Winter camping by mistake

Western Uplands Hiking Trail, Algonquin Park, November 26-28, 2004

We arrive at Canoe Lake, about 9am

We arrive at Canoe Lake, about 9am

Suddenly progress slows down. "There's water under here somewhere."

Suddenly progress slows down. "There's water under here somewhere."

Sonja ice-lining. At 300m per hour.

Sonja ice-lining. At 300m per hour.


November 26, 8:30pm
Maple Leaf Lake, Algonquin Park

"There's a car out there with a canoe on it," she said, glancing over her shoulder to a co-worker who was coming through the door behind her. It was another day of work at Algonquin Park's east gate. "Those people are insane."

As she turned back, she saw Leo and I, patiently waiting for the park to open and for our canoe trip mates, Lester and Sonia, to arrive.

She had a point. It was the last weekend in November and we were going canoeing. In fact Leo and I had told ourselves the very same thing, many times on our drive from Ottawa.

Why insane?

Good enough for ya?

The park rangers warned us that things might be frozen over. We smiled politely as we paid our fees and said that we'd done this before. We got back into the cars and headed off to Canoe Lake.

Canoe Lake is a cottage lake. There are no campsites on it, and in summer it's a wilderness-seeker's blight, to be honest. It has a huge portage store, outfitters and intake centre. Today, it was totally abandoned but for two fishers (literally) trying to pry their boat into the water with a crowbar.

And us.

Devoid of the summertime hordes, and with trees and cottage roofs alike dusted with snow, the lake seemed quaint, serene and picturesque.

We loaded the canoes, and pushed off. It was 9:30am.

Ignoring clear water off to our left, Leo and I barged through some thin, transparent ice that had formed just out from the beach. Nothing could stop us - no namby pamby half centimetre ice, no doubting Thomas park staff - nobody.

About 15 minutes later, we had just passed the Tom-Thompson-died-here-or-so-we-think, cairn when we hit five centimetre ice.

Sonja bashed away at it, jamming her paddle into the ice and hauling the canoe's bow on top of the ice, where the boat's weight would crack it, creating a sort of channel.

This went on for about 100m. This is why they didn't use canoes to clear the Northwest Passage. We headed to shore and tried to pull and push our canoes along, playing a sort of canoe curling for a while.

After an hour we'd made 300m. It didn't look like it was getting any better as we got closer to Little Joe Lake. Lester said, "It looks like our route just got a little bit shorter."

We decided to head back and try to head the other way, towards Tea Lake. No dice. We ran into the same problem. It was now noon, so we stopped at the portage into Sam Lake and had lunch.

We decided there wasn't going to be much more canoeing on this trip. But none of us was keen to go back to the city either - in fact the suggestion didn't even come up - so we decided go hiking instead.

We went back to the put-in and encountered a couple of New Yorkers with sea kayaks. So we weren't the only ones.

We put the boats back on the cars and drove to the Western Uplands trail some dozen kilometres further west.

I know that probably sounds like a rather sane, rational thing to do but hear me out. We were hardly equipped for hiking. Lester had billed this as a lightweight, single pass trip, but our "lightweight" packs would probably make most backcountry hikers gasp in horror. We were all wearing rubber boots and two of us were carrying those bulbous, frameless, ill-fitting canoe packs that aren't intended for long carries.

But by 1:40pm we were on the trail, headed for Maple Leaf Lake, the first set of sites in the Western Uplands trail.

The trail has pretty terrain, hilly, but nothing that requires hands or that seems precarious. With any luck the pictures will reflect that. The trail was snow covered, but well-marked. Someone else had been through recently, so we had footprints reinforcing our view of the path.

But two and a bit hours carrying a canoe pack is a bit much.

We made camp at the first campsite we came to, just before 4pm. We collected firewood and were eating dinner by 5:30pm.

I made dinner - rehydrated tomato basil chevre sauce. I put too much water in with it and forgot to add the capers. It doesn't present well when rehydrated either. But people ate it. Three bags of dried tortellini makes a generously portionned dinner for four.

After dinner we told a few stories and went to bed.

Though I'm very much enjoying this trip, I'm reminded of that scene in Withnail and I where the two of them are driving through the contryside in the dark, in the pouring rain, horribly hungover.

They pull over to seek help from a farmer and Withnail exclaims, "We've gone on holiday by mistake."