I was itching to get out for one last backpacking adventure this year, so despite the questionable weather forecast, I decided to make a go of it from Friday to Sunday, October 19-21. My goal was to hike the northern loop of Algonquin Park’s Western Uplands Trail, which promised to be much quieter than the southern section. I was dismayed to read that the Kearney permit office was closed for the season, but subsequently pleased to find out that it was still open Friday to Sunday until the end of October. This saved me over an hour’s worth of driving. I decided to take a chance and not book any sites until arrival – the northern reservations were extremely sparse, so I was not too concerned. The temperatures promised to be on the chilly side, so I packed extra/warm clothing along with my larger sub-10 sleeping bag. This required using my larger backpack and ended up being about 35 pounds all packed with food and water. A bit more than I like when solo, but reasonable, I think, given the circumstances.
It was a bit of a late departure to my friend’s place in Bracebridge, which would be my Friday morning launching point. I arrived at 10:40 and the natural thing to do was catch up over a pint (or three). Needless to say, Thursday evening lengthened and Friday morning came very soon…
A chilly but beautiful morning awaited me. After a much appreciated breakfast of bacon, eggs and toast, I set off to the Kearney office, arriving there just before 9 AM. I booked my stays at Loft Lake (Friday) and North Pincher Lake (Saturday). I always forget how long the road is to Rain Lake, not that it really mattered. I felt a strange combination of eagerness and relaxation as I drove towards the trailhead. The road itself was in reasonably good condition, with the exception of a couple sections with some rather monstrous potholes. I pulled in to a nearly vacant parking lot, where I was greeted by another solo backpacker prepping to head to Islet Lake for a couple of nights. After parting ways, I began a quick-paced hike along the first section of trail which traverses a long-defunct rail line. The first 8.5 km’s went very fast, and it felt good entering the more rugged section before Ishkuday Lake. There was not much wildlife to be seen, aside from encountering a number of grouse over the course of the hike.
|Rain Lake early on - notice the railway tie from the long defunct line|
|Path following Rain Lake|
|Grouse - I encountered several of these during my hike|
|The picture doesn't do justice to the crisp white flowers (or seeds?) topping these plants|
|The trestle remnant at Islet Lake stands as a monument to past times|
As I passed the junction at Ishkuday, I met two other hikers along with their canine companion. We chatted briefly, and I learned that they were finishing up the same hike that I was doing, but in the other direction. I would encounter no one else on the trail afterwards. The day thus far was spectacular – mild and sunny with almost no foliage, allowing one to see great distances through the woods. Brown Lake came up quicker than expected, and I decided to crash at the first (northern) site for some lunch. The sky was starting to cloud over and the wind was becoming cooler, but I held on to the hope that all would remain dry until I reached my destination of Loft Lake.
|Beautiful sunshine streaming through the bare trees|
|Not the trail - likely an old logging road|
|Small stream with waterfalls just north of Brown Lake|
|Brown Lake - my lunch stop|
The junction point south of Brown Lake was a welcome site as I started my final leg to Loft Lake. The trail became noticeably less traversed, and it was obvious that it hadn’t garnered much attention from a maintenance perspective either. The trail that time forgot. In short, it was awesome! I took a break at East End Lake and remarked how much the landscape had changed since I had been there in 2014, which was shortly after a local fire at the site (which was unfortunate as I kind of fell in love with this little site the first time I was there in 2012). Things were getting greener again! A cold, strong wind whipped off the lake, reminding me that I best press on before the rain.
|Bridge over the Brown Creek's wide expanse - see if you can find the bench in the middle of it.|
|Remnants of old 'bridge' over same waterway. I remember the old flimsy and failing structure well and appreciated my waterproof hiking boots at the time while walking over the semi-submerged logs|
|View from bridge, looking toward direction of Brown Lake|
|Junction point. A portage acts as a shortcut to Gervais Lake to shorten the 3rd Loop. No shortcuts for me!|
|View from up top of Potter Creek after crossing it|
|The section of trail that Maintenance Crews forgot about... - the rotted logs were once part of a structure atop the wet ground.|
|East End Lake - the second site that I ever stayed on in Algonquin's back country, years ago|
|The landscape at the camp site rejuvenates after a forest fire several years ago.|
The section of trail between East End and Loft Lake was a bit of a haul, which is usually the case near the end of a longer trek day – in this case 22 km. I arrived at my home for the night well before 4:00 and immediately setup camp in light of the threatening weather. After getting the tarp and tent up, I took a short break and drank in the scenery, along with the contents of my cup. I had chosen the northern site at Loft, and was not disappointed. It boasted great views of the lake along with a stretch of quasi-sandy beach which would have been great several months ago. I foraged some firewood, and it didn’t take long to find some nice dead fall maple limbs. As I was collecting, I noticed a couple rusted out fuel containers and what may have been a large enamel pot – likely remnants of some logging activities many decades ago. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera with me at the time, but I committed to memory the spot should I ever return there…
|Humongous fungus - the size of a dinner plate!|
|Waterfront at Loft Lake camp site - the entrance into the water is pleasantly sandy|
|Late afternoon at Loft Lake|
|The Big Agnes Scout UL2 Tent|
A light rain descended as I was getting my fire going. Fortunately, it stayed light and was intermittent and did not force me under my tarp or tent. It was fully dark by 7:00, and after enjoying a bit more fire time, I turned in early. My Merino wool under layer and -10 sleeping bag kept me plenty warm during the night, although I missed my thicker blow up pad (I took along a Thermarest pad because of the cold temps). I tucked my water filter into the bag with me as a precaution, although I don’t believe it got down to zero at any time. It rained off and on throughout the night, but aside from the occasional drops it was exceptionally quiet outside.
|A small, hot fire of maple logs - cozy and warm|
I woke up a number of times during the night, which I have a habit of doing when in the back country. The rain stopped as dawn arrived, and I emerged from my tent to meet the damp morning. The sun started to peek out from the clouds, and I relished its rays, especially with today’s cooler temperature. The sky was still threatening though, so I decided not to gamble and try to pack my tent and its contents asap. The tent itself was very wet, so I did my best to dry it off with a ShamWow (thanks Vince!) and give it a good shake out. I hate packing a damp tent, but what do you do…? I had just finished packing it all up when a solid rain came pounding down. I huddled under my tarp and boiled water for coffee and breakfast, hoping that I wouldn’t have an overly wet hiking day ahead of me. The rain stopped in less than half an hour though, and despite the dubious forecast it held off for the rest of the day – sweet.
I only had about 13 km to trek today, so I was in no particular hurry. The trail was fairly wet and muddy in spots, requiring some fancy footwork. Soon into my hike, I spotted an old galvanized tub laying about 15 or 20 feet in the woods. I questioned how such an item found its way here, as I scoped the area for other things – unsuccessfully. It didn’t take long to reach the bottom of the third loop heading towards West Otterpaw with some more challenging trail conditions and some fun water crossings awaiting me.
|Large galvanized bucket - there's no way you would see this during summer's foliage. It is at this point where I notice my camera battery is running low, likely due to the cold temperature|
West Otterpaw creek proved to be a particular challenge due to the swelled streams. The options were crossing on top of a beaver dam or over some partially submerged rocks downstream. I thought the beaver dam would be the best option. I thought wrong. The volume of water cascading over the dam gave me a semi-soaker, and so precarious rock hopping proved to be less of a challenge after all. Nearing West Otterpaw Lake, the trail appeared to cross another small stream and continue straight on. Soon after I crossed however, the trail ended and I could not see any well travelled footpath. I checked out a couple of paths that did not go far in, and zig zagged a couple of times to try and figure it out. The uniform landscape of fallen leaves did not help. I checked my map and ended up crossing back over the stream, only then seeing a ragged piece of orange flagging tape on a tree a little ways off. Turns out that the trail does a hard 90 degree turn by the stream vs. crossing it! It kind of jogged my memory of when I came this way several years back and likely ran into the same dilemma…
|Yes, this is part of the trail...|
|Saw this little guy sunning himself on the trail - I get one last shot and then my camera battery dies.|
Otterpaw Lake was a welcome view, and it wasn’t long before I hit the junction at Gervais Lake. I considered having lunch at the site, but decided to keep going to Tern Lake. There are a fair number of terrain ups and downs getting to Tern, and it certainly worked up my appetite. I had a quick lunch of PB and chocolate tortillas at the eastern site as a final energy boost to press on to my destination of North Pincher.
The cool, windy weather was holding steady and I was thankful that it had stayed dry all along. It wasn’t much further before I would hit Pincher Lake, and I was trying to recall the spacious site on North Pincher that I stayed at a few years ago. After examining the two most southern ‘North’ sites, I quickly realized the third one up was indeed the prime spot on the lake. I arrived shortly after 3:00 pm and setup the night’s camp. I debated on putting up the tarp due to the high winds, but figured I’d best do this in case of rain which, thankfully, never arrived.
After a self-congratulatory beverage, I setup a rope for hanging the food bag and scoured the area across the trail for the evening’s firewood. It didn’t take long to find my preferred dead fall maple limbs, but dry downed tinder/softwood to get the fire going was in a bit shorter supply. Fortunately, the wind died down toward dusk, as it often does, and I got a nice fire going while cooking a pot of KD. My socks and boots were still soggy and I tried my best to dry everything out by the fire with limited success. After the routine food bag hang as it darkened, I sat down by the fire a while longer before turning in relatively early once again.
I could hear a light rustling outside my tent as I laid down to sleep and suspected it was a mouse. My suspicions where confirmed when I saw the silhouette of the creature crawling on the top of my tent. I smacked the tent hard, launching the mouse to who-knows-where, which was enough to keep it away henceforth. The wind picked up overnight and I awoke a number of times feeling the cold air and the gusts that were literally lifting up the tent around me. Being an ultralight tent, I had some concerns that it would collapse at some point, but mercifully it held up like a champ.
As daylight beckoned, I arose to a cold, partly sunny morning. I fumbled for my boots and was wondering why they felt so stiff. I then clued in that they were damp the night before and now frozen solid. I clunked about in my icy footwear like Frankenstein’s monster until the heat of my feet thawed them out again. The wind was still kicking up, and the chill was considerable. A trace of snow had fallen, and it was the first I had seen of it this season. I quickly filtered some water and immediately disassembled the kit before things froze up, tucking the filter in my sweater pocket. The wind was so chilly that the water at the bottom of my cup froze within several minutes. I don’t think instant coffee was ever appreciated as much as on this morning. After some oatmeal, I hastily packed up camp to get moving and keep warm. I was hiking back to the trail head at Rain Lake today, a little over 22 km away.
Good news: my boots were now fully pliable. Bad news: my feet were now frozen. I stopped several hundred metres into my hike to remove my boots and vigourously rub my feet to restore circulation. This did the trick, and my feet were warm (along with the rest of me) the entire time afterwards. The morning wind died down, and the landscape became eerily silent. Cold, desolate, stark - and beautiful.
I stopped for a brief snack at the waterfall exiting the north end of Stutter Lake, lamenting my camera’s dead battery. Despite the coldness, or perhaps because of it, I was really appreciating my surroundings today. Reaching the summit at Stammer Lake, I peered through the trees as best I could and spotted McCraney Lake in the distance. It wouldn’t be long and I would be encountering the more commonly used Islet Lake and I was grateful for my time of solitude back here.
I thought I may encounter a camper or two at Islet Lake, but anyone who may have been there had vacated before I arrived. There is one backpacking site that is right on the trail, and I did see some ice emptied out from a receptacle of one form or another lying on the ground. No doubt the individual behind this was as surprised as I was regarding the cold when they got up in the morning! The rest of the hike back to the car was uneventful, and the last 9 km’s of the trail flew by. It felt great to hike, but a bigger part of me was looking forward to getting back to the car and then home to my family.
I made it out just before 2:00 pm and immediately got going after changing my footwear. I stopped briefly at the Kearney Community Centre where the permit office is located and texted my wife to let her know I was on my way. As the drive back toward the city became busier the further south I went, I felt gratitude for the ability of getting away to Algonquin once again. I hope this feeling returns at many future points.