Woodland Caribou – 2018 Canoe Trip Solo – Onnie Lake

Trip Dates: Saturday, August 04, 2018 to Thursday August 09, 2018
Total Trip Distance (km): 85
Difficulty Notes: Wilderness canoeing with limited options for bailing out. Good bushcraft and wilderness survival experience is necessary to travel through Woodland Caribou Provincial Park.
Lakes Traveled: Onnie, Spider, Douglas, Hatchet, Peterson, Page, Bell, Crystal, Caribou, Embryo. Telescope, Hjalmar
GPS Track: Download
Forest Fire Update (2021): Forest Fire Impacts in WCPP

Solo Trip

Day 6 was the last day of the group trip and the first day of my solo effort. It was a day full of mixed emotions and excitement – most of it good and some of it a bit different than I expected. As with every good adventure worth having, my first solo canoe trip in WCPP started and ended much differently than I anticipated. I’ll pick up with a journal entry from the end of the group trip while waiting to exit the park for the outfitter pickup at the Onnie Lake entry point.

Woodland Caribou 2018 Solo Canoe Trip – Overall Route Map.

Day 6 – Saturday August 04, 2018 – Onnie – Suffel Lake Road – Onnie

Day 6 consisted of a pretty short exit for the others at about 5km total with 3km of portaging. I had to double those numbers giving me a lot of portaging!

Click here to read about our group canoe trip.

Please click here to launch the full photo gallery for my Solo Trip.

Journal Entry – 10:30 – Unnamed Lake between Onnie and Suffel Lake Road

We’re drifting slowly around a small, unnamed lake on the series of portages from Onnie Lake to the Suffel Lake Road. We have to wait until 11:00 or so to make the last 350m portage to the road for the pickup / delivery of my truck around noon. I’ve been going through a wicked cycle of nervous energy in advance of my upcoming solo trip and it’s really messing with my head for some reason.

Last night we were hammered by a series of pretty intense tstorms and strong winds and I was seriously thinking about simply driving home with the guys tomorrow! It’s one thing to imagine yourself out here alone on a windless, sunny day but when strong tstorms are nearly blowing your tent in the lake and the night is pitch dark and long thoughts take a turn for the worse. I even had all my excuses worked out – what I’d tell people etc. Oddly, I fell asleep during the storm and woke up energized and ready for the trip again. I’m feeling nervous again as the time draws near and there is the feel of tstorms and active weather in the hot, humid air again today. I HAVE to do this though! I’ve had this plan for many years and I can’t go back to sit in an office tower in Calgary knowing that I was primed and ready for a solo trip and backed out because of a couple of tstorms.

Journal Entry – 15:30 – Onnie Lake Camp

I’m snuggled on my sleeping bag in my mid, listening to the peels of thunder all around me and the sound of pouring rain bouncing off the walls while reading my e-reader and trying to remain calm, cool and collected. I started my solo venture not really how I pictured it or would have preferred with tstorms looming and booming from afar while I raced back from the Suffel Lake Road to make camp.

I’ve done 2km of portaging today thanks to repeating the 350m and the 625m portages back into WCPP! I’m not gonna lie. I almost didn’t bother coming back in at all. There’s going to be some soul searching going on over the next little while about whether or not I’m really cut out for solo canoe adventuring or not. I managed to solo carry the 625m portage into Onnie Lake with no issues, but doing all the portages for the second time while racing tstorms sucked. It is still extremely humid and electricity is in the air. If you’ve ever experienced these weather conditions, you know what I mean when I say that the air is crackling with tension as the forces of hot, humid air mix with cooler, unstable air masses.

As I write this I can hear a near-constant rumble of a massive tstorm headed for what sounds more and more like a direct hit on my little corner of the world. I knew there was going to be storms as I rushed around my truck like a madman in the hot weather, repacking for the next 7-10 days and trying not to forget anything important. I left some heavier items behind such as my fruit cups and seem to have forgotten a new roll of toilet paper which could prove to be interesting. Time to start saving food wrappers rather than burning them!

Into the wild. All alone with miles of empty wilderness in every direction.

I barely had time to say good-bye to the other guys before I was setting a furious pace back down the first 350m portage from the road with heavy packs once again. I was half way along the 650m portage when I first heard the distant sounds of thunder and picked up my pace even more – sweating furiously in the heat and humidity. On the one hand I hated all the rushing and near panicked paddling I had to do in a light tstorm to camp, but on the other hand I’m finding out right away if I can do the solo thing out here. Baptism by fire, so to speak. The biggest storms missed me as I hurriedly set up my camp on the island we’d just abandoned as a group a few hours earlier in the day. It was strange to be back there so soon with the pending storms and the absolute silence of Onnie Lake – I was the only one there now! I just got my tarp set up before I heard the familiar sound of rain coming over the lake and quickly fled to the comfort of my mid where I’m now snug-as-a-bug-in-a-rug except I’m laying on top of my sleeping bag due to the heat and humidity.

I’m currently meditating how strange it was to watch the outfitter’s van with Harold, Hentie and Rod drive off as I shrugged into my heavy pack and set off back down the portage trail that we’d just finished up on a few minutes earlier. It was pretty much exactly how I imagined it – other than the looming storms of course. The strangest thing is that their trip is done but mine’s only about half over, if that, depending how long I stay out here. This year was different than trips in the past, in the sense that I felt pretty satisfied with the 5.5 days already. Usually I’m feeling like that’s not nearly enough time, but this year we had a great group, great fishing and some really good experiences despite the unsettled weather. One week doesn’t sound long compared to dozens of weeks spent in the office every year, but somehow when you take yourself out of the concrete jungle and put yourself in the actual jungle 24×7 for a week, it seems much longer.

Journal Entry – 17:30 – Onnie Lake Camp

It’s a few hours later than my last journal entry and the tstorms are still going off all around, and definitely on top of me. There was one lightning strike in particular that resulted in a bomb going off right next to my little island – it was much closer than any strike’s come to me before and was scary. I remember huddling under a tarp with Niko back in 2016 feeling the same way – when you’re out in the real jungle instead of the fake concrete one, you feel much more vulnerable to the elements. I’m all alone out here, 100km from nowhere and huddled down in a see-through shelter with bombs going off all around. #interesting #wtf

As predicted, the local storms have indeed moved beyond a normal summer tstorm and into the much more intense category of full-blown electrical storms complete with nonstop lightning strikes that split the air with a terrible and head splitting violence, rather than simply rumbling their way above the landscape below. This shit will either scare you off solo trips for good or harden you to them and I’m not exactly sure where I’m falling on that scale just yet. I’m glad that I’m not freaking out but I’m not exactly a picture of total calm either, falling somewhere in between. I am resolved that I’m here now and there’s not much I can do but read my book, take a nap and hope for the best. Nature sure has a way of making us feel our true place on the totem pole – that being the very bottom!

It continues to interest me how my emotions are running hot, cold and neutral to this experience. I’ve been looking forward to / dreading this trip for so long, now that I’m here it’s quite a solid mess running through my head, to be honest. Definitely something to ponder later when things have calmed down a bit more and when I’m back out of the wilderness. It really is like how I tell my wife, Hanneke, all the time (who I’m missing right now btw) – when I’m with loved ones I miss the wilderness and when I’m in the wilderness I miss my loved ones. There’s certainly a whole bunch of “WTF am I doing here?!” going on in my head right now.

Journal Entry – 20:00 – Onnie Lake Camp

I’m finally out of the mid and sitting on a rock near camp with the sun starting to slowly sink in the western sky. Yes! I can see the sun! It hasn’t rained or stormed for an hour now and the sky to the west has mostly cleared off. There is a small column of smoke rising off a small island just north of my position from two canoeists who are almost certainly having a better time now than earlier when I saw them paddling through a lightning storm!!

The wx for tomorrow isn’t perfect. There’s an 80% POP with high humidity again – almost certainly a recipe for more tstorms but hopefully not as intense as today. It’s still quite humid this evening. I’m hoping to have a fire and do some fishing in Onnie tomorrow but the plan was always to take tomorrow off so that’s what I’m going to do. I’m tired after a long physical and emotional day, so I’m heading to bed soon. The solo game is so different from tripping with one or more other people or even with a dog. Right now I can hear many little song birds chirping happily around the island and they are coming right up to me for food – this never happens in a group and I didn’t even notice these same birds last night. I do miss a cheery, crackling fire and the low voices of others around me. Traveling in a group certainly has its perks but being alone does too.

I understand that life is busy and that we all have other priorities, but sometimes I wonder if we meditate long enough on what’s truly important as opposed to the “rat race” that has most of us chasing things we don’t actually care about. One thing I know is that if you are a person who says “I’ll do that later when I have more money”, or “I’ll do that later when I’m working less” – you are on a path leading to the middle of nowhere. You will almost certainly never reach that so-called, “perfect place”, where you have tons of money, no stress, no work, no family or friend obligations and are healthy enough to do something like a solo wilderness trip. The only time that’s guaranteed is the time that’s right in front of you – and even that’s a fickle fiend that can bail on you at any time.

Don’t put things off too long! Don’t assume you will “do that later” when it’s more convenient. Life has a way of taking things away from us when we least expect it and money, health and life itself are the top three losses for most people. This is why I couldn’t wait anymore to be out here like this – I am not guaranteed another chance and I’ve wanted to solo canoe for decades already. I look around my hometown of Calgary, Alberta and when I see the fancy vehicles and huge empty houses I have to wonder how many wilderness trips were sacrificed, how many dates were canceled, how many camping trips weren’t taken and how many dreams from childhood are on “hold” in order to attain these expensive props? I really hope it’s worth it for most of the folks paying all that debt off for most of their lives, because it certainly wouldn’t be worth it for me!

With the sun turning the sky orange over the Woodland forest across the lake, the gentle, soft sound of water lapping just below my feet, the call of loons and the cheerful chirping of little birds I am as “retired” right now as I ever need to be.

Day 7 – Sunday August 05, 2018 – Onnie Lake (Rest Day)

Sunday proved to be a bit of a disappointing day for me. Originally I’d intended to paddle around Onnie Lake and start getting into the solo tripping spirit. Instead I spent most of the day either ducking thunderstorms in my tent or huddled around a wet fire with wind and rain blowing through camp! My journal starts to take on a bit of a doubting tone at this point…

Journal Entry – 13:30 – Onnie Lake Camp

I have just spent a few rainy hours in the mid, reading my e-book. I’m back outside now, but it is very humid and likely to start storming again soon. There are low, gray clouds all around, but other than a few distant peels of thunder it seems like most of the sharp teeth are out of the storm after yesterday’s fireworks. Thinking back on the last 7 days, it really seems like we have had a lot of clouds and rain – especially considering it’s mid-summer. Other than Wednesday afternoon to Friday night (2.5 days), we’ve been in clouds, wind and rain or tstorms. I’m really starting to hope that tomorrow isn’t another dull, rainy day.

Sunday is not looking much better than Saturday afternoon was.

Journal Entry – 16:00 – Onnie Lake Camp

This gray, windy, rainy weather is starting to get old. I really hope that this is the stupid, unstable weather blowing its way out and a nice, sunny high pressure (i.e. normal summer) system moves in to take its place soon! I’m stuck in the mid getting lots of sleep and rest and a wee bit antsy – don’t know if that’s obvious or not?

Journal Entry – 18:00 – Onnie Lake Camp

Well, now I’m back in the mid after quickly getting some supper ready w/ yet another fu_cking rain storm hitting me now. I was going to enjoy a cup of coffee but could see the sheets of drizzle moving in across the lake and dashed back in here. This silly, cold, dreary weather is now getting more than a bit old.

Journal Entry – 19:30 – Onnie Lake Camp

I just finished texting with Hann which has me feeling pretty lonely right now. The dreary, misty, cool, humid weather isn’t helping my mood any either. It’s a good reminder when I’m reading this tome later, that even though this land is undeniably beautiful, it’s also very harsh. I guess it sort of mirrors life that way – which makes sense. The beauty doesn’t vanish when things get rough, but it’s sure harder to see clearly. As I watch the bees going to the pines for nectar and the water droplets shimmering on the needles I remember why I’m here in this place by myself right now. The next days are going to be filled with great moments and hard moments but I have to keep the perspective that I’m here now and won’t be back soon. I have to relish the good moments so that when I’m back in my cubicle in the concrete jungle I have some positive memories to hold onto.

The wx for tomorrow is vastly better than today, but there’s still a chance of rain in it. I’m going to get up around 04:30 and see how far towards Page Lake I get. It’s going to be great to get moving again! I’m going stir crazy sitting on this tiny island with not much to do for the past day and a half! That is something I’m also learning quickly on this trip and from my longer trip in 2016 – breaks are great but they don’t need to be very long. I get enjoyment out of hard physical work and movement, not sitting around too long.

Day 8 – Monday August 06, 2018 – Onnie – Spider – Douglas – Hatchet – Peterson – Page

Monday morning I was resolved to be up and at it early in order to force myself out of Onnie Lake and further into the wilderness for at least a few days – weather and conditions be damned! I was up early enough for it to be pitch dark as I set about taking down my camp and packing up the canoe. As I stepped off the island I felt like I was finally getting into my solo trip. I did not look back as the smooth blade of my Ottertail dipped into the dark water and started the song of the paddle.

Day 8 and my first real solo paddling adventure was respectable at 24km and 2km of portaging from Onnie to Page Lake.

The first part of the day was still challenging for me. The weather refused to cooperate for the 3rd day in a row, producing low clouds and even periods of driving wind and rain as I crossed Spider Lake and continued down Douglas Creek towards Douglas Lake. Finally, as I finished up a short 30m portage along the creek the weather started to break.

Journal Entry – 13:30 – Page Lake Camp

Wow. What a fantastic day today has already been! This was a make it, or break it day. I made it pretty good so far. I was up at 04:30 this morning only to see low, gray clouds outside my tent again. It was pretty depressing but I was absolutely determined to get going no matter what. By around 06:00 I finally had my soaking wet camp packed up, some oatmeal crammed down my gullet and some coffee to warm me up a bit. I paddled my way out of Onnie towards Douglas Creek – a bit apprehensive especially with the gloomy weather.

With the benefit of hindsight, now that I’m sitting at camp in lovely warm sunshine, the morning paddle down Douglas Creek was beautiful. Mist was rising from the water and paddling the creek was easy and efficient – I was with the current. When the mist started coming down from the sky, however, I was less than happy with it! Seriously. Where the heck were the warm lazy days of mid-summer that I was counting on in August?! Why was I continuing to get June weather instead? I had no choice but to don my Gore-Tex and this point and keep paddling.

I was pleasantly surprised how quickly I got to Spider Lake. I tried using the kayak paddle a few times but quickly found that I vastly prefer the Badger Ottertail, mainly because of the different stroke and it doesn’t soak everything in the boat like the kayak paddle does. I’ve done enough paddling with the “J” stroke to be pretty darn efficient at using a canoe paddle solo, and the Souris River boat handles like a dream solo paddling (without too much wind at least). Before I expected it I was at the 30m portage along Douglas Creek which was easy and quick to execute. The creek got bony after the portage and I scraped some rocks pretty good on my way down a very narrow rock garden.

Douglas Lake was a dream to paddle across. There wasn’t even a small ripple on the huge water as I pointed my boat across its south end. I greatly enjoyed the paddling, recognizing landmarks from our 2016 crossing before arriving at the campsite / portage up to Hatchet Lake. I managed to make the 150m portage 50m extra by getting out at the camp site rather than the start of the portage but all went well, despite the slick rocky trail leading steeply up from Douglas. With the recent rain and the moss underfoot this was my trickiest one yet.

Hatchet Lake was as gorgeous as I remembered it. It also treated me good again – a slight south breeze blowing me up towards the north end while I paddled strongly and efficiently in the cool, but dry morning air and the sun started to poke out above me. I was planning to stop at one of the camp sites along the way for a coffee break but the paddling was so efficient I just kept going all the way  to the Peterson Lake portage! I told myself I’d take a break in Peterson and set about the 350m portage. This portage was one of the nicest I’ve done yet. A clear, wide path led through an Aspen and Pine forest into a beautiful Peterson Lake. It was such a nice portage I doubted it was 350m!

The portage landing area on Douglas Lake.
A gorgeous, sandy beach at the end of the portage from Hatchet to Peterson Lake.

I paddled yet again with the wind up Peterson Lake. The clouds were still above me at this point, but blue sky was poking through occasionally and the rain was long gone. As I paddled past an island at the south end of Peterson, I spotted a strange looking sign half hidden in the bushes along the shoreline. I couldn’t read the whole thing but it was a government announcement about a fish study and some sort of restrictions on the lake. Weird. There were no obvious or easy places to get out for a break, so naturally I kept paddling again. I finally realized that I was pulling a classic “Vern move” and would likely be paddling all the way to Page Lake before stopping for a break.

The 200m portage from Peterson into Page Lake was another beauty – and so was the lake itself! I’m sitting here now, in warm sunshine with the sound of waves gently lapping the shore and bees doing their thing all around (thankfully not on) me. This was exactly the day I needed. From a family of Otters on Douglas Creek to some very curious and friendly Loons on Hatchet Lake to this delightful, rarely used island campsite to the now-perfect weather. Solo trips are hard enough, but in bad conditions they’re brutal. I’m going to putter around camp for a bit before heading out to hopefully catch supper. I have no idea if there’s even Walleye in this lake, but I’ll try fishing for them anyway.

Journal Entry – 16:00 – Page Lake Camp

Well, there’s still no proof of Walleye in Page Lake. There is plenty of evidence of big, hungry Northern Pike however! This little gem of a lake is deep, clear and cold. There must be trout in here at least (since returning from the trip I have confirmed there is, indeed, Lake Trout in Page and Crystal Lake but no Walleye). Right now I’m sitting in the hammock enjoying the peaceful sound of nothing but the gentle lapping of water and non-biting bugs. This has easily been my best day out in WCPP so far this trip. Time to read my book for a while.

A rustic bush camp on Page Lake. But the moss is 6″ deep here so I’m not complaining.
Views from near my tent site on Page Lake.

Journal Entry – 20:15 – Page Lake Camp

I have a cheery fire going and the sky has totally cleared off now. I’m sure the Milky Way will be brilliant tonight and part of me is tempted to stay up for it but I’m fairly tired after a pretty long day. I’ve been reading my book a lot this afternoon and didn’t even bother fishing this evening anymore. I was silly today and even though I was only shirtless for a few hours while tooling around Page Lake, I burnt pretty badly. Tomorrow I’ll be sure to bathe in sunscreen first thing in the morning to avoid that issue. I’m definitely feeling much better out here today than the past few days. It’s hard not to enjoy nice days like today, but I’m slowly learning that the weather up here is so unpredictable that I need to find ways to enjoy the bad weather too.

I’ve been so incredibly lucky with the bug situation so far on this trip too! They’re basically a non-issue. I can hear bugs buzzing and flying all around me, even as I write this, but they’re not biting. The sun is setting already and there’s an orange glow on the trees across the lake. Loons are echoing their haunting cries back and forth over the rocky shorelines. I am lucky to be sitting here in this spot, enjoying this utter stillness and natural beauty all alone. Rather than being separate from this natural work, I am part of it and it’s part of me. This is not a feeling that comes easily back in the concrete jungle where everyone is afraid of skunks and squirrels, never mind wolves, bears and wild weather.

I’ve meditated on this before, but every hour in the wild is like an eternity compared to an hour in the concrete jungle or my cramped office tower. Back home an hour barely gets me to work in the morning. I think that’s the real value of wilderness trips like this one. The true value of time is realized, rather than being something to endure it’s something to experience and enjoy.

Day 9 – Tuesday August 07, 2018 – Page – Bell – Crystal

Day 9 was short from Page to Crystal Lake at only 7km and 1.5km portaging.

After a very pleasant ending to my previous day, I was eager to continue on to Crystal Lake. I wasn’t sure if I’d be going further than that on this trip but it was nice to realize that I’d make my initial goal of at least getting that far on my first solo canoe trip. I was up and it it early, but not too early on Tuesday and paddled on glass out of a shallow, weedy bay on the NW end of Page Lake towards Bell. Finding the portage trail in the bushy creek was a challenge but eventually I did find a trail that worked. There was evidence of the trail being re-routed several times presumably due to changing water / weed levels.

The unnamed lake between Page and Bell was pretty shallow and weedy but pleasant enough in the early morning breeze. Soon I was across it and heading for the very distinctive narrow channel that leads to Bell Lake. Even though it wasn’t 10:00 yet, the channel proved to be a bit challenging with a stiff headwind. I was relieved to finally get down it and turn west and north to find the portage out of Bell towards Crystal Lake.

A gorgeous day in WCPP.

The portage into Crystal Lake was very pleasant with some minor wet sections – nothing too horrendous. There was evidence of trail work but nothing recent. I trimmed back a few fallen trees to assist with my canoe carry. The paddle from the portage to my campsite was interesting with a very stiff SW wind trying its best to blow me off course. The issue with the light canoe is that as soon as I got off track it was almost impossible to point it in the right direction again. This is something I’ll have to remember. Once again, the campsite on Crystal was awesome – definitely more used than the one I stayed at on Page Lake.

Journal Entry – 11:00 – Crystal Lake Camp

I’m sitting on a windy, warm, gorgeous island camp site on Crystal Lake. Despite good intentions to sleep in and leave Page Lake later in the morning, I found myself paddling already by around 08:00 this morning. It turns out that this wasn’t a horrible idea as there’s a pretty strong and steady wind from the SW today which I paddled against pretty much the whole way down Bell Lake’s approach creek. The creek out of Page was a bit of a PITA for the portage trail entrance (it seems to move around with the changes in water levels) but once I found the trail all was good again. I enjoyed the interesting watercourse into Bell Lake, which is narrow and canyon-like. I didn’t love the wind there though as I was against it. From Bell Lake’s NW corner, the portage into Crystal Lake was a bit boggy for 30m or so but was mint otherwise.

I crossed Crystal Lake in some wind to yet another perfect, empty camp site. I’m going to eat some soup and a coffee for lunch before doing some laundry and than maybe some reading or fishing.

Journal Entry – 11:00 – Crystal Lake Camp

I’m Feeling a bit headachy today and lethargic for some reason. This is likely due to a long day yesterday and my afternoon sunburn combined with the efforts of paddling against the wind today. It’s very hot outside right now and clouds are building a bit overhead. Hopefully nothing too violent comes out of this heat but it’s not as humid as earlier in the week so likely not. One issue I’m noticing a lot is the same one we had in 2016. Afternoon and evening winds are making fishing and exploring excursions harder than they should be for me – especially while solo in my light canoe.

A very respectable campsite on Crystal Lake.

My options for the next day or so are to spend another day here tomorrow or go back to Page Lake or even to Upper Hatchet for a camp. It’ll depend a lot on the weather forecast I get from Hanneke later. As it is, I am realizing now that I have to plan for longer days paddling on my next solo venture. Sitting at camp is awesome and relaxing for a few hours per day, but after 4 or even 8 or 12 hours on the same small piece of land I get pretty melancholy and bored. I could text Harlan about my original planned route as an option (i.e. the fire situation – maybe I can do it now) but honestly, I’m not sure if my head is in it right now. I’m looking at this trip as a learning experience for more solo trips and trying to keep expectations low.

Journal Entry – 17:00 – Crystal Lake Camp

It’s still too freaking windy to go fishing or exploring and I’m slowly getting more and more disgruntled just sitting here.  I know I should just relax and chill, but in my defense I sat around half the day Saturday and all day Sunday already before sitting around yesterday afternoon and now almost all day again today! Like I wrote earlier, next trip needs to be more aggressive with more traveling as it keeps me occupied. I have a very hard time sitting still in the comfort of my living room where there’s a TV – out here where the hours pass by slowly, sitting around is only relaxing temporarily before it becomes stressful for me. As much as I love being out here away from everything, I have to admit that the storms, the rain and wind is taking its toll on my desire to stay out here as long as I had originally planned.

This trip has been fairly tough weather-wise. It’s either raining, storming or windy and I long for a long, quiet, warm high pressure system that obviously isn’t in the cards right now. If I’m sounding angry or regretful I am not that, but a am feeling very cooped up and just want to go for a nice quiet paddle and / or fishing. I am pumped to be turning back and starting the paddle back to Onnie tomorrow. I miss Hann and the kids.

Journal Entry – 19:00 – Crystal Lake Camp

The decision has been made. I’m going to be exiting WCPP either Thursday or Friday depending on weather conditions and my mood. I’ve already burned some of my extra food that I’ve been carrying around the entire time without eating, such as Wasa bread and peanut butter. I still have plenty to survive at least another week if need be. Why the switch to such an “early” exit? To be honest, I think sitting around too much thinking about stuff and loved ones back home didn’t help, but there’s a bit more to it than just that. I’ve never done more than two nights solo before and even than I wasn’t completely alone at night. Being out here for 5 nights or more, completely alone isn’t a small thing. And trust me – I’m by myself out here! I haven’t seen anyone since Onnie Lake.

There’s also the simple fact that I feel fully satisfied with this trip and with my experience so far. I already learned a ton about solo travel and I’m simply ready to go home. I’m not 100% sure I’m a “solo guy”. I’d like to be that hardcore bushman but I don’t know yet if that’s what I am. I miss Hann a lot and I’m feeling quite alone out here, even having little “freak-outs” every once in a while when I think about the sheer isolation and wilderness that I’m in. This isn’t the same as camping alone in a Rockies campground. This is true wilderness bush camping and is much harder mentally than physically for me. If I could just keep moving all day I think I’d be fine but sitting around storm or wind bound as much as I have this trip is just too much time for my thoughts to wander and my anxiety to creep up.

There have been a few points already on this trip, including Saturday’s scary electrical storms, that I came within a hair of quitting. I am happy with how far I’ve made it and I feel like I’ve “proved” all I needed to prove to myself that I can do these trips and now I’m ready to go home. As I hear the water lapping against the hard Canadian Shield rock at my feet and witness yet another beautiful WCPP sunset across the lake from my campsite, I’m extremely happy to have these memories and experiences, and at the same time somewhat excited to be starting my path back out of the wild tomorrow.

Day 10 – Wednesday August 08, 2018 – Crystal – Bell – Page – Peterson – Hatchet – Embryo – Telescope

Day 10 proved that I can do long days while solo! Probably the longest distance I’ve ever done in a day in a canoe at 32km and 7km total walking. And I did it far faster than the 13 hours indicated here – I was at camp by 15:00.

Tuesday night was my official “lose it” night in WCPP. Sitting here now, months later and stuck back in the concrete jungle, I am amazed to read my own journal from Tuesday. I can’t for the life of me remember why I found sitting on a warm island in the middle of nowhere all by myself with a good book and cigar “stressful” – but obviously it was at the time! I have been thinking a lot on this trip over the past few months and this is the one thing that surprised me the most. I really thought that I was prepared for spending time alone in the wild but apparently I have to go through a long learning process just like everyone else does. As you’ll read in my journal entries a bit further down this page, Tuesday night was not kind to me. In a weird twist, it was one of the quietest nights of my solo trip so far (no storms, wind or anything) yet it proved to be my ultimate reason for ending the trip earlier than originally planned. I’ll let my journal do the talking.

Early morning at my camp on Crystal Lake.

Journal Entry – 11:30 – Upper Hatchet Lake

What a morning! I’ve already come over 5 portages and paddled from Crystal Lake to Page and down Hatchet before bucking a strong wind across Upper Hatchet to the site of our camp in 2016 just before the portage to Embryo Lake.

I had a pretty bad night last night on Crystal Lake. I was restless and had vivid, scary dreams all night. I lost it a bit – my anxiety crept up and I experienced my first solo full-on mental freak out. It wasn’t fun and it’s certainly validating my decision to end the trip a bit earlier than originally planned. Today is thankfully quite a bit different! I woke up at 04:30 and couldn’t sleep, so I got up. I was expecting some rain so I packed up camp while everything was still relatively dry and paddled on glass out of Crystal Lake. I continued on through Bell, Page and Peterson Lake – all in calm conditions but by the time I reached the portage between Peterson and Hatchet the wind was blowing from the north and the humidity was ratcheting up pretty fiercely. I thought for sure I’d be getting strong tstorms this afternoon, but all threatening weather has now melted away and there’s nothing but blue sky left – although there’s still some stiff wind.

Paddling down Hatchet Lake, shirtless in the cool breeze and warm sunshine, with the wind was a delight. The 450m portage  into Upper Hatchet Lake made me realize that I was running a bit low on energy and should probably have lunch before tackling the next 450m portage into Embryo so that’s exactly what I’m doing right now. I saw a cow and calf moose when I first arrived at the end of the portage into Upper Hatchet and watched them swim away from me. Moments like these make me want to stay a few more days – there are blissful moments that make me think I could stay out here forever. But I know that’s not true!

A cow and calf moose on Upper Hatchet Lake.

The second time I arrived at the end of the portage to Upper Hatchet, I met a father / daughter canoe team who’d flown into Haggart Lake 7 days earlier and were exiting via Johnson Lake tomorrow. I could see and smell forest fire smoke as I dug the paddle deep into the clear, cool waters of Upper Hatchet against a very stiff wind. Paddling the 38lb boat solo against a side wind is interesting to say the least. Basically I paddled on the opposite side of the wind but even then I couldn’t quite “keep up” and ended up going south to tuck behind a midpoint island and getting the boat pointed NW again! It’s literally impossible to turn the boat against the wind in these conditions so I have to be patient and wait for opportunities to duck out of the gale and turn it there. Now I’m off to Embryo Lake to drift with the wind before portaging into Telescope Lake – my home for at least tonight. I’m feeling really good today! What a day to be alive and living in this wild place!

Journal Entry – 18:00 – Telescope Lake Camp

Phew! That was a heckuva paddle! On hindsight it was quite a bit to chew off but what the heck – I made it! The tail of Embryo was much, much tougher to paddle than I expected it to be. The head was easy as expected, drifting down the large lake with a northwest wind. But when I started to turn more westerly up the ~4km long tail (much longer than I remembered), the wind funneled between the shorelines and made me work for every inch in blistering heat. While I enjoyed the workout, it was coming at the end of an already-long day and there was some frustration as the boat seemed to be stuck in some sort of time warp or something. I had to force myself to pick targets along the shore and then celebrate hitting them, despite it taking so much effort each time. In one case I spotted a leaning tree in the distance and made that my target. It honestly seemed to take eons to reach that darn tree but eventually I did, of course.

The narrow channel between Embryo and Lac Lammont was a brief moment of tranquility but it was a scorcher of a day out of the wind and I started realizing how physically depleted I was getting. The paddle across the much smaller Lac Lammont was quick enough but pretty much did me in. I was super relieved to finally spot the 200m portage into Telescope and even more relieved when I completed it into a pretty shallow bog. The bog was just another obstacle that tired me out even more, but arriving at an empty, deluxe campsite on the large island in Telescope was a glorious moment.

I arrived at this island around 15:00 already, making for a 9 hour day including my lunch break on Upper Hatchet. That doesn’t sound like a long day, but I pretty much paddled and portaged constantly for 8 hours and it was so humid I could see the moisture evaporating off the lake surface all day! I realized again today that I love working my body hard. I love physical labor. My next solo trip will be aggressively planned to account for this realization. Too much sitting around has effectively killed my mojo on this trip and despite how awesome today went, I am very likely headed home tomorrow.

The deluxe island campsite on Telescope Lake.

Last night was tough. Really tough. After sitting wind-bound for 8-10 hours on my little island in Crystal Lake, I kind of lost my marbles. It’s hard to explain or maybe it’s just hard to admit out loud. For the past few years I’ve developed intermittent chest pains especially in my left chest. Naturally I freaked out the first few times it happened and sought medical attention. Naturally there were no signs of anything being wrong with me so I’ve been ignoring these pains ever since, with varying degrees of success. Every time they crop up I get nervous about “heart issues” and every time I have to think my way out of the anxiety. Yesterday evening my left chest started to hurt again and for the first time today I realized that the physical pain is 100% caused by mental anxiety – something that both fascinates and terrifies me. I paddled and portaged and worked out like a demon today and my left chest didn’t hurt one bit, but last night I was absolutely convinced that I was having heart issues. My anxiety ramped up until I went to bed and thanks to the hot, humid conditions and my mental state I had vivid, terrifying dreams all night. There is nothing quite like waking up in a cold sweat at 01:00 in pitch darkness on an island in deep wilderness all alone, after a vivid series of nightmares to the howling of a local pack of wolves. My goodness – that’ll put some gray in your hair!

An incredible sunset in Telescope Lake.

It’s tough for me to consider going home after “only” 5 nights alone but I have to ask myself why I’m out here and what I’ve come to discover about myself and the nature of a solo canoe trip. The simple answer is that I’ve discovered plenty about myself and I ended up accomplishing what I planned in a lot less time than I expected to. I could easily decide to stay an extra night or even two on Telescope or in Onnie Lake but I think that’s very doubtful with my current mental state. I’ve done all the reading, fishing and relaxing that I needed to do out here. I can clearly smell the wildfires again and with the forecast calling for nuclear temperatures this weekend, I’m not sure I’d be out fishing and paddling much anyway and I’ve certainly had my fill of bad weather and storms too! I think if I’d had calmer weather conditions earlier in the trip I’d be in a better mental place right now. On future trips I need to consider better how I’m going to handle rough conditions.

As I indicated already in the preamble to my journal entries above, reading about my anxiety issues months later has been really tough for me. Now that I’m back in the office, with sounds of keyboards clicking and the busyness of life encompassing me all day, every day, I can’t for the life of me figure out what the hell my issues were last summer! Why didn’t I stick it out longer? Why didn’t I recognize the classic signs of “wilderness shock” and simply ride it out for a few tough days? I’m not sure, to be honest. The only comfort I have now is that I’ve gained valuable experience between my long father / son trip in 2016 and this solo trip in 2018 and hopefully will be better equipped mentally to handle the next time I find myself losing my mind out in the middle of nowhere. Good times…

Day 11 – Thursday August 09, 2018 – Telescope – Onnie – Suffel Lake Road

A normal day but this was after a very long day previous. My exit day was 19km with 5km total walking.

I awoke Thursday morning and decided that I would be leaving the park. Part of me knew I would regret leaving so much earlier than planned but I was ready to leave at the time and hindsight is always 20/20. One thing to remember is that at the time I was feeling full and was perfectly OK to be leaving the park a bit early. It was a gorgeous day as I paddled on glass through the morning mists rising off Telescope Lake. Witnessing the vibrant natural world all around me and experiencing such a perfect morning paddle was the ideal way to end my 2018 canoe trip.

Rising mists and ducks as I paddle out of Telescope Lake.

Journal Entry – 10:00 – Onnie Lake Island

Yep! I’m already at Onnie Lake, having woke up on Telescope at 05:00 and paddle and portaged four hours from there since then. I’ve decided to go home today even though it’s the nicest morning of the trip so far, bar none. More nice (but very hot) days are in the forecast but I feel like I’m finished now. I do feel conflicted over leaving WCPP so much earlier than originally planned but I also feel quite satisfied with my trip. I got what I came for, so why do I have to do “more” and why is “more” necessarily better?

I woke up with severe stomach pains last night but it seems to be mostly gone now so I’m not sure if that’s more anxiety symptoms or just a sore stomach. Maybe this is yet another reason I’m leaving? I don’t know. I have to process what happened at a later time, after the trip is long over. Right now I’m too attached to everything – I need the benefit of hindsight on this one I’m afraid.

I leave this place of wild beauty with a full heart and relaxed soul but also with conflicting emotions and some unanswered questions about myself and about my anxieties. I miss my loved ones and am looking forward to spending some time with them again! I miss the rest of the civilized world much, much less and I approach it with very cautious optimism and some amount of trepidation, as usual.

A last look back as I exit the park.


As I sit here, again – months after the trip, typing up my report and going back over things in my head, I would be remiss if I didn’t admit to some feelings of remorse over the way I ended my 2018 solo canoeing adventure. I spent years dreaming of doing a solo canoe trip – I have notes from 2008 where I started planning the details of a 2009 solo venture that never happened. I think I probably built it up too much over the years and reality simply didn’t align with “the dream”. Thinking on things now there are several lessons learned from my 2018 experience that will hopefully be used as soon as 2019 for my next solo canoe trip – because I am absolutely planning my next one already.

Vern after two weeks in the wild.
  1. Expectations. In the end, so much depends on expectations! When planning my solo trips, I always assumed fairly stable weather for some reason. Starting my trip with 2 days of intense tstorms followed by rain on the 3rd was NOT in any of my plans. I have to realize that wilderness trips are more about sitting around waiting for stable conditions than actually paddling under bluebird skies with no wind. Mother nature doesn’t give a wit about some tiny anxious human buzzing around a park somewhere in the woods trying to enjoy life!
  2. Downtime. I planned too much downtime for my 2018 trip. I was worried about overdoing it, so I didn’t plan enough. Oops. Who knew? With a group trip you can almost always keep yourself busy by fishing or exploring. When the afternoon breeze picks up on a solo venture, you’re camp-bound. Next trip will have much longer distances and more aggressive targets just to keep me engaged and busy. This does run the obvious risk of becoming a slog, however. Maybe I just need to get better at handling downtime? Hmmm.
  3. Raw Wilderness. Living in the wild (solo) is hard. It’s hard for people who are used to it and aren’t alone, never mind city folks like myself! Sure, I’ve done hundreds of trips in the Rockies and many canoe trips and I even grew up on a farm, but raw wilderness survival is different than hiking or climbing up and down a mountain or two. Wilderness tripping day-after-day is about scary storms, bugs, bogs, hunger, pain, discomfort, loneliness and self-doubt. It’s so much more than the romantic notion of dipping the paddle in a few calm lakes and calling it a “day” with a stringer full of fish. Of course, it’s those good memories that we all hold onto, but that’s the exception rather than the rule out there. The one indisputable rule of solo wilderness tripping is hardship – both mental and physical.
  4. Truth vs. Capability. We always think that we feed ourselves “truth” but the reality is quite the opposite. The biggest liars in our lives are ourselves. I have to face the fact that perhaps I’m not the hardcore adventurer that I might think I am. Maybe I’ve been too long in the concrete jungle to be a real “bush man”? I certainly hope not – that’s not the narrative I’m willing to conclude with just yet! I have to be brutally honest about my actual capabilities vs. my perceived ones. And there’s obviously a disconnect somewhere right now. 

2 thoughts on Woodland Caribou – 2018 Canoe Trip Solo – Onnie Lake

  1. Excellent post. Solo trips can be tough. I found out a while ago that you need to have things to keep your mind busy when stuck in camp. I don’t like to push hard on my canoe camping trips. I prefer base camping a few nights and being able to explore the area, then move on. Fish, work on camp projects, explore, or if the weather sucks than read and write in a journal… and write a book in my head. Yeah, the down time can make a person stir crazy. Looking for forward to your next solo trip report.

    • Thanks – nice to know I’m not (too) crazy! 🙂 I’m planning a two week canoe trip with my daughter this summer so it’s going to be a few years until my next solo venture.

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