Bonnechere Lakes Loop
Total Distance: 27.4 km
Duration: 3 days
Number of Portages: 15
Total Portage Distance: 8095 meters
Level of Difficulty: Experienced Novice -- Note that the portages account for 30% of the total distance of this route.
Map is courtesy of Jeff's Map -- my route is marked in blue
On a weekend in the middle of May 2022, I decided to take my canoe for a walk in the woods. At least that is what it felt like. I had booked sites in Algonquin on the portage-laden Bonnechere Lakes Loop at the start of blackfly season. Now, why would a 51-year-old man decide to subject himself to such cruel and unusual punishment all alone? Well, I have 4 solid reasons to answer that question.
First, quite simply, I needed to get back into shape. Two years of covid lockdowns hadn't been kind to my waistline, so I planned three weekends of canoe trips in a row, all of them heavy on the portages.
Second, my last weekend trip to Algonquin was in June 2020 on the popular lakes of Daisy, Queer, and Ralph Bice. That trip was stressful at times due to the number of inconsiderate campers making noise. It was busy and difficult to find a site, so I knew a difficult trip with a ton of portages would scare away those weekend party warriors that unfortunately sometimes pollute Algonquin's environment.
Third, I wanted to get after some trout, and in my experience, more portages usually means more fish, obviously because fewer people get in there to get at them. The Bonnechere Lakes (Bonnechere, Phipps, and Kirkwood Lakes) seemed to fit the bill.
Finally, and perhaps the reason to trump all others, I love the solitude. There is nothing like setting up camp and having an entire lake to yourself to enjoy and experience nature. Incredibly, on this trip, I was lucky to experience that twice.
After driving straight from work on Friday with my canoe and gear already loaded in the car, I was able to put in on Cache Lake by 6 pm. I couldn't dillydally because my booked site was on Delano Lake and reaching there before dark required paddling the length of Cache and Hilliard Lakes, and completing two portages totaling 1100m. I also wanted to fish a bit on Hilliard which contains rainbow trout. I would be racing the setting sun, but thankfully, the wind was not much of an impediment.
Cache Lake, along with other Highway 60 lakes like Canoe, Smoke and Rock Lakes, has a number of cottages on it and doesn't quite feel like the traditional Algonquin experience. However, looking past the development, Cache really is a beautiful lake with an incredible shoreline and rocky, treed islands. At the end of this trip report, I have included more about the fascinating history of this lake.
I was able to reach the portage into Hilliard Lake in about a half-hour. I had packed in a manner that allowed me to single-carry -- my 125L dry bag on my back and paddles strapped to my canoe that was overhead on my shoulders. This was, of course, dependent on my out-of-shape body's ability to handle the weight with the incline; this portage was pretty much straight uphill for the entire 760m. It looked fairly innocuous from the take-out, so I decided I would give it a try and see how far I could get.
Apparently, in my then-current condition, the answer to that question was about 400m. As the portage became steeper, I had to have a rest. I looked up at the steady ascent in front of me and decided to part with my canoe for the remainder of the first carry. Whew!
Just before the put-in, I passed a kayaker portaging the opposite direction down to Cache Lake. I assumed he was on a day trip because he had very little gear with him. I warned him about the red canoe on the side of the trail in the middle of the forest. He gave me a knowing look and said, "Yep, this is a tough one!" I think he was just being kind after noticing the beads of sweat dripping off my face.
I eventually put in at the east end of Hilliard Lake and began paddling west through the narrow inlet into the main part of lake.
As I rounded the bend and entered the first large bay on Hilliard, I could see how this lake might be a great one to camp on. It was pretty. The lake contained two large bays separated by a narrow passage and only had one site on it. I had thought about staying there at the time of booking but wanted to have one less portage to tackle the following day, so I opted to book Delano instead.
I would have loved to stay longer on Hilliard and get at some rainbow trout but the sun was getting low in the sky. I trolled as I paddled it though, and got a strike as I rounded a point. My rod was in my trolling holder and as I reached with exuberance for it after feeling the fish take it, I think I jerked it a bit too quickly; I felt the lure escape free. Grrrrr.
The sun was hovering just over the tree line by the time I reached the portage into Delano.
I double-carried this one since it was only 350m. It was a good thing, too, because it was very wet and I had to slog through some boot-sucking muck on my way. I wouldn't have wanted the extra weight on me while doing that.
Thankfully, the good people at Ontario Parks had constructed a little dock at the put-in, which was also very mucky.
As I approached my site at the east end of Delano, the black flies came out to play. I soon discovered that they weren't really biting yet, though. This made me very happy!
The site on Delano didn't look all that great from the water. It was situated next to a bubbling creek (blackflies!) and looked bushy. It was also not a great spot to access. The front of the site that faced the lake had logs and protruding rocks guarding it, so I had to alight my canoe next to the creek on a steep rock that immediately dropped off into the depths of Delano. Once on the site and having a look around, I was pleasantly surprised. It wasn't a bad site at all. The views over the lake were fantastic, it had a nice firepit (despite the bushcrafty constructions -- not a big fan of them), and a great spot in the trees to hang my hammock. On the following morning, I took a picture when I had more light.
By the time I set up my hammock, rounded up a bit of firewood, and had a chilly but very refreshing swim to wash the grime away, night had firmly descended. I got a fantastic fire going, cooked up some steak and potatoes, and enjoyed the view of Delano Lake under a rising full moon -- all to myself.
Just when I thought it couldn't get any better, I was serenaded by a chorus of howling Algonquin wolves to the southwest, who were obviously enjoying the full moon as much as I was. After climbing into my hammock, it was the last thing I heard along with the creek bubbling behind me. Now that's a lullaby!
Click on the link below to learn more about this sub-species of wolf.
I woke up to a wonderfully clear and sunny day. It was early, but hot already. Was this the second week of May?
I quickly noticed that fish were breaching the surface of the lake near my site, so I hopped in the canoe to see if I could add more protein to my breakfast. I fished for a solid 30 minutes or so, but had no luck.
I warmed up my pre-cooked scrambled eggs and sizzled some bacon over an open fire. I enjoyed my breakfast with a coffee on the rocky porch at the front of the site. Did I mention how amazing it was to have a view of an entire glass-like Algonquin lake all to myself?
I sat there and contemplated the universe for quite some time. It was a beautiful moment of solitude and relaxation. Or maybe it was procrastination; I knew I had a lot of portaging ahead of me that day.
I was finally packed up, loaded, and paddling west on Delano by 10:00 am. When I arrived at the 965m portage to South Canisbay Lake, situated next to a shallow creek, I gulped. It was straight uphill, over a ridge. I would NOT be single-tripping this one! The immediate vertical onslaught lasted for 150m in distance but rose 40m in elevation.
On the topic of portaging, please allow me to expound somewhat here for a moment. I actually don't hate portages. I can't say that I actually like them, I mean, after all, they're hard work and when there are several in succession, they can exhaust and demoralize a canoe tripper in a hurry. Having said that, one reason I love canoe tripping is that it helps me stay physical in an interesting way. Not only are portages a great source of exercise, but they serve an amazing purpose -- they allow me access to beautiful, remote locations. Whenever I've had acquaintances admonish me with comments like, "Why in the world would you want to carry a canoe and heavy gear through bug-infested forests with bears!" I respond by asking them if they are members of a gym or like to jog around their neighbourhoods. If their answer is in the affirmative, I reply with something like, "Why in the world would someone waste energy running on a treadmill or in circles around the block with nowhere to actually go and with no apparent purpose? At least portaging is taking me somewhere beautiful, remote, and wild. At least there is a purpose and destination to MY exercise!"
Take this particular portage for instance. In the first 150 meters alone, it would be similar to taking the stairs up to the 12th floor of a building...twice...once with a heavy backpack and again on the second trip with a canoe. Fun stuff! I was actually reveling in it, believe it or not, at that moment. I can't say I would have the same feeling later in the afternoon after eight of the &%:)ing things though!
After getting to the top of that ridge, the portage gradually descended toward South Canisbay, but only marginally. It was wet and mucky in a number of spots and I slipped and tumbled at one point. Other than a pair of muddy trousers, no harm, no foul. And just to cap this dandy-of-a-stroll off, the put-in was located on the other side of a bog that required some deft footwork to maneuver through without sinking waist-deep into the ooze. Mercifully, I managed to avoid doing that.
I drank half a litre of water in celebration when I finally was able to get back into the boat.
South Canisbay Lake was small but pretty. The next portage was only a few minutes away, however it took me a little longer because I had trouble spotting it. It was off to the left and around a point, but when I glanced at the map, I mistakenly thought it was in the main bay. I clued in eventually.
Thankfully, the trail to Kingfisher Lake, just to the right of a pretty bubbling creek, was only 190m and because it was downhill, it was easy. There was one very large and interesting old birch tree on the trail, so I snapped a quick photo to remind me of it. Birch trees can survive a long time but only when conditions are nearly perfect for them. They tend to have a shallow root system and if they don't get the correct amount of water and sunlight, they won't thrive. They are also susceptible to disease and insect damage.
Kingfisher Lake was wider and more open than South Canisbay. In fact, I thought it would be a lovely little lake to camp on if only there were a campsite.
About halfway across, a very large lake trout breached the surface not 3 feet from my boat. My fishing gear was still stored away from the last portage; however, the incident encouraged me to beach the canoe on a point on the east shore and get the gear out. I fished for 20 minutes or so to no avail. Was Kingfisher Lake teasing me?
The 500m portage into Mohawk Lake started with a 4-story elevation incline in the first 50 metres.
After that, it was a slow descent to Mohawk Lake. It was a wide trail with no real obstacles other than mud as it got lower and closer to the lake.
On all of the trails on this route, there was a conspicuous absence of pine trees 30 metres in from the shorelines. The forest consisted of a lot of poplar, birch and a smattering of maple trees. Some fir and hemlock could be found in some areas but no pine whatsoever away from the shores. It would seem the area had been heavily forested and there was no effort to replace pine trees that might have existed once before. It made me imagine what this forest would have looked like before the teeth of saws and the bite of axes got at it.
The closer I got to Mohawk Lake, the swampier it got. By the time I reached it, I was feeling the heat and humidity. I would find out later that the humidex was off the charts for the second week of May. The temperature at Algonquin's East Gate reached a high of 30 degrees that day. It really did feel like a hot day in July.
Zoned-out from the heat, I almost stepped on some pitcher plants while loading the boat without seeing them.
I was itching for a swim and the cool temperatures of Algonquin's waters in May would be just the thing to solve the problem. I just needed to find a location that wasn't too swampy to do that. I paddled out into Mohawk in search of a swim.
The portage to Little Mohawk was easily recognized on the south shore and it had a nice shallow entry over a sandy and rocky bottom. That seemed as good as a place as any to go for a dip.
I brought my canoe and gear ashore, filtered some more water, and made a peanut butter and honey wrap. It felt good to have a rest. I felt like I was the only person on earth in a gorgeous wilderness. I hadn't seen a soul all day. So taking advantage of the fantastic solitude, I stripped down to my birthday suit and waded into the lake. It felt glorious to wash off three portages worth of sweat in 30-degree heat. (Sorry, no photos of the swim, but here is one of the scene of the crime.)
The swim and rest was necessary because I had an 845m portage to get behind me. Though it was uphill for the vast majority of the walk, the incline was mercifully gradual. This portage proved to be a little less maintained than the previous ones. I had trouble finding the trail at a couple of spots and this was the first time that I had to negotiate any deadfalls on the trip.
Toward the Little Mohawk Lake end of the carry, there was some wolf poop in the middle of the trail. It was starting to turn white and hairy-looking, denoting that it was likely at least a day old.
Never get too close to fresh wolf scat because it contains dangerous bacteria that can actually be inhaled from up to 80cm away.
Little Mohawk Lake was little more than a pond and fairly unremarkable. It was only minutes before I was once again unloading my canoe.
The 300m portage into Plough Lake was very pretty. It was a refreshing change of landscape as it had some larger hemlock trees en route and followed to the right of a pretty creek for most of the trip. It seemed the terrain was getting rockier and less swampy. Larger conifers were also more prevalent in the forest.
This was even more apparent on the 365m portage from Plough Lake to Cradle Lake. There was one particular massive hemlock leaning to its side just to the right of the trail. It looked large enough to be old growth.
Out onto Cradle Lake, the first thing I noticed was the incredibly clear water. The lake was larger, sporting cliff-like granite rocks on the shoreline. It felt good to be finished with the pond hopping and back into old-fashioned Algonquin-like territory.
It was starting to cloud over in a hurry, so I made my way to the campsite/portage at the southeast corner of the lake. The site was actually on a strip of land between Cradle Lake and Bonnechere Lake. I was REALLY hoping it would be vacant because I was exhausted. The humidity levels were off the charts at that point and I felt like I had done nothing but portage all day long. By crossing the strip of land at the site into Bonnechere Lake, I would be saving myself about 45 minutes of paddling. Worse still, the wind was picking up and it was certainly feeling like a storm was a-brewing.
Unfortunately, the site was occupied. Fortunately, it was by a solo paddler who had done the same route I just completed but a day earlier. Knowing how tiring the route was, he generously let me portage through his site into Bonnecherre Lake. I took my canoe over first while chatting with the guy. When I returned with my second load, I noticed my canoe was about 10 feet from shore and drifting away. Between the fatigue I was feeling and not really paying attention because I was talking, I hadn't fully pulled my canoe up on shore. That was mistake number one.
The second was that my instant reaction was to drop my bag and dive into the lake after the canoe. That in itself wasn't a problem. The issue was that after I had brought my canoe back ashore, I realized that my phone and Zoleo satellite device were in my pocket and had gone swimming with me. I checked both and each seemed to still work, for the time being. The guy at the site must have thought I was a bit nuts.
The south end of Bonnechere Lake was beautiful as it emptied into the river system through the Bonnechere Lakes. I was at the height of land on this loop and it would be downhill for the most part from there on in.
Just as I was soaking in all the beauty, a wall of clouds started moving in and large thunderclaps erupted behind me from the west.
I had checked my Zoleo earlier in the day and there was a chance of thunderstorms, but it was supposed to happen a little later in the evening. I quickly paddled for the 175m portage into Phipps Lake.
By the time I arrived there, the rain started. The portage descended next to a lovely little chute as Bonnechere Lake emptied into the weedy swampland at the west end of Phipps. On my way back to the canoe for my second trip, I took out my phone to snap a photo of the falls -- no dice! My camera on my phone wasn't working. I looked at the lens on the back of the phone and saw water in it. Grrrr! My dive into the lake to retrieve my canoe had come back to haunt me. No photos of the most scenic part of the trip thus far!
Once onto Phipps, I followed the twisting channel to get through the weeds out onto the lake proper. I could see how this would be an issue at low water levels. By the time I made it out of the weeds, the thunder was going off more loudly and at more regular intervals. I beast paddled to the first site on Phipps which was thankfully vacant at the western end of the large island that dominated the centre of the lake.
I set up my hammock and bug shelter in record time and even managed to gather some firewood before it got too wet, all while thunder and lightning were crashing and flashing around me. The wind kicked up a bit and it rained for a short while and then the storm kind of disappeared. I was grateful and a little disappointed all at once. Storms in the backcountry are a little scary, but also exciting! This storm had a lot more bark than bite.
It's shame I can't display the beauty of Phipps Lake and my island site in photos. I had the entire lake to myself once again and it was incredible. Though I ended up having a decent fire that night under a full moon desperately trying to poke through the cloud cover, it sporadically sprinkled here and there. It cleared up enough for me to get out after dinner and do some fishing and I caught a couple of lovely lake trout. (no photo to prove it, camera still wasn't working!) I let them go as I already had a full belly from the wonderful rehydrated curry and naan that I had eaten for dinner.
That photo was actually taken in bright light. The water in the camera lens was giving the effect of trying to see through contact lenses first thing in the morning after passing out the previous night and forgetting to take them out (that may or may not be from experience). Allow me to apologize here for the condition of the photos on the remainder of this trip report! Here is a (blurry) shot of Phipps Lake from the rocky front porch of my site.
I packed up and was on the water shortly after 9 am. I fished the length of Phipps but did not have the same success that I had enjoyed the previous evening.
The 60m portage at east end of Phipps felt like a lift-over after the previous day's shenanigans. It ended next to a very pretty little waterfall, even nicer than the one coming out of Bonnechere. Here is a photo of it enshrouded in mysterious ambiance.
Who knew that I could create a homemade effects filter on my camera out in the backcountry!
Kirkwood Lake was another gem and I passed a pair in a canoe travelling in the opposite direction at the far end near the eastern campsite. From there the lake narrowed to a pretty little creek before the 715m portage into Pardee Lake.
This portage was a downhill trek that dropped 100 feet in elevation. After the previous day of endless ascension and double tripping each portage, I thought I would tackle this bugger in one go. I did well for the first 500m or so and passed another party of trippers going the other way (was I doing this loop in the wrong direction?). I eventually dropped the canoe toward the end because all the rain the previous night had made the trail slick and sticky and I didn't feel like taking a tumble with the extra weight.
Pardee Lake was another pretty one. I passed the site on the southern shore which didn't look like I'd write home to Mom about. I didn't get close enough to assess the one on the northern side.
The portage to Harness Lake started at a lovely little beach on Pardee, crossed an adorable little footbridge over a falls, and descended through a pretty forest to the lake.
Out on Harness Lake, the biggest of the day thus far, I noticed a headwind was beginning to come up. I paddled up through the center of it and saw that the nice site on the eastern side of the island was occupied. It was weird seeing other campers because other than the guy at the site on Cradle Lake, I had been alone for the majority of the last two days.
Even more interesting was the site on the eastern shore that was also on the Highland Backpacking Trail. There was a massive tree that had toppled and gnarled roots of that behemoth were upturned and facing the lake. It was quite the dominant feature on the site. I snapped a photo, but the blurriness in the camera lens seemed to worsen as the day wore on. The shot did not turn out.
The 1035m portage into Head Lake was unremarkable for the most part. The most difficult swampy bits had nice boardwalks built over them. You have to love portaging in Algonquin!
The portage ended to the left of a bubbling creek that slid over some rapids into a meandering wetland at the south end of Head Lake. There, I had to run a few swifts and lift over a beaver dam before getting into the lake.
Heading west along the south shore of Head Lake, I had to battle the wind that was now a steady force coming from the northwest. I took a peek at the lovely falls behind the point in the south bay, but again the photos didn't turn out. I recommend investigating them if you are on Head Lake.
I paddled hard across the lake to the north and took out at the steep embankment that started the 1640m portage back to Cache Lake. There, I filtered some more water and made a couple of peanut butter and honey wraps to fuel me for the trip.
A large tent was there that seemed to service people working in the forest. As I proceeded on the portage, I began to hear power saws to the east. Was logging happening just a few hundred meters from the portage?!? Hopefully not. According to some limited internet research, I found that area is supposed to be protected from logging.
I completed the majority of the portage in a single trip and double-carried only on the uphill bits, but I was feeling it as I paddled north on Cache Lake back to my car. I had portaged about 3.6 km and had been solo-paddling against a headwind for the majority of the day. As I was loading my car in the parking lot, I was already thinking about the treats I would stop for on the way home!
Overall it was great weekend out and I was able to get both my body workout and my solitude. If anything, the trip reminded me how beautiful and special Algonquin can be when there aren't throngs of people around. The highlight of the trip was having two Algonquin lakes all to myself on consecutive nights. Wow!
If planning a trip that launches from Cache Lake, I highly recommend taking a few minutes to walk around the north end of the lake adjacent to the parking lot. Cache Lake was once the location of the park's headquarters and was the home of the famous Highland Inn Hotel in the early 20th century, accessed by a major train station on J.R. Booth's railway. It was considered to be the central hub of Algonquin Park at the time. Here are a few photos of some information plaques that I took a couple of years earlier on another trip.