I’ve taken the boat shuttle across Algonquin’s biggest Lake—Opeongo—countless times. It’s a quick and painless way to reach the more remote sections of the park. Each time I’ve sped across it, however, I felt like I was missing out on something special.
Opeongo is one big piece of water, covering a shoreline of 149 kilometres. The lake stretches 15 kilometres north-to-south and 14 kilometres east-to-west. It’s a perfect weeklong paddle—a massive lake with tranquil scenery, unlimited campsites and amazing sunsets.
Kristine, my girlfriend and paddling partner, joined me, as well as our two dogs (Angel and Oliver). With no necessary portages, we loaded up my 17-foot prospector at Algonquin Outfitters—Lake Opeongowith some luxury items (fresh fruit, veggies, camp chairs and an assortment of spirits) and started our paddle around the lake clockwise, heading to the small cluster of islands in the Northwest Arm for the first night.
Seconds after we pitched the tarp and tent a major storm hit and we spent most of the evening huddled under the tarp, cooking supper on my JetBoil (there was a fire ban on for the entire week). Tarps work great in rain storms—but become limited protection when the rain (and hail) is hitting you sideways.
Our first night we spent curled up in the tent, with two soggy dogs, both of whom decided to shake the dampness off their wet fur AFTER they got into the tent.
Our departure the next day was delayed. Most of the morning was spent hanging out our sleeping bags and air mats to dry in the sun.
Mid-day, the summer’s continual heat-wave returned with high crazy humidity and a healthy population of bothersome deer flies. So we bypassed a visit to the historic Dennison Farm. The family settled just northwest of the narrows entering the East Arm of Opeongo back in 1871. Not much remains of the site anyway.
Poor Captain John Dennison was killed by a black bear in 1881. He went to check his traps along the portage leading to Green Lake (now called Happy Isle). His eight-year-old grandson joined him. He assumed the trap was empty but when the Captain stepped over an immense log an injured and starving bear was waiting for him.
“Go get help!” he called out to his grandson.
The kid ran back to the canoe and paddled the 10 kilometres to the family farm only to find that his father and uncles were out on a fishing trip. It wasn’t until a couple days later they went back to the portage and found both the bear and the 82-year-old grandfather dead. The body was brought back to farm and buried Captain Dennison in a small clearing perched over the East Arm of Opeongo.
We camped for two nights on the northwest tip of Opeongo Island, overlooking Cape Breton Island. We had only planned on spending one night but high wind and waves kept us lounging, snacking and reading for a second stay.
Wind can be a real issue on Opeongo. Many paddlers have drowned on this lake, some of which have never been found. Windy Point, located near the entrance to the Northwest Arm, is one of the most notable places. It’s an exposed expanse of water where waves can gather in seconds.
Our route had us continue clockwise the fourth day, visiting the memorial to James Dickson who first mapped out Algonquin Park.
“As we float along the streams or skim over the calm, water of the lakelets almost every stroke of the paddle unfolds some new scene of rural beauty, seldom equalled in any part of our fair province, and to paint them in all their pristine beauty would take the most gifted pen and pencil of either author or artist.”
We also paddled Annie Bay before skirting along the south shore to the East Arm and then exited at the Narrows, into the South Arm. That’s when the wind picked up. Jones Bay wasn’t a pleasant paddle but we managed the crossing before the waves became unmanageable. I think both dogs got a little seasick. Then, we were able to stay pretty much protected by keeping to the left side of the bundle of islands three-quarters the way along the South Arm.
All the campsites were taken on the islands, except for Bates Island. We choose a spot up on an exposed piece of granite along the main shore rather than Bates Island. I never could camp there after learning about a bear attack that happened there back in 1991.
Raymond Jakubauskas and Carola Frehe met a horrible fate by a healthy eight-year-old male bear weighing 310 pounds (140 kilograms). Carola was the first to be attacked and then the bear turned on Raymond when he attempted to drive the bear off with an oar. It’s believed they both died quickly from single blows to the head—an apparent tactic used by bears when preying on moose calves. The brutish part of it is that the bear dragged the bodies further away from the campsite, feeding on them, then covering them with leaves, for five full days.
It was actually Jerry Shmanda, past manager of the Opeongo Algonquin Outfitter store, that was the first to arrive. The campers were delayed and he went looking for them. When Jerry arrived on the island, seeing all the gear, boat and even food (an exposed tray of ground beef), just sitting there, he felt there was something just not right with the scene. He left and returned with park rangers and police. The bear was found standing over the bodies 125 metres from the campsite and was shot, dead.
Gord Downie of Tragically Hip characterized the event in his song The Bear
I waited for more men to come
They docked their boats and cocked their guns
The time for truth and reconciliation's gone
But with my belly full I intended to get
I'm the Islander
Woke up in the dead of spring
More hungry than anything
The lake calmed after a quick but violent storm. Kristine and I huddled with the dogs under the tarp again and watched everything unfold from an amazing viewing area on our elevated campsite. A gorgeous sunset followed and we slept well our last night on Opeongo; loons calling, owls hooting and wolves barking.
Opeongo is one majestic lake. Next time you visit, consider paddling around it rather than taking the boat shuttle across it.