Shirley Lake Loop

Total Distance: 16 km

Duration:  3 days

Number of Portages: 3

Total Portage Distance:  3145 meters

Level of Difficulty: Experienced Novice -- One challenging portage that doesn't see regular maintenance

Map provided courtesy of Toporama which contains information licensed under the Open Government Licence – Canada. I have marked my route in blue and portages in red.  

In early May 2023, my wife, Dahee, and I got away for a cheeky little weekend in Algonquin. We had been doing two months of home renovations, and we were itching to get away from work both at home and at our jobs.  We had already been on the water for a day of paddling on an unseasonably warm day in mid-April down the Indian River from Warsaw, ON, to Highway 7, but this was our first overnight trip of 2023. 

We decided the Shall Lake Access (#17) would be a good option.  We had never been there before, the ice out was a week earlier, the access was close enough to reach after work on a Friday evening, and it was open for booking. Our only concern was that our trip was following a few days of heavy rain. A quick call to the Algonquin Park office to verify that the access road wasn't washed out solved that issue, however. We learned that the road was passable and we were good to go. 

Day 1 - Shall Lake Access to Crotch Lake (3km)

By the time we got home from work and our vehicle loaded, it was 4:30 PM before we got on the road. The road trip to the put-in would take 2.5 hours, and we had to move quickly to get there, unload and secure the vehicle, paddle to a vacant site, and set up before the dark and chill set in. After all, it was early May, the nights were still cold and the days weren't summertime-long yet. 

We made good time on the road and we were on the water and paddling before 7 PM. There were a dozen or so cars at the Shall Lake parking lot, so we knew we weren't the only ones heading out on their first trip of the season. We were looking for some seclusion, however, and therefore decided to forgo going to the very popular Booth Lake, despite its reputed beauty and excellent campsites. Instead, we planned on doing a loop through Shirley Lake, staying on Bridle Lake for the second night of the trip. This way, we could have a lake entirely to ourselves since Bridle Lake only has one campsite on its shores. 

It was a very short paddle into the north part of Crotch Lake. We aimed for the campsite on the eastern shore but discovered it was occupied by a man and his barking dog. We knew there were two more sites on an island just north of that and made our way for them. Thankfully, they were both vacant. The one at the northern tip of the island looked to be a beauty. It was high on a sandy ridge (the island felt like it might be an esker) in a lovely stand of young pines. It had scenic views looking northwest over Crotch Lake. Best of all, there were no other sites in our view, and the only other occupied site was on the shore across from the south side of our island, out of view and earshot. We had the entire north end of Crotch Lake to ourselves. 

Dahee got the tent up while I went on a search for dry firewood, a somewhat futile task on a small, well-used island after three days of solid rain. Being very early in the season worked to our advantage in this respect, though; there was still enough winter deadfall lying about that I could get a fire lit and get some wood drying next it. 

Soon, we were sitting down with a beverage, grilling our steak and potatoes, and enjoying the warmth of the fire as the darkness descended and the temperature dropped. 

The sun dipped below the ridge on the far side of the mirror-like lake and began casting a fantastic magenta glow across the skies. A pair of loons seemingly emerged from nowhere and began wailing in their eerie, yet comforting, way. The atmosphere was off the charts. 

When the sun fully retired, the night got cold. In fact, it got close to freezing over the night. We put on our toques, more layers of clothing, kept the fire stoked, and got close to it. It was cozy. 

Day 2 - Crotch Lake to Bridle Lake (8 km)

I woke up to a beautiful, sunny morning, but it was cold! The temperature was just a shade above zero, and I was chilly in the night. Dahee was still asleep, so I thought I would get out on the water and try to land a lake trout for breakfast. 

After getting a strike on my first cast, I got excited about the fishing possibilities but then received not so much as a nibble in the next half-hour. I didn't care much, though; the lake was like glass, the sun was up and I was enjoying the quiet solitude of being alone on the lake watching the loons and ducks fritter about. 

When I got back to the site, Dahee was up and had started a fire to warm up. Our site was still in the shade and contained the cold of the night. 

After taking our time with some coffee, bacon and eggs, we cleaned the dishes, packed up and were pushing off from the site by 9:30 AM. 

We paddled to the north of the lake to the portage to Shirley Lake and fished at the base of some rapids where Shirley Creek dumped into Crotch Lake. While doing that, a couple of young men in a canoe paddled up behind us and single-tripped the portage on their way to Ryan Lake, their destination. These were the only other canoeists that we would encounter all day. Before taking out, I turned to get a shot of the pretty island-dotted bay at the north end of Crotch Lake in the morning sun. 

Despite being a little over a kilometer in length, the portage was very easy; with only a slight incline, it was very wide and uncluttered.  We realized that we had packed a little too much food and gear for a weekend trip, so we completed the carry in two trips. We weren't in a hurry, though; this loop was relatively short and we had plenty of time to reach our destination.

On our return trip for the second load, we bushwhacked for 40 meters or so off the path to the creek to get a peek at the rushing water that was deafening from the portage. The water levels were substantially high from the spring run-off, exacerbated further by three days of rain. We were glad we made the effort to reach the creek because Shirley Creek was something to behold as shown in the following video. 

By the time we completed the portage, a breeze had picked up a bit on the larger Shirley Lake. Later it would gust at times, but not enough to really make paddling hard. 

Our map showed that there were some ruins to the left of the put-in at the end of the Shirley Lake portage, but after a quick search of that area, all we found were some old cans and discarded rubbish in the forest.  

We made our way across the southern bay of the lake to the Ryan Lake portage. We had no plans to go to Ryan Lake, but again our map displayed that there were "remains of camboose-style shanty camp in alders" nearby. The take-out was at a shallow beachy area and there was a large clearing leading to the portage which appeared to be an old logging road. 

 The area to the south of the take-out, where the camp remains were supposed to be, was flooded out so we couldn't really explore enough to find them. Immediately to the north of the portage was a campsite under some huge pines on a ridge overlooking the lake. It was a fine site, but I would suspect it wouldn't be very private being adjacent to a well-used portage. 

We got back on the water, headed north, and really took in how nice Shirley Lake was. We made our way along the eastern shore and enjoyed the view of the high ridges across the lake on the western shore and the rolling hills to the north. 

Halfway up the lake, we stopped at the site on the eastern shore which was on a point jutting out into the lake. It had great views looking up and down the lake and a long beach on the north side of the site. 

From there, we crossed back over to the western shore and paddled toward the portage into Bridle Lake. Wanting to troll as we paddled, I asked Dahee to take a break. She lay back in the canoe soaking up the wonderful sunshine as I dawdled up the western shore at trolling speed. The weather had been overcast, cold, and nasty for the previous couple of weeks; we were so happy to be out in some warmth and sun and enjoying the quiet of Algonquin Park in the spring. 

With its swampy back bays and islands, the northern section of the lake was more rugged and wild-looking than the large open area to the south. I turned to take the following shot of the bay from the start of the portage into Bridle Lake. 

We were assuming that the portage out of Shirley into Bridle was going to be a little rough. It was marked as an unmaintained portage and was listed at 1330 meters. 

Indeed, it wasn't an easy one. First of all, we seemed to be the first people to complete it after winter. There was a ton of winter deadfall, thankfully mostly on the small side, though there were a couple of larger trees that had fallen. This was only a problem for our first leg of the trip because we spent some time and energy clearing the trail on our return trip for our second load. It required hauling and cutting away some substantial fallen trees at times. This made carrying the canoe much easier on the second carry. 

Secondly, there were large patches of snow still on the trail. The snow still looked fresh with no human footprints through it. Indeed, we were the first to use this port in the spring of 2023. 

Thirdly, it was very wet. There were puddles and small ponds of knee-deep water that we had to precariously negotiate with at the low sections of the trail. This made the trail very slick in spots and we had to tread carefully. The final descent to the put-in on Bridle was basically a running creek of water. The one redeeming aspect of the portage was that there wasn't a lot of elevation change.

We were happy when we got all of our gear to the end of the portage; we had just completed a tough 1330-meter carry in poor conditions and, better yet, we had the small and pretty Bridle Lake entirely to ourselves! 

We were pleased when we arrived at the solitary Bridle Lake site. It didn't have the best entry to the lake, but the site itself was quite good. It had a nice firepit, plenty of flat open ground for our tent, and a ton of winter deadfall. Unlike our site the previous evening, we had no trouble finding wood to keep our fire alive. 

Dahee erected the tent while I collected a bunch of firewood, filtered water, and got some sausages sizzling over the fire. It was late afternoon and we hadn't had a proper meal since breakfast; we were famished. We were both feeling a little grimy from two long portages, so we decided we would jump into the lake to wash the dirt off. Let me tell you, with first-week-of-May water temperatures, it was the fastest jump in the lake I have ever done. As painful and shocking as that submersion was, it was instantly invigorating drying off with the late afternoon sun beaming onto us. Feeling clean and refreshed, we retreated to the tent and had a glorious late afternoon nap -- something I almost never do. It was incredible. 

When we awoke, we got a fantastic fire going, grilled some hamburgers, enjoyed some wine and whiskey, and sat by the fire talking until dark. We were blessed by a cacophony of calls from a number of barred owls in the area, one particularly close to our site. What a great day, and what a fantastic evening. It embodied everything I love about canoe tripping. 

Day 3 - Bridle Lake to Shall Lake Access (5 km)

We both slept well; the night hadn't been as cold as the night prior. We woke up shortly after 2 AM to go pee. At first, we thought it was dawn, but then realized that it was just an amazing full moon. It was so bright that neither of us needed our headlamps. 

We slept the rest of the night and woke feeling refreshed if not a little sore from the previous day's portaging.  I was nowhere near being in canoe-tripping condition on this first trip of the year. 

Once again, we were blessed with incredible conditions; the lake was a mirror, there was no wind, and the sun was out again. We basked in it while enjoying some coffee, oatmeal, and cheese toast. 

We departed the site at around 9:30 AM, and we soon found ourselves portaging again. The 765-meter carry into Farm Lake was wide and flat. There were a few winter blowdowns on it that we took care of, but it was in much better condition than the portage from Shirley to Bridle. There were a couple of beautiful massive pines at the put-in at Farm Lake end of the trail. 

The pond where the outlet from Kitty Lake meets Farm Lake was very scenic. We stayed there for a bit, fishing below the swifts coming in from Kitty Lake. We even paddled up the side of the swifts and rode them back down just for fun; the water was high enough that we could do this in our kevlar canoe without worrying about rocks. 

Across from the swifts was Kitty Lake Cabin and lucky for us it was vacant, so we stopped in for a peek at this historic ranger cabin. 

These cabins are available for booking, but on this particular morning in early May, no one was there. We poked inside to take a look. 

From the cabin, it was less than an hour to paddle back to our vehicle at the Shall Lake Access Point through shallow Farm Lake.

There were a few sites along the way, some of which were nice. We contemplated trying to investigate J.R. Booth's Depot Farm remnants just west of the lake, but our map made it look like a bit of a bushwhack. Also, we had to get home and get back to our lovely teenage children. 

Not long after, we spotted a white truck in the distance and the bridge crossing the river to the parking lot where our vehicle was. We had come full circle. 

The Shirley Lake Loop was fantastic for our first trip of the season. It was relatively short which was ideal for Dahee's first ice out trip, but at the same time challenging enough to get in shape for the paddling season. 

We saw only two other canoeists on the loop and had fantastic solitude and privacy. The weather was sunny and beautiful, and we were out before blackflies emerged. What else could we ask for in early May?