I’d been watching the forecast for two weeks. And every day showed the same grim picture. It’s true that more than a few days away, weather forecasters might as well be throwing darts. But when a hurricane travels towards America's eastern seaboard, as Florence did, late September weather up here can get downright nasty.
And there it it was. Unmoving. Implacable. Cloud, wind and rain icons across the board. Not seeming to give a tinker’s cuss about the tenth annual Martin-Chris trip. Biblical rainfall. Wind that could get a canoe airborne. It’s like the weather website graphics people had gone out and found scarier icons, just for the four days we’d planned to look for wildlife deep in the centre of Algonquin Park.
But there was no postponing. Both of us had had our calendars fill up since I booked the trip in July. It was now or never.
- Day 1:
- Wherein we arrive to a warm, pleasant sunny late morning on Cedar Lake and end up sobbing, pulling our arms out of our sockets, desperate to get to shore on Catfish Lake.
- Day 2:
- Wherein we tour several of central Algonquin’s more majestic lakes, buoyed by sunny, calm skies and convinced that the heavy weather is behind us.
- Day 3:
- Wherein our optimism is crushed under the weight of clothes made soggy by constant drizzle and wind-driven showers as we motor along the Nipissing River, which has suddenly become a moose free zone.
- Day 4:
- Wherein we make a short Hawaii 5-0-esque crossing of Cedar Lake under sunny skies and get back to Ottawa to learn what real heavy weather is.
Note of thanks
I would like to thank my dear and lovely partner Irene who’s agreed to look after house, child and all other things for these four days in each of the last ten years. It is an act of great generosity and I love you all the more for it.
Admonition against risk
I think on this trip we encountered some weather that was dangerous to us as two adults paddling an open canoe. We made a decision about our limits and got off the water before we found out just where those limits were. Your limits might not be my limits. Your luck might not be mine. So don’t take this as a recipe or a how-to guide for your weekend canoe trip. It’s not. It’s a story. Canoe tripping is an enormously enjoyable thing to do in my opinion, but not without skill and experience. Please go find some before you set out. Outdoor clubs, outfitters, guides are all good places to start.
Martin and I left town on the day six tornados touched down in our town and the surrounding region. A dozen people were hospitalized and many many more lost their homes. Consider donating to the Red Cross to give them some support. I have. I bloody well better have, after grousing at length about a mere windstorm.
The wind tonight is remarkable. We’d been watching the forecast for weeks as hurricane Florence wrought havoc on the US eastern seaboard. Every time that happens fall paddling in this neck of the woods gets interesting. Today was interesting.
The story starts last night, though.
I went to bed feeling intimidated and a bit defeated. The forecast for today was still for winds of 50km/h with gusts up to 80km/h. Overnight rainfall in the area of 40mm, possibly continuing through the day. The rest of the weekend was supposed to be seasonal, if not hospitable. It was always going to be a tough trip, but now this? Plus I had come down with a cold.
In the ten years I’ve done these trips I have never had such dark thoughts.
But I thought about starting a day later. Or about car camping at Cedar Lake and shortening the route. Or doing a different route that would have us going with the wind on Friday. I was fixated on Cedar Lake. If we could just get across Cedar Lake we’d be fine. If we could survive Friday, we’d be fine.
Fortunately, Martin wasn’t checking his email at 5:30 when I sent him my darkest hour message. And when I showed up at 6:30 to get him he was all ready to go, no more than a glimmer of doubt in his head, which I expect he wrote down to inadequate caffeination. It must have been a bit unsettling that I was all panicked and gloomy when I introduced the subject. We had a brief chat, in the dark, in the car outside his house, and decided we’d go today and see what it was like.
After all, forecasters have been known to be wrong.
We got there around 11am after a rain-soaked drive. Apart from the odd streak of cloud high in the sky, it seemed like an uncannily warm fall day. Sunny, a moderate breeze from the southwest. Very far from the dangerous gale we were told to expect. The park agent had told us if we wanted we could use a car camping site at no extra cost if we didn’t want to head out today.
“Pshaw,” I thought to myself as we schlepped gear and canoe down to the boat launch. “Looks like we dodged a bullet and this trip will be smooth sailing after all.” So we went for it.
Cedar was about a 27 minute crossing. Wavy — the odd splash over the side but manageable. We managed around 4.1km/h. Normal is around 6km/h. We got to the Petawawa and our first portage, 775m of uphill. I was really wishing I’d worn my summer pants.
I thought the green pack would go best with the canoe. It’s bigger but sits lower and doesn’t interfere with the yoke. Plus the grey pack — with the food and the kitchen kit — was actually a bit heavier — both around 17kg. Might need to change that.
When we got across Cedar I was positively cocky. “Well, now that we’ve had the worst of it, the rest will be a breeze.” It was a fateful choice of words. Is ironic understatement foreshadowing a thing?
Little did I know that the wind was just getting started.
And still it goes on.
The portages up the Petawawa from Cedar are chores. All uphill, including the 2345m, which now has a name — Unicorn Hill. But there are pretty rapids to look at.
Narrowbag Lake was probably my first clue that we might not be done with the wind for the day. It’s too short to be wavy, but it felt like paddling through cotton batting. I think we might have managed 4km/hr along Narrowbag but it was a hard effort.
I was starting to get dismayed as we approached the portage to Catfish. It’s a short, 80m riverbank hop to bypass a very bony swift, so you can see into Catfish from Narrowbag.
“Looks choppy ahead,” Martin opined.
“That it does,” I replied, all the while thinking “holy fucking shit.”
I had been entertaining the notion that, since the wind down Narrowbag was right in our face, we might actually catch a break after we turned southwest on Catfish. Instead, I found myself staring at an endless march of whitecaps rolling perfectly north, marvelling at how the wind can seem to follow the longest fetch of a lake. And so rarely in our favour.
After the 80, the wind was still coming across our port bow as we stuck our paddles into the tiny bay at Catfish’s north east corner. Most of my effort was going into keeping the boat pointed upwind enough to make some headway. The waves were relatively mild, the boat thumping the troughs as it passed through, but water mostly staying out.
When we rounded the corner to head south down Catfish proper things changed significantly. We were no longer protected from the wind by the peninsula on the left. It seemed the wind was rushing up the surface of the lake, driving hard into all corners to grab all available air space and push everything else — us included — out of the way. The waves were froth-topped and the crests seemed less than a canoe length apart. Just enough to land hard, sending spray up and over the side. Our speed slowed to somewhere between 1.5 and 2km/h. Within a minute or two I gave up on trying to keep us on course and just focused on trying to ride through troughs and slide over the crests. A while after that, I wasn’t having any luck so I mostly just tried to keep the boat pointed into the wind.
On the GPS the blue line of where we’d been was beginning to diverge from the pink line of where we wanted to go. If we could keep heading forward without filling up with water, our little 2.5km, 30 minute paddle down to the nice site was looking more like two hours of giving it all we had. Assuming conditions didn’t get any worse. Which I had no reason to assume.
About 300m ahead and off to our left was a site I’d marked as CS3. (I always mark all the sites on our destination lakes for this very reason). I told Martin I didn’t see us making a whole lot of progress down the lake and that there was a significant risk of swamping if we tried. It was time to head for shore.
Insofar as he was the one most intimately acquainted with our water intake, he didn’t need much convincing.
So we shimmied and wind ferried over to shore, getting off the water at around 2:45. The site was exposed and not an awesome configuration, but there was a thunderbox and a flat spot for the tent.
At first I felt a bit sheepish about having gotten off the water so early. After all we had talked about trying to get to Hogan today to shorten a long Saturday. We expected to get to the nicer sites at the south end of Catfish and here we were, throwing in the towel barely 500m down the lake.
About 45 minutes later the decision made a lot more sense. The wind had been thick and steady but suddenly it started throwing up gusts that were literally staggering. As in we could not walk into them. I couldn’t measure the speed obviously, but those forecast 80km/hr gusts might have actually happened.
We had to shout to make ourselves heard. We were constantly being pelted with falling branches, pine cones, dust and pine needles. Meanwhile the waves out on the lake were starting to look like frothing saw teeth.
I felt profound relief that I wasn’t out in the middle of that.
Possibly you’re reading this thinking we’re craven weaklings for not forging ahead. Maybe you, dear reader, have faced much worse and lived to tell the tale. Bravo to you I say. But to me there was so little riding on us getting to the end of Catfish on Friday and a lot riding on us getting home Monday afternoon, with only our enjoyment of the time in between at stake.
So to take even a small, unnecessary risk just to experience some acute suffering seemed patently unreasonable. Judge me if you will.
Dinner was a 1kg pack of shelf-stable tortellini, half a jar of pumpkin sauce (dehydrated) and parmesan cheese. We ate a bit early because we’d skipped lunch. I would say that 1kg was about 25 to 33 per cent too much. We ate it all anyway because there is no decent no-trace way to dispose of food, but it left me unpleasantly full.
The other food mistake was grating and vaccum packing fresh parmesan cheese. It turns it back into a solid mass. Especially if it’s actually in a pack all afternoon on a warm day. Carve chips of a hunk of the good stuff or just bring the powder in a disposable hard container.
The wind blew ferociously all evening, rattling the tent and continuing to trim the trees. The tent stayed strong though. We did peg everything — use all the leads to hold it down and put the canoe in front of it as a sort of windbreak and to hold down the windward lead. It’s 18 years old but still its aluminum spider stood up to that wind. Much to my relief.
No chairs. No tarp. Everything lighter than a kilo weighed down.
Conveniently the wind did fuel the fire beautifully and we managed to keep it under control and prevent it being visible from space. We headed for the tent around 8:30 after giving it an extra dose of water.
We’re here at the island at the north end of the lake. It’s the site everyone wants to stay on. Kevin Callan recommends it. And it’s easy to see why. I last stayed here in September 2003 and it was a great site then. Whoever you are — I love what you’ve done with the place. A fabulous kitchen counter, with an eat-in dining room, grooming station, stand up bar and living room.
We were up at 6:30 this morning, unspeakably grateful for a sunny and calm morning. We could forgive what felt like single digit temperatures. The wind had persisted through the night, though at a certain point it must have changed direction as I could still hear it thundering through the trees but it stopped shaking the tent some time around midnight.
Oatmeal, granola, dried cherries, powdered milk and coffee. Tear down and on the water at 8:20am.
A short paddle down Catfish and we ran smack dab into Sunfish Lake, which is making great progress in its transition to a swamp or mudflat or flood plain or beaver meadow or whatever.
I know it would be highly destructive of habitat and incongruous with Parks Ontario’s mission of wilderness conservation and indeed wholly incompatible with the idea of ‘wilderness’ but I would have paid good money to someone to dredge us a clear canoe channel to Newt Lake this morning.
In the end it cost us a couple of extra kilometres of false starts, round-abouts and obstacle dodging all at low speed before we pushed, shoved and scraped our way to the Newt Lake portage.
There was much evidence of the power of yesterday’s wind storm on this and all today’s portages. Deadfall derby. Many trees down all along our trails today. Three portages — 1105m, 750m and 1845m brought us from Sunfish to Hogan Lake via Newt and Manta. They were hilly but not extraordinarily so.
We got to Hogan by late morning and the rest of the day was spent soaking in the beauty of it and two other big, majestic Algonquin lakes, La Muir and Burntroot. And through all this the sun held the clouds at bay and the wind never rose above a moderate breeze.
It was, however, a lot of paddling. My rough reckoning was 38km. Professor Garmin put the total later at 36.8km.
We were quite fried by the time we got to Burntroot. But we figured we might as well go for the four star site at the north end. We had made up the distance from yesterday and faced a long day Sunday. So we pushed on, getting off the water around 5pm. This still gave us enough time to set up camp, prepare food, find wood, pump water and clean up before losing the light around 7pm.
The couscous was good, and at 1 cup of the grains and 2 cups of tajine with feta and almonds made for enough food without leftovers. And did you know that tetrapaks can leak? Not a lot.
As I pulled the boat out at the campsite I noticed that the emergency throw rope/bailer/whistle kit was missing. I expect it got yanked off while I was trying to haul the boat over a big, bristly tree fallen across the portage path. Bummer. I should have realized it when I discovered that it was possible to no-hands carry the canoe. And I should have clipped the thing into the bow where I could keep an eye on it. Happily I brought a back-up bailer. Kinda by accident.
Also in the to-do department, the rear rail of the bow seat has cracks in it. It’s being held together by the seat webbing it seems. I brought a battery pack to recharge the GPS but forgot the cable. Good thing I also brought AAs. Good thing the Montana can take them.
The stuff sack I use for the bear rope is done for. The hole in it is so big the rocks I use to weight the throws fall out.
Rounding up the gear grousing, I think I should settle this for once and for all. Small pack = food, kitchen and yellow bag. Big pack = everything else. Therma rest up against the back, poles down the middle, sleeping bags to each side with smaller items (tarp, pillows, pegs, chairs in between).
All in all a great day. Feeling strong, accomplished and together.
I wish I had better capacity to plot routes and calculate distances on the fly. We were contemplating having to change routes today but I couldn’t say how much distance we’d save. Plus since I left my reading glasses in the car I can’t see the approximations on Jeff’s Map. If he was still updating the Jeff's maps, I’d say, “please more contrast.”
It would be nice to be able to see if there was a third way (between the over short and the very long) back to Cedar. It would be good to be able to review easily and exactly how far we’ve come on a given day.
Must remember to swap batteries in my GPS. It has to be on all the time now so it won’t last three days.
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.
We made it home. We slept in a whole half hour this morning, waking to more cold and wind. But the sky cleared, showing us the sun rising over Brent. There was a strong ‘change’ wind blowing from the north east and as we pondered what to do for breakfast, the waves were already pronounced.
In the end we skipped the traditional pancakes and maple syrup, opting for coffee, peanut butter and jam wraps and whatever else we could find loose in the food bag. It worked out okay. We got on the water just before 9am. I put the bow across the wind and off we went. It was a bouncy paddle, but reasonably straight forward. Plus we had fresh arms and not far to go. We got in to Brent at around 9:20. The only tricky bit was rounding a peninsula and turning the canoe across wind and waves to point ashore. A moment of concentration and it was done. A few minutes later we were there.
The whole crossing I had been writing an epic weather terror narrative in my head. But when we arrived we ran into a couple of car campers out walking their dog. When we said we were from Ottawa they got kind of grim-faced and said “Wow did you ever get lucky with the weather this weekend.”
This came as something of a surprise but they told us our Friday afternoon was nothing compared to home where tornadoes had touched down and caused havoc through the west and south of the city and in Gatineau. People were without power, hurt and hospitalized. some critically. We packed up, put the boat on the car and headed off home desperate to get into cell phone range. And not just for the soccer scores.
All the numbers
|Day||Distance||Avg Speed||Elapsed Time||Portages||Portage distance|
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