Smoke Lake-Parkside Bay Loop

August 22-24, 2015     by Dan Minkin


One can forget how lucky we are to live in a part of the world where the unending web of Canadian Shield canoe routes spills out over the land from just beyond our doorstep .. an easy retreat for multiple occasions every year. My older cousin Sandy, born and raised in Mexico and now based in Israel with a family of her own, had been on a canoe trip but once before. It was actually before I was born, with my dad, during a trip to Canada to visit him. For the last several years, she had been expressing her desire to repeat the experience with her own kids. She finally had the opportunity while visiting us in August with her 18-year-old daughter Noga and 11-year-old son Uri. Her husband and oldest son weren't on this trip and would have to make do with photos until next time.

My dad asked me to put a beginner-level trip together, and I opted for two nights on Parkside Bay, which is a section of Ragged Lake that's treated as separate for campsite allocation purposes. I was a little apprehensive about such a well-used area of the park being crowded on a mid-August weekend. However, I figured this destination would offer an easy loop route, representative Algonquin Park scenery, accessible summer fishing, and access to Highway 60 amenities before the start. The "group of seven" for this trip would be the three Israeli visitors plus my dad, my brother Alex, my partner Caleigh and me.

Our route

Day 1:

We woke up Saturday morning in the Kearney Lake campground. The previous morning, my retired father had driven the Israelis up to the park to deal with the outfitter, buy some last-minute supplies and go for a hike on one of the Highway 60 trails. Caleigh, Alex and I had driven up to the park after work and had met them in the campground. I'd figured that with such a large group and age range, leaving the morning of the trip and counting on an early and efficient drive wouldn't be a wise bet.

We drove the two cars to the Smoke Lake access point, with mine stopping first at Canoe Lake for the permits. We had one 3-seat and two 2-seat canoes delivered to Smoke Lake by Algonquin Bound Outfitters. Starting off down Smoke Lake, an OPP boat approached us and asked to see our bailer kits and PFDs. "Thanks for wearing them," shouted an OPP officer to those who had their PFDs on. "Wish we had a prize for that. We don't."

We reached the portage at the south end of Smoke Lake, crossed over to Ragged Lake in one trip, and stopped for a snack at the Ragged Lake landing beside the dam. Another canoe was heading out onto Ragged Lake when we arrived, but I found the traffic a lot thinner than I had worried about. Still, I was concerned that with Parkside Bay almost fully booked for the night and the night before, we wouldn't have much choice of campsites.

Our convoy worked its way along the curvy route through Ragged Lake. The kids were quickly becoming comfortable in the canoe, with Uri standing up to show off. Although the park doesn't seem to make very clear where "Parkside Bay" begins for campsite allocation purposes, I had figured out that it's more than the round lagoon at the western extreme of the lake; it encompasses the arm of the lake that extends northwest from Crown Bay, excluding the site on the mouth of Crown Bay itself. As we passed the first site beyond Crown Bay, I saw a couple of people launching a canoe from it, but there were no tents set up. I called out and asked if they were camping there or leaving or what. They replied that they'd just stopped by for lunch, the site was free, and that it was nicer than the other one or two Parkside sites that were still available; based on that recommendation we grabbed it.

Ragged Lake - Noga and Alex paddling, Uri taking a break

It turned out to be a deceptively good campsite .. not one of those dramatic points that begs you to camp there, but with a lot counting in its favour. It was spacious and reasonably level, with a small gravel beach for easy landing and a shoreline boulder for sitting on and swimming from. And with no other campsite in sight, it had a lot more seclusion than I was expecting to find on an almost-full Parkside Bay. The only downside was that the shoreline bolder faced southeast, so it didn't get sun in late afternoon.

Swimming off the campsite rocks

As soon as we had set up and had eaten lunch, the kids wanted to learn how to stern-paddle. After a quick lesson from Alex, Uri went for a solo spin. Caleigh also gave her first try at soloing, though not for lack of earlier opportunity.

Uri soloing

Caleigh soloing

Caleigh and I were the only members of the group with fishing licenses. But being under 18, Uri could fish without one under my supervision and sharing my limit. He was also the one person who was very determined to fish. As evening approached, I gave him a quick casting lesson on the campsite rock. Then he, Caleigh and I canoed across the channel to a bay with lily pads and sunken timber.

After a few casts and snags, Uri had a feisty smallmouth bass on his line. He kind of panicked as his rod bent and heaved. He tried to pass it to me. But I refused, and coached him on fighting the fish until I was able to net it. Ragged Lake is one of the few in Algonquin Park where brook trout are still holding out against the introduced smallmouth bass that normally make short work of them. So, keeping what bass you catch makes ecological sense. Back at the campsite, I filleted and fried the bass. The whole group shared it as an appetizer, to a main course of steak on the campfire. Uri would be itching for more fishing for the rest of the trip.

Uri and his catch

Day 2:

I woke up before anyone else and paddled alone into the main body of Parkside Bay. I tried lowering a spoon down to trout depths, but wasn't really there for long enough to expect results. Just nice to be out in the morning mist.

Morning mist

Parkside Bay by dawn

Returning to the campsite, Caleigh had gotten up. We took rods and paddled over to the spot where the bass was caught the evening before. But instead of bass, there were hoards of dinky perch plainly visible, following our tackle around. Most of them weren't biting the plastic grubs we'd meant for bass. I caught and released a couple and we returned to camp.

When everyone was finally up and ready, we went for our big day-trip towards Big Porcupine Lake. I had thought we might explore that lake. however, between our late start and modest pace, we ended up just walking the portage and having a picnic at the Big Porcupine end before returning. Nonetheless, a leisurely paddle through southern Ragged Lake is a nice use of part of a day, with scenery ranging from steep rocky islands to dune-like sandy banks.

Loons and dunes on Ragged Lake

After we returned to the campsite, I had some business to take care of. It had been my plan to make this trip a loop, by returning to Smoke Lake on Day 3 via Claude Lake. However, an advisory had gone up on the park website saying that the pond between Ragged and Claude Lakes was too dry to paddle through. There had been a rain storm in the park since the advisory had been issued, but it hadn't been cancelled and staff at the permit office didn't seem to know the pond's current condition. Since it was only one portage away, the best way to figure it out was to see it for myself. Leaving everyone else at the campsite, Caleigh and I paddled to the portage and walked it without the canoe. We were happy to see a perfectly navigable reflecting pool on the other side. I was less happy to get stung by a hornet on the walk back over the portage to the canoe!

Finding water in the pond

Before going back to the campsite, we spent a few minutes fishing an area of sunken timber near the portage, and Caleigh caught a smallmouth bass, a little smaller than Uri's. We brought it back to the campsite and everyone shared it with packaged Indian curry. I took Uri fishing again that evening, and we saw fish jumping, but none were biting. We agreed we'd try again early the next morning.

Day 3:

Plans to fish in the morning were scuttled by rain. It stopped raining in time to break camp and have breakfast, which was convenient. On the portage to the pond, Caleigh and Uri got two hornet stings each and my dad got one. Taking up the rear I managed to avoid getting stung by bushwhacking around the nest; I've had anaphylactic shock from a hornet sting before, so even though I've become immunized since then, it always makes us nervous. There was a man and his son travelling right behind us who knew about the hornets on the trail, and one of them got stung as well.

We crossed the pond with no water-level-related difficulty. The far shore had a lot of mud between the water and the solid ground but there was still a good spot to land one canoe at a time at the portage.

On the 275-meter portage from the pond to Claude Lake, my cousin asked if it would be so bad if we made two trips, so I said we could try the 1.5 trip technique: taking two thirds of the gear on the first trip, with half the people dropping their load halfway and returning for the remaining things, while the others complete the portage and then go halfway back for the things left at the midpoint. But when everyone had loaded up for their first trip there was already nothing left behind, so I guess my whole family are single-carriers by nature.

We stopped for lunch at the end of the final 840-meter portage to Smoke. The father and son travelling right behind us did this portage in two trips, completing their second one as we were packing up after lunch, and I pointed out to my family that we'd had a leisurely picnic in the time it had taken the those folks to double back. How could I miss an opportunity to stress the superiority of the single carry?

We paddled back to the Smoke Lake access point and headed for home, with stops at Algonquin Bound and Webber's. Everyone was pretty happy with the trip. Noga and Sandy wanted to know what distance we'd covered, and I calculated that it was about a 19 kilometer loop plus a 9 kilometer day trip. And I promised Uri that next time we'd go find some bigger fish.

The home stretch on Smoke Lake, with us going our way and the mergansers going theirs.