The following is a guest post from Bob Van Hise, an avid camper, paddler and outdoorsman.
Ranger Robert and Capt. Morgan go Camping – July 2015
My thoughts and journal entries during a 4-day solo canoe adventure in Canada’s Algonquin Park.
With a few days off in early July, I decided to head north on another solo canoe trip in Ontario. My plan was to do a 4 night, 5 day paddle trip in Algonquin Provincial Park, beginning on big Lake Opeongo, then north to Big Crow Lake, continue east down the Crow River to beautiful Lake Lavielle, and looping back to Opeongo via Dickson Lake and a 3 mile portage. (EDIT: I finally did that route in May 2016)
DAY ONE – WEDNESDAY – 20 MILES BY CANOE TO THE RANGER CABIN
… Arrived in Algonquin Park and had breakfast Wednesday morning at the Lake of Two Rivers camp store, then headed to the Lake Opeongo store and the registration desk. On the way there, I saw & photographed a beautiful, healthy-looking moose as it crossed Highway 60 in the park, and I also saw a whitetail deer on Opeongo Road. When I checked in with my travel plan, I learned that my prime destination, Lake Lavielle, was experiencing an algae bloom. Because it hadn’t yet been determined whether the water was safe for drinking, camping on the lake was not allowed. This was my second attempt at that lake, the first try was thwarted by low water levels in the Crow River 3 years ago.
I thought about my options, and asked if the Big Crow Lake ranger cabin was available that night. It was, and I opted to book that accommodation for 3 nights. I had packed minimally, intending to do several miles of carries on that loop trip, culminating in the 3 mile long Dickson-Bonfield portage that I had done twice on a previous trip. Since I would now have only a relatively easy 1 kilometer carry on my altered route, I drove out of the park to the nearby town of Whitney to purchase more supplies, such as hearty beef stew, coffee crystals, cookies, pretzels, a can of OFF!, and a plastic bottle of good ol’ Captain Morgan spiced rum (I feared that the small bottle of Fireball whiskey that I brought just wouldn’t be enough for 4 days of lounging).
At 11:30AM I launched onto Lake Opeongo into calm wind with minimal waves, and 70-75 degrees F. My estimated travel time to the cabin was 6 hours. Opeongo is the largest lake in the park, so wind and weather conditions are important, dictating whether paddlers can move in a straight line or have to stick close to shore. Luckily, I had only light wind and could take the direct, short way across the big bays on my way north. The park offers a water taxi service (a fast boat that can carry canoes, gear, and passengers) for paddlers who can’t, or don’t want to labor 10+ miles to the farthest ends of the lake. That boat, as well as a few other annoying power boats, disturbed an experience that would otherwise be beautiful and serene. As I paddled through the west narrows, a small island with dead sun-bleached trees looked like the bones of a shipwrecked schooner, leading me into Opeongo’s North Arm.
I reached the extreme north end of the big lake at 2:30PM and began the long carry to Proulx Lake. I carried my pack and duffel up the steep portage trail, negotiating the short, rough trail until it reached the far and of a small pond. I left my gear there and walked back for my canoe. On the final leg, I took the “cart trail that bypasses the steep ridge in favor of paddling across the small pond – a much better way to go! As I paddled the length of that pond, I was escorted by dozens of small, electric blue damselflies. Delightful.
Because of all the mosquitoes, “Off!” was my constant companion. The Big Crow Lake Ranger cabin is about 60 years old, measures 16’ by 20’, with 2 bedrooms, kitchen cabinets, table & chairs, and a wood burning stove. Sounds nice? Only on paper. 62 dollars per night (Canadian) plus tax gets you a very tired, abused cabin, Floor needed painting years ago, bedroom walls are covered with graffiti and carvings, only one chair but I wouldn’t want to sit in it. Luckily the kitchen chairs are outdoor patio chairs so they’re sort of clean. No propane anything, so no stove and no lights. If you go there, bring lanterns, tablecloth, and sheets to cover the wooden bunks. Wednesday evening saw mosquitoes hovering at the screen door and entering when I did. I did find a headlamp in the bedroom.
Brought too many cider packets – an entire box. Too much booze (Fireball and Captain Morgan). Hit the sack around midnight, and woke at 2AM because it was chilly. I closed the windows, even though it meant shutting out the beautiful echoing call of the loon.
DAY 2 – THURSDAY – JUST A WALK IN THE FOREST
Slept late, very late – got up at Noon. Sent a SPOT satellite “OK” signal. Boiled water for coffee and had some concrete-like oatmeal (with a sprinkle of cinnamon). Cloudy bright and warm outside, just a slight breeze off the lake and virtually mosquito free! After diddling around for a few hours, I decided to paddle over to the Crow River and hike the 1 mile trail back to the VIRGIN PINE STAND. Launched my canoe at 4:30… should be back by 7PM.
(MUCH LATER)…I have a philosophy in the outdoors that there’s no such thing as a day hike. I really should heed my own advice. After paddling across Big Crow Lake’s southern bay, I reached the portage trail by 5 o’clock. I left my canoe there and walked the 240 meter portage trail just to see the river at the other end. Once back at my canoe, I paddled across the river to the sign that marks the beginning of the one mile footpath to a stand of giant white pine trees. It took me about 30 minutes to reach the end of the discernible trail, then I walked just a little bit further looking for that special stand of trees.
LOST & ALONE IN THE NORTH WOODS
When I turned to go back I couldn’t find the trail. After several trips back and forth on a short section of trail that didn’t seem to be connected to a main trail, I stopped. It was after 6 PM and I knew I’d only have good light until 9 or so. Since I couldn’t find the trail, I set out on a bushwhack to the river. I carried a small waist pack with my camera, granola bars, bug spray, water, water purifier, a simple first aid kit, head net, handkerchief, and TP. What I didn’t carry in my little bag was a headlamp – that was in my life jacket in my canoe, along with my map, extra clothes, and emergency blanket (I had all the right stuff, just not all in one place). I was wearing a spandex short-sleeved paddling shirt, shorts, and water shoes. Pushing through the trees and brush took a great toll on my legs.
After a very difficult two hours of walking with the Sun at my left, my legs were scratched and bloodied, but I had reached the river directly across from the portage trail! I bushwhacked along the shore through thick brush looking for the hiking path, until I realized that I had emerged from the forest across from the second portage trail, not the first one near my boat.
DOWN THE RIVER WITHOUT A PADDLE (OR A CANOE)
I was nearly a HALF-MILE (or was it KM?) down river from my canoe. After all the effort I expended to reach the river, I couldn’t force myself or my scratched up legs to continue pushing through the painful underbrush. I double bagged my camera (the waterproof case was in my canoe) and waded into the mostly shallow river. I held the little bag above my head like an explorer on Safari, except I didn’t have to worry about crocodiles. The water depths varied from knee deep to chest high, and I stumbled 3 or 4 times on submerged obstacles such as large rocks and logs. When I felt myself falling, I held the pack up high over my head – even when I was in the water up to my ears. Wading is a slow way to travel, but a little faster than bushwhacking. By the time I finally reached the downriver end of the first portage, I was getting tired, but happy to be on a real trail.
ONCE I reached the upstream end of the 240 meter trail I still had to cross the river in a wide marshy bay to retrieve my trusty Kevlar steed that was hitched to a small tree on the shore. I left my little pack by the portage sign and set out across the water toward my canoe (PFD was in my canoe).
At first, the river bottom was deep muck (rhymes with f—) and relatively shallow water. Too mucky to walk in. What worked for me was to float on my stomach while I crawled in the mire with my hands. Once at deep open water, I had to swim – and I’m not a good swimmer. I settled on doing the breaststroke. Part way across, the day’s efforts began to catch up to me. I was exhausted, and a little concerned that I would drown only 50 feet from my canoe. I swam toward a cluster of water lilies and found enough footing to stand and rest in the neck-deep water. I walked and swam the remaining distance to reach my canoe – the highlight of my day! I paddled back to retrieve my small pack and headed up river back to Big Crow Lake and the old cabin, which was looking pretty good by then, even in the rapidly fading light. I stepped out in front of the ranger cabin and checked my watch…it was 10 PM!
Once my boat was stored on shore, I dipped 2 liters of lake water to be purified and carried all my gear up the hill to the cabin. I wiped down my injured legs. Dry clothes, hot water, “Knorr” rice side dish for dinner, and a cup of hot apple cider kept me company while I wrote about the events of my day. It’s good to be dry and indoors! I think I’ll take tomorrow off and just read. And tend to my wounds. 11:50 PM -. Bedtime.
DAY 3 FRIDAY – RECOVERY & REST
Had a difficult time sleeping because of the pain from my scratched up legs. Stayed in bed until 1 PM, a new record! Sunny and warm maybe 75 degrees F with a slight north breeze. Pulled out my small first aid kit. I had packed minimally to save weight, and all but one of my medical cleansing tissues were dried up. I did have a few antibacterial hand wipes and treated my legs with those. I have more supplies in the car if needed tomorrow when I paddle out. Note to self : Replace first aid supplies every year or two.
Breakfast of coffee and oatmeal, less concrete-like today. Took a chair down by the water to have my coffee. Totally quiet except for the wind in the trees and a loon calling in the distance… Tranquility. Seemingly nobody else on the entire lake. I’m alone but I’m safe in my cabin today.
THINKING about my self-rescue…. Although I carry a device that can send a message via satellite that relays an “I’m OK” email message or a 911 call, I had that device in my life jacket in my canoe. Worst case scenario yesterday – if something had happened to me on my little walk in the woods, I wouldn’t have been overdue for 3 more days, except a couple people were expecting to receive twice a day “I’m OK” messages that include my GPS coordinates. I attribute my experience, confidence, and will to survive (or to just find my canoe) to getting me out of yesterday’s predicament of being lost a mile from anywhere. Did I tell you that I love my canoe? I love my canoe! Also, I couldn’t wait to write about my experiences and to see some old friends at my upcoming 45th high school reunion. Of course, there are a couple people in this world that would have missed me, and I wouldn’t want to put them through the turmoil of my demise. The expression, “At least he died doing something he loved”, is bullcrap. I would have succumbed to hypothermia or drowning, neither is a fun way to go. I want to end my days as an old man, even older than I am now, surrounded by loved ones – and spare the Rangers searching for me, and worse, finding my mosquito bitten and scratched up corpse in the swampy marsh. OK, enough of that, I’m going to finish my coffee and read a bit.
Two groups of visitors today. A canoe of 3, including the man I met at the Proulx Lake put in on Wednesday. They are headed down to the Crow River to walk to the BIG PINES! I told them about my adventure yesterday and directed them across the lake to the river. The other visitors were 4 men in two canoes… members of the Canadian Army from Petawawa. They stopped by to walk up to the fire tower about one-half mile behind the cabin on top of the big cliff. It’s flagged with orange tape so you can’t get lost!
An uneventful day for a change. Healing, hydrating, and resting for my 20 mile paddle back to my car tomorrow, followed by a six hour drive back home to western NY.
Two of the group of 4 that stopped by earlier came back just after 8 PM to hike up to the overlook by the tower and get some sunset photos. I decided not to go. Have to rise early tomorrow, and no 12 hours of sleep this time. Alarm set for 5:30 AM.
PS: Captain Morgan and I might have our first campfire of the week on our last night on the lake – that should be uneventful…
DAY 4 SATURDAY – 20 MILES IN THE CANOE
Up early Saturday morning. Capt. Morgan and I did have a campfire, but celebrated a little too much last night. I’m OK now, though. A leisurely 2 hours to eat and have coffee and pack up. On the water by 8:30.
FINAL ENTRY: It took me 7 hours to paddle & portage those 20 miles back to my car… I was tired after 5 hours, and exhausted after 6. My legs didn’t get any better, and on Monday, I was in quite a bit of pain. I’m now taking antibiotics for all of those deep infected cuts. But what a story to tell! – Bob VH
NOTE: I went back to Algonquin in May 2016 on another solo trip, and was able to do the Big Crow-Lavielle-Opeongo loop without incident.
Although Bob is not a “Ranger” (mentioned jokingly in the opening sentence), he is very experienced in camping, kayaking the Great Lakes, hiking, and solo canoe touring. Additionally, in 2015, he became certified as a New York State Licensed Outdoor Guide (non-practicing). Algonquin has been a favorite camping & canoeing destination for him for the past 30 years; He also spends a lot of time in New York’s Adirondack mountains and lake country.