The ninth year of the Chris - Martin annual autumn canoe trip fell on the hottest September weekend Canadians have ever seen. Sunny, July-like temperatures. And it happened to be the year I decided to go with a simple, straight-forward route out of Canoe Lake, off Algonquin Park’s Highway 60 corridor.
Despite almost losing our minds at the crowds marshalling their departures at the put-in, we had a great time. And yes the weather helped.
The Reader’s Digest version:
- Day 1:
- a luxurious 7am departure from Ottawa sees us arriving to a packed Canoe Lake Access Point but ultimately realizing it’s a darn big park and there’s lots of space for everyone.
- Day 2:
- wherein we discover an active root fire at an improvised, non-designated camping spot on Big Trout Lake and realize that we know bopkes about fire fighting.
- Day 3:
- wherein we navigate the maze of Grassy Bay and pass by every nice campsite on the way to Littledoe Lake.
- Day 4:
- wherein we paddle the last leg home, running the gauntlet of cottages and day trippers back to Canoe Lake and home.
This route is a variation on Kevin Callan’s Big Trout Lake Loop from his fabulous book A Paddler’s Guide to Algonquin Park. The book is a great resource. Of course, all the stupid ideas and bad information you find on this page are my responsibility alone.
I would like to thank my partner Irene for once again letting me disappear off into the woods for four days during the school year.
Admonition against risk
I’m telling a story, not providing advice. These sorts of trips carry significant risk of serious injury or death. Having been doing this since I was eleven years old, I’ve learned a thing or two, most of which I do not convey here. So if reading this is your only preparation for going on a canoe trip, you will be well and truly hooped. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Hire a guide, sign on with a touring company. Take a course. Join a club. Lots of people want to help you learn to do this stuff. Seek them out.
Little Otterslide Lake
And here was I thinking we would have blissful isolation in Algonquin in the fall.
Hah. Of course I couldn’t have predicted the solid week of 25C and sun that has preceded this weekend. Nor could I have ascertained the number of people who could, on short notice, throw their Tilley gear and sleeping bags into a backpack and head north.
Sufficeth to say that number is large.
There were dozens and dozens of people at the access point. The parking lot was packed. Canoes, packs and food barrels lined the beach in front of the permit issuing office. The outfitters’ racks were empty but for the Grummans that looked like they still had the bullet holes from when they were the fuselage of a Wildcat on the USS Hornet.
Martin and I were horrified.
I reminded myself that it’s a big park — there’s lots of places to put people. And Canoe Lake handles permit issuing for Smoke Lake, Cache Lake and Source Lake as well.
But the bay was thick with canoes. And where at other access points the intake agents or rangers or whatever are excited to see another human, ask you questions about your route, give you ideas about campsites, here they were strictly business as they stared down a 10 minute line up. Tent colour? Canoe colour? License plate number? Are you doing any fishing? Enjoy your trip.
For me pre-launch is always a bit tense but this was worse than normal not only because of the hordes, but also because I’d left a few things to the last, namely how to pack the water bottles, how to pack the last-minute-gear-additions bag (at least it had a draw string).
And then the GPS’s battery showed up DOA. How on earth does that happen? It was plugged in all night before the trip. A serious WTF. This has happened before and I know a single charge is inadequate for four days travel so I brought backups. Three. In fact. Two sets of three AAs and a USB battery pack as an experiment.
I also discovered, having swapped the Li battery for AAs, that the GPS wouldn’t wake from energy saver mode when I tapped the screen. This feature has been essential to me for the last… oh… ever since I’ve had the unit. I mount it on the boat’s aft thwart and let it run. The screen switches off after 30 seconds or so, but if I need to check my heading, find out how fast we’re going, when the sun sets or get the inevitable “how much further?” from the bow, I tap the screen and I have the answer in an instant.
I can’t figure out what’s going on. The touch screen otherwise seems to function normally. The unit has a full charge. It’s still following my route and tracking. It still has all its satellites.
I discovered that if I tap the power button, the screen comes back on. But for me, this means putting down my paddle, unzipping the case, lifting the unit out, finding the very subtle button and giving it a squeeze just to check if we’re going the right way.
Before I could do this without breaking stroke.
Post facto-note: a little Googling after I got back tells me that Garmin did this because it considered tap-to-wake a bug not a feature. The excellent place to buy GPS stuff, GPS City, mentions the fact in a reply to a support board question. And lo and behold, there it is, in the change history for the Garmin Montana software. I am looking forward to them reinstating this feature in 7.40 and will work hard to make it so.
From Canoe Lake it’s a pretty straight forward paddle north to the “Joe System” which is a contiguous string of lakes all named after someone’s best friend Joe. There’s Joe, Big Joe, Little Joe, Baby Joe, Lost Joe, Idiot Cousin Joe. I’m mostly serious. The same thing happens up north with the Trouts.
We saw the Tom Thomson cairn on our way towards the 300-something metre portage into the Joes but we were not keen on stopping. The lake was wall-to-wall canoes under varying degrees of control. You can tell the truly new paddlers because they’re often couples where the man feels the need to be in front because he thinks that’s where you sit to steer. Paying the price for patriarchy I tell you.
We were anticipating fierce competition for campsites, and keen to get to peace and quiet. Myself I recalled the two-portage rule. Most of the truly problem campers never make it past the first portage. And the Canoe Lake Access Point is perfect for that. One short easy portage and you can wend your way about the Joe System, Littledoe, Teepee, Tom Thomson and have yourself a little adventure without having to break a sweat.
We, on the other hand, had grander, more masochistic plans.
The crowds did indeed thin out, one portage later, on Burnt Island Lake. But we arrived already in the presence of many groups who’d graduated to the Two Portage and Plunk Yourself method. I’d booked us on to Burnt Island but we arrived around 2pm to find most of the nice sites taken.
Public Service Announcement number one
Don’t stop at a posted campsite if you’re just having lunch or taking a nature break. People will think the site’s taken.
We decided, to push on to Little Otterslide. We reckoned we were good for another 90 minutes and we’d made good progress, with the wind at our backs. I normally plan on 6km/hr for paddling but were were averaging over 7km/hr. And we reckoned it wouldn’t get any more crowded, the further we got from the access point.
The 880m into Little Otterslide is flat with some mud and a bit of rough terrain and none of the stair cases and docks that you see on the Canoe-Joe portage. They haven’t, for example set up a composting toilet for the convenience of portagers.
We were on Little Otterslide by around 3:15pm. The sites aren’t as nice or as plentiful as on Burnt Island. Burnt Island is definitely the place to camp if you’re doing this route. It’s where Callan suggests you stay. Our site was quite good, but there weren’t a ton of options.
Public Service Announcement number two
Don’t rip down the campsite markers. You’re not fooling anyone. You’re just making work for the backcountry crews who have actual work to do. Like fighting the root fires you set, douchebags.
It’s been blazing hot — high 20s we reckon — and sunny all day. We anticipated a new crop of bugs. While they’re present they’re not at the level of needing bug spray.
All in we travelled about 24km by the time we pulled the canoe out of the water, including three short portages. Which we did in high efficiency mode. We always do single pass, but we were doing one touch as well. Normally it takes a day or two to work up to that, but when the put-ins and take-outs are jammed with other parties, space is at a premium, it just makes sense. Put the canoe down in the water. Unload your pack into the canoe. Then the other one. Drop paddles into the boat, push off and adjust the cling-ons before getting underway.
Your feet usually get wet and you may need to do some acrobatics if the shoreline is rough, but it saves energy and more time than you’d think. If you want to pause for a breath, you can, but with the boat loaded and ready to go.
We managed to kill 1kg of shelf-stable gnocchi for dinner. Mind you, we replaced lunch with a handful of gorp each. The Gia pesto in a tube from Whole Foods was underwhelming. Last year I brought real pesto and I think the weight ‘expense’ was worth it. We tried Ciao, an organic tetrapak wine which certainly was a good balm for sore muscles, but didn’t really rate on the taste scale.
My little Anker USB battery charger got my GPS Li battery up to 64 per cent capacity before giving out. So that should be good for a day and a bit of travel. I secretly covet the smaller Garmin Oregon. I think the Montana is really designed for ATVs and motorcycles. But so long as it works, I really can’t countenance replacing it.
The water filter is acting all stiff and slow. The lake water at this site is quite tannic and possibly more silty than you might like but it’s surprisingly sluggish.
We saw lots of stars tonight before we headed into the tent at around 9pm. And what I was always told was ‘heat lightning’ as a kid. It’s actually flashes of regular lightning taking place too far away to hear the thunder, but with sky clear enough that it can be seen for hundreds of kilometres.
We can’t see or hear anyone else camped on this lake. We passed by two guys resting up before portaging into this lake from Burnt Island, but we haven’t seen them since. It hardly seems possible what with all the crowds we experienced this morning at Canoe Lake. Algonquin is indeed a big park.
White Trout Lake
We were up this morning at 6:45. More or less the same time as the sun. Coffee and oatmeal garnished with granola, dried cranberries and powdered milk was breakfast. It’s fast, filling and relatively easily metabolized. We were packed and on the water just after 8:30.
There’s still no sign of the second summer ending. Last night I didn’t even use my sleeping bag it was so warm. This morning we were in shorts and t-shirts before breakfast. In the last nine years I can count on one hand the occasions where one of us has even dared to wear short sleeves. And even then, only in the midday sun.
We paddled into Big Otterslide Lake and up through a couple of puddle lakes into Happy Isle. The route Kevin Callan documents takes you down Otterslide Creek into Big Trout. I haven’t travelled this route since I was a kid at summer camp but I recall spending a lot of time ankle deep in creek dragging the canoe over shallows, hopping in and out constantly and generally feeling frustrated.
It makes for 11km less travel than the route we took via Happy Isle and Merchant, but I recall the drag and scrape down Otterslide Creek was hard on the canoe when we did it in August. I reckoned a month later would be worse and that spending an afternoon with your feet in cold water wouldn't be fun in September. Mind you I hadn’t counted on 30C temperatures. We were up for the extra distance and it was all very civilized, and the hull was spared.
The portages into Happy Isle are flat but had a fair number of muddy bits and rock gardens. And they were long. As in 1500m + long. We’ve used the same routine every year — one person carries the canoe and a lighter pack, the other carries the heavy pack, the paddles, PFDs and whatever other detritus is in the boat.
I found the canoe and small pack combination this year quite painful. Much more problematic than fatigue, I found the yoke pushing into my shoulders to be really uncomfortable and strength-sapping. Also the grey MEC portage pack was making constant squeaking noises as it rubbed against the yoke. It took me three days to connect the dots on this. The pack sits too high to be carried under the canoe. The trailing edge of the yoke rides on the top of the pack frame and forces the leading edge into the shoulders.
Merchant and Happy Isle are pretty lakes. We passed through them but they’d be good places to camp. We didn’t see anyone on them, except for one or two canoes in the distance I expect because most people travelling these lakes are doing routes out of Opeongo or Cedar and are still a bit far away.
For us it meant a peaceful morning, feeling that wilderness solipsist thing and loving it. I had a good smirk at seeing a canoe cart abandoned by the start of the portage between Happy Isle and Shiner Lake. I’m occasionally asked if canoe carts work in Algonquin Park. I always say “no” but it’s worse than that. They will so not work that you will abandon your $80 piece of equipment by the trailside out of frustration.
Big Trout is the conventional camping destination for this route — Kevin Callan suggests you stay there. And it’s easy to see why. Lots of exposed rock points, long, sweeping views of the lake, islands and peninsulas adding an air of ruggedness to the scenery. It’s a big lake, too, which makes it easier to maintain some distance from your neighbours.
We reached it around 1pm. And while we were booked to stay on Big Trout, we reckoned we could probably push on a bit. There were a few sites occupied, and we figured we weren’t quite at check-in time, so our chances of having company would increase if we stopped here.
But something else inspired us to pick up the pace a bit.
From the moment we hit the lake, we smelled a fire. And not a regular sort of fire but rather one that’s being fuelled by a bunch of thing most people aren’t dumb enough to put on a fire — moss, pine needles, wet stuff. There were no campsites visible within a few hundred metres of the portage. “Bit of an odd occasion for a bonfire,” Martin quipped.
We headed west, toward the passage into White Trout (not the most imaginative naming schemes around here), swinging a bit south to crawl the shore looking for a lunch spot. We’d paddled about 1.5km when we saw smoke billowing from a small island that was just off the shore of one of the eastern most campsites marked on Jeff’s Map.
“There’s no way that’s someone frying up lunch,” I said.
We decided to investigate.
It was, in fact a smouldering root fire that had, at that point, consumed a circle maybe 6m diameter on this island which, itself was maybe 30 or 40m across. At the centre of the fire circle was a smallish ring of rocks with a few burnt logs in the middle. It seemed like someone had freelanced a fire pit right on top of the loam and the predictable had happened — the roots underneath the soil had caught fire.
I dumped a couple of nalgenes full of lakewater on it but several things occurred to me:
- Apart from that James Keelaghan song, I don’t know the first thing about fighting forest fires
- ...except that with our biggest water vessel holding maybe 5 litres, and our biggest hose being three feet long and a 1/2cm wide, I knew we didn’t stand a chance of extinguishing the one we were looking at
- ....which meant that pretty much the only thing that was going to happen if we spent the rest of the day fighting it was that some accident was going to befall us — a burn, a falling tree being the most likely prospects.
So we agreed to push on and try to alert the Park rangers as soon as practical. We agreed we weren’t going to do an all-nighter — it was, after all, isolated on a small island on a windless day — but that we’d make as much speed as was safe and sustainable.
Public service announcement number three in four parts
- Do not camp except in designated campsites
- Do not make fires except in purpose-built fire pits
- If, because desperate circumstances require you to ignore one and two, build your fire on rock.
- If, because of geography and 3 above, there is no rock available, dig down 15 to 20cm into the soil underneath where you are building your fire and remove any roots you encounter. Then fill the hole with rocks, sand or gravel. If you can't remove the roots, build your fire somewhere else.
This was, by far, the biggest example of douchebaggery we witnessed all trip. I’m trying to think if I’ve seen anything more assinine ever. I’ve seen another wildfire, but I wasn’t sure how it started. It could have been a natural occurrence. This was clearly started by a callous idiot or two.
We grabbed a quick bit of lunch and paddled on across Big Trout and into White Trout, arriving on the lake around 3:15. I’d set waypoints for what I reckoned from looking at Jeff’s Map would be the best campsites. Generally on points of land, generally facing south.
But by 4pm, in real life I don’t think we’d found it. The site we settled on is fine. But the terrain is hilly and flat bits aren’t all that common. Our site is quite small but we don’t need a lot of space. And we have neighbours, one of whom would seem to be loud-talking to someone on a mobile phone. I wasn’t aware there was reception out here and have no way to test it.
Dinner was the polenta and bean dish from Laurie-Ann March’s Fork in the Trail 2. I brought one helping too much but I took one for team and ate it.
Today was rather long for us — around 33km of travel I think that’s a record — so we decided to break out the scotch. Naproxen and Ibuprophen might be effective but they’re boring.
We had great stars, a lovely crescent moon, lots of loons and more bugs than we’d have liked. And we hit the tent at 9pm. Because we’re getting old.
Littledoe Lake/Oxtongue River
There is a certain rhythm to this route, punctuated by the good camping lakes. We’ve been ignoring it this entire time. There’s something to be said for going against the flow. You get closer to solitude. But you miss what 'the crowd’ seeks. In this case good campsites. This one, for example, doesn’t have much of a kitchen. By kitchen I mean a flat, reasonably level rock for the stove and a log or rock nearby to array ingredients and utensils.
And it’s driving me a bit bonkers.
On the other hand we’re the only people around.
On night one, you’re supposed to stay on Burnt Island. We pushed on to Little Otterslide. Yesterday’s crowd wisdom would put you on Big Trout. We stayed on White Trout. Night three has you on Tom Thomson. So naturally we paddled on to Littledoe/Oxtongue River.
We do this to ourselves. Normally we want to go further because:
- It’ll make tomorrow easier
- We won’t have to stress about getting home late
- It’s too early to stop
To which we add:
- We need to report the root fire.
Today we were on the water a little earlier — just after 8am — heading west on White Trout into the aptly named Grassy Bay.
It is, in fact, one massive, shallow beaver meadow, the channels through which are constantly changing. Consider this if you decide you want my GPX file. You’ve got what the map shows, what the pink line on the GPS shows, and you’ve got your observations to choose from. I chose wrong a couple of times.
I generally plot GPS routes using the shortest clear distance from A to B because I figure the route segments on Jeff’s Map are plotted to wind around the words. In this case though, clear on the map doesn’t mean clear in reality, so I might have been better off tracking the yellow route lines.
I mostly just ignored the GPS and went by observation, checking my middle aged eyesight from time to time with the map and the GPS. Park staff have put up big signs pointing you towards the various routes off the lake, but they’re not at junctions or channels. Or, maybe they were when the signs were posted, but life and nature have long since moved on.
I would think getting through this with just a map or just a GPS could get quite frustrating. The worst thing that happened to us was that we ended up tilling the beaver meadow with the canoe a couple of times.
Slow-going, confusing but portage free. All the way to Mcintosh Creek. Then up the creek a bit and two sub 1km portages into Mcintosh Lake. Mcintosh is gorgeous. It explains why it’s got so many red triangles on it. It’s no doubt a destination lake for some route. Not ours, though, as we got to it by around 10:30am.
Our route out of Mcintosh took us along a creek, though this one is much more clearly defined and un-shifting. Jeff’s Map, the route line and my GPS route were all very much in agreement on the way forward. And the fact that the next step was a 2340m from Ink Lake to Tom Thomson.
It’s quite a rugged portage despite park staff’s efforts. There’s boardwalks over the swamps, a stair case up the sandy hill at Ink Lake, and the trail was clear but for one bit of deadfall when we did it. But there are still quite a few muddy bits, rock gardens, steep steps and not-canoe-carry-friendly turns.
I relished the end of this one a great deal.
Tom Thomson is the lake to camp on around here. But — and you may sense a pattern here — we got here too early (1pm) to stop. People were still on their sites (checkout time is 2pm apparently) and it wasn’t clear who was staying and who was going. I think the moral of the story is try to hit your destination lake after 2pm.
We stopped to check out a site and grab a bite. There were others camped quite nearby so we figured we wouldn’t stay there. And we noted that the last campers at the site had left their fire burning.
We later saw several flotillas of paddlers heading south toward Canoe Lake as we puttered about our campsite on Littledoe. They were all the people who were camped on the nice sites on Tom Thomson. But we’d already set up and weren’t about to backtrack just for the sake of good furniture. It would have meant an extra 3km of paddling, And besides, we have a good tent pad, the swimming is good, the thunderbox is in good repair and there are no trained squirrels. There is however more evidence of douchbags in the woods — someone has carved all the bark off one side of a huge pine tree, presumably to make it bleed. Just because.
Also it comes with a watch turtle. Martin was sunning himself on the rocks, dangling his feet in the water when he noticed a massive snapping turtle, eyeing his toes. No one ended up losing anything, though, and the turtle ambled on looking for less complicated prey.
We had great stars again. And a good dinner. Another Laurie Ann March recipe. New to me, this was a lentil, quinoa and chickpea curry stew, complete with pan-fried bannock biscuits. Martin said it was his favourite meal. I made a little too much but as it happens we managed to eat it all. Standard bedtime. 9pm.
Highway 60, heading east
We have a tendency to camp in sight of the put-in on our last night, but this time we had a bit more territory to cover because there’s no camping on Canoe Lake and we wouldn’t have wanted to camp there if there was. The lake has a lot of cottages, two kids camps on it. Plus we reckoned that the closer we got to Canoe Lake the more crowded it would be. So we left ourselves about 10km and one short portage to do to get back to the car.
Breakfast was pancakes with a bit of stewed dried mango and maple syrup. We treated ourselves to a second cup of coffee and were underway by 9:15. The temperature was rising again under sunny skies and becalmed water. The paddle back through the Oxtongue, Teepee Lake and into the Joe System is straight forward. We passed by the very large Camp Arowhon and under the road bridge. We did the 360m portage into Canoe Lake and were back at the put in by 11am. We saw some decent looking sites on this stretch, but all quite close to each other.
Canoe Lake was still hopping when we got there — a dozen or more day-rental paddlers heading off in all directions (intentionally some times). A big school group was just organizing itself to take off. A couple of German tourists mistook Martin for their trip guide.
I reported the root fire to the permit issuing office. The agent said she’d alert their backcountry crew. I have no idea what came of it. She seemed interested and intent but calm. Maybe they see this sort of thing all the time. I hope not.
The Canoe Lake access point is quite the palace — there’s a restaurant, showers, potable water, a gift shop.
We drove home stopping only once or twice to fiddle with the foam blocks under the canoe. I hate these things. We almost lost one of them but Martin spotted it before it took flight.
All the numbers
|Day||Distance||Avg Speed||Elapsed Time||Portages||Portage distance|
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