Algonquin Park: Biggar Lake at sunrise on a cold fall morning

Introduction

Parks Ontario started offering paddlers online reservations for backcountry camping a couple of years ago but this was the first time I'd tried it. The site is as ugly as ever but the system is easy enough to use. Only it scared me. I plugged in my destination lakes and a window popped up, warning me that I was going too far on my second day.

I was indignant. Possibly a little defensive and insecure. Were we? It seemed on par with what Martin and I had done in years past. Maybe five or six kilometres more. But then, we're also a year older.

Summary:

Day 1:
wherein we get up crazy early and drive west on Highway 17 desperately hoping the rain stops by the time we get to Kiosk. We paddle under gray skies to Erables.
Day 2:
wherein we awake to cold and sun, disappear into the woods with our gear and canoe, and re-emerge five hours later on Biggar Lake, having dipped our paddles into the water a few times as well.
Day 3:
wherein we wake to unbelievable cold and sun and paddle towards Manitou Lake as the temperature rises. Now down to shirtsleeves, we decide to push on to Kioskowkwi for our last night.
Day 4:
wherein we smugly paddle across Kioskowkwi in rapidly worsening conditions, pleased that we don't have the Amable du Fond river to travel as well.

Statement of undying love and gratitude

Irene Jansen, my partner and mother of my child, is a most amazing human for a variety of reasons. The one I would like to highlight at this point is the fact that she lets Martin and I piss off into the woods for four days every year.

Admonition against ill-advised adventure

I am telling a story, not providing advice. There's lots of bad things that can happen to you out there, including some that will alter or end your life. So if you're new to this — or even if you think you know something about this but get a little insecure or defensive when a javascript or a person tells you might not — seek support from a guide, an outing club or a class on how to canoe trip.

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Sun setting, seen from Erables Lake, Algonquin Park

Friday, Sept. 23, 8:30pm Erables Lake

Abandoned lumber mill building, Club Lake Algonquin Park

I packed all the gear and put the canoe on the car — real roof rack whoo hoo! — last night. I was up way too late trying to get some work stuff squared away and didn't have enough time to do the work on the GPS routes, which I regretted several times each day this trip.

I was up at 5am slamming some coffee and food into me, gingerly sneaking out the door just before six, in time to pick up Martin and get rolling. And indeed we were on the Queensway just after 6, heading to Kiosk.

Rain pelted the windshield for most of the trip. But that old adage 'Rain before seven, clear by eleven' proved true. We arrived at Kiosk just after 10am to overcast skies, light wind and 12C.

A few minutes to pick up our permit from the ever-present and ever cheerful Carmen Cross, Kiosk's Access Point manager, advice-giver and all-round good egg, a few more minutes to faff about getting the gear ready, stashing stuff in the car, firing up the GPS, and we were on the water. By about 10:15.

We pushed off a little after one of two parties of canoeists we saw today, two humans and two dogs, who were headed to Mouse Lake.

The other group we saw were headed back toward Kiosk. We encountered them on the 1165m portage between Mink and Club Lake. Breathing hard and wearing jeans, they all asked us ‘how much further?’

I'd built us a long first day in part because we had less driving to do than if we were paddling in Temagami or Killarney, but also because I was keen on camping on Erables, which has always struck me as a prettier lake with better sites than Maple, which always seems to be more 'on the way'.

A long first day means the packs are heavy — full of food and French Rabbit. In our case, the big pack — carried with the life jackets, paddles and klingons — weighed 25kg. The smaller pack, carried with the canoe, weighed 15kg.

Also, you need to pack food for a lunch on the first day. We decided to eschew the usual lunch and just eat trail mix. That seemed to be fine, but we were hungrier than usual by dinner time.

And it was a long day. 27km all in, including seven portages totalling 6210 metres. None were dramatically long, strenuous or complicated, but the longest of the day — 1705m — was also the longest of the trip.

By the time we time we hit Mouse Lake, at 2:15pm, we were both looking forward to killing some of that wine. If for no other reason than to make Saturday easier. And I spent many long minutes trudging along the paths, trying to imagine what to shift to bring the weight of the big pack into line with the concept of ‘reasonable’.

We took the Mink Lake route from Kioskowkwi to Mouse Lake. Last time I was through here I'd gone via Waterclear to avoid having to look at the disused railway line, but it's hardly visible — just a kind of intriguing line through the trees. The sort of thing Edward Burtynsky might be able to photograph beautifully.

Despite having Jeff's Map of Western Algonquin Park overlaid on my mapping application, I'd traced my route off Kiosk ignoring One Mile Bridge and took us on a bit of a zig zag, paddling all the way to the campsite near Lauder Creek before realizing that, no, there is in fact no magical second way under the railroad causeway.

Mercifully Martin forgave me.

The rain brought forth an amazing mushroom bloom along the portage trails we walked today. Huge toadstools, colonies of brown capped mushrooms, these screaming red ones. Neither of us knows enough about mycology to venture harvesting any of them but if you did, and your no-trace camping ethics did not extend to leaving them untouched, you could have had quite a feast. If indeed any of them were edible.

We made it to Erables around 4:45pm and picked the campsite on the south-facing point about half way to the portage to Maple Lake. It's a fine site.

Despite the late arrival we had time to cook and clean in daylight. Or dusk, at least. I brought home-made pesto, frozen in a ziplock bag, and actual grated parmesan cheese to go with the pack-and-a-half of shelf stable gnocchi. We ate it all. And could probably have eaten more. So we finished the bag of trail mix that we'd brought as a lunch substitute.

We also had our special wine. I'd decanted the bottle into the Platypreserve only to discover it had developed a tiny pinprick of a hole. I didn't know quite what else to do so I transferred it to a Nalgene bottle. So now we have three nalgenes. But 750ml less weight to carry.

It didn't wreck the wine, but I have to wonder why make a collapsing, camp wine container so flimsy? I suppose for $10.50 I shouldn't expect different.

While I'm on the subject of extra crap, I packed the two metal coffee cups, forgetting that my pot set also comes with two (admittedly plastic, weirdly-shaped cups). So we have two extra cups, "in case we have guests," Martin quipped.

Before I'm done in the extras department, I found the tent pegs for the two person tent I bring. In the green pack. I'd been unable to locate them at home so I'd brought the pegs for our family-size tent. So now we have two sets of pegs.

On the other hand, there's no sign of the frying pan. Here's hoping it turns up at home.

Tomorrow I must re-jig the packing to take some of the heft out of the green pack so that it's a little less punishing.

I could also use a better bag for the kitchen stuff. My old black 'dry bag' disintegrated on me this summer so I am using two smaller black stuff sacks. I like having things colour coded. It makes it so much easier to answer questions that begin with "Where's the..." But it would be nice to have just the one bag so that I didn't have to answer “It’s in one of the two...”

A cold evening tonight. I'm all-in in the clothes department. Missing the down vest I usually bring. The stars are great.

But this is all small stuff. Now is time to sleep.

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Portage to North Sylvia Lake

Saturday, Sept. 24, 8:35pm Biggar Lake

Biggar Lake, Algonquin Park: drying out the feet, relaxing

Woof. That was an arduous day. I told Martin that today was going to be like yesterday, and... well... I was right. We were up a bit later than usual — just before 7am. It’s too depressing to be eating breakfast by headlamp. A cold, foggy morning. We were on the water just before 9am after oatmeal with granola, powdered milk and dried cherries. And coffee. Can’t forget the coffee. Back to Mugmates this year. No regrets.

Today was evidence for those who hate Algonquin Park because it’s got too much portaging and not enough paddling. I hasten to add I’m not among those people. I love Algonquin Park. But it was a long walk in the woods with canoes. Or, were I to dial down the hyperbole a notch, I would say: today featured a series of long portages punctuated by short paddles through tiny lakes except for Three Mile and Biggar Lakes.

None of the trails were particularly strenuous or complicated. A couple of instances of deadfall. And we've had worse. But there were a lot of portages. Nine in fact. We were on the water more than we were in the woods - at least as far as distance goes - but in terms of travel time, I'm not sure.

We're not the only people who found this route a bit of a chore. The cartographers, for example. We paddled through Boggy Lake, Rat Trap Lake and Dismal Bay today. You get the sense they were trying to tell us something.

And I expect when they got through that cheery string of puddles, their guide said “This is bigger,” to which they responded. “Indeed. Thank God. Write that one down, Jenkins.”

We saw no other humans today. None. Not a lot of wildlife either. Ducks, loons, a heron.

We had sun today, but it’s been quite cool.

I moved the two wine tetrapaks to the grey pack to even out the loads a bit. The green one is lighter but it’s still deemed the punishment pack in part because of the weight but also because it’s constantly maladjusted.

We had lunch on Three Mile Lake, around 12:30. There was a brief paddle down Three Mile in the open air then back on to the creek joining Kawa, Upper Kawa and Sinclair Lakes until we arrived at the east end of Biggar at around 2:30.

An aggressive north westerly wind gave us a bit of a chore paddling to the my preferred site on Biggar, but the weather lore says that’s good because prevailing wind means no change in weather for 24 hours. And sunny, mid-to-low teens I will gladly accept in late September.

We pulled into our campsite around 3pm. Not the site for sunsets, this one, but it’s got a nice exposed bit of rock for sitting on, drying things on and has a great view of the lake.

We had plenty of time to set up, stretch a bit, try to dry our shoes, etc before settling down to couscous.

I’m upping my food game a bit this year. I brought actual feta cheese (shrinkwrapped) and toasted almonds to supplement Laurie Ann March’s recipe. And I think it was worth the weight. Though I should check to see what I was meant to do with the spice packet. Not sure I got it right. However, second night, no leftovers. Boo ya! Like the young ‘uns say.

Much as I appreciate not having the world’s heaviest packs during the day, I like good food better. I think the extras, feta and edam cheese, the packet of tofu cubes, two types of cooking oil, vegetable shortening, too much coffee probably added another 1.5kg to the pack. I don’t see myself stretching too much further in the food department, though, not like some I've seen.

We hit the tent early fleeing falling temperatures and unimpressed by the stars. I hope it's not a sign that Monday’s rain is coming early.

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Still life with dry bag: the north end of Manitou Lake, Algonquin Park

Sunday, Sept. 25, 4:45pm Kioshkowkwi Lake

Grass growing out of a rock, Kioshkowkwi Lake

So we’re over achievers again. We were booked to stay on Manitou Lake tonight (which is well worth staying on, may I note, but more on that later) but, having seen only one other party today, we deduced that the park was pretty much empty. And since we were unlikely to displace anyone, we could safely camp on a lake other than that which we had reserved.

Last night we looked at the distances and reckoned that, with favourable conditions we could probably get all the way to Kioshkowkwi today, which might be beneficial if Monday was meant to be rainy and cold.

And while we didn’t know what sort of campsites we’d find on Kioshkowkwi, we figured we’d risk it to avoid a two hour rain soaked journey back to the car Monday.

Today was to be mostly open water paddling on North Tea and Manitou which, legend has it, can get quite wavy and cut your moving speed in half. At least.

So we reckoned if we made the north end of Manitou by early afternoon, we would do the extra 7km to get to the cluster of sites at the south end of Kioshkowkwi today.

We were up and moving just before 7am. It was ridiculously cold. Maybe 5C? Fog shrouded the lake. Although it almost goes without saying. I could see the moon in the sky, so I reckoned the forecast of sun and warm would hold. It just didn’t seem conceivable that the ‘warm’ part would get here.

With numb hands we made and ate breakfast, cleaned up, packed up and set off, hitting the water just before 9am.

The fog dissipated and the temperature rose so much that Martin was in short sleeves by around 11am.

Our route took us west to the end of Biggar, through the connecting creek/puddle and into Mangotasi, North Tea and Manitou Lakes. A lot of time on the water — most welcome after yesterday and Friday for that matter.

The wind gently came across the port bow throughout the morning and we made good progress. We did the math and realized we could make Kioshkowkwi pretty easily today. We figured we’d be happier doing the stretch along the Amable du Fond river in warmth and sunshine.

Manitou and North Tea for that matter are beautiful lakes with amazing beach campsites. We reached one, marked as CS14 around noon and stopped for lunch to check it out. Gorgeous, but we did pick up a lot of flies. A non-biting kind. Sand flies? Not sure what the story was there. Gorgeous site. No doubt very popular.

We passed one party heading south on Manitou and we reckoned that's where they'd stayed.

After lunch we headed north to the Amable du Fond river, starting the portage through the du Fond farm field just before 2pm. Apart from the fact that the trees are a lot shorter around there, looking at it from the lake, it would take some imagination to see it as a farm field. The first few dozen metres of portage do suggest “nature reclaiming orchard or meadow” but it’s barely recognizable for what it was.

The Amable du Fond has two portages on it and a third for low water situations.

I looked downstream from the end of the first portage and saw one swift. We were both still carrying so I proposed we just take the low water option, since it wasn’t a lot further.

We did and it was fine. We weren’t hurting and I reckoned we’d walk faster than we could wrench through lining, liftovers and swifts.

By 3:30 we’d found ourselves a site on Kioshkowkwi and had put in. It’s on a point, atop a steep, 2 or 3m hill. There’s a sort of beach like thing along the shore but Martin cautionned that the water was full of freshwater clams, the shells of which can be quite sharp. So mind yourself if you’re swimming.

Our site has what looks like it could be a small cliff/rock to jump or dive from. I didn’t check it out or try it so I have no idea if it’s safe or how safe.

I’m glad we pressed on but must make dinner so that we’re not doing dishes in the dark. So warm. So sunny.

I made Laurie Ann March’s Harvest Vegetable stew for dinner this evening, with savoury bannock biscuits and edam cheese. For extra protein I mixed in these Soyarie savoury tofu cubes. It was great — very filling. And I almost made the bannock into proper dough. I just couldn’t help myself, though, adding a bit too much water and (unforgivably) forgetting to bring extra flour.

However we ate it all and have some cheese left over.

We’ve decided to skip pancakes tomorrow and just eat left over granola bars, cheese and trail mix with our coffee so that we can get out from under the rain.

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The gull-infested island from whence Kioshkowkwi gets its name

Monday Sept. 26, 10:15am. Highway 630, heading north to 17

A plant on its way to being a tree: Kioshkowkwi Lake

We were up this morning just after 7am. As forecast, clouds hung low, spitting rain. Rising wind suggested it was a great time to leave.

So we had an extra hurry-up breakfast: trail mix, granola bar, cheese and coffee; then packed up and left.

I put the Garmin’s rechargable back in after the AAs died on startup. I got a bearing and figured I could probably find our way back to the car. Something about a large-ish yellow excavator shovelling heaps of gravel into the lake to shore up the boat launch.

We were on the water just before 9am and got to Kiosk about 30 minutes later. The wind was noticeable, from the southeast, hitting us starboard aft, so it was a bit of a chore coming across, but not dangerous. Splashy, not swampy. I have to imagine a couple of hours later it would have been far worse.

All that to say I think we made the right decision to push on yesterday.

We’re on the road and we should be home by mid afternoon.

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Deadhead in the fog, Erables Lake, Algonquin Park

Miscellaneous notes: the pack, blisters, the GPS, what to Google

The big green pack doesn't owe me anything any more

The big green pack

I am pretty much convinced that the big green pack has seen its last trip. The stitching on the top flap could be repaired, but its straps are rigid and nearly impossible to adjust.

Martin and I switch loads every portage and we’re usually in a hurry to get going so we don’t have a lot of patience for the green pack’s reified straps. We just say “screw it — it’s only a kilometre” and stomp off down the trail. It’s a decision I routinely regret about three hundred paces later.

It does have side pockets for water bottles (cupholders I call them) but even those make the pack awkwardly wide and hard to pull in and out of the canoe.

I’d love to find a waterproof portage pack with cupholders and straps with contemporary adjustment mechanisms.

Water shoes: easier on the feet than the trail runners

Blisters and how to beat them

All trip I’ve been struggling with blisters on both heels that I got last weekend from hiking in the Adirondacks in unkind and suddenly ill-fitting hiking boots. This week I went out and bought every possible variety of blister bandage. What I’ve discovered is that the really goey ones (also sold as being great for serious burns) don’t hold up so well when they’re in contact with... you know... the thing that made the blister.

I’ve also discovered that a change is as good as a rest. My light weight, flimsy heel cup water shoes are much kinder to me than the stiff, durable trail runners that I bring along to wear at night.

I also got a bit of a pleasant surprise from this perforated lycra blister cover which held on tight and provided really good comfort from a thin strip of material. Trouble is, my blisters were so far gone as to be bloody. Which shortened the thing’s life span. But these lycra things might beat moleskin.

Batteries and how to stay in power

My fitbit battery died after two days on the trip. And the rechargable battery that comes with the Montana was showing dangerously low after day 2. The lithium AAs that I brought as backup were almost gone by Sunday afternoon. I must find a way to bring real power next year. Solar? Battery charger?

I can do without the FitBit, but the GPS? I just had a little moment of fear upon seeing the redlining AAs that the unit would switch off and not come back again and we’d be lost in sight of the car.

The Google List

When was the du Fond farm abandoned? When was it established?
Ignace and Francis du Fond worked the farm from the 1880s to 1916. There's a book written about the area. I'm waiting for it to arrive. It may have more detailed or accurate information than a Google book called Algonquin Park Ramblings.
What's the planet that appears low over the western horizon around sunset?
Probably Venus.
Why do geese fly at night?
Because they can. Their vision is about 12 times stronger than humans, often taking advantage of moonlight to migrate south for the winter
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Photographs

All photos on flickr

Morning, Erables Lake

First portage selfie

Mouse Lake

No gulls but there were these

Manitou - Amable du Fond - Pushing on to Kioskowkwi

Maple and Erables

See? Look at that beach

Cute island, Biggar Lake

Detail, Kioshkowkwi Lake

The old and the new

Cellaring the cabernet

The old and the new

Sunrise, Erables Lake

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The Numbers

The route we took, portrayed on Google Earth
  • Distance

    80.7 km

  • Time

    71:25:16

  • Portages

    24

  • Portage distance

    15,890m

All the numbers

Download the GPX file
Day DistanceAvg Speed Elapsed Time PortagesPortage distance
Fri 27.2km 3.9km/hr 6:55:00 7 6210
Sat21.6km 3.4km/hr 6:15:30 9 6360
Sun 28.7km 4.4km/hr 6:35:29 8 3320
Mon 3.2km 6km/hr 0:30:53 0 0
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Posted Sunday, October 9th, 2016 09:11 am
Chris from Ottawa writes:
Offer advice, ask questions, share stories. But don’t put your email address in here or something’s likely to harvest it for spam.

Posted Thursday, October 5th, 2017 08:20 pm

Does this work from Upstairs office writes:

Hi there. I was always wondering if this actually worked

Posted Thursday, October 5th, 2017 08:36 pm

Chris from Ottawa writes:

Say who you are, but don't include your email in public comments or it will get harvested for spam.

Posted Thursday, October 5th, 2017 08:40 pm

Chris from Ottawa writes:

Tell me who you are, but don't put your email in public comments or it will get harvested for spam.