Algonquin Canoe Trip September 2015 (3 days)

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During our holiday in Ontario in September 2015, we wanted to do a canoeing trip in one of the countries most famous parks: Algonquin Provincial Park. This was our first ever canoeing experience, so we decided to get in touch with Algonquin Outfitters to see if they could hook us up with a canoe and someone to explain us the basics. After some back and forth communication through the modern traveller’s most popular communication channel, e-mail, we decided that we were going to make use of the “guide for a day” formula. Because we were not too sure what to expect, but still wanted to have at least some kind of challenge to it, we went for a 3-day trip. With the chosen formula, AO provided us with a canoe and food for our 3-day trip and all the other gear we still needed. As the name suggests, there was also a guide who would be doing the initial planning with us, and would travel with us to our first campsite on day 1. Along the way he would explain us all the various canoeing techniques.

We planned to start at acces point 6, which is at Canoe Lake. The first day we would paddle up to Barlett Lake. On the second day we would make a loop and stay at Burnt Island Lake. And on the third day we would return to access point 6 again. As we did not really know canoeing, we were not really sure how challenging this route was going to be. There were a lot of portages, but at this point, we were naive enough not te be scared of them. This is a summary of our itinerary:

Day  Campsite Portaging [km]
18/09/15 Barlett Lake 0.260
19/09/15 Burnt Island Lake 2.705
20/09/15 / 0.755

The image below shows the route we took mapped out on Jeff’s Algonquin Map. Unfortunately, the map we had was not one of Jeff’s, next time we won’t make this mistake! I tried to use a color that stands out against the already bright colours in the map. I know I was not 100% successful, but the idea should be clear.

annotated map
annotated map

We arrived at Algonquin Outfitters the day before at lunch-time. After getting some basic info we decided to do a little hike in the area to get familiar with the park. In the evening, we stayed in one of the tent cabins which were also included in the price. There was a nice fire pit close to the water which meant we could do some BBQ-ing. It had become kind of a ritual for us in Canada to do some grilling the day before an adventure. After taking our last hot shower, we went to bed with a feeling of excitement for what was about to come.

Day 1

First we had a basic but very nice breakfast at Algonquin Outfitters after which they walked us through the gear. We could choose from different food options according to our taste and how much effort we wanted to spend on cooking it. The food looked very good so we where happy with that. A lot of vegetables, finally! Some of the gear was very heavy and so we did some swapping with our own gear (sleeping bag, sleeping pad, some smaller items) and we also tried to leave as much out as possible like some of the heavier cooking gear. In the end we ended up with a lighter, but still very luxurious pack. As we were going to be in a canoe most of the time, we did not really mind the extra weight. It was also a chance for us to have some of the items with us we could not bring on the plane. They even told us to bring a giant saw with us! Normally we don’t bring more than a small folding saw. When hiking, we can be a little bit frantic about kilograms, but this was a different case.

Once we got our packs outside and in the car (man they were still heavy!), we were thought how to strap a canoe on a car. It was important that we remembered how to do this, as we would have to return by ourselves the last day. The canoe they gave us was a beautiful ultra-light fiberglass boat. We did not want to break it!

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boat strapped tightly on our rental car

Once the boat was tight on our car, the guide showed us the way to our access point (ACCESS POINT NAME). Here we had to queue to get the permits for the park and car. The park ranger also warned us for bear attacks and she explained how to do a bear hang etc. Mostly stuff we already knew from reading on the internet, but it was probably obligatory for them to tell us this stuff. As we were standing in line, we could see a board which listed all the lakes where a bear was recently seen. Most of them were checked! This was scary! To make matters worse, the guide told us that it had been a very bad season for bears as there had not been a lot of berries. Yikes.

ready to roll
ready to roll

Finally our boats got close to the water and we were ready to get started! We really had to learn how to do this canoeing thing fast so we did not look like fools in this country of experts. The problems already started when trying to move the canoe from our car to the water. Apparently, pulling a canoe over your head involves special magic, which I did not master yet. Luckily, once the guide explained me and after having a few tries, it became second nature quite fast. Our extremely light boats did help a lot!

The basics of canoeing are not very hard and the boat seemed a lot more stable than we imagined it would be. This was going to be fun! The hardest part was working together to keep the straight line. This took a while to get right, but eventually we got there and we could start making some mileage. The weather was not very nice and we did not really get the clear blue skies. It even started raining a bit.

The guide told us stories about the boys and girls camps when we passed by them (camp Wapomeo & camp Ahmek). These camps were things that I would definitely associate with this country based on what I saw on TV and such, but it was cool to hear it from a local. He told us about an epic 40-day canoe trip he did when he was 16 or 18 (could be I am wrong here, I don’t remember the details 100%). After a while, his tastebuds were so affected, that he started to like everything they gave him. When he got home he tried to cook one of the dishes he had there because he remembered it was “amazing”, but after a few weeks of normal diet, it tasted extremely nasty. The stories about the Canadian winter scared us the most. Temperatures to minus 40 and digging your own snow cave to spend the night. It all sounded nice, but I think we both agreed our experience level needed a boost before we started doing things like that.

After a little while of paddling we arrived at our first portage, crossing this would lead us to Joe Lake. This was a lot harder than we initially thought it would be! Today we only had one, but tomorrow there were 7 of these! Luckily we liked to be challenged a bit. After conquering the portage we had lunch, and while we were there a huge group of people passed by. It was clear that we were still in a day’s reach from the access point. Just after the portage point there was a bridge we had to go under. The guide told us that it was a habit here to give the bridge a little slap with your paddle for good luck. We found it a bit funny but still did it anyway. After paddling further away from it, we still heard the occasional knock.

When we reached our campsite we were ecstatic. It was amazing! Once we got our initial camp set up using a tarp to protect us from the rain while cooking, it was time to do our first-ever bear hang. We had read about this on the internet so we knew the basics but it was still a huge advantage to have someone show us in real life. After this, the guide returned home as he still had a lot of paddling to do and it was going to get dark in a few hours. We got our fire started and started cooking our kebabs with the vegetables. It felt like a well earned meal after a day of hard work.

Barlett Lake campsite

After inspection of the campsite we found a spot that looked like there might be some moose activity. We are definitely no experts so we might have been wrong about this, yet very time I heard a sound I went there to see if there was anything going on. Unfortunately I had no luck. Once the forest went silent we went to sleep. For the first time on this trip we had a large temt so this really felt like pure luxury. I can’t say we slept like logs that night, as every time we heard a sound we thought there was either a bear or a moose standing right besides our tent. In all of those cases, the animal responsible was no bigger than a munchkin or a frog. The feeling of being on a remote place is so much stronger when you are on a patch of land that is only accessible by boat and is surrounded by thick forest. It was simply wonderful.

Day 2

The first thing we did in the morning was find our bear hang, and take it down. We took our canoe paddles in case there were some unwanted visitors that were scouting the site. Afterwards we cooked a breakfast consisting of bagels with bacon and eggs. For the second time in row, the weather was not great which was quite a shame!

After our first portage we reached Kooy Pond and things got a little bit hectic. The water was really low so we had a hard time orienting ourselves on the map. As we did not see a clear way to get around this by foot, we decided to take a risk and to paddle through it. The first part went well, but after a while we were paddling in a thick mud bath. Every stroke took a lot of energy and we tried to push ourselves forward on the dead logs that were lying in the water. Eventually we got completely stuck. Luckily there was a log close by which we could walk on and get on somewhat harder soil. We could drag our boat out of the water. At this time we were still standing in the middle of a swampy area with a lot of heavy gear on our backs. We tried to find a solid route to the start of the next portage, but Lise had a misstep and she got knee-deep in the mud. Luckily she had her paddle with her which she used to prevent her from sinking in further. Once I realised what was happened I dropped all my gear and helped her out. As there was no clear water in sight, we decided to first do the portage. The next lake was clear, and she could change clothes and wash up. Whew! This was an exciting moment!

The next part of the day, the weather got worse so it was continuously raining a bit. Most of the portages we could do on in one go, so we were going quite fast. There were 2 other guys who did the same route as us today. They were better paddlers than us but they brought A LOT of stuff with them. Almost at every portage we crossed them again as they always had to them in 2 runs.

When we finally arrived at Burnt Island Lake, we were extremely tired. It had been an exhausting day! The plan was to take the first free campsite we encountered and call it a day. This was not easy as it seemed like a lot of people coming to Algonquin either reserve one campsite for the entire trip, or arrive really early. At the time we were there, all campsites were taken! The wind started getting stronger and our boat started shaking more and more. We tried hitting the waves as straight as possible to avoid tipping over. The lake was completely empty, not a canoe on there except for us. This was not a good sign! We paddled further and further but all campsites were taken. We did see one at the other site of the lake that might have been free, but it was a looong way to get there. Finally we reached a small island at the end of the lake. Wow! A free campsite. We took our boat out of the water and started pulling out all our gear. Lise started scouting the area. Oh no! We didn’t look very good, there was an other group of people there. Because we were quite desperate we decided if we could stay with them on the same campsite. It was two guys probably well in their sixties. They laughed a little and told us they definitely didn’t mind so we deployed and set up camp.

When the old guys saw us doing our bear hang they came towards us and laughed a little. “We don’t go that far in the woods to hang that”, they said. “This time we found a really great tree, unfortunately it was next to our tent”. When I looked at their camp I saw that their food was hanging directly above their tent! Luckily we were on a small island and we did not expect to see any bears tonight because that seemed like trouble! The disadvantage of not having found our own spot, was that we did not have a fire pit. As the old guys did not make any fire and went to bed fairly early, we decided to do the same.

Day 3

On the last day we finally got the weather we were hoping for! We got up early and the view was fantastic. Clear skies! There was a fog hanging over the water which was really awesome to paddle through.

At some points, the water was insanely blue!

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Originally, we had to do three portages, but we were lucky and the water was high enough so we only had to do two. Nice!

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Just before our last portage we found a really great camp site at Joe lake, we decided to have lunch here.

awesome camp spot in sight
awesome camp spot in sight

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The last portage was the same one as we already did on the first day. Just before doing it we tapped the bridge again with our paddle for luck. Afterwards we paddled back to the acces point and our paddling trip was over. Much more exhausting than we initially thought it would be, but it was a great experience! Time for some food and beers!

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