The barren Barron

Barron Canyon, Algonquin Park, November 5-7, 2004

stripslashes(Martin keeping the fire company.)

Martin keeping the fire company.

stripslashes(Morning at Grand Lake campsite: Time to head out. Erin puts the pots away)

Morning at Grand Lake campsite: Time to head out. Erin puts the pots away

stripslashes(Catherine in awe of the surroundings.)

Catherine in awe of the surroundings.

Saturday

Saturday, Nov. 7, 3:30pm, Opalescent Lake

One of the many things one can say about camping in late fall is there's no competition for campsites. In fact it feels like we're in a secluded corner of Temagami now. There is absolutely no one around.

The Southeast corner of the park is jammed in summer. The southeast end of Stratton Lake, for example, is a solid row of red triangles. I count 28 campsites on a lake that's maybe three kilometres long and maybe 200 metres wide.

Now the only evidence of human activity is the neatly groomed pine needle carpet spreading for dozens of metres from any campsite, utterly devoid of anything that you might deem to be "firewood".

There was a single car at the Achray parking lot. Likely a hunter who didn't mind sleeping outdoors.

Hunting is legal in the Park in late October, early November, but as yet we haven't heard any gun shots or seen any hunters. Ominous signs posted at Achray and Squirrel Rapids warn campers to wear bright clothing and not to venture too far from established trails and campsites. This nixed our planned moose call contest too. Oh - how the disappointment burns.

So we're on Opalescent Lake after between three and hours of paddling and portaging.

We were up this morning by 7h30. I slept well. There was none of this in the bag, out of the bag, zip-unzip stuff. We had some form of precipitation overnight, but the clouds weren't threatening when we woke.

Breakfast was a dazzling oatmeal with dried fruit, grains and powdered milk, hard boiled eggs and bacon for the carnivores. I did some serious jonesing about our breakfast. There's got to be some way to keep from turning this into a competition. Mind you, I don't want to bring better food than anyone else, I just don't want to disappoint.

We broke camp and were on the water for 9h15. Our route took us through Stratton Lake, over a 30m hop past some sort of concrete wier. We had the wind at our backs through the rest of Stratton Lake. It was quite a strong wind. Stratton seemed shallow and the waves came up quickly.

We followed Stratton to St. Andrews Lake, across a 45m hop, through St. Andrews Lake, over a short hop, through a nameless pool and across another 100m-ish portage to High Falls Lake. I don't mind the up and down of Algonquin. You just have to plan for it.

We stopped for lunch on High Falls Lake. High Falls is a beautiful lake, more like what you might expect on the French River or in Killarney, wind-tortured pines atop exposed rock islands. It's even fed by a beautiful falls. And we had it all to ourselves.

From High Falls it's 285m into the aptly named Ooze Lake. At the end of the messy portage, there's an old log bridging a pool of the stuff that clearly inspired the cartographers.

No doubt emboldened by a day of defying mud and water in rubber boots, Catherine decided against the damp, round-topped rotting log and took the line through mud right. She made it through but her boots needed help.

"What is that sucking sound?" Erin asked, casting a glance back to the pit that was slowly inhaling Catherine, pack and all. Catherine propelled herself, pack, paddles onto higher ground, leaving her boots behind, as the vortex began to close in hungrily on her hitherto unstoppable rubber boots.

It took two of us to extract them, and while I swear I heard a snarling sound coming from deep in the pit, Erin says I just have an overly active imagination.

With the boots retrieved, we paddled on. We made Opalescence Lake by 13h30, after a 320m portage.

I must say, I'm loving this rubber boot thing. We just approach shore to boot depth, and get out. Boat stays safe, feet stay dry, and - with my felt liners - warm. These boots have these nylon draw strings around the top that are always dipping into the water, and I feel I'm walking awkwardly, but they're comfortable enough on all our portages so far.

I'm also liking these fleece-lined nylon pants. They're quite warm and they dry in an instant. And they leave room for an extra layer, though I've not needed it yet.

I'm also a big fan of our canoe, Le Tigre, or El Tigray as I call it. It's a Souris River Quetico 16. It tracks beautifully and weighs nothing. It has an aft thwart that constrains the size of pack you can put behind the thwart, something Irene's canoe doesn't have, but I imagine the extra strength it provides is appropriate for a group canoe.

What I learned on this trip

All trip long we've had the company of Dot, Martin's dog. Dot is cute as a button and very friendly, so I'd been playing with her and using that silly voice I use with pets. But each time, Martin would gesture and/or call her over. I thought this odd, but assumed he was just really possessive of his pet.

Finally Cecilia gently told me that Dot is a working dog. I still didn't get it. "Oh really, I said, thinking she was kidding. "What's she do for a living?" Martin and Cecilia had to spell it out for me. Dot is a hearing dog - Martin's ears.

I didn't twig to this fact when Dot accompanied Martin into the Tim Horton's in Renfrew, wearing a yellow doggie vest, or when Dot accompanied Martin when he drove back to shuttle us from Squirrel Rapids to Achray despite the fact that we had three people plus gear in a sub-compact car.

I knew Martin had almost no hearing. But I couldn't quite clue in that Dot's job is to alert Martin to knocks on the door, phone calls, alarms, and other noises including a bunch of people yelling at him to come back because he'd headed down the wrong path.

I'd heard of seeing eye dogs, but not hearing dogs. Whoops. I felt more than a little insensitive. To work effectively, working dogs need to maintain the discipline of their training and remain one-person dogs. Martin lets the rules slip a bit, but in many circumstances his safety depends on her so he has to keep her focussed. Friendly humans are a complication in a routine that already presents complications.

Now I know. I like club trips for this reason - you always learn something new.

21h00

In summer, you go to bed early because the bugs drive you indoors some time between 8 and 9pm. In fall, you go to bed early because it's pitch black from about 5pm on, and the lack of artificial light makes you think it must be the middle of the night.

After the lovely curry and a concoction to which one might loosely apply the term "pudding," we reclined around the fire, hoping for stars. While a few appeared off behind us, the clouds shielded the heavens from us. (Meanwhile, apparently people were crowding Ottawa's streets to gaze in awe at the northern lights - where is the justice in that, I ask you.)

We told a few jokes and talked about ski marathons, long distance cycling and other forms of... oh... exercise. But by 9pm or so, we decided bed was where it was at.

It is at this point you realize how fire changed civilization. Around the fire we were cozy, warm. We were talking about other things, making plans for the future, getting to know each other as humans. We stepped away from the fire. The ambient temperature dropped. And so did all our interest in cooperation, planning and the future. We just ran for the tents.

Sleep came easily and my summer bag, stuffed into an overbag, kept me warm. Mind you, I did put on my long underwear.