Some outdoorsy types dwell on paddling large bodies of water in record time, others bag peaks and others simply collect Tilley hats. All are obsessions or crazed fetishes; all give reason to continue going outdoors.
My mania is searching for lost canoe routes: historic waterways that have vanished due to disuse or mismanagement. One of my most intriguing routes is located in central Ontario known as the Noganosh/Island Lake/Magnetwan region, with Algonquin to the east, Georgian Bay to the west and the French River to the north. For several years, I’ve been researching and paddling a wide assortment of old routes used back in the early 20th century by forest rangers to connect a series of fire towers. I’ve located most, abandoned some and became fixated on one portage that would link all of them together. This “Holy Grail” is a two-kilometre trail that connects the non-operating Noganosh Provincial Park with its neighbouring Island Lake Forest and Barrens Conservation Reserve.
I first tried to locate it about a dozen years ago while working on a paddling guidebook. I didn’t even come close. A second attempt was made a couple of years ago, but this time from the side of the Island Lake Conservation Reserve. I found the trailhead with my canoe mate Tim Foley after a great amount of time wandering aimlessly on a number of faint animal trails. But we lost sight of it less than halfway along. We camped in the bush that night and then returned disappointed—but set on returning for another attempt.
I just returned from the third search of the infamous John Lake/Kelsi Lake Portage. Tim joined me again, and so did two paddling friends, Andy Baxter and Doug Ryan. It was far more successful than previous attempts, but I still returned disappointed, and even more crazed to return for a fourth attempt.
We came at it from the west side this time: Noganosh Provincial Park. The first day was spent paddling from Ess Narrows access along highway 522, east of Grundy Lake Provincial Park, to Smoke Lake. We had a lot of water to paddle—Pickerel River, which is simply an extension of Kawigamong Lake, and three short portages along Smoky Creek. It’s an easier way in than the Island Lake region, which has the ever-twisting Farm Creek that can sometimes be plagued by low water. A surprising cold front came in halfway along. Rain was so intense at times we had to bail water out of the canoes, and all four of us were mildly hypothermic by the time we set up camp.
Day two was spent paddling all the way east, across Noganosh Lake, base camping on Lost Lake. After camp was set up, we continued east to John Lake to search for the portage take-out. An hour into the search we found old flagging tape, and then the key ingredient—an empty can of beer. Success!
We returned to camp to enjoy a dinner of steak and veggies cooked over an open fire. Our island site caught the evening breeze and we were free from the bugs until just before dusk. A few drams of whisky later we went to bed, eager for our full day of trail marking and portage maintenance.
The first portion, to a small pond about halfway along, was relatively easy; maybe too easy. Sure, there were sections hidden by thick patches of green ferns and some old rock cairns that were pushed over by black bears searching for ants and grubs. But the old blazes on large popular and pine trees were still visible, and we could see the outline of a faint path most of the time. We just had to re-mark everything with flagging tape and florescent orange spray paint.
Once we walked along the north side of the pond (something we would have paddled if we brought over the canoes) things got far more challenging. It was beyond a puzzle, beyond finding Waldo, beyond finding a needle in a haystack. Only the odd piece of old flagging tape, mostly found rotting on the ground, and some old blazes and limbs sawed off of some big red pine, got us to the beaver dam that crosses over a small pond Tim and I had noted a couple years ago. After that, we lost the trail completely. It was late, the deer flies and mosquitoes were horrible, the heat was getting to us all, our water bottles were almost empty—so we pulled the plug and vowed to return once again, this time from the Kelsie Lake side, to continue our search.
Back at camp we soaked our sorrows with a few extra drams of whisky around the fire. We gawked at the stars, listened to the loons, told stories of past adventurous canoes trips—and started planning our “lost portage” redemption trip.
And check out the video of the trip on my KCHappy Camper YouTube channel.