It was a Wednesday evening at the very end of July in 2013, just before the long weekend that rolls into August. I had just gotten off the phone with one of my good friends, Andrew, who I was going away with that weekend to one of his friends cottages. He had just informed me that there was some kind of change in circumstance with the cottage owner, that would leave us without plans for the weekend. Myself being a person who does not waste a minute of his time, and sometimes thinks that he has more time than he really does... I was pretty disappointed that we were now left with no plans for the long weekend. I sat there with a beer trying to determine what I was now going to do for the weekend. I finished my drink, called Andrew back to pitch the idea of packing our things and driving up to Algonquin for an interior trip. As he also has a passion for the outdoors he quickly accepted these new plans.
I woke up at 5am as I was in Waterloo for school and I needed to meet Andrew at Square One for 7am - where the bus takes you to. Andrew picked me up, we packed what we thought we would need for our 3 night trip and we hit the road. We arrived at Canoe Lake in Algonquin for about Noon. We strolled into the main office on the beach there to talk to the girls who were dealing with the permits. We step up to the desk and one girl says "Can I have your last name please?" She was obviously thinking that, being as it was a long weekend, we must have a reservation. Anyone who has booked a few camping trips in the past can attest to how quickly these provincial parks can book up. We explained to her that we didn't have a reservation and that we drove up to see what might be available. She looked back at us with a completely blank face for a few moments before breaking into a bit of a laugh that was joined by the other girls listening in to our situation. With that laugh, she remarked "Well, lets see where your camping then." Andrew and I look at each other with a bit of a, 'what have we gotten ourselves into' moment.
We figured out that we would be camping our first night on Burnt Island Lake, second night on Otterslide Lake, and the last night would be spent on Little Otterslide Lake. With it already being about 1pm it didn't leave us with a whole lot of time to get to our campsite with light. Without wasting too much more time, we rented our canoe and began packing it all up. We managed to fit everything that we had packed into the canoe and we set off around 2pm.
Paddling straight into the wind on Canoe Lake was a tough start but we managed to get to the top of the lake in good time. We had our first portage going from Canoe Lake into Joe Lake, which is a very well maintained trail over a man-made dam into Joe Lake. This might have been the part where we realized we had over packed on our trip. We had not thought through how many portages we would have or how long they would be. We also did not consider who would be carrying what on each of the portages which really didn't help our situation. Happy that we were done our first portage we continued on.
We made our way across Joe Lake while the winds slowly picked up and started to get stronger. We got a little bit disoriented with our map, and with the weather not being the greatest we found ourselves a little lost while trying to find Little Joe Lake. It didn't help our situation that the waves were kissing the gunnels of the canoe on each pass as we had a lot of weight in the boat. We happened to run into a father and son duo who were in the same situation. We got talking and explained our situation to them and they were shocked we actually found sites as they had booked 5 months in advance. We worked together with them to find the first of the next 3 portages. We had run into some other paddlers going the opposite way near this portage who informed us that it was possible to skip the first 2 of the 3 portages as the water levels were high enough to do so. Andrew and I knowing we had over packed jumped at this opportunity to not have to unpack our canoe and lug all our gear by foot, doing multiple trips. The father and son decided to follow suit. We managed to paddle around the first portage as well as the second portage that was right after it. Then we got to the third portage.
It was starting to get dark and the father and son were also going to be camping on Burnt Island Lake, one which we knew was completely booked. As we approached the 3rd portage in a row it looked as though there was a river to the right that we might be able to use to avoid another portage. This was the last portage going into Burnt Island Lake, the father and son opted not to take a chance and to just complete the portage by foot. Andrew and I took our chances and began to paddle around the corner. We had made it a good ways down a river and we were feeling pretty confident in our decision to take this route. Everything was all good until we turned a corner only to realize that there was a very shallow upstream section that we would have to walk up. Knowing that we had come too far to turn around and go all the way back based on sunlight, we decided to unload the canoe, trek through the woods to find the portage that we were supposed to be on. Morale was getting low as we were tired and the weather was not the greatest. It took us way longer to do the portage in this manner than it would have if we had just stuck with the father and son and done it all by foot. Where we were in the river required us to walk back though knee deep water with an uneven bed of rocks under it, to an entrance in the forest that led to the portage. By the time we had completed this portage the father and son were long gone, and we likely added over an hour to this portage.
Looking at the lake we opted to take the right shore knowing that there was a chance we were going to paddle a full circle around this lake to find the available site. We passed the first 3 or 4 sites that line the right side of the shore and we were getting more and more discouraged as we started to brainstorm other options. Andrew looks ahead and notices that there seems to be a sign with no canoes near it. We paddle over to find an empty site and we could not have been happier to be here. It had been a very long day for us and this was the best thing that could have happened for us. With not much time left in the day, I started a fire while Andrew got the tent set up. We cooked some dinner, cleaned up the site, bear proofed, and went to bed.
Day 2 started well with us knowing we had already accomplished the more difficult section of the trip. Less paddling and only an 800m portage in our way of Otterslide Lake. We made breakfast and hit the water to get the travelling out of the way to be able to have some time to relax on our next campsite. Paddling through Little Otterslide Lake gave us an opportunity to take a look at what campsites we might want for our last night in the woods. We happened to run into the father and son that we had met the day before who informed us of the struggle they experienced to find an available site. They had decided to take the left shore and ended up doing a lot of extra paddling before finding a site.
We made it into Otterslide Lake and we found a spot directly straight across the lake when you come out of the river. We had made good time which left us with time to get some swimming as well as some fishing in on the lake. I have previously caught some small mouth bass in Algonquin however this lake was more known for its Trout fishing of which we did not have as much luck. When you get the the farthest point in your trip I always get this feeling of remoteness and with a lake as beautiful at Otterslide, we were happy to be there.
Day 3 was likely the best we had felt on the entire trip. Knowing that we didn't have a single portage to complete was a very motivating feeling and the icing on that cake was that it was a very short paddle. We also had finished a lot of our food which helped with weight, and everything was getting easier. When you have done a few trips you realize how good you get at packing your canoe after doing it a few times. You start to find the best places to put things and it just happens a lot more quickly. Having been able to view a few sites on our way past Little Otterslide Lake, we had an idea of where we wanted to be. Luckily one of the nice island campsites became available just as we were pulling up. We quickly grabbed this site and set up our camp for the evening. It is a bit of a comforting feeling being on an island as it is a little less likely to run into any issues with animals. Not to rule this out at all, you still need to be responsible with your food and storage. Again having lots of time to fish and swim we took advantage of this and enjoyed the rest of our last full day in Algonquin. We even found a spot across from our campsite that we could jump off some small cliffs that were there. I knew that with the amount of paddling we were going to have on Sunday, combined with my need to be back in good time to finish up an assignment for class on Monday, I knew we were going to need to be up early.
Day 4, I woke up around 5am and began to pack my things. We got the tent and the rest of our gear packed into the canoe. That morning is still one of my favourite mornings I have ever experienced while camping. There was a thick fog across the very still water. There wasn't another person in sight and there was a great silence across the lake. With the canoe packed and a very quick breakfast to give us fuel we were on the water by 7am. We were much quicker on the portages on the way back, and we were a little more thoughtful about which portages to skip. We paddled hard on our way back to the Portage Store at the launch of Canoe Lake. Usually a tradition to at least grab a beer after my trips to discuss our accomplishment, we packed the car and got right on the road back to Toronto. After unpacking the car, Andrew dropped me back off at square one and I was back in Waterloo for 7pm that night, giving me just enough time to finish my assignment for my class. As far as last minute trips could have resulted, we were very lucky and felt very accomplished after completing this with such little planning.