiting the tent in the rain. My guess is you’ll end up with some water in the tent, which isn’t ideal. Might be worth it to find a more sheltered spot for the tent if you’re expecting weather.
I typically find that a tent that calls itself a three person shelter is more like a two and a half person. A tent that says its a two person is actually an oversized solo and so on. In this case, and unusually, it’s the opposite. At just over 7 feet long and just under 7 feet wide, there’s a decent footprint to work with. The tent is four feet high at its tallest, leaving more than enough room to move around comfortably inside. Napier bills the tent as a two person shelter, and I would agree that two people would be the ideal fit, but it’s a roomy two person. In a pinch, or if you’re travelling with a kid (human kid, not a baby goat) you could probably fit a third without getting too cozy. I was sleeping solo on this particular trip and felt like I’d won the gear explosion lottery. There was room for everything I could possibly want inside the tent, and then a bunch more stuff on top of that.
This is not an ultralight shelter. I weighed the packed tent at just under 10 lbs. This is heavier than comparable backcountry-centric tents, and in line with more front country oriented options. Despite the extra weight, it packed up reasonably well. The fly, tent and footprint roll up nicely, and the tent comes with a couple of adjustable straps that you can tighten around that roll to get things as compact as possible. The tent fits horizontally in my canoe pack, meaning that it slots in well to my packing system. The biggest drawback here would be the extra weight. A few extra pounds doesn’t sound like much, but over a long, portage heavy trip it can add up. That said, if you’re using this tent with a partner you’ll be able to share the gear load in a way that would compensate for the added shelter weight. TLDR, the tent is on the heavier side, but for shorter, portage-lite trips, or trips with a partner, it wouldn’t be as much of an issue.
The walls of this tent are mostly mesh, allowing for great air flow with the fly off. With the fly on, there is a flap on one side that can be pegged out to provide ground level air flow. There are two doors, each with storm shields that can be unzipped to reveal a couple more mesh panels, and leaving one of these open helped keep the tent cool for me despite being set up directly in a sunny patch on a hot day. At night, with temperatures dropping into the low single digits, the tent did not seem drafty. Once I’d zipped up the storm flaps and closed the fly over the door, the tent did a decent job of trapping some heat.
I liked the interior set up of this tent. There are a couple of mesh pockets at the head and toe for storing things like flashlights and (if you’re me) all the little stuff sacks whose contents you’ve just finished unpacking and spreading all over the tent floor. The double doors mean you wouldn’t be disturbing your partner if you needed to leave the tent in the middle of the night, and there was room enough to maneuver inside the tent that I never felt cramped while I was setting up my sleep area or packing up at the end of the trip.
The Napier Lite Pack Camping Bundle isn’t just a tent, it’s a bundle! And what that means is that along with your tent you get a couple of -4 degree celsius rated sleeping bags in the package. These bags are made of ripstop polyester with a hollow fiber filling. This is a synthetic fill made of polyester, designed to trap heat in the (hollow) centers of each fiber.
These bags certainly pass the eye test. They’re thick and quilted and look like they’ll be warm. They come with a curved flap at the top to trap heat against the top of your head, and are very comfortable. Their length, at just over 7 feet long, also helps in the comfort department. I know tapered, shorter bags probably do a better job of trapping heat, but I find they can feel constricting around the feet, and that’s certainly not the case with these bags.
That said, I was curious as to how these bags would hold up in cooler temperatures. In my experience, a sub zero temperature rating doesn’t always mean you’re going to be comfortable when the thermometer drops towards zero. The answer here is mixed. The overnight temperatures got down to the low single digits on this trip, and I did end up breaking out my sleeping bag liner in the middle of the night for some extra insulation. I wasn’t freezing or anything, but I wasn’t toasty either. The next night it was a couple of degrees warmer, and I didn’t need anything extra.
In general, I’d say that these bags get top marks for comfort, and a more average mark for warmth. In my opinion, these bags are well suited for any time from late spring to early fall, and are going to give you a comfortable sleep with a bit more paddling than you might get from another sleeping bag. I’d be a bit more cautious at the start and end of the paddling season, and likely bring some kind of extra insulation just in case.
I liked the Napier Lite Pack Camping Bundle. If you’re looking for a spacious front country tent, or one that you can take in for a base camping trip a few short portages into the interior, this is a great starter option. It’s very reasonably priced at $279.99 for the package. For that cost you get a pair of comfortable sleeping bags and a good-sized tent. Both the tent and sleeping bags fit well in a standard canoe pack (although you might want to use a compression sack with the sleeping bag, it rolls up thick) and the tent set-up is easy and intuitive. While there are a couple of areas for possible improvement (a small vestibule would be welcome), overall the Napier Lite Pack Camping Bundle is well worth checking out if you’re looking to get a bit further off the beaten track on your next camping trip.
You know what? For the first time in what feels like ages I’ve actually put a dent in my backlog of campsite reviews. I’ve got a whole chunk from a mid August trip south of Highway 60, including sites on Bonnechere, Ragged and Louisa. On top of those, I’m slowly working through some sites from my mid May trip out of Kiosk, and now have one lonely, (non-reservable) site on Barred Owl Lake up on the list as well.
Hey! I got a new trip report up as well. I’ve got all my reports from this summer written, but the formatting and publishing is way behind. That said, I finally got this one up! It’s a two night, three day trip from Smoke Lake to Rock Lake with my daughter. We stayed on Bonnechere and Louisa, checked out some waterfalls and fought off some leeches. It was an awesome trip, and you can read about it here!