Day 1: Water Taxi up Lake Opeongo then on to Big Crow Lake
I slept in a tent last night – even though I wasn’t technically on a camping trip yet. Today, my buddy Gary and I are once again taking off to Algonquin Park for the next five days. We wanted to get a very early start to our trip so we made the drive up from Toronto last night and set-up our tents at a nearby picnic area. We were both really looking forward to this trip – much bigger than the trip I took him on last year. Gary was especially excited about this route as it was only his second visit to Algonquin’s backcountry. Last year I took him for his first backcountry canoe trip through the north end of Algonquin and he loved it. Unfortunately though, during the drive up Gary was complaining about having to do a ridiculous amount of heavy lifting earlier on that day when his boss asked him to help breakup and move some concrete slabs. He was complaining that his lower back felt as though it was grinding when he twisted left or right and it was causing him some pain. This had me fairly concerned because I don’t think it would be wise to venture off deep into the backcountry when he could be seriously injured. He took some meds for it and we agreed he’d keep and eye on it for the night and into the morning – if it got worse we would have to call off the trip. We woke up at 6:30am and quickly packed our tents – we were leaving from Lake Opeongo access and had a water taxi scheduled for 8am. I asked Gary how he slept and how his back was feeling – he said it was still sore but ‘not as bad as yesterday.’ He said he felt fully able to continue with the trip as planned (last night we tossed around ideas of base-camping instead of the big loop we had planned). We left the picnic area and following a quick drive up Opeongo Road (which use to be an old spur line of the railway that now makes up sections of Hwy 60) we were at the access point by 7am. We parked at the nearby Algonquin Outfitters and the permit office building then jumped out to get things in order. I went to secure the permits while Gary checked in at AO to confirm our water taxi service. I was surprised no one else was at the permit office yet and I had everything I needed in minutes – which worked out really well because we now had some time for coffee. We went into AO and grabbed a coffee then got back in the truck to park it up in the lot and kill some time. It was about 7:10am so we enjoyed our coffees up in the lot for about 15 minutes then decided to head back down to the dock and unload.
Ready to leave at the AO docks
The 'manual' section of our route today
It wasn’t the best site, but wasn’t the worst either. The landing wasn’t ideal – a large boulder garden. The entire site had a bit of a slope to it too. No matter though, this was going to serve us just fine for tonight, then tomorrow we head off to Lavieille for the next three nights. I was happy to be at camp so early in the day as there was a lot to see in this area. There is the fire tower trail up to a beautiful lookout, as well as a trail to some very old white pines (both of which I did back in 2011). As we began to set up camp, something in my gut didn’t feel right. We hadn’t eaten much for the day so I figured that was it and decided to get a little lunch going. Nothing special, just a salami sandwich with mustard on a Kaiser. I felt a bit better after eating, but not long after I felt like crap again. Gary said I looked really pale and I felt it too. What the heck was going on with me? I decided I really needed a nap and perhaps it would be best to sleep this off. I chugged a bunch of water then napped for the next 3 hours.
I woke up around 4 in the afternoon and felt really, really bad! In fact, I exited the tent with just enough time to vomit without all over it. Immediately after vomiting I felt much, MUCH better. I was sweaty and cold at the same time, but I felt relief. I crawled back into the tent and napped for another hour. I don’t know what Gary did at camp to keep himself company while I was knocked out but when I finally emerged from the tent – hungry as I could be – I found him poking around the fire. He was not looking so good himself. I asked if he was okay and he told me his back was really starting to become unbearable. It was giving him a lot of trouble. He asked how I was and I replied that I was hungry but finally feeling good. I returned the question and his reply was bleak, ‘Not good man. It’s getting worse.’ ‘Shit.’ I thought. He said he was in a lot of pain while I slept and it was so bad now that he was going to retreat to the tent and lay down for a bit. I was worried about him and at this point I had a strong feeling the trip was over. I couldn’t be mad – things like this happen, better now than tomorrow on Lavieille.
Steak and grilled peppers for dinner
This is where things started to go a little haywire. We got back down to the docks and as we unloaded the truck, the taxi driver asked if we would be ready to go early instead waiting until 8am – say, 5 minutes? I looked at Gary and said, ‘Yes! Absolutely!’ I mean, who wouldn’t want to get a half hour jump on their canoe trip? This would put us as the Proulx Lake portage by 7:50am! Amazing! We quickly unloaded the canoe from the truck and took out our two packs. As the taxi driver was loading my canoe onto their aluminum boat I looked at Gary and asked ‘Where are the paddles?’ He furrows his brows and replies, ‘Where are the paddles?? Its your canoe!?’. My heart sank as I instantly realized I forgot to grab the paddles when we left Toronto. Oh man, how could I make such a mistake? The only means of propulsion for a canoe and we didn’t have it. The water taxi driver saw the panic in my face and asked what happened? I said we forgot the paddles, as if it were completely hopeless – the taxi drive replied, ‘So what? Go inside and grab a pair it’s fine.’ I guess in my panic I forgot we were at an outfitter – duh! Sheesh, instant downer then right back up again – this taxi driver is a champ! I ran into the AO store and returned with two wooden Ottertail paddles. I got back to the taxi just as they were loading the last pack (we were sharing the taxi ride up with another couple) then we shoved off to make the 16km journey up Lake Opeongo. I’ve paddled up this lake before and on a good day it takes about 3.5 hours – if you’re lucky enough to get a wind-free day that is (ha!).
Gary on the lookout for firewood
Very slanted campsite on Big Crow Lake
This section of the crow river snakes it way between Proulx Lake and Little Crow Lake – with a connecting route to Red Rock Lake. It’s mostly through a marsh and an excellent place to see moose. Today there would be no moose and we emerged onto Little Crow Lake by 10:40am. We were making great time. I asked Gary how his back was doing, now that we have been sitting in the canoe for more than an hour and he said it was still sore but okay. I was still skeptical though. It didn’t take long to get to the outlet of Little Crow Lake leading to the narrows to Big Crow Lake. Both campsites on Little Crow were vacant, but neither looked over appealing. As we made our way through the narrows the huge cliff on Big Crow Lake came into view – we intended to hike the lookout trail later this afternoon. Once past the cliff we were now within sight of our desired beach campsite. As far as I could tell, it was vacant. I didn’t see any canoes on shore, nor could I see any people walking about on the campsite. I was so happy it was available – I stayed here once back in 2011 and really enjoyed it. When we were within about 500m or so the unexpected happened – I saw someone come out of the forest at the site and walk around on the beach. Damn. It was occupied. I guess they saw that we were headed right for them and sent someone out to display it was occupied. Ugh! At this time, I didn’t know there was another beach site just a few hundred meters north of there, so we did a 180 and decided to make camp at the site just above the Big Crow Cabin.
My brand new canoe loaded on Gary's brand new truck - looked pretty good!
Looking back at Algonquin Outfitters and the Permit office at Lake Opeongo
As I walked around the campsite, gathering sticks and wood to get a fire going I couldn’t help but dwell on the trip being over – then it hit me – I was still in Algonquin, on a campsite at Big Crow Lake. How could I be down out here? I shook it off and got the fire going, all while keeping my fingers crossed for Gary to wake up recovered tomorrow morning. With the fire roaring, I sliced up some red bell pepper and seasoned my steak. I threw a bit too much wood on, so it was about 40 minutes before I had coals to cook my steak. With dinner ready, I grabbed my plate and walked down to the shore to enjoy my meal. It was a quiet night, odd for such a popular lake. I looked out across the calm water and could see the beachy campsite we were targeting. At that moment, I realized it doesn’t always matter which site you get. I’ve stopped at some campsites and have thought, ‘Nahhhh...’ but once I set up camp, get a fire going and have a meal – it always ends up feeling like home anyway.
I was really happy to have some shade following my earlier experience
With dinner finished I cleaned up then returned to the shoreline to watch the rest of the light fade. I was trying to make the most of my night here – as I expect we will be leaving tomorrow. Around 10pm the light was gone and I prepared the campsite for night. The food was hung and any loose gear was away and secured. Gary never emerged from the tent after 6pm. I hoped he was doing okay. It was a clear night and very warm, so I pulled back the rainfly on my tent half way, then crawled in and went to sleep.
Opeongo was dead calm today and if it weren’t for the substantial time savings, I would have paddled up instead of taking the taxi. In no time, we were rounding windy point and headed up through the narrows to the North Arm. The section just east of Graham bay is filled with pine studded islands – it’s actually quite scenic. As we entered the north arm proper, the driver made a wide left turn and headed towards the Happy Isle portage, then another wide turn and headed towards Hailstorm Creek. At first, I thought he was going to drop off the other couple before Gary and I, but he ended up just doing a loop through the area then continued north to the Proulx Lake portage. When we arrived at the dock he explained he was scouting out vacant campsites for his next group of passengers. With the canoe unloaded and our packs (and paddles!) off the taxi, the aluminum craft pulled away and our trip has officially begun!
The water taxi saved us a 15km paddle up Opeongo
Enjoying what will likely be my only sunset on this trip
Then it happened again. That sinking sensation as I looked over my gear. Something was wrong. Something was missing. ‘Uh-Oh.’ I said. ‘What’s up man?’ Gary asked. ‘I don’t want to say.’ I sheepishly replied. ‘Talk to me man – what’s up?’ he asked again. ‘I left my Nalgene in the truck – I have no water.’ I guess in the rush to get things in order for the earlier-than-anticipated taxi ride, I forgot my nalgene in the truck. Gary just laughed and laughed. Normally, this wouldn’t be funny – it’s not trip ending, but it’s not funny. However this time, it was funny. Why? Because in the weeks leading up to the trip, Gary kept saying ‘I’m going to bring 2 Nalgene’s on this trip – I was too thirsty last year.’. I told him this was unnecessary and we can just pump water as needed. We went back and forth on the subject and ultimately, he decided to bring two 1L Nalgene’s. He walked over to his pack, unclipped one of them and tossed it to me. ‘I bet you’re glad I decided to bring two eh?’. I just took a swig and thanked him. It’s funny how things work out sometimes. With the second mini crisis of the day over, we loaded up and made our way across the first portage of the trip – a 1395m trail leading from Opeongo to Proulx Lake.
I took the canoe because I was still worried about Gary’s back. I asked him about it while crossing the trail and he said it was sore but okay. I was skeptical about his answer, wondering if he was just trying to push through the pain to avoid cancelling the trip. This trail has a steep hill in the beginning, but eventually make a gradual decent to Proulx Lake. He seemed to manage okay on the trial and we were at the other end in about 20 or 25 minutes. With this portage over, the rest of our day would consist of paddling. It’s roughly 15km from here to Big Crow Lake. The water was still calm as we launched onto Proulx Lake and it was only 8:30am! At this rate we would be at our campsite well before noon – which was great because we were targeting a beachy campsite with intentions of just hanging out in the July sun. We took our time paddling across Proulx Lake – it’s a deceivingly large lake and took us longer than expected to make it around the western corner and up the arm into the Crow River. We approached the end of the western arm but couldn’t find the river exit. I had only been here once before and I was coming from the other direction so my perspective was a little skewed. We approached the reeds and at the last moment we spied a tiny gap, where the water seemed to exit the lake. A bit of paddling and we found the entrance – it’s fairly narrow and concealed well within the greenery at this time of year.
The pine-studded islands just below the narrows to the North Arm of Lake Opeongo
Heading down the Crow River between Proulx Lake and Little Crow Lake