Smudge Creek and Beyond in the Queen Elizabeth II Wildlands

It has been a bit of an informal tradition over the last few years for my father and me to kick-start the paddling season with an exploratory trip to the Queen Elizabeth II Wildlands Provincial Park. This large, unmaintained provincial park, can be a paddlers paradise. Some of easier routes through Fishog or Devil's Lake get the majority of paddler use. However, if you're a canoeist with a good degree of trip experience seeking a little more solitude, adventure and distance, the rougher routes make for an excellent trip. The rougher routes truly live up to the wildland title bestowed upon the park. However, as far as the rougher routes go, Smudge Creek is moderate at best and I'm a little surprised it is not as well known as some of the parks other routes.

Map: http://www.explorethebackcountry.com/routelist/queenelizabethmap

For the past few years, my father and I have managed to get out in April before the foliage (and bugs!) set in. However, the 2013 paddling season would see us complete our first trip in early June and we were a little surprised with how different the landscape of the park appeared. We should not have been too surprised, as David Lee, aka the Passionate Paddler (http://www.passionatepaddler.blogspot.ca/), set off on a trip to the eastern portion of the park last summer and noted how the landscape was almost tropical in nature. By June, the park looks radically different, as lush vegetation carpets the rocky landscape in a sea of green. While the vegetation is gorgeous, it certainly ups the difficulty involved with an exploratory trip as some of the faint trails become harder to find through the vegetation.

A lush landscape and a sea of green awaits paddlers who venture into the wildlands during the summer months

We began our trip at the northernmost access point on Head Lake; a small road right-of-way with a trail leading down to the water's edge. Aided by strong tailwinds, we quickly made our way up Head Lake towards the mouth of the Head River. The river makes for an easy paddle as it slowly meanders through dense maple swamps and pine clad rocky outcrops. The swamps had a tropical feel and the area reminded us of paddling through cypress tree swamps of the Southern US. We passed by a few scenic campsites and concluded that the Head River route alone would make for an excellent novice canoe route, or a quick weekend outing.

For those continuing down the river or up Smudge Creek, two short portages (15m, 80m) bypass some rapids. Both portages are easy and clear however, watch out for the poison ivy as it grows densely in this area! Caution is advised when approaching the landing for the 80m on both sides of the rapids as the trailhead is close to moving water and can be bushy and steep. After careful scouting, we were able to run the rapids at the 80m portage, a technical class II with a few fast drops that added some brief exhilaration and adrenaline fueled fun. Running the rapids held some consequence, as my paddle split in half, ending its run of countless kilometers and trips.

The journey up Smudge Creek is a gem of a route and out of countless trips to the park, has to be one of my favorite routes to paddle. The meandering creek passes through a variety of terrain and a large portion is lined with impressive rolling rocky ridges. Birders take note; the creek is abuzz with the calls and cries of numerous species of all shapes, colour and size.

Looking upstream on Smudge Creek in the valley below

The first upstream segment of the creek passes through an alder swamp, and some technical zigzagging and pushing is required to squeeze through a few tight channels for the first 45m. Smudge Creek then opens up and the only remaining challenges include a handful of beaver dams and three short portages. The first portage is 100m in length. The landing is on the river right and one must cross an old rickety wooden bridge to portage around the small rapids. The second portage is 250m in length and features a steep landing but an easy open, ridge top trail, which descends back through a young forest to the creeks edge. The final portage is 250m in length and features an extremely steep initial ascent. This entrance is lined with poison ivy and long pants are recommended. As we completed this portage, mosquitoes, black flies and deer flies bombarded us to great extent. I suppose this is the price you pay for tripping June, but this was bug hell! Clouds of the pesky insects descended upon us as we struggled to race to the end of the trail.

Since this was an exploratory trip, we cleared, flagged and signed the portages a feat made all the more difficult by the nagging insects. I would like to believe we did a good job considering the circumstances.

The arrow points the way!

Ah, and then there was the weather. On our first day out, we were convinced that nature could not decide what to do. At the start of our journey, conditions were cloudy with sporadic light showers. The skies then opened up and the hot sun dried everything before the rains came again. This seemed to repeat in cycles every hour. Luckily, by the time we reached Smudge Lake, the sun was shining, allowing us to take refreshing swim before it clouded over again.

Our original trip plan actually had us going to Bon Lake for either the first night or both nights, but as it was getting late in the day and we could not locate a suitable landing to clear a portage, we gave up and headed to Smudge Lake. The decision to check out Smudge Lake was well worth it and we setup camp nestled among craggily red pine on a beautiful cliff. The western facing cliff allows for excellent sunset views and a good breeze to keep the insects at bay.

A perfect campsite on Smudge Lake The following morning we woke up determined to press onward into the remote central region of the park. Making our way to Bon Lake, we rediscovered why this park is called ‘the wildlands’. A relatively easy journey up Smudge creek lulled us into a false sense of the parks true nature.

We made our way back down the creek to a landing just before a large beaver dam where we cleared and flagged a 270m portage towards a small, unnamed pond. The portage generally follows open ridges and is fairly straightforward to the experienced tripper. The small pond contains numerous heron rookeries, so we paddled silently towards the outlet where the next portage awaited.

Smudge Lake in the sun

In preparing for the trip, I had analyzed several highly detailed sets of satellite imagery to get an idea of where the ideal portage route towards Bon Lake may be. I ran into some confusion in the area around the small, unnamed pond. One series of images showed a lake existed just downstream of the unnamed pond and would make for an easy 500m paddle towards the ATV trail that would take us to Bon Lake. However, another image set showed a small creek and beaver meadow in place of the lake. The problem was both sets of images were not dated, so I had no idea as to which one represented the current landscape. I had spoken with long-time park paddler Jeff McColl (See his Trip Report). Jeff was sure the lake still contained water and I inclined to agree. However, as we descended the ridge from the small, unnamed pond portage, we were disheartened at what we saw. A marshy beaver meadow and a small stream had replaced the lake!! After mulling over the notion of the extended portage, we decided we would give it a go and portage along the old lake-bed before veering north towards the ATV trail that would take us towards Bon Lake. The old lake-bed made for easy portaging, as it was flat and generally dry. However, when we reached the beaver dam at the end of the lake, an 80m bushwhack through forest and up a ridge proved slightly more complicated. The ATV trail is a can’t miss path and following it west will take you to the shores of Bon Lake. We didn't bother clearing or flagging any of the trail and suggest that only experienced trippers seeking a little more solitude found deeper in the park attempt this route. That being said, the bushwhacking portion is short and straight forward, just be sure to bring a map and GPS or compass.

There once was a lake here, wildlands indeed...

Bon Lake is a long and narrow body of water created by the damming of Gold Creek. There are a few hunt camps on or near the lake, but given its size it is one of the more remote bodies of water in the park. Numerous bays and channels allow for some exploring in peace and solitude. The wind can funnel down the lake and we were met with strong headwinds as we attempted to locate a suitable campsite. As the evening progressed the winds grew stronger and the temperature steadily dropped. The temperature plummeted from a balmy +25 to a frigid +2C overnight. Subsequently the paddle out felt more like November and less like June! However, by the time we completed the lengthy portage out of Bon, the sun came out and the temperature reached pleasant levels.

We are still canoeing in June right?

The warm weather was a welcome, especially considering what transpired next. As we attempted to cross the large beaver dam just south of the 270m portage from the small, unnamed pond, we pulled off a clumsy and foolish maneuver, and before we knew it the canoe was half in the creek! As we descended the beaver dam we foolishly decided to remain in the boat and force our way down only to have the bow wedged on a rock causing the boat to partially flip and take on a good amount of water. The whole experience happened in what seemed like slow motion leaving us standing in the water in great shock. The partial dunking was my first capsizing of a canoe, a fairly impressive feat considering how many years and countless thousands of kilometers I've put behind me on trips. I feel I must have jinxed myself with my last blog posting....

The beaver dam...

The reminder of the trip thankfully continued without further dunking incidence. The final push towards the access point on Head Lake proved fairly difficult due to strong headwinds. It should be noted that strong winds are a common occurrence on the large lake so plan accordingly.

With its varied scenery, remote campsites, and straightforward portages the Smudge Creek route established itself as one of my favorite routes within the park. With the route now cleared signed and flagged, it makes for an excellent tripping getaway!

Paddling the scenic Head River

So what's the next route in the park to explore? I've set my sights on the Cranberry river towards Rainy Lake. Check back soon! There's more exploration within the wildlands to come!

#wildlands #canoe

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