Frontenac Provincial Park
Friday, July 28, 2000 to Sunday, July 30, 2000
length: 20.0km, 3 days
participants: Frank Inglis, Kevin Brown,
Just thought I should drop you a note to report on Kevin and my visit to Frontenac Provincial Park last weekend. We took three days and two nights and, much like Tim and Naomi a few weeks ago, this was our first trip by ourselves.
For those who aren't familiar, Frontenac is a decent sized park which features a series of lakes, nestled in the Frontenac Axis of the Canadian Shield just north of Kingston. Being a near-absolute beginner, I can't really provide accurate ratings of difficulty and so on, since I don't completely understand the rating systems. But basically, our route, and apparently the whole park, was strictly flat water.
The paddling was (as Tripper Dave advised us) dead simple. The only potentially difficult aspects were that some of the take outs for portages or campsites were slippery slopes or just plain tiny, and a couple of the lakes were large enough to raise the possibility of getting wind bound if the weather turned really nasty. Thankfully it only turned mildly nasty, and even then not for very long.
Non-paddling related hazards mainly took the form of the local fauna. Upon arrival at the "trail centre" we were informed in no uncertain terms by the friendly Parks Ontario staff that there had been recent bear sightings at both of our campsites. We were also informed by the staff, and several fellow campers on their way out, that the racoons were particularly bold. The park newsletter informed us that they might also be rabid.
I have mixed feelings about our lack of bear sightings. While such events obviously have some potential danger, I have never seen a bear in the wild (unless you count cottage country garbage dumps) and would like to some time, from a safe distance of course. As for the racoons, our experiences with them led us to believe they were somewhat over-rated. Yes, one did come waltzing right into our second campsite while we were in it, but a bellow from Kev and a couple of steps in its general direction scared it off PDQ. According to Kev, a group of them visited the campsite later that night and knocked the food barrel off its perch, but were unable to open it. I slept through the entire affair.
And then there were the portages. This is where the real difficulty set in. Due to some last minute changes in plans, we were forced to re-book our campsites (which must be reserved) and change our route to one which involved a lot of portaging. Suffice it to say that Kev and I learned that portaging is not our forte, and we need to learn to pack less. We were also reminded that those little lines on topographical maps should be paid a significant amount of attention when estimating just how tough a portage might be. And last but definitely not least, the idea that ABS canoes are just really %^$#@ heavy boats was also reinforced for us. But hey, that's why you need to try things for yourself -- you get to learn things the hard way.
In any case, the trip basically shook down like this:
Day 1 -- Kev and I awoke early with an estimated departure time from Richmond Hill of 7:30 AM. After some general early morning slowness, and a few adjustments inherent in securing a canoe to Kev's recently acquired wheels for the first time, we were on the road at about 8:15.
We managed to make it as far as Courtice Road (in between Oshawa and Bowmanville) before we decided to stop and review our handywork in terms of canoe to car appendage. We decided to do some tightening because getting passed by transport trucks seemed to disagree with the canoe.
From there we drove on to Belleville, where we decided to stop for a cuppa mud and review our canoe to car appendage again. While the canoe was pretty firmly affixed via a combo of the standard '98 escort wagon roofrack, foam blocks and straps, we realized we had lost one of the back foam blocks. Seeing nowhere with readily available replacements, we decided to just take it easy from Belleville to the park.
We arrived at Frontenac around noonish, checked in, took advantage of the trail centre's indoor plumbing, and had a little poke around the centre to learn more about the park. From there we made our way down to the put in and had a shore lunch of salami and cheese on bagel sandwiches, fresh fruit and powdered juice crystals.
We loaded up and were on the water by shortly after 1:00, starting with Big Salmon Lake. That glacier did one heck of a job of gouging a long straight hole in the rock running northeast/southwest. The lake is over 40 metres deep, and surrounded by cliffs and moderately steep hills. The scenery was quite nice, and we managed to spot the occasional doe grazing the hillsides along the way. We also had fun watching the loons dive for their lunches.
After about an hour of northeasterly paddling, we reached our first portage. That meant our first attempt at lugging all our stuff over the aforementioned moderately steep hills from Big Salmon to Labelle Lake -- a distance of about 470 metres. As our stuff consisted of one food barrel, one big heavy pack and one comparatively light pack, our original plan had been for one person to take the food barrel and one the light pack on the first trip, then whoever had the light pack got the canoe and whoever got the food barrel got the big pack on the second. We soon discovered that portaging an ABS canoe sans yoke is not a one person job, and had to change our M.O. in mid portage.
Labelle lake lived up to its name, but was quite small. After lugging our stuff over the hill, we were kind of disappointed to see that our next portage was staring us in the face a couple hundred metres away. We took a little break, paddled out into the middle of Labelle and filled our water bottles, then paddled on to portage # 2.
Portage # 2, from Labelle to Big Clear Lake, was only 190 metres. However, over those 190 metres there were 5 lines on the topo map. Essentially, it was straight up and straight down. Steep, but not that bad.
It was on this portage that we adopted the technique we would continue to use for the rest of the trip. On the first run, one person got the food barrel and the other the big pack. On the second run, the stern portager carried the small pack, on top of which our tarp and poles were strapped. This enabled the stern portager to rest the canoe on the tarp poles, not his shoulders. The bow portager alternated between resting the front seat on his head or shoulders, depending on terrain and what hurt more.
The arrival point at Big Clear is absolutely beautiful. Lots of lovely rock formations and a couple of islands greet you as you emerge from the hilly forest. I wish I had taken more photos of this trip, but I'm really happy that I managed to pop off one in each direction from this vista.
Big Clear is the biggest lake in the park, as well as the deepest at 73 metres. I think it was probably my favourite despite the fact that, as it straddles the park boundary, it is marred with a few cottages and motor boats. The loons on Big Clear are particularly bold, and one let us get within about 20 feet before diving. We had to coast for a little bit for fear of smacking its little feathered head as we paddled.
I was sad to see Big Clear go, and even sadder when I realized this meant the first big portage of the trip. Luckily, it would be the last of the day, especially as it was starting to get late.
The portage from Big Clear to Hardwood Bay on Devil's Lake is 860 metres. And while that might not sound like much, the terrain conspired to make it the worst of the whole trip (in my opinion at least). To make a long and painful story short, it is a series of steep ups and downs along a twisty path that was sometimes narrow enough that we could only just squeeze the canoe through the trees. It ends going down a steep, narrow, rocky path next to the trickle from a beaver pond to Hardwood Bay. The landing was about the same size as the bathroom in my Jr. 1 bedroom apartment, with two trees right in the middle of the shore. The park newsletter described it as "moderate to difficult". (As an aside, the only portage that the newsletter described as "very difficult", Tripper Dave once described as "the worst I've ever been on", or words to that effect.)
Up until we emerged from the portage with our canoe, the weather had been sunny, mid twenties and humid. We arrived at Hardwood Bay to discover (a) the sunlight was fading and (b) a thunderstorm was rolling in. As much as we REALLY wanted to take a break, we figured the sound of thunder meant we should hightail it to camp. We managed to get the tent and tarp set up just before the heavens opened, but we were absolutely exhausted.
After a hearty repast of chili cheese burritos, fresh Granny Smith apples and more juice crystals, we decided to make an early night of it. Kev slept, in his own words, "as if someone hit me in the head with a ball-peen hammer". I was restless and dozy for most of the night, not sleeping well at all.
Day 2 -- Realizing that we didn't have to go nearly as far on Day 2 meant we could allow ourselves the luxury of sleeping in a little bit. I slept a bit later than Kev, and emerged around 9:30 to find that breakfast was almost ready.
As we munched on our instant oatmeal and bagels with jam, we reviewed the maps to see if there was a way to avoid going back out through that gawdawful portage (the Hardwood Bay campsites are a little bit off the beaten path, but that's what was available that day). The camp newsletter described the westbound portage that was immediately adjacent to our campsite as "easy, flat". That sounded like just what the doctor ordered, since our Day 2 campsite was to the south west.
The portage from Hardwood Bay to Bear Lake really is easy and flat and only a bit over 500 meters long. It was probably the easiest of the lot, considering that both Kev and I were good and sore when we woke up that day. On the way back from the first run we accidentally flushed what appeared to be a ruffled grouse, which the park's website (http://www.OntarioParks.com/fron.html) confirms are indigenous. It could also have been a wild turkey, as they apparently live there too. And sure enough, while lugging the canoe we found that the fowl had not moved more than 15 feet.
Bear Lake did not live up to its name. Not a single bear in sight. In fact, the only wildlife we saw on Bear Lake were a raven and about a gazillion frogs. Bear Lake is tiny and swampy and, much like Labelle, our portage was easily visible and only a couple hundred meters away. We at least paused in Bear Lake to have a boo at the tiny little waterfall that runs down the steep cliffs that form its northern shore. A quick paddle and more slugging. Oh well, at least we didn't have to traverse the beaver path out of Hardwood.
Next up was the portage from Bear Lake to Black Lake. I'm going from memory here, but I think the distance was 974M. If I had to venture a guess, I'd say it was about 700 metres of VERY steep uphill, 200 of rolling crest, and 75 straight down to Black Lake. At least it sure felt that way.
And if I had to venture another guess, it took about 100 metres of steep uphill before we had to take a rest which Kev describes as "the first time I almost died." I'd say this was the second toughest portage of our trip, but Kev might advocate for it to be given top billing.
But the most frustrating thing of all was that we arrived at Black Lake to realize that our next portage was about 30 FEET across a little swampy bit. We could almost have thrown the gear that far. I don't know about Kev, but by then I was tempted to. At that point, we decided we would paddle across Black Lake to a pretty outcropping we spied and have lunch.
After a couple more salami sandwiches and one of the best Granny Smiths I've had in a long time, we were back on the water for another, I don't know, three minutes. The portage from Black Lake to Little Clear was also, thankfully, flat and short. About 570 M if memory serves. It was also blessed with a serious abundance of frogs and, like most of the other portages, was kinda muddy. The landing was tiny and boggy.
After dropping all our stuff off at the shore of Little Clear, which is also very pretty, we consulted the map and realized that our paddle (we couldn't even see the next portage!!) would cause us to miss the ruins of an old homestead, and what's left of the circa 1950 pick-up truck, named "Old Thor" by Park staff, that was used for road clearing up until 1953. We decided that an unburdened stroll down the hiking trail might be nice, so we set off in search of the sights.
We didn't get quite as far as Old Thor or the homestead, because we realized that, once again, time and weather were against us. But as we wandered down the trail I heard the rumble of hooves and stopped. So did the hooves. When we started up again the hooves did too and I realized that a buck was traveling a parallel path to ours about 25 metres into the bush. Unfortunately, he was moving a little quicker than we were. Still, tres cool!
Our not so leisurely paddle to the portage from Little Clear back to Big Salmon got us there just before it started raining. And the portage was 923 metres, much of which was boggy enough before the rain that the Friends of Frontenac had built foot bridges over the ground. While I guess the foot bridges were better than ankle deep mud, they were just wide enough to get both feet on and got slippery when wet. The rocks ended up getting pretty slick too. But aside from being slippery and a bit long, this portage was pretty easy. None of the hills were particularly steep or long.
Arriving back at Big Salmon with the canoe, we realized that the rain was slowing down but the wind had picked up to the point where the water was getting a little choppy. Luckily these conditions didn't last very long, and our paddle to our campsite was relatively uneventful. The exception being close observation of what may well be the largest gull I have ever seen, perched on a particularly guano encrusted rock. At roughly 25 minutes it was also our longest paddle of the day by a considerable margin.
The camp newsletter implied that we should take out where the campsite sign was and portage into our site. But since we came upon the site before the sign, and we were so bloody tired of portaging, we decided to take out at the site. Considering that the shore of the site was rocky, rain soaked and straight up I'm still not sure if that was such a great idea...
Again we managed to get things set up before the weather got too horrendous. But we also realized after a while that the camp stove we borrowed from Tripper Dave was no longer operating at peak efficiency. Refilling the fuel and attempting to clean out carbon deposits didn't seem to do very much. After an hour of waiting for our water to boil we decided to forego the pasta primavera we had planned and eat the next day's lunch. That of course meant that the planned leisurely noodling about the next day was canceled. It also meant that we had some warmish water with which to wash. That was decidedly welcome. Aside from the malfunctioning stove, the racoon activities mentioned off the top and a search for the privy in total darkness, night number 2 was relatively uneventful. We decided to turn in early and it was my turn to completely zonk.
Day 3 -- Got up, made instant oatmeal with lukewarm water, skipped the coffee and got the hell out of Dodge once the rain slowed down.
On the way home, we stopped at Frontenac Outfitters, located just outside the park, to get some better gear for appending the canoe to the car. There we met up with the proprietor, who can only be described as the perfect cross between Ned Flanders and Tripper Dave, without the religious overtones.
Since it was a planned stop, and we were only going a short distance, we didn't do a very meticulous job of tying the canoe down. This earned us a lecture from "Ned", who thought we had driven all the way from Toronto that way. Despite our reassurances, "Ned" implied pretty firmly that he wanted to inspect our job before we left. In fact he wouldn't draw up the bill for the four monster foam blocks and two cross straps until we passed muster. This meant twenty minutes of listening to him complain bitterly about his competitors to about three or four telephone callers, and handle a call from someone who wanted a price quote on "a Prospector".
Aside from a longer than expected search for a lunch spot in Kingston, the ride home was uneventful.
All in all, I think I would go back to Frontenac provided that sites were booked and routes were planned far enough in advance to guarantee I wouldn't spend so much of my time portaging. With the right route, I think it would lend itself to some pretty leisurely canoeing, and one reason we picked it was we were supposed to be going with some folks who are even less experienced paddlers than we are.
A lot of what I saw was quite pleasant, and there are parts of the park I didn't see that are also supposed to be very nice. It's close to Toronto and relatively cheap. It's also well maintained and features some welcome amenities such as clean privies in each campsite cluster, benches or picnic tables at most sites, and fire pits and tent "pads" on all of them. I'm also told the fishin's OK if you're into that kind of thing.
I'll just close by saying I'm looking forward to the French River/Bustard Islands trip as it features white water and little or no portaging.