Bikepacking In Algonquin Park

Place: Algonquin Park, Ontario (45.55, -78.6)
Address: Algonquin Park, ON, Canada
Late Season Weekend Warriors.

There are trips that we make because, well they are ours. Years ago now, towards the end of normal camping season for most, a small group of us decided that we need a little more time in the woods before the snows. Trips are often defined and remembered by the personalities and quirks of those in attendance, and other times by the gaping absence of those missing. So, we sometimes use these quick trips to bring our friends together one last time. Other times, we introduce new riders, often desperate to gain entry into our not-so-secret adventures, to the places we love.

Eastern Algonquin Park is a journey into the past. Access is defined by the roads and trails originally laid down by First Nations, then usurped by trappers, and finally scarred by the railways who exploited logging and other resources. The storied history can be found in much more accurate detail elsewhere, but for our purposes it provides the residual railway bed, now decommissioned, that cuts northeast from Achray through the deep forest and out to North Bay. This conduit defines our brief journey, in and out of our secret destination.

The Canadian National Railway stopped using this route and removed the steel and wood maybe 20 years ago. They thoughtfully wanted to donate the contaminated land to the province for recreational purposes. The Province politley declined the 100 million dollar cleanup and asked CN to remove all the toxic surface material first. CN, in turn, decided that doing nothing was cheaper, so the land sits in limbo, clearly marked, “Private Property of CN Rail. No Trespassing.” And although there is no biking allowed in most areas of Algonquin Provincial Park, the railbed is, well, not actually part of the park.

The conundrum of “To ride or not to ride” is further complicated by the fact that the railbed facilitates access to some very choice camping sites that are really only intended for, and really only accessible by, canoe. Although we keep a low profile on our secret expeditions, the complete lack of people in this area, especially during the First Nations’ moose hunt season means that we attract the attention of conservation officers anytime we cross paths. The conversation usually includes, “Who told you it was OK to do this?” Well Ranger Dave did of course! On one of the early missions to this area, we got to talking with Dave and he inquired about how we’re were going to access canoe sites with no canoes. (We had packrafts). He knew we had bikes, he knew we had rafts, and he knew we were going towards Radiant Lake, and he didn’t tell us NOT to do it. (Dave is real btw and he is one of the senior personell. Be friends with everybody.)

At this late date however, conservation officers are rare. But this being moose hunting season for the local First Nations, there IS a tribe check in station. (Well, pickup truck). This year, like last year, the same woman was at the helm, checking permits and destinations to space out hunters again. We had self-checked in to the park as you do, so we just stopped to let her know we were going out camping and not moose hunting. “You guys with the bikes again?” she says. “Going up the railroad again? In hunting season?”, clearly not impressed. “You’re still crazy.” is her final send off. Nice to be remembered.

There is also a strange juxtaposition of culture and nature near our parking spot on Lake Travers. Just down the road, is the Algonquin Radio Observatory. A remnant of the Cold War era I’m told. A massive satellite dish in the middle of nowhere. Fenced off with security cameras, it too is clearly marked, “No Trespassing”. Although they claim it is to monitor fast radio bursts from solar events, we all know that this is a secret, alien, landing place. On this day, with our 2 new friends, we decide to skip the fence and check it out. Up the rutted and cracked pavement we ride to see the massive structures. We take a few shots and return towards the gate where, surprise, there’s a security truck. Oops. Rob pulls the Jedi mind trick on the unsuspecting driver, “These are not the fat bikers you’re looking for...” She is not affected and we are released after promising not to try to tip over any of the dishes. (I’m beginning to suspect Rob is not actually a Jedi Knight) So the cameras are connected....good to know.

Travers to our camp at [REDACTED] is not really that far, but the old railroad bed is not a bike path. Several layers of spent coke and crushed rocks have been heaved from ice and frost and unpredictably compacted by rogue pickup trucks on the route. Loaded with our cold weather beer, I mean gear, we ride intently but casually with eyes on the beautiful river. And on the random overhanging branches and loose surfaces. As is typical for us, on the way out, it’s sunny and beautiful. We stop and enjoy the changing scenery and rapids, old bridges and remnants of the ancient rail yards. For our 2 new riders, the journey is new and fascinating and exciting.

Camp is a perfect hammock paradise overlooking a clear lake. Everyone finds a spot and sets up our cocoons that will keep us warm until the morning. A robust fire pit gives away the sometimes windy nature of the site, and we quickly stack firewood for the evening. “Should last until midnight” I think to myself. And then we strip the bikes of excess gear and head out to explore the area at hand a bit before we lose sunlight.

We check out the empty campsite opposite ours on the far end of the lake; It’s completely covered in moose tracks. Ours had none. It’s exciting to think we might see some large, majestic animals, but as is normal, we see nothing but tracks. Following on we arrive at the Sisken Sand Dunes. The remnants of a hunt camp hut (or a meth lab) seem slightly ominous on the entry road. The dunes are pretty massive. Leftovers from the giant prehistoric sea. They are pocked with more moose tracks, and also large bear prints. On top of the ridge we ride and hike across deep 6 foot trenches, leftover features of moraine spit out by retreating glaciers. Then we drop down the dunes like little children on slides. Quickly over, but a rare experience.

We return to camp, enjoy the failing sun and begin the long night of discussion, digression and laughing. We eat our dinner, hotdogs, and treats and enjoy the abundant libations. Overnight trips require less food, so there is more space for liquid supplies in the limited carrying volume of bikepacking. As the fires dies and the logs deplete, we slide into our tubes of down sleeping bags and underquilts, and shiver out the first 30 minutes of early winter until our bodies heat the feathers into a toasty sleeping nirvana. 45 minutes later everyone fades into slumber in the warm hammock pockets.

As is usual, in the morning the last vestiges of fall are gone. The best trips are those where you awake to 6” of fresh snow, everything silenced by the cover. Today, freezing rain pelts my tarp and begins to accumulates in the folds of material over my head. Selfishly I wait in my bag, hoping someone else will start a fire. But then nature calls and I emerge, quickly sparking my Jetboil stove to create the necessary coffee to motivate breakfast. The air heats up a bit as the sun rises behind the grey sky, and we have just enough wood left for a relaxing hour watching the lake.

Packing goes slowly as it always does with cold hands and wet tarps. But in just the right amount of time, everyone is ready to depart. Riding back has the added challenge of all the overhanging branches and pines being soaked with frozen rain now thawing, but we make it back in good time before any serious downpour or hangover event. There is a certain sadness that hangs over everyone on the final ride of bike pack season.

Back at the trucks, we take a few moments to give thanks; to each other, and to the territory that inspires and fuels our passion to ride. Then we head out in search of burgers and shakes. Rob says he knows a place.....

The last bikepack trip of 2020.

Evan's Video:

9:ZERO:7 Bikes Tannus Armour Revelate Designs Jetboil Algonquin Provincial Park Klymit Clubride
Nov 17, 2020 11:06:30pm

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