Credit: Kevin Callan
Well, that was a crazy trip. I just returned from my paddling adventure around Algonquin Park: 350 km and 93 portages that added up to 68 km of portaging.
I lost 10 pounds, have muscles I've never seen on my body before and have mosquito bites all over my genitalia. Doesn’t sound pleasant — and some of it wasn’t. The most prominently silly portion was going up the Big East River. Never again! Four days of walking up rapids 80 per cent of the time — sometimes up to your waist. Andy, my canoe partner who took some holiday time to join me, was pissed at my route choice by day two. That’s way too early for a canoe partner, and good friend, to be pissed at you. His profanity was somewhat justified, however. Algonquin Outfitters' traditional route around Algonquin Park is properly titled. The Meanest Link is exactly that — mean.
Problem was, my main focus of the trip was to promote more people to get out and paddle wilderness areas for long periods of time. Not sure why I chose such a challenging route. My wife claims it’s because I’ll be 50 years old in a few months — and men do weird things when they approach 50. Three days into it and Andy and I both wanted to escape back to the norm of spending our days waiting for our workday to be over so we could spend our nights browsing the Internet to check on our work.
What got us through the first few days was the beauty of the river. It’s not well traveled — obviously — and the shoreline is made up of massive sandbars and mixed woodlands of pine and old-growth yellow birch and maple. We were alone and truly enjoying the wilderness solitude. It reminded me so much of a quote I like from Robert Perkins's film One Man in a Boat. Perkins looks out at a remote wilderness section and says, “I feel like rolling it up in a ball and swallowing it so no one else can have it.”
On the evening of the third day, we approached McCraney Creek; an obvious split in the river that flushes down cooler water from Algonquin’s McCraney Lake. It was a highlight for sure. It meant we would now leave the Big East and portage our way into the park. Problem is, you have two choices here — and neither one is pleasant. Traditionally, it would be wading again, against the current of McCraney Creek to the dam at the southern-end of McCraney Lake. Of course, this choice is even more challenging then walking up the Big East, due to shallower water and countless logs strewn across the tributary like a giant game of pick-up-sticks. It’s doable but this also marks the main place where the majority of paddlers attempting this route give up.
The second option is a relatively new one taken by a gang of six "linkers" a couple years back. They re-discovered an old road that led to Hood Lake and then an ancient portage that connects Hood Lake to McCraney Lake. The second option sounds easier — except the portage is almost two kilometres and makes its way up a steep incline most of the way. Also, getting to the road is a real issue. That was my breaking point on the trip. Andy and I had run out of water shortly after passing McCraney Creek and resorted to portaging our packs and canoe over wet rocks covered in greasy slime . It’s a pure miracle neither of us broke any limbs clambering over this boulder garden. I remember lifting my pack out of the canoe and finding it impossible to lift without Andy’s help. The pack became wet from all the water sloshing back and forth in the canoe from our wet feet — and it was raining.
The only thing that saved us at this point was a reminder from Andy that we were to be turtles on this trip, not rabbits. Many past trippers who attempted this route acted like rabbits; trying to complete the circle around the park as fast as possible. They were powered by youthful exuberance and male bravado. Our inspiration came from just having a reason to be out in Algonquin for a long period of time, to reconnect and re-energize before heading back to our jobs.
The turtle philosophy got us to the road safe ad sound. That’s where we camped for the third night, taking a couple of ibuprofen and a wee dram of whisky before bed.