Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Icecapade in Algonquin

Frozen in time and place - ice does that.

Algonquin Provincial Park is a popular destination well known for its canoe routes, that's pretty much a given. Increasingly, (for better or worse) its popularity has made the feelings of solitude and wilderness in the park more and more elusive. Sure, you can still experience that wonderful feeling of being 'lost' in the wilderness, (That's why we go canoeing, isn't it?) but that entails more portages that takes you deeper into the interior. Not a bad thing, but that assumes you either have the time or the gumption.

So what if you don't have either and you want to experience the wilderness in Algonquin? Well if its during prime canoeing season and its near the Hwy 60 corridor, good luck! It just isn't going to happen. It's too bad because there are several nice routes close to the main artery that runs through the park, but quick access means its fair game to everyone else. Not left with much choices, the only other alternative is to go elsewhere, or go when no one else goes. I know, you probably think I have some well kept secret that I am going to spill out on this blog, but no, not really. But it does promise quick access and solitude, but with conditions.

Burnt Island Lake - dawn of a beautiful day, who would have
known what the rest of the day was going to be like.

Even though you most likely won't find me around Algonquin during the regular paddling season, it doesn't mean I don't like the park. I actually do like it a lot, but its the crowds I'm not fond of. My roots to canoe tripping started in Algonquin and its always like a home coming when I go back there. So even to this day, I make yearly plans to head there, the only difference is that its on my terms. If you don't mind some ice,....and oh yeah, cold, possibly freezing temperatures,....and did I mention the odd freezing rain, maybe numbing winds and possibly snow, (hmmm, sounds less and less enticing) then you will be guaranteed wilderness solitude in Algonquin's easily accessed routes. So when is this 'golden hour'? Just after the ice goes from the lakes, and just before it freezes over.

Okay, okay, so it might not be THAT enticing, nor is it some well kept secret, but it has its rewards - and headaches. As you might have already read my previous post about the moose encounter, this is a perfect example of what you can expect when you have the place to yourself. And trust me, I have had many more similar incidents. But of course, there is the flip side to it all - harsh conditions. You could luck out, but there is a greater chance you won't, so being prepared is pretty important. Despite knowing what to expect, there are times when you just don't luck out, like on my last solo trip of 2010.

Nope, its not snow or ice. It's actually frozen foam. This is even
a first for me! Who would have guessed?!

Wave action on Burnt Island Lake created shoreline foam
that froze in the morning. It was a sign!!

When I headed out in the third week of November, the yo-yo temperatures for the previous several weeks seemed to assure that the bodies of water would have a hard time freezing. In actual fact, the day I headed out, I still didn't believe any lakes were frozen over. Pushing off shore into to Canoe Lake, I was totally confident of ice-free paddling. Plus, based on the weather reports, the temperature was going to swing back up to double digits later in the weekend from its current below zero temperature. I didn't have any concern in the world, other than dealing with the wind and waves as I headed out.

My first sighting of ice came when I headed north into a small bay midway up Burnt Island Lake on day two. The take-out to the portage was partially obstructed by ice, but it was easy enough to break through. Thankfully, most of the ice was on the opposite shore so I was pretty lucky, but it now had me questioning my earlier prediction, especially considering most of the bodies of water I would soon encounter were fairly small. After the first portage, I was relived to find Jay Lake open with just a little bit of shore ice at the put-in to deal with. Feeling more confident, I figured if I had to deal with only the odd ice along the shore, I was laughing. Well, that was until I got to the next body of water.

An uncanny silence with not even a ripple meant only one
thing, it was completely frozen over.

When the rock made impact far from shore and didn't break through as it continued skidding wildly along the frozen surface, I knew I had a problem. Instead of the cold breeze rippling the surface of this lake, this body of water was eerily quiet and still - it was totally frozen over. I could see the other end of the lake, including the next portage. It wasn't too far across, maybe 200-300 metres. Most sane and prudent canoeist would have taken this as a sign to head back the way they came; I continued looking for a way across. The shoreline didn't offer much in the way of options, so I decided to venture forth. Sliding the canoe onto the frozen surface, it remained just there - above the ice. Oh boy.

When I walked into the canoe, the ice reluctantly gave. (there was still hope) Now I had to figure how to 'efficiently' move the canoe atop the ice while breaking it so that I could continue moving forward. It was awkward and tough at first, but after barely making 50 metres, I developed a method to my madness affectionately called the P3 Power Paddle. P3 defined as the 3 P's to Pick, Pull, and Push. This technique for ice travel on 'breakable' ice consisted of 'picking' the corner edge of my paddle (thank goodness for my tough Aqua-Bound whitewater paddle!) into the ice, than 'pulling' myself and the canoe up onto the ice (therefore breaking it) and then 'pushing' my way forward after passing the point in which the paddle passed my side.

'Pick' - the first 'P' in the P3 Power Paddle. The paddle literally
only needed to be jammed in approx a cm for me to
haul the canoe forward. Thank goodness
for the tough paddle!

It was a tough slog, but it actually worked well. It only took 3 P3 Power Paddles on one side to completely exhaust me, so I had to swap sides every three strokes to continue without stopping to rest. Adding the numbers up, I realized what I was putting my body through. The canoe was approx 80lbs, add the 2 barrels and camera case, approx 50lbs and then include myself at 155lbs. That gives you a total of 285lbs, which is probably closer to 300lbs when you factor in my boots, all my clothing, PFD, paddles, painters, etc. So I was literally taking 300lbs and using my arms, shoulders, and back to drag the canoe atop the ice (not forgetting friction) and then when the ice somewhat gave, continue using my arms to push the canoe forward. The downside to this method meant I was moving skewed from one side to the other, but ultimately, it got me where I wanted - to the other end.

It was rewarding to make it to the other end, even exhilarating to think I overcame this obstacle. As I peeled my hat and jacket off to cool down, I looked at the map and realized this body of water I just crossed was not actually a lake, but a pond. This explained why it froze over due to its lack of movement or current compared to a lake. Looking further ahead on the map, I realized after the next two lakes, I would be encountering another pond that was bigger - great. Well now that I was committed, I decided to continue forward, hoping and praying that this bigger pond that was even important enough to get a name, (Aster Pond) wasn't completely frozen over. Prayer fell on deaf ears and hope froze over. She was completely frozen.

Successfully making it across, you can see the
telltale zigzag path the canoe took
to get to this end.

Oddly enough, this time I didn't feel the same exhilaration when I finally crossed Aster Pond. It was actually more like the other 'e' word - exhaustion. It was easily double the length of the previous pond, but since I had completed a total of 2 kms of portaging (double carry) so far, as well as employing the effective but tough P3 paddling technique already, I was starting to tire out. Not only that, my canoe seat also broke while pushing through Aster Pond, so I was often on my knees using with my abs and thighs to stabilize the canoe to pull/push it along. I comtemplated creating a money-making venture with a new fat-burning exercise routine for the masses with a canoe-like apparatus.

After paddling through Willow Lake, I thought I would be scot-free of ice. All I needed to do was portage to Barlett Lake, where I planned to end the already long day. Maybe it was the waning light, my exhaustion, or the fact it was a small pond stuck between printed portages distances and lake names. In any case, this 'brilliant' paddler missed it and found himself staring at another frozen pond. My spirit sunk. I was exhausted, thirsty (having recently finished the last of my water), hungry, and now perplexed by what I saw. Looking intensely at the map in the twilight, I noted my oversight. I was in the right place after all.

The canoe at the put-in, or more appropriately the 'put-on-top',
of the very frozen Aster Pond - sigh!

I had considered setting up camp right on the portage, but I wondered if the falling temperatures would make the ice even more difficult to deal with the next morning. So an executive decision was made by me, myself and I to forge ahead. As previous, the P3 Power Paddle technique worked, just slower as the ice was noticeably thicker and I was obviously more tired. The only silver lining was that I could see the portage on the other side and the distance seemed a bit shorter than the first pond. All was going well until my collective experiences dealing with ice on canoe trips brought me to a halt. What I saw just beyond the bow of the canoe had me concerned. The colour and texture of the ice up ahead signalled a distinct change, and believe me, it wasn't softer ice. Driving the canoe onto the thicker and harder ice, it stayed firm, even with me directly on top of it.

It would be foolish to assume the ice was thick enough to support my weight. If I stepped out, all my weight would be centered over my feet. Being inside a canoe atop the ice did 2 things, distribute my weight along most of the canoe, but more importantly if the ice broke, I would safely still be in the canoe. This was not the time to take chances, especially being alone. I looked for an alternative route to the portage, but this thicker ice extended out from the entire opposite shore, so I had no choice but continue forward. I guess I could have turned back, but I wasn't planning on getting stuck here and being rescued. Any mistake could be fatal, so I had to be pretty certain of what I was doing.

Looking back at the put-in to Aster Pond, convincing myself I
made some distance. She made me work hard
for every single inch!

Since I couldn't break the ice anymore, I had to make sure that if I 'walked' atop the ice, I had to either be in or by the canoe in case the ice broke. At first, I straddled the bow of the canoe facing out and tried to use both legs to pull the canoe along. Unfortunately, this technique was too difficult since my boots wouldn't grip the ice. I then resorted to one foot in the canoe (in front of the bow seat) and the other one out while grabbing the gunwales and keeping my center of gravity low. With most of the weight on the foot in the canoe, I figured there was less chance of the ice breaking and if it did, I could immediately hop/fall/roll into the canoe. This method seemed to work better with my one foot (despite the lack of grip still) and my arms to force the canoe forward. Once I got momentum going, even the canoe started to slide easily.

Needless to say, I'm blogging about this because I obviously made it across. It was quite the relief when I could place my foot on solid ground, but at the same time, I could also positively say it was exhilarating too - since I made it across alive. (nothing like living on the edge!) In the fading light, I decided this event was worthy enough to take a photo, so I cranked my ISO on the camera and took a few shots to remember this moment. There was hardly any evidence of my passing after the last break in the ice. A bit eerie, since it looked as if someone never made it past that point. Well, I quickly put the camera including the gloomy thoughts away and focused my remaining energy for the rest of the carry.

Even my canoe had had enough - like it was expected to paddle
through ice? I will have to agree, this canoe has
been put through one hell of a life!

The last portage in near darkness had me thinking about the circumstances I found myself in. Despite the building thirst and the growling stomach trying to get my attention, I felt totally calm and relaxed. Sure the risk and challenges on this canoe trip had me shaking my head, but the rewards felt commensurate. It is hard to uphold risk if the circumstances don't fall in your favour, but when it does, life seems to feel - richer. I'm certainly not saying that that is the only way to enrich your life (and to purposely seek it), but incidents such as I've described when overcome, provides something really special, something that can not be adequately expressed in words. I can definitely tell you that if I was at home instead, I wouldn't have anything close to the same experience. We all get to chose what we want out of life.

Made it!! I lightened the photo so that you can see the trail the
canoe followed before I got out. Part of the frozen trail
I 'walked' is covered by a thin film of water,
but still fully intact.

It's funny how your mind works when circumstances change, rather than think twice about getting myself in this type of situation again, I started to think about getting some modified crampons to help me better deal with ice next time. Besides, it would have also helped when I wiped out scrambling up the steep icy embankment trying to get to my campsite!


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