What could be more Canadian than backcountry canoe camping through Tom Thomson Lake over the Canada Day weekend?
That’s the question I posed to my friends when I was organizing a four-night trek into the Algonquin backcountry, starting July 1. Though judging from their responses in the negative, I guess it did little to stoke their patriotic spirit. While everyone had a perfectly reasonable excuse for not being able to join us on this particular trip, part of me suspects it was the way I described the multiple portages we’d be tackling: about 4 km in total.
Whatever the reason, it was just me and Cassandra who dipped our paddles into the lake on Canada Day to take on this loop.
If you’ve ever reserved a campsite in Algonquin Park, you know how quickly they can fill up – especially over a summer long weekend like Canada Day. So when I was staring at all the red triangles on the Ontario Park’s booking system, I had to get creative with our trip.
All the easily-accessible lakes were booked full for July 1 and 2, so I set my sights on Potter Lake for our first two nights in the park. From there, we could travel to Tom Thomson Lake by completing three portages, the longest being 1400m, and paddle out to our access point at Canoe Lake to finish the trip.
In total, we’d travel almost 30 km to complete the loop, split over two days of travel. In between, we’d have a full day on both Potter and Tom Thomson lakes to explore the area and enjoy more leisurely activities.
Day 1: Travelling up Potter’s Creek to Potter Lake
As we packed our gear into the canoe, the rain pattered down and the skies were a solid grey overcast. With thunderstorms forecast ahead, I had to ask Cassandra if we should really begin a trip that would require creek travel and several portages before we could camp. She remained adamant that we should get on with it, so we did.
The trip began with a paddle across Canoe Lake, a very busy access point for Algonquin Park. We saw many other paddlers heading out to their various destinations. We passed by summer camps and cottages as we paddled north, and also Tom Thomson’s cairn (the Group of Seven painter died on this lake in 1917 after his canoe capsized).
Eventually, the lake narrows and forks. Left to head up Potter’s Creek, and right to a portage over a man-made dam and into Joe Lake. We veered left and paddled into the start of the creek.
Here, both sides of the river are said to be lined with ruins from an old town and a headquarters from the original day of the park. We paddled past the remains of a decrepit wooden bridge, but couldn’t spot many more hints of an old town from our canoe. We also paddled under a more modern bridge, which is part of an old logging road that’s still used by the park to access the lakes up this stretch. The creek narrowed and it wasn’t long until we reached our first portage, a 390m forest trail that begins with a steep and rocky shoreline, but was in good condition.
After this portage, paddling up the creek became more difficult. Like any creek, it is easier to travel in the spring at high water levels. Even though it was only July 1, we had to hop in and out of the canoe constantly to lift over beaver dams, carry over a shallow area, or navigate around a series of rocks.
The first short, 65m portage can be skipped if you’re willing to walk your canoe through the rocky shallows, and I imagine in higher water you could successfully line your canoe and walk along the bank. The second, 95m portage, is required but easily accomplished. By the time we got to the final, 700m portage, I was actually relieved that we would be able to put the creek travel behind us. This portage, although longer, makes use of the access road so it’s very easy travel.
After reaching Potter Lake, we opted to take the first campsite that we came across – the southern-most site with a northwest exposure. The main site is encircled by trees, but is fairly big and offers at least two good tent pad areas. Also, we were able to find plenty of dead wood on the ground suitable for a fire. We’d been lucky with the weather, avoiding thunderstorms, but the combination of rain and walking through creeks had left us dampened. Thanks to the site’s birch bark and dried-out spruce boughs, we were able to lift our spirits and cook a meal over the fire.
Day 2: Exploring Brûlé Lake and Brown’s Falls
After a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs, emboldened by the improved sunny weather, we struck out on a day trip north to Brûlé Lake and nearby Brown’s Falls. The trip required paddling across the distance of Potter, then portaging 700m on another portion of the access road. This time, we noticed a moose must have used the road earlier for a good stretch, since its hoof tracks were distinctly visible.
On Brûlé, we set off to try to spot some more town ruins and were surprised to see what appeared to be a more modern cottage on the lake. Its state of disrepair had us wondering if it was abandoned or inhabited. Curious, we crept closer and looked for signs of life. I spotted a working thermometer on the outer wall, and among several signs, one that said “dogs.” As if on cue, as we paddled around to the other side of the structure, we were startled by two dogs that exploded out of the cabin, barking at us. A woman chased out after them and called them off as we slunk away along the shoreline, feeling chastised for our prying eyes.
Then it was time to find Brown’s Falls. Unhappily, this involved more creek travel similar to the previous day. But persisting over more beaver dams and shallow areas did pay off as we reached the large, curving waterfall. The rocky face of this waterfall is slow and easily hiked up, with the water running down it in different sections and creating various torrents and rapids. It was a lovely place to enjoy lunch and dip our toes in the rushing water.
One word of caution: The waterfalls contain many leeches, which we discovered after one attached itself to my foot while I was eating lunch and allowing the water to run over my feet.
Day 3: Portaging to Tom Thomson Lake
Accessing Tom Thomson Lake from Potter Lake involves three portages and not a lot of paddling in between. A 180m portage and a 490m portage went by quickly and the trails were quite well maintained, although very buggy. These portages are separated by Pathfinder Lake and another small body of water just referred to as “Pond” on the portage signage.
These small lakes are quite scenic, broken up by patches of water plants, lily pads, old stumps, and wildflowers. We paused on “pond” to nibble on some lunch before tackling the final portage to reach Tom Thomson, a 1475m trek.
This portage felt long! And not over a nice logging road either. The portion of the portage near Pond features some wooden plank bridges laid over brackish waters. We really had to watch our footing as the bridges crisscrossed through the swamp, and you have to step from one foot bridge to the next. After this, the path gets easier and more typical. Traveling from the west to the east is mostly downhill, but the uneven path will give you some uphill stretches in both directions.
About twothirds of the way to the eastern access, watch out for a portage break – a resting cross bar the park rangers have constructed– to the right of the trail. An opportunity to lift that canoe off your shoulders without having to put it down completely. We had enough gear that I had to reverse back and carry our equipment pack for a second trek down the path after I was done with the canoe. By the time that was done, Tom Thomson Lake was a sweet sight indeed.
We paddled to the south and looked for an open site first on the larger island in the lake. The site on the north of the island was taken, but looked very nice and worth keeping in mind if you’re headed to this lake. We went around to look at the site on the south side, but it looked gloomy by comparison and didn’t offer a very nice swimming area. Sunken stumps and underwater plants hug the campsite closely here.
So we paddled to an open site immediately to the south of the island. It offered a nice access to the lake, clear of weeds. After a short, sloping climb up several feet at the foot of the site, you reach a very large flat area that offers great tent pads, a unique fire pit that uses a huge boulder as a natural wind bluff, and some shoreline paths to explore.
Before making camp, we enjoyed the luxury of a cold beverage at the foot of the lake, celebrating our survival of a challenging day of portaging.
Day 4: Relaxing on Tom Thomson Lake
The final full day of our time in Algonquin Park was spent enjoying the sun, reading by the lake, and fishing. The raised campsite offered a beautiful view of the lake, and setting up a hammock alongside the shore made for an ideal reading spot. I paddled around solo, fishing for a bit, as Cassandra remained at the site to read and snap some photos.
After a day of hard work and portaging, it was a real treat to just take it slow and relax in one place. When the blackflies became too annoying, we put up our Eureka Backpacker VCS parawing bug tent (thank you Kevin Callan for the recommendation 🙏) and enjoyed some shelter.
Day 5: The long paddle back to Canoe Lake
The last day’s paddle back to our access point on Canoe Lake was the longest paddle, but mostly unhindered by shallow water conditions. We exited Tom Thomson Lake into Littledoe Lake through a narrow passage at its eastern shore. As the lake narrows, it turns into a bit of a creek and picks up some current that is flowing towards Littledoe. There are some beaver dams along the way here that we either paddled around, overtop of, or did a quick liftover to navigate. We saw some other paddlers coming up this section to get deeper into the park, and I think it’d be much more difficult to get over the beaver dams coming from Littledoe compared to our path downstream.
After you get to Littledoe, it’s clear paddling all the way through Tepee Lake and Joe Lake until the portage at the dam before Canoe Lake. Cassandra and I stopped on Teepee for an in-canoe snack and looked at Camp Arowhon in the distance, noting its impressive shoreline setup and the array of boats it had available for campers. The portage at Joe Lake must be one of the most popular in Algonquin, and we felt we were really re-entering civilization at this point as there was traffic going both ways.
I don’t know that I’d rush back to the shallow creeks and the long portage that brought us to Tom Thomson lake, but it was certainly a beautiful place. The route brought many memorable moments and unique locations. As we again passed the site of Thomson’s cairn on our exit from the park, I felt connected with the history of Algonquin in a more tangible way. A perfect feeling to end a Canada Day backcountry outing.