Algonquin: out and home; extra thoughts

2022 Friday May 20: Jubilee to Rain Lake and out

We packed up and left as the sun was breaking through and the wind beginning to rise from the south and west. We were three lakes and portages ahead by Friday morning. The trip out is mostly south-westwards down relatively narrow lakes and wide channels. So our decisions over the last two days to move ahead of where we had planned turned out to be a good one. We beat the rising winds pretty well, partly by being earlier in the day, and mostly by sticking close to the southern lee shore. Turns out we also beat the nasty weather that struck the area later in the afternoon as well!

Throughout the trip, we made most of our decisions slowly, and incrementally. And easily! Weather reports from Dark Sky via Garmin were useful, especially the winds and rain predictions out a couple of days. Wednesday it became evident that Friday could be windy from the South, which meant the last day’s paddle would probably be into the wind along a series of narrow lakes and channels. Forecast also included possible heavy weather for Friday — which certainly materialized by the end of the day up there!

We saw some of the most awful paddling we’d ever seen as the Long Weekend groups began to arrive. Fortunately at least today they were being blown along by the winds. Two separate groups were taking two strokes on the left side, then both paddlers switched clumsily to the right side for two more strokes, and then kept repeating. It was a remarkable zig-zag pattern they were making. Another group was a forty-something man loaded into the back of the canoe, with all the packs between him and the middle thwart, and the front of the canoe was out of the water back to about where the front paddler was sitting. The much younger-looking very petite woman was hardly able to reach the water with her paddle. She did not look at all happy, especially with the barked commands from the back of the canoe. The last party we passed on the water had two young men who were doing an asynchronous switcheroo. I couldn’t resist inserting my didactic leanings into their lack of progress. … Oh dear … What three sentences of advice would you have given them? …

(The thought is always with me about the much higher standards we expect from teachers taking students into the bush. And the tragedies that have too often occurred when administrators are too lax in their enforcement of policies and procedures. I wrote policies for these situations.)

I was fearful as to how those people would manage through the bouts of extreme storms over the weekend. Friday evening was very nasty across Algonquin. The worst of the terrible derecho storm was mostly to the south on Saturday. More strong weather happened to the south of the Great Lakes on Sunday.

As we entered Rain Lake, I thought I was seeing an usual type of cloud called Altocumulus Castellanus. Turns out that is exactly what I saw. I wish I’d taken a photo of them. These clouds usually occur in the early and mid-morning, and look like the crenellations of an old castle tower: lumps of cloud bubbling up from the lower flatter clouds, punching through to the upper air. They are evidence of instability in the middle of the atmosphere, and show the strong possibility of thunderstorms developing as their instability rises up through the whole column of air. A real portent of the kind of thunderstorm weather that actually developed later in the day! I feel now like I should have told at least our guys … but I don’t like being so didactic all the time … (except with family … who tease me …)

We got to the Rain Lake take-out spot shortly after noon. Along the way, we stopped several times after brisk open crossings for quick snacks and chats. We packed up, changed into clean clothes, and left, just as a bit of spitting began. We stopped along the way home for a bit of lunch and a final chat, and got home late in the afternoon.

What a fine place to return to!

I found it fascinating to try to reconstruct what the land, i.e., the forest, would have looked like when my father was here a century ago. We think too easily as if this Algonquin is a primeval forest. It’s actually been cut at least twice, and I see evidence of it being logged three times in places. My father would have been there during the early second period of logging, when much of the land would have been covered in scrubby regrowth forests. Very different from what we too easily imagine!

One of the big differences with the deforestation in the southern agricultural portion of Ontario is that after the cutting of the Algonquin forests, they were largely left alone. No grazing in Algonquin, for instance, which had a terrible effect on the biodiversity of our southern hardwood forests, reducing them to biological wastelands. Here, trees were cut, and the forest was abandoned to grow again largely on its own. What developed then were forests with a rich diversity of plants and animals.

Too often we see a southern Ontario forest with carpets of trilliums or trout lilies and think, “oh this is so pretty, this is such a lovely piece of nature”, not realizing that these monocultures are the direct result of farmers using their back-forty bushlots as scrub pasture for their heifers and steers. Those animals ate everything they could, whether it was good forage or not. What survived extensive and constant grazing is the few species that cattle don’t like to eat, such as trilliums. Hence the carpets that look great but have little biological diversity and value. Up here in Algonquin, it’s astounding to see the fine scale of the diversity of what’s growing in the forests. A patch along a portage the size of a single easy chair can easily have a dozen species growing in it . That means that the number of interactions and connections between the various species are very rich and complex.

A patch of about a square metre along a portage, with perhaps more than a dozen species visible. Imagine how many additional species there are of fungi, insects, and more? This is a stunning example of species and spatial diversity!

I’m also fascinated to wonder who was at work in the forests a century ago. It was right after The Great War, a terrible event in the lives of many young men, scarred by what was termed ‘shell shock’, or ‘being gassed’, what we now call PTSD. Many men returned broken and without assistance. My guess is that many of the workers in the lumber camps came from that great loss. It would have been a rough life, a tough life, yet they got food and shelter and some structure within which to try to live. (The same thing happened after the Second War. The two lumberjacks who spent their winters during the late 1940s in a tiny plywood shack at the back of the school I taught in ‘lived’ that life.)

After we got back, Dave wrote: “Anyone feeling sore today? I had to do the addition to tally the kilometres of portaging. Turns out we did about 34.5km of portaging! Portages totalled 11,475m. Double that carrying loads = 22,940m of grunt work. With 11,475m additional being the casual stroll back looking at plants. Unprecedented in my canoe tripping for that length of trip, and I am kind of glad I didn’t figure that out before we left.”

To which Ross responded: “I agree, don’t pay too much attention to the mileage before you get there or you will miss all the fun.”

Let’s plan a low-portaging trip for this time next year! How about Killarney? Who’s up for this?

Our planned and booked route. Note the paddling and the portaging distances along the bottom!