Track and Tower Trail
in Algonquin Park

An account of a late fall hike around the Track and Tower Trail in Algonquin Park. The trail starts along highway 60 and leads to Cache Lake, where the remains of two old railway trestles may be seen. It then visits the site of an old logging dam on the Madawaska River, followed by a scenic lookout and the site of a previous fire tower location overlooking Cache Lake. Subsequently, it visits the remains of a third railway trestle, this one crossing the Madawaska River valley, and then returns to highway 60 via Grant Lake (Gem-of-the-Woods).

2008 November 05

2008 November 05 was forecast to be a beautiful late fall day, so we decided to hike the Track and Tower Trail along highway 60 in Algonquin Park. Our plan was to do the main loop to the lookout, omitting the side trail to Mew Lake. The day started at 4C and foggy, but as the sun got higher the temperature rose and the fog rapidly burned off. Long before we arrived at the start of the trail, the sky was completely clear and the day was sunny but hazy.

We had chosen the Track and Tower Trail because of two old photos in our possession by (or of) Frank Morris [1]. The first photo shows the remains of an old logging dam that we tentatively associated with the dam at the outlet of Cache Lake. The second photo is of a vista overlooking Cache Lake. We believed both of these photographs were taken at locations along what is now the Track and Tower Trail, and we wanted to try to "duplicate" them ninety-plus years later [2].

forest interior along Track and Tower Trail in Algonquin Park

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The forest interior in late fall is very open, allowing an appreciation of the landscape that would be hidden in the summer.

beaver pond along Track and Tower Trail in Algonquin Park

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The first part of the trail follows a small creek down to Cache Lake, passing this beaver pond just before reaching the lake.

large hemlocks along Track and Tower Trail in Algonquin Park

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We were impressed by the numerous large hemlocks all along this trail, many of which are similar in size to those of the "Hemlock Cathedral" on the Bat Lake Trail.

remains of railway trestle in Cache Lake along Track and Tower Trail in Algonquin Park

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The remains of the railway trestle in Cache Lake. The location of the rail line across the lake is very evident on the satellite view below.

As we approached the Madawaska River at the outlet of Cache Lake, we could hear voices and lots of crashing, banging, and splashing. Through the trees we glimpsed some large orange plastic objects, and assumed it was a bunch of late season kayakers trying to cheat the portage.

Instead we found a pickup truck parked on the trail and three workers installing warning barriers and a warning sign upstream of the dam. From one of the workers, we learned that such barriers were being installed on all "man-made" dams in the park due to liability issues [3].

installing barriers above dam on Madawaska River in Algonquin Park

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The MNR is installing barriers upstream of the "man-made" dams in the park. Note that the worker on the left -- the chainsaw operator -- is in a full wet suit.

installing barriers above dam on Madawaska River in Algonquin Park

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Underwater cutting. Prior to the installation of the barriers, the log jams and old wooden log boom are cleared.

installing barriers above dam on Madawaska River in Algonquin Park

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Bob helps with the supervision.

vintage photograph of Frank Morris on an old logging dam probably on Madawaska River in Algonquin Park

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Frank Morris photographed on an old logging dam. Since Frank and his wife Elma had a cottage lease on Cache Lake, it seems reasonable that this photo was taken in the vicinity, but we don't know for sure. Note that the hill in the background has been essentially clear cut. (Cache Lake was the site of one of the first recorded conflicts between the tourists and the loggers in Algonquin Park [4].)

dam on Madawaska River along Track and Tower Trail in Algonquin Park

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The modern dam on the Madawaska River controlling the water level in Cache Lake. Much as we wanted to, we could not match this location with the Frank Morris photo. (However, if the old photo were flopped, the agreement would be better.)

Madawaska River along Track and Tower Trail in Algonquin Park

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Is this the location of the old dam? This location is a little downstream from the modern dam -- about where the trail crosses the river -- and struck us as a more likely spot. The river valley remains narrow here and a dam here would drown more of the rapids; a much shorter chute would be required for the logs, but at the cost of a higher dam. The trail guide notes that no photos exist of the old dam, but it is silent as to how well established its former location is. There are many old logs and timbers in the river here but they are most likely of more recent origin. With the modern forest blocking the view, it is difficult to determine if the background landforms match up with the old photo, but it doesn't seem so.

Madawaska River along Track and Tower Trail in Algonquin Park

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This location is even farther downstream and "around the corner". It perhaps has more of the "feel" of our old photo although the rocks look a little small. Certainly some sort of a dam would have been required here to direct the logs over these rocks. We would like to say that this is the spot, but we're not sure.

forest interior along Track and Tower Trail in Algonquin Park

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After leaving the river, the trail leads to higher ground. Bob had made the mistake of wearing his heart monitor on this hike; perhaps he would have been better off not knowing what his heart rate was.

stairs along Track and Tower Trail in Algonquin Park

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These stairs complete the climb up to the location of the old fire tower and lookout.

vintage photograph of Cache Lake

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Frank Morris photo of Cache Lake.

view from the cliff overlooking Cache Lake along Track and Tower Trail in Algonquin Park

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The view from the cliff overlooking Cache Lake. There is no doubt that this is a close match, but the old photo appears to have been taken from a slightly higher elevation. Not all of the differences can be attributed to the extensive logging at the time -- compare the foreground/background heights on the left hand side, and the angle of view on the rightmost point. Our best guess is that the old photo was taken from the firetower, which would date the photo after 1922.

railway bed along Track and Tower Trail in Algonquin Park

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After descending from the summit, the trail picks up the old railway bed of the Arnprior and Parry Sound Railway. Some of the ties are still visible.

Footings of the old trestle across the Madawaska River along Track and Tower Trail in Algonquin Park

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Footings of the old trestle across the Madawaska River. The railway crossed the river at an elevation of about 15m -- the end supports for the trestle are an impressive height above the water.

regenerating hemlocks along Track and Tower Trail in Algonquin Park

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Small hemlocks along the trail leading to Grant Lake.
Regeneration of hemlocks is rare, since they have very particular site requirements. Further, hemlocks attract deer because they provide snow protection in the winter. But then the deer browse the hemlock and kill off the new growth (see our page: Eastern Hemlock). So, is this regeneration or just slow growth?

Grants Lake along Track and Tower Trail in Algonquin Park

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The "Gem of the Woods" (Grant Lake).

mossy rock face along Track and Tower Trail in Algonquin Park

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Diana stops to photograph one of the mossy north-facing rock faces.

along Track and Tower Trail in Algonquin Park

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Approaching the end.

An excellent day: the weather forecast was accurate, and the temperature reached 17C; it was an interesting trail and a good workout -- but not so tiring that the drive home was a problem; and we made good progress in establishing the location of the Frank Morris photographs. There were more people around than one would expect for this time of year, but not so many as to be a problem, and we had the lookout to ourselves. The only negative was that the haze gave rise to difficulties in photographing some scenes.

The Algonquin Park Information Guide rates this trail as difficult with a length of 7.7 km. The difficulty is due to the elevation changes. It starts at highway 60 at an elevation of about 460m; it drops down to Cache lake and the Madawaska River with an elevation of about 420m; it then climbs to the lookout at about 525m, returns to the elevation of the Madawaska River (420m) climbs back up to about 500m, and then returns to the parking lot. (Elevation figures are according to our GPS measurements.)

Satellite Image

GPS track of our hike [5].

Notes

  1. Diana has a tenuous family connection to Frank Morris -- the teacher and naturalist, not the Alcatraz escapee!

  2. The exact dates of these photos is unknown but we believe(d) they were taken prior to 1920; it now appears that the view over Cache Lake may have been from 1922 or a bit later.

  3. We assume, but don't know for sure, that the warning barriers are only being installed above modern, maintained dams and not above the remnants of old logging dams and other hazards. But that strikes us as a slippery slope. Once you implicitly accept responsibility for some of the hazards in the Park, we don't see how you can avoid taking responsibility for all of them. As a pair of senior citizens, we can take heart that we probably won't live to see chain link fencing installed along the top of the Barron Canyon, but we have already seen a roughly analogous scenario at Hogs Back in Ottawa. See Bob's photo: Progress.

  4. In 1910, the Ontario Government repurchased the timber rights of the Munn Company in order to protect the scenic beauty of Cache Lake; see "Algonquin Harvest" by Donald L. Lloyd. But as one can see in the old photos presented here, much damage had already been done.

  5. This is our first attempt at posting a GPS track. We need to develop some means of smoothing the track data for display; the file size is very large and contains many more points than is necessary. If you zoom in on the track, in a few locations it is quite scattered. Some of this can be attributed to photography but some is simply "noise". (2012 May: I now filter the track using GPS Babel)

    In this instance the track was recorded by a Garmin 305 Forerunner, a "GPS enabled trainer for runners". In form, it is an oversized wristwatch. This unit is very convenient for recording a track, but is not really designed for navigation or bush work. It would not be usable on a multiday trip since the battery would need recharging and is not removable.

  6. Google map layer, "Jeff's map", courtesy of Jeff's Map.

Sources

Donald L. Loyd (2006), Algonquin Harvest -- The History of the McRae Lumber Company, published by Robert D. McRae, Whitney.

Dan Strickland and Russ Rutter (1993), The Best of The Raven, The Friends of Algonquin Park.

Dan Strickland (2004), Track and Tower Trail, A Look Into Algonquin's Past, The Friends of Algonquin Park.

Frank Morris

Eastern Hemlock