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

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

Sunday, September 23th, 2018 9:35pm

Sunday, September 23th, 2018 9:35pm

Cedar Lake

Here we are at the same site we camped at the last night of the first trip we did back in 2009. Today was a little different though.

Today started at 6:30 again. I was up in time to see a lid of cloud being lowered over blue sky. Again it was quite cold. Probably single digits. We did our usual breakfast and pack up routine a little faster this time and were on the water for 8:10. The sun was gone and the clouds were falling. The cold remained.

We paddled through a string of small lakes and longer portages that led us to the Nipissing River. The portages were all deadfall derby today too. Through Whiskeyjack, Remona, Robinson there were trees down across the trail on numerous occasions.

Apparently I left one or two of the portages off of my route cheat sheet. The first was 45m so I expect I was readily forgiven for that lapse. The other one was 1935m and I didn’t actually notice the omission until after we’d finished it. We started walking thinking we were on an 850m into the Nipissing River.

I fear it’s going to take me some time to live that one down. Later, we were comparing notes about our darkest moments of the day. Martin said his was the so-called 850m that just wouldn’t end.

Oh well, I actually could have used a couple more 2km portages today. What’s that? Impossible you say?

I say no. You have no idea. See, long portages warm you up.

Did I mention that it was cold when we awoke? Like really cold? And did I add that that never really changed? Well it started cold and then it started raining. Never more than a drizzle or light spray but constant. We never had to bail the boat, though I did once as a sort of party trick. There was just enough rain to soak two humans and their Gore-Tex coats. So we spent the entire day wet and on the verge of being cold.

It was a classic canoe tripping conundrum. Yes, I had other layers — a fleece midlayer namely — that I packed away before we set off. But if I’d kept it on it would have gotten wet like the rest of my clothing and I would have been much less comfortable when we made camp. At least during the day you’re moving and can make your warmth that way.

And I know full well fleece stays warm when wet. But it gets other things wet. And another rule of the canoe tripper’s canon is that you keep wet and dry separate at all costs. The only advantage to having wet feet, cold to the point of numb is that you can’t tell how much they hurt from being compressed under the seat. And so I shivered at every stop, spent the entire day on the verge of cold.

And what a day it was.

We spent most of it on the Nipissing River. Because the whole point of this trip was to see wildlife. Martin has never seen a moose. And on the Nipissing River, last time I was here, I saw at least five, including a mother-child combo. I also heard wolves and some other big crash-about-in-the-woods thing. I wanted to do that again too.

We arrived at the end of the link route to the river at about 10:15. I unzipped the camera case, removed the lense cap and did my best to paddle stealthfully. And we paddled. And paddled. Through twists and turns we heard nothing. Saw nothing. Only the wind whistling and the steady piddle of rain.

At some point we heard a crashing/rustling sound made by animal bigger than a squirrel but we caught no sight of it. We also heard a bellowing sound that we reckon was a moose.

We saw a raptor of sorts and a heron that looked like it had got bored of blue and grey and decided to go blonde. But no moose. No wolves.

At a certain point, as the chills set in, I dropped all hope of moose spotting and just started focusing on ‘getting there’. I started paddling hard and loud. See the thing is, once you’re on the Nipissing, there’s no turning back. There’s no clever, little-known link route that gives you a shortcut back to the car. You’re committed.

By 1pm we were losing energy. But we were also painfully aware that stopping was shiver-inducing. Also there aren’t a lot of places to stop along the Nipissing. The banks are either marshy or steep and overgrown. Occasionally the river encounters some built-up, wooded area, which levels off. Some of these are turned into campsites. Not great campsites, but available. We stopped at one such campsite — it’s called the Long Marsh campsite — for lunch around 1:20. Normally you should not stop for lunch at a campsite as it might make passing paddlers think the site is taken when it’s not. But as we hadn’t seen anyone since yesterday morning, we didn’t think that was an issue.

We ate our usual ration of peanut butter and jam wraps (chosen because they can be constructed and consumed without the need of cutlery) while hopping up and down, running around and agreeing that this was a miserable campsite and we needed to get going again.

Paddling is okay for keeping warm. But you cool off quickly if you stop. So our first 500m after a portage or a lunch were usually taken at flank speed.

Portaging is better for keeping warm but it has to be long. There’s too much low-energy activity at the start and finish to keep warm. So if you’re going to portage, better make it at least 1km. Otherwise it’s over before it starts and you’re just standing there shivering, trying to figure out how to get back into the canoe without soaking your feet or putting a hole in the canoe.

We were cold and lonely — with no moose — most of the day. And the day dragged on and on. I had the GPS in front of me so I knew exactly how far from our destination we were. I’d call out the distance every now and again, but it must have been nuts-ifying for Martin. Corner after corner. Straight-away then corner. Then corner. Lather, rinse repeat.

And as exciting as this sounds, we kept on moving the goal posts.

I had booked us on Plumb Creek Junction, an arbitrary chunk of river where I’d stayed back in 2003 that was Not Awful™. It seemed a more reasonable goal with every chill-inducing achey kilometre that passed. But we arrived at Plumb Creek Junction and decided that time had not been kind to it.

I recalled a site in the Nipissing River delta that had looked like a better choice. So we did the trip’s last two portages and arrived there. It too looked a little grim.

At a certain point, Martin turned to me and said “You know what, fuck it. Let’s just paddle right to the car.” He had a point. We weren’t that far away from the put-in. In most circumstances, we could do it, I reckoned. It would be a late arrival in Ottawa, but possible. The weather wasn’t breaking or even crawling towards ‘better’. We were looking at a cold rainy night in the park on a patch of dirt ill-suited to human habitation.

However Captain Cautious intervened. I said we were cold and tired and that the pitch across Cedar was likely to be very windy and wavy and it’s precisely at times like that when people make mistakes. And our margin for error was pretty small.

“What wind?” Martin asked. He had a point. We were sheltered by the river and a tall point of land where we were. But the wind I reckoned was still going to be a factor once we got out into the open.

We decided to paddle to the delta and see what the conditions were like. Then, if it looked tough, we’d take a site on Cedar, across from Brent, and go home tomorrow morning.

I had my darkest moment when we approached a swift just before the delta. We were suddenly in current and couldn’t maneuver to a clear channel on river left. We ended up getting jammed in the middle and walking the boat through the river to deeper water. Just when I thought I’d finally worked the water out of my shoes and was starting to feel some warmth down there.

A short while later we found ourselves on the delta — having decided the sites there weren’t any better — being blasted back up river by very harsh winds, staring out at low-lying cloud that obscured the shore opposite but showed us waves that were very reminiscent of Friday’s scene on Catfish Lake.

We’d come a long way — about 41km — we were tired and cold. We decided to camp on Cedar. Turns out we picked the same site we picked ten years ago when we made it all the way back down the Petawawa and we didn’t want to go home.

A change of clothes and a big fire (the windstorm wood bombardment was handy for some things) and we got warm.

We didn’t get off the water til 5:20pm so dinner was late and clean up was in the dark. But the rain had let off for the evening, which seemed a sign that we’d chosen right. Dinner was dahl, rice and bannock naan. Which I completely blew by putting in too much water. However we were hungry and all was eaten. I also scuffed the rice by not giving it enough heated simmer time so it was too al denté.

The wind is howling again outside the tent as I write this. All we have to do is make the 1.75km crossing of Cedar. Please, if there must be wind, just put it right in our faces. A tail wind is out of the question of course, but I don’t want waves from the side.