It was during the Easter long weekend when Sarah and I were in Montreal that I got an email from Don. The body of the email said “Well?” and there was a link. Curiously I followed the link and it led me to the Canadian Canoe Routes website with information about the Brent Run. Ahh.. The Brent Run. Was Don serious? I’ve known Don for about 6 years and we’ve talked about doing this race ever since. See, Don and I are kinda crazy when it comes to doing things that normal people would never consider. So I hummed and hawed for about 30 seconds and replied “I’m in!”.
I knew the legendary Algonquin Park Brent Run was a 160km challenge comprised of 140km of paddling and 20km of portaging. Participants begin at Canoe Lake, traverse their way to Cedar Lake and then back to Canoe Lake with plenty of time to finish, a whopping 48 hours.Navigation has to be done with map and compass; GPS is not allowed. That was the part of the adventure I knew. It was what was to come that really initiated these newcomers into truly understanding what the Brent Run was all about.
To properly prepare for the Brent Run one would assume a decent amount of time training would be in order, and they would be right. Unfortunately we had just under a month before the event. To add to the small window of training opportunity, although Don and I have been on various canoe trips together, we have never actually paddled together. So let’s do the math. First time doing the Brent Run, less than a month to train and never paddled together. I’m not great at math but I’m pretty sure that equation doesn’t balance.
For those three and a bit weeks we were training in both a Sawyer X17 and a Sawyer Cruiser. Both canoes have their advantages and disadvantages (and we could get both canoes going practically the same speed) but we decided on the Sawyer Cruiser, which was graciously loaned to us by Greg Hill. We trained in Bronte Creek, 16 Mile Creek and Kelso in various weather conditions, none apparently as harsh as what we were to experience during the Brent Run. As it turned out we are a really great paddling team. Don had refined my stroke(s), taught me some better ones and prepped me for the various paddling conditions we were to encounter. We had the canoe dialed in and had figured out proper seat trimming for various conditions with our setup of me in the bow and Don in the stern. Our training time was used to maximize our stroke efficiency, practice paddling using larger muscle groups and develop smooth glide in the canoe. We had little time for endurance or stamina training.
Fast forward to the Thursday before the race. I had the maps ready and we more or less had determined which gear and food we were going to bring with us for the race. The anticipation was killing me. I was so excited. We planned on getting to the Tea Lake campground (where the rest of the participants were camping) at around 5pm to have an easy, chilled out night socializing with the rest of the group. As luck would have it we had to leave much later and arrived at about 11:30pm. On the drive up Don sanded the shaft of one of the carbon fiber paddles he had repaired to make it nice and smooth for me. My proudly clean car was no longer clean. When we arrived it was raining. Don set his hammock up and I decided I was just going to sleep in the car since we would only be getting about 3 1/2 hours sleep after sorting out the last minute details of what we would bring with us and what would stay behind.
The alarm went off at 4:00am. Good thing all windows to the car were mostly closed otherwise my phone may have ended up somewhere in the vicinity of Tea Lake campground site 37. Oh.. and it was raining. We were to push-off from the Canoe Lake beach at 5am sharp. The race to get to the race was on!
It was 4:57am on the Canoe Lake beach. I turned the SPOT on, we made sure we had everything.. and whoops! Almost forgot the maps in the car. Yup. That would have finished the race before we started. We would definitely have been the first ones back to the beach. 4:59am and the organizer counts us down. 5am and we’re off!
It was pitch black, pouring rain and a river otter swims across our bow reminding us in a playful way that you can’t be too wet to have fun! We weren’t too familiar with Canoe lake (pretty much all of our Algonquin Park canoe trips are done on the peripheral access points away from the crowds of highway 60) so we decided to follow the first place canoe to the portage and then paddled harder to be the first canoe at the portage. When we hit the portage we quickly realized that we had brought too much gear. The first, second and third boats passed us and were off paddling before we finished loading the canoe up at the end of the portage. We caught up to them in Joe Lake and were still in the running.
This leapfrog pattern kept on through Burnt Island Lake and Little and Big Otterslide Lakes. One little unexpected surprise I received in Burnt Island Lake was that the epoxy on the shaft of the repaired carbon fiber paddle hadn’t bonded properly causing the now rough shaft to cut a bunch of flesh off six of my fingers, thanks to the finger-less gloves I was wearing. I welcomed the remainder of the race with stinging fingers for each of the thousands and thousands of strokes we did. Duct taping the fingers helped a bit. Until I had to take it off.
At this point we were in third place. We had arrived at the first of three portages into Otterslide Creek and decided this was where we would hang our emergency cache with extra food and some light sleeping gear. Otterslide Creek was serious fun and very technical with quick moving current, beaver dams and many tight oxbow bends. Entering Big Trout Lake we saw the second place canoe about half a lake away. We gunned it, caught up and passed them to the portage. We did really well through Longer Lake and then we decided to take a quick break on Burntroot Lake. It was during this break I realized that although we were off the grid in terms of cell phone service and my phone was in the pelican case, I could have sworn I was feeling the incoming message vibration in my pocket at various times throughout the day. I’m sure this was some sort of iPhoneitis. The break at Burntroot Lake turned out longer than we thought and the fourth place canoe caught up to us. Luckily they decided to take a break where we did, so we were still in third place.
Through Perley Lake we went and swiftly moved through the Petawawa River. Paddling the next leg of the Petawawa was great fun, until we missed the portage where the tree that the sign was on had fallen down. We were kindly advised by the third place team where it was. Don ferried the canoe back up the tricky rapids and I bushwhacked our gear up river a bit and hopped back into the canoe. Catfish Lake was another story, as we got completely lost and went into Sunfish Lake by accident. We spent a lot of time in Sunfish Lake figuring out what went wrong. We became the fourth place canoe and remained in fourth until the end of the race. However, as we found out later that almost everyone takes the wrong turn on Catfish Lake into Sunfish Lake their first time. So we didn’t feel completely foolish.
We were about to face the largest portage of the trip and since I was the portage guy, I strapped on the pack and loaded the canoe. I’m one of those few individuals who appreciates and welcomes the portages, especially a nice long gruelling one. I was out to do a personal portage best. I have carried canoes across many 2km portages but for this portage of just under 2.5km, my goal was to carry the pack and the canoe non-stop. The Brent Run is two days full of accomplishments so why not? A smile grew on my face as I placed the canoe back into the water and put the pack down; goal accomplished. This was one of those feats that many won’t care about but it mattered to me. The rest of the Petawawa River was smooth sailing and we were into Cedar Lake at about 8pm, where the Brent Store is located. Brent is where we were to have our picture taken to prove that we had made the halfway point. Getting back alive would prove we finished the second part.
When we got to the Brent store to take our selfie with the store behind us, we noticed a gentleman (Jim) and a couple of younger guys (Sky and Cory) in the back with a BBQ on the go. We asked Jim if the store was open (trying our luck) and he advised that it wasn’t … but…. asked us what we wanted. We said “Yup!”. Chocolate bars, chips, pop, fresh water, you name it! Bring it on! Don and I ate a decent helping of junk food. As the sun was setting we sat and pondered how the day went and how cold the night was getting. Don suggested that we rent one of the cabins as it may be the smarter thing to do. We didn’t have much clothing for the temperatures we were to face. Should anything happen we might be SOL. Considering our emergency cache was hanging about 8-10 hours away in daylight travel and 10-15 hours during night travel, we would be taking a huge risk on the way back travelling at night.
We went and asked Jim if there was a cabin we could rent. He said that we could sleep in the cabin he was staying in. Jim works for Jake Pigeon, the owner of the store and as it turned out, a life-long Algonquin resident who had been a ranger in the park for many a decade and a well known legend in the area. As Jim was tracking Jake down to find out how much he would charge us for the night, we were offered a beer by Jake’s son Sky. What a lovely gesture! We unloaded our gear into the cabin and then we were able to take hot showers. We were also then brought some of the food from the bbq that was left over; Buffalo and potato. We were treated like kings that night. We had a fantastic experience and listened to some great stories from the guys. Jake put us in our place when he called us egotists. He said he used to be one until he realized that “nobody really cares and we do this crazy stuff for ourselves”. This whole experience put us back about eight hours. However, the wonderful adventure we were having had provided us with another great experience, if even for a night. We were glad that we decided to camp out.
We said our goodbyes to Jim at about 5:30am and headed off the shores of Cedar Lake to make our trek back. The lake was very choppy and we had to be careful with the tricky wave patterns. Cedar Lake is known as possibly the windiest lake in Algonquin due to it’s position in relation to the many wind patterns. It would turn out that Saturday would bring us crazy wind all day. If I had to guess, 30kph steady with gusts up to 50kph. Not for the faint of heart across some of these large lakes.
Naturally, as we came downstream on the way to Cedar Lake, our journey home was upstream. We made our way back through the Petawawa River into Catfish Lake. This time we didn’t make the mistake of getting lost into Sunfish Lake and made it to Catfish Rapids. The portage across Catfish Rapids was really close to the rapids. It was tricky getting to the portage regardless of the approach you took. We found out some people bushwhacked their canoes and some very carefully crept up the shoreline. We decided it would be fun and a good lesson for me to ferry across the rapids through the haystacks, whirpools, etc. I was game. We did a great job getting through them and with a mighty brace into the side eddy we had made it! What a thrill that was! Up and over the portage we went.
We sailed through the next leg of the Petawawa River and through Perley Lake without any issues. However, come Burntroot Lake we had some difficulty. We didn’t truly appreciate the size of the lake and therefore ended up paddling around a bit more than we needed to. It was our paddle back through Burntroot Lake that I experienced the truly frustrated side of Don for the first time. Shortly after we began getting disoriented, Don screamed profanity at the top of his lungs! While slightly awkward for a few moments, it didn’t phase me because I understood his frustration. He apologized unnecessarily and I was just happy my stern man had not gone postal.
Longer Lake and Big Trout didn’t give us any navigational problems, until the end of Big Trout. The waves on Big Trout were approaching two feet with nasty winds. We decided against making a beeline for the opposite shore as we didn’t want to lose paddling efficiency because of all the bracing. So we chose a point on land and paddled straight into the headwind and waves. We then shot across through protected waters. This was a longer paddle but we were able to keep boat speed faster overall so it worked out better. Besides, it was the far safer and smarter thing to do. When we got to the end of Big Trout Lake, we were in disagreement as to where the portage was. We were getting a little frustrated as to the amount of unnecessary time we had spent over the past 24 hours being navigationally challenged. We finally found the portage which was a welcome relief.
Next on the list was Otterslide Creek again. This was really fun and challenging. The current was moving really quick and the technical challenges of this paddle was nothing short of exhilarating! In the midst of the technical paddling upstream, through the oxbow bends in grade one water, we sprinted up and over four beaver dams that were flooded and crested with a few inches of overflow. That certainly made us feel like we were progressing against all odds! There was about 90 minutes remaining before sundown and we really wanted to get through the creek and back onto open water before dark. We started to rush things and made a pretty silly mistake. We got to one stage on the creek where the current was stupid fast. As in there’s no way we could paddle upstream through it. What did we do? We hopped out of the canoe and started dragging it upstream through the boulder garden. We had gotten about 50 feet upstream and realized that there was a massive boulder in the middle of the creek that would have smoked our canoe if we had tried to pass it. We should have trusted our initial instincts that there was no way we would have come down this section of creek. We backtracked that 50 feet, looked at the map and realized that the portage we were supposed to take was right beside us. In our defence the portage sign was about 40 feet into the forest and not on the shoreline tree. Not a moment of brilliance for whomever put the sign up. Regardless, now we were wet up to our crotch and were hoping to dry off. Dumb move. Thankfully the quick dry pants more or less quickly dried as we paddled along once completing the creek.
We got back to the last portage into Otter Slide lake where we retrieved our cache and ate an apple and a chocolate bar. We at least had our emergency gear ready for us as the sun began to go down. Otter Slide Lake was another one of those really frustrating navigational errors we made. Since our route was split up onto four pages of maps, there was miscommunication and we ended up navigating Otter Slide Lake as though it was Burnt Island Lake since we thought we were on the next page. This mistake set us back about three to four hours. Once we figured out what was going on we got through the lake in about 15 minutes. Those following the SPOT page must have thought that we were drinking at times during this race but I assure you we were not. No excuses other than silly mistakes.
Little Otter Slide Lake is where our most serious problem arose. We came through the little channel from Otter Slide Lake and carefully navigated our way, following shore to find the portage. The stars were out but the moon had not risen yet so we were relying on really powerful headlamps for guidance. The fog on the water was awesome, but sometimes interfered with visibility; not good when trying to avoid rocks and submerged logs. While searching for the portage into Burnt Island Lake, I started to get pretty cold. Our body heat had dropped since we stopped paddling. I told Don we should just regroup, have a quick fire and then continue. Don suggested continuing the search for the portage and keep moving since we had to be very close. So after a few more minutes of searching I started shaking so much that Don could feel the canoe shaking with me. I told him that we had to get to land (found a nearby campsite) and start a fire. I knew I was close to being in real danger. It’s times like these where being a hero can just make you a statistic. I wasn’t about to become a statistic. So we got to shore, I got the matches and Don gathered lots of firewood. We were lucky that we found wood since camp sites are usually the worst places to find wood as the sites are usually picked over. It was 12am and we had a roaring fire going. I would not be doing an adventure like this with someone whom I didn’t trust my life with and wasn’t completely competent. Same goes for Don. He also shares the same faith in me. Don’s swiftness definitely avoided a really dangerous situation for me and he may have even saved my life. Who knows. I’m a survivor but we all need help sometimes. We got all warmed up and dried out any damp clothes. Come about 1am, the moon rose with all of her truly majestic beauty. The moon, like a great friend was encouraging us to carry on and finish our journey safely. She was a guiding light and gave us a little extra something. It’s the little things; they all add up! 2am rolled around and we decided it was time to carry on.
We didn’t get lost on Burnt Island Lake. We were on track the whole way but every once-in-a-while second guessed ourselves. We spent a bit too much time on the lake but we got through it.
As we finished Baby Joe Lake into Joe Lake, we were almost speechless when we hopped out of the canoe for the portage and noticed that there was actual ice on our gear and canoe. The straps of the canoe pack were frozen. There was an incredible coldness that night. Just before we pushed off into Joe Lake Don asked “Do you have the toilet paper handy?”. “Yup”, I said, wondering if he couldn’t just hold it a wee bit longer as we were so incredibly close to completing our adventure. I believe he read my mind at that exact moment as the urgency of his request was obvious. Off he went to find a suitable tree. A few moments later I heard a thundering crash and hoped that I hadn’t lost my paddling partner in some tragic event. Following the thundering crash I heard a thundering laugh which warmed my soul. Turns out that Don had braced himself against a really strong 18 inch oak tree to do the deed. Mother Nature had other plans for said tree and down it came, crashing to the forest floor; Mother Nature’s demonstration of who’s boss!
The portage from Joe Lake to Canoe Lake was quick and easy, however I was becoming slightly hypothermic again and beginning to mildly shake. This time as it was our last portage we just ploughed through it. I was bouncing around like Tigger for a bit to generate some body heat. Disney would have been proud of me. I then took the canoe over the portage admiring the beautiful yet incredible amount of frost on the grass along the portage. Some time had passed since Don could feel his feet.
Paddling through Canoe Lake back to the beach was incredibly beautiful. The sun was barely up and the waves were surreal. They were building but had not completely formed and were standing. It looked like a beautiful abstract painting as our canoe cut through those waves like a knife through butter and the light dappled across them. Just another one of those little experiences you don’t ever forget.
With the beach in sight and stomachs growling, we were very proud to have accomplished such a rewarding and tough adventure. Our planned time of about 26-30 hours turned into just over 48 hours. Considering we were only one of four canoes of nine that completed the whole route, it was our first time participating and some of the situations we had to overcome, we were very proud of what we had just achieved. Although we completed the Brent Run in just over 48 hours (and technically you have up to 48), we have no problem saying we completed the Brent Run and earned that patch. As a matter of fact, with all of the extra paddling we did due to getting lost, we successfully completed the Brent Run and then some!
The Brent Run provided us with so many wonderful experiences of which we will never forget. It was a trip that reinforced that at times intelligence should overrule pride and that a few minutes of planning and communication can save countless hours of wasted time. It was also a trip that taught humility. This was the sort of trip that tested the best of friendships and will be one we reminisce about for years. No doubt Don and I will be back next year for the Brent Run 2015 and will be better prepared with all the tips and tricks we learned. Although we will fare better next year, the Brent Run isn’t necessarily about winning the race or setting a record; it’s about the challenge; pushing yourself, pushing your boundaries, doing your best and enjoying every second of it. We were happy that it wasn’t our physical fitness levels that set us back but the situational issues we encountered. We were sleep deprived with about eight hours sleep over a 36 hour period. The injuries were relatively minor with my fingers being all blistered, minor tendon damage to my left forearm and a bit of a nasty wound on Don’s foot; not too bad considering how bad it could have been!
At the beach we hopped out of the canoe, gave each other a solid post-race congratulatory handshake and a hug and loaded the gear into the car. We then headed straight up to the Canoe Lake Portage Store for a well deserved breakfast. Until our waitress heard what we had done, she was probably a little surprised that our answer to her question of what we would like for breakfast was “The biggest breakfast you’ve got with a side of pancakes!”.
And as luck would have it, after traversing 160km of the park and only seeing a river otter, a couple of beavers and some birds, we saw two moose within 5km of the Tea Lake campground along highway 60. Gotta’ love the unpredictability of nature!