Very few things can ground you like a long portage. Nothing exists in this moment but the trail under your feet and the pressure of the pack straps against your shoulders. An inch-long line on the map stretches on forever, turning into rocks and streams and upward climbs, pools of mud in the low areas, rickety boards thrown across. You count every step as the portage unspools in front of you – Ariadne’s thread leading to the shiny waters.
All set for our longest portage yet
And away we go – only 2,895 metres till Lake Louisa
During our last trip to Algonquin, as we were lugging our gear along an almost three-kilometre trail, our longest portage yet, there were a few brief moments when I questioned this decision. But since this portage was what separated us from a cottage-lined, motorboats-crisscrossing Rock Lake, those three kilometers were a small price to pay for the serenity we found on Lake Louisa on the other side. Apart from us, only one other site was booked on the entire lake, and even those people remained invisible until the last day when they paddled past our site on the way out.
It’s easy to see why Lake Louisa often makes lists of most beautiful lakes in Algonquin
Watching the sun settling for the night
Turns out someone was watching the sun too on a peninsula across the bay but we didn’t discover that until I started processing the photos
There is always time for some daydreaming
Our initial plan was to do the Pen-Welcome-Louisa loop but then I read a report from All of Algonquin about their trials and tribulations during a recent trip. The story involved lots of “relaxing mud walks,” sinking into mud, pushing canoes through mud – lots of mud in general. We definitely used up our mud trudging quota during the week-long trip in Killarney this summer. Plus, October may not be the best time to get our feet wet, not unless we absolutely have to. So we revised our plans and decided to stay on Lake Louisa instead.
Going to Louisa for two nights meant we’d have to do that three-kilometre portage twice but the way I see it – the more portaging, the less guilty I have to feel about devouring a large heap of deep-fried carbs at the end of the trip.
We completed that portage, twice
Algonquin is one of the best places to visit in the fall because of its colours. It is also one of the worst because those famous Algonquin colours draw large crowds of leaf-peepers, and every year the crowds seem to be getting bigger. Luckily, most of them stick to highway 60 and shorter trails. Plus, every time I see people get as excited about nature, be it fall colours, sunsets or butterfly migration, as they do about Netflix releases or a new iPhone, it makes me want to believe that not everything is lost for us as a species.
Easy to see why Algonquin attracts so many visitors in the fall
To deal with this sudden influx of visitors, the park has implemented various crowd control measures, like additional staff to issue day permits, multiple reminders not to stop in the live lane just to snap pictures. Year after year, they also enlist the help of weather gods over the long weekend and use rain to discourage some fair weather visitors. Have to give them props – that’s a pretty solid strategy; I just wish I had the same connections in the weather department. The last two Thanksgiving weekend trips to Algonquin featured a wet start and this year was no exception. Glad we are honouring the tradition. We don’t eat turkey so at least we can rely on having rain.
As always, a rainy start to our trip
As we left Toronto on Saturday morning, the skies looked ominous. The weather forecast for Algonquin, however, kept showing sunny, rain-free conditions so on our drive up we kept looking for an entrance into that alternate weather universe. As we drove into Algonquin, a park sign barely visible through water streaks on the windshield, we could only assume that we’d missed the portal. Since the only other option would be to turn back – and that was not acceptable, it’s not like we are fair weather trippers – we proceeded to Algonquin Outfitters store on Lake Opeongo to pick up our paddles. The canoe was already waiting for us at Rock Lake access point.
By the time we hit the water, the rain got bored and slowly tapered into a drizzle, then microscopic mist, finally moving on to some better and bigger things. Although that wasn’t our last encounter during this trip. But for the moment, we were happy our pants were dry and there were even patches of blue peeping through the clouds.
Our paddle started with some drizzle and fog
By the time, we hit the portage, the patches of blue grew bigger and bolder, and somewhere halfway through that three-kilometre slog, the much awaited sun finally made an appearance. The portal took some work to get to but we found it!
By the time we reached the portage, there were patches of blue peeking through the clouds
We even got a bit of sunshine somewhere halfway through the portage
Not that everything was rosy after that (although rose-streaked skies were featured during the next morning’s sunrise). Large puffy clouds weren’t willing to leave, and kept hanging with us, or rather over us, till the end of the day. And while the rain remained happily occupied elsewhere, we received a (not so) warm welcome from a strong headwind on the other side of the portage. We battled waves for a while until we reached a fairly decent site that was sufficiently protected from the wind. It probably wasn’t the best one on the lake, which was a shame considering that with only two sites booked out of 19, we could have picked any spot we wanted. “Want,” however, doesn’t always match “can get to.”
Lake Louisa welcomed us with wind and waves
Our site was sitting on a small peninsula facing east but had easy access to the west side as well, meaning viewing spots for both sunrises and sunsets (correction: one sunrise and two semi-decent sunsets that together could qualify for one). There were nice rocks all around, another plus. Nice tent pads for at least three tents – not that we needed three but in theory, if each of us wanted a separate tent, we would have had space for them. A fire pit had a great view of the lake. There were two benches but both had deep grooves right in the middle – excellent for holding small things, not so good for supporting your seating area. But overall a solid site.
Our campsite on Lake Louisa
This view was one of the best things about our site
A typical morning in the backcountry
Coffee – check, book – check, lake view – check and check
After preparing supper and setting up camp, we settled around the campfire just in time for a moonrise. The clouds had drifted away by then, or more likely had been chased away by the wind, and it was as if someone turned on a spotlight in a dark theatre.
Dinner’s almost ready
Once the clouds drifted away, the moon was out in full force
A full moon during camping is quite useful, I must say: significantly reduces the need for a flashlight. This one was almost full, a tiny sliver still missing along the edge, although you couldn’t even tell. The next night it was out in the sky again in all its perfectly round splendour. Most often referred to as Hunter’s Moon, October moon has other names as well. The Algonquin peoples also call it the Travel Moon, the Dying Grass Moon and the Sanguine or Blood Moon. The Ojibway refer to it as the Mskawji Giizis, or Freezing Moon, as October typically marks the first frost, and the Cree people call it Pimahamowipisim, or Migrating Moon, because of bird migrations. These are all the things I learned later from Google. At that moment, I just sat there enchanted by its boldness: if you think about it, the moon does nothing but borrows some light from the sun and casts it back on Earth as if it were its own. But it’s easy to forget it’s nothing but a big, light-reflecting chunk of rock hurdling through space when it lays a silvery path across the water. A moon path, it’s called in Ukrainian, and every time it shimmers at my feet, I am convinced I could walk along it all across the lake.
Hunter’s Moon in all its grand fullness laid a path for us across the lake
My biggest moonstruck moment of the trip happened the next morning, when I woke up for a sunrise and got treated to a moonset instead. I could see through the trees a giant globe sinking into a cloud above the horizon. No matter how much I begged for it to slow down, by the time I got to the other side of the peninsula, all I got was a sliver of yellow light melting into the purple waters.
After that, there was nothing left to do but wait for the real star (pun intended) to show up on the other side. It spilled some orange paint above the tree line trying to match the oranges and reds of the forest, mixing with the leftovers of the night’s blue and gauzy strips of mist.
Waiting for the real star of the show to make an entrance
Early morning on Lake Louisa
Splashes of yellow amid evergreens
Morning glow over the lake
It was a wonderful and very promising start of the day. After that regal entrance, the sun did stay for the rest of the day. But the wind also tagged along and kept chasing clouds across the sky just for fun. So the weather kept switching between almost summer-like warmth and late autumn chill, as if not sure which season to pick. I can appreciate that it must be a hard decision to make but for us it meant taking off and putting back on our jackets, which can get a bit annoying at some point.
No one on the site across from us; apart from us, there was only one other party on the lake
The day alternated between almost summerly warmth and late autumn chill
To add some excitement to the day, we decided to go for a paddle and explore Lake Louisa. It started entertaining enough, a bit rocky but nothing too extreme, like one of those kids rides at an amusement park – just enough to be exciting but not dangerous. Until we circled around an island and walked, or rather paddled, right into a wave. From that point on, our best hope not to flip over was to keep paddling into the waves, which meant going across the widest part of the lake. Good, old glory days of paddling at Quetico flashed before our eyes. I will admit I screamed a few times bracing myself for contact with freezing waters. But we managed to get to the other side unscathed, just a little shaken in every possible sense of the word. We hid in a small, protected bay to catch our breaths before heading back to our campsite. Looked like exploring Louisa would have to be left for another day. Plus, we still had a stuffed squash to prepare for dinner.
Our paddle on Lake Louisa was a bit rocky, and this is even before the real thrill started
One of the islands on Lake Louisa snapped when I could still take photos; once we got around this island, all we could do was to keep paddling to avoid flipping over
Catching our breaths in a sheltered bay after an overly exciting paddle
Yes, we brought a squash with us. We tried making this dish last year but it took a while and by the time we got to eat, it was already pitch dark. So this time we perfected the process a bit. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a reflector oven (mainly because I put it off till last minute) so we brought foil oven liners and built a reflector oven of our own. A frying pan left by our predecessors served us well too. All in all, cooking took less than an hour and the squash was delicious. We once tried making it at home and it’s not the same without a smoky smell.
We brought a squash with us to celebrate our last canoe trip of the season with a fancy dinner
Hollowing out the squash; we made the stuffing at home
All stuffed and ready to go into the fire
Who’s ready for some stuffed squash?
We finished with a dessert – yum!
I woke up early the next morning hoping for some more moonset/sunrise but all I got was a uniform grey cover. I happily retreated back into the tent and drifted back to sleep to the sound of the first drops against the roof. When I woke up again a couple of hours later, the rain took a bit of a break so that gave us time to have breakfast, pack and even dry up the tent. The rain was back by the time we got on water. I guess it felt we needed some company on our way out. The big portage came as a relief: it provided cover and an opportunity to warm up. That three kilometre trek must have tired the rain out because by the time we reached Rock Lake, the sun was poking from behind the clouds.
The skies kept switching the rain on and off all morning while we packed
With ominous clouds like these, the question wasn’t whether we were going to get wet, but rather how much
One last snapshot before setting off
And one more – according to our son, all these photos were the reason we got caught in the rain
By the time we reached the other end of the portage, the blue of the sky reappeared
We stopped by the Picto Bay to see if we would have better luck finding the pictographs than on our way in, which we did.
Picto Bay on Rock Lake
Looking for pictographs
And here they are – stories painted on the rock
After that it was a quick paddle back to the access point and a seemingly endless drive to the Portage Store where we celebrated the end of yet another incredible canoeing season. And since we won`t be back for another year, here are a few more photos of Algonquin’s brilliant colours.