Story by Buck Miller
Photos by Eric Batty
In February of 2018, I crossed Algonquin Park with friends Eric Batty and Ryan Atkins. Mountain bike racing is ultimately what brought us together. Eric and I used to race against each other from 1998 to 2001. Fast forward twenty years and we decided to cross Algonquin when we reconnected at a regional bike race. I had just spent five years living in Moosonee, on the James Bay coast and relocated to Huntsville. The lack of crown land in Muskoka had me feeling a little down by not being able to access true, remote adventure opportunities so I vowed to find more challenging things to do. After chatting with Eric, we started looking at routes and looking at timelines. This was Algonquin’s 125th anniversary so we thought a proper crossing would be a solid homage to this famed park.
The route choice came from my location in Huntsville and my parents home in Deux Rivieres, on the north side of the park on Trans Canada 17 and the Ottawa River, about 45km north of the Brent access to Algonquin. Eric and I combed over maps on the phone, debating the best possible route. We decided that the crossing had to be done in good style. Border to border at minimum and obviously no support or food drops. Starting inside the park wasn’t good enough. I consulted closely with the grandmaster of Algonquin, Craig MacDonald. Craig holds a wealth of knowledge and any long-in-the-tooth historians or travelers of the park know his name. In an afternoon together at his house, I left with a series of hand-drawn maps in pencil, on lined paper.
Craig went in-depth about the thermal incline of the lakes, which lakes are spring fed, which lakes turn the water over from the bottom to the top the earliest, thinning out the ice slowly, as winter passes and even where the traditional snowshoe trails were. It was a lot to take in and after our meeting I felt more confident in our route choice. Craig acknowledged that we’d have a hard time but agreed that we had picked a good route for winter travel having avoided the Nipissing and Petawawa Rivers as best we could. During my research on winter travel in the park, most trips sounded arduous, with leg-deep powder and open water everywhere with early attempts ending in failure and later crossings sounded too easy with some reports of folks traveling up to 25 km in a day with the hard crust from the warmer sun and still cold nights. We decided to leave February 1st, 2018 expecting a mix of slow, deep snow and decent ice.
We kicked off on Troutspawn Lake Road, 2 km south of Shawandasee Lake, which is the lake of entry to the park for us. From there we would head through Fen, Hilly, Small and Bluebell Lakes where we’d make our first camp. We slept right on the ice and brought 12” galvanized nails to anchor the Seek Outside tipi. One avalanche shovel among us was enough to dig down a little ways and pack what snow was left with our skis. We boiled water on the Seek Outside titanium wood stove and settled in for a good night, all anxiously wondering what the next 10 days would bring. Our first day we put 12 km behind us and skied on a firm crust with little powder. Dinner was dehydrated alpine aire meals, two each before we sat around the stove for a time before bedding down.
Day 2 started with a 1.4 km portage into Mikado Lake under a grey overcast sky. We started on the skis, not wanting to snowshoe at all if we could avoid it. The south end of Algonquin has never appealed to me (too busy) and I almost had to force myself to enjoy the peace and quiet that surrounded us. I was in a self imposed jail of wilderness of which I could only be free once I was at least one day travel north of the highway 60 corridor that cuts through Algonquin. The portages so far were wide, and even in the winter you could see signs of their heavy use. A big 2.4 km portage with some serious elevation and deep snow brought us to Smoke Lake. Smoke is road accessible and has many nice cottages dotting the shore. We hit the ice and headed north to cross the highway.
I was in a bad state when we were nearing km 15 of travel for the day. Having no GPS or smartwatch on me, only a map and compass, I was completely at the mercy of Ryan and Eric telling me how far we’ve traveled, and I got a sneaking suspicion that the lads were dragging out kilometers in order to get more and more out of me. I started this trip with enough time and fitness to comfortably handle 10 km a day for 170 km overall. So why was I completely wrecked? We crossed the highway and were happy to not hear or see vehicles for the next 150 km and have only snow and ice under our feet. The team took pity on me and we camped another 2 km further on Canoe Lake under heavy snow. We got in the tent and hovered around the stove. The guys asked me how much food I had with me to eat on the fly each day. I showed them a bag about 15 L full. They laughed, and pulled out bags at least double the size. Luckily they had more to share. I ate and ate that night.
Here’s an excerpt from my bush journal on day 3: “slept hard, I’m still pretty cracked. Yesterday was horrible. My feet are sore, my toenails are too long and we’re still 10 days from the end. Looking forward to getting deeper into the park today.” Apparently I wasn’t thrown off too badly from my first unraveling. Today’s route took us through Joe, Little Joe, Lost Joe and Baby Joe Lakes, also known as “The Joes” by paddlers. We found a series of hiking trails to skirt a ton of open water, some dead-ended on us and others went far off course but after a little bushwacking we ended up on the very steep and off-camber (outside edge of trail is lower than inside edge) trail into Burnt Island Lake. We had to all team up and pull 3 guys to one freight toboggan to get through here. It was too steep for snowshoes so we were on foot and mostly a sweaty mess. Hot maple aid water in our thermos was choked down and we all took a break to cool off. I opened the map and looked ahead to Burnt Island Lake and Carolyn Island. It looked like a nice place to spend the night so we struck out and made it there under heavy snow with enough time to make camp in the daylight and get a bunch of firewood. We had lots of clothes to dry. The lads in lightweight quick-dry technical gear and me in my wool pants, shirts and sweater, certainly the old man of the trip both in age and in gear selection.
The next morning we woke to a beautiful sunny sky and a crisp -30. While trying to dry some of the condensation off my -40 marmot sleeping bag I managed to burn a hole the size of a small cantaloupe in it. In my mind I was tending to a serious matter while holding the bag close to the stove, but I may have been opening an Oh Henry bar to try and melt into my oatmeal. We’ll never know the truth. Ryan and Eric couldn’t believe the stink of melting down feathers. They left to pack up what they could into our 10’ poly freight toboggans from Whiskey Jack Outdoor Co. I took every single gear patch we all brought with us and shoe-goo’d the hold shut. It held well and is still in good repair today, although it looks terrible. A late start to the day, but we set off all happy with the weather and we had much to laugh about.
Coming into Otterslide Lake we saw something small on the northern shore. Eric thought it was an otter. It was not an otter. It was a dude, about 6’ tall, on snowshoes with a homemade pulk. We were going to the same area to check out Otterslide Creek which has been passable in some winter conditions but certainly wasn’t today. We turned back from the potential shortcut because of open water, thin ice and blowdown to make our way east over to Happy Isle lake, and ended the day on Shiner Lake after 16 km. The Otterslides could have saved us one whole day’s travel. Our solo traveling friend camped a little ways off and came by to check out our gear and use our open hole in the ice to get some water. He didn’t bring a chisel or an axe on his trip. We didn’t know if we’d see him again as his route was rather whimsical. We broke camp early the next morning and that was the last of him we would see.
We were really happy with our gear up to this point. Our skis (Altai Hoks) have permanent skins on them so we had to be careful to avoid slush, but with a good drywall knife they scrape down nicely and still provide more efficiency than snowshoes and give great float in powder. Their only downfall was the universal binding that we used with normal winter boots. While they’re convenient, having ski boots and bindings would have been much better after 6 to 8 hours a day moving time. The Whiskey Jack Outdoor Co. freight toboggans would tip a little on their sides on steep off-camber trails but otherwise performed really well, and we all used the tailing cord to help the guy in front when things went sideways. They didn’t have hard poles but a strap with paracord to pull.
On the downhill sections we’d simply hold the reins like a horse and either sit on it or let it slide ahead of us. To tow, we would put the strap around the bottom of our packs so the weight of the toboggan was dispersed nicely from our hips to our shoulders. We all had Tubbs snowshoes but only used them for roughly 12 km of the trip. The Tipi tent and very small titanium wood stove was awesome. We could only burn small branches but it was easy to set up and take down with the stove pipe being a rolled sheet of titanium that fits inside the stove for transportation and the total weight of stove, tent and pipe was less than 9 lbs. I brought a bulky ice chisel for water every night instead of boiling snow. It was cumbersome but well worth the time savings. On the ground, I brought an old mec tarp and we slept on Exped Downmat 9’s.
Breaking camp on day 5 would bring us from Shiner Lake to Big Trout Lake. We were boiling water on top of our not-so-air-tight stove for breakfast and our hydroflasks. It took a while but we got the hang of it and we were able to leave camp before 9 a.m. Leisurely, sure, but this was a vacation for us. Happy Isle and Merchant Lakes were beautiful. The sun was high with a clear blue sky, making the snow so bright and the trees on distant shores something beautiful. With no nagging injuries, our morale was high. After a 1,840 m portage we came to the big swamp in the east end of Big Trout. Moose tracks were everywhere, with fresh urine and red maple clippings. We crossed very few moose tracks so far to our surprise. The winding swamp through beaver grass and small tamarack and spruce trees was a highlight.
For a second, if I didn’t look to the far shore and see the elevation, I almost felt like I was back in the James Bay Lowlands. Ryan and I skied ahead while Eric took some shots with the camera. Eric’s job as the team photographer isn’t easy. Bare hands on cold aluminum camera bodies and playing a game of catch up constantly is a tough gig but his photography is nothing short of professional. The headwind we met once out of the swamp was tough: 50 kph winds with snow squalls moving around us all the way to our camp at the northeast end of the lake by the carry to Lake La Muir. It was a 15.5 km day. The evening was so calm and clear, Eric called us out of the tent to take a look at the cold sky. The sound of trees snapping and cracking from the bush was the only thing to break any silence.
Day 6. Today we would start with a big 2,590 m walk on snowshoes to get us into Lake La Muir and we’d get a real test on thin ice. The Little Madawaska starts here. We each had a throw bag from our canoes with us, set up on top of our bags with immediate access. We generally stayed far enough apart so that if one of us went in, chances are the other two could get a throw bag to the unlucky swimmer. The Little Mad was thin. The kind of dangerous thin where it was frozen over, but you could hear water moving under our skis. We tried to stay on the south side but the bush got too thick and we had to be too far to the center to pass. Our ski poles could bust through the surface with a not-so-hard whack. We considered heading for the bushline but with freight toboggans and no trail, the cost time scared us off. Our pounds per square inch were really low with the big skis and the toboggans, so I decided to make my way across first while the lads waited at the ready. Uneventfully, I made it but it wasn’t without a bit of puckering. From the north we were able to weave around the cedars and deadfall on the creek edge. Some open water and slush showed up as we neared Hogan but all was well. We knew our next test would be tomorrow. We made camp on Hogan after 17 km and we were happy to have the Little Mad behind us.
Day 7 we woke up to -23 and a light snow. We started with another 1,945 m portage into Manta Lake. I enjoyed all the small lakes we passed through, all I could think of was trying to fish for speckled trout in these little places. Ice fishing isn’t legal in the park, but I did have an emergency fishing kit that I really wanted to deploy but I held back. Manta, Newt and Sunfish all passed by quickly. In the bush, the work is hard and slow going but the time flies. We all have to help each other up the steep climbs. We peel layers like an onion to keep the sweat off. It was tough going but we didn’t miss the huge trees and animal tracks. The lakes are slow, our minds wander and our eyes get lost in the endless white of snow on a lake on an overcast day.
Today’s last test was leaving Sunfish. We anticipated bad ice and we found some, but with so much beaver grass and swamp we made easy work of the open water and soft holes we found and got to Catfish Lake late in the afternoon. We passed by Turtle Rock, a place of historical significance to the Algonquin people. Even in the winter, it looks like a big turtle. I remember Craig MacDonald telling me of a dig on an island in this lake that turned up many artifacts, in a location he wouldn’t disclose. We headed to the northern bay of Catfish and made camp after 13 km.
Day 8, we woke up to -22 and set a leisurely goal of 9 km to Brent today starting with an overland compass shot. We got to Lanter Lake after 3.5 km in as many hours through some fiercely tight bush. We found some small openings but it was tough going. Finally onto Lantern and into Ravenau for a sweet downhill that brought us on to Cedar Lake where we would make an easy crossing and make camp with time to rest before the chores of camp started. Overnight we discussed the possibility of going from Brent to Deux Rivieres in a day, straight down the unopened road. At 42 km long I thought it was insane. We’re on bush skis, very wide and short. The idea of a marathon on the last day of an already hard trip was crazy. Ryan, who is literally one of the fittest humans on earth (google him) was happy to entertain such masochism. Yet, I agreed with one condition. That we have a rest day. In total, we would still save 2 days and I would get to heal up my overworked tendons and muscles before the marathon. We all agreed that day 8 would be spent at camp, mending our sore feet and getting rest for a big day. My mom and dad decided to drive up by skidoo and say hello. He offered us a cold beer, which no one wanted. If only it were a thermos of moose stew.
The final push was made at 8 a.m. on day 9. We ate every last bit of oatmeal we had, all the trail mix, absolutely everything we could to get enough calories in us and hopefully lighten the load for what was sure to be my hardest day on skis. The morning was cold and the skidoos had the road into Brent packed down hard. Our Altai Hoks are literally the worst skis on hard surfaces. They were terrible to control and the first 10 km passed with misery. But my prayers to the pagan mother earth were heard. Snow started falling heavily and it didn’t stop. This was like rain in the Sahara to us. Our bodies were gliding, we weren’t slipping and sliding, losing control. The snow sent the morale through the roof and in a little more than 6 hours, we made it to the Ottawa River and my parents’ back door after 51 hours of moving time over 9 days and 165 km in total.