accessibility · boats · camping · canoe · fitness

Sam and Sarah’s Big Canoe Trip Adventure

In most ways, this year, the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, has been for me a year of doing less. I’m riding my bike outside now but no big distances. There’s (obviously) no big summer travel. Normally my summers involve academic conference travel, usually in Europe, with vacation tacked on to the beginning or end. Not this year. In 2020 my holidays have been low-key, close to home.

The year of doing less has had one notable exception: Our big Algonquin canoe tripping adventure. I love Algonquin Park. It’s so beautiful and so close to home for me. Yet, in busier years I’ve only had time to go for long weekends. This year is the opportunity to do more.

Since my canoe came into my life in 2015 (thanks Jeff!) what I’ve done are back country canoe trips where you paddle to a place, make camp, stay there for a few days, and paddle around some minus all the gear. Lots of us here at the blog do this kind of adventuring. You can read all the canoe stories here.

Susan has done some longer trips. Sarah too. They’ve done the kind of trips where you start out a place and keep moving to a new campsite each day, eventually ending back up where you started. That’s a new adventure for me.

But I wasn’t sure I could, physically speaking. I was worried about my knee. I was worried about carrying stuff through long portages.

Two things made it possible. First, Sarah’s careful planning (see below). Second, her acquisition last year, when we were talking about hiking and camping, of ultralight weight camping gear. Thanks Sarah!

Here’s what we did:

Day 1

In our usual fashion where work never seems to end or stop, we worked until the last possible second on Monday, piled everything into the car, zoomed north, and arrived at the park office in a bit of a rush. Friends who know us will laugh at this bit of the story. We even stopped several times on the access road to Lake Magnetawan for the final few bars of cell phone signal.

And then we parked, unloaded the car, and loaded up the canoe.

We paddled through Magnetawan then Hambone, and then made camp on Ralph Bice.

Day 2

We paddled and portaged our way from Ralph Bice to Little Trout and Queer Lake where we stayed for the night.

Day 3

This was the first big day, with long portages. 1330 m isn’t that long but it is when you are carrying a lot of stuff! Also, it feels long when there are big hills, ankle deep mud, and narrow paths. But paddling on the Tim River was fun. I got to learn about steering in a downstream current. Less fun was arriving on Shah, our stopping point just as a storm was brewing. We had a bumpy trip across the lake and rejected the first campsite as too grown over. Luckily we got the tarp up fast and stayed dry through dinner.

Day 4

We paddled from Shah to Misty to Little Misty, where we were the only campsite on the lake.

Day 5

We paddled from Little Misty to Daisy via the Petawawa River with portages to bypass rapids. There was also some scrambling over beaver dams with the canoe.

Day 6

No photos because my phone ran out of charge but we paddled from Daisy to Hambone to Magnetawan. We were very happy to have left clean clothes in the car for the trip home.

What did I learn on this trip? Here’s six things.

  1. That even with my miserable, painful, stiff knee I can do trips like this and enjoy myself. I babied my knee. I took ibuprofen. I stretched. I walked carefully and slowly on the portages. Some mornings I’d wake up and think, “wow, this is it, they’re going to have to air ambulance me out of here” and then I’d stretch and walk around a bit. And then I was fine. Deep breaths, Samantha, you’ve got this. And I did.

2. Paddling on the river–which requires active involvement of the person in the bow–takes skill but it’s fun. I like learning new things. Even when things go wrong–like when we landed in the shrubbery on the side of the river–the worse thing that happened is we got covered in yellow furry caterpillars. Navigating the beaver dams also took skill and effort but in the end it was all pretty low stakes. When I messed up one beaver dam the current just took us back and we tried again.

3. Lightweight camping gear–if you can afford it–is an amazing thing. I was shocked at how little the tent and the sleeping bag etc weighed. We had very lightweight gear even down to the titanium spork!

4. The weather spanned from too hot to brrrr! (at night) and I should have brought a warmer layer and possibly even (no joke) gloves. I always forget that about camping in Algonquin.

5. I was concerned about food and about carrying six days of food but we did well. I learned that a warm meal at night goes a long way and that even mac and cheese over the camp stove tasted pretty good.

6. If I were doing it again, I’d book a day off in the middle, a rest day, where we’d stay on one campsite two nights and maybe even bring a book!

Next up? I’m looking at route maps and planning for next year. Now I know we can do this I’m going to do it again. In light of the great squirrel attack on our food bag on the last night, I’m considering more secure food storage and a good pack for me to carry it all in.

Sarah on planning

This year’s planning was made more challenging by the fact that Algonquin was as busy as I’ve ever seen it. Lots of folks spending summer vacations in a tent instead of a cottage. When selecting a route between the few available sites, I used a few rules of thumb. Wanting to have lots of time to rest and explore, I limited the distance traveled to about 5 km on the map each day, and a maximum of 2,000m of portaging. Of course the actual distance paddled would be more than that – we move through the water at about 4 km/h – but there’s a fair bit of time spent wandering toward pretty rocks or out of the wind, stopping mid-lake to pump water, paddling from site to site looking for one that’s free to camp on, etc. It also takes time to get in and out of the canoe at each portage.

In order to reduce the strain on Sam’s knee, we decided that she would carry only her clothes and the food pack (which is not too heavy and gets lighter as we go) for the portages, along with our water bottles, paddles, and PFDs. This meant being minimalist in our packing to bring down the weight of the “house” pack (including my clothes) to a manageable 32 lbs (14.5 kg). When combined with 48 lbs of canoe, this comes in right at the 80 lbs (36 kg) maximum weight this “weekend warrior” can safely carry in the backcountry. We made choices like : a tiny, lightweight backpacking tent; a down quilt instead of sleeping bags; one set of clothes (plus warm and waterproof layers), using pot lids as plates. We also needed to be minimalist in our food, bringing only enough dry, lightweight calories to keep us going, and enough sweet snacks that it still felt like vacation. And two full Ziploc sandwich bags of coffee, because there are some things that one cannot do without!

What did Sarah learn on this trip?

I’ve done nearly all parts of this year’s trip in previous years, so the things I learned this time were largely around food:

  • Naptha fuel to cook breakfast and supper for 2 people = 200 mL per day
  • One serving of oatmeal or pancake mix = 125 mL (1/2 cup)
  • One serving of maple syrup for oatmeal or pancakes = 50 mL (even if we have more, we don’t actually use it!)
  • Unless it’s a rest day or half day, budget for both lunch (sandwich) and a protein bar.
  • We don’t actually eat salty protein snacks like nuts or trail mix except buried in other meals. Better to bring more protein bars and peanut M&Ms.
  • Double check not only the count of meals but also the meal type. We were somehow short one breakfast but had an extra dinner(?!)

Oh, one more thing we learned, the sleeping quilt is toasty down to 6 C. But it works best if no one steals the covers!

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