August 25, 2019
Twenty years ago, I spent three nights in Algonquin Park. I was with my friend Anny. Yes, we share the same name with a different spelling. It was Anny and Annie exploring the wild country, with our packs on our backs and innocence in our hearts. We had little experience being out in the wild on our own. We didn’t really know what we were doing and over packed with beer bottles clinking in our backpacks, a $20.00 tent purchased at Walmart. and a map that got incinerated by the rain.
The first night we slept in a swamp and got bit from head to toe by mosquitoes. Night two found us sleeping in a pool of water. We were soaked to the bone. NIght three we crashed from exhaustion.
Those memories are etched in my mind and are in my arsenal of stories to tell around the campfire. I can recall the great big rock that we set our things out to dry on a warm, sunny afternoon. I remember waterfalls, and lakes filled with lily pads. I remember the feeling of friendship as we worked together, as we haplessly navigated the lakes and portages.
Fast forward to this summer and when Jane, suggested that we do the Baron Canyon at Algonquin Park, the same loop that I did with Anny, I replied with an enthusiastic yes!
Day 1- Campsite St. Andrews Lake
This time around we came well equipped. There is nothing like second chances to make things right. We left our cars at squirrel rapids and got shuttled by Algonquin Outfitters to Achray beach.
An hour off schedule we arrived at Achray and finally loaded up the canoes with our gear. The bear barrel was like dead weight. I needed help from both Ann and Karie to put it on my back. It was a monster of a thing and it took all I had to keep my balance and set it in the bottom of the canoe. I wondered, how the hell we were going to portage that thing.
Overhead the sky was a light grey and beyond It was angry. Thunder could be heard in the distance and a great big hiroshima cloud loomed near the opposing shore. We loaded up the canoes and set sail. There was concern that we were going to get caught in the storm, so we paddles with urgency towards the only portage of the day. Three quarters of the way across the lake a rain squall blew straight for us. The great wall of rain crossed the waters with determination and there was nothing to be done about it It was like night and day and hit us like a hammer on a nail. One second we were dry and the next we were getting pelted down with the torrential downpour. The wind tried to push us off course but we stayed strong. The buckets of rain made visibility low and I paddled with one eye shut and the other half open. Ships Ahoy Mate, have no fear Annie Bananie is here, Ann and Jane were about 200 meters away from us. Ann’s red poncho fluttered in the wind like a wild, sail and sure enough Karie and I I found ourselves in fits of giggles. Under the laughter lay fear of being in this body of water, surrounded by lightning.
We finally made it across the lake and into a small winding river the rain abated and things started to feel safe again. We had a short 50m portsge and a forty minute paddle to our first campsite on Lake St. Andrews. As soon as we slid onto shore, we set up camp. It was my night to make supper, so I made the fire. Ann and Jane set up the tents and Karie set up our beds and cleaned up from our meal. We laughed under the full moon, like coyotes howling into the night. I love those full belly laughs.
Day 2 - Campsite High Falls Lake
We had a slow morning of reading, breakfast and chatting. The lack of stress and ease at which we started our day was beautiful. Shortly after lunch, we left camp and headed to high falls, which is a little hidden gem. It is a magical place that many campers come to appreciate. The falls run over a smooth rock that makes for a perfect slide. The water descends into two lagoons and feeds into a bigger waterfall that runs into High Falls Lake.
Back at camp things felt cold and damp and I hadn’t pictured myself swimming, until I got there and the beauty of it swept me away. My bathing suit was snug as a bug in my wet bag, still at camp. so my only option was to swim in my fleece pants and t-shirt. Ann and I slid down the rock and swam the two pools that led to the edge of the waterfall. Karie sun bathed on a rock like a happy lizard and Jane sat back taking it all in. I felt it, that excitement of being on an adventure and stepping out of my box. It’s that feeling of being alive and grateful for the world around me.
Mid-afternoon, we were back to paddling. Two portages were between us and our second night’s sleep. We had to make our way to High Falls Lake. Ann was the first to carry a canoe by herself. I was amazed that she was doing it and was like: “I can do that too!” After trying it, I realized that carrying the canoe alone was easier than carrying it with another person. When I carried it alone, I felt in control of it’s weight on my shoulders. I could raise the front, tip in such a way that gave me better visibility of the rocky, tree rooted hiking path. In no time we figured out our strategy. Two people would help set the canoe on the carrier’s shoulders. To soften the weight, we put Karie’s sweater between our bony shoulders and the groves of the bar. We soon found out that one had to be cautious. While going down hills the back of the canoe would hit the rocks behind us, and a gust of wind could make the canoe into a sail and send you in different directions. In those instances, we stood strong and grippped the canoe for dear life, in hopes that it wasn’t going to fly off, or break your back. As the trail wove in and out of trees, we had to calculate our moves. Karie got stuck between two trees and had to backtrack a few steps and maneuver around them. We felt so kick ass and empowered!.
We saw some people portaging their gear in perfect efficiency. They arrived at the portage, grabbed all their gear and walked to the end of the trail, loaded backup and set sail. Not us, we established our own sense of efficiency and went back and forth two,three, sometimes four times.
Jane was our cartographer and great navigator. I was grateful for her suggestions and sense of direction in where we needed to be and go. That night we discussed our options to paddle to the canyon. Jane explained that we had two options. Option one was the 750m from High Falls to Ooze Lake, followed by the 400m to the canyon. Option two was the Cascades route where 7 smaller portages would guide us down the Cascades waterfall. Option 2 had more portages compared to option one that had fewer portages but more steps. After a little deliberation, we decided on the Cascades route. I was excited because that was the same route that Anny and I had done all those ages ago. I was excited and also a litte daunted on how we were going to portage all our gear through all those portages! That bear barrel was a sore in our backs.
We’d read that High Falls Lake wasn’t much of anything, but we loved it’s rugged beauty. It had little flat rock islands, that made perfect hang out spots. Other than our neighbour Jo from Cornwall, we felt alone in the wilderness. As the sun lowered in the horizon we settled onto a flat rock island , soaking in the heat of the day. We took some time to do our own thing. I had a tension headache, it happens everytime I carry heavy loads on my shoulders. Thank goodness that Jo our neighbour had Tylenol. That night, I ate supper and went immediately to bed. I was bone tired and a little punch drunk
Day 3 - The Cascades + Barron Canyon
Day three, we knew that we had a big day ahead of us. We ate an early breakfast packed up and set to paddling to our first 100 meter portage. We set forth with a positive attitude and agreed, that we had to do, what we had to do. We crossed High Falls lake and found two portage signs one went to ooze lake, and the other to the cascades. We were at a crossroads and did not waver in our decision to portage the Cascades. Ooze lake seemed like it was the route most traveled and I am the kind of person, who like to take “the road Less traveled”.
Our first 100 meter portage was a rocky one. The path was dotted with great, big, round boulders. You really had to watch your step. Jane fell back while carrying a pack on her back and one on her front. The fall gave her a big contusion on her right shin. It immediately blew up into swelling and bruising. The weight of the bags held her down and there was no one around to help her up. She figured it out alone, stood up, set a bag down and continued on her journey. I was a little ways behind her carrying the canoe on my back, and when I saw her leg, I was concerned, I silently wondered if she had broken her leg. I didnt’ want to voice my thoughts and raise panic. Not long after that, Karie fell on her wrists, Ann hurt her leg and I got a small bloody gash on my right calf. These injuries in a short period of time at the beginning of our portage day made us realize that this trip had danger attached to it. We discussed, what a rescue would look like. We had no cell service and we felt pretty much alone on our path at that point. That is one thing about being on a path less trodden, you sometimes feel alone. We figured that if someone got hurt, one person would stay behind with the injured party and the other two would go find help.
Every portage brought us into a different path, with a different perspective from the last. There was the boulder portage as mentioned above where it lead us to a small little body of water, we literally paddled but a 100 meters before arriving to the next portage, which had a small waterfall and was about 450 meters. I guess this is why this route was called the cascades. We slowly made our way down, like the Ottawa locks. We did more taking things out of canoes and walking and transporting things and putting them back in canoes than paddling. There were some steep climbs and descents. About ¾ of the way through we found ourselves tired and stopped for our burrito lunch. Desert was peanut butter and nutella sandwiches, yum! It all tasted so good after working so hard. Food always tastes better when camping. There is something about the fresh air and the simplicity of living, the back to basics. When lunch was finished our bodies seized up. Karie felt in her knees and ankles, Ann in her hips, Jane’s leg was pounding with the swelling and I felt in my shoulders. The bones on our shoulders were bruised from the weight of carrying the canoes. We groaned as we got up and put on our positive faces and moved forward.
As I often do, while I am out in the world, I thought of my dad. A couple of days before heading into Algonquin, my mom called saying that my dad was in the hospial. He has not been well for years now with strokes and a damaged hip. Finally his legs have given out and they can no longer support his weight. My brother Facetimed while visiting him and when I told my dad that I was going to Algonquin Park his face lit up. He was an avid hunter/fisherman and spent many nights in surviving in the woods There are photos of him holding fish along a string, with a bright orange hat, overalls and a big smile on his face. He grew up in a family of fishermen and hunters. They believed that moose, deer, fish, caribou is a gift from God to keep us fed and healthy. So when in the bush, I feel like I am living part of my legacy. That the woods are part of my DNA. My adventures are often done with spirit for my dad. I love you dad!
Soon the portages became, but something of the past and we found ourselves paddling a beautiful stream with high banks on either side. A heron stood in tall reads, it’s long neck stretched to the sky and yellow beak pointing forward. The dusty, grey hue of his feathers and long legs had us mesmerized . As we approached it flew further along the canyon. It did this three times, and it was as though it was our guide, showing us the way. It was magical. All of our hard work paid off as we paddled through this mini oasis of trees, and bendy, waterways. Each bend brought more sensations of gratitude than the next. In time, high banks turned rockier and higher and eventually into a corridor of rock walls, towering above, framing the clouded, blue sky. We paddled with gentle strokes, experiencing our surroundings in silence.
That night, we slept in the canyon. We stayed up late, talking about all things women; motherhood, body image, school, our jobs, and relationships. This is what I love about hanging out with other women. It supports me and reminds me that I am not alone. As I age, I am realizing that one of the most important things for me in life is to connect. To connect with others, myself and nature. The next morning came to quickly and our paddle back to our cars easy. We all agreed that it was a great trip.
I left my women friends and drove to visit my dad and mom. As I drove the three hours from Pembroke to North Bay, I scratched a small itch on my back. A few days later it flared up into full blown poison ivy. Wherever, I go there are lessons to learn. On this trip, I learnt that I can carry a canoe on my own and to not pee in the woods with poison ivy.