Map is courtesy of Jeff's Map -- my route is marked in blue
Near the end of 2017 I read Roy MacGregor's Canoe Lake. After that I became enamoured with Tom Thomson. WhiIe in Ottawa for my daughter's soccer tournament, I headed on up to the National Gallery of Canada and spent a morning looking at his collection there.
What I find so appealing about his work is how he is able to capture the beauty of Ontario's northern landscape with just the perfect blend of colours. His choice of subject matter is also comprehensive of experiencing the Ontario wilderness. He chose to capture scenes at unusual times of day, in different seasons and locations that, on occasion, are out of the ordinary and unexpected. I am not sure one can truly identify with his work unless they have spent some extended time moving through the Canadian Shield topography. After that morning in the gallery, I knew I had to get up to Canoe Lake in Algonquin and move through the lakes where Tom painted and fished. So when I mentioned to my father, who likes the Group of Seven's work, that I wanted to do a Tom Thomson memorial canoe trip in August of 2018, he was on board for the adventure.
Day 1 The morning of our departure couldn't have been nicer. It was a fantastic day for paddling, sunny and with very little wind. The only problem was that half of Ontario knew it, too. There were a number of canoes coming and going on the lake as we put in at the Portage Store on Canoe Lake and started our way north -- and this was a weekday!
We paddled up the narrow channel between Wapomeo Island and the west shore of the lake where Thomson's upturned canoe was found after he had been reported missing in July of 1917. We continued north and tried to identify the approximate spot where his body had been found over a week later near a tiny island close to the entry to Whiskey Jack Bay. From there, we made our way over to the headland separating the main part of the lake from Ahmek Bay. Here, we took out on a dock and hiked up the steep, but short, path to the Tom Thomson cairn.
From here we were anxious to get the actual trip started and decided to give the cemetery where Thomson was originally buried a miss. We had planned to camp on Burnt Island that night and knew we had a way to go to get there and it was already afternoon by the time we had portaged past the Joe Lake Dam. This carry resembled more of a high school corridor between classes rather than a backcountry portage. It was busy. We didn't dillydally and quickly headed north under the old railway bridge.
Moving up into Joe Lake we paddled west of Joe Island. On its northern tip, there were a number of canoes pulled ashore and people were climbing up on a jumping rock and crashing into the lake. There were campsites all along the west and north shores. We moved northeast through the east arm and into Little Joe. Every site was occupied as far as we could see. We passed the large Arowhon Pines Lodge on the south end of Little Joe and entered the weedy northern section of the lake. Here, it started to feel more like we were in the wilderness. The shores started to have that signature rugged and wild Algonquin look. The water was not that low this year and we made it easily to the 435m portage into Baby Joe. Even one of the campsites on the north end of this tiny wooded lake was being used. Getting onto the short portage into Burnt Island, we ran into a youth group coming back for their second load on the way into the long portage into Littledoe. The kids did not look happy on this long portage.
Passing through the little western bay and over a shallow narrow, we emerged into this massive lake. We stopped at a site across from the island in the middle of this bay and had some lunch and a beer to cool our parched throats. From here, it took the better part of 90 minutes to get to the northwestern end of the lake. Even though there are a multitude of campsites on this lake, most are in the southeast. There are far fewer near the portage into the Otterslides. We ended up staying on a double site just next to that portage; the attached site was just through a short trail in the forest and was occupied by a young father and his daughter. We saw them again later in the trip on their site on McIntosh as we paddled past. On the second sighting, the daughter was playing down by the lake while dad was sunning himself up on some rocks completely nude. Weird! This site on Burnt Island was dark and completely set inside the pine forest, but was spacious and had a nice fire pit. We set up camp, had a swim in the lake and enjoyed fresh steak, wine and the pretty sunset that evening.
Day 2 The next morning we were up and out on the water by 9am. We got on the 790 meter portage into Little Otterslide and made quick work of it. It was a very worn, wide and flat path. Little Otterslide is a pretty lake and on that morning it looked completely occupied. We made our way around the headland and headed north. We had a little trouble spotting the Otterslides as there appeared to be a couple of different creeks around that location. We soon found the right one and got through into Otterslide Lake. As the portage into Otterslide Creek is directly across the western bay that we were in, we missed seeing the majority of this lake, though it looked nice from what we could see. The portage was supposed to be next to some logging camp ruins but we couldn't really see them. I am guessing they are on the camp site on the point leading into that bay.
Otterslide Creek is an interesting paddle. We were going with the current apparently, but it seemed negligible at this time of year. We were hoping to spot a moose here but we didn't see much wildlife at all as we moved through the switchbacks. I am guessing there were too many people moving through it. It got narrow in spots but no obstacles or shallow water impeded our progress.
Of the 5 portages along this creek, the last two were the most interesting. The longer 730 meter one passes over a rise next to a waterfall and has some beautiful large trees on it. The forest was a nice mix of coniferous and deciduous trees. The smaller 105 meter portage into Big Trout emerges at the base of a nice waterfall, which I'm guessing would be good Brook Trout fishing in the spring. I was thinking of trying a cast, but of course, there were other people using the area at the time by swimming in it which made it impossible.
Once out of the shallow weedy inlet where Otterslide Creek emerges, we got out into the expanse of Big Trout Lake. On this afternoon, as I guess on many, the wind was up. The lake is gorgeous though. To the northeast we saw large sand dunes along the shore. We passed a large point on the south shore near where we came into the lake. It looked like it had a lovely, but exposed, campsite. The northwest views from there at sunset would be stunning. Of course, it was occupied, as were most sites that we could see from the water. We aimed to investigate the sites on the west side of the large island that dominates the large southern bay of this behemoth. As we got closer, the wind seemed to pick up and white caps began forming. We made it to an empty site there, but it wasn't very nice. We decided to aim for the three smaller islands directly west. Worried the wind might pick up even more, we strapped our packs to the canoe, and beast-paddled our way across the main part of the lake through the white caps. We settled on a site on the south of the most western and smallest of the islands. We didn't have great views of the lake, but the site was spacious, on a nice rocky point, and even had an outhouse built around its thunderbox! The only problem was the large amounts of tissue and discarded clothing strewn about the site. Gross! Why people would go to a pristine place like Algonquin and do this is beyond me. Some people have no respect or decency it seems.
Tired from the portaging along Otterslide Creek, we spent the rest of the day and evening relaxing at the site, swimming, and exploring the island and surrounding bays.
Day 3 The next day was drizzly, so we put up the tarp and spent the day relaxing around camp and paddling in the area. We tried fishing among the islands and in the southern bay but had no luck. The wind was even stronger that day, so we avoided paddling out into the main sections of the lake.
While exploring the area, we saw a tree which appeared to be loaded with cormorants on the eastern tip of the adjacent island. From what I understand, these birds are controversial. Some say they are an invasive species this far north and should be culled, while others contend that they are a part of the ecosystem. Their droppings are known to kill trees through over-fertilization. In this photo, the flight of cormorants are indeed perching in a dead tree.
Day 4 After a rest day we were looking forward to getting through the "Trouts" and into Grassy Bay. The sun was beginning to peek through the clouds and the wind had died down. Great time to start paddling! Making our way from our site and moving west toward the narrows into White Trout, we got to see more of the lake. The landscape was beautiful and there were some fantastic looking campsites in the area, all of which looked occupied. The narrows themselves were interesting with large rock faces on the shore giving it the feel of a canyon. Here, a large group of young men from a camp in a floatilla of canoes beast-paddled past us. We were enjoying our more leisurely pace. Getting into the north part of White Trout, we passed some impressive cliffs on the eastern shore.
We decided to give the farm depot ruins a miss and headed for the old ranger station at the south end of the lake. Here, we poked around the cabin which looked like it has a bit of history behind it and tried to find the trail leading up to the fire tower. We couldn't really see it though and the forest was a little buggy. Knowing we had to get through Grassy Bay, we decided to pass on the hike, not really being in the mood for a buggy bushwhack. We cast a few lines again at the mouth of Grassy Bay, but again didn't have any luck.
My dad's goal on the trip was to see a moose and this was one of the locations where we thought we could see one. A father, mother and son came paddling up behind us while we were fishing and were talking loudly, so we put away our rods and moved on ahead of them in the hopes of seeing some wildlife before they scared any away. We paddled into the marsh quickly, but quietly, and ended up seeing a few herons and a family of otters, but no moose.
On the map, the distance does not look that far but, in reality, the way through Grassy Bay has a number of switchbacks and takes much longer than expected. It got shallow close to the 745m portage and we had trouble seeing it as the sign was in a hidden spot on a tree. The two portages into McIntosh are not that difficult and, in fact, follow along a pretty, bubbling creek.
On the take out for the 510 meter portage into McIntosh there was a large group of teenage ladies finishing up their lunch. They looked like a nice group and were enjoying their time on the trip. We chatted with their guide for a bit. They were out for two weeks and on their way to North Tea Lake and had quite a journey still ahead of them. They were polite and eveyone was chipping in and doing their part in the lunch process. It was great to see. After they moved on, we took their spot and had our lunch.
Conversely, just as we finished our meal, the loud family from Grassy Bay arrived and began taking out just as we were trying to start our portage. They were double carrying as were we. After the first load at the put-in, the man dumped his gear right in the middle of the portage making it difficult to get anything else near the put-in. On the return, he was first out with his canoe because we stopped to take some photos. I was behind him with mine and boy did he take his sweet time and simply refused to step aside to let us pass for the duration of the 510m portage. At the put-in, he seemed to be purposefully going slow, monopolizing the entire area while my dad and I waited over ten minutes unable to go anywhere while he leisurely loaded his boat and chatted with his family. I don't know if he wanted to be first out to get a site before us or what, but at that moment, between the crowded conditions on the portages and the litter on the campsties, I vowed not to come back to this area of Algonquin again in August. It's a shame when a wilderness experience is affected by inconsiderate people with little knowledge of etiquette and conduct in the backcounty. I came to the conclusion that this was bound to happen in one of the busiest spots of Algonquin in August. As we got out into McIntosh, I shook it off.
The beauty of this lake certainly helped with that. The east side of the lake, where we emerged from the portage, is dotted with a number of pretty little islands. Three of them have campsites and we were hoping to stay on one, but alas, they were all occupied. We paddled along the southern shore, recognizing two groups of people we had seen earlier on the trip -- one of them being our naked sunbathing friend from Burnt Island. We found a pretty little site on a point that had a great western view over the lake. The interesting thing about this site was all of the gnarly roots from the pines all over the site.
We set up camp, including the hammock, and had a nice rest. We rehyrdated some chili rice for dinner and settled in for a nice view of the lake at sunset. This lake is supposed to only really contain Lake Trout and at dusk fish began breaching the surface. I paddled out to the bay where they were jumping, but again had no luck. I realized after this trip that I really needed to work on my trout catching skills.
That night at around 3 am it began raining. Then it kept raining and just for fun, it started raining a little more. Earlier, I had pulled the canoe up on the site but didn't turn it over. When I got up around 4am to make sure the site wasn't getting completely washed away, I saw that the canoe was entirely full and water was flowing out over the gunwales! The deluge completely filled my canoe in an hour! I managed to overturn it and drain it. My dad had only brought a cheapie tent and he was enjoying a nice bath. It was a good thing that this was our last night because everything in his tent was completely soaked. The next day, back in the civilized world, I found out that many places in and around Toronto were flooded.
Day 5 We had a wet morning and it was still raining by the time we got out on the lake shortly after 9. We paddled the creek out of the south end of McIntosh and into Ink Lake. Across the small round lake, we spotted the wooden staircase heading up the hill and into the ominous 2390m portage. It ended up not being too bad, and other than the initial staircase, there weren't a lot of steep bits. The nasty swampy bits were able to be nicely traversed with the assistance of carefully placed boardwalks.
We segmented the portage into 3 stages. By the time we finished, the sun had come out. I arrived at the put-in first, put my pack down and not 40 feet west of us was the moose we had been hoping to see! After I snapped a few pictures, she darted back into the woods, but in the direction of our portage crossing. We thought we might run into her again going back for our second load, but somehow we saw neither hide nor hair of her.
The paddle back to Canoe Lake was still a good distance from where we were on Tom Thomson but we pretty much did it all in one big haul. It was hardly a wilderness trip from Tom Thomson on. Every site on Tom Thomson looked occupied and there were a number of canoes darting here and there. Likewise, the sites on Little Doe and the Little Oxtongue were equally full. The massive Camp Arowhon on Tepee Lake was buzzing. By the time we got to Joe Lake, it seemed to be just one massive wave of canoes going in the opposite direction heading into the park. At that moment I remembered it was a Friday. At the put in to Canoe Lake from Joe, I had to stand for some time with my canoe stuck on my head just to find a spot to put it down. The majority of the traffic were large groups of teenage kids presumably belonging to a camp.
The last day of the trip was emblematic for the rest of it. It had its wilderness high points, like seeing the moose, and its low points, like the throngs of people everywhere. The Big Trout Lake Loop is wonderfully beautiful with so much to see, but won't be revisted unless in the shoulder seasons (... and with much better trout fishing skills!)