Thanksgiving in Algonquin, Solo
Date: October 8th – 9th, 2016
Route: Cache Lake → Harness Lake → Cache Lake
This was my second solo trip of the season. Initially the plan was to hike Silver Peaks in Killarney with my girlfriend during Thanksgiving, but she wasn’t able to come last minute so I decided to head to Algonquin for 1 night by myself.
I was indecisive for days leading up to the trip, not actually having anything booked and the weather being very unpredictable. It wasn’t until I got home from work on Friday afternoon that I decided to do the trip, so I got my stuff together and packed in record time.
I only had one night available for this trip, but I was going to make the most of it. My plan was to got on the road super early, and stay late into the evening on Day 2, squeezing in a few day hikes time permitting.
Day 1 – Admiring the Beautiful Fall Colours on Route to Harness Lake
Both Algonquin Outfitters and the Canoe Lake permit office would open at 8am, but I was on the road by 5am and decided to go to the permit office first, in hopes that they would be open early (they were during my last trip). As I got onto Highway 60 the sun started to come up and I was actually able to see the trees, and my mind was blown at how beautiful it was… I’d never seen anything like it, and I knew I was in for a treat.
I got to the permit office at 7:30 but unfortunately they weren’t open early this time, so I waited until 8am, went to AO afterwards, got my canoe, and then headed towards Cache Lake. I ended up getting on the water just before 10am.
I took a wrong turn on Cache and ended up in the narrows leading towards Tanamakoon, which I realized way later than I should have and it set me back by probably 20-30min. Rookie mistake. But I was preoccupied observing the scenery and watching the ducks swim by, so I didn’t really mind the set back.
I finally got to the portage and started my 4.8km trek (double carrying sucks). But I marvelled at just how beautiful the trails are during the fall, with all the leaves on the ground and the colours surrounding you… it really is worth the walk back without gear just to observe its beauty. You just have to be careful with all the leaves on the ground, it’s hard to see where you’re stepping, which is especially dangerous when it’s wet and muddy and slippery.
When I landed on Head Lake, my mind was blown even more so than it already was. The fall colours were spectacular, much prettier than Cache, and I couldn’t see it getting any better than this. The wind picked up as I started to paddle, but I decided to go visit the waterfall for a few minutes anyways. I’ve camped on the site right next to the falls, as well as the western site on the lake, but it was a few years ago and I didn’t really remember the falls. There were a couple of guys camping on the site right beside it, so I only stayed for a few minutes before getting on my way… even though it’s across a small bay from the site, I still felt a little bit intrusive.
The creek leading towards the Harness portage wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. Both beaver dams were passable without having to get out of the boat, but just after the second beaver dam there were two shallow spots that I had to get out for. Just as I was starting to think I might actually be able to keep my feet dry all day 🙁
After my first carry, as I got to the landing into Harness, I sat for 5 minutes and debated if it would be worth it to just camp on Head Lake. The fall colours were much prettier on Head, and I knew that both lakes only had 1 reservation on each, not including myself, so it wouldn’t conflict with anyone else’s trip.
On one hand, I would get a prettier view, and it would save 4k of portaging (1k today, and the double carry the next day). But on the other hand, Harness had an island site that would offer views of both the sunset and sunrise, which is always a plus in my books, and on Head, I would have to choose one or the other to enjoy. But most importantly, I like to visit new lakes with every trip, and my first 2 trips of the season prior to this had only been on lakes that I’ve seen before. If I decided to stay on Head, then this trip would be a ‘repeat’ trip as well.
So my decision was made to camp on Harness. It was the proper thing to do since my permit was for Harness, and I couldn’t justify doing 3 trips this year without visiting even one new lake. So I headed back to get the rest of my gear.
As I finished the double carry, there were 2 guys resting at the landing, having a snack. I chatted with them for about 15-20min while I collected some firewood, then headed straight to the eastern island site. The landing was terrible, a clutter of rocks with no proper entrance. If the water level was a bit higher, you could pull up further and get out comfortably; and if the water level was lower, there would be more rocks to help unload… I guess I just had bad timing with the water levels.
The campsite was nice enough; there were at least 6 or 7 flat tent spots (seriously), with a few good options that were sheltered by trees from the wind. There were also nice sitting rocks facing both east and west to enjoy the sunset and sunrise. Perfect trees to hang food. The only downside was that the fire pit was pretty exposed, and it was a pretty windy day with overcast starting to fill the sky. The pit also needed mandatory rearranging… there was one layer of rocks forming a circle, with about a 2ft diameter, and only one small grill that was less than 1ft wide.
It was only about 2:30, and before committing to this site I decided to walk through the island and check out the western site. The fire pit was in better shape and was more sheltered, plus it had a nice view of the western shoreline with very pretty fall colours. But I think the eastern site was still the nicer of the two, so I decided to stay there.
Walking through the island I noticed it was full of lightning struck trees. It made me a bit nervous, but the forecast didn’t call for storms… if it did, I definitely wouldn’t want to camp here.
I got back to the eastern site and set up my tent, rearranged the fire pit, set up my food hang, and then relaxed for a few minutes. It was very cold at this point, with temperatures supposed to drop to about 0 degrees overnight. I knew sundown started at 6:30 and I could expect full darkness about an hour or so later, so I decided to start dinner at about 4:30-5. By the time it took me to get a fire going, cook, eat, and clean, I figured I would finish just in time to watch the sunset from start to finish.
Right before dinner, I heard some people approaching the site. A couple with their dog… they didn’t notice that it was occupied, so I made my presence known and told them the other island site wasn’t too bad, and they said they would check it out. They were coming from the south of the lake, so they had already seen everything else.
Back to making dinner. Of course, right as I started to make a fire, it started to rain. Not hard enough to force me into shelter, but just hard enough that I couldn’t get a proper fire going. The strong winds definitely didn’t help either. I decided to wait it out and hope that it passed.
I definitely regretted leaving my burner at home at this point (the forecast didn’t call for rain so I decided to take the chance). Worst case scenario, I’d have a dry dinner… but luckily the rain passed and I was able to get a fire going by around 5-5:30. I finished in time to watch the sunset, with some periodic drizzling throughout the evening. The overcast blocked most of the sunset, but there was a nice 10min period with deep red and orange colours illuminating behind the colourful maple trees.
At this point it was pretty damn cold, but luckily I had a decent bit of firewood so I got the fire going a bit bigger. The seating is close to the pit, so I was still able to keep the fire relatively small while keeping warm. I enjoyed about an hour of campfire philosophizing, then sat under the stars for about 15-20min before more overcast came and blocked out the sky. I ended up getting in the tent just before 9pm.
Day 2 – Hiking Before Heading Home, Still Shocked by the Beauty of Fall
The tent was a cheap Wal-Mart brand that I borrowed from a friend, and I was worried about how much of that 0 degree whether I would actually feel overnight. My sleeping bag is good for winter though, and with some clothes layering, I was able to keep perfectly warm throughout the night.
I woke up a decent bit before the sunrise so I just sat in the tent listening to music until the first colours started to show. I got a fire going as the sun rose, since it was still freezing at that time. It was mostly overcast, but there were some short periods where the sun would poke through.
I finished eating breakfast and packing up camp as the sun made its way into the sky, and got onto the water at about 8:30am. My plan for the day was to get to Cache Lake, hike Skymount, then drop off the canoe back at Algonquin Outfitters and hike the eastern part of the Beetle Lake Trail. I thought it might be a bit tight on time, but I was on the water early, and I was prepared to hike until sundown, so I decided I would take my time throughout the day. It was a short trip, and I wanted to savour every moment of it.
As I came back to get my canoe for the second carry of the 1k into Head, I saw the same couple and dog from the previous day. I trailed behind them for a good portion of the day, but inevitably fell behind during the 1.6km since I was doing double carries.
I finished portaging around 1pm or so, and I was drained. But at least portaging was done for the day, and now it was just hiking. Cache was very windy, so I stopped to have a snack before hitting the water. Getting to the 360m portage at the east end of Cache to start the hike took much longer than expected with a strong headwind against me the whole time. I knew this would also be my last chance to enjoy the privacy of the backcountry, so despite the wind, I still took my time paddling.
As I rounded that last corner where the hiking trail meets the water, I could hear all of the tourists yelling obnoxiously as they walked along the trails. I left my canoe at the start of the portage, and connected with the trail leading to Skymount.
When I got to the top, I was expecting it to be nice, but I had no idea it would be as breathtaking as it was. Rolling hills full of orange, yellow, red, green, peak fall colours, for as far as the eye could see. Cache lake in the corner of the view, and the tall tree landscape directly in front acting like an illusion, feeling like it’s so close that you can just reach out and touch it.
I spent over an hour at the lookout, listening to music with my headphones, and taking several pictures. It was only 3pm when I started to head back to my canoe, which was perfect time to get back to my car, drop everything off at AO, and hike the Beetle Lake Trail before sunset.
My whole body was sore by this point, especially my legs and feet. Before starting my final paddle I had another snack to refuel, then hit the water. More headwinds.
I finished the paddle and got to my car, refusing to turn on my cell phone until the trip was actually finished. I got some quick snacks at AO, and started to walk towards the Beetle Lake Trail. Starting from the east side, off of Elliot Road, there’s a very steep incline near the beginning, but it levels off afterwards.
The first 2 lookouts were pretty crappy… I wouldn’t even call them lookouts, it’s completely blocked by trees and you get no view of the water/shoreline. The 3rd lookout is better, but still pales in comparison to Skymount. It has a nice view of Oxtongue Lake, the cottages, and the shoreline behind it, but you can’t see anything beyond that. I considered staying there to watch the sunset then hike down afterwards, but it didn’t seem worth it, so I headed back and took advantage of about 30min of sunlight during my drive home.
The drive back was busy, especially on Highway 60. The whole highway was full of cars pulled over on the side of the road, with tourists taking pictures. There was about a 5km stretch of people entering the park–from Algonquin Bound to the information office–where cars weren’t moving at all.. complete bumper to bumper traffic.
Overall the trip was wet, windy, and extremely cold. I was in constant debate about whether I should do the trip, and literally at 5pm the day prior, I decided I would do it. I got home from work and packed out in less than 2 hrs, and went to bed early. I’m extremely happy I made that last minute decision, and I’m extremely happy that this trip was how I ended the season. It was my first time camping during the fall, and it was the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen. I already have my maps open starting to plan for next year.