Some trips are meticulously planned several months in advance; others are quickly thrown together at the last minute. And while the final enjoyment of the trip usually doesn’t depend on the length of the planning period, the lead-up to it is a different story.
Our most recent trip to Algonquin was of the second kind. Because of some last minute changes in my vacation plans, three days before our scheduled departure date we had no idea where we were going. All the usual places were already booked. So we decided we could give French River a try. We’ve never been there; plus, it doesn’t require site booking, just a registration. An unexpected obstacle arose when a few canoe rental places around French River turned out to have zero canoes available.
We started looking elsewhere, reasoning that Algonquin surrounded by gazillion outfitters would be our best chance. After some careful searching, we managed to book sites in the north-west corner of the park. I was looking forward to exploring this new for us part of Algonquin. So far, except for a canoe trip through Barron Canyon in the pre-blog times, all our Algonquin visits, backcountry or otherwise, started somewhere along Highway 60.
There was one little snag, though. After calling more than a dozen outfitters, we still didn’t have a canoe. It seemed like everyone in the province of Ontario decided that it was THE weekend to go canoeing. Call after another desperate call, all I heard was: “Nothing’s available. All canoes booked.” The only place that veered off the script was Algonquin Outfitters where we were offered a friendly advice: “Your best bet is to buy a canoe close to where you are and bring it with you,” which wasn’t helpful at all, because if we had a place to store a canoe, we would have bought one long time ago.
Just as I started to consider backpacking, aka portaging without paddling, as our only option, we were saved by a woman at Swift Canoe who suggested we call Driftwood Paddle. Not only did they still have canoes, they were located right on Kawawaymog Lake, access point 1, where we were planning to start our trip. Miracles do happen. On a Civic Holiday weekend.
When we arrived at the access point (in less than four hours, which was a pleasant surprise), the place was positively buzzing. It was, however, nothing compared to when we returned: the parking lot was flooded with cars, with even more spilled over all along the road. Canoeing is so in right now. Rumour has it even buying a canoe these days is a challenge.
In many ways, it seems like a repeat of our weekend microadventures, when finding a trail where you won’t constantly bump into other people requires several attempts. It’s wonderful that people are finally discovering nature close by, most probably because of limited entertainment options available and international travel still out of reach. Unfortunately, as the numbers of first-time backcountry campers and weekend trail warriors grow so does the amount of garbage on campsites and trails. For anyone venturing into the woods and lakes, it is important to remember that this is not just our playground, it is also home to us and so many different creatures and plants so let’s keep it clean. Leave No Trace and try to make sure the place is in a better or at least the same state you found it.
After this important public service announcement, we return to our regular programming. When we arrived at Driftwood Paddle, our canoe was sitting by the lake patiently waiting for us. Bright red with a couple of patches, she was full of exciting stories of past adventures. I felt almost sorry for taking her on such a boring trip. Sure there was a bit of wind and rain and some choppy waters, but for the most part it was relaxing paddling through a meandering creek and upside down skies. But then again, maybe after her adventurous past, this canoe was looking for more relaxing pursuits.
So we squeezed into our 16-foot vessel, our son sitting even taller on a yellow throne of a portage pack, and off we went. Although not before Kieran from Driftwood Paddle offered some helpful advice about campsites and places to visit and a parting call to come back with stories.
I wish I could say we did but the trip was more or less uneventful. Unlike our portage-intense Killarney trip at the end of June, this one was all about paddling. I mean all canoe trips are but this one was especially light on portages, with three in total all under 450 metres, which was a good thing because the canoe was heavier than usual.
We decided to take things easy this time and booked three nights on Manitou Lake and another one on North Tea East. We would have stayed on Manitou the entire time but unfortunately it wasn’t available for the fourth night. In the end, it worked out better this way. After we spent more than six hours getting to our campsite, we were glad that we’d be closer to the access point and have a shorter distance to cover on the last day.
Our six-hour paddle came as a bit of a shock because the distance didn’t look that long on the map. Part of the blame goes to the creek, which takes up a good chunk of the route. As pretty as creek routes are, constant twists and turns mean that you can’t really pick up speed. Once we got to North Tea Lake, excited to finally unleash our paddling powers, we were thwarted by the wind. It was intent on throwing waves at the side of our canoe every time we tried to go in a straight line toward the next portage. So a zigzag it was. It meant quite a few detours offering closer look at the campsites but taking up time.
North Tea Lake, named so for the colour of the water I guess, has a lot of campsites with sandy beaches, especially on its western part. We knew there were a couple of them on Manitou Lake and even considered going for one but in the end I picked rocks. A good campsite has several key features: a flat(ish) tent pad, a nice view from the campfire, decent swimming, good access to water and firewood, western or southern exposure to enjoy more natural light in the evening, but none is more important than rock outcrops. They serve so many purposes: a place to read, enjoy a cup of morning coffee or evening tea, a front-row seat for watching the light shows unfolding across the sky every night, and, of course, a foreground for pictures.
To be honest, since it took us longer than we planned to get to Manitou and we were cutting so close to the sunset, we couldn’t spend too much time scouting the lake to select a campsite. In the end, by sheer luck, we picked one of the best, at least from what we saw during our explorations of the lake.
I did visit one of the beach sites during my morning paddle, and it was fabulous. The only downside was another campsite attached to it. We could’ve risked it in hopes that no one would want to take the other site considering it was rather crappy, especially compared to its neighbour. But we knew the entire lake was booked. Plus, why risk it if our campsite had everything we could wish for.
For starters, the site was on an island, which is not surprising. It seemed both Manitou and North Tea Lakes operate by the principle “No island left without a campsite, if possible two or more.” Even the tiniest patches of land have a site on it. Sometimes the islands are so small that a campsite icon covers all of it on a map, creating an impression of a campsite floating in the middle of the water. Ours was a decent size. We knew there was another campsite on the other side of the island, but we never saw or heard our neighbours.
Someone has put a lot of work into the campsite improvements. We had a table made of sticks and rope. The best part was a chair with a reclining back, quite a luxury for a backcountry site. Kudos to the inventive brains and skillful hands behind this project. And then, of course, there were rocks at the bottom of it where we spent most of our time on the site.
The rest of the time was spent exploring the lake. One of our day trips took us to the falls between Manitou and North Tea Lakes. According to Kieran at Driftwood Paddle, they were a must visit and we could see why. The falls were a beautiful display of playful water, a joy to watch and fun to splash in. Who needs a jacuzzi when you can get your back massaged by a rushing stream?
Our third day in the park brought beautiful weather and perfectly smooth waters. Looked like a great day to paddle all the way across the lake to another portage, this one connecting Manitou to Amable du Fond River. It ends in a beautiful wide beach so no surprise that most canoeist are tempted to jump into the lake after a kilometre-plus portage. We couldn’t resist the temptation either even though we didn’t do the portage.
Our entire trip was mainly about swimming, relaxing and cooking yummy foods, like pancakes and pizza.
By day four, camping gods decided we had too easy of a time and sent wet weather our way to add some Type B fun to our trip. That was also the day when we had to move to North Tea Lake. Packing in the rain wasn’t much fun. Paddling into the rain and wind even less so.
By the time we arrived on North Tea Lake, the wind picked up speed so we didn’t get far. We ended up on the first island lured by its beautiful rock ledge. Turned out rock outcrops might not be the key consideration when trying to pick a site during a storm. The site was too open so even setting up a tarp or starting the fire was challenging. Eventually, after a cup of tea, we hopped back into our canoe and move to another site on the shore. It was the best decision we made that day. The site was sheltered from the wind, had some great seating around the campfire, and was well stocked with pre-cut wood (big thanks to its previous visitors). We even had our own tiny beach, which we didn’t get a chance to use. We quickly got the fire going and started making dinner slowly warming up inside and out.
After a night of howling winds, we woke up to another cloudy day. At least the rain had gotten tired and moved elsewhere. The wind had also decided to take a breather. The waters were calm and smooth making our paddle across North Tea Lake quick and easy. Until we hit a traffic jam at the first portage – a jam so spectacular, it could rival 401 in Toronto during a peak hour. Physical distancing was hard to maintain with ten canoe parked in a row. So we grabbed our gear and were out of there faster than a beaver splashing its tail when you try to get closer.
After that, it was a crawl along Amable du Fond River. We managed to take over three canoes ahead of us but every time we thought we were getting close to the top of the line, new ones would appear around the next bend. So we didn’t win this race but that’s okay. Every time you get outside, you are already a winner and the rewards are too many to count.