The story of a 2 week canoe trip through the wilderness of Temagami: mishaps, wildlife, solitude and more. Continued from Smoothwater Loop Part 1. In this section we journey through Solace Provincial Park (Einar Lake, Solace L, Samson L, Bill L, Maggie L, Pilgrim L, Rodd L, Benner L, Bluesucker L) to FLORENCE Lake!!!
Day 5: Einar Lake
It’s getting late. We’ve been pushing hard since 8am with the goal of Einar Lake in mind and we are so close! I’m running at about a 3/10 on the energy scale. The sun is due to set “ with clockwork finality”, to quote Hap Wilson, but we have only one more 400m portage and we’ll have reached our goal! Finally finding ourselves in a completely remote location: a roadless, tripper-less wilderness. I count paces all the way across. 100! 200, halfway there! 300… Ok we made it! Now, back for the second load. We’re rushing, we’re exhausted and we’ve done so many portages today (9 to be exact) that I really can’t remember anything distinctive about this one, except that it is short… And that there were a lot of rocks at one point along what looked to be an old, dried up creek bed.
I’m not seeing a lot of rocks and this is feeling rather long but it’s Sean who points out that we may be lost. He had noticed a road on the map that was close to here and he thinks somehow we’ve lost the portage and found the road. Then we see an old snowmobile sign. Nope, that wasn’t there before. By this point the light is really fading. If we’d kept to the portage we should have had just enough time to get the last load and get to camp, but really we were cutting it too close and should have bush whacked a site on Broadbent Lake. Lesson learned.
So we’re lost in the woods in near darkness without the map and with nothing but our sweaters and a headlamp. We turn around and start walking back along the snowmobile trail. It should be simple enough to go back the way we came to the lake and at least half our gear, but all the ‘what ifs’ are flooding my mind. We don’t even have a lighter with us! I do not want to spend the night in the dark woods with no way to warm ourselves. Is that the water? Yes, we’ve made it back to Einar Lake. By this point it is certainly too dark to go back for the second load. We have the boat and the food pack and that will have to do for tonight.
After singing Taylor Swift all day it feels good to finally be “out of the woods”. Now that we’ve left their shadow behind we still have about half an hour of twilight. Sean remembers where the site was on the map and has seen a picture of the brushed-out point, which is lucky because the map is with the other half of our gear which is still at Biscuit Lake. He’s feeling relieved and happy to have found the lake. I’m still terrified and dry-mouthed.
We find the campsite. Someone has left a good pile of firewood but we gather more before the light fades entirely. Then I take inventory of what we have: 1 ziplock bag, 1 frying pan, 1 rain shield for the bag, 1 garbage bag, 2 life jackets, our sweaters, 1 headlamp, the SPOT SOS device, 1 saw, 1 first aid kit, toilet paper, the camera and all our food.
We decide to risk beaver fever and drink straight from the lake rather than try to balance the frying pan over the flames and boil water, one small batch at a time. Sans water bottle, Sean paddles out and fills the ziplock bag with water which we then pour into the frying pan for easy drinking. We spread out the rain shield and garbage bag to protect our bums from the damp ground and put on our life jackets over our sweaters because they actually provide quite a bit of warmth. I keep the headlamp around my neck and clip the SPOT to my belt so we don’t loose them in the dark. The saw comes in super handy for cutting fire wood throughout the night and the camera provides a way of checking the time. We sit watching the stars come out until it starts getting cold and we light a fire. Despite travelling for 12h today, neither of us are relaxed enough to be hungry.
It’s a clear, cold night. We take turns dozing and tending the fire. Glancing half heartedly at the star strewn sky we wait for morning. The moon rise causes undue excitement. We take a picture every so often to check the time.
Day 6, Aug 26, Einar Lake
The morning finally dawned, misty and cool. As soon as there was enough light we paddled back across the lake and started down the portage to pick up our remaining gear. About 100 paces in we discovered our mistake. The road joins the portage in a Y shape. When travelling from Biscuit to Einer the turn onto the road is too sharp to notice but when travelling back to Biscuit the choice to go R or L is a very small difference. To make matters worse a tree had fallen across the portage, but the road was clear of debris. It was easy to see how we had made a mistake in the dark. At this point we became very thankful for our primary map. It may have been wrong about many a portage, but it’s the only map we’ve found that lists all the backcountry roads alongside the portages, a detail which had just come in very handy.
We found our gear right where we’d left it and hightailed it back to camp. Finally relaxed enough to be hungry, I quickly rehydrated freeze dried lasagna which we shovelled into our mouths before collapsing into the tent.
The rest of the day passed in a haze of naps. It rained on and off all day (praise the LORD that it didn’t rain all night!!). We took advantage of a break in the drizzle to indulge in a much needed bath before lunch. Then it was back to bed until dinner which we ate in the tent due to the rain. It was a soft rain; the kind that sounds like a million tiny needles falling onto a tiled floor. Each drop pricked the surface of the glassy water. After dinner we went straight back to sleep and slept until morning.
These northern Solace Provincial Park lakes were special. When travelling through popular lakes, even on days when you don’t see another human soul, you can feel the energy of recent travellers like shadows lingering even after their owners have moved on. But these lakes were empty. There was a deeper peace here, a feeling that this land was truly undisturbed.
Day 7, Aug 27: Solace L, Samson L, Bill L, Maggie L, Pilgrim L, Rodd L, Benner Lake
The rain continued through the night and we woke early to a misty morning. We gathered our things quickly and pushed off toward Solace Lake. I was very excited to get to Solace. There’s just something about that name. I was not disappointed. It’s a beautiful lake dotted with rocky islands. There is a cabin on one of the islands. The contrast between cabin comfort and backcountry bush always heightens the sense of wilderness for me. The northern end of the lake is enveloped in a forest of old white pine which turns to jack pine as you paddle south. The recent rain had left everything washed clean, leaving all the colours unusually bright. As we paddled past island after island I was struck by little details like burgundy lichen and bright green moss.
Too soon we came to the 225m portage into Samson L and a 60m hop over to Bill L before starting what our primary map notes is a 680m portage into Maggie Lake. Our other map of the area lists this portage as 1010m. Being optimistic and slightly lazy we were really hoping that map 1 would win this fight… But it didn’t. It’s definitely a 1010m portage, just as the way into Pilgrim L is 1090m (map 2) and not 785m (map 1). Deep sigh, keep trudging. Both portages were quite difficult. The Bill to Maggie portage is easier going West to East. As you leave Bill there’s a short steep hill up but then a longer, also steep hill down to Maggie L. Maggie is a very long lake which makes it feel almost like a river. We floated ‘downstream’ while having lunch in the canoe. A tap tap tapping drew our attention to a black backed woodpecker in the woods – a birding specialty, or so I’m told.
There was some discrepancy between maps as to where exactly along Maggie’s Eastern shore the takeout for Pilgrim is. It looks to me like what’s happened a few places in Solace Provincial Park (and also in the North Yorston Conservation Reserve) is that some portages fell into disrepair. When they were re-opened the trail blazers chose new routes in a couple of places, rather than reopening the old trails. There are still vestiges of the old trails left which makes things a bit confusing. The old trails are very over grown so if you don’t think that a trail looks right, it’s probably not. In this instance map 2 correctly placed the new portage landing, whereas map 1 had the old takeout listed.
The portage from Maggie to Pilgrim is very hard. Lots of hills and wet patches with slippery logs and slippery rocks. Slow and steady wins the race. The sun came out as I finished my second load, hot and sweaty. I immediately stripped, walked down the sloping rock, sat back on my heels and slid down the mossy, underwater slope into the water…
Heavenly. So wonderful. The water was that perfect temperature – not too cold but just cool enough to be refreshing. After my short swim we loaded up the boat and continued on past a really nice looking campsite, through a Lilly pad covered bay, 80m to Rodd L and 285m on to Benner.
As we paddled across Benner I was beyond excited to see mares tails streaking across the sky – good weather clouds!!! That means at least a couple days of bright, warm, sunny weather. We’d finally had a normal travel day, it was sunny and we were to camp with plenty of time for a swim and a snack before setting up for the night.
The campsite at Benner is fabulous. Another perfect slip-and-slide-in swimming rock, also a perfect docking area. On shore there is a rock chair WITH a footstool. Up a small hill there are a couple of great tent sites and a fire pit with a gorgeous view out over the lake. We lay the sleeping bags out in the sun and wind to air out while we set up the tent. Dinner, coffee, chocolate. A raven called and a family of ducks swam by. After dinner and chores we watched as the golden light danced across the quietly rippling lake and listened to the wind breathing in the trees behind our heads.
It was a perfect, quiet moment.
Day 8, Aug 29, Benner L, Bluesucker L to FLORENCE Lake!!!
As we are obviously obsessed with misty mornings, and hoping to catch sight of some wildlife, we set out early. I said goodbye to this lovely campsite and the rock chair and we quickly paddled over to our first portage of the day into Bluesucker Lake. The early morning calm was just lifting from the land as we finished the easy, flat 200m’s. We paddled past an empty campsite, around a corner and discovered a couple of beavers. They put on quite a show for us as they tried to distract us from their lodge. Around another corner we saw an eagle in a tree and disturbed a heron as we pulled into our next portage.
After Bluesucker it was 3 portages mixed with some creek travel finishing at the fabulous Florence Lake! I had developed a habit of counting paces along the portages to know how close we were to being done. Consequently I noticed that our primary map continued to underestimate the distances of the portages in this area. The first one is definitely closer to 910m than 760m. It’s quite a rocky path but decently flat. At one point we came to a highway of rocks along a dried up river bed.
Coming up to the second portage along this creek into Florence Lake we were still holding out hope for map 1. No cigar. Map 1 must be working from old data as there is a very well established beaver dam along here making the portage a concrete 210m rather than 95m. This trail starts out in a grassy marshy area but the end is a really pretty walk along a charming little chute with Killarney-esque white rock all around. We took a break here to take it all in and soak up the sun while scarfing down some sustenance for the main event of the day. After a short paddle up the creek we came to the big daddy! 1470m of tough slogging.
The 1407m portage starts out rocky. Then there’s a pretty long stretch of wide, flat trail before you reach the bogs. We got quite close to both a male and female spruce grouse along here, so that was fun.
This was the longest stretch of bog I’d ever hopped, slipped and precariously balanced through. It’s mostly one long soggy patch. I don’t know if this area is even passable at high water – maybe it would be floatable? We balanced along rocks and logs and tuffs of grass. The logs that had been laid down over super wet patches were covered in water. Finding them was the first challenge. Stepping on them did not prevent a wet foot, but it did keep one from being completely consumed by the marsh. After the bogs is a long hilly section, up and down and up and down and… you get the picture. Then some slippery rock slopes, down one last hill and you’re on Florence Lake!
We’d been waiting to get to Florence for years now and after a botched attempt last year, which you can read about here, attaining the goal was that much sweeter. Bluesucker Bay is quite marshy, so it was not instant gratification. But as we paddled through the narrows and out into the Lake I became properly impressed. Around one corner a family of otters. Around another a herd of about 20 ducks running across the water like Jesus. Behind an island a gang of 5 loons calling back and forth with their friends on the other side of the lake. Crystal clear blue water. Steep hills rising up all around. Jack pine forest on the South end of the lake changing to old growth white pine as we travelled North. And in the distance a spit of land, with a sand beach running down it’s arm and a rock point at the end, that would be our home for two nights.
First order of business after pulling into camp is always a swim. Half way across the lake I stopped to tread water. Turning in a slow circle I took in the panorama around me. It was late afternoon on a perfectly hot, sunny day. If I sank down into the water, so that only my head was above, all I could hear was the sound of my own breathing. The heat of the day had dampened all other sound. The rest of the day was spent lying in the sun and reading interspersed with dips in the lake to cool down – my idea of perfection.
In the evening we hiked up behind the site to a small cliff looking west across the lake to the shore. Dinner was freshly made (ie: not freeze-dried) macaroni and cheese finished off with tea and chocolate. The sunset was less than fantastic with a bit of mackerel sky moving in. After seeing those mares tails yesterday I was really hoping for a stretch of good weather, but the sky never lies…
As the darkness thickened I spent some time sitting in a curve of the rock near the shore. The night was velvet and silk. The air was warm and close. A soft, warm breeze caressed my hair. The smallest of waves lapped at the shore.
On my way back to the tent I heard a scuffling and my flashlight beam fell on a rabbit at my feet. I watched as she tentatively hopped away through the brush.
Day 9, Aug 30: Florence Rest Day
After sleeping in we rolled out of bed and took our time over a breakfast of cinnamon buns, bacon and coffee. Overnight some cloud cover had rolled in, just as the lacklustre sunset and mackerel sky had predicted. The air was warm and humid so the clouds provided a nice respite from the sun.
Around noon the sky over us cleared up to reveal bright sunshine and blue sky. We spent the afternoon reading, tanning, swimming and paddling around the lake. A sandy point, called an isthmus, stretches across Florence lake almost separating it in two. It was much wider than we had expected. Only at its narrowest point could we actually see across it to the other side of the lake. There’s a cabin built here, “the good tent”. Whoever chose this place to build their cabin had good taste! From here there’s a view of both the southern and northern halves of the lake: to the south it’s islands and rocky outcroppings overhung with hills, and to the north are cascading ridges of tall pine piled up against each other in an ombré display of greens and blues. Absolutely gorgeous.
We returned from exploring late in the afternoon and improvised a floaty football out of a rain shield all bunched up in it’s compression sack. After playing a game of catch in the water with Sean, I grabbed the goggles and took a long swim around our site looking through the clear blue to underwater cliffs dropping down deep and out of sight. This would be a great place for cliff jumping.
Florence Lake is probably the most beautiful place I’ve ever been in my life. And the site we were at is probably my favourite site of all time too. Also, this was our 8th day of complete solitude. (We wouldn’t see another human for 10 of our 15 days.) Add all that together and you have a recipe for a pretty spectacular experience.
We watched all afternoon from our sunny local as thunderheads rolled across the Southern sky. Finally in the evening they dropped their load somewhere to the South East of us and we listened to the music of thunder in the distance, happy to be here and not there. Our site had a lovely flat expanse of rock so I set up the camera and took some footage for #GetOutsideDanceOutside, a project I’m working on that uses dance to animate and draw attention to outdoor spaces. (If this project sounds interesting to you drop me a line! I’m always looking for people to collaborate with.) After a simple dinner we built a small fire and feasted on s’mores until dark.
Read on at Smoothwater Loop Part 3!