Map is courtesy of Jeff's Maps -- my route is marked in blue.
***Apologies, my phone i.e., my camera, completely malfunctioned and died in the first 90 minutes of this trip. It got really hot in my pocket, turned off and then just wouldn't turn back on depite my portable charger's best efforts. The photos I took on Rock Lake could not be recovered and no other photos could be taken for the rest of the trip! A real shame because it is a breathtakingly beautiful part of the park. So, continue only if you like reading because the only images I have of this trip are in my head. I'll try to make it informative and interesting. I have since bought a real camera...***
On May 29th, 2020, I did my daily check for news updates on the Ontario Parks website. Wait a minute! What this?! Starting on June 1st backcountry camping will be allowed in provincial parks for parties up to 5?! Could it be?!
Well, it was true, and after cancelling one trip and rescheduling another, it was looking like I wouldn't need to cancel any more trips. I was getting back out on the water after a long winter and a long spring pandemic lockdown! Yes!
Originally, I had this trip planned for early May, but rescheduled it to the first weekend in June. Not quite the peak pre-bug trout time, but still trout time to some degree, only with the added bonus of a poop-load of blackflies and mosquitoes. I dared not enter a river system in early June without ammunition though. Over the winter I ordered my Eureka NoBugZone shelter online. Weighing in at 5 lbs, the extra weight was a no-brainer. I'd save easily that much weight in blood!
So after packing up and loading the car on Thursday night and finishing my daytime online home instruction for the day (teaching high school classes online during a pandemic is a whole other story that would require an entirely separate blog to explain -- but, I digress), I was on the road and putting in at the Rock Lake access point by late afternoon. I had a long way to go to get to my booking on Welcome Lake and was worried that I wouldn't get there by nightfall. Good thing the days are long in June! For the first trip of the year, I might have been a little ambitious with my thinking. I had a 4-hour paddle trip ahead of me to my destination IF I single carried the portages, but I wasn't sure I'd be able to do that. With my new bug shelter and fishing gear, my canoe pack was large and a tad heavy. Sure my new 42 lb 15' Swift Prospector, on its maiden voyage, shaved a good 10 lbs off from my previous boat, the ol' Scott Wilderness, but I had one helluva hefty 2200 metre portage ahead of me that had a total incline of 100 feet. But after nearly three months of lockdown, I was eager to take on the challenge. I needed to shed those covid pounds!
Putting in on the Madawaska River between White Fish Lake and Rock Lake, I was starting my trip at the same time as a couple of other parties heading into the same route. A pair of hardcore trippers were heading into Welcome, like I was, and were also after brookies, and a young couple was heading into Louisa and planning to do the loop in a counterclockwise direction. Getting through the short stint on the Madawaska and into Rock Lake, I was smiling to myself. I had been itching to get out for a long time and with the sun shining, and seeing the open water of Rock Lake ahead, my mood was transformed. I could feel the covid lockdown stress leaving my body. This transcendental moment was almost immediately interupted by a large bass jumping out of the water and crashing back into the lake only a few feet in front of my boat. Was this a good omen for the trip?
I paddled the western edge of Rock Lake and perused the cottages dotting the shore. Some were in a dilapitated state of repair. I thought of the history on this lake and actually noticed that two of the cottages were up for sale. Across the lake, on the eastern shore, were the impressive massive cliffs which gave the lake its moniker. I made my way around the point and spent some time spying the pictographs at the base of the cliffs there. Faint and hard to discern though they are, the conditions were right for it and I could eventually spot them just above the waterline. I spent some time taking photos that would never be seen (insert foul language here). As I was leaving, the young couple paddled past and I mentioned the pictographs to them, who upon learning of them, stopped for a while to have a gander. I eventually made my way to the portage to Penn Lake next to a small waterfall.
While I was unloading my boat, another young couple from Ottawa caught up to me. We exchanged pleasantries and then I tried to attempt my single carry. With my full 115L canoe pack on, I did my normal single-motion heave of my canoe from the ground right up onto my shoulders. Only this time, the yoke got caught on my canoe pack and down went the canoe, paddles, pack and me back into the lake with a crash. Jeez. Luckily, nothing was hurt other than my pride. What an amateur move! First trip of year and, boy, did I need to shake the rust off! After that, I decided to take my food bag out and double carry the portages. I guess the "yoke" was on me.
We did the portage at the same time, having a laugh at my gaffe. On the return trip, all three of us sidestepped off the path to take a peek at the pretty Penn Falls. Putting in after the second trip off a nicely placed dock, I wished my portage buddies a good trip and paddled into Penn Lake. With my fishing rod locked and loaded, I was trolling along the way. No cottages could be seen and now it felt I was properly in the park. The wind picked up here and was more prominent than it was on Rock. Moving east of the island that separates the northen bay from the main part of the lake, I was envious of the young couple as they hooked into a brook trout just north of the island near me.
I continued to paddle at a steady and consistent pace along the western shore for the entire length of the lake. A number of very nice sites were on the eastern shore, many of which were occupied. I managed to reel in a bass along the way, which I released as it was out of season, but no trout was to be caught.
After about an hour, I reached the weedy bay at the south end of the lake where the Galipo river empties into Penn. Here, Penn Lake is quite pretty with a few islands in the centre of the lake and rocky outcrops along the shore. Wanting to take a photo, this is when I discovered that my phone had bitten the dust. I had taken a photo at the put-in on Penn, and somewhere in between, it decided to stop working. Grrrr.
It took me a couple of tries to find the main path of the river through the swampy wetland to get to where the portage is located. My progress was further delayed by the strong current as I got closer to the portage which is next to a large waterfall. Wearing polarized sunglasses, I saw a number of trout darting up and down the river which excited me. If I had more time, I would have fished here a while, but the current made that challenging and I was pressed for time to make it up to Welcome before sundown.
The 275m portage next to these falls is steep but this is where I really missed being able to take photos. The falls were beautiful. In one section, there is a lovely, wide cascade of water dropping about 12 feet in a large pool. Gorgeous.
At the end of this portage, I found myself in a marshy wetland area. From the map, I knew I didn't have far to go, but again, streams of the Galipo seemed to go in every direction and the start of the 2170m portage couldn't be seen. After a wrong decision or two and not getting very far, I eventually spotted the stream having the strongest current and followed its twisting route until I saw the portage sign to northwest.
The 2170 m portage was long and wouldn't have been that bad if it weren't for the bugs. This was the first weekend of June and it was nearing dusk. Double-carrying, it took about 90 minutes. I divided it into two stages, dropping my pack next to a pond and going back for the canoe and my food pack. Thinking I was at the halfway point, I was actually a little over halfway, which was nice because Welcome Lake presented itself sooner than expected on the 2nd stage of the portage. Now I know how the lake got its name. Having not eaten in about 8 hours other than a granola bar, dripping wet with sweat from walking nearly 7km in a bug jacket and hiking pants, and somehow still having black flies get at me through the jacket and deet, the lake was indeed a "Welcome" sight!
The lake is large and round. There was a formidible wind coming in from the west even as the sun was setting. Exhausted and hungry, I didn't have it in me to paddle against the wind in search of an empty site across the lake. The site adjacent to the portage was vacant and I took it; and being next to the running waters of the Galipo river directly behind the site, the black flies wanted to occupy the site, as well. The site itself was fine. It was on a nice beach with a shallow and gradual entry into the lake. It would be a nice place to stay in August, but in June, the ol' NoBugZone came in handy that night!
With my hammock up and after a very quick and chilly swim to wash off the sweat and deet, I cooked up some steak on the fire and retreated into the bug shelter to eat it, washing it down with a glass of whiskey -- ahhh...the reward at the end of the portage. Tired, I called it an early night and fell asleep to the sound of buzzing and the Galipo river gurgling in the woods behind me.
I woke up at dawn to the most amazing full moon, high in the sky over Welcome Lake. It was truly a beautiful moment in time with the first rays of sunlight trying to compete with the moonbeams. Argh! I needed my camera! I wanted to stay and absorb the moment longer, but I was losing blood. I climbed back into the protection of the hammock and read some of Kevin Callan's "Once Around Algonquin" for the 2nd time. I hadn't read it in over a year and I was trying to get in the right frame of mind for the paddling season. If you are an avid canoe tripper, that one is hard to put down -- a great read and a perfectly-sized book to take into the backcountry.
After a quick breakfast of oatmeal and camp coffee, I was packed and on the water early with the fishing rod rigged and ready to get at the natural brook trout of the Galipo river system.
Now, at this point, I made a silly decision. I had read online that Rence Lake, further up the river, was the better lake to get at the brookies. It is a smaller lake and I thought it would be easier to explore and negotiate than the wider, windier Welcome Lake. So, I made a beeline to the north of the lake where I could continue up the Galipo. This proved to be a poor fishing decision. Later in the day, when I met up again with the two fellows that left the parking lot at the same time as I did, I found out that they were able to enjoy a brook trout meal courtesy of Welcome Lake. I should have stayed and fished Welcome before heading upriver. Grrrrr.
At any rate, I loved having the area to myself as most of the other trippers on the lake were still snoozing in their tents. As I was setting up camp the night before, another canoe came out of the portage from Penn about a half hour after me and it was pretty much dark at that time. They must have felt it was too dangerous to find a proper site at night because they simply pitched their tent on the beach on the northeast corner of the lake. As I paddled around a beachy point and into the Galipo, I was surprised at how much the current of the river was a factor. It was slow going, fighting against the stream. I didn't care too much though, because I had the entire day to get to my destination and the area around the river was very beautiful. Despite my best efforts to be quiet, which is difficult when I paddle solo, because I tend to ride the gunwale in my J-stroke, I was unable to see any large mammalian wildlife.
Getting into Harry Lake, I got the rod and reel going and spent some time working my way up the southern shore, casting and trolling. No luck. Harry is a nice lake that has a more traditional Algonquin feel to it than the sandy, beachy shores of Welcome. The two sites on the south of the lake were unoccupied but I could see canoes on the northern shore, so I am guessing they are the nicer sites on the lake.
Getting back into the river from the west of Harry, I put a fly and bobber on my line and dangled it in some shady deeper pools in the river. No luck. Sigh.
It didn't take long to get to Rence from there though the current seemed to be getting stronger and the wind was picking up. As I emerged into Rence, my goal was to head to the south of the lake and head up a little into the Galipo to see how the fishing was. As my luck would have it, the wind really started to pick up and was coming from the northwest. Trolling the southern shore, I made my way to the southern bay of Rence which is dominated by some amazing large cliffs on its eastern shore. At the top of this cliff, perched on a gnarly tree stump hanging over the water, was a huge bald eagle. I sat and watched this magnificent fellow, and as the wind pushed me closer to him, he spread his massive wings and soared above me across the lake. I may not have gotten into any trout, but to watch this eagle soar 50 feet above me in a solitary wilderness setting made the trip worthwhile on its own.
Bald eagle sightings are relatively rare. By the late 1960s they were all but wiped out in southern Ontario. They are particulary susceptible to the effects of chemicals in pesticides and lead. The use of DDT shortly after WWII was the major culprit. Thankfully bald eagles are making a comeback, tenuous though it is.
Spotting the mouth where the Galipo empties into Rence, I pointed the canoe in that direction with brook trout on my mind. As luck would have it, almost immediately, the strong wind became somewhat more serious. Whitecaps and sizeable waves began to form on this tiny lake and I was beginning to get pushed into the cliffs on the eastern shore. I waited a moment to see if the wind was just a series of gusts, but soon discovered that it was steady and strong. I could see dark clouds in the distance and knew some weather was coming in. I decided to head to the northeastern site on Rence to make a shore lunch before the wind increased even more. I didn't feel like getting windbound on the weedy south shore of Rence Lake.
On the site adjacent to the creek where Frank spills into Rence, I made a salami and cheese wrap. The site was home for a number of blackflies, too, despite the wind, so I didn't hang around too long. After lunch, I tried fishing the lake in front of the creek, but without an anchor, the wind made it difficult and I spent more time getting the canoe into position than fishing -- so I pressed on.
Pulling up to the take-out to the 320m portage to Frank, two guys were putting in. One guy seemed rather upset with the other and was barking orders at his canoe partner, who just seemed to take it in stride and was smiling. I tried making cordial small talk, but Mr. Serious was having none of it. I moved my canoe to the side to let him pass me in the narrow creek and take his negative energy down the Galipo with him. I wonder how the rest of their trip played out?
At this point, I was pretty much through the Galipo Lakes and was skunked on the trout and feeling a little down about it. After getting my gear to the put-in, I went back along the portage and down to the creek to see if there were any decent trout holes to give it a try, but none were to be found. The creek was a bit shallow. It was at this time that I started to hear thunder, so I went back to the put-in and out of the trees to take a look at the sky.
It was indeed looking grim; a storm was coming in. Looking at the map, I saw that there was a solitary site on Frank, just a short paddle up from the portage, and I started heading for it, hoping to get there before any serious lightning struck the area. Halfway there, the wind began to slam into me with force. Because I was in a small back bay, the waves were manageable, but the wind was pushing me back. For every two paddle strokes forward, I was moving one back. The site was actually on the north side of a small island and as I came up to it, the wind wouldn't even allow me to get my canoe around the point to the take out on the site. I had to take out in some scrubby bushes on the west side of the point. Luckily, the site was empty so I didn't disturb anyone while I waited a half-hour for the squall to pass. Thankfully, the brunt of it missed me and seemed to be slightly south of where I was. It didn't even rain all that much and the thunder claps remained in the distance. The whitecaps on Frank gradually dissipated, but the wind was hanging in there, consistently steady and strong.
I put the canoe back in the water and paddled into Florence. Here, I was faced with a decision. On the west end of Florence there is a 1725m portage into the southwest end of the Lake Louisa, a massive lake where I had a strong likelihood of being windbound at the put-in. At the east end of Florence was a longer, much less used, 2880m portage into a smaller, more wind-protected bay at the southeast end of Lake Louisa. I wasn't afraid of the longer portage, but a couple of things were running through my mind. The longer portage is less maintained and less used. Also, this was the first weekend of Algonquin being open after the winter and the lockdown; that portage was bound to have some winter blow downs on it that had yet to be cleared. Also, I was alone and my satellite device, a Zoleo, works through an app on my phone, which was now sitting dead and useless in my canoe pack. If I twisted my ankle or got hurt on that long portage, it could be days or longer before anyone else travels down it, so I decided to take the shorter more well-used path and take my chances with the wind. In the end, though it got dicey for a bit on Louisa, it proved to be the correct decision.
The take-out on Florence was a little tricky to spot from the water. The location is also a little more north than where it appears on Jeff's Map. It was also covered in fairly fresh moose scat. I looked around hopefully, but couldn't see the poop's owner.
The first hundred meters of the portage heads up over a rise and then slopes down to a logging road. After about another 100m, it veers left off the road and through a lovely forest of yellow birch and maple. The distinct lack of coniferous trees here suggests that this area was probably heavily logged in the past. In fact, I passed the logging museum on highway 60 on the way in, just past the East Gate, and would have planned to stop in on the way home, but it was closed due to the pandemic.
It is amazing to think that logging is still allowed at all in Algonquin. Algonquin is Ontario's backcountry playground and the province's most famous provincial park. Yes, the logging industry helped shape the park and allowed early access to the interior through the building of the Grand Trunk Railway, but Algonquin's ecosystems are currently too precious and under threat to allow logging to continue. As you can see from the map below, the amount of protected area (in purple) is relatively small. And the remaining old growth areas (in green) still do not fall within the protected areas. It would be a travesty to allow the few remaining old growth areas to be cut down. According to this map, the entire area of this loop trip (the yellow circle) had historically been logged.
The portage through the birch forest was flat and easy, despite its length. After about 1000m or so, I dropped my bag and went back for the food bag and canoe. At the Florence put-in, I saw a pair of other trippers coming up in a canoe to the portage. Getting back to my first load just ahead of them, I continued to the put-in on Louisa and saw that my suspicion of troubling wind on Louisa was realized. It didn't look good. Going back to the halfway point for my second load, I passed yet another party, my two hardcore friends from the parking lot, who were single carrying and had passed the pair that were behind me. So, it turned out that all three parties were eventually at the Lousia put-in at roughly the same time and we all sat there, bleakly staring at the sizeable whitecaps and heavy winds blowing against us on this southwestern bay of Lake Louisa for the better part of an hour. Every time there seemed to be a lull in the wind, it would seem to pick back up again with equal or greater force. There wasn't an area to bush camp here in the event of being totally windbound. I was concerned because the wind seemed like it was here for the day.
Looking at the map, I saw there was a site, on the eastern point of this bay facing the large main section of the lake. I was just hoping it would be vacant. We all felt that scooting up the eastern shore of this bay could be doable. The only issue was getting across the south part of this bay to the shore where the wind was howling. My two hardcore friends decided that they would try it first. Being the only solo warrior, and not having the power of two people paddling, I asked them if they could leave that first site for me if it was available. They said that they were hoping to get further along on Louisa anyway to shorten the paddle out the following day.
So after watching them struggle to get across the bay against a sudden gust, but eventually to the shore, they made slow but steady progress. I followed shortly after and was lucky enough to get across without any huge gusts. Staying close to shore, it wasn't as bad as I expected until I got close to the site on the point, my intended destination. It got incredibly choppy as I got closer and I barely made it to the large rock on the front of the site, where waves and wind kept slamming into me as I tried to take out. Finally managing to do so, I was so pleased and relieved to find this large, amazing site vacant and waiting for me. It was on a huge sloping rock face and dotted with a large combination of white and jack pines. The firepit was high on the point and allowed incredible views both north and west over the large western expanse of Lake Louisa.
As the late afternoon settled in, so did the wind. It howled well into the night and early into the next morning. It gloriously kept the bugs away all night. I set up the hammock and tarp, collected a bit of firewood, whipped up some chili rice for dinner and was falling asleep in the hammock by dusk. It had been a long day.
Having gone to bed so early, I was up at dawn. The sky was clouded over and though the wind was still up, it was considerably calmer than the previous day. Fearing it would get worse again, I got a quick coffee and oatmeal going, packed up, and was on the water very early. It was a little chilly so I had a number of layers on.
As I paddled across the large western bay of Louisa and around the point, the wind suddenly disappeared, the lake became very calm and the sun came out! I pulled up to the vacant, most western site of the small island in the middle of the lake, stripped off a few layers and rigged up the fishing rod. I spent the rest of the morning slowly trolling the southern shore, marvelling at how beautiful Lake Louisa was. With the wind gone, the lake was like glass. No one was really up and on the lake yet, so I had this fantastic moment in time to myself. Quietly paddling and trolling on my own, just looking around at the beauty of the world around me, truly makes these solo trips worthwhile. It was incredible.
I didn't have any luck with the fishing until I got to the very end of the lake. A couple of hundred meters in front of the long portage to Rock Lake, the lake gets shallow and I finally got a strike! It was actually as I was reeling in my lure and I could see the trout take the lure not 4 feet from the canoe -- unusual since trout will flee if they spot a boat. In my exuberance, I tried to set the hook a little hastily and barely got it on the line. As I reeled it in, I lost it as I got it to the surface. Sigh. I would go home without any trout in my belly again.
The 3000 m portage was long but not difficult coming from Louisa since it descended the majority of this way. It confirmed that doing the loop in a clockwise direction was the wise choice, despite paddling upstream on the Galipo. I divided into three sections to ease the shoulders. I find that, though my boat is very light, I'm only good for about 1000m with the canoe without taking a rest before my shoulders tell me to stop for a bit. The young couple that I met at the start of the trip were doing the portage at the same time. We chatted a bit as we passed each other. Due to the wind on Saturday, they decided to not complete the loop and just stayed on their site on Louisa for the weekend.
After putting in on Rock, I paddled across the bay and again was treated with a wonderul sighting of a bald eagle high on the cliffs near the pictographs. Two eagles in one trip!
The paddle to the end of Rock was fine though I was facing a fairly stiff headwind. A number of canoes were paddling in and it seemed that the flood of campers into Algonquin had begun in earnest. I think the pandemic lockdown will contribute to an increased number of Algonquin visitors this summer. With limited other options of things to do during a pandemic, what better way to isolate yourself than a backcountry canoe trip?
Though I got skunked on the trout and the bugs were bad a times, I thoroughly enjoyed this weekend solo trip. Was I exhausted when I reached the parking lot? You bet! Facing a fairly steady upstream current and some nasty headwinds while paddling solo, not to mention the 8km of portaging in less than 48 hours, it might have been a little ambitious for the first trip of the year; but at 49 years old, I'm happy to say that it was still manageable. Would I do it again? Absolutely! The area was beautiful and it was still early enough in the season to be relatively quiet for a weekend Algonquin trip. Besides, I definitely need to get back to Welcome and spend more time fishing there, now knowing what I know. Welcome Lake brook trout, just you wait!