Backcountry Tripping with a Big Canoe

Paddling on Kejimkujik Lake

Backcountry Tripping with a Big Canoe
(Mike Murphy)

All my previous experience with big canoes has been in brigades on river systems or day trips in the coastal waters of my home province of Nova Scotia. The brigades on the Rideau River and the Saint John River were typical ventures – we started at one point and moved along the river supported by a convoy of cars, trucks, and trailers, sometimes moving around dams or other obstructions by taking the canoes out and trucking them to a put in site further along the route. This year, five of us (Mike Murphy, Wayne Gillis, Tim Surette, Earle Hickey, Brian Smith) decided to try something a little different. We rented a 25 foot Rabaska canoe from CKNS and took it into the backcountry of Kejimkujik National Park. CKNS rents the canoe for $75/day or $400/week which includes the use of the trailer for transporting.

The plan was to paddle across Kejimkujik Lake (the big lake), then take a series of portages ranging from 1.2 kilometers to 100 meters through North Cranberry, Puzzle, Corbeille and Mountain Lakes to finally arrive in Peskowesk Lake. We would then spend time exploring a series of back lakes that are connected by portages of various lengths between 200 and 800 meters. What could go wrong?

Well, it turns out that a lot could. We talked to the Park staff about the portages and our plan but we didn’t pick up on their subtle hints like “no one has ever taken a canoe that long and wide through those portages” and “well, that should be interesting – we want to hear how it turns out.” We had a great set of wheels for the canoe and the confidence of five men well into their retirement years so we figured this should be pretty straightforward. Not so.

After an easy paddle across Keji Lake, we hit the first portage to North Cranberry Lake, a 1.2 kilometer trek with a number of uphill sections. We strapped the canoe onto the wheels and pushed, forced, and bullied it over roots and boulders. It took an hour but we got through to North Cranberry. A couple of quick trips back and forth brought all our gear over and we were ready to go but we were now aware of just how difficult this was going to be. We crossed the small lake quickly and got ready for the second portage, a short level one of just over 100 meters. We made it through this one to Puzzle Lake with relative ease and started to think that our plan may actually be feasible. Another short paddle brought us to our third portage and this is the one that killed the dream.

This one was about 400 meters, with many twists and turns in heavy forest, big boulders all along the route, and exposed roots everywhere on the portage. We took our gear over first and quickly discovered 4 spots where the portage was less than 36 inches wide. We stopped counting after those four. The laws of physics just don’t allow a 50 inch wide canoe to go through a space less than 36 inches wide. We weren’t about to try to flip the canoe on its side and carry it. As well, we had to consider our return trip – we still had another portage to make it to our destination and then on our return, we would need to do this all over again. So we had a quick discussion and made the only decision we could: we called the park and changed our reservation. We luckily got the campsite at the end of that portage, so we left the canoe at the start point and settled in for the night.

The next day, we took the canoe back through the two portages we completed on day one, and found our new campsite on the shores of Keji Lake. Over the next two days, we absolutely enjoyed paddling all around some coves and islands in the big lake in glorious sunny, calm, warm October weather. Lessons learned are pretty obvious: check out the route beforehand; big canoes don’t portage well, even with wheels – they don’t work in really rough terrain. But we also learned that the big canoe is loads of fun for a group in the right conditions. I would encourage others to think about renting the canoe for group excursions. Contact for details.

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