Windbound on Grand Lake

An account with photographs of a pleasant afternoon spent windbound, at the Jack Pine site on Grand Lake in Algonquin Park.

2012 June 29

On the Friday before the Canada Day weekend, I (Bob) had decided that I wanted to head into Grand Lake in Algonquin Park for the day. I had been wanting to go all week, but it had been just too damn windy. And for the previous few weeks, other issues had intervened. The forecast for Friday didn't seem too bad. It was wrong.

The day started auspiciously. I awoke around 5:00 to a calm, warm morning and settled down in our screen porch with my morning coffee and laptop for my morning surf. I looked up to see that I had a visitor, a full sized black bear. He tentatively approached the house, but at a distance of about 30 feet, he looked in my direction, tensed up, turned and slinked away, as quietly as he had appeared. This was our first bear visit (that we are aware of) of the season and I took it as a good omen.

I loaded up and headed out. My plan was to launch at Achray and head up Carcajou Bay and just hang out, to relax and watch the universe unfold, and to take some photographs. But one look at the lake and I realized that I needed an alternative plan. It was only a little after 9:00 and already the lake was showing numerous whitecaps. For want of a better idea, I just launched and headed up the lake, sticking close to the Achray shore. I was looking for a spot but all the desirable ones were either occupied or private.

I eventually arrived at the mouth of Rowan Creek where I stopped for a rest and snack break. But it wasn't an inviting location to hang out. I decided to turn around; upwind progress was hard work and there was nowhere upwind that had any great appeal. I decided I would head back to the Jack Pine site. On the basis of my paddle up to Rowan Creek, I figured, that even with the wind, there wouldn't be any problem paddling back from the Jack Pine site to Achray.

My speed padding down the lake was two to three times faster than up the lake. Not scary-fast while riding the waves but close to it. When passing Achray, I encountered a second wave train coming from the direction of Carcajou Bay. I'm not sure if this was location dependent or whether the wind direction was shifting. But whatever, the interference pattern produced a nasty chop of pyramid shaped waves. I was far enough out in the lake that this combination of the wind and waves would have made it difficult to change course and head into Achray; I was now committed to landing at the beach adjacent to the Jack Pine site.

In the midst of this tumult, I passed close to a tandem canoe out from the dock at Achray. We exchanged pleasantries and I remarked that it was a tad breezy out here. He agreed and spoke of how much difficulty he was having controlling his canoe. He further said that he couldn't even imagine what it must be like in a solo canoe. But in reality, I think I am more comfortable in my Osprey in conditions like this than in a tandem. It behaves well in wind and waves, and because you are seated just aft of the pivot point and it is narrow enough to facilitate cross strokes, you have tremendous directional control. You can paddle forward or backwards in all four quadrants.

Quickly I reached the beach at the Jack Pine site without incident. It turned out to be my destination for the day.

windbound at the Jack Pine site on Grand Lake in Algonquin Park

(photographed: 2012-06-29 - map - explore

From The beach adjacent to the locale of Tom Thomson's iconic painting "The Jack Pine". Carcajou Bay is to the left in the background.

windbound at the Jack Pine site on Grand Lake in Algonquin Park

(photographed: 2012-06-29 - map - explore

At the Jack pine site looking back towards Achray. Achray is hidden behind the headland on the right.

windbound at the Jack Pine site on Grand Lake in Algonquin Park

(photographed: 2012-06-29 - map - explore

The beach. My canoe is hidden behind the foreground tree on the left. In spite of it being a beautiful summer day on the eve of a holiday weekend, I had the place to myself.

windbound at the Jack Pine site on Grand Lake in Algonquin Park

(photographed: 2012-06-29 - map - explore

Meadow-rue and swamp milkweed buffeted by the wind at the Jack Pine site.

windbound at the Jack Pine site on Grand Lake in Algonquin Park

(photographed: 2012-06-29 - map - explore

But regardless of the conditions, some canoes were out and about. This pair doesn't appear to have any gear with them, so I assume they're just out for the day. If their destination was the waterslide, they would have had a pretty full day by the time they got back to Achray that evening.

I kept wondering what I would do if one of them dumped. I couldn't see that I could effect a rescue in these conditions with just me in my solo canoe. But I couldn't just ignore them, could I?

windbound at the Jack Pine site on Grand Lake in Algonquin Park

(photographed: 2012-06-29 - map - explore

Light, shadows and white caps.

windbound at the Jack Pine site on Grand Lake in Algonquin Park

(photographed: 2012-06-29 - map - explore

My throne on the beach for the day.

windbound at the Jack Pine site on Grand Lake in Algonquin Park

(photographed: 2012-06-29 - map - explore

This pair had landed on the beach and asked me if this was the portage. They weren't wearing their PFDs, there was no indication that they had a map, and their camping gear was in two large garbage bags. I asked where they were headed. Stratton Lake. I informed them that no, this wasn't the portage; they had to continue along the shore to where the Barron River exits and that would take them to the portage.

They thanked me and relaunched. I went back to relax in my chair. Shortly thereafter, I looked up and they were well out from shore and heading straight for Carcajou Bay. I ran along the beach, waving my arms and trying to attract their attention. But to no avail. After a long struggle against the wind, they eventually disappeared into Carcajou Bay.

I can only imagine the scenarios that this might have led to. They were headed into an area with limited campsites on the eve of a holiday weekend. Their reservations were for elsewhere. They would likely have found themselves very tired and totally lost. By the time they had sorted themselves out it would probably have been too late to correct the situation. They were obviously neophytes. Was this their first canoe trip? Was it the first time he had ever convinced her to go camping with him? I'll never know.

I feel responsible, but not particularly guilty. I had advised them correctly, but I was one half of a communication channel that failed.

windbound at the Jack Pine site on Grand Lake in Algonquin Park

(photographed: 2012-06-29 - map - explore

Getting pretty lively out there.

windbound at the Jack Pine site on Grand Lake in Algonquin Park

(photographed: 2012-06-29 - map - explore

When I tired of sitting, watching and philosophizing, I would stroll the beach.

windbound at the Jack Pine site on Grand Lake in Algonquin Park

(photo by Bob: 2012-06-29 - map - explore

Looking directly into the wind. The mouth of Carcajou bay is just to the left of the photo and Achray to the right.

windbound at the Jack Pine site on Grand Lake in Algonquin Park

(photographed: 2012-06-29 - map - explore

I was just about to strip down and go for a swim when these ten canoes of girl guides showed up. (I don't really know that they were girl guides, but it was obviously a girl's outing. It comprised girls teamed up with adult women and a couple of adult males. The one calling the shots was male -- or rather, the most vocal one was male.)

windbound at the Jack Pine site on Grand Lake in Algonquin Park

(photographed: 2012-06-29 - map - explore

They landed and disembarked. (They completely ignored my presence). The lake was too rough, so the plan was that they would walk their canoes along the shore to reach the Barron River. This turned out to be harder than they thought.

windbound at the Jack Pine site on Grand Lake in Algonquin Park

(photographed: 2012-06-29 - map - explore

The alpha male decided he would rather paddle and herd them along from the water.

windbound at the Jack Pine site on Grand Lake in Algonquin Park

(photographed: 2012-06-29 - map - explore

I'm not sure how they made out after they reached the end of the beach.

windbound at the Jack Pine site on Grand Lake in Algonquin Park

(photographed: 2012-06-29 - map - explore

Except for my swim and stroll along the beach, my main physical effort for the afternoon was to move my chair to keep it in the shade. Here, I am set up well into the sweet fern.

windbound at the Jack Pine site on Grand Lake in Algonquin Park

(photographed: 2012-06-29 - map - explore

It is now about 3:00pm. I have finished all of my snacks and thermos of tea. The wind and waves keep rising. There has been no recent canoe traffic out on the lake. I sent Diana my canned Spot message that I was OK but delayed.

By now it was certainly too lively for me to comfortably attempt to paddle back to Achray. My plan was to wait it out with the expectation that the winds would die in the late afternoon / early evening. (Rationally I knew that they were unlikely to die much before sundown at around 9:00, but I tried to convince myself otherwise.) By 5:00pm, there was no indication that the wind was dying. I sent Diana another Spot message. By 6:00pm, the wind was worse, if anything.

I needed another plan. I started by walking my camera equipment and pack back to Achray and locking it in my car. I returned to the Jack Pine site. With my valuables in the car and with only my canoe, paddles, pfd and chair, I decided that I would attempt the paddle back to Achray. I figured this was relatively safe since I would wear my pfd, the water was warm and the wind was onshore. I launched.

This was, without doubt, the roughest and scariest conditions I have ever been out in. With all my weight in the centre of the canoe, when I was cresting a wave, both the bow and stern were clear of the water. This was fine except that if you weren't heading directly into the wind, it would spin you. And the wind gusts, which were the real problem, were not always aligned with the waves. Even with my best efforts, my directional stability was not up to the job. Further, even though the bow and stern were unweighted, the waves were big enough that they would occasionally break over the bow when the canoe plunged into the troughs; I was taking on water. After only a few hundred meters, it became clear that there was no way I could paddle back to Achray. I turned and got washed back onto the beach.

A challenge to one's skills in safe conditions can be exhilarating but these conditions were downright intimidating and beyond my abilities.

So either I wait some more or I portage back to Achray. The problem with portaging was that I hadn't brought my yoke with me (As with most solo canoes, my Osprey lacks a center thwart and requires a detachable yoke to carry it). I am used to carrying the canoe a few tens of meters without the yoke, but not the 700m or so that I would need to carry it to where I could bring my car. Further, without a yoke, I would not be able to carry the canoe and the loose junk at the same time; I would have to double portage. (I had already made one trip so that it was, in fact, a triple portage).

Well I managed it. I got that I could carry the canoe on my head, relieving the weight a little with the seat against my shoulders, and using my arms as pillars. I could stand this for about a hundred meters or so before my head and arms demanded respite. But I managed to leap frog my canoe and loose junk back to the Achray campground in about five hops. I had the canoe on my car and I was away by about 8:00pm. Looking out at the lake, it still had not settled down.

All in all, in spite of the uncomfortable portage at the end, it was a good and enjoyable day. I was sorry I was not staying.