This trip was a rite of passage, planned since my father knew of my impending arrival. In August, with my mother six months pregnant, he left for this same trip with her two brothers. And ever since my first time sleeping in a tent in the backyard, or the first camping trip to Long Pond when I was three, this trip had always waited. I was a gangly teenager in the summer of 2003, and I was off to Algonquin.
Hit the road early, at about 2:30 AM. It takes about ten hours to get to Brent from Pennsylvania, and we wanted to hit the water at 1:00PM in hopes of getting to Catfish before dark.
The drive up was long and uneventful. After passing customs at Thousand Islands, we headed down 401 towards Kingston before picking up 15. The only hang up was in Carlton Place, but we were able to find 15 again quickly, and were then on 17, headed towards Brent. After a stop in Petawawa for gas and for subs, we reached Brent at 12:30 and were in the water just after one.
Cedar was very calm, but even in its placidity I was overwhelmed by its vastness. I had paddled on Upper Saranac in the Adirondacks, but always near shore. Cedar was huge, deep, and open, not at all the lake I wanted to be on in wind. And, as if he had read my mind, Dad was quick to bring up the times he had gotten blown around the lake, riding up and down three foot waves like an Alaskan fishing boat.
As it was the first portage of the trip, and uphill, it seemed a lot worse than it probably was. A young couple had taken out with us. I started off with the woman slightly ahead of me but quickly passed her. I was feeling pretty good when I heard, “On your left.” The guy jogged by effortlessly, canoe on his shoulders, pack on his back, and completely barefoot. They grow ‘em tough in Canada.
We got to the end of the portage quickly and headed up the Petawawa. Just after the first bend, we ran into a bull moose, standing in the middle of the river, munching on the lilies. It was my first moose, so we drifted by very slowly and snapped a bunch of pictures.
The next portage was around falls, so it was very steep, but also very short. We were back on the river quickly, and saw two more moose, a cow and a calf, at the take out for the next portage. I have heard many names for P 2345. My brother calls it The Beast. My dad calls it The Bi—h. It is all that and more. I plodded and plodded, knowing that the end was just around the corner. I kept going, my hopes rising at the slice of sky around the bend. To my horror, it was just a cut over a meadow. Demoralized, I found a rock to prop up my pack, grabbed my water bottle, and caught my breath.
It was about then that I noticed the mosquitoes. Because of the heat, I had thought it a brilliant idea to wear a sleeveless shirt. As I sat on the rock, I began to get swarmed, which prompted me to get a move on. After another stop or two, I reached the end of the portage, tired as hell and covered in bites. Dad was right behind with just the food pack. He dumped it and turned around to retrieve the canoe, which he had jettisoned a quarter mile back. I sat on the root-covered landing, being eaten alive and just too tired to give a damn.
We had the subs for dinner. Packing in pre-made sandwiches isn’t a bad idea, and its one that I’ve taken to lately. After dinner, with a nice fire going, Dad handed me a present to commemorate the trip, a beautiful Helle knife with a curled birch and caribou antler handle. I still have the knife to this day, taking it on almost every trip as an emergency survival knife. It’s still sharp enough to shave with.
A quick start put us on the lake early, and soon we were twisting south, towards the first portage. After about thirty minutes, we turned a bend and saw a huge bull, eating about fifteen yards from a blue heron. The bull, Dad informed me, had the biggest rack he’d ever seen in Algonquin. We floated by, snapping a few pics, before the heron took flight and the moose retreated back to the forest. Around the next corner, we spooked a cow, which bolted into the brush.
As we paddled along the shore, we saw another bull, with a rack almost as big as the last. Already three bulls, and we hadn’t even gotten to the Nipissing.
The 1945 meter portage into Hogan was a slog, but not nearly as bad as The Beast. I made it to the end and waited for Dad, who was alarmingly late. Just as I started to go back and look, he rounded a bend. As we put the boat back into the water, he informed me that I had failed in my duties. Curious, I asked why. He said that I had not alerted him of a low hanging limb that he had walked right into, canoe-first. The shock knocked him down, and out. When he came to, some time later, he was lying down and the canoe was on the side of the trail, undamaged. All in all, we were very lucky.
We grabbed a spot on the south side, just as the wind picked up. The site was poor, with a marshy pit behind it. If the wind hadn’t been so strong, the bugs would have been horrendous.
When we woke up, we were sure we were going to be staying an extra day at Hogan. So sure of it, we went back to bed for an hour.
It was downright miserable. Steady rain fell and a solid wind pushed whitecaps down Hogan, towards Parks Bay. Finally, we rolled out of the tent, made a dash for the tarp, and got oatmeal going. Two cups and three hands of Casino later, the rain stopped, a hole in the clouds appeared, and the wind subsided.
We discussed making a dash for Burntroot. There would be no easy way; we were to cross three large lakes, two of which would be directly into the wind. But we wanted to move, and after a quick breakdown of camp, we set out for la Muir.
It took thirty minutes of strenuous trudging, bucking strong wilds and big waves, to reach the end of Hogan. The portage into Lake la Muir was buggy and wet, so we quickly loaded up and headed to a campsite for lunch. I noshed on some peanut butter and chocolate chip cookies, a personal favorite camping lunch of mine. Then we headed back out for what seemed to drag on and on, as la Muir is a large lake and we were paddling directly into the wind.
The campsite was nice, and from it we could see across the lake to a small marsh, where a cow moose grazed in the distance. It was just a speck, and was our only moose of the day in what was a tiring and rather boring day.
After mac and cheese and a few hands of cards, I scouted the tiny island. I surmised that it was too small for a bear, which was reassuring. The campsite was very nice, and I would definitely try to get it again when I return.
When people ask me what the worst portage in Algonquin is, they expect to hear about the Beast. But there is another. Another, beastier portage.
We headed up to Robinson, making quick work of P 1310. Robinson was a nice lake, and the campsites looked nice from the boat. But at the west end, horrors awaited.
We were probably 400 yards away from the take out for P 25 when I noticed the noise. It was a high whine, like a dentist’s drill. “What the hell is that?” “Dunno, sounds like its coming from the carry.” Hanging above the takeout was a black cloud. “Oh sweet Jesus.”
The bugs were of biblical proportions. The swarm pulsated, waiting to dive bomb. Ten yards off shore, we bailed out and, throwing caution to the wind, grabbed what we could and scuttled across the portage. I had a pack in one hand, its strap resting on my forearm. In the other I clutched the thwart bag and both paddles. I made it to the end of the carry and turned to see Dad, holding the food pack in one hand and the canoe by its center thwart in the other, booking down the carry. We piled back into the boat, paddled furiously into the middle of Whiskey Jack, and then stopped to catch our breath.
After watching a cow moose from the portage and grabbing a piece of jerky, we headed up the Nipissing, having posttraumatic stress from a Tim River, some three or years earlier.
The Nip proved to be less aggravating, and I sat in the bow, drawing happily while noting that the wind (hopefully) would not be a factor in the sheltered valley. After P 850, we finally came to a portion of the river that was wide enough to filter. Our pre-filter got a workout, and even after the water came out, it was still yellow-brown from all the tannic acid. Looked a lot like another liquid…
We both chugged down a Nalgene bottle and refilled. The lack of water was a serious problem for Dad, who was prone to cramp up, especially after kneeling in a boat all day. The cramps were devastatingly painful, not to mention violent, which was not good in a tippy canoe.
The Nip bended and meandered along, past a few more moose including a juvenile bull. We were about an hour away from P 365 when we rounded a bend and ran into a moose. A bull moose. A very large bull moose.
I was happy as could be, as this moose was as big as the one at the end of Catfish two days before. I sat quietly, snapping pictures quickly. The moose looked at us with a bored stare, then turned and climbed out of the river and into the willow. It was then that I noticed Dad, furiously back-paddling, trying to get us away. We were a little close, probably thirty feet or less. We gave the moose a minute to clear the area, then continued along, looking for the next portage.
After the water became to shallow, we bailed out, grabbed an end, and started walking downstream. The water was pleasantly cool, and the current was strong enough to push us along without effort. We piled back in, only to bail out five minutes later and repeat the process at P 110, just for kicks.
At the bottom of the rapids, I stepped into a deep pool and almost went over my head. Simultaneously, a flashlight that I had forgotten was still in my pocket bobbed to the surface and floated away while my right shoe came off. Panicked, I fumbled around until I found it, lifting it to the surface with my toe. After reattaching the boot, I searched for my flashlight, but to no avail.
I climbed back into the boat, annoyed at my stupidity for losing the flashlight. Reaching into my pocket, I also found a stick of bite juice, which had become my best friend. If I had lost that, I would have been inconsolable.
Just as we were leaving the last patch of swift water, I noticed something bobbing in an eddy; it was my three-dollar flashlight. We paddled over and retrieved it. To my amazement it still worked. Today, it sits on a shelf in my room, a funny memento of the trip.
After opting to actually portage P 180, we made camp on both of the sites at the base of the portage. I went for a dip in the river to cool off, and afterwards we made the last dinner of the trip.
Just as the light was fading, we heard the clatter of paddle on gunwale. A few minutes later, a man stumbled into camp with exhaustion on his face and a thick Boston accent. We quickly vacated the lower site and watched him set up a tent, throw his gear under a tree, and go to sleep.
With one day remaining, sleep came quickly to us as well.
After oatmeal, we headed down the Nipissing, our last day on the water. We stopped at a campsite on the south shore for power bars and a picture. The first portage went quickly and before long, we were at the last portage, only a mile or so away from Cedar.
Now, on the last day of a trip, I am melancholy in that I try to take in and enjoy all the aspects of the trip, especially when I am at the “last” of something. However, this does not extend to portages. When I shrugged off the pack at the end of P 915, I could only think of how there weren’t any more portages.
The Nipissing empties into Cedar through a delta-like marsh. We paddled along, past wild rice and tall grass, until we came to Cedar Lake.
We started out, bucking a head wind but moving well, pointed at the campground. About a third of the way across, just as we started crossing the “open” section at the mouth of Gilmour Finger, the wind shifted.
“Christ.” Dad ducked his head as we rolled into a trough. “Loose butt, paddle hard, and zip up that goddamn life jacket.” By no means the most encouraging statement.
The wind had shifted 90 degrees, now blowing to the southeast, directly across our gunwales. On top of that, it had intensified, and quickly we were splashing through three-foot whitecaps. The boat rolled and tossed, and I kept digging my paddle into the water, pulling hard, trying to launch us to Brent.
The bow crashed down hard into a trough, spraying cold lake water. The boat rolled, but because of its excellent “secondary stability”, we knew that it could roll to the gunwale and still right itself. A big wave crashed into the side, pushing the boat down into a trough. For a moment, land disappeared, and two walls of water surrounded me with sky for a ceiling. We needed to get off the lake, now.
The waves continued to batter the canoe, but we started to make progress, and after fifteen minutes of terrifying, white knuckle paddling, we reached the safety of the limestone cliff, and were quickly back at Brent.
A few of the campers from the campground had gathered to watch the wind push the boats around. Just as we neared the put-in, probably less than a quarter mile, we were overtaken by a rowboat, breezing along with little effort.
“You want a tow in?” The rower asked, smirking at our canoe. “It’s kinda choppy.”
I knew the comment would likely draw ire from my father, a proud canoeist and also a man of common sense. He looked at the cliffs that had sheltered us from the wind, then turned to survey the choppy mess we had churned through, then at the relatively still water we were in now, then looked up at the rower.
“Nah, were fine.”
The rowboat took off for the put in. Dad shook his head and muttered something that I couldn’t quite understand.
We drifted into the put in nonchalantly, quickly unloading our gear but leaving the boat at the shore. Cedar had taken a lot out of us, both in stamina and in time. We had an extra day on the permit in case of foul weather, so we decided to use it at the campground, the legality of which we neither knew nor cared. I humped the packs into the bed of the truck as Dad rinsed off the boat. Just then, the skies opened up and a tremendous summer downpour finished the job. We waited inside the truck for about twenty minutes, and then the rain stopped just as suddenly as it came. The sun returned with a vengeance and we were treated to three rainbows, stacked on top of each other, bending from one end of Cedar to the other.
We saw a moose on the road, giving us at least one moose for each day of the trip. Dad saw a huge black bear as well, but I only caught its shadows as it retreated into the forest. I still felt like crap, so as we turned onto Highway 17, I tried to sleep. That, combined with a nap I took while waiting for pictures to develop back in Pennsylvania, did the trick. I felt much better, and learned a serious lesson that I would never forget.
What Was Learned
• Single portaging is a pain, but it is definitely the best way to go. I understand that doing so solo is much more difficult, but for two guys in a tandem, it is the most efficient and quick way to hit a portage. The Beast only took an hour and a half. It takes some people six.
• DEET! I didn’t use it, and got crucified. I thought the permethrane on my clothes would be enough; it isn’t. In fact, I only slathered on DEET once, at the take out for the portage into la Muir, and the bugs left me alone. It really does work. At the end of the trip, we had so much spray-on left that I took to shooting mosquitoes out of the sky with it. Trust me, it’s fun but not as effective as actually using it.
• Sandwiches. We got BMT subs on the way into the park, and didn’t have to cook the first night. Very smart.
• If you aren’t carrying the canoe, you need to be the eyes for the poor guy who is. Dad could have been seriously hurt. Imagine, me trying to lug a boat, two packs, and him back over the Beast. We could have been seriously screwed if he had busted his ankle when the limb put him to sleep.
• In Algonquin, you need to be ready to adapt to whatever the gods throw at you. If we hadn’t been up and ready to move, we would have missed the weather hole and would have been stranded on Hogan.
• The elevation of the lakes is a joke. According to the map, we reached or height-o-land at la Muir. Then why the hell were we still portaging uphill? Obviously, there was more down than up, but I was still upset.
• Cedar will seriously screw you up if you play around. That wind whipped the lake into some serious chop, and we really risked it running across the lake in those conditions. Obviously, the wind shifted after we had started, but it was still dangerous and I doubt the lake would care much about wind shifts if I went for a swim.
• The Thermarest was a stupid mistake. If I had done that anywhere but next to our car, I would have had to trip sick.
• Most of all, Algonquin is an incredible place. It deserves respect and responsibility, and when those two aspects come together, you can really lose yourself and have a great time being self-reliant and enjoying the outdoors.