*During lower water conditions, the second 320m portage will have to be used.
It Goes Up
I was half way over what is supposed to be the toughest portage in central or southern Ontario – named “The Golden Staircase” – when I came upon Albert sitting on a log on the side of the trail. He is the most hard-core guy I know, always pushing his body to the limit with all the cycling he does as well as on the portage. We call him the “Portaging Robot”, so I was a little surprised to see him there resting, even though a swarm of black flies surrounded him. “How are you doing?” I asked. “Good. Just taking a break,” he replied. He had come back for a canoe as we were leap-frogging the gear up the trail, while I had caught up to him after I grabbed the last load. The hill ahead was steep, after another just like it. Hoping for good news I asked him, “What’s it like after we get past this big incline here.”
“It goes up.”
“No, I mean after it goes up.”
“It goes up.”
I didn’t make much sense at the time, but sure enough after I got up that hill, the trail twisted a bit, then … well, went up. That is why it’s called the Golden Staircase. Why “Golden”? I have no idea. What I do know is that they don’t name the easy portages.
Normally we portage to get to a place we want to go – figure out how to get there including which portages we’ll need to cross. This time it was the portage that was the focus of the trip, so we were kind of working backwards in a way. I’ve read that there are several alternative options for getting closer to the portage, but everyone in the group decided that this trip should be like any other, the same general distance, otherwise we really wouldn’t be true to the experience. So we decided to start the trip at the Algonquin Access point #14 at Livingstone Lake, travel over the portage and as far in as we could in a day. Strangely, this access point is a 17km paddle through crown land and cottages before you even enter Algonquin park, where you cross the Dividing Lake reserve then into the park. The first problem is that there aren’t many campsites until around 15km mark in Rockaway Lake – and they are unmaintained and unable to be reserved. So the plan was to book a campsite in Dividing Lake hoping to be able to get there, but if we couldn’t make it we were hoping one of the Rockaway sites was available. The second problem was that there wasn’t a proven way back around in a loop, so we would have to return the way we came. We were not only going to see if we could carry over the Golden Staircase, but also again the next day.
The Trip Begins
We stayed at the Tea Lake Campground in Algonquin the night before the trip so that we could get a quick start from a distant access point. From the campground it was a 15 minute drive down highway 60 to Algonquin Outfitters to pick up our canoes, then about 25 minutes down highway 35 to Tower Hill Marine to pick up the permits. From there it’s still another 40 minutes to the put-in on Livingstone Lake. The put in is a small dirt parking lot with enough room for three cars if parked close together.
I may mention this a couple of times, but our timing – the May 2-4 weekend – was probably the worst for this trip. We got quite a reminder of this while we frantically packed up the canoes while fending off swarms of black flies eager to feed. It was unusually warm and sunny, so things started off quite well once we got onto the water and away from the bugs.
Even when canoeing with friends, often I still find myself paddling by myself because of the odd number of the group. The biggest problem with this is trying to keep up with everyone. This winter I got a chance to see a demo of a Pack Canoe at the outdoor show. Basically, with this style, you sit on the bottom of the canoe, allowing you to use a kayak paddle. When the man said that it allows you to keep up with a tandem canoe, I figured I had to try it. Also, this would be the best weekend to try it considering the effort required by the portage on this trip. I’ll write more about this in another post, but while I found it taking some getting used to (I don’t kayak), I was able to keep up pretty well with the other canoe. It was also ridiculously light.
So the trip was going great. We reached the 320m portage from Livingstone and crossed over without issue on what is basically a gravel path that gives cottagers access to Bear Lake. Again I thought our timing was great as there were no motored boats of any kind on the lake, I happily pointed out the spot where I had decided to turn back on my previous trip. Even better than that was the fact that the water levels were high, meaning we could forgo the second 320m portage from Bear into Kimball through a small creek. There were a few shallow areas with lots of rocks painted by canoes, but for the most part it was easy going. What great timing indeed.
The Golden Staircase
Crossing Kimball we had lots of sun and a slight breeze on our backs, and in no time at all we had reached what we came here for: The 2745m Golden Staircase portage that would take us to Rockaway. We had been told that there was a chance to reduce the length of the portage somewhat by travelling up Kimball creek a bit, again only when water levels were high enough. How lucky were we to have chosen this time of year. The water was definitely high enough. Unfortunately after lifting over the fifth beaver dam, and with no indication that we were getting anywhere close to the portage, in fact the opposite it seemed, we cut our losses and turned back. Maybe the water was too high?
So we made our way back to the start of the portage, begrudgingly convincing ourselves that it would be better to say that we did the whole portage as advertised. The take-out was on a nice long beach that is shared with a lodge further down, (I should get their number and stay there the next time,) where we sat and ate our lunch ready for our task at hand. The black flies by this point had caught up to us, and decided to dine as well. Once we had enough we packed up and set out, but like that chatty guy on the bus, the black flies were conveniently going to the same place as we were, and decided to keep us company.
This isn’t so bad
As it turns out, the section that you supposedly would have by-passed through Kimball Creek, was a pretty easy section. It’s an ATV trail, and we had arrived to hear people chainsawing the path clear for our journey. Unfortunately, at about the 700m mark, the ATV trail veers to the right and over a bridge while the portage trail shrinks and gets much worse. In fact, always stay to the left (North) as there will be a few choices along the way. We all had the same thought up to this point: This wasn’t so bad. There were a few boggy mud pits to cross over but otherwise not too bad. After the fourth or fifth of these areas I realized that this wasn’t, in fact, the best timing, but rather the worst time of year to have attempted this portage.
We carried over one mud pit after another. When the trail began to rise I was actually relieved at first, assuming that would be the end of the mud and slippery footing. No, the Golden Staircase seems to be such a bad-ass that it defies logic and norms. It seemed the further we went up, the more muck we had to cross. On the rare occasions that it went down, well you know there’s more mud. (Gavin decided to count them on the way back and came up with 23 bogs that needed crossing.) Fun!
Sky High Mud
Everything you counted as a benefit comes back to bite you on a tough portage. High water levels meant lots of mud. The beautiful day turned out to be sweltering heat, and the lack of cottagers and their motor boats meant that we were the only ones the desperate and volumous bugs could snack on.
Did I mention the Golden Staircase goes up? It turns out it got its name for a reason, and it lives up to it big time. For long stretches, the trail goes up on an angle similar to stairs, with slim trenches to navigate over roots and rocks like, well, stairs. From the lowest point you’ll climb almost 380ft, most of it on the last kilometer. Each step I took with all the gear on my back, I was reminded of all the times during the winter that I could have gone to the gym but didn’t. This was the first real trip of the year, and wasn’t quite at my peak condition to say the least. In fact, I was probably carrying a few extra pounds from the lazy winter. Another reason this trip was so improperly timed.
Unfortunately, with the wet, loose ground, Albert tweaked his ankle. This was a problem for a few reasons. Obviously for him, it meant a painful trip for the rest of the trail. But for Gavin and I, it could mean much more extra work if he couldn’t carry anything. Thankfully, the ankle wasn’t broken or even twisted, so Albert could go on, but we lightened our loads and would leap-frog the gear for the final third of the trip. The other problem was that it was much farther to go back than to finish the portage. I kept watching for signs that Albert was in pain, or that he was working too hard, but he soldiered through, insisting he was alright. Just in case however, Gavin and I secretly decided that even though we had two more (much smaller) portages after this one, we would simply tell Albert that we had reached Dividing Lake instead of just being on Rockaway.
With about 400m remaining, the trail once again splits, and unfortunately you must stay left again. I say that because when I got there I didn’t know which way to go, and the right appeared to be flat, if not going slightly down. I knew I was nearing the end, so wishful thinking set in and I assumed that this trail was down to the water. More to the point, I had also assumed the water was just around the corner. No, The Golden Staircase wants to play with your head one last time, teasing you. I managed to walk another 200m down the wrong trail before I called out to Gavin, who was surely at the put-in by now, to make sure I was going the right way. I cursed when I heard his voice coming from above instead of in front of me.
The Trail Ends – finally
A few minutes later I saw the absolutely most beautiful sight a tired portageur can see: Water. I was so glad that I didn’t even complain that The Golden Staircase had given us one last obstacle in the form of a 45 degree drop to get to the put-in – but that was a good one Mr. Staircase, you got us. Nevertheless, we managed to get a bit of rest before taking off again. Tired as we were, the bugs made staying put unpleasant.
There are two official campsites on Rockaway, and both of them are on the far end of the lake, a good 3.5 kilometers to the first one. Of course there’s also the option of crossing over 965m to Minkey, then another 105m to Dividing lake where you’ll officially be in the boundaries of Algonquin Park. We were in no shape to continue past Rockaway, unfortunately. We set up camp at the first site we found after a paddle across the lake. Rockaway is a very pretty lake, and extremely undisturbed considering being outside the park. It is surrounded by crown land, with the east portion bordering the Dividing Lake Nature Reserve, protected by its remote location. There are a couple of privately owned islands on the lake, one in particular had its owners fly in by plane just as we were paddling through. Why didn’t we think of that?
Once we set up camp, got a fire going and begun to prepare and eat our dinners, we experienced the moment that makes us enjoy what we do, and why we seek out these places. We sat around the fire and recounted the day, with all its hardships, laughing out loud at the obstacles in our path. We each told stories from our perspectives, acting out exaggerated expressions, showed our injuries and counting off the bug bites. It was great. I like to think we were giddy with pride, though I suppose you could argue it was delirium, but we did it. For that moment The Golden Staircase might as well have been climbing Everest, or even reaching the North Pole. We sat and joked and complained, breathed in the fresh air and gazed at the crystal clear waters. We had earned it, and it was all the better because of it. If you’ve done it, you know what I mean, and if you haven’t, you really must try it. I suddenly felt sorry for the group that flew down here by plane. It was just some lake to them.
We were early to bed and early to rise, hoping to get out before the rains came that the weatherman had predicted. Even with dark clouds above us our spirits were pretty high knowing that today was going to be much easier. Every hill we had to climb yesterday was going downhill today, and after a short paddle to The Golden Staircase, the trip took much less time, and much less out of us. It’s still a good distance, but we made it back without much fuss. At the trail end, we met up with guy from the lodge beside the portage, who suggested we deserved a medal for our efforts. There’s no better feeling than random validation from a stranger.
It rained a bit on the paddle back, but it was a great relief from the heat of the previous day. Having done the route the day before the trip was pretty much the same and with a much easier go on the portage it went by quickly and without issue. We got back to the Livingstone Lake take-out, packed up and went looking for a restaurant that would serve up a nice big, well deserved meal, and give us a chance to talk a bit more about what we had done.
This would be a very different post if Nancy had written it. This might have been one of her favourite trips – all trails and a few tired dudes that needed motivation and herding. Not a squirrel was safe from Kimball to Rockaway. And who doesn’t like to show off a bit? If she had one complaint it would be that the rest of the group was always lagging behind.
Some more information if you’re planning this trip: First, go later in the year. Sure you may have an extra portage if the water levels are low, but you’ll want to do the Golden Staircase with less mud, solid ground and fewer bugs. You will have enough on your hands. Because of these factors, we really couldn’t take our time and enjoy the scenery, which makes dealing with a portage much, much nicer – and you may even be able to make it all the way to Dividing Lake. On that note, there are only two official campsites, and they’re on Rockaway. You may find a few spots that might work, but often they’ll be on private land or on the Nature Reserve. One island, Aubrey on Kimball Lake, used to be the traditional stay-over before crossing the Golden Staircase, but it’s privately owned, and sadly been trashed over the years. Finally, make sure to park at the put-in on Livingstone because while it’s tempting to drive up the road to the Livingstone Lodge, it’s private property and I’ve been told never to park there – several times by several people – as the owners take great offence (and a little action if rumours are true).
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