My last time out in my canoe, Sarah and I had a big adventure. YMMV, of course, but it was plenty adventurous for me. Each day we packed up camp and paddled to a new location. We paddled down rivers, over beaver dams, and did some long (muddy, hilly) portages. It was extra challenging because Sarah carried most of the stuff and the canoe and I did it with my knee that’s now just waiting to be replaced. I carried the food for six days and five nights. We slept in a teeny tiny ultralight tent. It was fun but it wasn’t exactly restful.
Next year, now we know we can carry all that food, I’m lobbying for a rest day in the middle!
Luckily our next canoe trip, just two weeks later, was of the more low key variety.
This past weekend Sarah, my daughter Mallory, and I paddled to just one place after a couple of short, reasonable portages. We made camp on Ralph Bice Lake where we paddled some more just because, played cards, read books, ate yummy food including the traditional s’mores for dessert, and because Mallory was along, swam lots. We took the big tent and actual camping dishes. No more using the pot lid as a plate and sharing a titanium spork! We even packed some books and our Kindles.
Here’s some more photos of our canoe and our tents.
Here’s the card playing. Mallory won, of course. She almost always does but we enjoy playing anyway.
And there was a lot of swimming!
We’re talking lots these days about various ways of getting ready for the long hard winter we expect is ahead.
Cate wrote recently, “August is made for this kind of elastic time, this kind of intuitive listening, this moving for play and exploration, not repetition and discipline. Looking into the fall and winter we’re expecting, I ponder how to keep this elasticity alive. How to keep nurturing this kind of active emptiness. What about you? What are you finding restorative right now? How are you planning for fall?”
Time outdoors, with loved ones, swimming and reading and playing, is part of my answer. For me this year is a bad combo of empty nest and Covid-19. I had imagined more family dinners and visits but it isn’t always possible.
This weekend felt important. Martha wrote about finding her happy place. Salt Spring Island seems like it’s definitely Cate’s happy place. This is mine. I’m back at my desk today with a bit of sun on my face, some bug bites on my calves, new muscles from paddling, and feeling just a little bit better about what’s ahead this year.
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:
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.
We paddled and portaged our way from Ralph Bice to Little Trout and Queer Lake where we stayed for the night.
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.
We paddled from Shah to Misty to Little Misty, where we were the only campsite on the lake.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Several weeks ago for (Canadian) Thanksgiving I spent the weekend in Algonquin with the Western Outdoors Club. This is an annual trip which I have gone on several times. This year was the largest group I’ve been part of: 62 university students in 21 canoes!
There are several things I love about this trip (and about Western Outdoors Club in general):
the variety in skill level and equipment
the number of international students
how accessible the club makes trips like this
However, this year there was one thing I DIDN’T ENJOY and that was the weather: cold and wet. Weather forecast was for highs of 8 and lows of 2 with rain on and off most of the weekend. I’ve camped in much colder weather (-27 winter camping!) but I find fall weather much colder. I’m not sure why, possibly the damp but also possibly because I’m not mentally prepared for it and/or never seem to pack enough warm gear. That being said, I was not cold at night even though I was sleeping in my hammock tent.
Despite the cold it was a fun trip! If you don’t believe me, watch a video here…
For the 4th year in a row I did a backcountry canoe camping trip in Algonquin in August. The first year was just me and Susan. That’s how our friendship really began. Hi Susan! Thanks so much for inviting me that first year. I missed you this time!
Then for the next two years we went with an extended group of family and friends including our teenagers and Susan’s mom. This year it was back to another two person trip, me and Sarah.
We’d planned a more adventurous trip with more paddling given that it was just the two of us this time but life, including a late start on day 1, got in the way. I also began the trip pretty tired after a big week at work (more on that later) and I was more ready for rest and beautiful scenery than an active adventure. But we had a bit of both.
See my before and after boot photo below? That’s after a really muddy portage. And guess what? For the first time ever I carried my own canoe. I was pretty happy to learn how to do that. I didn’t quite manage to get it up on my shoulders solo but I didn’t have to. I am going to practise in the backyard though.
I also did a small stint of the trip in the stern of the canoe and got a lesson in steering.
So even though this trip was big on hammock naps and low on endurance exercise, I got to paddle each day and wake up in one of the most beautiful places in the world. There was also delicious coffee. I saw a beaver very close up! One jumped on the rocks while we were star gazing at night. I saw carnivorous plants. And I learned some new hard things.
As Sarah reminded me, “This isn’t easy. If it were there’d be more people here.” True. Especially the hilly, muddy, buggy portages!
Last year at the end of the season, I purchased a Swift Algonquin 16 Kevlar Fusion canoe with carbon Kevlar trim. It comes in at a whopping 35lbs and I love it. I have christened her “The Catnoe” for #reasons and this year I took her on her maiden trip with Sam for three days and two nights in back country Algonquin Park.
First, a pop quiz. . .how many other canoes do you think we encountered with two women identified people in them? Don’t just jump to the first conclusion, think for a minute. . .naw, I’m just kidding. Your first conclusion is likely totally correct. The answer is none. It was just us. We saw two male gendered people, we saw male and female (male in the stern of course) but there were no other women tripping partners to be seen. This is consistent with my 6 years of annual trips to the park. I am almost always in the only two woman canoe, with the exception of a group of 5 women (2 canoes and one kayak) we saw two years ago.
I’ve been thinking about why this is for all 6 years I’ve been doing it so I’d like to share some of those musings here, in light of the spectacularly successful Catnoe excursion.
I first tripped when I was at overnight camp about 32 years ago. It was awful. My shoes got wet. I didn’t have a sleeping pad for the ground. The mosquitoes were in the tent and I didn’t like doing my business in the woods. Yet somehow, I went back to it as a staff about 5 years later. I think it was because it seemed to me that the cool kids were volunteering for trips. It may also have had to do with that Israeli, gymnast, ex-paratrooper person who was on the trip but we won’t pay any mind to that now. My most vivid memory of the trip was of my unit head grasping the yolk of the canoe, yanking it up to sit on her thighs and then magically hoisting it over her head. I had never seen a woman do that before. This was not made of Kevlar either. It was aluminum. It was on this trip that I learned about multiple pairs of socks and the necessity of drying your footwear as much as possible between soakings. I had hiking boots instead of sneakers. I think I may have had a pad to sleep on in the tent too. I played with camp cooking and I sterned my own boat. I came back to camp dirty and stinky and proud of myself. Over all, a total success.
It was not until 20 years later that I finally went out again on a portaging canoe trip. There are some things you have to accept when agreeing to go on a back country trip. You will get dirty and stay kinda dirty. You will use every part of your body to its maximum at various points in the trip. You will struggle. You will occasionally feel some pain. You will get bug bites and at some point, you will be alone at night in the forest sitting on a wooden box with a hole in it doing your business.
Let’s face facts, none of these things are the kind of things most girls are brought up to expect to enjoy. I was certainly not brought up with the idea that this was a fun thing to do. I got the idea because of who I hang out with (and I’m so grateful for that). However, I have learned to love them. Surprisingly, sitting on the aforementioned box (a privy) is one of the more pleasant things about camping in Algonquin. It’s far better than sitting in an enclosed space doing the equivalent activity. Even in a light mist, it’s quite refreshing.
I love the challenge of getting from one place to another. I love figuring out how to cook yummy things with my camp burner. I love the little comforts, a good sleeping bag, mat and tent, a book, a cup of coffee, dry socks. I love swimming in wicked cold water I would normally not bother to swim in. I love not looking in the mirror for 3 days. Of course there is the actual place, so beautiful and further in, so serene you can feel like you are the only human for kilometers, even if you are not really.
But back to the canoe. The one limiting factor for me has always been that extraordinary act of flipping that sucker on my head. My customary tripping partner (Sarah) is a life-long athlete whose physical strength and attitude have always leaned toward “of course I can do that”. And so, she does. In all years past, she has been chief canoe-flipper-upper. I have carried it occasionally (either the 45 lb version or, one time her 60 lb canoe) but always with her help to get it up and only for the shorter distances (200m). It meant I always had to have a person with me who could carry the canoe. That meant her or someone else, maybe a man. I know there are other women in my larger friend circle who can do it but they aren’t close enough to be going on trips with me. Like I said, not a lot of two women canoe partners in the park or available generally, even when most of my women friends are queer identified.
Enter the Catnoe. She is so eminently flip-up-able. She allowed me to master the technique without being afraid I’d accidentally take my head off. She allowed me to say, when Sarah couldn’t go, “Hey, Sam! Will you let me take you into the back woods for a trip?” and know that no matter what, even if Sam couldn’t carry the canoe, I could! If something bad happened and I had to go get help, I could. I had the capacity to fill any role on the excursion and let me tell you, that is power. A whole world opened up to me.
(Just to be clear. . .Sam could carry the canoe, I just didn’t let her.)
I could have done more overhead presses and heavier squats. Then I could have a hope of working with the 45 lb canoe. But, my Catnoe has let me have access to this entire experience now, without my usual fears. It has also likely given me the muscle memory to flip that 45 pounder up there if I had to and so launched me on a path to even more freedom.
Isn’t this the reason why we struggle to acquire fitness and if it isn’t, shouldn’t it be? I’m 46 years old and next summer, as long as my 71 year old mom can get up and get down from a sitting position on the ground, I’m taking her in to the park with me. I will set her up on a chair at the end of the portage and I will bring the pack and the canoe. I will feel powerful and happy and free. What else can you ask for?