This trip was the last one in the busy queue of this Summer’s trips. Sadly, not all of them happened. I didn’t plan to go to this trip. Due to the limited vacation budget I could only afford a couple of the trips, not all of them. My main trip of the season was supposed to be an expedition to the Gates of The Arctic. However, due to some unforeseen circumstances (i.e. leader’s still unhealed arm), the expedition was canceled. Luckily this trip was still empty for some reason – so I signed up for it.
I have never done this kind of trip before. It isn’t that technical. Not even close to the Olympic trip in this regard. However, it still has its own peculiarities. Since it deals a lot with water, close attention had to be payed to waterproofing – dry bags were very important, especially for any down stuff and camera equipment. And of course the weight had to be controlled. Since one doesn’t really have to carry a pack all the time it is not that intuitive. However, having less weight to deal with, whether the pack or the canoe, makes everything a lot easier.
Another part of this activity is portaging – the practice of carrying watercraft or cargo over land to avoid river obstacles, or between two bodies of water. Even thought the park has numerous lakes, rivers, swamps, and some other watery stuff, they are not really connected. Well, they are not connected in such a way that a small two person canoe can pass between them. As a result, once you paddled across some lake and found the portage sign, get your pack, together with your partner put the canoe on your shoulders and carry it to the other end of the portage. The portage can sometimes be quite long and with significant elevation change. The weight of the canoe is also quite important. I was worried about tipping the canoe on the lake so Michael and I gotten this big and heavy thing with well-shaped plastic seats. It didn’t make the portaging easy. The seats were a bit comfortable for paddling, but not for carrying the canoe on the head. Pretty much all canoes had a specially shaped bar in the middle – yoke – that would allowed a single person to carry it. But it was way to heavy for me to carry. We did some research on the most optimal way to portage. It turned out that carrying the packs and the canoe at the same time seemed to work best.
The whole canoeing activity was different from the regular backpacking. In backpacking you just walk, walk, walk all the time. The pack maybe heavy and the terrain may be difficult, but the physical requirements from the body are constant. The caloric use is also much higher. With canoeing you either paddle until your arms and back got tired or portage, which is the same as carrying a very heavy pack. Elevation change is usually quite small. In this case the amount of food needed is lower than for some serious backpacking.
Coming To Ontario Backcountry
Going east on Friday evening with the goal to start early Saturday means either staying one night in Toronto or flying a really bad red eye. Well, I chose the latter due to the shortage of vacation days. So, after some events in LAX, I stumbled into Toronto International Airport a bit after 5AM local time (2AM in California). I just had to do one stop for my flight – in LAX (very energy-efficient). Seriously, it so not worth flying multiple stops. That bit of money saved over the direct flight not worth for all the troubles. I flew from SJC. At the start I either lost or forgot to get the luggage tag. When I came to Canada Air desk in LAX they refused to take the luggage. Said that my bag will be removed, destroyed, burned, whatever. Thus I had to run across LAX to United’s terminal and get the luggage number from the boarding pass. Luckily everything arrived to Toronto well. I was really hoping to use that large plastic bag that some airlines give to backpackers. But United’s version was so thin that it was full of holes at the end – not very useful for water protection.
Michael flew in a bit after me, then Alice. We had to wait for a couple of hours till the rest of the group arrives. In the mean time I checked out the small vintage toy exhibition that was in the airport. It had a nice collection of old Canada mail trucks with emblems of different provinces. I also got a taste of Canadian fast airport food – bagel sandwich with small coffee for about $3. Not bad. The coffee was small size. Actually in US that would be extra small. But it was quite enough and it tasted good. No need to pay a ton of money for a ton of coffee, even if it is Starbucks.
After getting the regular Honda minivan we went on the way. We stopped by V’s dad’s place to say ‘hi’ and leave some valuables there. It would be really sad to loose the passport in the park, no matter to what cause. Speaking about passports, mine always gets stamped – I enter US, I enter Canada, I enter Japan, leave Japan, enter France, leave France. Doesn’t matter. Jenny and Marshall, on the other hand, didn’t get stamped. Jenny was especially unhappy about it. They had these brand new shiny passports which were still empty. Not that I care much, though it is very cool to have all these stamps in the passport. However, it is rather strange that they stamp my passport all the time.
We have reached our destination of the day – Northern Wilderness Outfitters – by mid afternoon. It took some time driving on a foresty gravel road to get to them. However, at the end we were treated to a nice location on the shore of Kawawaymog Lake. I think the original plan was to get trained by the outfitter in canoeing techniques. But this plan didn’t happen. Probably due to the persistent rain (that’s my optimist is speaking here). Instead we were put for the night into one of the tipi cabins right there on the shore with some supply of firewood. Pretty good. The air was fresh with small rain. There some BBQ installations right next tot he cabin so we decided to cook some food on the open fire. Michael, Alice and I went to the nearest town to get food. Interestingly, at least in Ontario, all the liquor sells are controlled by one or two government companies. There is is place called LCBO that sells everything (beer, vine, and spirits). And there is also the appropriately named the beer store that sells beer. It was funny that in LCBO there is actually tasting for alcohol. Same thing as in a regular supermarket – some worker with a bunch of small cups enticing you to taste the latest product. In this case it might be Vodka from Poland, for example. They don’t even check IDs.
So we got some Canadian beers (there was honey beer too, but no one except me wanted to try it and the store was selling only packs. I guess I’ll do it on the next trip), meat, tomatoes, and prepackaged potatoes for dinner. Cooking BBQ under a drizzle was not fun, but manageable – just had to make sure that the local dogs won’t snatch the meat.
Sunday, September 5th, 2010
First day canoeing. The weather seemed great – sunny with some wind. What this really meant we didn’t know yet, but it looked good so far. We were given three heavy canoes and some questionable instructions. No real training how to canoe. In reality there isn’t much to know how to canoe. The problem is how to do it efficiently. I was a bit worried about tipping into the water so I ended up with this heavy monstrosity with curved seats. And we went off on our adventure.
Now, canoeing correctly is a tricky busyness. The person at the back has more control of the boat. The person at front provides power, usually. If the people in the team are a bit mismatched in their physical abilities the canoe will not go very well – either the back one overpowers the front or the front cannot really control the direction. The real professional canoes have their boat going at the straight line. We, being not very professional, were struggling all over the place. The first lake was fine. Then there was a windy river which took quite a bit of skill to navigate without slamming into the banks all the time. At the end of the river right at a small portage I slammed into some dude’s brand new what looked like quite fancy single man canoe. He was definitely not happy.
But that was all easy. After the two short portages we went into North Tea Lake. After lunch we were coming to a place in this lake that sort of forms this narrow passage. With the winds picking up a really nasty local storm was growing. The waves were getting large threatening to pit the canoe. Now I pared up with Michael and he was giving me instructions from the front all the time – go perpendicular to the waves. But perpendicular to the waves was a wrong direction. What to do when we would had to turn? Go parallel to the waves? We were also getting water. Then Viyasan came up and waved us to get to shore so that we can wait out the storm. In reality, we just sort of did a small portage on the shore. Once we passed that narrow section we were shielded from the wind and it was all calm. Then we just crossed this lake, did portage to Manitou Lake and camped there.
There were a lot of people on the water. I suppose it was Canadian Labor Day weekend and also all these lakes were close to the access points. On the last portage we saw this large family coming back – a man, his two kids about 4 or 5 years old, and his mother. All in the same canoe. All doing the portaging (well, the man had to carry the canoe, of course). Nice. He said that they were coming to the park for many years.
At the end of the day it was great – not much wind at all, warm water from all that heat the previous week, not much clouds. We swam in that warm lake, had dinner, and were watching stars after sunset. Space station even did a flyby.
Monday, September 6th, 2010
The rain has come. It was really nice and sunny early in the morning, but then it started drizzling. At the beginning when we were getting ready to set sail there was a group of people coming from Manitou Lake. It was raining on the calm lake. The whole scene looked like the first meeting of native Americans and Europeans. I just not sure who was who there.
Canoeing part this day was easy – the lake was calm and this time I sat in front. In this case I just paddled. It was Michael’s job to stir. At the end I actually liked to sit up front. You can just put all the effort into paddling, rather brainlessly, and observe the surroundings. Plus by this time we have become quite proficient with the canoeing process. Not exactly the pros, but good enough. What we didn’t really encounter before is a long portage. I mean really long – a couple of kilometers. The portage from Manitou Lake to Three Mile Lake was just a bit over 2km with pretty good elevation gain. Now, personally I thought that it would be more efficient to carry backpacks and canoes separate. In this case the speed would be faster since there won’t be a need to carry really heavy load. I was wrong. Despite all the heavy load carrying a canoe and a pack is faster. With a pack you can really put the seat of the canoe on top of the pack. It is much easier to carry this fay, as opposed to trying to fit it on the shoulders. Especially if the seat has this nice curve for the ass.
So it took us more than three hours to finish this portage. By the end of the portage V’s plan to reach Maple Lake was scraped – there wouldn’t be enough time. He seemed to be disappointed by the slowness of the group. He really wanted to go to that Maple Lake claiming that it was very pretty. Maybe it was just some Canadian thing.
We camped on the shore campsite not far from the portage point. The campsite was basically an opening in a very dense forest. It would be quite difficult to camp anywhere besides the designated campsites. Well, I suppose one can do it if really required. Generally, the forest was so thick with vegetation that finding an opening could be challenging. I foraged for some mushrooms around the site. Enough to boil and add some flavor to dinner. There were mushrooms around, but I couldn’t say that there were tons of them despite all the rain. Surprisingly, there were all sorts of different types of mushrooms. I wish I knew more about them so that I can pick more. Otherwise I had to resort to a very limited subset.
Tuesday, September 7th, 2010
Good day. The weather seemed to be getting better. It was nice and sunny in the morning. We started paddling around the Three Mile lake, went up to some really tiny island. Then the weather quickly changed – a thunderstorm was coming. You can just see a really dark cloud floating in. Thunder could be heard too. We had to find a camp site and do it fast. It is generally not a good idea to be on a lake during a thunderstorm because you provide a shorter path for a very high current than anything around you. Thus we quickly canoed to a larger island in the middle of the lake and set up the camp there.
The thunderstorm started pretty much right after the tents were put up. It was dumping rain for about two hours non-stop, with a lot of lightning strikes. Nice. The conditions in the Bay Area are not very good for thunderstorms. As a result I haven’t seen a good one in ten years or so. This rain made all the firewood around wet. Starting a fire would be a challenge. It also scrambled the plans even more, which was sad. We couldn’t go anywhere in the storm, so this day was pretty much over. If the storm passes at some point we could do a bit of canoeing around the lake, but we wouldn’t have any time to go further. Or even if we did have time to go further, we didn’t have time to come back on schedule. That was unfortunate.
And so we waited. The storm mostly passed after a couple of hours. After that we, half-heartedly, set out to explore the lake. There was one spot where the map showed portage and a small creek. Perhaps, the thinking was, we could canoe to a different lake through the creek (the long portage of the previous day was still in memory). We canoed there. The creek turned out to be about 10cm deep – not enough to pass even an empty canoe. It was a bit drizzly so the other two canoes went back to the camp. Michael and I stayed. We were wet anyways from all that rain. And we were rewarded with just gorgeous weather – a bit later the sun came out, there was no wind, the lake was calm as a mirror. We just canoed around the island with our camp enjoying the view. It was so peaceful.
After we got back people were swimming in the lake already. The water was still warm, but already colder than the previous swimming time. It was a bit of a pain to start the fire due to all that wet wood. There was also this strange squirrel who was running in the trees and dropping the tiny cedar cones all the time. I wonder how did he managed to get to this island in the first place.
After dark we saw a huge thunderstorm somewhere in the distance. It was so far that there was no sound of thunder. However lightning was pounding all the time. Hopefully it wouldn’t come our way otherwise we would have to sit on this island another day. All night I could hear wolves howling. I mean, I new that wolves howl, but I have never actually heard the sound. Man, it was so beautiful. According to Wikipedia there are different howls for different occasions. But whatever the wolves were doing that night in Algonquin sure sounded very pretty. (well, maybe it sounded pretty to me, in reality they may be doing something nasty. But let’s remain ignorant and just enjoy the sound)
Wednesday, September 8th, 2010
Just continue canoeing with three middle size portages. By this time the people were pretty well acclimatized to the whole canoeing+backpacking busyness. It is always happens by about this time. The weather was great – cloudy with a small drizzle. Not hot, not cold, and not too wet. By this time we ventured sufficiently far into the park that there were pretty much no people around. We’ve met some group of people on the previous day and we have met one couple this day. They were actually from San Francisco (!).
A bit after lunch we found a reasonable campground at the end of Biggar lake.The weather was still very calm. It was very quiet at the lake. The far end of the lake looked swampy – very promising to see some local wildlife. We were hoping to get a glimpse of moose. Apparently, unlike Anchorage, Ontario moose are very shy. We would have to sit there, in the swamp, for a very long time very quietly before we can see anybody. As a result, we just saw a lonely crane. That was it.
Thursday, September 9th, 2010
This was the last real portaging day. The next day – Friday – would be simple. The main point of this day was to pass through that wind tunnel we were struggling with on Sunday. The problem also was that this time we would be coming against the wind. It was also important to get to the tunnel before lunch since the wind usually picks up in the afternoon.
We did a couple of really small portages, passed through the wind tunnel without a problem and camped on the beach of the large lake. It was all done by lunch. After lunch the advanced group went up to the Sisco Lake. The camp we picked was kind of far away from the outfitter so that there would be enough to do tomorrow, but it was also close enough that we could make it in reasonable time. And it was after the wind tunnel. It was nice canoeing this day. The weather was good. There was none of this physical push. The portages also short so that they won’t wear you out like crazy. At the end of the day we just stayed in that huge campground trying to get the fire going. It was raining off and on all the time. The campground was rather dirty with all sorts of things left by previous campers. I guess the closer you are to the entry point the more inexperienced people come and trash the place. There were many cut down trees also. People were looking for firewood. Strange, I thought Canadians are environmentally conscious people. On the way to Sisco Lake we met a group of dudes. They were complaining that due to all these storms they couldn’t fish, at all. Well, sorry guys we couldn’t really feel your pain since we didn’t come here to fish.
Friday, September 10th, 2010
Coming out day. All we had to do is canoe back t the outfitter. The weather was turning sunny. Damn. The first day was sunny and the last day was sunny. Oh, well. Since we were getting pretty proficient with canoeing part, we did a good time coming back to the border of the park. Initially it was all quiet and deserted. But then closer to the exit there were more and more people. There was one group of what looked like Amish. Not sure who they really were exactly, but they looked the part. There were several older men and some younger guys. During one portage I saw one canoe with a whole bunch of fresh fish hanging from one end. I guess there fishing was fine if you know how to do it.
On the way back we just turned out to a small Pat Lake to full around. There was a beaver damn. And … pretty much nothing else to write about. Michael and Alice were swimming or taking mud bath, it was hard to tell. But this day I was already feeling sick (shoot) so I didn’t do anything. On the way back through the river that goes to Kawawaymog Lake I saw a small beaver. It was about the size of a guinea pig. Finally, some interesting wildlife. The beaver swam a bit and disappeared under water. He seemed very busy doing some construction. I don’t know why he chose this place – it is just high traffic all the time. People won’t give him piece there.
That was it. We returned the canoes. Got to meet the older owner of the Northern Wilderness Outfitters. He came across as a fun fellow. Told us some stories about all the different people who come around Kawawaymog Lake. We finished the left over beer, piled up into the van and drove back towards Toronto. Due to the lack of time we had to skip the drive to the main Algonquin visitor’s center. That was sad. Looking at the map the drive there would be great, right through the park. Instead we headed for the town named Barrie in hopes of finding a cheap place to stay this night and have a group final dinner. Michael found some spot; however, perhaps it was too cheap. There was police in front of this hotel almost all the time. All night I could hear noises, steps, yells from other rooms. Seriously, camping in these luxurious campgrounds was much better. We had dinner in some Thai fusion place (Michael found it also, now using Trip Advisor or Virtual Tourist. Yelp, it seems, isn’t very reliable there).
Saturday, September 11th, 2010
Get up early to make it to the YYZ airport on time. Not for our flights, but to drop off Michael. We stopped by a local Starbucks to get some nice Canadian breakfast (seriously, food gets better the further one is from the US). After Starbucks Michael and Viyasan were trying to find how to open the hood in our Honda Van. 2 Ph.Ds couldn’t solve it. Oh, yeah, I forgot, they are not Engineering PhDs. We did a quick stop at V’s Dad’s place and went out to see Toronto.
Toronto was busy with life. The day was great – sunny and warm – so I suppose Canadians wanted to take advantage of this nice weather as much as possible. There was some procession to support some cancer research. Then there was a long and noisy procession of some Christian Churches. They had flat-bed trucks floating on the street blasting music at above acceptable sound level. The trucks were followed by people with banners and some even enacting scenes from the Bible. At about the same time there was a procession of what seemed like college students on skateboards going on the same street in the opposite direction. A lot of them were wearing white shirts with ties. Not really sure what they were trying to say.
I was trying to find a good city tour like I did in Seattle. However, nothing interesting came up in Toronto that would also fit into our schedule. As a result we were just wondering around the city. Good thing Toronto is small (compared to LA) and flat (compared to SF). So it is perfect for walking.
We visited the CN tower first. It was good to do it in the morning while the crowds are not so large. It was a good spectacle. Especially that glass floor. It was just very difficult to make pictures – either the scenes down below were too bright or everything else inside was too dark. Perhaps it could be done with HDR, but I still don’t know how to do it.
We walked through Toronto’s Chinatown (there are actually two of them, but I don’t know through which one we went). Quite a typical Chinatown. For some reason they are all look the same. Visited UT campus. Very green place. At least in Summer. It probably looks much different in Winter. At this point I had to part with my grout because I had a meeting with my relatives. I was standing on a corner of some very busy what seemed to be upscale shopping street for quite a while watching these processions going back and forth. At some point I got tired and cold and decided to get some coffee. It turned that around this time there was Toronto Film Festival going on and, allegedly, that very Starbucks I went to get coffee from is visited by many celebrities. I was totally ignorant to this fact and didn’t see anyone I knew. Perhaps I wasn’t looking.
Eventually I met my relatives. We went to some Israeli coffee shop and were just talking for a couple of hours. At the end my second uncle (my mom’s cousin) drove me back to V’s place.
Sunday, September 12th, 2010
Basically I spent all day in the airports. I should have booked the tickets earlier in the day. I was thinking that the same thing can be done in Toronto as it was in Seattle where we had about half of Sunday to walk around the beautiful Seattle Downtown and enjoy the cloudy weather. But this plan didn’t really pan out. We had to return the van at 9AM on Sunday otherwise we would have been charged one extra day. I couldn’t really plan anything because of the luggage. Though my backpack became much lighter after the trip it was still quite heavy and bulky. In the old days airports had some storage rooms for the luggage. Now, all I could do is check it in. (It appears that Delta airlines is so stingy that it doesn’t even provide these large plastic bags for the backpacks. On top of this the front desk woman told me to get a suitcase. Hah. I guess I’m not flying Delta any more. Even United provides the bags). On top of this there isn’t much of public transportation from YYZ that I know of. So we were stuck. Poor Alice was in a different terminal altogether.
Well, that was a good experience, as always. And since now I know what needs to be done for this sort of trip I sure can lead one. Perhaps next time I’ll get a lighter canoe, the trip would be longer, and a bit later in the season so that more Fall colors can be seen.