An Early Spring Hike to Eustache Lake and Wagtail Lake

In early May 1982, and again on Easter weekend in April 1984, Diana and Bob hiked into Eustache Lake and Wagtail Lake, starting at the Lake Travers Station and then returning along the Petawawa River, as an early season overnight trip. The snow was gone from the bush, but the lakes were at least partially ice-covered.

We started at the Lake Travers Railway Station and hiked along the railway tracks to the Petawawa River. From there the Eustache Lake portage can be reached either by continuing along the railway, or by following the portage around Devil's Cellar Rapids. We chose the portage, a more pleasant and interesting walk, though a bit less direct than the railway. We hiked up the portage to Eustache Lake, then bushwhacked along the northern rim of the lake and west to Wagtail Lake. After setting up camp on Wagtail Lake, we stayed the night. In the morning we bushwhacked north to the Petawawa River, reaching the river at the top of MacDonald Rapids. From there we returned to our starting point via a combination of portage trails and the railway line.

1982 May 01

Devils Cellar Rapids on the Petawawa River in Algonquin Park

The outflow of Devil's Cellar Rapids of the Petawawa River in spring flood.

Eustache Lake in Algonquin Park

Eustache Lake at the end of the portage up from the Petawawa River.

Eustache Lake in Algonquin Park

The western end of Eustache Lake from the north rim.

Eustache Lake in Algonquin Park

Looking eastward from the north rim of Eustache Lake.

Wagtail Lake in Algonquin Park

Looking west along the north shore of Wagtail Lake.

threeman Taymor Hunter tent at Wagtail Lake

The shoreline of Wagtail Lake is rough and rocky. We were able to find this spot, which was relatively level and large enough to squeeze our tent into. Someone had camped there previously, as indicated by an old fire pit.

Wagtail Lake in Algonquin Park

The weather was warm (about 10° overnight and about 20° in the daytime). Bob's "hiking boots" were a pair of Kodiak work boots. Even though this was a backpacking trip we took our full-sized axe; its handle can be seen leaning against the rock to Bob's right. Our water carrier is hanging from a tree in the background.

A modern freestanding tent would have been more convenient for this location. There was no soil to drive pegs into, and we had to set up the tent by tying the guy ropes to rocks. (And that tent and fly combination, fully pegged out, requires 22 pegs.) Maybe a pair of hammocks would be the best solution for this location.

Wagtail Lake in Algonquin Park

The route north to the Petawawa River. While it appears to be easy going in this photo, in general the bush between Wagtail Lake and the Petawawa River was quite rough, with lots of broken rock and wet spots, though fairly open. It was difficult to walk to a compass bearing because straight line travel was often not possible. The best situation was when we could identify a landmark on our desired direction of travel and simply walk to it, even if that sometimes required a rather roundabout route. But if no landmark was obvious, then Diana would go on ahead alone as far as we could maintain sight contact and Bob would direct her to a point on the line. Then she would stay put until Bob caught up - slow but accurate. We hit our target very closely on both hikes, but might not do as well today after years of using a GPS as a crutch and neglecting our compass skills.

The Petawawa River at the top of the portage around MacDonald Rapids in Algonquin Park

The Petawawa River at the top of the portage around MacDonald Rapids. (The current portage around MacDonald Rapids is along the railway embankment on the north shore of the river. See note 1.)

Diana is taking off her Jansport external frame pack; Bob's Lowe internal frame pack is on the ground in front of her. The Lowe was one of the early internal frame packs on the market, and had two aluminum stays that were intended to be bent to match the curve of your back. Suffice to say that that pack has been retired, but Diana still likes her Jansport.

Bypass Falls on the Petawawa River in Algonquin Park

Bypass Falls on the Petawawa River

Devils Cellar Rapids on the Petawawa River in Algonquin park

Devil's Cellar Rapids on the Petawawa River

1984 April 20 (Easter Weekend)

The major difference between the '82 hike and the '84 hike is that the '84 hike was earlier in the season. The weather was colder (about 0° overnight and about 10° in the daytime) and both Eustache Lake and Wagtail Lake were still ice-covered.

Back in the bush near Eustache lake, we came across a campsite with a mature evergreen lying across it. Posted on a nearby tree was a note written on the cardboard of a cigarette pack entitled "The Miraculous Campsite". It related how a solo camper had been there the previous fall, and a wind storm arose during the night. The tree came down directly over his tent, but landed on a rock in such a way that the trunk bridged the tent and did not crush it. He was able to extract himself without a scratch.

Eustache Lake in Algonquin Park

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The four following photos are a panorama of Eustache Lake, taken from the north rim and moving from east to south to west.

Eustache Lake in Algonquin Park

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Eustache Lake in Algonquin Park

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Eustache Lake in Algonquin Park

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We were struck by the dramatic curtains of ice hanging from the south shore cliffs, and also by the elaborate patterns in the lake ice.

Eustache Lake in Algonquin Park

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Ice patterns on Eustache Lake

Unfortunately, we don't have any photos of the ice, or our stay, on Wagtail Lake, although we do remember that there was sufficient ice that it was not easy to get water. We also remember an otter popping up and down through a hole in the ice, well out in the lake, and a beaver swimming along an open lead.

Devils Cellar Rapids on the Petawawa River in Algonquin Park

Back to the Petawawa River — Bob admiring the haystacks at Devil's Cellar Rapids.

This trip would be in contravention of current park regulations because there are no official campsites on Wagtail Lake. We now realize that it was also probably technically illegal in 1982 / 84, but the ethic was different then. People would camp on an established campsite if one were available, but otherwise nobody felt particularly guilty about finding an unofficial spot. (See note 2). The current reservation system and the requirement for people to camp only at designated sites is probably a modern necessity, but it also greatly limits the ability to roam off the beaten track.

We don't have any long-standing memories as this being an overly demanding trip. However, we have returned to the area in recent years and are impressed that we actually did these hikes. The country along the north rim of Eustache Lake is very broken with lots of ups and downs and detours to avoid crevasses in the rock. It is hard going — not an easy walk in the park. Clearly, we were in a lot better physical shape 25 years ago.

We also attempted this trip in 1983 but were unsuccessful. The weekend we chose to go, was also the weekend that the Park decided to replace a culvert on the Lake Travers Road, so we couldn't reach our starting point. We were forced to turn around, and decided to hike into High Falls Lake instead - which was fine except that we didn't have any maps. (This was also before the marked hiking trails to High Falls were established.) That trip would also be in contravention of current park regulations since there are no longer any official campsites on the north shore of High Falls Lake.

Notes

  1. Prior to about 1980, the portage around MacDonald Rapids was along the railway on the north side of the river. It was then changed to run along the south side of the river. Then around 2000 the portage was once again changed to run along the old railbed on the north side of the river.

    If we remember correctly, there was a fatality involving a train and canoeists on the trestle bridge across the Petawawa River at the foot of MacDonald Rapids. (Why they were on the trestle is unclear, since the portage didn't cross the trestle) It is our understanding that the portage was rerouted to the south side of the river to separate it from the railway. The railway was abandoned in the 1990s, and subsequently, the portage returned to the north shore. We have no knowledge of the current state of the portage along the south shore.

  2. In subsequent checking of our old Park Maps: for the 1974 and earlier maps, there is no explicit statement with respect to the requirement to camp only at official campsites; the requirement does appear on the 1979 and later maps. The can and bottle ban and other restrictions were introduced in 1978; we guess that that's when the official campsite rule also came in.

    We also note that sometime between 1987 and 1996, The Eustache Lake Natural Zone was expanded to include Wagtail Lake. Park policy precludes new campsites in Natural Zones but grandfathers some existing ones.