My First Solo Canoe Trip in Algonquin
Date: August 23rd – 25th, 2014
Route: Canoe Lake → Little Otterslide Lake → Burnt Island Lake → Canoe Lake
This was my third trip of the summer; the first 2 were in Killarney, and then this in Algonquin. Before this, I’ve gone on probably 4 trips when I was younger, and 3 trips in the more recent years; never solo, and never more than 1 per year. I wanted to keep it really simple and in a ‘mainstream’ area for my first solo trip, just in case of emergency or anything like that. I did quite a bit of research ahead of time, and thanks for all the helpful answers from the members on the MyCCR forum.
My main concerns for traveling solo were:
– swamping the canoe
– battling windy lakes
– nighttime paranoia and having bears on site
– injuring myself mid-portage
I brought bear spray for ease of mind despite knowing that I probably wouldn’t need to use it, even if a bear made it to my campsite. I brought a kayak paddle as my backup in case of windy conditions. And I brought a SPOT device for injury/any other emergency.
I had decided on 2 nights, 3 days. It would be cheaper, and it would be long enough for me to ‘test the waters’ to see if I liked traveling solo. I really wanted to make it to Little Otterslide since I’ve heard good things about that lake, but I thought that would be too ambitious for a first solo trip, so I decided on 2 nights Burnt Island. Plan was to take an early site if the lake was too windy to paddle through by the time I got there mid-afternoon, and then switch campsites on the second day.
Day 1 – A Long Day to Little Otterslide
I left Toronto at around 5:30 to make it to Algonquin Outfitters for when they open at 8:00. I would have liked to be on the water by that time, but I figured I could launch by 9:00 if I was quick at AO and the permit office. Despite having reserved the Keewaydin, I was given the Shearwater (which I didn’t notice until afterwards, and to be honest, probably doesn’t matter since it was my first time paddling solo and I likely wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference). Otherwise, the people at AO were really helpful; showed me how to use the SPOT, strapped the canoe to my car, and gave me some advice for canoeing solo as well.
I made my way to the permit office at Canoe Lake and was told that there has been a ton of bear activity in the whole Canoe/Tom Thomson/Burnt Island region; almost daily disturbances/raids. I figured a barrel wasn’t necessary in Algonquin since I’ve rarely heard of bear disturbances (compared to Killarney at least)… so now I’m second questioning my decision to keep my food in a dry bag.
But it is what it is, so I take the info and just decide to be extra pre-cautious. Burnt Island had 40/43 campsites booked and Little Otterslide had 2/9, so as a last minute decision I decided that I would try and camp on Little Otterslide… I’ve wanted to visit that lake for a while now, and I thought the quietness would be nice as well (despite planning my route to Burnt Island for the exact opposite reason…). I ended up launching out around 10:00, a bit behind schedule, and not sure if I would have the time to make it to Otterslide.
Canoe Lake was packed with people, which I expected to be the case especially with an almost fully booked Burnt Island. For the first 30min or so, I was just getting the feel for paddling; the boat felt rocky and I didn’t feel the most stable, but after a few strokes I started getting the hang of it. By the end of Canoe Lake I felt pretty comfortable paddling solo and I realized I greatly overestimated how difficult it would be while I was planning the trip.
For all the portages up to Burnt Island (including the 100m which could be easily skipped although I made the mistake of portaging it), there were tons of people… it was difficult to find room to load/unload, and there was often people waiting to pull in to the landing. I also saw a couple moose towards the end of Joe Lake; there were 4 or 5 canoes close by taking pictures so I just watched from a distance then kept going.
By the time I made it to Burnt Island (around 14:00), someone at the end of the portage warned me that it was quite windy and I should give myself extra time and stay close to shore. I thought about going back to my original plan and taking an early campsite on Burnt, but just about every single one was taken by that time. Either way I’d have to paddle across the lake, and at that point it would be an extra 1hr or so to make it to Little Otterslide (since I was double carrying, the 800m would take some time).
About halfway through Burnt Island I finally felt some sense of remoteness and like I was actually ‘in the wild’. I decided screw it, I’m making it to Otterslide even if I will be really rushed doing so. I gave myself 2hrs to paddle Burnt, and 1hr for the portage, making it to Little Otterslide by 17:00. Even still, I thought I would be tight on time setting up camp, doing dinner, etc. (again, first time I would be doing everything by myself so I didn’t have a great estimation of how long it would all take).
I ended up making it to the 800m right at 16:00, as planned. At this point, I truly felt isolated; there wasn’t a sole in sight and for the first time all day, there was finally silence while walking the portage. The portage was very muddy for half of it, which slowed me down a bit but was still manageable. I snacked on some jerky while walking back to grab my canoe, which I thought was a bit humorous… a young guy eating perfect bear food while walking alone in the forest with no one else in sight.
I ended up finishing the portage at 16:45, and decided to collect a little bit of wood. I was going for one of the island sites (and since there were 3, and only 2 reservations other than myself, I was guaranteed one of them assuming no one was staying there without a permit). Last thing I wanted was to get there, short on time after setting up camp, and not having enough good wood around.
The northwestern site was taken, which supposedly was the nicest of the three. I checked out the other two; didn’t really like the eastern one, and the southwestern one had a nice cozy feel to it, with lots of seating area and a nice kitchen; with a perfect tent spot right beside as well. The lake itself was nice and calm, and for the first time all day the sun started shining (it was gloomy and cloudy the rest of the day, although no rain luckily). I set up camp, spent way too long finding a suitable branch to hang my food, and then cooked dinner.
By the time I was done cleaning up, the sun was on its final minutes. I didn’t get a chance to go for a swim or an evening paddle which I was hoping to do, but that was the cost of being a bit ambitious with my route and getting a late start to the day. The sense of accomplishment was well worth it though, and I was happy I got to see Little Otterslide (I’ve camped on Burnt Island a few years back as well).
The campsite was nice and cozy as I mentioned, but there wasn’t much of a view, especially not while sitting at the fire pit area; the sunset was blocked by the trees as well. The only other people on the lake (from all the sites I passed, which were all except the one farthest north) were the people at the northwestern site.
My only breaks during the day were during my walk back through the portages to pick up my canoe, which is when I had snacks and water; otherwise I pushed myself pretty hard and the first time that I finally got to sit down for 5min was after I built up the fire past sunset. About 10hrs of non-stop work; I was tired and sore, so I only sat by the fire for a bit before getting an early night sleep.
I was surprised with how little I was actually scared, since I usually get quite paranoid at nighttime. I had music playing while sitting by the fire, which definitely made it easier. It was only once I got in the tent that the paranoia started; I realized when you’re sitting by the fire, you hear sounds, and you see that it’s just squirrels, branches, etc… but once your inside the tent you can’t see what it is, which lets the imagination wander. I listened to more music to fall asleep, and called it a night.
Despite not having any downtime to sit back and enjoy being out there, I was really happy with how the first day went; no problems, and I made it to Little Otterslide with a nice sense of accomplishment, with a pretty good campsite to call home for the night.
Day 2 – Making a Friend on Burnt Island
I was up pretty early so I took my time making a nice big breakfast, packed up camp, and made it onto the water by around 9:30-10:00. Before heading to the 800m I decided to check out the northwestern campsite on the island; it was definitely the nicest with a large rock face, nice open area with a fire pit overlooking the water, and a great view of the sunset. Of all the other sites that I paddled by, none really seemed to be that great; other than the two western sites on the island, I wouldn’t really recommend the others. Supposedly Big Otterslide is nicer, but I didn’t have time to check it out.
I had 3 campsites in mind for Burnt Island (#47, #39, and #36/37). I had camped on #46 before, and I really liked the big rock in between #46 and #47, but #47 was definitely the nicer of the two sites. #39 has the crazy cool kitchen area, and #36/37 because I just tend to like island sites. Either way, I’d be paddling most (if not all) of Burnt Island, so my plan was to make it there by 12:30-13:00, hoping that they wouldn’t be taken by then… it would be annoying to have to paddle back across to find a site. #47 was taken, so off to #39.
As I’m 5min away I see another solo paddler pull up and take it. I thought to myself “great; island sites are definitely taken so I’m going to waste tons of time paddling back and forth on this lake. But maybeee there’s a chance this guy is just stopping to use the cool kitchen area for lunch… but not likely”. Anyways, I pull up and ask, and he does happen to be stopping for lunch, then making his way to Little Otterslide… lucky me. I made it there by 12:30 and started setting up camp while he was eating. He was a really nice guy, we spent a few hours talking before he gave me his contact info and got on his way to Otterslide.
The campsite was nice; one small tent area to the west of the fire pit (which is where I set up) and then a much larger tent area to the east. Lots of open ground as well, and there were 2 fire pit areas with huge rocks acting as ‘ovens’ (the second one doesn’t have seating however, but you can tell it’s been put to good use anyways). My main complaint about the site was that the only way to get some decent wood was to either climb the steep incline at the north of the site, or walk very far east/west. Either decision wasn’t ideal for being solo and having to make multiple trips.
Also, the campsite was a bit messy; some small food wrappers and toilet paper were left in the surrounding areas, and an unopened beer by the fire pit… but I guess that’s expected when you camp in the mainstream areas of Algonquin. The combination of a messy campsite, the bear disturbances that I was warned about, and the tons of animal scat around the campsite made me a bit nervous… but again, I was just extra pre-cautious, cleaned up properly, found a good hanging branch, and didn’t let it ruin the experience.
I had a nice dinner and left myself time to swim and go for a long paddle before the sunset. While paddling I realized how much fun it was to paddle a solo boat; easy to control, maneuver, and just lots of fun in general. The lake was calm, although you can hear the obnoxious yelling from people at nearby campsites. As I got back to camp and was about to make a fire, I saw a couple paddling and looking for a campsite at around 20:00. I offered to share my site if there weren’t any other available sites nearby, but I assume they found one since I didn’t see them again afterwards.
I sat by the fire for a little bit, made some snacks, and decided to call it a relatively early night again. The one thing I didn’t like about the kitchen area is that it’s so high up… great for cooking and fire maintenance, but I prefer to look down on a fire rather than look up to it… so not that great for just sitting around and enjoying it.
One other thing I was a bit upset about was that my phone was at 6% halfway through the day. I use it as my camera, so I wasn’t able to get too many pictures during the trip. And I use it for music, especially through the night to ease the nighttime paranoia, so it wasn’t going to last too long for that either. I brought a second battery pack to recharge, but clumsy me forgot to bring the actual wire to connect it to my phone.
Overall, the second day was great. I got one of the campsites I wanted, I spent a few hours with the company of someone else before enjoying the peace and quiet that comes with traveling solo. I had plenty of time to relax and enjoy the campsite and the lake, and again, I didn’t encounter any problems throughout the day.
Day 3 – The End of My First Solo
One of the highlights of my trip was waking up around 5:00 and getting to watch the sunrise from inside my tent. The colours were really pretty, and it was a relaxing end to the trip before starting the last day of work.
Again, I took my time packing up camp and making breakfast before setting off for the day. I was in no rush, so I decided to take it slow. The first few paddles and portages were really enjoyable; despite being such a popular route, there wasn’t anyone traveling near Burnt Island/Joe Lake at around 9:00 when I started. The water was calm and crystal clear, which made the paddling much more enjoyable. I think my favorite part was paddling the area between the 435m and the 120m. It’s such a nice paddle and lets you practice controlling the boat and some different strokes… a great place to enjoy the sounds of nature as well. It was only after that area that I saw the first people of the day, and from then onwards there were people everywhere (as expected).
Once I hit Joe Lake the winds really picked up. Unfortunately I was battling headwinds the whole trip, but the winds on Joe Lake were particularly strong and I had to switch to the kayak paddle. If not for the kayak paddle, I probably would have been pushed to shore, or if not, I would have made very little progress and it would have taken me the whole day to make it back. Even with the kayak paddle Joe Lake took a lot out of me and I was drained; after the portage leading into Canoe Lake I decided to break for 10-15min, have a snack, and rehydrate before the last paddle of my trip. Canoe Lake was even worse and I had to really hustle to make it through; any short break would just push me backwards so I tried to make it through as quick as possible.
I ended up finishing the day at around 14:00, and I bought myself a nice cold beer at the restaurant at the launch point… well deserved in my opinion :). I dropped the stuff back off at AO, took a quick 10min nap in my car because of how tired I was, and drove back home. I’m writing this a day later, and I still feel like my body is going to fall apart at every joint lol…but I wouldn’t trade it for a thing. It was exactly what I wanted, and I was proud of it all. About 5.5km of portaging (including the double carries) and almost 40km of paddling… probably doesn’t sound like much to some, but for my first solo trip I felt pretty accomplished doing that in 3 days.
Solo vs. Group – I preferred being solo from the moment of waking up, to the moment of cleaning up after dinner. Going at your own pace, on your own schedule, deciding what gets done and when it gets done… it’s all much better. I really enjoyed paddling solo as well, and I enjoyed the serenity and peace and quite of it all. But once the day is done and you’re sitting by the fire, or in the tent, that’s when I would prefer the company of other people. Would I go solo again? Depends on how many group trips I have planned… If I have a busy summer otherwise, I wouldn’t be upset if I didn’t fit in a solo trip; but if I have the time available, it’s definitely something I would consider doing again.
Downsides – the nighttime paranoia, the clumsiness of not bringing the wire to charge my phone for music/pictures, the limited time I gave myself to just sit back and relax, and the terrible headwinds on the last day
Highlights – making it to Little Otterslide, the sunrise on Burnt Island, and the overall experience of traveling alone.