A big ass moose. Never seen as big a one since


This is a backport trip report of a trip I did in 1995. The camera used film. The clothes were cotton. It was my first ever experience with a camp stove. There is no GPX file for this because they didn't have GPSs. Both my trip mate and I are older and wiser now.

I have no idea if Birchcliff Creek is still navigable. It might be. It might be fun to see if it is. Or it might be total hell.

Day 1 - 22nd July, 1995 6pm, Manitou Lake

Debbie and the pack

There's this sort of serene, anaesthetized feeling you get after a day lugging yourself and a few hundred pounds of canoe, food, clothing and shelter across the wilderness.

It's the kind of feeling you get when drinking a lot of beer after something bad has happened - say you lost your job, or your spouse left you - because you're in pain, you face more hardship in days to come, but it's okay because for the moment, you've found some refuge.

That's pretty much me right now. All the muscles in my shoulders have been replaced with Rowntree english toffee, which is fine now, because it's still malleable, what with exposure to the burning heat of the sun and all. But by tomorrow it will be immobile and brittle.

It was a difficult day, I think. I can recall worse from camp days but it's been a while. Debbie and I got to Kiosk on time, and the park ranger was helpful. He suggested another lake for our night three destination.

Kioshkowi Lake was a hellish paddle. Windy. One foot waves. Dead against us. At one point we troughed and water came over the bow.

It took us about three hours of severe paddling to get across Kioshkowi. It was a rude awakening for Debbie and I.

Our first couple of portages were a 200 metre and a 275 metre, along the Aimable du Fond River.

And I can't remember when we discovered that Debbie couldn't lift the pack. It is truly a beast. Very heavy. Top heavy with food. We have way too much food.

In fact the trip motto for the day is "Eat it or carry it."

I can't put it on myself either. But I can lift it. And Debbie can carry it if I lift it.

The first portage I lifted the pack for Debbie and then carried the canoe. Canoes are easy to pick up and put down solo if you have the technique. My attempt to teach Debbie the technique (in her back yard in Ottawa) got nowhere.

Portage constraint #2: Chris has to teepee the canoe while wearing killer pack if Debbie is to carry the canoe.

Debbie carried the canoe on the second portage.

The canoe is also a beast. It's ABS, so at least it's not delicate. But it's had the shit kicked out of it (it's almost a banana) and it weighs too much. It has a straight mid-thwart with a foam pad duct-taped around it, giving you a modicum of cushion, but zip accomodation to your average human shape.

Debbie's decided that the pack is her thing. I think after we eat some more and put food lower down in the pack it will be better. We decide this just before we do the 1180M portage (the last for the day).

I carry the canoe. Hell. Bugspray or not bugspray. I chose not. "The cure is worse than the disease" is my usual line. Wrong. Swatting flies carrying this canoe is a drag.

To keep the mid-thwart from grinding your top vertebrate into dust, you have to either scrunch your shoulders up or let the bar ride on your back. I can't do the former. The latter is only possible because the mid-thwart is snagged on the collar of my life jacket. It stays there because I am pushing on the aft thwart with my arms. I do this for over a kilometre.

I finish. Meanwhile, Debbie has fallen and she can't get up. The pack is a disaster but she's trying to keep herself together. She sat down on a high stump for a rest, but couldn't stand up again because the pack was too heavy.

I'm not yet dead so I carry the pack for the rest of the way (about 500M) And then we paddled (into the wind of course) across Manitou Lake to where I am now, on Pine Island.

It's a great campsite. There's no one around for miles that we can see.

Remember: eat it, or carry it.

Day 2: Biggar Lake, 7/23/1995

The Stove Queen - see how much easier this is than cooking over an open fire?

Ottawa residents are used to psychotic summer weather patterns. It seems things can go from sunny, warm and windless to torrential downpour driven by gale-force winds and back again over the course of a couple of hours.

Not so in Algonquin Park. Here, it rains, then rains, then rains a bit more.

I wrote this in my head this morning as we paddled out across Manitou Lake. It was, as you might have guessed, raining. And it looked like it could have gone on forever. It started some time in the middle of the night, and by the time we woke up, The clouds blended seemlessly with the ground fog. Piddly little third growth pine trees were poking into the heavens at their new-found height.

You might say the sky came down for a visit.

Debbie's tent held out, despite the fact that I left the fly open Ð twice. And the food was fine. Dry clothes stayed dry and wet ones just got, well, wetter. But it is a real test of morale to get going in the rain.

We scrapped plans to scramble eggs and had granola instead. But we still needed coffee. I suddenly realized that addictions are terrible things. All of a sudden I understood those freaked out bank robbers I watched on Hill Street Blues as a teen. Addictions make you do stupid things. So we naturally had to have fresh-percolated coffee in the middle of a downpour.

I now call Debbie the Stove Queen. Before we went on the trip we went to the Mountain Equipment Co-op to get some major appliances, so to speak, that we didn't have and couldn't borrow. Debbie bought the stove. I bought the pot set.

This thing is tiny. It's about the size of a softball and has a small tube that leads to a camp fuel tank about the size of a 500ml coke bottle. It is a miracle that it works. Anyway, Debbie is the Stove Queen because she got it started. And we had coffee.

The thing is, there's no point sticking around to wait out the rain. Every tent will eventually succumb, and you'll be left with nowhere dry to go and nothing dry to wear. And unless there's lightning zapping about you're in no danger if you take a cup or bowl to bail the canoe if things get ridiculous. But paddling, your stuff is waterproofed, you're exerting energy (hence warmer) and you're not letting yourself get defeated.

Packing the monolith (I mean pack) was particularly delightful with God pissing on us. I mean you can't do things as well when you're wet and cold. So I couldn't get all the gear into the pack.

All the pots and pans were stuffed into a cheapo souvenir gym bag I'd gotten from being a journalist at the G-7 Summit in Toronto in 1988. Finally useful after all these years. They'd fit into the pack yesterday, but...

Turns out this is for the better. None of our portages is very long so we decide to break the cardinal rule of the portage: never go back. We decide we'll go back for the paddles and the pot pack.

Without the pots, paddles etc Debbie was able to complete all four portages with no difficulty. A little extra walking isn't such a drag.

A long paddle down Manitou Lake with rain all the way. We got a little lost. Thought something was an island. I had presumed we'd gone further than we had.

There were actually people on the lake. We ran into a 50-60 something couple tripping in a gorgeous wood-fibreglass canoe. They had these rubber slippers on. (You can't let that kind of a canoe touch bottom so you're always getting out a metre before the shore.) They knew what they were doing.

Rain followed us through North Tea Lake to Biggar Lake where we are now. The rain stopped when we hit Biggar Lake. Thank God. We ate lunch floating on Biggar and the rain stopped. Though it was actually several minutes before we felt safe to discuss it. Things like that have a way of jinxing themselves. And even then we talked about how it wasn't snowing. The birds control the rain, you see, and they hate canoeists but are easily fooled. Well, that's the theory anyway.

We put in early (about 3pm) but we saw this gorgeous site and Debbie figured it would be a good idea to dry out the tent. As soon as we put in, the sun came out. Astounding. We were euphoric. Nothing better could have happened. We draped our wet clothes on the canoe hull and relaxed.

At one point it started raining. I was focussed on what an amazing sound rain makes on a calm lake. Then I realized everything was exposed to it. I ran around throwing everything into the half-wet tent and lunged for my rain suit. By the time I got it on, the rain stopped. The sun was back shortly thereafter. I briefly pondered wearing my rain gear all trip as putting it on seemed to banish all precipitation.

But what can you do with Algonquin's psychotic weather? No biggie, really, except that it screws up my beginning.

Day 3: North Raven Lake, 7/24/1995

Spot the portage

The mosquitos sound like a thousand virtuoso violinists playing a non-stop vibrato on the high E string after a sumptuous dinner of benzedrine.

But we are here.

It's been a long day. It's 9:35pm and I'm just settling down to write this (in the tent of course). Humans outnumber the bugs in here. There's several tales to tell. But first a public service announcement:

$1,000,000 REWARD

For pelts of any member of the Birchcliffe Creek Beaver Society

see D. Ferren and C. Lawson for details.

Our day was meant to be paddling to the end of Biggar Lake, down a long creek and into a couple of small, spring-fed lakes. We did that. And then some. But we're here at North Raven Ñ only just. Figure it out yet? We got lost. Panic lost. It's quite a feeling. Very unpleasant.

When you get lost in a shopping mall, as a kid, they tell you to stay where you are. Someone will eventually find you. That doesn't work in a park, even a relatively settled one like Algonquin. Sure, someone may come looking for you, but it's a bit needle-haystack.

So you have to get found yourself.

First we shoot the cartographers
- William Shakespeare

After an interminably long (okay well, three hour) paddle down this creek - Birchcliffe Creek - we get to the second of two nameless pisshole lakes. The only way out of the second lake (we'll call it Lake Armpit) is the continuation of Birchcliffe Creek. Just after the creek mouth is supposed to be a 200M creek-hop portage. According to the map.

Shall I tell you more about this creek? Why yes I shall. It's not normally more than 12 feet wide. Never more than three feet deep. Its sides are lined with bushes that reach aggressively into the precious space we're supposed to paddle through. On the map it's a long line, with a few gentle wiggles. In reality it's about as linear as a Virginia Woolf novel, though far less artfully constructed.

And there's beaver dams. And we're paddling upstream.

We follow this creek for a long time after we leave Lake Armpit. It's starting to look like we're running out of water to paddle in. I call a map break. I insist that we must have missed our portage and we should go back and find it. Debbie suggests we continue down a reed-lined channel about five feet across. But I get my way.

So back we go. I notice a suspisciously artificial cedar post stuck in the shore. A closer look reveals the remnants of a yellow portage sign. "Ah hah!" I say, "Some yahoo has just gone souvenir hunting in an extremely inopportune time and place."

We pace the portage. It's about 200M. The other side has a small lake, fed by a creek. It doesn't appear on the map, so I'll call it Festering Sore Lake.

We agree to continue through Festering Sore Lake.

...which leads to Ende of the Earthe Bogge (also not marked). Actually we don't know where it ends. We never got there. We decided to go back just as the non-creek became impassable.

FUN FACT: In Algonquin Park some lakes only have about eight inches of water. And then there's a large amount of silt (about the consistency of Jello™ pudding when it's about 30 minutes from ready) that goes down as far as China, scientists say. It's just thin enough to put your paddle through, just thick enough to make you feel like you're paddling into a 30km/h head wind.

Back at Festering Sore Lake, panic sets in. It's about 3pm and near as we can figure we're about half way to where we're meant to be. We forgot to eat lunch. We stuff some gorp down our throats and inventory our options. This involves mostly second-guessing the guy at the Kiosk station, the last ten crops of Junior Rangers and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources cartography department.

Walking back over the ex-portage, I'm gripped by fear. I think of search parties, helicopters, people in Ottawa phoning the cops when I don't show up. I just started singing. I had to. The fear was welling up and I had to let it out. My voice was quavering. Debbie and I sang "We Shall Overcome." With new words. "We'll find Raven Lake. We'll eat freeze-dried food."

We figure we must have misjudged our location, or misread the map, or not seen the real portage sign, or gone down the wrong creek or... or... or... or... all of which leads back to Lake Armpit. So back we go. Paddling where we can, hauling the boat over the damn dams, and then we're back.

No, there's no second creek. We're where we think we are. There's no portage sign that we missed. Debbie suggests we go back to where we first turned back and push on for a set time and if we don't see anything, we'll back up to Birchcliffe Lake, camp, and try again tomorrow.

So we agree to head back up Birchcliffe Creek until 4:30. We get to the point where we originally turned back. We paddle. It looks like the creek is ending in a bog - no wait! There's water. A bend. Another bend. I check my watch. It's 4:25. "How long did we say we'd do this for?" I ask. Debbie says 4:30. "So five more minutes?" I say. I don't want to cook and set up camp in the dark, after all.

Not 47 seconds later we round yet another bend and there, bathed in the glorious goldenrod light of a near-North late afternoon is the elusive sign with the man hopping with a canoe on his head. Debbie yells with delight. I ship my paddle and lean on it, saying a brief prayer to someone I don't believe in. What a relief.

Giddy with joy, we do the portage. It's long. Not dire, Trail of Tears long, but way longer than 200M.

When we get to the other end, we see a shredded yogic canoe flier sign with the faintest of lettering telling us we've just come about 600M. According to our map we've just done the portage that was supposed to be after the 200M.

So either...

  • the 200M evaporated or...
  • we missed the portage and just ploughed through 200M of creek that normal people aren't supposed to want to paddle or...
  • someone left a 200M portage on the map from a retired route and (to make the map look neater I suppose) re-drew the portage to make it look like it was a creek-hop rather than a one-way trip to hell.

Ah well. We didn't really care. We knew where we were again. We pressed on, through Coral Root Lake and into North Raven. The guy at Kiosk had said the Junior Rangers had just been through making new campsites and clearing the portages. They forgot to leave a sign at the start of the Coral Root-North Raven portage. They did, however leave a pile of toilet seats and other assorted outhouse parts. This we took to be a clue.

It was the first sign of human activity we'd seen all day. The portage was the second. It was immaculate. It wasn't like the ones on the lakes in the Highway 60 corridor where someone serves you drinks every 300M but someone had buffed the pine needles for Christ's sake.

And there we were. North Raven Lake. This astoundingly clear, emerald green lakelet. We camped on the east side to exploit the rapidly disappearing sunlight. We finally put in at 7:15.

Small lakes are always buggy and this one I think was set up by the bugs and stocked with pretty water (sort of like cheese in a mouse trap) to lure unwitting canoeists to their doom.

Ah but we're safe here in this tent, and we shall indeed overcome.

Day 4: Maple Lake, 7/25/1995

Tacky sunset

I can't stress how frightful it is to be lost in the wilderness. The portage we found after we almost gave up yesterday was in awful shape. If it hadn't been for the animals using it, we'd never have found the other end. And even then it was pretty dodgy at times.

It got particularly worrying after what should have been 200M came and went. I thought "great now we're lost in the woods and I have 80 pounds of canoe on my head." At least when you're lost on water, the water is going somewhere. The woods are already everywhere. They stretch out in all directions and trees do look remarkably similar.

But we didn't get lost today. Today was a joy, but for the first bit where we were still on the damn creek. We found a portage without a sign and decided - almost automatically - that we wouldn't be fooled again. But we paced the portage and it was about right. It ended up on a creek, like the map said it should. As if you can trust maps.

We'd actually tried to go past the portage, believing it to be another "ex-portage" leading God knows where. Hong Kong probably. But our way was blocked so severely that we figured our best bet was to hope that the moose had just eaten the signs.

So we did the portage. It was, indeed the correct one. And we did another one. And another one. And eventually we fled creekdom for lake paddling. Swing low sweet chariot. Actually, we hit Erables Lake at about 1:30.

Gorgeous lake. Many campsites that look wonderful. Stay on this lake if you've got a night in these parts. But we had a fair bit of paddling to do yet so we decided to press on into the next lake, Maple Lake. Gotta love that naming scheme.

It's a less-nice lake, with fewer campsites. We found the best one, though on a tiny island at the north end of the lake, with a lovely exposed point (perfect for drying stuff)

Today was toasty warm, sunny, with the breeze at our backs. My arms are stiff. My right forearm badly bruised from flipping the canoe onto my shoulders. My hands and feet have several bandaids each, covering various blisters. My hair is terribly greasy and I haven't shaved in days. I'm not quite sure I remember who I am or what I do. I'm ridiculously happy.

Day 5: Ottawa, 7/26/1995

Chris in the canoe

I'm petting my cat and listening to Pete Seeger at Carnegie Hall. We got into town a few hours ago. I'm relieved to be home but sad too. Ottawa is humid and hot. Which bugs me most? I can never tell. There's no vast expanse of water to dive in.

Oh well.

The last day of the trip was uneventful, but envigorating. We got up an hour early (6am) so that we could get some day driving in. Looking at the map (I don't know why I keep doing this) I figured the trip down Maple Creek to Kioshkowi and across to Kiosk station would be a healthy day's work. Seven portages (a couple around 800M the others hops) and a long-ish paddle on Kiosk.

Of course I was expecting Kiosk to be windy and wavy.

By now we'd got the portage routine down. I carry the pots bag and the water jug over my shoulders (and the canoe) and Debbie carries the pack with the paddles stuffed horizontally across the back. (I wear my life jacket and take it off when I get into the canoe go figure, Debbie stuffs hers inbetween pack straps)

This means we're back to one-trip portaging. We passed a lot of day trippers and fish trippers paddling up Erables Lake. I have learned this is a good sign for the route ahead, because it means it will be better maintained. Signs will exist. Portages will be cleared.

Watch out for the second portage after Maple Lake. It's a really big hill. I can't imagine going south. Going down the hill was bad enough. Gravity is not your friend when you're carrying a canoe.

How well maintained was it? Someone had even sawed holes in the beaver dams. (That's too much in my view). Debbie figured someone had captured a beaver and forced it to swim ahead of the canoes and dismantle the beaver dams. Sort of like they used to get prisoners to dismantle minefields.

I said I didn't think that was very likely.

The only problem with the "civilized" river paddle was that the bugs also knew it was good hunting. Our speed on the portages was partially due to practice, partially due to a dislike of standing still. You become a bug magnet. We would stand around long enough to re-coat ourselves with bug juice and then go.

We got to Kioshkowi about noon. And it was flat. Windless. We pulled in to the station around 1pm. And after a swim, a brief chat with the station people ("Uh, someone should have a boo at Birchcliffe Creek. It's ah... a tad rough) we were off.

It was a four hour drive back to Ottawa. (It's three hours to Grand Central Station along the Highway 60 corridor, so always opt for up north, if you want relatively unsettled territory). We stopped at Myrt's family diner in Mattawa. There were signs urging patrons to wipe grease from their boots before entering, and warning that drunk patrons would not be served. Pulp town.

We came into the city around 5pm or so smack into a summer traffic jam. A rather rude reminder of why you do these trips in the first place.