Smoke Lake to Kawagama Lake - by Jeremy Lindsay

Thursday 23rd

Hit the road at 7pm, headed for Dorset area cottage for the night. The drive was mostly uneventful; we arrived at about 11:15 and relaxed for a while before hitting the sack.

Friday 24th

Wake up call from home at about 7:30. Everyone’s okay, and we’re calling our shuttle to take us up to Oxtongue AO for the canoe and Smoke Lake for the push off. We picked up a Kipawa (part of my pre-purchase research) and associated gear, had a coffee, and made our way into the park. Arrived at Smoke Lake after getting permits, and pushed off at about 10:45.

There was a light drizzle here and there on the crossing, but nothing too major. The weather reports had been calling for rain, but as the reports had changed every five minutes over the course of the last week, we paid little attention to them. We know we’ll get wet at some point. It is more a question of how wet. We were settled and relaxed into things by Molly’s Island. We met up with a group headed out at the portage, a couple with five teenagers in tow. We were told that they had checked the weather reports and were headed out as the rain was coming in. I guess this is a sign of the times, with cell towers along Hwy. 60 I guess checking emails and weather, filing that oh so important report will become the norm, what a shame. I remember the days of holding a guy down in the parking lot to make him remove his watch before we pushed off.

We complete the 240m portage to Ragged Lake without incident, and met up with a group of four trying to figure out which direction to go on a Backpacking map, which didn’t even include the area of the park we were in. As I had laminated the areas we would need for the weekend (from Jeffreys map) , we decided we could part with one of the two pages we had. By doing so we would rely on the GPS for the next day, and we would hopefully increase our good Karma (did you hear that weather? – good Karma).

590m Devil's Staircase was up next. We tried out a 1½ carry. This worked out perfectly, and we decided that this would be the method for the trip. Devil's Staircase has been remembered by my tripping partner Mike as awful. His memories were founded in truth. It was a bit of a beast, but as it turns out it was only a mild warm up for the rest of the planned route. We rested at the end of the portage and waited out a brief deluge of rain. I really dig the hissing of the lake as the rain approaches.

We hit the water of Big Porcupine with the intent of camping on one of the islands tonight. The final stages of the day were upon us. We decided to forego the paddle around and took the 395m portage to the rest of the lake. We were hopeful that we were the first out in this area today and would have the pick of the sites, with the single site on the northernmost island being the first choice. Yay, we made it there without incident, and we got the site we had planned on getting.

We set up the site with tarp, chairs and accommodations, me with a Hammock and Mike with his tent. We got about the business of chopping wood, gathering kindling and preparing for the evening. A quick swim to wash the city smell off, preparing meals and taking a drink. We made ready for the finer times in the park; doing a whole lot of nothing at the end of the day, there’s nothing finer. There was however a good deal of cursing into the firepit, I’d say fire but really who am I kidding, there was no more fire than my matches could provide, everything was soaked and fire was not in the cards.

Saturday 25th

We may have enjoyed doing nothing a little too much last night. We awoke at about 9:15 and were packed and on the go at a very leisurely 11:00. The plan was to make it to the campsite shown of Jeffreys map at the northeastern point of Rockaway Lake. We had however made a reservation on Dividing Lake as this was the last possible place to make a reservation. I don’t remember much of the 370m portage to Little Coon Lake. It was a walk in between paddles as far as I can remember.

We crossed Little Coon to the 1770m & 775m non-maintained portage to Dividing Lake. When we arrived at the pull-out we were surprised to see a canoe there. Apparently someone else was traveling the same route .. even better, in the opposite direction. We hoped we could glean some details from them. I shouldered the canoe and began up the trail. The first couple of hundred meters were a trail, then amongst the Moose Scat it became more of a mountaineering expedition, which then became a trek of knee depth beaver ponds, streams, rocks and roots covered in days worth of slippery, slimy moss and lichen.

This portage was turning out to be a proving ground for a variety of new combinations of expletives. Had I taken something to record the combinations I came up with, I think even in his state of rest George Carlin would have blushed. As I trudged up the trail (and I mean up as opposed to along), I came upon 5 young men walking towards me. These were the occupants of the canoe at the start of the trail, ‘What news from the New World’ I could ask them, before I had the chance the first guy asked me, "Are you going the whole way?"

"No, just half way", I replied jokingly. Then, after seeing his face in a quizzically twisted expression of exhaustion, I added "Yes the whole way. What’s it like?" All I heard was mouse-like reply of, "Oh,,,umm,,, good luck", and they were off. I wondered if we would come across something that would explain their exhaustion. There wasn’t anything except the final 2 or so kilometers of sludgy, trudgy hell that some fella at MNR has the audacity to call a portage, instead of a training march for JTF2. (Editor's note: Joint Task Force Two .. of the Canadian Forces Special Operations Forces)

I dropped the canoe in or around the halfway point according to The Device (our faithfull GPS) and turned back to fetch my pack. I came upon my friend Mike leaning on his paddle two ledges shy of the top of a portion of the slippery rocks looking like he had been either drop kicked in the sternum, or has suffered a minor cardiac event. Things were not looking too good, he’s in far better shape than I am. I’ll cut the rest short. Needless to say, on the map the portage shows that it is non-maintained. Now I know why. You’d be hard pressed to find someone to make their way along that trail for money, only love will blind someone sufficiently to make that trek.

By the time I reached the end of the trail, Mike had already dropped his pack and started back for the canoe. I sat there looking at the only site on Dividing Lake. Yes. the map shows two. But the paddler finds only one! I rested a little more till I heard the familiar hissing of the lake, I looked up to see a wall of rain approaching. As cool as it is to see it coming, and as much as you welcome the cooling of a shower, I thought it best to pull out my tarp and cover Mikes pack. As I did, the rain really came down. It was a s if the lake had been turned upside down and was falling back down again.

Mike arrived. We turtled the canoe and pulled the tarp over us and our gear and waited for the weather to pass us by. We paddled across the lake to the site to see if we should stay or push on. As we crossed there was a beige coloured head popping up to look at us from the north western area of the lake, there were reeds there and we were too far to make it out perfectly, but I would put money on the head belonging to a wolf. Now that is the coolest thing ever!

To put it nicely, the site on Dividing Lake is low maintenance. It definitely needs some maintenance. There was enough room for a 4x4 tent on an upper level fully open to both easterly and westerly winds. The tent pad is conveniently located beneath some 2 widowmakers. There is a thunderbox on the site which is a nice touch of a non-maintained site. There was also a bench on which one could sit and talk to the t-box user as the bench was about a foot from the fire pit and the thunderbox a foot further away. The site was as close to a jail cell as you’ll find in the woods .. eat, sit, chat, dump and sleep with one eye open for fear of death within a 12 foot radius.

We decided that there was nothing to keep us on that site, so we opted to cross the 105m portage to Minkey and then head for Rockaway Lake. This is a surprising little portage, it had all of the makings of a sweet innocuous walk in the woods, till you get there. This was like the Cliffs Notes of the previous portage, all of the stuff crammed into a smaller more compact package. Steep inclines, slippery rocks, roots, vegetation and a healthy dose of potty-mouth. The landing on the far side consisted of a log jam and mud. We made it to Minkey Lake and started paddling. Its a skinny lake, full of deadwood and debris. The shores are fully protected by dead conifers, still rooted but gray and skeletal. It was a little spooky in fact. The map and The Device (GPS) were not in agreement as to where the portage to Rockaway Lake was, so we kept drifting till we found it.

965m to Rockaway Lake .. we lugged the canoe ashore and began the walk. Now I can honestly say that I am glad to have made the trip. But, I'll never do the trip again. That's because of this portage. The map reads 965m, which I think is accurate. However it fails to mention that there is at least a 40 meter altitude variation within that distance. Combine this with the endless rain we’ve had this year, and you're pretty much walking up a riverbed and the stones are slippery as all get-out. This portage was worse than the others combined. The moose droppings were thick, the ‘steps’ in the trail were that perfect height and distance apart from each other to make everything burn. Much like previous portages, we made it through by brute force and determination more than anything else. Surprisingly the trail at the end of the portage levels out just before it rounds a bend to bring the lake's northeast campsite into view. I wonder how many others would have arrived at the site by water and thought ‘Oh what a lovely looking portage, that looks pretty and easy’ HA! Suckers!

The site is nice .. well laid out, enough room for 2 or 3 tents, a thunderbox and a fire pit. Access to the water is good for canoes, swimmers and for filling up on water. There was a good deal of firewood available from dead fall, as well as tons of small stuff for kindling. Perhaps we’d have a fire. Again after we’d remarked at how tough, cool and manly we were for having made it, we set about the business of making camp. That evening the rain started at about 5:30 or 6:00 and continued till about 5:00 the next morning.

Sunday 26th

I awoke to a thick fog everywhere. I had to answer natures call, so there was no delaying anything. I got up and went about my business, preparing food, eating, packing, swimming etc., and let Mike sleep. After the rain last night, I was happy with the Hennessey Hammocks’ performance, I was both warm and dry. Mike woke to find his tent had collected a little water for him. It had seeped through and had wet his sleeping bag. We finished up packing and the sun appeared for a brief while. We even managed to shove off with sunny skies for the last day, till we were two thirds of the way down the lake, when the skies opened up again.

We arrived at the Golden Staircase to Kimballs Lake and really even though we had to bushwhack through the swampy area at the end of Rockaway to get to the trail, it was remarkably well kept and easy to follow. However, as usual it was treacherous with the rocks, and roots being covered in slimy moss and lichen, moose and deer droppings all over the place, beaver ponds and streams to cross. I shall check Jeffreys map against The Device (GPS) as the trail did not really seem to be as long as we were expecting, perhaps this was us being used to hellish bad portages and this one just not being in the same class as some which we’d passed the last couple of days.

I decided to carry the canoe for the first half with my pack on. This was a bit of work and only really became a problem when I fell on some rocks. I dinged-up my knee pretty well and it was scary for a moment as I shattered the patella 4 years ago and have only really been 100% for about a year or so. I released my pack and stood up to see if I could put my weight on it, which I could. The worst of the fall was I had torn the little leather loop on my knife's sheath so now I have to carry the knife in a pocket or pack till I have it repaired.

I took a break, picked up and carried on. I dropped the canoe at the halfway point and carried on. Man does a pack eve feel light after you’ve dropped the additional 40 – 50 lbs of canoe.I was making great time. I met Mike at the beach and we took a minute before he went back for the canoe. While he was in the bush, guess what? Yep, the rain came again. By the time Mike was back, the shower had passed and we were set to go. We pulled at the paddles the best we could, as we still had a lot of water to cover before being back at the cottage. There was cold beer at the cottage. This put a little extra into my stroke for a while.

There was boat traffic and we had to contend with wakes periodically. We would usually boo and hiss at the operators if they didn’t slow as they passed us (which none did). We paddled the waterways into Bear Lake and then into Kawagama for the crossing. We stopped off at someone's unoccupied dock for a stretch and a snack before tackling the 7 km of Kawagama. I had expected a lot of traffic and wakes, but we were greeted with far less than usual boat traffic and far higher than usual winds and cloud.

We pushed into the wind and put our chins down. We stopped off at another dock on Bear Island for a snack and a stretch. Man there are some nice canoes at some of those cottages. As we passed from Bear Island to the main shore the rain began coming again. I was reminded of Forrest Gump describing the rain in Vietnam; "One day it started raining, and it didn't quit for four months. We been through every kind of rain there is. Little bitty stingin' rain... and big ol' fat rain. Rain that flew in sideways. And sometimes rain even seemed to come straight up from underneath."

We were pushing on regardless when the thunder began, I was keeping my eyes peeled for lightning, and paddling as hard as possible. We were some 20 feet from shore and getting closer every minute. We finally rounded the point the see a familiar sight. I told Mike that the boat we could see was two cottages further than we need to go, so we could stop and drift for a minute. Finally and just in time we made it to the dock. Huffed the canoe up the steps and put it on the car had a quick beer and got changed into something dry before for the return trip to AO at Oxtongue Lake, before the 7pm close (which we made by 6:45).

Things I learnt this trip ...

Hammocks are good.
GPS’s are good.
Topographical maps would be good.
Rain is bad

I am very glad to have done the trip the way it was planned, I’ve wanted to do it for a few years now, and can finally cross it off the list of trips to do. I will likely never do it again though.

... end