Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Algonquin Hang - Fall 2011 - Sunny with a chance of flurries...Part One and Two - Revised - Photos By [o]TTer

Although I'm a little more tired and sore than I should be, I can say that the Fall2011 Hang was definitely a memorable one.

It's usually not a good omen when you're driving down the highway towards a weekend hang through a night so dark and rain so heavy that you can barely make out the taillights of the car in front of you. Add to that a weather forecast that called for rain, wind and cold, and top that off with zero sleep. Someone should've been taking notes.

Around 8am Wolvaroo and I turned off of Highway 60 and pulled up to Algonquin Park's Canoe Lake Access Point. Located at the end of a long bay opening onto its namesake, Canoe Lake is probably the most popular jumping off point for canoe trips throughout Algonquin. One I’ve known well since I was a boy. On any given summer weekend, this now tranquil place transforms into a madhouse, crowded with canoeists and tourists of all shapes and sizes, each going about their business of coming and going. A steady stream of canoes, paddled by unsteady novices and grim veterans alike, would head northwards to the main lake bound for new adventures, while others would return southwards; weary but always smiling as they recalled their exploits. Canoes and equipment would line the shore and the docks in front of the grand two story Portage Store, while upstairs in the restaurant, pretty waitresses would be serving large helpings of their excellent breakfasts or burgers to hungry travelers, who would wash it all down with a Coke, or better yet, a cold beer. As a matter of fact, the 2011 Spring Hang had ended in the very restaurant over a meal of burgers, fries, beer and soda. As for myself, I prefer the tail seasons of early spring or late fall, when the staff are busy getting ready to either open for the season or close down afterwards. A time when the crowds are at a minimum and you have the Park almost to yourself.

As the first to arrive, Wolvaroo and I took shelter from the rain on the wide Portage Store porch. It was nice to be able to relax for a while after the long drive and watch the patterns the rain made on the quiet lake. I took the opportunity to pull out my pack and make sure everything was as waterproof as possible. Traveling in the rain is not bad once you're on the water. Once you're wet, you're wet. The real concern is for the gear. A wet down sleeping bag or reserve clothes bag at the beginning of a trip is a misery particularly early or late in the season, and I’ve always been careful to never let it happen. As a boy in camp we were taught how to wrap our sleeping bags in a plastic tarp, after which the camp counselor would then throw the finished bundle into the lake. That bag was your bedding for the night so you better have made it waterproof. Another issue is as the packs get wet with rain, they absorb the water and get noticeably heavier, something that makes slippery portages even more of a challenge. As I’ve said, paddling in the rain isn’t much of an ordeal as long as you’ve paid attention to the details.

The rain was still coming down, and although it appeared to be clearing slightly, the prospects of a rain-soaked weekend and a lack of sleep the night before were beginning to wear me down. I was starting to seriously consider the alternative of base-camping at a drive-in site. Before long however, Ryvr, [o]TTer and Bubba showed up and their enthusiasm was infectious. Come hell or high water, we would go on with our plan: two nights in the piney woods of Algonquin Provincial Park. We registered at the Park Office, zipped across the highway and pulled up by the Smoke Lake dock where Dan8tro and Brantwing were waiting. Let the good times roll!

Our little band consisted of three canoes and one kayak. Ryvr and Bubba would be in Ryvr’s 16’ Kipiwa, Dan8tro and Brantwing in a 16’ Kipiwa rented from Algonquin Outfitters just outside of the Park and Wolvaroo and me in my 16’ prospector. [o]TTer, ever the rebel, would be paddling his small solo kayak. With the exception of Wolvaroo, the rest of our group had been on at least two or more trips together, including a winter hang at Valen's in early 2011 and the May 2011 Spring Hang.

The route we had chosen called for us to push off Friday morning from the Smoke Lake access point, paddle our way south through Ragged and Big Porcupine until we finally set up camp in Bonnechere some fifteen kilometers and four portages distant. Our second day, Saturday, would see us looping eleven kilometers and five portages east and north through Phipps, Kirkwood and Pardee and then up through Harness to our second night's camp on Head Lake. Our last morning, Sunday, would see us covering about five kilometers with the longest portage of the trip followed by a short paddle through the island maze of Cache Lake to the parking lot and the cars that we would park there. A good three day trip, especially with the fall colours at their best.

Just before departure Ryvr, Brantwing and I pulled our vehicles out of the Smoke Lake parking lot and drove the twenty or so kilometers to Cache Lake where we'd leave two of our vehicles in advance of our arrival Sunday morning. We all were eager to get back on the road as early as possible Sunday morning and this trick would cut at least four hours off the route. As the three of us drove back in Ryvr's truck, it was astonishing just how far one could paddle in a few hours and how much paddling we were saving. Even at 90kmh, it took a good ten minutes to drive back to Smoke lake.

Back at the docks everyone was ready to go. Packs were loaded into the canoes, protected by rain covers and tarps, and our rain gear was on. Ironically we weren't the only ones with questionable mental health that morning. Despite the weather, a large group of young adults were transferring their gear from a chartered coach bus to a flotilla of rental canoes. We'd see them again as they paddled ahead of us down Smoke and again along the first portage to Ragged Lake, but that would be the last of them. I hope they fared well.

[o]TTer launched first and paddled straight for a little reef that rose out of the water nearby. The rest of us pushed off and quickly turned south. Our trip down Smoke was damp but uneventful. As if to make up for the wet weather, we were blessed with a light tail wind that would follow us for most of the day. Smoke Lake is a beautiful lake; long, wide and flanked by steep, forested hills that were now in their glory of full autumn colour. When the wind picks up Smoke Lake can become truly treacherous as I found out that spring, but today even under a light rain, she was a pleasure.

We passed over the first portage with little trouble. We reflected on the three missing members of our original group, Shawnh and his family. They were planning to be in the park the day before and then meet us on this portage. Unfortunately last minute complications forced them to cancel. It’s too bad. It was great having their company at our spring hang and they’d be missed. From Ragged we first paddled south past several large shield outcroppings and then turned east to paddle around the large, steep island that dominates Ragged Lake. From there we headed south to our second portage that rose over a high hill and down to the North arm of Big Porcupine.

The Ragged-Porcupine portage is a pig, plain and simple. Although it's only six hundred metres long, almost all of the elevation gained on the trip came on this one portage, and specifically on one long, often slippery hill. Here's where portaging goes from a pleasant walk in the park to a real workout. For better or for worse, portaging is an essential part of traveling by canoe. Each portage takes you a little further away from the distractions of "civilization" and brings you a little closer to the wilderness that most of us go canoeing to find. Whenever I meet people deep in the park, people who have endured the same hardships I have, I find that we share not only the same deep respect and compassion for the land, but also a strong sense of camaraderie. Never have a table of latté sipping yuppies on some Starbucks patio invited me to sit down and join them, but many times I've been asked by other canoeists to stop a while and share a cup of coffee around their campfire. Although normally I politely decline, I always paddle away heartened knowing that there kindred spirits nearby. Make no mistake, when you finally shoulder your pack, flip up you canoe and head down that portage, all portages are work. Some may be better than others, but just let me say that the Ragged-Porcupine was a pig.

Our basic tactic was to try to do single-carry portages, taking all of our gear and canoes with us over the trail in one trip. The alternative, the double-carry, calls for taking half your load on the first trip, and then returning for the remainder of your gear. The actual carries themselves are easier but you wind up covering three times the distance and taking three times as long. My rule of thumb is that one kilometer of portaging takes about twenty minutes on a single carry and one hour on a double carry. Although we generally started off as a single carry, we had no reservations about dropping our canoes and coming back for them later. Case in point: Dan8tro, Ryvr and I were carrying the canoes up the Pig with Dan8tro far in the lead, followed by me, then Ryvr just behind. About halfway up the main slope, Ryvr slipped and went down under his canoe. The overnight rain and wet leaves had made the trail quite slippery and he had slipped on the same section that I had slipped on two years earlier heading downhill, the other way. After asking him a couple of times if he needed any assistance, he finally grunted that he did, so I dropped my canoe and pack and turned to lift Ryvr's canoe off of him. Slipping under a canoe is an easy way to sprain an ankle or worse, but fortunately Ryvr wasn’t seriously injured. We decided to leave the canoes for a second trip and just continued with our packs down to the other end. His ankle was a bit tender for a while, but he managed to walk it off.

By the time our little band had collapsed at the end of the portage into the north arm of Big Porcupine Lake, it was time for a break. Ahead of us we had the choice of either paddling around a large peninsula that divided Big Porcupine into three parts, or doing a short paddle and then an easy four hundred metre portage to the other side. Over the course of previous trips I've used both, but have always found the portage a little faster. Besides the paddle around is fairly lengthy and it’s always nice to be able to stretch one’s legs on the way. [o]TTer, wary of having to unpack, carry and repack his kayak yet again, decided to paddle around while the rest of us chose the portage. In the end, however, we met up at about the same time.

As we were getting ready to launch, I found a large ziplock bag with a photocopy of a route map in the water behind some driftwood. Turning it over I saw that it was marked on the other side with all of the details of their trip, including emergency contacts. I’d rate losing your only map deep in the park as a few notches above a wet sleeping bag on the adversity scale. I certainly hoped that whoever lost it had a backup.

In the southern arm of Big Porcupine we had a half hour paddle to our last portage of the day, an easy 200m into Bonnechere. As we crossed the lake we saw a gentle mist rolling across the lakes between the islands. Getting closer the mist looked wrong. It was the wrong colour, less the pure white of mist and more the grey-brown of wood smoke. Sure enough we paddled into it and you could smell the fire in it. While the rest of the group paddled to the portage, Wolvaroo and I took a little detour to check on the source of the smoke and hopefully find the owners of the lost map. Following the smoke to its origin, we met up with a nice retired couple and their dog. Their small campfire that was causing all of the smoke and it was amazing how the weather conditions were forcing that smoke right down onto the water. No, they hadn't lost a map but they invited us to join them by their fire to warm up. I guess we looked cold: I was in shorts after all. We politely declined and turned to rejoin our group at the portage.

Once in Bonnechere, we faced an important decision; we needed to find a site that offered maximum protection from the cold north wind. We passed by the site I had stayed on with my "trout'n" buddies at the opening of this year's trout season, only one day after ice out, and paddled to the site on the north shore with it forested back into the wind. We unloaded the canoes and everyone immediately scattered, each intent on finding those perfect trees for the night. It’s amazing how long it actually takes to pick one’s trees. Some people, myself included, wandering around the site for a good twenty minutes or more weighing our options, annoyed that some of the best trees were located around the thunderbox, the ubiquitous wooden box that serves as the backwoods toilet throughout Algonquin. Before long, a little "Hammock Ghetto" sprang up near the main clearing where Brantwing, Dan8tro, Ryvr, [o]TTer and Bubba had pitched their rigs. I found a couple of nice trees in a small clearing some twenty yards away. Wolvaroo, in an effort to optimize the warmth of his gear, set up deeper in the woods, his tarp staked directly to the ground. Very sensible. As I mentioned earlier, the rest of us had survived a winter hang with temperatures well below freezing. Wolvaroo would be pushing his three season gear to the limit on this trip.

With camp all set up, attention turned to dinner. I had brought some small lamb chops and wanted to roast them over an open fire. Eventually I grabbed my axe, Dan8tro grabbed his insanely wicked saw and, joined by Wolvaroo, we headed off into the forest behind the site to get some firewood. After a long search we found several standing dead pines, roughly twenty feet high and a good five inches across. We picked one, felled it down and sawed in half to carry it back to camp. Once there Dan8tro started sawing sections that I started splitting up into firewood. In no time we had a good stock of wood. Pine burns hot but fast and we'd go through our supply quickly, but that wasn’t going to be a problem. For years I’ve been given grief for carrying my axe into the bush, mainly from the ultralight crowd. In my view no piece of equipment is more valuable. Fire means life, plain and simple. In cold, wet, windy conditions when you’re on the verge of hypothermia, nothing knocks the cold out of you like a raging fire and the ability to get a fire going in those conditions is critical. Battening an adequate supply of firewood with a stout bushcraft knife is possible, but an axe will do the job faster and more safely. Suffice to say that on any canoeing trip, an axe and saw always accompany me.

Most of us had had little or no sleep the night before and we were all looking forward to an early night. I set up a "burn-down" fire and [o]TTer went to town shaving kindling. For some reason, the wood we had found was absolutely beautiful to carve. Dry and well seasoned, it cut like butter. [o]TTer was in his happy place. He then took firesteel to birchbark and got the fire going... first try. Once the blaze had burned down I grilled the lamb and shared the little chops with the group. Excellent.

Standing around the fire for a while, we just enjoyed each other's company, but before long the sleepless night and long paddle caught up with us and it was sleepy time. Settling into my cozy down cocoon, I was in my happy place. Through the night I could hear the wind blowing in the treetops, but my tarp only flapped slightly. Our campsite was well protected. I'm a light sleeper and at one point I could feel and hear some critter tripping over my guy lines. Not too long afterwards I'm sure that, just for a second or two, I smelled that wet dog smell. But then it was gone and I fell back asleep.

As I said, most of us didn't really get much, or any, sleep the night before, so we generally agreed that we'd have a lazy morning. We’d sleep-in and get a late morning start on what should be a short paddling day. I woke up at dawn the next morning to the sound of quiet voices coming from the Ghetto. It was brisk outside with temperatures just above freezing, and the prospect of getting out of my warm down sleeping gear didn't really appeal to me. But after lying still for half an hour, I unzipped my hammock (a DIY full zipper mod on my Hennessey Expedition), swung my legs out and, wearing only a pair of gym shorts, slipped on my wool sweater and teva sandals. Standing up I “adjusted my gym shorts” (polite phrasing for "scratched my butt") and stumbled towards the main camp.

There was a figure huddled over a small stove so I wandered over, careful not to trip over Brantwing's tarp lines along the way. It turned out that [o]TTer's was up already and had his alcohol stove flickering away under a Heinie Pot. We chatted a bit and it dawned on me that it was snowing. Snowing!!! [o]TTer was fully bundled up with long pants, jacket, shoes and hat. I on the other hand stood in nothing more than a light wool sweater, a pair of cotton shorts and bare feet and sandals. That not too unusual, I like the cold, and unless the weather's truly miserable, I'm usually in shorts.

I eventually hopped back in my hammock for while, but I my craving for a coffee dragged me out again. Slipping on a pair of convertible dry camp pants, socks, a down vest and a toque, I went to get my foodbag hanging high in a not-too distant tree. On the way back, I grabbed my cook-kit and headed back for camp. Although I had my MSR Whisperlite with me, I felt like giving my DIY BushBuddy clone a go. Reaching for one of the unused logs from the night before, I battened out a small pile of kindling, broke up one of the dead branches lying around and started my woodstove. I managed to get a nice little fire going until I realized that I had forgotten to take out the windscreen before starting the fire. I carefully dumped the burning contents on a flat rock by the fire, took out the windscreen and put it aside. Then, using the already glowing coals as firestarter, started the whole process over again. I found myself scrounging for small pieces of wood as my fire burned down, but that’s what I get for not using my woodstove too often. Meanwhile Bubba, also thinking about a hot breakfast, pulled out his own authentic BushBuddy and got to work processing up a nice pile of small wood. You could tell that he was a practiced hand because his preparations were meticulous, and he was rewarded with a good burn and a quick boil.

People were starting to get up now. Brantwing was hilarious, sporting a black hat with faux-hair coming out of the top that made him look like a "Raven Haired Fabio". It was a real laugh. By late morning, everybody had been fed and outfits were beginning to come down. It wasn't long before the Ghetto had been dismantled. For my part, I stuffed all of my gear back into their respective stuffsacks, waterproofed the dry gear in their large, heavy-duty garbage bag, and got ready to go. I usually use my bear rope to tightly wrap my down sleeping gear and clothes, using it to progressively compress them to half their original size. Since today was to be a fairly light day, I didn't bother with the rope, opting instead to just use one strap to reduce the height. No biggie. My Ostrum Wabikimi maxes out at a whopping132 litres or 8046 cubic inches. The only problem with a pack that big is that you have enough room to bring all kinds of crap and consequently my bag is usually one of the heaviest around. On my first solo trip I made the mistake of filling my pack, “because I could”, and the first long portage I did was torture. I still pack too heavy, but on the flipside, I've never been cold or hungry.

The sky was mostly overcast, although now and again the sun peeped out to warm the rocks by the shore. The wind started to pick up again and the snow began to fall more heavily. The forecast was definitely shaping up to be "sunny with a chance of flurries". To our east, in the sheltered main basin of Bonnechere lake, the snow fell gently in the sunshine but to the west it was a different story. Down the long narrow channel we'd be soon paddling, the howling wind was blowing snow quickly down the lake. It figured. The long range forecast had called for northerlies all weekend, and so far they had been correct.

We got ready to push off from camp. We had only about eleven kilometers and five portages to go. The snow had started to let up and I figured that we'd be able to make camp on Head Lake within about three hours of good paddling and portaging. [o]TTer launched first. He wanted a bit of a head start because although he had no problem keeping pace with the canoes, the headwinds would make it hard work. Next off were Ryvr and Bubba, eagerly hopping into their canoe and taking off around the rocky end of the campsite and up the channel.

As Brantwing, Dan8tro, Wolvaroo and I were getting ready to launch someone spotted a life jacket on the shore. It was Ryvr's, who, in his enthusiasm, had forgotten to put it on. It's funny because earlier Ryvr had remarked on some of his wife’s, Odd_Duck's, pre-trip comments, and mentioned that “she said I'd do something stupid". Forgotten life-jacket, yeah, that'll do it. Luckily the water wasn't too cold. Hypothermia wouldn't have been much of an issue if there had been a mishap, probably nothing more dangerous than a good old-fashioned drowning. Sometimes it's good to keep things simple.

We were soon all paddling north on Bonnechere, towards a shallow section where a long low rock outcropping effectively separated the lake into two parts. Dan8tro and Brantwing caught up with Ryvr and gave him his life-jacket, and they all wet footed it around the obstacle. Wolvaroo and I, on the other hand were wearing boots, so we landed by nearby and lifted the canoe up and over the small obstruction and were off again. The portage, our first of the day would be a quick 175m into Phipps Lake. So far everything was going well. We beached the canoes and donned our packs. I swung the canoe up on my shoulders and headed down the nice trail. When I popped out of the woods by a little creek mouth shortly afterwards, the group was milling about. Looking down around the put-in, I could see why.

Between the end of the portage and the edge of the open Phipps Lake, some three hundred metres away, was a flat land of grass and brambles. During the normal canoeing season, in midsummer, a deep creek wound its way through the marsh, carrying canoeists out to the main lake. Now, so late in the season, the creek had dried up leaving only a narrow trickle flanked on either side by wide mud flats.

Without dropping the canoe, I trudged past the group and moved into the bracken by the edge of the "creek". Just ahead the water looked to be about half a foot deep, just barely enough to float a canoe. Convinced that paddling/poling through this muck would be preferable to hiking three hundred yards through thigh high bushes and grass, I pushed the canoe out into the muck and followed behind. On my first step I sank to my knee in cold mud. By the second step I was up to mid thigh. The only reason I didn't go deeper was because I was able to lean forward and put most of my weight onto the canoe. In disgust, and partly in desperation, I hauled my muddy self up and into my canoe. The entire stern of the canoe was now a chocolaty brown mess. Meanwhile, Dan8tro had come up a few yards away on my right and had also taken a first tentative step into the muck still wearing his backpack. Quickly sinking into the muck past his knee, he found that he was stuck and needed help. Answering his calls, some of the other guys ran up. Carefully they tried to pull him out, but were rewarded with a groan of agony as Dan8tro felt his knee being twisted by the sheer suction of the mud. Convinced that his struggles were pulling him in deeper he shouted "I'm sinking!!". He was reassured that he was fine. He was in safe hands and soon he was free. Dan8tr0 had become a fully-fledged "Bog-Buster". All the while I was lying facedown on my canoe, unable to do anything but watch.

Seeing our plight, the rest of the group wisely chose to follow avoid the creek altogether and make their way by the forest's edge to the distant open water. Committed as I was to the creek, I managed to paddle and pole a little way before the water became too shallow to pass. The bushes along the south edge of the creek were just within reach, so I hauled my canoe over and stepped out, again sinking up to my knees before I managed to get ashore. Looking around I saw the rest of the group making good time along the north side. I hauled my canoe up on shore and began to pull it, fully loaded, towards the open water up ahead. There were few, if any, game trails here and we were all thigh deep in bracken and thick grass. For my part I had to cross several smaller feeder creeks, complete with sucking mud, along the way. In the spring I had managed to do a similar feat, but with an empty canoe, but the weight of all of the gear made the hauling very difficult.

Ryvr had been watching my progress for a while when all of a sudden I disappeared, probably at the point when I had tried to stride across one of the feeder creeks and had fallen forwards. Before long I popped up again, but this portage was turning out to be exhausting. A little less than halfway I stopped and unloaded my backpack and propped my paddles to mark the spot. I’d come back for them later. I continued to pull the canoe towards where the creek emptied into the lake and saw that the water here was maybe half a foot deep, again enough to float a light canoe.

By this time the rest of the group had made it to the north shore of the lake and were getting ready to push off. Ryvr called to me and suggested that I try to move my gear to the southern lakeshore beyond the marsh where launching might be easier. I was exhausted so with enough water to float my canoe in front of me, I decided to leave the it where it was and instead just carry my pack around to the far shoreline so I could pick it up in deeper water. I turned and began the long walk back to where I could see my paddles sticking up in the air. Once there, I shouldered my pack and started back. I tried to use the paddles as hiking poles, but although it helped at first, and it wasn’t long before I was dragging them behind me.

Separated from the rest of the group by the impassible muddy creek, I grimly considered the likely outcome of any number of scenarios involving myself and a raging bull moose emerging from the woods beside me. It was the middle of rutting season and bull moose are known to be ornery critters. There was no way the rest of the guys would be able to help me if anything happened. At best, they'd have ringside seats at the first class trampling.

So with more than a couple of glances into the forest on my right, I bushwhacked my way to the shoreline, managed to force my way through impassible thickets and blow downs, and finally placed my pack onto some flat rock by the water's edge. I made my slow, tired way back to my canoe, climbed in and, under the watchful eye of [o]TTer, paddled and poled my way into the open lake. My next challenge was now retrieving my pack, which was waiting for me on the south shore and retrieving Wolvaroo who was waiting for me on the north shore. Wolvaroo bushwhacked his way to an open spot in deeper water by a beaver lodge and climbed in. Meanwhile Ryvr and Bubba had very kindly offered to paddle to the far side to retrieve my pack. I don't think they expected it to be quite as heavy as it was and I recall seeing Bubba strain a little as he hoisted it into the back of their canoe. I never claimed to be a gram-weenie.

I can honestly say that the Bonnechere to Phipps Lake portage was the absolute worst portage I've ever had the displeasure of doing. Hands down. Give me a five kilometer portage or the “Pig” any day. Slogging through bog and bracken was more a grueling experience. I suspect we spent at least ninety minutes navigating a paltry 175m portage. Now, instead of arriving at our campsite in the mid-afternoon, we'd likely be forced to make camp a little before dusk.

Once again on our way, the paddle and portage across Phipps and Kirkwood were quick and pleasantly uneventful. I reclaimed my pack at the Phipps/Kirkwood portage and I'm sure Ryvr and Bubba were glad to be rid of the dead weight. The portage and crossing of Kirkwood Lake beyond went smoothly, so we decided to stop for lunch at the end of the next portage. This particular portage splits at the very end. The left opening onto the rocky landing of Pardee Lake to the north while the right fork continuing a few more yards to the shores of Lawrence Lake in the east. Luckily I had come through this area twice on last year's 2010 Fall Hang on our way to Lake Louisa some five kilometers distant. I pointed out that were had taken the wrong turn and that we’d need to backtrack a bit and take the left fork. Nonetheless, we stopped in the sunny spot by that put-in by Lawrence Lake for lunch and a bit of a breather. We all needed to refuel from the effort at the Bog and prepare to battle the headwinds that were already blowing down Pardee from the north. Baguette, mustard, mayo and enough salami to share, all washed down with some cold water; I had a fine paddler's lunch.

Now fully rested, we carried our gear back to the Pardee put-in and pushed off. It wasn't long before we had found ourselves at the end of the next portage into Harness Lake, one of the longer lakes on this particular route. Halfway across Harness, I looking over my shoulder and could see [o]TTer in his short kayak fighting his way into the stiff headwinds we had been battling all day long. A large spray of water lifted high as he drove his bow into the oncoming waves, spray that was caught by the wind and driven onto him; [o]TTer was wet from head to spray skirt, but his paddling jacket kept him dry underneath. Despite what looked like a real workout, [o]TTer kept grinning, the epitome of the "Mad solo kayaker"!

We finally arrived at the last portage of the day, an one kilometer portage into Head Lake and our camp for the night. Bubba and Ryvr were the first across, so after a quick talk it was agreed that they'd go ahead and scout out the several of the possible campsites we were considering on Head Lake. Unless they signaled to us, we’d rendezvous at the far western site that we had used on the first night of the 2010 Fall Hang. Dan8tro, Brantwing, [o]TTer and Wolvaroo soon arrived. [o]TTer’s kayak was proving to be fairly awkward on the portages, but without too much trouble they had made their way across. We got our gear stowed away and pushed off down a wonderfully thin, deep creek that wound its way towards Head Lake proper. There were only a few spots that were shallow enough to wade, but for the most part it was pleasant paddling.

Head Lake's a lovely lake. Not too large with a high hill running the length of the north shore where the colours of fall contrasted beautifully with the evergreens, framed as they were by the dark blue of water and the light blue of the sky. Gorgeous. This was why we had come to Algonquin.

Wolvaroo and I pushed off and soon Dan8tro and Brantwing paddled up behind us, followed by [o]TTer in his kayak. On the north shore we could see the small figures of Bubba and Ryvr paddling their way, checking sites. We aimed for the far western site, ready to head north at any signal from our scouts, but when they started to paddle our way we knew they'd rejected the sites they'd seen. I wasn’t worried. I knew the western site was well suited for hammockers, with an abundance of trees set back from the water. Unfortunately the landings were terrible. The two other canoes attempted to land around the windward north side while [o]TTer, Wolvaroo and I tried to find a sheltered landing in the lee of the south side. The best we could come up with was landing beside a large rock that sloped steeply to the lake. [o]TTer was able to wedge himself between some large boulders and get out there. We flung our packs high on the rock, careful not to let them roll into the lake. After a long and difficult day, we had landed.

The campsite itself was quite nice, with a large open area flanked by trees. To the northeast a thin line of large trees protected the firepit from the cold north wind that was blowing while behind us stood a grove of smaller trees, perfect for hanging a group of hammocks. There was a chill in the air and the clear skies promised a cold night that would probably get close to freezing. Wolvaroo, eager to find protection from the wind, scouted up and over the small hill that rose behind the camp and came across an amazing section of forest that truly had an Elvish air. Passing through the lower undergrowth and around a tree, as if through a gate, the trail opened up into a wide dell where a number of mature pines towered high above a forest floor almost devoid of undergrowth. In the centre of it all, four tall pines rose up. It was here that Dan8tro, Brantwing and Ryvr decided to set up camp, with Wolvaroo pitching his tarp a few yards away. Although outside, by the lake and in the main camp, the wind had continued to blow, here everything seemed still. Wonderful.

[o]TTer, Bubba and I decided to pitch our camp in the young stand of trees behind the main camp, the two of them head to head and myself a dozen yards away. When our rigs were set up, I grabbed my "bear rope" and Bubba and I went to look for a suitable tree to hang our food: a task best done before dark. We eventually found a suitable tree but after many unsuccessful tosses I was beginning to get frustrated. While I looked around for a rock, Bubba, the "Bear Bag Master", tied an impromptu "monkey's fist" knot onto the end of the rope, and after a few more tosses we managed to get it up and over the branch. For years I've used the rope & pulley method to hang my all-to-often heavy foodbags. A main line and pulley is thrown up and over a high branch and secured while a second rope is threaded through the pulley. Bubba had already taken out his evening's meal so we clipped his foodbag to the bowline at the end of the second rope and hoisted his food up into the tree. Neat.

By this time the sun was beginning to set, and it was getting close to dinner. [o]TTer and I walked over to the firepit where he had hung his gravity water filter a little earlier. I needed a refill and he needed to take pictures of the sunset. After topping up my two bottles, I grabbed my food bag and we all headed over to the dell for dinner.

By this time dusk was creeping in. Under the those tall trees everything was a little darker. The rest of the crew had already eaten and were sitting under the four large trees talking. Ryvr graciously allowed me to use his lifejacket as a sit-pad, and before long I had my MSR Whisperlite fired up and set a pot of water to boil. Bubba and [o]TTer fired up their alcohol stoves across from me and went about getting their meals ready.

Once my water had boiled, I transferred the water to my coffee mug and second pot. Under the red light of my headlamp I poured two large helpings of homemade dehydrated spaghetti and spicy meat sauce into my main pot and set it to simmer. When it was ready, I topped it off with fresh parmesan I had stored separately. I was starving and it was delicious. Just like home. By the time I set down my fork I was stuffed. Awesome!!!

I brewed a cup of coffee and broke out the can of Jalapeno Pringles I had been saving for this moment. Just sitting back and relaxing in that amazing dell, with a warm coffee and a great meal in my belly, that more than made up for the brutal portage on Phipps. In fact, the moment was actually enhanced by the memory of it. Things too easily gained don't hold much value for me. Looking around, I don't think I was alone. We had all come through a tough day and this was our reward.

Not long after dinner we retired to the hammocks. We were planning to get an early start tomorrow and to try to get to the vehicles as early as possible. Bubba, [o]TTer and I headed back to the main site, but made a detour on the way to hang our remaining foodbags. The cold north wind had blown the sky clear of clouds and the Milky Way shone bright overhead, so the three of us walked down to the same large rock that Vgnbkr, Shawnh, Michael and I had watched the stars one year ago. We spent a good while watching stars, taking pictures and talking before finally turning in.

Expecting cold temperatures and strong winds, I battened down my tarp and fastened my windward beak to the end of my tarp. I tightened the tension on my down underquilt and crawled into bed, confident that my winter tested setup would keep me warm regardless of anything Mother Nature could throw at me, short of a tarp flattening, tree uprooting windstorm. I pulled out my IPod and watched a little Ray Mears, the one about his canoe journey down the Missinaibi, until my eyelids began to get heavy. Accepting the inevitable, I turned off Ray just as he began to prepare Bannock, stuffed the IPod into its place on my ridgeline mesh gearsack and fell asleep listening to the wind blow in the trees.

In the middle of the night I awoke with a start. It was pitch black outside. Snap!! Snap, snap. SNAP!! I could distinctly hear the sound of branches breaking not too far behind my head, close to where I knew Bubba and [o]TTer lay sleeping. My heart started beating hard in my chest. Snap!! It sounded like something large was moving through the trees not more than thirty yards away. My first thoughts were that it was either a bear or a moose. Bear? No, too noisy. Moose? Probably. Okay, cow or bull? My first worry was that the moose might not see my black tarp in the dark and stumble into it by mistake, and destroying the silnylon tarp in the process. My second worry was that it was a bull moose and anything that I might do would piss him off.

The snapping continued and now I pondered the best course of action. Do I turn on my headlamp? Do I talk quietly and make my presence known. For all I knew, either course of action was all but guaranteed to bring a furious bull moose my way. In the end I reached down and slowly unzipped my netting. The last thing I wanted to have happen was to be trapped in a zipped hammock as a surprised and angry moose played "trample the burrito" with my head. I checked my watch and it was 2am. The thermometer read just above freezing. Meanwhile, the snapping continued, but more quietly now, as if the source was moving away. My heart rate slowed back to normal. I tried to relax and go back to sleep, but something was wrong. I thought I started seeing dim light dancing across my tarp. The northern lights!! What were the chances of having both moose and the aurora borealis in my campsite on one night??? Not very likely. Reaching out of my hammock, I pulled back the end of my tarp and peeked outside. From the direction of the main campsite clearing, near the firepit, came an orange glow that danced on the trees all around. As if almost on cue, I saw the clear white of a headlamp and in an instant everything fell into place. Wolvaroo had started a fire.

My train of logic was more like an old railway hand cart, but this was how it went. Conditions? Cold and windy. Temperature? Just above freezing. Fire? Someone was freezing and needed to warm up. That left who? Nearby lay eight winter tested hangers and one rookie on his first trip. Yup, Wolvaroo had started a fire, and all of the snapping I had heard was him getting it started. Sometimes you just have to laugh.

Wanting to make sure he was alright, I put on the same light wool sweater and sandals I had on the morning before, grabbed my headlamp and staggered over to the sizable blaze that Wolvaroo had going. Judging by the size of it, the rookie definitely had a bit of firebender in him. I must have looked a little nuts, showing up in shorts and sandals, but we stood around the fire and talked for a while. I learned that apparently Wolvaroo’s problems were twofold. Not only was the cold getting to him, but he also worked nights and his internal clock was making it very difficult to go back to sleep. He had already had a hot drink and was warming the rest of himself in front of the fire, stomping any of the embers that were being blown out of the fire by the cold winds. He had planned on keeping the fire going until dawn, by when I told him the time he had second thoughts. I told him about the hot water bottle in the hammock trick, reminded him to not burn down the forest and went back to my hammock and sleep.

Morning came quickly after that and I was determined to get packed and underway as quickly as reasonable. I lay in my hammock a moment longer "collecting my thoughts" as it were, when my hammock shook with a sudden lurch and I heard Ryvr urge me out of bed. Up and out I came. The weather was clear so I circled my tarp pulling pegs and then rolled it into its snakeskin. I removed all of the gear that hung from my ridgeline each night; IPod, asthma spray, knife, camera, watch and headlamp and threw them onto my pack’s open raincover. Soon my underquilt and sleeping bag were compressed in their stuffsack and being shoved into their garbage bag, followed by my clothes bag. With the garbage bag end rolled tight, I started packing my remaining gear, and within a few minutes I closed my pack and carried it to a sheltered area a little closer to my canoe. I fired up the Whisperlite and brewed up some water for coffee.

The "Dellers" began to show up and as I was finishing the last of my coffee, life jackets were starting to be put on and canoes carried to the water. I switched out of my sandals and back into my hunting boots. I had managed to dry them out fairly well overnight from the soaking they had received in the bog and I had a nice warm pair of wool socks on. I knew we had a 1600 metre portage ahead of us and I wanted to be as comfortable as I could be. People seemed to be leaving the site from all over. Dan8tro, Brantwing, Bubba and Ryvr from the north and [o]TTer, Wolvaroo and myself from the south again. Wolvaroo helped me move the canoe down to the water and we rested it between the same steep sloping rock and a small deadfall.

We were about to throw our packs in and I warned Wolvaroo about how slippery the algae growing on the waterline could be. Famous last words. No sooner had I said it than my right foot touched the algae, slipped, and plunged into the water. Trying to steady myself, my other foot caught the slime and went in as well. I could feel the cold water flood my boots and rise past my knees. With no traction at all on my feet. I fell forward and desperately clutched at the rocks to try to stop slipping in all the way. It's not unusual for a rock face like this to plunge straight down into deep water and I was seriously concerned that I'd be up to my neck in no time. Luckily my foot touch bottom just as the water was rising to my crotch and Wolvaroo had sprung down to lend me a hand and haul me up.

I was pissed. Seriously pissed. I had never been so clumsy before. I suppose I was more tired than I thought, but that was no excuse. If things had been a little different, I could have easily been swimming or worse. Chard the "sure footed woodsman". I noticed that blood was dripping from my left hand. My left ring finger and pinky were bleeding freely, the tips having been scraped off as I scrambled for a handhold. Annoyed with myself, I threw my pack in the canoe, Wolvaroo and I hopped in and we paddled after the rest of the group to the portage, not more than a few hundred yards away.

By the time we came ashore at the portage, everyone had already pulled their gear to the top of the landing. I hopped out into the water and started to unload as well. I brought my pack a little way up, sat down and took out my first aid kit. The ring finger was still bleeding so I applied a couple of waterproof bandaids. I then unlaced my boots, pulled them off and drained out the water. Following that, I took off my wool socks and wrung them out. Ryvr helped by putting a bandaid on my right ankle where it had gotten raw portaging in my wet boots after the bog incident. I put my socks and boots back on, all hopes for a dry portage gone. Instead I'd be squishing my way across a kilometer and a half of trail. Nice. I was pissed, but sh*t happens.

I shouldered my pack for the last time, flipped up the canoe and took off down the trail on my own, leaving several guys including [o]TTer, Bubba and Wolvaroo behind me. Fortunately the trail wasn't too bad. Although long, it was fairly flat, with only one very steep but short downward slope near the end. I stopped at around mid-way, dropped my gear and had a water break. Within a few minutes I loaded up again and finished the portage. Along the way I passed Dan8tro and Brantwing walking back towards Head Lake.

The northern end of the Head to Cache portage is marked by a steep set of wood stairs that descend to a small platform. From here the canoes need to be taken down to a small beach and loaded. With my canoe, paddles and pack back in the water I sat down to wait for the rest of the crew to arrive. Hearing a commotion, I looked up to see four guys bearing [o]TTer's kayak down the stairs. They had passed two large branches through the handholds at either end of the kayak and were carrying it stretcher-style. Quite the production. Eventually all of the gear was brought down to the beach and we loaded up for the last time.

Now Cache Lake can be a little tricky to navigate. It has numerous small islands, channels and bays, and I had gotten turned around there before. Carefully taking note of the cottages and marking their position on the map, Wolvaroo and I headed out on the final leg of our trip. Shores that had until now been pristine forest now gave way to a number of small rustic cottages, on land leased from the crown. For as long as I've been traveling to Algonquin, I've always admired those cottages and dreamed of how nice it would be to be able to spend a season up here in one of them. For me they are truly the essence of Ontario's cottage culture. We paddled towards a seemingly unbroken forested shoreline that miraculously opened up into a narrow channel, and onwards to the edge of the main basin of Cache Lake. On the hill to the north, I could begin to make out large transport trucks moving along Highway 60 and I knew we were close. Rounding the last bend we could see the light colour of the parking lot, wood docks and the shine of cars.

The 2011 Fall Hang was over.

Survival is about getting out alive, Bushcraft is about going in to live.