‘Twas a very long drive from Ellicott City to the Econolodge in Huntsville, Ontario where we crashed for the night.
The forecast as we drove east on Rt 60 to The Portage Store was 100% chance of rain all day and most of the night, with high winds. Not ideal weather for anything outside, much less a long paddle with 4 of the 6 of us having rarely even been in a canoe before. As we loaded the 3 canoes on Smoke Lake with everything we needed for the next 7 days it started to pour. We were prepared, with three tarps swaddling our gear we expected it all to stay relatively dry. As we gobbled down last-second pastries reality set in. No one was super-excited to head out onto the lake for a miles long paddle almost due South, heading sideways to the Easterly wind and rain. This was to be the last picture for a long time.
The wind picked up as we paddled, coming hard from our left as we crossed. Driving rain kept visibility low. The first mile was a huge struggle. We were all getting blown into shore. Boats were getting turned around. It rained so hard we had to bail our boats. We just kept at it, no one quit or complained, and in time we got through most of the open water and into the lee of the Western shoreline. Loons were everywhere, calling and feeding- but we weren’t paying much attention.
After several hours of paddling we arrived at the portage to Ragged Lake soaked to the bone. Nick was getting cold. We unloaded all our gear next to two other groups of paddlers. It took three trips back and forth to get the boats and all our gear carried up and over the muddy, rocky ridge. The rain had turned the trail into a stream. The climbing warmed us up, but now everything was soaked. We packed it all back in the boats and started paddling again, hoping it wouldn’t take too long to find an open campsite. The first two sites were empty, but completely flooded. It was still raining hard. We kept looking.
The main camping area of the third site was flooded also, but we sidestepped the puddles and a trail took us on a short hike to an older abandoned site nearby. Thankfully it had a few dry spots and lots of trees to tie our tarps to. We quickly unloaded our gear and carried what we needed to the site. It seemed to take forever to get the first tarp set up. Cold fingers struggled to tie and untie knots. It was getting darker and we all were getting colder. We stuck with it, and soon enough we had a 12’x12’ refuge from the rain. We all huddled under and it felt amazing to finally be out of the constant downpour.
We pitched the 4-man tent under the tarp, discovering as we did that we lacked the rainfly poles and tent pegs. We strung extra rope lines to substitute for the missing poles and luckily we had some extra tent pegs picked up on the last day of the trip. We moved the tent out from under the tarp to the driest spot we could find. We pitched another tarp on top of the tent as an extra layer of rain protection, then in went all the boys and their sleeping bags. They changed into dry clothes and got into sleeping bags where they warmed up quickly as we pitched the second tent and made a quick dinner out of a huge can of dehydrated chili mac and cheese. It wasn’t a big hit, but it warmed us all up and returned some normalcy to the day. Still it rained and rained. We hadn’t had ten seconds without wind and rain the whole day.
We gathered the dirty dishes, pitched the second tent, and talked about setting up bear bags or whether we should just go to bed. We were exhausted. But as the sun started to set the rain suddenly stopped- though it was hard to tell because of the wind blowing water out of the wet pines. All of a sudden out of the gloom the sun threatened to come out. We called the boys out of the tent and we all ran out from under the trees to the rocky point we were camped on. Loons were calling all over the lake- the soundtrack of the trip. On both horizons was a stunning rainbow! Oddly, the rainbow was only on the horizons- not up in the sky. It was weird and beautiful, almost too good to be true. We were so tired and wiped out that none of us bothered to go back to camp to grab a camera. We watched the sun set and then piled our soggy selves into our sleeping bags.
I awoke the next morning to the sound of splashing water. I thought there must be a moose or otters in the water, but on unzipping the tent it was a group of about 20 loons not 50’ from our tents chasing fish in the shallows. I took a blurry video and then went out to take a few photos.
The views were stunning in all directions. Wildflowers were blooming everywhere.
Then, out came the sun for real!
But we had miles to go, and a new campsite to find. We packed up our wet gear, loaded the boats and paddled out. The day warmed up quickly, and it was a fun paddle across Ragged Lake towards the ‘Devil’s Staircase.’
As we neared the portage, lilies were blooming everywhere. They were beautiful and smelled like some kind of sophisticated perfume.
Soon enough we arrived at the portage, where several others were also making the 600m climb that turned out to be very aptly named. This was not easy, and it took us a long time to get all our boats and gear carried and re-loaded. Thank God we had spent a few extra $ and got the lighter Kevlar boats!
Once all our gear was re-loaded, onward we paddled looking for a place to rest and relax for the next three days.
The way it works in Algonquin is that you book a site on a lake. Each lake has from 1-24 campsites on it- first come, first served. The best sites are taken first, so each day it’s a bit of a scramble to find a great spot. As we paddled Big Porcupine Lake looking for a site a group of Girl Scouts- who portaged in one trip like pro’s- tried to race past us looking for a site. We weren’t having a bit of that. We hauled ass out in front of them and beat them to a great site on the North side of the middle (of three) big parts of the lake. Not sure how much pride should be taken in out-paddling Girl Scouts, but out in the wilderness it’s every person for themselves!
We settled into what turned out to be an awesome site. We had a beautiful view to the south from our fire/cooking area looking over Big Porcupine Lake. The breezes kept the bugs to a minimum. For most of our trip, the only biting bugs were mosquitoes and they were only bad in the hour or so around dark.
As cool as it was we mostly wore long pants and long sleeves after dark so it was fine.
To our north was a small cove noteworthy for the waterfall that poured right through a massive rock. We set out to explore right away as soon as camp was set up. We’d never seen anything like it. The whole time we stayed in camp we could hear water running down the rock face.
Sunset from the campsite was beautiful!
We settled into camp quickly. The traditions started. Hot chocolate and a campfire every morning and evening. The relentless pursuit of the chipmunks that ate all of Tucker’s trail mix. Every small tree close to camp was cut down and carved into a walking stick. Chores were assigned: cook, camp cleaner, fire keeper, dishwasher. The weather was great, lows in the low 50’s, highs in the 70’s. Mostly cloudy but only passing showers that never got in the way of anything we wanted to do.
Our first day after setting up camp we paddled Mud Creek, a small tributary on the west side of the lake. We wound in our boats all over the low marshes looking for whatever. Soon after the creek narrowed we saw them- Purple Pitcher plants (Sarracenia purpurea)! They were all over the creek. In the water was another “meat”eating plant- bladderwort. Then, further along in the bog, Sundew plants too. Very unexpected and completely amazing.
On the second day we paddled to the end of Big Porcupine lake and pushed forward to Little Coon Lake. We were looking for a trail to an observation tower that was on our map. We never found the trail, but we found a long private beach covered with sundew plants and some of the clearest lake water we’d ever seen. We ate lunch on the beach and just soaked in the views.
Nearby Tucker, Nick and Luke found some high rocks to jump off of.
Too soon it was time to break camp and paddle to our last stop- Parkside Bay on Ragged Lake. Everyone we’d bumped into had raved about how nice the area was. Now it was our turn. We packed up and headed out, back down the Devil’s Staircase and off to the West. We were all better paddlers at this point, but tired and it was a long paddle. The second campsite heading into Parkside Bay was open, so we grabbed it. While the boys ran around we paddled out to the main bay to look at the other sites, but they all seemed to be occupied. It didn’t matter though, our site had a private beach, massive rocks perfect for sitting, and an amazing view of the sky to the West. Up went the tarp and tents and again we settled in to catching chipmunks, carving sticks, and making hot chocolate.
A storm blew in overnight while we slept. Thunder and lightning were intense and no one slept through it. Tucker’s hammock/tent was rocked by the wind so much that it fell down in the middle of the night during the worst of the rain. He struggled in the darkness to set it back up, but managed to make it work. We had set the tents up well though, and we and our gear stayed dry and safe. The sun came up in the morning and cut the cold but the wind howled all day. Very few boats came by, and those that did were struggling mightily. Pinned down into camp by the wind, we soaked up the sun and the boys labored greatly to catch a chipmunk.
Our last night in camp we drank our hot chocolate and sat around the fire asking “go-around questions.” Bed time was approaching. I looked up above the fire and said to everyone that I saw a star. Drew said he could see several. We all headed out to the point to see what we could see. Out on the rocks, looking up, we were blown away by the number of visible stars. The Milky Way stretched from horizon to horizon. Constellations stuck out plainly, some stars glowed with a crazy intensity. A shooting star shot across the sky! We all laid down together on the rocks, looking up. We saw shooting stars one after another- Luke counted 7. Everyone saw at least 4. It was astonishing, after 5 nights without a clear sky we had hit the jackpot on our last night!
The wind was blowing hard, and it was going to be a cold night. We all wandered the short walk back to camp and bed. We tucked the little ones in, then walking to the upper tent and hammock we saw the clouds go crazy. They were glowing yellow and morphing to the east, opposite the sunset. We watched what Tucker called the “crazy werewolf sky” until the clouds parted and the moon rose- perfectly framing a gigantic pine tree. It was surreal and unexpected. Tucker decided that was a sign. He decided right there that sleeping alone in his hammock was a bad idea. This night he was going into the tent with the other boys. Drew and Nick were sound asleep, and had to be dragged to one side to make room.
The next morning brought more wind. We packed up camp quickly, now much lighter than when we had started our trip. We started the 6 mile paddle back to the Portage Store, easily trekking the short portage from Ragged Lake to Smoke Lake.
All told we ended up paddling at least 28 miles!
We lucked out with the rain, and we didn’t have a drop the whole paddle back. Smoke was a long, long paddle- sideways to the wind once again. But we had all figured out canoe steering by now and it was just a matter of keeping with it. Eventually we made it! Tired but happy and awake, we carried our boats back to the Portage Store and we loaded the van and headed to Niagara Falls and our first real bed in a week.