May 7-9, 2013 - Algonquin - Head Lake

  • Location: Algonquin Provincial Park, Highway 60
  • Access Point: 8 - Cache Lake
  • Trip Duration: Three days (two nights)
  • Trip Length: ~18.2 km with 6 portages totaling 2650 metres
  • Trip Type: Loop
  • Route: Cache Lake, Madawaska River, Head Creek, Head Lake
 Map courtesy of  Jeff McMurtrie

Map courtesy of Jeff McMurtrie

After a long winter and an ice-out date much later than last year, it was finally time for an overnight kayak trip.  Given how early I went on this trip, I expected there to be few people in the park so I decided to try an access point along Highway 60.  I opted for Cache Lake as it gave me the opportunity to paddle along the Madawaska River and Head Creek, two areas that have always appealed to me.  As it turned out, the trip proved to be less a chance to explore new places and more a chance to see how I fare on a solo trip while slightly ill.

I got to Algonquin’s east gate around 11 AM, reserved my campsites (first night - Head Lake; second night - Bonnechere Lake; third night - back on Head Lake), and got to the access point at Cache Lake.  I launched at noon and was on my way.  Cache Lake allows motorboats and one was ferrying supplies over to Bartlett Lodge.  Motors don’t signal wilderness and are the last thing I want to hear on a kayak trip, so I was keen to get off the lake as quickly as I could.  I hustled down the lake, around the corner at Camp Northway towards the 360 metre portage to the Madawaska River.  The portage wasn’t as close to the abandoned railway bridge as it appeared on the map but it wasn’t very far - I got there before 1:00 PM.  The portage was easy and I was paddling along the Madawaska River at 1:35 PM.  Within five minutes I was at the next portage, an even shorter 190 metres around some rapids.  I was back in the river heading east at 2:10 PM searching for the right turn into Head Creek.  The paddle was with the mild current and the river was slowly winding.  Occasionally the river came right up to the Track & Tower hiking trail.  There were a couple of beaver dams to deal with, but going with the current I just plowed into them and forced my way through.  I found the turn for Head Creek shortly after going over the biggest dam and started heading west towards Head Lake.  This time, I was travelling against the current so beaver dams were more of an issue.  There were two that required me to get out of my kayak.

It’s always a little tricky getting over a beaver dam when going against the current because you have to find a place close enough to the dam that you can get out on solid footing.  The challenge is that you need to be close enough to jump up onto the dam but in a place that is stable enough that you can get out without falling in.  Thankfully, I stayed dry while lifting over both dams and started searching for the first 125 metre portage on Head Creek.  I found it at 3:40 PM even though its yellow sign was torn down.  Its location was obvious due to the falls.  There’s no way you’re going to paddle up these!

 Start of 125 metre portage on Head Creek

Start of 125 metre portage on Head Creek

It was on this portage that I started to feel crummy.  I’m not sure what was wrong but I just didn’t feel right - my head was stuffed up and I was very lethargic.  However, there weren’t any campsites nearby so I didn’t have any choice but to carry on.  I paddled another five minutes to the next 150 metre portage to the wider part of Head Creek.  From there, it was another short paddle to the final portage - 185 metres into Head Lake.  By that point I was so tired that I did the portage six times - once with my kayak, once with half my gear, and again with the other half of my gear.  I got into Head Lake around 6:00 PM and wanted nothing more than to find a site, get my tent set up, and go to bed.  I kayaked along the northern edge of the lake looking for the two sites before the portage to Cache Lake.  I never found either campsite so I carried on to the site on the west side of the lake.  I found it, but it was occupied.  Arg!  I had to cross the lake again, this time to search for the sites on the east side.  I finally found the two sites in the bay with the waterfall from Kenneth Lake.  Both were unoccupied so I took the first one on the point.  There was a steep climb from the landing to the tent area but by that point I didn’t care.

 Steep landing at campsite on Head Lake

Steep landing at campsite on Head Lake

I set up, ate a little and was in bed in my tent before 8:00 PM.  I didn’t feel well but at least there were loon calls and the sound of a waterfall that put me to sleep.

 Waterfall from Kenneth Lake, across from campsite on Head Lake

Waterfall from Kenneth Lake, across from campsite on Head Lake

I woke up 12 hours later (evidently I needed some rest!) at 8:00 AM and stayed in bed until 8:40 AM.  I still didn’t feel right so I cancelled my plans to travel to Bonnechere Lake.  Instead, I decided to stay put for my second night and leave on the third day via the direct portage to Cache Lake.  I spent most of the day in my campsite, reading the wonderful Silence of the Songbirds by Bridget Stutchbury.  It details the amazing life of songbirds, the reasons for their decline, and what we can do to help (for example, buy shade-grown coffee).  I went for a paddle around the lake in the evening, hoping to encounter a moose or two.  I didn’t see any moose but I was startled when a large beaver bolted into the water not more than five feet in front of my kayak.  I quietly observed the beaver for a few minutes, as it anxiously waited for me to get far away from its shoreline hiding spot.

 Beaver on Head Lake

Beaver on Head Lake

After I passed the beaver, I heard it splashing around in the water behind me.  The splashes got more intense than I thought a beaver would make so I turned around to see what it was doing.  It wasn’t the beaver this time.  Instead, it was a pair of white-tailed deer:

 White-tailed Deer on Head Lake

White-tailed Deer on Head Lake

I enjoyed the deer for a while and continued on my way.  I never did find a moose but the weather conditions were ideal and the lake was very peaceful:

 Peaceful Head Lake

Peaceful Head Lake

I returned to my site and feel asleep, serenaded by the haunting loon calls again.

On my final day, I awoke at 8 AM, ate my breakfast, packed up everything and got on the water by 9 AM.  Within 20 minutes I was at the portage to Cache Lake.  Even though the portage is only 1640 metres, it was by far the longest one I had ever attempted.  I decided to really take my time and make sure that I made it to Cache Lake in one piece.  I went a few hundred metres with my kayak, dropped it on the trail, then returned for my gear and carried it a bit past the kayak.  I continued this leapfrog approach for the entire portage, occasionally taking a drink or checking the topographic map on my iPhone to see how far away I was from the finish.  I was very happy the last time I checked my location.  The flashing indicator showed that I was no more than 100 metres from the end… what a relief!  I finally got to Cache Lake with all my gear loaded into my kayak at 11 AM.  All that I had left was to paddle the length of the lake back to the access point.  That final stretch was a relief because I knew I was going to get back to civilization safely.  I got to my car at 11:30 AM and made it back home.

Overall, the trip was disappointing because I didn’t see any moose and I had to cut it short because I didn’t feel well.  However, I was able to spend two days without hearing a car and I got more data on how long my kayak travel and portages take.