Algonquin in Three Days: Cache, Madawaska, Head Creek, Head Lake
We left the GTA early and arrived to Algonquin around 8:30. We picked up our permits and headed over to Cache Lake. The parking lot was full and the water taxi to Barlette Lodge was running. It seemed we were the minority heading out for backcountry camping. Although Cache is a pretty, the amount of cottages made us enthusiastic to get moving.
We decided to avoid the 1640m portage and take scenic Madawaska River/Head Creek into Head Lake. Although this route was MUCH longer, I loved river paddling as a child and hoped this would be enjoyable.
The water was relatively calm on Cache. We hugged the East shore looking for the sharp turn for the arm towards the Madawaska. A few inlets tricked us, but we waited to see camp Wendigo before making the turn. As we paddled through the narrows, the buzz of motor boats and children playing fell away; we were treated to birds singing under the bright sunny sky – now it felt like Algonquin! As the narrows opened, we saw where the old railroad once crossed the river. We made a sharp right, looking for the portage. As we located it, chatter came from the forest that was likely people on the Track and Tower trail.
This portage was 365m, but we did two carries, as we had not yet worked out our “groove.” We tried to carry the canoe together, which turned out to be awkward and more trouble than it was worth, so Shayn decided the next portage he would carry it on his own. We bumped into some people from the Track and Tower trail who cheered us on. After a second trip across the portage, we were back on the water. A short paddle had us at the 195m portage. This portage was more hilly, but posed no real trouble and we were back on the Madawaska in no time.After this portage, the Madawaska was narrow and shallow. I think Shayn questioned the wisdom of paddling this river. Here the river meanders back and forth with a number of small beaver dams to pull or paddle over. Just as it began to seem never ending, the shorelines opened to the “bog.” I noticed a sign on the shore and was disappointed to discover the old railroad had been converted into a biking trail complete with information stops. The last time I had been through this area, probably ten years earlier, the bog was quiet and full of moose and other wildlife. For me it was a shame to see it his way. Paddling on, we came across the largest beaver dam of our trip. There is nothing like balancing on a pile of twigs, in the middle of a bog, with a two foot drop on one side and water lapping at your toes on the other. During this balancing act you must also attempt to pull the canoe full of gear over the drop without losing any gear. When we finally got back in the canoe, we found the river very shallow – we joked that we could pole instead of paddle the canoe.
I knew the turn for Head Creek was difficult to locate. I tried to use the land as a marker, but we still managed to paddle past the turn off for the creek. As we came upon a small island in the bog, I knew we were going East and off course. We passed a group on a fishing trip from Lake of Two Rivers and I knew it was time to turn around. I heard there had been a sign for Head Creek, but we never saw it. On our way back up the river, we saw a slight opening to the West. I questioned on several occasions if this was the correct direction because it was full of water plants and lilies; combined with being shallow from the beaver dam. We literally had to drag the canoe across the muck with our paddles – there was no way I was stepping into that crap. The tree line of the bog told me we were going the right way and in higher water this turn would not be so difficult to spot.There were two large, long standing beaver damns before arriving at Head Creek proper. Up Head Creek the bog faded away, as the creek narrowed and deepened. The creek was beautiful. The shore was rocky with pine trees towering above that cast shadows across the still clear water. Although we paddled upstream, the current was minimal and posed no significant problem. The next two portages were short, but very steep and rocky, as they went around waterfalls. They were not well travelled, so almost felt like “unmaintained” portages. The second travelled along the side of a steep drop beside a waterfall. Watching Shayn carry the canoe across the slipy rock made me a little nervous.
After the portage the creek opened to what could almost be considered as small lake. The wind had really picked up and we battled it to the next portage. A beaver popped up near the portage and we floated by him for a while. He was between us and the landing area, so we didn’t want to upset him. Finally, with a slap of his tail he was off and we were able to pull up the canoe. The portage started flat with a section of mucky swamp that led to a steep rocky incline into Head Lake. In higher water, you could probably paddle closer to the rocky area and avoid the swampy walk. We did this in two carries and pushed out from the portage on the other side.Head Lake appeared empty, but we still hurried towards the waterfall site. We found it unoccupied and set up camp. The only down side was a clear view of the next closest site, but we were lucky on this trip to have the whole lake to ourselves. The site had a nice area to set up a tent and a good campfire pit with lots of logs to sit on. The waterfall required some bushwhacking, as it was actually on the adjacent side of a small inlet. The waterfall was lovely, even though we caught it with low water levels. We enjoyed a dinner of steak and baked potatoes and turned in for the night.
The plan was to head down Head Creek, meet the Madawaska river and take it East towards Lake of Two Rivers for a day trip. As a child, I remember visiting the abandoned railway bridge on the first portage heading East and swimming at the falls at the next portages.We had breakfast of pancakes and packed a lunch before heading out. The trip to the Madawaska was unremarkable and similar to the day before. The strong wind was behind us, so we almost sailed along. Despite the wind, the trip took longer than expected because the river almost doubles back on itself in areas. We passed the time chatting and enjoying the peace of the wilderness. As we neared the beautiful portage from my memories, as sense of foreboding overcame me when I saw bikers on the old railroad. At the portage, I walked up the steep embankment to the rail trail to find it widened and flat; obviously a main biking trail. I was so disappointed to find it this way, but I do understand the park’s need to expand. We walked to the bridge to find a metal one laid over the old foundation – more disappointment. About 10 years ago, we would paddle to this portage for lunch from LoTR. It was off the beaten track and we never met anyone. We would sit on the large old walls of the once railway bridge and watch the river far below. After lunch we would walk the railway path, through the bog, that was reclaimed by nature. I cherished seeing the remnants of logging that happened over a hundred years earlier. We decided against visiting the next portage, as it would likely be similarly busy. Instead we buskwhacked to the rapids and passed time walking them – jumping from rock to rock, as the water rushed by. We had lunch on a large boulder suspended in the middle of the rapids. The water created a relaxing hum as it crashed down the rapids. The sun was shining and glinting through evergreens high above. We sat halfway down the rapids; it felt like we were in our own private paradise. It may not have been the original plan, but it turned into a beautiful afternoon none the less.
After lunch we started the trip back to our campsite on Head Lake. We arrived exhausted from pulling across large beaver dams and battling strong wind. The wind made each turn of the river about 100% more difficult, as it became a constant battle to turn the canoe.Back at camp, we explored the waterfall and enjoyed “showering” in the ice cool water. I followed the small river back from the waterfall in hopes of discovering Kenneth Lake. Night was beginning to fall, however, and the encroaching darkness encouraged me to turn around. We had a lovely dinner of pork and freeze dried white bean chili. We turned-in to a clear starry night.
The night was cold with temperatures plummeting to a chilly 6C in mid-July. The morning dawned sunny, as the mist broke over the lake and the temperatures rose. Shayn took another swim in the waterfall, but I was not brave enough with the chill still lingering in the air.We packed up and were ready to leave around 9am. We both had little desire to paddle the river, combined with hotel reservations in Toronto that afternoon, we decided on the 1640m portage to Cache Lake instead. Although the river had less portaging, it would still take 3-4 hours to arrive at Cache Lake. The 1640 would be long, but would substantially cut down travel time.
Paddling to the portage, we discovered we were still alone on the lake. We met three young loons that allowed us to float close and take some lovely photos. Not long after we were at the Cache Lake portage and found it well used –preferred over the river.We took the large packs first and planned to come back for the canoe and smaller packs. We had not yet learned to pack light, so found this portage tough and had to take several rests. The portage continued to be well worn and relatively flat. About ¾ to the end, we passed two girls out for a morning jog from a cottage on Cache. It was a weird sight after camping in the interior. This portage felt never ending, but eventually we saw glistening water that signified the end of our first carry. Shayn helped me take the backpack off and I started back across with the weird floating sensation of removing such a heavy pack. Shayn took the canoe on the second carry across the portage, but about halfway I offered to help carry it. We tried different ways of carrying it with two people, but eventually decided one is still easier. Near the end of the portage we passed a couple and their dog heading into the interior. Cache Lake was relatively calm and the paddle was easy. We were treated to another beautiful summer day and enjoyed our final paddle out.
Overall this was a lovely trip with hidden gems like the waterfall and rapids. What we took from this first trip was 1) Pack lighter; we really did not need so much stuff! 2)Lighter canoe for single carrying; since this trip we downgraded to a 44lbs canoe. 3) Plan trips farther away from HWY 60 to avoid crowds and built up areas.
Our other Algonquin Trips: