Friday, July 11, 2008
11th: Blueberries and Bears - Ten Days of Camping in Island Lake Forest & Barrens Provincial Conservation Reserve
Our second camping trip of the season was to the Island Lake Forst and Barrens Provincial Conservation Reserve. This is a magnificent lake system we have visited and camped in repeatedly in the past two years. As it is essentially crown land, there are no fees to pay, no reservations required, no schedules to keep to, and because this large network of lakes and creeks is only accessible by float plane or canoe, it is never crowded and one need never be concerned about being unable to find a place to camp even on the busiest of long weekends.
We had intended to be there in early July so that our trip would coincide with someone else’s being there. Steve Galehouse is an American canoeing enthusiast and angler who is lucky enough to own one of the rare and precious pieces of land in the Island Lake system which has been designated as private property. He, his family, and their co-owning friends, fly-in to Island Lake a few weeks each year to enjoy this remote expanse of water and wilderness in their restored log cabin on an Island. Ilana and I have been the beneficiaries of Steve and Co’s hospitality and generosity on previous camping trips and we were looking forward to seeing them again on this trip.
Unfortunately, our plans came to naught when Ilana’s recurring shoulder injury began bothering her greatly just before our planned 10-day trip to Island Lake. We would have to wait until her shoulder recovered before heading off. Delaying our trip by a more than a week meant our visit to Island Lake would not coincide our friends’ vacation, but we will have a chance to meet up with them there in mid-August.
When Ilana’s shoulder seemed to be well enough to paddle we agreed on a tentative route and trip itinerary. The most direct route into Island Lake (short of flying in) is to drive to the boat launch at the southern end of Wah-Wash-Kesh Lake, paddle north across the lake, then follow the unromantically named Farm Creek north into Island Lake itself. We would make camp the first night on one of the smaller islands in the southern portion of Island Lake and from there we could paddle and portage into either nearby Loon Lake, Kelsie Lake or Dutton Lake, all of which we’d visited before on previous trips. How far we’d go and how long we’d stay on any given lake would be a matter of mood, weather and how energetic we were feeling on any given day.
As always our pre-camping preparation involved packing our gear, working out a meal plan, stocking the two food barrels with all we’d need to eat and making sure we were properly supplied with such things as stove fuel, biodegradable soap, sunscreen, toothpaste and other things in need of replenishment after each camping trip. Additionally, there were three new pieces of gear we would be bringing with us this time, two of which we had to buy.
The first piece of gear was a small garden trowel and work gloves, which we already owned, and which we could use for many purposes while camping: digging small cat holes for a latrine, emptying a fire pit of old ash and coals, and most importantly, digging up edible roots and tubers.
The first piece of gear to purchase was a hatchet. I have always carried and used a lightweight folding saw for cutting larger pieces of deadwood for burning, but larger pieces do not burn well when they are tossed in whole and round onto a fire, especially hardwoods, such as birch, maple and oak. Split wood burns better, but this requires one carry along a heavy axe or a hatchet into the bush. We are pretty much maxed-out when it comes to weight, so there was no way I was going to lug an axe around on portages, so a hatchet seemed like a good compromise. Unfortunately, an axe or hatchet is a very dangerous tool to wield in the woods. An accident with a hatchet (or an axe) is rare, but almost always serious, especially in the wilderness where one is hours or days from medical attention., and so out of concern for safety I never wanted to bring one with me. Ilana was especially worried, but she agreed to this purchase despite some misgivings. The hatchet I opted for was the Buck hatchet which is far from the best, but has the virtue of being very lightweight and durable. We would see if it would prove to be a worthwhile purchase at $44.99.
The second piece of gear to purchase was a new compass. Ilana likes using a GPS device, but I am more old-school when it comes to orientation and navigating, so I like using a map and compass. The basic Silva compass I have used for many years had developed a large air bubble in the capsule housing, so it’s readings were no longer reliable. I replaced it with a more advanced Silva Ranger compass, which has two features I have long wanted in a compass: a sighting mirror and a simple mechanism for correcting for magnetic declination. It’s a pricey compass ($59.00), but I always hated having to correct for magnetic declination in my head or affixing an arrow-shaped piece of tape on the housing in order to correct for magnetic declination.
The last preparatory task was obtaining the exact magnetic declination where we’d be camping so I could adjust my new compass accordingly. I did this as follows.
Using Google Earth (http://earth.google.com) I located the spot where I intended to camp on Island Lake and jotted down the precise coordinates which appear at the bottom of the screen:
45 degrees 47' minutes North
80 degrees 03' minutes West
Second, I enter these coordinates into the magnetic declination calculator found at: http://geomag.nrcan.gc.ca/apps/mdcal_e.php:, which yielded a magnetic declination for that location of: 10 degrees and 51 minutes West, or just under 11 degrees. Lastly, I took my compass in hand and set the little adjusting screw which turns the compass housing by that many degrees (just under 11 degrees West). With the compass set this way the needle would now point to true north while in that area, instead of being off by nearly 11 degrees.
DAY 1: GETTING TO THE ISLAND LAKE & BARRENS CONSERVATION RESERVE
We awoke at 5:30 AM on Friday morning (July 11th), had an unhurried breakfast with coffee, then showered and dressed. The truck had been loaded up with canoe, paddles, packs and barrels the night before, so our only unfinished business was dropping off a few library books in the nearby town of Burks Falls on the way. We were on the road by 8:00 AM. The drive from Burks Falls to the put-in is fairly simple and takes only an hour so we arrived at 9:00 AM sharp and quickly put the canoe in the water at the Bennett’s Bay boat launch and had it loaded up with our gear by 9:20 AM.
It was a cool morning but by no means cold and though the sky was partly cloudy, there was only a slight breeze, so getting across this large cottage-lined lake proved easy. Finding the portage on the far shore is easy now because we know the route through the maze of islands and bays of this large lake, but the first time we came here two years ago we were somewhat apprehensive about finding the first portage. On that first visit we didn’t have any GPS coordinates (or a GPS device for that matter) and only a vague description of where the portage was located on the topographic map. Fortunately, on that first visit, a local cottager happened to be loading up his motorboat just as we were putting in and when we told him we were headed to Farm Creek he generously offered to let us ride with him right to the start of the portage while he towed our loaded boat behind. But today we just paddled quietly past the cottages and the occasional anglers in their bass boats without concern until we saw and heard the rush of a small waterfall as the water of Farm Creek emptied into Wah-Wash-Kesh Lake.
This first portage is only a 2 minute walk and we did it in two carries. As usual I carried the canoe while Ilana carried the heaviest pack, then we both went back for the second load with Ilana carrying the heaviest of the two food barrels and I carried the lighter backpack and balanced the lighter food barrel on top of the pack just behind my head. On the way back for the second load we stopped to rehydrate ourselves, have a snack and take a photo of the short falls around which we were portaging. It had rained recently, so the vegetation was still damp and the mosquitoes made their appearance, but not in great numbers.
Once the boat was loaded again we paddled for all of one minute across a small pond before coming to the beginning of the second portage. A deer stood right on the path looking out at us but it turned and bounded into the woods, flashing us it’s white tail as it went.
Having to get out and begin the second portage so soon after the first is a very dissatisfying feeling. The most bothersome thing about a portage is not actually lugging the gear, but having to climb out of the boat, empty it, pick up the gear and then put it all back into the boat at the end of the portage. Lugging gear is merely tiring and sweaty work, but bending to pick up and put down gear, including the canoe, strains the lower back and I dread it. Having to do this twice inside of ten minutes is a nuisance. I have to remind myself that every such nuisance serves to dissuade others from travelling this route and thus affords us more isolation. This second portage was perhaps three times as long as the first, but at least we’d have the satisfaction of paddling for a little while before having to get out again for the third portage. We noticed that someone here has been cutting trees and clearing a new trail and blazing it with fluorescent orange paint. Ilana worried that perhaps someone had bought this land and might one day block access through here. Let’s hope not.
After this second portage we found ourselves paddling Farm Creek proper, having left behind any sign of cottagers and motorboats. Farm Creek is a long meandering creek which runs through broad floodplains in some parts or else is narrowly hemmed in by granite walls in other parts. The view changes constantly as one wends one’s way in a northeasterly direction and later northwest and ultimately north towards Island Lake. Along the way we enjoyed the sight of Wild Roses, Virginia Meadow Beauty, St. John’s Wort and Joe Pie-weed in flower.
Within 15 minutes of leaving behind the second portage Farm Creek opens into a small lake. On the northern shore one can make out an old trapper’s cabin and along the eastern shore we could see water running down in a swift as the creek continued north beyond this area of open water. In low water one must portage around this tight, rocky spot, but with all the rain we have seen this month, water was pouring through at us fast. We tried to paddle against this swift but the current proved too strong as our paddles kept hitting large rocks in this shallow, rocky channel. After struggling for a minute or two and bickering about how to proceed I saw the wisdom of Ilana’s advice and we hopped out of the boat and used the bow and stern painters to track the canoe upstream together as we walked along the shore, hopping from boulder to boulder to keep our feet out of the water.
Once past this little obstacle the creek opened up yet again into a tiny lake of fast moving water fed by a small waterfall to portage around. This is a short and easy portage, but we were surprised when we arrived at the end of it. We usually stop here for lunch at this point because it’s a nice open area of shallow water just above the falls, but today much of it was underwater. Nevertheless, we spent several minutes here to cool off as the clouds were becoming rarer, the sun higher, and the air warmer. We lunched on barbecued pork sandwiches Ilana had prepared the night before and kept in our yellow dry bag for ease of access. It was here that we became acutely aware of how bad the deer flies were. Mosquitoes were hardly to be seen, but the deer flies were buzzing around us incessantly.
We continued along Farm Creek, enjoying the yellow Pond Lilies, white Water Lilies, purple Pickerel weed and the small red-flowered Water Shields on the surface of the water. Below the
surface we could see long thick rusty colored garlands of plants and green and yellow weeds undulating with the current. Ilana likes to call it to mermaid’s hair and that seems very apt. Occasionally we startled a heron into flight and at one point we inadvertently drove a white-tailed deer out of the creek and sent it loping across the floodplain grass for the trees.
Then began a series of beaver dams over which we had to drag the canoe. The procedure is fairly easy. We drive the canoe up to the beaver dam where it lowest and closest to the water level on our side of the dam and Ilana climbs out onto it and balances herself there, trying to keep her feet out of the water as much as possible. She steadies the boat for me as I climb over the gear along the length of the boat and join her on the dam and together we lift and drag the loaded canoe overtop of it. Once it’s on the other side, Ilana climbs in while I steady it and then I get in. On the third lift-over Ilana stepped out onto a not-too-solid part of the dam and got a boot full of water because one of her hiking boots has started coming apart along the sole, letting water pour in. We’d meant to repair that before leaving. Oops.
After the first lift-over and before the second and third ones we’d been making our way northwest. Now we came to a T of water as another creek called Cramadog flowed into the section of Farm Creek we’d been paddling along. Here we made a sharp left turn and we continued to make our way upstream along Farm Creek following a roughly northwest course. We knew we were making good progress despite the strong current flowing against us when we came to the largest beaver dam on Farm Creek. This one beaver dam is best circumvented by carrying/dragging the canoe right over a small grassy island since the damn is too steep to lift or drag the boat over top of it.
Another half hour of paddling took us within site of the fourth and last portage which we recognized at a distance because an old rusty-red logging bridge (now used by snowmobilers) spans the falls and ledges which necessitate the portage. The high water levels made taking out here easy. In low water, it’s a bit of a pain getting the boat close enough to the start of the portage without shallowing out on the rocky bottom here.
This last portage would be the longest one of the day and we couldn’t wait to get it behind us. Part of our desire to get it over with was the knowledge that the bugs here tend to be very bad. I hadn’t applied any bug repellant today and didn’t want to, so knew I was in for some bites.
This portage starts by crossing the snowmobile trail, passes through a forest of deciduous and coniferous trees, then across a short meadow of chest high grasses and shrubs and finally through a darker, denser stand of pines, some of which are impressively big, especially between the portage trail and the falls. The only thing to mar the beauty of this varied bit of wilderness is some litter at the very end of the portage where ATVers have stashed two or three overturned fishing boat here. Beer cans, old ropes, cigarette butts and other bits of junk are always lying about here. One would think that people who effortlessly drive in here on their ATVs (against expressly posted rules just a short distance down the trail) would not find it too hard to pack out their crap, but I have learned that ATVers are the most likely wilderness travelers to leave a mess. We hurried along and got through the first carry. As expected the bugs were pretty bad and I took a number of mosquito bites while encumbered with the canoe, but it was nowhere near as bad as it has been on some trips along here in the past. On the second carry Ilana pointed out a large patch of burdock right near the start of the portage and we resolved to return here in a day or two to dig up a few burdock roots to add to one of our suppers.
At the end of the portage we loaded up the boat fast to get away from the mosquitoes that were now gathering in larger numbers because we were so much sweatier after two carries. The sight of Island Lake is always gratifying, especially after a large lake crossing, four portages and five lift-overs and four hours of paddling and suffering from bug stress.
As soon as we paddle into the open lake, feel the lake breeze cooling us and realize the work is all behind us, we feel the elation and gratification of having made it home. We have been here six times in just two years and home is exactly what this familiar body of water feels like to us. The first time we came here it took us nearly 5 hours and now we do it easily in 4 hours, but as soon as we paddle along the southern arm from the last portage to where the lake opens up I feel a rush of memory wash over me. I am immediately taken back to the first time we made it this far and Ilana said “Oh Martin…I think we’ve found someplace really special”.
It takes us only a few minutes to paddle north and thread our way through some tiny islands until we see “our” island only three minute’s paddle to the northeast upon which we have camped several times before. The Island is small with two well-established campsites at the north and south sides, but we always camp on the smaller site on the south side. I believe the island is properly called Fire Island, but the first time we came here in 2006 it was blueberry season and the island, being covered in short blueberry shrubs and prickly juniper shrubs, was immediately and affectionately named ‘Blueberry Island’ by us. Our plan for now was to make camp here and move on after a recovery day.
We beached the canoe on the shore and took a quick walk on the island, inspecting the two campsites. We were happy to see that ‘our’ site was in good order, with just a small bit of litter in the fire pit, but otherwise clean. The campsite on the northern shore of the island was not so tidy. The fire pit contained litter and crushed beer cans were strewn all around the stone fire ring. This site is bigger and more open and seems to attract the fly-in fishermen who arrive by float plane. Island Lake has two or three fly-in fishing camps with cabins on them and not all who come in this way are particularly cognizant of wilderness etiquette. One gets the impression these anglers are under the misapprehension that those who operate the fly-in camps make it their business to clean up after their customers. Unfortunately I had forgotten to pack a large garbage bag as I usually do on camping trips and so might not be able to pack out all these beer cans and litter. We gathered up some firewood that had been left here by the slobs and walked back to our side of the island to set up camp.
We made camp by the numbers. Ilana gathered firewood while I strung up the tarp and bug shelter and pitched the tent. Hanging the food barrels took no time at all as there is a big old pine tree on the eastern edge of the island with a good strong limb from which I could rig up a Marrison food hanging rig. With two full barrels of food on this trip, this sort of pulley system is necessary. The mechanical advantage gained makes hoisting up the two heavy barrels quite easy and the rope does not saw into the tree limb.
There was no need to find or fashion a latrine because two years ago I placed two found lengths of two-by-six board which I positioned across a large depression in the middle of the island. Sitting on the boards made a suitably comfortable latrine. The boards were still where I’d left them ready to be used.
With gloves and a trowel Ilana picked out the small bits of burned aluminum foil from the fire and dug out some of the clumpy ash to make room in the fire pit for building a fire for tonight’s supper.
Her last chore was filtering nine litres of lake water into a water bladder and some Nalgene bottles so we would have plenty to drink for a couple of days. She was sitting at the water’s edge doing this when a man and a boy approached our site in their outboard powered bass boat. The man slowed the boat to a stop several meters from shore and began chatting with Ilana. His name was Ian and his young fishing companion was his son William. They were staying at the fly-in camp located less than a kilometer away to the west on Island Lake and they were just heading back to the log cabin after a successful afternoon of fishing. He offered us some of his catch, but Ilana declined as we had all we needed to eat at this point. Ilana learned that he was a regular visitor to Island Lake and had served as a guide in this very area years before. He asked if we knew Steve Galehouse and we were happy to say we did. Small world here. Ilana and Ian exchanged good-byes and the anglers sped off to their cabin for the night.
My last chore was hauling the boat well up on shore, turning it upside down and tying it to a tree to secure it against big winds. With our campsite now setup we treated ourselves to a swim. One of the best features of this particular campsite is the swimming spot on the southwestern tip. There is a small rocky cliff here and the water is deep and free of underwater snags and deadheads, so one can just dive in. It even had a 2’ wide underwater ledge about a foot under the water’s level to make climbing back onto shore easy. We washed off the sweat, sunscreen and dirt from the day’s efforts and then retired to the shade and bug-free security of our tarp and bug shelter.
By 7:00 PM we were pretty hungry and it was time to cook up that steak supper. We built up a fire in the fire pit, set an old rusty grate over the fire ring, and when the grate was scorched clean by the flames we set the large steak across it to cook. Supper consisted of grilled steak and mashed potatoes, followed by coffee. It proved to be a huge supper and left us feeling swollen and lazy in the evening heat. I did the supper dishes and then we spent the rest of the evening stripped down to our shorts to stay cool relaxing and reading in the bug shelter and watching a loon swim past us and a heron soar by. As dusk approached we came out just long enough to brush our teeth and hoist up the food barrel for the night. We returned to the shelter to read until the light completely faded, at which point we slipped into the tent for well-earned sleep despite the sound of booming bullfrogs close by.
DAY 2: CAMPED ON ISLAND LAKE
We slept soundly until 7:00 AM. It was a clear, sunny, morning which slowly succumbed to slow-moving, smeary white clouds which threatened rain later in the day. This was exactly what the weather forecast had promised. The long-range forecast called for 11 days of uninterrupted sunshine with some windy days after today. It would be a minor miracle if that rosy, rainless forecast held up for that long, but the prospect of strong winds would mean we might be windbound on certain days.
Breakfast consisted of bacon, eggs, tortillas and coffee. By the time we finished eating we could hear distant thunder. I took care of the breakfast dishes and shortly thereafter it began to spit on us. By 10:00 AM we were snug and dry under the taut rain tarp, sipping our second cup of coffee, as the spitting turned to a light summer rain. I love that secure, dry feeling of being under a tarp, listening to the patter of rain over my head and feeling the tarp shudder and bulge in the gusts of wind. It’s the feeling of being outside in a rain, feeling every gust, smelling the wet foliage and ground, hearing the rain and enjoying the occasional drop of mist on your face, without the usual attendant feeling of vulnerability and over-exposure that comes from wet hair and damp clothes when being outside in a rain. The weather did not look like it would improve, so we made plans to gather dry wood and kindling later and to pick blueberries. We looked over our topographic map of the area trying to make up our minds where we should go tomorrow if there were no winds..
By 10:30 AM the rain began to lighten up and the skies were not getting any darker. If anything, the sky was clearing a bit so Ilana packed a lunch to go, put the canoe in the water and paddled away from our campsite and down into the southern arm we’d come from just the day before to the portage we’d done yesterday afternoon. We walked the portage all the way to the other end, just past the old rusty, red logger’s bridge in search of that patch of burdock Ilana has spotted the day before. I had brought along the garden trowel and some heavy duty work gloves for the task ahead of me. There was a very large and dense patch of burdock – that thick-stalked, huge leafed plant that looks like rhubarb. I walked into the patch and crouched down to dig up several plants.
The soil here was impressively deep and rich, despite how rocky and granitic this whole area is. It was sweaty work and the deer flies were bad for Ilana who was standing around identifying the local flora, but the deer flies seemed unable to find me with my head hunkered down below the level of the tall plants. Within half an hour I had dug up about ten of the slender, white, carrot-like roots. While I foraged for these Ilana happened to find several wild mint plants and she gathered a few stems from a few plants. When we had gathered what we needed we placed our burdock roots and wild mint leaves in one broad burdock leaf and rolled the leaf up, tying the bundle of edibles with a few strands of wild grass into a neat package.
I should mention here that whenever we forage for wild edibles in this way we take pains to damage as few plants as possible and we never completely denude a patch or a plant of all it’s leaves. We are selective in which plants we pluck (in the case of roots and tubers) and gather only a few leaves from several plant specimens so as to leave the patch of plants in question able to persist and replenish itself in time.
On the way back down the portage to where we’d left our canoe we kept an eye out for completely dead and fallen trees and limbs of about 4 or 5 inches diameter. This was a very dry part of the woods and so was a good place to find very dry lengths of wood that we could bring back to our camp in the canoe so that I could saw them into 1-foot lengths and then split with the hatchet. We found one very nice barkless pine log that was perfect, though because it happened to be in the midst of a small birch stand I thought it was a good hard birch log. I should have realized immediately from how light it was that it was pine and not birch. I only realized my mistake when I was putting the log into the bottom of the canoe. I had hoped to get a nice slow-burning piece of hardwood, but I didn’t feel like enduring the deer flies any longer. This would have to do.
We paddled away from that portage and set out in search of a breezy place to have lunch. We could have paddled back to our site of course, but we wanted to eat ‘out’, just for a change of scenery. We paddled straight east past our sight to the 2nd island after our own. The clouds were largely gone now and the sun shone brilliantly and there were occasional strong gusts of wind from the south east to cool us down on our way. When we got to our lunch spot I left the canoe in the water on the leeward side of the island and tied it securely to a tree. We walked to the very southern tip of the island so that we could sit on the big rocky point there and bask in the sun and let the wind gusts keep the deer flies at bay as we lunched. Lunch today was as easy as it gets, peanut butter and jam spread on tortilla and washed down with lemon-flavoured Gatorade and some gorp and granola bars.
Now happily fed we gathered a few pieces of driftwood and some cut birch logs we found lying about on the shoreline here. Because our campsite is on a small island we try, whenever possible, to find our wood fuel on other shores. A small island can be quickly picked clean of deadwood and left looking unnaturally bare and overly trampled and gathering firewood from other shores helps us avoid contributing to that overly used look of a campsite. With the boat now quite loaded with driftwood we headed back out into the water in the general direction of our site. We’d paddled several hundred meters on our way when Ilana happened to look back and saw our 20 litre dry bag (which held our lunch, water bottles, camera, snacks, first-aid kit, etc) sitting on the shore. We paddled back to get it and went back out on our westward way.
We were paddling past the big island just east of our small island when we decided to take a little walk on this large island. It is called Tower island. Tower Island features one huge hill, making it the highest point of land in the Island Lake system and from it’s summit one can get a nearly panoramic view of Island Lake. We paddled close to the southern shore of Tower Island looking for the tiny rock cairn at the shore that marks where the obscure trail to the summit begins. We hauled the wood freighted canoe up onto shore, tied it up. and trudged up the hill. The view from the top is impressive and satisfying, since there are few places on Island Lake itself which offer such views from on high and big open areas. All of the Island Lake & Barren Conservation Reserve is quite flat and Island Lake itself is densely wooded, with trees growing right up to the shores all around with few exceptions. Here was an opportunity to walk around in a large open space of tall grasses, short shrubs and see white oaks and sumac trees. We also found more wild mint here. At the very top of the hill is a large rock cairn, about four or five feet high which marks the location where an old firewatch tower once stood. There are no physical remains here of that structure that we could see, but several meters away from the cairn, at all four compass points, lay large heavy rocks with old rusty wire around them. These would have served as anchors for guy lines to support the tower which once stood where the cairn is now.
Having stared off into the far distance and stretched our legs enough for an afternoon we walked back down to the canoe and returned to camp by 2:00 PM. Ilana immediately sat down at the water’s edge and began washing the dirt off the burdock root and using the course, gritty sand to scrub off the thin brown skin of the root, exposing the white meat inside.
In the meantime I broke out my folding camp saw and bucked some of the larger pieces of driftwood into suitable lengths for burning. If anyone wonders what sort of saw to bring on a camping trip I can heartily endorse this one. It’s extremely lightweight, folds down to a very small size and it works very well. When I’d bucked enough pieces I split the one-foot lengths into halves and quarters with the hatchet. To avoid a potentially serious injury I use the hatchet more like a splitting wedge instead of like an axe: I sink the hatchet into the end of the wood with a short quick whack and when it’s just barely stuck there I raised both the hatched and the piece of wood and bring them down together while holding the wood with my other gloved hand. When the butt end of the wood hits the ground the head of the hatchet sinks deeper into the wood and I slowly split the wood this way instead of with large axe swings which could miss. If the wood seems like it will split easily I sink the head into the end as described above and then use another piece of wood as a mallet and drive the hatchet deeper into the wood to split the wood. Within 20 minutes I had a good sized pile of split and quartered wood and fine kindling. Seeing me use the hatchet this way put all of her fears to rest.
It was now late afternoon when Ilana heard human voices – singing voices in fact. We looked to the southwest in the direction leading to the portage to Farm Creek and we saw two canoes rounding the point and heading our way. There were three people in each boat, loaded with camping gear and the 3 girls in the last boat were singing. They were all young people, in their late teens and twenties and certainly a lot cheerier and energetic after a sweaty portage than we had been the day before. We greeted them from shore as they paddled past our campsite and they told us they were cottagers from Wah-Wash-Kesh embarked on a loop trip beginning on Wah-Wash-Kesh, then here to Island Lake, then west into Wolf Lake and from there through a series of lakes to the south leading to the Magnetawan River which would lead them back to Wah-Wash-Kesh. An ambitious loop with lots of portaging. This would be the last contact we would have with anyone else for the next 9 days.
They moved on to the next island (Tower Island) and made camp on a large and heavily used camping spot on a point on its western shore. We would have neighbours, but they proved to be respectfully quiet. Their timing had been lucky, as the skies were darkening with clouds and the wind had been picking up in the last couple of hours and rain was clearly coming at any time.
We decided to use what little time we had before the rain came to take our daily bath at our diving spot. We didn’t luxuriate this time. We just stripped down, dove in to wet ourselves, climbed ashore to soap ourselves up with liquid bio-degradable soap and dove back in quickly to rinse off. The wind was strong now so drying off happened quickly.
Now refreshed, Ilana started a fire to boil the cleaned and sliced burdock root which we would eat as a side dish with tonight’s supper. She was delighted with how fast the fire got hot and stayed hot using the split wood. This was the reason for buying and bringing a hatchet. Round sticks and logs just don’t burn very well compared to split wood, and hardwoods tend to smolder rather than burn hot unless they are fussed with. The result of my chopping and splitting efforts was a less fussy fire that burned hot and produced long-lasting embers. We agreed the hatchet was worth it’s weight and that we’d bring it along on subsequent trips.
Our neighbours on Tower Island in the meantime had been pitching their tents and the rain began to fall right after they finished doing so. The wind was now from the southwest and the rain was coming down hard, but it coincided with happy hour, so it was of no concern. We broke out the plastic flask of Jamieson Irish Whiskey and poured ourselves some modest drinks as thunder, lightning, and driving rain happened all around and over us. There’s something satisfying about knowing that all of one’s gear is dry and secure under a broad tarp. Even if the rain did not abate we would be able to cook at ease in dry comfort on our little Trangia stove. I felt a bit sorry for our neighbours on Tower Island though. They either had no tarp or hadn’t had time to string one up, meaning they were all stuck inside, three to a tent.
Fortunately for our neighbours the storm passed over by 6:00 PM, leaving a bright blue sky with only scattered clouds. We emerged from under the tarp and immediately began making supper over the fire – pasta noodles with spaghetti sauce (re-hydrated) and instant coffee. We ate it outside by the fire, sitting on a makeshift bench - a wooden board resting on two short stumps of cut wood. As usual Ilana had prepared and cooked the supper so doing the dishes was my job.
After supper we reclined under the tarp in our camp chairs sipping coffee, reading and making plans for the following day. Our intention was to break camp after breakfast tomorrow and paddle northeast to where Farm creek spills into Island Lake from Loon Lake and paddle upstream into Loon Lake to camp there for a few days. Then we would paddle back down into Island Lake to its northernmost bay and make camp on a spot we’d examined the year before and deemed suitable for a campsite. We referred to it as ‘oil can site’ because the spot had been used long ago by others who’d left behind some ancient rusty oil cans. Having made camp there we would locate and walk the portage into Rat Lake to the north of Island Lake and make a day trip into Rat Lake with a view to making camp there on another day. Once we’d had our fill of that lake we’d portage back into Island Lake and portage into Myrtle Lake and then Dutton Lake, which we’d camped on last August and which we’d found lovely and quiet. With these ambitious plans in mind we prepared for bed – brushing our teeth, hanging up the food barrel, and drowning the fire pit. We were asleep in our bags by 10:30 PM.
DAY THREE: A CHANGE IN PLANS
We awoke at 6:00 AM, fully rested after a solid, uninterrupted sleep. Ilana crawled out first, fetched the food barrel, started the fire, and made a breakfast of hot oatmeal and coffee. I began preparing for our move to another campsite by staying in the tent and deflating our mattresses, rolling them up and stuffing our sleeping bags into a compression sac. I then crawled out of the tent to lower the other barrel and retrieved the rope used for hanging the barrels. Lastly I removed the fly from the tent and hung it out over one of the tarp lines to dry in the sun and breeze. We were headed for Loon Lake and eagerly breaking camp on this beautiful, sunny, sparsefly clouded and windless morning.
We sat on the crude bench by the fire, transfixed by an enterprising gull or tern. It was putting on an impressive aerobatic display over the water right in front of our campsite, soaring, swooping and diving into the water after fish. We had front-row seats as it plunged under the water from a great height and came up with a hapless fish in it’s beak, which it swallowed whole after circling round over us. We watched for a good 15 minutes as it wheeled about in the air and made multiple dives.
It was right around this time that Ilana stood up and complained of a very sharp twinge in her lower back. Ilana and I both suffer from acute back pains from time to time. Mine tends to come on me when I have been sitting for long stretches of time, but Ilana’s back troubles are less predictable. Earlier that morning she had been stomping on some long thick branches to break them into proper lengths for the fire and she had stomped very hard on one branch that would not yeild. This shock on her leg and spine might have been what did it this time. With every passing minute her lower back pain grew more painful and she was walking more stiffly.
Within 30 minutes the pain was so intense that even walking slowly was painful. Sitting, lifting, and paddling were absolutely out of the question. She needed to lie down right away so I unrolled the mattresses and inflated them and put one atop the other to make it comfier for her under the tarp. She downed a couple of Advil tablets and lay there motionless waiting for the pain killers to do their work. We would not be travelling anywhere today since these occasional crises of back pain can last hours or days. As bad as the pain was, she agonized more about how this episode might spoil our trip. How long would we have to stay camped here? Should we just abort our plans and go home when she felt well enough to sit in the canoe, or should we just stay camped here until she made a complete recovery? I tried to console her, but she couldn’t help feeling a bit guilty about possibly cutting our trip short.
Since we were not going anywhere today I put the dried tent fly back on the tent and rehung the food barrels and unstuffed the sleeping bags. We would be staying here at least one more day, no matter what. We would just have to wait and see how long this back pain would last.
To our delight Ilana seemed to be feeling significantly better by 11:00 AM. The pain killers were doing their job and lying flat for a few hours seemed to be safeguarding her against further aggravating her injury. She was still stiff and could only walk slowly and carefully, but experience has taught her that her condition improves if she engages in whatever activity doesn’t hurt her after the initial acute pain abates. Paddling, lift-overs, and portages were still out of question for today, but she was able to walk about our small island, gathering small handfulls of branches and gathering blueberries. While on the north side of the island I found a good quality pocket knife sitting in the grass. I seem to find such treasures on most camping trips. As it turned out, the wind had been picking up steadily since we awoke and it would not have been a good day to be paddling. By 11:00 AM we were in fact windbound, so we had not wasted a day at all.
I must say Ilana was remarkably high spirited and cheery about the whole thing after her initial dissapointment wore off. I would have been whining the whole time if I’d been in her shoes.
We spent the day lazing about, picking berries, reading, filtering a bit more water. I carried on as usual – chopping wood, bathing, shaving, washing my dirty clothes in our large cooking pot and hanging it to dry on our tarp lines. During the hottest part of the afternoon Ilana rested in my lap and napped – the best treatment for back pain is sleeping through it.
By 5:00 PM Ilana was feeling markedly better. The back pain was much better. The fact that she’d been able to nap in the afternoon was very reassuring to her, since it meant she could lie comfortably enough to sleep through the night.
The wind had been worsening all day and I was worried about it. I had to restring the tarp to prevent it from flapping loudly from the stronger wind gusts. I had a bad feeling a serious storm might be brewing. The wind was so strong that making a fire was unwise, so this meant we’d be cooking under the tarp on our stove. To my surprise and pleasure the wind died down very quickly in the span of half an hour.
It was about this time that we realized that the six young canoeists on Tower Ilsand were no longer camped there. They’d been there that morning, but had quietly broken camp at some point and moved on. Paddling in the high winds would have made for heavy going, but with keeled canoes and three paddlers to a boat they would surely have been fine.
Supper that night was pasta and spaghetti sauce. Ilana finds it easier to make the same meal two nights in a row. It makes menu planning and meal preparation easier. For desert we sipped hot chocolate and toasted marshmellows over the fire. The evening proved to be cool compared to the evening before so we donned our polar fleece jackets and sat close together under the tarp and read until light failed.
That night we both slept soundly without interruption.
DAY FOUR: A BETTER DAY
We awoke at 6:30 AM and were both out of the tent by 7:00 AM. It was cool and cloudy and there was a strong breeze. Ilana was feeling somewhat stiff and we agreed to wait until after breakfast to see if her back was well enough to paddle. Breakfast was hot oatmeal with freshly picked wild blueberries and hot coffee.
As we ate Ilana suggested we test her back by trying to paddle a short distance from our campsite and back. After breakfast dishes and morning ablutions we put the canoe in the water and Ilana climbed gingerly into her bow seat and we pushed off from shore. We paddled straight south to the shore opposite our campsite. So far so good. Paddling was fine. It was causing her no pain. From there we paddled over to the site where the six young people had camped the day before. We climbed out onto shore to see what sort of condition they left their campsite in. We were gratified to see that they were conscientious and left no litter behind. We then paddled back to shore. The verdict was in. Ilana’s back was well enough to paddle, though climbing in and out of the boat was still difficult for her, so wherever we went, Ilana was to do no unnecessary bending, though she was confident she could portage the packs provided I picked them up and put them on her. With any luck, her back would loosen up still more with a bit of exercise.
Back at our site we broke camp. 90 minutes later we had the packs, barrels and our yellow dry bag all packed up and in the boat. We did a last inspection of our site to ensure we were leaving nothing behind and the site in better condition than we’d found it and off we went for Loon Lake at 10:40 AM.
We paddled north and then east around Tower Island and to the north shore of Island Lake to the mouth of the north arm of Farm Creek, which folks in these parts prefer to call Loon Creek. We were assisted across the open water by a wind from the southeast and we found ourselves at the mouth of Loon Creek and paddling past a hunting camp cabin. From Island Lake the creek goes straight north a very short distance and then turns sharply east.
About 15 minutes later we came to the first of about 5 lift-overs on Loon Creek. This first one is very high and steep and one must land the canoe on the right shore, empty the boat and portage around it. Ilana snapped a few photos of me as I carried the canoe around the dam. Despite her stiff back she gamely helped me move the packs and barrels.
The flora on Loon Creek is a bit different than the arm of Farm Creek that flows out of Island Lake. Here there was far more pickerel weed and the water is densely filled with water lillies which line both shores for long stretches like a bridal path.
The other beaver dam lift-overs were very straight-forward and with a bit of assistance from Ilana (whose back seemed to be getting better as the morning wore on) we easily dragged the boats up and over one dam after another.
I wish I could say the portages were so easy. The first portage is not long, but it was harder this year than it was last year when we paddled to Loon Lake on a day excursion from our campsite on Blueberry Island. Very high waters from spring flood had moved dozens of very large rocks downstream blocking the place where we usually landed the canoe for the portage. As a result we had to land the boat sooner, making the portage a few dozen meters longer than before. It was no great hardship, but it’s mildly discouraging when mother nature makes a short portage a tiny bit longer.
As if to balance things out for us, the second portage was shorter. The second portage happens to be at an an old logging bridge and last year we had to take out on the left shore and walk across the old log bridge to the right shore and finished the portage on the right shore. But with water levels being higher at this time of year we were able to take out on the right shore just before the bridge and portage along the right shore, thus avoiding having to carry the canoe across that old log bridge. At the put-in we stopped for a snack. The cool of the morning had given way to clearing skies and heat. It felt good to sit on the big granite slope and cool off and replenish ourselves before moving further upstream.
The third and final portage was necessitated by shallow water. The creek eventually gets too shallow and so we landed the canoe in the grassy floodplain on the right of the now narrow and shallow ribbon of creek and we portaged along this shore to the southern end of Loon Lake. This was the longest portage, but it was in an open grassy floodplain so bugs were not a problem because of the nice breeze blowing through here. We had arrived at Loon Lake at 1:40 PM, three hours from when we left our site, fully half of this time had been spent on portages and dragging/lifting over beaver dams. As if to greet us, we heard a loon’s tremolo as we paddled into Loon Lake proper.
Loon Lake is an uncommonly beautiful lake. The water is orangey with tanins. The shoreline is very different from the shores of Island Lake where the trees grow densely right up to the very edge of the water. Here the shores are more open, with more bare rock showing, covered with mosses and lichens, more brush and scrub as the rocky shores slope up and away gradually from the water’s edge until they come to the tree line, which is overwhelmingly made up of jack pine instead of Island Lake’s white pines, birches and maples. As we paddled north along the western shore looking for a good spot to make camp we were impressed with how the granite here was rich with thin pink veins and great chunky veins and blocks of gleaming white quartz, which in places looked like ice. The gently sloping rocky shorelines and open areas reminded us of canoe trips we’d taken in the Kawartha highlands.
On the west shore, only halfway up to where the lake suddenly elbows towards the east we saw an old stone fire ring on the western shore. Where possible it’s always best to camp on an established campsite so as to restrict and minimize one’s environmental impact, so we beached the canoe on the smooth gentle slope of stone shore and climbed up to a flat green plateau of grass and moss covered ground which had been used as a campsite by previous visitors. The fire ring appeared not to have been used in many years and there was no other recent sign of human activity on the plateau either, but there were clear signs of recent bear visitations. Moss and large chunks of spalling rock were overturned where a bear had searched for grubs and there was recently dropped bear scat in a few places. That’s never a great sign when looking for a campsite, but then it might be hard to find any bit of waterfront real estate on this lake that wasn’t regularly visited by black bears. Blueberries bushes, which bears like as much as we do, were growing everywhere around this lake and they were in season. We had decided against this site because it was quite buggy when we noticed a recently disarticulated animal leg -possibly a young deer’s leg - lying on the very spot where we’d have liked to have pitched a tent. The femur and lower leg bone were still connected to one another with gristle. This was likely dragged here by coyotes, but it was sufficiently macabre to make us keep looking for a better spot to camp.
When we’d come here last year on a day trip I had made note of a good potential campsite along this shore, near where the lake bends to the east, so we resumed paddling north, hugging the western shore and looking for a good spot. As we were approaching the last stretch of this shore before it turned east we spotted a fire ring. A moment later I spied an old wooden picnic table a few meters away from the fire ring. When I announced this to Ilana she was delighted. A picnic table is a real luxury on a campsite and although I prefer a site free of such constructions I couldn’t deny how practical and comfortable a table like that is on a site. One gets tired of doing all one’s cooking and eating low to the ground.
We paddled a few meters past the fire ring and around a rocky point into a shallow bay and beached the canoe. The site in question was on a point and east-facing, which meant it would get a good breeze and lots of light throughout the day. We walked over to the fire ring and table and we were delighted at what we found. The sight had been used as a campsite in the past, obviously, but not in a long time. The fire ring was grown over with vegetation. An old pine had fallen some years ago and it’s branches crowded the fire ring. The picnic table was old, but solid enough to use. It was no doubt flown in here by the owners of the fly-in camp. The site itself was sparsely treed with jack pines, except for one white pine by the shore close to the fire ring and the ground was covered in pine needles, moss and thigh-high ferns. Access to water was easy as the flat plateau we were standing on eased gradually down to the water’s edge. Best of all, although we were on a point, there were plenty of trees throughout the site to break up strong winds and behind the site (to the west) was higher ground covered in denser jackpine, completely protecting us from western winds. Here was a nearly ideal site: established, but with all the aesthetic appeal of a virgin bush site.
The only downside was all the bear scat. In surveying the site for where we’d string up the tarp and pitch the tent we came across three mounds of bear scat, and just to the south, along the shore were recently overturned rocks. Clearly one or more bears passed through here with some regularity. Oh well, you can’t have everything.
This fuelled my concern about where we’d hang the food barrels. There was no shortage of mature trees, but they were all jack pines, which have branches shooting out horizontally all around their trunks from the ground up, making it impossible to string a food-hanging rope without first cutting branches and limbs from the tree. I was not about to do anything of the sort. I don’t even like snapping off dead branches from a living tree for firewood, collecting fallen branches and driftwood only. The only suitable tree was the lone white pine by the shore, close to the fire ring and so all too close to where we’d be eating, sleeping and living. The point of hanging one’s food is to make it hard to get for critters, including bears, and if possible, a short walk from one’s site so that if a bear finds the barrels, he’s not in one’s camp. I searched for quite a while for a suitable tree further from our site, but there were simply no other candidates.
We were almost giddy from the beauty of the site. Because it was on a point right where the lake bends it offered a beautiful view of both arms of Loon Lake and there was so much light and air moving through this sparsely treed area that there were no bugs to harrass us. That, along with the other practical considerations above, made it just about the best camping site we’d ever happened upon.
Ilana set about, with trowel and work gloves in hand, to dig out the old fire pit of grass and debris (mostly faded beer cans and rusty old food tins) as I snapped off some of the dead and punky limbs from that fallen tree which crowded the fire ring. She then built up the fire ring to her satisfaction. The only thing missing was a fire grate to put over it which she found about a half hour later hanging on a tree limb.
Before long the tarp and bug shelter was strung up, the tent pitched in an open grass patch surrounded by ferns, the food barrels hung up from a high limb on the white pine. The next order of business was finding a good spot to make a suitable latrine. Immediately behind our site, just a few meters from our tarp and pitch ran a long 10-foot high ridge of moss-covered granite. Over and beyond it was a small open meadow of grass and ferns. There we found ‘crack rock’ a rougly cubical granite boulder, approximately two feet high. The rock was split in two clean halves, as if some massive axe had cleaved it vertically all the way through to the bare ground it sat on. Ilana took one look at it and was inspired to sit on it, resting her bum over the crack. She declared it to be the perfect size. There would be no need to dig a cat hole or fashion some crude thing to sit on. One could just sit there and toss a bit of dirt into the crack when one was done – a natural thunderbox. And as if this didn’t look comfy enough, there was a tree behind the rock with a horizontal limb stretching out over the rock, from which I could hang some mosquito netting to make the user safe from distracting bites. It was all getting a little too good to be true.
By now it was late afternoon and we were tired from the trip here and sweaty from making camp during the hottest part of the day. We walked to the point of rock where we’d landed the canoe for a swim. The rocky beach here is nice, but the rocks in some places are dotted with dried bear and beaver scat. Ilana went in first (as usual) and using her swim googles she looked about underwater to see if there are any underwater snags, deadheads and rocks we need to avoid bashing into.
After snapping a few photos of her swimming in the orangey water I dove in after her for my bath. We sunned ourselves dry in the hot breeze and enjoyed how the low hill behind (to the west of) our site was not so high as to block the sunset. We would be able to see the sunrise in the morning in front of our site, enjoy it all day long until it settled behind the gently rising slope behind our site.
It was now happy hour, so we settled under the tarp in our Therm-a-rest chairs, sipping a few ounces of Irish whisky and congratulating ourselves on a good day’s work and Ilana’s fortitude in achieving this much with a troubled back.
For supper that night Ilana made shepherd’s pie – a platter of mashed potatoes, ground beef and corn and gravy (all rehydrated), followed by coffee. It was a hearty and tasty meal and she managed to put it together in just minutes. After doing the dishes we spent the rest of the evening admiring our view of the lake, enjoying the loon calls as they plowed gently along on water as we indulged in fantasies of somehow acquiring this tiny patch of paradise and living hear in a tiny two-room cabin.
By 9:30 PM the sun was setting and the mosquitoes were out in force so we called it a night and slipped into our tent. The night sounds here were different than they had been on Island Lake. There were fewer frogs, but frequent and loud loon calls and a numerous Whippoorwills calling all around us. I had a hard time falling asleep from the racket. I could also make out the unmistakeable sound of a beaver gnawing away at wood. I couldn’t help worrying that he was chiseling away at some tree that would come crashing down on us. This irrational concern was brought to mind because on Blueberry Island there were several birches that had been brought down by beavers, including one full grown birch that is half-eaten through and leaning perillously over an established tent pad. The night was cool and windless and our blue tent was lit up from the outside by a big bright gibbous moon. The moon was waxing so within two nights it would be full.
DAY FIVE: PADDLING EAST ON LOON LAKE
Ilana had a fitful sleep and tossed quite a bit overnight, which affected my sleep as well, so we slept in until 7:00 AM and crawled out of the tent some time after that. Breakfast was our usual hot oatmeal with blueberries freshly picked from the evening before with coffee. It’s hard to tire of oatmeal when it’s loaded with brown sugar, raisins, chopped walnuts and fresh blueberries.
It was laundry day for Ilana so she took some of the clothes she’d worn in the last couple of days and let them soak in our big cooking pot full of lake water before changing the water, adding biogedgradble soap and scrubbing the clothes the old fashioned way in the pot. Meanwhile I decided to try out our solid stone latrine. Alas, our all-natural mini outhouse did not prove as comfortable to me as it had for Ilana. Seems that a boy’s bits and pieces get in the way in such a setup (I should have realized it upon looking at it), so I would need to contrive something more comfortable for myself.
As Ilana was nearly finished doing her laundry she needed to hang up her clothes to dry, so I took an old abandoned length of nylon rope I’d found when we’d arrived the day before and strung it up between two trees for her.
With breakfast, ablutions and chores out of the way, we were ready to do a little exploring of Loon Lake. Whenever we are camped on a lake we like to paddle it’s entire circumference to get a feel for the whole lake, but also to identify plants, discover wild edibles, enjoy some wildlife sightings, and look for potential water and portage routes into nearby lakes and ponds.
The main part of Loon Lake is like an upside down L, with one arm running south from our campsite and a longer arm running east from our site The longer east arm narrows and shallows in two places where beaver’s have made small dams across these narrows, effectively dividing the lake into 3 parts. We were camped in the large main portion (Loon Lake 1), but we were eager to paddle into the two other sections: Loon Lake 2 and 3. When we visited this lake last year from Island Lake we never got into the 2nd and 3rd parts because we were pressed for time and water levels were so low it would have meant a long dirty wade through a mud flat just to get to the beaver dam. There would be no mud flat in the way this year and we were not pressed for time. We would begin at our campsite and move clockwise all around the lake. We packed a lunch since this would take several hours.
Just before we climbed into the boat Ilana spotted a lovely blue-tailed Five-Lined Skink. Regrettably it did not stay long enough to be photographed, but we at least saw a few more of these tiny lizards in the days which followed. The western shore immediately north of our site was a high rocky sloping hill, covered in moss, wild grasses and shrubs. Right along the shore here we found an uncommon wild orchid called a Grass Pink, (though this variety was purple, not pink) and a yellow Fen Orchid.
We followed the shoreline as it turned abruptly east. Here on the north shore, almost directly opposite the point of our campsite, were two overturned aluminum fishing boats which had been stashed. The operators of the fly-in fishing camp on Island Lake stash boats like this for their clients to use (along with picnic tables). This allows them to fish on the lakes surrounding Island Lake without having to portage their large boats out of Island Lake. They just park their primary boat or canoe at the start of the portage, walk the portage into the satellite lake and hop into one of the boats stashed on the shore of that lake. But the boats are always stashed where the client would first come out onto the lake. There were two boats stashed at the southern tip of Loon Lake, exactly where one would expect, close to the portage from Loon Creek into Loon Lake, but the two boats before us now were much too far from the entry point into Loon Lake. We had puzzled over this last year as well. We shrugged our shoulders and continued following the shoreline eastwards.
It took only a few minutes to reach the end of the first part of Loon Lake. We paddled towards the low beaver dam until the water grew too shallow, at which point we stepped out of the boat into the water and waded it to the dam and lifted the empy boat over it and into the deep water on the other side. We climbed back in and paddled east, still following the north shoreline. After the narrow part, the lake opens into a round expanse contained by slightly higher elevation than contains Loon Lake 1. As we paddled into this round part I saw a very large turtle, perhaps 15” across, sunning itself on a large rock in the water, but before Ilana could get a good look at it, it heard us coming towards it and slid beneath the water.
We landed the canoe on the north shore near the opening of the round lake to climb up the hill. From here we could get a good view of Loon Lake 1 and 2 with their open slopes of granite and gleaming white quartz veins. While up here we identified several species of plants, including Serviceberry bushes which still had some berries on them.
Once back in the boat we paddled along the north shore and into the long, rocky narrows. The water levels here were low but didn’t require any wading. We poled our way along with a bit of effort and lifted the canoe over two small beaver dams and one high one until we came into the 3rd part of Loon Lake. Loon Lake 3 is a very different place. The lake sits in a deep bowl of granite. The hills surrounding it are steep and these soon rise higher and turn into sheer vertical cliff walls. There is less wind here as a result making for a flatter and unnaturally quiet lake. This deep bowl is by no means featureless though. The steep high walls are full of differently colored quartzes and brown and rusty lichens. There is a large low island near the western part of the lake and it is nearly completely burned over, so the limbless, barkless scorched trunks give this part of the lake a graveyard feel. There are two deep bays in the eastern portion and thin, high, little waterfalls trickle down from on high into the basin.
At the far eastern end of the lake we could see a narrow ribbon of water flowing into the lake through tall swamp grashes and shrubs. We forced the canoe through this part until we came to a completely overgrown 8’ beaver dam. We tied the canoe here and climbed up onto the dam to look over the small deep pond. Ilana spotted yellow pond lilies here and she leaned out over the water to pluck some flower buds. These contain yellow seeds which apparently can be roasted and popped like popcorn seeds. After gathering a handful we climbed down the dam and back into the boat and began the return journey following the south shoreline now.
It had been sunny all morning and I’d been paddling shirtless and in shorts and sandals most of the time, but now the sky was clouding over and we were paddling into a minor headwind. The temperature dropped markedly and I had to roll down my sleeves in order to paddle comfortably whenever the sun wasn’t breaking through the clouds. We were back in Loon Lake 2 when hunger set in for both of us and we left the south shore to paddle across to the north one where there was a high, raised rock upon which we could have our lunch of peanut butter and jam tortilla wraps and Gatorade.
We resumed our westward course along the south shore after lunch when Ilana had us beach the canoe on the shore where she spotted an unfamiliar plant. She was on shore with her plant identification guide in hand and I was sitting in the boat watching her when I spotted small red berries growing amidst a cranberry bush. I told Ilana, but she was incredulous. Cranberries? Now? Impossible. That would be months too early, yet there were bright red marble-sized berries there. Upon closer examination they were in fact wintergreen berries (even better!) growing beneath a cranberry bush. They were completely out of season and huge for wintergreen berries and so were likely left-over from the late fall and winter crop of last year’s berries. These are among our favourite wild edibles. They taste like sweet, minty pears with the texture of soft mealy apples. The leaves are also minty and make a mouth-freshening tea. After harvesting this rare find we returned to camp around 2:30 PM.
Ilana extracted the seeds from the pond lily bud and tried roasting them in a pot with a little oil to see if they would pop like popcorn, but she had no luck. The seeds are soft and have a slippery coating. We’ll have to try this again another time after letting them dry out and harden like popcorn kernels. She also gathered some leaves from a fern-like plant that grew all over our campsite – sweet fern (not an actual fern) and steeped them in hot water to brew an herbal tea. It proved delicious.
While she was busy with her wild edibles I got down to fashioning a simple latrine setup for myself – tying three smooth, solid lengths of driftwood together with bungie cords into a kind of small travois configuration. I then dug a small cat hole in our latrine area and rested the simple contraption over it, resting the wide end on higher ground. It was perfectly comfortable to sit on. It proved so comfortable and practical (it’s even portable) that I’m thinking of patenting the idea – the CHEEK-SPREADER 2008 (registered trademark) ! Okay, so it’s not a great invention, but it sure beats squatting uncomfortably every day. The name says it all. ;-)
My next afternoon chore was sawing the lengths of driftwood we’d gathered from the shore and halving and quartering them with the hatchet so we’d have enough firewood for a day or two. The site was so lovely and comfortable that I was prepared to stay here the rest of the trip and Ilana, who usually pushes to break camp every few days to move on, was coming on board with me.
The mid-afternoon sun was still beaming down on the east-facing shore in front of our campsite and at Ilana’s suggestion we tried swimming here instead of the north-facing shore we’d used the day before. It was a far better spot for swimming. The bottom was sandy, unslippery and shallow diving was safe. Oh…and there was no animal poo on the shore.
After sun drying ourselves we withdrew to the shade of our tarp for happy hour. We were sitting there reading and listening for bird calls (we’re trying to learn to identify birds by their calls) when I spotted some movement on the eastern shore directly opposite our campsite. I turned to look and saw it was a black animal – large and moving casually southwards along the rocky shore. “Bear” I whispered to Ilana. Excitedly, I jumped up and told Ilana to get the camera from the yellow dry bag as I fumbled about for the binoculars in the pocket of my PFD. I grabbed the camera from Ilana's hands and raced out as quietly as I could towards our shore for a better look. This was a big deal for us. We have done a lot of camping and seen a lot of evidence of bears, but have never seen one in the bush. Ilana followed me out to where I was crouched down on one knee and I pointed it out to her. After getting a good look through the binoculars I handed them to Ilana. It was a beautiful thing to behold – a huge, full grown male. Nothing cuddly about this fellow. His coat was rich black and shiny and he moved fluidly from blueberry bush to blueberry bush delicately grazing for berries. He moved up down from the shore to the tree line and back again, slowly pulling further away from us to the south. Sometimes he was on all fours with head low and sometimes he lay stretched out on his belly to get the lowest berries. We watched in awe for a solid half hour.
We spoke softly, not wanting to startle him or pique his curiousity. I tried taking photos, but they all made him seem tiny at this distance and he was moving further away with every minute. The highlight of that sighting for me was when Ilana said something to me as I was staring at him through the binnies and he heard something from our direction and turned to look at me. Through the binoculars I was eye-to-eye with him. After a moment of staring directly at one another he turned his brown face away as if if completely unconcerned and went back to his blueberry bushes.
Eventually he made his way round a point on the eastern shore and we lost sight of him. We were on a high from having had this remarkably long viewing opportunity when I suggested we get in the canoe, paddle out into the lake around the point and see if we could get a closer look at him from the water. Chances are he was still feeding along the shoreline just out of sight around that point. Ilana nixed that idea, but she changed her mind minutes later when I suggested it a second time. We both sprang into action. We sealed up the open food barrel, hoisted it up into the air, then Ilana fetched the binnies and camera while I carried the paddles and PFDs to the canoe. We were in the boat and paddling across towards the eastern shore in no time flat.
The wind from earlier in the afternoon had steadily increased and was blowing out of the south right into our faces. As we neared the point we stopped talking, signalling to one another only in gestures regarding how to angle the boat against the wind, how fast to go, etc. The bear might be anywhere on the other side of the point. We rounded the point and paddled quickly but quietly close to shore looking ahead and up beside us on the raised plateau of ground on the eastern shore. Ilana spotted the bear first and pointed eagerly. The bear was up on the flat plateau, perhaps a dozen meters away from the water’s edge, with it’s back to us and head down. The plateau was sparcely wooded and he seemed to be looking down, possibly digging or turning up rocks in search of grubs. Ilana prepared to take a photo as I did my best to hold the boat in a fixed position against the wind. It was impossible to do so paddling by myself so I let the wind push the bow around (which sits a bit higher in the water than the stern ) so that I was backpaddling into the wind. This allowed the boat to rock less as Ilana hurriedly tried to get a clear photo. Unfortunately the bear was not cooperating. He was close, but still had his back to us and his head down, busy with something there. I was beginning to tire from backpaddling when the bear lifted his head and turned. He moved a metre or so before turning and seeing us. The sound of the wind had drowned out the sound of my backstrokes and he seemed surprised to see us, but unconcerned. He stared at us for a few seconds and then he turned his head away from us, as if camera shy, and moved away and out of sight over the ridge. He didn’t seem startled or scared. He wasn’t hurried at all, but rather moved fluidly as if he wanted to be left alone. We turned the boat around and paddled further south and away from the shore in the hopes of getting another glimpse of him as he moved inland, but he was gone. Fortunately Ilana had gotten a photo of the bear when he was looking straight at us, but the camera setting was off, so the photo came out over-exposed.
Elated now, we paddled downwind back to our campsite. We giggled at our good fortune of actually getting a closer look at the bear and a photo to boot. It was also comforting to see that the bear wanted nothing to do with us. When he’d seen us from across the lake earlier he seemed unconcerned, but seeing us closer had make him uncomfortable enough to leave. This was no human-habituated nuisance bear about which we needed to worry. It was now 6:30 PM.
An hour later we put supper together: shepherd’s pie and then hot chocolate and roasted marshmellows for dessert. After doing dishes and brushing our teeth we put away the food barrel and ducked under the tarp to bask in the afterglow of a good day’s exploration and wildlife sightings. At around 8:45 PM we both heard some sort of growling, yelping and yipping noises. Ilana had heard them last night in the tent but I had not. It came and went several times. It was either wolves or coyotes. We didn’t hear the unmistakeable sound of a howling wolf, so it was probably coyotes.
By 9:00 PM we were tuckered out and prepped for bed. As usual I went into the tent with our books (I love to read a bit before going to sleep), our air mattresses, and two Nalgene bottles (one filled with water and an empty bottle to pee in during the night if necessary). On this trip we tried something different with our tent setup. On all our prior trips we used a tough, plastic groundsheet underneath the tent to prevent dampness and moisture from getting into the tent from below, but on this trip I decided to forego a groundsheet in favour of a lighter plastic liner to go inside the tent on the floor. A groundsheet protects the floor of one’s tent but is not a foolproof means of keeping water from coming in from below since water can pool under the tent in a downpour and get between the floor of the tent and the plastic groundsheet beneath, wetting one’s mattresses and sleeping bags. Having a plastic liner inside the tent ensures that even if the tent is sitting in a pool of water and the floor is soaked, no water can wet one’s gear. The only downside of this scheme was that our mattresses tended to slip around more during the night. We like to place our mattresses side-by-side in the tent so we can snuggle up to one another, but the mattresses would not stay put on the slippery plastic liner and kept sliding apart during the night. To prevent this I took an 8-foot length of thin, stretchy, shockcord from my utility kit and tied the two ends together to form a closed loop. I then put an overhand knot in the middle of loop to create two connected loops (like a figure eight). I stretched a loop over each of our mattresses so they would now stay side-by-side during the night, turning our narrow, single mattresses into a wider, double mattress.
The only other thing we did differently this night was to place a metal pot gripper handle into our large aluminum pot and to leave this in the tent’s vestibule. If a bear did come sniffing around our tent at night we could shake the pot to produce a really loud, resounding, noise to dissuade it. As I lay in the tent, with the moonlight making our tent glow a pale blue, I wondered if all the thoughts of bears this evening would leave me too excited and nervous to sleep. Would I sleep with one eye open tonight? Nope. It was a windless night and all was quiet (except for the Whippoorwills which started their racket promptly at 9:30 every night) and I slept soundly, awakened only when Ilana nudged me to roll over because my snores were keeping her up.
DAY 6: A HOT DAY
We were out of the tent shortly after 6:00 AM in time to see the end of the sunrise over a misty and glassy flat Loon Lake. We got the fire going, the food barrel down, fixed breakfast (oatmeal and blueberries again, with coffee). I was sitting out by the shore in my Therm-a-rest chair, sipping my second cup of coffee and taking in the view of the lake when I heard a single long shrill sound – a cicada. On a warm summer day that sound is as good as a guarantee that it will be a scorcher of a day. We agreed that if it was going to be warm we would take it easy today and not undertake any long hikes or strenuous paddles.
We decided to finish off the last bit of our tour around Loon Lake. We would begin at our campsite and paddle leisurely in a counter-clockwise direction until we reached the point where we’d left off the day before. It was indeed a good day for lily-dipping. The sky was clear, the sun out in force and it was nearly breezeless. Deer flies buzzed around our heads incessantly while we hugged the shore, stopping from time to time to examine and identify some plants, including St. John’s Wort, Sheep Laurel, Sweet Gale, Fireweed, Virginia Meadow Beauty and Steeple Bush and of course blueberries. The amount of Virginia Meadow Beauty present beggared harvesting, so we promised ourselves to gather some leaves and tubers later in the day.
We paddled south to the end of the lake and gathered more driftwood for me to cut up later. We were headed back north along the eastern shore when we came abreast of the spot where we’d last seen the bear and taken a photo of him. We beached the canoe here and climbed up onto the plateau hoping to find some evidence of the bruin we’d seen the day before and what had been holding his attention on the ground. We couldn’t discern any evidence of his having been here, but here was a treasure of blueberry bushes laden with plump ripe fruit. To our added delight we also found a bigger patch of those large wintergreen berries left-over from last autumn and winter. We gathered these in a ziplock bag along with some blueberries and serviceberries we found here. We moved north along this high ground where there was evidence of campsite – some old fire grates, old fire rings, etc, but a forest fire had swept through here some years ago making the area somewhat unsightly and too densely filled with dead standing trees to make it a safe and suitable campsite.
We continued walking along to the north as the elevation changed, bringing us to the water’s edge. Here I looked carefully in the soft ground and mud at the water’s edge, hoping to find a nice bear print, but I could find none. We walked back to where we’d landed and tied the boat and paddled it back to camp for a lunch of peanut butter and jam on tortilla bread and then cooled off in the shade of the tarp for a while. We made sure to keep chugging water to prevent ourselves from dehydrating in this heat.
In the early part of the afternoon I sawed and chopped a bit more firewood while Ilana busied herself with her food barrels, putting some order to her pantry. We’d gone through enough food at this point that she was able to transfer nearly all the food into one barrel so one barrel could stay aloft in the pine tree without having to be lowered again this trip. Hot and sticky now we decided to take a quick dip in the lake just to cool off. We let our clothes air out on the clothesline as we swam and then air-dried ourselves in the hot sun.
The bath reinvigorated us and we decided to take a short walk westward up the hill behind our campsite. It was a large open hill for the most part and Ilana had been itching to check out the flora on that hill. On the way up, perhaps a 100 meters from our campsite, was a big patch of flattened grass. Some really big animal had rested or slept here. Judging from the size of it, it must have been a moose, a bear or a couple of deer. There were large deep moose prints at the shoreline near our camp, so that seemed most likely.
From the top of the hill we had a clear high view of all of Loon Lake 1 and part of Loon Lake 2 and Ilana snapped a few photos. Once at the top we walked northwest, following the ridge of rock we were standing on and down the other side a short distance in search of nothing in particular. The ridge was moss covered and littered with chunks of spalling granite, both of which showed signs of having been dug and turned over by a bear. As if to confirm this hypothesis we happened upon a nice big pile of fresh, fly-covered bear scat.
All this evidence of recent bear activity so soon after seeing a bear walking the shore of the lake yesterday was making me feel vulnerable and uneasy and I led us back to the top of the hill where it was more open and we had a better view of what lay ahead. We’d only been exploring up here for 45 minutes, but it was oppresively hot and we were looking forward to actually bathing.
After our bathes we felt a lot better and decided to sit quietly and enjoy our usual late-afternoon happy hour under the tarp instead of doing anything that might make us break into a sweat. We read for a bit and discussed what to do with the days ahead of us. Shouldn’t we be moving on to the Oil Can site on Island Lake with a view to making our way into Rat Lake and Dutton Lake? We were ambivalent. Our site was so lovely and perfect and there was all sorts of hiking to be done right here. We had brought along our fishing tackle and we’d not yet wet our lines even once. We tentatively agreed to spend at least one more day here and we’d decide tomorrow what to do on the following day.
To our relief the heat began to break in the late afternoon when a steady breeze started up. We took advantage of the cooler temperature and moving air to go down to our shoreline and harvest a few Virginia Meadow Beauty tubers and leaves. It took me a few tries to correctly identify the plants from their similar neighbours, but before long we had a dozen or so of the tiny tubers and a good handful of small leaves. We moved to the picnic table to prepare them. I washed the leaves and Ilana skinned and chopped the tubers. We mixed these in with the medley of serviceberries, blueberries, raspberries and wintergreen berries we’d gathered in the past two days. Ilana dressed these with a simple vinaigrette she’d brought along and it made a delicious side-dish of fresh fruits and vegetables with our main course of Kraft Dinner Supreme (which is just KD with rehydrated ground beef, carrots and peas).
After doing dishes we felt pooped. The heat had broken, but still left us feeling exhausted. We spent the evening reading quietly and weighing the pros and cons of staying vs moving on somewhere else. I was keen on staying here for a few days and possibly until the food ran out, but Ilana’s restlessness is pretty irrepressible and she was getting antsy. Even during the hottest part of the day she busied herself with a natural, bowl-shaped chunk of charred driftwood, scraping the black char from it and smoothing it into a small ornamental serving dish in which she kept her drying tea leaves of freshly-picked sweet fern and yarrow.
As darkness approached I wanted to paddle around in the moonlight in front of the campsite. The reflected moonlight on the rippling lake had been a stunning sight each night and I thought it would make a truly picturesque photo to paddle across that reflected moon now that it was full. Ilana agreed to play photographer while I did the paddling. Unfortunately the lake was perfectly flat, so the moon’s reflection was a small round disc instead of a long dappling effect across the whole lake so we didn’t get the desired result. It also became clear that our digital camera was getting very low on charge and that we’d have to be very sparing in our choice of photographic subjects for the remainder of the trip.
We were in bed by 9:30 PM. The Whippoorwills started their racket right on schedule and they were accompanied by a cacophony of animals noices that night: loon calls, a cloud of buzzing mosquitoes outside our tent, various hoots, squeaks, chirps and croaking frogs. By 10:30 PM we both succumbed to fatigue and fell asleep, but we were awakened in the middle of the night by a series of loud Ka-Splash sounds, a few minutes apart. It sounded as if someone was hurling pumpkins into the lake. It was probably just beavers diving underwater and slapping their tales on the surface. Later still that night Ilana woke me up so I could hear the distinct sounds of dog yips and yelps and whines, coming from the north this time. Some hours later I returned the favor and woke her up when I thought I could make out faint howling, but it ceased before she came to. Do coyotes howl at all?
DAY SEVEN: POND HOPPING & THE WRATH OF ZEUS
We rose at 6:30 AM to a cool morning and a slight breeze. We donned our polar fleece jackets as we went about our morning routine and ate our hot oatmeal and drank our coffees. The cool was welcome after the previous day’s heat.
At 9:45 AM we set out on a short shoreline walk. We would begin at our site and walk clockwise round the lake to see what there was to see. We only made it a few hundred meters from camp when our way was blocked by a stream, a couple of meters across, feeding into Loon Lake at it’s northwest corner. We decided to follow it upstream to the northwest in search of it’s source. We discovered this stream led to a tiny beaver pond a few feet higher. This pond was fed by a slightly higher pond beyond it, and that one was fed by still another behind it, until we came to a large pond. Here we heard some of the odd squawks of unidentified large birds we’d heard in camp at night. We began walking around it, clockwise, but before long the way became slow-going as the bush became thicker. Still more fresh bear scat here, though it was a very small specimen – perhaps left by a very small bear or cub.
Since the tangle of bush was getting thick and we had no map or GPS with us, we agreed to head back to camp. The series of tiny ponds leading into this large one had been so close together, we would come back here with the canoe, portaging from Loon Lake, up the hill and around the small ponds into this large pond to see where it might take us. We hiked back to our campsite following the high ridge of rock behind our campsite along which we’d walked the day before.
Back in camp we had a snack and something to drink and gathered the gear we would need for for a very short excursion by canoe: Our emergency first-aid kit, map, and GPS. The pond was close enough and small enough that we’d be back soon enough to have lunch in camp, so we didn’t bring a lunch. We set out from camp at 11:00 AM.
The portage route we took from Loon Lake into this lily covered pond was direct, but a bit soggy. We both had damp socks by the time the canoe was in the pond. The pond proved to be smaller than we’d hoped but it was lovely, choked with water lilies glistening sundews, and a raised island, perhaps 10 meters across, covered in trees and shrubs, smack in the middle of it. I beached the canoe on the island long enough for Ilana to walk across it and check out a few wild flowers. Floating in the water, just beyond the island was what appeared to be an old bridge or possibly an old dock. It was made of two long parallel tree trunks approximately 10 meters long and across the top of these were nailed smaller bucked trunks, making for a very heavy bridge or dock indeed. It was unclear where it came from and how it came to break free of it’s pilings or moorings to find itself floating here, completely overgrown with mosses, sundews and wild grasses – a floating eco-system in it’s own right. We paddled past the log bridge (or whatever it was) to the far end of the pond where we could now see a 5’ high vertical beaver dam. We climbed up onto the ground around this obstacle and found ourselves staring over yet another pond, though this one was smaller. Looking to the far end of this smaller pond we could see an even higher beaver dam at it’s far end and what seemed to be a pretty vast open area – a huge meadow or floodplain with water running through it. We’d had no plans to go pond-hopping today, but we weren’t about to portage back out so soon, especially when there was paddlable water still ahead of us. We lifted that empty canoe out of ‘Log Bridge Pond’ into ‘Middle Pond’ and crossed it a moment later. At the far end of Middle Pond was an enormously wide beaver dam – easily more than 2 meters high and at least a hundred meters across, but most of it so overgrown with vegetation that it seemed like a steep wall of land in front of us. We paddled right up to it along a narrow channel of water. This was clearly the lowest point of the dam where water spilled over after a rain and so we chose this place to lift the canoe up and over, right next to where a still living jack pine had toppled into the water on the deep side.
Thus far we had not travelled far to the northwest as the crow flies, but despite the short distance we’d come, we were now floating several meters above the level of Loon Lake on the south side of a wide and very long floodplain which ran along an east-west axis. There was no indication of the series of tiny ponds or this floodplain on our topographic map, but when we got home all this was quite obvious on the Google Earth satellite images. I will make a point of printing these photos off to bring with me for our next trip to wherever we go.
Sitting here on the other side of this wide grassy floodplain we had three choices:
1) We could paddle staight ahead (roughly northeast) into the deepest and broadest water channel.
2) We could go left (roughly northwest) and paddle along the edge of this dam to see how far we could go around the perimeter of this floodplain in a clockwise direction
3) We could go to the right (roughly east) and paddle along the edge of this dam to see how far we could go around the perimeter of this floodplain in a counter-clockwise direction.
We opted to go left and paddle clockwise. With any luck there would be a channel of water ringing all or most of this huge floodplain and we could turn back when we began to get hungry or thirsty. It didn’t matter how far we got as we were excited by this watery discovery and would be coming back here tomorrow to make a day of exploring this area. We followed the left channel which mostly hugged the edge of this high beaver dam. On our right was a big, open floodplain of mostly marsh grasses and swamp plants. It reminded us of the watery saw-grass prairies of the Florida Everglades we’d paddled two winters ago. After only about 15 minutes of paddling in this direction it became clear progress would be difficult. The channel narrowed in many places such that the canoe could barely squeeze through the thick floating mats of muskeg. The water also grew shallower, so that we were poling more than paddling, and then our luck ran out as the channel grew too shallow and too narrow for the canoe and blocked by small fallen trees. We were lucky to get this far though. The past two months have been very rainy and water levels were unusually high for this time of year.
With difficulty we turned the canoe around to head back to where we’d come into the floodplain. We were now paddling during the hottest part of the day, and because we had initially intended to explore only one pond (Log Bridge Pond), we’d brought no lunch and no water bottles. We were both thirsty and I was hungry for lunch. When we reached the place where we had our three choices of direction we decided not to climb back down from this pond and go to camp but to to explore just a little bit longer by heading up the main center channel which seemed to run roughly northeast. We were both in the grips of ‘What’s-around-the-next-bend’ syndrome. We’d only gone a short distance (a hundred meters or less) when I looked back to the right and saw that in that direction was an old wooden cabin in the woods. Had we turned right we could probably have paddled right to it. We would have to explore that channel and the cabin on our next visit. For now we were paddling into the middle of the grassy floodplain along the main channel of water. Eventually this channel began to turn to the east and ahead of us we saw an area of open water. We paddled into this nice eliptical pond. It was obviously quite deep as there was no underwater vegetation of any kind in this pond. Beyond this pond the channel continued and we paddled past some Rose Pogonias and clusters of small carnivorous pitcher plants, which look more like specimens from some alien world, or possibly animal organs with their bulbous forms and veiny transluscent purple and red parts. We finally came to a much larger pond, also deep and wide and on it’s far side we could see the channel continuing into a swamp. These last two big ponds did appear on our topo map, meaning we were now north of the eastern arm of Loon Lake 1. We paddled only a few meters towards the swamp before agreeing to turn around. It was hot, we were thirsty, and it was definitely lunchtime. We headed back for camp the way we’d come, hauling the canoe down from the floodplain channel into Middle Pond (where we startled a deer) and then lifting the boat down into Log Bridge Pond and then portaging the canoe from Log Bridge Pond to Loon Lake.
We were crossing back through Log Bridge Pond when I realized that there must be a trail from the north shore of loon Loon Lake to the cabin we’d just seen, and this would explain why those two boats were stashed there. People must be flying in directly to this lake and staying at that cabin and those overturned fishing boats were stashed there for their use. Any trail to that cabin must begin at those boats. Mystery solved. If I was right we could probably get back to the flood plain in one step by portaging from Loon Lake along the hypothetical trail to the cabin which sat at the water’s edge up there.
We were back in camp by 1:30 PM. For lunch we had a kind of cold pizza wrap. Ilana spread some salsa on a tortilla and then placed freshly sliced pepperoni chunks and sliced baby bell cheese on the tortilla. It’s a quick and tidy meal and the only significant preparation involved was dehydrating the salsa at home and remembering to re-hydrate it this morning in a small container before we left camp. In the past we have made this sort of lunch on pita bread, but pita bread tends to go stale quickly, whereas the tortilla remains supple and fresh tasting much longer.
After lunch we took a refreshing bath and then it was my turn to do a bit of laundry as Ilana prepared to bake some bread by mixing a small packet of dry baking yeast with water and set it on the picnic table to activate for an hour. Baking a loaf of bread is one of the lengthier and more involved aspects of camp cuisine. One must re-hydrate the yeast and let it sit for an hour to give it time to activate, then one must make a dough from dry ingredients, then let the yeasty dough rise for an hour, then bake it for approximately an hour on our little Trangia burner and finally let it cool. Biting into a loaf of freshly baked bread a week into a camping trip is wonderful. But Ilana was crestfallen an hour later when the yeast was ready to use but she accidentally spilled it all over the ground when she got her foot caught in one of the food barrel straps. So much for bread today, she’d start over another day. At least she’d not begun mixing the dough yet.
We spent the rest of the afternoon taking care of mundane camp chores, reading, and enjoying our sips of Irish Whiskey at happy hour and later enjoyed a supper of chili with rice and lentils followed by hot chocolate and roasted marshmallows for dessert.
From late in the afternoon the sun had become progressively covered over by smeary white clouds moving in ever so slowly. By 8:00 PM the light wind had disappeared completely and all looked good weather-wise and we were feeling very fortunate to have enjoyed only one half day of rain in seven (on day two while on Island Lake) and only one day that would have left us windbound (on day three on Island Lake). Throughout this week Ilana had jokingly “guaranteed” that we’d have sunny and rain-free days until at least day seven, based on a very cheery long-range forecast of 13 rain-free days. She refused to remain so optimistic after this day however. Had we made a bet she would have won.
We went to bed at around 9:30 PM as usual. It was completely windless but we could make out distant thunder rumblings. I tried to will myself to ignore it and fall asleep, but the rumbling grew louder and more frequent and it was apparent we were in for a big storm. By 11:00 PM the slow-moving storm was right over our heads. It was the oddest storm we’ve ever been in. The rain fell down perfectly straight in absolute torrents, unaccompanied by any wind, and the sky seemed to be constantly alight with lightning flashes. Not once did I hear our rain tarp flap in the wind and it was only a few meters from the tent. When the rain began it fell in such volume that our poor tent fly could not shed it fast enough and droplets worked their way through the seams of the tight synthetic fabric and fell onto the mesh walls and atomized into fine mist inside the tent. At it’s worst, when the storm was directly over us (for about 45 minutes), the thunder crashes were frightening us, even though we normally enjoy the sights and sounds of a good thunderstorm. The distant rumblings had given way to loud booms and finally ear-splitting cracks of electrical discharge. Ilana snuggled up to me for comfort. She feared that lighting would strike a tree and send it down on us. I reminded her that this would be wildly improbable and that most trees downed in a storm resulted from wind, not lighting strikes, but I couldn’t help feeling the same irrational fears when the lightning strikes became so close and so frequent that I could see the blue tent light up through my closed eyelids. The lightning flashes were coming only seconds apart from one another and sometimes there were several simultaneous bolts. It seemed as if Zeus himself was menacing us with his bolts. After nearly an hour of anxiety we heard and felt a small gust of wind from the southwest (where the storm came from) and this signaled the end of the storm as it slowly moved past us. I had been waiting and listening for the sound of such a tailwind, and I breathed a sigh of relief when it came. When it was all over, the forest’s residents remained silent for the first night yet.
Despite the slight misting we received and the occasional droplet that forced it’s way into the tent, our gear remained dry, and this in spite of the fact that water had to be puddling under our tent which sat in a slight low spot relative to the rocky ridge that ran behind our campsite. The inner plastic lining method had worked like a charm. We would rely on this on future trips instead of using a groundsheet beneath the tent.
By midnight we both drifted off to sleep even though Ilana had been troubled by hunger pangs and a headache exacerbated by all the thunderclaps.
DAY EIGHT: A RAINY DAY
We awoke, warm and dry, shortly before 7:00 AM. It was not raining and the birds were singing, but the sky was completely overcast and rain seemed likely at some point. Everything was soaked from the last night’s downpour, including the firewood, so I took advantage of the hatchet to get atthe dry wood inside some unsplit pieces of driftwood and then used a pocket knife to carve some tiny match-like pieces and curls of wood to use as fire-starter. I got too impatient on the first attempt and the small bit of firestarter I produced was consumed before I could get the fire started properly. I heard thunder and knew rain was coming fast. At this point I should have just forsaken starting the fire and got the water boiling for our oatmeal and coffee in much less time using our Trangia stove, but I now wanted the satisfaction of getting the fire going from wet firewood. I got the fire going on the second attempt but the rain began to fall. Ilana prepared the coffee and our last batch of hot oatmeal of the trip. I gathered a few blueberries for the oatmeal. We had slipped into our raincoats and rain pants as the rain worsened. We ate our breakfast in dry comfort under our tarp. Like last night there was no wind accompanying the rain and it fell perfectly straight.
The morning was spent reading and dozing under the tarp. We’d gotten to sleep later than usual and I was happy to have some down time. Whenever the rain abated for a moment we took advantage of these breaks to step out from under the tarp and stretch our legs or sit outside in our raingear on the damp rocks. Loons and wood ducks busied themselves on the lake unperturbed by the rainy weather. I watched in amazement when a loon suddenly broke the surface of the water from below and with great flapping and splashing took to the air, turning from a submarine into an airplane in mere seconds. At one point we saw three very large birds suddenly take to the air from the north shore. They kinda looked like herons, but they were close together and flying in formation, leaving us to think we were looking at something else.
By late in the morning the rain had lessened to mostly drizzle and would stop for longer and longer stretches only to start again. The completely overcast cloud cover slowly gave way to paler white clouds and we were very encouraged when we saw the first patches of blue sky moving our way. This wet system was moving out as slowly as it had moved in yesterday.
At 11:30 AM we decided to move the picnic table under the tarp. We lifted one wall of the bug shelter’s mesh and carried in the table and closed the shelter behind it. We could now cook and eat at the table and stay dry. To keep us warm in all the surrounding dampness Ilana used our Trangia stove to boil up some water for another cup of coffee. We’d been cheated of our second cup when the rain extinguished our fire. For lunch we had pizza wraps.
In the early part of the afternoon I was sitting under the tarp with my little notebook and mechanical pencil and Ilana was standing a few meters away by the shore looking off into the southern sky assessing the weather when we both heard a very sharp ‘Clack’ sound coming from the eastern arm of Loon Lake.
“Did you hear that?”, she asked.
“Where’d it come from?”
“Over there.”, I said, pointing eastwards. Ilana agreed and we both moved to the point of shore closest to where we’d heard the sound coming from. We both thought the same thing. It had sounded exactly like a rock being dropped onto another rock – the very sound a bear would make if it were flipping rocks over along the rocky shore in a search for grubs. We squinted into the distance down the length of Loon Lake’s eastern arm and I spotted something small and black moving. “It’s a bear.” I said. I pointed it out to Ilana and ran to fetch the binoculars from under the tarp. It was indeed a bear, though this one was unmistakably smaller than the first one we’d seen. We observed it for about 20 minutes. It too seemed to be foraging for berries and grubs along the southern shore, moving away from us slowly eastwards.
When we’d lost sight of the bear we moved back under the tarp. I was content to sit here and read, but Ilana was too restless and took advantage of the windless weather to bake some bread. When the bread was finished baking and cooling we put it into a plastic bag and sealed it into the barrel where it would stay until we needed it for sandwiches and snacks. The bears in the area must have been licking their chops because the smell of freshly baked bread lingered in the campsite for hours. It occurred to me that a canister of bear spray would be a good thing to have. About two hours later we spotted either another bear or the same bear farther down that same shore right where Loon Lake 1 narrows before the beaver dam. It was too far now, even with binoculars, to conclude if it was the same bear as we’d seen before or not.
While the bread was cooking Ilana sat in front of me with her back to me as I combed her hair to ensure there were no tangles in it. Ilana has long hair and she is always wanting to cut it before we go camping as she finds it makes her needlessly sweaty on warm days, is slow to dry, and prone to tangles. I had promised to comb her hair for her every day while camping if only she would not cut it, so this had become a late afternoon and evening ritual.
Just before 4:00 PM we finally saw sunlight as the gray and white clouds gave way to larger and larger expanses of blue sky. What a welcome sight. Instantly we felt cheerier. As the air warmed and the dampness dissipated we took advantage of the sudden warmth to bathe and air out the tent and hang up our sleeping bags on the line to get any dampness out of them.
Over happy hour we finalized our plans for our remaining days. We would stay camped here tonight and spend tomorrow exploring the ponds and the cabin just north of us as we had intended to do today. We would leave the following day for Island Lake and spend one final night on Blueberry Island and leave for home on day eleven.
For supper that night we had our second serving of chili with rice and lentils and went to sleep at our regular time.
DAY NINE: COMPLETING THE LOOP
We were out of the tent by 7:30 AM. The sky was overcast again and all was damp with dew. Breakfast consisted of homemade granola cereal in instant milk and hot coffee. Ilana’s injured left shoulder which had been doing so well was now hurting her. She felt gristly, popping sensations when she rotated her arm about. I suggested that we stay put today since rain might be forthcoming, but Ilana would have none of it. She insisted that these clouds would disappear soon and we’d just have to take it easy on her shoulder on our little excursion. By 8:30 AM the sun appeared and seemed to burn off all the gray clouds.
The plan was to paddle directly north from our campsite over to where the overturned boats were stashed on the shore and look for a trail of some sort that would take us a little ways north to where that cabin sat. If we found it we’d portage the canoe up to the cabin, snoop around it a bit, and then put the canoe in the water just on the other side of the cabin and easily paddle westward back to where we first came into the floodplain two days earlier. Once there we could finish exploring the floodplain and then complete our loop by pond-hopping our way back into Loon Lake.
We were on the water by 10:00 AM. Within minutes we were standing on the north shore where the boats were and we immediately found a clear trail that headed up a nice gradual hill to the cabin.
The cabin was a hunter’s cabin. It was in reasonable condition outside, though it was grotesquely decorated with various animal skulls and antlers. Off to the right of the cabin a long beam spanned horizontally between the crotch of two trees high off the ground – a place for the hunters to hang their kills far out of the reach of critters, I guessed. We peered through the windows of the cabin to see a dreadful mess. Those who’d stayed here last were complete pigs – worse than drunken frat boys. Cigarette butts, beer cans, rotted sneakers, burned pots on the stove, and other trash were strewn about throughout the padlocked cabin. It amazes me that people would pay to fly in to an area of wilderness to live like complete slobs.
We walked around to the north side of the cabin which faced out onto an area of swamp beyond which we could see the big floodplain. There was plenty of water here to put-in to but there were only two narrow channels to choose from and they both looked hard to negotiate. Ilana expressed misgivings, arguing that there might not be any way to get to the floodplain channels we’d seen two days ago, but I was confident that there’d be a way to get through and complete the hypothetical loop. Since I was the one who had to carry the canoe up here and carry it back down again if we didn’t find a way through, she agreed to give it a try.
We walked back down to Loon Lake to get the canoe and the paddles. Ilana led the way and inadvertently flushed out a small brown rabbit which ran right across my path, practically under my feet. We portaged up to the cabin and then around to the other side of it. We put into the swamp and considered our two options: We could go down the channel heading off to the left from the cabin or straight ahead. The more direct route would be the one on the left which, if it was navigable, would take us in a nearly straight line to the very spot where we lifted over from Middle Pond into the floodplain. The channel straight ahead of us would (I hoped) take us along a meandering course that hugged the high ground on the right shore of the floodplain and would eventually take us into the floodplain’s main channel or into one of the two large ponds to the north of us. The channel on the left seemed like it narrowed too much after only a dozen meters, so we opted for the channel straight ahead of us.
We paddled forward only about three canoe lengths when the deep channel narrowed and turned acutely to the right. The channel was too tight and the turn too sharp to get the boat beyond it. Normally this would be no obstacle as we would just hop out and wade the canoe along, but the water here was very deep. Nor could we hop out onto the shore and simply carry the canoe past the trouble spots, because the sides of these channels were not solid ground, but rather big floating muskeg mats covered in vegetation. Stepping onto these mats would be like stepping out onto a plastic pool cover. You’d stay up for a moment or two, but your weight would soon sink the surface beneath your feet. Good luck getting back into the boat after that. This way was no good.
We back-paddled to where we started and headed down the channel to the left. We encountered similar problems here. Within a few canoe lengths we were hemmed in again by floating banks of muskeg and blocked by partially submerged logs and tree stumps. Ilana suggested we abort the mission and go back to Loon Lake and pond-hop our way to the floodplain but I wasn’t ready to give up just yet. I persuaded her try the first channel one more time.
We back-paddled to the beginning and headed up the first channel again, but this time instead of proceeding until we got stuck, we aimed the canoe towards a small point of high ground on the right and climbed out to get a look to see what the channel looked like beyond the tight spot where we’d gotten stuck. The channel looked more promising, though we could not see if it led all the way to where we needed it to go. Ilana was game to give it a try. Despite her sore shoulder we lifted the canoe over this point of ground and into the channel again, thus circumventing the tight spot. From there the paddling was easier, though there was as much poling going on as paddling. Fortunately the swamp was very beautiful and the sun was occluded by some clouds, keeping us cool as noon approached.
We were making good progress in this direction. The channel was plenty deep most of the way as it followed the contours of the land on the right. The flood plain extended out on our left and it was just a matter of time before we’d wend our way into the floodplain’s central channel or into one of the two large ponds. It was a bit discouraging when we rounded a bend and saw the channel blocked by a fallen jack pine. Discouraged but not defeated we landed the canoe on the shore on the right and walked around the tree and along the shoreline a short distance to see if there were more obstacles in our path. It looked pretty good. With any luck this fallen tree would be the last obstacle to completing our loop. While walking along here I found evidence of a bull moose having come through here – a sizable chunk of antler felt on the ground. A bull moose loses it’s antlers every fall and grows a new rack over the spring and summer. In spring the fast growing antlers are soft, spongy and covered in a kind of fine felt. As the new antlers harden up the moose scrapes the felt from the woody rack.
When we got back to the canoe I judged the ground where we’d climbed out to be too steep to safely pick up the canoe and the woods too thick to carry the boat through. I thought I would do better by paddling up to the fallen tree, climbing onto the sun-bleached trunk, snapping off some of the branches that stuck out in all directions and drag the boat over the trunk and hop back into the boat. Ilana would wait for me on shore on the other side. I managed this little maneuver, but I very nearly tipped over on my first attempt to step out onto the tree. It was one of those comical scenes – I had one foot on the fallen trunk and the other in the canoe when the canoe began to drift away from the trunk. One finds out just how good one is at doing the splits when that happens. I thought I would pull a groin muscle when I had to force my spreading legs back together again to force the boat back to me. Phew. Fortunately Ilana missed that graceless episode.
Once past the fallen tree our way was easier, though the water grew very shallow at the very point where the channel we were in met up with the main floodplain channel. After some vigorous poling we grunted our way in. We were tired and sweaty, but it felt great to complete the loop. Ilana pointed out an obvious lesson here: never try to complete a theoretical loop from the opposing direction from which you started. You never know how many obstacles you will encounter along the way, any one of which could prove impassable and then you’d have to go back the way you came through all those obstacles again. Further, had it not been for the torrential downpour we’d gotten two nights before, the loop would have been impossible. The water level on Loon Lake was a good 6” higher today than it was two days before.
We had broken through right into the smaller of the two deep, round ponds, so we paddled east through them, along their circumferences towards the large swampy area that lay farther to the east. We wound our way through the deeper line of water and passed mats of muskeg covered in Rose Pogonias and carnivorous Round-Leafed Sundews and carnivorous Pitcher Plants. The swampy route before us eventually opened up to a large lilly-filled swamp. Drowned standing tree trunks stood up in places like telephone poles and towards the far side of the swamp we saw a large beaver lodge. We paddled past the lodge to the very far shore where we beached the canoe. We stepped out onto the rocky ridge here to stretch our legs and look back over where we’d come and take a photo. Swamps don’t much prettier than this.
On this granite ridge were signs of recent bear presence: bear scat, overturned rocks and overturned moss pads with the dirt drying in the sun, etc. It was then that I noticed a patch of overturned moss that revealed damp dirt on it’s now exposed underside, implying that this patch of moss had been overturned only minutes ago. When I brought this to Ilana’s attention she said, “Yeah, when that heron flew off as we approached the shore here I thought I saw something moving here.” Now she tells me.
We returned to the canoe and paddled back through the swamp to the beaver lodge by a slightly different route and from there we paddled westwards back to the two large ponds. As we crossed these ponds we made a point of being as quiet as possible. If bears were nearby we didn’t want to scare them off from the safe viewing position or our canoe, and we’d yet to see a moose on this trip. We had just left those ponds behind us and were well on our way back to the dam separating this channel from Middle Pond when Ilana pointed to something large, black and furry about a 100 meters ahead of us, moving across the floodplain along a raised ridge of tall grass and then off to our right, headed for the tree-line. It was another bear. This one was of a size intermediate between the two we’d seen already. It never looked our way once, moving in a straight line with it’s head down and stopping only to scrounge around on a little raised hillock of shrubs for a moment before continuing on it’s way out of the floodplain towards the tree-line. We were downwind of it and we’d been quiet, but it was unclear if it was just ignoring us or was unaware of us. We sat transfixed again for minutes as it moved off. We’d seen at least three different black bears in five separate sightings but we were not tiring of seeing them. Still, I did find it unnerving to know there were so many bears foraging around our campsite on Loon Lake and that this particular bear had, just moments ago, been in the very spot where we were headed. Suddenly our practice of deliberately making noise when on hikes in bear country seemed a little less paranoid and silly.
When the bear had disappeared into the trees we made our way to the lift-over down into Middle Pond. What a difference a big rain can make. Two days ago water was barely trickling over here, but now the water pouring over the dam was considerable and I soaked my socks while climbing down to Middle Pond. We made our way across this tiny pond to the lift-over into Log Bridge Pond. We decided to stop here for a snack. Ilana kept wandering off with the binoculars in the hopes of another animal sighting and I had keep reminding her not walk off alone here in silence. Ilana took a nice photo of Log Bridge Pond here.
We next made our way across Log Bridge pond and then portaged the canoe over the rocky ridge and down into Loon Lake, thus officially completing our intended loop. It was now just past noon and we were getting hungry for lunch but there was a nice breeze moving over the lake and I suggested we take a short leisurely paddle on Loon Lake to cool us off first. We paddled east, sticking close to the north shore. Halfway down the east arm of Loon Lake 1 Ilana was seized by in irresistible urge to put ashore and climb the big, open, grassy hill on our left. I was not much in the mood for land travel right now, but the grassy hill was invitingly covered in patches of wild flowers: Daisies, Brown-Eyed Susans, Orange Hawkweed, and St. John’s Wort as well as the usual Blueberry and Serviceberry bushes.
As we approached the shore Ilana was insisting we keep silent. She was aching for another animal sighing and her plan was to move up the hill quietly so as not to warn off any deer or other animals that might be there. I, on the other hand, was equally insistent that we not do that, since this was exactly the sort of terrain where we’d seen two bears in recent days. I didn’t want to crest a hill only to find myself standing between a mother bear and her cubs. So, we compromised. Ilana was silent and I deliberately made as much noise as I could on the way to the top. I carried my paddle with me.
The view from atop the hill was worth stopping for. We could see most of Loon Lake in both directions and on the very highest point on some exposed rock lay rusty, antique remnants of an earlier generation's logging efforts. There were pieces of a mechanized log bucking machine, barrel bands, chains, pulleys and many pieces of iron whose functions I could not guess at.
We also discovered someone had blazed a trail here. Rock cairns and flagging tape on short trees led us northwest towards some trees blazed with red paint. We didn’t follow the trail, but it seemed to be headed in the direction of the hunting cabin. Since this hilltop represented the best view within walking distance of the cabin, that seemed likely. We then proceeded down the other side of the hill to the north until we came within sight of a large swamp. There was likely more pond hopping to be done in this direction, but that would have to wait for another camping trip to Loon Lake.
By this time I was getting anxious about the canoe. I’d left it tied at the shore, but with our yellow dry bag still in it. The dry bag contained our lunch fixings and considering how the bears were in the habit of foraging for food along the shore I wanted to get back to the canoe before some bear made himself comfortable in the bow seat. We headed back to camp and took a few photos or our site from the water. We were already starting to miss it knowing this would be our last night here.
Back at camp we had a late lunch of pizza fixings on slices of Ilana’s baked bread and then went about the usual business: splitting a bit of firewood for tonight’s supper fire, filtering lake water into our Nalgene bottles for tomorrow’s trip out to Island Lake, bathing and then happy hour under the tarp.
Throughout our days here we made frequent trips to the water’s edge of our campsite with the binoculars to scan the shorelines and tree-lines in the hopes of more wildlife sightings. On this day, while I was splitting a few pieces of wood, Ilana called me over to her by the shore. On the northern shore, near where the boats were stashed, we watched two white-tailed deer walking along the shore and drinking from the lake for several long minutes, their short white triangular tailes whipping up and and their ears twitching ceaselessly to wave off the harassing deer flies. Everyone’s seen deer grazing in a field in farm country, but there’s something special about seeing deer in the woods doing something other than grazing. Not long after they left they returned with a third deer and sprang back and forth along that shore for reasons unknown.
In the evening we discussed if we should leave tomorrow to spend one more night on Island Lake as planned or make it all the way home in one day. I was keen on staying for at least one more night on Island Lake, but Ilana shoulder was bothering her quite a bit and was getting more sore with every morning that went by. She felt it would be wiser to put in one final long day of paddling than two shorter days. It did seem a bit pointless to break camp here, paddle for three hours to Island Lake, make camp there for one night, only to break camp the next morning and spend hours to get back to the boat launch. But even so, I didn’t like the idea of facing 7 portages and however many lift-overs there would be in going from here all the way to the boat launch. That’d be a lot of bending and lifting, only to be faced with what might be a really windy crossing of a large lake. Experience had taught us that it’s best to cross Wah-Wash-Kesh Lake as early in the day as possible as the winds only grew stronger in the late afternoon. We agreed we’d play it by ear since there were many variables that would decide the matter for us the next morning: Would it be windy? Was bad weather coming? Would the increase in water levels make the lift-overs easier? Would Ilana’s shoulder be aching too much to go on by the time we reached Island Lake?
That night we ate the second serving of Ilana’s Kraft Dinner Supreme (sans side salad this time) and we went to be a little earlier. We both slept soundly that night.
DAY TEN: HEADING OUT FROM LOON LAKE
We awoke on Sunday, July 20th at 6:30 AM, fully rested, but snuggled and lazed in our sleeping bags until 7:00 AM. We dressed in the tent as usual and Ilana crawled out into the morning breeze. The sky was a diffuse gray. She retrieved the loaded food barrrel and boiled water on the Trangia stove for coffee and prepared our granola cereal. I stayed in the tent as she did this and packed up the sleeping bags and rolled up the air mattresses and then climbed out and removed the tent fly, resting it upside down on the tent so the condensation droplets on it would dry in the breeze while we ate our breakfast.
After breakfast we took care of our morning ablutions after which we dismantled our latrine setups – Ilana retrieved the mosquito netting from over her comfy rock and I took apart the Cheek-Spreader 2008 by retrieving my bungie cords.
Next Ilana packed up the food barrels. One of them was virtually empty, so to redistribute the load from the backpacks we put a lot of miscellaneous gear into the empty barrel, along with the litter we’d found here: the old rotting nylon rope, the rusty cans, burned tinfoil, etc.
I struck the tent and then filled my big blue canoe pack with gear and finally unstrung the tarp and bug shelter and packed it up and the remaining gear into Ilana’s hiking pack. We hauled the gear down to the canoe and when all was ready we walked about the campsite to make sure all was cleaner than we’d found it. I was proud of the fact that this overgrown site still looked overgrown. We’d been here for a week and we’d managed not to beat down all the delicate foliage and moss. We had made a point of stepping carefully along the same small paths everywhere we went in camp so as to minimize our impact on the site and we’d only snapped off a few small dead branches that threatened to poke our eyes out. We had not ‘cleared’ or tried to improve the site. We’d not picked the site clean of ground litter to start our fires. It looked like the very sort of site I’d want to find if I was just arriving.
We were about to shove off at 9:00 AM sharp when I spotted something that looked like an animal on the far shore. It was on the eastern shore opposite our campsite a few feet back from the water’s edge. It looked to be a bit bigger than a bread box, brown all over, but not moving. Even with the binoculars we weren’t sure what it was, but given it’s proximity to a small beaver lodge on that shore it was almost certainly a large beaver. We said our good-byes to our campsite and made our way across to the opposite shore for a closer look at the brown critter. As we got closer and closer it still did not move. It was a beaver, curled up on it’s haunches, head tucked down. It appeared to be dozing. It stirred when we got within 2 canoe lengths of it and then it uncurled itself and charged straight into the water, making a huge ka-splash sound with it’s tail as it went under water. That confirmed for us that the loud ka-splash sounds we’d heard a few nights ago were indeed the beaver. Or maybe the beaver was tossing pumpkins from the shore into the water.
As we paddled south to where we’d put into Loon Lake after the last portage from Loon Creek, we speculated that the much higher water levels might mean we would not have to portage as far. We might be able to get further along by wading and avoid having to portage that first part at all. We were wrong. Loon Lake 2 and 3 and all the surrounding ponds had been spilling over into Loon Lake 1 and Loon Creek for days since that thunderstorm. The water was now easily a foot deeper in Loon Creek and we just floated along effortlessly, thus avoiding the longest portage on Loon Creek entirely. The increase in water volume was really moving us along too, which was a good thing since Ilana’s shoulder was quite stiff that morning.
The two remaining portages were unavoidable despite the higher water, but we made excellent time with the strong current pushing us downstream towards Island Lake. The many beaver damns were also easy. In several cases we just glided over them on a pillow of water. One of the steeper lift-overs had turned into a small two and a half foot chute, but there was a dark black tongue of water going down it, so we aligned ourselves above it and went down it with a splash. Ilana let out a loud Whee! of delight, but the thrill came to an abrupt end when we allowed the fast moving water to carry us a little to the side where our boat became hung up on a barely submerged rock. With some effort we rocked ourselves off it, but the underside of our canoe bears the scars of that moment’s carelessness.
The last lift-over was the big steep one and here we had to put ashore, unload the boat, portage around it and load up again. Minutes later we were putting Loon Creek behind us and headed to Blueberry Island. We had gotten here in record time (less than two hours) and with little effort thanks to the fast current and high water. Island Lake had only a slight wind blowing across it, so this too would prove easy. In the distance we could see dark, flat-bottomed clouds gathering and moving very slowly towards us from the west. The current would assist us on Farm Creek as well, so we decided then and there to stop on Blueberry Island long enough to have a snack and press on for home before the weather turned bad later on. There was no point in making camp on Island Lake if it was only going to rain later that day, and we might find ourselves windbound on day eleven just when we were running out of food.
We stopped on Blueberry Island at 11:00 AM and had our morning snack and headed for the long portage into Farm Creek. To our dismay the portage here was messier than usual. Some anglers had come here by ATV and left the trail rutted and mucky. Like true ATVers, they’d also added to the existing litter here. Our packs and barrels were stuffed with gear, food and other people’s litter already, so I had to leave this crap here. It put me temporarily in a foul mood. Ilana cheered me up a bit when she found a brand new bungie cord on the ground among the litter which I claimed as another piece of booty.
The portage was damp and the deer flies were horrible, but the progress we’d made so far this morning made it easy to ignore them. Regrettably the deer flies would not leave us alone and they buzzed us the whole way as the current carried us southwards down Farm Creek. As expected, the lift-overs here were all easy and we just glided over all the beaver dams except the highest one. There was only a slight wind still, but the clouds began to spit on us and this turned to a fine drizzle. Fortunately the drizzle stopped frequently and long enough for our quick-drying clothes to dry in the air as we paddled.
When we reached the next portage by the falls and the trapper’s cabin we heard hammering coming from the trapper’s cabin. This was the first time we’d ever seen the cabin occupied. At the next portage I wanted to scout the small rapids to see if it was navigable, but Ilana would have none of that. She was getting tired and she didn’t want to risk dunking when we were only 90 minutes from the boat launch. I was thinking the opposite. What better time to try a short, minor rapid and risk taking a dunking? She won that one. I wasn’t about to try it without her.
As we approached the take-out to the last portage from Farm Creek into Wah-Wash-Kesh Lake we saw a beaver swimming across the fast-moving current at the head of the falls. It dove under when it saw us and I marveled at how it managed to swim right across the strong current and not get carried along by it.
We put-in to Wah-Wash-Kesh Lake at 2:00 PM. The water was remarkably flat. This would be as easy as an early morning crossing. This was a good thing because we were both pretty tired and sweaty now and her left shoulder was really aching with every stroke, so I continued to remind her that we were in no hurry and not out to break any records. We lily-dipped across the island-dotted lake enjoying the big swells created by speedboats. The courteous boaters always slow down as they approach canoes on the water, but that actually creates much bigger waves as slowing down makes their boats sit deeper in the water, displacing more water, and results in a bigger wake. We wave at them anyway to say thank you as they speed off again.
As we neared Bennett’s Bay we converged on two other canoes headed our way from Indian Narrows. Each canoe had two young men aboard and their camping gear. We exchanged greetings and a few words as we all paddled together down Bennett’s Bay to the boat launch.
We arrived at the take-out at 3:00 PM sharp. From Loon Lake to here in just under 6 hours. A good day’s paddle and our best time ever, but we had good weather, high water and current to thank for it.
Ilana unloaded the boat as I walked up the hill to where I’d parked our pickup truck. I could see Ilana beaming and clapping her hands in joy as I drove down the hill towards her. It’s always a relief to her to see the truck safe and sound after a long trip. Once the truck was down by the water I loaded the canoe atop the truck, tied it down, while Ilana placed all our gear into the backseat of the truck.
We drove the 73 kilometers back to our cozy trailer in Katrine. Ilana was so tired she kept nodding off along the way. As we drove through Burks Falls I saw a hunting/fishing shop and promised myself I was going to buy myself a canister of bear spray before our next trip out. I got my way on that one.