algonquin radiant smoke
Credit: Kevin Callan

We found ourselves paddling to the south end of Cedar Lake on the Saturday of the July Long Weekend, and even though Andy and I had a camping permit for the lake, we couldn’t find an unoccupied campsite.

What to do? Crowds were never an issue on the route so far so we weren’t accustomed to searching out for an unused site. It was after 8:00 p.m. and it was getting dark fast — big problem. The prevailing winds also made paddling back up the lake not an option. So, we broke the rules and made a bush camp, making sure to leave no trace. Not the best choice but the only one that seemed feasible at the time.

The stiff breeze across the lake finally knocked the bugs down a bit on the small island where we set up. We even slept directly in the bug shelter. Andy and I just got cozy watching the sun set across the expanse of Cedar Lake and after a late dinner we curled up in our sleeping bags, protected only by a thin veil of black see-through mesh. Of course, the idea of staying the night in the shelter rather then setting the tent up might have been generated by pouring ourselves an extra whisky or two to celebrate getting past our halfway point. We didn’t get tipsy — just too comfortable to move.

We woke up extra early and escaped our illegal site before a park warden spotted us. We had a good defence made up in case we got caught, but it’s still against the rules of Algonquin to camp at a non-designated site.

Paddling downriver continued, but this time on the much bigger Petewawa River. There was a huge difference between the Petewawa and the Nippissing. Red pine dominated the riverbanks instead of white, and the portages avoided much bigger stretches of whitewater. We also saw more paddlers. We met only two on the lower Nippissing — a father and daughter on a fishing trip — but came across a couple-dozen on the Petewawa. Many were whitewater paddlers heading down the full-length of the river, equipped with banana-shaped boats and adorned with helmets and brightly-coloured PFDs. There were also anglers catching walleye and catfish where the Petewawa flushes into Radiant Lake; a bowl-shaped lake complete with sand beaches and historic crosses marking the graves of past log drivers.

A haze of smoke from distant forest fires blocked most of our view while crossing Radiant Lake. What a shame. Radiant is beautiful. It’s like no other lake in the park. It was also a little unnerving paddling through smoke. We later found out the fires were in northern Quebec but the smoke was thick enough to make breathing difficult. It was the first time I felt vulnerable out there.

Andy and I were able to reach where the Crow River plunges into the Petewawa River before making camp. The cascade was called Blueberry Falls and even though the campsite wasn’t the best, the scenery around us was spectacular.

The Crow River was the fourth river en route. It was flowing the wrong way, again. It didn’t matter much, however. The river has 14 portages, adding up to over four kilometres — so we walked more then paddled.

The difficulty of the Crow didn’t seem to matter much to us. Maybe we were in better shape at this point of the trip or maybe because the Crow River is one of the true gems of Algonquin. This river is legendary both for its scenery and for its incredible brook trout fishing. Nine casts during lunchtime gave me eight brook trout, each averaging a couple of pounds. It was like reliving that classic book The Incomplete Angler written by John D. Robins. It tells of two anglers on a canoe/fishing trip in Algonquin in 1943. How incredible to catch just as many fish as they did — proof that a long portage seems like the only thing left to keep a wilderness area wild.

Andy and I kept three small brook trout for dinner when we reached Lake Lavielle — another gem of Algonquin. We also were able to stay on Bill Swift Senior’s favorite campsite — a tradition for paddlers taking on the Meanest Link. The route was created in honour of him — one of the original owners of Algonquin Outfitters — who was known to have a “mean” exterior but a heart of gold.