Algonquin 2021

Tagged: camping

For the labor day weekend six of us went to Algonquin Park. It was our first time back country canoe camping for my partner and I. A narrative adventure ensues:

Day 1 - Kawawaymog parking lot

Our original plans were thrown aside as one of our team didn't make it to us until the dinner hour. We would have been paddling in the dark, some 10 km to find a spot on the east side of North Tea Lake. Our wonderful outfitter was gracious enough to let us camp in the adjacent parking lot. A cold, miserable sleep.

Day 2 - The long haul

We get up at 5:30am. We make breakfast in the parking lot while it's still dark (and cold). Everyone is up and running (as much as physically possible) by 8.

Kieran has gotten up early to make sure that we don't paddle straight across the lake. Why? Because it is a wall of fog, and the lake and the sky look one in the same. He tells us to stick to the coast. Then Kieran, our hero, rents us better sleeping bags and rain gear for those who were unprepared (yours truly).

We paddle through the fog, which is so thick that we have to stay very close together. Eventually we cross the lake and exit the fog as the sun comes out. As we reach the other side and look back, the fog is like a physical wall and we are amazed at how concrete it seems. We watch as other paddlers emerge from it.

Entrance to the park is through a tiny river (creek) connected to kawawaymog lake, it winds and snakes to the first portage. In the morning sun there are hundreds of spider webs on the marshy banks, and loads of toothpick trees (as I call them - thin, dead trees that are bunches together in marshy areas) - I am amazed to be paddling through an area like this, which I've only ever seen from a car window passing by.

After a lot of mis-steered turns we get to our first portage. It goes ok. We come out where the creek continues, until our next portage. This one is very hard - 250m - and I do it alone, as I did the last one. I'm still learning how to carry the canoe. It is the hardest physical thing I have done in quite a while. When I finally put down the canoe a cry of victory/despair erupts from my chest and then I spend five minutes catching my breath and dipping my face and arms in the rushing river beside the landing. Before long I am laughing at my dramatic flair and how inexperienced I am.

We get into North Tea Lake. Based on how we have booked things, we have to paddle the entire lake and get to Biggar lake in one day (something even Kieran, our experienced outfitter, knows will be a long haul). We cannot simply take a site on North Tea as other campers have all booked them up - it is first come first serve - and we might be cutting someone out of getting their site.

The next bits are a slog. One of our group has brought an umbrella to use as a sail and periodically we see the purple patio umbrella pop up from their canoe in hopes of carrying them faster. We don't think it does. He later tells us that it worked.

The next portages are small but are in quick succession (into the water, out of the water, repeat) and I double up with my partner to make it happen. It is still hard - adding a second person doesn't make it two times easier - more like 1.5x. I lose my prescription sunglasses (woops) somewhere at this point. Good thing I have my regular ones too (and less gear to carry as a result!).

We are exhausted when we get to Biggar. I am constantly shoving trail mix into my face in hopes that I will not get hangry and be irritable. We set out to find a site and finally find one by 4:30pm.

It starts to rain lightly, but we're just happy to be done.

Day 3 - Right into the fan!

In the morning we wake up to a gray day. It had rained in the night but we had managed to put up a tarp and enjoy some time together eating alfredo pasta and chatting. The nights sleep was much more restful; we couldn't believe how excited we were to sleep in warm enough sleeping bags! We have breakfast and I spend some time in my very warm rental sleeping bag in the hammock. We set out around 11:45 to head back to North Tea lake. By now we were starting to get the hang of things and we were backtracking so the territory is much more familiar.

The portages go well - still difficult - but have become manageable.

We stop to prepare some food from a pre-packaged mec meal, boiling water and pouring it into the bag for when we stop next. Then we head out toward North Tea. There is a small lake we have to cross to get to it, and the going is tough: we are hit by a strong headwind and choppy water. We paddle for an hour before getting to a campsite where we can make lunch.

We set out again. It's very windy and we get tired quickly. It rains for a bit and we put the tarp out on the canoe. We paddle some more, paddle more, paddle more. It feels like it's taking forever to get anywhere. It is discouraging. I close my eyes and face the sun, which has come back out, to enjoy the warmth on my face and to distract me as I paddle, paddle, paddle away. I do this intermittently for five or ten minutes. Before long, I open my eyes and see that we really aren't making much progress. I realize I have to paddle much harder. So I start to paddle much harder.

Finally we make it to a bend in the lake. I am grumpy and shout to the others who have been waiting for us to catch up - Can we stop? I am starting to need food. I try and get out of the canoe at the edge we have stopped at and eat something but the waves are strong and keeps pushing the canoe up against me and the rocks on the shore. I can't orient it straight and so I get back in and start following the others. We have to find a campsite, but we don't know which ones are open, and so we have to check each one. So we start crawling along the east side of the lake, passing filled spot by filled spot. We have to head to an island after seeing nothign but preoccupied spots -- little coves and hollows in the trees where campers have, thankfully, put our their canoes to let other's know that the spot is occupied. We finally get to the back of an island and can rest where the water is not so choppy. We link canoes and have snacks and try and figure out what we are going to do. Everyone is tired and we are all getting frustrated. On our way looking at sites I holler to a couple sitting on the beach: "Got a motor?" and they laugh and one responds: "Tough day for a paddle - right into the fan!" This will become our motto and it cheers me up a bit.

After a break, we decide to round along the island and hope to find a spot - one of four along its coast. We pass three, each one occupied, and I start to dispair more and more. I am starting to panic a bit at the idea of not finding a place to sleep before it gets dark -- can't we just ask someone if we can camp near their site? I ask. No one seems to want to do this. The contigency plan seems to be to paddle to the end of the lake back to the earlier portage location. This seems like a not fun idea to me - paddling against more waves. I don't have enough experience (yet) to know that we would have made it, so I start to wonder if we could just find anywhere on the island to camp.

Soon enough two of us in our group paddle ahead and find the last open spot on the island. I am elated - there is much hulabaloo, wooping and internal tears of joy. We land on the shore and the others tell me how stoked I will be about the spot. It is beautiful - there are steps made of wood and exposed / eroded tree roots up to an elevated part of the island with an opened that will show us the sunset.

With a renewed burst of energy I haul our stuff up to the site, start looking for wood and adding it to a fire. We make chili for dinner, and I go for a swim to fill our waterbottles. The water is refreshing and I go under with glee.

As the sun sets I set up my hammock and get into it in the sleeping bag. The island is in the middle of the lake and is continuously hit with the same mid-lake wind we had been paddling against all day: it fuels the fire intensely and makes my hammock flap incessantly. I watch the sunset and admire the cumulus clouds on the horizon. I think I see a planet - a bright light in the evening sky before any stars come out.

We stay up around the fire that we have to feed continually: a dead pine we find deeper on the island.

We go to bed sore and happy.

Day 4 - Canoeing out

We are tired and sore when we get up. I am a bit jaded from the experience the day before and want to leave early. We hit the road for 10 after a quick breakfast and a scour + clean of the campsite. It's sad to leave the view behind but we also want to try and get back in good time.

We slog back to the entry point on North Tea. It's hard but we're fresh at the start of the day. The portages go well and we are telling stories and joking around as we leave. We are part of a mass exodus of other campers finishing up their long weekend trip and at times we are waiting for portages ahead of us to complete before we can continue.

We emerge back to kawawaymog lake for the final slog: canoeing against the waves. I feel some of the same despair: every paddle that isn't my hardest is extending the length of time it'll take to get home. So we paddle along, yelling out word association to keep us laughing and playing concentration.

We finally land and it is a mixture of disbelief and sighs of relief. Just like that our trip has wrapped up. Kieran from Driftwood Paddles comes out, excited to hear about our trip. I feel tired and a bit sad to leave. I start packing my things, startled by my reflection: a reminder of normal life I'll be returning to in a matter of time - not just vanity in appearance but cell reception with its according distraction and addictions, work, (and the good things: friends and family).

Kieran asks to take a photo of a quick painting I did of his canoes. I'm flattered. I shake his hand. We hit the road, not talking until we get food at a chip truck.

We spend the ride home ranking "tier lists", laughing and reminiscing.