Opeongo at Last! - August 16-19 and August 27-29, 2006

by Doug Fox

Part One


There were times over the course of the first half of this past year when I wondered if we would trip at all this summer....

It all began just a few days before Christmas, 2005, when what I thought was a case of flu turned out to be a rupturing appendix. The surgeon was able to remove it in time, but not before it started to rupture, leaving me with a nasty post-surgery infection.

While I was home in time for Christmas, it would be many weeks before I would start to regain my health. In the course of an ultrasound a few weeks later, a mass of gallstones was found in my gall bladder, which at least partially explained why my recovery was so slow. Ultimately, in June, my gall bladder joined my appendix in the exodus from my body.

I was not the only one in my family to face challenges over the past nine months. Our oldest son, Taylor, had to cope with the hormonal bombardment that comes with adolescence, as well as a couple of serious bike crashes that set his promising triathlon career back a bit.

Our cocker spaniel, Daphne, also got into the act. She delivered a batch of 5 beautiful puppies at the end of May. All was going well for the first 48 hours, when my wife, Sherry, discovered one was "cold" in the middle of the night, meaning that it wasn’t feeding for some reason, and its life span would be measured in hours, minutes even, unless we intervened. So, hours before I was to go in for my surgery, as Sherry performed CPR, I broke out the formula and baby bottles, beginning a three-week long effort to ultimately successfully rescue the puppy we all came to know as Ridge (he had a distinct ridge line of hair on top of his head), who required feeding about every 3 hours ‘round the clock for the next three weeks.

Then, just to complete the picture in late June, our youngest son, Liam, after having spent a couple of days on the couch with a bad stomach ache, needed his appendix out, as well. The surgeons managed to get it just before it was ready to burst. Like his brother, Liam’s triathlon season was on hold.

Sherry was the only one whose health remained intact during the course of these events, but the stress of keeping things together no doubt took its toll on her.

Eventually, the puppies all grew and flourished, and were sent off to waiting homes. Everyone’s health returned, and luckily, all coincided with the start of summer. Re-reading one of my favourite short stories, Ernest Hemingway's "Big Two-Hearted River", a tale about physical and emotional convalescence set in the wilderness, helped to get me in the right frame of mind.

Day 1 - August 16

One of the lessons we learned from last year's tripping was the need to drastically reduce our weight. Losing my appendix and gall bladder wasn't part of that plan, but we did manage to purchase more lightweight gear. Still, with two growing boys (age 14 and 12), we knew that we weren't going to be able to fit all the necessary gear, humans and dog into our 17' canoe.

Enter Camp Olympia. Set on a tranquil lakeside on Limberlost Rd just outside of Huntsville, Olympia has a well-known and deserved reputation for being one of North America's premier sports camps. Last year, Taylor attended with his school, and Liam took part in the triathlon camp. Both were eager to return. So, while Liam was off at guitar camp (yes, guitar camp, where he mastered Stairway to Heaven), the three of us packed up and headed off for Opeongo.

Camping in the summer can be a mixed blessing. The water and air temperatures are great, but the bugs and site selection can be trying. You also have to share the Lake with all manner of neophytes. On this trip, as we unloaded at the dock, we watched am extended Asian family flotilla paddle off, loaded to the gunwales, with paddling skills which seemed to range from nil to non-existent, and a rented motorboat shuttling a seemingly endless supply of food and cooking utensils (including the biggest copper kettle I've ever seen). After searching all around the South Arm for about an hour longer than we had intended, we found a nice spot on the south side of Squaw Bay. The only drawback was the small wad of kleenex behind almost every other tree - presumably from someone who didn't want to venture back to the thunderbox.

First night on Squaw Bay

Dinner on the first night was pasta with pesto, one of our favourites. Sherry and I polished off a nice tetra pack of merlot, then it was hot chocolate for all before heading off to bed, and trying out our new thermarests.

Day 2 - August 17

The next morning, we packed up, and after some confusion with the map, we found the entrance to the North Arm. We worked our way up the east side, and found a beautiful site just up from the mouth of Tadpole Lake. Taylor and Daphne quickly went for a swim. Taylor and his brother are competitive swimmers, and he could have probably swum the breadth of the North Arm if he wanted to - and Daphne would have been right behind him.

Paradise on the North Arm

Dinner came from our local Bulk store, where we discovered the joys of dehydrated food - specifically clam chowder with croutons. The tetra pinot gris was a good choice (note: I'm more of a beer drinker, but I haven't found the desire to freeze it and pack it in just yet).

To the south of our site was a massive blowdown, likely the result of a microburst from July's storms. It was roughly 100m wide, and went back at least 500m from the shore. I tried to capture it with my camera, but it just didn't display the devastation. 150 yr old pines were knocked down as if swiped by the paw of an angry giant.

I woke in the middle of the night to the sound of large waves breaking on the shore. The forecast had indicated the possibility of thunderstorms. Accompanying the waves, however, was a slow "plunk, plunk," sound, which turned out to be one or more moose, feeding on the weeds just offshore. It was quite comical to hear the "plunk" echo up and down the shoreline.

Day 3 - August 18

Breakfast the next morning was oatmeal with another bulk store treasure - dried strawberries.

We packed up, and began to make our way across the North Arm to Hailstorm Creek, in the hopes of spotting more moose in the daylight hours. We can chalk up our lack of sightings to experience once again, however - by the time we had loaded up and paddled across, we were well into late morning. Once in the creek, the breeze died, and we all began to cook, so with only one more day left, we were forced to head back to the South Arm. Next time, we'll look for a site closer to Hailstorm, where we can day trip, or head into Happy Isle or Proulx Lakes.

Back in the South Arm for one last night, we encountered the group we saw departing. They seemed to be so ill-equipped for their trip, yet they were happy and laughing just the same. Paradise on the North Arm.

Day 4 - August 19

We departed early Saturday morning, in order to make it back to Olympia by noon. A bit of a tradition encountered at the Opeongo docks. Sherry and Taylor were able to grab a quick shower (we had a family gathering in Schomberg to get to after we had picked up Liam) at the Opeongo store, but when I was fully lathered with soap and shampoo, the power went out. Last year, as I was about to join the family in cleanliness at the end of our trip by showering at Canoe Lake, the cleaners came along and closed things down.

So, once again unshaven and unshowered, I drove us out of the park, and off to pick up Liam. Luckily, we arrived home in time for me to clean up before heading off to a family gathering in Schomberg.

Part Two

Day 1 - August 27

After dropping Taylor off for his stint at Olympia on a Sunday, there was little time to waster before we hit the waters of Opeongo again. After lucking out on the weather previously, the forecast for this trip wasn't as promising. Thunderstorms were in the forecast for the next few days. I kept a wary eye on the sky, mindful of the fact that I didn’t think it was necessary to pack a tarp this time.

As we rounded the point after leaving the docks, Opeongo's winds picked up. We decided to hug the east shore, where we could seek some protection amongst the islands. After passing by Bates Island, however, the winds really picked up, with waves about a half a metre high coming at us broadside. Several washed up over our gunwales, almost swamping Daphne up in the bow in the process.

Once we were behind the islands half way up the eastern shore, the winds abated, and our progress picked up - a good thing, since we were pushing 5:00 pm., with only a couple of hours to find a site, set up and get some dinner. Liam had his heart set on an island, partially because he thought that we would be safe from a bear visit. I didn't bother to tell him about how bears like to "island hop", nor did I tell him about the unfortunate incident which took place on Bates Island.

Finding a site this time around did not turn out to be nearly the challenge it was on our last trip - the shoreline was practically empty. We circled around Engleheart Island, bypassing the two sites on the south end, and finally settling on the site on the north-west corner of the island. It turned out that not only did we have the island to ourselves, but the wide panoramic view offered by this open site showed us that we were just about the only occupants of the top half of the South Arm.

Sunset on Englehart

Dinner once again was pesto - heavy on the pine nuts, washed down (by the adults) with a tetra merlot. We decided to use this site as a base camp this time, because we only had two nights/three days, and also because we wanted a little more rest time on this trip - and also because this was a great site. Sleep was a little hard to come by, mainly because an owl had set up shop seemingly on our tent fly.

Day 2 - August 28

Ducks in the mist

The next morning brought a very heavy mist, which made travel almost impossible until about 9. I was up by 6:30, and Daphne and I enjoyed my morning coffee (coffee bags this time - not the instant wretched variety) on the shore of our site as we peered out into the mist. After oatmeal with more dried strawberries, we grabbed the food pack, camera, bathing suits and books and headed off in search of some day-tripping adventures.

The forecasted thunderstorms were nowhere to be seen. We circled the island, then made our way along the eastern shore, looking for some possible moose sightings, but were shut out in the moose department once again. We did find a great unoccupied site between the mainland and Wellesley Island. A gravelly/sandy beach gave us a great place to pull up and swim, read and relax. As with any 12 year-old., Liam grew a bit restless, so I introduced him to one of my favourite past times as a kid. My grandparents lived on a farm in Eastern Ontario, along a seldom-used gravel road. Across from them was a huge river valley. When I was about 12 myself, my uncle fashioned a baseball bat out of a tree branch, and I spent countless hours over the next few years batting stones into that valley. I must have knocked a couple thousand in there, I would bet. After a brief search, I found a similar stick for Liam, and he had great fun hitting stones into the South Arm. After he tired of that, it turned into a makeshift golf club, and then a neat thing to kick up a stream of water for Daphne to chase. Lunch was more clam chowder (great big hunks of vegetables in it) with croutons.

Batter up!

We also gave Liam the chance to solo the canoe, as we did with Taylor in the North Arm. He had a little trouble at first maneuvering a craft that wasn't really designed for soloing, but soon proved to be a natural. As he paddled off (with strict instructions to stay in sight the whole time, as well as wearing his pfd), I found myself wondering, as I had earlier with Taylor, how long it will be until one of them asks, "Mom, Dad, can I borrow the canoe this weekend ?". I really hope that tripping is something we can all do together for years to come, but I also know that they day will come that they will want to go without us.

Dinner was yet another repeat (not that we minded) - vegetarian chili, with those versatile and lightweight croutons. After noticing a campfire across the lake from us the first night, we noticed no light this time - we truly had this part of Opeongo to ourselves - at least until the first water taxi in the morning. Liam needed a pee break in the middle of the night, so I got up with him, and took a brief trip down to the shore. I don't think I have ever seen as many starts in the sky as I did that night.

Day 3 - August 29

After the next morning's breakfast, we readied to day trip again. We didn't have the whole day to trip, but we had enough time to make it into the East Arm. Our goal was to scout out some possible sites for a future trip, and perhaps find the marker in memory of Captain Dennison (a pioneer settler who was killed by a bear while checking a trap on the Happy Isle portage) and two of his grandchildren. I have read about Dennison`s death, and the struggles his family faced, and I find their experiences closely resemble my own family’s. My ancestors tried unsuccessfully to farm in an area not far from Algonquin, at about the same time as the Dennison family. It’s not hard to imagine the struggles they faced in trying to farm in marginal soil, removed from civilization (as it existed then), with the threat of poverty, hunger and illness always present. I was quite close to my grandparents, who were the last of three generations who farmed the same plot of rocky land. They no doubt endured hardships similar to the Dennison’s in their youth.

A day made for taking photos ...

Time ran short, however, and we had to cut short our exploration of the East Arm. We did manage to check out the sites on Sunnyside, however, and cooled off with a swim before heading back to our site. From there, it was time to have some lunch (instant garlic mashed potatoes), pack up and head for the docks. After some fast food at the Huntsville Wendy’s, we had a quiet, contemplative drive home. Reality was about to set in – back to work the next day for Sherry, back to school/work for the rest of us the following week.

Sherry and Daphne in a rare still moment.

All told, we spent five nights and seven days on Opeongo, and explored a great deal of it – enough to make us want to return, even if only as a stop on the way further into the park. Great weather was our constant companion. Lessons learned from last summer’s trip proved helpful. There’s still room for improvement, but we’re getting there.

Whether it’s on Opeongo or somewhere else in the Park, we eagerly look forward to next year’s trip. Like Nick Adams from Big Two-Hearted River, we emerged from our trip with healthier hearts and minds.

A couple more sunsets…