Trip Log -- Four nights on Whitson Lake
2019 September 05-09
We recently undertook a short canoe trip to Whitson Lake on the Petawawa River in Algonquin Park. The trip was characterized by low water levels and iffy weather. Our primary objective was to locate two historic photo locations and two Tom Thomson painting locations, but our searches were inconclusive. However, in spite of that and in spite of the weather, it was a good trip.
This account is based on our trip diary with minor editing and additions (except for the figure captions). After the fact additions are indicated by square brackets and italics.
Monday, September 05
1710 — sitting under the tarp on our (current) favourite campsite on Whitson Lake. We’ve just finished our soup, having had coffee and afternoon snacks. We arrived here early afternoon and we are now set up and well tarped as we are expecting at least some showers tomorrow.
We got up this morning a little before 0600 and on checking the internet — weather reports, cat videos, etc. — learned of a fire on Smith Lake. Diana deduced that it was probably on the easternmost campsite on the north shore of the lake. We had some concerns that the fire might preclude our travelling upriver to Whitson Lake.
We got away from the house at about 0820, to the Sand Lake gate at 0920 and at the launch point at about 1000. While the temperature was only about 10C it was warm and pleasant in the sun. The lake was glassy smooth.
We took the portage from McManus to Smith [rather than try to work our way up the swift].
The water levels are very low. We decided that we should portage on the way back as well. No way those swifts would be navigable without bottoming out. OK in a rubber boat but probably not in a lightweight Kevlar — but safe enough. [We did run this swift on the way home and indeed, the comment about bottoming out was correct.]
It was too shallow for us to reach shore at the takeout. But we had brought our Neos along for this eventuality. They worked but Bob suffered a little leakage.
We launched into Smith Lake and headed towards the fire site, but there was no sign of any activity, or smoke, or smell of smoke. We looked at the campsite from the water and everything seemed normal. We didn’t get out of the canoe. Instead we decided that the fire was a non-event and headed a little farther up the shore and found a sheltered spot in the sun to have our snack; (since this was Smith Lake, the wind had come up).
We were enjoying our snack when suddenly there was a crashing through the bush almost right beside us. We looked up and there was a guy in a bright orange shirt making his way along the shore. I called out and almost gave the guy a heart attack as he hadn’t seen us.
It turns out that he was the head of the fire team. They were camped about a kilometre up the lake and were waiting to be airlifted out. (They had put the fire out the night before.) He was checking on the fire one last time. He was a very pleasant guy, looked very fit, and has been a fire ranger for eight years. He loves his job. Previously he had been working out of Red Lake. He couldn’t talk long because he needed to check on the fire and then get back to his camp for the helicopter, which was on its way.
After our snack we proceeded up the lake and were just upstream (and on the opposite shore) [of the fire crew's campsite] when the helicopter showed up — hopefully I got some good pics — landing, loading, takeoff, etc.
[For more photos of the helicopter and the fire crew's departure, see Extraction of Fire Rangers on Smith Lake in Algonquin Park.]
It is now 2050 and we are in the tent for the night.
We proceeded up Smith Lake — uneventfully — and then lined the canoe along the north shore into Whitson. We had to drag the canoe across numerous gravel bars. It’s not clear how much of that was due to our poor lining technique and how much was due to the low water levels. [At the very least, we need longer ropes.]
There was one other party on Whitson camped on the easternmost of the four campsites on the south shore. [We camped on the westernmost of the four campsites]. Diana suspects they are the same guys that were there last year at this time. No matter, we got the campsite we wanted.
[According to the reservation system, there was one other party who were coming down the Petawawa and were scheduled to camp on Five Mile Rapids that night. We never saw them pass by, either the next day, or subsequent days, which is a bit of a mystery since their car was in the parking lot and it was gone when we finished our trip. It's hard to imagine them passing our campsite without our noticing. We wondered if perhaps they had abandoned their trip near the start due to the low water levels. We'll never know.
When our neighbours left the next day (Friday), we didn't see anyone until our trip was over (Monday).]
Supper was Backpacker’s Pantry Katmandu Style Curry — reasonable, quite spicy. A little less water might have been better.
Bushmills after dinner. The air was dead still and mild — a little less than 20C — and the bugs were out. Not bad, but enough to spoil sitting out so we retired to the tent. It is a new tent, so the in-tent routine needed to be ironed out.
Friday September 06
0700 — ~10C — 1014 mB; Sky mainly overcast with some patches of blue — high ceiling, dead calm — no mist
It was dead quiet overnight with occasional sound of distant whippoorwill and geese.
0725 — still calm, nothing has changed and yet it feels gloomier and more like rain. I guess the difference is that earlier, the sun was shining beneath the clouds, now it is above them.
0800 — and it is starting to rain as we have our second morning coffee. Still calm, no wind.
0855 — rain is easing up. It was pretty solid there for a while. Not a gully washer but solid. Clearly we’re taking it slow this morning — just now starting to heat the granola water. I have changed out of my camp shoes into my damp travelling socks and boots and Neos — rain pants are on but not the top — yet. We’re well protected under our tarp.
1350 — just returned to camp after about 3 hrs of searching for the location of the photo River Drivers’ Camp Whitson Lake and Tom Thomson’s painting Bateaux. Struck out on both. Close but no cigar. With sufficient hand waving you could make the case for a couple of different locations for the painting but none really convinces. For the photo, it is fairly certain that it’s of the big hill on the north side of the lake but we have been unable to match the foreground.
It started to rain just as we returned to camp. Not hard but solid.
1600 — sitting under the tarp and it’s raining with a vengeance. This ain’t no “40% chance of showers”, this is RAIN!
And then it got harder.
1715 — It continues to rain but with less intensity. But it’s still rain; not showers.
1915 — 14C — Having our Bushmills. Still raining, no appetite for staying up late but it’s still somewhat early for bed.
Supper was Backpacker’s Pantry Santa Fe rice & beans with chicken. I quite enjoyed it while Diana thought it too spicy — quantity was a little small. Went well with an Ace Bakery bun.
Saturday, September 06
0735 — sitting under the tarp having morning coffee. Calm — no rain — heavy mist — 12C — 1009 mB.
[Last night] the rain let up by about the time we got into the tent. A little more light rain at about 0300 — I went out to check on the canoe as I remembered that I hadn't tied it. Our Mutha Hubba tent kept the rain out — there was no sensible water inside, but the walls were wet to the touch and my bed socks, in a corner mesh pocket, were wet as was a bit of Diana’s sleeping bag — so not particularly impressive. However, we were dry enough and that was a tough test.
0810 — and it’s raining again — light but steady with no wind.
1320 — Having a snack at our campsite. The weather cleared around 1000 — lots of dramatic clouds.
Wind out of the west. Not strong but noticeable when paddling against it. We went out looking for the photo and painting locations again. We explored the southeast bay — lots of wood chips on the bottom — and the bottom island as well as the southeast shore — several “maybes” but nothing quite right. We’re about to walk down to the next campsite (at the end of the old road) as it currently looks to be the front runner with respect to the painting.
1455 — The next campsite may well be the site of the painting but only if you argue that Thomson must have reduced the size of the right hand hill for compositional/artistic reasons. It may be true but it isn’t entirely satisfactory.
1615 — light wind, broken cloud with some sun and sounds of a thunderstorm approaching.
1655 — thunderstorm departing. A bit of a gully washer. Temperature dropped 6 degrees — 18C to 12C. Pressure 1006 mB.
1945 — beautiful calm evening — everything is put away. Having our evening night-cap (Bushmills)
Supper was Backpacker’s Pantry 3 Sisters Stew — tolerable — good quantity.
Sunday, September 8
0700 — having morning coffee — 10C — slight breeze from the west, high ceiling, fairly solid cloud cover but with definition, no fancy photogenic sunrises this morning. It had been a quiet night.
Cold breeze this am.
1137 — sitting in the bush to get some wind shelter at the 3rd campsite from the top along Five Mile Rapids.
We left our campsite at ~0940, started the portage up Five Mile Rapids at ~1000 and arrived here a little after 1100. The plan is to paddle back down looking for sandbanks to match the historic photo (River Drive) and the Tom Thomson painting (Sandbank with Logs).
The weather is dominated by the cool NW wind. The sky was overcast when we left, but is starting to break up now with a bit of sun shining through. [In retrospect, it was just a tease.]
1500 — back at the campsite, relaxing around our entertainment campfire, warming our feet, and having a coffee and Pirates.
We worked our way down the bottom half of Five Mile Rapids with difficulty. There just wasn’t enough water to float a canoe in places. Even with a rubber canoe it would be difficult. We just carried over the rocks along the shore. Pretty rough going.
We didn’t really make any progress with the photo and painting. Probably they are from around the campsites up on the sandbank, just downstream of the islands, but the vegetation change over the years makes any more precise location impossible.
We were back at the campsite at 1410 and a temperature of 12C.
2030 — in the tent for the night. Beautiful calm evening. The wind died, the clouds dispersed. Would have stayed out longer enjoying the embers of our dying campfire, but we were both starting to feel chilly. Last temperature check was 9C.
Supper was Backpacker’s Pantry Vegetable Lasagna — best dinner of the trip — followed by a brownie and our nightcap — Bushmills.
Lots of plane activity this evening — perhaps heading to Garrison Petawawa.
Monday, September 09
And on the fourth morning my watch battery died. Calm, heavy mist, temperature at 0C or perhaps a little below. [More likely, our thermometer is slightly out of calibration; there was no sign of frost.] Neither the butane lighter or the stove work well at these temperatures.
Next time bring some fleece mitts, etc.
Quiet night. Diana heard wolves but they had stopped by the time she roused me. We perhaps heard them again this morning but very faint.
1130 — all packed up, floating in our canoe just off our campsite. Beautiful day, warm in the sun, some scattered cloud, no wind.
1230 — drifting in the sun on the top half of Smith Lake, just finishing our lunch/snack break. We were able to navigate the swift between Whitson and Smith, but only just. We bottomed out and we had to step out of the canoe at one spot at the top. Maybe better route picking might have helped, but maybe not.
[We stopped at the fire site to take some photos]
1330 — at the top of McManus Lake. We ran the swift but not elegantly. Bob had to exit the canoe to free it at the top and then it was touch and go whether he could get back in again before Diana would have to run the remainder of the swift solo. We touched again at the bottom but didn’t stick.
[We arrived back at the take out a little after 1400 and had an uneventful drive home (which is good).
For a more extensive set of photos from this trip see our News Item: Four Nights on Whitson Lake.]
This trip featured several new pieces of gear:
Neos ("waterproof" overboots): Although we have used these in day-to-day use in the winter, this was the first time we had ever taken them on a canoe trip. Since the weather was getting cooler and we anticipated a certain amount of shallow water wading, we hoped these would keep our feet dry. They worked well enough, although Bob experienced some wetness. Whether it was due to a minor leak, or overenthusiastic wading is not clear. They were also useful as extra foot insulation when sitting around in cooler situations. Overal, the experiment was successful, but perhaps some extra seam sealer would be appropriate.
Butane stove: About a week prior to our trip, the fire danger in the area was extreme. We were concerned about the possible imposition of a fire ban precluding the use of our Trangia. We didn't have time to order from MEC and pay extra for an MSR or equivalent stove (and they don't ship butane canisters anyway), so we went to Canadian Tire and purchased a Woods butane stove and a couple of butane canisters. Even though the weather turned and our Trangia would have been fine, we went with the butane stove as an experiment. It worked well, although wind could be a problem for that stove design. We are temped to purchase a better quality butane stove. Whether it would be only for fire ban conditions, or regular use is not clear.
Mutha Hubba tent: Diana has been on a decades long quest to find the perfect tent to replace our faithful old tent without much success (although we do like our CCS Lean in appropriate conditions). The MSR Mutha Hubba is, on paper, the best she has identified so far. On the basis of this field test, it gets a passing grade, but Diana's quest continues. The dampness (although no sensible water) in the rain was a disappointment, but that was a reasonably severe test. Bob found the inside height a little low at the ends and we both found ingress and egress a little awkward for a couple of oldsters with decreasing spryness. This may be an issue in the bug season. (Our current tent has a vertical entrance zipper that hangs closed even when unzipped).
Cookies: We are constantly looking for appropriate high calorie snacks (our criteria being that they must exceed four calories per gram). This trip, we took some Walkers Shortbread and Christies Pirates. We don't regret bringing either.