Barron River/Canyon - Grand Lake - 3 Days

Total Distance: 31 km

Duration:  3 days

No. of Portages: 18

Total Port. Distance:  6 km

Level of Difficulty: Moderate if day tripping from St. Andrew's Lake due to the number of portages

 

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Map is courtesy of Jeff's Maps -- my route is marked in blue.

Paddling through the Barron Canyon is one of those canoe trips that is on everyone's bucket list due to the sheer natural wonder that it is. Despite its distance from the GTA area (about a 6-hour drive), it is a very popular area of Algonquin Park and can be quite difficult to book during the summer months. For those Tom Thomson fans, the area was a backdrop for many of his works and only adds to the area's allure. He spent the summer of 1916 in Achray, working as a fire ranger. Thomson's 'The Jack Pine' was painted on a point, just a 15-minute paddle or a 1.5 km hike from Achray campground, on Grand Lake. 

 

So, all by my lonesome, I decided to investigate the area over a weekend at the height of bug season. I knew it would be easier to book at this time, and since I was planning to base camp and do a day trip down the Barron River to the canyon, water levels would still be high, making river travel a little easier. 

 

Day 1

On the second weekend in June after the parks opened up after the Covid-19 closures, I left Peterborough in the mid-afternoon on the Friday. I made excellent time to the park and was pulling up to Achray campground on Grand Lake shortly after 6 pm. There were three other parties putting in. Everyone was talking about the weather because the forecast was predicting a 40% chance of storms and the winds were up. It was indeed gloomy on Grand Lake. 

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Grand Lake is big, and as I got out into the center of the lake, there was a strong wind blowing down the lake from the northeast. Being in the southwest part of the lake, it was pushing me into the campsites along the southern shore. I made my way around the point, grateful for its protection and calmer waters. Here I could take stock of the pretty landscape of the Barron River that connects Grand and Stratton Lakes. 

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In a matter of minutes I was at the dam between the two lakes and was portaging past it. Actually it is little more than a liftover, really. 

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After another few minutes I passed under an old railway bridge and was paddling out into Stratton Lake. This old railway was an important link in the development of this eastern section of the park, which wasn't added to Algonquin until 1914. Campers and canoists began coming here by rail the following year, and until 1963 when a road was finally built to Achray, the train was the only way in.  

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Getting into Stratton and out in the open again, the conditions got nasty. I didn't so much as paddle down Stratton as surf it. Normally, I'm very pleased to have a tailwind to help me along, but this was ridiculous. I literally rode sizeable whitecaps for the majority of the distance of Stratton Lake. The tricky bit of doing this is when the canoe sinks into the trough of each wave. I was legitimately concerned about capsizing. For this reason, I stayed very close to the southern shore. The wind only seemed to get worse the further along the lake I went and the rain started coming in spurts. I was relieved and happy to reach the end of the lake and paddle past the occupied site on the point next to the river. A short, 2-minute paddle on the river brought me to the short portage to the left of some boney rapids and into St. Andrews Lake.

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Protected by trees and staying close to the northern shore, the wind on St. Andrews was much more manageable. St. Andrews is a pretty lake and most of the sites close to the portage were occupied. I was hoping to get a site closer to High Falls Lake,anyway, to shorten my day trip on the following day, but I was also hoping it wouldn't be too bushy at this time of year. Bushy sites means bugs. I was extremely pleased to find the site across from the portage to Marie Lake on the northeastern arm of the lake vacant. It was on a rocky point that jutted out into the lake, had a nice mix of tree cover and open skies, and had a gorgeous view of the cliffs across the lake. Best of all, it had enough exposure to the wind on the lake to blow many of the bugs away. Expecting the worst though, I put up the bug shelter, but was happy to say that I never had to use it over the weekend. 

 

As the evening turned into night, there were sporadic periods of drizzle, but not really enough to send me undercover. The temperature dropped consderably though and by nightfall, it was cold enough to see my breath. Cooking dinner over the open fire, I felt cozy sitting next to the fire for a couple of hours, enjoying a sip of whiskey or two. Not long after dark, I called it a night and retired to the tent knowing I had a big day ahead of me.   

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Day 2

Waking up the next morning, I saw that it had rained steadily most of the night because everything was quite wet. I hadn't noticed because I think my canoe may have moved more than I did during the night. I had slept like a corpse. 

 

After retrieving my barrel from the lofty heights of the trees, I took out my stove to boil water for my coffee and oatmeal and was dismayed to discover that it wasn't working properly. I didn't really have any firewood ready. I had arrived fairly late to the site the previous night and only really had time to get enough wood for that evening. Now, I was in a situation with no wood, a very wet landscape and a malfunctioning campstove. I played with the stove a bit and finally got it going, but couldn't really get a strong flame coming from it. It took the better part of 30 minutes to bring a pot of water to boil. Grrr. 

 

After finally getting breakfast out of the way, I packed my day bag with what I needed, put my canoe in, loaded it, and started heading for High Falls Lake. My spirits were a little low. It was cold, cloudy and I was concerned about eating with a malfunctioning stove for the rest of the trip. 

 

The great weather manitou in the sky must have been smiling upon me because as soon as I reached the take out on the portage to High Falls Lake, the sun appeared and began to warm things up.

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The portage into High Falls Lake was nice. The Barron River descends down a series of chutes here and empties into the lake with a pretty waterfall. The put-in to the lake is very steep here and I had to be very careful with my footing while gaining access to the lake. I would lose my sunglasses here on the return trip later in the day! Grrrr again. 

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High Falls Lake is remarkably beautiful. It is dotted with a number of little islands with stands of trees that would catch the eye of any Group of Seven painter.   

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The area on the northern shore toward the eastern end of the lake looks like it had been through a war though. The trees here were all dead. Looking it up afterward, I discovered that there had been a nasty, little forest fire here in 2016. Thankfully, it was put out before more of this beautiful area could be destroyed. It was extinguished by fire rangers that actually camped on the lake while working on the fire. The following link to a blogpost about the fire is below. It states that the fire was started by careless fools, camping at a location that was not a designated Algonquin campsite. It's one thing to camp at a spot where you shouldn't in a provincial park, it is a whole other thing to do it AND not take proper care of your campfire. The penalty for idiots like this should be drastic, indeed. 

I thought about investigating High Falls but it seemed to be a bit of a bushwack from the High Falls Lake side. According to the map it looked like it is better accessed from Stratton Lake. Besides, one of the main reasons to visit High Falls is to skid down the waterslide part of the falls on your bottom, but the water was still a bit chilly for that. Also, I had a really long day ahead of me, getting to the canyon and back. 

 

It didn't take long to paddle through the lake and I soon found myself at the take-out on the first portage heading down the Barron River. This was the start of 5 portages down the Barron River past a number of stunningly beautiful waterfalls. I can't overestimate how gorgeous this part of the trip is. Many people who come to visit the Barron Canyon will put in at the access point west of the canyon before Brigham Lake. Sure, this makes for easy access to the canyon, but one misses all of the splendid wilderness further up the Barron River known as The Cascades. I took some video of some of the chutes and amalgamated the shots into a montage of scenes. Apologies for the shaky camera work. 

I spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon heading downriver and fishing at the base of many of the falls. There is supposed to be brook trout in this river but I only tapped into smallmouth bass. In the afternoon, paddling into the canyon, I chatted with another couple who were fishing. The young man stated that he had caught a sizeable lake trout the previous day further down the river! Odd that a lake trout would be in this slow-moving, shallow river, but who knows, maybe it was true!  With rock formations being what they are on the river, there are probably some very deep holes for trout to hide in. 

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By early afternoon I was traversing the 275m portage that rounds the bend in the river and links up with the Brigham Lake put-in. A couple of groups were here, a young family putting in with a canoe to gander at the canyon and a middle-aged couple just hanging out by the river. The latter musn't have known that their trail down to the river was also on a portage, because they looked shocked and confused when a sweaty dude popped out of the woods with a bright red canoe on his head. They seemed slightly distressed that they had to engage in social distancing, even out in the wilderness. After paddling through Brigham Lake, I stopped to have a lunch of salami and cheese wraps at the take-out to the 100m portage.

 

Moving downriver and down the dramatic 450m portage past the beautiful Brigham Chute, my jaw dropped as I entered the canyon proper. Bobbing along at the bottom of 300' cliffs is quite the experience. One can try to capture the scenery with a photo or video, but in no way does my camera ability do it any justice. The canyon was created after the last ice age. 10,000 years ago, as the great Lake Algonquin was formed from melting glaciers, the Barron river, the lake's major exit point, was thought to have a water volume 1000 times greater than what Niagara Falls currently has. Wow! 

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Tom Thomson did a much better job in his autumn-time Petawawa Gorges paintings though. It wasn't dubbed the Barron Canyon until much later. 

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I spent the next couple of hours just fishing and floating. A few other parties were doing the same in their canoes. When I got to the base of the cliffs under the Barron Canyon trail, I could see some trailwalkers high up on the cliffs, looking like tiny minature people from my vantage point. 

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Though I would have liked to spend even more time in the canyon and move further down the river, it was beginning to get late and I needed a couple of hours to get back to my site on St. Andrews Lake. Even though I had been moving through the area at a fairly relaxing pace, I was getting tired and I had a number of portages still ahead of me. Just past where the Canyon Trail was above me on the river, I put away the fishing rod, turned the boat around and began hightailing it upriver. I passed the family just before the 440m portage to get up ahead of them. The portage is quite steep and I knew with small children they would be quite slow on it. I wouldn't keep them waiting. 

 

By the time I took out on the 750m portage on the south shore of Brigham Lake, I needed an energy recharge of trail mix and a power bar. Before I could take out on the campsite that was right next to the trail, I had to contend with a family of stubborn Canadian geese that were happily defecating all over the site and standing in attention right at the take-out. I sat in my canoe waiting for the dumb things to move, but they just looked at me and honked. After much banging of paddles on the gunwales, not to mention the uttering of a few expletives, they waddled down to the lake to the right of me and swam across Brigham Lake. Normally, I might feel a little bad for disturbing wild animals in their element, but the Canadian Goose is not one of my favourite animals. I know they are one of our national symbols and all, but there just seems to be so many of the darn things these days and their poop is unpleasantly abundant everywhere -- maybe if they weren't so foul-tempered. Ever have a goose hiss at you? It is unsettling. Maybe it's because one time, during a youtube deep dive, I came across the following video. I still have nightmares...

The portage from Brigham Lake to Opalescent Lake wasn't too bad. It obviously had seen some recent traffic and only had a couple of small winter blow downs to contend with. The afternoon sun had brought the temperature up considerably from the chill of the morning and the bugs were now out in force. By the time I reached the put-in, the swarming was thick and I amply applied the deet. 

 

Opalescent is a very pretty lake. There was a large group of fellows camping on the site to the right of the portage on the northern shore. The paddle to the next portage took only a few minutes across the northern bay, but I made a mental note to come back and explore the southern reaches of this lake when in the area again. It looked inviting. 

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The 640m portage from Opalescent to Ooze Lake was more challenging. This one looked less traveled and it seemed I might have been one of the first ones on it after the park had reopened. There were a number of large winter blow downs that required some deft maneuvering to get around. The bugs here were very thick, as well. Finally getting to the put-in, I could see how Ooze Lake was named. It was nothing more than a very large swamp. It seemed like a prime moose-spotting location, but none were present. Quickly getting across it and through the 300m portage that also had not yet been maintained since the winter, I found myself in familiar territory, putting in on High Falls Lake about 100m east of the portage into the Barron River that I had taken earlier in the day. Again, I enjoyed the scenery of this lake.

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Getting across it, taking a last look at the lovely waterfall on the west shore, and back through the 595m portage to St. Andrews, I was relieved when I spotted my site. It was the early evening and it had been a long day. I had travelled about 16km that day. That, in itself, is not too demanding, but of the 16 km, I had portaged about 5.5 km. Whew! Let's just say that sitting on my camp chair with an adult beverage and my plate of pasta was very welcome indeed. I had originally planned to head back out on St. Andrews at dusk and try to tap into some trout, but I was just too beat. Canoe tripping is physically demanding, but it's a fantastic kind of tired. It's a tired feeling of accomplishment with fantastic rewards of beauty and remoteness for the most part. The remainder of the evening involved playing with the campfire, listening to podcasts, snacks and sips of whiskey -- the kind of relaxation that is another great reward.

 

Day 3

 

I woke up to sunshine. It was cool again though, which was nice because the bugs were minimal. After coffee and breakfast, I broke camp and was on the water by 10 am. Paddling to the short portage back to Stratton, I ran into a traffic jam. Four guys were taking out ahead of me and they had a lot of things -- coolers, big ol' chairs, a number of bags, and an old plastic beast of a canoe that looked like it weighed about 150 lbs. Two of them carried it over the portage. I sat in my canoe waiting for quite some time just as another couple came in behind me with two of the most hyperactive canines I have ever seen. They were nice though and we chatted a bit, despite the dogs yipping and running around all over when I was doing the 2nd leg of my carry. 

 

The paddle down Stratton was much more enjoyable than it had been on Friday evening. The canoe gods were smiling upon me because I actually had a pleasant little tailwind. Stratton is a long lake and I had the wind at my back in both directions on it on this trip. How often does that happen?!

 

This time I paddled up the northern shore to take a gander at all the campsites as I passed. There are some beauties on Stratton but most are deep in trees. The Eastern Pines Backpacking Trail runs parallel to part of the shore here and I was surprised to see how many backpackers were out and camping. After months of Covid-19 lockdown, it sure seemed like many people wanted to be outside, indeed! It was a lovely paddle, on a lovely lake on a lovely day. Simply lovely! It sure was a helluva lot better than the paddle in on Friday! 

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Back on Grand Lake, I skirted the southern shore and pulled my canoe up on the lovely beach there. From here I walked up to the point on the eastern side of beach and sat on the bench overlooking the spot were Tom Thomson painted "The Jack Pine". There is an information plaque here.

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This painting is arguably the "Mona Lisa" of Canadian art in terms of its recognition and acclaim. I have a framed print of it hanging at the base of my stairs near the front entrance to my home. I'm sure many other Canadians have a version of it somewhere in their house, as well. It is iconic. 

 

I sat there for a short while thinking what the landscape must have looked like in 1916 when he painted it. I concentrated on the far shore, the hills over Carcajou Bay that serve as the backdrop for the piece. 

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There was another gnarly little dying jack pine just a few steps back from the point. The one in Tom's painting, rediscovered in the 70s according to the plaque, was apparently chopped up and burnt for firewood by a group of unsuspecting teens in the 90s. I guess it is fitting that one of the most iconic symbols of the Canadian wilderness perished on a camping trip, not unlike the painter himself. 

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I would have loved to hang out on this spot more, but I had a long drive ahead of me and I still wanted to do the short hike up to the Canyon Trail for the bird's eye view of the Barron Canyon. I recluctantly glanced down upon my shiny red canoe beached on the shore and made my way down to it, but not before taking one last photo of this incredible view. It really was a beautiful spot. 

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Getting back to Achray Campground 15 minutes later, I quickly loaded the car and made my way down the road to the parking lot for the Canyon Trail. Here there were a number of cars in the parking lot. It is an extremely popular spot and when one gets to the top of the canyon, one can understand why. It is only a 1.6km circular hiking route from the road up a steep hill, but is well-groomed and can be done by most people. Indeed, I saw very small children on the route. 

 

Standing at the top is a little unnverving though. I definitely got a feeling in my tummy when I was up there. There is no fencing or barricades at the top of the gorge. In fact, the body of a 90-year old man was found in the canyon in 2018 when his car was unmoved after his day pass expired and they went seraching for him. If walking this trail, enjoy the vistas, but don't go too close to the edge of the cliff! 

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Getting back to my car, I drove home, stopping in at a drive-thru in Bancroft for dinner. Restaurants were still not open to the public yet. Munching on my burger I thought about how my trip was a very rewarding and amazing experience. I explored the geological wonder that is the Barron Canyon, the beauty of numerous waterfalls on the Barron River upstream from the canyon and an iconic location of Canadian art. Not bad for a weekend, at all! 

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