Tumultuous Winds and Quiet Sands…a report from our Canoe Trip in Canada.

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An article in Canoeroots Magazine, published earlier in the season, had suggested that paddlers should challenge themselves each year, and get outside their comfort zone a bit when canoeing and exploring.  We felt up to the challenge, so after our Adirondack adventures, we headed north of the border, to Parc Regional du Poisson Blanc, in Quebec, about 60 miles north of Ottawa. This was the longest we had traveled from home for a paddling trip, and the first where English is not the primary language. We knew that the lake was quite large ( 24 miles long, 5 miles wide, with over 80 islands), much larger than the largest lake we had paddled to date, but it certainly seemed like a nice place to adventure…and it is dog-friendly too.

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Monday

Our first challenge was crossing the border into Canada; now, we have taken the dogs across before, but it is always a bit worrisome. We have all their paperwork in hand, but if the Customs official is having a bad day, or they request a secondary search, or the dogs begin barking because they expect a treat from the “drive-thru window”..well, these can make the crossing eventful, and we seek uneventful. Well, Canada Customs Agent Hamilton was a friendly fellow, and merely asked if we had the “paperwork for the pups”. It was a quiet 2 minutes while he reviewed our documents, and off we went.

Our first stop, to walk the dogs, was about 4 hours from home, in Ontario. Though our destination was in Quebec, we had to travel through a corner of Ontario to get there. The dogs explored a nice park, with some unusual sculptures, in Hawkesbury, ON…the wind was vicious, and there were whitecaps on the river. We were reassured knowing that the campsite for our first night was land-accessible, and not the boat-access island where we were to spend the rest of the week.

We arrived and checked in at the Bastion Base Area mid-afternoon, and then headed 10 km up along Reservoir Du Sable, to our campsite for the first night. The Parc maintains two very nice sites along the shoreline of this lake that is linked with Poisson Blanc…there are also some tent sites for “late arrivals” down at the base area.

The large sandy beach was 100 yards from the campsite ( which was located on a quiet marshy area), so we hauled one boat out for an evening solo paddle…accompanied by loons and ducks. We also took a hike (trailhead right near the campsite) up to an overlook, allowing us to see the lake where we would be heading the next day.

Dinner was great ( fondue), the Parc delivered a load of firewood for us, and we had a very peaceful night under the full moon.

Tuesday

We woke up to a glorious sunrise, and calm winds….a beautiful spot, but then it was time to load up and head bake to the base area, out to embark on our island adventure.

At the base area, we saw a few cars in the canoe access parking lot; the office did not open until 9am, but we wanted to head out earlier than that. We had obtained out parking permit the day before, so we could launch for our island campsite by 8am.

Peaceful and calm as we headed out…little did we know what awaited us!

Since we had been told that we were not permitted to arrive at our island site before 2pm, we decided to check out some of the islands used as day use areas. We landed at island site #8, cooked up some oatmeal for breakfast, and then began exploring the sandy,rocky, and wooded terrain. Gryphon had a great time, as he had lots of waterfront  for chasing frogs and minnows. Edgar found some great sticks to drag and play with….and in this peaceful setting, we noted that the wind was beginning to pick up.

By late morning, the winds were gusting pretty good…we started to see lots of chop and even some whitecaps. We estimated winds were up to 20 mph,and getting more gusty. The few paddlers we saw heading out were really working hard to proceed,even with large tripping canoes. Since we were not very far ( 1/2 mile or so) from our designated site, and it is a pretty large site, we opted to head over to our island earlier than 2pm…if we had to wait while prior campers packed up, so be it. I had read blogs that mentioned paddlers being stranded on these islands due to winds, and that did not sound appealing.

Our little boats ,loaded up with all our gear, headed out, as it seemed there was a lessening of the wind…the plan was to head downwind just a bit, go around another island as a wind-break,and head upwind to our island. Plan A was a dismal failure! As we got away from the protection of the day-use island, we encountered increasing cross winds,and winds funneling between the islands….my little solo boat was bobbing around like a cork, despite my best paddling efforts.  The heavier kayak was faring better, but it seemed unsafe to contionue to try to battle the challenging winds. We decided to return to our day use island, and wait for the winds ( now in the 30 mph range, per our anemometer) to let up.  So we spent most of the afternoon on this lovely island, in beautiful sunny weather, comparing our situation to   Gilligan’s Island, Robinson Crusoe, Castaway…we wondered how upset the park would be if we camped overnight on the island!

Well, at 4pm, we saw a solo canoeist appear, working her buns off, but actually making progress in the rough waters. The wind flags on my boat indicated that there were now longer periods of lesser winds, and seeing that paddler succeed seemed to be a sign for us…if she can do it, so can we! So we made sure everything in the boats was secure, we snugged down our PFDs, and put the dogs in down position, and we headed off. We have paddled in some rough water, and rock n’ rolled it a bit before, but this was probably the most challenging paddling we’ve done. Keeping the island destination in site, we worked it, and paddled for all we were worth…my fear was not so much taking on water ( we did), but that if we dumped, Gryphon would swim to the nearest island…which might not be the right one! Then we would have to retrieve him…and the canoe as well. But we made it,  safely landing on one of the 3 sandy beaches of our island site, relieved, with a prayer of thanks to St. Brendan!

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Once on the island, we expressed gratitude..we had earned this reward…the best site in the park!

The site, #6, is the only site on the island..there is a smaller island adjacent, which due to low water levels, had land access. Three sandy beaches, lovely wooded areas, and some of the most fascinating and abundant rock formations we have ever seen.

Since the wind appeared to lessen as we neared the end of the day,we opted to set up the tent on the sand…a good distance from the waters edge, and easily moved into the wooded area should the need arise.

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We had a nice fire ( they deliver firewood to the sites by boat!), and a relaxing dinner, and a quiet evening. Gryphon did not want to come out of the water (lots of minnows!), but Edgar was happy sleeping in the sand. Overnight,a lovely breeze was blowing through the tent…then about 2am, we started to hear rain on the fly. Of course, the wind began to get quite strong again, but at least we had not thunder and lightning.  Our LL Bean tent continues to perform exceptionally well! We awoke to strong winds blowing…glad we had each brought books to read, and chew toys for the dogs; it looked like it might be a long day!

Wednesday

While light rain continued to fall, and the skies were pretty grey, we decide to move the tent into a site under the trees. We un-staked it, and carried it about 50 yards into a wooded site, right on the edge of the beach, and with water views. Though the lake appeared angry on one side of the island, the other side was less agitated, and we actually began to see breaks in the clouds, and the showers and rain became intermittent. Breaks in the  weather allowed us to escape the tent, and explore the island…we found new trails to some of the rocky shorelines, and watched birds that had settled in on the edges of our site.

Well, as the day progressed, the skies became bluer, and the sun began to shine..winds kept blowing, gusting up to 30 mph, until early afternoon…then, we actually realized that we might get in some paddling! By 3 pm, the lake had calmed enough for us to take the boats out to explore the lake. It was still a bit windy, but we handled it well, and  it was fun to explore different islands and arms of the lake.

A nice fire on the beach, beautiful scenery, and the day came to a peaceful close….

Thursday

Our tent site in the woods protected us from overnight winds, but we certainly heard them gusting again, until 0400 am, when suddenly, calm rang out! The full moon illuminated the skies, which were beautifully clear, and the water, which was flat and calm…

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We got up at 6am, had a quick cup of coffee, and headed out to take advantage of the excellent paddling conditions. 40 degrees f., but it was glorious paddling to start the day! The rising sun soon warmed us up, and we ventured farther from our site than we had previously been able.

We returned after 90 minutes on the water…it was still only 42 degrees , so we had a nice hot breakfast, and sat on the warm sand and rocks for a bit. Griff was in his glory, having freedom to chase minnows and frogs, while Edgar decided to sleep on the warm sand. And…the wind remained practically non-existant.  This was to be the the day that we could paddle to our heart’s content!

And, of course, we had to take a photo by a certain rock on our site…there was just something about that rock….we suspect we are not the first to pose by it!

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Late morning, we headed out for a lovely paddle, to explore another of the day use islands. We put in to let the dogs stretch a bit, and to remove our paddle jackets…it was warm enough that they were no longer needed.

What a day! Warm sands, a beautiful quiet setting, endless views, and nice paddling conditions…almost made us forget the ” paddling drama” of our first day at the lake!

More paddling that afternoon. We watched loons, rode some powerboat wakes ( we only saw a few park motorboats, and they were not an issue), and  came back to our site to discover that a huge crow was feasting on our trash bag. He flew off in a huff, and after cleaning up the mess, we had a good dinner. We did have to pick up some small trash from inconsiderate prior campers, but amazingly, this was the first site in forever, where we have not found a plastic bread tab left behind!  One item of note…we found this park generally very neat and well kept. The benches, log tables, and fire pit were among the best we have found in our canoe camping travels. Even the outhouse was well made, clean, and pretty sanitary ( for an outhouse!). Unfortunately, for a reasons we could not fathom, many people had walked up the trail to the outhouse, but had then “done their business” in the woods within 10 feet of the outhouse, leaving their trash behind. Very odd, and we did mention this to park personnel upon our departure.

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Nicest outhouse we’ve found while camping!

Our last evening at the park was marked by a beautiful sunset, and then a colorful and impressive moon rise. We certainly hoped that our “paddle out” the next day would have the same easy conditions we had on Thursday.

Friday

We awoke to the sound of loons calling, and coyotes howling….and flat water and heavy fog. We grabbed a light breakfast, and packed up the boats. We really wanted to head out while the going was good…and we found nice calm waters, though the fog was a bit thick. Our compass kept us heading the right direction,and we could follow the shorelines around the islands and channels back to the base area. The sun began to shine through the heavy fog, and we ended up only paddling past the take-out by 50 years or so…a quick back-track, cross the narrow channel,and we were there, safe and sound!

We hauled our boats and gear up the steep, but short, trail to the parking area, and loaded up the car.  We managed to pack everything in the car without the use of the Thule Soft Bag we had put on the roof at the start of the trip….the dogs immediately curled up in the back seat, and dozed off.

It had been a fascinating week…we had overcome some wind challenges, explored terrain very different from what is familiar to us, and had taken us, and the dogs, a bit out of our comfort zone. We still have more paddling ahead this season, though the cooler temperatures and changing colors are telling us the season will soon end.  Hmm, time to plan next years adventures? Already started…”Paddling to Banff 2017″ is on the calendar!

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Vermont Paddle Pups, at Parc Regional du Poisson Blanc

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