The Opeongo Shuffle
Algonquin Trip - Opeongo, Happy Ilse and Merchant Lakes. Sept 2021
This is an interesting trip report – one I wasn’t on! We had an amazing time on our summer trip into Algonquin park Algonquin Report So much so that we weren’t long back when my brother Dave decided to investigate a fall trip. A data was set and unfortunately it coincided with another even in my world, so I was out (I know, what kind of outdoor blogger turns down a canoe trip – wuss!) Some research was done, some trip members recruited, and the plan was set. Dave, Mark, Scott, Greg, and Charlotte would head to Algonquin for two nights! The rest of this report was contributed by my brother Dave (Dave you’re on your way to internet fame!)
The route was a new one – take the water taxi up Opeongo Lake to the portage into Happy Isle Lake, paddle Happy Isle, portage into Merchant Lake, camp for a night, back to Happy Isle, camp, fish, and head out via the water taxi the next day. This trip would be a little different. The portage into Happy Isle is a full 2200 metres and ideally the group wanted to avoid double carries. With that there were a few firsts:
o Light meals: DIY dehydrated dinners, oatmeal for breakfasts and simple wraps, PB, honey, and light snacks for food. We’re usually a bit more gourmet with eggs, bacon, burgers, etc.
o I rented a solo pack boat to give it a try – mimicking my fave You Tuber Joe Robinet!
o Mark’s daughter Charlotte was joining us…we either needed to be on our best behaviour or bribe Charlotte into a cone of silence…
o A bigger focus on fishing for a few of us
Thursday night we headed to Greg’s cottage which is close to the park. We checked our gear, ensuring we didn’t have duplicates, had a few laughs, some cold beverages and got ready to kick off our adventure.
We were up early for a quick breakfast, pack up the vehicles and head to Algonquin Outfitters Opeongo to pick up our pack boat and catch the shuttle. The taxi was great – the driver told us that the paddle to the portage would typically take 4 – 6 hours – using the taxi was a good call. It got us deep into the park and let us conserve energy for the portage into Happy Ilse. The portage was well maintained, and we made it without issue – lots of sweat and a few rest breaks along the way, but that’s what makes these trips memorable, right?! We paddled to a beautiful sand beach on Happy Isle Lake, had a quick snack and a rest, then loaded up the boats to find the portage to Merchant Lake. Getting back into the pack boat I immediately dumped! Pack boat 1 – Me 0! What should have been a 1-hour paddle to the portage to Merchant took 2 hours as we struggled to find the portage! Our navigator (We won’t name names) couldn’t quite place it – eventually we did find it and to be fair it was poorly marked. The 340m portage to Merchant was a breeze compared to our last one.
Merchant was a gorgeous lake, larger than expected and we made a short run to a beautiful, elevated campsite with western exposure to enjoy the sunset. Our weather throughout this trip was exceptional – unseasonably warm and sunny – grateful for that. We setup camp, pumped water, gathered firewood and prepared our first dehydrated meal – Greg’s spaghetti marinara. It was delicious! The rehydration process worked well. Scott and Dave cooked the meals using new twig/wood stoves and they were awesome. Lots of readily available dry tinder and twigs at the campsite and they made easy work of the meals. Enjoyed the fire, some good laughs, and a few drams of whisky…. ahhh camping with good friends….so good
We got up early but were in no big rush to break camp and head out; leisurely breakfast of oatmeal and coffee and enjoying our big lake view of Merchant. Eventually we broke camp about 11 am and headed back to the portage to Happy Isle. Our second time through the portage and back into Happy Isle was much smoother than the way in and we made our way to the Island to look for a camp site. We found a beauty with an awesome stone “dining table” and benches around a huge stone firepit; lots of good tent sites and some big pine trees. We got to work to setup camp and get some meals rehydrating.
A few of us went out for a fish in Happy Isle as we had heard there was good resident populations of lake trout and smallmouth bass; the others opting for a nap, some reading and chill time. We had another gorgeous day with lots of sun and warm temps. Mark and Greg trolled for lakers, and I headed out in the pack boat but quickly gave up trolling and went to search for smallmouth bass. While I loved fishing in the pack boat, I found it tough to troll. Casting for bass was much easier.
Mark hooked and lost a nice lake trout right at the canoe. I know, I know the typical one that got away fish story, but Greg vouched for it. Too bad but awesome to know that we could get into these beautiful fish in a canoe! We ran into a couple on the water who were also trolling, and they landed a beauty that was going to be their dinner that evening – a lovely fish and nice folks to chat with. I had good luck with the smallies and caught 3 chunky Happy Isle specimens – they fought like typical smallies and felt like much bigger fish, especially on a lightweight telescopic spinning rod! Loads of fun.
We headed back to camp and rustled up dinner. Another great dehydrated meal of black beans, quinoa, veggies, and Mexican themed spices. Turned out great as well. I think we’re hooked on the dehydrated meals plan. Another great campfire, some wine and tons of laughs made for a memorable Saturday night in Algonquin
We needed to be a bit more scheduled today – had to meet our water taxi on Opeongo Lake for 12:30. We were up early, enjoyed Greg’s oatmeal blend (quick oats with walnuts, raisins, pepitas, cinnamon and topped with honey) and coffee We broke camp and hit the water at 1030 to leave us lots of time for our paddle across Happy Isle and the portage back to Opeongo
I quickly proceeded to dump out of the pack boat again, fully packed and all. A bit too cocky after a few days of practice in it. Respect those narrow boats, my friends! Thank goodness for dry bags and good kit. All well aside from a few scratches.
We made out way to the portage quickly and loaded up for our hike. Made much better time this round and were at the pickup site on the Northeast arm of Opeongo for our ride out early! We had some lunch while we waited. The taxi arrived 10 mins early and we were quickly loaded up and making our way back to the outfitters. It was sweet to hop in that water taxi after the portage. I would not have enjoyed a 6-hr paddle to get back to our cars! Everyone agreed the water taxi was a great idea and good value for money. We unloaded the taxi, re-loaded our cars and were on our way back to civilization.
· Great trip and the weather gods really smiled on us: 20C + days with cool nights for a great sleep – We swam every day, and it was awesome.
· Dehydrated meals were a big hit; nice to not haul a barrel and ice and wonder each day if you were ok to eat the meat and cheese or if food poisoning was awaiting us!
· I think future trips will feature more dehydrated meals and simple meal plans. We’re less of the backcountry gourmets and enjoyed quick, easy, one pot, stick to yer ribs type meals
· The Solo Stove Lites were great – many of us are fire bugs and the idea of making a fire and keeping it going to be productive and cook your food was a smash hit! They were efficient and easy to operate. The fact that it was dry, sunny and lots of tinder and twigs avail at all our camp sites were contributors also. Want a gas/liquid fuel stove for a backup in wet conditions, I think.
· Starbucks instant coffee – was delicious and much less hassle than a French press. Big hit with our crew.
· Fishing in the canoes is doable (on our first trip we were not as comfortable or confident 2013 Algonquin Trip) As our paddling is getting better, the fishing was easier. Felt less like we had to focus on not tipping the canoe and could do some fishing. Trolling is also possible – shout out to Jon Babulic at Backcountry Custom Canoes and Jim Baird Adventurer for good tips on how to do it.
· I am back to looking at a tandem canoe. The pack boat was fun but a tandem that can also be soloed seems a bit more versatile.
· Charlotte was a great addition to the trip and enjoyed herself. A few too many Dad jokes for her I’m sure…. but hey, we’re old and that’s how we roll….
· The Water Taxi and Algonquin Outfitters all around were great. Easy to deal with, informative and knowledgeable folks.
Editors Note: Many thanks to Dave for the write up and the rest of the group for the pictures! Looks like a solid trip and one that I was sad to miss!