I remember the red squirrels from my first trip to Algonquin. They are a noisy little beast that resent our interrupting their lives. They would waken us each morning with a string of curses in squirrel and shower nuts and bark down on our tents. I liked ‘em. They had a lot of spirit for something so small. And they were fun. This one was no exception and let me know just what he thought of me all the way back to camp.
Once there, I got ready for bed, and lay down reading for a bit before I went to sleep. It was starting to cloud up, so I took extra precautions in making my campsite and protecting everything from rain. I have to admit, it was wonderful to lay there, listening to the wind blow across the island, listening to the waves on the shore all around me…To just lay there and be glad that I was alive. There had been several times this trip that I nearly wasn’t.
Sure enough, I awoke a few hours later to the wind howling angrily through the trees I had tied my tent to. The rain was starting to come down, although not all that hard. I could hear things creaking and crashing all night long. At one point, I heard the tree my food bag was in cracking…and a VERY loud thud. All I could think of was that the bear had followed me. I listened VERY closely and was sure I could hear him snuffling about, and ripping into the canvas of my food bag. I again got my knives out, but I wasn’t all that worried. Since he had all my food, he wouldn’t be terribly interested in ME! I lay back down and went to sleep – a very fitful sleep at that.
The next morning I woke up to clear blue skies. I rolled out of my tent, shaking the sleep from my mind and went to look at what food I had left. And there, hanging above me and a ways down the trail, was my food bag. Laying on the ground next to the tree it was hung in was a VERY large branch. No bear. Just the wind and my imagination!
Laughing at my own fears, I waved good morning to my red squirrel neighbor and fixed breakfast. I wanted to get a VERY early start in order to get out of the straits before the water got rough. It’s amazing what a good breakfast and bright sunshine can do to erase a bad night’s sleep. Ooops…I think I slept a bit too long. It was almost 11AM! I broke my camp in record time and said good bye to my still irritated neighbor (probably scandalized that I slept in so long!) by about noon. I really don’t think he was sad to see me go…If he had been nicer, I would’ve given him a ride to the mainland. How DID he get way out here anyway?
Since I had missed my early morning window, the straits were again a nightmare. However, I really didn’t relish staying an entire day on that island. One of my faults is that I can get driven chasing after imaginary goals. This was one of those times. If I had any sense at all, I would have stayed on the island and rested up, leaving in the evening and making camp later in the night. Instead, I pushed off into the waves and the current. This is the sort of stupidity that kills people. In fact, the next day I would find a memorial at a spot where two people had died making stupid decisions like that.
I got lucky this time though. I caught a breeze that helped to blow me through the straits and kept the waves breaking across my stern. It was still a lot of work, fighting the cross currents, but in general it was an easy crossing. I started following the eastern shore of the North Arm of Lake Opeongo, enjoying the woods, and the day. I explored a few spots, looking for a nice camping spot. I was still very tired from the earlier day’s battle with the straits, and it was already early evening.
After a couple of hours, I found a really nice campsite about halfway up the lake. It was on a small bulge on the shore and was well sheltered with large trees. I hopped out and set up camp, watching the clouds with a wary eye; It looked like it was going to be another rough night. I made my dinner and took a short walk further in to the woods. I was still jumpy from my encounter with the bear, so I didn’t enjoy it as much as I otherwise would have – It’s amazing what happens when you allow irrational fears to gain control of your mind. Still, I was at a beautiful campsite, I had a nice fire and a good supper inside me. I sat down and wrote in my journal for a little while and then walked along the shore and watched the sun set, listening to the waves breaking over the rocks. What a beautiful way to spend an evening!!!
Well rested, I awoke the next morning very early. I got out my binoculars and scanned the far shore of the lake. I could see the portage that I wanted to take to Proulx Lake. The morning was very clear and the sun was just peaking up over the hills behind me. There was nothing even remotely not-nice about the day. But there was something not right. It had rained each of the last two nights, but that wasn’t it. I was pretty well rested up, so that wasn’t it. And then I put my finger on it. I was scared. I was tired of fighting for my life every day. I didn’t feel much like pushing on towards Proulx Lake. I wanted to head for home. The weather was getting somewhat worse anyway.
Again, I was rationalizing (that means making something sound like it makes sense even when it doesn’t!) the situation. I had made a bunch of bad decisions and now I was whining to myself about them. The bear was bad luck, but certainly no scarier than I had made it out to be. He hadn’t bothered ME at all – only I had bothered myself with my own inner fears and insecurities. The two trips through the straits were my choice – clearly a bad choice since I knew I was headed into rough water by myself. But that’s the way of things – when you start making bad choices, you usually keep right on going until something goes wrong. And I made another bad choice. I decided to head for home. After all, the weather was getting bad! Truly a pathetic reason. Who cares about the rain? I’ve been wet before. My gear was all waterproof. The worst that would happen would be that my clothes would get wet. The reality was that I was scared, and wanted to get someplace safe!
So, I broke camp and headed back down Lake Opeongo. I hugged the same shore that I had camped on, trying to sneak through the straits. I saw all the critters waking up for their days. At one point, I stopped and watched an Osprey looking for breakfast and took a few shots. In fact, I was the first person to verify that the Osprey’s had come back to the park! The rangers were very happy when I told them about that. It was a beautiful morning. By the time I had come to the point where I wanted to cross the lake I was most of the way out of the straits. I thought. In fact, it was merely one more stupid decision. Looking at my map, it is quite plain that I was crossing right through the worst part – the middle. I swung my bow away from the little bay I was exploring and pushed out into the middle of the lake. It started out easy. Within ten minutes I was getting slammed in every direction. The wind would lift the bow up and swing me broadside to the waves, waves would roll the canoe onto its side, so low that I would ship water, currents would suddenly spin the canoe the other direction. Once again, I was working as hard as I could to stay alive. I stopped briefly to put on my life-jacket, and felt the canoe lurch sickeningly over. I began to dig again as hard as I could, trying desperately to make some headway.
I was really doing fairly well. Despite the battering my canoe was taking, I was keeping a fairly straight course and making progress. I was about ¾ of the way to the other side when I dug hard up the side of a wave, and watched the bow dip down the other side, and keep going down. It dove straight into the trough between the two waves, and under the water. I remember watching with horror as my canoe drove itself under the oncoming wave and thinking "That’s it. I’m dead." And half a second later when the bow broke through the wave and I watched the water sluice down the gunwales of my boat and off the sides I actually laughed with relief. I suddenly realized why your Grandpa Bud had taught me to load a canoe so that all of your gear is in the bow, and covered with a poncho. It not only keeps the bow down, but in the event that the bow does go through a wave, it makes a break-water that forces it out of the canoe, rather than into it.
With renewed energy, I continued to paddle for the far shore. I dove the boat through a few more waves on the way there, but I was no longer worried. I knew that as long as I was quick, I would break on through to the other side. After another forty minutes or so, I was truly out of the straits. I rounded the large point on the Western shore and began looking for a nice place to have lunch. There were some thunder clouds starting to build up, but in general the day was still gorgeous. I beached my canoe at an empty spot and made a couple of sandwiches and had some Gatorade and jerky. There’s nothing like fearing for your life to make your meal taste great! Shortly, I headed out again. It was here that I passed a plaque mounted up high in the cliff wall. It was memorializing two people who drowned in the straits. That was a definite wake up call!
After thinking about some of the stupid decisions I had made this trip, I continued on. There was a small lake – Marmot Lake that I wanted to explore. I beached the canoe and hiked the 335m to the lake. It was gorgeous. It was obvious that no one had been here in ages. Like the little waterfall pond on my first trip, this place was just totally peaceful and full of life. I thought about getting my canoe and gear and bringing it in to explore further, but then I decided I didn’t want to disturb the creatures who lived here any further. I turned and headed back to my boat.
I stopped and explored a couple more times on my journey down the lake. Since I had gotten such an early start, I was making excellent time. The wind was at my back – from the North or Northwest most of the time, so it was easy paddling. But I finally made it back to the store. I put out, and packed my gear in my car and went to return my canoe. The man at the docks was wondering why I was headed out so soon, so I pointed to the heavy weather brewing overhead, and told him about the bear. He laughed when I told him how big it was, so when I pulled the canoe out of the water, I showed him the claw marks in the Kevlar. He laughed even louder at that and apologized for not believing me. He said that they’d never had a canoe come back with claw marks in it before. Then he gave me a free Coke for my troubles. Canadians are like that. Just nice, friendly people all around.
So, once again I got
in my car and drove home early. On the way out of the park, I stopped at
the museum They had a stuffed black bear on display (this bear had died
a few winters earlier of natural causes). The people next to me were Oooh-ing
and Ahhh-ing at how large it was. I laughed. It was a normal sized female
bear, about 175 lbs.. Ah well, it was better, in the long run, for me to
have seen the bear that I saw. He has helped me to come to terms with my
own insecurities and internal fears and taught me a lot of lessons about
myself. And that’s why I keep going on these insane trips!