May 7th-8th, 2016
Backcountry openings for Algonquin Park were delayed twice this spring due to lingering ice. Considering the mild winter this year, we were expecting an early ice-out, but cool temperatures and a late freeze-up meant we were anxiously awaiting the paddling season opener. The original opening date of April 22nd was pushed back to April 29th, and then again to May 4th. Finally, the park’s canoe-in sites were available, and we made plans to meet up with a couple other people to celebrate springtime.
A group of us diehard paddlers had been taking bets on ice-out since February, most of us guessing early April. It was a long month to wait! As the date of our trip changed so frequently, several people dropped out (ahem: Man Camping, Paddle In) and the crew ended up being Tom (who I’ve been talking to through Instagram for over a year now) and his friend Garrett, as well as Andrew and I. Tom and Garrett were to head up Friday and secure a site, and Andrew and I would meet them on Saturday by finding their campsite flag and singing loud sea shanties to warn them of our arrival.
We were up early on Saturday and actually managed to leave our apartment before 9 am (which has never happened in our adventuring history) because I packed everything the night before. We reached the access point at Canoe Lake around 11:30am, received the usual speech about camping in black bear country and a new warning about lake temperatures. Since the ice had only gone out a few days before, we were cautioned that the water temperature was about 3 degrees Celsius and that there had already been three reported cases of hypothermia. There are always a few inexperienced paddlers every year who don’t recognize the severity of cold water and spring conditions, and this season was no exception. We launched two minutes before noon. Feeling extremely lucky to have a tailwind and some patches of sunshine, we paddled quickly across Canoe Lake and had completed our first portage less than an hour later.
Dark clouds began rolling in as we paddled across Joe Lake and Little Joe, where we were stopped by a Ministry of Natural Resources boat as we were munching on some chicken salad pitas in our canoe. They were just curious about fishing permits and the like, which we both have. We waved goodbye and continued on to Baby Joe Lake. We were able to skip the first portage due to high water, and then the rains came. We portaged to Burnt Island Lake under a steady drizzle, and the rain gathered momentum for our paddle across. Thankfully, the waters were calm, and I had received a GPS location from Tom the night before so our campsite was not difficult to find. Even still, I had been practicing my sea shanties so as we rounded the final point before our campsite, we began singing Barrett’s Privateers as loudly as we could.
The Antelope shook and pitched on her side,
HOW I WISH I WAS IN SHERBROOKE NOW!
Barrett was smashed like a bowl of eggs
And the Maintruck carried off both me legs
Goddamn them all!
I was told we’d cruise the seas for American gold
We’d fire no guns – shed no tears
Now I’m a broken man on a Halifax pier
The last of Barrett’s Privateers.
We landed at the campsite at three thirty, rather soggy and chilled. Introductions were quickly made, our tent was set up in minutes, we hung a tarp to protect against the rain, and Andrew set off looking for firewood while I poured out some beer for us to share from my aluminum growler. Using a growler is an excellent way around the can-ban, and we all enjoyed the Pompous Belgian ale I had picked up from Great Lakes Brewery. Soon enough the rain subsided and I was able to take many photos of our campsite and Burnt Island Lake, which was glowing a truly beautiful blue colour in the evening light. Tom wasn’t feeling well and went off to his tent, so Andrew and I prepared some maple and beer-brined pork skewers, got the fire going, and we hung out with our new pal Garrett and had a fantastic meal.
As night fell, a terrible wind arose, bringing more rain. It was a bit frightening, and we rushed to put away all of our food and cooking supplies so we could hang them in the backwoods. This was Garrett’s first backcountry trip, and he struggled with his line. Andrew attempted to help and instead yanked the line clean off the branch. With three of us, it was easy to hoist our barrel, and once that was taken care of Andrew managed to re-hang Garrett and Tom’s line and we had the last two food packs hung quickly. Tom was somehow managing to snooze through this hurricane with his tent fly wide open, so Garrett zipped it up for Sleeping Beauty and then we all retreated to our tents for the night.
The rain and wind was very noisy on our tent (I must have forgotten how loud raindrops sound on our nylon tent fly after experiencing the peace and quiet of winter camping this year) and I had a difficult time falling asleep. I must have dozed off at some point, however, because I woke around midnight and noticed the rain had stopped and the wind calmed down a bit. Andrew and I woke again around 6 am, heard some more wind, and promptly went back to sleep for another two hours.
It was quite cold when we crawled out of our tent in the morning, and there was a small pond that had formed between our footprint and tent floor. My down sleeping bag was damp from condensation (not from the puddle beneath us – tent still waterproof!) and Andrew hung a line for our gear to dry in the stiff breeze that was already blowing across the lake. Burnt Island is a large lake, and all four of us were slightly uneasy about the paddle back to the access point. Andrew and I fetched our food barrel from its hanging place, chipped the ice off the top, and set about making coffee. A few snow flurries fluttered around. Tom was pacing the campsite looking forlorn, as he had misplaced his camera sometime the night before. I figured there was no way the wind had been strong enough to carry off a camera, so I began poking through the scrub at the edges of the campsite and soon found his camera in a bush. Much rejoicing!We let our gear dry for an hour or so before packing up and loading our canoes. The wind was strong but there weren’t any whitecaps on the lake, and we muscled across the bay to the open waters of Burnt Island Lake where we met with another MNR boat. This time they were asking us about reports of an overturned canoe that had been called in to the Ontario Provincial Police the night before. We didn’t have any information for them, but we told them where we had seen other canoeists and campers on the lake, and they motored off. We discussed several questions this raised: Why were MNR searching for an overturned canoe, and not Search and Rescue or the OPP? Why were they only now looking, at 11 am? How did someone manage to call the OPP from an area with no cell service? Were the occupants of the canoe alive and safe? We all felt fortunate that we weren’t in any trouble ourselves, and the wind began to clear away some of the clouds.
There was still a bit of snow on the portages, even after the downpour the night before. We somehow managed to avoid getting our feet wet, and the sun came out to warm us up. We all broke out into a rousing rendition of Log Driver’s Waltz on Baby Joe Lake, and after portaging to Little Joe, we stopped for a spot of lunch and a few half-hearted casts for brook trout. No fish. Oh well. It was nice to sit in the sun and chat about upcoming canoe trips. I’ve never been much of angler anyway. The paddle across Joe Lake was into a stiff headwind. Tom and Garrett went ahead while Andrew and I hung back after getting stuck on the one rock in the whole lake. We met up with our crew at the portage to Canoe Lake, and on the other side we were pleased to discover that we had a tailwind for the crossing, and I bellowed out the entirety of Barrett’s Privateers as we paddled back to the access point (you’re welcome, everyone!).
As we beached our boats, we were hit with a sprinkling of hail. Andrew and I always seem to bring the loveliest weather with us everywhere we go. Tom and Garrett had enjoyed a glorious day of sunshine and 20 C temperatures on Friday until we showed up the next day. Sorry, guys. Tom joked that the only weather we hadn’t experienced that weekend was a sandstorm, so now that’s bound to happen soon on a trip. Can’t wait. After loading our cars, Garrett went into the permit office to chat and learned that the day before a canoe had swamped and its occupants bushwhacked back to the access point late at night, soaked and freezing. The paddlers had no prior canoeing experience and most certainly underestimated the dangers of early spring tripping. No information on the overturned canoe on Burnt Island Lake, though. We stopped in at the Portage Store restaurant for a nourishing meal of burgers, poutine, and beer, said our goodbyes, and began the drive back to the Big Smoke.
I think it’s incredibly awesome how canoeing and backcountry camping brings people together. Andrew and I had never met Tom and Garrett before, and we usually like to keep to ourselves, but we had a great time and I appreciated having others around in case of emergency. I mean, how cool is it that to meet new friends we paddled and portaged 12 km into Algonquin’s backcountry and shared a campsite? We’ve got a great community of canoeists here in Southern Ontario. Maybe we’ll meet more of you on the water sometime soon.