The 2nd Portage Trip by Jeremy and Fenwicks

(May 22 – 24, 2010)

We had our first backcountry canoe experience last October at Rock/Pen Lake. I was the one who initiated that trip, did all the research, and only after the plan was firmed up, Jeremy was informed (although he did suspected that I was up to something (bad) as I was on the internet whole day for few weeks). Jeremy was pretty much thrown into the trip with a "swim or sink" attitude. As I expected, he managed to keep himself afloat, but what I didn't anticipate - he loved it. Despite the tension he got as I kept accusing him for not steering the canoe efficiently and despite the pain he suffered from portaging, he actually loved it! Unbelievable! Over the next few months, he kept pestering me to plan for another trip.

After doing much research, I decided on a 3-days "Smoke Lake - Ragged Lake - Big Porcupine Lake" return route. We planned to go on the Victoria Day long weekend, but did not make any advanced reservation. I assumed it should not be as busy since the school summer break has not started yet. Few days before the trip, we checked the weather forecast. It predicted rain on both Saturday and Sunday. We decided to cancel our trip. Nevertheless, we checked again on Friday morning. It forecasted 30% chance of rain on Saturday afternoon and cloudy on Sunday. Perfect. 30% sounded like a slim possibility. We decided to take the risk and go ahead. Jeremy called the park office immediately. The staff told us that we managed to reserve the last site on both Ragged and Big Porcupine lakes. Phew! On our first trip we engaged complete outfitting services from Algonquin Outfitter. This time we opted to pack our own camping equipments and prepare our own meals. We were still lacking few things on Jeremy's checklist, and I had to travel to nearby Mountain Equipment Co-Op store during my office’s lunch break to purchase a grill, water purification tablets and packed dried food. In the evening, we did a last minute grocery shopping. Finally, all set and we were ready to go.

Day 1  

We took off early at 6AM. Jeremy drove all the way to our destination without taking any break. We were anxious to get an early start because (1) I read some reviews warning that strong wind often picks up in the afternoon and (2) weather forecast called for rain in the afternoon. We hoped to reach our campsite before any of these hit us. It was 10AM when we were at Portage Store to collect our rental canoe. Jeremy assumed the Portage Store was just across the road and very near to Smoke Lake. He didn’t expect to start with a portage on paved road. To my amazement, his portaging skill seemed to have improved a lot this time. He managed to flip the canoe onto his shoulders in one go. A bit clumsy, but still impressive. He took 8 minutes to do the 355m portage to Smoke Lake access point, and his shoulders were already aching. Ouch!

Smoke Lake Access Point

It was a lovely sunny morning. The dock was crowded with people and dogs. We launched our canoe at 11AM. Things started off smoothly. But soon after we paddled past Molly Island, the wind whipped up and the water became really choppy. We could hear the sound of wave lapping on our canoe while it was thrown up and down. It was darn tiring to paddle against the wind. At some point, we succumbed to the force of the wind and lost control of the canoe. Instead of moving forward, our canoe was pushed backward and sideway and into the center of lake. We tried to rectify our course but to no avail. Our canoe ended up moving in circles. "Our canoe will capsize anytime" I remembered thinking. For those who knew me, I AM AQUA-PHOBIC. That scared the hell out of me. You should have seen my terrified face. Priceless J. After much effort, we finally re-gained control of the canoe and got ourselves near the shore. And for the remaining of the journey, we kept very close to the shore. We reached Ragged Lake portage 2 hours later. We rested for 10 minutes, had some potato chips and moved on. Jeremy carried the canoe first, while I followed him taking pictures and videos of him. He took 5 minutes to walk the easy 240m portage. Then we went back and picked up our backpacks.

The paddling on Ragged Lake was much better. We didn't want the first campsite that was just beside the dam. When we approached the 2nd campsite, a canoe was just about leaving. The canoeists told us that they spent a night on this campsite, that it was nice but too windy. We landed to check it out. It was indeed windy. We abandoned it and paddled further and found that the 4th site was vacant. The site was huge, with good level ground for us to pitch our tent. The only problem was that it wasn’t as quiet and private as we loved it to be. The neighboring sites were too close. We could hear them shouting and laughing. Sound travels far indeed. But I had a headache and Jeremy complained he was sleepy (huh?), so we decided to settle down. Immediately after setting up the tent, we took a much deserved nap.

Our campsite at Ragged Lake

We didn’t sleep for too long. We were awakened by heavy traffic of canoes passing our site. And there were lots of fishing activities at the bay beside our campsite. Time for early dinner then. We walked around looking for firewood, but all we could collect were branches. Anyway, we still managed to make a decent fire and had grilled steak and sausages for dinner. On our previous trip, we carried along 10 bottled waters. This time we had to trust the AQUATABS water purification tablets that Jeremy read some very good reviews. The water was indeed odorless and tasteless after treatment. Well… some poisons do exhibit the same ‘colorless, odorless, tasteless’ attributes too. We would have to wait and observe if we started to vomit and develop fever the next few days.

Steaks and sausages for dinner

Jeremy got very excited after dinner. He had rehearsed this in his mind for days before the trip – on how to implement a perfect bear-bag. On our first trip, our bear bagging technique sucked big time. Some rodents managed to descent from the branch, chewed through our food pack and had a feast. Till today, I was still mourning the loss of my favourite mudslide pie L. Once bitten, twice shy. Jeremy was determined to have our bear-bag sealed and hung at a position that was not only out of reach of bears, but could also resist the attack by rodents. After Jeremy found a perfect tree and tied one end of the rope around a rock, we took turn in an attempt to toss the rope over the branch. Easier said than done - we spent a whole hour doing this. Though exhausted, Jeremy was very proud of his significant accomplishment.

Fenwicks hanging the bear-bag

Making sure bears could not reach our bag. Can bears jump?

Sunset was beautiful. It would have been a perfect evening for me until an allied air force of flies and mosquitoes came visiting. Though I had layers of Muskol sprayed all over my body, I didn't want it on my face. Those insects were smart! They found their opportunity and attacked me relentlessly. They showed no mercy at all. I regretted for not listening to advice about using a headnet. Too late. I now had countless bites on my neck, scalp and forehead. Totally disgusting!

Day 2  

We woke up at 8AM, had scrambled eggs and mashed potatoes for breakfast, and broke camp and left at 10AM. Cloudy day. The air was crisp, the lake was peaceful and there was light breeze on my face. I would have thought I was in the kingdom of heaven if not for the bugs buzzing around my head (or as Jeremy put it, they clung on my hair. Yucks!).

We paddled a while and soon reached a junction where we thought we should bear right. But then I saw a campsite, unexpectedly, at our 10 o'clock direction. I was puzzled. 'Are we supposed to see a campsite there?' I asked Jeremy as I passed him the map. 'Nope' was his definite answer. Not good. ‘Perhaps we missed a turn’ we thought. We turned back and started wandering around. It took us great courage to admit this eventually - we were lost L. On our way, we passed by 2 fishing canoeists. They were still not far from us. We turned back and asked if they knew the way to Big Porcupine Lake. They didn't but volunteered to look at the map for us. They pointed to us where we were now, and told us we should turn right ahead. Jeremy & I followed their instruction but I wasn't 100% convinced. How could we be so disoriented from the start? I looked at the map again and it suddenly hit me that we might have misinterpreted our campsite's location. Ahh.. it all made perfect sense now – the day before, we thought we were on the mainland overlooking the opposite island. Actually we were on the island facing the mainland ...

Wandering around and we were lost

We re-oriented ourselves and paddled towards the Big Porcupine Lake. The portage was not obvious but we were certain that we were on the right track as we heard waterfall ahead. Paddling further we saw a sign pointing to the direction of portage. We followed and reached the shore soon, with tiny waterfall at the side. The portage was called 'Devil's Staircase', I warned Jeremy. He frowned and gave me the 'now then you tell me?' kind of dirty look. He sighed and picked up the canoe and ventured into this mosquito-infested trail. The slope was not too bad and by no means considered tough for any hiker, but with a canoe carried on your back, I guess that it was.. 'devilish'. Jeremy had his own opinion anyway - he thought the devils were not referring to the steep steps but the mosquitoes. The 590m portage took him 10 minutes. He was breathless at the end of portage and said that the canoe yoke cut into his skin. He was pretty sure he had bruises on his shoulder. Were those tears in his eyes when he said this? Oh my .. I could feel his pain!

With 42 lbs on his back, Jeremy faced the challenge of Devil’s Staircase

Jeremy enduring the pain from portaging

Getting ready for a hike in our backpacks

Soon after we left the portage, we came across the first campsite. I was at first reluctant to take the first site, worrying it would be another noisy site because of passing-by traffic. But once we investigated, we loved the site. We could set up the tent right by the lake, and there were huge log benches surrounding the fire pit. Nice …

Our campsite at Big Porcupine Lake

Our routes and destinations

We had instant noodles for lunch. After that we relaxed by the lake with a cup of aromatic coffee in our hands. Hmm… Nothing beats a combination of nice conversation and a nice cup of coffee in the afternoon …

Piping hot instant noodles for lunch

Enjoying cups of coffee by the lake

It was still early and there was no sign of rain, so we decided to paddle around the lake to the lower section of Big Porcupine Lake. On our way we realized that all the next 6 campsites were taken. Ended up we made a wise decision to settle immediately at the first campsite. I couldn't imagine paddling further and further to search for available spots. I would have pressed the panic button. Along the way we met many friendly campers enjoying a refreshing swim and chatted with them.

Paddling to lower section of Big Porcupine Lake

This place was so amazing at night that I refused to sleep sound and tight. Woke up few times just to stare at the starry sky and listen to the sound of nature. There was an orchestra of voices from wildlife at distance throughout the night. Nice …

  Day 3  

Woke up at 6AM. Had mushroom soup and tortillas for breakfast. We set out early at 7:30AM, taking advantage of the calm water. This time Jeremy decided to do the portage in one go - canoe plus backpack. He saw someone did this and thought it was a brilliant idea. He believed the shoulder straps of the backpack would provide extra padding on his shoulder when the yoke rested on him. With this in mind, we had to re-pack both of our backpacks so he would carry less weight. It wasn’t a problem for me. We had finished almost all the food we brought along so the weight of my backpack was still manageable. The portage was crowded. There was a group of family members led by a guide. We waited for them to unload. They carried their canoes first and walked ahead of us. I had my backpacks and 2 paddles, and Jeremy followed behind. The 2 boys in front of me kept cursing and swearing while doing their portage on the ‘Devil’s Staircase’. Funny… When we reached the end of portage, the guide smiled and said to us ‘This is unfair to do it in one trip’, while he was heading back with the group to pick up their backpacks.


Canoeists unloading at portage of Big Porcupine Lake

Crossing on Ragged Lake was an easy one, and likewise, we did the portage in one go.

Smoke Lake was beautiful. I didn’t realized it 2 days ago when we crossed the lake amidst wind and wave. At that time we were like paddling for our lives and didn’t have time to admire its beauty.  This time when I didn’t need to struggle, I started to find fault. Haha… Bad behavior… I started complaining that the canoe was moving slowly and I suspected that Jeremy wasn't putting in effort. Jeremy kept insisting that he paddled as hard as me, if not harder, and said that it was just an illusion. Anyway, there was no need to argue because results spoke for itself... We completed the entire thing in less than 3 hours! Okay… okay… you were right again, Jeremy.

After returning the canoe at the Portage Store, we rewarded ourselves with a hot shower (needed it so badly to scrub off layers of DEET on our bodies), an ice-cream at the visitor centre and a sew-on badge.

Jeremy returning canoe at Portage Store

By Fenwicks