- Smoke Lake to Bonnechere

September 6-13, 2018 - by Wanda Spruyt

(a.k.a "tentsterforever" on the forum)

We looked forward to this trip for so long, had taken most of the fall and winter to make our plans. The choice of lakes this time was made for a different reason than for other trips. Advancing age and creaking bones made me aware of doing portages that are called the 'Devils Staircase', 'Staircase to Heaven', 'Heart Attack Hill' and others like it which are described as steep/difficult might become impossible to do. If not doing them now, it likely won't happen, at least for me. So I focussed on having to get into some kind of shape to tackle this trip to do the Devils Staircase.

Thursday, September 6th

We have never been to the south side of Hwy 60 starting from Smoke, so that was a first as well. It was a reasonably easy drive up, and by 1 o'clock we had the canoe packed and were ready to go, along with a whole mitt full of other canoes. We were aware that this part of the park is called the 401 of Algonquin, but had high hopes that this far into September it wouldn't be so busy. We were sooo wrong.

Knowing that everyone was going to have to do the short portage to Ragged Lake, we anticipated line ups. However, canoe traffic spread out rapidly, and with the wind in our backs we made good time, only finding 1 couple at the portage. It has a nice beach and changing into our hiking boots we geared up. We were surprised to realize this short 240 m portage was really steep! Mostly a washed out creek bed that was slippery and had rolling rocks, we carefully made our way up, twice. We have never managed to do a single carry, and did not this time either.

I now know why there are so few pictures of this portage, you need hands and feet to get up it! Packing over as many years as we have, starting a long time ago, and at that time taking everything and the kitchen sink, we got better over time. But we are unable to manage only one pack each. We need 2 tents, as Joyce has a noise sensitivity. We always end up packing 3 waterproof sealines and a backpack. The medium bag is our food bag, plus our cooking equipment, and is usually real heavy.

We always eat breakfast lunch and dinner, the dinner being a 2 portioned dehydrated meal each and every day. It was purchased this time around for weight reduction and for ease. We have tried different brands over time, but only a few were to our liking. Somewhere along the line I ran into YAK, a freeze dried meal supplier based out of Quebec, and decided to give them a try. All our dinners and 3 breakfasts were purchased from them.

Back to arriving at the Ragged Lake portage .. I huffed and puffed up the short portage, while Joyce did so with a lot less effort.

It was hot (above the 30 degree mark) and we were real happy to see Ragged Lake, where we would stay the first night, before traveling on to Big Porc and then to Bonnechere.

Lots of campsites were already taken on Ragged. We were paddling towards the Archers Bay side of the lake to get closer to the last sites before the big portage the next morning. We took the second last site before reaching the portage.

The site we chose was #6 on the PCI map, #7 being too small for 2 tents. Well this site instantly got a nickname, and was bombarded to Mount Kilimanjaro. Man, it was steep as all get out, had 3 levels, and was quite large, but had no more then 2 flat tent pads, on the top level, although nicely apart. It had a good fire pit and a lovely view over the lake, but the site was badly eroded. The landing is a gravel beach.

We had steak and salad for the first night. It tasted out of this world to me, as I had just finished a trip this morning with my friend Essie. This Algonquin trip with Joyce which had started at noon was the second part of my holidays.

There was a sand beach around the corner. We headed there to scrunch for firewood and a swim. It was still quite warm, and the water felt great, but there were many clams standing open on the sandy bottom by the gravelly beach, which meant swimming with watershoes on. No problem, it was refreshing. there was not another person in sight.

With some nice bleached, cork dry cedar chunks that we gathered, managed to get a great fire going. A beautiful sunset was our moment of the day, followed by a fantastic starry night. What a start to the trip!

Around 10 pm the loons were sounding their haunting calls all around the lake, which echoed between the hills.

Friday, September 7th

Up around 8 am, only to find out that breakfast was going to be an issue. Joyce likes to eat oatmeal in the morning, I do not, but I ususally do the packing and had to admit I had totally forgotten oatmeal. Yikes!

This year was also the first year we had purchased some freeze dried meals for breakfast, also from YAK. I can't say enough good things about them. They're filled with lots of great tasting and great textured eggs and vegetables, plus the portions are very large. It was time to try the cheese omelet, which I had for 3 mornings. I'd brought fresh onions and red bell pepper, and shelf stable bacon. It would have to be enough for both of us with a toasted bagel and tea for breakfast.

However, we then noticed then that we'd forgotten the cheese! Oh noooo, a Dutchgirl without her cheese. That is just not right. Having tried other brands of freeze dried egg and not liking them, I was quite apprehensive. But ohhh my, this was really really good, and with our additions, enough for 2 people easily.

By 9.30 we were packed up and off to the portage to Big Porc, the 590m Devils Staircase. Another beautiful day, although it was cool enough to see our breath. It took only about 15 minutes to get to the landing, which was muddy and soppy. We passed an area with drowned out trees, making things look pretty spooky.

Arriving at the Devils Staircase portage ...

No one was there yet, so lots of space to unload. We each took a heavy pack and the small stuff, and set out onto the path. Oh what a climb it turned out to be! Yesterday Kilimanjaro and now Mt. Everest!

The steps in the portage were so far from each other it was really tough, and high enough that it was hard to step up with a heavy pack on the slippery clay and rocks. It took everything I had to get up the portage. Even Joyce, who is an acomplished athlete, found it hard. I get it why there are so few pics of this portage as well! We again had to double the portage, and although I was surprised at my having survived the climb twice, I had just enough energy to get back in to the canoe to continue paddling.

We took some time to snack on gorp and drink some water before heading out on Big Porc. Initially, we got a bit confused as to where the portage to Bonnechere should be, but had it figured out after floating for a bit while studying the map and being pushed by the wind.

We'd found Ragged Lake scenic, and Big Porc was as well. Several point sites were taken and looked like nice ones, while other sites would not accomedate 2 tents. With the wind picking up and the sun in our faces, we soon felt we were getting a wind burn. We arrived at the 200m portage to Bonnechere tired, but eager to go on to our destination. By now we looked like two raccoons, our sunglasses burned into our faces. The portage was a short easy walk.

Paddling into Bonnechere, we soon saw the 'gaga' site (#2 on the PCI map), where Joyce had set her hopes for. Unfortunately, it was taken. We ended up checking out every site, paddling up the lake, through the narrows and across the 'razor back', which had just enough water to not get stuck on. We felt like we had a current against us and our arms were full of lead.

In the narrows there are 2 sites but these were too small, with only 1 good tent pad each, and so dark, they did not appeal. Finally, after realizing site #4 and #5 (on the PCI map) would not do, 5 being a tiny site on a small point with not a flat tent pad in sight, we mustered our last bit of strength and headed for number#6, hoping it would be better. And oh was it ever .. stradled between Bonnechere and Cradle Lakes It was large, open, with day-long sun, and with a fire pit out of this world! This pit is hands down the best one in Algonquin we have seen so far!

The landing on the Bonnechere side was 2 feet deep goop. We managed, but that was a bit of a downer.

The Cradle Lake side.

The firepit.

The fire pit reflected lovely heat back to us at night, and it had good seating logs too. Cradle Lake had a beautiful blue green color, and sandy landing spot at our campsite. We eagerly got in for a swim.

It would have been nice to approach with the canoe from that side, but we were done with portaging. With multiple flat tent pads, this site had everything we wanted and was more protected then the 'gaga site' (#2 on PCI map).

And we had another sunset and starry night to enjoy!

A spaghetti dinner (2 person pouch) filled us to the brim, and we could actually not eat all of it. It tasted fantastic .. veggies and lots of meat!

There was a pile of firewood, and someone had left a whole dry pine tree. We had brought the saw with us, so Joyce decided to cut it all up. That fire was one of the best. With the night air cooling quickly, it was a toasty experience sitting near the large fireplace rocks. Sleep was easy to come by after the long day.

Saturday, September 8th

It got quite cold through the night, but we only noticed when we went to bed, or moved away from the fire. We ended up sleeping so soundly that the morning was half gone by the time we woke up. This was so unlike us that we were both laughing about it. however, we were quite hungry and went for a full breakfast .. an omelet with herbs, toasted bagels and tea.

We decided to explore some, and paddled back towards the 'gaga site', where slightly behind it we would walk the 1250m portage to Lemon Creek Pond. We noticed the 'gaga site' was now empty,and wondered whether we should move.

We landed and climbed up. It certainly belongs on the list of 'best sites'. The view is amazing with its tentpads between the red pines, set back from where Joyce is standing in the photo. But a cool breeze was blowing from the north. While standing on the ridge looking out over the lake, we realized the site was quite open to the wind and weather. We decided we'd rather stay at our more protected site.

The portage was soon found and it turned into a lovely walk in the woods. But the path was narrow, and looked not used that much. It also had some good ankle-breakers in there and I was happy it was not part of our trip.

Ankle breakers.

The trail went along a beutiful meadow as well as some very large old white pines.

On the way back, we enjoyed the sunshine while paddling. We slowly make our way back .. to get some laundry done, read for a while and start rehydrating dinner which was veggie stew, with potatoes. I know from experience that especially potatoes take a while to rehydrate. It took nearly 2 hours, (longer than stated on the package by 1 1/2hrs) then we prepared as per instructions and it was absolutely fantastic and again more than plenty.

Sunday, September 9th

Man, the good weather just keeps on coming! We woke to some warmer air, and set out to make breakfast. We then had a coffee and decided to prepare a lunch and go day tripping to Phipps, Kirkwood and maybe Pardee.

A narrow creek with 2 newly built beaver dams connected us to Phipps lake. It was a lovely paddle. We'd hoped for moose, but there were none. The portage was easy, but we noticed the steep hills around the lake.

Paddling on, we saw a campsite appear on our left, on a point. We stopped to have a better look. It had 2 tent-pads that were nice and flat. A rock face with a highbacked cut to sit in would keep you out of the wind and in the sun in the afternoon. The second campsite rose steeply out of the water, and we could not find a good landing spot, so we paddled by it.

Creek to Phipps Lake

Portage landing looking at Phipps Lake

1st campsite on Phipps Lake

Phipps site out of the wind

Second campsite on Phipps Lake

The portage to Kirkwood (an easy 60 meters) came into sight. We were getting hungry, so we paddled to the small island that we could see from the portage, to have some lunch. Again we noticed the steep rise of the hills out of the water.

There was a sandy and rocky landing spot. It was another 'kilimanjaro' campsite! It had a large, open,but steep access to the site .. and with almost nowhere to pitch a tent. the campsite was just too sloped. But on the very top there was a small reasonably level spot for a small tent, a fire pit and a bit of seating.

It was a very warm day, and being protected by the hills, we hadn't been slowed down by the breeze at all. We were leisurely sitting in the warm sun on the rocks with our lunches. All of a sudden, a loud bang had us sitting up. A whole flotilla of canoes was coming off the portage and on to the lake. A family with lots of young kids, grandparents and parents, they had heavy loads. But what a fun thing to do, its rare enough we see young parents taking on a canoe trip with portages and a handul of energetic kids.

The very sloped Kirkwood Lake island campsite.

The Kirkwood Lake island campsite

After a bit, we also paddled on to the 770m portage to Pardee and Lawrence Lake. It was getting late in the afternoon, and we decided to just hike the portage and then to the canoe and paddle back.

Pardee / Lawrence Lake

The family that had passed us was eating a delayed lunch on the portage. Given their mountain of equipment, we offered our help to get it to the other side. This seemed to be appreciated and we each took a pack and paddles and walked the lovely trail. At the end, we saw the logs clogging up the narrow connection between Pardee Lake to the left and Lawrence Lake to the right. It made for a good photo-op. Paddling back I realized that the falls we'd heard coming down to the portage at Kirkwood was actually a really lovely spot too, so we stopped there for another photo.

Kirkwood Lake Falls

We arrived back at our campsite a couple hours later, and set out to make coffee on my new gadget .. a woodburning stove. This one is an Amazon special, heavy duty aluminum,( price $19.95.). Its made by "Wolfyok".

Woodstove by "Wolfyak"

Woodstove by "Wolfyak"

It folds away into itself, and is lightweight & small. It did a remarkably quick job of heating the water (about 3 minutes on a handfull of twigs). I was very pleased with it. It was stable and had no problem holding the pot.

Of all camping equipment, camp stoves of all kinds interest me the most. Raised by parents who tent-camped with us from a very early age, one of my memories is of a copper Primus stove from the 50's, which produced a roaring jet engine sound, and my mom finally having some peace and quiet from us kids, as the noise was too loud to talk over. Last year that memory came running back when I bought an MSR dragonfly stove (it simmers too, just like the old primus), and it has the same roaring jet engine noise, and I love it. Jeez, I must be old to get nostalgic like this.

Soon after dinner, the sunset was upon us and another colourful night took our breath away.

Once the stars were out, we tried to find different constellations, but why they didn't seem to be in the right spot I'll never know. Or maybe the hooch we drank had something to do with that.

Monday, September 10th

It was break-up-and-move day, as we wanted to get to Ragged Lake and spend a day there before heading back to the access point. It was overcast, but quite warm. We took our time, ate lunch and then headed for the portages.

There was no one else on Bonnechere, and even Big Porc was empty. We actually got to the Devils Staircase quite quickly, and walking it downward seemed much easier. With the foodback almost empty, I was able to take on a bit more weight for the hike down. It was starting to spit, and the clay and loose rocks were very slippery. We wore good hiking shoes, which was a help, but Joyce still nearly turned an ankle with the canoe on her head.

By the time we launched on Ragged, it was starting to pour. Hard! We fished for the rain jackets, and decided to take any half decent campsite as soon as possible. There was no such thing.

Heading towards Birch Point and Wams Reef, we realized that most campsites were on steep slopes, with 2 or more levels. Few had flat tent pads. Those sites with flat tent pads were taken. The rain was now coming down in sheets. Just before Wisp Lake we came upon an open spot on the left, which thankfully was a campsite, was not on a steep slope and my gosh, had several good tent pads.

Campsite near Wisp Lake

A nice sandy beach to land on.

Stringing up the tarp was done in no time, so we had a resonable dry spot to sit, as the rain had not yet penetrated trough the pines. We made coffee and we drank about a gallon of it. We then saw the rain backing off enough to get the tents up. We also realized we had close neighbours on all sides. Loud ones. 2 sites were occupied by a total of 16 boys and 2 adults, and they were calling across the water to each other. A third site also had a group of young men, who had an unrepeatable vocabulary. After setting up and eating dinner, the rain returned, so everyone dove for the tents. No fire tonight. It became very quiet very soon, and nothing else was heard until the morning.

Having put new rope on the tarp. We used Samson-Zing arborist line for its lightweight, enormous strength, and non-stretch property. My main reason for bringing a tarp was to have a dry spot to sit for meals. I don't want the whole thing to weigh much more then a pound and a half. Otherwise it would be smarter to just by a bigger tent.

I needed to learn how to tie the ropes without the knots slipping, and still be able to give one yank to have the whole thing come free when taking the tarp down. So I spent several weeks at home with an online youtube video, a shoe lace and an old armchair to learn all the different knots, only to realize I needed a way to remember this stuff too. Yikes! Answer: Don't worry. When its pouring outside, the memory comes back real quick. It stopped raining through the night and this was the scene we woke up to next morning ...

Tuesday, September 11th

With the clouds dissipating under a warming sun, we started making plans for the day. We realized we would need to collect firewood, as there wasn't a piece available on the site. For some reason, Ragged Lake is ringed with stoney edges and lots of dead wood. After having another coffee and packing the last of the peanutbutter/nutella wraps for lunch, we set out for the day, planning to paddle around Birch Point and into Parkside Bay.

It was dead quiet. The other campsites didn't make any sound, nor did the loudmouths on the other side of us. We sawed and picked up dead wood as we went. On one of the stops we found this beautifully coloured mushroom ...

Swinging into West Bay, in the distance we saw an island with a humongous beach, and we went to go see it. It was available.

The sand beach surrounds the island for three quarters of the way. Multiple flat tent-sites are on the top of the hill. An ideal site for a family with kids. But, you do have to go down that hill everytime you need water, unless you stay on the beach, which is also possible.

Paddling on towards Parkside Bay, we marvelled at the fact that we saw no one. Most campsites were available, and many looked good. Staying to the east side of Parkside Bay, because it was in the sun, we checked out several sites.

The first site across from the island was taken. however, the following 2 point sites (#7 and #9 on PCI map) were absolutely wonderful. Getting out and taking pictures kept us busy for some time. There was not a breath of wind and not a bug in sight.

2nd campsite on Parkside Bay

I noticed the most wonderful artistic display on a shallow shelf in the lake, just off the campsite. Someone had been busy and had been very creative. We marvelled at it. It looked so completely right being there.

Parkside Bay artistic display

By then it was cooling off, so it was time to head back for a drink and some dinner.

The trip was coming toward an end. the next day we'd pack up and go back to the access point. Neither of us were looking forward to it.

Wednesday, September 12th

When I opened my eyes and peaked out of the tent, everything was covered in a thick fog. It wasn't all that early, and we realized we'd have to wait a bit before we would be able to see enough to start paddling. So, we dressed warmly and enjoyed a fantastic last breakfast and sipped hot coffee. While sitting on the log near the firepit, we were struck how quiet and peaceful we felt looking out at this busy, busy lake ...

Once again a succesful trip. It had everything: forgotten food, hard portages, beautiful weather, twinkling stars .. but most of all a desire to trip with my daugter and just be. No pressures, no 'must do's', and lots of laughter.

The paddle back across Smoke Lake was uneventful, again with wind in the back and sun galore. The parking lot was still full of cars. Just in time for lunch, we went to the restaurant at the outfitter and ate a blissfully good tasting hamburger before heading home.