Map provided courtesy of Toporama which contains information licensed under the Open Government Licence – Canada. I have marked my route in blue and portages in red.
2020 had a record number of people visiting provincial parks and backcountry destinations; it was busy all across southern Ontario's usual paddling destinations. Reports of trashed campsites, increased bear encounters and booking issues were rampant in many of the popular locations like Algonquin and Killarney. Even crown land campsites were feeling the increased pressure.
With the covid pandemic still raging in the spring of 2021, I decided to plan my summer trips further north to avoid the crowds.The Algoma Highlands were on my bucket list for its beauty, remoteness and fantastic fishing. It was here that I did my first summer trip of the year. By June 30th, I had wrapped up my classes, finished report cards, attended my last online meeting and was packing my gear for departure the next day.
With everything locked and loaded to go the night before, I left Peterborough at 5am. I had a 7-hour drive ahead of me on Canada Day. The early departure was a necessity; the roads would most likely be busy and I wanted to reach Ezma Lake the first day.
The drive was uneventful and, indeed, Highway 17 west of Sudbury was laden with traffic. I made fairly good time, however, and was pulling into Laurentian Lodge on Flack Lake shortly after noon. I had contacted Melanie, the owner, earlier in the week and had arranged to park my car and launch from the resort for a marginal fee. The same thing could have been done from the Mississagi Provincial Park office on the east end of the lake, but for a similar price, I felt my vehicle would be in better hands under the watchful eye of a resort owner. The resort itself was beautiful; a waterfall goes right through the middle of it!
Melanie was great! She jotted down my itinerary so that she would know to send in the cavalry in the event that my car was still there after I was supposed to have returned. She directed me where to launch and where to park my car. She even drove up to the canoe launch in her ATV to wave me off as I was paddling out into the lake.
Unfortunately, Flack Lake was not in a happy mood that day. It had rained most of the morning and by afternoon the wind wanted to join the party, as well. Luckily for me the wind was coming from the northeast which meant that it was at my back. Travelling solo on this large, round lake against a strong headwind would not have been fun. I made it to the portage at the west end of the lake in good time. The massive rock face known as Old Baldy watched over my take-out.
Researching this trip, I had read that I had three tough portages ahead of me to get into Astonish Lake. I'm not going to lie -- those ports kicked my a$$. Later at my campsite that evening, I named them Bad, Worse and Worst in consecutive order.
What made the first one bad was that it was a solid uphill climb. Other than that, it actually wasn't too nasty given that it was under 500m.
Emerging from the woods at the put-in on Bruce Lake, I was happy to see the sun trying to poke its nose from behind the clouds. At that moment, it happened to be shining on the carcass of a canoe that had seen better days. I always wonder about the story behind a canoe rotting away at the end of a portage.
Putting in and moving around a point, I could get a better vantage point of that rock face on the south side of Old Baldy.
A few minutes later, I was unloading the canoe and soon humping it up Portage Worse, an 845m steeper incline to Olympus Lake. This one seemed to veer slightly north and up onto the slopes of Old Baldy itself before veering southwest again down through a swampy area just before the put-in. I did not dillydally at the far end as I frantically loaded my canoe in a cloud of mosquitoes.
Happy to be out on the lake with the sun trying to make its presence known and out of the clutches of the mosquito plague, I loaded up a trout spoon and eagerly cast out into the lake. My joy immediately dissipated. Somehow, my line tangled in and around my reel so horribly that I had to paddle next to a log on shore to take the whole darn thing apart. This process actually took the better part of 20 minutes to untangle. Yikes!
Not wanting to tempt fate after solving the issue without cutting my line nor waste any more valuable time without rain, I abandoned my fishing efforts on Olympus and decided to get the bad, nasty Portage Worst out of the way.
This b@$&@*d is 1100m long and went like this: a couple of large downfalls to negotiate in the first 100m, a steep rise over a bluff, a 90 degree turn and descent into a valley, a very steep incline over a cliff that overlooks a massive swamp, an equally steep decline with a number of ledges off of which I bounced the back of my canoe, and best of all, a 200m section toward the end where the portage miraculously turns into a knee-deep creek that one must wade through. Fun for the whole family!
In fact, these are not the worst portages I've ever done, but by the end of all three, I certainly was feeling it. I think it was because I was travelling alone, double-tripping them and they came at me in quick succession with almost no paddling in between. In addition, this trip was only my second overnighter of the year and I had some extra covid-lockdown weight to take along. This was certainly one way of dealing with that!
Though I had wanted to make it to Ezma Lake, I immediately unloaded on the peninsula site on Astonish after seeing the familiar orange campsite indicator (Astonish Lake is officially in the Blind River Provincial Park Boundaries and sites there are marked). It was a great site on a gorgeous lake and I was exhausted.
I set up camp, got a fire going and enjoyed a very pleasant evening watching the sun set over this beautiful northern lake that I had entirely to myself. Amazing! Those horrible ports were worth it!
The rain stayed away for the rest of the night and when I poked my head out of the hammock, it looked like I was going to have a great day.
I got up and went fishing for a while before having breakfast and coffee. The fishing yielded no results, but it was lovely being alone on the water and later listening to the birds chirp as I sipped on my coffee.
Soon after, my canoe was loaded and I was paddling through the narrows into the southern pond at the south end of Astonish. I did notice another campsite on the western shore of the narrows that wasn't on the maps that I made based on Kevin Callan's Dunlop Lake Loop report and internet research.
As I approached the 605m portage into Ezma, I doubted my eyeballs for a second when I saw aluminum fishing boats floating amongst the trees.
I suppose that is one way of 'winterizing' a boat.
The trail into Ezma was loads better than the ones from the previous day. It goes to show what a little maintenance by the Ontario Parks people can do. Fresh blow downs had been neatly chainsawed and the trail avoided any horrible, swampy bits. I made a mental note to hug a forest ranger the next time I saw one. (Glad I didn't follow through on that. It was a few weeks later in Kawartha Highlands when a pair of young rangers came to our site to check our permits. They might have unloaded bear spray on me if I attempted to move in for the hug.)
Ezma Lake was also very nice -- a fairly large body of water sporting a beautiful shoreline of tall coniferous trees.
I had a gentle, but steady, breeze coming from the northwest that pushed me down the lake to the second of two portages into Swamp Lake. I took my time and trolled along the way.
The 200m carry was straight, clear and easy. Swamp Lake, a glorified lily pad pond, yielded no bass despite Fish On-Line's declaration that they exist there.
At the very south end of the lake, I found the 265m trail to Upper Mace Lake between two swamps through a grove of poplar and birch. I made quick work of this one in an attempt to lose as little blood as possible. The rains from the previous day did much to help the local mosquito population.
Paddling west through the shallow east end of Upper Mace Lake, I smiled. Upper Mace was my primary goal on this trip. Previous reports discussed the lake's beauty, the awesome camp sites and the great splake/lake trout fishing.
When I emerged into the central bay of the lake, my smile widened. It truly was gorgeous. The lake was dotted with rocky islands, the water was incredibly deep and clear, and best of all, I had it all to myself!
I paddled among the islands for a bit and found an incredible campsite on a large island at the south end of the lake. It had views looking toward all of the main parts of the lake, and, best of all, west toward the sunset and the beach at that end of the lake. It also sported an incredible rocky front porch that seemed to drop off into clear deep water. I knew I would spend a couple of nights on that one.
The weather clouded up again by late afternoon and it started spitting. I put up my tarp over the firepit in case it really wanted to come down. Luckily, the rain was short-lived and I spent the rest of the evening relaxing, swimming and fishing.
When I woke up, there wasn't a cloud in the sky and the lake was like glass. I immediately made my way to my 'front porch' and went for a swim to wake up.
Then, I climbed down the rock face near my firepit, picked some blueberries and enjoyed them in some pancakes with a coffee for breakfast. Yum!
My goal for the day was to land some trout for a meal and take a day trip to Lower Mace Lake and back. The evening prior I had fished the western area of the lake, but had no luck. I paddled to the beach to take a gander and saw that there was a site there, as well. As enticing as that beach was, on this new day, I would take my time and fish other areas of the lake using a variety of strategies.
By late morning I loaded my boat for my day trip and saw a canoe coming in from the eastern end of the lake. I paddled out to say hi; I suspected that I would have neighbours on the lake that evening. Besides, these were the first humans I had seen since the trip began, so I thought a greeting would be in order.
They were three young ladies in a massive white canoe on holiday from their health care jobs in Toronto. It turned out that they were doing the exact same loop that I was, but were a day behind me. They were staying on Ezma and came into Upper Mace to spend the day at the beach there. We shared thoughts on the trip so far and I wished them luck. They seemed nice, eager and keen to be out on their trip.
It wasn't long after that when I hooked into a large lake trout. I enjoyed a fantastic battle, got him to the boat and lost him as I reached for my landing net. Grrrr! I didn't have my net within easy reach in the canoe and I inadvertently gave the line too much slack while I was reaching for it. That specimen was probably a good 6 lbs or more. Grrr, again!
Hanging my head in shame, I paddled to the southeast corner of the lake to start my day trip to Lower Mace Lake. The 215m portage went down a huge rock slab to the left of a remarkably long water chute.
When I was putting in at the bottom, I took a swig out of my full 1.5L nalgene water bottle. It slipped out of my hand and crashed onto the hard slab of rock next to the canoe. It shattered at the bottom and all my water for the day ran out. Stupidly, I didn't pack my water filter thinking I would have enough until I got back to camp. Grrr, yet again! It looked like my day trip would be considerably shorter than I had planned. It was a hot, sunny day and it would not have been a great thing to attempt the trip without any water. (I would spend the remainder of the trip drinking out of my orange bail bucket!) Besides, my mind was on that laker that got away. I wanted another try!
So I paddled the length of the small lake immediatey to the south of Upper Mace just to have a gander. I noticed a small cabin there on the western shore. I got to the portage into Lillypad Lake before turning around. I was already getting thirsty!
After climbing back up the portage, I fished a little more and was getting hits in the same area where I caught "the one that got away". I had found my spot it seemed!
After that, I made my way back to camp, whipped up some wraps for lunch and retired to the hammock for a glorious mid-afternoon nap. When I awoke, I noticed that the young ladies had left the beach and I had Upper Mace to myself once again. I went back out for a little more fishing, but the wind was blowing strong in my honey spot where I was getting hits earlier and I was having a little trouble negotiating an empty canoe alone. So, I decided to try an area on the leeward side of an island and managed to land a lovely eating-sized splake -- a perfect meal for one. (At least, I think it was a splake.) I enjoyed a nice fish fry that evening.
To cap off an eventful and amazing day, Upper Mace Lake graced me with fantastic vistas as the sun retired.
The lake continued offering me fantastic sights when I awoke. The temperature was cool in the night and had created a lovely mist over the lake when I awoke just after sunrise. It was so serene.
I was glad to have awoken early. My aim for the day was to make it to Bobowash Lake, another lake of reputed beauty, and I had a decent chunk of Ten Mile Lake to paddle, a large body of water known for its wind. The earlier I got there, the better.
I was able to break camp, load the canoe and start paddling by 8:30am. Heading back to the portage to Swamp Lake, in the shallow eastern section of Upper Mace, I startled a large black bear as I rounded a point. It was sitting on a rocky slope with its nose in the air when I came around the bend. I'm guessing it had smelled me before it heard me. As I reached for my camera, it deftly darted into the bush before I could even raise my arm. It was quite an encounter; it was only about 20 feet away from my canoe on the shore. My heart beat a little quicker than normal for the following few minutes, but I was thankful for the opportunity to have seen it.
By 9:30am, I had retraced my steps into Swamp Lake and back into Ezma, where I paddled to the eastern bay on the north shore to locate the "Eagle Pass" portage into Ten Mile Lake. The landing area at the portage had a number of boats and items belonging to Ten Mile Lodge, a sports lodge just on the other side of the portage. It was obvious to see how they got all those items to Ezma when I took the portage, which was basically a wide ATV trail that even included rubber tracking over a makeshift bridge.
I was glad to be moving downward on this portage as there was quite a steep section in the middle, giving the portage its nickname.
I couldn't have asked for better paddling conditions on Ten Mile, where I paddled past people doing work on the lodge and another fellow building a new structure at his cottage just down the lake. Further along, I chatted with a local fisherman for a while who was curious about where I had been and where I was going. He was a local on the lake who had been able to enjoy the trout on Ten Mile Lake for years. He informed me that I was the second canoe to pass him in the last hour, the first containing three people. I guessed the three ladies from Ezma had gotten up and out a little earlier than I had.
I was able to locate my portage north about half way down the lake. It was next to a small waterfall that came off the northern slopes. The chute seemed to run right into the boulders that dotted the shoreline. Either I didn't paddle far enough to see where the water actually emerged, or the waterfall actually went right under the rocks and into the lake below me.
The portage was only 200m but it was basically straight up at about a 45 degree angle for most of it. My reward at the put-in was the pretty western bay of Hyphen Lake that sported an amazingly large cliff on its western shore.
I traversed the small western section of this lake and lifted over a small beaver dam to get into its larger eastern section. As I rounded a bend while skirting the southern shore, I saw a black head moving across the narrow section of this lake. It was a bear cub frantically swimming to the northern shore. My second bear sighting of the morning! I took a video of the little guy emerging on shore, but in my haste I didn't check the focus and it turned out quite blurry unfortunately. He scampered up the slope toward the direction of the portage that I was about to use only a few hundred meters away. What concerned me was that Baby Bear of this tiny size was most likely following Mama Bear that had already crossed the lake and into the woods before I had rounded the bend. I could hear him (or both?) crashing through the bush on the shore next to me as I paddled toward the port.
I found the portage into Dollyberry at the very northeastern tip of the lake to the right of a large slab of rock face. I paused a bit and listened for any animal sounds in the woods at the top of the ridge. After a few minutes of not hearing anything, I was somewhat satisfied but apprehensive. I completed this short, but tremendously steep uphill portage in record time with both a bear banger and bear spray in my pocket as I went. For good measure, I loudly sang an off-key version of Springsteen's Born to Run to make my presence known and to give me incentive to do this one quickly.
Hey, judge me not! If, in fact, I startled a Mama with Baby, who knew what kind of reaction she might have had. I was alone and I could actually smell it (them). It was a musty, pungent odour. I suspected that it (they) had passed through or near the portage just ahead of me.
I was able to put in and paddle into Dollyberry without any further encounters of the ursine nature. Dollyberry was quite a pretty lake, containing a rocky shoreline and large pines.
It didn't take long to get to the portage to Bobowash Lake at the end of a back bay on the northern shore. My jaw dropped when I saw the rock face that I immediately needed to climb at the take-out. As daunting as that looked, in reality it wasn't bad. In fact, the previous two portages were more difficult in terms of steepness.
Emerging out on Bobowash Lake, I was immediately happy to have made the decision to stay there. What a gorgeous lake! There was an empty site near the put-in, but I was aiming for the prime site on an island in the middle of the lake. I saw the large white canoe beloning to the three ladies beached at another site on the western shore. I wondered why they hadn't gone for the island site I was hoping to stay on.
I decided to paddle over and say hi again, hoping I wouldn't be bothering them. We chatted a little about the day and the trip to get there from Ezma. We took a look at each other's maps and it turned out that their map didn't display some campsites that I had on mine, including the island site that I was aiming for. A short paddle back toward the centre of the lake, I found the site and it was indeed vacant. I felt a little guilty nabbing the better site when they were on the lake before me, but they were already set up on theirs.
After setting up camp, I cut some wood for the night's fire, relaxed a bit and went out to catch some fish for dinner. The wind was up, however, and it wasn't easy to maneuver a light, empty canoe to the spots I was trying to find. I returned to my site fishless and rehydrated some chili rice for dinner.
The ladies were out having a picnic dinner on an island and as they paddled past my island on their way back to their site, I invited them up for a chat next to my fire for a bit. They accepted and we had a nice conversation. It was my fourth night on a solo trip and I was happy to have the company. I learned that for two of them this was their very first backcountry trip. I certainly would not classify the route we were on as one for novices, so they were having quite an initiation! They seemed to be loving it though and none of them complained about the difficulty of the portages nor the remoteness of the location. They seemed prepared for the challenge, enjoying the nature and were taking it in stride. What a great experience they were having; I sincerely hope it will make lifelong canoe trippers out of all of them.
They paddled back to their site before sundown, and I enjoyed another lovely evening next to a nice fire.
The old adage, "Red skies in the morning, sailors take warning!" came true on this day. As pretty as the following view was just before 6am, it was a harbinger of nasty weather later that day.
I had about 4 hours of canoe tripping and 7 hours of driving on the cards for the day, so I got up and at it early. I did pause to enjoy some more blueberry pancakes and coffee as the sun came over the horizon, however.
As I paddled away to start my last day of the trip, I turned to snap a shot of my island home on Bobowash Lake. It was a great site.
It was a quick paddle through Bobowash and equally quick through the short 25m portage to a small unnamed lake to the east. Paddling to the end of that lake, I spotted an odd portage sign on a point on the eastern shore. Since I was double tripping the portages, I felt this sign was rubbing it in a little, reminding me that I had to do each trip twice -- one sign for each load.
Furthermore, the sign wasn't even in the right location! I alighted the canoe where the sign was and began unloading, only to find out that I wasn't at the portage. The portage was actually a couple of hundred meters past the point at the end of the swamp. Sheesh!
I soon forgot about that mishap, however, when I came across a massive, lone, old growth white pine on the carry. What a beauty! I snapped a shot of it, but photos never do justice to the size of large trees.
I paddled through Samreid Lake, another scenic body of water. The sites there didn't look all that great though and I was glad to have made the decision to stay on Bobowash the previous night. On the northern shore at the end of an ATV/logging road was a large cache of fishing boats.
As I rounded the central island and began heading northeast toward the next portage, the world got eerily quiet. The sky was darkening and the lake was absolutley silent, not even birds were chirping. Yikes. This was the calm before the storm.
Ten minutes later when I reached the 110m portage, I was getting pounded by rain. By the time I reached the end of the portage with my second load, the thunder and lightning began.
I would have liked to have waited out the storm there, but the put-in was basically in a swamp and the mosquitos were atrocious -- even in the heavy rain. So I made a mad dash up the northern shore of this unnamed lake and was able to take out at the base of a tree-clad rocky slope. There, I pulled the canoe ashore and I climbed up about 8' off the water under some trees. Not ideal in a storm situation, but I didn't want to chance being on the water any longer as the thunder and lightning were getting nearer. Besides, the rest of this pond was basically a mosquito infested swamp. I rode out the storm there for about 45 minutes without incident before getting back into the canoe. The storm seemed to have passed for the moment.
The 140m portage to the next pond was a slippery descent next to a small chute. After all the rain it was terribly slick and I accomplished it at a snail's pace. Slow and steady wins the day in those conditions.
The 1125m portage was better in terms of footing, but it seemed long. The path was clear to follow, however, and was downhill most of the way. There were only a couple of tricky deadfalls to negotiate. The air in the deciduous forest on the carry was extremely close and humid though. By the time I had finished both trips, I was absolutely drenched to the bone in sweat under my rain jacket.
Back on Flack, I had a 4km paddle due north across that large round lake to get back to Laurentian Lodge. The storm looked like it had subsided, so I made a beeline straight across the lake. About halfway across, as luck would have it, dark clouds moved in very quickly from the southwest once again. Thunder and lightning soon followed. Boy, did I paddle those last two kms quickly! I made it to the lodge about 20 minutes later just as streaks of lightning began lighting up the sky. About 20 minutes after that, the storm passed directly overhead as I was pulling out of the parking lot. Whew!
Though the portages on this trip are demanding (especially for an out-of-shape, 50-year-old paddling solo!), it is highly recommended for its scenic beauty (it surpasses Algonquin in many respects in my humble opinion), excellent campsites, good fishing, wildlife and remoteness. I encountered only one other group of canoeists and one fisherman in 5 days during the first week of July -- at the tail end of a pandemic, a time when it seemed that everyone and their sibling was heading out to the backcountry in a canoe. That's saying something!
Driving back to southern Ontario later that day, I told myself that this would not be my only trip into the Algoma Highlands.
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