I wanted to do a short trip where I could take my time travelling and still be guaranteed a decent campsite, so I was looking for a lake that only had one permit issued at a time. I went to Harness Lake last fall, so I know the area well and Pardee Lake would only be a little bit further. I would have two campsites to choose from, although some research told me that the northern site was the better option. In a few weeks I’d be doing a loop south of Smoke down-and-around through to Cache, so this two-nighter would let me day trip into some of that territory and check out the route, campsites, etc.
Day 1 – A Rainy Travel Day to Pardee Lake
Not so great. Everything seemed to be failing me – my gear, my body, and the weather. Let me backtrack for a second and start with my obligatory “woke up at 4:45am, stopped at Timmies in Huntsville and got on the water by 9:30am”.
Ok so I got on the water and Cache Lake was already pretty windy even in the relatively early morning. It wasn’t windy enough to cause any issues, but it did make me exert a bit more energy than I would have liked.
As I pulled up to the 1.6km into Head Lake, I saw 2 kids (probably 8-10 years old) sitting on the steps fighting with each other – literally punching, throwing rocks, yelling, and crying. There were no parents around, just the two of them going at it.
As I unloaded my canoe I yelled at them to stop fighting; one of the kids was on the ground crying and I wasn’t particularly keen on the parents coming back and seeing me standing beside their crying children. They listened to me and stopped.
Right as I was about to start the portage the dad came back and started yelling at his kids for fighting with each other. I’m stuck in the middle of this trying to maneuver my gear around everyone so I can leave, so I try to break the awkwardness with a friendly “so how were the bugs on the portage?”
As I continued along the trail I saw several more groups of people, including a couple from the Netherlands who came to Canada for camping, as well as a girl running laps back and forth along the trail (she said she has a cottage on Cache).
This portage was particularly muddy, especially along a few stretches. At first I tried walking along the sides, but I realized it was super slippery and not that safe with a canoe over my head, so I decided to get my feet dirty (intentional pun) and embrace the mud.
Once I got to Head Lake things started to quiet down. No more large groups or crying children. I actually only saw 1 occupied site on the lake by the time I got there, despite it being fully booked for the night.
It was around this time that I noticed my knee was bothering me – it felt a bit tight if I tried to bend it. I had a weird feeling in that knee the previous night, but I slept it off and woke up feeling fine so didn’t think twice about it.
Now I thought twice about it.
It wasn’t bad enough to make me turn around, but if it continued to get worse and I woke up not being able to bend it, I’d have some serious issues trying to portage my way back on Day 3. I decided to move forward and be very careful and keep my eye on it.
Paddling through Head Lake I was faced with more headwinds, although once again they weren’t strong enough to set me back any significant time. The rain came and went, but I was always able to see clear skies beyond the grey clouds, so it was never bad enough to make me pull over. The forecast called for 70% chance Risk of Thunderstorms, but for now I felt fine paddling on.
Approaching the creek before the 1km into Harness I learnt what the saying “busy beavers” has been referring to all these years. I passed through this area last October, but between then and now the beavers built a large dam that you’re forced to get out of the boat and carry over (last year I was able to paddle through no problem, even in the low water levels).
The 1km is a pretty easy portage just like the previous 1.6km, but it was also very muddy. My knee was slowly getting worse with each carry, but it still wasn’t bad enough to really limit my movement.
Harness was just as quiet as Head, again with only 1 campsite occupied by the time I got there despite the lake being fully booked. The rain started coming down harder now. There was still no thunder or lightning, but the skies were full of overcast for as far as I could see. I decided to stay in my boat, but pull over at one of the campsites. If it started to lightning, I wanted to be able to get onto shore ASAP.
I waited 20min until the rain started to quiet down and I was confident enough that no storms were coming, and then continued paddling. The last portage into Pardee was an easy one and I made it to Pardee by around 2pm or so. Despite everything being soaking wet, I decided to collect a bit of wood at the portage before paddling over to my home for the next 2 nights.
I knew that it wouldn’t be possible to get a fire going, but I thought maybe if I kept it under a tarp and let it dry out, I’d be able to get a fire going tomorrow, and I could do the wood collecting now at the portage where there was likely going to be more wood than at the campsite.
By the time I got to the site the rain was still coming down hard enough that I wasn’t going to unload my gear and start setting up camp. So I waited.
I stood under a tree with my rain jacket on, staring out onto the gloomy lake watching the rain fall. The loons didn’t seem to mind. I guess I didn’t either. On the positive side, I made it to camp in one piece (despite having a tight knee), and all my gear inside my pack was still dry.
I started scouting out the tent spots and branches to hang my food from. There are 3 tent spots on the northern campsite – one behind the firepit, which is on top of rocks so wouldn’t be possible to peg down, and then two more just a couple feet back into the forest. One was more protected from the others, so that’s where I decided to set up my tent once the rain stopped.
When I started unpacking my pack I noticed something very worrisome… one of the two straps was literally hanging on by a thread. If that strap ripped, I’d have to carry the pack with only 1 strap, and having all that extra weight on only one strap would surely make that one fail as well.
Ideally, I would have gone home and tried to sew it back together, but I don’t think I had the luxury of getting it back in its current condition. I decided I would have to attempt a duct tape repair. I was confident it would work, but once you get the duct tape on there, sewing is no longer an option. I had too many other things to worry about like setting up camp and giving my knee some rest, so I decided I’d worry about my pack tomorrow.
I set up my tent, set up a tarp, and got my gear organized. Camp was set up pretty quickly and the rain seemed to be taking a short break, so I brought out my new Sail camping chair that was gifted to me and sat down to relax. This was my first time bringing a chair into the backcountry, and even though it’s a luxury, it’s a nice luxury to have out there. At only 2lbs and a relatively small pack size, I think I’ll find ways to afford bringing this on future trips.
It was almost dinner time and I was starting to get hungry. I humoured myself with attempting to get a fire going but gave up after 5min when I realized it was an impossible task. Oh yeah, did I mention that I left my cooking stove at home? Time to count my ‘cold’ calories and see what I could afford to have for dinner.
2,500 calories. That’s what I had in in cold food; trail mix, Nutella, beef jerky, chocolate, and protein bars, combined. The other 3,000 calories I brought required cooking. I still had Day 1 dinner, all of Day 2, and Day 3 until I got back to my car.
2,500 calories would not be enough; I would need to get a fire going at some point. I decided to have some trail mix, beef jerky, and a protein bar for dinner, which was actually enough to keep me full through the night.
Although it was a fireless night, I sat on my new favorite chair and watched the grey skies slowly turn darker grey, until the grey started fading into black. Once it was fully dark, I went into my tent and called it a night.
A sore knee, a lot of rain, no hot dinner, no fire, and an almost broken pack – Day 1 was full of troubles, but I made it to camp alive, and I got to sleep in a nice, warm, comfy, and most importantly, DRY sleeping bag.
Day 2 – A Long Day Trip… With More Rain
I woke up feeling a lot more hopeful this day. The sky was full of overcast, but no rain as of yet. After a lot of difficulty, I managed to get a small fire going and made some oatmeal. My knee was also feeling a lot better fortunately. No rain, dry’ish wood, hot breakfast, and a better knee – most of the troubles from the previous day had already started to fade away.
Now it was decision time. Do I day trip through Kirkwood, Phipps, and Bonnechere, or do I stay at camp and rest? It would be about a 6hr day if I went all the way to Bonnechere and back. If I left, I risked getting caught in rain (forecast called for 40-60% rain throughout the day, no thunderstorms), and I risked aggravating my knee again. If I stayed, I had a tarp and tent shelter, but there’s pretty much nothing else to do around camp on a gloomy day.
In two weeks I would be doing a loop from Smoke through Bonnechere, Kirkwood, Head, and out at Cache – so doing this day trip would let me see some of the lakes I’d be passing through, and give me an idea of what the portages/paddles would be like. I decided to do the day trip. I’m on a canoe trip and I want adventure, and I wasn’t going to find adventure sitting under a tarp all day.
The plan was to go all the way to Bonnechere, checking out all of the unoccupied sites en route to see what they were like. Once I made it to Bonnechere, I would circle the 3 sites in the north, but I didn’t plan on venturing to the south of the lake. As I made my way through each lake, the only campsite that I wasn’t able to go on shore to look at was the island site on Kirkwood Lake.
The east site on Kirkwood was actually nicer than I was expecting. Not a 10/10 site or anything, but it wasn’t all that bad. A nice fire pit overlooking the water facing northwest, with good tent spots sheltered inland. The island site however, despite reading good things about it, looked quite unappealing.
The east side of the island doesn’t open up to the water, so my thoughts of possibly watching the sunrise from this site no longer seemed possible. The landing on the west side is extremely steep for maybe 20ft until you reach the top of the site, which you’re not able to see from the water. And if I can’t see the site from the water, odds are you don’t get to see much water from the site. I met the group staying on this site and they said they also had difficulty trying to find places to pitch their tents. I’m curious to go on land and get a first-hand view of the actual site, but from what I saw, I was unimpressed.
I stopped at the waterfalls between Kirkwood and Phipps for a quick protein bar lunch, and then went onwards to check out the Phipps sites. The east site sat atop a large cliff, with a completely exposed fire pit at the top and very limited seating. The tent spots were a bit more sheltered, and the views were pretty nice from the site, but the steep climb and the not-so-great fire pit area made this the lesser of the two sites on the lake.
As I paddled towards the western site, the group occupying the site were just on their way out, so they said I could come ashore. I spent some time chatting with them and playing with their dog before they headed out and I checked out the site. This was definitely the nicer of the two. More large rocks scattered around the front of the site, offering views of the west, south, and east of Phipps Lake. A better fire pit area with good sheltered tent spots as well. This was a nice site and made me consider changing my reservation from Kirkwood to Phipps for my upcoming trip, assuming Phipps was still available.
Right before I left the site, I almost stepped on a giant snake on one of the large eastern rocks. It slithered away before I was able to get my phone out for a picture, but it must have been a couple feet long and 2-3 inches thick.
The creek before the portage into Bonnechere was the prettiest paddle of my trip. Shallow winding passageways, narrower than most that I’ve paddled through before. The whole section from Pardee to Bonnechere is a really nice area of the park that was surprisingly much prettier than I had anticipated it being. I was very happy that I ended up deciding to do the day trip.
I got to Bonnechere and checked out the connecting campsite between Bonnechere Lake and Cradle Lake. The campsite isn’t all that great and the tent spots are definitely lacking, but the fire pit is as epic as it gets and there is a nice view looking out onto Cradle Lake from atop a large rock.
The next site I went to was the one just west of the Bonnechere/Cradle site, and this site was all-around a bit nicer. To me, this site is the definition of a site that falls between the rankings of ‘average’ and ‘good’. I wouldn’t mind camping here, but it’s not a site I’d go out of my way for.
The last site I checked out was the northernmost site on Bonnechere, which is nice because it’s on a point and is relatively secluded, but otherwise the site isn’t that great. A small fire pit area with only one small bench sits at the tip of the campsite, making it very exposed to winds and rain. In good weather, it offers a chance to cook dinner with a beautiful view onto the sunset waters, but in any non-perfect conditions, you’ll wish you had a different site. Inland on this site isn’t anything to write home about either. Not the worst site to camp on, but definitely below average in my books.
I did almost step on another snake just before heading out. Two snakes in less than 2 hours – and to think, previous to this I’ve only ever seen 1 snake in the park before. The snake was much smaller than the first one I saw, but it was still cool watching it slither around and re-enact A Night At The Roxbury with its head bobbing.
The trip had taken me 3hrs from the time I left my campsite on Pardee to the time I got to this campsite on Bonnechere. I was facing headwinds most of the time, and stopped to check out several campsites en route. I anticipated 2hrs 30min to get back assuming I would have a tailwind and wouldn’t stop to check out any more sites.
My guess was pretty spot on – I had tailwinds most of the way and made it back in great time, probably closer to 2hrs. It was raining on and off the whole day, and it started coming down a bit harder while paddling on Phipps on my way back.
I finally made it back to Pardee and I was debating heading over to Lawrence to check out those sites. I was very close to doing that, but decided I already had a long day and I didn’t want to wait any longer to get into my comfy camping chair and relax under the shelter of my tarp. So I went back to camp, and less than 5min later it started raining. Not just raining actually… pouring!
And to think I was so close to visiting Lawrence and getting stuck on the waters in this weather. It was raining all day, but not like this. Now it was really coming down hard. I was laughing at how happy I was to be dry, sitting under a tarp, as the rain came thrashing down from the skies. My timing couldn’t have been better.
The pouring rain held up for well over an hour, and eventually my tarp started to give in. I set it up properly and it wasn’t pooling any water, but I guess it was just a crappy tarp that started to drip through when over-saturated with water. This was my first time using the tarp, and despite the slow dripping in random spots that started after the heavy rainfall, it held up fine otherwise. For short bouts of rain or long periods of very light rain, I’d still feel comfortable using it.
I figured now would be a good time to try and repair the strap on my pack, so I brought my pack under the tarp and got out my duct tape. This was a new roll of duct tape I bought from Canadian Tire since I just finished my last roll. I tore off the first piece with major disappointment. This wasn’t duct tape – well technically yes it was, but it was no more adhesive than regular tape. And with the dampness of my bag from the wet conditions, this tape was pretty much useless to fix the strap.
I didn’t bring a camping stove, my tarp started to give in, the strap on my pack was on the verge of ripping, and my duct tape might as well have been a piece of paper with sticky tac on it. Despite all of this, I was actually happy. I’m usually very spoiled with my trips, always lucking out with perfect sunny weather… this trip was one of the first in many years that I had predominantly rain. And that made this a good learning experience. I was also happy that this happened on a 2-night trip and not the 7-nighter I have planned for mid-September.
After some serious struggling and some questionable methods (like using bug spray as a propellant and fanning the flame with my Dollar Store sandals), I managed to get a fire going for dinner. Finally, a proper hot meal that wasn’t oatmeal. I devoured a box of Kraft Dinner with a whole pack of Bacon Bits added in, and then had some beef jerky afterwards. I didn’t have enough wood to sustain the fire for much longer, so before heading to bed I decided to take the canoe onto the water for a nice paddle to watch the sunset.
For the first time all trip, I was actually able to see some blue skies beyond the clouds. The loons were calling to each other very loudly and flapping their wings along the water as they learnt how to fly. Being on such a small lake, the loons were so close to me and it was actually quite a beautiful experience watching them take off from the water merely feet in front of me. It’s practically impossible to do a trip in Algonquin without seeing loons, but Pardee in particular had more loons than I’ve personally ever seen before.
All in all, Day 2 was a great day. I passed through a beautiful section of the park and explored lots of campsites; I saw snakes, watched the loons, enjoyed a sunset, and made it back to camp before the worst of the rain began. Day 3 was supposed to be the first day of the trip with good weather, and I was really hoping I’d wake up to some accurate forecasts.
Day 3 – Finally, Some Sunshine
The sunrise was clouded by overcast (I’m on fire with these puns (at least something about the trip had fire (ok I’ll stop talking to myself))) but I could tell that it was going to clear up shortly. I packed up camp and hit the waters by 8am. I had a headache and an unsettled stomach and I really wasn’t looking forward to the 8.6km of portages ahead of me (including the double carries).
I took it slow and leisurely during the paddles and after the portage from Harness Lake into Head Lake, I started to feel a bit better. My stomach felt better after getting some food in me, and my headache started to subside. The sun started to come out as well. All of a sudden it because a gorgeous day and even though I wasn’t feeling 100%, it felt pretty damn good paddling under the sun.
The headwinds on Head Lake set me back a few minutes and I ended up making it to the portage about 5min after a set of 9 canoes. Most of these canoes were from a youth charity church group with 18 people. I stayed on the water and let them get a head start, but I didn’t realize until I got on land that they had brought a TON of gear and would be leap-frogging everything back and forth, resulting in a total of 2-3 carries.
I started 15min after them, double-carried, and still managed to finish before them.
On my second carry, I noticed a very large pile of spaghetti and meatballs less than 1ft off the trail. This was easily the worst case of garbage I’ve seen in the park, since there’s really no easy way to clean it up and it’s guaranteed to attract lots of animals. With so many different groups on the trail at the same time I’m not sure who dumped it (or why they dumped it?), but considering that it was a serving size large enough for 4-5 people, and assuming it was leftovers and the initial serving size was much larger, I could only assume it came from a large group – maybe 18 people large?
I finished the portage and got onto the water for my final paddle of the day. The sun was still shining strong and the winds were coming at me harder than before. But I had nothing to complain about – I was feeling better, my knee wasn’t bothering me in the slightest, and my pack held up through all the portages without the strap ripping off… although I did need to reach around with my hand and hold the pack up from its bottom during all of the portaging to help alleviate the weight put on the strap. It was far from comfortable, but it helped prevent a worse outcome.
I pulled into the docks at Cache Lake at the same time as a couple coming from their cottage, about to start their drive back to Ottawa. I was supposed to strap the canoe onto my car for the first time (usually I leave it for the outfitter to pick up), and despite getting some lessons from the outfitters when I started my trip, I didn’t exactly remember what to do. The couple that I met were strapping their canoe to their own car, so I decided to get their help. We talked about our favorite parts of Algonquin and the different trips that we’ve done, and after 20min or so of conversation we decided to part ways.
It was time to say goodbye to Pardee, goodbye to the loons, goodbye to the couple thousand mosquitos I met along the way, and drop off the canoe at Algonquin Outfitters before heading home to end the trip.
I had a lot of issues throughout the 3 days I was gone, but I don’t regret a single minute of it. Pardee is a beautiful lake and the whole trip was a great learning experience. If I had the chance to do it again, I would in a heart beat. I would just bring a better tarp… and real duct tape… and a camping stove 🙂