Wednesday, January 28, 2015
EGL Spring Canoe Hang - May 2013 - Late Thaw Lakers
As is all too often the case with early season trips into Algonquin, those last couple of weeks before launch can be a time of nervous waiting, as everyone carefully scours their sources for clues as to when the ice will go out. 2013 was no exception. Only a few days before our planned launch, Canoe Lake was still locked in Winter's grip and covered in ice. All trips into the Park for Algonquin's Trout Opener (each year on the last Saturday of April), had been officially cancelled and the Park's own reports from only a few days before our trip advised on the possibility of another five to ten days before the lakes cleared. Plan were revised and we were on the verge of postponing when a final call to the on Tuesday confirmed that Canoe Lake had finally opened up and that a Ministry fly-over had shown that all of the lakes along our route were ice free. EGL Spring 2013 was a go!
Special thanks go out to Bubba and Keg for shifting their schedules and giving much need lifts to Jiblets and myself. Bubba picked up Jiblets and his canoe and went straight up to the park while Keg shuttled me to nearby Orangeville where I grabbed the car I'd be driving. If it hadn't been for them, likely we would have had to forgo the trip.
The plan was to meet up at the Canoe Lake Ranger Station between 10 and 10:30 am Friday morning. The late start was mainly because I needed to pick up my canoe from Swift Canoes in Gravenhurst when they opened at 9am. They were repairing some delamination problems I was having between the gelcoat and kevlar along the underside of the hull. I was very pleased with their excellent workmanship and within a few minutes I had the canoe secured to my roof and was back on the road racing North. I gave a quick tip of my hat to Cedar as I passed Gravenhurst. We had shared a couple of burgers when I had dropped off my canoe a month earlier and it was unfortunate that his work schedule prevented him from joining us.
I needed to make one last stop at the Walmart at Hwy's 11 & 60 to pick up some batteries and a tupperware container to use as a case for my smartphone. Pulling up to the front doors, I spotted a distinctive champagne and burgundy canoe and was pleasantly surprised to meet Bubba and Jiblets just as they were pulling out of the parking lot. They agreed to wait for me, so after a quick stop at Walmart, another at the bulk barn to get some munchies (blame Jiblets stuffing his face with cheese puffs for that), we were off. For some reason I had a lot of trouble finding my way out of that parking lot that morning, but luckily Bubba got ahead of me and guided me out. Not a very auspicious beginning to an expedition, but I followed them along Hwy 60 through north Huntsville and all the way to the Park.
Pulling in to Canoe Lake we found three canoes already on the shore and met Mongrel, Keg and Chenvre putting the finishing touches on their gear. After some quick hellos, organising our permits, parking the cars and getting our gear squared away, we were ready to head off. The blue skies looked promising and there was a light southerly wind that we hoped would carry us all the way to McIntosh. Mongrel, Keg, Chenvre and myself would all be soloing while Bubba would bow in Jiblets' canoe. Quite the little fleet.
Canoe Lake was calm as we threaded through the first group of islands where the Camp Wapomeo for girls sat quiet, closed for the season. We passed by the tall white cairn dedicated to Tom Thomson that sits atop a small rise and Camp Ahmek for boys tucked in the bay behind. Leaving the main lake, we headed east at the forks and paddled up to our first portage, a 295 metre along that is as broad and flat a trail as you'll find in the park. It's a good opportunity to get the bugs out of your portaging system.
Setting off into Joe Lake, we paddled under the bridge where the Arowhon Camp road crosses the narrows. Reaching up, I patted the iron understructure for good luck, a tradition I've followed since I first came to the park. Bubba did likewise but I didn't see if anyone else did. Paddling a little distance further I saw a canoe nosed into the brush along the shore and a young fellow sitting quietly in the forest. I said good morning and he told me that he was part of a field trip and that he had just spent the last couple of hours writing about the world from a leaf's perspective. Ok, cool. A little further we saw a couple more "budding" authors hidden along the shoreline and I called out good morning until Jiblets remarked something to the effect that perhaps their quiet inner reflection on the wonder of nature would likely not be aided by my loud, karma shattering outbursts. Henceforth I paddled silently on.
Personally I find this leg of the trip the most difficult, not because of the paddling but because of toll the prolonged kneeling takes on my knees and ankles.
From Joe Lake we travelled north through Tepee, with the large compound of Camp Arowhon (boys and girls) on the western shore. Up through Fawn with it's hidden narrow passage and finally up along the western shore of Littledoe where we turned northwest towards the beaver dam that marks the passage into Tom Thomson. Normally there's a short liftover, but the spring flood was so high that all it took was a few strong strokes to get over the dam. From there we paddled into the beautiful Tom Thomson lake and I pointed out the little bay where our first EGL hang had taken place. The winds were still in our favour and we quickly passed across to the western shore, turned south along a short channel to the beginning of our second portage, the dreaded 2320 metre into Ink Lake.
All in all the portage wasn't too bad. Granted it was long, but it wasn't technically difficult; there are few short slopes and a couple of boggy areas, but mostly it's fairly level. It's just long. In years gone by, when I was a few years younger and in better shape, this portage was a non-issue, and my friends and I all but jogged over it. Fast forward a couple of desk-bound decades and more than a few extra pounds and I found myself struggling over a long, drawn out double carry. Lack of sleep and little to eat during the day didn't help matters. In the end, as it was getting late in the day, Jiblets, Bubba, Keg and Chenvre decided not to wait but to push off on the last short leg to McIntosh leaving Mongrel and myself to follow on our own. No problem. Mongrel and I were both experienced paddlers and I knew the route well.
Ink Lake, so named for it's dark, tannin rich water, is small and round and surrounded by a ring of small dead pines and scrub. Even after passing that way dozens of times over the years, it's still impossible to make out the entrance to Ink Creek until you're virtually on top of it, it blends in so well. But once there, it opens up into a broad, twisting creek surrounded on both sides by more dead pines and low scrubs. After winding our way along the creek under a late afternoon sky, Mongrel and I eventually broke out into what I call Ink Bay. Far to the North, across the lake, I could see the chain of islands that ended with what I hoped would be our camp for the night... Chicamoula.
A word of explanation may be in order. A few years back on another ice-out trip up to McIntosh, my paddling buddies and I were huddled under a tarp tent we had built around the campfire to shelter ourselves from the cold wind and rain of particularly blustery, wet and miserable day. Someone was cruising the bands on his small shortwave radio while I was baking fresh cinnamon buns when he came across a Spanish speaking station where the DJ was shouting "Chicamoula" like a crazed football announcer. It was hilarious sound in a hilarious situation and so the name stuck. If anyone has ever read Joe Lavally and the Paleface by Bernard Wicksteed, a recount of a British aviator's impromptu trip to McIntosh after finding himself in New York on the day after VE day with a two week furlough and a crumpled Park brochure in his pocket, this is the same island they camped on.
Now there are three island campsites on McIntosh and I've camped on them all, but by far prefer the northernmost one. It has a fair landing for canoes on the northern side, a large rock outcropping of Canadian Shield that takes in the whole of the lake in a sweeping vista and a steep dropoff into the lake where hungry trout cruise in the spring. I thought I had mentioned the north island back at the portage, so it was with a little concern that I saw that the boys had gone ahead and landed on the middle island and begun to set up. Fortunately they hadn't gotten too far and after a little discussion and scouting, we moved camp to the North island. I felt bad at first, but in the end, I hope everyone felt it was for the best. Certainly there seemed to be more quality hanging spots and as an added bonus, there was a nice pile of firewood waiting for us.
Always the gentleman, I insisted that Bubba, Jiblets, Chenvre and Keg pick out their spots before I did. They did get to the lake first after all, and it didn't seem sporting for the camp hopping to change anything. Jiblets chose a prime spot and set up his outfit between a couple of gnarled pines right at the waters edge where we landed the canoes. It was probably the most scenic hammock campsite I've ever seen. Bubba and Keg found spots tucked themselves away on the leeward side of camp while Chenvre, Mongrel and myself took the southern, windward side. Owing to our late start and the delays along the portage, we were losing light fast and the finishing touches on our setups had to be done under the glare of headlamps.
It was my first time hanging in my new Warbonnet Blackbird and it was with more than a little trepidation that I clipped on the tiny Dutch Hooks to my hammock. I'm a big guy and those little hooks just made me nervous. 1000 lbs, yeah, yeah, but I made sure that I brought my old suspension kit as back-up, "just in case". I should have known better. Those little hooks didn't let me down and I give a shout out to both Dutch and Brandon for their excellent gear.
Also new on this trip was my old DIY 4" baffle, full-length underquilt, freshly restuffed, as well as my new 2.5" baffle DIY topquilt, both filled with 850 FP down from Feather Industries here in Toronto. With this new set, I've managed to bring my sleeping insulation down from a staggering 7 pounds to a much more reasonable 2.5 pounds in a bundle just a little larger than a football. I have to say, both performed very well and I was toasty warm both nights. Too warm in fact. One slight issue I experienced the first night was that the WBBB's footbox would tend to pop out from inside the underquilt, which was held in place by a tight shock cord. The second night I simply added a short piece of shock cord from my underquilt by my feet to the ridgeline and that minor issue was resolved.
My dinner the first night was steak and chili and I can't tell you how well it went down. It was every man for himself as far as food went and before long we were all munching happily away in front of a glowing fire. We hung our food from a large tree in the centre of our camp, not the best idea I know, but it was the best tree in the area and we were just too tired to go searching for a better one. I don't remember exactly what time we started drifting off to sleep, but it wasn't too late. Everyone had had a long day and the restful slumber of the hammocks called. The loons were having a wild conversation well into the night, but I never did get a chance to hear if they settled things out.
Waking up at the crack of dawn it was a pleasure to roll over and snooze until around 8 am, when emerged to find Mongrel bending over his PackaFeather FeatherFire alcohol stove burning away under his GSI 4-cup espresso maker. Clearly someone who has his priorities right! He had also brought up his Biolite wood burning stove/thermoelectric generator, an amazing device that can recharge USB devices while cooking a meal. The advantages are obvious; field recharging of anything up to 4 watts from cellphones and MP3 players to AA and AAA batteries for cameras and fishfinders. A fantastic piece of kit for a long trip.
Although McIntosh has a reputation for getting quite rough on windy days, this morning the water was wonderfully calm under bright blue skies. Walking down to the water I discovered that Jiblets had woken up early and had fished the morning bite to no avail. Apparently there had been quite a few rises earlier on while I lazily slept in. Wandering back up to camp I got the main fire going and put on some water to boil. I carefully laid out a few strips of the thick-cut double-smoked bacon that I love to bring camping and set out a big bagel to toast. A hot bacon-bagel sandwich and a big cup of strong coffee can't be beat. For a change I decided to forgo my coffee press and use two Starbucks Via coffee packs. Delicious. I had planned on having two instant oatmeals for each of the weekend's two breakfasts, but I thought it better to save them all until Sunday morning to fuel up before heading out on that big portage.
After breakfast I puttered around camp for a while, went back to my hammock to organise my gear and even went for a rather chilly swim. Even though the ice had only just come off the lakes, if the weather is warm and the sun is out, I always try to go for a quick dip. The reasons are twofold; firstly, after the long, hot portage of the day before it was good to just clean up and secondly, it's all too easy to flip a canoe while tripp'n and the thought of plunging into icy waters becomes a little less daunting if you've actually gone in ahead of time. That's my theory and I'm sticking to it.
Around midday I felt the urge to get out and go for a paddle and do a little fishing. Although certainly not the best time of the day for trout I've managed to take more than a few trout just trolling around the lake. After a little preparation, Gilbert and I pushed off in his Kipewa and worked first the eastern dropoff south until Ink Bay where we circled around a few times before slowly paddling up the western shore. I was running a floating
5" gold/black Rapala at least 200' behind the canoe and got a pair of strikes over fairly deep water but was unfortunately too slow to set the hook. We saw a group of guys camping on the west side of Ink Bay, some enjoying the water and others just chatting in the shade of the glaring sun.
Along the way we saw a Great Blue Heron make a couple of attempts, wings spread wide, to land at its nest atop the big pine that dominated this little island on the western shore. Of course, as soon as I pulled out my camera, it turned and glided smoothly to the north apparently camera shy.
Pulling into camp around 2 pm we headed up to the firepit for a late lunch; spicy Hungarian sausage roasted over the fire, a few chunks of parmesan cheese, a bagel and another coffee. There were a couple of very bold red squirrels on the island and care had to be taken to not leave anything exposed to these little bandits. All through the day I had been drinking, making up for the dehydrating exertions of the day before. I must have drank four or five litres between the time I woke up and when I went to bed. Hydration is critical.
The rest of the afternoon was spent relaxing around camp. Keg went for a midday nap and Chenvre was trying his hand at the fire bow. Before long both Jiblets and I had made up our own sets and were furiously trying to start our own blazes. I had seen some mini fire bow kits work on you-tube so I went ultra small, with a short, pencil sized spindle. Over the course of at least an hour, We all got smoke, but the other two full sized sets seemed to have an easier time doing. In the end, none of us managed a sustained ember. Definitely a skill to practice between trips. I have a feeling that the woods we were using just wasn't up to snuff. Both Chenvre and Jiblets were doing everything right, they just couldn't translate that into an sustained ember. Wood selection is critical and next time, I'll keep a closer eye during my paddles for the perfect piece of Balsam Fir or Cedar.
As the afternoon wore on, Jiblets and I were thinking about taking the canoe out for an evening troll. Casting out from shore, it wasn't long before he had landed a nice 16" laker. That was enough. Jiblets said he'd rather continue to cast from shore so I launched my canoe and cast out my line and started slowly paddling as the sun began to set in a glorious wash of colour. Between the two islands the bottom slopes from eight to twelve feet, but there's a narrow trench ending in a small basin that run 19' deep. Referred to as "trout alley" by my buddies and I, it wasn't a surprise to feel a strong tug on my line. After a short fight I brought my trout to net, recovered my lure and released it. For years, it's been my practice to return the first fish of the trip back to the lake. It's occasionally cost me a fish dinner, but that's fine. Cruising around Trout Alley a little longer turned up no more bites so I followed rising fish to the middle of the lake, but without luck. By the time I paddled back to camp it was fairly dark and when Jiblets launched out to retrieve a lure and cast a bit, I could barely see him.
Back in camp, it was time for dinner. I put out another few pieces of bacon and enjoyed some home made and dehydrated chili, and of course more coffee. Quite late in the evening, Jiblets began to prepare his lake trout. A consummate camp chef, his plan was to prepare Chinese Steamed trout with a green onion, ginger and soya sauce. Wrapping the cleaned, first in parchment paper and then in aluminium foil, he set it on the grill to steam for about 12 minutes. Once off the fire Jiblets garnished the fish with the sautéed greens and sauce and invited us to dig in. It was delicious and certainly, lighter than traditional fried trout that I'm used to. Within a few minutes there was nothing left but bones. Definitely another win for the camp chef. I ended a perfect day with a hot chocolate and Baileys (Baileys courtesy of Jibets) and then excused myself for bed.
It was a little cooler overnight, but my quilts weren't even put to the test. I still had to kick off my top-quilt and sleep with a small fleece throw over my chest. The footbox cord adjustment I had made to my underquilt worked perfectly as well. If I could just figure out a way to avoid the 4:30 am "watering" I give the neighbouring trees.
I was up Sunday morning at 6 am and immediately began to break camp. I was pretty well finished before Mongrel, who was pitched close by, popped his head out of his hammock, and was fully packed before everyone was awake. After another quick swim in the sunlight on the east end of the island and a hearty breakfast of porridge and coffee I was ready for the trip home.
By mid-morning as we were in the process of launching the canoes, Mongrel, Chenvre and myself were already in the water, there was a big splash and a yell. It was the distinctive sound of a canoeist taking an unexpected plunge into the icy waters. Looking over I could see Keg sputtering his way back to shore and clamber up onto the rocks. Fortunately he's a diligent packer and everything was floating and easily collected. The solo canoe he had been using, the Swift Shearwater is a nice little craft, but it is quite narrow and tippy. All it takes is one misstep and the best of paddlers can find themselves treading water. Luckily it was right by shore and no harm was done.
Before long we were underway again. The southerly winds that had brought us to McIntosh now strengthened a bit and made for a long paddle home. Paddling out we saw that there were at least two or three other camps set up on the lake, including the one Jiblets and I had passed by the previous afternoon.
The big portage was much easier this time, now fully rested, fed and watered. With a couple of breaks I managed to single carry all but the last five minutes, almost matching Jilets' and Chenvre's full single carry. Well done. After a stop for snacks on the far end of the portage, we readied ourselves for the two hour paddle back to Canoe Lake.
In the middle of Tom Thomson we rafted up and quickly refilled our water bottles using Keg's Sawyer Squeeze Filter. I was impressed. My own Katadyn Base Camp Filter clogged up on it's maiden trip after only a couple of gallons. I'll be replacing it asap. The paddle back to the Arowhon Camp road bridge was pleasantly uneventful, and after patting the bridge and thanking it for a safe trip, I paddle the last short way to our last portage.
There were quite a number of canoes coming out at the same time and it because almost crowded at the far end of the portage. I was a little worried about some of the other canoes and the way they were overloaded on these icy waters, but in the end, they managed to make it back alright. Canoe lake was blissfully calm. Like all of the larger lakes in the Park, it can get extremely rough under a sustained wind. Not today. I followed Mongrel to shore and turned to wait for the rest of the group as I unpacked.
Soon everyone paddled up and beached their canoes safely on the beach, beaming with exhausted smiles. I walked over to the Portage Store and brought back an assortment of cold soda's. Once we were packed up, Mongrel pulled out a beautiful brass Voyageurs Tinder Box that had been generously donated by Chris and Marisa at Canadian Outdoor Equipment as a trip gift. They had been invited to come up to one of our late fall hangs at Valens two years earlier and it was a pleasure showing them all of the different aspects of hammock hanging.
Back on the beach, we placed four blue and one green big M&M's into my hat and I held it aloft as one by one, we each drew for the tinder box hiding their selection. Once everyone had had a turn (Mongrel excused himself as he already owned one) and I selected the last candy, as a group we showed our candies. I was shocked to see a little green candy in my hand. We laughed as we noticed that Jiblets had not only a blue but a green candy that somehow had "slipped" into his hand. Note to self: avoid playing cards with that one. I'd like to thank Chris and Marisa for their very kind gift. It's much appreciated. They've managed to build a thriving business of providing high quality camping and bushcraft gear and it's clear that the love their work. Thanks again!
With everything packed, I took a final swim and changed into my clean road clothes. A final group dinner at the Wendy's at Hwy's 60 & 11 and the EGL Spring 2013 trip was officially over. We shook hands and turned for home.