Guest Blogger

Crossing Algonquin 2018 Winter – part 2

Trip Report – February, 2018

[see part one]

Crossing Algonquin 2018 Feb 2nd – 11th
A story of 3 friends crossing Ontario’s great park

How it started

Almost 3 years ago I moved from the little town of Moosonee, on the James Bay Coast, where I lived for 5 years with my family, to Huntsville. My wife had a great opportunity here to further her career. I work in residential carpentry so finding a new job for myself was easy. For us, the move to Muskoka has been working out great. However, my wife and I are both from a little farther north on the compass, she’s from Mattawa and I’m from Kapuskasing by way of Nipigon. Muskoka had its challenges in one aspect; the outdoors. We were used to the big open rivers and endless amounts of remote crown land. Muskoka offers great canoe tripping but generally, I find it quite busy and I still can’t wrap my head around having to pay and book campsites when I want to “get lost”. I soon realized that if I wanted to get out there and feel like I was 100 miles from the nearest town, traveling Algonquin Park in the winter was the way to do it. I’m O.K with paying to camp when there’s no ‘campsite competition’. So I gathered two of my best adventuring friends; and Crossing Algonquin 2018 was born.

The Team

Eric Batty – Rock/ice climber, mountain biker, arborist, photographer, adventurer
Ryan Atkins – World OCR Champ, professional athlete, mountain biker, climber, adventurer
Buck Miller – Mountain biker, road cyclist, canoe tripper, carpenter, adventurer

The Route

Click here to view the map

Surprisingly, there’s been many winter wanderers of Algonquin. Some on skis traveling light and fast and some on Tubbs snowshoes and homemade gear but very few have gone border to border with the sole purpose of crossing it expedition style. So that was our goal. We started 2km south of Shawandasse Lake off of Trout Spawn Lk. Road. The north end of the lake borders Algonquin. We would poke in and out of portages, around and across open creeks and on the odd hiking trail in to Smoke Lake and eventually end up on Cedar Lake, at the camp-town of Brent on the north end of the park where we’d take the 42km Brent Road to the little village of Deux-Rivieres, on the Ottawa River. Route choices for such an adventure can be debated for days with every person you talk to. We chose our route based on the rivers and creeks. I didn’t want to travel on more river/creek than necessary. It can be done, but it’s one more thing to worry about. The total distance would be 165k and we wouldn’t have to cross the Nipissing or Petawawa Rivers.

Starting off from Trout Spawn Lake Road

Day 1

“Eager to start our adventure and follow the footsteps of the the thousands of indigenous people, explorers, rangers and surveyors who came before us, and cross Algonquin”. We had our friend and local Muskoka Backcountry ski aficionado Jeff LeChef drive us to the put in. We started late and got on the trail into Shawandasee at 1:30 under a nice clear sky and -14. For winter travel, I prefer -10 to -15 which we saw much of over this crossing. Our spirits were high, the lakes were solid and we had one long creek/swamp crossing to deal with between Hilly and Small Lake. We noticed a long section of open creek so we decided to cross it to cut a corner of the creek and save a few meters. We crossed a narrow section, I went first, and just as I pushed off, the ice shelf broke under my foot, and my leading foot broke the shelf on the other side. WET SKINS! We were wearing our skis. My feet were dry but the skins iced up. Ryan went next. He was smart and took his skis off, threw them across and jumped the gap. WRONG move Ryan! His foot punched through the shelf but the dude has cat like reflexes and gaitors on so tight they raise his voice. He got a little damp but was spared a full on soaker. Eric was laughing from a distance as he crossed well behind us on good ice. On we went, with spirits high, enjoying every step forward. By late afternoon, we set up camp on a beaver pond past the end of Bluebell lake. This night, I was in charge of setting up our 8-man tipi tent, and because it was -25, I wasn’t too keen on pegging out every single loop on the tent, as there’s about 24. So I thought I’d try only 6. All was well, we unloaded our toboggans, got the wood stove glowing, and Ryan started making supper. He was often the camp cook, while Eric was the in-house photographer. At night he was often darting in and out of the tent yelling at us “Hey, you guys gotta come see this!” “A Shooting Star” “Man, the sky is huge! Guys?” I have to give Eric credit. He spent way more time outside his sleeping bag at night snapping photos while Ryan and I stayed by the stove only going outside for mandatory calls of nature.

Day 2 –  16km

“Hard day, cold night, started on terrible carry trails”. We woke up to our tent resting on our sleeping bags and about 2” from our noses. Turns out you need to peg out more than 6 places on a tent that’s 20’ in circumference. Duly noted. The boys grilled me for this mistake. The sky was overcast with a light snow. We started the day at the beginning of a 1400m portage which was mostly impassable with toboggans and Tubbs snowshoes. We were surprised of the condition due to its proximity to roads and being in the south end of the park. We ended up taking the swamp for most of it as the amount of blowdown on the carry was brutal. Swamp travel is pretty fun really. It’s here where you see many sorts of wildlife and providing it’s not choked up with alder, travel is usually fast. The next challenge lay on the carry into Smoke Lake. It was big and long, with the first half being narrow and hard to maneuver with lots of side hill (when you’re walking on a steep angle, your toboggan slides down and wants to constantly flip over) and the latter, open part of the carry had a huge ridge with a few BIG trees down that sent us into the rhubarb in order to get by. Once on canoe lake, we stopped for a refuel, and made our way north to cross HWY 60 by the Portage Store. It was here that I found myself in a dark place. The last hour crossing Smoke I could feel the “bonk” starting to settle in stronger and stronger. Low sugar levels and not enough food in my system to replace the 5000 calories I spent since breaking camp. Ryan and Eric were constantly eating. I slammed as much food as I could in order to make it as far up Canoe Lake as possible where we’d set up camp and sleep that night. After what I thought was a hard day, Ryan and Eric were totally fine and looked like they could have traveled through the night. Animals.

Day 3 – 13k

“Snow overnight, and all day and tonight, conditions challenging”– Today bought a serious challenge. After Canoe Lake came the series of “Joe” lakes. We took a series of hiking trails to get through the narrows that had sketch ice. We were met with wild steep inclines and side hills for a few hundred yards followed by a series of rolling, side hill sections. Over this area we had to put 3 men to one toboggan all the way in to Burnt Island Lake. This is a place where nary a canoe would be carried in summer and you’ll see it marked out in purple in the Jeffs Park Map as a hiking trail. The joys of winter travel! The day was overcast and snowing, we were boiling hot and the snow was melting on our clothes instantly making sure we were wet right to the core. We were glad to see this day over and we set up camp Southeast of Caroline Island on Burnt Island Lake.

Day 4 – 15km

“Burnt a fist sized hole in sleeping bag”– We broke camp at 9:45 and started under sun and high wind and -21. We had a few km to finish Burnt Island Lake then head over a 750m carry into Little Otterslide Lake where we wasted a bit of time looking for a ranger cabin only to find that the green cabins on our map meant “historic ranger cabin” as in, a place where they used to be. We met a fellow winter trekker here who was touring around with no fixed goal in mind, we chatted and traveled together the rest of the day. We took a compass bearing shot over land from this site to avoid the Otterslide Creek which was wide open. Once in the bush we found sign of an old logging road that was vague, but it helped get us a few hundred feet before it turned in to thick bush again. We dropped into Otterslide Lake and took a break for food and drink. I added soup into my 40oz Hydroflask on Ryan’s recommendation and man, that was delicious! Crossing Otterslide Lake was smooth. Ryan and Eric took turns breaking trail and our new friend was eager to chat. The poor fellow was on snowshoes. We had been on our Altai Skis which require much less effort. Once at the end of the lake, we had a swampy trail with a boardwalk in the way to cause us a bit of grief. Toboggans like flat, not cupped or angled ground. We pressed on and decided to make camp on Shiner Lake. Our traveling partner was eager to get some lake water, as he didn’t bring an ice chisel (or axe!) and was boiling snow daily, which can take a long time. Demands for water on a winter trip are large. Once in to the tent, a hot meal of Caribbean black bean and rice was on the menu. I fell asleep before my head hit the pillow.

Day 5 – 15.5km

“Hips & legs are sore, knee is bothering me, feeling the days previous”– We woke up at 6:30 to sun and cloud, and a good wind. The goal was to get to the end of Big Trout Lake. With lots of ice travel ahead of us, we were on schedule. A ‘short’, flat trail of 930m brought us to Happy Isle Lake. The sun came out in full force for this crossing and the wind was in our favor. It was beautiful. Eric stopped for a few pictures while Ryan and I would usually keep moving at a somewhat reduced pace. Eric could always catch up after a short effort. Before noon we were in Merchant Lake and loving life. Eric, a student of all things growing deemed “wood” was always pointing out trees on a far off shore beside a portage; “see that betula alleghaniensis!?” “Do you guys remember the latin name for fruit bearing trees?” Ryan was a bit closer with his guesses than I, but either way, we learnt a little and it helped pass the time. If we weren’t singing Gordon Lightfoot songs or talking about bike racing, we were learning about trees from Eric. After Merchant came a 1800m trail into a big, beautiful swamp on the east side of Big Trout Lake. It was absolutely gorgeous. Full of stunted tamarack (larix laricina) and black spruce (picea mariana) with the frozen creek winding around low points of copper coloured shrubs and willow dotted with moose tracks. Once on the big lake, the cold wind cut us in half, head-on from the northwest with snow squalls blowing through. We put our hoods up and marched forward without pause to the very end of a bay where a 2600m carry would bring us to the next lake the following day. By now our tent set up game was fast. In 20 minutes we had our stove hot and our gear inside ready for a fast supper and some sleep.

Camp on Big Trout Lake

Day 6 – 17km

“Long day, sore feet, moving time of 7 hours, pinky toes bleeding”. WARNING, gross foot talk! It took me 5 days of travel to realize the source of my blisters and bleeding toenails on each of my pinky toes. I kept the toe binding on my skishoes far too tight. With the constant moving of my foot in the binding, it was causing my small toes to dig in to the side of my “ring toe”. So in the morning, I peeled off the nail and kept the blister cream on thick. Combined with backing off my binding, instant relief was found in perfect timing too. We had a 2600m trail with steep hills before we got to Lac La Muir. With a bit of help from each of us we got into and down La Muir in good time. The creek leaving this lake was pretty nasty. Full of topwater slush, open holes and soft ice just waiting to sink one of us. We realized this a little too far down the creek, so we 180’d out of there, backtracking towards the lake where we gingerly sounded the ice as we crossed the creek, one by one, each of us ready to deploy our ice water rescue plan. Though we’re sure it wasn’t deep, the creek was wide enough to warrant 10’ of water in the center. And as the old saying goes, “don’t assume, it makes an ass out of you and me”. Once all across, we still had to duck in and out of the bush, hugging the shoreline, stepping over wet spots, and even having them open behind the 2nd or 3rd guy in line, but this time, close to shore. We were happy to have it behind us and by late afternoon, we set up camp at the end of Hogan Lake.

Day 7 – 13km

“-23 this morning, light snow, slept like a baby”Tubbs snowshoes were the weapon of choice this day, with 3 km of portages into Manta, Newt Lake and Sunfish Lake. We were anticipating bad ice where the Petawawa River comes in but with so much swamp, we were able to skirt any open areas and stay in the grass. We only found bad ice near shore on a bend where Sunfish turns into Catfish. Otherwise, it was smooth sailing. We paid respects to Turtle Rock which was a place of great importance to the Algonquin people for thousands of years before some bonehead had a fire beside it a long time ago and cracked the edge where one of four “feet” would be. My friend and owner of Chartrand Trucking in Stonecliffe, Ontario, Calvin (who is Algonquin) warned me of bad ice in the Catfish/Narrowbag lake area and recommended we head past Turtle Rock, into a far north bay where we took a short overland section to make camp at the very north bay of Catfish Lake. This route is a part of the traditional Algonquin snowshoe trail system that can be found, but is well hidden, within the park. Craig McDonnald of Dwight, Ontario, a 47 year veteran of the MNR and Algonquin Park also confirmed this.

Day 8 – 9km

“Sore body, but found a nice daily rhythm, can’t believe we’re almost done” -22 was the temperature this morning. We had a leisurely pace set for today and a short goal of 10k to Brent, at Cedar Lake where we’d take our only rest day. We broke camp at 10:00 and took a compass shot over a ridge to bushwack into Lantern Lake. This was mandatory as the Petawawa River leaving Narrowbag Lake was open. We saw our 2nd ruffed grouse of the trip close to the lake and after a few hundred meters found a logging road that would cut a few hundred meters of bush travel out. I had to fix up a blister, so I let the lads go ahead a ways while I dug around for some emergency foot cream. Boom, got it on, back in the skis and just as I pushed off I caught a cow moose in the corner of my eye, about 75 yards to my left in a hardwood patch. She didn’t care much that I was there, so I kept on my way and caught up to the guys while they took a minute to eat and look at the map. We took another compass shot for the last kilometer and that put us into the swamp on the end of Lantern Lake. We flew down it under a bright sky and got to the 685m portage in to Ravenau Lake. Tons of sidehill made this trail tough, with our toboggans smashing tree after tree as we passed them. The last hard section of the day was the 1600m trail from Ravenau to Cedar where it would be clear sailing to our rest day. We put the skis on when we got to the top of the ridge and could see Cedar Lake through the hardwood trees. We bombed down the hill beside our toboggans, holding their straps like a tight leash on a dog letting the heavy weight pull us through the fresh powder. We were stoked to be at Cedar in only 8 days. We set up camp and ate much of our snacks we kept in storage in case of bad weather. We went to bed that night with full stomachs, and happy to have safely traveled 125k of Algonquin Park as fast as we did.

Day 9 – Rest Day

“Really looking forward to simply not moving” – This day we just hung out, kept the fire going, dried out our sleeping bags which accumulated lots of moisture as we didn’t bring bivy sacks or overbags of any kind. We dried our boots for the first time since we left. We ate well, and enjoyed not moving, or working every second of the day.

Day 10 – 42k

“Today was an absolute throw-down” – Somehow, over the last few days, Eric convinced me to do the Cedar Lake – Deux Rivieres leg of the trip in one day less than planned. Originally I had planned on camping 20k from Cedar on Windigo Lake. Eric seemed to think we could do it in one day, one “big” day. Ryan was obviously down with such an idea as they’re both masochists that more closely resemble Himalayan Sherpas when it comes to work ethic and athletic ability than your average winter trekker (me). So whether or not I was capable of such a feat didn’t really matter. The lads were going the distance, even if they had to strap me to the toboggans, one way or another we were going to be in Deux Rivieres, today. We did have a luxury with us that we didn’t have any day previous. Skidoo trails! Some local Algonquin people fish Cedar Lake and have camps around the area, so they’re often running up and down the Brent Road between HWY 17 and Cedar Lake. This did away with breaking trail, and although it sped us up, it added a new challenge. Altai Hoks, the “skishoes” we were using prefer a little snow in order to keep them tracking well. We were still able to average 6kp. With our gear lightened up from eating as much food as we could the last two days, we were on course to be finished in less than 7 hours. The kilometers ticked by and by the time we got to Windigo Lake, with 19k to go, it was snowing heavily. We stopped for a liquid lunch (a freeze dried meal each, poured in to our Hydroflasks, like soup) and had UnTapped Maple Syrup gel after gel. We were flying home! Our motivation was high, the snow falling made perfect conditions for our skis and before long, we crossed under the highway and we could see the Ottawa River! My parents greeted us as we crossed Deux Rivieres Creek, and skied up their lawn with the big Ottawa River at our backs. High 5’s all around, smiles were aboud and Johnny boy poured the scotch. We crossed Algonquin Park in 9 days of travel, 1 rest day, 51 hours moving time, and 165 kilometers; 150k of which were on Hoks, the other 15 were on snowshoes.
Thanks to our families, who hold the fort down while we’re out there and to the many people who followed our progress on the Crossing Algonquin 2018 facebook page. If you’re considering a similar trip make sure you prepare properly because, as the old saying goes, “death is nature’s way of telling you no!”.

Note “all bold text in quotations are excerpts from the authors daily journal from the 10 day trip”

At the finish, Deux Rivieres

The Video

Altai Back Country SkisLinks to more information

Algonquin Outfitters Rentals

New for 2019!  Algonquin Outfitters now rents Altai Skis in both 125cm and 145cm out of their Oxtongue Lake and Huntsville store.  If you want to own your own pair they also sell them although supply is limited so be sure to call a head 1-705-787-0262.  Rentals are just $35 a day (2019 pricing) with a 15% discount at 3-4 days and a 25% discount at 5+ days.  See full rental details on the Cross Country Ski Rentals page.


Crossing Algonquin Gallery

photos by Eric Batty

Buck Miller

I’m a retired pro road cyclist turned carpenter. For 10 years I raced across Europe, North America and Asia with various teams. Ted and I became friends from our time training in Tucson and my one year stint on a US based team out of Connecticut. After racing I moved back up north. I was born in Smooth Rock Falls and lived in Moosonee for 5 years where my wife and started our family. My time on the bike and my love for this region inspired the James Bay Descent and bike racing is ultimately is what brought this team together.

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