Donald Lake Loop
Total Distance: 60 km
Duration: 6 days (it can be done easily in 4 days)
Number of Portages: 10
Total Portage Distance: 3150 m
Level of Difficulty: Novice (Wind can be an issue on some of the lakes. No portages over 1000m)
Map is courtesy of Jeff's Map - my route has been marked in blue.
In November 2018, I got a text message from my old friend from my high school days, Jason, who lives in Victoria, B.C. with his wife, Lois, and their three children. I hadn't seen Jason and Lois since the summer of 2015 when we first moved back from Asia, and prior to that, I hadn't seen them since my wedding in 1998! Jason is an old friend and a fantastic guy, so when he told me that Lois was attending a conference in Ontario and that he was tagging along and they wanted to spend a couple of days at our place, accompanied by another old friend, Scott and his wife Anne, I was all for it. After all, Canada is a big place and getting together with friends who live several time zones away is a relatively rare occasion.
Needless to say, we had a great time enjoying a wonderful Korean meal prepared by my wife and the six of us recounted old stories and caught up on new ones over healthy amounts of beer and wine. It was then that I shared my somewhat newfound love for canoe tripping and described what it entails.
Flash forward to January and I was going through a serious case of paddle withdrawal. I got thinking about my visit with Jason and Scott and remembered that their interest seemed piqued by my adventures and began researching trips to see if I could entice them into joining me on a weeklong sojourn in the summer. I knew it would have to be a good one to get Jason to come back to Ontario sans his family on his summer vacation. After a few email exchanges, I sold them about the Donald Lake Loop in the Chiniguchi area of southwest Temagami as described in Kevin Callan's Top 60 Canoe Routes of Ontario. Here's how I described it after doing some research, "stunningly beautiful, incredible fishing, portages are moderate and manageable (longest is 1000m), newly formed provincial park, no need to book sites, not busy...will be able to choose prime sites." It's a good thing the Donald Lake Loop did not make me a liar. In reality, it was better than I had described it. Following Callan's lead, and using Jeff's Maps, here is the route (in blue) that we decided to take. (Thanks again Kevin and Jeff's Maps!)
So in the middle of July, Jason flew into Toronto, Scott drove in from Waterloo, I from Peterborough, and the three of us met up on a Saturday afternoon just outside of Gravenhurst at Jason's parents' cottage on Turtle Lake. We spent the night catching up and discussing the upcoming trip. By noon the next day, we were putting in at the Sportsman's Lodge beach on Kukagami Lake about an hour northeast of Sudbury. Jason and Scott were in a rented kevlar canoe and I was flying solo in my 15' kevlar Scott Wilderness.
Day 1 - Kukagami Lake to Maskinonge Lake
We paddled out across Klondike Bay and around the headland at the east side of the bay. I noticed the 20-metre portage on the beach to the north to avoid having to paddle around the headland, but it looked close to a neighbouring cottage and we didn't want to trespass on anyone's private land. It was a pretty paddle and the wind was negligible so we were happy to be on the water. After about an hour or so, and into the expanse of the northern part of Kukagami, we stopped on one of the many islands for a quick shore lunch of summer sausage and cheese in a pita, and then had a quick dip; it was a hot day and the water looked incredibly inviting. The water in many of the lakes in this area is incredibly clear but doesn't seem to be devoid of life like the windex lakes of Killarney.
After about another 45 minutes we found ourselves at the eastern reaches of Outlet Bay and were looking for the portage out of Kukagami. The sign was nowhere to be found and I had read that some of the portages were not properly signposted. After a false start down what looked like a trail on the left, we found it just to the right of a small waterfall at the end of the bay.
The portage was not long and goes through two campsites. It emerged into a small pond and then there was another short portage of 65 metres into a slightly longer body of water. Another short portage followed a creek and emerged to the right of a waterfall.
There, we decided to go for a swim in the pool at the base of the falls (pictured above). It was fun diving into the foam of the falls and letting the current take us out into the pool, especially in such a stunning landscape.
Another 10-minute paddle and we found ourselves on a longer portage into Carafel Lake. It is only measured at 330 metres but felt somewhat longer as we scrambled over some outcroppings of rock. After paddling out of a small bay, the tea-coloured waters of Carafel seem to go in several directions.
Originally, we had planned to stay on an island site at the south end of the lake but as we got closer, we noticed smoke coming from the island. With a 20-minute paddle into the wrong bay behind us (oops!), we passed through the northern part of the lake and none of the campsites looked appealing.
Though we were tired and hungry at this point, we decided to push through to Maskinonge Lake and investigate the island site across from where the portage emerged at the south end of the lake. The paddle out of Carafel creek became a bit more rugged with a lift over a strainer (a downed tree crossing a creek or river) and some shallow water at the end of the creek. It was worth it, however, as the island site was vacant and a real gem -- complete with a lovely bed of pine needles, a picnic table and tons of blueberries on the north end of the island! We enjoyed fresh filet mignon steak on the grill that evening. Yum!
Day 2 - Maskinonge Lake to Maskinonge Lake
The next morning, I woke up earlier than the boys and went out for a quick fish. I caught a couple of smallies, but both under a pound. I tried trolling for lakers in the deep part of the bay next to the island but had no luck. When I got back to the site, Jason had filled his bowl with fresh blueberries which I happily mixed in with the pancake batter. Yum again!
By mid-morning, we were back on the lake and heading north. Maskinonge Lake is massive and by noon the wind was pushing hard from the northwest slowing our progress considerably. My Scott Wilderness, though light and stable, is not a great boat for gliding seamlessly through the water. It's a bit of a tub, to be honest, and I was working hard. More to come on this later.
We noticed a couple of small cottages on the western shore and were passed by a small motorboat, which we assumed was heading up to the Taylor Statten Kids Camp in the northern back bay of the lake. As we got into the islands about midway up the lake (with a few nice-looking campsites on them) the wind started picking up.
A couple of guys in kayaks emerged behind us and we chatted as we battled the wind. We found out that they were the guys staying on Carafel the night before and were trying to make Big Elephant Island. We were aiming for the Three Sisters site, so there wasn't a race to get there first, which is a nice feeling in the height of summer. As beautiful as Algonquin Park is, sometimes the race to get a nice site on a popular lake on weekends defeats the purpose of why I go canoe tripping, to begin with - escaping the rat race.
We made it up to the Three Sisters by around 2 pm and tried to find the campsite. This proved more difficult than I expected with the wind and for the fact that the site was not easily visible from the water. We paddled around the southernmost island of the three and couldn't see a site, so we went to the eastern island. We quickly renamed this Seagull Island as there had to be a colony of about 200 seagulls living there. The noise was horrendous. The western island was small and did not have a site, which brought us back to the southern island. When we approached the island from the west, we were able to find the site (pictured left). We landed and made a quick lunch, but decided not to stay as it was small, exposed to the crazy west gale, and the cacophony from the seagulls was not ideal.
Peeking at the map, the only sites within a short paddle from Three Sisters were the two on the eastern side of the lake - one at the take-out from the 3.5 km portage from the Sturgeon River and the other about one km south of that. The southern one seemed most protected from the ever-increasing wind, so we aimed for that. I
It ended up being a nice site with a deep rock entry that proved both great for swimming and fishing. We set up camp and as we were early enough, we even set up the hammock. Scott and I tried our hand at fishing right from shore and within 20 minutes, we each caught a bass in the 2.5-3 lb range. I cleaned these fellows and we enjoyed a fresh fish fry. I find bass often takes on the taste of the lake. If it's a shallow muddy lake, then the fish has a bit of a muddy taste. These two came from a nice deep rock face in a huge, deep lake. Yum! (once again).
We relaxed for the rest of the afternoon, got a great fire going and enjoyed our west-facing campsite that got some great evening views with the sun going down (pictured below). It was a lovely evening once the wind died down and we snacked on cinnamon-flavoured bannock that night, by wrapping the dough around a stick and baking it slowly over coals in the fire. Those moments of relaxation by the fire, with a whiskey and a snack, are what make these trips so worthwhile!
Day 3 - Maskinonge Lake to McCarthy Bay
We woke up on Day 3 and the weather was considerably gloomier. Luckily, the rain held out until we packed up and we headed out across the bay, passing the ruins of a cabin on the headland into the north end of the lake.
We spotted the large Taylor Statten camp at the north end of the bay next to the river mouth. As we paddled closer, we noticed it was completely deserted with a large array of very large canoes lined up on the waterfront. I only later discovered that the camp closed in 2015 and was put up for sale. I have no idea if it ever was sold, but the camp is on a lovely piece of land with a huge amount of waterfront and a long row of cabins dotted up the northeastern shore.
We passed the camps and headed up into the Chiniguchi River system and Rice Lake.
By the time we got to Lower Matamagasi Lake, the rain began. Thunder started rolling in the distance, but it was far away, so we continued paddling. We kept close to shore in case we needed to make a hasty retreat from the water.
The two short portages into Edna and Karl lakes were easy and uneventful except near the put-in on Edna, where I surprised a grouse on the portage by almost stepping on it. It fluttered away noisily and I jumped about 6 feet in the air in surprise!
The rain stopped and we had another pita lunch next to the creek on the portage to Karl. The longer walk out of Karl Lake passed a stunningly beautiful waterfall. We stayed there at the campsite across from the falls for the better part of an hour exploring, munching on wild blueberries and swimming around the falls - a great way to break up the day.
The sun began poking through the clouds and we headed up toward the dam on McCarthy Bay. As we approached the dam, the wind slammed into us with force.
Taking out on the portage around the dam, we walked up a short, but steep, slope and into a grassy clearing. Arriving at the put-in, we were dismayed to see the sizable whitecaps and gale-force conditions on McCarthy Bay. We waited for about half an hour, but the wind showed no signs of subsiding. Jason and I tested the waters in the rental but couldn't even get out of the small bay without being pushed back. After a snack and another 45 minutes of waiting, the wind slowed somewhat but continued to stay steady and strong. It was around 5 pm by then and we were concerned about getting out into one of the campsites on McCarthy Bay.
We got out into the bay and around the headland but it was not easy. Paddling solo, it was particularly difficult for me. The waves were slamming into my port side bow as I skirted the north shore of this large bay. More than once I was pushed into the rocky shoreline despite my best efforts to keep the canoe in deeper water.
We were aiming for the site on the large island in the middle of the bay and after about 45 minutes, the wind died down a little more - just in time as my strength was beginning to wane. We beached the canoes on the north side of the island but couldn't see a site anywhere, even though we were exactly where the site was supposed to be on our map. Not wanting to paddle on the windy south channel, we hiked along the rocky south shore and found the site about 100 meters west of the point. It was a depressing, dark, buggy bush site that held very little appeal.
Exhausted and getting hungry, we decided to continue to push westward across the north end of the bay, passing another island that had a couple of cottages on its western shore. Seeing the island with the campsite ahead of us, we paddled to it and were happy with our extra efforts. The campsite was on a rocky point on the south of the island and had great views facing both east and west. We were quite exposed to the wind at the fire pit, however had a little more protection in the trees where our tents were. No thunderbox on this one though!
Dehydrating some sauce, we made bush pizza on pita bread that turned out fantastic. Why is it that food tastes so much better out in the wild? After dinner, we were rewarded with fantastic colours at sunset and a nice full moon after dark.
Day 4 - McCarthy Bay to Donald Lake
The wind continued from the southwest all night long and only slightly diminished in the morning. Still tired from the previous day's battle against the wind, we took our time with breakfast and enjoyed dehydrated eggs and coffee. By mid-morning we were happy to let the wind push us eastward back across McCarthy Bay, this time heading south of the islands. In under an hour, we paddled back to the small inlet just to the south of the dam we had portaged around the day before.
Finding the portage into Gold Lake was a bit tricky, but eventually, we spotted some flagging tape just to the right of where the map suggested the portage existed. It was a well-worn path and easy.
Gold Lake was a pretty little lake with no designated campsites, though it appeared as if someone had made a bush site on the south point jutting into the lake near the portage to Colin Scott Lake. Next to that take-out are some beautiful rock faces.
Colin Scott was gorgeous with the clearest water I've seen outside of Killarney -- again, no campsites. That fact and a ministry-enforced fishing ban on this lake suggest that a recovery process is actively underway to help this pristine lake mend itself from the days of acid rain damage. Paddling along on this lake and able to see 30 feet down, we just had to stop for a quick dip in such clear water.
The portage from Colin Scott into Donald was short but steep. It climbed over a rocky rise completely covered in blueberries which was both a blessing and a curse. I was so interested in having a mid-trip berry snack that I forgot to take a photo of one of the prettiest views from a portage that I had ever seen. The view over the north end of Donald was incredible with its crystal clear water and giant cliff face across the bay.
At the bottom of the portage was a rectangular rock with a bunch of names carved on them -- a Donald Lake tradition, no doubt. When we got to the bottom of the portage, I snapped a quick pic of Scott investigating the put-in and to show how clear the water was.
Day 5 - Donald Lake
We camped at the northernmost site on a peninsula separating the main part of the lake from that pristine northern bay. What an amazing site with water on all sides and nestled in a lovely little grove of pines. We decided to stay our last 2 nights on this site looking forward to a day of not moving and relaxing and enjoying the Chiniguchi wilderness.
The next day, Scott and I were excited to see what fish Donald lake could offer. Jason, who didn't bring a rod and isn't much into fishing, decided to relax at the camp.
After a very chilled morning and breakfast, Scott and I hopped in the rental canoe around 11 am with our rods and tackle on board. The wind was pushing hard from the southwest so we decided to fish the opposite shore and let the wind push us along.
We didn't have much luck but managed to locate a school of smallmouth bass thriving among some rocks. We caught fish after fish and were disappointed when a cast resulted in nothing. Scott, not having a lot of fishing experience, was delighted in how much action we were getting.
The wind picked up however and we kept having to paddle back and float along again; the problem being that we could only get a couple of casts in before running out of lake. So, we decided to beach the canoe and fish from shore.
I don't know what it is about bass in the north, but they fight a lot harder than they do in the Kawartha Lakes. Every time, we thought we had a trophy fish on, the bass would take our lures and dive around a jagged rock and cut our 6lb test line. We lost a few lures but managed to get one back, re-catching a small bass that had one of our previous lures still in him! Scott had the rare fishing experience of catching two different fish on the same lure on the same cast! If anyone knows if there is a special fishing term for this, please let me know.
We managed to keep three good-sized ones and enjoy another late afternoon fish fry when we eventually got back to camp around 3, much to Jason's chagrin. We were having so much fun that we had no idea that we had been gone for 4 hours! From Jason's look, I'm not sure if he forgave us for being away for so long.
That evening, the sky started looking ominous, but that did little to deter Scott. With his newfound fishing prowess, he continued fishing from shore.
Soon, the rain came in hard and we enjoyed a game of cards with wine, whiskey, and snacks under the tarp. Scott's rental tent was a cheapie, however, and his fly, which was about the size of a yarmulke, was unable to keep his tent dry. Jason, having room in my 3-man tent that I lent him, graciously let Scott move in with him.
It was our 5th and last night of the trip and we suspected that we would have a tough headwind on our paddle out the next day, which was exactly the case, so we retired at a decent hour to get up and beat the winds.
Day 6 - Donald Lake to Kukagami Lake
On our last and 6th day of the trip, we had some instant oatmeal for breakfast and got an early start, knowing we had a long paddle and drive ahead of us. We were not wrong about the wind. Facing a wind from the southwest for most of the trip, it was against us the entire day.
It was great to see the rest of Donald Lake which we had only marginally explored the day before due to the winds. With a rocky shoreline, crystal clear water and a thick canopy of trees on all sides, it truly was beautiful scenery. It took the better part of 90 minutes or so to reach the southern end of the lake. We passed another nice-looking campsite on a rocky point on the eastern shore about three-quarters of the way down the lake.
Paddling to the end of a narrow channel on the southwestern end of Donald, we found the 1000m portage back to the island-dotted northern section of Kukagami. Despite being the longest portage of the route, it was relatively flat and an easy carry. About 200 meters from the take-out was a massive field of blueberries which looked like it might be a Valhalla for bears, so we didn't stop to snack.
After crossing the northern section of Kukagami, we found the last 300-meter portage and walked its wet and mucky path into a little bay which took us out to the main section of the lake. The wind was up even stronger and so were the whitecaps, which made it a long and difficult paddle back to the headland that separated the big waters from Klondike Bay. This time we took the little 20-meter lift-over to the beach that we spotted on the way in to avoid the extra paddle around the headland and paddled the last 15 minutes back to the Sportsman's Lodge.
Though it was only a 60 km paddle over 5 days of actual tripping, the wind made it seem longer. Paddling back across Kukagami alone and trying to desperately keep up with the boys paddling tandem, I vowed to buy a better boat for solo paddling. (Note: In late October 2019, I got a Swift 15' Prospector -- Love it!!!)
Despite the wind, the trip was incredible. It was great to see the northeastern end of the La Cloche mountain range, the clear lakes and the best part was that other than the kayakers that had passed us on Day 2, we never saw another soul - in the middle of July! Had this been in Algonquin, we would not have had nearly the same amount of solitude. We had some great fishing experiences and it was a great way for three old friends to spend time catching up.
I highly recommend the Donald Lake Loop for anyone who wants to spend the better part of a week out but perhaps doesn't have a lot of canoe tripping experience. Both Scott and Jason seemed to enjoy it (I think Scott's smile says it all! ) and I hope that this is the start of a yearly summer tradition of the three of us getting together.