Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Backcountry trip log: North Tea Lake (August 5 - 7 2018)

Solitude is not lonely.  It is rich, teeming.  The wind rushing through the tops of the evergreens.  The small splashing laps on the granite shores.  The warmth of a rock underneath me . The haunt of a loon's cry from across the lake.

These sounds are not only company in this otherwise human-less place, but they are souvenirs.  I tuck them into my mind, one at a time, until I am sure they are fully secured for the long journey home.


Ready to set out on
Kawawaymog Lake
After a long drive from Toronto and a night spent in North Bay, we were on the water, canoe fully packed, by 10:30am.  The paddle across Kawawaymog Lake started off quietly; the lake was mostly still.  However, as we got farther into the open water, the winds picked up and soon we had some white-capping waves hitting parallel to the boat.  Instead of continuing in a straight line towards the river mouth we were heading to (Amable du Fond), I steered us in a zig-zag fashion across the lake instead, in order to avoid the dreaded waves hitting parallel to the boat.  It took us roughly an hour to paddle the 2km of Kawawaymog in this fashion.

We were rewarded by a long, leisurely paddle of almost 4km in the Amable du Fond River.  This narrow river twists and turns almost constantly, meandering through tall grasses, lily pads, the occasional duck family, and a backdrop of tall evergreens.  The paddle is almost completely silent.  Despite it being a long weekend, there is a surprising lack of people, for which are are grateful.  We especially enjoy the sight of frogs resting with their eyes just above the water.  The pairs of round yellow watching us curiously as we paddled through their home keep us company.

Finally, we reached our first portage.  It was a short one (65m), but the very first one we had ever done.  We managed to flip the canoe over our heads and I held it stable while Jen arranged herself under the yoke.  Then I walked over to the front to keep it steady, and up the hill we went, carefully stepping around tree roots, rocks, and steep sections.  At the top, it was a very short walk back down to the water.  It took us a couple more trips to retrieve all our gear and re-load it into the canoe.  In total, it took us 25 minutes - a little slow, but not bad for our first one - and highly satisfying!
Paddling on Amable du Fond River

Some of the stairs at the second portage
After another section of river paddling, we soon approached the second portage.  This one had a pretty little waterfall rushing over the rocks and boulders.  We balked a little at the sight of the long wooden staircase - we were supposed to carry a canoe up that?! - but got to work and somehow (with some stops, bangs, and hastily shouted instructions to each other) managed to get the canoe up the stairs, through the short hike in the woods, and down the stairs on the other side of the falls.  The gear was next, and after all was said and done it took us 25 minutes to do this longer portage of 255m.  I'm hoping this means we're getting the hang of it!

Paddling North Tea Lake
The end of this portage brought us to North Tea Lake.  We had reserved 2 nights on the West Arm of this lake, so we set about paddling and looking for a free campsite (you don't reserve a specific site, you just get access to whatever site is available on the lake you've reserved).  We decided to check out the first small island we saw, but unfortunately there was already a canoe there, so we continued our paddle in search of another site, probably one of the ones on each of the shores.

As we were wondering whether to go to the north or south shore, the winds picked up considerably, and soon we were paddling through white-capping waves that were lifting us up and down like a toy boat on a raging sea.  When you're in the back country, you're on your own.  If you get into trouble or the dreaded flip happens, there's no one around to rescue you, or even notice.  So I made a beeline for the nearest land we could safely get to, a large island with several campsites marked on the map.  I managed to steer through the waves and winds enough to get us onto shore in one piece, but it wasn't a great landing spot and in order to minimize the risk of damaging the boat we didn't pull it all the way up onto the rocks.  We sat on the rocks and held onto the canoe that was being pushed and pulled by the waves, trying to angle it so not too much water would get inside, while we looked at the map and tried to get our bearings.

Walking on uneven rocky shorelines is a recipe for me spraining my very weak ankles, so Jen walked carefully on the rocks and around the corner of the island while I stayed with the boat, hoping to find a vacant campsite somewhere on the other side.

She eventually returned.  No campsite, but she did think it might be possible for her to walk the canoe through knee deep water around this side of the island and bring it to the calmer waters she had seen around the corner.

I carefully followed along on the rocky shore (hiking boots firmly on my feet), occasionally orienting the end of the boat for her as she persistently walked the boat through the disorienting waves, while also walking on uneven rocks she couldn't see under the water.  Somehow, she made it around the corner.

We found a campsite!

The other side of the island was like a different world - a flat still lake with barely any wind.  Relieved, we hopped back into the boat and continued our search for a campsite.  Thankfully, we didn't have to go too far.  We soon approached another small island - one of the only two in the West Arm of Tea Lake that had a single campsite on it.  Miraculously, it was unoccupied - we'd gotten our own private island after all.  It was 4:30pm - we'd been paddling for 6 hours and were exhausted.  We quickly pulled ashore, got the gear out of the boat, and rummaged around for our tiny campstove, a pot, and the coffee grinds.  Priorities!
Making coffee

After the day's exhaustion, sitting on our own little island, surrounded by pine trees and silence, looking out at the pale blue water, it was probably the best cup of coffee I'd ever had.

Camp didn't take us very long to set up, and soon after I was in the water for a swim.  I took our empty water container with me and swam out to the middle of the lake for some clean water, and then brought it back to camp so we could put our water treatment tablets in it.

It's incredible that so much wild, natural beauty still exists in Ontario.  This is worlds away from car camping, where you are packed into small spaces of green alongside so many other people, and the wildness is only an illusion due to the presence of park rangers and your own vehicle right beside you.  Car camping of course has its place, but it isn't this.  This utter aloneness, freedom, and just a touch of anxiety and thrill at knowing you're completely dependent upon your self for survival.

After preparing dinner, we carried it over to a nice lookout rock on the tip of the island.  There is a short path that cuts through the trees and involves a climb over a large fallen tree (which is awkward at best when you're just going for a walk over there, and considerably moreso when you're carrying your dinner and a camp chair.
Enjoying dinner on the tip of the island

Camp dinner

We set up for dinner on the rock, and looked out at the sunset while enjoying our meal of egg noodles, alfredo sauce, re-hydrated vegetables, fresh yellow bell pepper, and diced pepperoni sticks (I always try and make sure we have a fresh veggie and a protein source in all our meals).  We couldn't see or hear anyone else.  It was just us, the now calm lake, the island's lone resident red squirrel, and the Song Sparrows flitting in the trees.

Doing dishes, backcountry style
After doing the dishes and packing up any loose ends for the night, we head into our tiny tent by 9:30pm.  Partly because we were so tired and partly because we heard the rumble of thunder in the distance.  A few minutes later, the storm starts.

We huddle in the dark as the wind whips around us.  I clutch onto the fly through the mesh of our dome tent, perhaps irrationally worried it isn't attached securely enough and that the wind will rip it away.  The thin tent material flaps wildly in the strong winds, and then the rain starts - pellets of intense water hitting us from all sides.  Somehow, my little $30 tent doesn't have a single leak.  The thunder and lightning are happening simultaneously, so we know the storm is directly above us. 

It makes one feel very fragile, sitting in a pitch-black tent, while all that protects you from the wild winds, the flashes of light in the sky, the cracks of loud thunder, and the endless rain, is a thin piece of grey and blue fabric.  Nevertheless, there's also a thrill in it, sitting and waiting out a wild storm, completely alone on an island, at least a 6 hour's paddle from any sort of civilization.

When there's a pause in the rain and wind, I can hear the piercing call of the loon echoing across the lake.

After about an hour the storm passes, and we sleep, only to be woken a few hours later by another, even more intense storm.


After tossing and turning most of the night, we eventually end up in some sort of sleep, and make our way out of the tent around 10am.  Breakfast is instant pancake mix with dried blueberries mixed in, and a little container of maple syrup. And, of course, coffee. "What's the plan for today?" Jen asks.  "Nothing!" I reply back cheerfully. 

Morning sunrise

The resident red squirrel

And that's exactly what we did.  Every muscle in our bodies was sore due to the previous day's hard paddling and portaging, so we enjoy just sitting and looking at the lake.  I sit on a rock and write in my journal, Jen dozes in the sun.  Later I go for another swim in the cool water.  The day is cloudy but humid, and the lake feels incredibly refreshing.  I try and memorize this moment - the stillness of the lake punctuated by the ripples from my breaststroke, the surrounding forests of green, the reflections of the clouds on the water, the sight of Jen sitting in a navy blue campchair perched on the pink and moss-green coloured rocks at the tip of our island.  And the silence.  Always the silence.

Later in the afternoon, we put up a tarp because we could see it might rain again.  It did, but no storm this time.  It was relaxing to just sit under our makeshift shelter, look out at the lake, listening to the pitter-patter of raindrops, watch our resident little squirrel run around, and just be.

Going for a swim
Our rain shelter

Even though there was a fire ban, who says we can't
practice using our new fold-able saw,
even if we can't actually burn the wood?

Blogging, back country style


Writing, especially publicly, is difficult.  I often wonder who I am writing for - who is the "reader", or the "listener"?  I think here, in this virtual space, I am mostly writing for myself.  I am trying to capture certain moments in detail, so I can preserve the feelings associated with them.  But I think there is simultaneously another listener I write for - you, whoever you are.  A person who either can relate to these experiences and wants to read about them from a fresh perspective, or someone who will never have these particular experiences simply because of a different, no less meaningful life journey, and reads these posts in order to be brought to different places and experiences.

I know there are plenty of other reasons people stumble upon these virtual pages and read these words, but I cannot possibly write for all.  The meaning I make of my experiences is entirely my own, and that is the difficult part of being a writer.  Writing carries with it a certain level of power; an almost pre-supposition from the Reader that what the Writer is saying is "right" or "true".  I make none of these claims - I only try and capture what I feel I need to, in the way I that I feel is the most meaningful for me at the time.  Why do it in a public space, then?  I'm not sure.  Perhaps because we all need some form of social sharing, and I've never been much good at speaking.  Or perhaps because it keeps me accountable; forces me to put coherent frames around my experiences which is not only a benefit to the reader but also to myself.

But, I digress...


After our wonderful day of doing nothing on our private island, we again went to bed early, this time sleeping a little better.  We woke the next morning at 6:30am, had breakfast, and packed up camp while drinking our coffee.  By 8:30am we were on the water.  We had looked at the map the night before and decided on the best route back, depending on the wind.  Thankfully, the early morning start meant very little wind, and we paddled easily across North Tea Lake back to the first portage, with only a little headwind slowing us down in the middle.

It didn't take us much less time to complete either portage, but at least we felt like we were getting more fluent at the whole process.  We even managed to take all our gear in one trip this time, rather than going back and forth.
Leaving our campsite

Our campsite, all packed up

The day had started off cloudy and a little cool, but soon the sun was out and keeping us warm, while the occasional breeze made it very comfortable.  Unlike our first day, the humidity was gone, so that was a relief as well.  We paddled back along the Amable du Fond River, enjoying the solitude (that was occasionally interspersed by a canoe or two passing by this time).  We didn't speak much, just paddled, looked for frogs, and enjoyed how far we still were from noisy city life.

We reached the mouth of the Kawawaymog Lake and rather than stopping for a rest, decided to just paddle through for the home stretch.  There was a strong headwind but at least we were paddling directly at the small waves, so no need to zig zag across the lake this time.  We paddled almost perfectly in a straight line until we finally reached the dock at Access Point #1, where our car was.  The whole trip was just over 4 hours - we'd shaved off 2 hours from the way there.  What a difference the wind and weather can make!

As we pulled the boat onto the dock and unloaded the gear, Jen and I high-fived each other.  "We did it!"  Backcountry trip #2 is under our belt.  Slowly we're gaining experience.
Using a Life Straw to drink
directly from the river

I already can't wait to go back.  There's something about the demanding physicality of it that is incredibly meditative.  When all you have to focus on is getting through the basics of the day - food, water, shelter, transportation, warmth, safety - there isn't much space for anything else.  My mind, having such functional and vital necessities to focus on, has little room for function-less anxiety or wandering. 

Amable du Fond River
Simultaneously sensing both how strong and how fragile you really are is somehow not frightening but a kind of joy.  This sort of mindfulness presence to every moment is something I've been trying to learn for years, and have been focused on even more intently as of late.  I sat on our rock at the tip of our island one evening at dusk, and tried to focus on the sound of waves lapping the shore - there were three patterns I could hear simultaneously.  Every once in a while random thoughts would float through my head, but I'd try to just notice them and then let go of them.  Immerse myself in the sounds of the water.

For I knew that, once I was back home, sitting in front of this computer screen, that I'd need to be able to close my eyes and remember it again - not only the sounds, the sights, or the feelings - but the stillness.

The best kind of souvenir.