Paddling the Bonnechere


Algonquin Park Map

Ole Hendrickson's Bonnechere River watershed travel notes – July and August 2011


Sunday July 31 – Monday August 1 – Little Bonnechere

Three provincial parks are found in the watershed of the “Little Bonnechere”– the portion of the Bonnechere River upstream from Round Lake. Bonnechere Provincial Park, a 162-ha provincial recreation class park, includes the winding segment of the Bonnechere River that passes through deep sand deposits near Round Lake and a small marshy delta extending into the lake. Bonnechere River Provincial Park, a 1200-ha provincial waterway class park, extends from Bonnechere Provincial Park to Algonquin Park. Algonquin Park, in turn, encompasses the headwaters of the river and numerous lakes, with an access point for campers at Basin Lake. Our group used a $10 map of Bonnechere River Provincial Park (available at Bonnechere Provincial Park) that shows campsites, access points to water, and areas of crown land and private land, for an overnight camping trip. We drove up Turner’s Road past Turner’s Camp to the bridge over the river, parked on the shoulder, and slid our canoes down the steep embankment down to the water’s edge. We paddled downstream - to the right, or north, as you cross the bridge heading away from Round Lake. This is confusing - be sure to pass between the pillars of the old bridge. Downstream from the bridge the river splits into two channels around a large island. The left channel has an intact low beaver dam requiring lift over. The right channel has more water, but is shallow and has a breached beaver dam that would prevent all but the smallest motorboats from going downstream.

We camped at a marked and reasonably well-maintained campsite on Supply Lake – only about a 10-minute paddle from the put-in. There is ample room for two large tents although the ground is slightly sloping. It was hard to get through muddy bottom to go swimming. Supply Lake has no cottages and gets minimal motorboat traffic coming up from Stevenson Lake, so it has a relatively wild aspect. I saw eaver, grebes, herons, and mergansers. The campsite is close to the mouth of Pine River, which discharges into the more shallow left channel around the island. We paddled/dragged a canoe up the Pine River, under Gunn’s Road Bridge to Lower Pine Lake. The Pine River up to the lake has meanders, swampy areas, beaver dams, then swifts, shallow and rocky portions that require wading with canoe. The river exits the lake over a large beaver dam and then flows down a small rapid that would provide good white water canoeing at high water. The lower portion of the lake is swampy and vegetation-covered (pickerelweed and water lilies) but there is a fairly straight channel with enough open water to get paddles in without hitting lily pads. Rocky island with primitive campsite in the lower portion of lake. Well-built inukshuks further upstream on left. After lifting over a low beaver dam one can reach the upper portion of Lower Pine Lake which is wider and deeper with open water. There is a good campsite (but unused, no fire pit) on the point on left, facing rocky sloping cliffs across the lake. A faint trail around the left side of the cliffs leads to an excellent viewpoint of lake. We continued upriver towards Upper Pine Lake but turned around before getting there. The topo map shows a road along west side of river (saw signs of a put-in) and a bridge across the river to access the east side, but we didn’t get that far - perhaps the bridge no longer exists.

Supply Lake from campsite

On Monday we paddled two canoes up the Little Bonnechere to Beaverdam Lake just past the Paugh Lake Road bridge. This is not the most interesting stretch of river. Paddling is a bit tedious. The river, which basically flows east out of Algonquin Park, takes a longish detour south, goes around a sharp bend, and turns back north again on another longish stretch back to Turner’s Camp. The Bonnechere River Provincial Park map shows a campsite at a small sandy beach on the south shore of Beaverdam Lake, where we say several tents and cars. We stopped at the former Omanique Sawmill about 200 meters further up the south shore of the lake, then went another ~ 100 meters to a possible campsite between the lake and small pond. We swam at the bridge on the way back. Some of the cottages are rather obtrusive – there is a mixture of private land and crown land throughout the Park. Mark Stabb’s booklet on Trails of the Lower Bonnechere is an excellent reference for this area. Several years ago Mark led a walk up Egg Rock (which is accessed from Turner’s Road just before the Algonquin Park boundary as part of a Natural History Day event at the Bonnechere Provincial Park. Further up the road is Basin Lake, the only official access point within the watershed that is within Algonquin Park. I’ve camped at the island site at the upper end of the lake (which is quite nice) and paddled down to Round Lake from there, which is also very nice, but fairly strenuous with numerous beaver dams and shoals.

Tuesday August 2 - Ministry of Natural Resources, Pembroke

Patrick Souliere, Land and Waters Technical Specialist, met me at the MNR office on Riverside Drive in Pembroke. I showed him an old copy of the MNR Pembroke District map, long out of print, which displays crown and private land, access to water, hunt camps, and fish species in the major lakes. He said that the crown land areas were approximate and may be out of date, but that there have not been significant sales of crown land since the map was printed. All crown land is in theory accessible to public, as long as you don’t trespass getting there, and the public can camp anywhere for up to three weeks. Sometimes logging contractors make agreements with landowners to build logging roads across private property to access crown land. In this case the logging road is off limits to public - respect gates and no trespassing signs. Hunt camps are leased from the province and include small areas that are off limits to the public. Patrick recommended use of County of Renfrew Interactive Mapping Tool. I have been unable to make this work because it requires downloading special software.


Thursday August 4 – Paugh Lake and Sherwood River

I drove with canoe and bicycle from Pembroke to the public campsite at the small sandy beach on Beaverdam Lake. An unmarked access road about 500 meters past the Paugh Lake Road bridge goes through a red pine plantation to the campsite. I set up a tent, then continued south on Paugh Lake Road, and turned right on Willowski Drive past Burns Lake to the well-maintained and clearly signed MNR boat launch on crown land at Paugh Lake. There is a small sandy beach at the launch and some people were swimming when I arrived. There were many vehicles at the boat launch - this is the parking area for all the cottagers with properties on the large island in Paugh Lake.



North end of Paugh Lake, looking south to the island

I paddled to the north end of the lake and then several hundred meters up the outlet creek from McGuire Lake to a beaver dam. Beyond it the channel was too clogged with water lilies and pickerelweed to continue. A couple in a canoe came into the creek mouth as I was exiting. They asked if the plants clogging the lake were purple loosestrife. I told them they were pickerelweed, a native plant.

Later that day I paddled the segment of the Sherwood River between Peplinskie Settlement Road and Wilno Road North. This is the stretch just downstream from the Sherwood Marsh. I left my bicycle at the take-out on Wilno Road North and drove upstream to put the canoe in at the culvert under Peplinskie Settlement Road. This stretch of river is very beautiful but also very challenging because of extensive shallow and rocky stretches where I had to wade and drag my canoe – I left a lot of yellow paint on rocks! Probably a bit over half the total distance is paddleable. I finally reached Mountain Chute, where I lowered the canoe down with a rope. Below the Chute there is a short paddleable stretch or river down to Wilno Road North. Beyond this the topo map shows more chutes and rapids, but it should be possible to paddle quite a good distance upstream from the river mouth in Round Lake. I bicycled back to the Paugh Lake Road culvert, retrieved my car, then retrieved the canoe, and drove to camp.


Sherwood River looking downstream from culvert on Peplinskie Settlement Road


Friday August 5 – Sherwood River and Marsh

I drove from my camp to the culvert on Peplinskie Settlement Road, stashed my bicycle in the woods, and drove with the canoe to the culvert under Paugh Lake Road.


Sherwood River downstream from Paugh Lake Road culvert

The Sherwood Marsh is one of the lesser-known gems of the Bonnechere watershed. Several beaver dams but generally no problem finding an open channel for paddling. I saw four bitterns – one almost brushed my face when it flew out of the reeds.


Another view of the Sherwood Marsh – cattle access here

Take out at the downstream end of the Marsh is a bit difficult. I paddled almost up to the culvert, dragged the canoe over rocks through the culvert to the far side and up the embankment to Peplinskie Settlement Road. It was only mid-afternoon after I bicycled back to the Paugh Lake Road culvert and retrieved my car, so I returned to Wilno Road North and paddled upstream to Mountain Chute to take pictures (it was late the previous day and I was pushing to get back before dark).


Mountain Chute

Upstream from Chute

Saturday August 6 – Bonnechere from Golden Lake to Eganville

I drove from Pembroke to Eganville, stashed my bicycle at Rotary Park, and then drove upriver to the bridge at Pikwakangan. I paddled a short distance downstream to the easy portage around the control dam. This stretch has good paddling - but I didn’t enjoy the headwind and boatful of deerflies in Wilbur (aka Mud) Lake! I got so focused on fighting them that I went right past the outlet and ended up in the shallow and muddy south end of the lake. But if I hadn’t gone there I would have missed seeing a small flock of yellowlegs and a large flock of geese. Despite the low water level I didn’t have to drag the canoe too many times on this stretch. I almost made it the whole way through Crooked Rapids. This would be more fun (and still safe) at higher water.

I only encountered one boat (another canoe), even though this is not a particularly wild stretch of river.  I saw cows in the river at one point. The folks who run the trailer park just downstream from Crooked Rapids did a very good job of retaining trees and an intact shoreline, but just downstream from there are three houses with no shoreline vegetation whatever – it’s very jarring. There is only a short stretch upstream from Eganville that is deep enough for motorboats. In addition to the geese and yellowlegs I saw green and great blue herons, ospreys, bald eagles, blue-winged teal, common mergansers, and kingfishers.

Between the dam and Wilbur 


Lake Could use some shoreline reclamation!


Friday August 12 – Eganville to Douglas

I drove from Pembroke to Douglas and left my bicycle at the bridge, then drove upriver past the Fourth Chute to the parking area on Grist Mill Road just outside Eganville. This is marked on the old MNR Pembroke District map as “public access to water”, but it is still at the lower end of Jessups Rapids and I had to drag the canoe through the shoals to get to water deep enough to float. It might be possible to put in upstream closer to the dam in Eganville and shoot the rapids in high water, but I would caution that this should only be done by experienced white water canoeists – at one point there is a ledge running across the entire width of river.

Fourth Chute after a summer thundershower 


Natural bridge at Fourth Chute

The highlight of this segment of the river is Fourth Chute, one of the scenic wonders of the Bonnechere.  The Fourth Chute area is relatively free of garbage. The best views of the Chute are obtained by walking through the tunnel under the natural bridge through the limestone rock. The portage around the Chute is tricky. One needs to be careful, approaching, to hug the right-hand shore so as not to get swept over the first drop. On the portage trail at one point I had to put the canoe down, turn it sideways, and drag it through small cedars up a short slope. The trail also has a lot of poison ivy.

Below the Chute the river is often shallow, with extensive areas of the river bed consisting of solid limestone. At the low water levels of August 2011 I had to get out of my canoe to wade and pull the canoe through the shoals (these cannot really be considered rapids). Paddling in higher water would be lots of fun.

Long straight stretch above Fourth Chute 

Looking upstream at shoals


Saturday August 13 – Douglas to Renfrew

Although the bridge in Douglas is a good place for boaters heading upstream, there is no obvious public access for those who want to paddle downstream. Renfrew Power Generation has “No Trespassing” signs on the road on the right side of the river that constitutes the portage around the dam at Third Chute. The river below the dam is shallow for the first few kilometers, then gets wider and deeper. It can be used by motorboats from Renfrew upstream to the Northcote bridge and beyond.

Dragonfly 


White water lilly


Motorboat heading upstream under the Northcote Bridge

Closer to Renfrew the river flows through open farmland. Winds can become challenging for canoeists, as on any open stretch of water. The river banks are clayey and cattle have access to water at a number of points, causing erosion and sedimentation. Fortunately, cattails along the river banks help slow the current, reduce the sediment load, and stabilize the clayey deposits on the river bottom.


Cattle exiting from the river 

 Note the cattails along the shoreline


Sunday August 14 – Renfrew to the Ottawa River

In contrast to the Third Chute, Renfrew Power Generation has signs saying “Public Welcome” at the Second Chute dam. A gravel drive on the right side of the river at the bridge in downtown Renfrew leads downhill to a small turn-around where one can park, and provides easy access to the river for launching a canoe.

View upstream at Second Chute put-in 
 Bonnechere Ridge from the river


This is one of the most of the most scenic stretches of the river. It is quite wild, passing through forested ravines with steep eroding clay banks. There are no bridges across the river between highway 17 just outside town and the River Road just upstream from where the Bonnechere discharges into the Ottawa. The noise of highway 17 is audible for quite a distance upstream before you can see the high bridge.

View downstream at put-in 

 Gravel bars at mouth of Kasaboski Creek


First Chute is a highlight of this section. There is plenty of wildlife – abundant kingfishers, great blue herons, spotted sandpipers. In places the banks are covered with flowering plants. There are no cottages, and I only noticed one point where cattle have access to the river.

Natural bank erosion 

 Highway 17 bridge
Clay bank 

Cattle have river access here
Wild cucumber, Goldenrod, Joe-Pye weed 

Broad-leaved arrowhead
View downstream from top of First Chute

Although the First Chute is quite scenic, there is unfortunately a lot of trash, particularly at the base – probably owing to boaters coming up from the Horton boat launch.

I took many pictures - these are some of the better ones. In this report they have been compressed but I can provide uncompressed versions if they would be useful for other applications (e.g., for the video segments).

Ole Hendrickson, August 24, 2011



Bonnechere headwaters adventure, Labour Day weekend, 2011

On Friday September 2nd I drove from Pembroke through Barry’s Bay to the marina on Aylen Lake. I stopped on the way and borrowed Fred’s Kevlar canoe, a 16-foot prospector, under 50 lbs and hence much easier to portage than my 17-foot Scott model. It looked a bit forlorn and in good need of a scrub – the lichens had started growing on it.

The Aylen Lake marina is unpretentious – a dog comes out from behind a house near the lake and starts barking, and eventually someone shows up to see what’s going on. It took the fellow there quite a while to find the blank camping permits for Algonquin Park. He nodded when I suggested that there aren’t a lot of park visitors using the Aylen Lake entry point. He told me about a parking area at the end of the Aylen Lake North Road. He said that the province had piled up a mound of dirt and pulled out a bridge there so cars could go no further. I remarked that Google Map showed this was White Mountain Chute Road, going through Algonquin Park all the way to join Paugh Lake Road near its intersection with Turner’s Road. I was pretty certain that the ministry would not want folks driving through the corner of the park, and he remarked, yes, that they’d taken steps to stop people like me from doing that.

Newer park maps show a 3.5-km portage to Wilkins Lake from that parking area that follows the now-closed White Mountain Chute Road. I wasn’t keen on starting my trip with such a long hike, with a canoe and a full pack. My intent was to find public access to water at the north end of Aylen Lake and paddle to the O’Neill Lake portage.

In driving up the North Road along the west side of Aylen Lake I saw no obvious signs of public access to water, so I wound up at the parking area at the end of the road. I took note of the mound of dirt, the beaver pond, the stream the beavers had dammed where once there had been a bridge, and the two vehicles parked there. I realized that I might well end up at that spot instead of returning back through O’Neill Lake.


View at the end of Aylen Lake Road North (just past the Algonquin Park boundary)



View at the end of Aylen Lake Road North (just past the Algonquin Park boundary)


I  backtracked and took the first road heading east towards the lake. It was a longer drive than I’d anticipated. Instead of going directly to the lake, the road went around the north end and over a culvert through which the upper portion of the Aylen River flowed on its way to the lake. Past that point the road was marked private, no trespassing. I should have parked at the culvert and put my canoe in there, but went on to where the road made a dead end at a private cottage. As I turned around to head out again a woman drove out from the cottage. She stopped, and I said I was looking for a place to park for three nights while canoeing in the park. She was sympathetic and helpful, and said I could park there, but asked me to try and let her husband know, warning me not to make too much noise because her grandson was sleeping. I drove up to their place and knocked, but as there was no answer, I parked where she’d indicated, got my canoe off the car, carried it through the raspberries, slid it down an embankment, threw in my pack, and headed south across the lake.

A strong headwind was blowing, kicking up waves and making paddling difficult. I took advantage of the shelter of a small island, and then aimed for a small point that projected into the lake. There was a spot part-way out the point where canoes had been landed, judging by the bare dirt. I landed there and discovered a very nice campsite. I was pretty certain I was close to the portage to O’Neill Lake. I put my canoe in the water on the far side of the point and paddled for a ways along the shoreline, but didn’t see any sign of a portage. Then I started doubting whether I was even in the right part of Aylen Lake, which widens at the north end (it’s called Dennison’s Bay). So I paddled back to the car (going around the point this time, since the wind was at my back), pulled out the canoe, and had it up on the car. I wasn’t certain what to do next.

Fortunately, the owner of the cottage at the end of the road came out to see what I was up to. I explained that his wife had let me park there, and that I was looking for Dennison’s Bay and the portage to O’Neill Lake. He assured that I was in the right place – all I had to do was look for a spot on the point where people had taken out their canoes. I asked if there was a campsite there, and he said there was.  So, I’d gone right past the portage when I crossed over the point without noticing it. I told him that I was going on past O’Neill Lake to Robitaille Lake. He had helpful advice about where to find the portage from O’Neill to Robitaille – just keep paddling to the far end of O’Neill, pushing through the mud and weeds, and I’d see it.

So, I got the canoe back off the car, into the water, threw in the pack, and went off again. The wind had kicked up even stronger blowing up from the south end of the lake, and even the shelter of the small island wasn’t much help. I got spun around a couple of times, and had to resort to the strategy of keeping to the shallow water along the shoreline, and propelling myself along by pushing off the bottom with the paddle.

The portage from Aylen to O’Neill is over 1.5 km long, but fairly level and well-used. I went a few hundred meters with both pack and canoe, and then put the canoe down by the side of the trail. I went on with just the pack, dropped it off at the O’Neill end of the portage, and went back for the canoe. On the way back, just before I got back to where I’d left the canoe I passed three fairly young guys, making good time, the first one carrying the canoe and the other two heavily loaded with equipment. When I got the canoe back to O’Neill they were relaxing at the end of the portage, smoking and drinking beer. I was pressed for time, and needed to push on, because portage from O’Neill to Robitaille is also well over 1 km long. I was going to have to go over three times while they could get their canoe and gear across in a single trip.

Along the portage from Aylen Lake to O’Neill Lake Late afternoon on O’Neill Lake

Along the portage from Aylen Lake to O’Neill Lake Late afternoon on O’Neill Lake

The fellow with the canoe said they were headed for Robitaille also. He said the portage was shorter than the one we’d just done but that it was “dirty”. He confirmed what the cottage owner had said – that the start of the portage was at the far end of the lake, that I’d have to push through some weeds and shallow water, and also cross over a small beaver dam.

In addition to the beaver dam there was a spot where the channel was blocked by a log, requiring a tricky balancing act while sliding the canoe over, but I got to the portage without mishap. After about ten minutes’ walking with just the pack I realized what he’d meant by a “dirty” portage. The beavers had made a sizable pond in dense cedar trees right in the middle of the portage. There was no way around it – the only option was to leave the pack there and go back for the canoe in order to paddle across.

I met the three guys on the way back for the canoe and told them about the dam, but it seemed they knew about it already. When I got back with my canoe about 20 minutes later, one of them was waiting for me at the far end of the beaver pond. He hollered across to look for the big aspen stump so I wouldn’t miss the start of the portage on the far side of the pond, which was very helpful advice. It was dusk by then, and getting lost was a real possibility. I paddled through the dead trees in the pond, found the trail at the aspen stump, left my canoe, put on the pack, and headed straight up a few steep hill for about 50 meters. A few hundred meters further, my friend came back up the portage. He pointed to his watch and offered to take my pack on to the end of the portage so I could go back for my canoe right away. I accepted gratefully. He even waited to see how I was doing with the canoe and we walked together to the end of the portage. He said that he was keeping an eye on me because he was afraid I might be tiring,, but I actually felt pretty good. We quickly walked to Robitaille, talking as we went.

His companions had already left with canoe and gear to set up camp. We got in my canoe and headed across the lake. My friend said that his family had a cottage on Aylen Lake. For many years they made an annual Labour Day trip to fish in Robitaille. They don’t worry too much about catching fish – they always manage to catch one, and smoke it over the fire, which is enough. Then they take it easy for the rest of the weekend. He was impressed with how light my pack was, and asked if I was carrying water. I explained the advantage of having a water filter.

He then provided a thorough overview of the different campsites on the lake. He asked if I was planning to fish, and I said “No”. Then he asked if I liked swimming and sunbathing on the sunny side of the lake, and I said “Yes”. He recommended that I camp on the rocky bluff opposite from where they’d set up. That advice was definitely helpful. It was getting seriously dark by then, and was overcast. The small sliver of moon that would linger in the sky for an hour or two after sundown wasn’t going to be of much help. We chatted about whether, when arriving late at camp, it’s better to get a fire going (which provides enough light to set up the tent), or to just go ahead and try to get the tent up. He even offered to lend me a flashlight, which made me realize that I had forgotten to bring one.

I really didn’t want to tell him that I was thinking of moving on the next day. By that time I was beginning to like Robitaille and didn’t want to offend him. We paddled up to his friend with their canoe. My friend switched canoes in mid-lake without difficulty, even though the other fellow was a bit dubious about this manoeuvre. As I was leaving he told his companion that I was going to camp at the site that they used in the old days.

There was no fire pit on the bluff, so making a fire first was not an option. Although the level spot at the top was overgrown with sweet fern, I pulled out a few plants and had a good tent site. I barely managed to get the tent up in the dark. The sliver of new moon peeked out for a while but was soon obscured behind clouds. I ate a few handfuls of trail mix and went promptly to sleep. It was very warm for September – too warm even to get into the sleeping bag. During the night a couple of wolves started howling not too far away, which got the loons going, but the night was otherwise uneventful.

My tent was positioned perfectly to catch the light of the rising sun. It was so warm that I got up and went swimming immediately. There was even a rock face I could dive into the lake from about six feet up. I got out of the lake and was barely dry when the clouds rolled in. I sat on a rock for morning meditation during which some small flies kept biting my feet. That, more than anything else, confirmed my resolve to move on.


Robitaille Lake from the campsite

Tent minus fly at Robitaille


Some context might be helpful. Four river systems in Renfrew County are part of the much larger Ottawa River watershed. Each is associated with one of the county’s four largest municipalities. Going upstream along the Ottawa River, the first is the Madawaska in Arnprior. Next is the Bonnechere, which flows through the Town of Renfrew and joins the Ottawa River in Horton Township near Castleford. Next is the Indian-Snake-Muskrat system, which joins the Ottawa in Pembroke. Furthest upstream is the Petawawa, which joins the Ottawa in the town of the same name.

Each of these river systems has headwaters in Algonquin Park. Significant portions of the park – including many of its best-known and most-visited lakes - are within the Madawaska and Petawawa drainages. The Indian-Snake-Muskrat system has a single access point at Mallard (Sec) Lake. The Bonnechere portion of the park can be reached most directly through two access points – Aylen Lake and Basin Lake.  Getting to McKaskill Lake, generally recognized as the major source lake for the Bonnechere, requires lengthy portages. It gets few visitors.

Robitaille Lake is also part of the Bonnechere headwaters, draining into it via Robitaille Creek. Higher up in the watershed is Wilkins Lake, which drains into Robitaille via Wilkins Creek. Still higher up is Vireo Lake, which drains into Wilkins via an unnamed creek. That creek is shown on old Algonquin Park maps (but not more recent ones) as a canoe route.

My plan was to try to visit all the lakes in this chain. Part of the motivation for my trip was to gather information for an Ontario Trillium Foundation-funded “Nature in Your Neighbourhood” project, focused on the Bonnechere watershed. I would be traveling back and forth between the Madawaska and upper Bonnechere watersheds. I started in the Madawaska watershed - Aylen Lake and the Aylen River flow into the Opeongo River, which in turn joins the Madawaska near the town of the same same. O’Neill Lake is also part of the Madawaska drainage – its outlet creek flows into Aylen Lake. Somewhere along the “dirty” portage from O’Neill to Robitaille I’d crossed the watershed divide.


Robitaille Lake, approaching the portage to Breezy Lake

The sun again peeked out as I headed up the 700-meter portage to Breezy Lake. The trail is little-used but easy to follow and not difficult. Breezy is a small but attractive lake with a good campsite.


End of portage from Robitaille to Breezy

Breezy Lake campsite is around the point


The weather was cooperating, and I wanted to see how far I could get, so I left my canoe at Breezy Lake and carried my pack over the 1.5-km portage to Wilkins Lake. The portage passes a beaver pond, goes gradually uphill, and turns south to join the old White Mountain Chute Road. The road climbs more and at the top of a hill, a post in the middle of the road between two large pine logs series marks a key intersection where the cart trail comes north from the parking area at the end of Aylen Lake North Road.  From there a rougher, rocky path descends steeply to Wilkins Lake.


Breezy Lake from the start of the portage to Wilkins Lake

A canoe and cart were tucked in the woods at the Wilkins Lake end of the portage, which accounted for one of the parked vehicles I’d seen the previous day. I took most of my photos on the way back to retrieve the canoe, hence the times recorded are in reverse order.
Beaver pond near Breezy Lake 

Portage joins old White Mountain Chute Rd


Cart trail leaves road to descends to Wilkins


Cart and canoe at Wilkins end of portage

The portage is at the end of a small bay at the very south end of the lake. From there I could see smoke from a campfire across the bay on a point on the west side and could hear regular strokes of an axe or hatchet. I paddled north, wanting to investigate the feasibility of paddling up into the creek that drains Vireo Lake.

At the north end of Wilkins I entered a wide, shallow, bay filled with water lilies, herons, and blue-winged teal. Finding sufficient water to float the canoe was difficult. I eventually made my way to a small beaver dam at the mouth of a very small creek, choked with alders. There was no sign that no one had used this route any time in the recent past. It was clear that if I wanted to visit Vireo Lake I would have to use a much more round-about route: carry the canoe down the portage from the west side of Wilkins Lake to the Aylen River, paddle upriver to the portage leading to the south end of Alsever Lake, up to north end of Alsever and through another short section of the Aylen River to Roundbush Lake, up a steep 1-km portage to Creepy Lake, paddle across Creepy Lake, and take the 1.5-km portage to Vireo Lake.


Heading towards the north end of Wilkins 

Vireo Lake outlet ‘creek’ at Wilkins Lake

So, stymied, it seemed worth checking out the campsite at the north end of Wilkins. It proved to be spectacular – on an island in a bay in the north end, facing southwest. It had been much used in the past, but was not marked, had no pit toilet, and had one of the old-style heavy metal self-supporting grills that positions your pot about two feet above the fire and is therefore basically useless.

Island campsite on Wilkins Lake 


View of lake from campsite – note the grill 

I paddled around the island and out into the lake at sundown. It was not looking promising for the next day (no “red at night, sailors’ delight) but the sky to the west opened up and made a pretty impressive show, nonetheless. Just at the peak of the display, a large wolf pack on the north side of the bay began a most impressive howl. It went on, in stereo – two wolves on the south side of the bay also joined in. This was repeated the next two mornings. The north end of Wilkins seems to be a wolf hangout.

Wilkins Lake at sundown – time for a wolf howl

It rained overnight. The next morning was heavily overcast with intermittent showers. I set out in the canoe with day pack, trail mix, water, water filter, and extra clothes. I paddled down the west side of the lake to the start of the portage to the Aylen River, stopping on the way to check out the very nice campsite nearby.

Campsite on Wilkins near Aylen River portage

Waiting for the rain to stop


The moment I put the canoe on my shoulders at the start of the 1-km portage down to the Aylen River the rain came pouring down. The canoe made an excellent umbrella as long as I kept my hands on the inside of the gunnels - otherwise, small streams of rain ran down my arms and created small waterfalls off my elbows. The portage down to the river is rocky and steep in parts. I had to watch my footing. The deluge continued when I got to the river. I flipped the canoe over, put the pack underneath, and waited under a large cedar tree with a slight lean, which afforded a small amount of protection.

This stretch of the Aylen River has numerous beaver dams. Paddling upstream, the river widens and begins to meander through a marshy area. I paddled right past the start of the first portage to Alsever Lake and ended up at the far end of the marsh where the river (really only a small rocky stream) empties into the marsh. I retraced my route and found a post alongside the river marked with faded red flagging that marks the start of the first portage (there are two portages, separated by a small pond).

Beaver dam on the Aylen River

Oops, missed the portage to Alseve

Start of second portage, Aylen R. to Alserver
Alsever has very impressive cliffs

Paddling up Alsever Lake I checked out a campsite on the east side. In exchange for having a sunny site and good views of the sunset, one has to deal with the prevailing northwest winds. It is amazing to see the efforts campers will make to deal with winds – in this case, lashing posts cross-ways to trees as tarp supports. If one is huddled behind a tarp to get out of the wind it partly defeats the purpose of having a view to the south and west. My sense is that west-side campsites are becoming more popular. You may miss the sunset, but there is light in the morning for early risers.

Campsite, east side Alserver Lake

View south towards cliffs from campsite

The Aylen River enters Alsever Lake from Roundbush Lake to the north, and exits the lake in the southwest corner (which I did not visit). The stretch of river between Alsever and Roundbush lakes is surprisingly navigable. It has a very large and active beaver lodge. The beavers maintain an impressive 4-foot dam where the river exits Roundbush Lake. I was surprised to meet a couple paddling this stretch of river. They were camped on the west side of Alsever Lake - accounting for the other vehicle in the parking lot at the end of Aylen Lake Road North.

Aylen River just above Alsever Lake

Creepy Lake

Although it was nearly 2 PM I thought I might just barely make it to Vireo Lake and get back to my campsite on Wilkins Lake by sundown. I paddled east along the north shore of Roundbush Lake to the start of the 1-km portage to Creepy Lake. I knew I would be climbing steeply and re-crossing the watershed divide back into the Bonnechere drainage. I left my pack and went ahead with just canoe and paddle. The portage is very little used and quite steep. I momentarily lost the trail at one point where it was blocked by a large fallen tree. Creepy Lake itself seemed fairly normal – maybe the name refers to need to creep up the steep portage trail, rather than to the lake itself.

I paddled quickly across, landed at the far side, and went on foot to Vireo. The portage trail was long and fairly interesting - maybe I noticed more because I wasn’t carrying a canoe. Not far from Creepy Lake a small streamlet trickles down a steep rock face. Further along the trail passes through an area of tall grasses – luckily there are portage markers at either end of this stretch, or one could easily get lost.  Closer to Vireo Lake there is a log nailed crossways fairly high up in two trees. I wondered if it could be a hitching post from the winter horse logging days. In winter there would have been a couple feet of snow underfoot (or hoof), making it the right height for tethering horses.

Along the portage trail from Creepy Lake to Vireo Lake

Along the portage trail from Creepy Lake to Vireo Lake

Along the portage trail from Creepy Lake to Vireo Lake

I couldn’t see much of Vireo Lake itself from the end of the portage trail. To the north I could see the point that separates the two arms of the lake - my old map shows a campsite there. To the south, the lake narrows towards the outlet creek that (at least in spring) flows down to the north end of Wilkins Lake. Just to prove I’d been there, I took a picture of the portage sign from Vireo back to Creepy Lake. It was badly faded but you can clearly make out the “V” for Vireo.

View southeast towards the Vireo Lake outlet 

“V” for Vireo

The return trip was relatively uneventful. A headwind from the west had picked up on Roundbush Lake, making progress slow. I had forgotten the location of the beaver dam on the Aylen River at the mouth of the lake and spent a few frustrating minutes swearing at the gods. When I eventually found the dam, dragged the canoe over, and paddled downriver, I greatly alarmed a large family of beavers who high-tailed it back to their lodge ahead of my canoe. My return on Alsever Lake was in a SSE direction and the wind sped my way. I was rewarded at Wilkins Lake by a spectacular sunset.

Views of the sunset at Wilkins Lake

Views of the sunset at Wilkins Lake

The temperature dropped considerably during the night, and the next morning was cool and windy. The wolf howl seemed less enthusiastic than on previous days. Again I was lucky with the wind direction – it blew me quickly to the south end of Wilkins Lake. I stopped at another east-side campsite along the way and again noted the heroic efforts of past campers to deal with wind, evidenced by the impressive height of the fire pit. Landing at the portage was a bit tricky, with small waves crashing against the rocks, but all went well.

Campsite on east side of Wilkins Lake Cart trail bridge across the Aylen River

I opted for the easy way out, using the 3.5-km cart trail that mainly follows the old White Mountain Chute Road to return to the parking area at the end of the Aylen Lake North Road. The main landmark on this path is a bridge across the Aylen River. I did the first trip with my backpack. Before I reached the bridge on my way back to pick up the canoe I met the same couple I’d seen the day before. They were coming out with their canoe and gear on a cart.

I asked them how they’d gotten back from Alsever Lake so quickly. They told me about a shortcut. Heading north, just past the bridge, an old logging road forks left and leads to the portage between the west side of Wilkins Lake and the Aylen River. Coming back that way, they avoided most of the steep ascent from the Aylen River up to the west side of Wilkins Lake, the paddle across the lake, and the second steep ascent from Wilkins to the cart track.

We exchanged canoeing stories for a few minutes (I told them about the Wilkins Lake wolf pack). We agreed that life in Canada is good and that we are very lucky to have such a large and beautiful wilderness area so close to home.

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