If there’s a kind of trip that really builds camaraderie with friends and character look no further than going on a serious Algonquin portage canoe trip.
Being in Canada we’re graced with a lot of natural beauty and in Ontario specifically whenever anyone thinks about going up north to get away from the city, most will think of Algonquin National Park. In the past I’ve been up to Algonquin but it’s always been car camping. This is the cushy type of camping where you drive up to your designated camp spot, park your car and set up a tent and camping chairs around the camp fire. It’s super easy because the comfort stations a lot of times are only minutes away which come fully equipped with hot water showers and bathrooms. If you’ve never gone camping, i’d suggest doing the car camping to get a small taste.
Now I’ll put this out there. I love car camping. It’s super laid back and the days usually just consist of cooking and eating and maybe some lazy activities. But I’ve always wanted to do something a little outback and more extreme so when Hilton said he was interested in doing a canoe trip this year, I jumped all over the idea.
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Table of contents
How Does An Algonquin Portage Canoe Trip Look Like?
We decided on The Big Trout loop which is considered to be intermediate in difficulty. The Algonquin portage canoe trip was a total of 4 days and 3 nights.
We basically started at Canoe Lake, moved up to McIntosh Lake for night 1. From there we paddled and portaged all the way out to Big Trout Lake for night 2. For night 3 we made our way down to Burnt Island Lake. On day 4 we completed the circle and ended up back at Canoe Lake.
In retrospect, the direction we chose for this route was the most optimal because of the water flow of some of the small creeks we had to go through which you’ll read more about below.
At first, we were looking at two times of the year we could do it – May or late August. The main reason for these months is that we wanted to work around black fly and mosquito season.
In the end we landed on May just because was the best for everyone’s schedule, there wouldn’t be any mosquitoes or black flies, and it also wasn’t too hot.
Here are the major things that I packed for this Algonquin portage trip:
- Sleeping bag – Ultra compact and incredibly cheap.
- Compact pillow – Wow I don’t know how I survived all these years camping without a proper compact pillow.
- Waterproof hiking boots – For this trip, I used the Asolo Goretex hiking boots.
- Ice fishing gloves – AMAZING especially when it was raining. Keeps you fully warm and dry.
- GSI Minimalist set – Awesome all-in-one kit.
- Portable butane stove – This thing is so tiny that it fits in the GSI kit above.
- 15L dry bag
- 35L dry backpack
- Waterproof pants – Columbia makes a waterproof and breathable pant that I highly recommend.
- Sleeping bag liner – A gift from my friends and so essential to keep your sleeping bag clean.
- Geigerrig backpack – Combining this with the in-line filter, I didn’t need to worry about drinking from lake water at all!
Other than that, the preparation was pretty minimal on my end as I left most of the larger gear for my friend, Hilton, who had a lot of the communal camping things such as the tent, food, and snacks.
Speaking of snacks, you’ll want to buy a lot of trail mix and the best place to do it is at a place like Bulk Barn. You can build your own trail mix by getting an assortment of nuts, chocolate, and dried fruit, and then mixing it all together yourself.
As for other preparation, we had one group meeting the week of to double check our gear and for us to talk about tips on packing the backpack and waterproofing everything with contractor bags which are basically really thick garbage bags.
As a last minute addition, the photographer inside of me just couldn’t stand not having a camera and since I had just picked up a diving housing for my new Olympus E-PM1 I thought I might as well take it out for a spin. I also brought along my GoPro Hero2.
The Algonquin Portage Trip Itinerary
Everyday was a different adventure for us and you can say the weather was just as different for us as well.
This was perhaps the most challenging day of all.
I survived day one literally on only 4 hours of sleep. On top of that I had to wake up at 4:30AM to pick up Andrew and Henry before heading up to Hilton’s house. Luckily on the way we stopped by Tim Hortons to pick up some food and coffee.
Once at Hilton’s we rearranged a few packs and head out packed in his car. Our original plan was to head out by 5:45AM but it probably wasn’t until 6:15 or 6:30AM when we actually left Richmond Hill.
Oh yeah and Andrew’s fishing rod snapped in half when we packed it in…more on this later.
The ride up to Algonquin Provincial Park is roughly 3 hours and we made pretty good time.
When we hit Huntsville, we made use of our last chance at civilized bathroom facilities and picked up some additional food. Sad that his fishing rod broke, Andrew bought this awesome collapsable one at the Walmart but when he was playing around with it by the car, he wasn’t able to collapse it again. He ended up returning it and then buying another normal one. I won’t say much more about the fishing rod on this trip but let’s just say it was dead weight the whole time and caught us no fish.
Once in the park, we stopped by the main info centre but turns out we didn’t need to go there since we could pick up our permits all at the outfitter centre at the entrance to Canoe Lake.
At the outfitter, all was smooth as we picked up the permits, our rental gear (2 canoes, 2 bail kits, life jackets, paddles, food barrel) and started loading everything.
Now the reason I say the first day was the most challenging was because after the first portage, the second portage was a killer 2.2km.
I thought I’d be able to handle doing my first Algonquin portage with a canoe over me + my backpack + Geigerrig + 15L dry bag + life jacket. I even started off wearing my Patagonia shell.
The first 500m seemed okay but there was a point when I was sweating like crazy and the canoe was digging into my shoulders big time. I took off my jacket, took a break and kept going. I made a total of 3 breaks along the way but wow did that kill my shoulders or what. There was no padding on the shoulder from the life jacket so that was pretty useless.
The whole time I was thinking…”this must be how you can make sure you stay short”. Portaging with a canoe and bag is like the literal sense of “weight on your shoulders” and you feel like you’re being pushed down to be shorter and shorter.
What kills you along this path is how long it is for one and two just how up and down it is. There’s deep mud along the way, up hill climbs and then down hill drops. It’s never a straight line nor can you see the end. With no markers, you have no idea whether you’ve just done only another 100m or if you’ve actually completed a quarter of the length.
When I reached the end, I felt like a million bucks.
I would’ve gone back to help the other guys who were doing some leap frogging but I was so tired and I developed a blister on my right ankle which became quite the annoyance throughout the trip. There was something about my Asolo’s that the back heel/ankle part was unpadded and kept chafing against me.
The rest of the way seemed to be a piece of cake after that. I took a bunch of photos with my camera, and attempted to use my GoPro as well.
There were a few tragic stories with my GoPro though.
One, this being my first time using it, I thought it was automatically turning on to video mode so every time I thought I was taking a video, it was actually taking a photo. Back at home, I was awarded with a bunch of shots of my fingers when I pulled the images from my card.
The other tragic story behind the GoPro was that I was using my suction cup mount for some shots I didn’t really have something to tie it to the boat. I created a makeshift strap with my dry sack. It worked for awhile and even caught it falling off one time but the second time it happened I wasn’t so lucky. The suction cup mount flew right off the canoe and the strap didn’t catch it. The only good news out of that was that moments before I had just taken off the GoPro itself so really I only lost the suction mount and the 3-way pivot arm.
The scenery along the way was of course spectacular and the weather was just great as the sun was out in full force and not a black fly or mosquito was in sight. What was a bit odd I thought was that a lot of trees still had fall colours on them.
It was always a relief to hit the water again as I really don’t know if there’s any joy in actual portaging other than feeling relieved when it was over. Canoeing was calming and slow paced in such a vast landscape.
When we reached McIntosh Lake, it was close to 6:30PM.
It was a perfect camp site situated on an island so we had it all to ourselves. Hilton and I set up the tent while Henry and Andrew worked on the cooking and fire. For our first night, steaks were on the menu which were chewy as hell but still darn delicious. Fire was pretty easy to get going and so we did s’mores and hot chocolate to cap off the night.
Others things to note… I washed my clothes and hung them to dry on our line and Andrew seemed to enjoy using our blunt axe to cut up some wood.
We woke up on Day 2 to the joy of rain droplets. The good thing was that we were relatively sheltered with the trees that surrounded us and I was able to grab my clothes on the line before it really started coming down.
Breakfast included oatmeal + banana + bagel with peanut butter.
Oh and I also got to use a “biffy” for the first time. I thought taking a #2 out in the wilderness would’ve been a pain but it was actually quite comfortable. These boxes are complete with it’s own toilet seat and when you open it up it doesn’t particularly smell. You just do your business and you go.
Decked out in all of our waterproof gear we hit the lake at around 9AM and started making towards Big Trout Lake.
The big challenge for today were the two beaver dams we had to get over. Luckily we were travelling in the direction of the water flow and always going downstream. So we would try to build as much speed to the opening of the dam, get stuck, one of us would have to get out to push us off (thank goodness for Goretex boots) and then jump right back in.
I was pretty nervous about this as canoe flipping is always on your mind but we conquered both roadblocks. The portaging was pretty light on this day with nothing really over 500m. Honestly, anything under 2.2K at this point seemed easy.
The great thing was that towards the end of the day, the sun broke out and we got some fantastic weather to guide us to our campsite.
You’ll notice I also took less photos on this day because near the end of day, the battery warning light was already flashing. Day 3 and beyond I was only able to snap 2-3 photos a day.
We reached Big Trout Lake by 4:30 so we got an awesome jump to the evening to set up and start cooking.
This campsite was probably the best as we were again on an island. It had two biffy’s that were in it’s own little outhouse which was awesome.
The only problem we had was sustaining a good fire. I was responsible for fire duties and I was pretty proud of being able to start it using flint alone but because all the wood was wet, nothing would ever really catch fire. You just had to continuously feed it or else it would die. Thank goodness we had a pack of fire starter sticks to help get things going.
For dinner we 4 packs of Sidekicks which were pretty awful. They were way too salty and just not good. Don’t ever get Sidekicks for your portaging trip.
I washed my clothes again but like my clothes after Day 1, they never really fully dry so I ended up having to just lay them on my packs in the canoe.
Day 3 was a portage heavy day as we moved from Big Trout Lake to Burnt Island Lake.
We had a total of 6 portages to do and some in rapid succession. By the 4th or 5th portage I was already pretty exhausted.
To start the day as well, we thought we had gotten lost trying to find out first portage spot because we could hear crazy rapids ahead of us so we doubled back to the entrance of the river but turns out we were right all along and all we needed to do was go a little deeper in. That killed about 45 minutes of time. As a result, we didn’t get to camp until 6:30PM.
We didn’t have too many choices for camp sites for this part of the Algonquin portage trip since it was getting late and we were stuck with one that had an uphill incline and since it was near a swamp, there were black flies galore.
The campfire layout wasn’t that great as we didn’t have too much bench area to work with to cook our food but we made do. Black flies were all over us too so I had to cover up everything. It was probably on this day that I got all my bites. I totally imagined “black flies” to be your usual house fly but these guys are pretty tiny and once they latch onto your skin, even blowing at them won’t get them off. You literally have to flick them off.
The saving grace of the day was the awesome dinner we had. Because this was our last night, I made sure we threw in everything into this dry-food pasta package we got. We threw in the spam, sausage and zucchini. This package is made by Harvest Foodworks and the flavour we got was Alfredo Primavera (available at MEC) and seriously the best dinner we had aside from the steaks. Delicious!!
Fire of course wasn’t very sustainable as everything was still wet, but we managed to get something big going for a little while to be able to do our s’mores which became our nightly ritual.
The other annoying thing about this campsite was, as I said, situated on an uphill. With no real other space to use, that meant our tent was also on an uphill angle. Sleeping was so awkward as in the middle of the night I woke up to find the other guys almost halfway down from where they first started. I also had to constantly climb back up.
By 8 or 9PM, we could see a lot of dark clouds rolling in and thunder crackling in the distance. We made sure we put everything away as we were for sure in for a wild one. Sure enough in the middle of the night the sky unloaded on us cats and dogs. Luckily our tent held up pretty well and nothing got wet.
Oh the joys of rain while on an Algonquin portage trip.
We woke up in the morning and it was foggy everywhere you looked. At least it wasn’t raining right? We did our usual breakfast and even tried to kill one of our butane canisters by toasting our bagels but even that wasn’t enough to finish one. We probably only needed 2 butane canisters at most for this trip.
We hit the lake and we slowly made our way back home. This leg wasn’t too strenuous as we had to do a couple of portages that at most was 800 metres long. We were even able to cut out a few portages along the way as we bumped into this other group that said the water levels were high enough to paddle it straight back home.
The fog had lifted but by about 12PM we could see that the dark clouds were rolling again and we could hear some rumbling in the air.
We decided to forego lunch and just paddle it hard back home to Canoe Lake.
With a good 5 kilometres left to go, just like the previous night, it started raining huge bulbs of water on us that kept getting harder and harder. At this point there was nowhere to go and we were committed to gun it straight back. We usually paddled pretty lackadaisically but this day was like we had a gun pointed at our heads.
I never had to paddle this hard in my life and for this long of a stretch.
The good thing out of all of this was that my Patagonia jacket held up incredibly well though my Goretex pants didn’t that well but still kept me warm and dry in certain places. The ice fishing neoprene gloves also did fantastically well.
In record time, we made it back to our starting point before 3PM.
What a way to end right?
On the way home we enjoyed a nice burger at Webers and after dropping off the guys at home, I made it home for dinner no later than 6:30PM.
Algonquin Portaging Trip Retrospective
Now I can’t say that I felt particularly relaxed during the trip so that’s where car camping wins but I had a fantastic experience doing something that was truly “roughing it”. When you’re on a canoe trip like this, you really have a chance to really bond with nature and live free of technology (minus my cameras). The daily cycle of breakfast -> paddling -> portaging -> finding next camp site -> setting up camp -> dinner -> sleep is almost therapeutic.
The simplicity of it all takes you away from all the annoying distractions of life in our real world.
It’s also true that a trip like this builds character. It’s not easy most times and so you really have to dig deep to push through.
Gear-wise, I felt that I was pretty well equipped to handle the trip.
For the camera gear I brought, I probably could’ve brought a few backup batteries but I guess it was good that it forced me to be more selective with my shooting.
The waterproof backpack was pretty key for me as it allowed me to travel a lot lighter.
I also didn’t bring a lot of backup clothes as some of the others did. Instead, I relied on hand washing which worked to a certain degree but ended up having to dry them during the day by laying them on top of our packs in the canoe. I seriously think 2 pairs of underwear, socks and 2 sets of shirts should be good enough. I brought backup shorts but I ended up wearing my Goretex pants the whole time which held up surprisingly well.
With the on-set of black fly season, getting one of those fly net things for your head might’ve been a good idea.
I thought the most important piece of gear for me was definitely the hiking boots. You’re constantly faced with muddy conditions and the chance of having to step into ankle high water to push your canoe away from shore or out of sticky situations.
Lastly I thought my set up of a 35L waterproof backpack + 15L dry sack was great because I never needed to touch anything in my backpack while on the canoe but everything else that I needed to be accessible I could get to with my 15L dry bag. Super convenient.
Where I did feel bulky was with my Geigerrig, as I typically had to wear it on my front to be able to carry everything. If I could re-do it I’d probably try to figure out to consolidate this a bit better with the 15L dry bag.
For our collective gear, we pretty much had what we needed to survive but it definitely would’ve been nicer if we had 2 more additional water buckets for miscellaneous use as it seemed like we were always waiting for someone to finish using the bucket whether it be to wash the dishes, wash clothes, showers, brushing teeth, water for boiling, etc.
Another thing we ran out of pretty quickly were the spices and salt. Hilton bought this GSI kitchen set that came with some sort of condiment “rocket” but it was so tiny and ran out after the first day.
Oh and yes we probably didn’t need to have that much trail mix though I guess I can’t complain because I killed my bag pretty quickly.
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