Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Measuring Up To Algonquinites

Absolutely gorgeous Hi-A-Wa-Tha Lake, who would have
known? A hidden gem inside Algonquin.

Most avid paddlers like myself, eagerly wait for the start to the paddling season when signs of spring abound. When the weather starts to warm and the daylight starts to lengthen, it is a sure sign that ice is melting too. After a prolonged 4-5 months of paddler's hibernation, it was time to break out the tripping gear and get the 
canoe(s) ready for another season. My enthusiasm was tempered by back to back weddings at the usual time I would head out for an ice-out canoe trip, but as fate would have it, I didn't have to agonize at all. As I often head to Algonquin Park to open the paddling season, the cooler than average temperatures and flooding in the park meant no one could get into Algonquin's interior early this year. Thus, as my wife reminded me, my sulking was for nought.

The original Algonquinites, (l to r) Mark Rubino, Jeff McMurtrie,
Mark Scarlett, Scott Rogers, and John Scarlett

The plan was to head out with Anita for a extended weekend trip at the beginning of May. Unexpectedly, those plans got totally thrown out the window when I met Jeff McMurtrie, of Jeff's Map ( Thanks to Chris Scerri, co-owner of The Canadian Outdoor Equipment Co.( who in our ongoing discussions to work together (which I will write about in the future), was introduced to Jeff through email. I knew about Jeff's detailed Algonquin maps, which I consequently used to get information on access points when I ran the Big East River one year. Funny enough, he also knew about me, when reading about a trip report on my blog to compile information on routes in and around the park. As fellow trippers, we instantly connected and before we even had a chance to meet in person, he asked if I was interested in a trip to the park with his group of friends. Heck, it was almost like a blind date!

What a heartfelt moment, finding Mark's Lake.
Now someone push him in!!

These friends are not ordinary park trippers, they are Algonquinites. This is heady company with the likes of Jeff, who obviously knows the park inside and out, same for Mark Rubino, ( who has practically seen most of Algonquin as an exclusive park tripper, Scott Rogers, ( who is another park aficionado, and lastly, the Scarlett brothers, John and Mark, who have tripped in Algonquin for over 50 years! I myself have tripped many times in Algonquin and seen many areas through its varied seasons too, but I couldn't help feel slightly timid by these avid Algonquin trippers. 

Do you see a trail? - Rediscovering/reliving the old portage
from Barnet Depot to Alder Creek? Or was it?

I found out quickly that this group is a tough, gritty, well-greased tripping machine. They had recently completed the Meanest Link, a tough route through Algonquin Park honouring Bill Swift Sr., rediscovered new routes along forgotten portages/waterways, sought out lakes unconnected to typical routes and even created a new portage in the park! Did I mention they are not your typical Algonquin trippers? Unfortunately, they had lost their 'sixth', so was in search of a replacement. I was certainly flattered when I was asked to join this elite tight-knit team, but as you can see, the more I found out about them, it was plain intimidating. Labelling them Algonquinites in my opinion, was very fitting.

John enlightening us on the metal remains found near a cabin.
Being a blacksmith, he really knows his stuff!

It's always awkward joining a new group. I didn't really know anyone, including Jeff, whom I had just met. Plus, you always wonder if you will not only gel with the group, but be able to keep up to the group's level of intensity and style. Lastly, it's not like there was time for a meet and greet to get to know each other first, 
as the trip was starting in less than 2 weeks. I may have lots of tripping experience myself, but like the new kid on the block, you always wonder if you'll measure up to the group. It was a bit nerve racking, but I had to put it aside and focus on getting ready, as even my wife was on board with me going. She was totally fine with postponing our trip, as she figured it would be warmer by the time we went. (Nope!) Plus, she also thought I could benefit from some good old male bonding. (Like what was that's supposed to mean? Visions of Deliverance danced in my head!)

We ate well, and that is an understatement. Thank goodness
Algonquin has long portages to keep the beef off!

The start date of the trip was in constant flux due to many unforeseen factors. The later than expected ice out in the park, heavy rains that caused extensive flooding, and the resulting damage to many access roads. Because of the damage, the park was not issuing permits, so it became a frustrating waiting game. In the end, the trip date got moved to the beginning of May, including changes to the access point and the route itself. On May 4th, Jeff and I finally set off from Canoe Lake on an absolutely gorgeous day. (Anita was regretting her decision not to go, as the forecast for the week was +20C highs and sun all week!) The rest of the group was already at the park for a bi-annual gathering of avid Algonquin trippers, so I met them when we arrived a couple hours later. It was an ideal opportunity to socialize with people that shared the same interest, while eating and drinking the evening away. The weather was perfect for this, and soon enough, I was starting to feel comfortable being there. I was now more than ever, looking forward to the start of the actual trip the next day.

"The March" along old logging roads.
 Simply lead or follow along.

This year's trip was supposed to be an easy one, in comparison to previous years. That was the consensus I was getting from the group. It certainly wasn't a tough trip overall, but there was some days of note. For the most part, there was the typical amount of travel, mixed with portaging and sightseeing. Not the sightseeing where we are paddling around with cameras around our necks and posing in front of our canoes, but rather checking out old ruins and remnants of times gone past. I few of us had no clue that these ruins existed, despite passing familiar areas many times. We were entertained and educated by the Scarlett brothers, who were like historian/park guides that had the seen the park over the course of 5 decades and had witnessed many changes during that time. Did I mention they are 68 and 71? I stand correct by those numbers. Although, don't let those numbers fool you. They are just as fit and fast on the portage and water as the rest of us, and they probably carried a greater share of the weight! They are my new paddling paragons!

Remains of an Alligator on the shores of Burnroot Lake.
It's an incredible piece of Algonquin's 
logging history.

On the flip side, this group loves to go off trail, the beaten path, or where "no one has ever gone before". (Star Trek, move out of the way!) Now this is stuff I love. Bushwhacking, route finding, feelings of "Where are we?", or  "Are you sure this is the right way?!" It adds an exciting element to the rather mundane, paddle, portage, paddle, portage and then find camp. Sure, not everyone relishes this kind of stuff, but I certainly do. This group's mentality was right up my alley. On day four, we set off to primarily find a lake named after one of our members, Mark Rubino. Jeff had unofficially named this unknown/unnamed lake after him - Mark Lake. So the idea was to get Mark there, so that he could see it. (We were also hoping for him to experience it too by jumping in, but he chickened out after seeing that the water was dark and had a boggy bottom.) It was a combination of rock hopping, weaving through tight spruce, sinking in mats of bog, and stomping along old logging roads. We did make it, and Mark got his ceremonial picture beside 'his lake', but the tempo and pace of this 10 km excursion was aptly named "The March". You either followed, or got left behind. 

False alarm, not Alder Creek. At least we hoped not!
The search continues to find the end.

But that was only to prep us for the event the next day, which no one volunteered naming. Probably because they are descriptive terms not appropriate for this blog, as it really did make "The March" seem benign. The purpose of this exploratory excursion was to retrace an old portage that existed many years ago. This portage started from Barnet Depot and ended at Alder Creek, possibly to avoid the longish paddle around Burntroot Lake and a couple rapids to Longer Lake. It had obviously fallen out of use (I wonder why?) and was not maintained, so the question remained, was there enough to actually follow it? Most recently, Craig McDonald, an MNR employee who is well known for documenting old forgotten portages (nastawagn), marked a winter portage along this supposed route. But even then, there was questions on whether it was actually correct. Despite all this, blinded by this romantic notion of reliving an old forgotten portage, we set out with canoes atop our heads to find out. Sounds enticing, huh?

One of many stone chimneys left standing from
the remains of Camp Minnesing

Let me put it this way, if you know anything about winter portages, winter portage does not equal summer portage. I have 5 other witnesses who can testify to that fact. First of all, what was thought to be a 1200m carry, turned out to be almost double at 2 kilometers. Secondly, what started as a decent trail, eventually degraded to bushwhacking, maneuvering around fallen trees, splashing through marshes, forcing our way through alder thickets, and fighting our way out of boot sucking muck. It was a lot more than our group had expected. We decided early on to double portage, since we thought it prudent to scout the way through, as we had no idea of the trail conditions. However, it was soon clear to us, that despite the favourable start, we were pretty confident that we were not on an old portage, or for that matter, any trail at all. With all the time and energy spent to get to where we were, we had no choice but to move on. It wasn't easy, nor always enjoyable, or even healthy exposing our ears to those waxing eloquent monologues praising this unique trail, but we did it - four hours later. We were finally thrilled to see the snaky contours of Alder Creek as we emerged from a tangled mess of alders, but rather than give high fives, bear hugs and hoots of joy, everyone quickly and quietly jumped into the canoes and paddled away. I'll take it that the silence was a poignant way of saying, "Thank gawd it's over!"

The Scarlett brothers - the unrelenting paddling
-portaging team

Sure, we were probably the first in our present time (and possibly the last) to portage that very unportage-like trail, but that is the kind of things I enjoy. Discovering (for better or worse) new routes and pathways that take "the road less traveled". Maybe better phrased, the path that no one travels, but who's really 
paying attention. I really enjoyed the team's tenacity and perseverance to get through, helping each other and plodding on ahead, all the while scheming to hang Jeff by his underwear. (It was his idea, right?) Our group enjoyed some amazing weather, often had an abundance of great food, and experienced innumerable laughable moments. But, I will guarantee, any time we think about this trip, we will first fondly recall the portage that 'thou shalt not name', which has been indelibly imprinted (or scarred) into all collective grey matter.

The aftermath and carnage after the
 Barnet Depot portage!

Not all days were like this. There were many other memorable trip moments that didn't consist of pain. Overall, this canoe trip had a great mix of both. I have to thank Jeff for sticking his neck out and inviting me on this trip, as I thoroughly enjoyed time spent alongside everyone, whether relaxing on the Slingback, huffing along a portage, or huddled around the fire. It was awkward at first, not really knowing anyone, but by the end of the trip, I found out more than I really wanted to know about everyone. It really felt like a brotherhood, of shared hardships, laughs, and naphtha flavoured honey-mustard pretzels (you had to be there). It was not only a great trip, but an amazing experience with an amazing group of guys. As the trip neared its end, I wondered if I measured up and earned my keep as the 'sixth', as I was definitely interested in being part of next year's adventure. While paddling out under snow squalls and stinging ice pellets on the last day, I couldn't help but think about tripping with this group again. Nine days had quickly come and gone, and I was already feeling nostalgic. Yes, it was that good. So boys, when's the next trip?

Cheers to a great adventure!

Now there is six - Taken on our favourite
campsite on Burntroot Lake