Algonquin Park 2017

As mentioned in my blog about my trip about my tour of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, Algonquin Park is one of my favourite places. The Canadian Shield has so many amazing landscapes, it is little wonder that the Group of Seven focused their attention on capturing it. Growing up in Southwestern Ontario, where the rock is all covered with fertile soil, you don’t get to see how beautiful rock, water, and trees can all look together.

Over the decades I’ve taken a lot of canoe trips into Algonquin and enjoyed them all. As with any outdoor adventure, there can be some suffering in the Canadian Shield, and this is usually due black flies, deer flies, leeches and mosquitoes. Many times I have been in the thick of, and on the menu of, all of these pests in Algonquin, but I just keep coming back for the views. This is partly due to the fact that I spend so much time getting paid to have three computer screens 40 cm from my face.

In recent years, I have learned that if I want to go on my type of adventures, I have to go it alone. People just aren’t into it, and I would never want to drag people unwillingly into a potentially uncomfortable trek. It is nice to have people to travel with, and enjoy journeys, but there are also a lot of benefits to solo treks:

  • You can make decisions without worrying about ruining someone else’s day.
  • Travelling at your own pace is less fatiguing than trying to match someone else’s.
  • You eat, sleep and travel when you want to.
  • Camping is simplified when you remove the social elements.

This last point is an interesting one, and it is a big part of the planning that is going into my longest trek into the Algonquin Park this summer. If you are camping alone there is not much point having a campfire to sit around and poke together. You only have fires if you need them for cooking, and these fires can be small stick fires, so you don’t need an axe or a saw.  And with this simplified and lightweight kit you are more mobile.

Travelling solo, you also don’t need a tarp or a chair to hang around together in the rain. On our Great Divide trip, we used our hammocks to rest and get up off the dirt and away from the bugs. As the trip went on we ended up getting in our hammocks earlier and earlier, where we would write in our journals, read comics, listen to music, and simply relax.

This is something I want to build on this summer. More than just a place to sleep, my hammock will serve as my bug tent, my recliner, my shelter from the rain, and a place to read and write. With my Kobo in hand, I will have plenty to read, and I also plan to keep a detailed journal in there. I enjoy getting up early, so on hot days I will take advantage of this by getting some miles in before the sun gets too oppressive. Then I can set my hammock up for a mid day siesta and continue travelling later in the day.

Well that’s the plan, but these things can go pear-pear shaped. The best I can do to make this dream come true is to get myself and my gear prepared for this trip.

The Route.

Here in Ottawa, the Barron Canyon is a convenient and beautiful entrance to Algonquin park and it is also a fine paddling and fishing route. My plan is to enter take the Barron Canyon and travel East, then South to Canoe Lake.

If I could do this trip my way, I would not have to book campsites on specific locations each night, but Ontario Parks do not work that way. You have to tell them where you are going to be each night. That’s a rule I plan to bend during on the weekdays of my journey through the park, because the interior of Algonquin is generally vacant in the middle of the week. Even on weekend, you see very few people once you’ve covered more than one portage into the park, so there will be little risk of me taking the wrong campsite during the week.

Because I will not be setting up a tent or having campfires, my campsite needs consist, pretty much, of two trees, so I may even do some camping at the end of portages. That said, my route includes 6 campsites that are roughly 20 kilometers apart for a total of 146 kilometers. That is 112 kilometers by water, and 35 kilometers of portage.

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I will put in at the Barron Canyon on the east side of the park, then camp at the following lakes :Johnson, Green Leaf, White Partidge, Crow Bay, Red Rock, and Little Otter Slide (see the large red arrows on the map above). My journey ends at Canoe Lake, where I will meet up with my family en route to my brother’s cottage.

I know from experience that Green Leaf lake is remote enough to be full of big bass, and Crow Bay and Crow River are renowned for Brook Trout, so I expect to eat some fresh fish.

Depending on my traveling speed, I may rush to these areas so that I can stay and fish for longer.  If, for instance, I can get to Green Leaf Lake in one day rather than two, I could take a day off for fishing. Because this is my first solo portaging trek, and on a boat that I have not loaded down before, I won’t know how far I can travel until I get moving.

The Gear

Boat

My boat is new acquisition from the amazing boat builders at Hornbeck Boats. I tested their hulls in their pond last year at their beautiful facility in the Adirondacks. I loved it right away, and ordered my boat. I picked it up this Spring. and since then, I have been testing in local waters. It is exceeding my hopes for speed and maneuverability.

packboatHornbeck calls this boat a Classic 12 Blackjack.  It is a 12 foot long 15 pound carbon fiber packboat. There are no typos in that last sentence. 15 pounds is miraculously light. With no place for a yoke, this boat will rest on top of my external frame backpack, which I have adapted for this purpose.  The seat is built into the bottom of the boat, and I paddle it with a carbon fiber kayak paddle.

Kitchen and Food

My dinners and breakfasts on this trip will be dehydrated meals of oatmeal for breakfast and home-made dehydrated meals for dinner, including spaghetti, burritos, and baked beans.  These, I will hydrate using my insulated Vargo Bot, (See my intro post from my last trip: https://gdmbrblog.wordpress.com/2016/04/), and my new MKettle.

This ingenious kettle can boil water as quickly as anything I’ve used, and it requires very little fuel.  On lazy days I can boil water with cotton balls soaked in fondue fluid, but all it really takes to boil water is a handful of twigs and sticks. Here is an image from the MKettle site.

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It’s difficult to describe how this works. The fire shoots up the middle of the kettle and the water is contained in the circular wall of the chimney.  This configuration means the inside of this chimney, has maximum contact with the hottest part of the fire, so water boils quickly.

Lunches will be salami, cheese, flatbread, and candy. It’s simple and I like it.

I also plan to eat some fish, so I am bringing my small carbon steel frying pan. Carbon has pretty much the same pros and cons as cast iron at a fraction of the weight. A well-seasoned pan will not rust, and it is slippery enough to make omelets, while taking the heat and abuse of a fire.  This before-and-after image looks identical to my pan when I got it and seasoned it.carbon

My pan will stay well seasoned via the tub of ghee that I made for this trip. You need oil to deep-fry fish with Fish Crisp or flour. Ghee is my oil of choice because of its versatility. To make it, you render the fat out of butter, and keep the oil. It can be transported without refrigeration and it won’t spill in your pack since it is solid. It’s also tasty on other foods like pancakes or pasta.

Hammock

I have been using my Hennessey Hammock for a good decade now, and it has always kept me comfortable and dry.  With no shortage of trees, and the fact that I don’t really do campfires (except for cooking) I can camp ANYWHERE in Algonquin. As shown in the photo below, the Hennessey has space to dry your gear under the tarp, and the bug net provides a great cocoon for getting away from the bugs and dirt. Perfect.

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And that’s pretty much the plan. Like last time, I plan to take a lot of pictures and video, and I hope to encounter some calm and friendly wildlife. I am 90% excited and 10% creeped out at the prospect of 7 days alone in the wilderness, but I have all of the gear I need to stay safe and comfortable, and plenty of music and books, to keep me sane.

Stay tuned for trip journals.

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Day 19

Day 19, in which our adventure comes to its conclusion.

It rained for most of the day, so we took the advise of Kiwi cyclists Joe and Alex, who told us to take the alternate route on highway 15 rather than opting for the most difficult trail on the entire route. They said they had a difficult time descending the trail, much less ascending, and that it would be impassible in the rain. Snap7If they were having a hard time riding those bike on the trail, we didn’t want to think of tackling in on our puny three inch tires.

We hit they highway and churned out the kilometers for as long as we could – into another rain storm.Snap5

It just kept raining and raining until we eventually had to take refuge under a bridge.Snap6

We took short break down there and pushed on to Boulder Montana, where we found a restaurant.  It took me a long time to warm up, and by the time we got back on our bikes again, I was in no mood to set up my hammock.  As we started searching for a place to camp, I told Bob I could not do it.  I was just too cold and wet to set up my hammock, so we checked into another fleabag Motel.

Once we were checked in, I felt a lot better, and I took the opportunity to check in with my family.  That’s when my wife told me that my parents, who had planned to pick us up in neighbouring Butte Montana, were already there in Butte!

That was it – we didn’t need to spend another wet day on the highway to meet them in Butte, when the little town of Boulder was already on the route home, so we put a cap on journey and called in an adventure. It was fabulous to see my parents met us the next morning, and set out to see this amazing country together by car.

Thanks to all who have been following this one with us. I highly recommend checking out this trail and I plan to ride the Canadian portion of it again.  Different riders have totally different experiences of this route, and there is no right way to approach it.  I learned that I like this scale of adventure, but I am probably not cut out for longer trips. I just miss my family and home too much to stay on the road much longer, so plan to ride across Canada may not materialize too soon. It might be an interesting retirement adventure, but no time soon.

I have enjoyed writing about this, and I plan to continue writing about adventures to come in the salad days of my Carlsberg years. Stay tuned if any of this interests you.

What’s to come: This summer, I will be doing a 146 kilometer solo packboat trek into Algonquin Park. This will be my biggest solo adventure to date, and I am really excited about having this beautiful park (possibly my favourite place in the world) all to myself.

In the fall, I plan to take on another bikepacking  adventure. This one will be on the Arizona Trail (AZT) (see link below), heading North from Phoenix through the Tento National Forest toward the Grand Canyon.

http://www.bikepacking.com/routes/bikepacking-the-arizona-trail-azt/

 

Day 18

On Day 18, we climbed a good deal to climb over another pass of the Continental Divide. It’s always pretty up there in the mountains, but this particular crossing was a little less rugged than others, with plenty of grazing pastures for cattle.download (7)

After a very long climb, we began our descent. This was good long one, with some very steep sections on loose dirt. In some steeper sections, I believe I hit some of my highest speeds of the trip . And it just kept going and going, down, down, down.

Too far, in fact. As we hit some unscheduled pavement, Bob and came to the painful realization that somewhere up in the foothills, we had made a wrong turn. And here is where we came to this realization: Ottawa Gulch.download (8)

In attempt to reorient ourselves, we cruised into a small town where everything seemed to be shut down. I remember feeling a bit desperate about our plight at that moment, and this is something I want to adjust on future tours.

In making a wrong turn up in the mountains, we had spilled the blood sweat and tears that got us up and over this mountain pass in the first place. All those calories burned for nothing! But this attitude only makes sense if you are working under the assumption that you have to cover a certain distance on any given day of your tour. If your goal is just to enjoy the ride, then it doesn’t matter if you take some wrong turns. You’re there to ride, so just ride!

But climbing hills can take its toll on your mood, so I was grumpy when Bob and I came to the conclusion that climbing was our only way back on track. Bob, on the other hand, was quite calm about it.

And climb we did – back up the steep road from town, toward the trail where we hit pavement, then on and on up a dirt road that also turned out to be a wrong turn. Back we went to the trail again , passing Ottawa Gulch for the third time. Did I mention that  Ottawa is our home town and at this point I was really starting to miss it?

We climbed up the descent that had been so fun so many hours ago in the other direction. We floundered up in those foothills for a while, taking wrong turn after wrong turn. I regularly had to stop pushing my bike and rest my head on the handlebars so I could catch my breath. I had soaked through my shirt and the top tube of my bike was drenched.

We were lost in the mountains for a good while,  taking wrong turns and back tracking. I got fed up with searching and turned to technology. I pulled up the GPS file provided by the Adventure Cycling Association, and inched down the trail to confirm that we were finally headed toward the glorious digital red line that we were supposed to be following. Once on the path again, we felt great again, and I was singing while riding. We followed the trail along a creek, and onto gravel roads that led us to a short stint on the highway and into Helena.

There, we checked into a goofy little motel, stocked up on fried chicken and beer and watched Shawshank Redemption. Cue Morgan Freeman’s voice:

Outdoor adventurers rate their adventures on the fun scale:

Type 1 fun is fun while you are doing it, and fun to look back on.
Type 2 is miserable while you are doing it, but fun to reflect on.
Type 3 is miserable while you are doing it, and you will avoid getting yourself into that situation again. What was I thinking?

Day 18 was type 2 fun.

 

Day 17

Day 17 was exhausting.

We started by doing a very steep climb over the Divide again. The descent on the other side was pretty hairy, with  a lot of ruts and potholes to negotiate at high speeds. download (8)download (7)The daily exertion was catching up to us, and despite my huge calorie intakes (many sandwiches and snickers, peanut butter, granola bars, pasta, etc) I was losing weight.  We were also pestered by flies a lot on this day, which has a fatigue factor of its own.

Bob and I first bonded over this kind fatigue on a trip in Algonquin. We were pulling canoes on trailers behind our bikes on a 10km trail along a hydro cut. In a sentence, that sounds one zillion times easier than it was. These were full size canoes, on make-shift trailers, with a lot of gear in them and deer flies were feasting on us the whole time. This last detail, combined with an absolute heatwave, made it impossible to relax. I remember finding a small patch of lichens in the shade where we laid down for a 1o minute rest, and it was nirvana.

I don’t know why I seek this stuff out, but I do.

 

Day 16

The weather was great on day 16, and we had no trouble reaching and passing Lincoln Montana. The guidebook suggested that we camp in the campground in Lincoln, but we found this town, and the prospect of camping with others around us, a little depressing.

Lincoln, like a number of areas that we passed in the US, has a lot of little casinoes.  We never went into one, but I am guessing they get the name “casino” because they have video lottery terminals. I picture a record scratching, and the locals going silent as we clip-clop into one of these casinos in our bike shoes and shorts. Neither Bob nor I wore lycra or racing colours on this tour, but we still would not have fit in with the locals. Truthfully, everyone we met on our trip was quite friendly, so I suppose that is not fair.

So, we stopped for coffee and groceries before heading 16 kilometers out of town.download (4)download (5)download (6)

download (1)On the way, we ran into this solo warrior from Calgary on his way home from New Mexico. He had some interesting stories about the crazy people that he had met along the way. He’s got a fantastic rig: a Salsa with a Rohloff.

download (3).pngThis guy, another solo warrior travelling South, stopped to say “hi” at our campsite near the trail at the edge of the Helena National Forest. We were already in our hammocks, and he was still travelling  for a good while longer. I don’t think he was having as much fun as we were.

In my journal that night, I wrote about how the skills developed on this tour would help me on my upcoming trip across Algonquin Park. Bob and I never bothered with campfires, except for cooking. We learned to quickly set up and rip down camp without getting our gear or ourselves wet or dirty. This summer I am going to apply these skills, as I canoe and portage from the East side of Algonquin Park (Barron Canyon) to the East side (Canoe Lake). That will 120ish kilometers with over 40 kilometers of portages.

I have watched a lot of tripping videos and read trip journals of people who have done similar treks in Algonquin and they all seem to have much more of a camping approach to these trips, with the campfire, the tarp, the tent, etc. My plan will be to set up the most minimal of campsites, and to focus on enjoying the park, and maybe catching a few fish along the way: Stop, set up hammock, eat, and sleep.

As I get closer to that trip, I will write a blog similar to this one, with descriptions of the gear and the planning followed by a trip journal.  I can’t wait to show off my stove and boat!

 

Day 15

Day 15 consisted of a gradual climb for 20ish kilometers (a divide passing) on a decently smooth gravel road followed by an equally gradual descent in the rain. The rain continued as we took farm roads across the countryside to the tiny town of Orvando. We were wet and cold enough that morning, that we inquired about a room to rent in a tiny hotel which was ironically booked up for a wedding. We took refuge in restaurant and filled up on caffeine and pastries while our gear dried out a bit.

Later that day, we were grateful to have been turned away from Orvando because the weather cleared up and warmed and dried us before long. This is one reason that I am not into rain gear for bike tours in warm weather. Waterproof gear gets you wet from all the sweat, which is an awful feeling. Goretex, in my humble opinion, is neither waterproof nor breathable.

I have subsequently purchased a rain poncho. I don’t know why everyone cyclist doesn’t have one. When paired with fenders, these things keep you bone dry in the driving rain, and there is plenty of ventilation. Even waterproof pants get soaked through pretty quickly when you are riding in heavy rain because all of the water from you chest drops on you lap. Rain ponchos form a tent between your shoulders and handlebars so that your legs, arms, and even your hands stay totally dry. I guess cycling ponchos are like breathing strips: They look stupid and they work.Snap30.jpg

I pulled the picture above from the internet. It is not me, but it demonstrates the principle and the goofy look. If I start talking about cycling ponchos at a cocktail party, I suggest you pretend to get a phone call or fake an injury to get away from me because I can go on about them for hours.snap23Birdies!snap22snap20snap21Horsies!snap25

Eventually we arrived at the Big Nelson Campground – a stunning site in foothills beside a blue-green lake. Just a gorgeous spot. I really wish Ontario had free campsites like this.

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While setting up camp, we got hit with sudden hail storm.snap26 The afternoon continued like this – flip flopping between sun and precipitation, so we eventually retreated to our hammocks for a record early bed-time of 4:20! The bedtimes just got earlier and earlier on this trip, which actually suits me fine. My hammock is very relaxing, and Bob and I enjoyed afternoons like this listening to music and reading comics.

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I am not a comic book enthusiast, but I have to recommend Geurillas. Bob agrees that it is fantastic.

 

Day 14

Day 14 started out cold, and I found it difficult to get out of my hammock.  Get up we did, however, and did another pass over the Great Divide.

The climb was not bad at all, and the scenery, weather, and trail were all perfect.

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At the summit of this pass, Bob and I stopped for a bit to take in the view and change batteries.  We had established the practice of stopping like this so that I could depart a little before Bob, and inch my way up the trail a bit. This helped us match our paces a bit and correct for my inferior climbing abilities. It’s is also really fun to crawl along trails on the big tires.

And so we did. We were at a four-way junction with the road we came in on, which continued down the mountain, another road, and an offshoot single track trail, which was our route.

panormaI told Bob I was going to “crawl ahead a bit”, and assumed that he saw me take the single track trail. Bad assumption.

Instead of taking the single track, Bob took one of the roads down the mountain. When I realized he was not following me, I made my way back to the junction in hopes that he was still there having minor technical difficulties. My heart sunk when I learned that he was not there and I considered the possibilities. If Bob thought I was ahead of him, he could reasonably conclude that I was WAY ahead of him, because that mountain road was a big long descent. He could just keep going and going, trying to catch up to me.

We were separated in the mountains. We were low on food and water and without knowing which road Bob took, my only recourse was to sit tight at the last place we had seen each other. It is a good thing I was going very slowly up that trail, and that Bob quickly realized that I was not ahead of him on the trail down the mountain. Wrong turns in the mountains can be brutal.

There I waited, pacing at at the junction. Roughly 40 minutes elapsed until I saw my buddy climbing back up the mountain. I was really glad to see him. If it was me, I would have been cursing at having to do all that extra climbing, but Bob doesn’t roll that way.

We sighed in relief, and got back on track for some of the most exciting single track of the trip. The mountain side dropped off on the left so that it felt like we were riding on the edge of a cliff. To the right were the jagged remains of burnt trees poking out in the trail. And the trail had a number of huge ditch-like drops that were tough to negotiate at high speed – especially while trying to ring our bear bells.

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That’s a lot of danger to account for at once. But the trail opened up into a nice rolling descent that eventually led us into Seeley Montana, where we secured a motel for the night, stocked up on groceries showered up, and enjoyed TV, beer, and not siting in the dirt.

Here are some cyclists we met on our way into town. In the top left are some road tourists, and bottom left are some Great Divide riders. The jackasses on the right are Bob and me. This is the look of two men who are absolutely secure in their marriages.