Trip report: Algonquin Provincial Park by Canoe – Smoke Lake to Big Porcupine Lake to Harness Lake to Little Island Lake, October 2014

I think I’ll remember this 3-night, 4-day canoe trip for the forgotten food, the endless portages, the numb feet, and the rolling geese!

Shortcut to the full slide show:

Day 1 (Thursday): Smoke Lake to Ragged Lake to Big Porcupine Lake

After driving for about 3 1/2 hours, my friend Cheryl and I picked up our interior camping permit at Algonquin Provincial Park‘s Cache Lake access point, and were relieved to see that the list of “bear disturbances” didn’t include the lakes we intended to stay on!


With permit in hand we drove directly across the highway to the Smoke Lake access point, parked pretty close to the water, ate our lunch, and began carting our stuff to the dock. It was at this point that 4 or 5 minivans pulled up and a whole bunch of Asian tourists got out. They were all holding cameras or ipads and immediately started snapping pictures of each other, the lake, trees, close ups of leaves, etc. They were incredibly loud – I’ve never seen anything like it at an access point! Cheryl noticed that there were walkie talkies in the vans, so they were definitely travelling as a convoy! After they were gone, we asked the only couple around if they could take our picture before we set off. They turned out to be on a 3-week trip from Germany, and were equally amazed at the convoy!

Smoke Lake is a big lake with lots of cottages (hence the fishing boats behind us) but no campsites.

The weather forecast didn’t look great for the trip, with rain likely to start on day 2; however, we started our trip dry, under cloudy skies. One of the great things about fall canoe trips is seeing the changing colours.

Where we paddled we saw more yellow and orange than red, but there was some around.
We missed the “peak” of the sugar maple colours by 1 week, apparently.

From Smoke Lake we portaged into Ragged Lake, where I was surprised to find a fully enclosed wooden port-a-potty! From Ragged Lake, we portaged into Big Porcupine Lake. We had the option of doing another portage within Big Porcupine Lake to cut down the distance we would have to paddle to get to our first campsite (we were aiming for one near the portage to the next lake), but we opted to paddle the extra 3k instead. I think it was a wise move, as we did a whole bunch more portaging in the next few days! We found this lone Painted Turtle on Big Porcupine Lake, basking in the tiny bit of sun we saw all weekend.

This Painted Turtle apparently didn’t get the memo that it’s fall and he should soon be burrowing down deep into the mud to make it through the winter!

Once we arrived at our island campsite (around 5:30 PM), we set up one of the lightweight tarps that I made so we’d have a kitchen shelter in case of rain, set up the tent, found a good tree to hang our food away from hungry bears fattening up for winter hibernation, threw the rope over the branch, and then collapsed. Well, I don’t think we did, but might have felt like it!

We enjoyed a delicious tortilla pizza dinner, but were too beat to search for wood and make a fire. We did sit on the rocks for a while listening to the sounds of Barred Owls near and far. The sounds were echoing off the lake as well, which was very cool. While sitting on the rocks I saw a shooting star, and then Cheryl and I both saw lights in the woods across the lake that didn’t seem to make sense, since we hadn’t seen anyone around earlier. The next day we would discover what it was!

Day 1 totals:

  • Total distance travelled (by canoe and portaging): 15 km
  • Number of portages: 2
  • Distance portaged: 240m Smoke Lake to Ragged Lake + 590 m Ragged Lake to Big Porcupine Lake

Day 2 (Friday): Big Porcupine Lake to Bonnechère Lake to Phipps Lake to Kirkwood Lake to Pardee Lake to Harness Lake

The next morning we weren’t able to start the day off as we usually do on backcountry trips, with a big cup of gatorade, because I forgot it!! We soon discovered that I also forgot the cheese for our cheesy mushroom pancakes. Let’s just say they left a little to be desired! (By the way, forgetting things is very uncharacteristic of me! I am the Queen of lists!)

I noticed that some little critter had chewed into Cheryl’s utensil bag and paper towel bag. That was nothing compared to what happened overnight Saturday…

We had a short paddle over to the first portage of the day, which would take us into Bonnechère Lake and through something called “Devil’s Razor”. We weren’t sure what it was going to be but finally realized it might have the potential to slice the canoe in half when we got close to it – sharp rocks  that you had to pass over in a narrowing of the lake. Thankfully, we got through it unscathed!

Did I mention we did a lot of portaging? We used Cheryl’s 2 canoe packs, one heavy (read “ridiculously heavy” on day 1, so heavy it was nearly impossible to stand up once you got it onto your back, but once you did, walking with it on was okay) and one “light”. The person with the canoe carried the light pack, and the person with the heavy pack also carried 2 of the 3 paddles (one strapped in canoe) and our bag of miscellaneous stuff that we used in the boat (bailer, throw line, GPSs, maps etc.). The portages got very interesting on Saturday…

Cheryl tackles one of the many portages. I love the leaves in this one.

From Bonnechère Lake we paddled through Phipps Lake, Kirkwood Lake, Pardee Lake, and finally into Harness Lake, where we planned to stay the night. We wondered if we’d see anyone all weekend on the lakes, but we finally did, a couple from Pittsburg who camp at Algonquin every fall. It turns out the headlamps Friday night were theirs (not gigantic fireflies).

Have you ever seen a Canada Goose roll? Well, it is the weirdest thing to see! We paddled through a gap in one beaver dam, but had to lift over a few more on Friday. In between 2 beaver dams, we encountered a group of 10-20 Canada Geese, many of whom were doing somersaults in the water. And cleaning themselves. And rolling again. It was odd!

While watching the geese, Cheryl’s hat and sunglasses blew off her head into the lake. Thankfully they floated while we lifted the canoe over the beaver dam and made our way into the lake.

Late Friday afternoon it started to rain while we were paddling, and then it rained off and on until we were driving home on Sunday!

After arriving at our campsite and doing the usual set-up, we hung out under our tarp to stay out of the rain, and had a fantastic bowl of minestrone soup. Unfortunately, we discovered that I _also_ forgot the butter for the cornbread, so we couldn’t bake it! What a disappointment! (Lots of our recipes come from A Fork in the Trail by Laurie Ann March. Another favourite book of mine is The Trailside Cookbook by Don and Pam Philpott. Look for a separate blog post sometime soon on meal planning, recipes and dehydrating for backcountry trips.)

Cheryl cooks dinner sheltered from the wind and rain (we used a 2-tarp system Friday night).

We didn’t even consider having a fire, given that it was raining! But we did have our Baileys and mini Reeces peanut butter cups.

Day 2 totals:

  • Total distance travelled (by canoe and portaging): 11.4 km
  • Number of portages: 4
  • Distance portaged: 200m Big Porcupine Lake to Bonnechère Lake + 60m Phipps Lake to Kirkwood Lake + 715m Kirkwood Lake to Pardee Lake + 145m Pardee Lake to Harness Lake

Day 3 (Saturday): Harness Lake to Head Lake to Cache Lake to Tanamakoon Lake to Little Island Lake

Our third day started with an awesome egg/bacon/veggie wrap and a warm cup of tea!

I went a little crazy with the veggies in this one – I dehydrated a whole bunch of mushrooms, broccoli and red peppers, but the proportions were perfect – 2 eggs, 3 pieces of bacon, and a whole whackload of veggies.

Saturday brought lots of rain, a drop in temperature, wind and constantly changing skies. From overcast to a brief moment of sunshine, to ominous grey clouds, we saw it all. And at one point, we were gliding along the water at 7km/h without even paddling (our moving average – canoeing and portaging combined – was 4km/h).

We had the added challenge on Saturday of portaging through nearly knee-deep mud, cleverly hidden under freshly fallen leaves! It was crazy! One minute you’re walking along, and the next, your legs are sinking (and in my case – your sandal is suctioned to the mud!). Let’s just say it was… interesting! And to make things even more fun, we experienced our longest ever portage – 1640m! I knew that my shoulders would need a break part-way through this one, but I was not expecting a canoe rack in the middle of the woods! Thank you to whoever put that there!! I was able to duck out from under the boat and rest for a few minutes before attempting to continue… attempt, because at first, when I tried to squat down under the canoe I knocked it off the rack and watched it tumble to the ground! Oops. On that second half of the portage, I was thinking, “I just did a half ironman 2 weeks ago – I can carry a canoe on my head for 12 minutes!”

A moment of disbelief when I saw this!

The other method I used to get the boat off my head, before realizing that I could just as easily twist and put it down on the ground, was to teepee it.

Perfectly placed trees.

By Saturday afternoon, I was cold and my feet were numb. So numb that I wondered how my feet were holding me up! I put my paddling gloves on and that helped my poor fingers – should have done it sooner!

By the time we chose an island campsite on Little Island Lake, we were more than ready to get out of the canoe for the day! We didn’t eat our lunch until 5:30PM (mini pitas, hummus and baba gannouj), after arriving at our campsite, because the skies were ominous, it was pouring, and we really didn’t want to sit in the rain on a portage trail eating. At one point we did canoe over to shore on Cache Lake and hide under some trees, sheltered from the pounding rain. We hoped it would let up!

Just a little wet. Thankfully, my raincoat fits over my layers of clothing and lifejacket.

Shortly after arriving at our campsite, we discovered 2 new “friends” – one, a very brave chipmunk, and two, a very annoying red squirrel! We decided to carry our food bag around the campsite with us, or hang it from our bear bag tree! To warm up we had some peanut butter hot chocolate, but the red squirrel found the spoon (a couple of feet away from Cheryl) and decided to try some. Later, when the hot chocolate was done, I saw the squirrel running away with Cheryl’s cup!

After setting up camp, we went on a search for wood, and while we were doubtful that the wood would light (it had been raining, after all), we thought we’d give it a try. Before lighting the fire though, we had an awesome chili dinner with mini pitas. And of course, it started to rain! We scrapped the fire idea. It went from sunny to overcast to a full starry sky and then overcast with rain in a short timespan!

We did enjoy some more Baileys and mini Reeces peanut butter cups in our tarp kitchen, fending off our rodent friends! Before going to bed, we made a new friend – a mouse. We noticed that he brought his friends along with him… so we’re not really sure who was to blame for what we discovered on Sunday morning!

Day 3 totals:

  • Total distance travelled (by canoe and portaging): 12.5 km
  • Number of portages: 4
  • Distance portaged: 1035m Harness Lake to Head Lake + 1640m Head Lake to Cache Lake +120m Cache Lake to Sheriff Pond + 320m Sheriff Pond to Little Island Lake

Day 4 (Sunday): Little Island Lake to Smoke Lake

Sunday morning started with me discovering that Cheryl’s mug had been chewed by the mice! Not only had the cloth cover been chewed, but they actually nibbled away at the hole the liquid comes out to make it bigger so that they could get inside!

Not too happy!

Our delicious breakfast was a dehydrated banana, a bowl of homemade granola with rehydrated peaches on top, and a warm cup of tea. We don’t always cook the last morning, but it was c-c-c-cold (7 degrees Celsius, which we were able to see on the thermometer/whistle/compass that Cheryl found on one of the portage trails on Saturday).

With only a few kilometres of paddling between our campsite and the van, Sunday would be an easier day than the previous 3. However, it rained, it poured, the wind it blew! We had 2 portages to do, the second of which ended up being my longest portage without taking a break (895m). I was determined not to stop. When 4 men approached me coming from the other direction, I said to them, “Tell me I’m almost there! True or not, I don’t care!” One man replied, “You’re almost there! It’s true.”

It was quite a paddle on Smoke Lake – we had sun for a very brief time, but mostly it was pouring rain and the wind was strong. We looked like drowned rats at the end!

Still smiling after all that rain.

We were thankful for dry clothes waiting for us in the van (but me, not so much the mouse-chewed kleenex boxes that we found!!!).

We drove over to the Cache Lake access point, and used the comfort station bathrooms to get dry! And then we ran through the pouring rain to the permit office to buy a sew-on patch of Algonquin…. and we were wet again! We did eventually dry off, and it took a while, but my feet finally thawed out.

It was a fun weekend despite the weather, but Cheryl and I both agree that we’d prefer less paddling/portaging to allow for some time to explore in and around our campsites and the lakes we actually stayed on!

Day 4 totals:

  • Total distance travelled (by canoe and portaging): 5 km (approximately – forgot to take a picture of the GPS and drove home with it still on, which slightly affected our totals!)
  • Number of portages: 4
  • Distance portaged: 225m Little Island Lake to Kootchie Lake + 895m Kootchie Lake to Smoke Lake

Trip totals:

  • Total distance travelled (by canoe and portaging): 44km (approximately)
  • Number of portages: 12
  • Distance portaged: 6.185km
  • Shortest portage: 60m (not including beaver dam liftovers)
  • Longest portage: 1640m

We used the Algonquin for Canoeists Southern map by Jeff’smap. His maps are fantastic!

Before eating our carrot raisin peanut pepper salad on Sunday, we decided to frame the section of the park that we paddled. The peanuts represent our campsites!

Can’t wait for my next canoeing adventure!

5 thoughts on “Trip report: Algonquin Provincial Park by Canoe – Smoke Lake to Big Porcupine Lake to Harness Lake to Little Island Lake, October 2014

  1. I’m heading out on the same trip in a few days – thanks for the writeup! I was debating whether to pack rain pants. I think I will 🙂


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