My journey begins!
This is an exhaustive journal of my ambitious sixteen day one-way solo canoe trip from Aylen Lake (Access#18) to Achray on Grand Lake (Access#22). I had always wanted to do this route that went into the East side of Algonquin Park, but given the nature of the canoe routes in this area of The Park, no loop was possible.
Therefore, this type of route required two vehicles (Impossible to do when one is solo), or someone to shuttle my vehicle to my exit point. For this I enlisted the help of a local by the name of "Simon". I had met Simon previously and also had the pleasure of corresponding with Simon via an online paddling forum.
I wasn't a stranger to this type of trip, having done several extended solo trips before, but it had been awhile and I was eager to get underway. It was a sunny and warm Friday morning when I arrived at Aylen Lake (Access#18). It was just after 9:00am and I headed into the permit office to acquire my permit.
I had been there at the access office once many years previously and as before "Pam" was there to look after me, issuing me my permit. I inquired as to the traffic I might encounter for the first few days and was delighted to find out that I probably wouldn't see anyone till my second and fifth days. I was hoping for zero encounters… But it was August after all, the height of the canoeing season.
Thanking Pam (Who runs the permit office on Aylen Lake) for the info and her help for holding a spare key for my vehicle (For Simon to pickup), I left the office and climbed into my vehicle one last time. I brought my vehicle around to the dock area and unloaded my canoe. There was one other group there, a family that was unloading a motorboat and packing up their van. Besides this, the area was deserted and I set about loading my canoe.
I have to confess something here; When I say, "My canoe"; I am indicating my canoe for the duration of the trip. It is not my own personal canoe. The route I was undertaking had many portages and covered some tough terrain in places. I realized that double-portaging this route was out of the question (I would lose lots of time and exhaust myself). I needed a lightweight canoe. So once again, I enlisted the help of a fellow paddler from the online community.
My friend "Jeff" lent me his shiny lightweight red Langford Prospector. Jeff had injured himself earlier in the season and his canoe had yet to see any water and likely wasn't going to see any the whole year. So it was with a wish of good luck that Jeff sent me on my way with his red canoe.
So, I loaded up the red canoe - Then decanting some beer into a nalgene bottle at the last minute, I placed it in a collapsable cooler bag: Now I was ready to launch. I took a few pictures and hit the water at exactly 10:00am, my journey had begun!
The water was mostly calm with occasional small ripples as a light morning breeze developed. Within four minutes I passed by a small island as I paddled up the lake. I continued my paddle as I watched cottagers emerge from their residences with coffees in hand, another relaxing start to a summers' day. By 10:40am, I passed "Turkey Island" about halfway up the lake.
Aylen Lake is a large lake that is divided by a peninsula that extends nearly halfway down the lake's length. I was paddling up the left wing of the lake and as I passed Turkey Island, the expanse of that wing of the lake opened up before me, with the breeze intensifying and waves increasing in height. The waves came at me at a 45° angle, being quite manageable.
Navigating by both map and points of land in my sight, I spied a tiny patch of yellow among the sea of blue and forest of green under the blazing sun that rose high in the sky behind me. By 11:40am, I had landed at a small sandy beach and nearby the familiar yellow of a portage sign nailed to a birch tree announced my first carry-over of the trip, a long-ish portage of 1,425m. Current GPS readings place the actual length at 1,655m.
I loaded-up: A pack that weighed 62.5 lbs (I had to carry all sixteen days of food... No re-supply along the way), a day-pack that weighed 13.5 lbs, a camera and bag probably 5 lbs and the canoe: I was told it was 34 lbs, but suspect it was 43 lbs (Still 20 lbs lighter then my own canoe!). Total weight as I marched down the trail single carry: 124 lbs! There was also the paddles and life-jacket (PFD) and my cooler bag… Geez… Maybe I was pushing 130lbs!
Getting everything on-board took more then one try and once I started down the trail, I staggered a bit but soon found my stride and moved along the portage at a slow but steady pace. It was 12:00pm.
The bugs were beautiful, only one bite on the trail. The path that wound its way through the forest was well worn and easy to follow; a single-track trail that was quite level and straight with some undulating ground consisting of small dips and climbs. I imagine in spring the trail could be muddy in places. The portage was also framed with lots of low-lying ferns… Something to watch out for in early summer (Mosquitos). I completed the single carry and arrived at O'Neill Lake at 12:30pm… 30 minutes to cover 1,655m; excellent time!
I refuelled with some gorp and water and immediately launched onto a windy O'Neill Lake at 12:38pm. In roughly five minutes I came upon and paddled by a point that extended from the North shore of the lake. Here, the waters grew shallow as I passed over a shoal off the point. I dropped my fishing line as I passed over the shoal, the winds now gusting and pushing the canoe rapidly to the East.
The wind was pushing me so fast in fact that I figured any fish that was to go after my lure would have to be a marathon swimmer as the rate of movement was much too fast for a troll. I reeled in my line and paddled close to the North shore to get away from the gusty winds that were now picking up on the lake. I passed by what looked to be a campsite just east of the point. It was unmarked, but most definitely a campsite… Not bad looking either… Hmmm, maybe on another trip? Another lifetime?
By 12:55pm I had reached a small logjam at the East end of the lake. Stepping out onto the largest of the logs, I balanced myself as I worked to haul the canoe over half submerged logs. The work was tricky as the log I was standing on shifted a lot. A few minutes more and I was paddling up the end of the lake, that was rapidly becoming shallow and narrow, as I noticed that afternoon clouds were building in the skies above me. The forecast had called for sun (Clear skies) with zero percent of precipitation. You can see where I am going with this, eh?
A minute later I came upon a very muddy and stinky beaver dam. Pulling the canoe over the dam was a dirty affair and I was glad to be back in the canoe a minute later. I looked down into the water, hoping to clean my feet and was dismayed to see foggy primordial ooze filled waters lined with clumps of gelatinous material both orange and green in colour. One word… YUCK!
I paddled onwards, now in a channel which was becoming more narrow as I went along. To the south of me the terrain was becoming boggy, lined with small spruce trees. It was 1:07pm by the time I arrived at the take-out for the 1,235m portage (GPS - 1,390m) into Robitaille Lake, my destination for the night. The landing was very accommodating; A muddy shallow bottom surrounded by muddy grasses and a beam of timber that provided some steady ground to step onto.
I unloaded the canoe, placing my gear and the canoe itself several meters up the trail and off to the side, in the shade. Since it was just past 1pm, I decided it was time for lunch. I needed fuel for the upcoming carry-over. Lunch consisted of leftovers; chicken primavera with pasta, carrots and water. After a brief rest and taking a few photos, I geared up for the single-carry and was on my way just before 1:30pm. I was now officially inside Algonquin Park.
Just a few minutes down the trail I ran into trouble. I came upon two fallen trees, a birch and a balsam fir that had fallen across the trail. They were situated in such a way that my only option was to climb over them and there-in lie the problem; I was single carrying a heavy load and climbing over fallen anything was next to impossible. I got my left leg over and then got hung up trying to bring my right leg over.
I pulled and pulled but was caught on something, obviously a branch. This was nuts! I gave a great heave and lurched forward suddenly, felt a splash of liquid on my left leg and reached down to dab it with my hand - A familiar odour reached my nostrils.
It was beer! Oh No! The precious juice was leaking away! That did it. I rolled the canoe off my shoulders onto the boughs of the fallen trees and sat down on the tree trunk. I opened the cooler bag (Which was now hanging around my neck in front of me, snagged on a branch) and re-tightened my nalgene bottle, inspecting it carefully - Very little had leaked out, so with a sigh of relief I returned the bottle to the cooler bag, grabbed the canoe, placed it on my shoulders and was able to extricate myself from the mess and then carried on down the trail.
The trail grew dense, chest-high ferns clogged the trail, making me feel as if I was in some jungle in South America. Fortunately for me the mosquitos were unusually quiet and I did not receive a single bite. I continued on, the surrounding forest a pleasant reminder of why I kept coming back to Algonquin Park.
By 1:50pm I arrived at a section of the trail that opened up; I crossed some bare Canadian Shield rock that had lots of moss and lichens growing on it. I paused for a few seconds and as I did so, noticed that it was beginning to rain ever so lightly. I continued onwards, the trail now descending rapidly… To a pond. The trail ended abruptly as I stood there in shock at my predicament and as if on cue it suddenly started to pour rain heavily.
What the? It wasn't supposed to rain at all this day and the portage had just disappeared right in front of me. I quickly put the canoe down on the ground, but a log got in the way, with me getting all the more wet as I fumbled to turn the canoe over. I ran for the shelter of a nearby cedar tree as the intensity of the downpour increased, leaving the canoe sitting sideways, a rather goofy looking way to leave a canoe resting I'd say.
I stared with annoyance at the pond, then looked up into the sky with a curse on my lips; The weatherman was becoming increasingly unreliable these days. I waited for perhaps ten minutes after which the downpour subsided to a drizzle. There was a small portage sign stuck next to a tree where the trail ended abruptly, indicating that I was to continue my trek across the pond. Though rather unexpected I had no choice; I'd have to paddle the portage if I wanted to get to Robitaille Lake. Scouting around the pond was profitless, the bush was too thick and the canoe would get hung-up, not to mentioned scratched.
I filled the canoe with gear and shoved off. The pond was tricky to navigate for there was fallen trees and floating tree trunks and standing trees that made getting around all the obstacles an awkward affair. At one point I tried to squeeze between two trees and became stuck amid-ships. Backing up I had to turn around (Got stuck again on a floating log as I turned around) and go around another tree and over yet another floating tree trunk.
There was a very high beaver dam at one end of the pond (That was holding back all the water) and I paddled past it, thinking the beavers had been very busy in the immediate area. It was silly paddling in such tight quarters and it was with a sigh of relief that I reached the take-out of the pond a few minutes later. What should've taken thirty-seconds to cross turned into an embarrassingly annoying five minute rat maze. I say 'embarrassing', 'cause I imagined somewhere in the forest of green, a few beavers chuckling silently, pointing their furry paws at me in amusement.
The take-out made matters worse as it was on a slope that climbed steeply out of the water and continued to climb at a steep angle up and out of sight atop some rock. There was nowhere for me to put my pack and so I walked further up the trail and dumped my pack, then returned to pull the canoe out of the water and lay it beside the trail. As I did this, the result was a terrible whining noise as the canoe made contact with sharp, pointy tree sapling stumps... Next was my shin as it struck another spear tip.
I examined the stumps closely; They had been cut, not chewed. Portage maintenance crews had done a poor job of clearing the trail in what looked like a few spear-tips sticking out of the ground, right where I had pulled the canoe up to.
I fearfully looked at the side of the canoe and saw a long snake-like white scratch on the canoe's hull. Fortunately, the scratch wasn't deep and didn't penetrate the gelcoat, nevertheless there was an ugly scar on the canoe (As well as my shin!) And it was only the first day! I had to be more careful, but hell it wasn't my fault. I was worried what Jeff would have to say.
Given the situation, it was impossible to continue on single carrying, so I grabbed the pack and paddles and climbed up the hill, away from that vicious pond! The climb was about 40m, the first 15 being steep right from the portage, with the remaining 25m becoming if possible, even more steep. Glad I decided to single-carry this portion of the trail! At the summit, the trail did a rapid descent where it emerged onto a blackened dry swamp; It had been drained. I figure a beaver dam had burst somewhere and beavers had moved to another area to continue their dam building, namely the pond I had just crossed earlier.
Actually, it was a good thing the swamp was drained for I saw no way around it. There were some fairly stable grassy/muddy ground that skirted the swamp in which to cross. After a few meters of this, the stable ground disappeared giving way to several sections of tree trunks that laid parallel to my course, which left me wondering if this was some sort of makeshift boardwalk that was used when the swamp had been filled with water? I walked the logs and finally finished the swamp crossing and as I entered the forest once again, the stench of dead animal assaulted my nostrils. I pressed on, this portage was truly miserable!
Something crashed in the forest ahead of me, although I did not see anything except a small birch tree fallen (Not chewed) across the trail. At last I completed the trail, arriving at a calm and glass-like Robitaille Lake, the view was magnificent! "I made it! I made it!", I thought with glee. I had some water and a bit of gorp and hurried back to retrieve the lonely canoe by the vicious pond. The carry back to Robitaille was uneventful and to be quite honest, a breeze! Thanks to the super-light canoe!
I launched on to Robitaille Lake at 3pm, five hours after I had launched from Aylen Lake. Paddling up the lake, the odd sprinkle of rain touched me as clouds overhead passed by. I finished the last of my water and filtered a litre before moving on again. Robitaille had some interesting features; One hillside that looked to have been ravaged by fire at one point, with bare sections in-between fast growing birch trees and a collection of ferns. Next up was some small rock cliff action as I rounded a point on the lake.
The lake itself was fairly pleasant to look at, surrounded by low hills the lake had an open feeling to it. The Northeast shore looked inviting and I headed in that direction. I paddled up to and examined from the canoe two campsites, both looking rather dismal to me. I was about to head further up the lake when a wind picked up and I decided to turn around and head for a campsite that I had over-looked. Before I could get to the campsite, I noticed another campsite to the south of me that was not on any map.
As I closed in on this 'new' campsite, I could see that it was becoming more appealing by the second; large white pine at the landing, what appeared to be sandy shallow waters and pockets of open forest though-out the campsite. By 3:50pm I landed at the campsite, wading through beautiful sandy water as I clambered over a root entangled shoreline (From the large pine at the landing). The fire-pit area was intact with two benches and a make-shift table nearby as well. The view was west to Northeast up the lake and I loved it, I had found home for the night.
Just over an hour later at 5:00pm I had camp set-up and by 5:30pm I was sitting down to some frosty beer as I cooked some burgers over the fire, it was heaven. It was quite windy by the fire and my burgers cooked quickly with the dry kindling and firewood that I was able to gather nearby in short order.
The campsite itself is situated on a small peninsula, although it isn't obvious at first glance as there is a hill to the rear of the campsite, giving one the false impression that there is much more forest beyond, not so. To the East lies open ground and I wonder if maybe the campsite had been moved from there at one point… There was lots of extra open space that had been used in the past. The ground had a pine-needle carpet which made bare-foot movement around camp a joy.
9:00pm and the wind had died down and the mosquitos were coming out. I hung my food and climbed into my hammock. A few minutes later I could see the moon rising behind the hill at the rear of the campsite. I think it was supposed to be a full moon. If it is, I'm sure it'll wake me up at some point during the night.