Tangential Travel

Experiencing Algonquin through modified base camping

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Steve and Ken encounter a red squirrel on a hike around our Big Porcupine Lake island. Reminiscent of the killer rabbit scene from “The Holy Grail.”

While we were camped on Big Porcupine Lake late last month, Steve McKee explained how he arrived at the concept of modified base camping on Algonquin canoe trips.

Typically, with wilderness tripping, you go from lake to lake, camping one night then moving on. The same with river trips. There’s a lot of work involved in setting up and breaking camp, but the scenery is constantly changing. Plus, I’ve always enjoyed the sense of movement — the sense of progression — that you get from doing it that way.

Many years ago, a group of stubborn Boy Scouts inspired Steve to opt for the modified base camping approach. He told us the boys crapped out on their leaders in the middle of a trip, refusing to move on from their camp and enduring several more days of portaging and setting up and breaking camp.

Steve wasn’t happy about it and pressed on, leaving the Boy Scouts and other leaders to their squatters’ camp. However, he later turned the experience into a positive — adapting it to his own preferences. The result was a modified base camp approach, which allowed him to move at a slower pace, spend more time at each lake and take day trips to other lakes or hikes into the back country. This involves spending a few nights on each lake and taking the empty canoe out for excursions during the day, sometimes portaging to other lakes.

Steve’s an accomplished naturalist and this left him plenty of opportunities for botanizing. In fact, on every trip, he’s found at least one plant species he had not seen in the wild before.

I have to admit, I was skeptical about this approach at first. But, after six years of Algonquin trips with Steve and our friend Ken Arthur, I’ve come to see the value in it. There is much to be said for taking day trips from base camps and canoeing to some of the more isolated lakes.

This year was no exception. The highlights included Steve finding a few “life plants” on Ragged Lake and coming across a yellow birch three feet in diameter on an island where we camped on Big Porcupine Lake.

Now that I’m retired, I occasionally use the modified base camp approach on river trips. Especially when the weather is bad. There’s something to be said for hunkering down,  listening to the raindrops on the tent or tarp and watching the birds and other critters going about their business.

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Cotton grass, a “life plant” for me, but not for Steve. We came across it on one of our day excursions along Big Porcupine Lake.

 

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Ken keeps an eye out for killer squirrels while Steve and I check out the cotton grass and other flora.

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Ken and Steve check out a huge yellow birch. Estimated to be 250 years old, it somehow was spared when Algonquin was heavily logged.

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Botanizing on Ragged Lake. This is where Steve found a few “life plants.”  The species we spotted included glove clubmoss, lance-leaved violet and lady tresses orchid. And we snacked on a few cranberries.

 

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Finding the ‘can’ in ‘Canada’

Algonquin 2018 – Part 3

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Pre-ringtab era cans — older than most of you.

On Big Porcupine Lake we found tin cans — for better or worse.

Cans are prohibited at Algonquin Provincial Park. As are bottles. Campers have a habit of not packing them out.

That includes a cluster of very old cans we found at one of the first campsites we scouted. We elected not to stay there because of its proximity to a portage trail head. That turned out better for us and a large group of Canadian Cadets (a sort-of ROTC). The site was better suited for a large camping party. There were only three in our group and two canoes.

We hooked up with them the next day while we were exploring and they were making the portage to Bonnechere Lake.

Among the cans was a peanut butter jar with a picture of an elephant wearing a silly cap molded into the glass. Ken collects bottles, so he scavenged it.

Ken would later make use of two tin cans we found at our campsite, which was on an island across from the first site we scouted.

A canoe trip isn’t a canoe trip unless you forget something. I forgot to bring a reliable vehicle; Ken forgot the “feet” for his camp chair. The feet were something I came up with to keep the legs of the chair from sinking into the mud or sand.

He improvised by putting the cans on the front legs of his chair.

Necessity proved to be the mother of invention. The afternoon of our second day on Porcupine Lake it started to rain and didn’t stop till the next morning.

To be continued.

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Steve’s chair on the right with the feet I designed. Ken’s cans on the left.

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Ken putting charred cans he found in the fire ring to good use.

 

 

Algonquin 2018 — Part 2

Isthmus Be the Place

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Morning view from the east side of the isthmus.

On the second day of our trip, I awakened to see a foggy sunrise through a curtain of silhouetted pine trees. All was well with the world — and I hadn’t even had my morning coffee.

 

It turned out that sunsets and moon rises would be equally as wonderful. The campsite was on an isthmus with small sand beaches facing the east and west. The latter also had a resident eagle that spent much of the day perched in a dead tree across from the beach.

Not bad for a campsite we found in the dark. As reported in the previous post, the ol’ Canoebaru broke down en route to Canada and we had arrived at Algonquin Provincial Park four hours behind schedule. We considered ourselves lucky to have made it there at all, much less on the same day we left from north central Ohio.

Especially considering the confusion caused by my hearing impairment when we passed through customs. The border patrol agent asked where we were from. I thought he asked where we were going and told him “Algonquin.” From the look of confusion on his face, I might as well have said I was from Mars.

From then on, Ken and Steve acted as my interpreters in all confrontations with figures of authority.

As had been the case five years ago, we planned to camp on Ragged and Big Porcupine lakes. This time, we’d spend two nights on Ragged Lake, two nights on Big Porcupine and the final two on Ragged again.

And, as I mentioned five years ago, the portage from Ragged to Big Porcupine is challenging. To put it charitably. In the post from 2013, I described the portage as “a vertical climb of 400 feet covering a distance of 1.4 gonzometers (roughly one-third of a light year).”

I wasn’t far off. Actually, it’s only a 150-foot climb over a distance of 590 meters (about a third of a mile).

To be continued.

 

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A bald eagle keeps watch over our isthmus campsite.

 

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There was a great collection of driftwood on our west beach.

 

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Ken Arthur with his journal and Steve McKee enjoying the sunset.

 

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Another sunrise from our isthmus campsite.

 

 

 

Algonquin 2018 — Return to Big Porcupine

Part One — Getting there is half the grief

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We had to take the boats off the car so they could work on it. Thanks for the fast service, West Herr Subaru.

As my friend and canoeing buddy Ken Arthur said, “This is our first portage.”

Unfortunately, it was in Orchard Park, New York, less than halfway to Algonquin Provincial Park. What I originally thought were road vibrations on the New York Throughway were the front axles falling apart on the ol’ Canoebaru.

We got off the freeway, looked up the nearest Subaru Dealership and I limped the car into Orchard Park, outside of Buffalo.

Four hours (expedited service, thank you, thank you, thank you) and $730 later, we were back on the road.

We arrived at Smoke Lake, paddled 3.5 miles to Ragged Lake. We completed the short portage between Smoke and Ragged lakes, arriving just as it was getting dark. Unfortunately, most of the campsites on Ragged Lake were taken. We didn’t find one till well after dark.

By the time we set up camp, we were pretty spent. We ate what amounted to a shore lunch and turned in. Best night’s sleep I ever had. Awakened to a stunning view of the sunrise from my tent.

To be continued.

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This is what I saw when I first opened my eyes and looked out of my tent.