Thanksgiving Solo on Ragged Lake

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Trip Info

Date: October 8th – 10th, 2020

ROUTE Smoke > Ragged Ragged > Smoke
Travel (Single)
2 hrs
2 hrs
Travel (Single)
2 hrs
2 hrs
Portage #1
240m
240m
SINGLE CARRY
240m
240m
DOUBLE CARRY
720m
720m
DIFFICULTY Travel (Single) Travel (Double) Portages Single Carry Double Carry
Total
4 hrs
4 hrs
2 portages
480m
1,440m
Per Travel Day
2 hrs
2 hrs
1 portages
240m
720m

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Background

Every year I like to do a trip around Thanksgiving to enjoy peak fall colours. The past two seasons were spent in Killarney, and the two before that were in Algonquin. This year I decided to go back to Algonquin.

Colours peaked early this year. At first I was debating moving my trip up by a week or two to catch the peak, but when that didn’t happen, I was debating cancelling the trip altogether. Did I really want to go camping when colours were well past peak, and the weather was only going to get colder and more unpredictable?

Yes. Yes I did.

Day 1 – Smoke Lake to Ragged Lake

Since Algonquin changed the rules for this season so that in-person check in was no longer required, I’ve been taking advantage of getting on the water extra early. That also means waking up extra early… and that part is no fun. So for this trip I decided to sleep in, aka wake up at 4:50 AM instead of 3:45 AM. I was heading into Ragged, which is a super short travel day, and there were literally no other bookings on the lake. I was in no rush.

After loading up the Keewaydin 15’ while freezing my butt off, I set out onto Smoke Lake. I was filled with a mix of different emotions; excitement to start the trip, nervousness about the -5 degree ‘feels like’ overnight temp being forecasted for my first night, and curiosity about what past-peak fall colours would look like.

The winds continued getting stronger as I paddled down Smoke, but since they were at my back, it just meant that I started getting lazier while paddling. Why do all of the work when Mother Nature will do half of it for you?

I took the time to watch the seagulls and loons on the water, admire all the cottages dotting the shoreline, and stare at the trees while answering my curiosity about what past-peak colours look like. 1/3 of the trees were a mix of yellow and orange, 1/3 were evergreen, and the last 1/3 were stripped bare. It was 100% beautiful with a touch of eerie and felt very Halloween-esque. But enough with the math.

Cottage on Smoke Lake in Algonquin Park during Thanksgiving long weekend in October 2020
Cottage with green roof on Smoke Lake with Thanksgiving fall colours Algonquin Park vertical photo
Cottage on Smoke Lake in Algonquin Park during Thanksgiving long weekend

The one and only portage for the day was a short one, but a good chunk of it goes uphill. And that uphill section also happened to be the wettest and muddiest part of it. But hey, even with double carrying it’s only 720m total, so nothing that justifies any complaining.

I was planning on heading to the south of Ragged to choose a campsite. Even though I would be the only person on the lake that night, it was going to be almost full the next day, so I wanted to find a site that offered a bit of privacy. I had seen pictures of the island site in the southwest of the lake and it looked pretty epic, but probably not an ideal site for October camping. Since it was still early in the day, I had the luxury of site hopping until I found one that I was happy with.

So even I was a bit surprised when I decided to stop at a campsite in the north end of the lake (in other words, the busy end of the lake). It had just caught the corner of my eye and looked appealing from the water; on the map it looks like a small island but upen closer inspection it’s actually connected to the mainland.

Fallen leaves behind Ragged Lake campsite during October long weekend
Yellow fall colours on trees behind Ragged Lake campsite October 2020

I went on shore to check it out and was so happy with the site that I decided A) I wasn’t even going to paddle to check out the campsites in the south of the lake, and B) I was willing to accept that it was surrounded by other campsites and I’d have plenty of neighbours my second night.

If this were summertime or if I were with a larger group, I probably would have taken the amazing cliff site just north of the site I chose. But as a soloist in October, I like having a bit more shelter and easier access to the water.

And the site I chose offered everything I wanted. It was a large site that felt very open and spacious. There were multiple tent spots to choose from, with a well-built fire pit. The thunder box was nearby, and there were a few good branches to hang food from. Even though it’s relatively exposed in all directions, it’s in the middle of several narrows and its position in the lake means it will always have a shoreline nearby offering protection from the full force of the wind. Plus, it was very flat and offered easy access to the water.

Inukshuk on Ragged Lake campsite with fall colour trees in the background

But the highlight for me was the mix of sandy and rocky shoreline that wrapped around the whole campsite, offering 270-degree views for both the sunrise and the sunset, along with sunshine at any time during the day (well, only if the sun decided to pop out from behind the thick October clouds).

No matter what month I’m camping, this would be a pretty ideal site for me. I was happy to call this place home for two nights.

Ragged Lake campsite #3 fire pit cleaned and restructured

I slowly set up camp and then made a late lunch. Or early dinner. Whatever you want to call a 3:00 PM meal when I knew I’d likely be in bed just a few hours later, shortly after the 7:00 PM sunset.

I bought a new mini stove from Amazon this season and while it’s extremely lightweight and compact, its surface area isn’t very large which makes it less sturdy while cooking. After the water had boiled and I gripped the pot, it slipped off the stove and fell. The boiling water spilled directly onto my left foot and by the time I was able to get my shoe and sock off, the water had already given me a small burn on the bottom of my foot.

Yes, it sucked having boiling water spill onto my foot, but I was even more upset because I was super hungry and now I had to spend some time with my foot in the lake before starting all over again. I just wanted to eat my Chiang Mai Coconut Curry with Beef & Vegetables!!!

After a successful second attempt, I finally got to eat. It was delicious by the way – it was my second meal from Backpackers Pantry and it already became my preferred brand over Alpine Aire. It’s more expensive, but it’s worth it in my opinion.

Backpackers Pantry Chiang Mai Coconut Curry with Beef Vegetables

At around 4:00 PM I went for a paddle and checked out a handful of nearby campsites, both to the east and west of my site. I got back in time to do a few last minute chores before settling down to enjoy the sunset.

Single bench by the water to watch the sunset on Ragged Lake campsite

Afterwards, it was time to make a fire.

The fire did its job of keeping me warm and at around 8:30 PM I noticed the sky was full of stars, which wasn’t something I was expecting after such a cloudy day. I got out my tripod and went to the front shoreline to do some astrophotography. Even though I wasn’t near the fire anymore, my body stayed warm for about 30-45min before the brisk cold started to settle in.

After an hour or so shooting the stars it was time to get in bed. I still had to unpack my tent gear and figure out how I was going to keep warm overnight in the -5 temps.

Milky way night sky photography in Algonquin Park on Ragged Lake with canoe
Milky way night sky photography in Algonquin Park on Ragged Lake
Sitting beside solo canoe shining headlamp at starry night sky in Algonquin Park
Shining headlamp while looking at the starry sky on Ragged Lake during Thanksgiving 2020
Milky way night sky photography in Algonquin Park during Thanksgiving 2020
Night sky astrophotography panorama on Ragged Lake during Thanksgiving 2020

My sleeping bag is a hand-me-down from my father, literally four decades old. All the tags are long faded and I couldn’t find any info about it online, but it’s what I always use to camp in the shoulder season and I trust it with my life. It’s heavy and bulky for a sleeping bag, but it’s also super comfortable and has never failed to keep me warm.

I mentioned in my last trip report 8 Days Solo in Algonquin that during my -1 degree night, everything inside the sleeping bag was fine; it was outside the sleeping bag ie. my face and pillow that were freezing. So for this trip I brought a second, lighter sleeping bag. I tucked the bottom half off it underneath the top half of my sleeping pad, and I draped the top half off the bag over my head region to make a little upper body cocoon.

It was time to put my creativity to test and see if it would keep me warm.

Day 2 – Rest Day on Ragged Lake

To my surprise, my plan actually worked perfectly and I had an amazing sleep. I woke up a few times and needed to expose myself from my cocoon to get some fresh air, but otherwise it worked flawlessly.

I decided to skip watching the sunrise due to the freezing temperatures. By the time I got out of the tent the temperature had risen back to around 0 degrees and the sun was poking through the clouds to offer some extra warmth. I went for a short paddle, had some breakfast, and just enjoyed being lazy on my lazy fall trip.

By around 11:00 AM I organized my daypack and camera gear and set out for a little day trip. I wasn’t planning on doing anything too strenuous; I was just going to paddle a little bit farther than my Day 1 adventure and check out some more campsites while they were still vacant.

Morning fall colours on Ragged Lake in Algonquin Park 2020

I made my way to the south island campsite that I was planning to visit on Day 1, stopping at all of the other campsites on route that I hadn’t visited the previous day.

I knew the island was elevated but I wasn’t expecting it to be such a mountain of a site. In the summer, I would love to camp here with a group. The fire pit and tent spots offer a commanding view from the top of the site towards the northwest, and the west side of the island is a massive beachfront maybe 100m long. You could literally play a game of football here. I spent some time at this site having lunch, taking photos, and just enjoying the beautiful views from its different vantage points.

Blue Keewaydin canoe with daypack and paddle learning on it, Ragged Lake south island campsite beach
Dead tree stumps behind Ragged Lake island campsite in Algonquin Park

During my paddle back the winds were getting stronger and clouds started blocking the sun in the sky. My day so far had been extremely slow paced and lazy but I guess I needed to put in a little bit of work to get back home.

South of Ragged Lake shoreline fall colours during October Thanksgiving

It was the early afternoon when I got back to camp and other groups were slowly starting to trickle in to Ragged Lake. Including one group canoeing while wearing t-shirt and shorts and no PFDs. I can only imagine the conversation before the trip:

“It’s Thanksgiving, let’s go to Algonquin Park!” 

“Ok, what should I wear?”

“We’re camping it will be nice out, just wear some camping clothes it doesn’t really matter, you’ll be fine.”

 “T-shirt and shorts ok?” 

“Absolutely.”

Absolutely not.

Anyways, one by one, campsites started becoming occupied. All of my neighbours were very considerate campers with the exception of one group across the lake on the west shore that were particularly obnoxious. They were the type of group that you just want to paddle over and say “you do realize you’re not the only ones in the park, right?” while explaining that yes, listening to music from powered speakers is actually against park rules.

But I digress.

Half moon over Ragged Lake campsite with blue sky

When I brought my barrel down from the trees I noticed that the chipmunks had tried getting inside. It was about 3 feet below the branch it was hanging from, but I guess that wasn’t far enough to stop them from jumping to it. Or climbing down the rope… I have no idea to be honest. But they had partially chewed through the plastic black lid, and in all of their anger and frustration of not being able to get in, decided to poop all over the lid. I’ve seen plenty of aggressive chipmunks while camping but I’ve never seen this before. Good thing I had the barrel though, any normal pack wouldn’t have stood a chance.

Chipmunk scratches on blue food barrel black lid
Chipmunk poop on top of blue food barrel lids

The rest of Day 2 was pretty similar to the afternoon of Day 1. I made lunch, processed firewood, and did some other random chores. But most importantly, I just enjoyed being super lazy. That was the whole point of this trip anyways. Be lazy and enjoy the park for one last trip of the season.

Yellow, orange and green trees fall colours Thanksgiving long weekend 2020
Shoreline fall colours during Thanksgiving weekend 2020 on Ragged Lake

I also managed to make linner without burning my foot, so that felt pretty good too. In case you’re wondering, linner is my lunch-dinner equivalent to what brunch is for breakfast-lunch. Also in case you were wondering, linner for Day 2 was another Backpackers Pantry meal, Sweet & Sour Rice and Chicken with Vegetables, and it was even better than my meal from Day 1.

By around 4:00 PM the sun was still hiding behind the clouds so I started a fire to keep myself warm. I had plenty of firewood and knew I could sustain a warm fire for as long as I needed. Other than a 45min evening paddle to watch the sunset, I pretty much stayed beside the fire for the whole evening.

Fire getting started on Ragged Lake campsite in Algonquin ParkNighttime fire on Ragged Lake campsite during Thanksgiving long weekend 2020

It looked like I was going to get another clear sky with some stars, but it was getting surprisingly windy and I knew I would be way too cold to sit by the shoreline for any astrophotography. I was happy with the shots I got from Night 1 and decided I wasn’t going to set up my gear for Night 2.

The strong guests of wind kept filtering into the campsite periodically and despite having small rocks protecting the pegs for each tie-out, the wind had managed to uplift and unpeg one corner. So I added more rocks throughout to make sure it was extra secure and hoped that it would hold up throughout the night.

It felt weird getting inside the tent and doing the exact opposite of Night 1. Instead of figuring out how I can keep myself warm, I was actually too warm and needed to start taking off all my layers. Overnight temps called for it to be around 9 degrees and it just seemed weird that after building a cocoon the previous night, I was going to sleep without wearing socks on Day 2.

It’s funny how I used to consider single-digit night temperatures cold and that threshold has now been lowered to around 0 degrees.

Day 3 – Ragged Lake Back to Smoke Lake

Most people would be thankful for the warm overnight temps of Night 2, but I actually happen to sleep much better when I’m cold. In other words, I got a terrible sleep Night 2. From the time I got into the tent until the time I got out of the tent in the morning, I probably spent half my time sleeping and the other half tossing and turning.

But when I did finally get out of the tent, I was treated to a gorgeous sunrise. The lake had some light mist on the water and the sky had a beautiful pink hue to it. The colours slowly progressed until a ball of fire popped up from behind the shorelines, bringing light, warmth, and a pretty view for everyone to enjoy.

Bright orange sunrise on Ragged Lake early October morning 2020
Sunrise on Ragged Lake during Thanksgiving long weekend in Algonquin Park
Early morning sunrise on Ragged Lake during Thanksgiving long weekend in Algonquin Park 2020
Early sunrise with colourful sky on Ragged Lake in October 2020

I’m used to waking up early to watch the sunrise but at this time of year, it’s not even that early of a wakeup. 6:30 AM to catch some of the earlier colours and 7:00 AM to watch the actual sun rise. I was able to see from my campsite that I wasn’t alone; a few other groups had already woken and were also watching the sunrise from their little slice of solitude on Ragged Lake.

Pink skies during sunrise on Ragged Lake Thanksgiving October 2020 vertical photo
Woman in blue jacket sitting on Ragged Lake campsite observing early morning on Ragged Lake

I tend to get on the water right after the sunrise but since I had such a short travel day back to Smoke Lake, I took my sweet time and continued with my “this is a lazy trip” mentality.

After slowly packing up my tarp and tent and organizing my gear, I took my barrel down from the trees.

Damnit!

Those damn squirrels got to it again, chewing even more of the black plastic lid. I hung it even lower from the top branch so that it would be more difficult to get to. But somehow they prevailed. And this time they actually almost made their way through the lid. At least they didn’t poop all over it this time.

It was about 10:00 AM when I finally got onto the water, which is probably record late timing for me. It was by far the warmest day especially when the sun was out, hanging around the mid-teens temperatures. There was a decent bit of wind too; it wasn’t too powerful in the north end of Ragged Lake, but it was coming mostly from the west so I knew it would get worse when I got to Smoke Lake.

As I approached the portage, I saw a few large groups about to launch onto Ragged. There were about 7 canoes and a double kayak. I stayed on the water and had a snack while they all finished loading and set out onto the lake. I also wanted to avoid coming close to other people due to COVID.

Canoeists and kayakers entering Ragged Lake during October long weekend 2020

I had hoped that after that large group, I’d be able to do the portage without seeing other people. Boy was I wrong. There were about 5 or 6 more groups, totaling 20 people or so. I did my best to keep my distance but there’s only so much distance you can keep on a portage. So I moved fast and just tried to finish my double carry as quick as possible.

I later learned that it was just really bad timing, because during my whole paddle up Smoke I only saw 2 other canoes. Everyone coincidentally arrived at the portage into Ragged at the same time, and I just happened to get caught in the hurricane.

Speaking of Smoke Lake, and speaking of hurricanes…

The paddle up Smoke was pretty nasty. Ok, it wasn’t exactly a hurricane, but it was white caps and it was quite terrifying. Considering it was October and I was travelling solo, a flipped canoe very well could be a life or death scenario. I knew that I needed to stay close to shore, which is good practice whenever water temps are this low, but it’s even more important when water temps are this low AND you’re facing white caps. But the east shore was exposed to the west winds, and hugging the west shore meant I needed to cross the West Bay first.

Seagull standing on rock looking at its feet on Smoke Lake
Merganser duck on Smoke Lake during cold fall morning Algonquin Park
Loon on water on Smoke Lake in Algonquin Park October 2020
Baby seagull sitting on a rock on Smoke Lake in Algonquin Park

I decided to cross the West Bay and take an angle that put me directly into the winds so they wouldn’t be at my side. The altered course took significantly longer than it should have taken me, but it was also much safer considering these waves would likely have flipped the canoe if faced sideways. After 30min of strenuous paddling and some waves breaking over into the front of the boat, I finally reached the west shore and found safety among the now calm water.

For the rest of the paddle I was able to hug the west shore and it was quite calm. The wind picked up a bit while crossing the final bay towards the parking lot, but it wasn’t anywhere near as nasty as the West Bay earlier.

There were a ton of people at the access point when I got back. Not because they were camping or hiking; they were strictly there to take pictures. Smoke Lake access point isn’t necessarily the most picturesque option, but for some reason it still attracted hoards of people. Gotta do it for the Instagram I guess.

I put my mask on (which in hindsight I should have done during the portage as well) and loaded up my car. I was perfectly happy with how the trip went, but it was still a sad feeling knowing that I wouldn’t be back again until next year.

The Aftermath

Initially I was going to do a more intensive trip, going down into McGarvey and then back up. I was also planning on going during peak fall colours. Clearly both of those didn’t happen.

When I realized that I would be well past peak colours and that temperatures weren’t going to be that great, I had a different plan for the trip. The new plan was to be lazy, relax, and take a mental health break from the COVID craziness back in the city. I wanted to enjoy my last trip of the season without doing a trip that was too strenuous, or worrying about setting up camp while the sun was on its final minutes. Those trips have their time and place, but this wasn’t it.

Saying all of that, I was very happy with how this trip went. It was very lazy travel wise, but I still occupied my days with chores, day trips, wood processing, etc. I loved the campsite I stayed at and enjoyed getting to know Ragged Lake more intimately than the one time I had been on the lake before just to paddle through it.

The temperatures ranged from being comfortable in the warmth of the sun, to dipping below zero and literally freezing. But I came prepared and I embraced the weather that was thrown at me.

For a trip that almost got cancelled last minute just because I missed peak colours, I’m incredibly happy that I decided to still go. Even though the colours were well past peak, it didn’t detract from its beauty. It was just different, but still worth admiring in every regard. And now I know what past-peak looks like, and what camping in negative temperatures feels like. It’s just one more notch on the belt that will help me plan future trips during this time of year.

AFTERMATH 2.0 – A few days after getting home I had read the news about the unfortunate accident on Lake Opeongo. One canoe tipped, and while 2 of the 3 canoeists were rescued, the other canoeist unfortunately died. I was battling the wind on Smoke Lake during my Day 3 at the exact same time as that happened on Opeongo. It’s a very sad story, but a good reminder about the importance of prioritizing safety and preparedness before venturing into the backcountry. I highly recommend reading the full story from Glenn Wallace from KPW Outdoors (the man who rescued the two canoeists) on the KPW website.  

http://www.kpwoutdoors.com/blog/opeongo-lake-rescue-october-10th-2020