Wilderness Traverse: adventure racing from a volunteer’s perspective

If you’ve ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes of a 24-hour adventure race, volunteer at race headquarters (HQ) all weekend and you’ll see the good, the bad, and the ugly, not to mention the hilarious, inspiring, and satisfying! I had the pleasure of doing just that at Wilderness Traverse in 2018, a race which saw teams of 3 or 4 cover 150k of terrain by trekking, biking, and canoeing. Some teams chose to swim on the trek section, and at least one racer in as little clothing as possible (he wore only the race bib – on the bottom!).

While I was at race HQ all weekend, I was able to follow along with the racers by “watching the dots” on the computer screen (each team had a GPS tracker), and by getting news from volunteers around the course (50 volunteers in total, and 48 teams racing), which included pictures of teams as they passed by.

Pre-race planning by an unknown team.

Along with a few other savvy ladies, we provided race assistance and play by play commentary and updates as the race progressed, keeping friends and loved ones at home (and in some cases around the race course) up to date on what was happening. It was exhausting but super fun. 

With Ashleigh and Barb.

It was fascinating to see the logistics of a race like this, which is described on the website as “one of the toughest team-based endurance challenges around and simply reaching the finish line is a massive achievement”. 

Race Director Bob Miller has a whole team of volunteers helping to make this race a reality.

I love volunteering at races (see my post on why you, too should volunteer), and I figured that spending time at Wilderness Traverse would be a great way to prepare for my own eventual attempt at racing it!

I decided to do it again in 2019, this time manning a remote checkpoint in the Haliburton Highlands Water Trails, which the teams would arrive at by foot.

My friend and future Wilderness Traverse teammate Heidi agreed to come with me. On the Friday night, we volunteered at race registration.

At race registration.

I took team photos, and Heidi gathered interesting tidbits from each team. We slept in our tent in a park across the road from the Dorset Recreation Centre (race HQ), and after breakfast on race morning, we watched the 8 AM start of the race.

Bumper boats at the race start!

Then we set out for our remote campsite (Checkpoint/CP 16) on Upper Crane Lake, with one little stop on the way to set out CP 15 (anyone remember CP 15?!).

Just one of the race maps.

We parked my van at an old logging road, took a compass bearing and headed south-east towards Three Brothers Lake. For some reason, it never occurred to me to pack trail running shoes for the weekend, so I bushwhacked in the only shoes I had with me – my sandals! It took us far longer than we expected it to, and we did it during broad daylight. Most teams would do this trekking section in the dark. We were hot, and despite having put bug repellent on, we were getting eaten alive!!

We eventually found the blue ribbon that Bob had said would mark the spot where the checkpoint should go… but it was on the ground, not attached to a tree! Luckily, it hadn’t blown away. We hung the flag and SI reader and then headed back to the van.

We drove to the Bentshoe Lake access point, carried the canoe and all our gear across the road, loaded up the boat, and set out! This was Heidi’s very first backcountry canoe trip. We had 4 big packs with us, way more than I would normally take on a canoe trip – but we were carrying lots and lots of treats for the racers! We counted this as our first Wilderness Traverse training session together – Heidi portaged a canoe for the first time!

Based on Bob’s estimates, we knew that the lead team wouldn’t reach our checkpoint until at least 10 PM, and that teams would continue to arrive until 8 AM! Of course, this meant that we too would be staying up all night! We decided not to bring a tent with us – we wouldn’t have time to sleep! We did bring our sleeping bags in case we got cold.

We paddled to the portage into Lower Crane Lake, and then after a short portage, paddled through that lake into Upper Crane Lake and to our campsite. We had our lunch, swam, and gathered tons of wood so that we could keep a fire going all night long.

At some point, another volunteer paddled by in his canoe. I can’t remember now where he was stationed during the race.

Wood and treats ready to go!

We had great cell service at our campsite, so we were able to use the race apps to follow the progress of all the teams, and to communicate with race HQ. We had dinner, and were treated to the most gorgeous sunset!

We decided to try to have a nap. We had set up our thermarests and sleeping bags and settled in! I set an alarm so that we weren’t asleep when the racers arrived! When my alarm went off (I hadn’t fallen asleep), I checked where the teams were, and re-set my alarm. At some point, I did fall asleep, because my alarm woke me up, and when I checked where the teams were, I thought, “Oh no!” I got up quickly and woke Heidi up. She had been out cold and started speaking to me in German (I don’t speak German!). I thought the first team would be there any minute, but it actually took quite a while. We lit our campfire, set out all the goodies (cookies, candies, and s’mores fixings!), and waited with baited breath! Well, we might have also eaten our fair share of the treats as a matter of quality control while we waited.

We heard many owls calling to one another while we waited for teams to arrive.

At one point, we freaked ourselves out when we saw a bright light through the woods in a direction that no team should be arriving at our checkpoint from. We wondered who was in the woods behind our campsite. We couldn’t hear anything. It was unnerving. Eventually, the light got bigger, and higher, and we realized it was… the moon!!!

Eventually (after midnight!), we heard voices and spotted headlamps coming down a hill across the lake from us. And then we made out French accents. As they got closer, we heard them discussing whether they were going to swim. They did. It was incredibly cool (and exciting!) to see them swimming across the lake, a distance of probably 25m or so. They made their way through the woods to us, inserted their SI stick into the SI reader, and took off! No idle chatter or food for them. We were a little disappointed but we understood. They were on a mission! The next team wouldn’t arrive for more than an hour.

Speaking of disappointment, when we learned that only the teams on the full course would reach our checkpoint, we wished that our checkpoint was earlier on in the race course. While there were 45 teams registered, we knew that the majority of teams would be pushed onto short courses (due to not making certain time cut-offs).

The next team arrived more than an hour later. And then, as the hours passed, the teams ate more and spent slightly more time at our checkpoint. It was really interesting to see their route choices. Some came to us from the south, and some from the north. Some chose to swim, but the majority didn’t. At least one team overshot our campsite, and then eventually returned.

We made sure that for each team’s approach, we had a good fire going, so that if they were wet and cold, they could warm up.

There were a few teams in particular that I hoped to see, because I knew people on them. Before the race started I had heard Kelly from Spinning out of Control say that she’d love a coffee on course. And then I found out that Heidi had packed a bit of instant coffee. When we discovered that Sunday was Kelly’s birthday (the race started on Saturday), I knew we had to have a coffee ready for her arrival! I had been watching their dot all day and night, with my friend John also on the team. And then we saw on the race Facebook page that they had been redirected to a short course (and wouldn’t reach our checkpoint after all). I was so disappointed! But then we saw their dot move… and it continued to come closer to us. And then, around 6 AM, they got close, and we could hear John’s laugh.

When they arrived at our site, not only did we get to wish Kelly a happy birthday, but we got to give her a mug of hot coffee! She was very appreciative.

The birthday girl and her cup of coffee.

After munching on some snacks, they headed out. We wished them well and hoped they would make it to the finish line (they did!).

The sun came up and teams were still arriving at CP 16. Over the course of the night we heard how much trouble some teams had finding CP 15, the one we set out (and the one they visited before coming to us). We weren’t surprised!

We had so much food that we encouraged teams to take some with them, more so as the last few teams came through. One was completely out of food, so they were very grateful.

We did make s’mores for some teams, and one racer even made one for himself. I hand fed another racer whose hands were too dirty (you’re welcome Chris L!).

In the end, I think we had 12 teams come through our checkpoint.

Planning how to get to CP 17.

When the last team left our campsite, we packed up our things, and waited until we were told by race HQ that we could leave. We set out for CP 15 to collect the flag and SI reader, this time by canoe. We had trouble finding the place we intended to leave the canoe, trouble finding the path we wanted, and after a while of seemingly getting nowhere (or getting nowhere fast!) , we wondered whether it would have been better to just park at the logging road and get to CP 15 the same way we had originally put it out. But it was too late by then. It seemed to take forever, with us having to add distance to avoid climbing and descending super steep hills. We made it there, eventually! And then we headed back to the canoe, paddled to the takeout, and loaded up the van.

We went back to race HQ, dropped off the flags and SI readers, had some post-race food, and drove home!

We had so much fun at CP 16.

In 2020, Heidi, Rebecca and I will be at the start line to take on Wilderness Traverse ourselves!

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Race report: Bruce Peninsula Multisport Race Suntrail Course 2018 (canoe/MTB/trail run)

My teammate Rebecca and I had so much fun at last year‘s Bruce Peninsula Multisport Race that we knew we wanted to do it again. We signed up to tackle the Suntrail course for a 2nd time, which is a 4k paddle, 16k mountain bike leg, and 6k trail run. On Friday night we registered at the arena, filled out waivers, put stickers on our gear, and left our bikes and bags with bike gear (helmet, shoes, food) with volunteers. We stopped at the bike draw table to be sure we had a chance to win (even though I won last year!). The check-in process was well organized. This year, we decided to camp at race central, Bluewater Park in Wiarton, Ontario. We checked in at the office and headed for our campsite, one of just 10 or so tent sites in the park (the rest are for trailers or are for seasonal trailer campers). We were more than a little shocked to discover the size of our site – it was tiny! It was clearly marked as being between 2 trees that had to be about 8 feet apart (see picture). It was a rectangle, with enough room for my vehicle (parked over the fire pit), a picnic table, and tent. On the other side of the hedge was the road. A nice man named Dave from Winnipeg was camped to our right – he would be doing the Buff long course. Unfortunately, our neighbours to the left arrived around 10:30 PM, immediately started a fire (with a big POOF! and a “Did you see that?”), set up their tent, ordered pizza delivery, and then proceeded to keep me awake until 1:30 AM when they eventually called it a night. Lesson learned: ear cancelling headphones or super duper earplugs!
Our tiny campsite at the Bluewater Park Campground – between the 2 trees from the hedge to the back of my vehicle.
Despite the rough night, it was awesome to be able to just pack up our sleeping stuff and tent and drive for 2 minutes to get to the race site. We brought the canoe and paddling gear to the water, and then had lots of time to relax before the race started. Having done the race before, I had almost no pre-race nerves (there’s always the worry of mechanical failure – especially on the bike!). I got to meet a woman named Kris and her race partner, who were racing for the first time, inspired by my blog post of last year’s race (how cool is that?!).
Colpoy’s Bay was calm in the early morning.
After the pre-race briefing, where participants were told that it was never too late to decide that the race, or any part of it, was beyond their abilities, Rebecca and I got ready for our 10:20 AM start. We would begin after the solo kayak men and solo kayak women.
Ready to race!
Because we were in the water 20 minutes or so before the race started, we were getting blown by the wind away from the starting area and had to keep correcting and paddling back. We were amazed that one man was doing the race in a row boat! One team jokingly asked us if we wanted to switch paddles (we had kayak paddles while theirs were canoe paddles). 4k Canoe The race began and off we went! We were hoping that the bow seat (and Rebecca!) stayed put this time. For Storm the Trent the tightening mechanism wasn’t working, and I forgot to do anything about it before RockstAR. My husband helped and we thought we had the problem solved… and, as it turns out, we did! There was quite a bit of congestion for the first section of the paddle, where we headed perpendicular to our main route of travel. One boat in particular kept coming quite close, as they seemed to be having trouble steering. Once we turned around the buoy near the marina we headed for a big white building in the distance, and things spread out. We counted only 6-8 boats in front of us, which was an improvement from last year! From that point on, no one passed us, and we eventually passed one canoe. My biggest problem was continually sliding off my seat. I was kneeling, with my butt just on the edge of my seat. But far too frequently I had to stop paddling to shift back onto my seat. Towards the end of the paddle I decided to sit, and had no more issues. Rebecca noted that I seemed to have more power while sitting too. At times the wind made it a bit hard to stay on course, but we never got off course too much. As we got closer to the end of the paddle, we passed a few of the solo kayak women who started 10 minutes before us. One poor woman thought I was telling her to move over when I was only telling Rebecca to paddle on one side – oops! We apologized! We jumped out of the canoe at the shore, and very quickly volunteers grabbed the canoe and carried it away for us. We left our lifejackets and all our gear in it, and started running for the transition zone where we would find our bikes. 16k Bike I popped into the portapotty, then met Rebecca at our bikes. They were really easy to find, because volunteers told each racer or team exactly which rack to go to. I had an energy bar, put my helmet and cycling shoes on, and we headed out.
Rebecca doesn’t look too happy, but I promise we didn’t just have a fight. This is us starting the ride. [Official race photo]
Having ridden this course once before, we were much more confident this year. Not only were we riding our own bikes (last year we rode rentals), but we had more experience mountain biking. The course is a mixture of double track trails, single track trails, grassy field, and gravel road. We passed quite a few people at the beginning, with Rebecca in front and me in behind the entire way. Riding through a few sections of the course, we remembered walking them last year! There were only 2 spots that we briefly unclipped and walked, either around a tight corner or up a hill (where we had lost speed and the ground was very rocky). The ride definitely seemed easier. Last year, while riding on the single track section that has lots of tight twists, turns, ups and downs, a team passed us and we said that we couldn’t imagine being clipped in. One rider said, “I can’t imagine not being clipped in!” And this year? We were clipped in! My goal for the ride was to drink my entire bottle of gatorade, but I had to carefully time my sips – there was no way I was riding one-handed through rocky, hilly, twisty or turny sections! I managed to do it – it was a hot day and I didn’t want to get dehydrated. We noticed that no female teams passed us on the bike. 6k Run Back in the transition zone we left our bikes, helmets and bike shoes, and put on our running shoes and hats. I made a quick trip to the portapotty, and we headed out on the run. The run course is a mixture of pavement, Bruce Trail, and paved park path at the end. The Bruce Trail in this section includes dirt path, very rocky path, weedy field, stiles to climb over, and steep circular stairs to descend. I was fighting a side stitch for part of the run, but managed to keep it in check. I had a gel just after we started running, and one in the last 3km. We were wearing camelbaks so we had lots of water. Again, we noticed that no teams of females passed us on the run. We passed solo female racers and some solo males and male teams. At one point, a couple of guys were following us, and we took a wrong turn – we missed the trail going to the right, but didn’t get very far (10m?). After we got back on the trail, Rebecca said to me that the guys didn’t know the name of the team they were following (Define “Lost”)! There were a couple of aid stations on the run – at the last one, which was just before the descent down the steep stairs, I grabbed 2 cups of water and poured them on my head. Felt so good! Rebecca tried to get me to speed up once we hit the pavement, but I wasn’t having much success! We reached the park, passed our campsite, and 2:31:22 after starting, we crossed the finish line! We weren’t sure how we had placed, but we felt that the race had gone better than the year before (turns out we were about 11 minutes faster). We were pretty sure that we were faster on the canoe and biking sections (we were).
I downed several cups of water, then heard someone call my name. I looked up and didn’t recognize the guy at all. Turns out he and his race partner (John and Amy from Ireland) had read my blog post about last year’s race 3 times on the way to the race, and learned everything they needed to know. Thanks for saying hi!! Rebecca and I went for a dip in the lake, changed into dry clothes, had a free massage courtesy of Bayshore Physical Therapy in Owen Sound, and had awesome lamb burgers from the farm providing post-race food for racers. We watched other racers finish (and while standing there had a non-fish sushi roll with wasabi and ginger offered by a friend of a friend – so yummy and my first ever post-race sushi!), then drove over to the arena a block or so away and loaded our bikes and paddling gear into my vehicle, and the canoe on top. We walked to Northern Confections for a drink – I had a deliciously sweet Chaisicle (iced drink). We headed back to the race site to watch more racers finish. We looked up the race stats, and found that we had finished in 3rd place out of 10 female teams. Woohoo! We chatted with other racers until the awards ceremony, including our new friend Dave from the campground. And we heard about the crazy waves in the long course race – a few people flipped their boats, some more than once! And one guy from the long course race apparently forgot to pack his running shoes into his bag to be transported to the transition zone. No worries – he ran 8k in socks along the Bruce Trail until volunteers could get him his shoes. And yes, he was on the podium! As 3rd place winners, Rebecca and I received a bag of coffee each from Northern Convections, and were able to choose a prize from the prize table. I chose a bottle of Nikwak (the wash-in fabric waterproofer), likely donated by Suntrail Source for Adventure. We had our picture taken on the podium, and then stuck around until the bike draw. IMG_6681 On the podium in 3rd place! [Photo by Dave] Winners for other prizes were called by team number and then name, so when the draw was made for the bike (courtesy of Bikeface Cycling in Owen Sound), they called 208 – our team number! And then, Rebecca! Yes! I won last year, and Rebecca this year. A Devinci Jackson mountain bike. Crazy! Our friend John said to me, “I want to be on YOUR team next year!” Once again, we had a super fun time participating in this race. We’ll be back next year!! Thank you Peninsula Adventure Sports Association! Stats (all times approximate except for total time – I was a little slow hitting my watch button sometimes!): Screen Shot 2018-08-14 at 7.13.13 PM Follow me on Facebook: Kyra on the Go: Adventures of a Paddling Triathlete Follow me on Twitter: @kyraonthego Follow me on Instagram: @kyraonthego

Trip report: 4-day girls only canoe trip on Rain Lake, Algonquin Provincial Park (rope swings and snapping turtle friends)

Who knew it was possible to not only become emotionally attached to a snapping turtle, but to then witness its near demise all in one trip? But I’m getting ahead of myself! Earlier this year my friend Cheryl and I decided to take Ailish (mine) and Anne and Mae (hers) on a 4-day canoe trip. We settled on Rain Lake at Algonquin Provincial Park because 1) it was available, 2) it involved no portaging, and 3) Cheryl and I had been there before.

Shortcut to the full slide show: https://goo.gl/photos/HCWnS3Rv3MY6kYff7

Day 1: Thursday, August 6 – Huntsville to Kearney to Rain Lake, Algonquin Provincial Park

Before we could start our canoe trip, we needed one more canoe, so after a 7 AM departure and a few hours of driving, we stopped at Algonquin Outfitters in Huntsville where Cheryl rented a Swift Prospector 17 to go along with my Swift Keewaydin. We continued another few minutes to Kearney, where we picked up our backcountry permit, and then drove the last 23 km or so to the Rain Lake access point. After loading everything into the 2 canoes, we were off – Ailish and I in one canoe, and Cheryl, Anne and Mae in the other (we switched up the seating arrangements over the course of the 4 days). We had read good things about the island campsites (there are 2), but we thought it was unlikely they would be available. We headed for them anyway, keeping in mind another site 2 before the portage to Sawyer Lake that apparently had a lake behind it you could swim in and have all to yourselves. It turns out the island sites were taken, so we checked out option B. The “rear” lake didn’t have good access to it and swimming would have been very weedy (read leechy) on the “rear” lake and on Rain Lake. We decided to check out the site next to the portage, which was available, and maybe less desirable because of the canoe traffic passing by to reach the portage. It was a large site, had great big boulders for sitting down by the water, and seemed perfect! Plus we had no desire to backtrack and go to one of the sites we had already passed. This campsite was 5.89 km (approximately) from the put in. We set up 2 tents, with the girls (10, 11 and 13) in one tent, and Cheryl and I in the other. We also put up a tarp in case of rain, and after about 30 minutes of attempting to throw a rock (wrapped up in rope) over a tree branch 15 feet in the air (and re-tying the rope several times as the rock hurled itself into the woods), success! – a safe place to store our food. This was definitely the highest branch I’ve used for a bear bag – there weren’t many options at this campsite! At some point, we first encountered a snapping turtle in the water at our site, who the girls later named “Buddy”. Despite his presence, we decided to swim – with some trepidation.

Buddy the snapping turtle

The girls strung ropes between trees to walk on, and also made a very fun rope swing. We cooked hot dogs on the fire for dinner, and roasted marshmallows later on for s’mores. All in all, a good first day!

Day 2: Friday, August 7 – Rain Lake to Islet Lake via Western Uplands Backpacking Trail

In the morning, Buddy reappeared! After a delicious oatmeal breakfast, we paddled a couple hundred metres over to the portage to Hot Lake, where we left the canoes and joined the Western Uplands Backpacking Trail. We intended to hike until we reached Islet Lake or Ishkuday Lake, swim, have lunch, and hike back to the canoes. The “hike” was really a “walk”, as it was along a flat old rail trail. We met a woman and her 12 year old son on the way, and based on her recommendation, decided to check out the first backpacking site on Islet Lake – if it was unoccupied, we would eat our lunch and swim there. We were in luck! It was a big, beautiful site, complete with an awesome rope swing that swung over the lake. We had walked at the most 3 km to get there, maybe less.

Thank you to whoever put this up – and left it! [Photo by Cheryl]
We swam, ate our lunch, and even had a small fire because the previous occupants had not doused it – with just a few big breaths and some birch bark, we had a flame! When a couple of hikers came into view, we waved them over since we hadn’t paid to stay at that site, and while it might have looked occupied, it wasn’t! We finished our lunch and cleared out as quickly as we could, despite the very generous offer to stay for 2 hours if we wanted to! We walked back to our canoe, collecting firewood as we got close to the canoe so that we could have another evening campfire. We paddled over to a little beach at the end of the lake (very close to our site and the portage). The girls swam, but the sun wasn’t out, it was cool, and Cheryl and I were wimps. We had a delicious pasta dinner, during which Buddy convinced us that other campers must feed him, as he came out of the water and attempted to climb up the rock to share our food with us. So sad. Thankfully, the rock was too steep and he kept sliding back into the water. That night, while I was filtering water from the lake, Cheryl and the girls witnessed Buddy get attacked by a larger turtle. He went for Buddy’s head or neck, climbed on top of him, somersaulted around, and then seemed to pin him to the lake bottom. We all feared for Buddy, and two girls were in tears. Thankfully, about an hour later we saw 2 turtles surface (in different locations), one of them definitely Buddy, as he had a distinctive wheezing/snorting sound and only one nostril. However, we never saw him again…

(Since being home, I’ve done a bit of research and it seems that our “Buddy” may actually have been a girl, and the bigger turtle may have been a boy… and the violence may have been part of snapping turtle mating behaviour!)

Day 3: Saturday, August 8 – Rain Lake to Sawyer Lake

Day 3 started with a yummy pancake breakfast, and fun around the campsite. We headed over to the beach to swim, build sand castles and swat deer flies.

Fun at the beach on Rain Lake [Photo by Cheryl]

Ailish practices her solo canoeing skills

Next we did the short (300m) portage to Sawyer Lake, where we looked for a beach or rocky area to stop and have lunch. Before finding somewhere, we stopped at an unoccupied campsite to use the bathroom! We eventually found somewhere to eat, but it wasn’t a great spot – just enough room to get out of the boats, sit to eat, and watch helplessly as a roll of precious toilet paper tumbled into the lake (my bad)!

Mergansers on Sawyer Lake

We headed back to our campsite, collecting firewood along the portage for a third and final campfire. We spent the rest of the day at our campsite.

Doing dishes in the setting sun [Photo by Cheryl]
When we first arrived at our campsite on Day #1, we found a hat and pair of sunglasses that had been left behind. On closer inspection, the hat belonged to “Kathleen”. So on our last evening, we each took turns sporting the hat and glasses and doing what we thought Kathleen would do.

Clearly I am not a dancer [Photo by Cheryl]
Day 4: Sunday, August 9 – Rain Lake to Huntsville

Early morning view from our campsite on Rain Lake

On our last morning, we had fantastic egg/veggie/bacon wraps to start the day. After packing up camp, we swam one last time, trying out a fallen tree as a jumping off spot. We also walked along the shore to the portage to Sawyer Lake, looking for a lost ziplock bag of Anne’s kleenexes and some rope… but we never did find it. We loaded everything into the 2 canoes and headed for the van. We really lucked out with the weather – it rained on 2 separate occasions over the 4 days, but for no longer than 2-5 minutes, and only a light sprinkle! We didn’t see any moose, bears or foxes, but we were amazed at the number of mice running around the campfire as the sun went down!

Canoe tripping with kids adds its own challenges, but we had tons of fun!

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 people 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!