A Meanest Link story to get you “thinking spring.”
The Meanest Link canoe route received unprecedented attention in 2013, when The Happy Camper, Kevin Callan, completed the route with his canoeing partner Andy Baxter. Kevin’s terrific videos about the route created a lot of buzz, not to to mention that he took the “Once Around Algonquin” story on his winter speaking tour.
But there were other Meanest Link journeys last season, completed quietly by hardworking paddlers. The one that really stands out was the Full Link completed by Jeff Burdzy and Luke van Koeverden in May. Think back to last May. In the first week of the month, a deep snowpack was released by heavy rain, washing out roads, flooding many communities the area, including Huntsville, and generally creating havoc and destruction. Ten days later, on sunny spring morning, two young men set out optimistically from the town dock in Huntsville to tackle what most people believe is the toughest canoe route in Algonquin Park. While every Meanest Link journey is an accomplishment, Jeff and Luke’s trip stands out from all the rest. First of all, they chose to do the trip in May, before black fly season, knowing that high water levels would present a serious challenge. And as if that didn’t make things tough enough, being alumni of Camp Pathfinder, they chose to do the route “Pathfinder style.” This means that they paddled a classic red cedar-canvas canoe from the CPI fleet and carried all their food with them. Unlike other Linkers, they had no food drops along the way. Despite the pleasant weather on day one, they then endured some of the worst canoe-tripping weather imaginable; experiencing snow, cold rain, high winds and continued high water levels. And then, the bugs came out. Personally, I think their trip falls into the “epic” category.
I asked Jeff to submit a trip report, and what a report it is. After reading it, I asked if he and Luke could sum up the experience with some concluding remarks. These two commentaries really capture the spirit of adventure, commitment and camaraderie that is required for any canoe trip, and especially one like the Meanest Link. The full-length version of can be found on the Meanest Link Facebook page (click on “Files” and you will see the story). You don’t have to join the group to see the story but you do need to be logged in to Facebook.
The Meanest Link – A Beautiful and Grueling Uphill Trip:
When Jeff came to me with the idea of joining him on a trip in May to participate in the Pathfinder Centennial celebration, I was all for a week-long trip in Algonquin. That simple idea turned into a 12 day adventure, called the Meanest Link, that I will never forget.
Jeff has significantly more tripping experience then me, so I left the planning to him. I mostly brought along a little tripping knowledge, a bit of gear that I had, including my favourite machete, a willing, strong body and a smile. I almost lost that smile on the second day, which quickly turned into a nightmare. We got turned around, wasted a lot of time on some hunting trails off the Big East trying to portage around rapids, and had to make the decision to continue walking through waist deep, fast running, cold water. Trudging up the Big East caused some pretty serious injuries that would haunt Jeff and I for the remainder of the trip; including some awful blisters on my feet that got infected, and a pretty bruised and swollen ankle for Jeff. If the injuries and wet chilly weather weren’t bad enough every portage on this trip feels uphill and most of them had flooded sections.
Even bruised and blistered, the Meanest Link took us to see some of the most beautiful places and things in and around the park; from an incredible glacier attached a cliff on Tim Lake, to the surging awesome power of Ragged Falls, and all the wildlife through out the trip. My favourite site of the trip would have to also be Swifty’s favourite site on Lavieille, even though it has a huge incline. Not only do I love island sites, the tent areas were great and it had lots of seating and trees for hanging lines and tarps. If I ever get back to Lavieille, I will go right for it. Hopefully I’ll be with someone who can fish because we didn’t get a chance, and some of the fish I saw Rich Swift and his friends catch looked delicious.
When we finally reached the docks in Huntsville at Algonquin Outfitters we cheered, hugged and were happier then ever, Jeff turned to me and asked “you want to do it again?” Though I laughed and told him “never again” but I would definitely trip with Jeff again. Spending that much time with my friend brought us closer together after a few years of growing apart and I am very happy we did the Meanest Link together. The trip taught me to push my limits further, that giving up is not an option, and that twigs and sticks can make a decent cooking fire.
Our epic journey to complete The Meanest Link was a huge success; the weather was bad, the bugs were terrible but we endured through the obstacles in true style – without food support and paddling a classic canoe. Luke and I have been friends for approximately 15 years. Over the last few years, we have grown somewhat apart but given the way we endured the trip you would have never guessed it. From paddling to portaging, to camp setup and cooking we meshed together like a well-oiled machine. Things were done by both of us without the need to ask or request; which is very surprising considering we have never tripped together prior to this trip.
The Big East truly threw us a curve ball with its fast, high and very cold waters; the most difficult part of the trip right at the start. Despite the poor weather and bugs this is definitely one of the best times of the year to complete the trip; especially through normally low water levels on sections of the Nipissing and Oxtongue River. The Western Boundary is one of the more remote sections of the park but always a treat to complete. Many previous linkers had warned us about our overly ambitious plans to complete the Big East in two days and boy, were they right. Our best weather day ended up being our saving grace, allowing us to catch up from an extra day required on the Big East. We tripped from Stewart’s Dam to Cedar Lake in a day to catch up and get back on track and were heavily rewarded by Jake Pigeon’s hospitality at Brent. We endured the worst of the weather tripping in and out of Source Lake, where the rain was relentless and the temperature below the zero mark for parts of the days and nights. We had another warm welcome from the Oxtongue AO staff, who were excited
to hear about the trip and allowed us a significantly more sheltered sleep in one of their lakeside platform tents. The trip support at Brent, Pathfinder and AO all came at exactly the right moments allowing us to recover from poor weather and drenched gear. Even though things got wet again the following day it was amazing to dry out and have a better sleep.
All in all the trip was tough, and truly more fun because of the challenges and overcoming them on a daily basis; this is after all what canoe tripping is all about and every aspect contributes to the overall experience. Keep your head up, build on your accomplishments and the road ahead will be rewarding. This trip truly brought the two of us closer together, started out an amazing 100 days of tripping for Pathfinder’s Centennial year, and paid tribute to Swifty all in one; what more could you ask for. The trip was definitely difficult but amazing all at the same time. Some of my best trips are the ones with the worst weather and in the end you get what you get and have to make the best of it.
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