I love camping with my family. Camping has been the source of great memories for as long as I have known my wife. Our three children have all been sleeping in tents since they were infants. But, I have always had an urge to challenge myself with an adventurous solo trip into the backcountry. This idea has always been sidetracked by various distractions in life. Finally this past July, I had a small window of opportunity and took advantage of it.
On Sunday July 16 2017 at 1:00 pm I arrived in Kearney, Ontario, eager to pick up my park permit and head into Algonquin Park with such a small amount of gear I was convinced I must have forgotten something. I quickly took some pictures of the Kearney Area Trails sign I had seen at the start of so many YouTube videos. I got my permit and jumped back into my truck. I was so focused on getting to my destination I did not bother to turn on my GPS. I thought I remembered that Highway 518 would take me to the Rain Lake Access Point, so I was confidently heading east toward the park. Now coming from Highway 11, Highway 518 indeed does head towards the permit office for Rain Lake; however, once you leave the permit office parking lot you need to turn onto Rain Lake Road and not Highway 518. So, after travelling about 40 minutes down Highway 518, I came across signs for the Timm River and Magnetewan Access Points. Right around this time I thought it might be a good idea to turn on the GPS again. I laughed to myself and thought maybe I do rely on my wife for directions after all.
I pulled into the Rain Lake Access point around 2:15 pm. With mixed emotions, I quietly took my canoe down from the roof of my truck while watching families and canoes full of people swarm the boat launch area. I opened the tailgate of my F150 and stared into the cavernous cargo area. My black Arc'teryx backpack sat alone in the middle of the bed liner. For years I have always been accustomed to opening my tailgate with one hand while preparing to catch falling items with the other. This was definitely a different experience already.
I decided to try a kayak paddle this trip to see for myself what the benefits would feel like. Since I was not using a "solo" canoe I had to make some modifications to my 16 and a half foot Langford Prospector. The biggest obstacle with using a kayak paddle is the width of your canoe. The 36 inch width at the gunwhales of mine is not ideal for a kayak paddle. What worked for me was first getting a long paddle. I used a 240 cm paddle designed for fishing kayaks. I then raised the kneeling thwart and added two small pieces of wood which supported a stadium style padded canoe chair to sit on. What I liked about this setup was while sitting on the chair the canoe was stable but still responsive to my hips rocking it back and forth while I alternated my strokes. I also had the option of dropping down on my knees for added stability in rough water which I never really dealt with on this trip. I am 6'2'' tall and 200 pounds and having raised the thwart also provided more foot clearance which made tucking my feet under it much more comfortable.
After a relaxing paddle down Rain Lake I reached my first portage. It was 1330 metres to Casey Lake. My plan for this trip was to establish a baseline for my future solo adventures, which I have planned but have yet to inform my wife of. So my first test would be single carrying (canoe and backpack) my 46 pound pack and 60 pound canoe to Casey Lake. For fun I tracked my progress on Strava and completed the portage in 25 minutes with one break midway. I enjoy the physical challenge of these types of trips and found this gear load was near the limit of my abilities. (I plan to lighten my pack significantly next time.) A quick paddle across Casey Lake and I was back at it. Another single carry 1235 metre portage brought me to Daisy Lake, my destination for the night.
I located a campsite and unloaded my canoe in relative silence. There was something about being alone that made setting up camp weird at first. The process has always been about communicating with family and friends and assigning jobs for my children knowing I would eventually be assisting them. I completed the routine chores of setting up my tent, getting water and collecting some firewood. Once my focus was free of these tasks I got to really soak in the experience of being alone. I enjoyed the simple pleasure of tending to the fire while looking out over the lake. Tired after a long day that started with a 7 hour drive to the park, I decided to make it an early night. I crawled into my tent prepared for what I thought would be a most uneasy feeling. Being alone. To my surprise it was not the anxiety inducing experience I thought it might be. Amazing what a cocoon of rip stop nylon does to the psyche.
Sunrises are one of my favourite experiences while camping. Certainly the best photo oportunities in my opinion. It was not to be this morning with light rain still continuing from the night. I eventually crept out of my tent around 8 am and began my morning. Twig stoves are a great tool for long trips. No need to carry fuel and fairly easy to keep going. I still prefer my JetBoil MiniMo to quickly boil water. It fits inside my SnowPeak Trek Titanium 1400 with a fuel canister stuffed inside. In less than 2 minutes, I can have my morning tea and oatmeal with zero hassle. That's just my personal preference.
The skies began to clear by the time I had reached my first portage of the day at 11:20am. A short 135 metre skip brought me into the Petawawa River. A pleasant waterfall greets you at the base of this portage. Paddling through the Petawawa River is like drifting through a carnival fun house. There are so many twists and turns through walls of vegetation you never know what is waiting for you on the other side. I braced myself for moose sightings around every turn. The river is only a few metres deep in most places and filled with long grass dancing through the current. Sometimes it appears as if it is supporting the surface of the water by itself.
By 2:30 pm I had paddled through the Petawawa River and Little Misty Lake and was preparing for the 935 metre portage into Misty Lake. 2017 had been a wet year with higher than average water levels. The portages so far had been typical but on the muddy side of things. The 935 metre portage between Little Misty lake and Misty Lake gets a special comment on Jeff's Maps, "can be extremely muddy". Be warned, this is a well earned comment. I wisely chose to double carry this one and still ended up on my rear end during a steep decline while carrying my canoe. As far as falls go it was minor but the gunwhale crashed down on the knuckles of my right hand. No injury but a quick reminder of how a serious injury is just a freak fall away.
This end of Misty Lake is thick with lily pads. My next portage was the portage from Misty to Muslim which was 1030 metres long. I was able to single carry this one, despite having to deal with serious blowdown along the way. I was surprised at how many downed trees I came across on portages during this trip.
Jubilee Lake was my reserved campsite for the night. By the time I had reached Bandit Lake I had completed 6 muddy portages totalling 3460 metres and was close to being out of gas for the day. It was after 6 pm when I paddled past the first of the two campsites on Bandit Lake. It was occupied so I continued to paddle around the small island in the lake to see if it's campsite was inhabited. To my relief it was not. I pulled to shore and unloaded my gear onto the site. Having no way of knowing if both sites were booked I waited an hour before I was confident no other paddlers were on the way. By this time I had grown used to the solitude of soloing and efficiently prepared my campsite. It was a beautiful night and I was a bit envious when I noticed my neighbor heading out onto the lake for some late evening fishing. My mind told me to get into my canoe and soak in every possible moment of this trip. My body had different plans and after some internal debate I stayed put and contently slipped into my tent before I had to even look for my headlamp.
The third and final day of my trip couldn't have gone much better. I awoke early and felt rejuvinated. The weather was perfect. I was anxious to get going so I skipped my routine morning oatmeal in favour of an Infinit iced coffee and a bar. The paddle across Bandit Lake ended sooner than I would have liked. Now on my third day, I was beginning to find my rhythm on the water. Using the kayak paddle was even better than I had expected. I felt "balanced" physically compared to paddling with a traditional canoe paddle and was ready to paddle all day. When I reached Jubilee Lake it was satisfying knowing I had made the correct decision to stay on Bandit Lake. I put extensive planning into all my trips and had factored in the possibility of not reaching Jubilee Lake. I had plenty of time left in my day to reach my truck and had wisely not over done it the night before.
Just before I approached the portage from Jubilee to Sawyer I came across a cow moose feeding in the lily pads near the shore line. My youngest son Gryphin had given me his lucky moose charm before I left, so I couldn't help but reflect on our previous moose encounters together. At 10 years of age Gryph has already had moose encounters in Algonquin Park that would make most grizzled bushman jealous. I had enjoyed my solo trip immensely, but was starting to miss my family.
Sawyer Lake portages are both sandy beach landings. It was such a pleasant surprise that I lingered longer than usual during my snack break while enjoying the view of my canoe resting in the sand beneath a spectacular blue sky. Canoe trips can be a lot like raising a family. It can be frustrating at times, but the joy it provides cannot be found anywhere else.
The portage from Sawyer Lake to Rain Lake was the easiest of the trip. A dry, relatively flat hike with no real obstacles of any kind. When it was time to load my canoe on Rain Lake I knew this would not be my last solo trip. Soloing is a unique experience that is worthy of your time. I enjoyed the physical challenge without having to worry about the welfare of my family. It was a rewarding experience in a different way than family trips are. Not better, just different. I slowly paddled down Rain Lake already planning my next trip....with my family of course.
I pulled into my driveway just before 11 pm. Twenty minutes after letting my wife know I would be home soon. My bug splattered headlights sliced through the darkness of my front yard and illuminated Gryphin waiting on our front porch. He raced over to my truck to ask how my trip was, and of course if I had seen any moose. His smile could not have been any wider when he heard the news. He walked with me to the back of my truck and told me he would help me unload. I opened the tailgate and could not help but be amused by his reaction. I said, "Don't worry. There'll be more gear to unpack next trip". He just smiled.