Map is courtesy of Jeff's Maps -- my route is marked in blue.
Here is some footage from the trip.
It was the third weekend in June, 2020. We all had a lockdown hangover. Ontario Parks had re-opened the parks at the beginning of June and it was my third solo weekend trip in a row! I guess not getting out in April or May made me want to get out as much as I could. What can I say, I'm a wilderness junkie.
On Friday after work, I headed north to Huntsville, then checked in at the Algonquin Park office in Kearney, made my way east up the logging road and pulled up to the put-in on Magnetawan Lake by early evening. I was concerned when I saw the number of cars in the parking lot. I struggled to find a space to park my vehicle. It was going to be busy; however, the weather was hot, the sun was shining and I was excited to get out on the water.
Out on Magnetawan Lake, I took notice of the crystal, clear water. It was beautiful. This western end of Algonquin is the height-of-land of the Algonquin dome, and the lakes that I was about to paddle are the headwaters for two of Southern Ontario's major rivers -- the Magnetawan River, flowing west to Georgian Bay, and the Petawawa River, flowing east to the Ottawa River. I felt like it was a watershed moment. (sorry, I couldn't resist!)
I had only been on Magnetawan Lake for a few minutes before I was taking out on the short portage into Hambone Lake. Thankfully, no one else was on the water or portage, and I made quick work of it. Putting in on Hambone, I was ecstatic to be on this beautiful chain of lakes.
There are three sites on Hambone and they were all occupied. This fact, and all the cars in the parking lot, forewarned me that I may have trouble finding sites on this trip. I made my way east across the lake and paddled south. The creek to Acme Pond was clear and I easily paddled it, skipping the 55m portage - no liftovers necessary.
Acme Pond was small, as expected, but quiet and serene.
The 420m portage to Daisy Lake was well-groomed and, again, I had it all to myself. It started with a bit of an ascent and then followed the creek to the left and a high ridge on the right. At the end, it veered left, down a slope and into a marshy area below a beaver dam, where I discovered a nice little dock at the put-in.
Daisy Lake was gorgeous, and that seemed to be a well-known fact. It was a popular choice among campers on that particular weekend.
Paddling into the bay at the northwestern corner of the lake, I could immediately hear the people camping on the site close to the portage to Casey Lake. They were swimming and hollering loudly as they were crashing into the lake. Their voices carried all over the lake. The site immediately to the east, which my map showed was attached to theirs, was empty, but in no way did I want to stay on a site connected to campers who were that loud. So, I made my way around the headland and moved east in the hope that another site on the lake would be vacant.
The two sites on the large island that dominated the centre of the lake were both occupied. The site across from the island on the north shore was vacant, but it seemed a bit dark and bushy from the water. So, I paddled past the island to check out the two sites near the portage to Ralph Bice Lake. They, too, had been taken. The one closest to the portage was occupied by a massive group of people. There had to have been 15 to 20 people, including children, on the site. They were speaking loudly in what seemed like an eastern European language. There were a number of boats on the shore. If they were from another country, I wondered if they knew they were over the limit with the number of people on a site.
So, I reluctantly went back the way I came and set up on the still-vacant campsite across from the island. It was a good thing, too, because shortly after, another group came up the lake looking for a site. The only other one left was the one attached to the loud people (whom I heard hooting and hollering for most of the night). The site I thought was bushy and dark was actually quite nice when I got on it for a closer inspection. It had large sloping rock with a great view of the island and bay behind it. I set up my hammock, cooked up my dinner, and had a fantastic evening. The bugs weren't even that bad for the third week of June!
I woke up at the crack of dawn. I'm normally one of those people that can't go back to sleep once I'm up, but I must have been tired on that particular morning, because I simply couldn't bring myself to get out of my hammock. I read for a bit and then drifted off again. It was glorious.
I finally got my sorry carcass up and out of the hammock shortly after nine. After a quick coffee that was made on my brand new camp stove (the former one went kaput on the Barron River trip, the week prior), I rigged up my fishing rod and fished the entire bay. I had absolutely no luck for an hour, not even a nibble, and then caught a nice, eating-sized lake trout within casting distance of my site. It was my last attempt; I was about to give up when I saw the trout emerge from the lake's depths and take my Little Cleo. That's fishing for ya!
I quickly packed up camp, filleted my trout and fried it up with a pre-made sriracha and lime batter that I had brought along. A yummy, spicy breakfast!
While having my breakfast, two paddlers in a canoe, heading east, passed my site. I heard them coming from way up the lake, because they were actually playing rock music loudly on a speaker of some sorts! I just stood there dumbfounded as they paddled past. What was going on with people on Daisy Lake?! I simply don't understand why anyone would want to go to Algonquin and make a bunch of noise. Isn't escaping the noise of home one of the reasons for heading into the wilderness? Does one really need an obnoxious soundtrack to paddle to? Is there no consideration for anyone else who may be on the lake? Hey, and while you're at it, get off my lawn! (Cue the sound of pumping a shotgun.) On the bright side, the music wasn't Justin Bieber.
I waited a bit before departing the site. The rock star groupies were going in the same direction and I did not want to follow them within earshot. With any luck, perhaps a bear would eat them and have their speaker for dessert.
Eventually, I made my way east across Daisy Lake for the second time. The massive group looked like they were staying put for the day. I paddled to the east end of Daisy Lake to the short portage that bypasses a small chute that is the start of the famous Petawawa River.
Though the Petawawa becomes mighty downstream at the other end of the park with its raging rapids, up near its headwaters, it is little more than a trickling wetland.
It seemed for the longest time that I had the river to myself. It was nice. As all the footprints on the banks of the river would indicate, this was prime moose territory. I paddled quietly in the hope of spotting one, but knew my chances were slim. The day was a scorcher. The forecast was for 32 degrees, 38 factoring in the humidex. A smart moose would be under the canopy of a forest on a day like that.
It was fantastic to be out there all alone and enjoying the wilderness. I meandered through this pretty wetland for a bit and came upon the 450m portage. At the take-out, it didn't appear that the portage bypassed anything substantial. I got it in my head that I could possibly line, wade or lift over any possible obstacle, so I cruised past the take-out. Well, after a few liftovers in a boulder garden, the river went around a bend and entered a forested area. There, it went down a waterfall and had steep, rocky banks on both sides, making it impossible to line or wade. So, I paddled back, over the boulders, upstream to the portage. I guess portages exist for a reason!
That was not the only error I made there. After the portage bypassed the chute that I had paddled up to, it met up with the river again. I thought this was the put-in, so I loaded everything back in the boat and proceeded downstream. Well, again it got super boney and I came to yet another small series of chutes.
I realized that I got off the portage too early. So, once again, I paddled back upstream to meet up with the portage, take out once again, and this time finished the entire portage. At the put-in, I was almost afraid to put my gear back in the canoe! I double-checked that I was actually at the end of the portage for real. I had turned a straightforward 450m carry into a lot of work on a super hot day and I was feeling it. For the umpteenth time, I learned that there isn't an easy way out on a canoe trip!
About halfway between the portage and Little Misty Lake, I had to liftover a large beaver dam. There, I passed a pair of young ladies in a canoe doing the loop in reverse as a daytrip from Ralph Bice Lake. They asked about the river upstream and I warned them not to get off the portage too early as I did. At least my mistakes can help others!
The river widened as it approached Little Misty and I had to veer to the right to get through an area choked with weeds and lily pads. Little Misty had one vacant campsite just to the left of the portage to Queer Lake and it didn't really look all that great.
By the time I got to the take-out, I was drenched in sweat and had ploughed through all of my water. I definitely required replenishment before tackling that 2500m beast. I got my gravity water filter going and made myself a salami and cheese wrap. Someone's food barrel and paddles were at the take-out, indicating that I would not be alone on the carry. I met up with the barrel's owner, a young solo tripper, at the halfway point where I left my canoe bag to go back for my second load. We chatted as we walked back to Little Misty Lake together, exchanging trip information and advice. There was a fellow who was as crazy about canoe tripping as I was!
Saying goodbye to my new friend (he was heading to Daisy), I finished the portage alone. All told, it wasn't too bad considering its length. There was only one really steep bit at the beginning, coming up from Little Misty. The path was well-used and there weren't any major obstacles other than a few large logs to step over near the Queer Lake end of the portage.
I was ecstatic to be loading my gear into the canoe at Queer Lake. I was absolutely spent from the long portage in extreme heat. I had booked this lake for the night and it looked gorgeous. With 13 sites marked on the map, there had to be at least one decent site that was available, right? Well, there was one nice vacant site on the western shore. The only problem was that it was immediately across the narrows from yet another large group of 20-somethings. It was about 5 pm and they seemed quite drunk already. Young ladies were screeching while boys were throwing them into the lake off the rocks. Was I in the backcountry or on Lake Muskoka? No way was I staying there! They were only about 200 metres away from my site.
So, looking at the map, I thought I would take my chances with one of the 11 sites on Little Trout Lake. It was only a short portage away and even though I wasn't booked on that lake, by the time I would be at a site, it would be well after 6pm and very likely I wouldn't be taking anyone's booked site from them at that late hour. Besides, I knew that the Algonquin booking system always kept one site per lake open in case of emergencies; for me, being forced to camp beside a live beer commercial was an emergency.
I paddled the entire length of Little Trout Lake only to find that every single site was occupied except for the very last one close to the portage into Bice. It was on a forested bluff that separated the southwestern back bay from the main part of the lake. The lake access was a steep drop into a shallow area full of rocks and mud. To top it off, it was as buggy as $#@%. I had to take it though. It was after 7pm, and I simply had no time or energy left to do the 435m portage and paddle around a massive lake like Ralph Bice, looking for an available site. I wasn't a happy camper. Thus far, my trip had been quite affected by inconsiderate, loud groups of party people and it had been a tough day in extreme heat. In my grumpiness, I had completely forgotten to take any photos of Queer and Little Trout Lakes -- two beautiful waterbodies.
I felt a lot better after setting up camp and eating dinner, albeit still exhausted. I didn't even bother setting up my bug shelter; I crawled into the hammock and was asleep before it even got dark.
I woke up at the crack of dawn again. This time I got up and moving, and despite the hordes of blackflies, I was in a great mood. It's amazing what a good night's sleep can do. The weather looked incredible again and I wanted to get out and on the water before the crowds. Besides, it was Father's Day and I had plans with my family. I wanted to be home by early afternoon.
The portage from Little Trout to Bice was easy and straightforward. It was a direct, wide corridor. Once out on the eastern back bay of Ralph Bice Lake, the sun began to climb above the treeline and was burning off the mist of the lake. I was alone and it was a beautiful moment. Even better, trout were breaching the surface. Despite wanting to get to the parking lot before the crowds and get back home for Father's Day, I simply couldn't resist the urge to get into another trout. I fished for a good half-hour, and did manage to get a couple of strikes, but failed to land another trout. I enjoyed it immensely though.
Paddling out of the back bay and into the main part of the lake, my jaw dropped. I understood why this gorgeous lake was Ralph Bice's favorite in the park and was eventually named after him. The eastern part of the lake was particularly nice. The large island and points lend themselves nicely to sporting campsites. Consistent with what I had witnessed thus far on the trip, every site seemed to be occupied. What made it even more spectacular was that the wind hadn't kicked up yet and the lake was like glass.
I paddled west along the southern shore and fished here and there along the way. By this time, a number of canoes were out on the water and many people were fishing. Everyone I greeted was saying that they weren't having any luck in the fishing department. With the number of people camping on this lake, was it getting fished out? I did manage to get a strike at the base of some beautiful cliffs about halfway up the lake, but the hook didn't set, unfortunately.
As I was getting close to the southwestern end of the lake, the wind began to whip up. By the time I reached the end, it was a strong force. I had beat it just in the nick of time.
The portage into Hambone was easy, wide and flat. On my second carry, I shared it with a couple of fellows who had come in behind me. They said they couldn't understand how I was able to solo-paddle against the wind so quickly. This comment, along with how much gear they had, including large coolers, led me to believe that they were fairly inexperienced at backcountry canoeing. They were dreading this short 300m portage. When I told them that I had done a 2435m portage the day before, they looked at me as if I had just teleported in from another planet. There seemed to be a lot of inexperienced canoe trippers out in Algonquin that weekend.
The wind wasn't too bad on Hambone, as it is a much smaller lake than Bice. At the portage into Magnetawan, I had to wait in my canoe a bit to take out because a young couple were taking up the entire area with their canoe and gear. I had nowhere to land my canoe at the portage. When they finally got all of their gear in their boat, they stopped to take a number of photos, completely oblivious to the fact that I had been waiting in my canoe for them to move all of their gear. I had no qualms about moving into their photo shot to take out by that point.
At the Magnetawan access take-out, I ran into that massive group that I saw on Daisy Lake. They were taking out on the dock. I stared in disbelief as a few of them were paddling an aluminum fishing boat (yes, you read that correctly...an aluminum fishing boat) up to the dock. Somehow, I had missed that when I had paddled past their campsite two days earlier. As they were unloading the very many items from this thing, my jaw dropped further when they pulled a canoe cart out. The use of canoe carts is prohibited in Algonquin because they rip up the portages. I chatted a bit with them and politely tried to inform them of this fact, but they didn't seem to care. In fact, in our short conversation, the man complained that Algonquin wasn't like camping in his home country of Romania and that the bears in Ontario were too mild. Apparently they aren't strong and aggressive like the ones in the Carpathian mountains. Sweet Jesus!
This is the 17th trip report that I have written for this blog. As you are reading this, you might be thinking, "Geez, this guy complains a lot about other campers." I realize that I have done a lot of that in this report, but I simply could not believe what I had witnessed on this trip. I don't claim to be an expert backcountry canoeist, nor do I think that I should have the backcountry all to myself. In fact, I enjoy sharing the many mistakes and mishaps that occur during my trips; that's all a part of the fun. I believe that everyone should get out and enjoy the backcounty. It's beautiful and has an instant therapeutic effect. It is good for the soul. That is one of the reasons I spend the time to write this blog. I want to encourage people to try it and share my knowledge of doing the routes that I've done. BUT, I do try to practice low impact camping and maintain backcountry etiquette by being quiet on a busy lake, trying to leave the campsite in equal or better condition than how I found it and moving my canoe and gear off to the side on portages. At the very least, everyone should respect the rules of the parks, not bring in canoe carts and not have more than the limit of people allowed on a site.
I guess it was the perfect storm. People had been cooped up since early March, car camping at provincial parks was still under covid-lockdown, and it was the first really hot, nice weekend at the start of summer. People who normally might not get into the backcountry were doing so, and it really showed. So, if you are fairly new to canoe tripping, please keep in mind that you are sharing the space with others. As vast and remote as that space might feel, your actions have an impact. And if you want to party, stay in the backyard or wait until you can do so at a frontcountry camping site. I enjoy partying as much as the next guy (those that know me well, would laugh at that understatement); the backcountry is just not the place for it.
I wasn't the only one who felt this way on that weekend. Sean Rowley and Derek Specht, the hosts of a popular paddling podcast called "Paddling Adventures Radio" also discussed this issue in episode 228 of their podcast series. Coincidentally, Sean was out on Bice Lake on the same weekend, and shared that he had simlar issues on his trip. Give it a listen by clicking on the button below. Subscribe to it if you are an avid canoe tripper. It's a mandatory listen for me on my commute to work every Thursday morning.
Despite the negative experiences with loud and inconsiderate campers, I enjoyed a number of aspects on this trip. I thought about them as I was driving home to spend Father's Day with my wife and teenage daughters. The lakes were amazingly scenic and I got to taste a trout from the headwaters of the Magnetawan and Petawawa Rivers. I thought about those things again, when my daughter, Erin, handed me her lovely artwork in a Father's Day card.
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