As we have for the past several years, my wife and I joined several friends on a weekend camping trip in August, and this time we decided to journey into one of my favorite places in Canada — and possibly in the world — Algonquin Park.
In case you aren’t familiar with it, Algonquin is one of the largest parks in the world, at almost 3,000 square miles of trees and rivers and lakes and wildlife, or about one quarter the amount of land in Belgium. It was a favorite spot for the Group of Seven painters, including Tom Thomson, who died mysteriously in the park.
Thomson was also a park ranger at Algonquin in 1916, and our jumping off point for the trip was Achray campground, which happens to be where the ranger cabin he used to live in is located. Now an interpretive centre, it is a great old log cabin with a replica of the sign that Tom painted for it, which says “Out Side Inn.”
Tom Thomson’s ranger cabin, the Out Side Inn
After putting in the canoes and kayak, we headed out onto Grand Lake, and around the bend into the short river that joins it to Stratton Lake, passing Jack Pine point, which Thomson immortalized in his famous painting of the same name. A loon popped up about three feet away from my kayak as I paddled by, and seemed more than a little surprised to see me. He hooted for his pals and then moved on.
The portage into Stratton Lake is only about 50 metres, which took no time at all even with two canoes, a kayak and four large knapsacks, plus a bunch of other miscellaneous stuff. It took longer to wait for the canoes coming the other way, since Achray is a popular jumping off point for many campers. Stratton is a long thin lake, which took about an hour to paddle, not counting a lunch stop at one of the unused campsites along the way.
Heading into Stratton Lake after the portage from Grand Lake
At the end of Stratton we came to another small river that ended in a short portage into St. Andrew’s Lake. In higher water, the small rapids that join the two are runnable, but the water was quite low after such a dry summer. I tried to run it in the kayak, and spent most of my time bumping over rocks and eventually had to lift the boat over the remaining rocks and out into the lake.
There are eight campsites on St. Andrew’s, including one that is famous for its massive stone benches, which a park ranger told me were built by some ex-Armed Forces campers years ago. They are an impressive sight, with seating for five or six, made out of rocks that in some cases must weigh several hundred pounds. The site also has a tree stump on which someone has drawn a chess board.
Flintstone-style benches erected by giants on St. Andrew’s Lake
We got a site on the point just after the portage, with lots of flat areas for tents and a nice fire pit and cooking area. We didn’t have stone benches, but I used some of the rocks from the old fire pit and some large logs on the site to build our own wooden benches, which worked quite well. Shortly after landing we were welcomed by a loon family — a mother and father and two relatively small babies — and we were later joined by a mouse family as well as several hungry chipmunks, who showed great interest in our pancake mix.
They’re not stone, but I think my benches are pretty good
Mmm. Good pancake mix
The day after we arrived, we paddled up to the north end of the lake to find the portage to High Falls Lake. We hiked along the portage and then took a side trail that led through the woods past a beautiful waterfall, and ended up just across from High Falls itself. Although it would technically have been possible to get to the falls from where we stopped, it takes a lot of bushwhacking (there is no real trail) so we stopped for some lunch and photo opportunities and then headed back to the campsite.
Cardinal flowers near High Falls
High Falls from the High Falls Lake side
The following day we packed up and on our way out we stopped near the other side of High Falls, which is reachable from Stratton Lake, but there were about 7 canoes worth of people already there and it was getting late, so we kept going. After loading the car back at Achray, we toured the Thomson cabin and then stopped on our way out of the park to hike the Barron Canyon trail, which was spectacular.
The canyon is unlike anything else in the park, or even in Ontario for that matter — it is more than twice as high as Niagara Falls at about 300 feet or so of sheer cliffs, carved by some massive river eons ago. The trail runs right along the edge of these sheer cliffs, which makes for some incredible views (and probably some nervous parents of small children as well, I expect). Soon, I hope to be able to paddle the Barron river and see the canyon from the other side.
A gap on the Barron Canyon trail, straight down about 300 feet