Algonquin Provincial Park has always been considered a top-end outdoor experience by the North Country Men’s Club, and any year that features a challenging trip to its lake-studded boreal forests is virtually assured to be judged successful by the NCMC’s doughty members.
The Editor, having received accounts of the 1993 Algonquin expedition, can say with authority that this year will not prove an exception to the reliable rule cited above.
Seven intrepid explorers, all of whom had penetrated to Algonquin’s interior via Opeongo Lake in 1992, signed on for the 1993 expedition, which set out from Brent, a tiny outpost on Cedar Lake near the Park’s northern boundary. The obscure starting point was the hunch of Jack, who is credited in NCMC annals with reviving Algonquin several years ago as a trip destination. (The Editor must note, however, that perhaps Tommy’s purchase of a solo We-no-nah from Oak Orchard Canoe was actually the seed that germinated into renewed interest in Algonquin. After all, would Jack’s red We-no-nah have come into his possession had he not been inspired by Tommy’s acquisition? And once canoes were gotten, did it not become a given that some place would have to be chosen in which to paddle and portage them?)
To get to the put-in point, the three-man Foley-Conroy team traveled 500-plus miles in two days from Albany to Brent via Watertown, while the four-man Semler contingent made a daring, one-day push from Buffalo via North Bay.
Rendevous in Brent
Rendevous was made at the excellent beach campsites of Brent on a Sunday evening. The Foley-Conroy team arrived first and valiantly set about to do what could be done to conserve the supply of beer, hoping that the Semlers, if not future generations, could join in the enjoyment of its natural wonders. Unfortunately, the supply perished almost simultaneously with the Semlers’ arrival at base camp.
This small tragedy, however, was offset by a small raid on one of the gallon-sized, eight-pound wine bags. Although digging into trip provisions before the trip is generally a no-no, drinking wine rather than carrying it is hard to condemn.
Having failed to drink sufficient water before going to bed, the expedition’s members awoke after sunrise Monday. Since a five-night stay in the interior was planned, packing took most of the morning. The NCMC, however, is legendary for late starts, and the members no doubt feel it is best to have a dubious trademark rather than none at all.
The newest technology to make the trip was a water purifier that would spare the group of having to constantly boil water and wait for it to cool to drinkability. The beauty of the filter is that you don’t even have to make a supply of water for travel, since, at any point along the day, potable water can be readily produced. To make sure the untested mechanism would do the job in the backcountry, an experiment was devised in which milk made from dried milk powder was run through the filter. When clear water came from the filter’s spout, the high equipment standards of the NCMC were deemed to have been met, and the filter was approved for the trip. Credit goes to the younger members of the NCMC for devising this creative test. It just goes to show that the NCMC never stands still, but benefits continually from an infusion of young blood and minds unsullied by mead.
As the mounds and mounds of gear and food piled up for packing, Tommy expressed deep concern, despite the cavernous volume of the Sundowners, of those intrepid canoes’ capacity to hold everything, if not below the gunwales, at least within a meter of that critical load boundary. The fundamental problem, which didn’t reveal itself clearly for several days, was that the seven-member, five-night expedition was bringing enough food to sustain twice as many people for twice as long! Even if the food had been asked to do the latter job, there would probably have been a couple of “regular flavor” oatmeal packets left over. Thank God, Tommy thought, that Jackhad not needed the dry bag and waterproof stuff sack that had been proffered for his use. Tommy had thrown every stuff sack and dry back he owned in his car for the trip, figuring it was overkill. In fact, he had only brought the bare minimum.
Everything, thankfully, eventually found itself in some sort of pack or bag, and the We-no-nahs and their cargo headed across Cedar Lake to a 715-meter portage and the interior of a Park whose advocates were celebrating the 100th anniversary of its founding. The first portage did not prove too taxing, except for the need to reacquaint oneself with the best way to move hull and freight from one lake to the next, including who should carry what.
Hindsight shows clearly that a portage done early in the day by a rested expedition is much less than its actual mathematical fraction of whatever longer portage the voyager must haul over later in the day. In other words, a 2,000-meter carry that presents itself at 5 p.m. is going to be much more than twice as difficult as a 1,000-meter portage done earlier in the day. You’re already tired from the day’s exertion, and even if you weren’t, the second half of any longish portage is going to be more crippling than the first half. As the portage winds on and on, yoke pads begin to press into collarbones as if the canoe were slowing turning from Kevlar or fiberglass to Royalex, and pack shoulder straps work deeper into the flesh, as if the pack’s contents were turning to lead and stone.
It’s a strange math, but the Editor calculates that a 500-meter portage is about one-third the task of a 1000-meter carry. Following the first portage, another paddle, portage and paddle were completed in excellent weather and spirits, and the expedition found itself at the low end of 2,300-plus-meter carry.
Accounts of the portage are sketchy, in part, the Editor guesses, from the exhaustion-induced delirium of expedition members and the desire to forget certain stressful experiences.
The record does show clearly that the portage was completed and camp established at its upper end. A big dinner was put off, and the food was placed in a bear pinata back some 100 yards on the portage trail. It rained that evening, but the storm was not severe and created no true hardship.
The theory of relativity was demonstrated the next morning, Tuesday, when an artificial blood maker from New York City ended the first of what was later learned were to be FIVE trips down the portage with two canoes and several tons of gear. Compared to this guy and his wife and son, the NCMCers were traveling light! The Editor has observed over the years that the NCMERs have indeed become more efficient canoe campers. The typical portage of earlier years involved two men carrying an aluminum canoe over the trail and then returning to the beginning of the portage for external frame packs overstuffed and overweighted by excessive gear.
The 1993 trip was a breakthrough in that the stated goal of limiting a 1,000-meter portage to 2,000 meters of walking rather than 3,000 meters of walking was found to be eminently doable. This reasonable goal is achieved by dividing the gear to be carried by two people into three piles rather than four. And, as Jack pointed out, it doesn’t really matter if one person walks the portage three times and another walks it once, or if both people walk it twice. The total distance walked will still be twice the portage’s length for each person, rather than three times the length, as occurs when each person has to carry two loads from end to end.
God camp, good weather
Under good weather Tuesday, the expedition paddled two bodies of water (one being a large puddle at the end of the monster portage) and portaged two pieces of land. This put them in Catfish Lake and they paddled toward the part of the lake that offered promising campsites.
There was bit of a scramble for sites, a musical chairs game in which the NCMC was left standing, but the NCMC is not easily ruffled, and they beat a path back to a site they had initially eschewed.
The site proved to be an excellent base camp for the expedition for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights. Its efficacy was proven when Ms. Foley spotted three moose on a nearby point of land, and a boat immediately paddled over to inspect the giant ungulates.
Wednesday and Thursday, the two full days at the island campsite, were generally full of warm weather and sunshine, although the group heard and saw storms in the vicinity on Thursday.
Most of their time during the two days was filled with treeing the food, but they spent what precious spare time they had jumping off the rocks into the clear water, catching very small fish, and searching for a non-existent portage to Luckless Lake.
The difference between 1993’s weather and that of the 1992 expedition was evidenced by the fact that the Sunshower was actually utilized on the most recent trip. Also, the amount of time spent by expeditioners in the water was twenty or thirty times greater than the previous year.
All in all, Tommy reported to the editor that, as someone who has a great fondness for hanging around a well-pitched camp and basically doing nothing, he could not recall a better camp, in a better spot, with better weather, and better company, and other people doing all the work, in which to hang around. Only the invention of dehydrated beer, or bigger fish off the rocky shore, could have enhanced the experience. It would also have been nice if the red squirrels and chipmunks had been willing to partake of the botched banana bread.
On Friday, following a drenching morning storm, the expeditioners reluctantly departed from their island paradise, and began the voyage back to Brent.
They paddled, portaged, paddled and portaged, leading them to the monster portage, which they completed with more precision than previously (The only blunder on the portage was Tommy’s decision, in the true spirit of Canadian generosity, to carry someone’s else’s cargo down the trail. When he saw the owners of the duffel coming TOWARD him with their canoe, he quickly gave the bag to Jan and told her to follow them back to the water. Speechless at his willingness to make it look like she screwed up, she went off with the canoeists while Tommy sped off in the other direction).
Otherwise, the expedition was so well organized that the group was able, as in the previous year, to send a scouting party ahead to secure a campsite. The campsite was inferior in all aspects except for its open throne, but the food was treed in more appropriate fashion than ever, and despite the smashing failure of the soy burgers, good cheer prevailed among the group.
It had been cool Friday evening, but the sun shone again Saturday and the expedition easily negotiated the two remaining portages, despite the excess food burden. They came again to Cedar Lake, eyeballed the Brent “business district,” and headed across the deep blue lake against a steady wind and one-foot waves. The We-no-nahs once again proved their superiority, tracking straight and true and flying across the water thanks to their stiff hulls.
A Notable Trip
The voyagers reached the sunny beach and began to pack their cars and load their canoes. Jack pulled out his laptop to check Automap for the Albany party, and the shortest route was ascertained. Following the collection of coins left on the tracks, and a visit to the Brent store of Algonquin Outfitters, the expeditioners parted ways for home. It was noted that the dirt road leading to the highway had been plowed or flattened during the trip. It was much easier to negotiate on the way out than it had been on the way in.
Many records were set on the trip, including the number of consecutive nights in a tent in the backcountry (5), and the longest toss of a makeshift fishing pole.
The members of the record-setting crew were Tommy Conroy, founder and president of the NCMC, Jack Semler, science officer and navigator, Mary Moran, nutritionist and reality checker, Jan Foley, medical officer, Conor Semler, maturity officer, Dylan Semler, “bigpicture” guy, and Matt Foley, zoologist.
One unanswered question was the car they saw Friday, with a canoe lashed to its top, crossing the bridge at the end of the monster portage. Was it driven by a ranger on patrol? The Editor plans to send a letter to park officials requesting an explanation.
Although Moby Dick did not go on this trip, Canoe Country Camping did. With long years of canoe camping and backpacking experience under their belts, the NCMCers are no longer ones to accept published advice hook, line and sinker. The book does have an excellent technique for hoisting a canoe overhead, an describes an effective food-treeing technique. The author’s penchant, however, for slow, sluggish, poorly designed canoes was rejected summarily by the NCMC. It was also pointed out that a rock-bottom fundamental of paddling, the fact that the stern man will overpower the bow man because he sits closer to an end of the boat, was somewhat reversed in the book. Suffice it to say that the NCMC would be happy to race the book’s author and his insufferable wife down a big Algonquin lake to the last campsite. We’ll take a We-no-nah and Gillespie bent-shafts and he can have his tugboat and his straight paddles. We’ll be relaxing in camp and he’ll be portaging in the dark in search of the next available campsite!
There was some discussion about Algonquin’s size on the trip. The Editor notes that the Algonquin centennial map lists the area of the park as 7,700 square kilometers. A square kilometer is one million square meters, so 7,700 square kilometers is 7.7 billion square meters. A hectare is 10,000 square meters, so Algonquin is 770,000 hectares. Since a hectare equals 2.47 acres, Algonquin is 1.9 million acres, or a little less than one-third the size of the six-million-acre Adirondack Park. Of course, the publily owned portion of the Adirondack Park amounts to only 2.5 million acres, so Algonquin’s area equals 76 percent of the Adirondack Forest Preserve, which is an impressive figure. Of course, I have little faith in my ability to convert metric measurements to their U.S. equivalents, so the above information may be totally bogus.
There is certainly more paddling and canoe camping to be done. Algonquin has many entry points that have never been used by the NCMC as put-ins for trips. There also ought to be a spring ’94 float down the Hudson River from Warrensburg to Lake Luzerne, and the St. Regis Canoe Area of the Adirondacks, while not as impressive as mighty Algonquin, should beckon for at least a long weekend trip. The West Branch of the Sacandaga River, south of Piseco Lake, also offers the promise of an excellent downstream day trip, as well as camping on loon-occupied Good Luck Lake, which is not be confused with Algonquin’s phantom Luckless Lake. (Why, by the way, is every lake in Algonquin named Something Lake, rather than Lake Something?) At some point, too, that portage from the Bog River Flow to the Oswegatchie ought to be conquered.
The next adventure, of course, will be the Adirondack Canoe Classic. We’re talking 90 miles of paddling and portaging over three days on the old water highways of the Adirondacks. My advice to Conroy and Semler is that they quickly find their sustainable stroke rate and keep to it, even if the other boats are blowing them away at the start. They must also paddle in close unison. You don’t want to make it a 110-mile race by meandering all over the lakes. On the bigger lakes, too, some map study is imperative. You have to take the big picture when navigating and follow the shortest line. You don’t want to be following the shoreline of bays and coves. I would suggest that Conroy initially take the bow and set the stroke rate, while keeping the stroke length short, while Semler, the pilot, take the stern, match his bowman stroke for stroke, and keep the boat on course. If you take it easy the first day, and are able to stand upright the next morning, you’ll be home free with only 55 miles to go.
See you on the water!