Butt It’s Bice Lake
Seven members of the North Country Men’s Club traveled to Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario in early August 2004 for a five-day trip to that large park’s beautiful, 3,000-square-mile interior. Jay Frandina, who wasn’t going to be three years old until December, came along for the expedition, getting his name in capital letters at a very tender age. The other club members in attendance were David, Mary, Jack, Dylan, Tom and Jan.
Having missed out on the diaper-burning trip to The Massagua on Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay in 2003 (when Jay and Mary and some or all of the Webster girls almost went to Michigan in an open motorboat), as well as that year’s 90-mile Adirondack Canoe Classic, in which Jack and Bill represented the NCMC, Tom was determined to get in a week of canoe camping in 2004. He and Jan were considering a trip to the Adirondacks until Jack made his and Mary’s availability for a trip known. At that point, Tom began to consider the idea of a trip to Algonquin or to the smaller Killarney Provincial Park, which is also in Ontario. He had not been canoe camping in Canada since a 1993 trip to Algonquin and he and Jan were open to the idea of traveling to the Semler homestead in Buffalo, and heading north from the Queen City of the Great Lakes to Ontario.
The Can Ban
In the process of deciding on a camping destination, which is always a major part of NCMC activities, Tom explained to Jack the fundamental difference between a canoe trip to the Adirondack Park in upstate New York (to places like Lake Lila, Little Tupper Lake, Long Pond, etc.) and a trip to Ontario. That fundamental difference is beer. If one goes canoe camping in the Adirondacks, there is usually little or no portaging involved and a canoe’s load can include a large cooler or two of cold Budweiser. Ontario, however, is a different story. Canadian Provincial Parks like Algonquin require that trippers portage their canoes and gear to interior lakes. This necessity makes heavy coolers of beer on ice impractical. Not only that, but cans are PROHIBITED in the interior of Algonquin and Killarney, whether those cans contain beer or apple juice or Spam. So, the RULES and the PORTAGES effectively mean NO BEER when you camp in Ontario. Jack, who has been to Algonquin many, many times, seemed genuinely surprised to learn that the park banned non-resuable, non-burnable cans and glass bottles. Tom was surprised at Jack’s surprise, but, hey, we’re all getting older and slowly but surely losing our memories (Some of this loss is no doubt attributable to the canned beer that has been consumed on Adirondack canoe trips). Not taking Tom’s word for it, Jack confirmed the ban on cans through an email communication with Algonquin. Despite his regret about the beer can ban, Jack was still willing to venture to Killarney or Algonquin. So was Tom, who kept in mind that there was no ban in Ontario parks on boxed wine, no matter how poor the vintage or how large the box. For his part, Jack began an unsuccessful search for beer in plastic bottles, which Tom had seen sold at a Jets game at the Meadowlands.
Tom then called the Ontario Parks reservation system to inquire about camping in Killarney, but learned it would not be feasible to get a permit for a desirable canoe route on short notice for the dates in question. One problem was that the first scheduled day of their trip, which was the first Monday in August, was a Canadian national holiday. This particular holiday does not commemorate some event or person of great historic significance in Canada. Instead, it was adopted, no one seems to know when, just to give the good people of Canada a day off in the summertime so they could all recreate in good weather! You gotta love those Canadians. It would certainly not be a bad idea for the United States to also make some Monday between the Fourth of July and Labor Day a national holiday. Heck, Europe takes the month of August off. One more day off for us is not going to destroy the economy. If the nation needs to justify the holiday by holding it in the name of something, we could call it Muscle Power Day or No Motors Day and everyone would be encouraged to paddle or sail or bike or hike, etc. rather than drive their stink boats or jet skis or giant SUVs or riding mowers. No throttles would be turned or ignition keys inserted in starters. For one day a great quiet would descend on the nation and the collective heartbeat would get a much-needed workout. Billions of calories would be burned and the air would get a day off from absorbing fossil fuel combustion. But the editor digresses and America would have none of it anyway. Back to our story.
What is Butt Lake, Alex
With intriguing Killarney Park shelved as a destination for the time being, Tom consulted with Jack by phone as both of them looked over their old Algonquin maps. Jack, whose memory goes in and out, recalled that the NCMC had once went to Butt Lake on the western side of the Park. Getting to Butt Lake required only two short portages of less than 500 cumulative meters, an attractive attribute. It was resolved that Tom would get a permit for that lake for four nights of camping.
Since the last time the NCMC had gone to Algonquin, the permit system had changed. Historically, one had gotten a permit for one of Algonquin’s thirty or so entry points on a given date and for a certain number of days. Where you went from that entry point, and on what lakes you camped, was your business. You could stay at a particular site or move on depending on whim or weather. That system had changed, however, presumably because of camping pressure. Under the new system, the canoe tripper is required to have a set itinerary that details on which lake he or she will be on a given night. This ensures that, if Lake Unpronouceableindianname has 10 designated campsites, only 10 parties will have permits for that lake on a given night. The new system has its pros and its cons, the fundamental con being that the tripper loses flexibility during the trip. With the new system in mind, Tom called Ontario Parks reservations with the aim of securing a permit to stay for four nights on good ole Butt Lake. He gave the reservationist the proposed entry point, the dates of their trip and the number of their party (which at this point was four; the Semlers and the Conroys). ”Where do you want to stay the first night,” she asked. ”Butt Lake.” ”The second night?” ”Butt Lake.” ”The third night?” ”Butt Lake,” ”The fourth night?” ”Butt Lake.” ”You can’t stay there that night. You have to move on.” ”Because the lake is full that night?” ”Yes.” ”Okay, can we spend the fourth night in Little Trout Lake” (This was a lake adjacent to Butt Lake.) ”Yes, you can.” ”Wait a minute. How about two nights on Butt Lake and two nights on Little Trout?” (Tom figured it would be better not to have to travel two days in a row, but rather have a day of rest after moving into Little Trout Lake before having to schlep gear and boats over three portages back to the cars.) ”You could do that. By the way, it’s no longer called Butt Lake. It’s Ralph Bice Lake.” ”I guess I need a new map.” The die was now cast for Algonquin.
The Trip to the Trip
In further discussions with Jack, Tom learned that Dylan might or might not come on the trip and might or might not travel there directly from St. Paul, Minnesota. Jack later said that David and Jay were also coming on the trip. The last two sentences are only a brief synopsis of the numerous discussions about who might go on the trip, how they might get there and what it might mean or might not mean for various logistical decisions. For example, the Websters were in play for a while as potential canoe trippers, but then it was determined that they were going to spend that week in Cincinnati. But then they didn’t go to Cincy, but they didn’t go on the canoe trip either. Go figure.
Ultimately, after a week of packing, the Conroys traveled to Buffalo on a Sunday and borrowed Bill’s and Jay’s Sundowner for the trip. On Monday morning, the Conroys, with the borrowed Sundowner atop their gas-sipping Subaru, and Jack, who was driving his thirsty Honda Pilot with his Sundowner and solo Advantage on top, headed north on the Queen Elizabeth Way toward Algonquin. Mary, David and Jay were to follow a bit later in David’s van (David had driven all the way from Vermont to Buffalo on Sunday). Meanwhile, Dylan had left St. Paul on Sunday en route to a planned meeting Monday with Jack and the Conroys in Huntsville, a small Ontario town on the outskirts of Algonquin. This required, among other things, a lonely night drive across endless Wisconsin for Dylan.
Jack and the Conroys moved in a caravan up the QEW, and each car had a walkie-talkie for easy communication. Jack was doing smart pill research and development work on the phone as he drove, and the result was that he weaved in an out of the lane he was traveling in. This ugly American act–the Buffalonian in his fancy Japanese SUV with his fancy mid-western Kevlar canoes atop his vehicle–caused mild consternation for the good-natured motoring Canadians in his path. It also caused confusion for the Conroys, who were never sure if Jack was changing lanes for some purpose, such as in preparation to exiting the highway, or simply weaving.
At one point, the Conroys asked Jack via walkie-talkie if he would like one of them to drive for him so he would not have to multi-task. Jack responded that he would soon finish his work chores and the weaving would discontinue, or at least decrease. The weaving did decrease, and they eventually reached Huntsville, where they were to rendezvous with Dylan. At this point, Jan and Tom left Jack to head for the put-in at Lake Magnetawan, their entry point. Fortunately for them, they turned around at one point after wondering if they had misread a sign that pointed in the direction of their put-in. They had not misread the sign, but the reversal allowed them to spot the previously unnoticed Algonquin Park entry point’s permit building, where they picked up the permit for their trip. If they hadn’t turned around, they would have gone many more miles toward the put-in before realizing that their permit was not waiting for them there. They phoned Jack, who, along with Dylan, met them at the building and picked up a parking permit for the Honda Pilot (Algonguin gives you both a permit you keep with you on your canoe trip and a permit for your car). Jack also called Mary and David to advise them where to pick up a parking permit for their car.
Claiming a Site
From the permit building, they proceeded down a long dirt road to the put-in. To their surprise, the parking area at Lake Magnetawan was filled with scores of cars. As they unpacked, however, it became apparent that most of the cars were owned by trippers who had come to Algonquin for the holiday weekend and who would be leaving that day. The small dock that served as a put-in was crowded with trippers and their gear returning from their voyages. A relatively small number of paddlers were heading into the park. Jan, Tom, Dylan and Jack hauled their boats and gear to the dock, loaded up and set off. They paddled a very short distance before they reached their first portage, a short 135-meter walk to Hambone Lake. The portage was crowded, but they navigated their away among the various paddling groups and then paddled down Hambone to the portage to Bice Lake. This portage was a little longer at 295 meters. They entered Bice Lake, which was much larger than the two previous lakes. The map showed a number of campsites at various places on the lake, which looked fairly empty, except for some paddlers obviously headed back to the take-out at Magnetawan.
Jack and Dylan eventually found a beautiful campsite on a island that had a little bay for swimming and for taking canoes in and out of the water. The site also had a peninsula of smooth rock that was perfect for sipping wine while enjoying the sunset. The site also had a nice privy with a padded seat. Rather than a smelly outhouse filled with bugs and mice and shredded toilet paper, like those one occasionally finds in the Adirondacks, Algonquin features open air thrones at its backcountry campsites.
Reassembling the Team
With a great campsite claimed by the NCMC, Jack and Tom were delegated to paddle back to the parking lot to meet Mary, David and Jay and show them the way to camp. It was now late in the afternoon and the wind had picked up considerably, whipping up fairly large waves on the big, open lake. This is often the case on warm summer afternoons in the north country. Jack and Tom set out, pointing their bow into the waves. It was quite rough and Tom was fairly certain a capsize was inevitable. He felt they were about to go over a couple of times and told Jack that they should turn around and wait awhile for the wind to decrease. Jack agreed, but then Tom noted that the waves seemed a bit more navigable once they left the little bay at their campsite, where the waves had been bouncing off the rocky shore and rebounding against their hull at the same time it was getting hit from waves slamming into the bow. It is also true that rough water makes for a rockier ride for the bowman than the stern paddler, and what seems like capsize conditions in the bow may not seem that way in the stern, where the paddler has the length of the boat between him and the oncoming waves and makes the steering adjustments to position the boat in the best direction to absorb the swells.
On they went toward the take-out, going up and down the waves. Tom occasionally caught nothing but air with his paddle as the bow of the canoe climbed over the top of a wave and lost contact with the water. They were paddling to windward, so the water calmed as they reached the take-out, where the high trees blocked and absorbed the windy blast before it could whip up the water. A couple of campers were entering the lake as Jack and Tom were leaving it, and the NCMCers told the couple to put on their vests because of the rough water they were going to encounter once they hit the more open portions of the lake. Tom and Jack figured the couple thought they were nuts, as the water was like glass at this spot.
Jack and Tom covered the portage quickly and paddled down Hambone Lake, which had much smaller waves. They got to the take-out and carried their boat to the other end of the carry, where they encountered Mary, David and Jay, who had filled David’s kayak and the solo canoe (which had been left behind for them by Jack) with their gear and paddled from the dock to the take-out of Magnetawan. Mary and David also had most of a 12-pack of Molson Export in cans. Tom was so morally outraged at this transgression that he vowed to have no more than two of the beers, and only if they were still cold.
The five campers began the journey to the campsite, with Jay, sitting in front of David in the kayak, helping with the paddling chores. Bice Lake had calmed down quite a bit by the time they returned to it, and now their boats were being pushed along by the waves rather than stopped by them. They surfed down the lake as the sun began to set below the western treeline. They were soon reunited with Jan and Dylan in camp. They sat around in the evening until a few raindrops sent them to their tents for the night.
Hangin’ in Camp
The next day was sunny and warm and they had a great time swimming in the bay and otherwise enjoying themselves. At one point Tom, Jack and Jan paddled over to Little Trout Lake to scout for campsites, since they would have to move to Little Trout the next day. They found a couple of nice sites on Little Trout that were unoccupied, including an island site where they stopped for a swim. They also spoke with a camping couple who had been coming to Algonquin for years. They had a discussion about the new rules regarding permits, and the couple expressed displeasure with the need to decide in advance of their trip on which lake they would be camped each night. The best outcome would be for Algonquin Provincial Park to reserve one entryway each summer for a NCMC trip and let the NCMC camp when it wants where it wants. There are plenty of other entryways for the rest of the paddlers, who probably don’t even have their own websites, to enjoy.
Jack, Tom and Jan, satisfied with the findings of their scouting foray, returned to Bice Lake. The rest of the day was spent lolling around camp, lounging on the rocks in the sun and splashing around in the bay of their campsite, eating burgers brought by the Semlers, and sipping boxed wine. A can of smoked mussels had somehow stowed itself away into someone’s gear and Tom, as outraged by this transgression as he had been by the Molson, protested by severely limiting his mussel intake.
Pasta, Pasta Everywhere
The following day required them to pack up and move on to Little Trout Lake. They made the transfer efficiently and, although they found the site they had scouted and rated most desirable the previous day to now be occupied, they wound up in a nice site with plenty of space for their tents and a view of the sunset over the lake to the west. There was no padded seat on the throne in this campsite, but sometimes you have to rough it. The routine of the trip reestablished itself, with campers going off for paddles, relaxing in camp, hanging in the hammock, playing with Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends, or taking photographs. At one point, Jack, Dylan, Tom and Jan paddled to the portage leading from Little Trout Lake to Queer Lake, and walked down it. Some of the discussion was about photography, and Dylan expressed the view that an awful lot of pictures were being taken of lakes that looked like every other lake at which they had ever camped, and that this picture-taking was accompanied by remarks that erroneously implied that the lake being photographed offered a unique perspective. Dylan is no doubt right, but, at least for certain NCMCers, the inability to recall previous lakes means that the ones you are observing at a particular moment look novel.
Dinner was to be pasta, and, after Mary cooked her shells, Jack took command of the pot so he could drain the water. Unfortunately, he lost his grip on the pot and the nicely cooked pasta wound up on the pine duff under the hemlocks of their campsite. There was plenty of pasta left, however, and Mary went back to the pot and cooked another large batch. When this was ready, David’s younger hands were recruited to drain the pasta rather than allow Jack and his untrustworthy fingers a chance to redeem themselves. Whether he secretly wished to make Jack feel better or not may never be known, but David, too, lost control of the pot and its contents also would up on the ground. Mary, like Sisyphus, again went back to boiling water and cooking more pasta. Maybe there is something to bringing a lot of food in reserve on an NCMC trip after all. The third batch of pasta was boiled and Tom decided he would see what was up with this draining business. He affixed the potholder to the pot, grabbed it tightly, walked a few feet from the stove and held the strainer against the pot as he tilted it sideways. The water ran through the strainer, the pasta remained in the pot, and dinner was served.
Bear in Mind
Jack, who has become an expert at treeing food after years of experimenting, rigged his food treeing system away from camp. It consisted of a rope stretched tightly between two trees like a clothesline with a pulley in the center whereby food was hoisted by a second rope. The challenge has always been to get the food high enough from a bear on the ground, and far enough out from the tree trunks to foil a tree-climbing bruin. Among other things, this requires getting the crossing rope quite high off the ground. Jack, after hours at the drawing board and more hours devoted to field testing, has met the challenge in recent years and the only problem that can now occur is food left in camp by mistake and unhoisted. A new twist in food management on this trip was the Bear Vault, a see-through polycarbonate cylinder with a wide mouth and a screw top. It looked like a giant Nalgene bottle and the sticker price was a shocker, but it is apparently a well-regarded item. Bears, presumably, cannot smell food in it and can’t open it. Unless they just want to bat it around for fun, or play touch football with it, they are out of luck. Jack had bought the Bear Vault at EMS (Why Pay Less?), where the salesman had heartily endorsed it and had even advised Jack confidently that it would be required equipment in the Adirondack Mountains in the near future. For those who have not been there, the Adirondacks are about as unregulated a camping area as exists on the planet, and the notion that some piece of equipment would be required by the State of New York by campers using public lands, and that there would be any effort to ensure compliance is completely out of the question. Jack, of course, always listens good-naturedly to these “expert” outdoor goods salesmen and nods in agreement or acts likes he’s learning something useful, no matter what foolishness they are peddling.
Nevertheless, the Bear Vault held food that did not get hoisted and apparently was never touched by any non-NCMC creature as it sat on the ground in camp each night.
Jay’s the Man
On the day after the first night at Little Trout, David and Jay agreed that it was time to head back to Vermont. Jay had secured both his name in CAPS as well as the most congenial camper award, and had been resplendent in his yellow Patagonia union suit, so his work was done. In an effort to trick Jay out of his congenial camper award, Jack rocked Jay that morning in the hammock until a portion of the banana he had eaten returned to the surface, but that little accident did not phase Jay at all and Jack’s evil plan was thoroughly thwarted. David and Jay packed up and headed back to the cars, accompanied by Jack and Tom. Jay spent some of the trip sleeping in the kayak and some of it helping David paddle. After seeing David and Jay off, Tom and Jack headed back to Little Trout, with Tom taking the stern of the canoe. Although he always paddles in the bow when he and Jack compete in the Adirondack Canoe Classic, he took the stern because the following month he would be competing in the Adirondack Canoe Classic with Bill Webster. This pairing was due to the fact that Jack, chief technology officer for SmartPill Diagnostics, was going to be in Minnesota at race time at the Mayo Clinic for work. Public relations people and firefighters have no such important business trips to take, so Tom and Bill would be able to get to the race.
Although Tom planned to take his customary place in the bow while racing with Bill, he thought he should get some practice in the stern in the event he felt it necessary to take the helm from Bill during the race. Bill’s usual partner in the race is NCMC co-founder Jay Tillotson, but Jay and his familiar pink gloves appear to have retired from competition. (Those gloves, by the way, should be donated by Jay to the NCMC museum, along with the pack bag on Jack’s old Jansport external frame pack that was ripped to shreds by a black bear in the Adirondack High Peaks sometime in the early ’80s.) Bill had at times complained about Jay’s failure to obey his sternman’s orders. If Bill thought he had to deal with a handful with Jay in his bow, wait until he encounters Tom. He will no doubt conclude that Jay was a pretty good partner after all.
Jack and Tom made it back to camp in the late afternoon and, in the evening, with the sun sinking fast, smoked oysters appeared from the Semler larder. They were canned, but if everyone was an NCMC camper and carried out everything they carried in, a ban on cans would not be necessary in Algonquin. Besides, the oysters tasted quite good when matched with a stainless steel mug of gin and tonic with lime, which had been brought in a resusable container.
The last morning of their trip was cool, about 55 degrees, and overcast, so they packed up after breakfast and began the long haul back to the take-out on Lake Magnetawan. As with many trips, the NCMCers were more efficient traveling out than they had been traveling in. They had consolidated their gear into fewer loads, so fewer trips had to be made back and forth on the portages.
As they were heading back to Lake Magnetawan and it was a Friday, they encountered plenty of trippers who were headed into the park for the weekend. There was some crowding at the put-ins and the take-outs, and this was exacerbated by trippers who put their boats in the water long before they planned to load them, but the NCMCers were able to weave their way in and out of these canoejams created by inexperienced campers. One group of campers had a case or two of cans of malt beverage in their baggage. This transgression (and the flaunting of it) was overlooked by Tom, but it was mentioned to him by someone else in the party who wondered if he had seen it and, if so, had not said anything, as he is a well-known camping Nazi. Tom claimed that he would have good-naturedly asked the campers how they had managed to get an exemption to the can ban and would then have gently explained to them that it was not a good idea. No one will ever know, of course, if that is what he would have said. Some might suspect he may have instead exacted a toll from the campers in the form of a portion of the malt beverage, perhaps a 12-pack.
They made it back to Magnetawan in the early afternoon, packed up the cars and headed back south to Buffalo. Back in civilization, they toasted their trip enthusiastically. It had been a fine voyage in many respects, and Algonquin deserves its status as the NCMC’s favorite paddling destination. And, as Mary noted when asked what she most liked about the trip, the company wasn’t bad.
Gallery: Algonquin 2004