Sometimes it’s just a matter of timing. My father retired from the Hamilton Police force, and my brother had taken over the Canadian Tire in Paris and so was finally close by after long stints in Ottawa, Timmins and Alberta. My nephew, who I hadn’t seen much during that period had just turned 16. As I was planning my trips for the year I thought about the idea of doing a family trip with the boys. (I say boys only because it was at the time only boys who were interested or old enough.) I didn’t really know how the idea would be received. My brother hadn’t been camping for more than 15 years, at campgrounds for parties at the beach, that sort of thing. My father hadn’t been in a tent for longer than that.I remember my father-in-law asking once if my father liked to go camping, and after thinking about it, I had to say I didn’t know. We had stopped camping as a family many years prior to that but as a child that’s all I remember us doing for vacations. Did he stop camping because he didn’t have to any longer, did he just grow out of it and preferred other options, or was it just that he didn’t have the opportunity? As for my nephew, like I said he was 16, which apparently makes it biologically impossible to show any enthusiasm.
My brother was the first to respond, and enthusiastically as it turned out. He loved the idea and felt it would be a great experience for my nephew. My father was next, also thinking it would be a great idea. So now all I had to do was come up with a short route that would give us an authentic portaging experience but that wouldn’t be too difficult and give us plenty of time for the family to hang out together.
Rock Lake Campground
A great benefit of the Rock Lake access point, is that you can put in right from the park campground, so we planned to stay the night before right there. Once you get up it’s just a matter of moving the car over to the access point parking lot and picking up your permit at the office. Other benefits include shower toilet and shower facilities on site for both before and after the trip. Better still, we rented our canoes from Opeongo Outfitters, who offer to drop rental gear right off at your campsite. This was a great option that isn’t always available in Algonquin, depending on which campground and access point you use. They said they’d be there at the put in at 9:00 and they were not even a minute late. I had reserved ultra-light weight canoes, but was given light weight. Not a big deal I supposed, but only because they weren’t going to charge me the difference. We paid for them on the spot and we need only leave them there when we were done. Very convenient all around.
To get to the put in and the campground, just travel along highway 60 then turn down Rock Lake road – there should be plenty of signs. The road ends at the campground, however don’t do what both my brother and I did and keep going past the campground sign. The road leads to the Booth’s Rock trail.
So we all met up at the put in, organized our gear onto the boats and took off. The put in is a big parking area with a long dock on a river that separates Rock Lake on the left and Whitefish Lake on the right. The short paddle (600m) along the twisting river gave the boys a refresher on paddling and steering the boats. It had been a while for my brother, even longer for my father and never for my nephew, but they got along pretty good.
Off we go (Day 1)
Entering into Rock lake they got their first real look of what Algonquin Park offers. Throughout the trip we would be surrounded by the a dense forest of tall green trees with 500-600 ft hills over top. Here the Great Canadian Shield juts up to form huge red cliffs. Rock lake has a large number of campsites to the east, and a line of cottages on the west. On a beautiful day, we followed the west shore and everyone seemed to be getting the hang of paddling. We had 5.2km on Rock lake to practice before the portage.
My father is a busy guy, hard worker type, and so kept a busy pace paddling, keeping our canoe well ahead of my brother and nephew. I wanted to keep an eye on them so I kept convincing my father to take a few breaks to let them catch up. When he grew impatient with that I just stopped paddling, hoping us at half speed would allow the other canoe to keep up and satisfy my father’s need to keep working.
My concern was that the top of Rock Lake is narrow and protected from the winds, but soon opens up to a 2-3 km area with a few big islands in the middle. I could see the change in the water up ahead suggesting high winds that were blowing right across our southernly path. Past that point the lake narrows into a river where we’d be again protected. I reiterated the fact that the boat needs to point into the wind, and that we’d be crossing the pretty good winds soon, and that they needed to stay close to shore because if they did get into trouble they needed to pull onto the shore right away and wait it out. Then, as we pasted into the bay, we got blasted.
It was hard to steer when you’re constantly checking behind you, but I managed. My brother and his son were doing great, but I’m not sure not sure they had a grasp of the situation. Once you see white caps, you should probably get off the lake. At that point it was closer to keep going than to go back so we trekked on. Once protected by the west shore we took a little break. “I wasn’t worried because you didn’t seem so,” my brother told me. I’m glad I didn’t tell him.
When the lake narrows it’s a calm paddle though some lily pads where it ends at Pen’s falls, where a 375m portage takes you across. It’s a nice flat trail with a few staggered inclines to climb to get up the 30ft difference between Rock and Pen Lake. Well maintained, there are steps and a boardwalk to help you get across. Less than 200m into the trail there’s a side trail to your left that leads to the falls for a great photo opportunity, and I’ve been told since that there is a spring to the right of the first boardwalk, past a trail where you’ll find a a pipe to help fill your bottles. Before you leave, check with the park to confirm how safe the water would be to drink.
Pen Lake is a long and narrow lake with tall hills on either side. We expected to travel only about 1000m to our campsite on an island, but found both it, and the two nearby were occupied. If you are passing through the area, stay to the east of the island because there are some obstacles blocking most of the way that are just barely passable. We kept travelling another 1700m to find the site on the western side so as to maybe catch the sunrise the next morning. We found out later that the sites on the west side had their own beaches. There was a bit of an step up to get to our site, with little room so we had to awkwardly lug up everything – including the canoes. Once we were there though, our site was a neat little clearing in the middle of a thick forest.
The only instruction I gave to the boys was to pack light. Don’t bring anything you won’t need, and choose the lightest version of whatever you do bring. They had to have followed my advice more than anyone I’ve known, including these tiny blue tents that I couldn’t believe anyone could fit into, let alone anyone the size of my father and brother. They were definitely light, and they went up in no time. Everyone seemed very happy with them, but I wasn’t too sure how well they’d hold out the rain. The “rain fly” for example, was a tiny piece of fabric for the tip, but looked more like a rain cap at best. More on that later.
We had ourselves a great evening. We ate, relaxed and talked. I can’t remember the last time we were all together like that, with no distractions, and nowhere to go. That’s what camping is all about. I believe portaging to be an extension of that because it’s an adventure that creates a bond. That was what I was really hoping for. We chatted about work, about politics, about life, and about the trip. I kept thinking back about how while we were planning the trip, the person who seemed the most exited was my mother, who had no interest in joining us. She just loved the thought of her boys hanging out together like this. I also got a chance to get to know more about my nephew. Turns out he’s pretty funny. He got that sarcasm that our family is known for – especially his uncle. More on this later as well.
On a technological side note, we found out that we had cellphone reception. This is pretty rare in Algonquin, considering how far off (south) we were from the highway 60 corridor. Turns out however, about 12km to our east was the town of Whitney. My father was able to let my mother know we were all okay and how well things were going, which I’m sure made her very happy. Foursquare users, make sure to check in on the Pen Lake Campsite to take away my mayorship. I dare you.
The Long Portage (Day 2)
After a nice evening, we woke to a very pleasant morning and a beautiful sunrise over the mountain across the lake. I mention this because according to the weather it was going to change. We were getting some serious rain sometime in the late afternoon and overnight, so it was important to get to our next campground and set up before all that began. We had lots of time, but we shouldn’t doddle.
To get to today’s first portage we needed only to get over the 700m lake. The portage sign was a little hard to spot at first, but the takeout was a nice beach where we gathered our gear to cross over. Usually my plan for longer portages and beginner portageurs is to carry until you want a break, then turn back for canoes, then repeat as necessary. My father grabbed everything he could carry and started walking. When we got to our first planned break he just kept going. We wouldn’t see him again until he got to the end of the 1680m and turned around to help us. The portage is a very pretty trail under the cover of a canopy of foliage. There are some inclines, and some narrow parts, but overall it’s a very easy portage. It has a couple of boardwalks over some marshy areas, and we passed some lumber which suggests they’re adding more. The end of the portage is a little awkward, as it has a narrow boardwalk that juts out into Night Lake, making it a little difficult for more than one person to put in.
After a 600m paddle we were across Night Lake, where we found some flat rocks off to the side to break for lunch. This area was pretty marshy but felt really isolated which the boys agreed was pretty cool. Of course, like the universe heard us talking about it, some other portageurs showed up going the other direction. We saw more people after we crossed over the short 80m trail with a sharp decline into Forest Bay. These guys had caught up to us carrying aluminum canoes over that 1680m, and the young guys we obviously tired, because they decided it would be easier to just chuck them down the incline and let them slide and slam down to the water. I tried to get a mental image of these guys so I would never find myself lending them a canoe.
Forest bay got us back to being surrounded by more red rock cliffs, though a little rounded in this area. With the sky darkening but protected by the wind, we made our way up the 2km into Galeairy lake. Galeairy lake is divided into two areas by a narrow area, with some maps calling the west side Aubrey Lake. There are two island sites on this lake on the west side, and two beach sites on the north. We choose the absolutely fantastic island site in the middle of the lake (the one more to the west seemed pretty boggy). First of all, it was huge, so much so it had some trails running across it. The campsite was a wide open flat rocky area with views in each direction but north, so having the opportunity to watch both the sunrise and sunset. Further up the island rose providing plenty of soft and flat areas for tents. If you do explore there are some small cliffs that offer great views on the other side of the island.
I Thought I Was the Funny One
It was here that I realized my nephew might be having a good time, exploring the island with what – if I didn’t know any better I would call enthusiasm. When I got him to help me put up the critter rope, he asked me why we were doing this if we were on an island. I said for the same reason we’d do it anywhere else, to make it more difficult for animals to steal our food. He looked around emphatically and suggested it was more than a kilometer from shore, and asked how would a bear get over here. “Swim,” I answered, “and besides, it’s only a couple hundred meters from shore”. This amused him so much that he gave me one of those “pshh” sounds teenagers do and said, “Yeah, right. Swimming bears.” I decided not to recount the tale of the Bates Island at this time, instead just telling him that bears can and do, in fact, swim. He laughed. From this point on, the joke was on me in his mind. Anything I might say that might be hard to believe was followed by him saying “Yeah, like swimming bears.” I told you he was funny.
The evening came and went without the rain, but it was becoming very clear that it was imminent. My father and nephew, not fully trusting their tiny little tents created a tarp cover that would cover their two tents. My brother decided to risk it. It began raining as the sun set, and didn’t stop all night and was still raining when we woke. We ate breakfast watching a patch of the sky clear as the rain slowly let up. I took down the critter rope to another “pssh. Swimming bears”.
A Wet Morning (Day 3)
My brother had spent a sleepless night shifting around trying to find the right spot to lie where a drip wouldn’t be hitting in the face. As he packed up, just after tipping the tent over to drain it as one would a swamped canoe, he paused a second and looked over at me and said “I know this might seem a little sarcastic at this specific moment, but I just wanted to thank you for doing this for us. It’s been really fun.” I guess you have to be a brother to understand this, but that right there, standing in the rain was my favourite part of the trip. “Thanks,” I said, “and yeah, without the preface I wouldn’t have believed it.”
Day 3 began with the rain stopped, but dark grey skies to suggest it might not be over. After about 1.5km, we reached our one and only portage of the day: a 100m carry over a dam that separates Galeairy and Rock lakes. From there we traveled west about a kilometer through was is basically a wide river to an obstacle of rocks and old logs left over from the logging industry. Passing it slowly it’s very manageable. Shortly after that, we reach the widening of Rock lake where we saw up close the Rocks that gave the lake it’s name. Completely red, high cliffs line the shore. It’s no wonder there are so many campsites in this area. By this point the sun was showing and brought out all the kids camping in the area. If they weren’t swimming, they were climbing on top of the cliffs, looking – and sounding – like they were having a great time. Considering there wouldn’t be a portage necessary to get out here, this would be a great spot for an over-nighter with the family.
One add-on option for this trip is doing the Booth’s Rock trail, which climbs the mountain on the northeast side of the lake. Another is seeing the ruins of the old Barclay’s estate scattered around below the trail – some of which we passed along the route home.
Back to the takeout was about 5km of paddling, with the skies clearing completely making for a really sunny, warm day. We packed our gear, cleaned ourselves up with the campground’s showers and found a restaurant along highway 60 to have one last meal together. We ate, relaxed and talked. It might be a while before we can do this again.
Nancy made quite a few friends this trip. They all loved her little life jacket and how easily she bounded over the portages. She had a lot of activity on this trip because we stayed in areas where she had a lot of space to roam around when we got to camp. Even being on an island the second night was okay because of it’s size. Because the group split up on the 1680m, she must have run that thing 5 times to keep an eye on us all. Needless to say she slept most of the next 3 days when she got home.
I ordered some really nice green Ethiopian Yirgacheffe Organic coffee beans for the trip from Equator Coffee. They have great stuff, which I often buy roasted at my local alternative grocery store. I also experimented using an aluminum foil pie plate over the fire to roast the beans. It worked very well so long as you keep stirring the beans for an even roast. It’s obviously a great light weight option that I’ve folded up and reused on a couple of trips since.
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