“Oh my,” the park ranger at Shall Lake said as I showed her our route. “I’ve never seen anyone do a trip like that before.” It was 10:00 am, on Friday, Sept. 6. Martin and I had just arrived, having set out from Ottawa just before 7am.
She dragged her finger along the first leg of our trip, up from Shall/Farm to McKaskill. “That part alone takes seven hours,” she said sternly.
I told her we could do it. And in that moment I recalled something Martin had said to me in one of our planning-over-beer-at-Irene's sessions in the spring: “I think I’d have to say my limit for portages is about 2000 metres.” Doubts crept in through my peripheral vision.
“And then you’ve got this,” she continued, pointing at the Dickson-Bonfield portage — at 5300 metres — the longest on the park map.
“Oh my indeed,” I thought. What was I thinking?
The fifth annual Chris and Martin fall trip. A closer destination, a walk in the woods with canoes.
Reader’s digest version:
- Day 1:
- Stern words from the ranger at Shall Lake. An energetic jaunt to McKaskill Lake
- Day 2:
- A cold, cloudy day and the park's longest portage. And several others as well. We land on Annie Bay
- Day 3:
- A short, warm and sunny day lands us on the south end's gem, Booth Lake.
- Day 4:
- An even shorter day gets us back to the car, which gets us to Wilno, which takes us home.
Offering of gratitude and appreciation
My loving partner, Irene, has been putting up with these outings for five years now and has been putting up with me even longer. I am enormously appreciative of her indulgence and support.
Standard warning of impending doom
This is not an advice site. I am not an expert. I'm some dude somewhere who thought it would be fun to schlep a canoe and 20 kilos of gear across 67km of wilderness park. For all you know I listen to Katy Perry and bash my head repeatedly against the wall while doing it. So why on earth would you take my advice? You wouldn't because you're too smart. Hire a guide, join a club or stay safe within the confines of your normal life.
I don’t know what the ranger at Shall Lake was basing her estimates on but it wasn’t us. Partly telling myself as well, I’d told her I’d done this segment before and was pretty sure it didn’t take seven hours. I also told her we take the portages in one pass, which seems to make a lot of difference.
“Sure, that helps, if you’re packed for it.” Which as it happens we are.
I told her I’d mapped it out on my GPS.
“Don’t use those. They get you lost. I have people coming here thinking they’re at Canoe Lake because that’s what the GPS told them,” she said.
I reassured her I also travel with the park map. I didn’t think it was worth arguing over the difference between a Tom Tom with Highways of North America on it and an outdoor GPS with Canadian 1:50000 topographical maps on it. It wasn’t going to get us there any faster.
So I smiled, waved, set any insecurities I had aside and walked with purpose to the put-in.
In this our fifth year of fall trips, Martin and I decided we’d do a little less driving. I still like to explore some places I’ve never been and for some reason I thought, “Hey you know I’ve never done Dickson-Bonfield” (temporarily erasing all memory of Martin’s statement of portage length preference).
And so we set out just before 7am, having put together canoe-ready packs and loaded them and the canoe onto our rental car the night before.
Shall Lake isn’t as close to Ottawa as Achray, but at 3.5 hours, it is closer than Temagami, Killarney or even Algonquin’s Brent and Kiosk access points. There’s no natural water slide or canyon, but there’s some good camping and it’s a popular spot in summer.
Despite the less-than-enthusiastic endorsement from the access point staff, we loaded up and headed out onto Farm Lake, at 10:20am. I marked the car as a waypoint to avoid past years confusion because the access point as located by Garmin’s Basecamp wasn’t where we actually were.
There’s no potable water at Shall Lake. So either fill up in town or be prepared to buy bottled water, like we did because I forgot to do the former.
Farm winds its way rapidly into Crotch Lake with nary so much as a portage. We had sun poking out from clouds and variable winds hitting us from the Northwest.
From Crotch Lake, a 1050m portage takes you into Shirley. When you’re weekend warriors that don’t get into a canoe that often the first portage can be a tad jarring, especially if it's got four digits. But we managed it fairly well. It's easily located and takes you over mostly flat terrain. More jarring than the exertion, though was the fact that there were significant numbers of bugs.
Slow-moving, stupid mosquitos that were easily killed, but bugs. In September. Bugs.
A short paddle across Shirley Lake brought us to the 515m into Ryan Lake, which despite being quite small, has a ton of campsites on it. On the park map it looks like a smile with red triangles for teeth.
There was logging going on in the area, but we couldn’t hear it once we got to Ryan Lake.
Two more short portages through Big Red and Shrew Lakes brought us to our longest portage of the day, the 2365m from Shrew to Dove Lake. We could tell we were getting a little off the beaten path as this one had a bit of deadfall on it. And hilly. You definitely want to do Shrew-Dove, not Dove-Shrew. After that, Dove to McKaskill is marked as 40m and it does not disappoint. Nor does McKaskill itself, in which we dipped our paddles at around 2pm.
We paddled the length of McKaskill looking for a promising campsite. I’d be curious to know which sites people like. We ended up at the north end of the lake, at the same site my group found last time I was here, for the same reasons as then. We’d passed on all the others and were damned if we were going to backtrack. We pulled our boat out of the water at around 3pm.
It’s not a bad site, but compared to our others this trip, it was just sort of ho hum.
Oh — and four and a half hours, not seven.
We had dinner around 6pm, as per tradition, pasta with pesto. Though this time I splurged a bit in the weight department and brought shelf-stable fresh tortellini (vacuum-packed), actual parmesan cheese and some sundried tomatoes. We had a bit too much parmesan, but two packs of the tortellini filled our bellies well.
All washed down with our house red, French Rabbit Cabernet Sauvignon.
And I’m glad it’s all gone. Tomorrow is going to be one hell of a day and that food pack needs getting lighter.