Last Traveled July 2012
Last year I got the chance to use a great new service that allows people to get to Ontario Parks by bus called, appropriately, “Parkbus” (you can read more about it here). I may have a car, but for me this was an idea worth supporting. Not only does it allow those without cars to get up and experience places like Algonquin Park, but it’s also quite a great eco-friendly way to do it.
“I want to go on a portage trip.” Kristen has this very matter-of-factly way of stating what she wants, often out of nowhere. I know her well enough to know that when she does this, she is dead serious. I think there has always been a bit of a left out feeling when I go off for 3-4 days into the woods with my friends to go canoe tripping, and she had finally decided to see what all the fuss was about. She had some requirements for our route, however. First, it had to offer great scenery, but with limited portaging – understandable, as you want to ease new trippers into it a bit. It also had to have one of those great campsites she’s heard me talk about. And finally, she wanted to go somewhere where she wouldn’t see any people. These requests made for a bit of a challenge, however I decided North Tea Lake would fit what she wanted. Even in this popular area, with a large number of campsites (and so people), the way Ontario Parks lays out their campsites, the feeling of solitude would still be there. Once my wife agreed, we booked it, borrowed an extra pack (and a few other bits) from Preston, and set out.
Overnight at Mikisew
We set out after work on a Thursday and headed up to Mikisew Provincial Park, located just west of South River on highway 11, which is about 45 minutes from the put in at Kawawaymog Lake. We arrived at a decent time – early enough to stop at Antonio’s Grill for one of their legendary “Big” Panzerottis. After wolfing down a football sized meal, we headed over to the park and set up our camp for the night. Mikisew, it turns out, is a very dog-friendly park. Why a downside Gavin? Normally you love dogs, especially Nancy, who is the best canoe tripping dog. Well, dogs are often noisy, but thankfully they settled down by around midnight, so we could get some sleep. The next morning we got up early, packed up and headed out to K-Mog.
Long and Winding River
How often in your life do you get to cross a notoriously difficult portage while having a great conversation about portaging, great places to canoe and the adventures in the outdoors with a girl in a bikini? Wait… I should probably start at the beginning.
The Toughest Portage?
On my quest to travel along and rate Ontario’s toughest portages, one portage is constantly being mentioned. It not only has a name – the most consistent way to know a portage is going to be tough – but this name gives you no hint of exaggeration: “The Pig”. Any story I may tell about a tough trip leads someone to reply “Yeah, but have you done ‘The Pig’?” Located in Killarney Provincial park, this route will take you along a path of loose rocks up a steep incline for most of its 1320 grueling metres. In wetter months, this rock bed is a stream making for a wet, slippery ankle-breaking adventure.For us canoe campers, the take out is found after travelling through the south western end of the park to Artist Lake and over to Three Narrows. Keep your eye out for the portage though, as you may, like we did, become distracted by navigating the bogs and pass right on by. (Seeing a makeshift take out further down leads me to believe this is pretty common.)
It’s All About From Where You Came
On the other hand, for the motorized boaters, “The Pig” is just a neat little trail for a half-day hike. Accessible from Georgian bay through Baie Finn, there is a gorgeous cove called “The Pool” where many pleasure cruisers take a scenic tour. (I don’t believe the name=tough rule applies to coves.) Many will often dock to spend a few hours hiking halfway up the trail into one of the park’s hidden gems – Topaz Lake. Its crystal clear waters are legendary, so many people hike up for a scenic swim, others just simply to see the water.
There are also quite a few private cottages on Three Narrows, and no doubt many come from the north end of the trail for the same reason. We also saw ATV tracks on parts of the trail, so we had no illusions of being the only people who’d travel this portage. (Regular readers know just how much I love ATVs.)
The Side Show
We found out just how popular this area was once we started lugging our gear and canoe up the rocks. We made it only a few hundred meters before dropping all our gear to rest, where we were suddenly greeted by casually dressed hikers and bewildered boaters. For us, it may have been a scorching hot day, but for the boaters, it was a beautiful August afternoon, and there were plenty of people out taking advantage of the ideal weather. One couple just starred at us like we were nuts, another wanted to know why we would be taking so much stuff with us, while another took pictures of us like we were putting on a show for the tourists. A man from Alabama was concerned because after having hiked a good portion of the trail and back not seeing any lake, he figured there was no way we were getting to the other side by nightfall.
*During lower water conditions, the second 320m portage will have to be used.
It Goes Up
I was half way over what is supposed to be the toughest portage in central or southern Ontario – named “The Golden Staircase” – when I came upon Albert sitting on a log on the side of the trail. He is the most hard-core guy I know, always pushing his body to the limit with all the cycling he does as well as on the portage. We call him the “Portaging Robot”, so I was a little surprised to see him there resting, even though a swarm of black flies surrounded him. “How are you doing?” I asked. “Good. Just taking a break,” he replied. He had come back for a canoe as we were leap-frogging the gear up the trail, while I had caught up to him after I grabbed the last load. The hill ahead was steep, after another just like it. Hoping for good news I asked him, “What’s it like after we get past this big incline here.”
“It goes up.”
“No, I mean after it goes up.”
As most of the regular readers know, I recently traveled to the west side of Killarney in search for Carmichael’s Rock – the same rock Franklin Carmichael sat on in 1934 (find details here). The problem was that I had planned to do this on the last day of my Labour Day trip, which turned into a solo trip by the time I left. Tired from the last two days of portaging, I woke on the third day to rain and miserable weather. Considering the winds that I had on the first day, I felt that – especially paddling alone – I should really do the safe thing and head out early so as to only have to deal with the rain and not the winds that I would surely be facing head-on the whole way back to the take out.
Turns out, the rain stopped, and the winds didn’t materialize until well into the late afternoon/evening. Who knew? Although I was a little disappointed, I still had a fantastic trip, but I still couldn’t help thinking that I could have searched for the rock after all. I came home and told my wife all about the trip, showing her the pictures. I told her how unreal everything was, and the stories must have sparked something in her photographer’s eye, because the woman who wrote off sleeping on the ground years ago, decided she could do it again to get an opportunity to photograph the place herself. She also sensed how disappointed I was about not being able to go look for that rock, so she figured we could try again together.
We were set to go away for a weekend in October, so I playfully suggested that we could do this instead. She considered it. I told her that instead of the whole trip, we could just reverse my last day into Grace Lake, stay the night then go back the way we came. The one portage was a nice and easy trail that wasn’t much worse than any that we take on weekend strolls with the dogs. The only difference would be that it’s 1745m and we’d have carrying backpacks, and we’d be doing it after about 8km of paddling. She liked the idea, and I have to admit I was a little psyched.
If you’re going to do something, you might as well do it right. When my friends and I planned the latest trip to Killarney there was just so much we wanted to see we decided we would travel through as much as we could. We decided on a sort-of figure eight (more like a 3 then an “E” beside each other) shaped route that would allow us to see as much as we possibly could of the east side of a very beautiful park.
The closest provincial park campground is on George Lake on the southwest end of the park, which means a pretty long double back to get to the put in on Bell Lake. To get there, travel north on highway 69 past the French River and exit onto highway 637. It’s still another 60km from here (another 10km will take you to the town of Killarney). George Lake is a very nice campground with many private campsites among the tall trees. The staff here are very friendly and accommodating. Because I had arrived very late, a park officer met up with us and helped me get my car parked in the right spot after which we had a nice long chat.
The next morning we picked up our permits at the campground office and drove the 21km from George Lake to Bell Lake road, then another 9km down to the lake. Make sure you call home before you leave George Lake because it may be the last time you have cell phone reception for a while.
Eager to visit the beautiful west side of Killarney, and after doing research on the Group of Seven paintings that were done in the area, I started to plan the perfect route that would cover the area as best I could. I decided on a route that would go through both Grace and Nellie lake because they seemed to be the most painted of all the areas of Killarney. It was on this route that Franklin Carmichael had a family cottage, and A.Y. Jackson took well documented trips. In fact, a secondary purpose of this trip was to find the iconic spot where Franklin Carmichael famous photo from 1936.
There are much less options for outfitters on the west side of Killarney, but I was very happy with Widgawa Lodge. They issue permits on site and offer a parking, “facilities” and a dock on the West River to put in. A short paddle (less than 1km) and you’re out on Carleton Lake and on your way.
To get there, you’ll have to get to highway 6 north of Manitoulan Island. Coming from down south, you have two options: One is to get to highway 17 west of Sudbury, then head south down highway 6 towards Espanola about 19km and turn left on Widgawa road, which will take you right to the outfitters. The other is to take the Chi-Cheemaun ferry from Tobermory to South Baymouth on Manitoulan Island then north on highway 6 about 100km where Widgawa road will obviously be on your right.
Sometimes it’s just a matter of timing. My father retired from the Hamilton Police force, and my brother had taken over the Canadian Tire in Paris and so was finally close by after long stints in Ottawa, Timmins and Alberta. My nephew, who I hadn’t seen much during that period had just turned 16. As I was planning my trips for the year I thought about the idea of doing a family trip with the boys. (I say boys only because it was at the time only boys who were interested or old enough.) I didn’t really know how the idea would be received. My brother hadn’t been camping for more than 15 years, at campgrounds for parties at the beach, that sort of thing. My father hadn’t been in a tent for longer than that.I remember my father-in-law asking once if my father liked to go camping, and after thinking about it, I had to say I didn’t know. We had stopped camping as a family many years prior to that but as a child that’s all I remember us doing for vacations. Did he stop camping because he didn’t have to any longer, did he just grow out of it and preferred other options, or was it just that he didn’t have the opportunity? As for my nephew, like I said he was 16, which apparently makes it biologically impossible to show any enthusiasm.
My brother was the first to respond, and enthusiastically as it turned out. He loved the idea and felt it would be a great experience for my nephew. My father was next, also thinking it would be a great idea. So now all I had to do was come up with a short route that would give us an authentic portaging experience but that wouldn’t be too difficult and give us plenty of time for the family to hang out together.
Taking beginners into the wilderness has its own set of challenges. Do they know what they’re getting themselves into? How much will they enjoy themselves? Are they expecting a Survivorman experience or more akin to sipping tea in a remote cottage? On the other hand, there are some really great rewards to introducing the beauty of the outdoors to someone. I imagine it’s very similar to the rewards of a teacher seeing a child finally get enthusiastic about learning. Usually you get at least one of these moments per trip, but you have to watch for them because it can be very subtle.
This summer I took a small corporate group out on a portage trip, which they hoped if all went well would become an annual event. First, I decided on travelling through Algonquin, mainly because of its fame – they could tell stories about their “Trip to Algonquin” with most people being able to relate. Second, Algonquin offers a lot of options for different levels of portaging experience, and has all the amenities of a provincial park (i.e. privies). I looked for a route that would give a nice authentic experience.
Of course there was also the selfish aspect, in that I generally like to cover as much new ground as possible. So I began starring at a map of Algonquin Provincial Park trying to figure out a 3-day route that wouldn’t be too difficult, but was challenging enough, and that I haven’t been (at least recently). I read somewhere, that in a season and a half ago the park had done cleared some normally unmaintained portages going into McCraney Lake from Islet, which must have been in the back of my mind while I searched for a starting point that wasn’t too far in which to travel. They decided on a 3-day trip, and I didn’t want to waste too much time travelling back and forth from the put in. Perfect. This would be a great way to travel a pretty unique route without too much trouble, and being on the south western side of Algonquin, we wouldn’t have to travel far to get there. Of course, as with any unmaintained portage, I really didn’t know what I was leading us into.
Portages will slow you down. Walking is generally slower than paddling, but it’s even slower when you’re hiking up a hill with your canoe and all your gear on your back. Worse, portages can require you to travel their distances up to three times (once carrying the gear, once to go back, then again with the canoe). Hardcore types will do it in one trip, and others will consider the 1 and a half method. However, if you’re group is small or not in super physical shape – or just not in any hurry or not needing to prove anything – just do it in two trips. The walk back is a good chance to rest, grab a snack on the walk and check out some of the scenery. Some of the best pictures are taken of the things that require you to portage (waterfalls, rapids etc.).
Hug the coast and respect the wind. Traveling over large lakes can be very dangerous, and you have to count on them being windy. You should never cross the middle of a big lake in a canoe, no matter how much time it saves you or how good the weather looks at the moment. When you plan your route, plan to hug one of the coasts – the best being the one that protects you from the wind – and make sure to include that as part of your overall length calculation. Also try and give yourself a little more time in case the wind is against you.
Ensure a buffer for rest and obstacles. Rest often, and plan for it. Mistakes and injuries are made when we’re tired, and you’ll be really slowed down with an injury or broken equipment or even being lost. In the spirit of the tortoise and the hare, you’ll find that you can go longer and farther, maintaining your speed, if you pace out your effort and take the time to recharge.
Consider giving yourself a buffer on the last day. You may find yourself worn down by the last day of the trip and appreciate a slower pace or shorter day, but more importantly, you’ll have an margin or error in case something stalls your momentum along your route. (Ever been trapped on a river by a moose who won’t move? There’s nothing you can do but keep your distance and wait.)