Over the years friends and relatives who have never tried any form of backcountry camping have asked me questions about exactly what we do when we go canoe-camping. They want to know the little details about the camping experience such as what gear we use, what food we bring, how we cook in the bush, what makes for a good campsite, what we do when it rains, how do we keep our food from spoiling, even how we handle going to the bathroom in the woods. So, with a view to demystifying what camping in the bush is like, here is a trip log of our first short trip of the season in excruciating detail.
PLANNING & PREPARATION
Our last camping trip was in late August of 2007, which felt like a long time, so we decided to make our first camping trip of the year something short, easy, and nearby just to shake off the winter's rust from us. We've spent our last three summers at an RV campground less than an hour outside of Algonquin Provincial Park but have always found so much great camping on crown land in the area we never felt any strong impulse to pay for the privilege of camping in a provincial park. This year curiosity about Algonquin and a desire to see some moose finally got the better of us and we felt duty-bound to take a short camping trip into nearby Algonquin Park. A nod of thanks goes out to a long lost childhood friend of mine, who I recently reconnected with via Facebook, for urging me to visit Algonquin. He’s such an evangelist for Algonquin Park that I just had to satisfy my curiosity about it after hearing him rhapsodize about it on his website. Thanks Darren.
Using a map we’d purchased at the nearest Algonquin Park office we worked out a very short and easy route. The plan was to enter the park just northeast of Kearney at Access point #2 and paddle downstream along the Tim River into Tim Lake, cross Tim Lake, and continue east along the Tim River to Rosebary Lake where we would spend two nights before coming home the same we we'd gone in. With only a single portage of 120 meters along the Tim River, this would be by far our easiest route in years, perhaps ever.
Preparation for the camping season began in April when our trailer (affectionately known by us as 'the Keep') was parked for a month in Campbellville, Ontario. We were far from camping territory there, but the need to scratch the camping itch began then so I found myself dragging camping gear from the Keep’s storage compartment and inspecting it - checking the tent, fly, tarp, sleeping bags, etc., to make sure it was all in good condition. The smell of years of wood smoke on the gear brought back on all sorts of pleasant camping associations and just made the desire to be in the woods even stronger.
More recently, over the last few weeks, Ilana has been busily dehydrating various foods: pasta sauce, ground beef, chili, carrots, corn, peas, lima beans, green peppers, entire cooked lasagnas, etc., all of which she then divides up into individual serving portions and combines as needed into ziplock freezer bags. The result is lightweight, compact, well-preserved and easily reconstituted by adding water when in the bush. Dehydrating our own ingredients and meals in this way also saves us a small fortune on commercially prepared camping meals. Packing space is at a premium when camping, so reducing the size and weight of every meal and ingredient using a dehydrator is just the beginning. We bring no boxes, jars, bottles or cans of food. Any food we buy for a trip is removed from its commercial package and put into ziplock bags which are lightweight, watertight and compact when empty. Liquids such as olive oil, vinegar, dressings, etc., are placed in tiny, leak-proof Nalgene containers which are used on every trip. Even the Gatorade we drink is purchased as a powder (like Kool-Aid) so we can make a batch in a 1-liter Nalgene bottle whenever we need one in the bush. There is simply no sense in bringing along the dead weight and bulk of commercial packaging. When paddling the canoe does all the heavy lifting, but on a portage one wants the weight of everything to have been reduced as much as possible. When canoe-camping we keep our food in one or two hard plastic barrels with tightly sealing lids. The barrels are then fitted with carrying harnesses so they can be carried like backpacks on a portage. Furthermore, every meal Ilana brings along has been prepared by her at home, at least once in the past, using only the cook kit that we use when camping to ensure that our cook kit includes the required cooking pots and kitchen implements. It sucks when you have brought along pasta and sauce and have only one pot in which to boil the pasta and rehydrate and heat the sauce.
Monday, June 23rd, the day before our departure, was packing day. We each have our own responsibilities when it comes to packing. Ilana works out the entire menu plan for the whole trip and decides what ingredients we will need to bring including such things as condiments and special cooking instruments such as tinfoil, mixing containers, etc, and begins packing the food barrel. Meanwhile, I am in charge of putting the canoe atop the truck and ensuring the paddles, PFDs (personal flotation devices a.k.a. life jackets), bailer, etc are loaded up in the truck. Then I gather all of our camping gear from storage and pile it up in front of the couch in the Keep's miniature living room. Using my gear checklist, which I printed out a few days before, I take inventory, making sure we have the all the gear we need and sufficient quantities of such things as biodegradable soap, fuel for the stove, sunscreen, bug repellant, toothpaste, band aids for the first-aid kit, toilet paper, etc. Once I've taken this inventory and Ilana is halfway through packing the food barrel and figured out what few foodstuffs we need to get fresh from the grocery store, we take a break from packing to drive into town to get those last-minute groceries.
Upon our return Ilana resumes packing the food barrel. It was an easy menu plan and food packing chore this time, but it can take many long hours when preparing for a longer trip. I turned my attention to the pile of gear in front of me. The tent, tarp, sleeping bags, and clothing I stuffed into compression sacs to reduce their bulk. Compression sacs are just ordinary stuff sacs with adjustable straps attached to the outside of them. By cinching the straps one can compress a bulky tent or sleeping bag to half it’s size. Since space in a pack is always limited, compression sacs permit one to fit more gear into a pack. Then I placed all the gear which must remain perfectly dry in our large blue waterproof, roll-top canoeing pack: sleeping bags, Thermarest mattresses, clothing, headlamps, books, etc. That Eureka canoe pack is one of my favourite pieces of gear, being a tough and roomy roll-down dry bag and weighing only 4 pounds, which is nothing compared to it's heavier all-rubber cousins.
The gear that can handle getting wet I put into Ilana's smaller hiking backpack: the tarp, rope, camp saw, MSR fuel bottle (which holds the fuel for our camping stove), water filter, toiletries kit , utility/repair kit, etc. Near the top of her pack I stuffed our rain gear (rain pants and rain coat) so it would be readily accessible in the event of a sudden downpour while on the water or on a portage. Once the packs were ready I tossed them in the truck. The last thing to pack was our yellow, 20-litre, roll-top, dry bag. This waterproof rubber sac sits at the front of the canoe and hold the things we will need to get at easily while on the water or on a portage: emergency/first aid kit, GPS, camera in ziplock bag, bug jackets. I left room in it for the day's lunch which Ilana would be adding to it later. Ilana's last preparatory chore was putting together the lunch for our first day on the water, usually sandwiches, trail snacks and Gatorade, which she then placed in the refrigerator overnight.
As usual on the night before a camping trip I had a fitful sleep. Knowing I have to wake up early, drive to the put-in in the morning and begin our trip always generates enough anticipation in me to keep me from enjoying a deep sleep, rather like the excitement a child feels the night before Christmas morning.
DAY 1: THE TRIP TO ROSEBARY LAKE
We awoke at 5:00 AM on Tuesday morning, showered, dressed, had breakfast and made the last minute preparations: putting the lunch sandwiches into our yellow dry bag and placing the steak we bought at the grocery store the day before between two freezer packs to keep it fresh and cold during the drive to the put-in. The ‘put-in’ is whichever spot you actually put the canoe into the water. The ‘take-out’ is the where you remove the boat from the water.
We drove the short distance from our Campground in Katrine to the town of Kearney where the nearest Algonquin Park office is situated, paid the fee of $10 per person per day for our backcountry camping permits, and drove another 32 kilometers to the put-in at Access Point #2. The put-in here was easy since one can drive right to water's edge, avoiding the usual mini-portage of canoe and gear from the parking area to the put-in. I took the canoe off the truck as Ilana removed our gear from the truck and handed it to me to load in the canoe. I'm always fussy about where I want the gear to be positioned so that our canoe will be well-trimmed (level) on the water, especially when larger lake crossings are involved and winds can blow a high-riding bow about. Ilana took the cold steak out of the truck and put it into the food barrel where it would now remain cold until supper tonight while I parked the truck in the designated parking area.
We did one last gear check: Paddles? Check. PFDs on? Check. Both packs in the canoe? Check. Food barrel in the canoe? Check. Yellow dry bag in the canoe? Sunscreen on? Hat on? Map in hand? Check, check, check, check. We perform this last-minute inventory every time we set out from a put-in, portage, or campsite to save us from having to return to retrieve a forgotten piece of gear. Some years ago we left behind our yellow dry bag on the last portage at the end of a trip. It had our digital camera with precious photos in it. My buddy Joe and I had had to paddle back to get it while our better halves waited around in for a couple of hours in the middle of nowhere until we returned. They were both drunk as skunks by the time Joe and I returned to them as they decided to finish off some wine left in one of the food barrels. After that goof up, and to protect the sobriety of my camping partner, I promised myself we’d make sure all our gear was accounted for before paddling off. With this duty out of the way Ilana posed for a quick photo and then climbed into the bow. I shoved the canoe away from the shore, hopped into the stern and we set out on our way downstream along the Tim River.
The Algonquin Canoe Routes map indicates that the Tim River is prone to very low water levels, but at this time of the year we had nothing to worry about, especially after the unusual amount of rainfall this area has seen throughout June. Water levels were so high that even when the river slowed down in the places where it widened there was still noticeable current propelling us along.
We were not on the water an hour when I began lamenting the lack of a topographic map. I normally insist on having a topographic map with me on a camping trip so that I can measure our progress and avoid getting disoriented, but I figured that the Algonquin Canoe Route map would suffice given how straightforward our route was. The map we left us with the impression that the Tim River was uniform, but the reality was different. The River is sometimes straight, sometimes winding, sometimes passing through wide open floodplains and sometimes a narrow channel only a few feet wide banked by dense foliage, sometimes marshy, and sometimes like a small lake. With this much variety and given the distinct hills around us and valleys we passed through, we could have pinpointed our precise location at every point if we'd had a topo map.
Crossing Tim Lake was uneventful and easy despite a minor crosswind. A pair of loons floated ahead of us and then dove underwater when we got too close for comfort. Minutes later they surfaced again and one of them began fluttering it's wings, stretching it's neck forward and rearing up from the surface of the water in a blustery display while making that all-too-familiar loon's cry of dismay.
From the middle of the lake we could make out several camping sites, made easier to spot because of the orange signs which mark them for park visitors. I happen to dislike the look of those things, though I understand the need for them in a park. We’ve grown accustomed to camping on crown land where campsites and portages are usually unmarked or at best crudely blazed and I like having to figure out where a campsite is or where a portage route begins. In this specific instance I was happy to know where the campsites were since they revealed that even on this lake, only 40 minutes from the put-in, the sites were all unoccupied, meaning we were all alone. If this easily accessible lake was empty on the Tuesday before the Canada Day long weekend it suggested that Rosebary Lake, where we were headed, would be similarly free of occupants.
We made our way out of Tim Lake, exiting it via the northeast along the Tim River again, which was now significantly wider and deeper. Not long after continuing down the Tim River we floated, just barely, over an old manmade wooden dam. In even slightly lower water we would have had to lift-over at this point and we would likely have to lift the boat over it on the way back unless some rain fell while on this trip.
It was around here that Ilana and I began remarking on just how much waterfowl there was to be seen: herons, wood ducks, Canada geese, and of course, loons. Marta, the park official at the Kearney office, had told us that our chances of seeing moose on this route were very good and so from the moment we put-in we were squinting far ahead of us and scanning the tree-lines around us in the hopes of spotting a moose. On several occasions Ilana would point to some almost identifiable object in the distance and ask hopefully, "Is that a moose?", only to be disappointed a few paddle strokes later when the hoped-for moose turned out to be an overgrown beaver lodge or oddly-shaped tree stump.
In short order we reached our first portage. The landing for this take-out was a nice open area facing out onto the wide, marshy part we'd just crossed and only a feet away from the narrow, rocky, and steep falls which necessitate this portage. We climbed out of the boat onto the rocky landing and stretched our legs. The view of where we'd just come from was beautiful but the aesthetic experience was marred a moment later when I noticed that an old stone fire ring at the start of the portage was littered with cigarette butts, bits of plastic, plastic wrap, pulped toilet paper and other small bits of trash. Seeing even a minor mess of this sort in the wilderness fills me with outrage. How exactly can a person be too busy or important to pick up the crap they carted in? Argh! I'm not fanatical about the 'leave-no-trace' camping philosophy, but wilderness etiquette demands that one packs out whatever one packs in, no matter how small. Better mannered campers will pick up the trash left behind by others so as to leave a site or trail cleaner than the way they found it, so I promised myself I'd clean up this mess on the way out two days hence.
It was time to begin our first portage which we would do in two carries. I lifted the packs and other gear from the canoe and set it on the ground. Ilana put on her backpack and headed down the portage trail ahead of me with paddles in her hands as I heaved the canoe up onto my shoulders and followed behind her. Normally, on an unfamiliar portage, I would do the first carry of the portage wearing a heavy pack or barrel instead of the canoe to see what's in store for me later when my view of the trail will be limited by the canoe, but the portage trail was so obviously wide and well-traveled that I had little concern about banging the canoe against some low tree limb or wandering down the wrong trail (both of which I have done before). As always we made a point of making lots of noise, shouting "Hey bears!" to scare off any large terrestrial carnivores we might catch by surprise on the portage trail. The portage, though clear and wide, was steep in places, especially near the end, but park rangers and volunteers have gone to the trouble of setting large wooden frames into the steep muddy hillside to make the descent to the water less treacherous. While I appreciate the motive for this sort of construction project, it violates my purist aesthetic sensibilities in the same way that campsite and portage signs do, but then nothing could take away from precious view of the deep narrow river below the falls.
We dropped off our first load and headed back up the trail to get the remaining pack, food barrel, and the yellow dry bag. It was at this point, walking the trail without a canoe on my head, that I began to appreciate how few bugs there were for the month of June. I'd only sustained two or three mosquito bites on my hands while helplessly trapped under the canoe and there were none at all bothering me now. Even while we’d paddled slowly along the marshier parts of the river we'd not been harassed by mosquitoes, blackflies or deerflies as we'd expected. When we'd set out in the morning I fully expected to be applying bug repellant and maybe even don the hood of my bug jacket. What a pleasant surprise not to have to do so in June, which is always the buggiest time of year in these parts. We loaded the boat, performed our checklist ritual - 2 paddles, 2 PFDs, 2 packs, a food barrel, and a dry bag – then climbed into the boat. Ilana suggested this would be a good spot for a mid-morning snack and so instead of paddling downstream we paddled into the deep turbulent pool at the bottom of the falls and drifted about in it while we snacked on some granola bars and re-hydrated ourselves from our water bottles.
At this point the Tim River cuts a deep, winding, but very narrow channel in a wide, grassy, floodplain. With the river channel only a few feet across and the walls of tall grass and shrubs on either side of us it was sometimes hard to know what would be around any bend but there were no surprises in store for us, except for the occasional small beaver dam (three in all), two of which we were able to grind our way over without stepping out and only one of which hung us up, requiring that I step out of the boat and stand on a high part of the dam to push us over it. Despite these obvious signs of beaver presence and the occasional beaver lodge, we didn't see any beavers nor hear their familiar tail slaps when we invade their territory.
The snack we'd eaten an hour or so before had worn off and we were both feeling the need for a proper lunch so we nosed the boat into some reeds to prevent us from drifting and we feasted on the chicken salad sandwiches and Gatorade Ilana had prepared the night before. I love lunching while sitting on the floor of my canoe, resting my back against the seat, surrounded by wilderness. Paddling a canoe along a meandering river like this is soothing, but just sitting there quietly without paddling for several minutes allows me to really listen to singing birds, chirping frogs, buzzing insects and gives the dragonflies an opportunity to land and visit us right in our boat.
The Tim River flows into and out of Little Butt Lake and thereafter the narrow channel of the Tim becomes frustrating. Until this point the channel had been zigzagging eastwards, but now it became a series of large, exaggerated, s-shaped switchbacks so that we found ourselves spending much time paddling in directions perpendicular to, and even away from, our easterly course. Making progress through this valley between Little Butt Lake and Rosebary Lake seemed very slow, but we were would still arrive on Rosebary Lake in plenty of time to examine a few campsites and make camp before supper.
It was here that we had our first moose sighting of the trip. This was our 22nd camping trip since 2003 and only once before had we spotted a moose, so this was a big deal for us. Ilana saw something far ahead of us near the tree-line on the right, just a few hundred meters from where the Tim River empties into Rosebary Lake. She whispered urgently "I think I see a moose!" Sure enough, we could see the heads of two moose - a cow and her offspring - both looking back at us from their safe distance. Ilana was transfixed. I whispered to her to get the camera out of the yellow dry bag and start snapping pictures, but she was afraid of making too much noise. She didn't even want to take her eyes off of them for fear they would bound away, deer-like, out of view. I began paddling quietly forward to get a better view while I coaxed Ilana to break out the camera. She gave in and began taking photos, but the moose were still too distant. She could scarcely make them out through the camera’s viewfinder. As I moved the boat closer our proximity finally overcame the nervous cow and she moved out of the tall grass towards the tree-line to disappear into the woods, followed immediately by her little one. Ilana was slightly annoyed having wasted much of her viewing time getting the camera out and taking pictures. As we would later discover, the two moose were not really visible in the photos she took. Still, we were both tickled to have seen moose on the first morning of our camping trip. I remarked that even if we didn't see another moose, and if the campsites were miserable, and the weather foul, it would have been worth the effort and cost of coming here.
Excited by the moose sighting and with Rosebary Lake now in full view just ahead of us we paddled through the remaining meanders into the strong breeze of Rosebary Lake. The Lake was bigger than we'd expected it to be. Although the scale printed on the map should have set us straight, the crudeness of our Algonquin Canoe Routes map made the river appear wide and the lake correspondingly small in comparison, leaving us with the mistaken impression that Rosebary would be cozy. Images speak louder than words I guess. Discovering the lake to be bigger than we'd visualized was good news though, since there are 5 campsites on this one lake and so many sites on a small lake would have made them too close together if others joined us on this lake in the next two days.
DAY 1: CHOOSING A CAMPSITE
We moved out into the lake while we looked at the map and tried to decide which campsite to examine first. In Algonquin park one pays a fee to stay on a specific lake on any given night, but not for a specific site, which meant we could circle the lake and visit each unoccupied campsite before choosing which we would make our temporary home. Marta the park ranger at the Kearney office had recommended to Ilana we try the campsite on the point jutting out into the lake from the eastern coast. A campsite on such a point would ensure a good breeze and so make for a less buggy site, but I was not sold on the idea because of the weather forecast. The forecast called for a 60% and then 10% chance of rain for the next two days. Camping out on a point in strong storm can leave one too exposed. We quibbled for several minutes about which site to look at first and where exactly it we’d find it before making for the site on the north shore of the lake. I should mention that here on Rosebary Lake those orange campsite signs were discreetly placed so as not to be visible from a great distance. Perhaps the high visibility of those signs on Tim Lake was deliberate to make them obvious for those campers wanting an easily located campsite just a short distance from the put-in.
We made our way to the campsite on the north shore but it was not to our tastes. It was a low-lying area, only a few feet above the water level and set in a densely wooded area. As a result this site was rather dark, damp and without a good view of the lake. In stormy conditions we would be ideally sheltered there from prevailing winds, but within just minutes of our arrival the mosquitoes were on us. The site was infested with mosquitoes, making us cross this campsite off our list. The site also suffered from over use. The ground was free of normal forest litter, having been picked clean by campers scrounging the site for kindling and leaving only bare dirt. If it rained, this would be a muddy mess to live in. Worse yet, campers had taken it upon themselves to "improve" the site by building primitive camp furniture. For me, the sight of such construction projects leaves me feeling as if I'm about to move into an abandoned shanty town instead of making camp in the woods. We decided to pass up on this dreary site and headed straight out into the lake for the one Marta had recommended.
This site looked more promising even from the water. It was on the very tip of the large point and had a nice rocky landing for the canoe. The land rose steeply from there and the site seemed open and airy with sunlight breaking through the maples, birches and big pines. It'd be pretty exposed if the weather turned foul on us, but we would have little trouble with bugs and we'd enjoy sunlight on the site from early morning to sunset.
We landed the boat and Ilana climbed out and steadied it for me as I clambered overtop of the gear in the boat to make my way beside her on the rocky landing. I tied the boat to a tree and we began examining the sight in earnest. The site had a serious slope to it, but was level enough in a few places where we might pitch our tent. We walked about the site discussing where we'd put the tent and where we'd string up our tarp. The trees were ideally placed for stringing a tarp and that to me is even more important than a perfect tent spot. Like any campsite in a provincial park there was a privy or “thunderbox”. A thunderbox is a primitive toilet – a small wooden box with a hole in the top sitting over a shallow hole in the ground, invariably with a hinged wooden top much like a toilet seat lid. This is arguably the only human artifact I welcome seeing on a campsite as it saves me having to dig a tiny latrine or cat-hole and arranging some simple frame of solid branches upon which to sit when relieving oneself. A thunderbox is always more comfortable. The thunderbox was located sufficiently far away from the main area to afford privacy. Lastly, access to the water's edge on this site would be easy, making swimming and fetching water a pleasure instead of a chore. The big selling point for Ilana though was the view. The site was high, open, and gave us a wide-angle view of most of the lake because of it's location on a point.
Aesthetically, the only quibble I had was evidence of inconsiderate campers who'd stayed here before us. Someone had allowed their children to paint the words ‘Welcome’ on several of the boulders by the shore. The stone fire ring was quite clean with only minimal litter in it (burned tinfoil), but some lazy arse had brought in one of those folding camp chairs and abandoned it here when one of the legs had broken. Also, someone had brought in a board, hammer, saw and nails and nailed a 4' x 1' piece of plywood and nailed it directly into a large pine tree to use as a shelf. He or she had also cut some young living striped maples to serve as legs for this waist-high fish-gutting table. It was probably the same person who’d recently cut 2 or 3 living trees of 2" diameter and left the young trunks lying about. I guess this person hadn't read the rules about only cutting fallen deadwood, not live trees. Did I mention the wooden shelf smelled so strongly of fish that it wasn't usable as a shelf to us since it imparted it's odor to anything we placed on it? As if that weren’t enough crap left behind, there was a large iron stand sitting near the fire ring. At least we could use that as a small table upon which to rest things.
DAY 1: MAKING CAMP
Despite this debris and evidence of human impact we decided to make camp here for two nights as the site was otherwise well situated and beautiful. We emptied the canoe of gear and I carried the boat away from the water's edge and put it down near the water's edge, upside down, resting the gunwales on a fallen birch trunk and tied the boat to a standing tree. I always tie my canoe even when set down far from the water's edge as sufficiently strong winds can hurl an empty overturned canoe right off one's site, leaving one stranded. Meanwhile Ilana hauled the gear from the rocky landing up the slope to what would become our living area.
Just as we have our established packing responsibilities, so we have our respective tasks where camp setup is concerned. Ilana began with gathering firewood and kindling. When we camp on crown land finding and gathering fallen deadwood is easy because it’s so abundant, but on this heavily used campsite the pickings were slimmer and it took her a little longer than usual to find the quantity of kindling and fallen 1" branches we'd be using for our cooking fires over the next two days. Fortunately for us, a previous camper had left a small stockpile of split, dry hardwood so Ilana's foraging didn’t take quite as long as it might have and it meant I wouldn't need to break out the saw to cut the larger pieces to length.
As Ilana went about her work I reached into her backpack for the mesh bag containing the 100' of yellow plastic rope and the compression sac holding our nylon tarp and bug mesh. I began by spreading out the kite shaped tarp on the ground and strung the yellow line through the loops along the diagonal longitudinal axis of the tarp and hoisted the tarp up between two distant trees, setting the taught ridge line of the tarp at about 8’ high. Then I attached a line to each of the two hanging corners and tied them off to two other nearby trees at a height of about 4' from the ground. The tarp would be high enough to stand under along the center line and we could comfortably sit in the corners with plenty of headroom. Next I dragged the 12' x 12" bug mesh under the tarp and clipped it into place to the underside of the tarp. Our rain tarp was now a bug-proof shelter where we could relax, eat, read, or do anything else free of harassing bugs. Finally I attached a few guy lines to the tarp’s edges to make it drum-tight and sunk a few tent stakes into the soft ground to hold down the walls of the bug shelter. I always set up the tarp first and take it down last on any camping trip. Once the rain tarp is in place I have complete piece of mind, knowing I can set up the rest of the gear in the cool shade and protected from any rains. This particular tarp and bug mesh is called the Parawing VCS, made by Eureka, and I can strongly recommend this piece of gear to any camper on the market for a well built and lightweight tarp. The optional bug mesh which clips neatly to the underside of the tarp is heavier than the tarp itself, but worth its weight in gold during the buggy season.
My next chore was the tent setup. Ilana and I always disagree about where we should pitch the tent and this time was no different. She has a great eye for spotting a flat sight, but flat and level are not the same thing. She's always urging me to pitch the tent on a perfectly flat 20 degree incline. Fortunately she always lets me have my way in this matter and I settled on a really good flat and level spot which I cleared of small twigs, pine cones and other debris that might puncture the bottom of the tent. I removed the compression sac containing our tent from my big blue canoe pack and spread out the clear plastic groundsheet where the tent would go. Our tent is a free-standing 3-person dome tent by Sierra Designs. It's a bit roomier than we need, but it's a pleasure to setup, even in a strong wind. Once the tent was up and staked down I stretched the tent-fly over it and began tossing some of our gear into the tent - sleeping bags, extra clothing, the rolled up, lightweight, Thermarest mattress, etc. The rest of the gear and packs I placed under the tarp/bug shelter so it wouldn't get strewn all over the site. I like a tidy camp.
After more than a half dozen forays into the dense foliage Ilana returned with her last armload of dry kindling and firewood and moved on to her next task, this one more relaxing – filtering water. First she retrieved the MSR Miniworks water filter from the top of her pack along with our large aluminum cooking pot and the empty MSR water bladder from the food barrel and lastly an empty 1-litre Nalgene bottle. The procedure is simple. She fills the cooking pot with lake water, screws the Nalgene bottle into the bottom of the water filter, puts the end of water filter’s rubber hose into the pot of lake water and pumps the lever on the water filter. The pumping action draws the lake water from the pot up the hose and into the filter, forcing it through a ceramic cylinder and squirts the clean, odorless water into the attached Nalgene bottle. When the bottle is full she empties it into the large 6-litre water bladder, repeating this 5 more times. She sat here quietly by the water's edge for about 25 minutes until we had 6 litres of deliciously clean, worry-free drinking water. I know some people don't bother filtering or even boiling their water, trusting that the lake water will be free of Giardia and intestinal parasites, but this strikes me as analogous to making a habit of unprotected sex with strangers. Sure you can have unprotected sex and never contract a disease, but that's a bad gamble, especially over the long term. For this reason we prefer to filter or boil our drinking water to avoid a bad intestinal bug.
While Ilana filtered some water my next order of business was setting up some mosquito netting over the thunderbox. I'd never done this before but had read about it somewhere and thought it would be nice to enjoy the use of the thunderbox without feeling hurried by bottom-biting mosquitoes and blackflies. The bug situation was so minor on this trip that I didn't really need to bother, but I’d brought some lightweight mosquito netting with me and so decided to set it up anyway to see how well it would work. I removed one of the 15’ painters from my canoe (a painter is a length of rope attached to the bow or stern of a canoe) and strung the rope between two small trees so that it passed right over the privy like a short clothesline. Then I hung the mosquito netting from it and let it drape down, veil-like around the privy. Not bad…no bugs would get through that. Since I didn't want the wind to blow the bug mesh about and tear it on the corners of the wooden box or on nearby bushes, I tucked the netting into the compression sac which had contained the tarp and left the sac hanging from the rope until needed. We would definitely be making use of this simple setup again on buggy trips. It was so easy to set up and use for the amount of comfort it provided, especially in the evening when the mosquitoes came out.
At this point Ilana and I took a stroll together along the small trail leading out from camp in search of a tree from which to hang the food barrel. We pack our food in watertight plastic barrels for a couple of reasons. First, these barrels are genuinely watertight, which means that in the event of a mishap on the water our food will remain dry and the barrel will float, not sink. Secondly, these barrels are critter-proof (excluding bears, of course). Hanging them from a high limb makes them harder to notice and inaccessible to all but the most determined critters. There the barrel would stay except around meal times when we would need the contents, then back up it would go.
For this chore I brought along yet another mesh bag with another 100' feet of yellow plastic rope. I picked up a fist-sized rock and wound one end of the rope around the rock and tied it securely as we walked. Once we'd decided on which tree limb would be long enough, high enough off the ground, and strong enough to support the weight of the food barrel, I lobbed the rock up and over the tree limb.
The attached yellow rope trailed behind the rock in a nice arc. It’s always nice to get it on the first try. By attaching a carabiner to the rope I fashioned a rope-pulley system with which I could easily hoist up the barrel out of reach of hungry forest dwellers. At the start of a trip the full barrel can be quite heavy and just tossing a rope over a tree limb to haul the barrel up can create a lot of needless friction, whereas this make-shift pulley system saves the tree limb from being scored by the rope, prevents the rope from fraying and the mechanical advantage gained makes the load easier to raise, avoiding rope burn on one’s hands.
My last setup chores were to break up the large pile of kindling and firewood Ilana had gathered into 8” lengths and then to add some kindling to the firewood so it would be ready to light for supper. Like most long-established campsites this one had an assortment of old abandoned fire grates to choose from. I took the one that seemed the least bent and rusted and laid it across the stone fire ring.
Ilana relaxed in the bug shelter reclining on one of two thermarest camping chairs she'd setup for us. The Thermarest chairs are another piece of gear I can recommend. The makers of our Thermarest sleeping mattresses sell a fabric sleeve into which one of their inflated sleeping mattresses can be folded and inserted forming a kind of legless chair which sits on the ground, permitting one to lean back like in a rocking chair. It sounds gimmicky, but without some sort of seat and backrest one gets weary of always standing, crouching, kneeling or sitting on bare ground, logs or rocks. Some years ago I invested in one of these lightweight sleeves for converting a sleeping mattress into a chair for myself. Ilana sat in it once to try it out on a camping trip and she wouldn’t let me have it for the rest of the trip! So we had to buy another to prevent endless squabbling over whose turn it was to use the chair.
DAY 1: TYPICAL CAMP PLEASURES
The weather had been perfect all day with a pleasant breeze keeping us cool the whole way here, but breaking up the firewood into pieces had left me feeling a bit sticky and Ilana's forays in the dense brush looking for firewood left her feeling a bit grimy too. We decided to wash off the sweat and sunscreen by taking a bath in the lake. Since the wind was picking up noticeably and this could signal a cool evening we thought it best to do it right away.
We hurried down to the water’s edge with miniature fleece camp towels and biodegradable soap in hand and stripped right down. We entered the water gingerly, trying not to stub our toes on the rocky uneven bottom or and scrape our knees on the pumpkin sized rocks that were invisible in the tea-colored water. Once deep enough we cautiously lunged in. Ah…the first skinny-dip of the season in a lake all to ourselves. What a feeling! Once thoroughly wet we swam back to the rocky landing where we’d entered and soaped up lightly using the biodegradable liquid soap which also serves as dish-washing liquid when camping. We then waded back into the water to rinse off and then swam back to shore. Bathing in this manner is disapproved of by some adherents of the leave-no-trace camping philosophy who instead recommend swimming in the lake and then soaping up away from the lake and rinsing off with a large basin or pot of lake water. I’m not unsympathetic to these concerns as the cumulative effect of hundreds of campers rinsing off the soap in the lake can perturb the delicate ecology of shorelines, but our way is just too quick and easy and we use as little of the biodegradable soap as possible. Still, I will probably reform my evil ways on the next trip.
Ilana was on shore toweling off while I was letting myself dry in the sun and strong breeze right at the very water’s edge when I felt something on my foot. It felt as is something had delicately tapped the outside of my right foot. I glanced down to see every skinny-dipper’s favourite friend, a 4-inch lake leech, probing along right beside where I stood. I hopped away fast before it could attach itself to me. Not very manly of me, admittedly, but the yuck factor is pretty high when it comes to leeches. Had the little devil followed me out of the water or had it been on me for some time but not had time to latch on? I immediately began looking over Ilana for any sign of leeches on her and she returned the favour. Phew! No leeches on either of us. Leeches are a good reason for bringing a little extra salt on any camping trip. I spent the next few minutes marveling at the shiny black critter as it wormed it’s way along the shore looking for me. Eventually it worked it’s way back into the lake and I watched it writhe around at the water’s edge. I knew my next swim would be even quicker than this one had been.
Once dry we put on our clothes, hung up our towels to dry on one of the tarp’s lines and returned to the bug-free pleasure of the shelter to enjoy the feeling of being fresh and clean after a good day’s work. We sank back into our little reclining chairs, tippling red wine from our plastic coffee mugs while reading and looking out at the shimmering lake in the late afternoon sun. We talked about the usual stuff we always talk about in these moments: What will the weather be like tomorrow? Who’s going to do the supper dishes tonight? Look at that chipmunk over there. These are the most pressing concerns we have in these moments.
By the time we finished our wine our thoughts were turning to supper. Because fresh meat is heavy and perishable we only ever bring one meal made from fresh, non-dehydrated meat – steak on the first night. Ilana dug into the barrel for the supper fixings she’d need: a ziplock bag containing the steak (still cold), the ziplock bag containing the instant mashed potatoes, the ziplock containing such miscellaneous ingredients as salt, pepper, steak spice and a tiny plastic container of butter, and lastly, a ziplock bag containing instant coffee grounds and sugar. Next she opens up our cook kit to retrieve the cooking implements she will need: a small pot, a pot gripper, two plastic plates, two steak knives and forks.
While Ilana organized her kitchen around the stone fire ring I lit the fire by igniting some birch bark using a lighter then filled our aluminum pot with lake water and set it on the rusty, sooty grate to boil. We would use some of this boiled water later to make coffee and let the rest cool for use in doing dishes. Beside it Ilana placed the small cooking pot with a measured amount of lake water e to boil for use in making the instant mashed potatoes. Among the collection of old grates left behind by other campers (grrr!!!) was an especially useful one for cooking steak – the sort which folds in half and holds the steak, burger, wieners or whatever you’re grilling sandwiched between the two halves. I tossed this onto the main grate and let the hot flames lick and burn the folding grate clean.
Once Ilana had spiced the steak we sandwiched it between the two layers of the small folding grate and rested it on our main grate over the hot embers. The mouth-watering smell of wood smoke and grilled beef filled the air as Ilana set about making mashed potatoes by adding the dehydrated potato flakes into the small pot of boiling water, stirring in a bit of butter, powdered milk, salt and pepper. When the potatoes had the desired fluffy consistency she set them on the edge of the grill to stay warm while she allowed the other side of the steak to cook.
When the steak was ready we freed the steak from the folding grate, cut the steak in half for each of our plates, and then spooned out big helpings of mashed potatoes on each plate. We left the juice-covered grates over the fire to burn clean again before hurrying into our bug shelter to sit down and eat. The steak was actually not as tender as it usually is, despite having bought a good cut of meat, but a grilled steak never tastes so good to me as on the first night of camping following a day of paddling and camp setup. I savoured my supper slowly while taking in the view around us. One of the pleasures of eating in the bush is you always feel as if you’ve earned your meals.
It was now time for some coffee. Into our plastic mugs Ilana measured out some instant coffee and sugar and added boiling water from the large pot we’d left sitting on the grate. I removed the large pot from the grate to let the water cool for doing dishes later. I normally drink my coffee with milk, but I never miss it when I’m camping for some reason. Go figure.
The evening air was now turning cool and the wind was gaining strength, so we donned our thin polar fleece jackets and with steaming cups of coffee in hand we settled under the tarp, backs to the wind in our chairs, drinking in the caffeine and the sound of birds all around us as well as the racket of frogs from clear across the lake. It was now about 7 PM and there was no sign of smoke and no sound of other human voices coming from across the lake. Any late arrivers to this lake should have shown up by now. The lake was going to be ours alone this night.
When we’d finished the coffee I left Ilana in the bug shelter to read and nibble on her red licorice whips (one of her favourite treats) and I gathered the dirty dishes together. Doing dishes in camp is easy, but the days of washing one’s greasy dishes in the lake are a thing of the past. The ethic of leave-no-trace camping demands that one not pollute and perturb shorelines eco-systems with grease and food particles. Instead I wiped off any greasy matter and food particles from the plates, pots and cutlery using a paper towel or two and tossed these into the fire. I added a small squirt of biodegradable soap to the large pot of warm water and used that pot as my sink to wash our plates, smaller pot, cups and cutlery, scrubbing as needed with an ordinary dish cleaning pad I’d cut in half (just to save on bulk). The clean dishes were then dipped quickly in the lake to remove any remaining suds and all were put in a mesh sack and hung from a tree limb to air dry. Lastly, I took the large pot of dirty dishwater for a walk down the path, far from camp, dug a small cat-hole in the ground with a short stick, and poured the dirty water in, letting the ground drink the gray, sudsy water and covered the hole with loose dirt and ground litter. One should never pour dirt dishwater into a lake or river or into the thunderbox. On that point, one should never put anything in a thunderbox or latrine except bodily wastes, never leftover food, trash or even sanitary napkins and pads as these will entice animals to dig under the thunderbox and scatter the litter. These other things should be thoroughly burned in the fire.
With dishes done I headed back to the campsite and filled the large pot with lake water again and set it down near the fire ring. I would need the water later to completely drown the dying embers in the fire ring. When Ilana saw this she put down her book and began putting things back into the food barrel, making sure that no food or food-scented bags were left lying around the camp to attract critters in the night. She then sealed up the barrel and I carried it down the path to where I’d set up my Marrison pulley system and hoisted the barrel well out of sight and reach. The reason for hanging the barrel well outside the camp is to minimize the amount of food odors in camp. With the camp clean, no food in camp, and the dishes washed, any curious animals smelling food in the air would find nothing to eat and move on.
With all my camp chores done I joined Ilana under the tarp again and picked up my book to read beside her. It was comfortably cool and as evening advanced the wind abated and the tiny waves on the lake turned into mere ripples and then went flat. As it grew darker the birds quieted but the frogs grew louder and we put on our tiny headlamps around our heads to continue reading in the dimming light.
By 9 PM the sun was sinking below the treetops, so we got ready for bed. This consisted of bushing our teeth and then bringing whatever gear we’d need with us into the tent: raingear (in case it’s pouring when we wake up), our Thermarest mattresses which we’d kept folded up and used as reclining chairs throughout the day, our books, a Nalgene bottle full of water, an empty Nalgene bottle (for peeing in so you don’t have to open the tent, let the bugs in, and then stumble around in dark only to pee in the pouring rain), and of course, our emergency/first-aid kit.
Our bedtime ritual is always the same, if it’s buggy, I dance a little jig and slap myself all over to get the bugs off me and slip quickly into the tent. Ilana stands outside and hands me the thermarest mattresses and other items we need in the tent then I zip up the tent. The idea is to do this quickly before too many mosquitoes find their way into the tent. She waits patiently outside for a few minutes while I unfold the thermarest air mattresses and spread the sleeping bags on them and position the rest of the gear where it needs to be and then Ilana does the hysterical bug dance and joins me inside. We leave our footwear (boots or sandals) just outside the tent but under the fly so they will not be damp in the morning.
This night’s ritual was no different except the bugs were not so bad as to require comical bug slapping moves. Once inside we got out of our clothes. Because it was going to be a cool night Ilana put on some light polypropylene underwear and I put on a cotton T-shirt. Then comes the critical task of arranging all of one’s other clothes into a serviceable pillow. I wrapped my clothing in my polar fleece jacket to make a pillow, but Ilana prefers put her clothes into a stuff sac which she then wrapped in a fleece camp towel. With our bedroom all setup we slipped into our sleeping bags and read by the light of our headlamps, killing the occasional mosquito that had found it’s way in. For some reason blackflies are never a problem in a tent, since they spend every moment striving to escape instead of looking for a blood meal. Shortly before we drifted off we heard a strong wind gusting. We wondered out loud if this was a sign of what tomorrow would bring. I suddenly remembered that I’d forgotten to drown the fire. It had died out hours ago, but with a breeze like this, warm dying embers can be blown back into hot coals and start a fire. I dashed out of tent in just my T-shirt. There was a waning half-moon in the sky obviating the need for a flashlight. As I picked up the large pot of water I’d set aside hours ago I noticed that the wind had in fact resuscitated some of the embers. I drowned the fire and made my way back to the tent in bare feet and bare bottomed. We read until drowsiness set in, turned out our headlamps, and fell asleep. Ilana slept deeply that night, but the sound of the wind concerned me and I slept with one eye open that night, waking up several times in the night and had to get out of my sleeping bag once to use the empty Nalgene bottle.
We awoke shortly after sunrise to the dawn chorus of birds. We could tell today would be breezier than the day before because it was already audibly gusty for so early in the morning. This should have been sufficient warning for us to get our day underway since an early morning wind often signals that stronger winds and possibly rain is coming, but we lingered in our sleeping bags for another half hour. I took the clothes I would wear that day (yesterday’s clothes) and tucked them into my sleeping bag to warm them up. The sound of the wind continued getting louder and the gusts grew more frequent which finally motivated us to get moving. We slipped out of our sleeping bags, got dressed in the tent and folded our Thermarest mattresses back into chairs. Ilana crawled out first and I handed her the gear that now needed to come out of the tent: chairs, emergency/first-aid kit, water bottle, pee bottle (to be emptied and rinsed out thoroughly) and rain gear. It was quite cool at this hour, especially with the moderate gusts blowing through the camp, so our fleece jackets had to be worn.
Ilana emptied and rinsed the pee bottle out carefully and put the chairs and other gear in the shelter while I opened up the tent fly a bit to let the tent air out and to let the condensation that had formed on the inside of the fly evaporate.
Our plan for this day had been to explore Rosebary Lake by paddling around it, examining all the other campsites on it and then paddling east out of Rosebary Lake along Longbow Lake to check out the campsites there and to walk some of the portages into other lakes. Since these are fairly large lakes this would take most of the day and so we’d bring our lunches with us.
The first order of business was breakfast. Breakfast on the first day is almost always bacon and eggs and making eggs is always my responsibility so this would be my only turn in the kitchen. I went down the path, lowered the food barrel and carried it back to camp. Ilana opened the barrel and took out the ingredients I would need: fresh raw eggs which she’d carefully wrapped in paper towel and stacked carefully in a wide-mouthed Nalgene container, a vacuum sealed package of pre-cooked bacon, some pita bread, butter, salt, pepper, coffee and sugar.
The floor of the fire ring was still soaked from last night so I lined the bottom of it with some dried pieces of wood and bark and then added my kindling. Within minutes the fire was going, the large pot of water was on the boil and Ilana sat back and relaxed while I made breakfast. I melted a small amount of butter in the small frying pan which doubles as a pot lid in our cook kit and filled it with the thin pre-cooked bacon slices. Within a couple of minutes the bacon was cooked and I transferred the bacon to a plate and covered it with a slice of pita bread to prevent it from cooling too suddenly. Next I cracked 4 eggs into the pan, flipping the eggs over carefully with our small folding spatula. The temperature of the fire was just right, so the eggs cooked evenly and quickly. When the eggs were ready I put two in each plated, divided up the bacon, lightly buttered some pita bread as Ilana prepared the instant coffee. The eggs were perfect, but I should have reheated the bacon at the last minute since it was cold. Oh well, I’ll get it right next time.
After breakfast I did the dishes in the same way I had the night before and took our lunch fixings and some snacks from the barrel and put them into our yellow dry bag which would come with us on our little excursion later on. Into the yellow dry bag also went our digital camera (in a ziplock bag), our GPS, the emergency/first-aid kit, to Nalgene bottles of water and our rain gear. She then sealed up the food barrel so I could hoist it back up the tree.
Since we’d be gone for several hours and the weather can change quickly I closed up the tent and made sure all the gear was under the tarp. We brushed our teeth, applied some sunscreen, untied the canoe and together we carried it to the water.
DAY TWO: A WINDY EXCURSION
During breakfast we realized that our plan would need to be modified. The wind had steadily increased and we were concerned that we could get windbound away from our campsite if we ventured too far and the winds worsened. We agreed to forego exploring Rosebary Lake and paddle straight down Longbow Lake and back. We would just have to play it by ear and see how much exploring of campsites and portages we could fit in given the strong gusts. We would head eastwards from our campsite down the length of Longbow Lake staying close to the north shore on the way out and hug the south shore on the way back. Longbow Lake is aptly named, being quite a long and narrow lake oriented along an east-west line, but it has many small bays along both it’s northern and southern shores, so unless the wind blew directly out of the east we would be able to paddle back quite easily by sticking to the leeward side of these bays whenever possible. Since the wind was blowing in a south-easterly direction it seemed unproblematic.
We stuck to the plan and stayed fairly close to the northern shore as we made our way east along lake’s length. Shorelines are always more interesting even if following a wavy shoreline means paddling longer to cover the same overall distance. In one large bay, not very far from our campsite, we lingered and drifted among the pond lilies and water shields until our presence there proved to be too intrusive for a large heron and it flew off. They never fail to remind me of pterodactyls when in flight.
We glided along with the wind assisting us and snuck up on more herons or possibly the same one. It’s hard to tell since they are shy and skittish and seldom stand their ground and allow one to pass by them, preferring instead to take flight and land further along the shoreline where one is headed. As we made our way eastwards towards the end of the lake we scanned both the near and far shorelines for moose. No luck.
It became apparent as we were coming to the end of the lake that the journey back would be considerably harder. The wind had increased in strength even more and small whitecaps were in evidence along the centerline of the lake. The wind hadn’t changed direction, it was being funneled along the length of this long lake so that the wind might have just as well have been pushing east. Ilana estimated that we’d probably be paddling four strokes on the way back for every one we paddled on the way here.
At last we came to a point of land jutting westwards at us near the eastern end of the lake. I noticed a tiny sign with a portage symbol on it nailed to a stump a few feet above the waterline. We could see the vegetation here had been beaten down by previous canoeists seeking the start of the portage. This should be the start of the portage into Bog Pond. We had no intention of actually portaging the canoe into Bog Pond, but we had come this far and we both wanted to stretch our legs and have some lunch.
We nosed the canoe into the point of land and climbed out of the boat. There was a distinct trail here so I drew the boat onto land and tied it securely to a tree using one of the painters. We began walking the trail but to our bewilderment the trail just came to an end after only a dozen meters. Further, this point of land seemed significantly far from the very eastern end of the lake. Portages trails are made as short as possible but if this was the portage trail, it seemed to have its start needlessly far from it’s ultimate destination. Something was very wrong. We headed back to the canoe when Ilana, convinced that we must be missing the trail somehow, suddenly turned and headed back up the short trail by herself. I was just putting my PFD back on when I heard a faint cry over the sound of the wind in the trees. In alarm I called out “Are you okay?”. “I fell!”, she called back. I ran the short distance up the false trail and found Ilana on her back, in a large depression in the ground. She’d stumbled and fallen backwards. It wasn’t a very hard fall, but her feet were up higher then the rest of her and she needed a hand to pull herself back up. We squabbled about her wandering off that way without reason and about my being over-protective. We were both just frustrated at having come this far and not being able to find the trail.
We got back on the water and paddled back a few meters to take a closer look at that sign I’d seen tacked to a stump. It was indeed a small portage symbol (a black silhouette of a man carrying a canoe) with an arrow pointing to the right…directly where we’d just been looking. The signs of previous landings here and the short trail were testimony to others having concluded as we had.
We paddled a short distance further eastward and suddenly it became clear what was going on. The sign I’d seen was an advance warning of a portage which lay further ahead. Ilana had suspected as much. Had we been using a proper topographic map instead of the crude canoe route map we had with us we’d have immediately understood the way to the portage lay beyond the point and down a small channel on the right.
We followed the small channel which turned south a short distance before turning east again and opening up into a large bog of muddy chest deep water filled with spongy mats of sphagnum and muskeg. Right smack in the middle of it stood a large moose cow feeding on the plants in the water. She neither saw nor heard us at first as we paddled quietly around the bend into the bog, but she must have eventually heard our paddles dipping in the water or caught our scent (we were upwind of her) as she turned her head directly at us, her big mule ears at attention. “Moose. Moose.” I whispered to Ilana who had been looking off to her right. We both froze. We couldn’t believe the luck at being so close to a moose - only half a dozen canoe lengths from her and the wind was pushing us towards the her. At that the moose began struggling against the insubstantial bottom to make it’s way to shore. We could see her stepping forward, sinking, straining to free her hooves from the soft bottom then pushing forward on another hoof, again and again for several long minutes. We felt sorry to see her struggle at our approach, but she’d been feeding between us and our destination and turning around now wouldn’t change her mind about leaving. I urged Ilana to take some photos but she was so excited she didn’t want to bother, but nevertheless dug the camera from the dry bag and began taking photos as I moved the boat very slowly forward towards the portage at the far end of the bog. She took 14 close-up photos of the magnificent animal. When at last the moose reached solid land and disappeared slowly into the dark woods Ilana noticed that the lens cap was on the camera. Uncertain whether she’d just put the lens cap back on or never removed it she said with irritation “I think I had the lens cap on the whole time.” Then she remembered that the flash had been firing, which meant the lens cap must have stayed on the whole time. I was disappointed but the sighting had been so wonderful and Ilana obviously felt so embarrassed that I couldn’t reproach her for forgetting the lens cap in her excitement. Nevertheless she has earned a new nickname: Lens Cap Lanny.
We paddled the remaining short distance to the far end of the bog where we saw a large white plastic portage sign with faded writing stapled to a tree which stood on a slight hill. A trail lead upwards to the tree and beyond into the woods. We stepped out of the canoe onto the muddy shore and beached the boat. Content at finally having found the portage trail we walked up the hill past the tree with the sign on it when, to our dismay, the trail just ended again. We have seen some overgrown portage trails in our time, but this was not the case here. It was clear that this too was not the portage trail, but merely a small trail created by others before us who’d come this way looking for the start of the portage. The trail we were on even branched off in a few directions and each branch quickly came to a dead end. It was clear that none of these were the portage trail, but rather small trails created by others before us who’d come this way looking for the start of the actual portage trail. We walked back towards the old sign on the tree. Barely discernable on the sign were some faded words directing someone had scribbled with a black marker directing us to walk along the edge of the bog near the tree-line off to the right. Now it all made sense, but unfortunately, with water levels as high as they were, the actual portage trail was all but underwater, at least as far as the eye could see along that tree-line. It hardly seemed like a worthwhile venture to march through muck and water for 300 meters from one bog to get a glimpse of a tiny pond called Bog Pond.
It was now lunch time but we knew the trip back up the length of the lake was growing more difficult by the minute as the wind steadily increased and the water became choppier. To save time we had a quick snack of granola bars and spicy meat sticks and water. On the way out of the bog and into the open wind of the lake a red-tailed hawk flew low over us and disappeared in the trees.
We began our westward journey by angling the canoe slightly so as to let the wind nudge us slowly over to the southern shoreline. We wanted to stick to the plan and paddle along this shore in the hopes of examining the three campsites on that side of Longbow Lake. Unfortunately for us the wind was pushing east-southeast and so the shallow bays along the southern shore of the lake offered little shelter from the worst of the wind. In fact, when large gusts came up, our forward progress slowed to almost nothing. We were going to have to paddle across to the other shore and get back to camp along the north shore as we’d come. We angled the boat out so the wind would push us diagonally to the north shore as we paddled hard against the headwind. In the middle of the lake the waves were quite high and bow was crashing through the waves so we opened up the angle a bit so we could quarter the waves and ride up and down the waves rather than plunging through them. It only took about a minute or two to cross from the south to the north at this new angle, quartering the waves, but it was tiring and it came as some relief when we found ourselves in the calmer waters of a shallow wind-sheltered bay on the north shore.
Ilana had been right to suggest this shoreline was going to be easier to paddle back through. Slowly, but with effort, we made our way back towards our campsite, but most of the time there was no respite from the headwind and we simply had to make short, fast strokes to force our way forward without tiring ourselves out on hard strokes. Unfortunately, there were several places where the lake narrowed and there the winds were at their strongest with large blasts of wind getting funneled right at us. There was no way to cheat at these bottleneck points and we could only paddle hard and fast, digging in deep to haul the boat forward to prevent ourselves from blowing back. It proved so hard in places that we discussed the prospect of pulling ashore, stashing the boat, and walking back to camp, but this would have made for a very long hike through very tangled woods. Who knew when the wind would abate and we could walk back to our boat and paddle it back to camp? We pressed on, arms growing wearier with each stroke.
Part of the difficulty is that our canoe is an all-purpose tripping boat, with a smooth, rockered bottom and no keel. This makes it extremely maneuverable and responsive, especially in current and white water, but that virtue becomes a drawback in strong winds. The smooth rounded bottom has nothing with which to grip the water and help the boat track in a straight line. The boat is easily pushed along on the surface of the water in a strong wind, especially when there is no gear in the boat to make it sit deeper in the water. This meant we had to lose precious forward momentum with frequent course-correction strokes to avoid getting blown off course or broadsided by the wind. Being broadsided like this even for just a moment can result in the boat being capsized by a wave. Taking a dunk in the lake was not of concern to me, but many a paddler has lost his boat after rolling over on a windy lake. An empty canoe on a windy lake races away in the wind like a sailboat. No human alive can swim fast enough to catch the boat when that happens. I determined that if I felt the boat heeling over I would take hold of a gunwale and hold it under water long enough to make the boat fill with water so it would not escape us. A canoe swamped in this manner can be tugged to shore by swimming paddlers, emptied, and set back on the water. Fortunately for us it did not come to that. We managed to keep the bow of the boat angled just right to avoid being broad-sided, though there were some close calls which we avoided only because Ilana’s quick reflexes with bow draw strokes or bow pries corrected the angle in the nick of time whenever the wind grabbed hold of the bow and tried to broadside us. We hugged the northern shore very closely, only feet from it, exploiting the fact that the wind was weaker close to the shore and the waves were dampened by the frequent crops of pickerel weeds growing in the shallow water, but even then we were paddling for all we were worth. We stopped in the lee offered by a small bay to rest our arms and refresh ourselves with water and snacks. It was now mid-afternoon and we’d still not had lunch, but lunch would have to wait until we made it back to camp.
We knew we were nearing our destination when we approached the wide, deep bay just before the narrows into Rosebary lake where we’d lingered in the morning. At the far northern end of the bay I saw something large and dark, like the rear end of a large horse. I guessed it was a moose and we headed for it when a rack of antlers became discernible. It was a bull moose - a second moose sighting in less than two hours. Algonquin was living up to it’s reputation.
We paddled into the deep bay towards the moose, enjoying the complete relief from the wind in this sheltered location. To our surprise the bull moose took no notice of us, never even looking in our direction. It was chest deep in the bay feeding on the water plants and seemingly oblivious to us. A grown bull moose probably has little to fear from anything but we were amazed at how it continued feeding completely unperturbed as we approached it cautiously.
We have since learned that this lack of concern by moose is completely common provided one is in a canoe. They seem to think of boaters as some odd sort of large waterfowl posing no threat. The mother and offspring we’d seen yesterday had fled from us, but that was a predictable reaction given she was with her two month old calf. The cow we’d seen just a couple of hours earlier had been stuck in the mud when we approached, so it made sense that she too would have been made anxious by our presence and fled. This male now before us was wading on a solid bottomed lake and he could have escaped in any number of directions if he’d wanted to.
This time Ilana needed no coaxing to dig out the camera. The moose was practically posing for us, moving around, pulling up huge mouthfuls of water plants, showing off his felt-covered spring antlers. We paddled in a semi-circle around him, making sure we never came between him and the shoreline so that he would not feel cut off from shore. He let us get very close. At our closest we were perhaps two or three canoe-lengths from him. He probably would have let us get closer still, but we didn’t dare. Ilana and I snapped a few dozen photos, sometimes angling the boat so that we would appear in the photo along with the moose to give a sense of how close we were to it.
After about 20 minutes of paddling near him, observing him, and photographing him we realized we had rested sufficiently to head out back into the wind and make the last push for home, but it’s hard to leave the presence of a large bull moose. Animal sightings are one of the most rewarding things about camping and one gets used to the fact that they are almost always fleeting. It seemed almost sacrilegious to simply leave when we could observe this beautiful creature indefinitely, but the wind wasn’t abating and the narrow channel between Longbow and Rosebary lakes would be the hardest part of all. We had to get going.
Reluctantly, we pulled away from the moose and out of the bay. The paddle through the narrows proved to be every bit as slow-going and exhausting as we’d expected, and we were nearing the limits of our energies when we finally reached the landing of our campsite. What a relief. Tired and hungry we got out of the canoe and put the canoe away and lugged the paddles, PFD, water bottles and yellow dry bag up the hill. Because the campsite was high up off the water the wind was blasting through it and my tarp was flapping and straining against the wind as the bug mesh below it billowed out. I spent a few minutes adjusting the tarp lines to relieve the pressure on some parts and tightened it to prevent it flapping in other parts. The tent was fine as it’s all but bombproof in high winds.
We flopped into our camp chairs under the tarp and finally broke out the lunch from the yellow dry bag, which consisted of some pita bread, a small Nalgene container for peanut butter and another for jam. If you haven’t guessed yet, Nalgene makes a variety of perfectly leak-proof plastic bottles and containers which we would never do without on a camping trip. We savored our lunch of peanut butter and jam spreads which we washed down with Gatorade and followed with some gorp (trail mix of nuts, raisins, M&M chocolates and dried fruit) for dessert. Ilana broke out the digital camera and began reviewing the moose photos we’d taken, including the memorable all-black photos of the inside of the lens cap.
After this late lunch I retrieved the food barrel and Ilana took out the ziplock bag of dehydrated spaghetti sauce and added it to a small pot of water to let the leathery strips of dried pasta sauce rehydrate back into liquid sauce for use later. I’d had enough of looking at the ugly, smelly, fish-gutting shelf nailed to the large pine tree, so I pulled it apart, set the board upside down on the large iron stand someone had left behind and attached the shelf to the stand using two bungie cords. With the smelly side of the board face-down and the clean side of the board face up we could now make use of it as a cooking counter without it imparting fishy smells to everything we rested on it.
It was now past 4pm and Ilana noted that the wind was no longer worsening. In fact, the strong gusts were becoming less frequent. We waited another half hour or so and saw the choppiness of the water diminish a bit. Fearing it might get worse again we stripped down and took a very quick bath to refresh ourselves. No sign of leeches this time. I’d been wearing the same clothes since yesterday morning, so I changed into fresh socks, underwear, pants and shirt after my bath. Ilana was saving her fresh clothes for tomorrow. We were really feeling the brevity of this camping trip. It had been a really lovely first trip of the season and it was almost over. Why couldn’t we just stay another night? That’s the real downside of camping in an operational park instead of crown land: You may not extend your trip spontaneously (others might have reserved all the sites on the lake where you are camped), you must keep to a schedule of being on a given lake on a given day. We had enough food with us that we could have stretched it to last a whole extra day if there were a way to extend our stay without violating park regulations and messing up the plans of other campers. Oh well, that’s what crown land camping is for.
Because we would be leaving tomorrow, there was no need for me to wash my dirty clothes, so I let them air out on one of the tarp lines for a bit before cramming them into a kitchen garbage bag I’d brought along for this purpose. My dirty clothes, now in a plastic bag, would get crammed into my makeshift pillow later tonight. If we were staying longer I would have filled the large pot with lake water, added some biodegradable soap and let my clothes soak in the pot for a while before hand-washing them in the pot. One does not wash one’s clothes directly in the lake. Just as with dirty dishwater, dirty laundry water is poured into a cat hole a short distance away from the campsite and then the clean clothes are rinsed in fresh lake water in the large pot, then the clothes are hung up to dry or else laid flat out on a hot rock to dry. The clothing we wear camping is all made of quick-drying synthetics, except for our wool socks. Cotton takes hours and hours to dry so we avoid bringing anything made of cotton.
We spent the time before supper resting out of the wind under our tarp, reading, sipping wine from our plastic mugs, and discussing what our exit strategy would be for tomorrow. The 60% chance of rain predicted for today hadn’t produced any rain, but there had been more wind than called for. There was a slight chance of rain forecast for the next day and if that day was as windy as today was, we’d have a hard time getting across Rosebary Lake and Tim Lake. Worse still, we’d be paddling upwind (if the wind came from the west where we’d be heading) and against the flow of the Tim River. We had originally intended to break camp the next day at a leisurely pace and enjoy as much of our last day in Algonquin as possible, taking our time making our way back, but with arms already feeling burnt out from the day’s hard paddling we opted for a more cautious plan. We would rise early, eat quickly, break camp and be on the water before the winds grew strong.
With our new plan established we got supper ready. Ilana got the fire going and began boiling water in a small pot for macaroni pasta and heated up the other small pot containing the now rehydrated pasta sauce. There was little for me to do so I took it easy as she tended the fire and prevented the pasta from boiling over and the sauce from sticking. When the pasta was cooked to the desired tenderness I got up to help by using a small plastic folding strainer to drain the boiling pasta water out of the cooking pot and into the large pot. As Ilana filled our plates with cooked macaroni, spaghetti sauce and parmesan cheese I took the pasta water to the cat-hole and then filled the large pot with lake water and set it back on the grate to boil for our coffee after supper. Pasta and sauce, like steak and mashed potatoes, tastes way better in the bush than it does at home.
After supper and coffee we closed up the food barrel, hoisted it up into the air, did the dishes, and spent the rest of the evening reading in the bug-free comfort of our shelter. After the hard paddling we’d done earlier we were both too tired to do much more than read. I found myself nodding off. I couldn’t wait to crawl into my sleeping bag.
As it began to grow dark around us the wind died down completely and the lake became still. This was a good sign. We brushed our teeth, doused the fire, carried the necessities into the tent with us and were about to crawl into the tent when I noticed smoke across the lake on the western shore. Someone had paddled in late to Rosebary Lake and made camp on one of the three sites on east side of the lake. Fortunately for us they were quiet campers and we never heard a peep coming from their side of wide lake. We retired to our sleeping bags before the sun had completely set. This time I slept like a log and Ilana was the one to wake up a few times in the night.
DAY THREE: BREAKING CAMP
Ilana’s stirring woke me up at 5am and by 5:30am we were out of the tent. It was cloudy today and the wind was blowing already. Not a good sign. We didn’t rush, but we didn’t dawdle either. I removed the tent fly and turned it inside out so it could dry. Ilana started the fire while I fetched the barrel for the last time and took down my rope, stuffing it back into it’s mesh bag. Ilana boiled water for coffee and then took out the coffee, sugar, some powdered milk and the homemade granola she’d prepared at home while I struck the tent and packed it into it’s compression sack. I was about to move onto something else when the granola cereal and coffee were served. We’d never had granola cereal for breakfast in the bush. It’s a good breakfast to have on a day when one wants to get on the water early. There’s no cooking involved and there are only two small pots (which we used as our bowls), two spoons and two coffee mugs to rinse out afterwards. The granola Ilana makes is very filling so I had no worries about it not being enough.
With breakfast out of the way Ilana took out the lunch and snack fixings we’d need on the way home. She then drowned the fire completely with lake water from the large pot and I filled 4 Nalgene water bottles with filtered water from the water bladder and put the empty bladder in the barrel. I packed up the cook kit (pots, plates, cutlery, etc) and put it in the barrel too. Ilana sealed the barrel for the final time and carried it to the water’s edge.
Since we were both done with the thunderbox I took down our mosquito netting and packed it away and took the rope down and reattached it to the canoe as a painter. Ilana took apart our camp chairs, squeezed the air out of both Thermarest mattresses, fold each in half lengthwise before rolling them each into a small bundle. Together we took down the tarp and bug shelter and Ilana crammed it all into it’s compression sack while I took apart the makeshift counter I’d assembled, leaving the fishy plank in the wood pile to be burned or used by the next campers.
We brushed our teeth and packed up the toiletries kit. We filled our two packs with all the remaining gear around us and took the packs down to the water’s edge and then untied the canoe, righted it, and carried it down to the lake. I loaded the gear into the canoe while Ilana did a last minute inspection of the campsite to make sure we had left nothing behind. During our two day stay here we had picked up every scrap of litter and added it to our plastic garbage bag (kept in the food barrel) so as to leave the campsite cleaner than when we’d found it.
We climbed into the boat, performed our quickie inventory - “2 paddles, 2 PFDs, 2 packs, 1 barrel and 1 yellow dry bag” - and said goodbye to our temporary home. We promised to revisit Rosebary Lake another time and hoped we’d find this site unoccupied. It was 7:30 am when we pushed off and the wind was up a bit and out of the west - right in our faces - but nothing compared to yesterday. By the time we were halfway across Rosebary Lake and approaching the mouth of the Tim River our concerns about a strong wind were allayed. The boat was laden with gear and so sat deeper in the water and therefore tracked straighter. Better still, the sky was overcast in milky white in every direction. There was no hint of dark bottomed clouds to threaten big winds.
DAY THREE: LEAVING ALGONQUIN
We were counting this trip as a complete success and delight. The trip to Rosebary had been easy with only one short portage, the bug situation was so good that I never had to put on my bug jacket or apply bug repellant, the campsite had been very good (if overdeveloped), the weather had been warm, and best of all we’d seen two moose on our first day and been blessed with two much lengthier and closer sightings on our second day. Algonquin had lived up to its reputation. But it was about to get better.
As we made our way through the meanders of the Tim River the wind showed signs of dying down. The current was moving against us, but it hadn’t rained so the water levels had dropped just a touch, meaning the current wasn’t as strong as it had been on the way in. We were approaching the very spot where we’d had our first moose sighting when Ilana thought she spotted those long characteristic ears far ahead of us through the tall grass of the floodplain. We spoke in whispers as we approached but saw no further sign of moose. We were now at the very spot where the cow and her calf had been 2 days earlier when Ilana saw a bull moose off to our left moving out of the water and up into the woods. He stopped on shore to look back at us and then slipped out of sight into the dark woods. And further upstream, not more than a hundred meters away we saw a cow and her calf – possibly the same pair we’d seen on our first day, but we couldn’t know. We hadn’t been on the water an hour and we’d just seen three more moose, bringing our total to seven. Unfortunately the cow and her calf proved as skittish as last time and they moved out of the channel ahead of us and headed for the shore on the left to disappear as the bull had done only a minute before.
We continued through the exaggerated S-curves of the channel when we came to the first of several beaver dams over which we would have to lift the canoe. The dam wasn’t high; in fact, water was pouring over it, but the water flowing over the dam was too shallow and fast moving to paddle over. We forced the bow of the boat up onto the submerged portion of the dam and climbed out onto the tangle of branches and mud that reached above the water level. With both of us now balanced on the beaver dam the canoe sat higher in the water and we were able to slide the canoe over the dam, barely grazing the bottom of it over top of the beaver’s handiwork. Once the boat was on the other side of the dam we climbed back in and paddled onwards. This little exercise took no time, but we’d made no effort to whisper as we did it, so it came as quite a surprise when we’d only paddled two or three bends beyond the damn and startled another cow moose and her calf. They were so close that they startled Ilana too. They couldn’t have failed to hear us, but they had nevertheless stayed there feeding in the channel until we happened upon them. They bounded out of the channel and across the floodplain into the woods in a flash. We’d just seen two more moose. Our total was now nine. We mused about how Algonquin should be rechristened ‘Mooseville’ and that we should paddle more slowly for fear that we might collide with moose. “Watch where you sit down, there could be moose there.”
As we made our way upstream, lifting over the occasional beaver dam, the opaque milky white sky began to lighten as the sun rose higher in sky behind the cloud cover. Ilana, ever the optimist when it comes to weather, predicted it would clear up, but I am always a pessimist where weather is concerned and predicted rain. I felt vindicated when it began to spit on us for a few minutes on two occasions.
We reached the portage shortly before 10am. We beached the canoe, emptied it of gear and Ilana picked up her pack and the paddles and started up the steep hill. I lost my footing as I picked up the canoe and nearly dropped the darn thing, barely managing to lower it without letting it crash on the boulders around me. I tried a second time and marched up the hill behind Ilana. Once I’d reached the top of the steep incline and was walking along the wide flat trail I felt myself slowing. One’s visibility is severely limited when portaging a canoe and I thought perhaps the resistance I was experiencing as I progressed along the trail was from the bow of the canoe brushing against some low-hanging branches. Without warning I came to an violent stop, as if some powerful hand behind me had grabbed the stern loop of the canoe and held it fast. It was so sudden that the canoe very nearly got yanked off my shoulders. I took a step backwards to regain my balance under the boat and I tried to shrug the canoe back into position on my shoulders but it would not budge. How odd. How awkward. And painful on the lower back too. I pressed the canoe up over my head and turned my head around as far back as I could to see what was holding the canoe up. When I saw what it was I lowered the boat quickly and cursed. I keep an emergency throwbag in the stern of the canoe. The bag holds 50’ of rope and one end of it is tied to the stern thwart and I keep the throwbag itself wedged tightly between my stern seat and the inside wall of the canoe where I can reach for it and toss it in an emergency. Normally it doesn’t budge from there on a portage, but my clumsy near-dropping of the boat a minute earlier at the take-out must have caused it to slip from it’s spot. When I had picked up the canoe again the throwbag had fallen to ground and dragged on the ground behind me, eventually getting snagged on some bushes, whereupon the bag stayed put but the rope was drawn out to it’s full length as I portaged the canoe up the hill and along the trail. When the rope had run out, I came to dead stop like a dog that had run out of leash. I cursed my own stupidity for not making sure the throwbag was secure before starting the portage, but I was lucky the canoe didn’t get yanked right off of me or send me toppling. I spent the next couple of minutes recovering my rope and feeding it rope back into the throwbag when Ilana came back down the trail for the second load of gear, worried why I hadn’t made it to the end of the portage by now. I explained what happened, picked up the boat again and carried it the rest of the way to the put-in. I went back for my second load and saw Ilana struggling under the weight of the large canoe pack and the food barrel.
We loaded the canoe again and were ready to set off, but were feeling a bit peckish. It was now 10 am and we’d earned a snack for ourselves. We sat cross-legged on the granite overlooking the open water we would soon be paddling across when we realized Ilana’s optimistic weather forecast was proving correct. Looking out on the open area to the west of us we could see bright sunshine beaming down and lighting up small patches of water and foliage. Above us the milky white sky had turned bright and silvery and some blue sky was visible through holes in the cloud cover. It was clearing up alright. When we finished our snack of granola bars, gorp, and zesty meat sticks I pulled a plastic garbage back from my pocket and we picked up all the litter left behind here by previous visitors as I’d promised myself two days earlier. I suddenly remembered the broken old camp chair that had been left abandoned on our campsite and wished I’d remembered to toss it into the canoe at the last minute. I put the bag of litter we’d collected in the canoe and we shoved off into the water.
Though we had just paddled through here only two days before from the other direction we were a bit confused about which way to go. We were in a large marsh and there seemed to be at least two channels we could head down. We kept changing our minds as we approached the decision point, but we made the correct decision (sticking to the rightmost channel). Again, a topographic map would have made this a no-brainer. Live and learn.
Having just lifted over the old man-made wooden dam, we were now only minutes away from Tim Lake and were feeling good about our progress when I looked over to my right and spotted a moose cow at the water’s edge on the north side of a small bay. We couldn’t believe it…our tenth moose sighting in 3 days! 6 in one day! Only minutes before we had been joking that we’d better not see a tenth moose because that’s just too round a number and no one will believe we saw that many in our first short visit to Algonquin. But here she stood, only knee deep in the water, grazing away.
Once more Ilana pulled out the camera and I turned the boat into the bay, switching from my usual J-stroke and Canadian stroke to the much quieter Indian stroke. As happened with the bull moose the day before this moose was not alarmed by our approach and she let us get quite close for some good photos. We glided along quietly in the bay in front of her for some 15 minutes until she began moving back a little. Concerned that our lingering was distressing her, we turned the canoe about and headed away. Once again we couldn’t help feeling that we should just pull back a bit and stay here observing her as long as she’d let us, but we were now quite close to the end of our journey, so we paddled off.
Crossing Tim Lake felt a bit like a chore. The wind was in our faces the whole way, though it wasn’t an aggressive wind like the day’s before, but it seemed to take a long time to cross as our arms were still fatigued from the previous days struggle against the wind. We rounded the large Island in the middle of Tim Lake and waved to the small family camped there on the easternmost point. Just as we left Tim Lake behind and entered the mouth of the Tim River again we saw a solo canoeist with his dog lilly-dipping towards us into Tim Lake. We waved to him too. The Canada Day long weekend was about to start and it was clear weekend campers were heading into the park just as we were leaving it.
We reached the final take-out before noon. There were many more cars and trucks in the parking area than when we’d arrived. We landed the canoe against the gravelly shore, hopped out, and Ilana began emptying the boat as I walked to the parking area and moved our truck from where I’d left it to the water’s edge. Ilana loaded the truck up with our gear as I lifted the canoe for the last time and placed it atop the truck’s roof rack and tied it down. A young couple with a rented canoe from a local outfitter pulled in behind us. They were heading in for the long weekend with their two large dogs. They told us they were going to be camping on Longbow Lake, so we warned them that this long narrow lake can get pretty windy. I noticed their rented canoe had a heavy keel on it and figured they’d have little problem unless they were novices.
Just before driving off we filled out the comments form on the reverse of the now expired camping permit I had with me the whole time. We gave the park high marks, wrote a thank you to the anonymous park staff and volunteers who work to make Algonquin what it is and promised to visit the park again. We dropped the comment form into the wooden box provided and headed for home, looking forward to a hot shower, a clean change of clothes and then a hot cheeseburger at the Almaguin Restaurant in Burks Falls.