Seventeen years. I have waited seventeen years to return to Algonquin Provincial Park in Northeastern Ontario. I was ten years old when my family took a two week canoe trip into the Canadian interior, and I have nothing but wonderful memories of the entire trip; Almost every year since then I have tried to organize a return trip. And almost every year since then, the plans have fallen through. This time though, I took precautions - I included no one but myself! With my vacation time stored up at my job and the time off requested six months early, there should have been no problem.
As the time for my long-awaited vacation drew near, however, problems began to crowd around me like children chasing the Good Humor Man. Drastic personnel shortages would leave our department so understaffed during my absence, supervisors would have to do shift work just to supply a warm body in the office. I was quite adamant though, NOTHING was going to prevent or delay this trip. My noticeable lack of a canoe was remedied in the last week by a friendly neighbor loaning me their 17' aluminum canoe. At 70 lbs dry weight, it was heavy for a single inexperienced (and out of shape) man to portage from lake to lake, but not impossible. Food and gear were given to me as birthday gifts and my roommate Steve gave me a pup tent and waterproof fly. I was set. Strapping my canoe to the roof of my car, my roommate and I drove home from where my friends had it stored. The next evening. I decided to practice carrying the canoe, figuring that a parking lot was a better place to learn how to do this than in the bush. As I slid the canoe over the side of my roof and stood up under the keel, I felt a soft s-qu-is-h, followed closely by several dozen freshly hatched hornets landing on my head, my shoulders, and my arms. Dropping the canoe, I leapt out from under the somewhat puzzled hornets and realizing what was happening a moment too late, tried to catch the 70 pounds of very unbalanced aluminum as it slid towards my sunroof and windshield. I managed to steer the front end away from the glass by sliding it off the side support of the roof and even managed to miss the hood and quarter panel. With a very loud thudCLANNNGGGGG the canoe fell on my leg and thence to the pavement. By now, even more hornets were buzzing about the place, so I rolled the canoe off me and put a large distance between me and the six now very visible hornet's nests.I was getting pissed. The hornets, not too sure of their wings, had all landed in or near the canoe; Since I was wearing combat boots, I wasn't overly worried about my feet. So I began stamping the disgusting little insects out of existence, along with their nests. Eventually, I had killed them all and was able to complete my practice with the canoe. Standing on nice level concrete, it seemed lightweight and easy to manage. I had no worries about how it would handle in the bush. Underconfidence has never been one of my flaws.... Two days later, with my car fully loaded I was ready to go. After giving up an attempt at a nap at 1:00 in the morning. I got in the car and headed for Northern Canada. And after a quick detour to Burger King and the gas station, I was able to actually get on the Highway by 2:00AM. Despite having a canoe strapped to its now scraped up roof, my car still purred along and managed a steady 23 miles per gallon. By 6:00AM, I was at the Customs Station on the Canadian Border. Despite my fears, I was not forced to surrender the potato I had brought along as a joke - expecting to be forced to give it up at the border due to prohibitions against transporting fresh fruits and vegetables. It felt good to be breathing Canadian air, even though my car was getting a little low on gas; Of course Sault Ste. Marie had no open gas stations.
Several hours later, still no gas stations, open or closed. Gas gauge was looking particularly bleak. No one on the CB up here. Not much traffic either. Finally found an open Esso station and pulled in. My gas tank was so empty it echoed when I bumped the nozzle against it. Gas prices seemed not too bad - only 54 cents a liter. As my tank was filling, I washed the windshield and tried to remember how many liters in a gallon. After a few minutes, I glanced at the gas pump and screamed. My bill was over $25.00 and showed no signs of slowing down. The flashing numbers finally stopped at $36.00 or so. As I paid my bill, I found out that there are about 4.6 liters in an Imperial Gallon, making gasoline about $2.50 per gallon...My GOD. The Northern route to Algonquin, which I picked because it was shorter, turned out to be not shorter. There were many construction delays and the speed limit, which never climbed over 90 KPH, dropped to 40 KPH for every house on the road. I began to believe that I would never reach the Park. I'm nearly crushed by a Semi in Sudbury, so I stop for some Coke - my first in a week. I figure it's better to have a little caffeine in my system and arrive alive than be decaffeinated and dead. I had planned on arriving at Algonquin at 10:30 AM. This turns out to be a cruel joke.
Turning down Highway 630 near Eau Clare, I begin the last 19 mile stretch to the Kiosk entry point. This 'Highway' is slightly larger than our driveway and paved about as well as a Little League diamond's first base line. I am driving at about 50 KPH, despite the posted limit of 80 KPH; Even so, at every turn the canoe lurches from side to side. The three cars that pass me going the other way are all doing something near Mach 1. In any case, I survived and arrived at the Kiosk entry on the dot of 1:30 PM. There are HUNDREDS of cars. There are people camping everywhere. THIS is Algonquin? it looks like a KOA with trees!!I drove 500 miles to get away from it all with most of the population of Toronto? *Sigh* At least they won't be canoeing, and NONE of them will have made the first portage to where I'm going. No one else is that insane. As I buy my interior permit I am told that this is the busiest the Rangers have ever seen it. Probably because this weekend is some sort of three day Canadian holiday weekend. They also tell me that this has been one of the driest summers in years, but that it has been raining for the two days prior to my arrival. As I load my gear into the canoe, I notice that although there are lots of clouds and a stiff breeze, the sun is shining and the water looks nice. I'm also pleased to hear people wonder where my bowman is, and even more pleased to see their surprise when I tell them I'm going in solo. Joe Voyageur, don't ya know. I park the car for the ten days, leap into the canoe and paddle off into Kioshkokiwi Lake. I pass several canoes in the first hundred yards and I am beginning to get very depressed when a big Loon pops up about twenty yards from my bow and tremolos. The 17 year old memories this brings back are all it takes to restore my good spirits. With renewed energy, I paddle over to a campsite to check it out, take a picture, and look at the map. My Beef Jerky (1 pound of home made Sirloin Jerky my parents gave me) has been calling to me for hours, so I quickly devour a piece.
As I get back in the canoe to make the short haul to the first portage, the sun goes behind a cloud and the wind picks up. Then, a very long Canadian Northern train thunders by on the nearby tracks. A TRAIN? In Algonquin? I feel about this pretty much what a Catholic would feel to discover a group of Druids practicing in St. Peter's Basilica. I don't have much time to worry about the train as the waves are beginning to toss the canoe around. I have to quarter the wind and go well out of my way to avoid being swamped or capsized. Eventually I make it under the train tracks (?!) and into the Eastern lobe of the lake. A short paddle brings me to the first portage.
The portage looks like a mine field. Hundreds of sharp rocks just barely covered with water, pointy sticks waiting to disembowel my canoe, and a swamp at the end. I finally manage to pull up next to the large rocks that are the starting point of the portage and look up...and up...and up. THIS is a trail?? Oh well, this is the adventure I came looking for. I unload the canoe and haul it onto the slope. I strap on my backpack (it only weighs 65 pounds, but after the hard paddle here, it seems to have gained weight; The paddles, life-jacket, fishing equipment, water, and other gear feel like lead). By now, I haven't eaten in 15 hours and I haven't slept in almost 48. I have the shakes and am losing my temper with all the people I've seen and the very noticeable lack of wildlife.
My first attempt to get the canoe up on my shoulders is a disaster. My pack's frame is several inches too high to fit under the canoe, and I cannot tie a yoke onto the cross members because of it. The gear I have strapped to the canoe makes it weigh just short of a ton and grossly imbalances it. I spend the better part of half an hour trying to rig some method of single_portaging (making the 770 meter trip from Kioshkokiwi to Little Mink Lake in one trip) this stuff before giving up. After a good pant, I repair the broken shoulder strap on my backpack and load it up. By the time I get to Little Mink Lake, I feel physically ill. I begin to get disgusted with myself. Looking around, I realize that this portage-entry makes the one on Kioshkokiwi look paved. Ah well, nothing for it. Some Jerky and Gatorade makes the world look much better. I hike back, stopping to take a photo of the"Dangerous Rapids" I had to portage around. More like damp rocks. They're pretty though.
When I arrive at my canoe, I find three more people and a canoe arriving to start the portage. I tell them that I am still experimenting and to continue ahead. I wait. And wait. And wait. They finally tell me they'll be a while and to go ahead. I shoulder my very unbalanced canoe and start up, only to hear them start immediately after me. Great. I've seen less congestion during Rush Hour. I stop to rest in the middle of the portage, finally allowing them to pass me. Since I hadn't tied the paddles to the crossbars as a yoke, the center thwart is cutting right across my spine. The gear I have strapped to the canoe makes the bow drop down in front of me and nothing will get it to stay high like I want it to; I spend the entire portage staring at the blank silver bottom of the canoe and praying nothing is in the path. After a few miles of walking up this cliff, I finally arrive at my pack on Little Mink and drop the canoe. At least now I'll be able to paddle for a little while. A little while is all Little Mink amounts to. It's just big enough to accommodated the two Beaver I find swimming around. I spend a few minutes watching them and gearing myself up to the undesirable task of carrying all my gear the 400 meters to Mink Lake. Still, the first portage taught me a lot and this one is only half the length of the first one. It can't be as bad....Can it? Well, yes, it can. However, since I have given up on the 1-trip ideal, life is much easier. I crawl under the canoe and start up the trail. It is mostly a sort of slimy mud heading up a fairly steep slope. Exposed tree roots make the 'stairs' I climb. Surrounded by deep woods and filtered sunshine I begin to feel a lot better despite the climb. Without the gear strapped to it, the canoe fits stern-down the way it is supposed to, and seems much lighter. The center crossbar is still putting too much weight on my spine however. To relieve the pain, I balance the canoe on the top of my head for as long as I can. I'm glad I'm wearing combat boots. The soles dig into the mud and provide good traction and the ankle support has been a real life saver.