Trip report: My very first backcountry kayak camping trip (at Algonquin Provincial Park)

Back in August 2012 I suggested to my friend Cheryl that we do a canoe trip together in Algonquin. She was game, and after briefly considering bringing our combined four kids along, we ditched that idea and decided to go alone – in her two sea kayaks. We picked a weekend in late September, consulted people more knowledgeable than ourselves about Algonquin, got route recommendations, and learned that when kayak-tripping, fewer and shorter portages are best (had we not been told this, we would have soon come to that conclusion ourselves). We settled on a 2 night 2 lake trip, and set to planning all the gear and food we would need. I told myself not to look at the weather forecast, but as the days got closer I couldn’t help it. The forecast got worse and worse, but we were going anyway!

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Setting out under ominous skies.

Day 1 (Friday)

We picked up our backcountry permit in Kearney and headed to Algonquin Provincial Park, which was along a road that quickly became a gravel road. It took a while to drive the 25 km to the put in on Rain Lake. We were a bit surprised to see lots of people at the put in, including what looked like a huge group of teenage girls with many boats and lots of gear. Would there be any campsites left? Thankfully, they were camping at the put in and wouldn’t be competing for sites (it turned out there was lots of choice for us). The rain didn’t start until we arrived at the put in – of course – but it didn’t rain too much and most of our gear was packed in “waterproof” bags. (It’s not clear who won the bet for the last mini reeses pieces bit – Cheryl, who said it would start pouring at the put in, or me, who said it wouldn’t – it rained, but did it pour?)

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Map of where everything should be packed – simplified things for portaging!

After test-packing the boats back at home before the trip, and making a map to remind ourselves how it all fit in, it didn’t take too long to get ready to go – about an hour from the time we arrived at the put in. We headed out, enjoying the fall colours as we paddled. We checked out some campsites along the way, aiming for one of two island sites (apparently one has the fireplace from an old ranger cabin which has long since disappeared), but decided on a different one when the one island site we could see was occupied. Our site was about 5 km from the put in. It was private, big, and had a great rocky area on the shore for sitting on.  It even had a table for food prep, and a bizarre spinning arrow nailed into a tree…? 

After setting up our two man tent, we set to hanging a bear bag to keep our food high off the ground overnight. It was a first for both of us, since normally my husband did the bear bag when we camped! We had fun, but it wasn’t easy – the instructions sounded so simple, but the trees were never the right distance apart, didn’t have branches at the right height, or had way too many branches in all the wrong places. In the process we managed to avoid any head injuries, but we did snag the bag of carabiners in a V shaped space of a tree, and wondered how the heck we were going to dislodge it (far too high to reach and climbing was out of the question). Cheryl found a huge branch and stripped it of excess branches so it weighed slightly less than a tonne. Then we eventually got it upright and managed to poke the rope loose. Oh my, that was fun! (I now use a simple 1 rope method!)

We reheated delicious stew for dinner, discovered that my water pump was not functioning (had to boil lake water instead), and attempted – but failed – to start a fire with wet wood (and dry paper). Somewhat discouraging, but we reassured ourselves by being convinced that the fires we could see across the lake must have been started with accelerants. Instead of sitting by the fire, we sat on the rocks watching the stars, looking for the bizarrely elusive big dipper, saw some satellites, at least one shooting star, and a… flare?! It seems someone set one off on a neighbouring lake (hopefully they didn’t actually need help, because we weren’t going anywhere in the dark!). I had never heard or seen one before – wow, it was bright. Good thing our fire wouldn’t start – I saw a mouse run through the fire pit.

Overnight was cold and the rain poured down on us, but we were dry in the tent. We heard Barred owls hooting – at least one close, others further way. Very neat. Some loons were also very noisy in the night or early morning.

Day 2 (Saturday)

In the morning we made pancakes for breakfast, and just before sitting down to eat I went down to the water to wash some maple syrup off my fingers (should have used my tongue!!!) … only to slip in while wearing my shoes and thick warm socks. Two soakers and I knew my shoes would never dry. Back to sandals it was (thankfully, I had brought 3 pairs of socks)! I was so looking forward to having warm dry feet. After breakfast we were taking down our campsite when a bungee cord snapped back and cut my thumb – ouch! 

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We loaded up the boats again and headed over to the 310 m portage to Sawyer Lake. It was a difficult take out spot, rocky and awkward. And of course we had an audience, with two guys coming from Sawyer Lake to Rain Lake. We hauled the boats onto shore, unloaded some of the gear into backpacks, and each carried a big backpack and the yellow boat. It was heavy and we had to keep stopping every few feet, it seemed, as our fingers failed us! It was at this point that Cheryl asked if I was cursing her for bringing the kayaks instead of the canoe! We went back for the red kayak and re-loaded everything into the boats. The guys had recommended a campsite to us, so we headed for that one – at the far end of the lake (about 1 km away). As we headed over we waved to people at one campsite, and continued paddling as the wind picked up like crazy. We paddled through waves that I wouldn’t have liked in the canoe. I overshot the campsite and had to turn back into the wind, for another awkward take out without a nice landing spot for boats. However, we managed, and found ourselves at a huge, very exposed campsite! Later it was so windy there were whitecaps. We set our tent up way up on the hill, at what must have been a 45 degree angle! We opted for a sheltered site over a flat one. We set up the tent, a tarp over the kitchen “table” and strung up another bear bag (I think it took less time than at the first site!). 

It was c-c-c-cold in the wind and rain. It rained off and on all day long. When it started to pour, we headed for the shelter of the tent. While we were in there, cosy in our sleeping bags, it started to HAIL! Yes, the weekend had it all.

In the late afternoon/early evening, I was wearing every piece of clothing I had brought with me, except my bathing suit! I had 6 layers on the top, including fleece pyjamas, 3 on the bottom, my winter hat and gloves, and I was still cold! We’re not sure but we think without the wind it was about 4 degrees Celsius. We had warm beverages and went on a moose hunt to get warm. We didn’t find moose but did find moose poo (very close to our toilet and tent!) and other animal scat. There were also lots of cool fungi.

Just before dinner we had 3 otters visit us just off our site – they swam away but not before “talking” to us. Very cute.

We had an amazing chicken salad for dinner and chocolate pudding for dessert. Yum. Later, when the rain had stopped, we sat on the rocky point and star gazed. We also looked enviously at the two fires across the lake, which we were sure had to have been started with accelerants! We both opted to use “hot paws” toe warmers overnight, but didn’t find them too useful. I wore 5 layers on top to bed, and 2 on the bottom, with my winter hat and gloves and yes, I was still cold! I decided that I needed a new sleeping bag. Cheryl was shedding layers!

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Delicious dinner!

Day 3 (Sunday)

We decided to have a cold breakfast and a hot lunch at the car since we wanted to get out before any crazy wind and waves hit Sawyer Lake.

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It took about 2 hours from the time we woke up to the time we paddled away, heading for the portage back to Rain Lake. The water was warmer than the air, but there wasn’t yet too much of a wind. We hauled our boats on shore, and this time, decided to take an extra trip to portage all the gear. I also decided to portage with my camera (which I hadn’t done the day before).

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I learned my lesson on this trip, and now I carry my camera everywhere when I camp, even to the loo!

We walked first with only the packs (no boats). We went back for the yellow kayak, and then on our way back, gathered yellow leaves for a bit of arts and crafts on the trail. We got back to Sawyer Lake, and while Cheryl unloaded the red kayak, I started to spell out Rain with the leaves, having remembered to do so because our friend Doug asked Cheryl if we were going to spell something with rocks or sticks as I usually do. Had he not asked her, we likely would not have thought about it, and we wouldn’t have taken the extra few moments to pick up all the leaves. All of a sudden I heard a grunt, which I first thought was either Cheryl making noise moving the boat, or a bear! I turned around, and almost immediately saw antlers! I knew then that it was a moose. It was not far away, in the bush, and as I called to Cheryl, it headed down to the water. It stopped, looked at us, and sauntered through the lake, over to the other shore and up into the woods. Very very cool! It was about 15 – 20 feet away from us. I had resigned myself to not seeing a moose, so this was even cooler.

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Had we not done an extra trip with the gear, and the gathering of leaves, we might not have seen it at all! I finished with my arts and crafts and we headed over to Rain Lake. We got back into the boats and started our 6 km paddle to the put in. It was windy at times – very windy – and c-c-c-cold! Our hands lost feeling and I couldn’t make mine do what I wanted them to do! As we were paddling out, we heard some crazy grunting in the woods. We figured it was either a very angry bear, or a moose mating call – and settled on the latter. We heard it a few times. We had been warned before our trip that Rain Lake can be a tough paddle on the way out because of the wind, and boy were they right! Rain Lake is a wind tunnel!

We finally made it back to the car, and enjoyed some hot oatmeal for lunch, along with tea and coffee. We “met” the four men who were camped at the accelerant fire site across the lake from us on the 2nd night, and they insisted that all they used was dry wood… and this air thingy that they wind up to provide wind to the fire (rather than blowing on it). They said they were “this close” to bringing dry wood to the girls (us) the night before but because they didn’t see any smoke from our site, they figured we weren’t even trying to build a fire (correct – we didn’t try since all the wood was soaking wet). We packed everything back into the car, and headed back to civilization.

Other animals that we saw on this trip Algonquin: slugs, a chipmunk, herons, crows, loons, mergansers, a grasshopper, one lone frog, a dragonfly, miscellaneous small birds, ducks, unidentified flies. 

All in all we paddled about 15 km, and walked about 2.5 km with the gear. Despite the crummy weather, we enjoyed ourselves and the wilderness that is Algonquin. We both agreed that another night would have been ideal – less packing up and moving and more relaxing. 

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Back at Rain Lake put in.

If you’re interested in reading more about kayaking tripping, check out the guest post I wrote on the Algonquin Outfitters blog.

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Algonquin Outfitters blog guest post: Canoe tripping with kids

Head on over to the Algonquin Outfitters blog to see my guest post on canoe tripping with kids! The article is based on a canoe trip I did this summer on Rain Lake at Algonquin Provincial Park with my friend and our 3 girls, ages 13, 11 and 10.

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Rain Lake, Algonquin Provincial Park

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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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!