the story of a magical 200+km canoe journey through time and space
(also known as that time tierney & andrew & the happy adventure went on a long, strange trip through the chiniguchi and sturgeon river waterways, temagami region, august 5th – 18th 2015)
Many months of planning and research went into our first trip to the Chiniguchi region of Temagami. The route was certainly more remote, longer, and tougher than our previous adventures… which made it more EXCITING! Logistically speaking, it was a bit of a challenge to pack enough food and booze for two full weeks, but with our giant new Ostrom packs, we’d make it all fit somehow.
Our adventure began at Sportsman’s Lodge on Lake Kukagami. We were the only guests staying at the resort on a Tuesday night after the August long weekend, and as soon as we arrived George fed us caesar salad, homemade bread, grilled pork chops, pierogis, and corn. Beer! Licensed dining hall! Ultimate in luxury accommodations, I tell you what. Cute and comfortable rooms in the main lodge. Breakfast the next morning was bacon, eggs, and toast, and we re-packed our gear for the millionth time before George shuttled us to the Matagamasi Lake access point. We waved goodbye to him as he drove off and hoped we didn’t forget anything too important.
DAY ONE: Tour of Matagamasi Lake
Slight drizzle to send us on our way. We saw several small cottages, including one with a pretty neat bicycle water pump, as we paddled north. Took a detour up the East Arm to check out the second-largest pictograph site in Temagami. We saw lots! Most memorable was the cluster with what looked like a beaver, a moose, and a human with extra-bendy elbows. We took no photos; left a pinch of tobacco.
After our exciting “discovery”, we paddled back around the Y to head northwest. Andrew swore he saw a bear on the far east shoreline, but as he could only describe its location to me as, “over there, next to that tree in the grassy bit with the green!”, I saw nothing. We took the first site just past one of the last little island cottages, as we were a bit nervous of the wind, clouds, and waves on our first day. Set up our tarp first and had a small snack of wasabi peas and bits ‘n’ bites before putting up our tent and barrel hanging line. Probably our best food safety system of all time! Two line pulley method, approximately one million miles off the ground. For dinner we ate smoked sausages cooked on a stick over the fire and a bean and corn salad I had prepared ahead of time. Little bit of nasty plonk wine (it was on sale in the Vintages section; I expected better) and in bed early.
DAY TWO: Matagamasi – Paradise Lagoon – Silvester – Wolf
Variable cloudiness, cleared up as we reached the first portage out of Matagamasi. This one was pretty easy and flat. Met up with a father and his young son on our way back for the second load. Seemed like they had even more gear than we did, and they were staying out for eight days, and us fourteen! Must’ve been tough for dad to make so many carries, but he was teaching his kid lots and they were having a great time.
Quick hop upstream to the next portage, the “toenail”, around the Paradise Lagoon. Steep scramble, all the way to the other side. Met another group, two couples, the older of which were American, judging by their accents. Every paddler we came across seemed to be well-prepared and organized. Nothing like the Massasauga or Algonquin, with people carrying coolers on a portage (although we are guilty of that, too, on short backcountry trips).
After bringing over our two loads to Silvester Lake, we changed into our swimsuits and wandered back to the Paradise Lagoon with an icy, just defrosted beer. Cheers to no can-bans! Crush’n’Carry, that’s our motto.
NOTES ON FREEZING BEER: Choose some tasty tallboys with ABV of 5% or less. We’ve found that some thicker import cans do tend to expand and cause possible explosions, but the thinner, more flexible aluminum works very well. Throw them bad boys in the freezer for 48 hours.
Use your frozen beers as ice packs in a soft-sided cooler bag in your barrel or pack. Keeps steak frozen for two days! In the late afternoon on Day Two, your beers should be nicely defrosted. Taste and carbonation is hardly compromised if you let them fully defrost. The unpleasant “beer slushie” effect is thus avoided. After consuming, crush your can and carry it out with you. The weight is negligible. And if you’re a beer drinker, the weight of a couple heavy cans for two days is totally worth it.
The lagoon was an amazing place for a dip! We swam across a small turquoise pool and hopped over a rock to reach the waterfall lagoon. The group of two couples was there, too, and I saw a naked bum scurrying to cover up (teehee!). Andrew cannonballed off of a rock while I more cautiously slipped into the pool. Refreshing swim over to the falls, which we stood under and got an excellent pounding on the shoulders. After playing around for a bit, we went back up to our canoe and paddled across above the falls so we could scrabble back down the cliffs and get some more photos of the lagoon.
Lovely sunny warm day. Dad and his kid had gone off ahead and we didn’t catch up with them until the last site on Wolf, which they had already taken. No matter. He gave us some advice about the other sites on the lake. Couldn’t really find the landing for the site on the east shore so we went across to the other side and found a HUGE site. Rather messy. A group of young camp kids had obviously been there last. Found a pair of boxers in a ziplock bag (ew!), toothpaste and matching toothbrush, along with a name tag from Camp Ahmek. Threw it all in the firepit and explored our site a bit more. Clearly accessible by ATV, the adjoining site to ours was even more of a disaster. Three socks, rusty old cans, a garbage bag filled with, among other things, a plastic red and white checkered table cloth, etc, etc. We tidied up the best we could but it was impossible to clean it all.
As we were doing this, another couple paddled in from the north and asked about the availability of the southernmost site on the lake. We informed them that it was empty as of an hour before and also let them know it seemed a lot nicer than the one connected to ours, and that we were trying to clean it up but it was still a huge mess. They thanked us and went on their way.
For dinner that night we had steak grilled over hot coals on our new, ultra-lightweight stainless steel backpackers grill, potatoes cooked right in the coals wrapped in foil (I forgot to pack salt – whoops) and a kale salad. Wolf Lake is truly a beautiful place with all of the old growth red pines, quartzite hills, and blue, blue water, but it is a real shame that it is being so misused by campers and mismanaged by poor government planning.
We heard a solitary wolf howl as we sat around the fire that night – how fitting! – and were in the tent rather early after hanging our food packs and barrel. This time we were more worried about our new pet, an extremely brave and persistent chipmunk, than bears trying to get our food. Wily little fucker tried to get in the liquor bag too many times to count. Mice, too. Definitely an overused site.
DAY THREE: Wolf – Dewdney – Chiniguchi
Nice morning, comfortable temperature. Blue sky and a few puffy clouds. It was a quick paddle to our first portage of the day: a steep-ish, >200m rocky climb next to a small waterfall and over an old logging road by a bridge (we were slightly cheesed by how easy it was to access Wolf Lake in this way. Saw a minivan parked on the other side of the bridge) to an easy put-in on Dewdney Lake.
Thick forest on Dewdney. Checked out the creepy abandoned fire ranger cabin. Lots of graffiti on the walls and some really ugly linoleum. Discussed how tricky it must have been to bring in all the supplies to build such a place and what it would have been like to live alone here for much of the year. Decided we really want our own hideaway cabin.
Don’t remember the 500m portage to Chiniguchi being very difficult. Heavy packs, though. In addition to the usual sleeping gear/tent/clothing we split up between our two Ostrom packs, I was also carrying cooler bags with some more fresh food and our last beer, Andrew taking the dehydrated dinner food bag and “liquor bag” (such a disgusting combination of words, but necessary to differentiate one bag from another) in his pack, our overloaded food barrel with all cookware, and our two small day bags. Thoroughly enjoyed that final beer after the portage.
Paddle, paddle, north we go. Bit confusing on the east side of the lake: much compass checking to ensure we avoided Musko Bay. Couldn’t spot the pictographs, but left a plug of tobacco near where we assumed the site was, lest the spirits think we weren’t doing our due diligence. We could see part of the Chiniguchi Camp across the lake, and gathered some firewood on a sandy point and turned southeast into McConnell Bay. I told Andrew that this was going to be a beach vacation, after all! There was a fairly large camp group of older teens also at the beach when we arrived. They had sort of spread themselves out over the middle campsite, so we checked out the most eastern site on the point but found too many pairs of discarded underwear to consider staying there. We were starting to think that ditching your gitch was some kind of weird Temagami tradition. One of the leaders told us that a big group of young campers had stayed there the night before and that was probably why there was so much clothing left behind.
We ended up making our own site right on the beach and prayed it wouldn’t rain overnight.
We built a little cooking fire right in the sand and used our canoe as a kitchen counter. We had smoked trout with grilled kebabs of bell pepper, zucchini, halloumi cheese and slightly stale French bread marinated in balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Fabulous meal. The goal is to let the bread soak up some of the oil and vinegar and then blacken it slightly on the edges so it turns cripsy-chewy-hot. Little bit of wine (a better bottle: The G. Marquis was total crap), little nip of whiskey. Our neighbours were having fun playing games and doing yoga on the beach. Really well-behaved and organized. I think they were in their tents before us, and we are not used to being the party animals. Amazing loon songs this evening! Nice sunset and stars viewed from our tiny sand pit fire (ah, nature’s ashtray). Extraordinarily comfortable sleeping arrangement on the soft sand, made even more so with my new 100% silk sleeping bag liner. Andrew was jealous. Ha!
DAY FOUR: Chiniguchi – Sawhorse – Adelaide – Button – Dougherty
Brief moment of panic as I realized I had misplaced my compass the night before. Andrew had given it to me for Christmas one year: a little brass Tru Nord I wear on a leather lace around my wrist. I was heartbroken, pacing the beach alone until I spotted the scrap of leather poking out of the sand. Phew! We were carrying another compass with three sets of maps, an InReach Explorer, and a Garmin GPS unit, but nothing beats my trusty bracelet. Serves me right for being a party animal and having a second glass of wine.
Our neighbours were up around the same time as us in the morning, but much more efficient at packing. The leaders had brought along two plastic deck chairs (they had to carry them on the portages, too) and it was hilarious to see them paddling away with empty chairs sitting high in the middle of their canoes. They were headed to Wolf, and us further north. Nice sunny day, a couple of small clouds. The portage into Sawhorse Lake was really more of a liftover to get over a Chiniguchi Camp road and into a swampy swamp. The portage out of Sawhorse was marked with a yellow sign (how novel!), which was helpful as we began the portage by looking for the trail in the wrong bay. It was a fairly easy 600m path that joined up with a logging road and was well-flagged for the entire length. Got pretty hot and buggy out. Adelaide and Button Lakes were both very small and buggy, with the 40m portage over a sunken bridge into Button being very mushy indeed.
Took a bit of a lunch break at the start of the portage into Dougherty. Hap Wilson describes this portage as having a “steep, rocky trail at both ends and a small marsh at the midsection” and 560m long. Jeff McMurtie has the length at 410m on his new Temagami map, but whatever the true distance, I’m inclined to agree with Hap’s measurement. Not fun. Precarious boulder-hopping, very narrow, extremely hot and buggy and awfully steep. Both of us were wheezing and sweating and on the verge of collapse after completing our double carry. I fell down hard on all fours with the full weight of the barrel on my back at some point down the steep slope to the put-in. The trail had seen a bit of maintenance (thank you!) but it was a very unpleasant experience regardless. We were hot and cranky as we paddled into Dougherty and paused on a tiny island to dunk our sweaty selves in the crystal-clear, bright blue water. We both felt pretty pooped after the obscene portage, and discussed calling it quits for the day. Figured we would check out a campsite on Dougherty, and if it was too good to pass up, we would stay. It WAS too good. Soft mossy tentpads, luxurious thunderbox with aluminum pail lid, tons of smooth, sloping rocks for hanging out on, double fireplace built right into the cliff, totally pristine and the whole turquoise lake to ourselves. A dozen loons serenaded us as we went for another swim and a good Frank scrubbing before a dinner of rehydrated pasta and bolognese sauce (not my best, but oh well) and some bush sangria.
To Make Bush Sangria:
Put a couple of dried strawberries, peaches, and cherries in your plastic wine glass,
Pour about half a glass of shitty plonk wine over fruit,
Mix up a full Nalgene bottle of water with one packet Country Time Lemonade and one packet Cherry Kool-Aid,
Fill glasses with juice mixture and garnish with fresh lime (optional)
This greatly improved the G. Marquis. I had two glasses. The booze-soaked fruit at the bottom of the glass was the best part.
I took nearly a billion photos of our little slice of paradise. The sunset kept getting better and better. The loons had a big party, a-hootin’ and a-hollerin’ and carrying on for several hours. Such a magical spot. Those little biting house flies could have fucked right off, though. They nearly drove Andrew mad as he chopped firewood.
DAY FIVE: Dougherty – Frederick – Stouffer – Sturgeon River (Poker Lake)
Our coffee situation was fantastic on this trip. Last year we could barely swallow instant coffee day after day, so this year we brought along the real deal and a GSI French press. Splash of Creamy Beige (Bailey’s, or Bourbon Cream) in there starts the mornings off right. The weather continued on being rather perfect (5 days of sun?! We’ve never been so lucky!) and we had a peek at the logging remains and quartz island on Frederick, then continued on to Stouffer.
Pretty lakes. Thick forest. Think we might’ve found the pictographs on Stouffer, but once again, not entirely sure. Quick lunch at the start of the portage to the Sturgeon River (sinus-clearing wasabi peas and pepperoni sticks). We were extremely thankful to whomever cleared the downed trees on the trail. Not a difficult portage for its length (600m), but awfully buggy. Upon reaching the Sturgeon, we tied the painters to our canoe and then threw a plug of tobacco in the water and asked the river to not kill us or the Happy Adventure, pretty please.
Water levels were VERY low. We had expected this, but the first “C1” rapid was a mere ripple over a gravel bed. Poor Happy. Soon took on both ~100m portages into Poker Lake, marked only with a bit of flagging tape and both excruciatingly steep, rocky, and overgrown. I asked out loud, “why am I only paying for permits for this section of our journey when the other, so-called ‘unmaintained’ areas are cared for so much better?” (except with more curse words) – but more on that later.
Didn’t make it very far downstream our first day on the Sturgeon. We only made it to the river at about five p.m., and those two beastly little portages really knocked the wind out of our sails. I was feeling extremely nervous about this leg of the trip, and with good reason.
Simple dinner of rehydrated Three Sisters Soup (a bastardized version of a Chef Michael Smith sweet potato soup recipe, with added black beans and corn), one of our favourites. Too tired to set up a tarp. Weren’t eating until probably about nine p.m. Many medicinal nips of whiskey. New camp pets: 700-odd frogs.
DAY SIX: Sturgeon River (Poker Lake) – Sturgeon River (Pilgrim Triangle)
Typical. The one night we failed to erect a tarp, it rained. Rain, rain, from six a.m. until noon with mild outbursts of thunder. Decided to go back to bed and got up around nine. Andrew quickly rustled up a tarp and I told him the great secret of the MEC Wanderer II tent: you can take it down with the fly still set up. Breakfast of filling and nutritious rice pudding (from the Complete Trail Food Cookbook, but with extra dried fruit). Waited for the thunder to stop. Finally got on our way around 1 p.m.
The rapids described by Hap as “deep, centre-run” were… not so much. Scraped poor Happy and got stuck on a rock on our very first one of the day. I promptly burst into tears, a million worries and fears rushing through my mind. “We’re not going to make it. The water is too low. We’re going to break the canoe and have to use the stupid SOS feature on our InReach. People have died on the Sturgeon,” etc. We weren’t really having a ball. The 75m portage around “The Gorge” was also mildly terrifying. It was only marked at the downstream end, passed through what would have been a nice campsite if it weren’t so overused and didn’t have a pair of slashed and ripped jeans thrown in the bush (Two Questions: 1. Who wears jeans down the Sturgeon River? and 2. How many bears and packs of wolves attacked the owner of said jeans to get them to such a dishevelled state?), and also boasted numerous large, downed trees all along the steep, slippery, narrow, rocky path. Dragged our way over some more shallow rapids, carried over more insane mountain goat passes, took a tumble on the 420m portage Hap describes as “strenuous” (the put-in is down an actual cliff face and somewhere in the middle we jumped over the Grand Canyon) and ripped a small hole in my pants, fell into the drink while trying to line around rapids without portages, scraped my shoulder quite badly under another downed tree and burst out crying once more. Hardly took any photos due to stressful nature of portaging in the rain on the slipperiest rocks in the known universe.
Doom and gloom in our minds and in the forecast. Depressing campsites on either side of the 285m portage to the Pilgrim Triangle: first one soggy and small, the second a shanty-town of old tarps, glowsticks and other raver paraphernalia, as well as a rusted-out wood stove. Once again, I wondered how a place like the Sturgeon, which requires park fees and has many ATV-accessible sites, could be so poorly maintained. We paddled across to the other site at the Triangle, which was very nice. Tons of neatly stacked firewood, easy tarp configuration possibilities, pretty forest.
The sun even winked out at us while we set up camp and ate pulled pork with jalapeño and cheddar biscuits, baked up in no time in our reflector oven. Bisquick is pretty much un-fuckupable. Dinner and whiskey cheered us a bit, but it had been a long day, even considering our late start. We didn’t end up making camp until about eight thirty p.m. Attempted to dry out our boots and moccasins, but very little progress was made there. Oh well. Sure to be more soakings the following day.
DAY SEVEN: Sturgeon River (Pilgrim Triangle) – Sturgeon River (?!?!?…? Somewhere below Lower Goose Falls)
Sure enough, another thunderstorm in the morning. Both of us started to think the Sturgeon wouldn’t let us out alive. We filled up on pancakes and bacon under our rain tarp and set off once the thunder ceased (around 11 a.m.). Another brief bout of tears as we scraped Happy in some more rock-garden rapids until Andrew gave me a stern talking-to, a big hug, and told me to stop fearing the worst. We couldn’t find the 285m portage marked on Jeff’s map so we bushwhacked and clambered over a mid-rapid island of slick boulders to get to the deeper water. The day got much easier from this point on, however. Rapids became runnable and I only fell in the river while wading once. The sun came out and we both felt the worst was over as we ran fun swifts through “The Gate” and easily paddled downriver.
Briefly halted by a massive downpour (while the sun was still shining) just before we reached Upper Goose Falls. This was another death-defying feat of scrambling up beside the falls, the portage once again only marked on the downstream end (ahem: a water level monitoring station, yet no warning you’re about to pitch yourself over a waterfall? Ridiculous. If I ever find the turd that removed those signs…). I was too scared to run the first set of rapids below the falls, so Andrew obliged me and we scrambled over another boulder garden on river left instead and then ran the second set with ease. Here the river really started to change. Huge sandbanks collapsing on both sides of the river, with trees tossed like matchsticks into the water below. Saw a spectacular rainbow after a short sun-shower somewhere between Upper and Lower Goose Falls.
Lower Goose Falls also got a bigWTF?! from us. Portage on the left? Okay, where? No marked takeout. No visible trail. It was clouding over and we were feeling frustrated. We ended up taking out on the right, under the bridge about 20m above the falls, carrying under the bridge and then over and down an ATV trail far to the right of the beach. Huge garbage pit next to the (marked) campsite, complete with requisite underwear, beer cans, and eggshells. Frightened by the slippery rocks in the rain, even more freaked out by the spooky white cross at the top of the falls (brain screaming, “People have died on the Sturgeon!”) and the giant fresh wolf prints on the beach, but, knowing the hardest leg was finally over, we quickly paddled away from the bad vibes and found our own little sandbank to call home for the night a few km downstream.
The sky cleared as if to say, “Ok, you scrappy kids, I guess I’ll let you through,” and we baked up pita pizzas in the good ol’ reflector oven. Whiskey was both medicinal (to heal our wounds) and celebratory (We didn’t die! We didn’t destroy our canoe!) that evening, and very soothing indeed when added to hot apple cider. Magnificent stargazing until the brume (Andrew’s word) blew in. Slept like the dead, even with our new beaver pet noisily plonking around all night.
DAY EIGHT: Sturgeon River (below Lower Goose) – Kelly Lake – Gawagomong Lake
Sunshine and blue skies, oh joy! The mighty Sturgeon was setting us free. Andrew was anxious to set off and get downriver, but I had a fantastic wash-up and shampoo using a cooking pot before packing everything away. Andrew ran into the river flailing his arms around like a windmill instead. The river didn’t seem so mean and miserable in the sun and I didn’t feel like I wanted to high-tail it out of there, but we did have a lot of miles to cover to get back on schedule. I threw together a good breakfast for travel of pitas with peanut butter, homemade blueberry balsamic compote and dried apples, and then we commenced floating on downstream.
We improved our tans immensely and had great fun running the occasional deep rapids and easy swifts. It took forever to paddle this meandering, lazy section of river, but it was a welcome change from the abject terror we I had endured the previous few days.
We made it to the Kelly’s crossovers at around five thirty p.m. after roughly 35 km of paddling and climbed a massive, near-vertical sand dune and then pushed through a bramble of thorny bushes and weeds to get to Kelly Lake.
We were unmoved by Kelly Lake, although it did have many beautiful tall birch trees, and so continued on to Gawagomong and found the only campsite. It had obviously not been used in some time as the firepit was overgrown with ferns and weeds and a tree had fallen directly over the tent pad, but it was equipped with two shelves (one broken by the toppled tree) and contained different, ‘ancient artifact’ garbage of brown stubby beer bottles thrown in the back bush, but we managed to make it serviceable. Andrew found an old jar full of moss and set it on our shelf as a bouquet. I built a small new fireplace on the rocky point and we feasted on a layered tortilla, pulled pork, refried bean, veggie, and cheese MONSTROSITY of a casserole – with salsa – that was once again baked in the Magic Oven. Dinner was supposed to be in the form of burritos, but the tortillas were a bit too crushed and broken after being stuffed in the barrel for eight days. Different shape, same great taste.
Much rejoicing and whiskey because we were back on the lakes! The Sturgeon chewed us up a bit, but she spit us back out! We endured a hangry horde of bloodthirsty mosquitoes that evening, but we were too tired and relieved to be itchy. And we saw about six shooting stars before bed, so there’s that.
DAY NINE: Gawagomong – Gagnon – Gawasi – Maskinonge – Rice – Lower Matagamasi
As we were packing up our gear, a canoe with an engine on the back came putt-putting by. Human beings?! We hadn’t seen anyone else since the beach on the morning of day four. I’d taken to paddling naked to keep my clothes dry, and this was unfortunately no longer going to be acceptable. It was very hot and humid (especially while wearing pants) as we made our way through marsh, bog, and beaver meadow, the mud leaching out disgusting farts every time one of us would get a paddle stuck in. Relatively easy portaging and beaver dam liftovers on our way to Maskinonge Lake. Big lake! Big waves! Big wind! But it was a tailwind, and the Happy Adventure was loving it, bouncing along like a hyperactive puppy. We passed the Taylor Statten camp outpost and watched a group of campers jump into the lake, one right after another. Think we also saw the group we had shared the McConnell Bay beach with way back on night three returning. They had the same plastic patio furniture with them, anyway.
The clouds were looking a bit black as we entered Rice Lake so we stopped for a lunch break on the only campsite and watched the clouds with furrowed brows like pessimistic farmers until the low rumblings of thunder ceased. Back in the boat, entered Lower Matagamasi under a beautiful blue sky, and set camp on the most northern site. It was a very pretty place to be.
We did laundry to wash our filthy river clothes and hung out all of our gear on two massive lines. Just as we were deciding what to eat for dinner, the thunder began anew and so we settled on Rainy Day Fancy Ramen Version 2.0. Version 2.0 was infinitely better than Version 1.0 because it contained the usual extras – dehydrated corn, scallions, mushrooms, bell peppers, and nori seaweed – but also, BACON. We experienced quite the light show as we slurped our noodles. Incredible forked lightning and giant thunder claps, but only a moderate drizzle on us, and we were cosy beneath our tarp, anyway. As darkness fell, the storm appeared a bit scarier to me so we rushed off to the tent to dream of the day our laundry would be dry.
DAY TEN: Lower Matamagasi – Edna – Karl – McCarthy Bay
Sunshine and a good breeze, hooray! Warmed up the solar shower on the hot rocks and gave ourselves a good scrubbin’. Saw two canoes go past, with five people, but we were in no rush to set off with all of our laundry still drying on the line. After brunch (smoked salmon on crackers, lacking the capers and cream cheese but nonetheless tasty) we were dismayed to learn that the battery in our InReach was CRITICALLY LOW and that SOMEONE had neglected to pack the correct cable to charge it. Many harsh words were exchanged; the sky began to blacken and grumble with thunder.
We said hello to a family in a motorboat and inquired about the weather forecast as we paddled north. “Nothing today, maybe tomorrow,” was the reply. Pah. Immediately upon completing our double carry to Edna Lake, huge bolts of lightning flashed and so Andrew hurriedly set up a tarp to keep us and our gear dry. The heavens opened and dumped buckets of water down onto our tarp, so we hunkered down and got close to our new best friend, Basil Hayden Bourbon Whiskey A.K.A. Sweeeet Cooorrrrrn, and I belted out every soul and gospel tune I could think of to counteract the storm.
Good times. We were no longer angry with each other, and as we were trapped by the storm for a good hour and a half, we were on the tipsier side of sober when we were finally able to paddle across Edna Lake to the Karl Falls portages. Caution: Slippery When Wet.
On the far side we met the group that had paddled by our site earlier in the day. They had endured the deluge on the portage and were glad to be set up at the falls. I decided to ask them if they happened to have the correct cable to charge our InReach, and MIRACLE of MIRACLES, they did! They generously supplied us with 6% battery life so we could send out a MapShare message that we were a-ok, just out of juice, and that we wouldn’t be able to track or post map updates for the last few days of our voyage. We talked with them for a bit, learning that two of the guys had first tripped in the area back when they were at camp in the seventies. They even kindly acted impressed when I told them of our courageous adventure down the Sturgeon River. We thanked them profusely for the charge-up, they snapped our picture, I bravely threw a spider the size of a tarantula out of the canoe with my paddle, and off we went to McCarthy Bay so they could enjoy their time outdoors without us Chatty Cathys blathering on.
The first campsite we saw was basically in a bog so we went about a kilometre further southwest and set up on an overused site on a little island. It was a pretty place, but made less so by the scars of many tree stumps and a whole heck of a lot of garbage and some more underwear. Soggy though the forest was, Andrew got a good cooking fire going and I rehydrated some Shepherd’s Pie filling, topped it with instant mashed potatoes (“CHEATER!” They cried,) and threw it in the oven until it was golden. We ate it straight out of the pot with two forks and enjoyed a glass of pinot noir (good stuff, this time: Gnarly Head) on the side. We didn’t really care for our new pet ants and cockroaches, but we tried to ignore them and had a hot chocolate before bed as we listened to the gentle lullaby of a mystical flute being played from a far-away campsite. Really. This actually happened. We also saw another few shooting stars, if you care.
DAY ELEVEN: McCarthy Bay – Gold – Colin Scott – Donald
Hot. Boiled-in-own-skin feeling, even in the morning. Very still, too. Moved around sluggishly, drying our moccasins and boots, packing up, etc.
Paddled like a herd of turtles to the portage to Gold Lake behind a bachelor party we had met the night before. We watched them get lost twice. I wanted to race them until we saw them portage in a single carry. Two little wieners like us that had been living in the bush for ten days couldn’t possibly compete with that. We resigned ourselves to the notion that sites would be limited on Donald Lake, but caught up with the group in Colin Scott Lake. They were swimming at the takeout for the portage into Donald, but we continued tortoise-ing away and completed our double carry as they finished their single. The race was on! Immediately upon launching, I noticed that the campsite on the eastern peninsula was already occupied by the group that had charged our InReach, so I turned to Andrew and said quite sternly, “Opposite shore. Island. Go!”. Full steam ahead, perfectly in tune, we out-paced the big dudes and soon landed on a lovely island as they got themselves lost again. Ha-HA! Slow and steady won the race.
As we were at our campsite so early, before three p.m., we spent the afternoon going for many swims off of a good, smooth rock diving board on our little island in the sun to combat the heat. We putzed around, hanging our sleeping bags and clothes to air out, setting up a hammock in the shade, mixing up some more bush sangria with the last of the yucky wine, and rehydrating fruit to bake in a crumble. I had baked crumble in the reflector oven before, on Andrew’s birthday in Algonquin Park, but this was the first time I had tried it with dehydrated fruit and I must not have added enough water, or baked it too long, as I burnt the shit out of the bottom of it. Andrew politely ate most of it and threw the extra-charred bits into the fire. Chili, eaten out of our camp mugs, was tasty, and we lounged comfortably in our Thermarest chair slings to enjoy it.
I’ve read that Donald Lake has bad juju. I didn’t really notice it until we went to bed that night. I tossed and turned, waking up from terrible nightmares every few hours. Even my silk sleeping bag liner didn’t stop me from waking up sweaty and shaking multiple times. It was the first occasion of the trip that I slept poorly. Perhaps our heads were facing too far south… My mother has always said that if you sleep with your head to the south, it makes you crazy. This led to many interesting tent arrangements throughout the trip to appease my superstitions.
DAY TWELVE: Rest Day on Donald
Since we were still basically ahead of schedule, we took a rest day. In all honesty, we both ended up feeling bored and missed the daily ritual of packing up and paddling somewhere new. The day was spent swimming, baking up a delicious breakfast bannock with oodles of dried fruit, drinking bourbon lemonade, finding new patches of shade to write my journal in, Andrew’s failed attempts at fishing, and some personal hygiene by way of a (successfully heated!) solar shower. The day started off windy, and grew more and more so as the afternoon wore on. If it wasn’t our rest day, we would have been windbound anyway. Enormous waves crashed on our little island shore, huge whitecaps all around. The wind and waves were so powerful that we were almost blown off course while going for a little dip in the lake. Andrew had really enjoyed the Shepherd’s Pie I made a few nights before, so we had that again for dinner. No dessert this time. I was too embarrassed by my failed attempt at baking crumble the night before.
Another terrible night’s sleep for both of us. Andrew coughed and wheezed all night, keeping me awake. The wind continued to howl. If we didn’t think the lake had bad vibes before, we sure did now. Such strange dreams.
DAY THIRTEEN: Donald – Kukagami
This was our last full day and night of the trip. I was feeling pretty bummed that our adventure was drawing to a close. It was also extremely hot and humid, and there was no breeze to cool us down. Slowly, slowly, we paddled south on Donald Lake as clouds gathered overhead and a few drops of rain fell. We were grateful of the clouds, but as we neared our longest portage on route, from Donald to Kukagami Lake, the sun came out again in all its blazing glory. This was an easy portage, although it was close to a kilometre long, but made extremely taxing by the heat, humidity, and swarms of mosquitoes that tormented us as we laboriously wheezed and grunted our way to Kukagami Lake. It was a good trail, marked with actual portage signs, and we even found a few blueberries along the way (it had been a “berry” bad year, womp womp) but with the sweat stinging our eyes and the mosquitoes swarming us by the thousands we couldn’t wait for it to be over. Amid clouds of biting insects, we pushed off into Kukagami Lake to find our last campsite of the trip.
I initially had my heart set on a west-facing site in the north end of the lake, but upon arrival we determined that the entire site had been wiped out by some recently fallen trees. So, we backtracked to a nice northern peninsula where we saw a couple taking a picnic lunch from their motorboat, and they kindly let us know that they were just stopping for a bite and that we could feel free to set up our gear. He told us that there was a big storm forecasted for later in the evening, which I already suspected due to the intense heat and humidity of the day. He also offered us fish for dinner – did we look like we were starving? – but we declined as we still had plenty of delicious food in the barrel. Noticed that they had a couple beers with them. We tried not to look too longingly at them and made do with a nip of bourbon.
After the couple departed, we began to set up for the night. What we initially determined to be a very clean campsite was not so. Worse than the massive, fresh bear poop in the back woods were the hundreds of pieces of broken glass bottles near the firepit. I probably spent two hours picking through the dirt, trying to rid the site of hazards to our feet. This was apparently a popular spot for fishermen to come take a lunch break, dump their bottles, clean their fish at the campsite, and generally attract (wo)man-eating bears and other wildlife. We set the tent up high on a root-y patch of forest to stay dry during the upcoming storm, and rigged the tarp so tight it would have been unflappable in a hurricane.
That’s really the only way to describe the weather that hit us that evening. We had just finished warming up some Three Sisters Soup and baking some jalapeño, bacon, and cheddar biscuits on the side (the only part of the cheese that was mouldy, after two weeks in the barrel, was the vinegar-soaked cloth we wrapped it in: Incredible!) and were enjoying a maaaaahrvelous sunset when the wind started blowing from every direction at once and whipped the lake into a veritable tsunami of crashing waves.
Under our “perfect” tarp set-up, the rain pelted us horizontally, lightning flashed, thunder roared, and the fire was instantly put out by the torrential downpour. In an instant we were soaked to the skin, trying to shovel our soup and biscuits in our mouths before our spoons could be struck by lightning and we tragically and ironically perished on the last day of our journey.
We were fine. Soggy and cold, but fine. Took twice as long to boil up water for a hot beverage as the wind kept blowing our stove out and Andrew knocked the full pot of water over as it nearly reached the boil. We laughed it off. The weather never ceased to be interesting the entire time we were out; from the building late afternoon clouds that would threaten rain and then blow out into a clear, starlit sky, to the intense heat and humidity leading up to tropical monsoons, we were never really stuck with too much of anything for too long. After about an hour and likely a metre of rain, the wind died down and the drizzling halted.
Slightly paranoid about the giant bear turds behind our tent, Andrew decided to let off a bear banger, “just to see how the thing works”. It went off like a rocket over the lake. Impressive. I figured he scared away the entire wildlife population with that one banger. Probably not the best toy to play around with, and most likely ineffective at chasing away phantom bears in the back forest, but at least now I know how to use the thing if we ever do find ourselves in a dire situation. (Andrew: “Wait, you’re not going to mention the time I singlehandedly fought off three bears with my fists?” Funny guy.)
We slept well, despite the tree roots under our Thermarests and ‘jaunty’ angle of the tent pad. Perhaps we were tuckered from our bad sleeps on Donald, the heat of the day, the power of the storm, or a combination of all three. Even with the broken glass and the bear shit, we felt only good vibes and peace on our last night out.
DAY FOURTEEN: Kukagami – Sportsman’s Lodge
A beautiful day! In actuality it was cloudy and grey, much cooler than the days before. Reminded us of our trip to Killarney the previous year, and how we spent six days of nine under cloudy skies and in a perpetual misty fog. Andrew was up early, and woke me with the news that we still had enough coffee to brew one last pot and didn’t have to resort to the Emergency Back-Up Starbucks Via Supply. He had also perfectly rationed the Creamy Beige over two weeks, knowing that if I got my hands on it I would have mixed up hot chocolate that was 20% chocolate, 80% bourbon cream. I splashed a little extra in my mug as there was no reason to be so conservative anymore. Delightful.
Andrew, Fire Wizard Extraordinaire that he is, managed to get enough of a blaze going from the thoroughly soaked wood to bake up a breakfast bannock, which we smothered in the last of our butter. Knowing it was only a short paddle back to the Sportsman’s Lodge, we hung out for awhile, fascinated by the largest, greenest caterpillar we had ever seen. It’s funny and somewhat strange that the things you crave so much on day four and five, like a hot shower and cold beers, matter less and less as the trip winds to a close.
Eventually we packed our tent for the final time, waved goodbye to our campsite, and paddled south on Kukagami, passing scattered cottages along the way. All in all, a gentle re-introduction to society. By two p.m. we had beached our canoe on the shore at the lodge, portaged our gear up the hill, and rang the bell to alert George of our presence.
Beaming, he said, “some storm last night, eh?” and proceeded to tell us that there had been tornado warnings forecasted for Kukagami Lake. He brought us round after round of frosty brews as we told him stories of our magical adventure. He even sold me a pack of his own personal cigarettes, as mine had run out (please note: I do not litter cigarette butts. I carry a pocket ashtray throughout the day, which seals airtight and does not smell, and then pack them in a ziplock until we have a hot enough fire to burn our garbage. I spend so much time cleaning trails and campsites of garbage that I would never, ever contribute to the problem by leaving even one butt behind) and then left us to shower and get ready for dinner. We were well fed with baked chicken, tortellini, steamed vegetables, and another caesar salad (I had been craving crisp, cold salads for a week during the heat wave), followed by cake and ice cream for dessert. The only guests at the lodge mid-week, we hung out in the common area, Andrew testing various couches until he found the one he liked best and fell asleep to the Nature of Things. I snacked on the last of the chocolate, as we didn’t have to hang the barrel before bed, and before long we were snoozing away.
Andrew woke early the next morning and packed up our car. We had breakfast in the lodge, said our goodbyes to George and thanked him for a wonderful time. Stopped at the French River Trading Post on the way home to buy some fudge, and completed the drive to Toronto before four p.m.
I already miss it. I miss the jack and the red pines, the aquamarine lakes, the call of the loons, the weight of that pig of a barrel on my back. I miss the weird and wonderful weather, the daily rituals of setting and breaking down camp, the smell of the fire, the sips of whiskey burning my belly. I’ve never before been to a place that was so majestically beautiful and rugged that I was brought to the verge of tears almost every day by the sheer splendour of it all. If I had to pick my most favourite place in the whole world, this would be it. I can’t think of a better way to spend two weeks than travelling every day by paddle and portage through the Temagami wilderness.