Trip Log - Three nights on Whitson Lake
2018 September 06-09
Bob and Diana spent three nights base camping on Whitson Lake in early September, 2018. This trip marked 45 years since our first canoe trip which was also to Whitson Lake.
The planning for this trip was a little weird — well, essentially nonexistent. For all of the summer, Diana had been bothered by a nagging recurrence of an old shoulder injury; it was not clear that she would be able to paddle anywhere. But by Labour Day, it was feeling somewhat better and we decided to wait for a favorable weather forecast and just go somewhere. We chose Whitson Lake for nostalgia and it was of relatively low difficulty; depending upon the wind, Bob might have been able to get us there, even if Diana couldn't paddle. In theory anyway. But Diana could paddle! Also, Whitson Lake offered the opportunity for a day trip — the exploration of the Five Mile Rapids portage — that didn't involve a lot of paddling.
In the days immediately prior to the trip we became aware of a couple of old photos in the Algonquin Park Archives that ended up significantly influencing our trip. But their significance only really dawned on us after we were underway. Consequently, we didn't bring copies of them or a couple of associated Tom Thomson sketches with us. This thwarted our detective work a little bit.
Our trip diary is reproduced below with only minor editing, although a few paragraphs have been moved to improve clarity and flow. Most of the commentary was written by Bob. Diary material written after the trip is in square brackets; material by Diana is so labelled.
Thursday Sept. 6 — McManus Lake to Whitson Lake
We left the house this morning a little before 08:00 aiming to hit the Sand Lake gate at about 09:00. We arrived at the gate at about 08:50 only to learn that they didn't open until 09:30, so we took advantage of the self serve check in (we had to scramble to come up with the required $60 cash but Bob had some emergency money stashed in his pack from way back).
We launched at McManus Lake at about 09:35. After paddling for about 10 min Bob announced that he couldn't be sure he had locked our vehicle in the parking lot, so we turned around and returned to the launch site. And, of course, the car was locked. We relaunched again a little after 10:00.
The day was overcast and we were facing a downriver wind. However, Diana's shoulder seemed to be behaving itself and we made reasonable time.
My shoulder was working remarkably well, though not 100%. It was pretty good on our better paddling side, but rather uncomfortable if used for too long on the off side. Anyway, it was a relief that it went OK and we were able to get up to Whitson against a bit of a headwind.]
We were through the portage into Smith Lake at about 11:10 and we stopped for a snack break. [When we're going through here as a day trip, we will probably wade this section as well as the section into Whitson. But for an overnight trip, we prefer to stay dry.] The wind freshened as we paddled up Smith Lake.
It is also worth noting that the water levels are high — much higher than when Bob and Richard came this way in late July. It was a challenge reaching the foot of the portage to Whitson Lake, but when we did, we got through the portage in about 35 min. The portage featured one major blowdown that hadn't been cleared.
We reached our campsite about 14:00 and we had lunch. We pitched the Lean and our tarp, but getting the former up was a Keystone Cops affair. We just don't have enough experience setting it up yet in varied situations. Today we learned that you definitely need the top centre attachment, and that attachment must have a vertical component — or you need an internal pole.
We didn't see anyone between the park gate and Whitson Lake.
17:55 — Comfortably ensconced at our campsite on Whitson Lake (4th one to the west on the south shore). According to the online reservation system we will be sharing the lake this evening with two other parties but it's not clear where they are. When we arrived on the lake at about 14:00, there were 3 kayaks slowly making their way downstream and they continued towards Smith Lake. There were two tents pitched on the 1st campsite on the southern shore, but no boats and no sign of life. Somewhat later a single canoe showed up from upstream and proceeded down the lake. However, Diana has just informed me that the canoe has re-emerged and is heading upstream.
I looked at the 'three kayaks' heading downstream, and it looked to me like one blue kayak with a double bladed paddle, and two small red canoes with a lot of rocker with single blade paddles. But I could be wrong.]
21:10 — I'm writing this in my sleeping bag in the Lean. Beautiful still evening, very quiet.
Couldn't see sunset because we face east but some red clouds overhead although skies are largely clear.
The lone canoe came up the lake and went to the campsite where we saw the tents earlier.
Dinner, dishwashing, Bushmills, etc. Uneventful.
Supper was Alpineaire Pepper Beef with rice — not too exciting, but does the job. Brownies excellent, as usual.]
Food is hung and for the first time in a long time it might pose a bit of a challenge for a bear. Usually we are only protected against chipmunks, rabbits and perhaps raccoons.
The day started with showers, but they moved away and had stopped by the time we got to the Park. Eventually the clouds broke and the end of the day was sunny.]
Friday Sept. 7 — Exploring the Five Mile Rapids Portage
07:30 — waiting for the water to boil for our second cup of coffee.
Quiet night, no wind, sky full of stars. Lake fogged over later in the night and thus the stars less distinct.
Lake completely mist enshrouded and dead calm at dawn. 6C.
No sounds from anyone else on lake. Beautiful morning.
My trail shoes failed catastrophically yesterday. The Vibram soles fell apart on both feet in essentially the same way. I've had these shoes for quite a while so they don't owe me anything but for both of them to fail essentially simultaneously was a bit of a surprise. Good thing this wasn't a travelling trip. I've cobbled them back together with gorilla tape — we'll see how that works. My camp shoes are probably OK for easy dry trails and short distances and better than no shoes, I guess.
10:10 — in the canoe and off to explore the Five Mile Rapids portage and the historic site at the Whitson Lake end. [We hadn't been along the portage since our trip down the Petawawa River in 1976, Trip Log - Wendigo Lake to McManus Lake via The Petawawa River, although we had travelled down Five Mile Rapids without portaging several times in the interim; see for example, Trip Log - The Petawawa River from Lake Travers to McManus Lake.]
A canoe has departed from the other campsite and seems to be paddling downstream with a purpose. Perhaps they are leaving, although we didn't expect that until tomorrow (based on reservations).
Before starting the portage we went over to the small campsite at the foot of the rapids (north shore). It was empty, so we could have stayed there as well. We determined that it could accommodate the Lean, but we were better off where we were.
The campsite at the end of the portage (south shore) might as well be removed from service. It hasn't been used in a long time and is overgrown and unmaintained.
Diana's brother had told us that 55 years ago you could find old historic artifacts, farm implements, a plough, etc., in the vicinity of this campsite, an old farm. But the area is now so overgrown that looking for these would take a major effort. We declined.
We started walking across the portage. At this end it is a flat, easy path through the bush along an old road. The portage is clearly used sufficiently that it, although narrow, remains easy to follow. We had hoped to check out the campsites along the river here. But after a while it became obvious that although the campsites are near the portage trail, they are not accessible from the portage trail unless you know where to look. [Indeed, on the basis of this trip, we cannot even vouch for their existence.]
The top three campsites are easily accessible from the portage trail. Numbering these campsites from the top [i.e. the upstream end] as 1, 2 and 3, then 2 and 3 are useable but not all that great. Access to the water is terrible as they sit atop a ~20' embankment. Sites 2 and 3 are relatively close together and site #3 is better than site #2 in our opinion.
The stretch of portage where campsites 2 and 3 are located is along the top of a sandbank. The ground is level and the bush is sparse, so very easy and pleasant walking. We stopped at campsite 3 for a snack and discovered that my lunch bag had not been included in the Sabre — instead we had the breakfast bag. Oh well — Bob's lunch bag had enough snacks to get us to the top of the trail and back. Campsite 3 has a nice view of the islands upstream — we took a couple of photos here in 1976.
Campsite 2 has the fire pit in a strange trough that leads down to the water — perhaps remains of the old road? Anyway, not as nice as 3.]
Just upstream of site #2, the trail crosses a deep narrow gully, resulting in an unpleasant downhill and uphill. From here until Coveo Lake the trail is much rougher and is no longer following an old road.
The first [i.e. farthest upstream] campsite is actually quite a pleasant campsite. Flat, close to the river but not up a steep embankment. The tent spots are essentially on the portage trail but not blocking it — just be careful with your guy ropes.
This is the campsite that we stumbled into at dusk 42 years ago.
My memories of the campsite in 1976 were a bit vague. I did recall it was flat, near the water, and among the trees. Our supper that long ago evening seemed to take forever to cook. We had to use the flashlight to look into the pot to see how the food was coming along, it was so dark under the trees. We were pretty tired by that point, having travelled down from the Natch that day and having done both parts of the Schooner Rapids portage.
We took some photos for comparison with 1976. It certainly seems to be a very nice campsite nowadays.]
When we arrived here (today) we were surprised to see a loaded canoe pulled up at the landing site — 15' Keewaydin, double bladed paddle, seat with seat back on floor. But there was no-one around. Were going to take some time here taking photos and we did. Then a guy showed up portaging a canoe. He was part of a group of 3, 1 tandem and the Keewaydin, on a 15 day trip trans park from the Magnetawan access point to McManus Lake.
He was running the rapids in his Keewaydin and then going back to help the tandem canoe with their portaging. We had a nice chat and then another of the group showed up. They continued their portaging and we continued on to Coveo Lake and along the trail met the third member of their group. We turned around [after reaching the Coveo Lake end of the portage] and returned to the first campsite for a snack break. Bob's repaired trail shoes were disintegrating and required another liberal application of Gorilla tape. The return walk to Whitson Lake was uneventful but long!
When we launched at the Whitson Lake end of the portage, it looked like the three guys were camped at the little campsite at the foot of the rapids.
We checked out the other campsite at the head of the lake, southern shore, downstream of the portage. It's quite a nice little campsite but perhaps a little gloomy and minimal vista.
The portage felt a lot longer than the 3400m indicated on the map. (It was an exhausting walk, but certainly still enjoyable. I got a weird blood blister beside the big toe joint on my left foot. Fortunately it did not burst, just turned black and dried up in subsequent days. We were surprised that we didn't catch up with the three guys we had met along the trail. Perhaps they all ran most of the rest of Five Mile Rapids, since that section is not too rough.
The campsite we checked out is nice and flat, with a view east towards the lake, though (as Bob says) minimal vista, since it is surrounded by trees. Probably a good storm campsite, as it is well sheltered. Sufficient trees for setting up the Lean and the tarp.]
17:00 — We are enjoying our afternoon coffee and eating snacks, peanut butter and jam on sourdough bread, etc. We didn't get back from our expedition until some time after 16:00 (whatever that means). Walking the portage to Coveo Lake took longer than expected. It will be interesting to check out the GPS track with respect to distance, etc. [According to the gps track, the portage is actually 4865m. (see notes)]
Saturday Sept. 8 — Whitson Lake
08:30 — Waiting for the water to boil for morning granola. Already have had 2 cups of coffee. 3C this morning. Red sunrise at about 06:10 but had faded by the time I got dressed and out of the tent. Some mist on the water, but not as much as yesterday.
Last evening was uneventful. Pad Thai from Backpacker's Pantry, using half the Sriracha spice packet, for dinner. Good but quite strong flavoured so wouldn't want to have it too often.
Into the tent at about 21:00 — maybe a bit earlier.
After getting comfortably into my sleeping bag, I decided that the tent needed some readjustment so I went out in my long underwear and headlamp to adjust.
I didn't really have a comfortable night, but I slept solidly when I did sleep. Issue was that I was stiff and couldn't get comfortable. No matter how I lay, I seemed to seize up.
My sleep was similar. Too many aching muscles from the long walk.]
Night was clear, bright stars, no moon, and didn't have mist over [the lake] as heavily as the previous night.
Diana heard a barred owl near dawn.
14:30 — sitting under the tarp watching our entertainment campfire.
We had a leisurely morning — 2 coffees, etc., before packing up for an exploratory paddle [we took the food pack with us rather than hang it up]. But it was quite chilly. In spite of the sun there was a chilly westerly breeze (it had made this morning's water fetching a bit of a challenge). We paddled into the bay to the west of our campsite and then worked our way down the southern shore taking multiple shots of the hill on the northern shore. We were trying to locate the site of an historic photo — River Drivers' Camp on Whitson Lake — in the Algonquin Park Archives. Unfortunately, we didn't have a copy of the photo with us, and Bob and Diana's recollection of the details of the photo were not quite in agreement. But we are hopeful we can sort out the location when we get home. After visiting our old campsite of 45 years ago, we proceeded over to the north shore with the intention of paddling up to the top of the lake. However, the cold wind blowing down the lake took the fun out of that, so we simply returned to our campsite. We did however steal some dry, sun-bleached sticks from a beaver house.
The beaver house appeared to be abandoned, so I didn't feel too guilty. It was amazing to see our old campsite again — essentially completely overgrown. The water approach was easier than some previous times, as the higher water level has covered the lily pads near the shore.]
We had a snack in a wind-protected sunny spot by the shore at the landing to our campsite. We reconfigured our tarp to give us some wind protection, had a cup of coffee, and built a fire with the stolen firewood. It worked well.
19:00 — everything is pretty well ready for the night. Diana is pouring the Bushmills.
Supper was a curry made from various freeze dried components. It was excellent, but the total quantity was a bit much for just 2 people.
Supper included 2 cups Minute Rice (too much); one package each of Alpineaire FD mixed vegetables and minced beef; two sachets of powdered beef broth; about 1/3 cup each of FD apples, raisins and cashews; and assorted seasoning — curry powder, turmeric, cumin, dried parsley, etc.]
I got somewhat chilled sitting around in light pants. Although the tarp helped with the wind somewhat, it kept changing direction. But it has largely died now and I have put my long underwear on.
Sunday Sept. 09 - Whitson Lake to McManus Lake and Home
08:50 — sitting in the sun. Temp about 11C — 0C when we got up at 06:15 but no visible frost.
We were early into the tent last night — certainly before 21:00. Another clear, still night, but cool. Slept well but feeling a little chilly just before dawn, the issue, I think, being the humidity. We were fog enshrouded although not noticeably in the campsite. If the temperature were any colder, I would want some heavier long underwear. But I seem to be feeling colder than I have any right to — getting older I guess.
We've had 2 cups of coffee, breakfast, and the camp is half broken.
12:00 — just finished a snack break just above the neck in Smith Lake. We finally got away from the campsite at 11:00 just as the forecast SE wind (i.e. a headwind) began to rise.
The day is sunny, cool and breezy, with scattered cumulus clouds from the south.
Uneventful paddle back although we were fighting a persistent headwind all the way. Checked out a couple of campsites on McManus Lake. The one at the top of the lake looking at the runout of the swift wasn't bad. The one at the sandy spit was OK, but perhaps a little exposed and most certainly not our style.
Arrived at the takeout a little after 14:00, away by 14:30 and home by about 16:00. Everything was in good order, but we were feeling a little cool and the inside temperature was ambient (about 18C) .
We left the campsite around 11:00, paddled down the lake and ran the swift to Smith Lake. After paddling a short distance down the southern shore (to avoid wind) we stopped behind a point for a snack break. The rest of the trip down Smith Lake was about as boring as usual, relieved only by dodging back and forth a bit to try to avoid the wind. The swift to McManus was another easy run, and we stopped to check out the first campsite on the north shore of McManus. It didn't look too bad, but obviously heavily used, and it has a bear cable (as apparently all the McManus campsites do).
We also stopped to have a look at the popular campsite on the sand point. It has a lovely beach and lots of places to sit out and look up and down the lake. The tent area is not large, but flat and somewhat sheltered. It was obvious someone had been there that day, going by the keel marks and footprints in the sand.
Finally we rolled in at the beach at the bottom of McManus around 14:00.]
More photos from this trip may be found here News: Three Nights on Whitson Lake.
In putting this trip log together, we became conscious that aspects of our diary conveyed a somewhat negative view of our experience — my shoulder hurts, my boots are worn out, I'm stiff all over, it's cold, it's windy, etc. This is entirely wrong; it was an excellent trip. We believe that we may have located two more Tom Thomson sketches, we remapped and revisited the Five Mile Rapids portage, we revisited our old campsite from our first canoe trip of 45 years ago, we experienced no rain, and we had a beautiful lake essentially to ourselves. We were never bored.
As we get older, we are no longer able to complete many of the ass-busting trips of the past. We are more likely to plan a base-camping trip than a travelling trip. But a well planned base trip with lots of opportunity for exploration and day trips can be every bit as rewarding. (Or at least, that's what we keep telling ourselves!)
It is interesting, in a nerdy sort of way, to trace the history of the reported length of the Five Mile Rapids portage. One of our pre-trip objectives was to remap this portage. We knew there was a problem with how it was shown on the various maps; it didn't end in the right spot. However, we didn't suspect the reported length. But in retrospect, it was obvious. If you measure the straight line distance from the start of the portage to the end on a topographical map, you will find it to be about 4.5km, more than a kilometer longer than the indicated length 3.4km.
On the 1974 Algonquin Park Canoe Routes Map, the portage is indicated as 3730 yds which converts to 3.411km. And that, 3.4km is the length perpetuated to this day. However, on the "Tom Thomson Canoe Routes Map" (published ~1971), the portage is shown as two separate portages (2380 yds and 2900 yds) with a small gap between at about campsite #2 and the islands (this would avoid portaging across the steep gully and the wet area). The two portages total 5,280 yds (exactly 3 miles or 4.828km). The 47a map (1958) doesn't actually show the portage, but indicates a length of 240 chains (240 chains = 4.828km).
Our gps track indicated a length of 4.865km.
Thus the error in portage length occurred in the transition from the "Tom Thomson" map to the current series of maps and has been perpetuated for about 45 years.
We have provided all our raws gps tracks to Jeffrey McMurtrie of Unlostify. The correct track and length should appear on their upcoming Algonquin Map.