My Brent Run
By: Mark Highfield
I don’t remember the actual moment we decided to do the Brent Run, but I do remember how I heard about it.
Darren and I worked together for some time and each morning we would meet up for a few minutes to go over the game plan for the day. The discussions always went off topic and we would end up talking beer, cameras, mountain biking or camping. One particular morning just before Darren’s weekend, he told me that he and a good friend Dave were going to attempt a canoe route called the Brent Run. I told him to take lots of pictures, upon his return he told me he had forgotten his camera, and then told me in great detail about the trip.
It must have been at least a year and many trips later that the Brent Run came up thorough serious discussion again. I do recall telling Darren I wanted to do at least one marquee adventure per year. What I don’t remember are the series of events that made us both commit. Once we had done so, we started planning.
I had searched for info on the Brent Run on-line and had seen very little info on it (Darren mentioned that he had a similar experience the first time). I gained all of my knowledge from Darren and maps. It was at this point we decided to start up a little blog about the Brent Run and the adventure took on a whole new twist. Not only were we planning a safe trip, but we were also planning how to document it.
In May we got together for a planning session and ended up making a fun little stop-motion video that explained the gist of the Brent Run and how we were going to execute the trip. It was our first attempt at making a stop motion video and it turned out alright. It was then I realized the gravity of our goal and how we would be traveling as light as possible so there was no room for large DSLR cameras. The trip would be documented by a couple Go Pros and a Nikon Coolpix camera (all thankfully waterproof).
Darren arrived at my place in Toronto on Sunday July 7th, 2014 and we made our way to Algonquin Park. The plan was to camp on Joe lake and start and finish the trip from there. We pulled into the Canoe Lake put in just off Highway 60 a few kilometers in from the west gate, and made our way to the park permit office. We gave our details to the clerk and let him know we were camping on Joe Lake, he countered with letting us know of a problem bear that had been a bit of a jerk a few lakes away. I recall Darren attempting to calm the park official by letting him know that I had brought my bear harness and riding gear and all would be well, Laughs ensued, wrong change was given (later realized, and corrected). Good karma was important on this trip.
With credentials now in hand we loaded the canoe and headed out from the beach. A few drops of rain started to fall along the portage from Canoe Lake to Joe lake. We found a great little site in a nook on the east side of Joe and made camp; you find bits of history everywhere in Algonquin Park and this site was a perfect example. There were several concrete foundations as well as what looked like pulley holds and a few semi-buried rusted pipes. I remember trying to piece the scene together until Darren mentioned food. Dinner was spaghetti by the fire, with a few Mad Tom Beers for desert. We videoed a snapping turtle that hung out by the canoe, and after doing some final prep for the next morning, we lounged around for the remainder of the evening.
There is a 4:30 am and it sucks, especially in Algonquin Park where sleeping in is the most amazing thing ever. Darren had his digital wristwatch set for this mysterious time (he recorded it for those who havn’t seen it) and I managed to sleep through the beeping for a little while. Breakfast was a quick coffee and some oatmeal. The reality of starting this trip hit once the food pack was hung and Darren hit record on one of the cameras. This was it, I was about to experience the Brent Run first hand. 5:30am and a light rain started as we put the canoe into Joe Lake. We looked at each other and agreed that we would get the rain gear out if it got worse. We weren’t 100 meters away from camp when we hit a dead head (a barely submerged tree trunk in the water) and almost capsized. The rest of the “Joes” were a pretty tame paddle. There was a consistent light rain and a quiet fog as we paddled. We joked about the portage to Little Joe Lake and how perfectly manicured it was – obviously done for the visitors of Arowhon Pines Lodge, a nearby resort. The portage to Burnt Island Lake was just as easy a walk, saying a quick good morning to some rain gear clad portagers headed south.
Burnt Island Lake is slowly exposed as a large lake, we paddled out of a small bay making our way to the main body of water to cut straight across it. I recall seeing a moose trying to swim part of it while we were on the return leg of the run. We canoed past Gull Island and the seagulls began flying and diving close to us to let us know we were too close to their nests. As we crossed the lake, the drizzle turned to a full rain and we, now soaked through, decided to push on to the next portage without stopping. Once there I traded my flannel shirt for a rain coat. The portage to Little Otterslide was sloppy and we made our way through the winding Otterslides to Big Otterslide Lake. A quick portage brought us to the put in at Big Trout Lake.
Its now noon on Monday and we’re fighting high crosswinds from the northwest as we cross Big Trout Lake. We limited wave impact to the side of the boat by zigzagging, a time consuming effort. A 300 meter descending portage brought us to Longer Lake where we finally saw our first moose. Much to our joy the rain finally gave up and we started to dry out in the July sun. At the end of Longer Lake there is a very short rocky portage around a rapids section. It hadn’t rained in a few hours at this point but the leaves of the surrounding plants still looked wet. Poison Ivy as far up the path as I could see. I avoided the portage and walked along the loose rocks along the waters edge.
3:00pm we stopped on a campsite on Burnt Root Lake for a quick break to stretch and filter some water. There was caps on the waves now, as is normal on an Algonquin Park afternoon. Fortunately the wind was at our backs after a brief paddle and we hit the portage to Perley where we saw more moose. Perley Lake was an easy paddle, but the paddle east felt like we weren’t gaining any ground towards Brent. Perley Lake brought us to the Petawawa River and numerous portages around areas of rapids. These portages made me lose all patience, between the lose rocks, mud, and the worst population of fucking mosquitoes I’ve ever encountered.
We hit Catfish Lake around 5:30pm on Monday. I recall cutting through an area of Lilly pads to save some time. I don’t know if the goal was realized but it was a fun break from the 12 hours of hard paddling we had done up to that point. We crossed Catfish and took in all the scenery. There was historical reference on the map all over this lake and I recall thinking it would be a cool spot to spend a day and explore. At the end of Catfish Lake we said a friendly hello to a canoe group headed the other direction and watched the sky as the yellow floatplane passed. To the right of the portage, maybe 15 feet, is an old log chute leading to Narrowbag Lake. It presents a bit of a challenge as the current wants you to run the chute instead of the portage, obviously the chute was well designed.
Narrowbag Lake was a nice little lake. I didn’t want it to end though as we were facing the 2300 meter portage next. At around 8pm we started the portage around stacks rapids. Its actually quite a beautiful hike and the path was in pretty good shape considering. Near the end of the portage we were met by a very large group of canoers. Made up of about 20 people, packs and food barrels scattered all along the trail testing every bit of patience we had left. At the put in on Petawawa River we had the joy of navigating around about 10 canoes they had left there. We had two more portages before Cedar Lake (the last portage was spectacular). We enjoyed amazing views of the falls and rapids after. The put in to Cedar Lake was a nice sandy beach, and looking across the lake we could see our destination as the sun finally set. We navigated to the Brent Store by the lights of buildings as night had now blanketed us. We had our headlamps on just so the boat we could hear would see us.
After crossing Cedar Lake, we met two guys on the dock who provided us directions to the Brent Store, where we needed a picture of the sign. Their directions were spot on and after following the white fence we saw the bicycles outside the store, snapped some quick picturess and headed back to the canoe. There was no time to waste- after all, we were only half way, 81 kilometers down, 81 kilometers to go.
Cedar Lake was nice to us, after a quick paddle (now navigating by compass in the darkness) we neared the beach, only to stop and ponder the large silhouette playing in the rapids adjacent to the portage. Minutes went by and we decided to land on the beach, have a celebratory beer (of course we pack out what we pack in) and snacked on some trail mix and beef jerky; being loud to make our presence known. We contemplated setting off a bear banger to startle it and make it leave, but quickly realized that we currently knew the location of the bear; which was a good thing. He remained content at the stream, so we decided to pass by the bear and press on with the portage – bear bangers and spray at the ready.
Its 12:30am Tuesday morning now and we are at the trailhead for the big portage. The camp group we had previously seen had decided to camp at the edge of the portage. Head lamps lit our way as we passed the tents and I resisted the urge to do my best bear impression as we went. We navigated past garbage, food barrels and a fucking hibachi type bbq- sausage still on the now cold grill. If they only know of our bear friend a few hundred meters away.
About a kilometer into the portage we made our way up Unicorn Hill (Surely named by some delirious Brent runner) and would hear sounds in the forest. I clashed the paddles together as I walked to announce our passing through. Taking advantage of the benches and canoe rest at the top, it was around this point that we started to admit that exhaustion was setting in. It wasn’t physical, but mental. We pushed on and finished the portage. The moon was now gone and we were met with the most beautiful night sky I had ever seen in my life, the Milky Way crossed the night sky as we paddled Narrowbag lake, shining like glass, the star reflections distorted as we paddled. My most serene moment was ended abruptly by the moose we startled as it (from what it sounded like) took down every tree as it made its exit.
We were back on Catfish Lake now, and had the canoe in the water at the portage. Not wanting to ride the log chute, we guided the canoe along the shore so we could put in a safe distance away. My mind saw a rock to step on, which wasn’t, and I went in waist deep. We were tired andknew we didn’t want to stop at the Petawawa River to nap with the mosquitoes, so we began looking for an unoccupied campsite. After about 30 minutes of paddling we found one, started a fire, and using our life jackets as sleeping pads fell asleep under the stars. It was 3:30am.
5:30am Tuesday, 24 hours into the trip, we were back in the Lilly pads of Catfish Lake headed to the many jerktages on the Petawawa River. We had a quick snack in the canoe on Perley Lake- the canoe paddle blade became a cutting board for some salami and doubled as an extended serving tray. At the end of Perley we were both getting delirious. We came up with a term for it – Brent Run Delirium. To this day I don’t recall being in physical pain. Shoulders, back, legs, all fine; brain – fucked. We would pass the map back and fourth to make sure we both agreed on a direction. I watched the lakes spill off the map at one point. Eating became more important and we forced ourselves to eat more cliff bars.
The rain started again just as we finished Burnt Root Lake and at this point I didn’t care about the poison ivy forest on that portage. I figured the rain would wash away the evil. We hit longer lake and decided that when we hit the portage we would put our rain gear on. I saw Gargamel’s face in the trees- Darren saw it too. I never did ask if he watched the Smurfs as a kid.
We made it to the portage at the end of Longer Lake and took shelter under a large white pine to gear up. Our timing was perfect as the skies opened. What was a nice short descending portage into Longer was now an uphill hike through a fast moving mess of mud and water. The biggest plus was there was no wind and it made crossing Big Trout Lake Fast and easy.
We hit the Otterslides around 3pm on Tuesday. We were over 30 hours into the trip with only one real physical rest. We were on autopilot. Snaking through the winding creeks while passing several camp groups. After a quick portage we were back at Burnt Island Lake. It was 6pm and the rain had slowed at this point. We paused and looked up at the shelf of dark cloud coming from the west. We could make out the towering thunderstorm cells in the shelf and we knew we needed to paddle like hell or we’d be stuck out for another night. We make record time across Burnt Island, pissing off a few gulls along the way, and hit the portages to the Joe Lakes. Neither of us made fun of the manicured portages this time and we gunned it towards our camp.
8:53pm we hit the campsite, finishing the 162 kilometer trip in 39 hours and 23 minutes. We made a fire, ate something, and had a few beers by the fire. The next morning we slept in, had a lazy breakfast and paddled back to the car with a new sense of accomplishment. The Brent Run is an amazing canoe route that takes you through some spectacular and historical sections of Algonquin Park. We saw a tonne of wildlife and amazing landscapes. I’m not sure I would do it again. Perhaps over a multi day stretch, camping and fishing my way though it. With only so much time off work in the summer there are other places in Algonquin Park I’d like to see, at the end of the day I’m sure I could be convinced.