"The Perilous Petawawa" Algonquin Adventure 2008

Access 27 (Brent): Cedar Lake, Petawawa River, Narrowbag Lake, Catfish Lake, Petawawa River, Perley Lake, Burntroot Lake, Robinson Lake, Whiskeyjack Lake, Remona Lake, Nipissing River

Voyageurs: Ainsley, Daniel, Darren, Lawrence, Phil and Scott

May 1

Mississauga - We were all excited as we left for the park at 7:00 pm up Highway 11 to North Bay and across Highway 17 to Mattawa, eventually reaching the road to Access 27. We arrived at the permit office just in off Highway 17 at 2:00 am and slept in the car until the office opened in the morning. It was a crisp, clear, starry night and we barely slept in anticipation of the day ahead.

Day 1 - May 2 - The Perilous Petawawa

With our permits in hand we headed down the road to Brent. About half way in we surprised two moose, one of which led us down the road a good 2 kilometers before finally veering off into the brush. A short while later we encountered a black bear standing on its hind legs, carefully observing us as we approached before eventually bolting into the woods. With the end of the road near we could see the water of Cedar Lake through the treed horizon.

Upon arrival at Algonquin Outfitters in Brent, Jake Pigeon was there to greet us. He was kind enough to provide some insight on our planned trip route, including an update on park conditions. In particular he warned us of the swift current flow when crossing the pool at the bottom of the 2,345 m portage on the Petawawa. His recommendation was to carry the canoes along the shoreline to the AFA logging road and take the bridge leading to the other side of the pool. I made a mental note.

Petawawa Falls            

The planned route was an ambitious one indeed, but I had confidence in my team's abilities. Our ultimate goal was to reach the shores of Whiskeyjack Lake and set up camp before nightfall. With our canoe rentals secured, we set out across an unusually calm Cedar Lake under overcast skies.

After crossing Cedar, we assembled at the landing of the 715 m portage at the mouth of the Petawawa River, and then headed upriver with confidence. After making short work of the first two portages, we prepared ourselves for the challenging 2,345 carry over Catfish Mountain. After a quick breather at the canoe rest at the top of Unicorn Hill, we pressed on, closing of the distance in roughly 1 hour. This portage terminates at a small, but fast flowing pool on the Petawawa. After a quick breather we launched the canoes.

Unicorn Hill on 2,345 m Portage            

First, it was Darren and I to cross. After surveying the pool we noticed a fast flowing swift a few meters wide that we would have to carefully navigate through. We built up a head of steam facing the bow of the canoe slightly up current with anticipation of punching through the swift and emerging on the other side. After only seconds of our approach I knew we were in trouble as the bow dipped and water began to flow over the gunnels. As the current tightly grasped our canoe and spun us around we capsized and spilled out into the frigid fast flowing water. Thinking fast, Darren flipped the canoe upright as the shock of the frigid water sunk in. We began to kick hard for our lives as we held the canoe tightly. After trying desperately to swim back to the launch area we realized the current was carrying us further down river towards the falls and Stack Rapids. Surely this would have meant serious injury or smashed canoes at the very least.

After regaining our senses and staying calm, we made the decision to kick hard for the far shore. As we broke free from the currents grasp we eventually made it to a rock landing on the far shore. Miraculously we emerged from the water unscathed as we tried to collect ourselves. We were thankfully wearing lifejackets. Believe it our not, all of our gear remained in the canoe despite not being tied down and we never even lost a paddle. Someone was looking out for us this day.

Wary of what just transpired, the rest of the group cautiously navigated the crossing without incident. I'm sure there were a few white knuckles with pounding hearts. These events drastically altered our travel plans. The team collectively decided to set up camp at the next available site so that we could warm ourselves and dry out. We all agreed.

We set up camp at the site along the 80 m portage at Catfish narrows. In no time, a roaring fire was built as we warmed ourselves and reflected upon the day's events. We were extremely fortunate that Mother Nature cooperated fully by offering us relatively mild temperatures and a stiff breeze to dry out our clothes, sleeping bags and packs.

Nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, would prevent me from trying my hand at some fishing. I was determined as ever and felt fortunate that my fishing gear was not an offer of sacrifice to the perilous Petawawa. I considered it a sign. In no time, Phil and I launched into Catfish Lake and our efforts were quickly rewarded. After only a few casts with my spinner I landed a respectable 16" Brook Trout. This was a sign of things to come as a short time later I boated an even larger 18" Brookie. We continued casting towards the boulders and stumps along the shoreline when Phil followed suit with a nice sized Brook Trout of his own. We were on top of the world. With some nice Specks on the stringer the anticipation of a tasty shore lunch grew. Our spirits however, were once again deflated when the rope stringer broke releasing all three fish. It was a new method of catch and release I thought. At least the thrill of the fish fighting on the end of the line remained.

Phil and Scott's Speckled Trout            

Later on, fortune turned once again. Both Phil and I each managed to catch another Brook Trout and we enjoyed a wonderful shore lunch after all. I realized there was a silver lining to capsizing the canoe as we never would have experienced this fantastic fishing.

Fine Catch of Brook Trout            

Day 2 - May 3 - Catfish Narrows to Whiskeyjack

We broke camp early after a good breakfast. As we paddled south down the northern half of Catfish I knew it would be a long day, one that would test us mentally and physically. I prayed for the rain to stay away, however I would be disappointed.

We quickly closed off the north section of Catfish which is like a separate lake altogether. Half way down the south section we passed alongside another group of paddlers. After exchanging greetings they invited us to stop by their campsite at the bottom of Catfish. With bad weather looming on the horizon and a tight schedule we decided to press on to Whiskeyjack.

After a series of meandering and shallow narrows, Catfish eventually terminates at the Petawawa River. The rapids at the rivers mouth appeared to be prime Brookie territory so we took some time out to fish. After only a few casts, Daniel's rod slammed back and a few moments later his first Algonquin Brook Trout was flopping about on shore. The action was picking up. A few casts later and Ainsley landed a nice sized Brookie that was released back into the water soon after. Reluctantly, we all packed up and headed upriver, leaving the good fishing behind.

Daniel's First Brook Trout            

Caught and Releasesed            

After negotiating a series of small portages the river widened into Perley Lake which is essentially part of the river. Darren, Lawrence, Phil and I paddled leisurely to the middle of Perley and decided to drift around awhile to wait for Ainsley and Daniel who were nowhere in sight. Just as Ainsley and Daniel came into view, the clouds opened up into a torrential downpour. In no time, we were soaked to the bone and all hopes of keeping dry were abandoned at this point. We paddled hard for the Portal Rapids leading to Burntroot Lake, with all paddles firing in unison like pistons. Upon reaching Portal Rapids we made the decision to press on for Whiskeyjack as we were already soaked.

After a short paddle across the top of Burntroot we reached the portage into Robinson Lake. This carry would prove challenging with several rock gardens and sink holes to contend with. To make matters worse, a beaver built a dam creating a large water hazard to negotiate. We had to carry the canoes across the length of the beaver dam, cautiously watching our footing as we walked it precariously like a tight rope. At this point I was thinking what other obstacles could we possibly encounter? Soon enough, the trail opened up to expose the glistening waters of Robinson Lake.

As we slipped into Robinson, the crystal clear, sparkling green water was a magnificent site to behold. We paddled westward passing an impressive island campsite with a large rock outcropping, before reaching the portage over to Whiskeyjack. The 25 m portage to Whiskeyjack is only a minor inconvenience and we closed it off with ease.

The water of Whiskeyjack is very clear and green and is one of Algonquin's headwater lakes. Having last visited Whiskeyjack in 1994, it was slightly different than I pictured in my mind. The water level seemed extremely high and I barely recognized the campsite where I had stayed before. I'd caught Brookie after Brookie, casting from shore on that trip. However, this time everything was underwater. As such, we paddled to another site further down the shoreline. Upon landing, we scrambled to set up our tents and the tarp, as the rain came down harder than ever. After a long, wet and exhausting day, we retired to the refuge of our tents for the night. We elected to forego dinner and a campfire, as the only thing on our minds was keeping dry and sleep.

Whiskeyjack Lake            

Base Camp On Wiskeyjack            

Day 3 - May 4 - Reprieve on Whiskeyjack

After a good night's sleep we awoke to a clear, partially sunny day. What a relief! Phil and I decided to try our luck at some fishing. We trolled around the lake a few times without success and there were no signs of any fish rising to the surface. The fishing was tougher than my last trip to Whiskeyjack, which produced some fine Brook Trout. It was very frustrating, but at least the weather was favourable.

Later that afternoon, we tried again. Almost immediately, my rod slammed back in defiance with the vibration of a good fish. After some excitement and several long runs I was able to land the nice 5 lb. Lake Trout. Unfortunately, that was the only fish Whiskeyjack would yield. But I was satisfied with the fish I had caught. I believe we were too early in the season for those illusive Whiskeyjack Brook Trout.

Whiskeyjack Lake Trout            

Later, Phil skillfully cleaned the fish and we enjoyed a tasty shore lunch Algonquin style. Ainsley, Darren and Lawrence prepared a fantastic meal of trout, pasta and rice which tasted oh so good! It was a perfect evening as we huddled around the campfire. What a great way to end the day!

Algonquin Shore Lunch            

Day 4 - May 5 - The Nipissing to Cedar

The warmth of the sunshine penetrated through the tent as we awoke to our final day in the park. We reluctantly broke camp and left our haven on Whiskeyjack. We headed north into Remona Lake and completed the portage to the Nipissing River with relative ease. It would be a long day on the Nipissing, but luckily we had the current at our backs all the way to Cedar Lake. We attempted fishing the numerous pools and prime Brookie real estate along the Nipissing, surprisingly without any success. Perhaps it was too early in the season?

As we reached Cedar Lake and eventually the dock at Brent, I felt a sense of relief to have survived the perils of the Petawawa River. It was another memorable trip and I felt fortunate to have survived to visit Algonquin another day.

Narration and Photography by Scott Smith