The upshot of the August ’92 Algonquin expedition is that we got what we sought; a longer trip that allowed us to reach the interior of the Park and spend a decent interval in the wild before slipping back to road and car. We also got our moose, most of got a bear, and Cookie got his inevitable sprained ankle under circumstances that got him no sympathy.
Setting aside a full week for the trip and availing ourselves of the water taxi proved to be key factors in the journey’s success. Of course, any trip that brings one in proximity to numerous loons is aces in my book.
Everybody Talks about the Weather
The weather, which strongly defines all camping trips, would have to be categorized as having been good. Yes, we wouldn’t have minded if it had been a little warmer, and a calm day on Big Trout Lake would no doubt have inspired an excursion on its westerly reaches, but the sun, the other stars and moon were not often obstructed when our part of the globe was tilted toward them. Even Wednesday evening’s tempest on Big Trout was not without attractive attributes, particularly when it was being experienced from beneath the well-rigged tarp, and one was fortified with something more substantial than Cherrios. With our weather coming from the north-northwest, and our campsite situated with open water in that direction, we were afforded an excellent prospect from which to view the approaching weather systems. Tuesday’s afternoon shower and Wednesday’s downpour gave plenty of advance warning, allowing us to shelter the stuff we didn’t want to get wet. The blue and white Equinox almost became a beachball on the lake, but a single line from the tent’s fly to a tree, tied only hours before as an afterthought, averted disaster. I probably won’t not stake the tent again until the next time I use it.
You realize on trips like this what a skywatcher you would be if you didn’t have a roof over your head so much of the time. I’m not sure I didn’t prefer the changing conditions we witnessed to a five-day monotony of clear skies and light winds. Beside’s, the water’s color and texture changed as often as the sky, and there are few sounds to match a wind racing through the trees.
Certainly credit is due to whatever confluence of conditions, atmospheric and otherwise, gave us such a good giimpse of the aurora borealis from such a southerly prospect. Never go to bed on a camping trip without one last glance at the zenith or horizon, lest the northern lights or the mother of all meteorites go unnoticed simply because we are unaccustomed to being able to see so far.
The Right Gear for the Job
As the trip progressed, it became more and more apparent that it would be difficult for the most experienced tripper to find fault with the selection of our gear or supplies, particularly in the context of our planned itinerary and timetable. We may have brought too much — everyone does on every trip — but it was the least “too much” I’ve ever experienced.
I brought two shirts and a pair of shorts that I never wore, and would have gladly traded them for a pair of long underwear bottoms, but our overall weight and content was about what it had to be, unless we wanted to eat expensive freeze-dried entrees for five days.
Our fuel and food amounts were uncannily appropriate, as was the rest of our gear, eh? We did not paddle great distances, but the distance we did go was shortened and made more enjoyable by our state-of-the-art hulls and paddles. We made good speed on the water, and it was more enjoyable to carry the canoes — how ’bout them yokes? — than the packs on the portages.
As for those portages, we were no slouches, especially the first day, when, after our zillion-mles-an-hour speedboat ride up Opeongo Lake, three carries were negotiated with our full load of fuel and water. The one-trip portage remains the lofty ideal, but there are two-trip portages and then there are two-trip portages. Ours were not as difficult as they would have been with the kind of gear and food we would have brought years ago. We’ve either gotten smarter or better financed, or were simply aware of the need to offset the limitations of advancing age. “‘Before this trip I didn’t even know what a portage was,” said Matt Foley, “and now I hate them.” Portages, however, are like mosquitoes. If there were neither, we would have a great many more fellow travelers. Our total portage distance, incidentally, was 18 miles; 12 with gear and six without.
The Sunshowers were never used, but that was due to the coolish weather. Under normal August conditions, I’m sure they would have been utilized. One big difference between backpacking and canoe tripping is the proximity to water and its refreshing effects. One dunk seems to remove a remarkable amount of grime and sweat, as well as suck fatigue from portage-weary bones. It takes five days of canoe tripping to get as dirty as you would be after two days of lakeless backpacking.
Our collective judgment (as opposed to Jack’s individual offerings) was as solid in the Park as it was in planning our trip. Our decision to make the three portages on the first day was as proper as our choice not to make three on the last, particularly since the latter decision brought us to the splendor of Merchant Lake and an unparalleled campsite with good sunset and sunrise, as well as a 1 a.m. flicker of the northern lights viewed by Jack and me while seated comfortably in the Maine loungers out at the tip of the point. The Thursday-Friday weather on Merchant was a good as could be hoped for. The site also offered the finest outdoor facility, both as to construction and placement, that I have ever seen. It was, indeed, a throne.
Because our party was nine in number, we had the luxury of bringing along a cook who, in addition to his culinary talens, filled those traditional, albeit optional, roles of the has slinger; morale officer, court jester, arbitrator, and unflappable chuck wagon philosopher. In short, Cookie’s intangibles outweighed his poor command of paddling technique, especially for those who weren’t in the bow of his boat! He certainly wielded his power subtly. If your behavior was less than congenial at some point, the tantalizing stack of flapjacks found itself on someone else’s metal shingle, but there was no way to prove that the spatula was being guided by a moral force. A complaint would only have confirmed that you were a boor, and woe to you when the next meal was apportioned.
On the new gear front, the mosquito hawks bit worse than the bugs, eh? I wasn’t expecting tremendous repellancy, but I wasn’t expecting them to attract mosquitoes, either. Perhaps the dark color of the plastic housing was the problem! Anyway, as Cookie says, the proof is in the pudding. If the two mosquito hawks had been working, demand would have outstripped supply. As it was, their minuscule weight was not generally judged to be worth the benefits of carrying them. Perhaps a letter is due to the manufacturer. Dragon fly drone, my eye! Pass the Cutters.M
On the other hand, Backpacker lived up to its billing, eh? Without the benefit of the recommended practice at home, we had cornbread and gingerbread to beat the band, and the potential of Bakepacker on future trips appears unlimited. As Italy’s Alberto Tomba said to the English-speaking press following his gold-medal performance in the giant slalom at the ’92 Winter Olympics, “Thanks very much, me!” What do you suppose a mosquito hawk would taste like after 30 minutes in the Bakepacker?
Not as spectacular as the Bakepacker, but highly utiliitarian was the soft cooler, which was the right size and shape and pliability for a canoe trip. Even without the benefit of full-bore ice at the beginning of the trip, it performed well and is now free of the rather strong salami-ham-margarine scent it picked up by the end of the epic journey.
The Tevas, worn by everyone except those Algonquin tenderfoots, the Foleys, proved to be more than merely serviceable-they saved lives by emboldening those faced with a daunting rescue. Just recall Cookie plunging into the waves off the rock-strewn point at Big Trout to try to retrieve a drowning fishing lure. Well, that lure is still in Davey Jones’ locker, but you get the point: Teva rescues went on almost continuously. Even Kasey’s leech removal was aided by Tevas that gave her good footing on the rocks while she pried the leech’s head from Matt’s leg. As I recall, there was even a Teva rescue of a Teva. In a world of people of dubious character, you know you can rely on someone with a Teva tan.
Therre has been a great deal of talk about fancy gear in the bulletins, and sometimes it must seem that the trip is the means to using the gear, rather than the gear being the means to a successful trip. I can assure you, however, that, unlike EMS-addicted Jack, the tail is not wagging this dog. I did, however, notice that the Bean catalogue has sleeping baga with the new Lite Loft fill, including one rated to 20 degrees. Since my summer bag is rated to about 40 degrees, and my winter bag is rated to about zero, all I have to do to justify this purchase is to plan a fall trip that will be too cold for the summer bag and too hot for the winter bag. By the way, make sure to store your ‘Thermarests inflated and with the valve open. That will prevent a loss of loft of the foam in the mattress. You can keep them behind a couch or under a bed. And don’t store your sleeping bag stuffed, as that lengthy compression will also hurt its loft and insulating ability. A capacious, breathable laundry bag is excellent for storing a sleeping bag, but I just leave my bag unstuffed on a closet shelf. When you take the sleeping bag out of the stuff sack, remove it gently so as not to tear the threads that keep the fill properly distributed throughout the bag.
Another pleasantry of the trip was the cordiality of all the Canadians we encountered in the Great White North, both in and out of Algonquin Park, eh? I was ashamed of myself upon learning that the taxi guy had turned down a tip from Jack. I had been sure that his friendliness had had a little of the waiter in it. And the coup de grace was the willingness of a couple of the folks we met on the portages to CARRY OUR GEAR! We’re still shaking our heads over that one, eh? They could, however, learn a little about managing traffic around construction areas, and their money is the wrong size, although I like the osprey, clutching a fish in its talons, on the back of the tenspot.
Battling the Wind
The closest we came to a capsize was when Jack and I took the 17-foot Sundowner out for a spin around the small island of f the point of our Big Trout Lake campsite. With the boat broadside to the lake’s waves and rolling accordingly, I decided it would be best to kneel. Trying to assume that position, however, nearly turned the boat over. We retreated to the calm of our cove, advanced and retreated once more, and then, on the third attempt (Mary asked if we were trying to get a running start), while keeping our craft at a 45-degree angle to the waves created by the northerly winds, were able t o zip around the island.
We never got around to capsizing a boat deliberatedly to figure out how best to right it. That worthwhile experiment will have to waite for another paddle. Attached, however, you find a short article from Canoe Magazine on the Capistrano flip, an apparently tried-and-true technique for righting a capsized canoe.
The nicest paddling was in the marshy shallows near the inlet of Big Trout Lake, where we saw the three moose and several great blue herons. There’s nothing like paddling in the quiet places where larger craft may not easily go. Navigating a big lake also has its charm and challenge. It was interesting to paddle away from a portage in close proximity to the other boats, only to find oneself, after relatively few strokes, isolated from the other craft, which appeared to have, if their direction was any indication, decidedly distinct itineraries. It was not uncommon to spy a boat sternward off one’s port side and then, after paying it no attention for a bit, finding the same craft off the starboard bow. Was the other boat meandering all over the lake, crossing and recrossing your hull’s true and steady course? Were you, instead, the meandering craft intersecting the other boat’s economical route? Or were both craft darting hither and yon across the waters, coming together and moving apart due to a shared lack of resolve and/or the ability to set up and keep a proper course?
I can only say that if you noticed your craft regularly changing its position relative to my boat, you can rest assured that our course was similar to that of a decapitated chicken in a barnyard, and that my hull was describing the shortest distance between two points. The attached illustration, showing the course taken by the three boats on Merchant Lake on the first day of the trip, was representative of our paddling.
Jack did a good job of treeing the food each night. The literature is ambivalent about the utility of this maneuver, but if you’re going to do it you might as well do it right. Ten feet higher would have been right, but Jack was dealing with an immense amount of grub. The bear pinata remained sealed throughout the trip, however, so I guess the proof is in the pudding.
A friend of mine, upon hearing of my trip to Algonquin, told me that, many years ago, he was canoeing Algonquin in the spring shortly after ice-out, running the Petawawa and its legendary rapids. His paddling partner was the late New York State Assemblyman from Bufffalo, Bill Hoyt. My friend, who is not given to hyperbole, said he came as close as he ever has to giving up the ghost. His canoe capsized in the rapids, and he and Hoyt, shocked by the cold water, held onto the boat through the section of violent whitewater. They emerged from the rapids into a section of the river that, although smooth, was stil l characterized by a swift current. He hoped that they would reach some slow-moving or shallow water that would allow them to reach shore and right their boat. There was another boat in their party that had already successfully run the rapids, and was able to stop in the smooth stretch of river. The occupants of that boat shouted to my friend and his partner to abandon their craft and swim for shore. My friend by this time could hear the reason for the warning-another stretch of rapids, which they had not scouted, loomed ahead. My friend left the boat and swam toward shore, fully clothed in the icy water. He made it, exhausted, with only yards to spare before the next stretch of rapids began. Hoyt, too tired to leave the boat, was rescued by a rope from the top of the rapids by the two men in the other boat, who paddled to the rescue when they saw that Hoyt was unable to swim to shore. They learned that the looming rapids were several miles long and more violent than the ones that they had just experienced. My friend was rightfully convinced that he never would have survived those frigid rapids in the water. They abandoned the trip and their canoe, which was eventually found sunk miles downriver. I’ve been studying the Petawawa on the map to see if it can be incorporated in the next trip!
Perhaps Mary, Jan and the boys, who forged ahead, without provisions, to secure a contested beachhead on Merchant Lake, could perform the advance work on the Petawawa.
This account of our jourey is not a whitewash, so we must lament the towing of the Semlers’ Camry wagon. Talk about your rude returns to civilization! Mary, of course, would be doing this kind of trip every weekend if Jack didn’t see to it that reason prevailed, and was no doubt so eager to get into the wilderness that she didn’t realize she was parking three deep. No harm was done, however, since we had returned to the Opeongo dock an hour earlier than scheduled. I’m not as wise as the lawyer guys, but just between us two, I don’t understand why they couldn’t have simply towed the car to another part of the lot.
The only misgivings I had about the trip were at 2:30 a.m. Sunday, when it appeared that preparations were falling dangerously behind schedule and it seemed impossible to ensure that everything necessary would be brought. I can’t believe I had the presence of mind to remember the anchor! As Sunday’s weather was lousy, however, our delayed entry in the Park proved to be fortuitous. If there is a patron saint of campers, he or she was clearly looking out for the Algonquin nine.
Did anyone notice that the used mantle in the lantern lasted the entire trip?
In closing, I would be remiss to comment on the congeniality and teamwork of all the canoe trippers: Jack, Mary, Conor, Dylan, Jan, Matt, Bob, a.k.a. “Cookie,” and Kasey, a.k.a. “Stacy.” The members of the junior division are especially to be commended for exhibiting a maturity beyond their tender years, especially at those moments when food and water were not immediately available, or bee stings, leeches (“Filthy beggars! If there’s one thing I hate, it’s leeches!) and tumbles brought pain and suffering. I think everyone earned the epitaph for Josh Deets in Lonesome Dove which read, in part, “Cheerful in all weathers. Never shirked a task. Splendid behavior.”
Gallery: Big Trout Lake