Trip Report - Algonquin Park, Smoke Lake
Climb mountains, literally and figuratively.
After the lockdown of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic came to an end in Ontario, Sarah and I quickly made trip plans as soon as we found out that Ontario Parks would be opening backcountry camping at many parks at the beginning of June. We considered quite a few potential locations, such as Kawartha Highlands Signature Site Provincial Park and the Massasauga Provincial Park before our hearts brought us back to Algonquin Provincial Park. I took to planning a route that would be a challenging, yet enjoyable experience for both of us, as it was my first trip of the summer and Sarah’s first ‘real’ canoe trip ever. Fortunately, being students taking online classes, our schedules were flexible which allowed us to easily plan a route without having to worry about lakes being reserved. This in turn made it easy to balance our days so that we wouldn’t be biting off more than we could chew. We ultimately chose to start and finish at Smoke Lake, while spending nights on Big Porcupine Lake, Harness Lake, and Tanamakoon Lake.
While things are shut down as we ride out Covid-19, you might be pouring over maps, exploring blogs, trip reports, YouTube, etc. laying out all the trips you could take, want to take, when the outside is finally ready for us. We’ve been missing the things about tripping that we might not think or even take granted. The nonstop loon calls across the lake at dusk that might get annoying from time to time, you’re missing that. The cold mornings, the pain of carrying a pack, even the bugs. You might be missing all of it.
We’ll be back out there before too long but while you’re at home we thought we’d send a little inspiration your way by sharing some of the classic trips across Canada. Whether you’re into day hiking, multi day backpacking, portage trips, or whatever- I’m sure we’ve got something good for you.
To start off, the perfect loop to give you a bit of everything you might want to tackle on a canoe trip- big flat-water, river, and creeks. Big Trout Lake is at the centre of Algonquin Provincial Park and acts as a connecting point for routes that can take you to all corners of the park. Setting this lake as your target for the midpoint of your trip is going to present you with a bunch of options. Big Trout has a ton to offer in exploring as much as it does in amazing views. With portage access from a good majority of the bays off of the main area of the lake, Big Trout Lake offers visitors a plethora of options to continue exploring Algonquin’s interior. If you’re staying on the lake for a night or two, take some time to fish and explore. If you’re a fan of sunsets, you’ll have your pick of some incredible vantage points.
Pushing off at Canoe Lake off of Highway 60, you’re not too far a drive out of Huntsville and you pass by every available outfitter on the way in, Algonquin Outfitters at Oxtongue Lake or The Portage Store at Canoe Lake are your two best bets. This is traditionally a full 4 days or if you prefer a more relaxing paddle you can push it to 5 days or longer.
Day one is a pretty straight forward paddle into Burnt Island Lake where you can make the call to push through another portage (790 metres) into Little Otterslide or Otterslide Lake. There’s some absolute beauty campsites all the way through this stretch and you really can’t pick a bad lake for night 1. You’ve got your choice of some gems with this area of the park being really well developed.
Regardless of where you start day two, Otterslide Creek into Big Trout Lake is easily the most fun I’ve had not being on big water. There’s only a few portages to worry about before the big lake and depending on the water levels you might find yourself ducking under branches while in the canoe OR getting out of the canoe to line and pull your canoe over the odd beaver dam.
Once you’re past the last portage (150 m), you’re cruising onto the lake from the southeast looking across a stellar view towards the centre of Big Trout Lake. If you’ve got time and park permits on your side, you can head towards any of the portages connecting you deeper into the park. If you’re completing the loop, you can camp on Big Trout or head into White Trout Lake through the southwest access. It’s got some surprises of its own for you too. High cliffs and endless marshland perfect for spotting wildlife of all sorts.
I’m a big fan of sunsets on big water so I spend the time finding the ideal western facing site to look out towards the sky. If the weather is on your side, you’ll get something different every night in clouds and colour. Big Trout has lots of water, adding to those longviews you hear about when someone calls it “big sky country.” Take your time and find something that makes you happy.
Depending on your next destination the paddle from Big Trout to your next campsite can make for a long day but in this part of the park, there’s the potential for a ton of reward. Beyond White Trout Lake is Grassy Bay and McIntosh Marsh. If you start early morning you might be lucky enough to stumble on something else besides a bird or squirrel like beaver, otter or moose. One paddler who camped on White Trout documented some early morning howling, get there early. Although there wasn’t any video confirmation, the likely culprit is the Algonquin Wolf, check out this clip of them howling here
Once you’re through the marsh, cross the portage and get into McIntosh Lake which happens to be another park favourite. This is another well visited area of the park which means your campsite has a high likelihood of being well maintained with great tent pads and fire pits. A handful of island sites means you might be lucky enough to get some privacy for your last night. That said, getting onto your lake early always helps with getting the better choice.
On your last day, the trek from McIntosh to Canoe Lake is a solid 19 km. An option to save some distance on the last day’s paddle is to push through to Tom Thomson or Little Doe Lakes for camp, but whatever you decide you’re facing a 2390 m portage to get into that part of the water. If you do leave from McIntosh, the portage is earlier in the day so you’ll have some energy in the tank to cover the distance in one shot. From there, it’s a solid paddle back to where you started, including a 260 m portage before the finish.
Coming back to that spot where you put in can have different feelings. Sometimes you’re thankful it’s over, sometimes the heaviness of making the drive home to go back to work sets in, but mostly... it’s a holy shit moment! We just did that! Do you remember when that thing happened?!
Don’t forget to reflect on what you’ve just done- the fave spots on your route and the ones you hated too. The moments of dread and the ones where you felt most at peace. You just tackled something you thought would be killer and you’re still alive! It all adds up to your own epic story of how you conquered Algonquin.
The next one, that’s the next challenge… when do we leave...