Map is courtesy of Jeff's Map - my route has been marked in blue
As a high school teacher, the last Friday in June is a special day - especially if you are a canoe tripper. Throughout the winter, trips are planned, meals are dehydrated and arrangements are made for trips that can last longer than a weekend. Normally every year, on the Canada Day long weekend, my daughter plays in a large soccer tournament in Toronto and I drive her to the games. Fun to watch though they are, I am usually anxious to get out on the water for longer than a couple of nights. This year her team did not enter this tournie, so I gladly packed and headed on up to the very southern tip of Algonquin Park to paddle into Scorch Lake, excited about a 4-day trip.
So on the last day of the school year with my canoe firmly strapped to the roof of my car, I departed campus with an extra spring in my step, headed north toward Algonquin and stopped in at Pine Grove Point to pick up my permit. I was going in solo this time as most people had already made plans for the long weekend and I put this trip together only a short time earlier. By the time I reached Kingscote Lake and put in, it was already late. I paddled toward the north end of Kingscote, wishing I had more time to troll for the famous sub-species of lake trout unique to Kingscote. I passed a campsite on the eastern headland at the midpoint of the lake and tried to ignore the whooping and music of the young kids partying it up for Canada day. I heard one young lady, upon spotting me, exclaim incredulously, "Is that guy all by himself?!"
I had planned to spend the first night on one of the sites on the eastern shore at the north end of Kingscote but was dismayed to find them all occupied -- it was the Friday of a long weekend, after all. Circumnavigating the north shore, I couldn't find an empty site. Dusk was upon me and I was getting concerned, so I double-timed it back the way I came. Staying close to the western shore this time, I found an empty site with a downed tree in front of it, hiding the campsite sign. It was damp, dark, and, boy, was it buggy. We had had a late spring with a lot of rain, making it ripe for mosquitoes. To make matters worse, the black flies still seemed to be hanging around. I quickly pitched my tent, made a fire, cooked my steak and called it a night.
I got an early start, wanting to get the 1500 meter portage into Big Rock behind me. About 200 metres in, after rounding a bend and coming up over a rise, I almost stepped on the fellow you see pictured below. He hissed and I jumped about 3 feet backwards in surprise!
The portage was long, wet and undulating. I was very thankful that I was wearing my hiking boots. I was happy to get out into the waters of Big Rock, though I think the mosquitoes followed me right out into the middle of the lake! Crossing the north end of the lake only took about 10 mintues and I was carrying again. Much shorter but equally wet and buggy, I finally got out into Byers Lake, simply a widening of the York River.
Paddling upstream, I remained quiet in the hopes of spotting a moose, but to no avail. I cast a few lines out, but had no luck. It took a bit longer than expected to reach the take out for the carry to Scorch. When I did arrive there, I started to make lunch at the site next to the portage.
Feeling hungry, I took out the stove and made a proper lunch. Big mistake, because a few minutes after I got the water boiling, a couple of young lads rocked up in their canoe and started down the portage ahead of me -- not before their dog tried to help itself to my lunch, however. There is one prime site on Scorch that I was hoping to get and now I knew it would be taken -- darn!
I finished my lunch and got the 1000 metre portage into Scorch done. The sun was out now and helped keep the mossies away. Happy to have a total of 3200 metres of portage distance behind me (that's actually about 10 km because I was double carrying), I took a rare selfie to celebrate the moment.
The paddle into Scorch was shallow at first. I had to get out and line the canoe over some rocks, but eventually the waters got deeper as I got through the narrows and into the lake proper. The first site was available but didn't look nice at all. The second site on the north shore was taken by my dog-loving friends who passed me on the portage, which meant the prime site on the eastern beach shore had already been taken by others. I did manage to get the site on the northeastern corner of the lake which was nice and secluded, but quite buggy. The rocky beach in front of the site had a shallow entry. It was a nice place to sit, but not the best for swimming as I had to wade a long way out through mucky water.
After setting up camp, I spent the afternoon having a bush cocktail or two by the lake, enjoying the afternoon sun. I paddled over to the beach on the eastern shore to do this. It was better swimming there than at my site. The wind had really picked up and after the long day of portaging, I didn't feel much like exploring more of the lake. Returning to my site, I walked the beach area where I pulled up my canoe and discovered that I was not alone. Fresh moose tracks were all over the sand. I never did spy the owner of these footprints though. It was early evening and I made my way back up to camp to collect some firewood and start my dinner. I was hungry and had had a full day.
I got dinner underway and it started to get buggy -- and when I say buggy, I mean really buggy. The wind completely died off and it got eerily quiet. I am usually pretty good at not letting the bugs get to me, but this time I donned the whole bug suit, and let me tell you, it's hard to get a bush cocktail in you with that thing on. The quiet was a little too quiet if you know what I mean, and I went down to the beach to look at the sky. Just as I did so, I started to hear the thunder. Coming in from the east behind me, over the trees, was the most ominous purply-coloured wall of clouds I had ever seen and it was rolling in fast! I knew I as in for it.
I ran up to the site to batten down the hatches. I got dinner cleaned up in a hurry, everything stowed away in my waterproof sack and barrel and I got into my tent just as the deluge started. Within minutes the lightning was almost immediately followed by the accompanying thunderclap which told me that it was striking nearby. I heard a tree fall in the not-too-far distance and felt that I needed to get out of my tent and away from trees. With my thermarest in hand, I sprinted down to the canoe just as the marble-sized hail started raining down and biting my skin. The temperature had dropped about 15 degrees and in my hurry, I had forgotten my jacket and hoodie in the tent. I turned the canoe upside down, threw my thermarest under it and climbed in, careful to not have any part of my body touching the ground in case of a nearby lightning strike. If a tree were to fall, I'd rather be under a kevlar canoe than in a polyester tent. The hail started coming down harder and I was grateful for the invention of kevlar -- after all, if it is strong enough to stop bullets in a vest, it should be able to withstand some hail. Thankfully this only lasted for about 10 minutes when the thunder started moving away. The hail went with it but the rain lasted most of the night. My tent (MEC Camper 2 - highly recommended! ) withstood the onslaught and I climbed in, changed my clothes and slept for the night. I later found out that this is what I was dealing with!
I slept in longer than usual as the rain woke me up a few times during the night. When I got up I had to put on the bug suit again. The dampness from the rain seemed to bring out the mosquitoes in droves. The day was cloudy and it looked like the sun would not emerge. In fact, it looked as it might rain most of the day. Sitting there trying to sip my morning coffee through my bug mesh, I decided to head out a day earlier, but instead of coming out the way I had come in, I would take the York River all the way back to Pine Grove on Benoir and get a shuttle back to my car. The bugs and the weather were just not cooperating and I was excited to see the High Falls area of the York. So, taking my time after I loaded the canoe, I fished a bit of Scorch and caught a nice 2.5 lb largemouth which became my lunch.
By the time I got through the 1000 metre portage out of Scorch (lots of downed trees from the previous night's storm) and paddled down to Byers, past the portage in from Big Rock, the weather was improving but I was running out of water to drink. I stopped at the first site on Byers to get my gravity filter going and wanted to have a quick swim. The site was nice, but open and exposed -- and it didn't have a thunder box. I immediately noticed this because someone had left a mound of human feces right in the middle of the campsite without burying it. Who would do such a thing?! Of all the places I paddle, I find Algonquin the worst for respect for the environment. Maybe it's because the name attracts people who just want to say they've been there, but don't really know what they are doing in the backcounty. More on this later. By the time I was back on the water it was nearly 3pm. I had to get moving.
At the eastern end of Byers, I portaged past a small dam and a pretty little falls. From here it is a nice paddle with a couple of little swifts and then it begins to head south. The short portage past the Gut Rapids did not appear to be well-maintained, but was easy enough. Further down, the river narrows into a canyon and the map shows a portage on the left. I could not find it for the life of me. Instead there was one on the right which seemed to be a part of the Gut Rapids Trail but went in a circle, following a creek that enters into the York from Big Rock. I took this as far as I could, but it ended right in the middle of the boulder-strewn rapid (pictured below). From here, I half-lined/half-paddled my way through the rapids leaving a lot of white paint on rocks. This really slowed my progress, and not having done this route before, I was getting concerned about making it back to PIne Grove before dark.
The paddle from Gut Rapids to High Falls was nice and it began to meander through a lovely marshy area. It was here that I came upon the oddest choice of boat for a backcountry trip that I've seen in the actual backcountry. A young man and his girlfriend were desperately trying to maneuver what appeared to be an inflatible banana down the York River. All I know is that it was yellow and puffy-looking and the poor fellow at the stern had to switch his paddling sides on every second stroke. Whatever possessed this poor guy to bring this contraption into the backcountry, I do not know, but I assumed it was because it was light to carry on portages. Passing the banana, I caught up to their paddling mates in a proper canoe a little further down river.
After passing them, I soon came to the portage around High Falls. By now it was 7pm and I was worried about getting back before dark. In my haste I forgot to apply my bug juice before tackling the portage. Another big mistake, because the portage was not easy. It was a steep climb past a campsite on the portage trail and involved climbing around fallen dead trees. Once through those hurdles, the trail descends sharply past the falls and down toward the river. It was slick from the previous night's rain and I was absolutely plagued by mosquitoes. I was litterally sprinting and hollering by the time I reached the end, dumped my pack and dug into it for the Deet. In a matter of a few minutes I got over 40 bites before I could apply the bug spray. Uggh! Heading back to get my canoe, the banana boat people were arriving. Their progress was not fast. I asked them if they were staying on the site for the night and they said that they were heading back to Pine Grove, as well. I expressed my concern to them about not making it back before dark but they didn't seem that worried. It never ceases to surprise me how some people take canoeing in the backcountry lightly. A lot can go wrong out there. Making the proper decisions and trip planning are essential. At that moment, I was a little mad at myself for underestimating the time it would take to travel down the York, but I was moving much faster than this group. I wondered if this was the group that left the little treasure back at the site on Byers.
Saying my goodbyes, I moved on. At the end of the portage, there is a one-minute paddle across the river at the base of the falls and then into another short, but very rocky portage, the last one of the trip. From there it is a little over an hour paddle back to Pine Grove. Here the river is flat as it leads into Benoir Lake. It's a beautiful section of the river with large sand bluffs and dense coniferous forests.
Leaving the park and then heading into cottage country, I left the wilderness behind and encountered kids jumping off the bridge and cottagers sipping drinks on their docks in preparation for the beautiful sundown we were about to experience. Getting back to Pine Grove just before dark, I arranged my shuttle back to the Kingscote put in and ordered a cheeseburger and fries. I let them know about the group coming in and they also seemed concerned. By the time I got shuttled to Kingscote, drove back to Pine Grove and started loading my canoe on my vehicle, the sun had gone down and the group meandered in with their flashlights strapped to their heads -- whew. Driving home, I reflected on the trip and what a beautiful area it was. I would love to do this trip again sometime and spend more time on Scorch, hiking the Bruton Farm Trail (overlooking the beach pictured below) and of course catching more fish!