The story of this years foray deep into a seldom travelled area: the Northern Temagami wilderness, namely Makobe Lake. But first, a detour to Paradise. In this section we journey from the Gamble Lake access point, down the Lady Evelyn River to Florence Lake, with a little side trip as well as a battle with a ferocious storm. Enjoy!
Day 1 – North Lady Evelyn River (NLER)
I am laying here in the tent listening to the light, intermittent pitter patter of raindrops interspersed with bird song. The evening light is fading, the day drawing to a close. I put away my book but not before I catch sight of the Algonquin Park logo on my bookmark. A rock point with an A frame tent and canoe pitched under 3 distinctive white pine trees. Exactly like where I am, exactly like the campsites a myriad of other Ontario campers have chosen for tonight. How many people have enjoyed this exact experience? The tent, the canoe, the water and the trees all brought together by the quintessential campsite—a Canadian Shield granite point. It’s just such a magical thing. I am so thankful for all the days I’ve had the privilege to spend camping. What a way to live!
So begins our two-week trek through the wilderness of Temagami. The drive to our access point at Gamble Lake seems to last an eternity. We arrive in the rain but the clouds break just in time and we push off downstream in golden, late afternoon light. We choose a site on a point just South of Chance Lake on the North Lady Evelyn River (NLER). We remembered it from last year as being the nicest site in the area, an area without any really great campsites. This one boasts a flat place for our tent and the nicest swimming hole along this section of the river. It’s late when we arrive but we have just enough time to set up camp and make dinner. The bugs are out so we pack our dinner and tea into the canoe and paddle a short distance from shore. Sitting in the bottom of the boat to eat we soak in the beauty of the moment. We have arrived.
Day 2 – Duff L
Today was a long day of paddling – 22km in fact! (Which seems to be normal for most canoeists but I’m still proud of it) It was a lovely hot day as we paddled through the meanders of the NLER. Our start-of-trip excitement led to lots of happy talking. This combined with the oppressive heat of the day scared away most of the wildlife. We did catch a glimpse of an eagle and enjoyed the chatter and swooping of many a kingfisher.
Making good time through the meanders, we stopped for nostalgic reasons at the logging road that meets up with the river just a few kilometres East of White Rock Rapids (we camped here last year, read about it here) and also because it has a biffy! The only biffy in the area. We should have stopped for lunch here but we have a habit of pushing a bit too far before lunch so we headed off again. There are multiple campsites listed along this section of river and I was happy to find two of them this time around, despite their being mislabeled on our maps. We were hoping to lunch at the area around White Rock Rapids as it is quite pretty, but we didn’t make it that far. Exhausted from the heat, we finally pulled into a corner of the river that was in the lee of the wind for a quick lunch before pushing off again.
The first swift of White Rock Rapids appeared around a bend in the river and it was even more beautiful here than I remembered. Mostly pink rocks rather than white, and with beautiful lush forest on either side of gently burbling swifts. The water was much higher than last year making for easy wading up the river. We could totally have lined it but the thought didn’t even occur to us. The water was such a nice relief from the heat.
If you’ve read The Cabin by Hap Wilson then you know that he describes a campsite along this section of the river. (If you haven’t read The Cabin you should, buy it here). It’s such a lovely description that I’ve always wanted to camp here. Also, it’s most definitely the best site in the area for miles around. That Hap certainly knows his stuff! Lovely sloping rocks for swimming from and docking the boat. Best swimming hole along this entire section of river and a lovely cliff top, smooth-rock site with a view over the Boreal forest on the opposite shore of the river. However, Sean had a deep-set desire to camp at Duff Lake and as it was just up the river we opted for that.
The site wasn’t nearly as nice but Duff Lake is surrounded by a pretty extraordinary example of old growth white pine forest. I collapsed on shore for a nap and then had a swim before setting up camp. It was a beautiful, still evening so we made dinner and then packed it into the canoe along with our tea and spent the evening floating around the lake, taking in the views from all angles. The forest was lush, the islands picturesque, and it was all framed by high ridges all around.
Day 3: Florence Lake
Lesson #1: When you have a long day ahead, don’t sleep in.
We did. Weren’t on the water until 10am. Once again we were super chatty – a good sign that we’re enjoying each other but not so great for wildlife viewing. After enjoying a beautiful paddle down the Lady Evelyn and Florence Rivers we stopped at a beach on Florence L for a quick snack + swim break. The water was a gorgeous temperature which surprised me because Florence is spring-fed, making it a beautiful clear lake that’s often cool even in the summer.
We had a soft goal this trip of exploring an overgrown portage trail that we had found last year. Sean (as always) was enamoured with the idea of going somewhere well off the beaten track and so we thought we’d give this trail a shot. We suited up and started the portage. I figured out our new GPS pretty quickly so while I set our compass bearing, Sean went ahead to blaze a trail. I’m not sure how long it’s been since this trail was used. We weren’t able to find any information about it online. But it was there at one point and if you know what to look for you can find most sections of it. However, the slight existence of some bare earth did little to ease our passage. Man was it hard! Even when we were able to follow the trail (which is pretty much a straight shot on a compass bearing) it was bushwhacking. It was super buggy and being in that bug shirt with my hat on and bugs swarming is so claustrophobic! You just feel like the world is caving in around you. Add that to the super over grown trail at the best of times and straight crashing through spruce at the worst of times, plus a steady incline and the massive pack on my back. My legs were shaking before too long so just getting one foot in front of the other was a triumph, let alone trying to place that foot properly so as to avoid injury. Careening is the word I gave it. I was careening through the bush.
Finally the blue of water appeared through the trees. We gave up looking for the trail and just crashed down the hill towards the blue beacon. We arrived at the waters edge in waist high bushes, not a great waterfront. But the water was crystal clear blue and beautiful. We took a rest, ate a Cliff bar, drank some water and turned around to head back.
As we’d careened down the hill to the water we’d completely lost the trail. Now as we headed back we found ourselves deep in spruce bows with no clear way forward. We pressed on, this way and that until Sean started thinking about how he’d have to push the canoe through all this.
We paused, hemmed and hawed. It was hot, we were pouring sweat, we’d lost the trail and were just crashing at a compass bearing on our GPS. We would have to do this twice more just to get to this lake that wasn’t even out destination. It was 3pm and the first trip had taken 2h. Even if we made it back unencumbered in half that time we were looking at a 6pm arrival which meant we’d have to bush a site in these thick alder bushes. We learned our lesson about pushing on too late in the day last year when we spent the night separated from our gear and with only our life jackets and a fire for warmth, and we did not feel like a repeat experience (read about that adventure in Smoothwater Loop Part 2). We had achieved our goal of exploring this portage, bringing us one step closer to the goal of travelling to areas even more remote than Temagami someday, and beautiful Florence Lake was waiting for us back the way we came. These kind of trips require a healthy respect of the wilderness and her wildness. Every foray into new challenges gives the opportunity to learn new things and hone your skill. Picking out that trail brought us one step closer to someday forging our own trails through the bush and so we considered it a success.
We went back, grabbed our bags and headed back the way we’d come, opting to stay on Florence Lake for the night. On the way back I worked out how to use the GPS better and we mainly stayed on the trail the whole way. We also found the fattest, tallest, straightest white pine we’ve ever seen – probably 400 years old! We emerged from the forest bathed in sweat, covered in bug bites (Sean literally had about 50 bites just on his one wrist alone), legs shaking and swearing a blue streak. A quick escape in the canoe brought us to one of Florence Lakes’ many white sand beaches. The first order of business was a swim and a bath. Next, lunch. The afternoon air was perfectly still so we found shelter in the shade from an island and floated there to eat our bagels w salami and cheese.
After lunch we paddled toward Mecca – the most perfect campsite in the world. Hereafter referred to as Paradise Site. About 1/3 of the way from the S end of Florence L is a long point that juts our into the lake. Sand beaches on either side rise up to a cliff in the middle which rolls down into a long slope of smooth rock that protrudes out of the forest like the bow of a ship and gently dips into the lake. The perfect rock beach. Smooth enough to walk (or dance) around in bare feet, gently sloping enough to offer easy walk-in entrance to swimming and with a perfectly curving rock seat to one side. It is the epitome of what a campsite should be.
Alas! There was someone already camped there. No matter, we’d had the pleasure last year and it was good to see another human using this pristine wilderness. We made camp just across the lake at the Table Rock campsite. I was exhausted. Probably heat exhausted + dehydrated. We’d sweat so much and I don’t think I drank enough water, so I had a headache the rest of the night. We set up camp before napping on the rocks, taking a swim and scarfing a well-deserved dinner of freeze-dried Mac and Cheese.
Day 4 – Florence Lake, Paradise.
After sleeping in Sean made oatmeal and coffee while I did laundry and took a refreshing morning dip. After breakfast we thought that Paradise site looked vacated so we started packing up. Sean set the canoe on the shore and we hoisted our bags to load it. Suddenly, a gust of wind came up and swept the canoe into the water. Sean tried to grab it but was too slow. I whipped off my clothes but got stuck in my shirt. Clothes off, I dove into the water after the canoe. At first it was within reach but I sucked back a ton of water which slowed me down. Fortunately the canoe was blowing towards an island that was within swimming distance but once the canoe hit it I wasn’t sure if it would stay or keep blowing down the shore, around a corner and out of reach. I swam around so as to head off the canoe and eventually caught up to it. The rush of events had my adrenaline pumping as I swam the canoe back to camp. The canoe blowing away seems like such a small thing, but if we lost it we would have been stuck. Living outside offers many opportunities to practice thinking clearly under duress, which is actually a seldom-practiced and highly-valuable skill. In hindsight I should have just swam in my clothes as it was a beautiful sunny day. Canoe recovered, we packed up and paddled across to Paradise.
A quick scout reunited us with our favourite site in all the world. We set up camp quickly and commenced lolling. The rest of the day was spent in blissful rest. Swimming, tanning, swimming, eating, swimming, napping, and hiking around our peninsula. In the evening we made our first fire of the trip and I gorged myself on s’mores.
Day 5 – Florence Lake, Paradise Site
The day was hot. That heavy, humid kind of hot and we watched as the clouds built up into great thunderheads. Florence Lake really does provide some of the best swimming in the province, maybe even the country! Warm enough to be comfortable but cool enough to be refreshing, crystal clear and turquoise blue. I donned goggles and spent a good hour snorkelling around and enjoying the beauty of the underwater world. We paddled North up a tiny creek and South through Islands and inlets, exploring all that this sacred space had to offer. Known to the Native Anishinaabe people as Shkim-ska-jeeshing or “Lake that Bends in the Middle”, this place was used as retreat and safe place in times of war. Like many places that were special to the Native peoples, there is a certain peaceful aura here.
For dinner I made tinfoil packets over the fire filled with potato, carrot, onion, spices and Halloumi cheese. Two words: so good. We watched as the storm clouds blew across the lake and began to drop their heavy load of rain somewhere to the east, where I now know Alex and Noah of Northern Scavenger were camped (watch their report here). After dinner we sat out on the smooth rocks of the point eating s’mores and relishing the never-ending twilight of northern summers. We washed our dishes and lay them out to dry on the rocks near the shore before retiring to the tent.
I awoke sometime in the middle of the night to the sound of wind howling along northern shore of our campsite. Our tent was pitched in the sheltered forest on the South side of the peninsula, protected from the wind, but I started to think about the dishes that we’d left down by the shore. With wind like that they might blow away. I woke Sean and together we sleepily wandered down the path toward the rock point. As we emerged from the forest the wind hit me like a sac of flour—ffoomph. Looking up I caught a glimpse of dark cloud boiling and swirling almost into a funnel. The choppy waves were highlighted by a full moon, which mixed with our sleepiness to create a nightmarish feel. All of a sudden Sean was running. The canoe, which had been placed 3m from shore, upside down in a crop of bushes was being blown across the rock and into the water, the edges scraping like nails on a chalkboard. There were no islands to stop it’s flight this time. If it blew out of reach it was gone and the chances of our getting it back were slim to none. Sean dashed into the water and grabbed the boat just as it was about to sail out of reach. Singlehandedly, he wrenched it out of the water and back up the hill of rock. That dealt with, I started looking for the dishes and saw a plate floating out on the water. I knew that the rock created a really shallow beach here so I waded out into the wave and grabbed the plate.
Quickly we ran around camp, making sure everything was secure. We always leave camp tidy but after that experience we weren’t taking any chances. The canoe was placed in a shallow valley deep in the forest with rocks on top. We grabbed the bags and shoved them underneath it along with the dishes and our water filter. Camp secure we stood out on the ‘prow of our ship’ at the edge of the rock beach, revelling in the power of the storm. The only thing we lost was the lids from our coffee mugs.
We set out this year with only very vague plans. We wanted to check out the portage to Airplane and spend a good chunk of time on at Paradise Site but we’d left everything else up in the air. During the day we had pulled the maps out to choose our next adventure. The obvious choice was to continue heading South, maybe through the Solace Lakes, down Pilgrim Creek to Yorston L, then back up through the Pine Torch Corridor and Aimes Creek. A good option with a few drawbacks: 1. we would be continuing to retrace our steps from last year 2. We really didn’t know how the water levels on the Pilgrim would be and 3. This option was portage-heavy. Sean is in love with portages because they tend to lead to less-travelled areas, which is cool, but we never (ever, really!) have had a paddling-heavy trip.
Then there was Makobe Lake. Makobe is a lake that it seems almost nobody visits. It’s hard to make a great route of it because it’s rather off on its own so maybe that’s why? But someone had mentioned on the Ottertooth Forums that they thought it was just as nice as Florence Lake (read that discussion here). If it’s just as nice as Florence, why don’t more people visit it? Was this just a misguided, crazy person? The lure of the road-less-travelled combined with rumoured beauty and a trip that was more paddling than portaging was too much for us to resist. We would head back the way we came and then turn East to continue down the Lady Evelyn to Macpherson Lake before turning North to follow the Grays River Up through Grays Lake to Banks L and on to Makobe to complete our loop and return to our starting point at Gamble Lake. This route wouldn’t fill all of the days we had allotted for this trip so we would then head north up the NLER again, past Elizabeth Falls before turning SW and ending our trip with a couple days at Wabun Lake.
Before too long the winds began to calm and so did we. We headed back to bed to get some sleep before the big day of paddling we had planned for the next day.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of ‘Magical Makobe’