Achray to Squirrel Rapids

The 2023 Dad-Daughter Canoe Trip

I look upon all stages of my daughter’s life with joy and wonder. But this latest one is also quite handy. See this summer kiddo was a counsellor and trip guide at Camp Northway. Which made the prospect of another dad-daughter canoe trip even more enticing. It’s her last year of high school, and she’s really busy so I reckoned if this was going to happen at all, it would need to be shorter.

Since Mallory’s done most of her tripping from Algonquin’s Highway 60 corridor, I figured the perfect trip would be Achray to Squirrel Rapids. It’s a leisurely three day shuttle trip through what I reckon is the park’s most stunning scenery, the Barron Canyon.

The setup

The east end of Algonquin Park is extremely popular in the summer. In addition to the car campground at Achray, on Grand Lake, Campsites line the north shore of Stratton Lake and St. Andrews. There’s a natural water slide at the north end of St. Andrews Lake. And then there’s the Barron Canyon. Whether paddling through it and looking up or hiking the 1.3km trail to the cliff tops, it’s dizzyingly beautiful.

But if you like loop trips, it’s a bit disappointing. At its east end most of the water is flowing purposefully out of the park. So loops are a bit awkward. Or they look like lolipops. So the one trip that I expect most people do involves a short shuttle.

There are two outfitters with bases near the parks easternmost entrance at Sand Lake which will, for around $80, take you back to your car after your trip is done. Or you can drive in two cars, leave one at Squirrel Rapids and continue on to Achray to start your trip. However as I do rather a lot of biking, 22km on a municipal gravel road was a cute errand.

I decided to lock a bike to a tree at Squirrel Rapids en route to Achray with car and canoe. The biggest chore, I think, was getting my old winter commuter bike roadworthy again (Mallory christened it Uncle Rusty some years ago). I expect there aren’t a lot of bike thieves operating in the Sand Lake Gate area, but I didn’t know. I also didn’t know if leaving bikes was something people did. Maybe the park rangers would remove it? Certainly there’s not a lot to distinguish Uncle Rusty from a hunk of junk. Who knows. I wanted something I could ride with street shoes and where I wouldn’t mind too much if porcupines ate the saddle or whatever, or if it was melted down for scrap.

I left things a bit late in the packing and organizing department. It’s been a busy start to fall and just coming back from vacation there was a lot of stuff-that-needs-doing competing for my time. But this is where having a skilled, responsible erstwhile grownup for trip partner comes in incredibly handy. I brought all the camping gear out and arrayed it on the table and the floor in the dining room and Mallory and I had the following conversation:

M: what bags are we bringing?

C: I think the grey one and one of the green ones. Same as usual.

M: You know dad, at Northway we do things differently. Can we use my bag?

C: Will it fit all the stuff?

M: I’ll just do it and show you.

C: Okay. I’ll go get the food together.

So off I went to the kitchen. There was some containerization, some shrinkwrapping and some weighing to do. I heard the whiffing and klunking of a knapsack being packed. a few minutes later, most of the heavy stuff was jammed into Mallory’s hiking pack. It weight a lot — 21kg if I recall correctly — but it was a proper hiking pack, with back support, a real hip belt and sternum strap. it even had holders for the water bottles.

It would be the first world-rocking moment of the trip.

Dad and Daughter. About to set out on our canoe trip

Day 1: Grand Lake

We left Ottawa around 10:30. It’s just under two hours to Achray. It’s the closest access point to Ottawa. We picked up our permit at the Sand Lake gate, and drove a few kilometres down the road to Squirrel Rapids. It’s a proper parking lot with outhouses, a notice board etc etc. There were a lot of cars there (sunny, warm September weekend). I locked Uncle Rusty and an old helmet to a tree using a metal cable and a U-lock and we drove the rest of the way to Achray.

I had booked us at what the park calls the Achray Jump off, a group of sites at the Achray campground reserved for people starting off a back country trip the next day. But I had intended to camp on one of Grand Lake’s backcountry sites across the lake — better for solitude, that wilderness-y feeling etc. The access point wasn’t deserted — there were a couple of canoes going out on trips, people moving about the facilities, rangers and trucks — but it was far less activity than one might encounter during the summer months.

We unloaded the car and set off around 2:30pm. Grand Lake is big and well-aligned with the prevailing winds but we didn’t experience much in the way of waves. A 20 minute paddle brought us to the other side of the lake. All the sites were empty so we reckoned we could help ourselves. We emptied the canoe and Mallory was off like a shot. She grabbed the tent and poles and set it up solo.

“Well, I guess I’ll pump some water,” I said, mostly to myself.

“I’ll have to show you my mad bear hang skillz later,” she said. I was starting to appreciate this ‘having a guide’ thing.

The sky was covered in clouds, though they were up high enough that they didn’t suggest rain. The temperature was dropping and soon we were all-in in the clothing department. The thing about hanging about leisurely at the campsite is that it does cool off a bit.

Dinner was pasta with pesto, feta, parmesan and green beans, picked fresh from the garden. When your first day involves no portages you can indulge a bit. We managed to eat it all. Mallory built a fire and we huddled around the windward side. I used the fire to burn a few two-ply trilliums I found (seems some people couldn’t find the thunderbox so they improvised). Mallory used embers from the fire to dig out a spoon she’d started making at camp as a sort of survival skill. While the technique worked we agreed that, given the time required, other survival tasks — like finding water and shelter — might best take precedence over constructing flatware. Eventually the cold got the better of us and we headed for the tent around 8:30.

Detail, Grand Lake

Day 2: Opalescent Lake

Camp sleep is never really great sleep. For me the first night was a lot of tossing and turning. Finding the right position, going numb somewhere, then changing position. So when morning rolls around — and by morning I mean first light — I am usually ready to get up and going. Oh to be young and able to sleep anywhere and through anything.

We didn’t have much distance to make today, so I (tried to) sneak out of the tent quietly and let her sleep. We had a leisurely breakfast of cereal (hot or cold!) and tea. We packed up and were on the water by 10:30. The sun was out and the temperature was climbing. We were paddling in shirtsleeves by 11am. I imagine the forecast high of 20C actually happened.

We made our way through the narrows into Stratton Lake and did the short portage into St. Andrews Lake. There’s nothing on this trip longer than 800m and apart from the odd rocky or rooty bit, there is nothing technical.

On St. Andrews Lake it looked like most of the campsites were occupied. It’s a pretty lake and seemed like a good destination. We needed to push on, however. Which we did, through High Falls Lake and Ooze Lake to Opalescent. All in, there were five portages today, between 45m and and 595m long. We were at the head of a parade of other paddlers for most of the morning. The area’s quite busy.

We saw a squad of otters at the end of High Falls lake, chirping at each other, orchestra-like.

We arrived on our destination lake around 1:30pm. There were a bunch of people on the lake already, including a couple occupying what we imagined was the choice site, about half way down the lake from the portage on the western shore. But the site opposite was available so we grabbed it. It featured a lovely stone couch and love seat, a good tent pad and a shoreline tailor-made both for loading a canoe and getting water.

We spent a lot of time trying to disentangle someone’s abandoned bear-hang rope as well as cleaning up other camp site detritus. Mallory went for a quick swim. The GPS is down to about 53 per cent after that very short day. I have lots of battery backup but this thing is not designed for self-propelled adventure. It wants to draw power from a car, boat or ATV battery. OTOH I did use it to send text messages to Irene and get an updated forecast.

Dinner was dahl with rice and proper pan-fried naan. Worked out very well and the quantities were only slightly excessive. I was just thrilled that Mallory — not normally a fan of beans, pulses and legumes — agreed to this menu choice and indeed said she liked it. I can only imagine that Northway canoe trip food has conditioned her to be more accepting of any form of sustenance.

We hung around chatting after dinner. I was acutely aware of the fact that these moments are likely to become increasingly rare as kiddo goes off to university and begins her own life.

Barron Canyon. Mallory very much appreciated it

Day 3: Ottawa via the Barron Canyon

Another leisurely wakening to sunny skies and warm, early fall air. Another round of cereal and tea and off we went. A bit earlier on the water — 9:30am as we had a few things on the agenda. Three portages take you from Opalescent Lake to Brigham Lake and onto the Barron River wherein the ooh-ahh moments begin almost immediately.

It’s a small canyon but the walls are some 70m high. Which we don’t see a lot of around these parts. The river wends its way along the bottom of the canyon, the current mostly imperceptible. We took our time, staring up at the heights, inspecting the rocks, their striations, colours etc. The sun warmed us and despite what seemed like crowds yesterday we had the place more or less to ourselves.

Two and a quarter hours after setting off we found ourselves at Squirrel Rapids. And suddenly we became all task-oriented. I wanted to walk the Barron Canyon Trail. Mallory had a number of menu items to get at the Hortons in Cobden. And I had to get the car.

We pulled all our stuff out of the water and tucked it off to the side. Uncle Rusty was still there, waiting for me. So I got out my dry running shoes, zipped off the legs of my tripping pants, put on that ancient wreck of a helmet and set off.

The road trip from Squirrel Rapids to Achray is 22km of gravel. Uncle Rusty is an ancient mountain bike with bar ends, no suspension, flat pedals and still sporting 2.25″ by 26″ studded winter tires. And the aerodynamic profile of a lawn mower. But I reckoned I could still make the trip in an hour. Mallory had a book and a sunny day. So things were looking up.

I got to Achray a dusty, hilly 55 minutes later, got in the car and drove back to get kiddo and canoe. We packed it all up and drove to the Barron Canyon Trail. It’s a really short albeit climb-ey trail that offers breathtaking views of the canyon. Highly recommended.

We walked it, took lots of pictures, I tried to hold my vertigo at bay, then we drove off home via Tim Hortons.

The Route


One comment

  1. Loved reading about your trip with Mallory. She’s absorbed what Dad had to teach and is now ready go forward and show others- a lifelong gift. You are an awesome father Chris. Well done.

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