A tradition birthed in disappointment

More about making the most of a bad situation, I reckon. Last year Mallory and I went on a canoe trip when my habitual canoe partner’s knee injury forced him to drop out. This year, Mallory and I decided to go paddling because COVID-19 cancelled her summer camp. And I must say, more than just dealing with disappointment, I'd say we buried it.

Selfie at the first portage: Cedar Lake

Readers Digest Version

  • Day 1

    An early departure from Ottawa, an uneventful drive to Brent, a sun-drenched, breezy paddle from Cedar Lake down the Petawawa to Radiant Lake.

  • Day 2

    A crushingly wet day with a long, slow slog along a dozen or so klicks of the Little Mad, which is where we went by the time we got to Hogan Lake. JK.

  • Day 3

    It was in our faces but the wind bore no rain as we had a long but simple paddle with two portages between us and Burntroot Lake.

  • Day 4

    More sun, warmth and some curious otters saw us on a short, easy jaunt to Catfish Lake and its backcountry steampunk museum.

  • Day 5

    We decide to take the last 15 klicks back to Cedar Lake — five portages and all — at race pace.

Radiant Lake aglow in the late afternoon sun. Radiant, in point of fact.

Day 1 - Radiant Lake, north-west corner

Monday, August 10, 9pm

Worries to get out of the way:

  1. We’re not going to have enough gas to make it to a gas station.
  2. I forgot to put my permit on the dashboard and Parks Ontario will ticket or tow me for illegal camping.

Mallory and I had a perfect day. Notwithstanding the above. We woke just before 6am. We were on the road just before 7am. We drove through a bit of drizzle west on the 17 to Brent Road, arriving at Brent around 10:15. We were on the water at 10:40am after chatting briefly (from a distance) with some comrade canoeists.

I had some difficulty with the front V-strap suddenly going slack seconds after we left. They say you never paddle the same river twice and I think the same can be said of canoe tie-ons. Ah well. The boat was still on the car when we hit Brent so ‘victory’.

To reduce contact, Parks Ontario is waiving in-person check-ins for backcountry camping. So we just drove straight down to the boat launch and unloaded. I had the print out of my confirmation email all ready to go, but in all the excitement of launching I left it in the back of the car.

I did, however, remember to zero-out the trip computer’s track data so at least our numbers will just reflect the canoe trip, not the drive to the park or the hours spent fussing with the unit’s config and data screens etc.

And we brought the water bottles. Haven’t always done that.

We brought the 70l MEC dry bag pack and the Nylon Chemun pack this year. The nylon pack isn’t great (not being at all water proof is a real liability) but having bottle holders and an outside pocket is just so useful I can overlook the pack’s issues. Plus Mallory sewed the top flap where it was coming off.

And we did a pack dress rehearsal at home. Weighed them (18kg each) and adjusted the straps to fit us. We’ll carry the same loads on all the portages so this second step is worth doing.

Cedar was pretty calm. We have the long stretch to do (about 6km) and wind and waves can be a factor. Today, though, it felt like an inconsequential cross breeze.

There are three portages along the Petawawa on its journey from Cedar to Radiant. All less than 1000m but quite rocky and rooty, with a number of steep but short inclines and descents.

They’ve moved the upstream put-in for the third portage. It’s a little south of where Jeff’s Map says it is. There was some deadfall on the second portage, the only we would encounter all trip. Gotta love the park rangers.

We ate lunch at the end of the first portage, buoyed by a relatively easy crossing of Cedar.

Our first day pre-portage faff-about lasted about four and a half minutes. This will become important later.

I have to pause here to remark on what an amazing trip partner my daughter Mallory is. She loves to look at birds and clouds. She’s positive and cheerful. But she’ll say what she needs. Camp Northway has taught her skills and cross country skiing has made her strong. She works hard. She is exactly who you want in your canoe.

There are cottages on Radiant. Presumably on long term leases like the ones on Canoe Lake etc. There’s actually a public road into the lake and it looks like some people have set up trailers along it. Not sure what the park thinks about that.

We picked the first western shore site, arriving around 2:30pm. It’s fine. Has all the right stuff. Dinner was couscous with feta and almonds. Really tasty. Caraway seeds, smoked paprika and coriander made for an excellent spice pack. Also cooked with a veggie broth cube. We had a lot of food but we managed to eat it.

I bought one of those Biolite stoves, the ones that use bits of wood, pine needles and other burnable campsite detritus to make light, heat and electricity. I am such a gear head. The pot/kettle attachment didn’t arrive in time but I figured I’d see how good it was at recharging my GPS. The unit’s battery lasts three days usually, so it needs another power source for a longer trip — whether AAs or a USB power bank.

But wouldn’t it be neat if your batter charger cooked you dinner and helped clean up the campsite? Well, more testing is needed. The GPS’s battery indicator is frustratingly vague. But overall, I managed to keep the thing charged the whole trip without resorting to disposable batteries.

On the other hand, the stove weighs over a kilo, so if I’m going to bring it, it’s got to do another job.

The bugs came on in earnest around 9pm. Mallory and I had staved them off all day with a gentle coating of DEET, but either it was wearing off or the evening shift is particularly savage. In any event we headed for the tent. We have a hard day tomorrow.

The day cleaned up good at the end there

Day 2 - Hogan Lake, facing the cliff of many cranky birds

Tuesday, August 11, 9pm

A hard day. But a great day.

We woke just before 6am and were on the water by 7:30. This is unusually early for me. The only explanation I can offer is that we had cold cereal for breakfast and no coffee. Yes, it’s true. After spending all my adult life and much of my adolescence as an avid and addicted coffee drinker, I gave it up a few months ago. And since Mallory doesn’t drink it or anything hot in the morning, I packed up the stove last night.

One 250ml tetra pak of 2% UHT milk was enough to do two big bowls of granola.

But I had no idea that coffee was that much of a time suck. I was glad of the extra time today.

When I got out of the tent I could see the clouds stretching across the sky, urgently seeking to blot out the sun. It wasn’t cold, but it wasn’t yesterday’s heat wave either.

I could feel some drops spitting on me as I packed up the kitchen. But the clouds seemed high enough in the sky, and the humidity made it seem like it could go either way.

Once we were underway, heading south and west out of Radiant on the Little Madawaska, the weather went quite decidedly to ‘rain’.

The first stretch of the 'Little Mad’ was a challenge. We were paddling against a current which was much stronger than I remember the last time I was through here. Shallow bits, some beaver construction and many many twists and turns meant I was glad to get to the start of the 3500m portage that gets you most of the way to Philip’s Lake.

I know, right? Weird.

But as you approach the start of the portage, the current picks up, the river gets shallow, and we found ourselves unable to get enough blade in the water to make headway. It’s a feeling of powerlessness that doesn’t sit well with me.

Note: the portage is on river left after a tight bend where you will likely be flailing about trying to figure out the way ahead. It’s easy to miss. Last time I did miss it, and ended up bushwhacking away from the creek to locate it.

But we found it this time. And we walked it for the better part of an hour in the rain. It’s mostly flat but there are a couple of ferocious but short knolls.

When we got to the end, apart from the patter of raindrops, the sky was silent. So we got underway. Much to my great relief. The idea of sitting around in the rain at the put-in of a buggy river portage waiting for a storm to clear had limited appeal.

Back on the Little Mad the rain continued. Temperatures were probably in the low 20s but we were getting cold so pulled on our rain jackets. I mention this because I’m forever bringing these things on canoe trips and almost always leave them to be compressed at the bottom of the pack.

Our first stretch along the Little Mad, from Radiant to Philip Lake was 13.8km long and it took us almost four hours at 3.5km/h. Much of it in the rain. All of it very wet.

The 3500 was only the first of five portages we had today, and one of three longer than 1000m. We had lunch at 11:30 after another one of the long ones. The rain had let up by then, but continued through the early afternoon if only in short bursts.

We startled a grouse — aka a bush chicken — on one of the portages which made for a little excitement. Probably more for the bird.

By 2:15pm we reached Hogan Lake. It’s beautiful, but the campsites on it that I’ve seen aren’t all that exciting. We paddled about half way down and grabbed one of the two sites facing south west overlooking a great rock cliff across the bay which seemed to be the source of a chronic feud between various clans of seagulls.

Pseudo-perogies, Hogan Lake

Dinner was Pseudo Perogies from Laurie-Ann March’s A Fork in the Trail. When Mallory picked it for the menu I was skeptical. But it was perfect comfort food for the end of a long day’s effort in the rain and cold. We ate what we prepared but brought along way too much powdered potato. Like about three times what we needed.

We substituted sour cream and onion chip powder for powdered sour cream (couldn’t find any on short notice in Ottawa) and that worked. Surprisingly. Although we could have used more.

And the clean-up is not easy. But it was so good we didn’t care.

I taught Mallory how to skip rocks and do the silent stroke today. There are lots of loons on this lake. We saw a great sunset and hit the tent by 9:15.

A great day.

Reeds at a portage

Day 3 - Burntroot Lake, on the island just south of the good site

Wednesday, August 12, 3pm

We’re not on my favourite site. This site isn’t all that great — the island site just south of the site Kevin Callan made famous. Which was in use. But we’d paddled all the way to the north end of the lake and weren’t willing to backtrack to site shop. It’ll do.

We were up again at 6am. The call of nature is strong and consistent. The sun was very much in evidence. This pleased us greatly. It stuck around all day but the temperature remained in the low 20s — really pleasant for paddling.

A hurry-up granola breakfast with powdered milk this time — we brought too much, or does that go without saying? Today was not meant to be arduous — only two portages — but we did have to make some distance and the wind is fickle.

West on Hogan, the portage into Lake La Muir is preceded by a kilometre and a half of the Little Mad. Festooned with lily pads, the channel was visible only because someone came through it the other day. But we wound our way through to the portage into La Muir, which is nothing to worry about.

A headwind slowed our progress as we headed west on La Muir. We made about 4.5km/hr where we’re normally around 6.

We saw a bunch of parties coming the other way through this stretch. Made me wonder what we were missing or doing wrong. There must be a more popular route or something. We’d gone pretty much the entire day yesterday without seeing anyone.

The portage from La Muir into Burntroot is signed at 700m, so not that long. But it’s a nasty up-and-over affair. Luckily for us the rocks on the La Muir side of the hill have been shaped into stairs, sort of.

Not like the wooden stair cases that grace some of the portages in the Joe system and Tom Thomson, but I was getting the impression we were heading back into mainstream Algonquin Park.

We made the paddle north through Red Pine Bay and onto Burntroot proper by around 1pm to see that to my dismay the primo site was taken. Oh well. It had been a perfect day and we now had the chance to check out some other campsites.

We picked the site on the island about 1km south and west of the deluxe suite. It’s not bad. A bit exposed and sandy. But fine.

There are lots of ankle-biting flies at this site. They’re the size of small house flies, kind of brownish and impossible to kill. But they really only land on and bite your ankles. Whether you’re standing, sitting with your legs crossed. Doesn’t matter.

I took to wearing two pairs of socks because they can get through the first pair. Mallory wrapped her ankles in a rain jacket or pulled her pants down around her hips so that the cuffs reached her heels. Are they Stable flies? They look like it.

9:15pm

Dinner was edible but bland. A sort of day care stir fry. But the roasted cashews made it slightly enticing. We finished it but:

  1. we used the rice set aside in the sewing cabinet for craft projects. A couple of different varieties that were mercifully on similar cooking schedules.
  2. stir fry sauce is not just honey and soy sauce.

Ah well. At least we didn’t have to break out the emergency noodles.

We made smores after dinner. The first batch were carbon dated but had edible bits. The second set were much more successful. Lesson learned: don’t leave them in so long or ‘the fire is hotter than you think’.

Post dinner project: finish burning someone’s half-burnt logs. Quite the undertaking. On the other hand, Mallory has a new exercise to add to her strength routine: fire fanning.

We gave up around 9pm and headed to the tent.

Mallory loves the slime on the underside of lily pads. I’m not sure if that’s legit or if it’s a shirking tactic, but I tried it. The undersides of lily pads are slimy. But they don’t do anything for me.

She doesn’t know what she wants to be but she knows she doesn’t want a desk job. Current thoughts are running a cat café or a recovery activity studio.

And if ever she decided to sneak out at night she’d leave us a note. Have I mentionned that I love my daughter?

Two-tree island is now a sort of rookery. Is it the cormorants whose squawk sounds like farting? Yes.

Today was supposed to be a long day but it felt like it was over before it started. A lot of straight forward lake paddling. Even into the wind as in La Muir it was way easier — faster too — than the Little Mad.

Algonquin Steam Punk

Day 4 - Catfish Lake, on the island just south of the alligator

Thursday, August 13, 9pm

It’s not the exertion that’s the challenge of canoe tripping for me. It’s the discomfort. Carrying, paddling doesn’t really get my heart rate up all that much. But the canoe yoke bearing down on my shoulders, and the pack’s straps pulling back starts to drain me after a while.

We had bannock cinnamon rolls for breakfast this morning — much more time consuming than granola, but we had a shorter day ahead of us.

Mallory, the family baker, made the dough, rolled it out, added the cinnamon/sugar/raisin mix and pan fried them to perfection.

Bannock cinnamon rolls, after: we know who bakes in this family

We’d woken at 6am but weren’t on the water until 8:30 because of the longer cooking and preparation time. So. Worth. It.

We saw otters after the first portage from Burntroot onto the Petawawa. Very cute. Snorting, chirping, periscoping, checking us out. I think were were disturbing their hunting ground.

Again we also saw a number of other humans. All heading the other way. There’s clearly a more popular route in this area that everyone does. What am I missing?

Sunny and warm. Mostly windless. Five short, easy portages got us along the Petawawa, through Perley Lake and arriving on Catfish at 11:30am. We stopped for a floating lunch and headed north to find the Alligator and a campsite.

I’ve paddled through Catfish a number of times and never taken the time to locate the Alligator. The arrow on the Friends map is a little vague and I’ve either been in a hurry to get somewhere or lacked enthusiasm. But here we had time, we were on our destination lake and I had a 14 year old to entertain.

I asked the Algonquin Park Facebook group where to find it and the universal answer was “Are you kidding? Dude, here’s the URL.” And someone sent the lat/long.

So we found it easily. Tried to imagine what it was like to work it. It must have been quite a sight. And expensive to build. I wonder why they just abandoned it.

We grabbed a campsite on the island just south of it.

The site faces south and had strong sun all afternoon. We went for a swim and made some modest attempts at trip laundry. I tried again to use the Biolite stove to charge the GPS. I think it worked.

Mallory memorized Jeff’s Map which enthralled her. I showed her how to tie a bowline. I love my daughter so much.

Dinner was spaghetti with TVP and tomato sauce. Tasty but I brought too much spaghetti, too much TVP and a bit too much sauce. Fortunately I didn’t commit to the TVP (half a cup dry is plenty) and pasta, so we were able to eat what was cooked and return home with the rest.

We also met a new ‘friend’. A trained mouse. Usually you see trained chipmunks or squirrels but this was a rotund, dark grey mouse. That had no fear of humans. At one point Mallory caught it running away with our lexan stirring spoon and thus it was named.

I hasten to note that we did nothing to encourage Spoon. We chased it away when it strayed too close and offered it nothing. But we aren’t perfect cooks and I fear that our presence confirmed for it that humans leave food around.

Obligatory PSA: don’t feed the wildlife. It’s not generous. It’s not cute. And they will reward you by putting holes in your food bag.

After dinner we had a chat about tomorrow. We had promised to be in comms range by midday and had 15km to travel, including — at 2300m — the second longest portage of the trip.

And I didn’t think we had enough gas in the car to get to the highway. So we were going to possibly lose some time there.

This is where Mallory’s ski racer instinct kicked in. The conversation went something like this:

“What speed do we normally paddle at?”

“We make around 6km/hr going straight in low winds,” I said.

She said “Okay we are going to do 7.5. Or higher if we can."

We do single pass portages but she wanted less time spent loading and unloading.

“We could do one touch,” I offered.

“What’s that?”

“Where nothing is ever unloaded. It’s either in the boat or on your back.”

“Sounds great.”

“You can’t always manage it. Some put-ins aren’t safe to do that.”

“Okay. Where safe and possible we’ll do one touch portages and 7.5km/hr.”

She divvied up the morning labour — I’m on pancakes while she packs the tent, sleeping kit and clothes. I clean and pack the kitchen, she starts loading the packs. She’s serious, this one.

We headed to bed shortly thereafter, me having another thought about that whole thing about canoe trips not being enough exercise.

A short pause to appreciate the natural beauty before flooring it again

Day 5 - Ottawa, everything hanging out to air

Friday, August 14, 10pm

We made it home safe and sound. We were up just before six and put our plan into action. The pancakes were great and we scarfed them down. Things went according to plan and we were on the water at 7:30 despite the more involved breakfast.

Off we went. “How fast?” Mallory would ask every now and again. I read the numbers off the GPS. “Seven five, seven two, eight.”

“Fine. Just tell me if we drop below 6.5.”

I felt some relief at this.

But we sliced through the still, flat water of Catfish, one-touched our way onto Narrowbag and onto the Petawawa, the wake of the boat making the tell-tale gurgle of a canoe team flooring it.

7km/hr from Catfish to the first portage. A two minute faff-about at the first portage. 7km/hr down Narrowbag Lake to the Petawawa. The Unicorn Hill portage took us 30 minutes at 5km/hr. We were definitely taking it in the right direction, as we followed the Petawawa flowing into Cedar Lake. The 2300 has a long ascent on it, wherein the rangers have carved a resting spot (complete with benches) at the summit.

We, however, were going downhill so it was no big to us.

“ETA at destination 9:30am,” I said, slightly out of breath, as we flew along.

“But the portages will slow us down.”

Two more kilometres along the Petawawa averaging 8km/hr, a one minute faff-about to jog the next 300m portage, then a 1km surge at 7km/hr to the last portage, a 715m effort that took us to Cedar.

By 9:45 we were staring at Brent from across the lake.

We made the 2km crossing on a flat and windless lake in 20 minutes or so, pleased that we’d made our target pace, but a bit bummed out that the trip was over.

I bought some gas that the Brent outfitter gentlemen most generously arranged for me that got us well into gas station range.

We stopped at East Side Freddie’s chip wagon in Chalk River which was… underwhelming. Very COVID-safe but a bit of a culinary let down. Maybe it was just the bleak ambiance of eating in a dusty, sun-baked parking lot. We’d been talking about how delicious the post-trip fried food would be for days and yet, when it arrived, it was just really blah. I couldn't wait to get home.

I am still waiting for the return of the Laurentian Dairy or equivalent in Deep River. The building is currently occupied by a restaurant called the Plan B. Which strikes me as strange marketing. People who also miss the Laurentian Dairy, I expect.

No issues with the boat tie and no major traffic hassles. We were in Ottawa by around 3pm.

Images

A combination of the GPS camera and Mallory's Nikon Coolpix W100. The good ones are Mallory's.

Selfie at the first portage
Cedar Lake
Petawawa River. En route to Radiant.
Detail, Petawawa River
Arriving on Radiant Lake. Day 1 is done.
Radiant Lake in the evening. You see where it gets its name.
Biolite stove. Dress rehearsal for something useful.
Morning, Radiant Lake. So long, sun.
Heading into the Little Mad, from Radiant
Detail, Little Madawaska River
How she rolls on a rainy, difficult day
Guide heron, Little Madawaska River
This one you won't want to miss, Little Madawaska River
Ready to go. Little Madawaska River
Portaging in the rain, along the Little Mad'
Detail, Little Mad'
Could the rain be letting up?
Conquered the last portage of a long day
Pseudo-perogies, Hogan Lake
Perfect comfort food for a hard, rainy day.
Sunset, Hogan Lake
The very much in dispute rock of many gulls
Little Mad, en route to La Muir
Cliff, en route to La Muir
Zipped and clipped for what Jeff said was a 'buggy portage'
Camp Northway has trained her well.
Quite civilized, the La Muir end of the La Muir - Burntroot portage
Lunch time, Red Pine Bay.
Sunset, Burntroot Lake
Campsite recuperation, of a sort
Bannock cinnamon rolls, before
Bannock cinnamon rolls, after: we know who bakes in this family
The alligator, Catfish Lake
Hey, Algonquin Park Facebook Group, we found it!
Detail, The Alligator
The Alligator: Catfish Lake Wilderness Steampunk Museum
Morning, Catfish Lake
Detail, somewhere along our route
Petawawa River, to Cedar Lake at flank speed
Cedar Lake, heading back to Brent
Cedar Lake, last portage selfie
One touch portaging: finally, a workout!
The route we took

Maps and Numbers

Many thanks to Jeff, formerly of Jeff's Maps, now of Unlostify.

  • 97km Total distance
  • 21 Portages
  • 16,136m Portage distance
  • 4.9km/h Average speed
  • 19:46:51 Moving time

I calculated the total portage distance by summing the numbers I found on Jeff's Map. The total distance is Strava's interpretation of the GPX file I uploaded which does contain some recording of walking around various campsites. If you want to figure out the actual portage distances or have any curiosity about our trip, download the GPX file. Or check it out on Strava.