november 20th-22nd, 2015
After our trip to the Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park in October, I didn’t feel as if we had given our canoe a proper farewell for the season, so after a few weekends of working and staying in the city, we planned on one last canoeing adventure before we became landlocked for the winter. I decided on a relatively easy trip to the Rain Lake access point in Algonquin, where we wouldn’t have to deal with big lake crossings or strenuous portages. Really, we just wanted an easy escape for the weekend where not much could go wrong. Oh, how false my predictions proved to be!
I called the park on Friday night to request permits for the Rain Lake jump-off site and an additional permit for the interior, also on Rain Lake, for Friday and Saturday nights. Algonquin doesn’t take reservations after the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, but it was no problem to call the day of and receive a permit. In fact, it’s almost easier, as you simply write down your booking information and leave it on the dashboard of your car at the access point, instead of having to pick up an official permit at the West or East Gate or some other permit office in the boondocks before heading into the park.
We drove up late Friday night as we still had to pack all of our gear after we finished work, and didn’t get down Rain Lake Road until midnight(!). We needed to stop a few times to check the depth of large puddles and move some dead trees out of the way. There was a light dusting of snow on the treetops, and we set up our tent under some large evergreens at one of the “jump-off” sites right at the access point. I imagine that in the summer these sites are in high demand and the parking lot could get quite busy, but we were the only people there in late November. We left the canoe on the roof of the car and clambered into our three-season tent with many additional layers and blankets to stay warm during the night.
We slept well, and were warm and dry when we woke up late Saturday morning. Andrew was apprehensive about the road conditions (Rain Lake Road is only maintained until the park boundary, and even the maintained portion of the road is mostly just used for logging trucks and access to a few cottages and a landfill in the area) and as we thought the drive in rather sketchy the night before, we decided to pack up our kit and test the road before setting up for Saturday night. With all of our gear in the car, we set out back the way we came, and realized that perhaps we were overreacting in regards to the road. The puddle wasn’t as deep, the blowdowns as numerous, or the hill as steep as it had seemed while arriving at midnight, fuelled only by a 20-pack of timbits and a double-double each to a place we had never been before. Happily convinced we were safe, we turned the boat (and car) around and went back to the access point. We knew the forecast was calling for about 10cm of snow, but we figured our Mazda hatchback could handle those conditions. Plus, it was just so peaceful in the off-season, and we really wanted to spend as much time outside and in our canoe as possible before freeze-up/hardwater season (this is a new term I have just learned; glad I could share it with you, Faithful Reader).
It began snowing lightly as we arrived for the second time at Rain Lake, and Andrew convinced me that it would be safer to just stay at the access point for a second night and not head into the backcountry as we originally intended. We pitched our tent again, took the canoe down, and went for a leisurely paddle and tour of the lake near our campsite.
Out on the lake, the snow began to fall more thickly. We had a fun time paddling around as the snow fell around us, as we had never been canoeing in a snowstorm before. Beautiful, magical experience.
After about an hour, we determined it would be a good idea to collect some firewood and get ourselves better situated for the night. We set the canoe down at the dock by the ranger cabin, made quick work of some firewood using our new folding saw, tested out our new IKEA-hack stick stove, and warmed up a fantastic cassoulet over the fire with a sprinkling of rosemary breadcrumbs on top, and then baked it until golden in our reflector oven. The snow was falling fast and thick now, and we retreated to the (unlocked) covered porch of the ranger cabin to eat our dinner. A couple glasses of wine, a couple hot buttered rums, and we went to bed almost as soon as it was dark.
We didn’t sleep as well our second night out. I wasn’t cold, but Andrew woke up a few times feeling chilly. I woke up sweating on multiple occasions and had to stick my arms out of my sleeping bag to cool down. I had the strangest dreams. One involved me rooting through my dresser drawers at home, trying to find my best wintry clothing, but I only came across rotten vegetables. Like, “oh, here’s my favourite wool sweater… nope, that’s a liquefied cucumber and a mouldy head of cabbage”. Odd. And gross. I guess we were bound to wake up a few times in the night, as we were in bed for close to eleven hours. A long winter’s nap, indeed.
Upon waking the next morning, we found ourselves in a surreal alternate universe, the landscape blanketed in over a foot of snow. We again holed up in the relative shelter of the cabin porch to boil water for coffee, and could do nothing but stare in open-mouthed disbelief at the sheer volume of snow which had accumulated overnight. We had been expecting the forecasted 10cm of snow, not 14 INCHES! Our tent and canoe were positively buried, as were the firepits and picnic tables at the campground. If we hadn’t neatly put our things away the night before (as is custom), we would have lost half our gear. After two cups of coffee each, with a drop of Bailey’s for medicinal purposes, we came to terms with our new reality, and began the process of packing away our gear and loading up the car, while jumping around in the snow in our big winter boots.
We were doomed before we even backed out of our parking space. I took a folding shovel and attempted to excavate the area surrounding our car, only for Andrew to get stuck again five metres down the road. This was an interesting turn of events. There was no cell phone service this deep down the forest access road, and if we were going to hike out the 26km to the main road, it would take us two days/an eternity of a lifetime of an infinitely expanding universe without snowshoes. It was a stroke of good luck that I had brought along our Delorme InReach for what was essentially supposed to be a car-camping weekend, and we made the decision to send out a message to Andrew’s cousin Ryan and ask for help. We were stranded.
After a short while, Cousin Ryan replied to say that he would be meeting his dad up in Huntsville with his 4×4 truck and that they would be coming in to get us. We spent the day wandering aimlessly around the campground, boiling up many litres of tea, snacking on beef jerky, and sitting in the car to hear the CBC weather forecast and warm our toes. We went for a little walk on the Western Uplands Backpacking Trail and saw a family of otters yukking it up close to the bridge, and had a whistling competition with a chickadee (we lost). The sun was shining, the snow was beautiful, and I can think of many worse places to be stranded. Like, for example, Whitby. Now that would be terrible. Darkness was fast approaching and we entertained the notion of maybe having to spend another night out, but we weren’t extremely worried. We had plenty of extra food, warm clothes and sleeping bags, and hey, if we were attacked by a pack of ravenous wolves, I’m sure I could break into the ranger cabin and leave Andrew behind as bait. I suppose he was thinking the same thing. It was my idea to head out on this trip, after all, and his eyes had a tinge of a murderous glint to them. He did say he wouldn’t eat my face, if it came to that. True love.
Roughly six hours after sending out our first message, I wandered up the road to see our rescuers trudging in. Big hugs all around.
Our plan had initially been to try to tow our car out, but as it was dark and the snow was so deep, we resigned ourselves to packing all of our gear into the truck and tying our canoe down in a very questionable manner over the truck roof and flatbed. I left a note on the dashboard of our car in the off-chance someone came down the road and found our abandoned vehicle, and we were off. What was an easy drive in on Friday night was an hour and twenty minute ordeal to drive out of, even with the high ground clearance of the four-wheel drive truck. Over an hour, to drive less than 30km!
Feeling rather sheepish, we took Cousin Ryan and Uncle Bradley out for a very expensive prime rib dinner in Rosseau before heading back to the family’s Muskoka home for the night, where we slept like babies, happy to be warm and safe.
The next morning, we tucked the canoe under their porch, Cousin Ryan drove us back to our home in Toronto, and we began to devise a plan to extract our automobile. The forecast showed a warming/melting trend with plenty of rain, so on Thursday night Andrew and Ryan once again drove north to stay overnight in Muskoka and went in early Friday morning with Uncle Bradley to rescue the car before the whole world froze all over again.
Cousin Ryan cleverly thought to bring a chainsaw along, which came in handy to deal with a massive downed tree lying across the road. The heavy snow and rain had caused a lot of washout, and in several places the water level of the small lakes on either side of the road was so high that there were streams gushing across the gravel, presenting new challenges to our long-suffering Mazda. The boys persevered and the car made it out in about forty minutes. All that was left to do was give Ryan some money for gas and pick up our canoe before beginning the drive home to the city. Thus, nearly a week later, Andrew got his wheels back. Much rejoicing!
Shoulder seasons certainly present many challenges. We believed we were doing things smartly and safely, yet we didn’t take into account what would happen if more snow fell than what was forecasted. We had plenty of warm clothes, food, and beverages, we had our InReach, dry suits for paddling, extra boots, a shovel, snow tires on our car… but all of that proved useless against a foot of snow with only a two-wheel drive hatchback. We applauded ourselves for going out Saturday morning to test the road conditions before setting up again. We patted ourselves on the back for staying warm and dry in a wet snowstorm. But come Sunday morning, we were kicking ourselves for not getting out while we still could. However, our little misadventure did teach us a valuable lesson, and, as I am not writing this from beyond the grave, we did make it out alive. And there weren’t any bugs, which was awesome. We won’t be heading out in those conditions without a more capable vehicle again, though… So, anyone want to buy a 2012 Mazda 3? I promise it’s only been ditched in a snowbank for less than a week.
I guess now I truly do feel that the paddling season is – sadly – finally over. It sure has been a fabulous year of many exciting excursions. We have been to the Credit River and the Sauble River, had shots fired above our heads in the Minesing Wetlands, spent two long weekends being mauled by blackflies and mosquitoes while paddling in Algonquin during spring and summer, braved the chop from Cherry Beach to Hanlan’s Point and back again on Lake Ontario, journeyed on a magical mystery tour for two weeks in the Chiniguchi and Sturgeon River systems in Temagami, got rained on for an entire weekend on the Severn River and contracted pneumonia, explored a chain of unnamed crown land lakes in the Archipelago with two of our best friends, and had a lake to ourselves in the Kawartha Highlands. This was a fitting end to a long season of canoeing fun. Still no moose, though.
See you at ice-out, Happy Adventure.