My wife, Sherry, and I consider ourselves to be well-seasoned campground campers. Our two sons, Liam (age 11) and Taylor (13) have camped with us at various provincial parks across Ontario practically since birth. Some of the major developmental milestones they reached took place at a campground (eg., as a toddler, Liam became toilet-trained thanks to the "step-on" toilet across from our campsite at Six Mile Lake).
The summer of 2004 was the first summer, however, that we had not camped. We spent the summer travelling to dog shows where Sherry showed our American Cocker Spaniel puppy, Daphne. Sherry grew up breeding and showing Cockers, and we agreed that this would be a great experience. Trying to "finish" her so that she could be considered a Champion by the Canadian Kennel Club necessitated acquiring ten points (you’re lucky to get more than about two per show) over the course of the summer. Between the shows and travelling to soccer games for both boys (I, for some reason, was coaching both teams), there was no time left for camping.
We vowed that the summer of 2005 would be different. We set our sights on Algonquin, where we first camped in the fall of 2003 on a blustery, rainy weekend. We managed a pair of trips to Kearney Lake, first with Taylor while Liam was at nearby Camp Olympia, and then with Liam while Taylor was at camp near Orillia. We also were considering an interior trip, which would be a first for us. Well, actually, it wouldn’t be Sherry’s first trip. She grew up in Northern Ontario, and has always made me envious of her tales of the wildernesss island she and her parents camped on. In addition, she had some previous canoe tripping experience. I, on the other hand, was pretty much a neophyte with the whole interior camping business. Oh, I grew up hiking and had camped a great deal (mostly as an adult), and had some canoe experience, but that was about it.
We started our planning by testing out a number of canoes. After trying several models, we settled on a Swift Algonquin, which provided a nice balance of tracking, size (for two adults, two kids, a dog and various gear) and portage-ability. Along the way, we had a few mishaps: our new Toyota Sienna van came without roof racks – not a problem, we thought when we bought it, figuring that we could simply add some racks later. Two major problems: no one makes roof racks for the 2005 or 2004 Sienna, and no roof-rack dealer we talked to would add them on, due to the cost, and the fact that Toyota wouldn’t even send the people we talked to the specs necessary for installing roof racks.
We were grateful for the help of Adam at the Swift store at Oxtongue River, in selecting and securing a canoe. With the canoe purchased, we figured that we were ready. Now it was time to obtain the necessary gear, and plan our route. Our good friends and neighbours, Sean and Kelly Lawes, loaned us their packs, filter and sleeping pads. We purchased an MSR Dragon Fly stove so that we wouldn’t have to lug our ancient two-burner Coleman. We then carefully scanned our calendar to find some open dates (not an easy task: Taylor plays soccer for a team in Barrie, about a 40 minute drive from our home, and both boys are heavily involved in the Ontario Kids of Steel triathlon series, which means that many of our summer weekends are spent at a race somewhere in the province). We settled on a mid-August trip, which left us the task of planning a route. Originally, we were looking at a trip from Canoe Lake to Tom Thompson Lake, but we weren’t sure about the site availability, and our ability to travel that distance on our first trip. On our earlier trip with Liam, we had put in at Cache Lake, and then discovered the beauty of Tanamakoon. Further research led us to believe that this route was within our capabilities. Finally, we settled on the route of Cache-Tanamakoon-Little Island-Smoke-Ragged, returning to the Smoke access point. We would chain my trusty Canadian Tire Mountain bike to a tree in the Smoke parking lot, so that I could rider back to Cache to get the van.
Arrival ... Saturday, August 13th, 2005
We left our home of Nottawa, Ontario (that’s Nottawa, not Ottawa – we’re just outside of Collingwood) for Algonquin, by way of Springwater Provincial Park, a day-use park just outside of Barrie. A colleague of Sherry’s was getting married in one of the group picnic areas. What a great place for a wedding ! The weather was perfect, and the forest provided both a perfect background for the ceremony, as well as getting us in the right frame of mind for some wilderness camping.
We arrived at Algonquin at around 6 pm, and spent the night in the Mew Lake campground. The campground was pretty full, and very noisy. Our site seemed like it was only steps from the highway, and the raccoons were out in full force, almost drowning out the yelling of the kids down at the lake, well past their bedtimes.
Day 1 ... Cache - Tanamakoon - Little Island
After what seemed like only a couple of hours’ sleep, we packed up and were on our way to Cache Lake.
We paddled from Cache into Tanamakoon, and landed at the portage around lunchtime. We lunched on hot dogs before putting into Sherriff Pond. After another portage, we were into Little Island Lake. I can hardly describe my feelings at this point. While I had camped many times, and even though we were a couple of kilometres away from civilization, this was a new experience for me. My Dad and I had tried a canoe trip when I was about 11. We went up Highway 69, looking for McRae Lake. We took what turned out to be a wrong turn once we put our canoe in, and then my dad sunk in up to about his neck on a very weedy shore when we tried to pull up to what we thought was a campsite, and then it poured all night in a violent thunderstorm. We never took another canoe trip again, and I doubt my Dad has been camping since. It was with equal parts anxiety and awe that I steered us around the island which makes up practically all of Little Island Lake, looking for a campsite. As we paddled around the eastern end of the Island, it was getting on to late afternoon, and my anxiety was increasing as we found the first two campsites on the island full, even though the Permit Office told us that they only had one other campsite reserved that night. The site we found at the western end of the Island was well worth the wait, however. The trees along the shoreline nicely concealed the huge beautiful site.
We quickly pulled up the canoe, and began to set up camp. Taylor and Liam, I should point out, were excellent throughout the trip. Taylor would help Sherry shuttle our equipment from one end of the portage to the other, while Liam helped me portage the canoe. When we stopped for the night, both boys barely needed to be instructed on what to do. Liam would quickly set up his tent, while Taylor set up ours, and then helped with whatever chores needed to be done. Taylor proved adept at scrounging up dead firewood. Both boys helped to keep any eye on Daphne, who probably covered twice the distance we did on portages, racing back and forth to find us.
While we made dinner of Fettucine Alfredo with green beans, the boys went out for a swim. Daphne, who routinely jumped off rocks into the water to swim with us on our previous two trips, desperately wanted to join them, but because it was late in the day, her long coat likely wouldn’t dry, so we kept her out of the water, much to her dismay.
I found a good spot about 75 m from our tents to hang up our packs. I probably hung them higher and farther than I needed to, but I didn’t really want to meet any bears on this trip. We went to sleep at about 10 pm, Sherry and I reading by flashlight like kids.
I was a little disappointed that we would still hear the trucks from the highway, but our site certainly was much quieter than our one the night before at Mew Lake. Since this was my first "non-car" camping experience (a term I borrowed from a colleague), I didn’t exactly find that sleep came easily to me. When I wasn’t hearing the trucks in the distance, I was listening for other things. I must have fallen into a deep sleep at some point, though, because Sherry swears that she heard something come up to the side of our tent and inhale deeply. I have no idea what it could have been, nor do I want to know. Whatever it was, our beloved watchdog, who will bark at all manner of things which pass by our living room window, also slept through it.
Day 2 – Little Island Lake – Kootchie Lake – Smoke Lake – Ragged Lake
We woke to a breakfast of oatmeal with sliced apples. In hindsight, it would have been great to have spent the whole day at our site, but our time was limited, and we wanted to see more of the park.
We paddled the short distance to the end of Little Island, then did the short portage into Kootchie. After an even shorter paddle, we prepared for the 800m portage into Smoke. One of the reasons we chose this route was because we knew that this portage was mostly downhill. Along the way, we passed some campers from Camp Tanamakoon. The female counsellors almost ran with their canoes and equipment, while a bedraggled-looking group of campers trudged along a fair distance behind them. Sherry directed Liam and I while we carried the canoe. I offered several times to take the canoe myself, but Liam had set a goal for himself of helping to carry the canoe along every step of each portage – lofty ambitions for an 11 year old !
After a quick snack of Crystal Lite and Rice Krispy squares, we put into Smoke Lake. Molly Island looked like to good a place, so we stopped and took a lunch break. The boys and Daphne enjoyed swimming to a rock a few metres off shore.
We packed up after lunch, and set off for the south end of Smoke. We passed, or were passed, by a number of camp groups along the way. We also passed a grouping of about 15 loons, which we dubbed "Loon Camp".
Upon reaching the portage into Ragged, we met up with a gentleman who was just finishing the assembly of a home-made cart. He told us that he put it together with some leftover parts he had at home. With his canoe on the cart and fully loaded with gear, coolers and expensive-looking camera equipment, he tugged on the bow to start off. He had moved a grand total of about three meters when one side of the cart collapsed, and the whole canoe slid off (sideways, luckily, not spilling the contents of his canoe). With his cart now bent into an unrecognizable shape, we asked him if he needed any help. "No," he calmly replied, "my wife will help." He then proceeded to empty the contents of his canoe off to the side of the trail and began to drag – not carry – his canoe along the portage. As our disbelieving eyes watched, he headed up the portage. When he rounded the corner and went out of sight, we could hear the crunching sound of the canoe being dragged across gravel, and the odd "thump !" when it hit a rock.
Liam and I could follow the trail of paint scraped off on the rocks as we portaged. Later, as were loading our canoe at the Ragged Lake end of the portage, we watched the pair paddle off loaded to the gunwales, apparently without any major leaks.
As we were researching this trip, I read somewhere that the sites on Ragged fill up fast. Such was the case for us. We paddled for some time looking for a site (it didn’t help that we had read the map wrong. Liam the navigator was right, the rest of us were wrong in our directions). We had circled the first island in Ragged, before stopping to check out a site on the west side of the island. It was pretty much uphill, but it was getting late once again, so we dropped Taylor off to lay claim to the site, and quickly paddled off in search of others.
Finally, we found one a short distance away on the point of Ball Mountain. It was a better site than the first one, but it was also pretty slanted. The thunderbox was a good 100m climb away, and it was hard to find a flat spot for our tents. The boys quickly discovered a rock face over the water that was perfect for jumping off, however, and we watched a beautiful sunset as we made dinner, then watched Mercury and Jupiter descend in the early evening western sky as we got ready for bed.
Day 3 – Ragged – Smoke
After a breakfast of pancakes, we packed up and headed home. Molly Island made for another good lunch spot – cheese quesadillas. The winds on Smoke were out of the North West that day. We had talked about sticking to the western shore as we left Molly, but I got a brain cramp and steered us straight for the parking lot, right out in the middle. Taylor and Sherry did most of the paddling, while I mostly steered in the helm. This was the only time the canoe didn’t really track the way I would have liked, but with the wind and our load, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised.
Daphne did extremely well on this trip. Her only previous camping experience had been on our two earlier trips, and at first we weren’t sure how she would handle everything. Ultimately, we decided that "she’s one of us", so along she came. She may have been a little cramped for space in the canoe, but she handled the trip very well. We worried about her getting cold at night, but she managed well until early morning, when she would snuggle up with me inside my sleeping bag.
When we landed, the boys helped Sherry unload while I retrieved my bike, and rode back to Cache Lake – a distance of about 10 km. It was a pretty hilly ride, but I ride my bike a fair amount, so it was actually an enjoyable ride. The pattern seemed to be climb for 1 km, then ride downhill for 1 km. It took me about 25 minutes to get to the van.
While I was riding, Sherry and the boys had time to go over to Canoe Lake and shower. By the time we had loaded the van, however, the showers were closed for cleaning, meaning that everyone had to put up with the smell of me for the ride home.
We left Algonquin at about 4 pm, and raced down to Barrie where Taylor had a soccer practice. Liam, Sherry and I went across the street to eat at a Chinese buffet. I felt very scruffy. We were home by about 10 pm, where our hot tub and comfortable beds were waiting.
All in all, it was a very memorable trip, and we have already looked at going farther into the interior next summer. A colleague has a cottage near the Kawawaymog access point, and has encouraged us to set up a base with them for a trip into North Tea and Manitou. Sherry and I agreed that the trip was a success, even though we always seemed to be on the move, and the new stove didn’t work quite as well as we thought it would (Sherry really wanted to make cheese biscuits for us one night, but they took forever to cook). Next year, we also want to travel lighter. We might be ready to take 2 canoes, but we know where we can cut back a bit to make things lighter. Our friends Kelly and Sean, who loaned us a great deal of stuff, also have a dehydrator, which Kelly is encouraging us to try before our next trip.
When I close my eyes, I can still easily picture our site at Little Island Lake, along with countless other images from our trip. We can’t wait to go back next summer - more than once.
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