Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Algonquin Park Western Uplands 3 day solo hike - third loop via Rain Lake



May 31 to June 2, 2013 - the journey


Beginnings


"Why do you do it?"

This seems to be the underlying burning question for many people when the subject of solo hiking comes up.  It usually doesn't come out this direct, but it's not difficult to read between the lines.  "Aren't you afraid of something happening to you?"  "Isn't it lonely?", etc.  I suppose it's not easy for a lot of people to understand, but I feel quite safe and content when I'm off the grid and surrounded by nature.  Sure, there are times when I really wish my wife were beside me as she is during our other treks; but the solo hike is a time for me to fully challenge my personal skills and abilities, to absorb my surroundings with no human distractions, and to self-reflect.  It's not that crazy, really...

The saga began last year when I had planned to complete all three loops of the Western Uplands trail but fell just short of doing so.  For those who haven't read my post on this adventure, I encourage you to do so before reading the remainder of this one to get the full story.  Here is a link:  www.wu3bt.blogspot.ca

After missing last year's target, I was determined to complete the entire third loop along with an extra bonus trail section from Rain Lake to the top of the loop.  The forecast sounded dubiously wet for this trip, although the temperature promised to be warm.  Little did I realize how soggy this was going to be...

Last year's solo trip (in addition to other multi-day treks with my wife) taught me some valuable lessons and I definitely felt more prepared and confident for this journey.  My equipment list was nearly identical with last year's, with some notable differences, thanks to some purchases at MEC and a Fancy Feast cat food tin:

Here's my equipment list (in addition to what I was wearing, my hiking poles and bear spray):
  • 40 litre backpack, lined with a contractor grade garbage bag for waterproofing
  • Old school pup tent* and pegs
  • Tent fly*
  • Inflatable sleeping pad
  • +10 C Sleeping bag
  • Inflatable pillow
  • Cat food can stove
  • 8 oz of Stove fuel (methyl hydrate)
  • Water filtration system
  • T-shirt
  • Fleece
  • Undies (2)
  • Socks (2 pair)
  • Long undies
  • Toque
  • Rain jacket
  • Light weight, water-resistant hiking pants
  • Head lamp
  • 1 litre cooking pot
  • Plastic mug
  • Plastic spork
  • Wood saw
  • Camera
  • Mountain House Dehydrated spaghetti (2 dinners)
  • Hot cereal packs (4)
  • Fruit Source bars (2)
  • Bagels (2)
  • Instant coffee and powdered milk
  • 10 oz of rye and a Cohiba cigar
  • Assortment of energy bars along with fritos/nuts/raisin mix
  • 2 X 500 ml of water
  • Bear bell and whistle
  • Kevlar food bag
  • 48 feet of cord
  • Matches and lighter
  • Bug repellant
  • Bug head net
  • Personal items (toothbrush, toothpaste, sunscreen, kleenex, TP, soap)
  • Emergency kit (tylenol, benadryl, pepto, blister/chafe cream, iodine, bandages, compass, safety pins, duct tape, fire starter)
  • Water purification tablets
  • 2 lightweight adventure towels (1 doubled as a pillow cover)
  • Spare garbage bag
  • 1'X1' piece of aluminum foil (acted as pot lid)
*My cheap tent and fly were still around for this trek - the combined weight is under 2 pounds and my hiking poles doubled as tent poles, so very light and flexible to pack!

Notable differences from last years' gear included:
  • A kevlar food bag vs. a nylon bag
  • A water filtration/purification system vs. reliance on tablets
  • A small wood saw
  • Cat food can stove vs. white gas stove (space and weight savings!)
  • A lightweight headlamp that is a fraction of the weight of last year's headlamp
  • Different (and more) food
  • More bug repellant (running out last year was not fun) plus an ultralight bug head net

I also invested in some great hiking boots last year - wow, what a difference compared to my old hiking shoes!  My total pack weight was just over 25 pounds, including food, fuel and water, which I find to be a very comfortable weight over long distances. Some of the stuff I bring, like an inflatable pillow, may seem a bit cushy to the lightweight advocates out there, but I'm willing to sacrifice the extra ounces for a better night's sleep.


May 31 - Day One

I had traveled the night before to my Mom's house in Orillia and woke up to a mostly sunny and warm morning.  After finishing a hearty breakfast and saying goodbye, I started my drive to Algonquin's Kearney office west of the Rain Lake access point.  I arrived at the office just after 9:00 and acquired my site permits.  The attendant was kind enough to inform me that both the black flies and mosquitoes were at their peak and hoped that I had lots of bug repellent with me.  "No problem", I replied.

The Rain Lake access road was in better condition than I had anticipated, considering it was closed just a few weeks prior due to spring flooding.  Aside from some minor ruts, the road was no problem at all.  The Rain Lake area was eerily silent and the Ranger cabin seemingly vacant, although several vehicles were parked in the lot.  After looking around and relaxing for a bit, I got my pack ready and hit the trail around 10:00.  The sky was still mostly clear and it was quite warm, which made for a pleasant start.

Rain Lake trailhead
The first 8 km of trail mostly follows Rain Lake via the long defunct Ottawa, Armprior and Parry Sound Railway.  Remnants of the line are evident everywhere, including numerous railway ties that have survived the ravages of time.  This section of trail is easily traversed, save for some low, wet areas.








Approximately 6 kms into the hike, I spotted a young couple ahead walking in the same direction.  I chatted with them briefly as I passed and wished them all the best as they made their way to their destination of Brown Lake.  And that was the last human contact I would have for about 48 hours.  Not long afterwards, I heard a loud rustle in the woods and immediately spotted a large animal in the corner of my eye.  My first thought was 'bear!', but it ended up being a young buck moose which scurried off no more than 40 feet away from where I was standing.  There was more wildlife to come, but nothing of this magnitude going forth.

Remains of railroad bridge at Islet Lake
After crossing through a low, forested area, I emerged at the tip of Islet Lake.  I could see the remains of a concrete bridge structure ahead - upon reaching it, I saw that it was a 15+ foot drop to the water below.  It was then that I realized I had missed the trail forking off just prior to the landmark.  I decided to take a break here, basking in the warm weather and views of placid Islet Lake while I hydrated and munched on my trail mix.




As I crossed over a narrow land mass that covers the original railway bridge over Islet Lake, I looked forward to hitting the more rugged interior trail.  After several climbs and descents, I reached the top of the third loop at Ishkuday Lake.  I had hiked nearly 9 km at this point, and had about 14 km more to go to reach my first destination camp site on South Pincher Lake.  The weather was still holding up nicely, but it was slowly becoming more overcast.

After passing several sites along Islet Lake, I made a lunch stop at a nice camp site just off the trail.  It was then that I noticed that I did not have any soap or toilet paper in the brain of my pack.  I recalled how the zipper was slightly open in the car and surmised that it must have fallen out in or around the car.  Fortunately, I did have some kleenex with me so the situation wasn't overly dire!  I remember learning that ashes and sand also work for washing up in a pinch, so I relied on these substances instead - no soap wasn't so bad after all...
Lunch stop on Islet Lake
I had finished off my water at this point and refilled the bottles with filtered lake water before moving onwards.  I was at the halfway mark and still felt quite energized.  The remainder of the hike along Islet Lake and neighbouring Weed Lake was picturesque.  There was a camp site near the trail by Weed Lake that had a long-handled shovel leaning against a tree, which begged the question who would bring such a thing so far in?  I suspect it may have been part of a canoeing party that used the site at some point and simply forgot to take it with them when they moved on.

As I headed into the woods, I sprayed on more bug repellent as the mosquitoes thickened.  After a good climb, I reached Stammer Lake and kept my eyes peeled for the Lookout identified on the trail map.  Apparently, nature pays no heed to Lookouts, and much of the view was quite overgrown.  I was able to see some of the lake as I perched high up in the woods and noted how perfectly calm everything was, although the sky was getting greyer.  After a quick break, I pushed on knowing that there was just a little over 5 km to go to the camp site.

Stutter Lake was the next body of water that I encountered, and I noticed a large, pale object on the shore near the other end.  Looking at my map, I realized that this lake is well off any canoeing routes and I was curious about it.  After hiking along side for a bit, I saw that this was a large, bleached tree trunk that had fallen there many years prior.  Soon after, I stumbled upon a moose skull propped up against a tree, no doubt placed there by another hiker.  I was getting quite close to Pincher Lake at this point, and was excited to reach my first destination.  Aside from a few scattered rain drops, the weather was still holding out.  I was starting to get mildly fatigued by the time I reached Pincher Lake, and I did not see any evidence of other hikers as I passed by sites at the north end of the lake.  Soon after reaching the junction where the 2nd and 3rd loops meet, I ended up at the first of two South Pincher sites on the bottom of the third loop.  I had hiked close to 23 km's by this time and was ready to establish camp and relax.

Ready for the rain
The site was quite nice as it had great flat areas for a tent along with a nice view of the lake.  The only drawback was some scattered areas of poison ivy that I did my best to avoid.  As the sky continued to threaten, my first job was to set up my rain shelter.  Immediately afterwards, I sawed up some nearby wood that had been collected by prior hikers, along with a dead hardwood limb that had fallen from a nearby tree.

Having stacked up the wood under the shelter, I searched for a tree to hang my food bag from later that evening and prepare the rope.  While doing this, I was startled by a grouse which darted away on foot just a few feet in front of me.  The mosquitoes were fairly thick, but were tolerable provided I kept moving.  It's when I sat down and began to relax with my cigar and whiskey that the full assault began and, for the first time in my life, I put on a bug net - 'hey, not bad' I thought....  I decided that now would be a great time to start a fire to help the bug situation.

The fire was roaring nicely when the first few raindrops fell, followed quickly by many more drops.  As I huddled under the rain shelter, I noted how the smoke from the fire drifted toward me and was thankful for it as it detracted the mosquitoes.  It didn't take long for the mildly heavy rain to become an insanely heavy rain though, and I reached out from under my shelter to dig a makeshift channel to divert the water which was pooling up and beginning to pour in.  With nothing better to do, I started up the cat food tin stove and heated up water while the heavy rains continued.  The stove worked great, and I was soon eating the first freeze dried spaghetti meal which was surprisingly really, really tasty.


South Pincher Lake - early evening
Soon after I finished dinner, the rain finally stopped, and I resurrected the fire which was all but completely out.  It stayed dry the rest of the night, and I had no issues setting up the tent, hanging the food bag and relaxing by the fire for a little while after dark.  It felt good to crawl into bed, and I felt quite content as I drifted off to sleep.





June 1 - Day Two

I don't think I've ever slept through an entire night while camping, but I still usually feel refreshed each morning.  When I got up, the sky was still grey and everything around was saturated with yesterday's rain.  I boiled some water and ate a hearty breakfast of two hot cereal packs, and a fruit bar along with a mug of coffee.  As per the forecast, it had stayed mild throughout the night and the morning was very comfortable, albeit damp.  I was in no hurry today, and took my time packing up, filtering a litre of water for my bottles, and leaving camp around 9:30.  The distance today was about 16 km to my destination of East End Lake, the shortest hike of the three days.   I was covering off a section of trail that I had mostly hiked through last year, and was looking forward to seeing some familiar terrain.

I could smell the wetness of the forest as I trekked the remainder of the south shore of Pincher Lake.  I passed by the vacant sites at Tern Lake and remembered reading another blog where someone compared the Lake to a creepy, over-sized swamp.  I wouldn't judge it quite that harshly, but I have to admit these sites wouldn't be my first choice.  My next milestone was the junction point at Gervais Lake where I ended up taking a shortcut during last year's journey.  Like last year, I took a break at the same spot to have an energy bar and finish off one of my bottles of water. 

The next 5km's was the piece of trail between West Otterpaw Lake and the junction point at Rainbow Lake that I had not yet hiked.  It was a pretty nice section, with views of W.O. Lake and mostly gentle climbs and descents.  All was going well until I hit Otterpaw Creek.  Due to yesterday's heavy rain, the creek had swelled and I could see no way across without getting a good soaker.  I bushwacked it a bit further down the creek, which ended up just getting my pants wet from the brush- but hey, at least I found a spot to cross to keep my feet dry!  The rest of the hike leading to Rainbow Lake was pretty uneventful, aside from the clouds of mosquitoes in spots.  I was using up a lot of repellant today, and I didn't end up taking too many pictures as stopping meant getting swarmed.
Rising water levels...
It felt good to reach Rainbow Lake, and the day was getting warmer which meant I was drinking more water as I all but finished my second bottle.  I knew that Loft Lake was a great water source less than 2 km's away, so I decided to keep moving and then fill up at that point where I would also have a lunch stop.  I finished a small energy bar and the rest of my water as I walked along, looking forward to the upcoming rest.  When I got to Loft Lake, the sky was becoming more threatening, and everything was eerily still, as if frozen in time.  I filled up my water reservoir and immediately drank the filtered aqua as it poured out.  Today's lunch was the same as yesterday's - a bagel and trail mix.  I decided not to spend too much time resting as the sky was really concerning me.  I filled up my water bottles again, packed up and began walking quickly to East End Lake, which was about 4 km's away.

The section from Loft Lake to East End Lake has a lot of low lying areas and borderline swampy terrain which seems to all look the same.  I was making good time and was less than 2 km's from my site when it started to rain... hard... super hard.  It didn't take long before I was thoroughly drenched and I regretted my leisurely morning.  Oh well, at least the air was still mild so it wasn't too tough to take.

Forest fire damage at East End Lake
When I arrived at East End Lake, I was shocked and saddened to see that it had been damaged in a small forest fire at some point since I had camped there last year.  After I setup my rain shelter, I was thankful to see that my backpack contents had remained totally dry and I changed into other clothing.  The rain continued for a while longer, so I sat back and relaxed with the cigar and whiskey - things weren't so bad...  It must have rained for nearly two hours before it totally stopped, and now everything was completely saturated with water.  Starting a fire would be a challenge, and I decided today would be the perfect day to cheat and use a wet fire starter cube for the first time - it would have been a major struggle without it.  There was some old pine and hardwood in the forest nearby, and I stripped off the sopping bark to help things along.  Before I knew it, I had a nice fire going and draped my wet clothing around it.

Sopping
There's just one really good spot to setup a tent at this site, and apparently a moose had considered it a nice
pit stop to make a large deposit.  So, I grabbed a large piece of bark and did a big 'fling cleanup' job - perfect!  I had no problems with the tent, aside from one of the cords that tied down the outer flap ripping off - this was remedied with some trusty duct tape.  The spaghetti dinner was greatly welcomed and it was quickly devoured.  Fortunately, the rain continued to hold off and I was able to spend the remainder of the evening in the open air and had no issues in finding the same tree as last year to hang my food bag.  As I sat by the fire, I heard a big splash in the lake which I assumed was a large fish.  East End Lake itself is not very large and I suspect it's quite shallow throughout, plus it's a bit tricky getting clean water from the plant-heavy shoreline.  Despite this, I still think it's one of the nicest and most peaceful sites around - I'll be back here again!

As darkness descended, seemingly thousands of peeper frogs began chirping.  It was quite fantastic to hear, and it's remarkable how much noise a small amphibian like that can produce.  As I crawled into my tent, I found the chirping to be comforting in an odd sort of way, and again I went to sleep feeling relaxed and happy.



June 2 - Day Three - out of the woods

The wetness on the trip was not letting up....

The rain poured down with a sudden fury soon after dawn and I could sense my old pup tent wasn't going to fare this storm well.  It didn't take long to see the walls closing in further and then I could feel wetness by my feet.  Small pockets of water were appearing on the floor and I did my best to keep the water at bay with an already damp T-shirt and the towels at my disposal.  I relaxed a little longer but was unable to sleep.  When the rain stopped, I ventured out from the tent to realize it had all but collapsed.  Pools of water had gathered at the bottom of the tent fly and the weight had become too much.  It was pretty clear that this was its last hurrah.

The sky continued to threaten rain as I cooked up the last of my oatmeal and coffee for breakfast but, mercifully, it held off.  I didn't think the park could possibly get any wetter than yesterday, but I was wrong.  It appeared as though everything around me had been completely sunk underwater for a period of time and was just re-emerging.  This was, without a doubt, the wettest trip I have ever been on.  I heard a splash in the lake, similar to the sound I heard last night, and saw a beaver swim by less than 10 feet from shore.  A loon had also been calling that morning and I was treated by its presence as it swam nearby. 

Nice views aside, I didn't waste time packing up and at this point I just wanted to make good time to escape the permeating dampness.  The temperature was still reasonably warm, but it had cooled off somewhat.  As I headed out from East End Lake, I was shocked by all of the standing water on the trail, not realizing that this was going to be the easy part.

Submerged trail
Within minutes of hiking, I encountered my first flood obstacle in the form of a shallow but expansive area of water that I was able to mostly avoid by crawling along a fallen tree.  This was followed by a number of other trail flood outs, and at one point I lost the trail at a stream, only to realize that the trail itself had become the stream!  I then came to a large pond/wetland where the trail crossed over a beaver dam, only to see that the dam was now submerged with water rushing over top.  After a few minutes of bushwhacking, I was left with the decision of trying to cross over via a rotted log, or make a jump to the other side in a narrow spot; I decided to jump.  I took off my pack and flung it across the stream, whereupon it rolled into a puddle - nice...  I took a massive leap and just made it over, proud of myself for not getting any soakers yet today.  This, too, would soon change as an incredibly large swamp was about to test my limits.

The swamp in question was really the diameter of a small lake.  The typical backcountry boardwalk is in place to pass over it, but I was shocked to see much of it was now completely submerged.  Bushwhacking wasn't much of an option here, so I carefully began to step my way across.  The logs were semi-floating in spots, and I used my hiking poles to steady myself as best I could.  The water around me was quite deep, so I could only place the poles on the walk ahead of me and hope for the best.  The water was pouring over my boots in spots, and I was relieved to make it to the other side with just wet feet to be concerned with.  I hoped that I would never see this much water on a hiking trip ever again.
Good luck staying dry...

As I passed by Brown Lake, I chatted briefly with a couple of hikers disassembling their camp.  They had come along the same section of trail yesterday that I had just traversed, and remarked on getting some good soakers themselves.  I could see the sky was beginning to appear more threatening and wished them all the best as I forged ahead.

A river runs through it - about 8-10 feet wide
Soon after, I heard the sound of rushing water and saw a raging torrent cutting through the trail - yet another overburdened stream requiring a creative
way to cross over...










As I approached Ishkuday Lake, the sky begin to spit and kick up a cool wind.  I got my rain jacket on just in time as I was deluged with rain yet again.  I could feel the water swishing inside my boots on each step and for some reason, Gordon Lightfoot's 'Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald' began playing in my head as the relentless pounding continued - 'does anyone know where the love of God goes...'

I had now rejoined the in-and-back trail connecting the top of the third loop to Rain Lake, and the familiar terrain was a comfort to me.  My feet and legs were drenched and a bit cold, but at least my head and torso were keeping dry.  The rain ended as I hit the remains of the buried railroad bridge over Islet Lake and kept a good pace as the wind continued to whip.  The rest of the walk would be easy now, with the exception of some very wet and muddy sections.  I stopped several times to wring out my socks which were now acting as water absorbers inside my boots and welcomed the sun occasionally peaking through the clouds.  I made one last snack stop during a moment the sun was out and then hightailed it back to the trailhead.

Done!
The trailhead was just as quiet as when I had started, and even a discarded walking stick leaning against the trail sign remained undisturbed the whole time.  As I approached my car, I saw something on the ground by the passenger door - my soap and TP...  As I got changed in the washroom near the Ranger cabin, I noted how great the dry clothing felt.  I had covered about 18 kms today and felt great, in contrast to how I felt after last year's finish.  I made a quick stop in Kearney to let family know all was well and that I was heading home once again.


I finished my blog on last year's trip with a Lessons Learned section which served me well this time.  I had more comfortable footwear, quicker access to drinking water, and more bug deterrents.  Having said that, I think there's always something to learn from on each adventure, so here goes:

Lessons Learned

  • A cheap, lightweight tent can be great - when it's dry.  Mine in particular was not built for much rain, let alone monsoons, and I realized that it was time to say goodbye to it.  I'm now the proud new owner (well, co-owner) of a lightweight tent - a Big Agnes Scout UL2 - which is actually built for using hiking poles as part of the support (smart!).  This will be the tent of choice going forward for solo outings and longer treks, starting with a Killarney hike this August.
  • Don't be in too much of a hurry to hit the trail - check your pack one last time to make sure everything is in order.
  • Soap really isn't all that critical.

Happy Hiking!

Rich


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