The northern entrances to Algonquin Provincial Park are less accessible than those along the highway 60 corridor. This makes them a much longer drive from the densely populated areas of Southern Ontario, but it also decreases the number of people that are encountered on a trip through this part of the park. I wanted to plan a longer canoe trip than I've attempted in the past, and travel further than I had before, so the northern part of the park seemed like an ideal starting point. I decided to tear yet another page out of Kevin Callan's "A Paddler's Guide" series of books and attempt the Hogan Lake Loop leaving from the Brent access point. I added a couple of down days to make the trip more enjoyable and give us some time to explore.
Day 1: Arrival
We spent the first night at the Brent campground to have time to settle our canoe rental and get an early start. Brent is an abandoned railway town populated by a small but eclectic group of people left after the rails were pulled up. It is also home to a very active black fly population.
Complaining about the bugs while on a camping trip to Algonquin Park is a bit like visiting the South Pole and complaining about the cold, but I have to say something because I was so shocked by their ferocity. I had been lulled into a false sense of security after the dry summer we had last year, and reports from a co-worker that bug season would be over in the park by July 1st. Of course his report was based on the aberrant weather from last summer as well. This year the bugs were still going strong when we arrived. It was mostly black flies in the town of Brent, and hordes of mosquitoes in the woods. About the fifth or sixth day of our trip it was as if a switch was thrown and the park realized that summer had started. Overnight the berries on the bushes started to turn from green to blue and the bugs eased off considerably.
The most surprising thing about the bugs was how active they were in the daytime. I'm used to having to take cover at night, but usually the sun chases the parasites away. The locals in Brent have achieved a Zen like peace with the bugs, and can placidly ignore them even when in the midst of a swarm. They gave us odd looks as we waved our arms and swatted vainly at the flying pests.
I had been following Kevin Callan's progress on his twenty day tour of the park using his satellite beacon, and by some strange coincidence Ontario's most enthusiastic paddling advocate had arrived in Brent hours ahead of us. He was apparently relaxing by the dock at the outfitters, but we didn't see him. Kevin has been a fixture on many of my canoe trips thanks to his guides, and we've thrown many a colourful phrase in his direction in the heat of the moment. It would have been fun to meet him and Andy in Brent, but they were on vacation as well so we didn't seek them out and disturb their trip.
Obtaining firewood in Brent is a bit tricky, but once we found the ranger he sorted us out with some dry wood and kindling to make a bit of 'smudge' as proof against the flies and cook our dinner. Smudge or not we ate inside of our bug shelter and fled into our tents as soon as the sun was down.
Day 2: I Lost My Thrill On Unicorn Hill
We had hoped to get an early start our first day to beat potential winds on Cedar Lake. 11AM is early for us, but not particularly good for beating the weather, so we were lucky that the wind wasn't up. The first day of the trip from Cedar Lake to Catfish Lake is the hardest, dominated by the 2.3Km portage around the Stacks Rapids. The high point of the portage is labelled "Unicorn Hill" on our map, and marks the peak of the climb along the banks of the Petawawa River as it drops into Cedar Lake.
When we got to the first portage I tried to pick up the canoe while wearing my pack just to see if I could handle both. While I had no intention of doing single carries for all portages, I had a heavier pack than I've ever carried, and was wondering if I could even lift both. The canoe went flying when I tried to pick it up as if it had hit a barrier. I tried again, and it bounced off again. I finally realized that my canoe pack was so overloaded and the top was sticking up so high that there was no room for the canoe on my shoulders. Probably for the best.
There's a lookout part way along the portage that let's you see a pretty waterfall where the river drops most of the distance down to Cedar Lake. The rest of the length of the portage parallels an impressive rapids. One of the advantages of travelling upstream is that you can scout out the take out points and the rapids before putting the canoe in the water which reduces the risk of being accidentally swept into white water.
The second portage is much shorter than the first, but it climbs over an even more impressive (and beautiful) water fall. The falls are visible from the take-out point for the portage. Several day trippers had left their canoes at the take-out blocking the portage while they walked to the other end, so we had some difficulty unloading our packs, but after that it was a fairly easy walk to the top. When you put in at the top of the falls it's essential that you turn right and not left!
After an easy paddle up the river we came to the Stacks Rapids and the big portage of the day. The portage is a fairly easy trail and isn't particularly rugged, but it heads steadily uphill for about a kilometre before dropping slightly for the second half. It wanders pretty far into the bush so there's very little view of the rapids as you ascend, which is a shame, because they're quite impressive looking.
We didn't want to get too spread out, so we decided to do short stages to break up the length. My pack wasn't the only one that was overloaded, and when we stopped for our first break I took Sherri's pack after going back for the canoe. Each time I thought I was near the top of the hill I'd turn another corner and it would get steeper. I lost count of my trips back and forth (and forgot my GPSr for one short trip back) but I must have covered most portions of the portage five times, which lengthened it to almost 10Km!
I was winded by the time I got both packs and the canoe to the peak, but it was as I went down the other side that I began to feel an unfamiliar grinding in my right hip. Even though we were coming down the hill now I needed almost as many rest stops as on the way up, and my hip was getting worse as I went. I was fine while carrying the canoe, but my pack was obviously too heavy. Sherri took her pack back for part of the way down which provided some relief, but it was definitely not easy going.
At one point we stopped for a breather and Sherri stepped off the trail. We heard a loud squealing like a dog's chew toy. Sherri jumped, and a tiny little rabbit hopped out of the branches she was standing on and ran across the trail. The poor thing was terrified, but appeared unharmed despite having been stepped on.
Like all portages this one eventually ended. The bugs were so bad on the portage that I had been wearing a long sleeved shirt intended for cool nights around the campfire and not the heat of the day. We each had a cloud of mosquitoes circling our heads, so we didn't stop to rest when we got the end, we just paddled across a pool in the river and then enjoyed a mercifully short 170m portage to Narrowbag Lake. The Narrowbag portage is a bit steep, but otherwise easy, and the hill is crowned with the remains of an old rail line, now just a trail.
Narrowbag was our first chance to relax after the big portage and get out of the bugs. The sun had finally come out, and it was turning into a nice day. I spotted an odd looking bird on a rock as we paddled around a bend in the lake. I was trying to figure out what kind of bird it was when Xander exclaimed, "Look, a moose!". What I had thought was a bird was the head of the moose and I mistook his body for a rock. The moose was grazing in the reeds of the marsh and was quite comfortable with us paddling fairly close for a good look.
Getting excited about a moose sighting in Algonquin is almost as silly as complaining about the mosquitoes, but despite numerous backcountry canoe trips and hikes I've never met a moose in the wild, so I had really been hoping that we'd do so on this trip. We took several pictures of the moose and she didn't wander off until after we had turned around and paddled away.
The far end of Narrowbag Lake has a very short portage around a small swift that contains the remains of an old log chute. When we pushed the second canoe into the water we were going across the current and the flow hitting us broadside made it hard to turn. By the time we had ourselves perpendicular to the flow we were on the far side of the stream and had been pushed right to the top of the chute. Despite our paddling we were still slipping back slowly so I yelled out "Harder!" and we finally broke free after giving it the last of our energy.
The batteries in my GPSr died as we paddled down the north end of Catfish Lake. I knew that there was an island campsite nearby, but I wasn't sure which island. We were close enough that I didn't bother to dig the batteries or the map out of my pack, and we found the site easily enough.
We were so tired after the day of portaging that I was considering not gathering wood for a fire, but then I remembered that our first night's dinner was frozen steak which would cook much better over a fire than on the stove. I needn't have worried. Not only did the island have a large pile of firewood ready for us, we realized that we'd forgotten all of our frozen food in the car when we packed that morning! This was a bit of a blow because we were missing two dinners and part of one breakfast. We considered cutting the trip short, but managed to make do by cannibalizing other meals. If anything we still had a bit more food than we needed, but by the end of the trip we only had a small emergency supply thanks to some hearty eating.
Our island campsite wasn't nearly as buggy as the woods surrounding the portages, but we definitely needed to scurry into our tents after sunset, and there were times during the day where the bugs would drive us into the shelter for our meals. But by the end of the trip we were getting used to cooking, eating and reading while mosquitoes and black flies swarmed all around us.
Day 3: The Alligator
We were pretty exhausted and very sore on Canada Day so we didn't move very quickly. We decided to postpone the easy trip to Burntroot Lake and take our down day on Catfish instead to recover.
There's an abandoned Alligator Tug on an island at the north end of Catfish Lake, right next to the island where we were camped making it an easy excursion for a tired day. An Alligator is a highly improbable steam powered boat equipped with a donkey (winch). The Alligator's purpose was to tow logging booms across remote lakes. The feature that elevates the donkey from being merely a quaint antique to blissful ridiculousness in my mind is it's ability to winch itself across the land using it's donkey. Essentially it was an amphibious vehicle with an incredibly inefficient means of overland locomotion. The Alligator was one of the few powered vehicles of its era smaller than a locomotive that could reach the remote lakes of the Canadian north.
We had been cautioned that the Alligator on Catfish Lake wasn't nearly as well preserved as the one on Burntroot Lake, so I was relieved to discover that even though all of the wood structure has rotted away, most of the mechanical components appear to be intact. One of my other hobbies is machining and I have a fondness for steam technology, so I was more interested in the 'naked' Alligator than the wooden superstructure anyway. I'm still disappointed that we didn't get to see the more complete Alligator on Burntroot Lake, but I really enjoyed taking pictures of the mechanical works of the one on Catfish and trying to reconstruct it mentally.
Days 4 - 7: Exploring Catfish
We spent the remainder of our days on Catfish Lake exploring. We visited Turtle Rock where natives used to worship, and searched for the remains of an old Ranger Cabin on the shore near our campsite (we couldn't find the cabin remains, it's apparently very hard to spot). We paddled to the south end of the lake where the portage around the Catfish Rapids begins the trip to Burntroot and we headed part way up the winding channel through the reeds that leads to Sunfish Lake and the portage to Hogan Lake. The passage between Sunfish and Catfish Lakes was the only reason we attempted this trip so early in the season. Normally I would have scheduled later to avoid the bugs, but the channel gets clogged with vegetation later in the summer and I didn't want to risk it being blocked.
We saw another moose while paddling the marshy channel to Lynx Lake, but she was shier than the one we encountered on Narrowbag Lake and fled into the woods soon after Xander spotted her. We also spotted a loon on her nest protecting her hatchlings, and saw the great blue heron that nests near our campsite many times.
Despite some pretty dire weather warnings before we set out it only rained once for about an hour during the whole trip, and we were well prepared when it came down so we didn't even get wet. Early on the days were pretty gloomy, but towards the end we had beautiful weather, and every day of the trip had at least some sunshine.
Day 8: The Return
By the time we were ready to leave we'd lightened our packs by almost thirty pounds thanks to eating most of the food. This allowed us to repack in a much more humane way for the return trip. As usual we got on the water later than planned. We hadn't thought to set an alarm since I'd woken early every day of the trip, but Saturday morning we all slept in until 8AM, and by the time we made breakfast, broke camp, and got on the water it was 11AM.
Saturday was a spectacular day, and the bugs were almost non-existent which made the portages more bearable if not easier. We reversed our route from the first day, and it didn't take long to reach the start of the Unicorn Hill portage. The trail climbs in this direction as well, but it isn't nearly as steep as when we came in. I was able to carry my pack and then the canoe to the top in one go each without a break. Going down the other side was even easier, but I was starting to get tired near the end with the canoe. Since all of our packs were lighter Sherri was able to carry her pack across all of the portages so we only ended up doing a double carry in two stages and this time it took us an hour and a half instead of three and a half hours to complete the portage.
We stopped at the end of the portage to eat and refill our water bottles before paddling down the river to the first waterfall. The wind was at our backs so we made good time without much effort. We were pretty cautious looking for the take-out because we didn't want to get swept over the falls if we missed the portage. The falls are tall, and the take-out is very close to the edge.
We had just unloaded the gear when we realized that we'd left the camera monopod that Sherri had been using as a hiking pole at the last portage. I debated just leaving it, but Sherri and I decided to paddle back while Xander carried all the gear down the short portage alone. This time we were going against the wind and it was much tougher going. We had to paddle pretty hard, and the detour cost us over an hour. We only stopped long enough to grab the monopod before drifting back downwind to the falls. That was perhaps a mistake because later in the day we realized that we'd also misplaced a small fanny pack and it may have been left at the same portage. There wasn't much in it, but still, who wants to litter?
The scenery changes dramatically after the large waterfall, becoming less rugged and rocky, but it was such a beautiful time of day that it was still spectacular. The sun was getting low and casting the golden light so valued by photographers on the green hills.
I tried a single carry for the last portage since it was downhill and I hadn't done one yet this trip (Xander did a few on the way back). I had meant to stop and look at the rapids again on the way by, but they were too close to the start of the trail so I decided to do the whole thing in one go and then double back. The weight of the canoe really made the straps of my pack bite into my shoulders, and by the end of the 700m I could feel the extra weight on my spine and hips. But I wasn't as wrecked as I had been a week before!
Paddling across Cedar Lake in the setting sun was a great way to end the trip. The wind was coming from the west, so it didn't really help or hinder us, but I gave the wrong directions to Xander which forced him to take a detour against the wind.
We chatted with the friendly locals in Brent as we loaded our gear back onto the car, and then began the drive back to North Bay at dusk. We spotted a moose (almost hit him actually) on the drive out, and possibly a bear.
Days 3 - 7 Revisited: The Mental Journey
If you've read this far and are paying attention you'll notice that we never reached Hogan Lake, our intended destination. We didn't even make it to Burntroot Lake. In a way this was the hardest part of the trip for me. After our first day of rest on Catfish our muscles were well on the way to recovery, but we were still exhausted. We needed to replenish our energy before continuing.
We had a small window if we wanted to make Hogan Lake since we only had two extra days on our schedule for the trip, and every day we delayed at Catfish meant more days that we'd have to do consecutively before returning. The trip to Burntroot isn't particularly hard, and from there to Hogan is even easier. But the return trip from Hogan to Catfish has two long portages and I was worried about doing them the day before the long return trip from Catfish over Unicorn Hill.
Every morning we'd discuss ways to alter the trip so that we could continue, and every night I'd lie awake desperate to continue on, but not wanting to push ourselves too hard and ruin the trip. When you only have time for two good trips per year it's frustrating to see one go up in smoke. And if I couldn't bring myself to finish this trip now that we'd already done the hard part, who was I kidding thinking I could come back and try the whole thing again?
But I think what really made me lose my nerve was the grinding I'd felt in my hip as we descended Unicorn Hill. A bad hip could put an end to all trips, not just this one, and that made me think that we were overmatched (and I was over the hill). A group portage isn't like a chain. If the weakest link in the group can't handle the load the work can be redistributed and the others can compensate. But if the strongest person fails then the group can't go on. Since I'd brought us all out here I was responsible for getting us back.
In retrospect I think that we could have done the whole trip, but it would have pushed our group right to our limits. There wasn't much enthusiasm for continuing on from Catfish, and it's probably best that we didn't. I had wanted to go on a more relaxed camping trip with the family sometime, and that's what this became. As nice as Catfish Lake is, it isn't really ideal for such a trip. It is wilderness, and it is remote, but it's also one of the main entry points to the north part of the park, so several groups of paddlers a day would pass by our island. The amount of effort we put in to get there didn't relate directly to the isolation that we experienced. If we were just planning a family camping trip we could have easily gone to a more accessible area closer to home.
This trip has caused me to doubt my limits, and I'll certainly consider it when planning trips in the future. I don't want to be responsible for an accident, and I also don't like deviating from our planned schedule in a busy park, since it's not respectful of the other users. I had checked with the park office before we headed out and knew that there were available sites on all of the lakes we were going to cross, but there could have been late bookings or other trippers experiencing delays.
I struggled with keeping my spirits up. I was crushed about the trip we weren't having, but I wanted to enjoy the one we were. Despite some dark thoughts and self doubt I did manage to appreciate that we were almost alone in a beautiful spot, experiencing great weather. Other than the bugs it was a Canadian paradise. We also succeeded in one of our goals which was to plan and manage a longer camping trip. The camping portion of the trip went off almost effortlessly despite some glitches thanks to good planning and preparation and we were quite comfortable. If anything perhaps we were too comfortable and that's why our gear overwhelmed us on the portages. It was a lovely week in the wilderness even if it wasn't the week that we planned.
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