My campsite has a stone couch!
Looking down St. Andrew's Lake towards the Tarn Lake portage (Giant hill in background)
Day 1: Grand Lake / Achray to St. Andrew's Lake
As I awoke a little after 6 a.m., I glanced outside and couldn’t help but notice what a beautiful morning it was. I couldn’t be happier to be heading to The Park today for what would not only be my longest solo trip (in time spent and distance covered) but it would also be jam packed with adventure, some near disasters and an all-around fantastic time. I usually plan to be on the road well before 6 a.m. but due to a wedding on the weekend, I was not able to obtain my rental car until 7 a.m. on Monday morning. I hopped on the subway and headed down to Union Station to grab the vehicle. I quickly made my way back home to fetch my gear and a quick stop in Holland Landing to grab my canoe. I was on Highway 400 just south of Barrie at 9 a.m. – not an ideal start, but sometimes restrictions cause delays. No worry, in a few hours (nearly 6) I would be in a little piece of heaven so it was impossible to be stressed. I was trying out a new method of tying the bow of my canoe to the vehicle. I purchased a product called Quick Loop Tie Downs. They’re loops that attach to a section of reinforced rubber hose you simply close the hood on and you instantly have a latching point instead of having to crawl under the car looking for something to hook on to. This was great for me since I always use a rental; they made the tie-down process quick and much more secure.
I had never driven to Achray before; the furthest east I’ve ever been was Access 17 – Shall Lake, to Booth and Shirley a few times. Due to the location of my canoe, it was more practical to take Highway 400 to 11 to 60 and across (normally I would have just taken 401 to 35/115 to 62 and so on, but I also didn’t mind the drive through the park along Highway 60 as I have never seen the East Gate before). I made a quick stop at the Algonquin Bound Madawaska location to say hello and to pick up a few lures. The people at AB are really great – I’ve never had a bad experience with them. They even left my rental, paddles, jackets, a canoe pack for my friend and the rental agreement behind a shed once because I couldn’t make it there in time due to traffic. What fantastic service. After exchanging greetings, I grabbed my lures, a bottle of bug spray (a decision I will later be thankful I made) and I continued eastbound along Highway 60 through Barry’s Bay and eventually past Round Lake. Finally, after what seemed like a day of driving, I made it to the Sand Lake Gate. It was as busy as expected for a Monday afternoon. There were two groups ahead of me when I arrived and as I walked in only one couple remained – which made me happy because it was now 3:30 p.m. and I had about 7 km of ground to cover to get to my first campsite. The couple was staying on the Achray car campground and were asking a lot questions about the area. While they did this, I glanced around the office and noticed a book on the shelf I had heard about and wanted to read. When I flipped it over and saw it was only $7.95, it was a done deal. This actually worked out great because I had ordered some books online (the journals of Richard Proenneke, if you don’t know who he is, please watch Alone in the Wilderness 1 & 2, as well as Alaska: Silence & Solitude - I promise you won’t regret it) to read on this trip but they didn’t arrive in time. The book I bought was Joe Lavally and the Paleface in Algonquin Park. What a great book to read in The Park. It’s a trip log of an eight-day trip a British WWII solider took at the end of the war with a hired Indian Guide - Joe Lavally. I strongly recommend you read this book; it’s just a great story and fantastic read. One of my new favorite things is reading by the light of a campfire with a hot tea or coffee. When it was finally my turn, the young girl at the permit office was helpful in answering my questions When I asked her where I could expect to find good fishing, I was told a monster (not sure what species) was pulled out of Brigham Lake just a few days back. I made a mental note of it - although I would only be passing through that lake. When I showed her the second half of my route, she became concerned and told me the portage from Greenleaf to Grand Lake was a complete mess. Apparently a canoeist went through there a few days earlier and either reverted to following the hydro field, or suggesting to the permit office they tell people to just follow the field. I think it was the latter option as there was evidence that someone (besides me) made it through that portage the whole way. Although I was not happy to hear about the terrible condition of the longest portage in The Park, nothing could bring me down from this high. I was only a few KM away from the parking lot where I would say goodbye to cars and people for over a week and say hello to my canoe and The Park. Between the Sand Lake Gate and Achray, I spotted a turtle in the middle of the road. Fearing for his safety, I gently encouraged him to move along a little faster and got him over to the other side. Turtles can move more quickly than I thought! Just a few kilometers past the turtle I saw a big cow moose in the middle of the road. When she saw me she stood still for only a minute then ran. She would be the only moose I got a peek of on this trip.
My campsite on St. Andrews Lake
Cliffs on St. Andrews Lake
I finished dinner, did the dishes, hung the food on the bear rope and made a hot cup of green tea. It was a cloudless night, and I could see the stars. I decided to walk down to the rocks by the water to escape the fire light and get a better view. I looked up and almost immediately I saw a shooting star. What great timing! It’s amazing that this view is always above us, but we’re blind to it because of the light pollution in the city. I was out there ten minutes or so and eventually returned to the warmth of the fire. Suddenly I heard a loud crash and bang. It sounded like my food sack and mess kit had fallen. I was not impressed because I knew I had chosen a tough enough branch and cordage, but was convinced the sound I heard could have only been that stuff falling. Then I thought, perhaps it’s an animal stumbling clumsily through the bush – but where would the crash sound come from? I gave it about 20 minutes before I made the trek back up the cliff, past the thunder box and found my food and pans hanging in the tree just as I had left them not so long ago. I returned to the fire yet again, and quickly became tired - it was nearly 11 p.m. and I had been up early. I finished my tea and decided to call it a night.
Beautiful day in Algonquin Park
St. Andrews Lake is beautiful and it’s really easy to get to. I’d like to return there and perhaps do some luxury base camping. It’s a beautiful area with a lot to explore around. As I paddled up the Western shore, I was pleased once again to see no occupied campsites and no other canoes on the lake. On the eastern shore of the lake there are high cliffs and I’m sure big Lake Trout can be found there - although I didn’t fish it myself. The campsites I passed all looked nice enough by my standards. I was surprised to see a lot of makeshift sites along the shore as well. There was plenty of space for makeshift sites all in this area (as I would soon come to find out). As I approached my intended site, I was pleased to see it was off of a rock face with deep water in front. Great shoreline fishing opportunities. I landed my canoe, pulled her up and explored the site. I’ll be damned, there’s a rock couch here with five seats! Arm rests and all! I had heard there was one on Opalescent Lake and I was excited to find this one.
The site itself had a lot of up and down terrain, and was pretty much pine-covered rocks. I was really happy with this site and began to set up camp right away. I found the flattest area to pitch my tent, hung the bear rope then decided to get some shoreline fishing in. I wasn’t fishing for dinner tonight. I always have a steak with grilled pepper and mashed potato (along with some Beer) on my first night – then it was roughing it from there on in. I allowed my steak to thaw as I stood out on the rocks and went fishing. I used a typical treble lure with a worm on it. Almost immediately I got a bite, then a fish: A small one, which I have yet to confidently identify (someone said it could be a Walleye, but I really don’t know). I pulled him off the hook, snapped a picture and threw him back in the lake. I continued on, casting and catching these little guys until I decided I did not want to waste too many worms on them.
Female moose just up the road from the Sand Lake Gate
I made it to Achray, unloaded the canoe, my gear and parked the vehicle. At the launch point, there was a group of teenagers, nine canoes and about 18 canoeists plus a leader or two. He was giving them instructions, and by the sounds of those instructions they were all new to this world of The Park. When he pointed in the direction they were headed, my heart sank because it was the same direction I was going. They managed to launch before me while I was talking to a few guys who just returned from a fishing trip. They spent a few nights on Upper Spectacle and said the fishing was terrible as the whole lake is only a few feet deep. That sucks – I have a night booked on Lower Spectacle so I hope it’s not the same situation. They were giving my set-up a once over and commented that they really liked what I had going on: A small boat (perfect for one person and their gear), the GPS mounted on my thwart bar giving me direct, hands-free access and the actual weight of the boat! I was happy they were impressed – I know I sure was. I sat in the canoe and shoved off onto a semi-rough Grand Lake. The next eight days were between me and The Park.
It took me 15 minutes to paddle to the mouth of the Barron River where it exits Grand Lake. The winds picked up and the waves turned out to be bigger than I had expected, nothing troublesome though. I passed the group of canoeists before entering the Barron River. Once in the river proper, the wind and the waves instantly died down and I was paddling through a blissful scene. My goal for the night was a campsite on St. Andrews Lake, the second most northern site, adjacent to the 770 m portage to Marie Lake. After a few minutes down the Barron River, I came to the first portage. It was a short one around a small dam. The height of the dam was less than 18 inches, flowing towards Stratton Lake. Since this portage was so short, and my pack was at its heaviest point (I brought 1 liter of beer for my first night’s dinner as part of an ongoing tradition), I decided to do a double carry. One thing about me you should know, I absolutely hate doing a double carry (although necessary sometimes, I still hate it) because it essentially triples any portage and takes much, much more time. But for 30 m – sure why not? I made my way around the dam and continued down the Barron River eventually coming to an old railway bridge crossing the river above me. I checked the trusses for construction years but no luck. Perhaps you have to get out and look elsewhere on the foundations for that. I made it to Stratton Lake by 4:30 p.m. Luckily, I had the wind at my back as it pushed me down the 5 km stretch of lake. Then I realized that in 4 days I would have to battle this wind in the opposite direction – hopefully it would be a calm day. I was in no real rush as I was only about 5 or 6 km away from the campsite and it was reasonably early in the afternoon. I paddled lightly and let the wind do most of the work. It’s not often the wind is on your side and this helpful. I made it to the South end of Stratton Lake, meeting up with the Barron River for a short distance again. I did not see any canoes or occupied campsites; it seemed I was finally on my own. From here it was an 80 m portage to St. Andrews. I could see the connecting stream had a little roughness to it. My canoe can easily handle Class 1 rapids or less. So I decided to just run the stream. Excellent choice! Even in the roughest spots (which really weren’t that bad at all) my canoe scrapped no rocks and I dumped into St. Andrews Lake with good speed – I was happy to not have to get out and do that portage!
A not-so-traditional view of my meal cooking over the fire
Steak & Red Pepper on the grill - a traditional first night dinner
Grand Lake to St. Andrews Lake
Almost there! Approaching the Sand Lake Gate
Rock Bass from St. Andrews Lake - I would need about 15 of these to make a meal
I went back to start the fire for the steak. There was some kindling left in a pile and a few larger pieces – enough to start the fire and let it burn down a little to coals. While that was burning, I went up the giant rocky hill behind me towards the scat box to look for more wood. It’s nice to camp this early in the season because the area hasn’t been picked clean yet. I found tons of dead branches from the trees above just lying on the ground. I collected a lot of them with very little effort and in no time at all I had a pile of wood larger than I needed. I decided to process a dead tree that had probably been blown down in a winter storm. “Process” is a word I use when I take a blown-down tree, cut it into manageable sections (usually ten feet in length), remove all the branches and bring the trunk back to camp for additional processing (cutting into one-foot logs). The trees I usually go for are no more than 4.5” - 5” in diameter. I knew I would not need the 18 logs I made from this tree, but it’s always nice to leave a little something behind for the next guy. So I stood ten of the logs up against the stone couch where they would get the most sunlight to dry out. I left those for someone else to use. I believe I have a reasonable system when it comes to firewood at a campsite. I always try to leave more wood than I found. I’ll usually burn what is already there (if any) because it’s usually had time to dry out a bit, then I’ll go in the bush to find additional wood for myself (if needed) and wood to replenish what I had burned already. This isn’t always possible but I find it can be done more often than not. By this time, the fire had burned down enough so I added my spice to the steak and threw it on the grill along with freshly diced red pepper. I setup my stove to prepare the mashed potato. It was a really nice evening, the lake was dead calm and the air was finally warm. A few black flies were swarming around me, but weren’t biting. No mosquitoes as of yet – but I feared the later days and areas of this trip. With my steak, pepper and potatoes cooked, I grabbed my second of two beers from the cooler (my camping cooler is the lake itself with a rock on the items it to ensure they do not get away from me). I took a seat in front of the fire facing the lake and was grateful to be back in these surroundings.