QUALITY CANOE TRIPPING
Most of us have to work to make money for our next adventure into canoe country. No business that expects to remain competitive can escape the necessity to observe the principles of Total Quality (TQ). Why not apply TQ principles to make your canoe trips more enjoyable?
On our organized trips I use protocol to add some levity to the experience. Protocol is a set of ground rules for group behavior. We adopt such rules as "no whining, no losers, and no running with the canoes". The latter rule was humorously applied to my youngest son who took off leaving the rest of the group behind.
These rules of protocol make it very easy for others in the party to lightly put an end to disturbing behavior as well as adding humor to many situations. All of this makes the trip more enjoyable, and that is the reason for tripping.
Past experience indicates that some groups might find it helpful to adopt such rules as "no arguing, no personal attacks, or no water fights". Whenever such behavior is observed the others immediately quote the rule to which all have previously agreed to abide.
Metrics is another useful tool when applied to tripping. This allows everyone to measure the success of the trip. A good time to do this is at the last meal or on the drive home, whenever everyone is together and the memories are still fresh. Each person should rate the trip on a scale of 1 to 10 and tell something that was good and something bad about the trip. Take notes so as not to forget when planning for the next trip.
I was so concerned about packing for one-way portaging in 1992 that I completely overlooked such items as pillows and blankets for use in the car. Experience has also driven home the Boy Scout motto, "Be Prepared", especially with regard to the weather. No matter how comfortable it may seem at the moment, always be prepared for the worst possible conditions. Overlooking this lesson has ruined many trips and cost a few trippers their lives.
Presumably, the Boundary Waters is called a "Wilderness Area" from the perspective that it remains more nearly in its natural state than as is likely to be found around population centers. However, I am inclined to measure wilderness by the distance I am from towns and other people. This is the factor that determines the degree of seclusion and solitude that is found. Distance also determines how quickly help can be obtained in an emergency. All things considered, I would not call Algonquin Provincial Park a wilderness experience. Nevertheless, our trip was one of those outdoor experiences that joined us to nature and drew us together as fellow trippers. This is what gets into our souls and continues to draw us back time after time.
Algonquin Park was chosen for our week long 1992 trip because it offered the natural beauty we seek on outdoor adventures and it was expected to give us opportunities to see moose. The Park is located above Lake Ontario in Ontario, Canada, very near the border with Quebec. It is about the same distance from my home in Baltimore, Maryland, as it is from my partner's home in Dayton, Ohio. The relatively short drive also made the park attractive to us.
I began planning for this trip 10 months before it was to take place. The first itinerary would have taken us down the East side of the Park on the Petawawa River. This trip was scrubbed because of the long shuttle and the demanding schedule for scouting and carrying possibly 38 portages. Instead, I chose to take a circular route through a series of nine lakes and arrive back at our starting point. Although I am a river man at heart, this latter plan offered a much more relaxing trip. (Route Map)
Trip planning requires careful consideration of departure times, distance and arrival times. You can't very well plan to leave in the morning, drive 11 hours, and camp the same evening unless you stay in an established campground. Such a schedule also takes an entire day out of your available time that could be better spent in the solitude of the outdoors. We chose to leave on a Friday evening after dinner and take turns driving through the night. This allowed us to arrive early on Saturday without being overly fatigued. We could then get on the water and cover some distance before locating a good campsite that afternoon.
The five of us arrived at Launch Point #5 at 6:30 AM, 30 minutes later than planned. Part of the delay was due to a moose we saw shortly after entering the park. It was our first sighting and everybody saw it except Steven, who was sleeping in the back of the station wagon. I decided to turn around and go back for Steve's benefit. I pulled over as far as I could to execute a U-turn. Suddenly the loose gravel gave way and the wheels of the car and trailer slid over the edge. We got out and surveyed the situation. Another driver stopped with his pick-up truck. Unable to find his tow chain, we unhooked the trailer and pushed the two vehicles out by hand, one at a time. By the time we got back the moose was gone.
There were no signs along the road to help us find Launch Point #5 but we were able to identify it by the name of the lake on which it is located. My partner Ed was driving alone from Dayton, Ohio, and wasn't there when we arrived. We waited on the main road to be sure he didn't miss us. By 7:30 we were really getting concerned that he may have met with car trouble or an accident. Incidently, it is wise to make arrangements with a third party who can be contacted in the event such a problem should arise. While we waited, a hummingbird fed from the wildflowers not far from the car. We tried to sleep but the sound of approaching cars kept drawing our eyes back to the highway.
I was just starting the engine to find a phone and call Ed's home when his car came over the hill. Having arrived well before daylight, he slept in the car waiting for us to arrive. He awoke around 7:00 and couldn't understand why we weren't there. Finally, he double checked his position and found he had been misdirected to the wrong access point. Fortunately he wasn't far away.
We stopped at the Ranger's office to check on our reservation. The Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) limits the number of parties entering at any point, so advance reservations are very wise. We paid our camping fees, got our fishing licenses, and gave descriptions of our canoes and camping gear to the rangers. They use this information to locate campers in the park should an emergency arise at home. Be sure to give the phone number of the ranger's office to a family member before leaving home, especially if you plan to be away for a few days.
According to plan, we ate breakfast in the restaurant at the launch point. This launch point is very well equipped and had a complete outfitter as well as a store with a stock of camping supplies.
We unloaded our gear and canoes from the trailer and began to ready up for the launch. This was a crucial point in our planning because it was the first time we had all the gear together in the same place. I planned carrefully for making single carry portages. We arranged everything on the back of the parking lot so we could pick it all up and walk to the water without going back. This was for our own satisfaction as well as trying to impress onlookers into thinking we knew what we were doing. Arranging for single trip portages, "oners" I suppose you could call them, was new to us. I had come to realize how important this is for long portages after my last trip to Red Lake, Ontario, where we made 3 trips for each portage. (See Red Lake Story on this site). I had been mislead into thinking weight was not a factor in canoe camping. Inspired the article by Michael Furtman in the Spring 1991 Boundary Waters Journal, I began preparing for this trip. The key features outlined by Mr. Furtman was to have each person carry a pack; the one with the light pack carrying the canoe. In our arrangement, the person with the heavier pack also carried two five gallon plastic buckets containing the food. These lightweight containers are the type with watertight snap-on lids in which professional painters receive paint. (I have since converted them to screw-on lids). They offer excellent protection from water and they keep the food (bread, crackers, cookies, etc.) from being crushed. They also make excellent seats in camp, one for each person. The major drawback is having to move bodies to find food items. Each canoe is then loaded with two packs and two buckets. The fishing gear is lashed-in. This arrangement gives plenty of room, a low center of gravity, and allows us to portage in less time than some parties having no gear at all.
We launched on schedule and began paddling up Canoe Lake toward the first portage. I was paddling with my friend Ed in his new Mad River Explorer. Two of my sons were paddling their Shenendoah. Dan is the youngest at 18. Steven is 25. They are both accomplished paddlers, having command of bow rudders, sweeps and cross draws. It is a good thing Ed and I were in the Mad River because we would not have been able to keep up with the younger guys if they were in this faster boat. The third boat in our group was a Shenendoah Hawksbill with two friends from the Baltimore area, Ray and his son John. John is about the same age as Steven. Neither Ray nor John had more than a few hours experience in a canoe and it took them a little while to adjust to a down river boat without a keel. This means we used more energy maintaining a straight course. They also weigh in at 75 pounds and are not the best for portaging.
The weather this Saturday morning in mid August was overcast and threatening to rain. By the time we reached the 295 meter portage the weather was making good on its threat. We handled this portage well and continued up through a series of interconnected lakes for another 5 miles before we decided it was time to find a campsite. It was a good thing we didn't delay any longer. By the time we erected the dining fly the rain really began coming down earnestly.
We played musical chairs retrieving snacks from the buckets and waited for the rain to stop before setting up the tents. We were camped on Little Doe Lake just short of Tom Thompson Lake. The rangers and several passing paddlers warned us of a rogue bear on Tom Thompson who was raiding campsites with impunity toward humans. Bears are a risk anywhere in the park, so we hung our food buckets before settling into our dry tents for the evening. Although it continued to rain throughout the night, we all remained comfortable.
The next morning everything was water soaked and the humidity was not going to let them dry out. The younger men elected to go over to Burnt Island Lake and fish for Rock Bass. Ed and I decided to paddle more than 6 miles back to the starting point and pick up a few additional supplies. Thirteen miles of paddling for some fuel and forks didn't make a lot a sense, but we drove all that way to go canoeing, what difference did it make what direction we were paddling?
Our trip really paid off. About two miles from the camp we spotted a female moose feeding in the water. We began paddling quietly toward her with cameras ready. At the same time a motorboat was approaching from the other direction. (Boats with small motors are permitted in this part of the park). We managed to signal the approaching boaters to cut the engine by the time the moose decided to make her exit. We got within 40 yards for some good pictures before we noticing her two calves standing by the edge of the woods. This sighting made the whole 13 mile paddle worthwhile.
From the water on Canoe Lake we could see a large totem pole high on a hill. The map indicated this was the Tom Thompson Memorial. On our return trip we climbed the hill to find out more about this guy, Tom Thompson. From a plaque inset in rock, we read where Tom Thompson was an early explorer and artist from the area who drowned on Canoe Lake during a storm. This would prove to be the source of some campsite stories in the days that followed. It started when we arrived back at camp and told the others what we had done. They where not impressed with the information we proffered and refused to ask us for details.
When we returned to camp we found it had been raided by some not very wildlife. A family of chipmunks occupied this camp and scurried about looking for food. They were so tame that we could feed them nuts from our hands. One chipper was bolder than the other. If you bent down, held out your hand, and made a kissing sound he would hurry over to inspect your hand. I could stroke his back with my finger before he realized my feigned act of benevolence and ran for cover. At one point John coaxed him onto his shoe and up to the top of his sock to reach the extended nut.
Apparently the chippers had been casing our supply house. They found where a container of trail mix was left outside the food buckets. While we were away they chewed through the paper tube and made off with about a half pound of cashews and M&M's. I am sure the M&M's were not good for them and must have caused some serious gastrointestinal distress in their little nesting spot. I was surprised that they very carefully left all the raisins behind, presumably so we would not be entirely destitute of our food supplies. The food supply was not helped by the fishermaen returning from Burnt Island Lake, either.
The summer of 1992 was very cool in the Northern United States but we found the first two nights to be mild. We awoke in the morning to a cloudy day, but the rain appeared to be over. We packed the canoes and headed for the big portage that would take us from Tom Thompson Lake into McIntosh Lake. We met a party at the landing that was celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary by taking a trip with their grandson. We admired their light weight cedar paddles and Kevlar tripper made by Wenona, while they admired our dry bags.
After starting out up the hill carrying 50 Kgs of canoe and backpack, I really began to covet their 20 Kg Wenona tripper. I took it slow and steady as I compared the distance and fatigue levels from my practice carries around home. I never believe the published distance on a portage. I was sure I walked half of the 2320 meters when I put the canoe down, about 500 meters later. Our map didn't show the topography that took us up and down hills and across swamps. Fortunately, this remote area didn't prohibit wooden planks from being placed across the swampy areas.
The trail was well used and tree roots were raised up to catch a foot and yank it out from under you. The rocks under the thin layer of soil protruded, making footing precarious. The wet rocks were very slippery as Steven soon learned. His feet went out from under him and the 36 Kg canoe came crashing down, pinning him to the ground. Two others came to his rescue, lifting the canoe up over his head and setting it back on his shoulders. Onward he proceeded for one more step on the side of the rock and down he went for a second time. We all took a rest while I admonished Steven not to walk on the side of wet rocks. We also had to remind Steven of our protocol that called for "no whining".
The last 100 meters of the portage proceeded down a steep staircase prepared with logs. We ate lunch at the launch point while several other groups coming from north of us landed and headed out in the direction from which we had come. The usual information was exchanged about bears, campsites, fishing, where you have been, where you are going, and how long you have been out. We met one threesome from Germany that was spending the summer in America. They were more eager to talk to us than some of the French Canadians who appeared not to understand our language.
We launched into a small body of dark water understandably named Ink Lake. The Ph reading was 5.4. The water entering the lake comes from the forest floor where it soaks into the pine needles giving it the dark color. Ink Lake flowed into McIntosh Lake through a very narrow stream laden with water lillies and obstructed by several low beaver dams. We managed to run the dams at full speed but sometimes had to step out to lift the canoe over the dam. It was 1:00 P.M. when we entered McIntosh Lake. The sun was breaking through and a breeze was blowing from the west. Within a few minutes we spotted a bull moose feeding along the shore. We paddled over and collected a few pictures before proceeding north across the lake. I think McIntosh Lake was the prettiest of all the lakes we saw. It was populated with small islands occupied by tall windswept white pines. Our friends taking their anniversary trip picked the most attractive camp on the lake. They were on a point of land reaching out into the lake with one of those small islands just offshore. They had already pitched their tents and were fishing as we passed by.
We had decided to take a detour into Timberwolf Lake and find a campsite for the night. We would then fish our way down a part of the Petawawa River and camp the following night on Big Trout Lake. However, a thundercloud forced us to reconsider this plan. Since we were close to shore the storm did not threaten our safety, but we didn't want to be caught with our tents down. We decided to put into a pleasant campsite where we could be prepared for bad weather and spend a leisurely afternoon taking showers or fishing.
This was a pretty campsite that offered good protection from the direction of the weather. We had plenty of time to set up camp before the rain came. Kermit was clinging to the line on the dining fly. Kermit is a stuffed replica of Kermit the Frog of Muppets fame. Kermit has been our regular trip mascot since being rescued from my neighbors trash 5 years ago. While Kermit enjoyed hanging onto the "fly" line, we heated water and took showers.
The rain came about 4:00 in the afternoon. It rained really hard for about 45 minutes. The little tent used by John and his father took in some water between the floor and the ground cloth. We spent time ditching around the tent but we were not content with the arrangement. After considerable discussion, Ed came up with the solution. We dried the plastic ground cloth with our canoe sponges and put it inside the tent. The tent walls kept the edges up on the ground cloth, preventing the water from reaching the contents. Although it wasn't needed the rest of the trip, it gave peace of mind to all of us.
After dinner we spent the rest of the evening enjoying the sunset and talking around the campfire. The moon came up full provding a backdrop for the outline of our tent. It seemed to be a good night for the spirit of Tom Thompson to rise up out of the lake. Not knowing anything about the Tom Thompson story, we invented scenarios where Ol' Tom rose up out of the lake to warn us about the hazards of foul weather canoeing. We took turns adding details to his appearance and proposing sage advice from his apparition.
The next morning was cool, breezy and clear. I was really getting concerned about our progress. In three days we traveled 12 miles. We had 4 days to travel the next 40 miles. At the present rate we would be 24 miles from our cars when we should be leaving for home. We decided to abandon the detour through Timberwolf Lake and head straight for a campsite on Big Trout Lake. The breeze was to our backs as we headed out for the portage into McIntosh Creek connecting with Big Trout Lake. We passed several other parties coming from the opposite direction. The upper part of the creek has two portages. The first is 510 meters and the second is 745 meters. They were both pleasant except for the heavy traffic at the second launch point. Unfortunately, some paddlers are not considerate enough to move their boats away from the landing or to wait for the loading and launching to be completed before attempting to land. This wasn't wilderness, this was more like gridlock on the beltway. To make matters worse, Ed left his hat at a resting spot along the trail. Someone going the other direction carried it back to the beginning of the portage. It was good when we finally broke free of the crowd and found a quiet place on the water for lunch. The sun was bright and comfortable. The sky was a cloudless blue, and the water lillies added green to the sky reflecting off of the water.
The trip up Trout Lake was very enjoyable. We were surprised to find many of the campsites occupied by midday. A rock cliff loomed over our heads along the right shore. On our left the map showed the location of the McLachlin Brother's supply store that operated in the early 1900's. From our distance it looked like a lot of activity over there but we didn't want to take the time to go over and check it out. We paddled steadily to make camp on Big Trout Lake.
The wind was blowing hard by the time we reached the big lake. The first few campsites were either taken or they were small and located in dense woods. We paddled east about one-half mile and located an island covered with hemlock. We landed at the windward campsite and explored the island. It had another campsite at the other end, almost in sight of each other. The ground under hemlock trees does not support other vegetation so the area was clear and much like walking on a wall-to-wall carpet. It would have been a perfect spot for a large party that would not be permitted on a single campsite. It had a lot of firewood and there was an area like an amphitheater where a large group could gather around a campfire for fellowship and singing. We picked the campsite on the lee side of the island and had to fight the wind and the waves to launch and move around to the other side. After unloading the canoes we pulled them up the steep bank, turned one over, and blocked it up for a cooking table. A quick look around the island found no cover for a bear. The West end of the island had a high bluff that looked out over the lake to the wooded horizon. We returned to this spot after setting up camp and eating the evening meal to watch the sun set. What a joy it is to observe the beauty of God's creation away from the hustle and bustle of the city life. It is a way to come closer to the creation as well as the Creator.
Arriving at Big Trout Lake two days later than scheduled did not allow much time to explore the area as we had planned. Although we had just finished one good day of paddling, we didn't know what was in store the next few days. It was thought best to continue on to a campsite within a days paddle of the finish. This would allow us some latitude if the weather turned bad. Besides, we hoped to try some bass fishing on Burnt Island Lake.
The weather remained excellent Wednesday morning as we left the island on Big Trout Lake. It was about a one hour paddle to our portage into Otterslide Creek and we found navigation to be difficult on the big lake. It is hard to distinguish features of the shoreline shown by the map until you get close. By then you can be far off course. We found where Otterslide creek flowed into Big Trout, dropping about 100 feet over the rocks. We carried up the hill and launched into the narrow, shallow stream. We encountered several beaver dams and a few short, muddy portages. The canoes had to be lined through a rock garden at one point. Again, we ate lunch on the water in an area that opened out into a small pond.
We were getting used to portaging by this time. I managed to make a 730 meter portage with pack and canoe in a single carry. I was exhilarated as I put the canoe down on the ground, the first to complete the portage. I sat down and waited for the others to arrive. Through some strange circumstances Daniel ended up behind me. It was because of him that we made the rule "No Running with Canoes." Two years earlier he needed help getting the canoe over his head. Now he was likely to run off with the canoe and leave the rest of us behind. As I watched him approach I saw his foot catch on a tree root and he went down with the canoe. I asked if he wanted help as he lay there under the load. When he didn't crawl out on his own, I strolled over and hoisted the canoe up for him to stand and finish the carry. This adaquately demonstrated the rule of "no apologies".
When we reached Otterslide Lake we began looking for campsites. We were surprised to find only the small less inviting sights were left even though it was early afternoon. Others must have found these campsites uninviting too because they showed little use. We had scant choice but to hike the 750 meter portage into Burnt Island Lake that afternoon. We found a beautiful spot with abundant firewood and picked this as the place to spend our last two nights.
With the dry weather and a supply of wood I had begun cooking on the open fire. This is preferable when cooking for 6 people because it allows use of the griddle. We had steaming hot pancakes two days in a row. I make up my own syrup mix using 1 part brown sugar, 1 part white sugar and a teaspoon of maple extract. To this I add a third part of water and heat almost to a boil. Not everybody is as frugal as I am with the syrup and we ran out. We tore open several dozen sugar packets and added water to extend the supply of syrup. (Pumping water)
As we moved around the area in search of firewood we saw overturned rocks and torn-up tree stumps. We recognized this as bear activity, although not too recent. Our concern about a night time carnivorous visitor grew as we discussed the possibility. The three young men in our party began to make plans. First, anybody getting up during the night was required to talk or whistle, making his identity known to all others. Being a U.S. Army veteran, Steven insisted on a challenge and password. The challenge was "full moon" and the password was "le roar". I wasn't sure this password was too well chosen considering that bears is this area might understand French.
In further preparations the younger men decided to organize a night watch. This idea foundered when they couldn't get a volunteer for the second watch. All of us made arrangements about where to put flashlights, whistles, and lock-back knives. The planning and talking inspired grandiose fantasies about lassoing the bear, hog tieing him and delivering him to the MNR. The younger men even went so far as to cut small dead pines and trim all the limbs from the thin trunk. They cut it to about 4 feet length and sharpened one end. These "bear poles" would allegedly be used to prod any marauder that refused to leave camp. Fortunately, the bear never visited camp. I am not sure to whose good fortune, ours or the bear's. I must admit that both parties would have been challenged during a confrontation.
Friday was a gorgeous day. The lake looked perfect for fishing. It had a rocky bottom and clear water with a Ph of 6.8 (nearly nuetral). The north end of the bay on which we were camped was filled with fallen trees and lily pads. If I were a fish looking for a home I would have thought this lake was a mansion, but there must have been something seriously lacking. After 24 manhours of fishing we never got a bite.
The map showed a stream flowing in from the upper end of the bay. Swallow lake was about 1.5 kilometers up the stream. We set out to see if we could paddle up to swallow lake. As we approached the mouth of the stream a cow moose and her calf crossed the stream right 35 yards in front of us. She was wearing what appeared to be a radio transmitter collar. Although we could not read the number on the collar, we recorded the time and location for reporting to the MNR. I don't suppose they had any way of knowing she had a calf. Where the moose crossed the creek was as far as we could go. There was no water passage to Swallow lake.
We awoke to another beautiful day on Saturday. A light fog hovered over the water. A loon whistled from a few yards off-shore. It was time to break camp for the last time and start out for the 12 mile paddle to the car. The fog burned off quickly and the scenery showed its best to us for our last day. We had three short portages. The breeze was on our backs. What more could we ask for. After executing the last portage, which had been the first portage 6 days earlier, and after passing the Tom Thompson memorial on Canoe Lake, we had the canoe base in sight. We all agreed to reach the landing at the same time as we stroked in unison, all three canoes abreast. This helped to assure the last rule of the trip, "there are no losers".