Tangential Travel

Experiencing Algonquin through modified base camping


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.


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.



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


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


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.



Finding the ‘can’ in ‘Canada’

Algonquin 2018 – Part 3


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.


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


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



Algonquin 2018 — Part 2

Isthmus Be the Place


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.



A bald eagle keeps watch over our isthmus campsite.



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



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



Another sunrise from our isthmus campsite.




Algonquin 2018 — Return to Big Porcupine

Part One — Getting there is half the grief


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.


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



Dream 7/5/’18

They say rain on your wedding day is a good omen. Raining trash, maybe not so much.

As we sat in the pews — assigned seating, relegating those like myself to the back of the church — the ceiling gave way. Black trash bags rained down upon the altar, bursting open and spewing slimy table scraps, disposable diapers, plastic bottles, etc.

A bridesmaid stood at the pulpit reciting First Corinthians Thirteen.

Paradise Lost

Another Chapter in This Year’s Magical History Tour


My Six Mile Dam campsite.

Six years ago I discovered an island paradise on the Walhonding River. In a few years, it will no longer be an island. Nor will it be a paradise.

River islands come and go. They grow, shrink and move — depending on the current, river debris and shifting sand and silt. But this island paradise is different. It’s man-made. When Six Mile Dam is removed, it will become “man-unmade.”

I first camped on the island six years ago. I’d canoed past it for decades, never stopping to camp there. It didn’t make sense to camp on an island near a portage trail. I didn’t like the idea of loading the canoe in the morning, paddling across the river to the portage takeout, unloading the canoe, then carrying the boat and gear past the dam and reloading. It’s a relatively easy portage. However, because of a steep drop-off along the bank, landing and unloading a canoe can be an adventure — if not a disaster.

After I camped there and discovered how scenic and peaceful the island was, I decided it was worth the extra work. It quickly became one of my favorite river campsites.

I also discovered that that the island is an historic place. I found a canal lock in the middle of the island. Later I’d learn that it had been Lock 5 of the Walhonding Canal.

I’d suspected all along that the island was man-made. The channel between it and the mainland seemed unnaturally straight and deep.

In April 2018, I spent a weekend in Coshocton with some folks from the Ohio Canal Society. They had invited me to share my knowledge of the dam and island as part of their Spring Canal Tour. Actually, they knew more about it than I did.

Based on what I knew and what they were able to tell me — along with Mike Greenlee of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources — I now know how the island got there.

In the early 1900s, the dam was repurposed. Originally it was built to supply water for the canal, which had become obsolete. So the dam and six miles of canal were converted to feed water to a hydroelectric plant downstream at Roscoe Village. The original wood cribbing dam was covered in concrete and a water intake structure built on the south bank.

In the process of converting the dam, two levees were added on the north bank of the river. They did this to direct more flow toward the north section of the dam when flooding occurred. The levees were positioned like a funnel, gradually coming closer together on the downstream end.

In order to move even more of the flow toward the north end of the dam (which is on the inside of a bend in the river), a channel was dug between the levees. This created the island.

According to Greenlee, when the dam is removed, the channel between the island and the north bank will be dewatered. The man-made island will be reunited with the mainland.

The island might still be suitable for camping, but privacy will no longer be assured.

Greenlee also said the lock could be added to the National Register of Historic Places. If so, camping probably won’t be allowed.

I hate to see my island paradise lost. However, free-flowing streams are better for wildlife and the environment. If history is preserved in the process, all the better. Besides, there will be one less portage to deal with.




Do-it-yourself oriole feeder

If you build it, they might come

Screen Shot 2018-04-05 at 07.39.41For years, I tried to lure Baltimore orioles to the feeders. One year I got a pair to stay the summer but, for the most part, a few orioles would stop by, wet their beaks at the nectar feeder and press on. They either moved on to “oranger” and “purpler” pastures down the road where people offered oranges and grape jelly, or continued on their northward migration.

After I retired and had way too much time on my hands, I resolved to go all out to keep the orioles at the feeders. At the first sighting, I ran out to Kroger and stocked up on oranges and grape jelly.

I crammed orange halves into suet cages and hung them out. I dabbed the grape jelly into recesses around the rim of a nectar feeder that we’d put out for them earlier in the spring.

It didn’t take long to see that simply putting nectar out for the orioles had been woefully inadequate — like trying to keep a free agent ballplayer from bolting to another team by offering him minimum wage. Within two days, the feeders were ablaze with flashes of bright orange plumage. About a half-dozen male orioles and two or three females converged on the feeders, jockeying for position on the improvised orange and grape jelly feeders.

It was obvious that, if I was going to make the jump to the big leagues of oriole-feeding, better accommodations were in order. A quick Internet search turned up a simple two-station feeder with an orange half and small cup of jelly at each perch. It was a basic design, requiring three small hunks of wood, deck screws and a couple pieces of dowel rod. It was simple enough that even an “unhandyman” like me could do it. (I have been called the Anti-Villa because I sorely lacked whatever talents do-it-yourself guru Bob Villa possessed.)

I went out to the barn, pried a white oak plank off the side that nobody ever sees and went to work. Within two hours, I had a serviceable Baltimore oriole feeder. It didn’t matter that it ended up looking an awful lot like the woodshop project I brought home from middle school. My parents proudly displayed my handiwork on the living room mantel, where they would entertain house guests by having them guess what it was supposed to be.

It was meant to be a shoeshine box — with a compartment below to stow polish and brushes and a sole-shaped appendage on top, where you were supposed to prop your shoe to polish it. My project looked more like a dresser drawer that had fallen off the back of a moving pickup truck, careened down the pavement for 50 or 60 yards and ended up in a contorted heap along the berm.

The orioles proved less judgmental than my parents and our house guests. They gave the feeder rave reviews, squabbling over spots on the perches, where they devoured the orange halves and emptied the jelly cups in a matter of hours.

After the orioles migrate south, I’ll take down the feeder. Maybe, during the winter, I can use it as a shoeshine box.