On May 29th, 2020, I did my daily check for news updates on the Ontario Parks website. Wait a minute! What this?! Starting on June 1st backcountry camping will be allowed in provincial parks for parties up to 5?! Could it be?!
Well, it was true, and after cancelling one trip and rescheduling another, it was looking like I wouldn't need to cancel any more trips. I was getting back out on the water after a long winter and a long spring pandemic lockdown! Yes!
Originally, I had this trip planned for early May but rescheduled it to the first weekend in June. Not quite the peak pre-bug trout time, but still trout time to some degree, only with the bonus of a poop-load of blackflies and mosquitoes. I dared not enter a river system in early June without ammunition though. Over the winter I ordered my Eureka NoBugZone shelter online. Weighing in at 5lbs, the extra weight was a no-brainer. I'd save easily that much weight in blood!
So after packing up and loading the car on Thursday night and finishing my daytime online home instruction for the day (teaching high school classes online during a pandemic is a whole other story that would require an entirely separate blog to explain -- but, I digress), I was on the road and putting in at the Rock Lake access point by late afternoon. I had a long way to go to get to my booking on Welcome Lake and was worried that I wouldn't get there by nightfall. Good thing the days are long in June! For the first trip of the year, I might have been a little ambitious with my thinking. I had a 4-hour paddle trip ahead of me to my destination IF I single carried the portages, but I wasn't sure I'd be able to do that. With my new bug shelter and fishing gear, my canoe pack was large and a tad heavy. Sure my new 42lb 15' Swift Prospector, on its maiden voyage, shaved a good 10lbs off from my previous boat, the ol' Scott Wilderness, but I had one hefty 2200-meter portage ahead of me that had a total incline of 100 feet. But after nearly three months of lockdown, I was eager to take on the challenge. I needed to shed those Covid pounds!
Day 1 - Rock Lake to Welcome Lake
Putting in on the Madawaska River between White Fish Lake and Rock Lake, I was starting my trip at the same time as a couple of other parties heading into the same route. A pair of hardcore trippers were heading into Welcome, like I was, and were also after brookies, and a young couple was heading into Louisa and planning to do the loop in a counterclockwise direction. Getting through the short stint on the Madawaska and into Rock Lake, I was smiling to myself. I had been itching to get out for a long time and with the sun shining, and seeing the open water of Rock Lake ahead, my mood was transformed. I could feel the covid lockdown stress leaving my body. This transcendental moment was almost immediately interrupted by a large bass jumping out of the water and crashing back into the lake only a few feet in front of my boat. Was this a good omen for the trip?
I paddled the western edge of Rock Lake and perused the cottages dotting the shore. Some were in a dilapidated state of repair. I thought of the history of this lake and noticed that two of the cottages were up for sale. Across the lake, on the eastern shore, were the impressive massive cliffs that gave the lake its moniker. I made my way around the point and spent some time spying the pictographs at the base of the cliffs there. Faint and hard to discern though they are, the conditions were right for it and I could eventually spot them just above the waterline. I spent some time taking photos that would never be seen (insert foul language here). As I was leaving, the young couple paddled past and I mentioned the pictographs to them, who upon learning of them, stopped for a while to have a gander. I eventually made my way to the portage to Penn Lake next to a small waterfall.
While I was unloading my boat, another young couple from Ottawa caught up to me. We exchanged pleasantries and then I tried to attempt my single carry. With my full 115L canoe pack on, I did the normal single-motion heave of my canoe from the ground right up onto my shoulders. Only this time, the yoke got caught on my canoe pack, and down went the canoe, paddles, pack, and me back into the lake with a crash. Jeez. Luckily, nothing was hurt other than my pride. What an amateur move! First trip of the year and, boy, did I need to shake the rust off! After that, I decided to take my food bag out and double carry the portages. I guess the "yoke" was on me.
We did the portage at the same time, laughing at my gaffe. On the return trip, all three of us sidestepped off the path to take a peek at the pretty Penn Falls. Putting in after the second trip off a nicely placed dock, I wished my portage buddies a good trip and paddled into Penn Lake. With my fishing rod locked and loaded, I was trolling along the way. No cottages could be seen and now it felt I was properly in the park. The wind picked up there and was more prominent than it was on Rock. Moving east of the island that separates the northern bay from the main part of the lake, I was envious of the young couple as they hooked into a brook trout just north of the island near me.
I continued to paddle at a steady and consistent pace along the western shore for the entire length of the lake. Several very nice sites were on the eastern shore, many of which were occupied. I managed to reel in a bass along the way, which I released as it was out of season, but no trout was to be caught.
After about an hour, I reached the weedy bay at the south end of the lake where the Galipo River empties into Penn. There, Penn Lake is quite pretty with a few islands in the center of the lake and rocky outcrops along the shore. Wanting to take a photo, this is when I discovered that my phone had bitten the dust. I had taken a photo at the put-in on Penn, and somewhere in between, it decided to stop working. Grrrr.
It took me a couple of tries to find the main path of the river through the swampy wetland to get to where the portage is located. My progress was further delayed by the strong current as I got closer to the portage which is next to a large waterfall. Wearing polarized sunglasses, I saw several trout darting up and down the river which excited me. If I had more time, I would have fished there a while, but the current made that challenging and I was pressed for time to make it up to Welcome before sundown.
The 275m portage next to these falls is steep but this is where I missed being able to take photos. The falls were beautiful. In one section, there is a lovely, wide cascade of water dropping about 12 feet in a large pool. Gorgeous.
At the end of this portage, I found myself in a marshy wetland area. From the map, I knew I didn't have far to go, but again, streams of the Galipo seemed to go in every direction and the start of the 2170m portage couldn't be seen. After a wrong decision or two and not getting very far, I eventually spotted the stream having the strongest current and followed its twisting route until I saw the portage sign to the northwest.
The 2170 m portage was long and wouldn't have been that bad if it weren't for the bugs. This was the first weekend of June and it was nearing dusk. Double-carrying, it took about 90 minutes. I divided it into two stages, dropping my pack next to a pond and going back for the canoe and my food pack. Thinking I was at the halfway point, I was a little over halfway, which was nice because Welcome Lake presented itself sooner than expected on the 2nd stage of the portage. Now I know how the lake got its name. Having not eaten in about 8 hours other than a granola bar, dripping wet with sweat from walking nearly 7km in a bug jacket and hiking pants, and somehow still having black flies get at me through the jacket and deet, the lake was indeed a "Welcome" sight!
The lake is large and round. There was a formidable wind coming in from the west even as the sun was setting. Exhausted and hungry, I didn't have it in me to paddle against the wind in search of an empty site across the lake. The site adjacent to the portage was vacant and I took it; and being next to the running waters of the Galipo river directly behind the site, the black flies wanted to occupy the site, as well. The site itself was fine. It was on a nice beach with a shallow and gradual entry into the lake. It would be a nice place to stay in August, but in June, the ol' NoBugZone came in handy that night!
With my hammock up and after a very quick and chilly swim to wash off the sweat and Deet, I cooked up some steak on the fire and retreated into the bug shelter to eat it, washing it down with a glass of whiskey -- ah...the reward at the end of the portage. Tired, I called it an early night and fell asleep to the sound of buzzing and the Galipo river gurgling in the woods behind me.
Day2 - Welcome Lake to Lake Louisa
I woke up at dawn to the most amazing full moon, high in the sky over Welcome Lake. It was truly a beautiful moment in time with the first rays of sunlight trying to compete with the moonbeams. Argh! I needed my camera! I wanted to stay and absorb the moment longer, but I was losing blood. I climbed back into the protection of the hammock and read some of Kevin Callan's "Once Around Algonquin" for the 2nd time. I hadn't read it in over a year and I was trying to get in the right frame of mind for the paddling season. If you are an avid canoe tripper, that one is hard to put down -- a great read and a perfectly-sized book to take into the backcountry.
After a quick breakfast of oatmeal and camp coffee, I was packed and on the water early with the fishing rod rigged and ready to get at the natural brook trout of the Galipo river system.