Labour Day Loop - Smoke to Cache
Date: September 2nd – 4th, 2017
Route: Smoke Lake → Bonnechere Lake → Phipps Lake →
Head Lake → Cache Lake
A little context about this trip… This is the second trip my girlfriend will have been on; last year, I took her from Rock to Louisa for 2 nights. I know that portage is flat, but it’s still 3km, and I was very surprised she agreed to do it… twice. But we got great campsites and great weather, so she had a great time. I decided to push my luck this year and plan a more ‘proper’ trip.
I decided on a loop starting from Smoke, camping on Bonnechere Lake (Night 1), Phipps Lake (Night 2), Head Lake (Night 3), and ending at Cache, then shuttling back to our car at Smoke. It would be 3 nights, we would be covering a lot more distance, we’d be packing up/setting up camp each day, and there would be a lot more portaging, including the infamous “Devils Staircase”. If she survived this trip with a smile on her face, I’d have done my tripper boyfriend duties successfully.
I just prayed that this rainy summer would take a pause for the long weekend.
Day 1 – The Hustle to Bonnechere
Status = Dry
Knowing that it was the long weekend, and we’d be picking up our canoes and permits from Canoe Lake, I wanted to get there as early as possible. So we hit the road at 4:15am, aiming to be the first ones at the permit office when they opened at 7am.
With quick stops at the permit office and the Portage Store, I carried the ridiculously light 33lbs 2-seater over to Smoke Lake. I was going to be carrying a 30L barrel on my back as well, so we paid the premium to shave those extra pounds from the canoe.
The paddle through Smoke was extremely calm, but extremely foggy. You could barely see 10ft in front of the canoe for the first 30 minutes. It made navigation a bit tricky, but it made photo-taking quite fun.
The first portage was easy, a good warmup for the Devils Staircase. We took a quick snack break at the end, and then continued through Ragged Lake.
Approaching the Devils Staircase, I started getting myself mentally prepared for what was to come. Although we were on the water early, and I wanted to get to Bonnechere as early as possible to snag a good site, I knew that double-carrying was an option if we needed to. I loaded the barrel and canoe onto my back and started the portage. I was out of breath pretty quickly, but we both managed to do the whole 590m with no breaks. I definitely wouldn’t call it easy, but honestly, I was expecting worse.
I told my girlfriend I wanted to get on the water and keep moving, so if she wanted to take a break, she could just not paddle for a while. I was tired, but my adrenaline was going at this point and I didn’t want to stop. So she had some snacks while I kept paddling – better to make slow progress than no progress at all. We crossed Big Porc, saw a few herons along the way, and arrived at our last portage for the day.
As we landed on Bonnechere, there was a family in 2 canoes loading up at the same time. I knew they were camping on the lake, and I knew that there was 0/4 reservations the night before (so everyone was either starting their trip, or coming from somewhere else in the park, but no campsites were already occupied from the previous night). I also knew that I wanted the southernmost site that I’ve heard such great things about. I knew that it could already be taken by someone else, but if it was between us and the family, it was going to be us.
“Load the boat quickly, paddle hard, don’t stop”. The last words I would speak for the next 30min until we would find out if the peninsula site would indeed be home for the night. The hustle wasn’t needed though – fortunately for us, neither of those boats could stay pointed straight. As they zig-zagged their way through the lake, we stumbled upon a beautiful, empty peninsula site for the taking. The north site (in the south of the lake) was already occupied, and the family stopped to debate taking the other site in the south, but ended up heading to the north side of Bonnechere.
I didn’t want to get my hopes up until I got out of the boat and scouted the site, making sure there were no signs of life. But it was empty, and it was ours. And I was one happy camper 🙂
The site is really gorgeous with endless west-facing rock cliffs across the whole peninsula. The fire pit is tucked away near the landing on the east side, and there are multiple tent spots to choose from. It’s not the most sheltered site, but for our dry sunny day, it was perfect.
My girlfriend always thinks I over-plan when it comes to timing and hustling to get a good site, but in 3 of my 5 last trips, there has been a situation like this, where if I arrived 5 minutes later, I wouldn’t have gotten the site that I wanted.
Anyways, we set up camp, watched a snake slither around the site, lay out in the sun, cooked dinner, and enjoyed the rest of Day 1. The forecast called for 80% light rain the next day, ending at 7pm, so I knew we needed to savour the sunshine while we could. I also decided to collect extra wood and pack it into a garbage bag – we only had 60m between us and our next campsite on Phipps, so I decided to portage over some dry firewood and be prepared for when the rain stopped.
I took an evening paddle to watch the sunset, and then we sat by the fire for a while before calling it a night. As we headed towards the tent, there was a rustle in some of the bushes behind the fire pit. It was definitely something bigger than a squirrel, but not a ‘large’ animal. Maybe a beaver? I continued towards the tent and just as I was about to get in, I saw an ominously glowing set of orange eyes in the bushes. Despite the eyes looking evil, it was actually just a cute bunny hopping around beside our tent. Maybe the rustling in the bushes was just another bunny.
Day 2 – The Short Move to Phipps Lake
Status = Tolerably Wet
The rain started at around midnight and kept a steady pace through the morning. We made some oatmeal with the stove under our tarp, and broke down camp. It was raining, but not hard enough to make the day and the travels to Phipps unenjoyable.
We stopped at the north site (in the south of the lake) to take a look at it, and despite finding tons of leftover garbage from the group the night before, it was actually a nice site. I already visited the three sites in the north of Bonnechere the week prior, so after navigating through the interesting “Devils Razor”, we made our way straight to the portage into Phipps.
I was worried that we might get caught in low water levels while trying to paddle the creek from the portage into the body of Phipps. I did this paddle with no issues the week before, but I was solo, on a day trip with no gear, so I knew I wasn’t nearly as likely to bottom out. Fortunately, we made it through no problem, and headed to our site for the night.
We set up camp and got some dry clothes on, deciding to stay in the tent for a while to warm up. The rain stopped just in time for dinner, so we put that dry wood to good use and made dinner over the fire. Despite most of our gear and day clothes being wet, our evening clothes were still dry and we were able to enjoy a sunset dinner on the west-facing rocks.
I went for another evening paddle and heard tons of animal noises and rustling by the shoreline in the northwest bay. I also saw something swimming in the water, either an otter or a beaver, but it went underwater before I got close enough to identify it. It was a pretty sunset, but the lake was full of blowing mist, which I rarely see in the evenings. The red sunset hues acting as a backdrop to the mist-filled lake made the paddle interestingly eerie and peaceful at the same time.
The forecast for Day 3 called for 40% chance of light rain, starting from 1pm through till the late evening. We definitely weren’t portaging any wood all the way from Phipps to Head, and we were ok with having a stove dinner, but the goal was to make it to camp before the rain started so we could at least set up camp while dry, and have the option of collecting wood.
But this forecast was 2 days old by this point, so who knew exactly how accurate it still was. But that was our plan. Get up early, get on the water early, and get to Head Lake early.
Day 3 – A Trip Ended Early
Status = Wet, Intolerably
I had a bit of a dry throat on Day 2, and I woke up on Day 3 with it feeling a decent bit worse. I watched the sunrise from the east-facing rocks on Phipps, but it was mostly overcast and wasn’t very pretty. I told myself I had three goals for the day.
1) Don’t talk too much; need to give my throat a rest
2) Stay hydrated
3) Stay dry
Well, the overcast had me worried that the rain was going to start earlier than the 1pm we were anticipating. I woke my girlfriend and we decided to pack up and get on the water early – I think we ended up leaving around 8:30am.
Right as we started paddling, the rain started. It wasn’t too heavy while we were on Phipps, so we took a short break at the waterfall before heading out onto Kirkwood. The rain started to pick up by this point, and the paddling was becoming a little bit more difficult and little bit less enjoyable.
I stopped to check out the island site, since on my previous trip it was the only site I didn’t get to look at during my day trip from Pardee to Bonnechere. I remember reading that it was a nice site, but if I ever find the person that wrote that trip report, I think we’ll need to sit down and have a serious conversation. A very steep incline takes you to a campsite with an uninviting fire pit, poor seating, and no flat tent spots. And for a small island, the views were very limited.
We were actually supposed to camp on Kirkwood for Day 2, and even though the east site isn’t bad, I made a last minute change to our reservation and snagged Phipps. Between the two, Phipps definitely has the nicer sites, but even on Kirkwood, I would opt for the east site, no questions asked.
We got back on the water and continued our journey to Head Lake. The rain kept coming down on us, and the 700m into Pardee was exceptionally muddy. When we landed on Pardee, the rain subsided and the sun appeared. Finally!
The day was starting to look nice, and we hoped that we were done with rainfall for the trip. (Note to self: don’t be that naïve). We had a snack break and enjoyed the beauty of the suns rays hitting Pardee’s shoreline. This is where I camped the previous week, and being back here reminded me that Pardee is a really pretty, small, quiet lake. Something about it is just very enjoyable.
We got back on the water and made our way through the easy portage into Harness, and continued paddling with the sun at our backs. As we loaded up for the 1km carry into Head, clouds began filling the skies, and rain started to fall again. Damnit Algonquin, don’t you know it’s the long weekend and people are trying to camp here?
We made our way through another exceptionally muddy portage and landed into Head Lake with the rain coming down even harder now. The day progressed from overcast, to light rain, to heavier rain, to a tease of sunshine, to more rain, and now, as we arrived on Head Lake, it was just straight downpour.
We pulled over at the second eastern site, the one with the huge rock by the shoreline, to decide on a game plan. It was pouring way too hard to set up camp, and we were both drenched and freezing. We tried to take shelter from the rain in a denser area of the trees, but there was no escaping the downpour.
I wanted to camp on the campsite just west of the portage into Cache, and through the barely visible rain filled skies in front of us, it looked like the site was still available. After about 30min trying to wait out the rain, we decided to push forward to the other site and hope for the best. Midway through the paddle, we heard thunder. Great.
We paddled hard to get to shore ASAP before the thunderstorms got worse. We made it to the site, and it was indeed available, but it was hard to be happy when you’re completely soaked and freezing. The site was filled with garbage, but I couldn’t even care at that point.
We should have set up a tarp immediately, but lightning had started, and my goal was to move inland and get away from the shoreline. Once again we tried to take shelter in a dense part of the forest, but to no avail. We stood there for at least an hour just getting poured on, before deciding we needed to do something.
The tent spots were completely flooded, and the skies didn’t look like they were letting up any time soon. We talked about potentially leaving a day early, since we weren’t that far from the Cache access, but even if we decided to move forward, we still had lightning and thunder holding us back. I was able to get cell service from this site, so I decided to check the weather. It didn’t call for lightning, but the rain wasn’t going to stop until late in the evening.
We had two choices:
1) Set up camp in the pouring rain, get in our dry clothes, and basically stay in the tent for the rest of the night; or
2) Push forward to Cache Lake and head home today, adding about 2hrs to an already long day (depending if I was able to single carry or not), and risk getting caught in thunderstorm waters.
Remember those smiles I mentioned at the beginning of the report? The ones I wanted my girlfriend to have on her face by the end of the trip? Yeah, those were nowhere to be seen. I knew that even if it wasn’t the safer choice to head home, it was definitely the smarter choice.
We saw an opening where the skies were dark grey (instead of super dark grey) and paddled hard to the portage. I ended up single-carrying about half of the portage, then dumping the canoe and coming back for it. To say the portage was ‘extremely muddy’ would be an understatement; it was basically just a 1.6km mud river.
We got to Cache and even though it was still pouring, the skies looked promising in terms of not getting any lightning. We hit the water ASAP and hustled all the way to the access point. We heard a couple rumbles from above, but nothing too concerning.
We made it back and called the Portage Store, calling in our shuttle a day early. We got our gear organized and changed into dry clothes, and got back to our car by around 5pm. My throat was definitely worse than it was earlier, and I most definitely failed at Goal 3) Stay dry.
The drive home must have felt like the longest drive I’ve ever done. Every minute felt like an hour passing. My throat was killing me and I felt very feverish – my head was heavy, hot, and I was extremely tired. I pulled over for a nap, but it only helped temporarily. I felt like death.
I was supposed to be out of town for work for 2 of the next 3 days, and then leave for an 8-day solo trip the day after that. I had a very short, busy week ahead of me, and it was definitely not a good time to get sick.
We followed the rain and thunderstorms throughout the whole drive, and after what felt like forever, we finally made it home. A hot shower and a good night’s sleep were in order.
I woke up without feeling feverish, but my throat was still bothering me. The next few days felt very long, and planning/packing for the trip wasn’t too much fun when all I wanted to do was rest. I had my doubts about leaving for the 8-day so soon, especially when I wasn’t feeling 100% the day before I was supposed to leave. I decided to go anyways, hoping that I wouldn’t be making the wrong choice.