Algonquin: Cedar – Catfish – Hogan – Burntroot – Nipissing River

A four day canoe trip in the heart of Algonquin Park: Sept. 21 - 24, 2018.

Friday, September 21st 2018, 8pm

Catfish Lake

The wind tonight is remarkable. We’d been watching the forecast for weeks as hurricane Florence wrought havoc on the US eastern seaboard. Every time that happens fall paddling in this neck of the woods gets interesting. Today was interesting.

The story starts last night, though.

I went to bed feeling intimidated and a bit defeated. The forecast for today was still for winds of 50km/h with gusts up to 80km/h. Overnight rainfall in the area of 40mm, possibly continuing through the day. The rest of the weekend was supposed to be seasonal, if not hospitable. It was always going to be a tough trip, but now this? Plus I had come down with a cold.

In the ten years I’ve done these trips I have never had such dark thoughts.

But I thought about starting a day later. Or about car camping at Cedar Lake and shortening the route. Or doing a different route that would have us going with the wind on Friday. I was fixated on Cedar Lake. If we could just get across Cedar Lake we’d be fine. If we could survive Friday, we’d be fine.

Fortunately, Martin wasn’t checking his email at 5:30 when I sent him my darkest hour message. And when I showed up at 6:30 to get him he was all ready to go, no more than a glimmer of doubt in his head, which I expect he wrote down to inadequate caffeination. It must have been a bit unsettling that I was all panicked and gloomy when I introduced the subject. We had a brief chat, in the dark, in the car outside his house, and decided we’d go today and see what it was like.

After all, forecasters have been known to be wrong.

We got there around 11am after a rain-soaked drive. Apart from the odd streak of cloud high in the sky, it seemed like an uncannily warm fall day. Sunny, a moderate breeze from the southwest. Very far from the dangerous gale we were told to expect. The park agent had told us if we wanted we could use a car camping site at no extra cost if we didn’t want to head out today.

“Pshaw,” I thought to myself as we schlepped gear and canoe down to the boat launch. “Looks like we dodged a bullet and this trip will be smooth sailing after all.” So we went for it.

Cedar was about a 27 minute crossing. Wavy — the odd splash over the side but manageable. We managed around 4.1km/h. Normal is around 6km/h. We got to the Petawawa and our first portage, 775m of uphill. I was really wishing I’d worn my summer pants.

I thought the green pack would go best with the canoe. It’s bigger but sits lower and doesn’t interfere with the yoke. Plus the grey pack — with the food and the kitchen kit — was actually a bit heavier — both around 17kg. Might need to change that.

When we got across Cedar I was positively cocky. “Well, now that we’ve had the worst of it, the rest will be a breeze.” It was a fateful choice of words. Is ironic understatement foreshadowing a thing?

Little did I know that the wind was just getting started.

And still it goes on.

The portages up the Petawawa from Cedar are chores. All uphill, including the 2345m, which now has a name — Unicorn Hill. But there are pretty rapids to look at.

Narrowbag Lake was probably my first clue that we might not be done with the wind for the day. It’s too short to be wavy, but it felt like paddling through cotton batting. I think we might have managed 4km/hr along Narrowbag but it was a hard effort.

I was starting to get dismayed as we approached the portage to Catfish. It’s a short, 80m riverbank hop to bypass a very bony swift, so you can see into Catfish from Narrowbag.

“Looks choppy ahead,” Martin opined.

“That it does,” I replied, all the while thinking “holy fucking shit.”

I had been entertaining the notion that, since the wind down Narrowbag was right in our face, we might actually catch a break after we turned southwest on Catfish. Instead, I found myself staring at an endless march of whitecaps rolling perfectly north, marvelling at how the wind can seem to follow the longest fetch of a lake. And so rarely in our favour.

After the 80, the wind was still coming across our port bow as we stuck our paddles into the tiny bay at Catfish’s north east corner. Most of my effort was going into keeping the boat pointed upwind enough to make some headway. The waves were relatively mild, the boat thumping the troughs as it passed through, but water mostly staying out.

When we rounded the corner to head south down Catfish proper things changed significantly. We were no longer protected from the wind by the peninsula on the left. It seemed the wind was rushing up the surface of the lake, driving hard into all corners to grab all available air space and push everything else — us included — out of the way. The waves were froth-topped and the crests seemed less than a canoe length apart. Just enough to land hard, sending spray up and over the side. Our speed slowed to somewhere between 1.5 and 2km/h. Within a minute or two I gave up on trying to keep us on course and just focused on trying to ride through troughs and slide over the crests. A while after that, I wasn’t having any luck so I mostly just tried to keep the boat pointed into the wind.

On the GPS the blue line of where we’d been was beginning to diverge from the pink line of where we wanted to go. If we could keep heading forward without filling up with water, our little 2.5km, 30 minute paddle down to the nice site was looking more like two hours of giving it all we had. Assuming conditions didn’t get any worse. Which I had no reason to assume.

About 300m ahead and off to our left was a site I’d marked as CS3. (I always mark all the sites on our destination lakes for this very reason). I told Martin I didn’t see us making a whole lot of progress down the lake and that there was a significant risk of swamping if we tried. It was time to head for shore.

Insofar as he was the one most intimately acquainted with our water intake, he didn’t need much convincing.

So we shimmied and wind ferried over to shore, getting off the water at around 2:45. The site was exposed and not an awesome configuration, but there was a thunderbox and a flat spot for the tent.

At first I felt a bit sheepish about having gotten off the water so early. After all we had talked about trying to get to Hogan today to shorten a long Saturday. We expected to get to the nicer sites at the south end of Catfish and here we were, throwing in the towel barely 500m down the lake.

About 45 minutes later the decision made a lot more sense. The wind had been thick and steady but suddenly it started throwing up gusts that were literally staggering. As in we could not walk into them. I couldn’t measure the speed obviously, but those forecast 80km/hr gusts might have actually happened.

Sound on.

We had to shout to make ourselves heard. We were constantly being pelted with falling branches, pine cones, dust and pine needles. Meanwhile the waves out on the lake were starting to look like frothing saw teeth.

I felt profound relief that I wasn’t out in the middle of that.

Possibly you’re reading this thinking we’re craven weaklings for not forging ahead. Maybe you, dear reader, have faced much worse and lived to tell the tale. Bravo to you I say. But to me there was so little riding on us getting to the end of Catfish on Friday and a lot riding on us getting home Monday afternoon, with only our enjoyment of the time in between at stake.

So to take even a small, unnecessary risk just to experience some acute suffering seemed patently unreasonable. Judge me if you will.

Dinner was a 1kg pack of shelf-stable tortellini, half a jar of pumpkin sauce (dehydrated) and parmesan cheese. We ate a bit early because we’d skipped lunch. I would say that 1kg was about 25 to 33 per cent too much. We ate it all anyway because there is no decent no-trace way to dispose of food, but it left me unpleasantly full.

The other food mistake was grating and vaccum packing fresh parmesan cheese. It turns it back into a solid mass. Especially if it’s actually in a pack all afternoon on a warm day. Carve chips of a hunk of the good stuff or just bring the powder in a disposable hard container.

The wind blew ferociously all evening, rattling the tent and continuing to trim the trees. The tent stayed strong though. We did peg everything — use all the leads to hold it down and put the canoe in front of it as a sort of windbreak and to hold down the windward lead. It’s 18 years old but still its aluminum spider stood up to that wind. Much to my relief.

No chairs. No tarp. Everything lighter than a kilo weighed down.

Conveniently the wind did fuel the fire beautifully and we managed to keep it under control and prevent it being visible from space. We headed for the tent around 8:30 after giving it an extra dose of water.