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Date: September 28th – 30th, 2023

A Small Crisis on Big Porcupine Lake in Algonquin Park, Trip Map with Route and Campsite Information

To purchase your own copy (physical & digital formats), visit Maps By Jeff

Background

This was going to be my fifth trip in Algonquin’s backcountry since August. I wasn’t planning anything crazy, I just wanted to be in the park to enjoy the perfectly sunny, hot forecast, and the peak fall colours. Booking the night before I was set to leave, most of the options I was considering were already at capacity, especially on the Saturday (Night 3).

I was hoping to basecamp for all three nights, but with the routes I was interested in paddling, that wasn’t looking like an option. I ended up settling on Big Porcupine Lake for the first two nights, and then moving to Bonnechere Lake for the third night. I had camped on both of those lakes before, and had passed through the area several times (I ended up not even needing to reference my map during my travels), but I was still happy to make it my destination route for the weekend.

On there-and-back trips, I typically prefer to do the longer travel at the beginning, and then head back towards my car as the trip goes on. This trip was going to be the opposite. I was going to move further away from the access point, and have the longest travel day at the end of the trip. Clearly, it was only a preference and it wasn’t a dealbreaker for me.

Day 1 — Smoke Lake to Big Porcupine Lake

In typical fashion for the 2023 tripping season, my first morning started by loading my canoe onto the car while raccoons were scavenging through garbage bags on the street. To explain that last sentence, basically every trip so far in 2023 had started on a Thursday morning, which was garbage day at my parent’s house (where I store my canoe). And you know… Toronto… raccoons… They were literally 10ft away from me and didn’t care. We were BFF’s, basically.

I arrived at Smoke Lake at 8:00 AM and got on the water 15 minutes after that. Being late-September, there were very few motorboats, especially compared to when I had crossed Smoke Lake just two weeks prior during my trip to Parkside Bay.

A gentle headwind began halfway through my paddle, but it wasn’t too bad. It slowed me down, but there were no waves or white caps. I was paddling very leisurely; I was in no rush.

It took 1.5 hours to cross Smoke Lake with my leisurely paddling. I met a group of two men at the end of the portage; they were just finishing 4 nights on Parkside Bay. They said their friend came with, but once they got to the campsite, the friend felt “sick”. They thought he had high anxiety and wasn’t actually sick. But they paddled him all the way back from Parkside Bay to the Smoke Lake access point, and then went back to their campsite on Parkside Bay. That’s a total of 9 hours of just paddling. Guess who isn’t getting an invite to next year’s canoe trip!?

I lathered up with sunscreen and gave Elo some water at the end of the portage, then set off for the long paddle. The wind continued to grow stronger as I crossed Ragged Lake, but I was still paddling leisurely. I only saw one campsite occupied on Ragged Lake—the popular cliff site—but otherwise the lake was empty.

Beautiful fall colours on Ragged Lake with dead-rooted trees in the water in the foreground, September 2023 v1

The fall colours were looking pretty along Ragged Lake. The maple dominated shorelines came through in patches, meaning some campsites would have a great view, while others, not so much. But my favourite view of the whole trip was looking north from the narrow stretch at the Ragged Lake end of The Devil’s Staircase portage. With all of the dead tree stumps scattering the water in the foreground, and the vivid maple shorelines in the background, it was a surprisingly picturesque combination that took my breath away. Since I was paddling south, the view was behind me, but I knew on my way back a few days later I would get more time to admire it.

I arrived at The Devil’s Staircase at 11:30 AM and did my first carry with my canoe, my barrel, and my camera gear. And Elo, of course. I’ve done this portage many times in the past, but never with a dog strapped around my waist while carrying all my gear. I didn’t need to stop for any breaks, but it was the first portage of the season that actually felt ‘difficult’. All of the other portages I had done in 2023 were short, easy, or both short and easy. The Devil’s Staircase took my breath away. Not in the same way as the beautiful view on Ragged Lake. No, like it literally took the breath out of me. And my shoulders were sore from carrying half my body weight worth of gear during my first carry. But it was a rewarding feeling when I finished both carries.

I spent some time collecting firewood because there was plenty of great deadfall. Branches that were around 2” thick and very dry. They would be easy to snap over my knee with no need for sawing or splitting with the baton method. It was perfect. I had to fill every tiny pocket of empty space in the canoe to fit all of the wood inside, along with all my gear, but I managed to make it work. Elo still got the whole bow section to herself. Her name is Queen Elo after all, so she deserved the queen treatment.

Paddling through Big Porcupine Lake, the winds finally picked up to the point that there were small waves and gentle white caps. It was enough to slow me down, but not enough to make me stop my leisurely paddling. I paddled by a handful of vacant campsites, but I was heading to the south of the lake. I had my hopes set on one of the campsites near the 190m portage into Bonnechere Lake. On the entire lake, the only campsite that I saw occupied was Campsite #13, all the way in the northwest end of the lake.

Somehow, the headwind turned into a tailwind during both of the narrow sections. I can’t explain how that made any sense. But it happened. During the second narrow section, the one separating the north and south half of the lake, the water was shallow and the wind came to a complete stop. It was only then that I realized just how hot the sun was. The whole morning was cloudy and windy so I didn’t feel the extent of the heat.

Every campsite in the south of the lake was empty. My initial plan was to look at Campsite #4, Campsite #5, and Campsite #6. The former I had visited before, but the latter two I had never seen in person. Based on some pictures that I saw online, they looked decent. My main concern was that the lake was supposed to be fully booked on my second night, so I knew I would have neighbours very close by if I chose one of those campsites. But that was a sacrifice I was willing to make for a nice site.

I ended up choosing Campsite #4. It was a perfect place to call home for two nights. The site was well protected from the wind and would get lots of sunshine throughout the day. The only thing it was missing was a view of the sunrise, but that was a small trade-off that I accepted.

Exposed campsite on Big Porcupine Lake in Algonquin Park, September 2023

I arrived close to 2:00 PM. It took about 6 hours of travelling, but I was totally fine with that length considering I was paddling at a leisurely rate against a headwind the whole time. Plus, I had collected about 40-50 lbs of firewood (literally).

I pitched my tent at the end of the cliff because it offered a beautiful view onto the western shoreline. I planned on keeping the fly door open the whole trip so that I could wake up to the sunrise shining on the opposing shoreline. The full moon was also going to be in the sky the whole night, so the moonlight would make a nice nightlight in the tent with the fly door open.

There was just one small problem. I pitched the tent WAY too close to the edge of the cliff. I needed to be extremely careful with Elo to make sure I kept her on a very tight leash every time we went in and out of the tent. It was a very precarious spot with questionably flat ground for me to sleep comfortably. But hey, I like to live on the edge. I also like to make terribly cheesy puns.

Over the next few hours, I became very paranoid about sleeping at the edge of the cliff. What if Elo saw a squirrel and ripped through the mesh door while I was sleeping and it was dark out? I took some very large wooden logs and made a barrier between the tent door and the cliff’s edge; to act kind of like the guard rails at the side of the highway. To be extra safe, I ended up sleeping with Elo tethered to me. I put the handle of her leash around my ankle. It was long enough that I could still sleep inside my sleeping bag with Elo beside me, tethered by the leash. I barely even noticed the leash, to be honest, but it gave me the reassurance that Elo was definitely not falling off that cliff. Well, at least not without me!

Green Eureka Suma tent pitched at the side of a cliff in Algonquin Park

I didn’t realize until after I had fully set up camp that behind the campsite was a massive marshy, swampy, disgusting overgrowth area. I don’t know what it would technically be classified as, but it did not look inviting at all. I’m sure the wildlife enjoyed it though. I also didn’t realize that the marshy, swampy, disgusting overgrowth area would come back to bite me later in the trip. But we’ll get to that later.

For the time being, Elo was going crazy chasing all of the squirrels that inhabited the area. Elo takes her work seriously as Senior Squirrel Chaser at Big Porcupine Incorporated.

Elo sleeping beside the fire pit at a campsite on Big Porcupine Lake in Algonquin Park

At around 4:00 PM I made myself some dinner. I had Bob Marely playing quietly in the background. When I added the water to the dehydrated meal, I checked the time to start my 15-minute timer. It was exactly 4:20 PM. Right on, mannnn.

It’s a science adding the right amount of water to dehydrated meals. It’s never the exact amount that they say, but I think I nailed it that time. The meal was an AlpineAire Spicy Sausage Bolognese. It tasted pretty good; the tomato sauce tasted authentic and the pasta had a great texture.

It was really nice having a quiet afternoon. Between Ragged Lake and Big Porcupine Lake, I had only seen a total of two campsites occupied. For the Friday Night and Saturday Night of the trip (Nights 2 and 3), the entire area and surrounding lakes were pretty much fully booked, so I was enjoying the peace and quiet while it lasted. I was just hoping the adjacent Campsite #3 would go unoccupied on the second night. I really liked that campsite’s thunder box better too, so it would have been a real shame if someone ended up camping at that site.

I set up my GoPro for a sunset timelapse and then went for a paddle at 6:15 PM. I was the only one in the south half of the lake. I paddled past every site between Campsite #1 and Campsite #10, and they were all empty. The sunset was also particularly pretty from the array of clouds in the sky, whisking through one another and changing shapes as they moved in front of the setting sun.

Sunset on Big Porcupine Lake in Algonquin Park, September 2023

The first campsite I checked out was the island with one site; it was a decent site but kind of small and I wasn’t a fan of the canoe landing. I found out afterwards that a better landing existed on the eastern side. The next campsite was the big cliff site on the eastern shore. That was an interesting site, with the standout feature being the massive boulder on top of the already large rock face. I climbed to the top with Elo; it provided a commanding view of the west shoreline during the sunset. It was awesome. Last on the list was the island campsite across from mine. It was very dark by the time I got there, so I only stayed for a few minutes. That was my least favourite of the bunch and probably my least favourite campsite that I’ve seen on Big Porcupine Lake.

I got back to my campsite at 7:45 PM. I had an excessive amount of firewood, but I had forgotten to collect kindling and birch. I quickly found what I needed and got a decent sized fire going to keep my bones warm during the chilly evening. I listened to some music quietly while enjoying my traditional banana bread, bagel, marshmallows, and whiskey.

I knew astrophotography opportunities would be very limited during the trip with the illumination of the full moon, but I snapped a few photos and one timelapse while I was able. I went to hang my barrel at 8:15 PM and I caught a glimpse of the moonrise through the trees. It was a full moon and it was glowing very bright. I wasn’t expecting to see it from my west-facing campsite so it was a very pleasant surprise and a nice treat to end the evening. I sat by the fire for a little while longer after that. After watching the moon rise higher into the sky, Elo and I went into the tent at around 10:00 PM.

Day 2 — Rest Day on Big Porcupine Lake

I awoke on Day 2 thinking that the sunrise had already happened because of how bright it was in the tent. I was wrong. At 5:30 AM, what I was seeing, was the moon. It was perfectly framed in the middle of my tent door, on the western shoreline. It was glowing very strong and was providing lots of light inside the tent while it lowered in the sky.

After admiring the moon for a couple seconds, I went back to sleep until 7:00 AM. If 7 is the first number that I see when I check the time, that’s considered a very late morning for me. The surrounding landscape was very pretty during the early morning sun, with its colorful shorelines and islands of varying sizes dotting the lake. I spent some time taking photos and videos before doing anything productive.

Red solo canoe at the shoreline of my campsite on Big Porcupine Lake in Algonquin Park, during a fall morning in September 2023 v3

At close to 8:00 AM, I saw a soloist paddling towards the portage beside my campsite. They had the same setup as the soloist that I saw a few weeks earlier on Biggar Lake, who was also paddling on the water at an unusually early time. Since the portage was only a few metres away from my campsite, I walked over to see if it was coincidentally the same person.

It didn’t end up being him, but we did spend a good 45 minutes chatting with each other. He was actually part of a larger group in the northern half of the lake, but was heading out for a solo day trip. He recognized my Algonquin & Beyond logo, so we spoke about my website for a bit. He worked for Camis, the company behind the Ontario Parks reservation system, so we spoke about that for a little while too.

After parting ways with the non-solo soloist, I went to use the thunder box and collect some wood while I was in the forest. I ventured deep past Campsite #3, walking north alongside the swampy bog. I found a lot of great wood and was making a pile to bring back to the campsite. Elo was running around, chasing squirrels, you know, typical fun dog stuff. But that’s when everything went downhill.

I heard Elo drinking water.

That wasn’t good. The only water source beside us was the bog. And it was very, very, very (did I say very) gross. Especially at the water’s edge where she was drinking. She was no more than 15 ft away from me but I immediately ran over to her. In all of her excitement, and probably thinking that I was chasing her, she decided to jump straight into the water. My heart dropped. I very quickly gave the “come here” command. She was only in the water for 5-10 seconds, but it was enough to get her full coat covered with the muck. And it was definitely long enough for me to be the angriest she had ever gotten me.

I brought her straight back to camp and put her into the lake to wash off. Who knows what type of bacteria, virus, or other unwanted grossness was in that water. How bad really was that water? It looked absolutely terrible, but did that mean it for sure had bad stuff in it? If it was as bad as it looked, what were the chances she would actually get sick? If she did get sick, how long until symptoms would show? And the most important question… should I skip Bonnechere Lake for my third night and head home on Day 3 instead?

It was a decent travel day back to my car, and would be even longer if I was travelling from Bonnechere Lake. Plus, the time it would take to pack up camp beforehand, load my car when I got to the access, and then do the three hour drive to get home. If she started showing any symptoms, it would be really, really not ideal. How the heck do you even deal with vomiting or diarrhea when you’re in a solo canoe and can’t really move without risk of tipping?

No matter what all the answers were to that long list of hypothetical questions, two things were for certain. First, Elo was staying on her leash 100% of the rest of the trip. Either in my hands, or securely tethered. Absolutely no exceptions. Second, I knew that this was inevitably going to be on my mind and causing me stress for the rest of the trip. Elo is up to date with all of her vaccinations, including leptospirosis, and she also takes monthly flea/tick/heart worm medication. But that doesn’t make her immune to the whole host of trouble that could have been lurking in those waters.

Panorama of the beautiful fall foliage on Ragged Lake in Algonquin Park, with dead-rooted trees in the foreground
Red solo canoe at the shoreline of my campsite on Big Porcupine Lake in Algonquin Park, during a fall morning in September 2023 v1
Green Eureka Suma 2 tent pitched at the edge of a cliff on Big Porcupine Lake campsite in Algonquin Park
Blue Jay hanging from the trunk of a tree in Algonquin Park, September 2023
Panorama of the September fall colours on Big Porcupine Lake in Algonquin park, 2023
Full moon rising over Big Porcupine Lake in Algonquin Park, September 2023
Red solo canoe at the shoreline of my campsite on Big Porcupine Lake in Algonquin Park, during a fall morning in September 2023 v2
Fire burning at campsite on Big Porcupine Lake, September 2023
Panorama of the beautiful fall colours in the south half of Ragged Lake in Algonquin Park, September 2023

At around 10:00 AM I decided to go for a paddle and check out the remaining sites in the south of the lake that I hadn’t yet documented. Paddling would be a good way to clear my mind. I first checked out the two campsites south of the Bonnechere portage. They were both relatively small, but with a large chunk of rock at the front shoreline. The northern of the two was the most open and picturesque site, but the southern was the more practical campsite, with a sheltered fire pit and better tent spot area.

Next, I paddled over to one of the island sites that I had checked out during my first evening, because it had one bar of cell service. I did a few google searches about symptoms and timing of symptom onset, but as expected, the results varied dramatically. It was no help, really.

I spotted a weasel and watched it clean itself on the rocky shoreline before it ran off inland. I turned my head and watched some birds and mergansers in the other direction. It was a calm, warm morning under the sun, with the fall colours beautifully reflecting onto the waters of Big Porcupine Lake. No humans were around. Only the wildlife, Elo in time-out mode, and a slightly-stressed-but-starting-to-calm-down Cody.

I continued to the last campsite that I still needed to visit and then paddled slowly back to my own campsite. It was around 11:00 AM and I was feeling tired from the stressful morning. I broke down some of the firewood that I collected earlier, had something to eat, and then sat in the shade and relaxed for a while.

I spent the next few hours sitting on the large cliff at the front of the campsite, admiring the gorgeous views onto the main body of Big Porcupine Lake. It was a chilly morning in the shade, but it was very warm when the sun was out. I was listening to the album 9 by Damien Rice. Aside from the sad breakup subject matter of the album, sonically, it was the perfect fit for the morning. The songs sounded so lovely while I relaxed on my clifftop haven.

I saw the soloist come back from his day trip. He said he didn’t have any luck fishing, but he did see a moose on Upper Head Lake. I saw one other canoe go from Bonnechere Lake to Little Raccoon Lake, and one group head into Bonnechere Lake. But other than that, it was still very quiet in the south half of Big Porcupine Lake. Later in the day a group of two men would occupy the island with one campsite across from me, but they would be the only other group on the lake for the evening. And thankfully, they were a quiet duo.

I decided not to do any more adventurous day trips, and instead I spent the afternoon relaxing at my campsite. No matter which section of the campsite I was at, I was admiring the calm water, the colourful shoreline, and appreciating the stillness of nature all around me. Camping in late September is truly very beautiful. I collected a little bit more firewood too; I knew I wouldn’t need it, but I figured I’d do the future inhabitants of this campsite a small favour. My earliest days of canoe tripping was when I was a camper at an overnight summer camp, and we were taught to leave a “courtesy pile” whenever possible.

Because of the swampy area, it was a particularly buggy campsite for late September. I had a handful of mosquito bites on my wrists and ankles and there were tons of other flying insects. They particularly loved the 4:00 PM – 6:00 PM time of day when the wind had died down.

At 6:30 PM I decided to go for an evening paddle. I paddled south towards the portage into Little Raccoon Lake in hopes of finding wildlife along the way. I didn’t have any luck. The water was calm with only a gentle breeze, and the sky was basically cloudless as the sun dipped below the shoreline. No other campsites were occupied in the south half of the lake, other than the one island campsite that I mentioned earlier.

I saw one other canoe paddling on the water, which turned out to be my friend from earlier. He was out fishing with one of the other members from his group. I didn’t even recognize him at first, with the disassociation of the solo canoe from earlier and then the tandem canoe in the evening. We spoke for a few minutes while watching a beaver swim in front of our canoe, and then we parted ways.

It was 7:15 PM and it was getting very dark on the water. I circled back around the island with one campsite while following a family of 10+ mergansers. I was surprised how close they let me get to them.

Looking at the beautiful fall colours on Big Porcupine Lake through the tree opening of a campsite v1

Big Porcupine Lake was fully booked with 13 reservations, but it was only me and one other group in the south half of the lake, which was comprised of 8 campsites. People must have either cancelled last minute, camped off-permit somewhere else, made two bookings when they only needed one site, or some other obscure scenario. But hey, I wasn’t complaining. I was expecting a busy, noisy lake on my second night, but instead I got a much more enjoyable peaceful, quiet evening.

I did my usual campfire and snack routine, still with Elo’s leash in my hands or tethered to something nearby. Once again, the almost-full moon was set to rise shortly after the sunset, so stargazing wasn’t on the agenda. I sat by the fire until around 10:00 PM before putting it out and getting ready for bed.

I had a headache for most of the day and it wasn’t getting any better by the time I got into the tent, so I wanted to make sure I got a good sleep. I was leaning towards skipping Bonnechere Lake and finishing the trip a day early. Including the current trip, I would have spent 15 of the last 30 days in Algonquin Park’s backcountry, and I still had one more trip planned too (fingers crossed Elo wouldn’t get sick!).

What would be the point of staying the extra night if I was just going to worry about Elo the whole time? I REALLY didn’t want to risk her getting symptoms when I was even farther away from my car. The next two days were calling for weather in the mid 20’s, with no cloud coverage and barely any wind. No matter which day I decided to go home, it was going to be a long, hot day on the water.

Day 3 — Big Porcupine Lake to Smoke Lake

I woke up in the middle of the night with the headache from Day 2 still nagging at me. I realized I was dehydrated so I drank some water, and then went back to bed. At 6:30 AM I woke up for good, and thankfully the headache was finally gone.

Once again, the view from my tent was magical. The moon was hanging low in the sky as the sun was shining its bright light onto the western shoreline. As stupid as it was to pitch my tent at the top of the cliff, in that moment, I was sure happy that I did. Packing everything inside the tent while getting to enjoy that view was pretty sweet.

View from inside the tent of the moon setting over Big Porcupine Lake in Algonquin Park, September 2023

By the time I was finished packing my tent, the view in front of the campsite was unbelievable. The moon was low enough in the sky and bright enough that all of its details and craters were easily visible, but the sun was also shining just strong enough to light up the shoreline and its peak fall colours. It was such a rare occurrence for the timing of the moonset and the sunrise to coincide in the exact way that they did, and the peak fall colours to top it off was the cherry on top.

It was like one of those landscape photos you see online, with an oddly photoshopped moon right in the middle. You would think “this is clearly a fake photograph, which is a shame because it’s so beautiful”. Except this time, it wasn’t fake. Of course, my “real” photo won’t do it justice, how beautiful it truly was to witness in person. The morning of Day 3 would be remembered as one of the prettiest morning views I have seen in the park.

Morning moon setting over the colourful fall shorelines of Big Porcupine Lake in Algonquin Park, September 2023

And then everything went south. At 7:30 AM, Elo threw up twice.

From the moment the swamp situation happened on Day 2, I had a bad feeling in my gut (I guess Elo did too! Ok, sorry Elo, I shouldn’t be making jokes at your expense). I was already leaning towards leaving on Day 3, and at 7:30 AM, my decision was confirmed without a doubt.

I went into “we need to get back to the city as soon as possible” mode. I quickly gave Elo a small breakfast so she had some food in her tummy, and then I got straight to packing. It would have been nice to spend more time admiring the rest of the sunrise, but I couldn’t risk her symptoms progressing and getting worse while we were in the canoe or the car. Between packing up camp, getting back to my car, loading the car, and driving home, we had about a 9-hour journey ahead of us. It was going to be a long day.

Hanging my food barrel in a tree at my campsite on Big Porcupine Lake in Algonquin Park

I got on the water at 8:15 AM. Right before leaving, I saw my first tipping spider of the season. If you haven’t seen from my other trip reports, a tipping spider is the name I’ve given to a variety of spider breeds. If you see one in your canoe, they’re so big and scary, you’re going to tip! This one was attached to an approximately 1.5-inch diameter white ball of fluff. And the spider itself was massive. I think it might have been a queen spider preparing her nest or something.

I got major shivers in that moment, and then I got major shivers again while writing this paragraph of the trip report. Thankfully, I was able to get it out of the canoe with my paddle before it scurried off into my gear, never to be found again. I thought about that scenario and how it would have haunted my dreams forever. I got shivers one more time. Then I set off for my long journey.

The south half of Big Porcupine Lake was still completely empty, but the north half of the lake was fully occupied. I made it to The Devil’s Staircase at 9:15 AM, and finished both carries at 10:00 AM. It was much easier going downhill and with a lighter barrel load.

So far, Elo seemed to be fine. She was energetic and in good spirits. She even pooped on the portage. While watching her poop, I crossed my fingers and was mumbling “please be normal, please be normal, please be normal!” And it was! So far, no further symptoms.

The sun was getting very hot as I began my paddle across Ragged Lake. There was no wind and no clouds in the sky. It was going to be a hot day on the water. Ragged Lake was very busy; there were canoes on the water, campsites occupied, and even some people going for a morning swim at the edge of their campsite. It sure was hot enough outside to warrant it!

On Day 1 I mentioned the view of the dead-rooted trees in front of the distant maple shoreline, nearby The Devil’s Staircase portage landing. Yeah, that was the prettiest view of the entire trip. I didn’t want to waste too much time taking photos and videos, for Elo’s sake, but I made a few exceptions along the way. That view was definitely an exception.

I made it to the second and final portage of the day at around 11:00 AM. The portage was extremely busy. One group that I saw leaving their campsite on Ragged Lake arrived just after me. They said they got a text message from their daughter that there was an emergency back home, but the daughter didn’t say what the emergency was. They were trying to find cell service to get more information. They were able to get in touch with the daughter from cell service at the portage, and it turned out, it wasn’t anything serious. They were already packed and ready to leave, but turned around to spend their last night on Parkside Bay, as originally planned. This is a rare, but good example of how a two-way communicator like the Garmin InReach Mini (what I personally use) is always a good thing to bring on a trip.

Then there was another group, where one member accidentally carried the paddle from a separate group to the other end of the portage. Confusion ensued among both groups until they figured out what happened.

But my favourite was the group of men and women that looked to be a similar age as me.  One female in the group was carrying a fully loaded 60L barrel by the two handles on either side. The barrel had no harness on it. She had a knapsack on her back too, and was clearly struggling to get the barrel across the portage. Umm, yeah, I’d also be struggling trying to carry a 60L barrel like that across a muddy, rocky, uphill portage.

During my second carry, I saw the same woman carrying a literal bucket of firewood. It was the wood that you can purchase from the park, and she had it stored in a bucket that she was carrying in front of her body. I poked a little bit of fun and said “You’re almost there! By the way, you know there’s a really big forest on the other side, over there?” while pointing behind me towards the thousands of square kilometers of Algonquin Park. I said “I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone actually portage the park’s firewood before, but at least you’ll have a great story to tell in the future, and an epic fire tonight as well.” She knew I was just teasing and she responded by saying “I told the guys we shouldn’t have bought it!!!”

Inchworm moving along the bark of a tree, September 2023

I set out for my final paddle of the day, at 11:15 AM. Elo was still looking good. I finished my Nalgene on the portage, so once I got a couple hundred meters away from the shore, I filled my Nalgene on Smoke Lake. I wanted to make sure Elo and I both had water during the long paddle, and the drive home. This may not seem important, but trust me, it is. Don’t skip the Aftermath section.

The final paddle was very hot. There was still no wind, and barely any clouds in the sky. But I made decent time and got back at 12:30 PM. Just over four hours from the south of Big Porcupine Lake; not bad, considering it took me closer to six hours on the way in. I was making good time, but more importantly, I was happy that Elo was still symptom free (other than the initial throw-up in the morning). That was the only thing I cared about.

I quickly loaded my car and set out for the drive home. I spent an hour at my parent’s house, putting my canoe into the garage and drying out some of my gear from the morning dew. Elo was still fine, and I was keeping a close eye on her. But now for the aftermath…

The Aftermath

I got home, took a shower, and started looking through my photos and videos. You know, standard post-trip routine stuff. I was still anxious about the whole swamp scenario from the day prior, and Elo throwing up earlier in the morning. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to call the emergency vet and see what they had to say.

The emergency vet said they only treat symptoms, and based on Elo’s symptoms, there was no need to bring her in. But they recommended that I speak with a toxicology specialist, so they gave me the phone number to ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center (APCC).

I spent an hour on the phone with APCC. I sent them pictures and videos of the questionable water source that Elo drank from, and swam in. I explained everything in full detail. The lady that I was speaking with was extremely friendly and helpful. She put me on hold to check something with one of her colleagues. While I was on hold, I noticed that Ontario Park’s had sent an email, literally one day earlier, about reports of blue-green algae on Smoke Lake. 

Algonquin Provincial Park has received reports of suspect blue-green algae on Smoke Lake. Users of Smoke Lake should be aware that water drawn in the vicinity of suspect algae should NOT BE USED for any purpose including drinking, washing, bathing, etc. Please ensure that pets are not consuming or swimming in any areas of concern.”

Yeah, so Elo and I each had consumed approximately 500ml of water from Smoke Lake, between 12:00 PM and 5:00 PM. And I went shin-deep in the water while getting into the canoe. Ontario Parks sent the notice while I was already in the backcountry. You know, a place that doesn’t typically have cell service. It would have been nice to see signs posted at the portages leading in and out of Smoke Lake, don’t you think? With motorboats, they could have implemented that within an hour. It was kind of absurd that they didn’t.

For those unaware, blue-green algae is a naturally occurring microscopic bacteria. It cannot be treated with the standard water filters or purification methods that people use in the backcountry. Even boiling water does not destroy the toxins, and may even increase the effects of toxins produced by the blue-green algae blooms.

In humans, blue-green algae toxicity causes a wide range of very not-so-fun symptoms, but thankfully, it’s not fatal. For dogs, unfortunately, it’s a different story. Some types of blue-green algae can be fatal for dogs literally within minutes, or hours. There are horror stories of dog owners driving back from a park, with their dog dying during the drive home. It’s very sad, and very scary. Other non-fatal types of blue-green algae can cause liver damage in dogs, and from what I was told, the dog can be asymptomatic while the damage is occurring.

When APCC took me off hold, I explained my new finding about the blue-green algae on Smoke Lake, in addition to the questionable water source from the day prior. They said ok, yeah, now you definitely need to bring Elo to the emergency vet as soon as possible. And I also needed to speak with Ontario Poison Control to see what I needed to do for myself.

Thankfully, enough time had passed that APCC wasn’t concerned about the water source being fatal to Elo. But they said the main concern was that there could be liver damage, so she needed to get her bloodwork done.

Since COVID, the vet industry has been kind of crazy. There’s way more demand than there is supply. To find an emergency vet, on a Saturday night, was basically impossible. I spent 30 minutes calling seven or eight different hospitals before I found one with capacity to see Elo. It was a 40-minute drive away from me. I got in the car immediately. The current time was 8:00 PM.

Once I was in the car, I turned my attention toward myself. Since I had left my parent’s house at around 5:00 PM, I was feeling a bit dizzy and nauseas. But honestly, that wasn’t too uncommon for me at the end of a trip and after a very long day of hustling under the hot sun. Was I just feeling normal ‘body shut down’ symptoms, or was it the blue-green algae? One of my ankles was also itching really bad, but again, it could have just been mosquito bites. I wasn’t about to become a hypochondriac.

It took close to an hour of waiting on hold until I was able to speak to someone from Ontario Poison Control. I explained to them everything that happened, and they agreed that the dizziness/nausea and the itchy ankle wasn’t conclusive enough to suggest blue-green algae toxicity. They explained that I should self-monitor for a total of six hours (I was already near the end of that timeframe) and if I had any of the following symptoms, I needed to go to the ER: persistent vomiting or diarrhea, severe abdominal pain, fever, seizure, or jaundice. Thankfully, I didn’t have any of those, and I was pretty confident based on the timeline that I was in the clear.

Back to Elo. I arrived at the hospital close to 9:00 AM. I was told that due to the recommendation from APCC, Elo would be seen immediately. That was simply not true. After three hours of waiting, I was finally given an update. I was told that based on her vitals, she was next in line to see the doctor. That didn’t sound great. An hour later they clarified and told me her vitals were completely normal, and her file was next for the doctor to look at. I was told “her file is next” since I had arrived four hours earlier.

One of the vet technicians came out to speak with me, and told me that we should do the bloodwork now, so when the doctor was ready to see Elo, there wouldn’t be any delay. Sure, why not? I later found out, after calling APCC again, that the bloodwork should be done 12 hours after exposure, and if it was done earlier than that, it should be repeated at the 12-hour point to confirm results.

After another three hours (a total of seven hours, for those keeping count), I was told once again “her file is next in line” but they couldn’t tell me how much longer it would be. They said it could still take hours. I was quite upset about the bloodwork situation too, because I was going to need to do the bloodwork a second time, but only because of the recommendation from the vet technician that said “let’s do it now”. I understand the concept of triage, but the communication and transparency at that place was beyond terrible. 

It was now 3:00 AM on Sunday morning. Keep in mind, my day had started Saturday morning at 6:30 AM on Big Porcupine Lake. After a crappy sleep, I moved quickly to pack up camp. Then I spent five hours moving at a very quick pace while portaging and paddling under the hot sun. I drove three hours back to the city, spent one hour at my parent’s house, close to two hours on the phone with APCC and emergency vet clinics, and then almost one hour in the car to get to the emergency vet. And then, another seven hours of waiting. To say it was a tiring and stressful day would be a massive understatement.

At 3:00 AM, I decided to go home. I told them to call me when Elo was ready to get picked up. I also told them they should be redoing the bloodwork at the 12-hour mark based on the APCC recommendation, and there was no way I should be paying for the second set of bloodwork.

By the time I got home and fell asleep, it was past 4:00 AM. And then I awoke to a phone call at 5:30 AM that Elo was ready to get picked up. Thankfully, all of her bloodwork was normal. Any concern about blue-green toxicity was gone, but they said Elo still could have picked up bacteria or virus from the first questionable body of water, so I should monitor her for symptoms over the coming days.

I gave Elo the biggest hug and kiss when I picked her up, and then made it back home at 7:30 AM. It had been more than 24 hours since Day 3 started on Big Porcupine, and I had only slept for around one hour. What a wild journey those last 24 hours had been.

But it’s impossible to stay mad at that face (see image below for proof).

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