Thursday, May 27, 2004

Keji Trip from Hell

This story is a narrative of our canoe camping trip in Kejimkujik National Park on the Victoria Day long weekend of 2004.

On May 22nd, Simon and I began our journey to Site 31 on Peskowesk Lake, in the southern area of Kejimkujik National Park. Travelling down the main road of the park, we had our first wildlife sighting of the trip when we spotted a white-tailed deer in the woods beside the road.

We put the canoe in at the eel weir (on the Mersey River) and took portages A, B, C, and F.

The day was overcast and became sunny in the afternoon. With the onset of warmer weather the black flies were out in full force. They weren’t too bothersome as we had bug netting to wear over our heads, which protected us quite well.

We stopped at Site 26 and visited a coworker and his family before continuing on to Portage F. In retrospect, I think this was probably the highlight of our whole trip. After our visit we continued across Mountain Lake to Portage F. Once we arrived at the end of the portage we began setting up camp at Site 31, at which point it started to rain. Despite the rain, I’m still smiling.

The next morning was overcast with showers, but there was no wind and Peskowesk Lake was very calm which made for an easy paddle to Portage K at the other end of the lake. As we started paddling away from Site 31, a painted turtle poked his head above the water as if to bid us adieu and then disappeared.

During our paddle across to Portage K, we had to frequently sponge the bottom of the canoe to keep it from filling with rainwater. At the end of this portage was Beaverskin Lake, which is a beautiful little lake with crystal clear water. Most of the lakes at Keji are tea-coloured from tanins in the bogs. We filled up our water jug in the middle of this lake and then sat quietly for five or ten minutes and watched two pairs of loons diving for fish.

At the other side of Beaverskin Lake we took Portage M to Peskawa Lake, and Site 40, our next site, was on the opposite side.

As we approached the site, the sky started to clear. Once close to the shore, we found that the beach had virtually disappeared due to the high water levels. Docking the canoe without getting wet feet was tricky, but we managed. Sand bars prevented us from getting close to shore but by docking at the far end of the beach we were able to exit with dry feet and then line the canoe closer to the campsite to remove the gear.

We thought we had really lucked out when the skies cleared and the sun came out. Simon set up the tent while I strung the tarp and bug netting over the picnic table.

The bug net canopy was quite effective but a few still managed to sneak in.

This is a beautiful site, and I’d love to come back during the summer (so I thought) when the water levels are lower and the beach is exposed. There is a nice little brook that flows from the woods, through the sandy beach and into the lake. Unfortunately this is a breeding ground for mosquitoes and black flies, which were plentiful at this site.

It was a beautiful evening at Site 40. It had almost totally cleared and the lake was like glass. I went to bed still smiling…very pleased that we had found this beautiful site.

We awoke the next morning to rain. We got up and had some breakfast, and then decided to retire to the tent and sit tight for a while hoping the rain would subside. By noon however, the rain had intensified and we decided we had better pack up and head for our next site, which was Site 32 on Peskowesk Lake. The wind was up slightly but it was still pretty easy going on Peskawa Lake.

When we reached Site 38 at the end of Peskawa Lake, the wind had picked up quite a bit and we decided to stay put at this site to see if the wind would die down. It was still raining so we set up the tarp over the picnic table for a shelter while we waited. We were there for only a short time when the wind seemed to disappear completely, so we packed up and started paddling across the little lake between Peskawa and Peskowesk lakes. It was raining but I made the comment to Simon, “at least the wind is gone.” I would soon swallow those words. We were now at the beginning of Portage N.

This is a tough portage. It is about 1 kilometre long, and is a winding, narrow trail full of slippery roots, rocks and holes. We carried the canoe and all the gear to the other end, which was the eastern tip of Peskowesk Lake. We were disappointed to arrive here and find the wind on the lake blowing directly at us and too strong to attempt to paddle. We decided to sit it out and hope that by suppertime it would ease up. We turned the canoe on its side and put the keel to the wind to create a wind block.

The skies looked very threatening, so we strung a tarp from the canoe to two nearby trees to create a makeshift shelter. Within minutes of completing this it began to rain.

At this point, I am no longer smiling. This is not fun anymore. I’m starting to regret leaving Site 38 behind as now we are between two lakes without a campsite, and the weather is looking very threatening. I really struggled carrying the canoe and gear along this portage, as it was such rough terrain. Simon did a longer haul than I with the canoe and wasn’t having as much difficulty as I was, but my shoulders and legs were really fatigued from the six portages we did over the past couple of days. Regardless, we decided that going back to Site 38 was not an option. Just the thought of backtracking a kilometer with the canoe and all the gear exhausted us. We decided we would wait until evening, and if the weather had not let up we would pitch the tent right there on the path and spend the night. At about 5:00 pm we shared a package of broccoli and cheese rice for supper, and that would be the last food we put in our mouths for the next 24 hours.

At 6:00 pm, the wind had intensified and we decided to pitch the tent and spend the night. Since we were not at a campsite, we had no firewood, no toilet and no tent pad. We pitched the tent on roots and rocks, and are thankful that we have a small tent as it just fit in between the trees and rocks. The following picture is Simon standing on the spot where we pitched the tent. This will be the last picture I take from this trip.

Before retiring to the tent there was one last task we had to do…suspend our food, pots and garbage from a tree so a bear wouldn’t help himself to them. We have never had to do this before as we always stored our food in the campsite outhouses. I tied a stone to end of a piece of rope and threw it over the highest branch I could reach. Then Simon tied the rope to the bags and hoisted them up until they were about 10 feet off the ground, and tied the rope to the tree trunk. I could hear the wind rustling the bags through the night and my heart would start pounding in my chest thinking that a bear was trying to get at them.

It was a relief to get inside the tent and curl up inside our warm sleeping bags. I checked the temperature outside before we came into the tent and it was about 10 degrees. After we were inside the tent for about an hour I took a temperature reading and it was about 18 degrees so we were quite comfortable. I drifted off and had a nap while Simon read a book.

A short time later I awoke to fierce winds blasting our tent. The sound of the wind was frightening – it was a loud roar like I’ve never heard before. Then the downpour came. The rain pummeled our tent so hard that we could barely hear what the other was saying. Then as if that was not enough, it began to thunder and lightening. The thunder was so loud it shook the ground beneath us. The lightening lit up the inside of our tent like it was daylight – I’m sure the lightening strikes were right on top of us. I was absolutely terrified that a tree was going to fall down on top of us or that we’d be struck by lightening. I was crying with fear while Simon snored away!

I did not sleep much at all that night. I think I may have fallen asleep around 4:00 a.m. for a couple of hours. We had planned to get up at 6:00 a.m., thinking the winds would have subsided by then and we’d be able to paddle out. Imagine how we felt when we peeked outside the tent to see whitecaps on Peskowesk. We went back inside for a couple of more hours, pondering what we should do. We finally decided to take the canoe and all the gear back to Site 38 (across that horrible portage trail), leave everything there and hike the 18 km stretch of the Liberty Lake Trail back to the Mersey parking lot where our car was. We estimated it would take us about 3.5 to 4 hours. We stowed our packs in the outhouse and put the canoe near the woodpile. We were so upset and anxious to get out of there that we decided not to waste time eating breakfast. We just took one bottle of water, the map, compass and a dry sack containing my camera and some other essentials and started walking.

This part of the trail was very wet and rough going. After walking for about an hour, it started to rain. I was exhausted, sore and hungry and the thought of another 3 hours to go in the rain was doing me in. I started to cry. Simon was like a coach pushing me to go farther, telling me to think of the feast we’re going to have at McDonald’s as soon as we get out of here. lol He kept telling me to think of cheeseburgers, fries, coke, milkshakes, apple pies and ice cream sundaes. That tactic seemed to work as the more I thought about McDonalds the better my muscles seemed to work. Then the rain stopped, and after no rain for about an hour I commented to Simon “thank goodness the rain stopped.” Within five minutes of my saying that, it started to rain again. He finally told me to stop talking about the weather because every time I commented on it something bad happened.

Many parts of this forest were scary. The trail often has a very heavy tree canopy, which makes it seem dark. Being tired and hungry your eyes start to play tricks on you. I was seeing tree stumps in the woods that took the shape of bears. I was hearing noises like someone (or something) was coming up behind me, yet when I looked there was nothing there. The trail crossed black-water brooks and spooky bogs. I had shivers up my spine many times.

The trail eventually turned into a dirt road, which made for easier walking. Every time we reached a checkpoint, like a portage or trail crossing, we checked the map to see how far we had come. The last leg of the journey was a long stretch. Our last checkpoint was the fire tower road. After that, there would be nothing else until we reached the Mersey parking lot.

At this point, I got a second wind because I knew we were getting close. We had no water left, and those puddles in the trail were looking awfully tempting. I could almost smell the food from McDonald’s. In the last hour of our journey, every hill we climbed we thought we were going to see the bridge over the Mersey and were met with disappointment time after time. This road seemed to go forever. Finally, one last hill we climbed and Simon caught a glimpse of the Mersey…a few steps further, and we saw the bridge. We were so happy we almost cried. When we got to our car I felt like kissing it!

We drove out of there like a bat out of hell, and Simon was driving so fast and hitting potholes I was afraid a wheel was going to fly off. We pulled into Jakes Landing and got something to drink, as we were both dehydrated. We both got sick as well and believe it is from overexertion from the 18 km walk.

When we got back to the Visitor’s Centre to check out, we told the park staff what happened and they said we weren’t the only ones who had to abandon their canoe and gear. Another man and his wife stayed at Site 40 the night before us, and then they took the Shelburne River system to Lake Rossignol. The winds on Lake Rossignol trapped them there and after waiting it out for a bit, they decided to hike back to the Centre like we did.

The Superintendent of the park spoke to us and he said that a storm that was not forecasted blew in on Monday night with strong easterly winds. He said that it was very rare that easterlies blew on Peskowesk Lake, and that 99% of the time the winds are westerly. A westerly wind would have blown us right down the lake to our next campsite, but the easterly wind trapped us at the end of the lake.

We asked if they could send a warden with a 4x4 to Site 38 to pick up our canoe and gear and we would pay them. They did this for us and we went down the following weekend to pick up our gear.

So needless to say, I'm done camping for awhile. :)

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