How to Avoid the Dickson Bonfield Portage - Spring, 2016

by MartinG



Typically I have a trip carved out months before hand. I usually decide on a route and then enjoy planning the heck out of it. Not this time, I was uncomfortable with this trip before it began. I started by pulling out my gear and realized the yoke for my canoe was cracking. I chiselled out the crack a bit, separated the wood and filled it with Gorilla Glue before clamping it tight. Hope that holds! I also bought a new car. It arrived 2 weeks before the trip, missing a roof rack. Damn you Kia! I came up with a route and booked it 1 week before departure.

3 days before departure the park called to say I could not do my route because of an Algae Bloom on Dickson Lake. I did a rethink and came up with something completely different. 2 days before departure I called and booked a water taxi with Opeongo Outfitters. The afternoon before my trip Jimmy from Opeongo Outfitters calls to ask if they could reschedule my taxi. Glad I didn't miss that call! That same afternoon my car dealership pulls through and gets the roof rack installed. Yay!

I drove up to the access point early. Met Matt, the driver for Opeongo Outfitters, well before we were supposed to leave. While we waited for another party to arrive, Matt entertained me with some great stories about growing up around the park and life in Whitney. I got my permit, unloaded everything, changed into my dry pants, walked back to the car to see a flat tire. Damn you Kia! I explain my dilemma to Matt. He tells me it's OK and will come back for me. Opeongo Outfitters is great! Everyone should use them for the Taxi. It took me 45 minutes to change the flat because new technology seems to make everything difficult.

My ambivalence towards this trip is dipping towards unease.

Opeongo Outfitters Water Taxi Service

Day 1: People actually take motor boats into Hogan!
Opeongo Access - Big Crow. 12km. 1 portage, 1 395m.

This was a short day. 15 minutes of whizzing across Opeongo in the water taxi and I was standing at the 1400m portage to Proulx Lake. I passed 2 people coming the other way. They had spent a few days at the cabin on Big Crow Lake. They said the Brookies had been active but no Lake Trout. I carried my pack over the portage and cart trail on the first trip. Second trip was with the canoe. I paddled my canoe across a small pond before carrying on along the cart trail.

Put-in on Proulx Lake

I caught up with and passed two more canoes going into Big Crow. Then on the river, I passed another tandem and a solo canoeist. The wind was howling by the time I reached Little Crow Lake, so I took a breather in the Lea of a small point on the right and waited for things to settle down.

On Little Crow Lake I passed 11 fishing boats on their way out! Most of the people in the boats looked beat. Given the time of day (late afternoon) and how tired they looked I thought maybe some of them were coming from Hogan Lake. I always wondered who was crazy enough to take a boat and motor along the 7km cart trail to Hogan. All kinds of people tackle all kinds of challenges because they love this park. All told, I paddled by 21 boats or canoes today. Do not come to Big Crow if you want to get away from it all!

Upper Crow River

My campsite on Big Crow was the first site on the left when you enter the lake. It is large, flat and well used. Not a bad site, with plenty of available firewood. The evening was spent making dinner and messing around with gear. My routine was rusty and I was quite disorganized. I was in bed around 9pm, popped a Melatonin, put my ear plugs in and had an excellent sleep. Very unusual for me on the first night.

Campsite on Big Crow Lake

Firepit/Oven on Big Crow Lake Campsite

Day 2: Snow on the Crow.
Big Crow lake - Crow Bay on Lake Lavieille. 20km. 7 portages, 2 485m.

I awoke shortly after the sun came up. I took far too long breaking camp. I still felt a bit disorganized and uncomfortable. I put on my dry top and dry pants, as I planned on running rapids on the Crow River. It was nice having a dry suit. This was the first time I had taken one on a camping trip. It gave me a feeling of security .. a layer of protection from the icy cold spring water. Years ago I heard the 50/50/50 rule. 50 yards from land, 50 degree water, 50% chance of living. Not enough people take cold water seriously. So far there had been 8 boating deaths in the spring of 2016.

On the water by 8:15, I crossed Big Crow Lake through waves quartering from behind. White caps were already on the lake by 8:30. I was a little nervous and thankful that I brought the suit. Entering the Crow River, I intended to run all the rapids except those at 1220m portage. As I approached the log jam at the old dam before the first rapid, I saw a fly fisherman casting into the current.

Paddling a little further on, I could see another fisherman part way down the rapids. Ah well, maybe I'll skip this one and fish it instead. There was a fair bit of snow still on the portage which made for awkward footing. At the far end of the portage was another fly fisherman in waders. After a brief chat it turns out they had been doing pretty well with the Brookies but had no luck with Lake Trout. Similar to the story I heard yesterday.

Snow on the portage trails

I carried on down the river. Thankfully, that was it for people. I carried my gear across the 155m portage and fished the bottom of the rapid for a bit without any luck. I then walked back up and ran the rapid. I started by dropping down a small wave on the left before paddling hard right to avoid a log that was stuck in the center at the bottom of the run.

It was while carrying across the 1220m portage that I decided to give up on single carry portages. I switched to double carrying (three times across each portage), partly because all the snow on the trail made footing difficult, and partly because I am weak. The double carry didn't prevent me from covering long distances and made for a much more enjoyable trip.

From this point down, I ran all the rapids on the rest of the Crow. I also stopped to fish a bit at pools below current, catching and releasing one small Brook Trout. I had to carry around the beginning of the 385m portage. In the middle, there is a chute with a good size standing wave. The bottom part is shallow and quite rocky. The last 3 portages go around rapids that would be easy grade 1's except there is a lot of timber in the water forcing you to manoeuvre from one side of the river to the other. There were a couple of strainers that could be deadly if you were caught.

Rapid in the middle of the 385m portage

Hemlock Kestrel on the Crow River

I was again exposed to westerly winds while crossing the first half of Crow Bay on Lake Lavieille. Paddling with the waves and white caps required focus but it was not difficult. I just needed to stay vigilant as the waves would occasionally push the stern out requiring a quick draw to keep things in line. I set up camp at the last point on the north side before one enters Lake Lavieille. The campsite facing east towards Lavieille has a fantastic view. But, I feel the neighbouring campsite facing west towards Crow Bay is the better site. Great views, great swimming and great fishing. I caught a nice eating size Brook Trout and cooked it in the fire with some lemon, onions and Barbarians steak spice.

Entering Crow Bay

View of Crow Bay from Camp

Day 3: Wind is scarier than bears.
Crow Bay to Animoosh Lake. 23km. 2 portages, 1310m.

I had another good sleep and was up early. I quickly made some coffee and wandered over to the other campsite facing east to enjoy the sunrise. It was spectacular! Shortly after that I made a big breakfast of scrambled eggs with peppers, zucchini, mushrooms, onions, whisky smoked baked beans and bacon. It was OK except for the beans. They didn't rehydrate properly. I'll have to work on that a bit. Again it took a while to pack up camp. I was still not very organized, but I was starting to feel better about the trip.

Sunrise on Lavielle

Breakfast

Looking down Thomas Bay on Lavieille

I stuck to the west side of the lake, while paddling south down Lavieille. Even though winds were mild, this morning there was a 7km long north west facing fetch of wind. The waves were already whipping up into white caps in the middle and east side if the lake. Thankfully it didn't affect me on the west side. Trolling the whole way, I caught one Lake Trout as I entered the narrows before Hardy Bay.

A short rapid empties from Dickson into Hardy Bay in Lake Lavieille. Dickson has been closed to camping for 3 seasons now as a result of an Algae Bloom. I was a little unsure of what to expect. I had heard lots of words used to describe the Dickson bloom: Toxic, Pea Soup, globules, slime, decay, etc. To be honest it didn't look visibly bad at all. There was certainly no decaying mass of green coating the shores and there wasn't any thick sediment in the water. The water just had a green tinge to it and was slightly cloudy. The bloom did not affect my paddle through the lake.

What did affect my paddle through the lake was wind. Paddling south on Dickson was the single scariest paddle of my life. I was surfing fast steep breaking waves most of the way. My bow plunged under the up side of a wave a couple of times. I also broached once with my boat turning nearly 90 degrees to the wave train. It was all I could do not to flip. I felt very vulnerable and questioned why the hell I was doing this alone. I managed to seek shelter in the lea side of an island for an hour or so to give my body and nerve a break. Carrying on, I hopped along in the wind shadow of islands across the bottom of Dickson Lake, finally finding shelter in the channel leading to Cisco Bay and Animoosh Lake.

Cormorant Island, Dickson Lake

Cisco Bay, Dickson Lake

I don't remember much about the portage to Animoosh. I double carried it. There were some nice old moss-covered boardwalks and it was less travelled than anything up to this point. Animoosh Lake was also windy, so I didn't do any fishing. I set up camp at the start of the 3km portage to Fairy Lake. Since it was fairly early in the afternoon, I decided to portage my boat over to save some work the following day. Towards the end of the 6km walk I was dog-tired. The trip down Dickson had done a number on my nerves. Including all the walking on portages I had travelled about 30km today and was feeling it. I was still having lingering uneasey feelings. I was nervous and found myself frequently looking over my shoulder towards things that snapped in the woods.

Portage trail to Animoosh

Animoosh Lake

To make matters worse, I didn't hang my food pack that night. My Transport Canada mandated 50 foot heaving line is also my bear hang rope. The heaving line was with my boat 3km away. Crap! Instead, I kept my food right under my hammock. All my food is dehydrated, double bagged in freezer bags, stored inside a vinyl dry bag, which is then inside my vinyl canoe pack. Plus there is a stinky human above it. On this lake, this early in the season I figured there wouldn't be any habituated campsite bears. They will all be foraging for grubs under logs and suckers in streams. I hoped!

Day 4: Backpacking!
Animoosh Lake - Shrew Lake. 15km. 5 portages, 7405m.

I had another great night's sleep! This was unusual for me. I usually sleep poorly while camping. I was an early adopter of Hammock Camping and in the last couple of years I had started to drift back towards ground sleeping in a tent. This is partly because of my difficulty sleeping and partly because I enjoy the space in a tent. But the hammock was really working for me on this trip. I think I will stick with it for a while.

Hammock in the pines

The 3km portage between Animoosh and Fairy lake is pretty interesting. It throws just about everything at you. Towards the Animoosh end of the trail you traverse a beaver dam at one point. At another you go over an Esker. There are lots of old boardwalks. Parts of the trail are flat and straight like an old road. Another bit is riddled with boulders. There were a few trees down and quite a bit of snow was on the trail. Near the Fairy Lake end you cross a bridge over a beautiful babbling brook.

I was in my own world looking at my feet when I got to this little creek. As I stepped onto the bridge there was a crashing in the bush to my left. As I looked up my heart jumped into my throat. About 30 yards away I saw the rear end of a bear bolting away from me. Remember what I said about suckers, streams and bears. With my heart pounding in my ears and bear spray in hand I hurried across the last 2 or 300 metres of the portage to my boat and paddled out into the safety of the lake. Once on the water, I circled back to where the creek empties into the lake. Sure enough the bear was right there studying the mouth of the creek. Again he wasn't really aware of me. He eventually caught wind of me and started staring my way. I cleared my throat. That was enough for him to turn tail and disappear into the bush.

Along the Portage to Fairy Lake

Fairy Lake

Strangely, this had a calming effect on me. While I have seen quite a few bears while on trips, this was my closest encounter. And it is the only time I've crossed paths with a bear while alone. Thankfully, the bear did exactly what it was supposed to.

The 1500 metre portage between Fairy and Hidden Lake was the hardest of the trip because of snow and blow downs. I again had to double carry the portage. The snow had a hard crust on top. I wouldn't breakthrough to the corn snow below until my full weight was on it. This made travel very tedious. Hidden lake was another small pond that I quickly crossed. I singled the last portage from Hidden to Mckaskill and arrived around noon.

The North end of McKaskill Lake is very pretty. The lake feels smaller than it looks on a map. There was no one on the lake. The only people I had seen since Big Crow were two fisherman battling the wind on Dickson. I trolled without any luck as I paddled down the lake. I stopped for a quick lunch on an island before carrying on.

More snow and blow down along the trail

McKaskill Lake

The 2 1/2km Portage between McKaskill and Shrew was a pain. Coming from Mckaskill you are hit right away with a few hills. The first slope was covered in snow. It didn't take long for me to again abandon the single carry. I was running low on energy, so this portage took me forever. With all the double carrying that day, I ended up walking over 15km. Surprisingly, I still felt fine. I wasn't travelling any great distance and the weather was great.

I really like the lone campsite on Shrew Lake. It is on a small knoll surrounded by red pines. The previous camper had left a good supply of wood. There was a good fireplace with a great bench and kitchen area. There was even an outhouse. I was starting to feel really good about myself and the trip by this point. All my lingering hesitation was gone and I was now really in the groove. Everything was starting to come together and I was enjoying my time alone.

Taking a break along the portage

Shrew Lake Campsite

Camp kitchen

Two bad things happened that night. First, I realized I had lost my Bear Spray. Since the bear encounter, I had taken to carrying it in my hand on the portages .. not part of my usual routine. Somewhere along the way, on one of my many breaks, I must have put it down. I had no idea where it was. Ah well, what are the odds of running into another bear?

Second, I got scared out of my wits. I was woken up around 12:30am by a very alien sounding beeping noise. At first I thought it was some kind of alarm or maybe a low battery warning. But I had nothing electronic on me but a headlamp. The noise sounded like it was coming from 20 or 30 yards away. It was constant for about 15 minutes. Never getting closer, never speeding up or slowing down. I was petrified because I had no idea what it could be. It eventually stopped and somehow I fell back to sleep. A couple of nights later, while sitting around a campfire I discovered what that noise was.

Day 5: Back to civilization.
Shrew Lake to Booth Lake. 17km. 5 portages, 3075m.

Knowing I didn't have far to go, I took my time starting my day. I was on the water at 9:15 and was crossing the first portage to Big Red Lake 15 minutes later. From there on, I crossed all the portages in one go. Big Red is more of a pond than a lake. As I started across, I noticed another paddler coming the other way. Only he was in a kayak. There aren't too many people who choose to use a kayak in Algonquin. By the time the other paddler was within 50 feet I thought I knew who it was because of the boat, a Delta 16. This is the Kayak I would probably get if I was ever to cross over to the dark side. As he paddled up I said, "I don't suppose your name is Bob." He was surprised. It was Bob from algonquinadventures.com and kayakcamper.com. It was pretty amazing for two acquaintances to meet on this tiniest of lakes in Algonquin Park.

Bob will tell you that kayaks can be as at home in Algonquin as any canoe. What you don't know is that Bob is a machine. He thought nothing of the McKaskill portage that took me forever the day before. Maybe he's right. Bob also found my bear spray leaning up against a tree at the end of the McKaskill to Shrew portage. Well at least it's not still out there littering up the trail.

The rest of the day saw me paddle and portage though to Ryan, Shirley, Crotch, Farm, Kitty and Booth Lakes. Including Bob, I passed 15 boats. Back to civilization I guess. Ryan surprised me. It is a very pretty lake desspite of all the campsites that line one shore. I'm also a fan of Booth Lake. I love the picturesque hills and islands of that lake. All of the portages were easy. In most cases they were like roads. I caught a big Pike on Booth. Probably 8 or 10 pounds. It was a powerful fish and I wasn't comfortable landing it in the canoe. Instead, I brought it to shore for the release. I completely botched that and he took off with my crank bait still stuck in his giant teeth.

Shirley Lake

I lazed that afternoon away on a great site on the north shore of Booth. I didn't fish any more as the lake is known more for its Pike and Bass than Trout. During dinner, I was serenaded by a Hermit Thrush, my favourite bird song. That evening as the sun went down, Loons took over from the Hermit Thrush. I stayed up late enjoying the fire and a beautiful star filled night.

Campsite on Booth

Day 6: When Opeongo lets you, you travel.
Booth lake to Lake Opeongo (North Arm). 33km, 5 portages 2400m

Another late start to the day .. on the water around 10 am. It was an absolutely beautiful morning with water like glass and stunning views. I decided to troll through Booth and Tattler lakes as I headed up the Opeongo River. Within a couple of minutes I hooked into a small Pike. Pike wasn't in season for another week or two, so I decided to put the rod away.

Perfect morning on Booth Lake

Travelling up the Opeongo River was great. The first 770m portage bypasses a series of swifts. I was able to paddle up all of them. The last was a struggle. I just made it to the top before my arms gave out. I use a double blade paddle to deal with these situations. I also use it when I need to make time or when I'm facing a headwind. Otherwise, I much prefer the single blade. I waded up the C1 at the 150m portage. Same for the C1/C2 at the 305m portage. I decided to carry the 1075m portage. It is flat and follows a logging road. Judging by the character of the river it probably bypasses more swift or C1 type water. In high water, most anyone could run the rapids at the 770m and 150m portages. The 305m is a little trickier, so more care needs to be taken.

I carried around the new dam at the head of the river and paddled into Lake Opeongo. Annie Bay, sometimes called the 4th arm of Opeongo is big. Bigger than most Algonquin Lakes. I paddled up the west shore in order to stay in the wind shadow of the hills. Turning the corner into the east arm of Opeongo, my breath was taken away. It was beautiful and calm. I could see west for miles, towards what I thought was the far shore on the horizon. Pine clads islands dotting the vista. It turns out I was just looking at the west side of Opeongo Island. Opeongo Island is bigger than many of the lakes I had crossed on this trip. Opeongo is huge. But it was calm and generous today.

Tattler Cabin

Annie Bay

East Arm of Opeongo

I got to my destination campsite by 3pm. I could have stayed, but decided to press on. When Opeongo lets you travel, you travel. Who knows what tomorrow would be like? I took my time paddling the lake and took the short portage between the east and north arms just to stretch my legs. As I paddled up the north arm, the winds completely died and the lake turned to glass. I stopped on a great campsite around 6pm and made dinner. I considered staying there. It would have been a spectacular spot for a sunset. But, clouds had settled in and it was starting to look like rain. I had planned to meet up with some friends the following day. I bet they already have tarps up and good supply of cut wood. I packed up and carried on.

North Arm of Opeongo

At 8:30pm I paddled up to a campsite between the portages to Proulx and Red Rock Lakes. There was a roaring fire beneath a grouping of masterfully tied tarps. WooHoooo! The group welcomed me to the start of a fantastic evening full of food, drink and great company.

Day 7: A gathering
Hailstorm bay, 15km.

"Stainless" has been organizing gatherings for Algonquin paddlers for years. They started as a way for like-minded people to meet. Over the years there have been 34 official gatherings and over 67 different people have attended a gathering. Some people only once, but a lot of us have attended many times. This spring's gathering on Opeongo was the 10th anniversary. 9 hardy campers attended this spring get together. It was fewer than expected. Unfortunate family circumstances, health problems and car trouble kept a number of people away. One couple made it to within 5 kilometers of our campsite. Unfortunately, wind and weather forced them back.

We day-tripped to Hailstorm Bay, a sight-seeing destination for moose watchers. Three of us took Mark's 17 ' Swift Winisk, with me sitting princess in the middle of the boat. It's a great big-water canoe, specially when loaded down. Markus and Dorothy followed in his 15' Langford Prospector. Kudos to Markus and Dorothy as they fought to keep up with three guys paddling a much faster boat. We struggled with winds as we paddled into Hailstorm Bay. There was no pay-off, as we didn't see any moose. It was a bit too early for the moose to be out in the rivers as the Lilies that they feed on haven't come up yet. The trip back was another trial as we faced some strong side wind and white caps while crossing the Bays leading to Happy Isle and Red Rock lakes.

Camp ont the North Arm of Opeongo

Paddling in to Hailstorm Bay

That night was also spent with food, drink and fine company around the fire. We had a feast of garlic-basted chicken thighs, goat cheese dip with baguettes, chocolate brownies, whisky, rum and cigars. As darkness crept in, we started spinning yarns about canoe adventures and misadventures past. Trips down the Bonnechere River and other old abandoned routes. A not-so-successful attempt to run the Petawawa River resulting in a canoe destroyed as it went over a waterfall. Don't skip the Unicorn Hill portage unless you really know what you are doing! One guy told us about his hobby of carving and burning canoe paddles. He takes a day or two to make each paddle. Often using the most exotic woods. Then he immediately burns them! Apparently it's a very meditative process. I relayed my story of the strange electronic beeping that had scared me silly a few nights earlier. That brought a chorus of chuckles around the fire. Other people had experienced this alien noise in the past. Turns out it was the song of a Saw-whet Owl.

Spinning yarns around the fire

Day 8: OK, really back to civilization.
Opeongo North Arm to Opeongo Access, 15km.

I was up at 5:30 today. I donned the complete dry suit as I planned to paddle out as early as possible to beat any wind. After a quick breakfast, I was on the water at ten past six. My quick breakfast consists of a Muesli Breakfast Pita quick fried in Olive Oil and smothered in Peanut Butter. I chase this with a Carnation Instant Breakfast and some coffee. Can be cooked and eaten in 10 minutes and still packs 7-800 calories.

Opeongo was kind to me again. An all-day rain had settled in. Because of my drysuit the rain didn't bother me. The rain was accompanied by calm waters for the entire paddle. I used the double blade and didn't take any breaks. The Opeongo Outfitters and Algonquin Outfitters shuttles passed me a couple of times and gave me a wide berth with a watchful eye. I made it from the tip of the north arm to the docks in 2 hours.

Opeongo Western Narrows

Back at the docks

While I was at the docks, Matt from Opeongo Outfitters said "Hi" and asked how the trip was. He had kept an eye out for me in case I needed a shuttle out on the back end of my trip. Did I mention how good they are? Matt said it was smart to get out early. The temps were dropping below freezing that night. They had plucked a couple of paddlers out of the lake the day before.

Opeongo in the spring, my buddy Peek said it best, "Opeongo in May is now on my 'why am I here?' list." I was lucky and prepared. With the trip over, I just had to deal with that flat tire on my brand new car. Turned out it was caused by a Porcupine Quill. Who'da thunk it?