Sunday, February 13, 2011

August 27-29 2010 – Grand – High Falls – Barron Canyon – Grand – 3 Days, 2 Nights

Day 1 – Friday August 27, 2010 – "Sailing With the Wind"

Friday dawned, warm and bright. The weather forecast for the weekend was impeccable – hot, sunny, and cooling off just enough in the evening to ensure a comfortable slumber. We departed Ottawa after a 6am breakfast at Cora's and made the drive up to Petawawa to refuel on coffee, then down the Barron Canyon road to find our outfitters. We arrived at the Algonquin Bound outfitters, but only after driving several kilometers extra down the road and turning around at their local competitors, Algonquin Portage. After some paperwork and a short break to watch construction crews perform a detonation to clear bedrock along the side of the road we were off to the park proper. A bit more paperwork at the park gate and a short drive to Achray later, we were standing on the beach under mostly sunny skies, taking in the fresh air and having a quick shore lunch before we set off.

Since there were only three of us on this trip, we had requested from the outfitter a regular tandem canoe for Scott and Bill, and a solo for myself. Unfortunately, the outfitter had not been able to provide us with the solo canoe and had compensated with a ultralight kevlar one instead. This canoe had two drawbacks – it was a larger canoe than the solo would have been, and it also possessed no keel. Both these drawbacks would make it challenging to handle in the wind, and with it being nearly 11:15am by the time we launched on to the appropriately named Grand Lake, wind would certainly be a factor..

Scott and I survey the lake while having a quick shore lunch prior to departure. Scott and I had invested in some 'Sit-Backer' canoe seats. A very comfortable and worthwhile investment!

A view towards Carcajou Bay, shortly after launching. The stiff breeze had worked up a fair amount of chop on the water.

Underway at last, we set off towards the narrow river exiting Grand Lake to Stratton. The tricky part about our intended route is it would take us sideways to the wind and chop blowing in from the north-west. I soon discovered another drawback to the canoe I was in – compared to the Scott canoes we had rented on our previous trip, this one felt quite unstable. Passing by the point rumoured to be the site of Tom Thomson's famous "Jack Pine" painting, the wind and waves picked up a bit more. The shape of the shoreline was catching the waves just right to reflect them back at me. The particularly bad chop caught me off guard and I came within a couple inches of capsizing. All my gear was packed in drybags inside my backpack, and the water was sufficiently shallow I could have likely retrieved the backpack itself, but this wasn't the way I wanted to start my trip!

I managed to stay upright and struggled to get myself pointed more favourably into the wind and chop. A few more times, the wind got the best of me and turned my canoe sideways. On these occasions all I could do was paddle hard and try to keep myself from losing too much progress to the winds whimsy. On the plus side, by the time we made it to the sheltered mouth of the Barron River exiting Grand Lake, I felt I had a much better handle on the J-stroke necessary to keep myself pointed in the direction I wanted to go.

Said J-Stroke in action! I was feeling much more confident and comfortable paddling out of the wind.

Our intrepid trio takes a moment to take in the surroundings.

Our next leg took us down Stratton Lake. The short 50m portage around a small dam on the river was hard packed and flat. We saw several other groups traveling the same direction as us, some in canoes, some in kayaks. The rumours of this part of the park being quite busy were not understated!

Soon we were paddling down Stratton Lake. The same wind that had hindered our progress before was now at our backs, and we made good time, enjoying the luxury of mostly just having to steer. We took advantage of the situation and made the most of taking in the beautiful day and glorious weather. A short 75m portage over a rocky point of land brought us to St. Andrews Lake, another pretty lake with many appealing looking campsites, most already occupied. Most appeared quite appealing from the water, with lots of good swimming area in front of them. We carried on to the north end of the lake where our first and only significant portage awaited us.

The view down Stratton Lake from the west end.

The remains of a boat likely abandoned when this area was last subject to logging. There is also a log chute cut into the rock at the outlet of St. Andrews Lake.

The 550m Portage to High Falls Lake was well traveled, mostly hard packed dirt and not a lot of roots and rocks to worry about. We were double carrying and traveling heavy – especially me; having found myself under-prepared for our last trip, I had over-prepared for this one with far too many clothes weighing me down. I made a mental note at this point not to pack so heavy for our trip the following week. There was a fair bit of huffing and puffing involved in carrying both my backpack and then the canoe to the far end, but our destination was in sight and there would be much time left for relaxing upon arrival.

Why is that arrow pointing down like that?...

Oh, okay. I understand now.

We took a brief detour to admire the falls between St. Andrews Lake and High Falls Lake.

Cardinal Flowers and Jewelweed were growing all over this area.

Late afternoon, approximately 4pm, launching onto High Falls Lake.

High Falls lake itself was a curious body of water. Rocky and steep shoreline on either side, but very murky water with lots of dead-heads and snags owing to all the organic material deposited here from the logging days. It made for slightly tricky navigation as large boulders and submerged logs would suddenly loom from the depths beneath the canoe with little warning, especially in the areas of shadow that the sun was no longer hitting.

The first campsite on High Falls lake didn't hold much appeal to us as we pulled past it in our canoes, so we opted for the second site. It was a comfortable, if somewhat slanted affair with a very nice fire pit, a small table made out of logs and a large flat piece of rock. There was a raised area up above the main site with an excellent area to set up our Hennessy Hammocks three abreast. I was looking forward to a tenting solution that hopefully would not result in a stiff back, as happened on my first trip.

Our hammock tents set up on the ridge, overlooking the rest of the campsite

A rather nice kitchen setup.

We got settled in, had a quick 'bath' in the lake (there was too many snags and the water too murky to feel safe swimming), gathered some firewood and making ourselves a dinner of steak and potatoes over the fire. We learned some valuable lessons about camp cooking, namely that ribsteaks don't cut well with camping utensils, and potatoes are a lot more difficult to cook over the fire than you'd think! We also discovered a very nearly tame chipmunk living in the root system of our kitchen, who would scamper underfoot at dinnertime both days, looking for handouts.

All in all we ate well, and settled into a quiet, relaxing evening around the fire, satisfied and tired from the day's exertions. The temperature dropped to a comfortable level for the night, and we retired sometime around midnight in anticipation for our day trip to the Barron Canyon the next day.

Day 2 – Saturday August 28, 2010 – "Fun In the Sun, Whistling in the Dark"

As was becoming standard for our group, I was awake with the dawn, bright and early to enjoy the fresh start to the day, while Scott and Bill remained cocooned within their hammocks. My wakefulness was spurred onwards by a zealous red squirrel bombarding the area around our hammocks with pinecones it was chewing free of the trees above us. My hammock served its purpose well, providing a very comfortable night's rest once I figured out the proper way to situate myself within it.

I snapped a couple of photos from the landing area before deciding to take advantage of the quiet serenity of the morning by taking a short paddle around the lake with my camera .

The view from the landing area across the narrow lake.

I got the canoe in the water and my lifejacket on, and pushed off, ready for a solo adventure. A couple of strokes from shore, I realised I'd left my camera behind. I turned around and in haste decided to pull up beside a rock near shore, jump out there (to avoid getting my shoes wet), and grab my daypack. Well, lesson learned... an unloaded, keelless canoe behaves very differently than a loaded canoe with a keel. With only one foot on shore, the canoe migrated rapidly away. I tried to jump back in, but overcompensated and ended up tipping over and getting very, very wet. So much for keeping my feet dry.

I considered getting annoyed at the situation, but with my camera was safe on shore and the others not troubling themselves to emerge from their hammocks to laugh at me, I counted my blessings, had a hearty laugh at my own expense, and extracted the canoe from the water. I tried shore fishing instead, but I found myself getting repeatedly caught on hidden snags beneath the water's surface so gave up after only a handful of casts (and two lures). Not a great start to the day.

Thankfully Bill and Scott soon arose, putting me out of my self-inflicted misery. Breakfast was soon on the go, with oatmeal and coffee warming our bellies and fueling us up for the day trip.

A large garter snake was sunning himself in the midmorning light near the landing prior to our departure.

Our campsite from just offshore as we head out on our day trip to the Barron Canyon.

We didn't hit the water until nearly 10:45, a bit later than we'd planned on departing, but we weren't worried as we had plenty of daylight left. A rather rocky 300m portage took us to the appropriately named Ooze Lake. We had a bit of a challenge launching at Ooze because due to the low water levels, there wasn't very much water to launch into. Testing the bottom with a paddle revealed one would likely disappear a good 2 or more feet into the organic sludge at the bottom of this lake! We managed to drag our canoe through the muck with our paddles and made it across the maze of floating islands of organic mass to the far side, where we portaged 640m into Opalescent lake.

Ooze Lake. A lot of the plants growing in the center of the lake were on large pieces of earth that had lifted from the bottom and were floating on gasses.

At the far end of the Ooze-Opalescent portage we stopped for a quick snack, and rewarded a persistent Whiskey Jack with one of our apple cores.

We were encountering more and more people as we approached the canyon, every lake and portage having quite a lot of human activity and traffic on it.

After another rocky 750m portage to Brigham Lake, and a pair of short but steep portages down the Barron River, we were finally ready to experience the canyon itself. The bottom of the Brigham Chute was an interesting location. The water-levels were low enough you could easily wade across the river. However, there were little islands and holes that the force of the water in spring had shaped. It would be quite an impressive sight to see the water boiling down that last little stretch before finally growing calm.

Our canoe beached on an island formed by the water in spring. Behind the canoe was a waist deep hole in the coarse gravel bottom.

As for the canyon itself, words do not do it justice. The air was warm and the sun was bright as we paddled along the Barron River. Steep walls of rock rose on either side of us, over 300ft vertical straight up from the water; a real testament to mother nature's beauty and prowess.

The 440m Barron Canyon portage sign beside where we stopped for a late lunch.

A couple of nice shots of the canyon from water level

The iconic cliff face looking downriver from the middle of the canyon. After this point the canyon becomes much less deep as the surrounding land descends.

A close up of the cliff in the previous picture, showing a hiker from the Barron Canyon trail atop the canyon walls. The same hiker is (barely) visible in the previous shot as well, giving a sense of scale.

One of the sets of falls along the Brigham Chute on our way back to camp.

We paddled to the end of the canyon cliffs before turning around and heading back as our time was growing short and we had planned on taking the long way back to our campsite, following the river around through The Cascades.

The journey back was a little more hurried than our pace down to the canyon as we were running out of time and the day was growing long. A bit of map confusion as to which side of the river a couple of portages were located cost us some time as well. The sun was starting to get rather low by the time we made it back to High Falls Lake, the lake itself in shadow owing to the high hills on either side of it. The final 430m portage was especially brutal for the first 50m or so, requiring one to find footing among all manner of large shards of bedrock all at odd, ankle-busting angles. Not a good portage for a travel-weary group at the end of the day.

A view down the Barron River back towards Brigham lake from the 200m portage to The Cascades.

One of the waterfalls of The Cascades

Scott and I enjoy a much needed break as the day progresses a little long for our preferences.

We were just settling in to camp and getting ready to have dinner in the rapidly waning light, when we became aware of a rather odd noise. It sounded almost as if somebody were blowing a safety whistle, only it was neither urgent, nor frequent in nature. Scott and Bill dismissed it as somebody fooling around. I walked over to the campsite to our south and inquired if they'd heard the noise. They had, and had also dismissed it as somebody fooling around.

As it started to get really dark, I heard the whistle again. Dissatisfied by everyone's ambivalence towards the situation, I responded on my own whistle and received a couple of rather enthusiastic and relieved sounding of tweets in return. After a brief session of calling across the lake and illumination of headlamps to verify position, the campers to the south of us jumped in their canoe to lend a hand before we could get our own rescue operation in order.

Thankfully it was just a hiker or canoeist who'd lost his way, taken a wrong turn, and ended up at our lake instead of his desired destination. Still, there were important lessons to be learned here: If you're lost, make sure you use your whistle, and make sure it sounds like a distress call when you do! Also, if you hear a whistle in the woods, don't just brush it off – there's probably a good reason for it. We wasted valuable time and increased the risk to everyone involved by waiting until it was almost completely dark to take the situation seriously.

After a late dinner of freeze-dried food, Scott and Bill played some cribbage while I opted instead to sit on the shore of the lake and take in the night atmosphere. All of us were fairly exhausted by the longer-than-anticipated day trip and prolonged exposure to the sun, so we hit the hay early.

Day 3 – Sunday August 29, 2010 – "Until We Meet Again"

Sunday, our last day in the park, dawned warm and bright. We really couldn't have asked for nicer weather. Tired from the day before and unwilling to cut short my time in the park, I was of a mood to stay in the comfort of my hammock for as long as the day allowed. The red squirrel from the day before had other designs, scoring a direct hit with a pinecone on the tent fly directly above my face. I decided my hammock was no longer a safe refuge and emerged to face the day. Bill and Scott were not long behind.

Breakfast of oatmeal and coffee got us going yet again. Camp was broken and packed away at a relatively leisurely pace. By 11am we'd completed the 550m double carry and were paddling St. Andrews Lake on our way home.

Calm waters early morning on High Falls Lake.

More wildflowers along the High Falls – St Andrews portage

Clear skies grace our arrival onto St Andrews Lake.

The wind was up by the time we arrived at Stratton Lake. Bill and Scott, paddling tandem, set off headlong into the whitecapped swell, leaving me to fend for myself in my tippy, keeless boat. I had a devil of a time keeping the nose pointed into the wind, and the shape of the lake seemed to always cause the wind to gust at slightly different angles. Several times I was turned sideways and forced to paddle madly for the lee along shore while the wind pushed me back down the lake. After an extended struggle of nearly 2.5 hours of constant, hard paddling, I managed to catch up with Bill and Scott, who had graciously waited for me nearly 40 minutes at the portage to Grand Lake.

An industrious gang of would-be paddlers rig themselves a sail to take advantage of the strong winds

The view down Stratton from atop the old railbed that crosses at the west end.

The view up the Barron River from the same vantage of the previous picture.

A colourful dragonfly. Many of his kind were out in full force riding the wind and sunning themselves in the late summer sun.

Scott being eaten by fish. A large school of probably 20 minnows was swarming around his feet and legs, and nibbling on him at this time.

A testament to how much sun we had this weekend - ouch!

A Loon in center frame leads to me unintentionally capturing a pretty shorescape instead

A better shot by Bill of the aforementioned Loon.

The wind was more of a help once we got back to Grand Lake, pushing us mostly in the direction of the landing. We made the short paddle back to the launch, packed up our gear and reluctantly said goodbye to Algonquin and the fantastic weekend we had just experienced. We'd be doing it all over again in only 4 days, with a Labour Day weekend trip through Algonquin's north.

Thanks for reading!

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