What Happened When I went Canoe Camping for the First Time

When I was a kid, my family and I used to camp on a semi-regular basis. As my brother and I have gotten older, that’s long ended. This summer I decided to go back to nature and give camping another shot – and I’ve been loving it! I’m still figuring some things out – let’s be honest, as I kid I literally just showed up ready to roast marshmallows and play in the lake – but luckily, my friends are basically experts.

Last week, I took it a step further and tried canoe camping for the first time. That’s right. My boyfriend and I packed only what we could carry (plus the dog) and paddled and hiked our way from site to site (to site).

Here’s how that went.

Two Days Before Leaving

This was the day we had planned to pack. We didn’t.

Day One

Woke up when we wanted to leave and started packing. The plan was to bring 2 bags, one small day bag, and a cooler for the 3 nights and 4 days we were going to be away. We packed everything, then promptly unpacked, removed a few items, repacked, and eventually got on the road 4 hours behind schedule.

Lesson One: Pack early.

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We live in Ottawa, and were headed to Algonquin Park, about a two hour drive away. On the way we stopped to pick up a 45-lb kevlar canoe we rented from Algonquin Bound Outfitters. Yes, we were carrying that too, so we sort of splurged on a lighter-but-not-the-lightest model.

Lesson Two: Splurge on the lightest model.

We finally put the paddles in the water at Grand Lake / Achray Campground late afternoon. Before we even left dry ground, I felt like I’d left the world behind me.

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We paddled for about 30 minutes when we got to our first portage – just a short, 50 meter walk around a dam on a flat, dirt path. Nothing that prepared me for the marathons that were in store for the next day. More on that later. We eventually made it to our campsite on Stratton Lake in just under 2 hours total.

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The site was surprisingly big, with a big fire pit, make-shift benches, and even had a marked path that led to park-maintained bathroom area (a box with a lid, but better than digging a hole yourself and something the ladies will appreciate. I did.)

We managed to set up the tent and get settled before dark, but ate dinner with the light from our headlamps and the fire, and with the company of a few mice that came out looking for crumbs.

Lesson Three: Leave on time so you can eat in the daylight.

Lesson Four: Mice sound like bears at night.

We (I) got very little sleep.

Day Two

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After a virtually sleepless night (but thankfully without bears), we had breakfast, packed up the site, and got on our way. This was our longest day – we were headed to the Barron Canyon and staying in the lower part of the river. Long was an understatement.

The day included:

  • A paddle to the end of Stratton Lake
  • An 80m portage
  • A paddle through St. Andrews Lake
  • A 550m portage
  • A paddle through High Falls Lake
  • A 300m portage
  • A quick paddle through Ooze Lake (easy to see where it gets it’s name when you’re there. Gross)
  • A 640m portage
  • An even quicker paddle across Opalescent Lake
  • A 750m portage
  • A paddle across Birgham Lake
  • A quick 100m portage
  • A paddle through Brigham Chute
  • One last 440m portage
  • And the final paddle through the Barron Canyon (beautiful is an understatement) and to our campsite.
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8 hours later we got to the second site, set up the tent, made a fire, ate dinner, put out the fire, and promptly passed out.

Day Three

We’d been lucky to this point. The forecast called for rain every day of the trip, but it had been sunny and warm the whole time. We opted not to set up the tarp and rely on the fly should any rain fall. At 5am on day three, we woke up to a torrential downpour. And I mean torrential. The rain was hitting the ground, splashing in what was now mud, and spraying under the fly and up into the tent through the mesh sides.

Lesson Five: Set up the tarp.

We decided to wait it out and see if it would stop by noon to avoid having to tear down the site in it and end up soaked (along with our gear) for the rest of the day. Luckily, it did. We packed up and started paddling by early afternoon.

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We backtracked and followed our path back for the first two portages, but then changed course by continuing through Brigham Lake to take the Cascades back. More (but shorter) portages, and a stop at High Falls and the natural water slide were to round out Days 3 and 4.

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As soon as we started paddling, we (I) felt the effects of the eight-hour marathon the day before. In Algonquin Park, you reserve a spot on a lake, but the campsites are first-come-first-serve. The Cascades, where we were booked for the third night, had just two campsites – two portages and a couple lakes apart. Because we’d started late in the day, we didn’t want to risk the further site being taken and having to backtrack, so made the decision to stop after just a couple hours and set up camp at the first site at the top of The Cascades.

Best. Decision. Ever.

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We hung clotheslines to dry out whatever needed to be dried out, and had extra daylight to get firewood, prep dinner, and relax for the first time on the trip.

Lesson Six: Daylight is a good thing.

Day Four

Because we stopped early on Day Three, Day Four was looking like another long day: 9 portages and 8 paddles of various lengths. It was overcast. We were exhausted. We were next to the Brigham Parking Lot access point, and it was tempting.

We caved.

I laced up my sneakers and ran 10km along the main park road back to get the truck, and we packed up and headed out in about two hours.

Lesson Seven: Day Four should have been Days Four and Five.

We dropped off the canoe and were back in the Petawawa area by about 2:30, putting us back in Ottawa just before dinner. We felt a little like we cheated by getting out of the Park early, but it was definitely the right decision.

All in all, I loved this trip and would definitely back-country camp again – even though I’m still catching up on sleep and energy.

Have you gone back-country canoe camping? What did you think? Any gear you would leave behind next time (or add to your list?)

Wherever and however you travel next, happy adventuring!

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