Algonquin Park: Cedar – Catfish – Burntroot – Nipissing
The father-daughter edition: September 9-12, 2022
The first time I did this route I saw and heard more wildlife than I’d ever experienced. It’s a four day foray as deep into the park and as far away from the human-inhabited parts as you can get. So it makes sense that it would be thus. But the second time I did this route I saw nothing bigger than a chipmunk. Nonetheless I figured my burgeoning canoe-tripping pro daughter should experience this trip for its remoteness. If we saw big wild animals, it would be a bonus.
- Day 1: a relaxed drive to Brent and a half day’s paddle to Catfish Lake.
- Day 2: a long day that started off in lily pad soup and ended up reaching the swanky site on Burntroot after facing off against the wind for hours on the big open water of Hogan and La Muir.
- Day 3: the longest of hauls down the winding, boney Nipissing River to Cedar Lake.
- Day 4: a leisurely morning and the shortest of paddles across Cedar to Brent, the car and home.
Note of thanks
To Irene, for entrusting the care of our kid to me for an extended weekend while neglecting all manner of other things that needed doing.
Admonition against risk
I’m not providing advice here. I’m telling a story. I have been doing these backcountry trips every year or so since I was eleven years old and still each time I get a bit worked up because I know there are all kinds of things that can go rapidly and hideously wrong from which I and/or my trip mate(s) might not recover. There are lots of ways you can get into backcountry tripping while mitigating risk: outdoors clubs, outfitters, guides etc. If this sort of trip seems like fun to you, do avail yourself of their skills and knowledge before launching yourself out there.
Friday, September 9th, 2022 5pm, Shangri-la Island Catfish Lake
Called Catfish CS7 among my list of waypoints. Funny how portages with names you avoid. Campsites with names you frequent. Although I note that Jeff’s Map says in 2013 this one was reported to be swarming with cockroaches. We did see the odd thing that looked like a cockroach, but it didn’t really look like an infestation. Also, a bug-hunting robin kept us company most of the afternoon. I imagine it was feeding well.
We were on the road from Ottawa just before 8am this morning and arrived at Brent around 11:30. The ranger at the permit office warned me that the water levels were quite low.
We ate non-canoe-trip sandwiches we’d prepared this morning perched on a bench overlooking Cedar Lake, by the boat launch. Off came the long pants, on went the suncreen and off we went just after noon. Sunny and warm — low 20s I reckon — with a light wind.
We crossed Cedar to the Petawawa and headed up stream toward Catfish. There’s a series of portages to get you there via Narrowbag Lake, the longest of which — at 2345m — is called Unicorn Hill. It is a significant hill but nothing technical or lung-bustingly steep. You’ve got to expect a little elevation gain when you’re portaging upstream after all.
Narrowbag empties into Catfish via an impassable creek which we portaged.
I need to pause at this point and crow wildly about my paddling partner and daughter. She’s always been an awesome trip partner but this year she’s a machine. She sterned us down Catfish. She carried the canoe and a pack on Unicorn Hill and some of the other portages. And she now rolls the canoe up and down by herself. She was a counsellor in training at Camp Northway this summer and the experience has transformed her.
The low water levels were in evidence on Catfish. There’s a narrows you pass through to get from the northern part of the lake to the southern part (where you find all the best campsites). And this year it’s very narrow indeed. Hard to spot, even. Barely the width of a canoe, it probably needs a liftover if you’ve got more than a few inches of draft. We were able to scrape through.
And scrape we did so by about 4pm we got to Shangri-la Island, which bears the Kevin Callan seal of approval (though it was granted before the Geoff’s Map cockroach infestation report).
On Catfish we saw one of only two parties of canoeists we encountered today.
We had a great evening of chatting and story telling after our camp felafel dinner. It was good but it’s labour and equipment intense. We used a pot and the frying pan to prepare and cook the instant felafel. I reconstituted the dehydrated hummous in our cups (with a bit too much water but Mallory poured some out and it was fine). I used the small pot for the rice. I needed the stove to heat the pita, cook the felafel and cook the rice. So as a compromise I tried leaving the rice to ‘sit’ rather than simmer.
This produced rice that was just edging into ‘edible’ from ‘impossibly crunchy’. But as it turns out, if you have two pitas each, hummous and felafel, you don’t actually need rice. You just need a fire to burn the stuff. Which is what we did. Yep. It’s wasteful. But at least we didn’t have to carry it and we didn’t leave it to lure/train the animals.
Pack the frying pan handle attached to the pan and folded in or else detached and in some other bag. Put the two together un-attached and bad things happen.
Saturday September 10, 6:20pm, Burnroot Lake, the Kevin Callan-approved site
Gonna be a long day tomorrow. I am really tired after today and tomorrow is going to be longer. I’ve set up the tarp to encourage the rain to stay away. The forecast has been evolving for the better (unless you’re a plant) for the last 24 hours or so. From “definitely going to rain all day” earlier this week to a “40 per cent chance of rain” this morning. We’ll see if the tarp helps improve it further. It usually does.
We did 32km today. Mallory has been a stalwart all day. Carrying the big pack and the canoe, paddling almost ceaselessly, and in the stern too. She’s great at steering from the bow. She’s an amazing kid. Good humoured and upbeat all the time. Just a joy to paddle with.
We got up with the sun, or at least around 7am. I caught a glimpse of the moon setting, ablaze in orange. But the GPS camera is pretty terrible and didn’t capture it.
We had tea and granola for breakfast and were on the water for 8:20am. We have two days of granola and I brought two 250ml tetrapaks of UHT milk which is not quite enough for a bowl of cereal that fuels your entire morning. I think four would have been too many though. And since they’re supposed to be refrigerated after opening, I don’t think three would have been a good idea either. I should probably have listened to Mallory when she said ‘powdered milk is fine’.
The south end of Catfish Lake is a real water plant maze. There’s a channel, but even that is clogged with lily pads and pickerel weed. It’s slow going even if you don’t manage to get hung up on the mud lurking just below the surface.
The portages from Catfish to Newt and Manta could use a bit of ranger love. Some deadfall and overgrown bits. The trails are hilly but not crazy strenuous. A couple are longer than a kilometre but no need to name them, I don’t think.
We got onto Hogan around 11am with the sun shining through a cloud-speckled sky and wind from the west north west. Ish. We saw only fishers in motorboats.
The small stretch of the Little Madawaska we took to get to the portage into La Muir was also a lily pond. Happily the channel was a bit crowd-sourced insofar as there was evidence of a recent canoe passage. This helped us make our way without getting hung up. Mallory did a great job breaking the bow pinning wave and pulling us left and right as required.
The portage into La Muir is an up-and-over affair. Steep ramps at either end, but no issues with the trail.
Paddling La Muir was a slog. Perfectly positioned for today’s wind to sweep its longest reach and build up the waves so that they frothed white on top.
We paused for lunch and pressed on to Red Pine Bay via the portage from the west end of La Muir. It too is an up-and-over affair with a bit of a wall to start you off.
Once we hit Red Pine Bay I began to feel the tension in my neck and shoulders. Not only because we’d been paddling and carrying for five hours but also because of the whole campsite selection thing. Would we score the nice island site at the north end of Burntroot or would someone have beaten us to it? It’s a popular site and the last time I was through here (though that was in August) it was taken. The fact that it’s September — post Labour Day even, and the park is pretty much empty — was lost on me.
I had to keep telling myself that the die is already cast. If someone is there, they’ve been there for days and nothing I could do or could have done would change that. So, ease off. It’s okay to take breaks. No point wrenching arms out of sockets. It’s not like summer in Killarney where you have to sprint for your site come 2pm.
We got to the north end of Burntroot around 4:30pm and the site of choice was, indeed, vacant. We set up camp, marvelled at the fire pit and kitchen setup, agonized over which of the many tent pads would be best and collapsed into the folding camp chairs to pump water and prep dinner.
Mallory rated the day 7 out of 10 in terms of effort where ’10’ is ‘makes me cry’ and ‘1’ is ‘how do I tell if I’m moving’. So that’s good because tomorrow is going to be harder. We will have eaten our way out of another bunch of food so that will lighten the load a bit.
Tonight was couscous and it was good. I brought a full cup of the grain, which was too much, I reckon, for two people. Three quarters would have been enough. I put the spices in with the dry couscous before pouring the boiling water over them. That seemed to work. I had brought a small (maybe 60ml) silicon tube of olive oil to mix in, which I should have used. I couldn’t find it amidst the clutter of the food bag. Oh well. Tomorrow night’s pasta will benefit.
Especially since tomorrow night’s pesto might not make it. I bought this ‘fresh’ stuff from Cedars in a baby food pack. The store keeps it in the refrigerator shelves along with the produce. And after two days in the warmth it’s swollen up like a balloon. We’ll see how it tastes tomorrow. If it’s truly no good I can improvise a cream sauce from the skim milk powder, parmesan and olive oil.
I love merino wool for almost everything. But I am finding it is a mistake for this sort of trip because of the portages. I’ve been wearing merino t-shirts but they now have tiny holes all over them where shoulder, hip and sternum straps have been abrading them. Both the cheapo MEC shirt and the pricier IceBreaker have succumbed. Which is quite the bummer as they’re expensive.
The battery pack I brought is a hit. It weighs a lot but it recharged the GPS three times without making a dent in its power level. It’s a bit appalling that the Montana 750i burns through between 60 and 75 per cent of its charge in a day. But it is trying to do a lot. And it does have removable batteries. I brought one along as a backup backup. But it wouldn’t have been enough for even this trip with about 22 hours of moving time to track.
Mallory’s canoe roll-ups have been getting better all trip. The first couple she did seemed a bit of a struggle, but she’s now able to do them with that ‘snap’ that you like to see, rather than the slow haul up to the shoulders. Note to self: if we do this again, the hull — the sides particularly — could use a light coat of resin as the cloth is a bit bare and irritates Mallory’s skin when Ms Short Shorts hauls the boat onto her thighs to do the flip. She’s a tough cookie, insisting on doing the rollups (“I want the practice”) despite this.
We saw an otter sluicing through the lily pads at the south end of Catfish this morning. Might be the first real visual proof I’ve had that they actually have whole bodies. I’ve only ever seen their heads periscoping to observe me.
We also saw an osprey nest on La Muir that looked active and some sort of raptor (possibly the osprey, possibly an eagle) on Red Pine Bay.
The forecast for tomorrow is now showing a small chance of rain during the day with the possibility increasing to 40 per cent by evening. If it gives us enough time to get the tent up I’ll be a happy man. Happier still to be her with my daughter who is amazing and who I love with all my heart.
Sunday, September 11, 2022, 8:36pm, Cedar Lake
Holy crap what a long day. We did 40km I reckon. It felt harder than the last time I did this. I was totally fried when we got to our campsite this evening, but Mallory rated the day a ‘5’ on the exertion scale.
Definitely better weather though. We woke to about 50 per cent cloud cover, with temperatures still in the high teens. The wind was more or less the same direction as yesterday. This morning I updated the InReach advanced forecast and now it was saying rain wasn’t likely at all today. This buoyed my spirits. Wonder how much it’s going to cost. Worth it. Our plans evolved again.
It had been “get up, pack up, paddle through the rain all the way to the car” then it was “stop early on the Nipissing so we don’t have to setup camp and eat in the rain” and now it was “let’s check out the campsites on the delta, see how we feel.” We were booked on the Nipissing “below the 925” but I figured we could likely handle the extra kilometre or so to Cedar and the chances of us displacing someone from their rightful campsite were slim.
The thing about this route is that you’re almost committed to a long day back to Cedar once you’re on Robinson Lake because there’s nowhere decent to stop on the Nipissing. Jeff’s Map has notes attached to all the campsites you’ll encounter that say ‘stay away’. And while the map hasn’t been updated in quite some time (2013 I think) the ensuing years have not been kind to the campsites. Steep hills up from silty, reedy water. Bug traps in September. The two sites closest to Cedar hold the most promise but even they are tiny and overlook a large marsh. So that’s us. Camped on the south west shore of Cedar after barging through Whiskeyjack, Remona, and Robinson to get to the Nipissing and then spending late morning, the afternoon and early evening on its countless twists and turns.
The river was a little boney. More swifts, shoals and obstructions than last time. And one full-on beaver dam. But we managed good speed in part because of the current but more because of Mallory’s paddling skills getting us around the corners without killing all our momentum or bashing into the banks.
We had a floating lunch just after the 350m portage which is sort of the mid-point of this run down the Nipissing. I definitely needed the break. Canoe tripping doesn’t put a lot of demands on your aerobic system — my heart rate hovers around 90 to 110 most of the day with a max usually in the 130-140 bpm range. But it’s quite a lot of discomfort. The canoe yoke pressing on your shoulders, the overly heavy pack with crunchy ill-adjusted straps, or the pain from kneeling in the canoe for hours — these all take a toll.
About mid afternoon we saw a cow and calf pair of moose, feeding in the tall reeds along the bank. Fortunately one of them had to pee so I had time to get the GPS off its mount and take a picture before they retreated into the bush. I’ve had so little luck with the camera I was thrilled to get any sort of a picture.
It was a great sighting. Almost as good as Mallory observing a raptor of some sort catching its breakfast right off the shore of our campsite. She was so thrilled. She said she could hear its wings beating. She watched it as it landed nearby and tucked into its catch. Alas I missed it. Between the otter, the osprey, the eagle, beaver and moose it’s been a good wilderness spotting trip. We’re just missing the wolf howling.
Tonight finds us on the site just a bit north and west of the one I usually stay at. It had great curb appeal — a lovely rock face for viewing the lake and a gentle landing spot for the canoe. But the amenities are bad. There are a few log benches but none is wide enough for a stove and there’s no flat rocks for it either. There are maybe two places to put a tent and neither is great — they’re either slanted, or rocky and rooty. And the most relentless trained animal we’ve seen all trip. And bugs. The site still has bugs. Not enough to use repellent but still — what’s with that?
Public service announcement
The baby food pack pesto was a no-go. It seemed to taste okay. More vinegar-y than pesto should, in my opinion. But I don’t think it would have killed us or given us any grief. Mallory said she wouldn’t eat the pesto and I’m not going to not-feed-my-child after a long day and snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory. We had the makings of another sauce, so I opted to go with the no-risk option.
And it turns out you can make something approximating alfredo sauce from olive oil, skim milk powder and parmesan cheese. I reconstituted the second pack of dehydrated vegetables and we had a fabulous canoe trip ziti. I had, of course, brought along too much dried tortellini — about 33 per cent too much — but this time we can pack it out as tomorrow we’ve only got the briefest of journeys.
We saw no paddlers today. Only people fishing from motorboats on Cedar. We were treated to a fabulous sort of wilderness light show, with the late afternoon sun breaking through the clouds to highlight parts of the shore opposite. There was even a rainbow that seemed to be pointing at the communications tower at Brent.
We’ve been really lucky with the weather. Three days in September where we were in shorts and short sleeves, mostly without bugs to bother us. I even managed to get rid of the biker-tanned hands. Legs not so lucky. And much as the Nipissing might seem like a chore it is really beautiful and alive, with animal tracks everywhere, wizened sentinel pines stretching high above the banks at random intervals, ducks, herons, kingfishers escorting you along as they alight.
Okay. My arms can’t hold up the pen anymore. Too much paddling.
Monday, September 12, 2022, Ottawa
The stuff is all airing out on the porch or in the basement. Mallory’s done the trip dishes and the laundry is underway.
We woke up late — after 7am my goodness — once again to broken cloud in the sky. It looks like the whole rainstorm thing was just never going to show up. Which was fine by me. I had stored enough leftover snacks for a quick escape-back-to-Brent morning. But it was warm and the sun was breaking through and burning off the mist from the lake. So we had a leisurely breakfast of chocolate chip pancakes with maple syrup and tea. We sat around, gabbed and read and chased off the trained chipmunk.
Then we packed up and headed across the lake to Brent and the car. Cedar was calm and almost windless so it took us no time at all. I managed to put the GPS on pause somehow so that segment of our trip didn’t get recorded but it’s about 1.9km. We changed out of our tripping clothes, loaded the car and headed home. We stopped for lunch at the Subway in Deep River with me still lamenting the loss of an old-school family restaurant with an ample ice cream bar.
I must have double-tapped the GPS on day four because it didn’t record the 1.9km paddle from campsite to car but it did record the post-landing faff about. Ah well. You get the idea. Here’s the GPX file.
|Day/Destination||Total Distance||Portage Count||Portage Distance||Average Speed|
|Day 1: Catfish||14.8 km||5||3610 m||3.7 km/h|
|Day 2: Burntroot||32.3 km||6||5120 m||4.3 km/h|
|Day 3: Cedar||39.6 km||10||6525 m||4.3 km/h|
|Day 4: Ottawa||1.9 km||0||0||n/a|
|Total||88.6 km||21||15255 m|