How do you convince a friend to join you on a 4-day trip to a remote area of the Canadian bush to visit a mysterious castle located on a lake in the middle of nowhere?
On the weekend of the 29th of August, my good friend Paul and I went on a kayaking adventure to White Otter Castle north of Atikokan (about 3 hours west of Thunder Bay, ON) (See attached Google Earth image below).
Here's a more detailed view of the region including the put-in location on Clearwater Lake, the portage into White Otter Lake, and the island campsite we stayed on (the goldfish-shaped island). The distance from the launch to the island campsite is 12 miles. The castle is another 4 miles up the lake from the campsite.
I received my Hobie Adventure kayaks in June 2009 and have enjoyed them thoroughly this past summer. I created a trip report shortly after trying them out for the first time here http://www.hobiecat.com/community/viewtopic.php?f=48&t=12724
. Having been an avid canoe camper for many years, one of my goals with the Adventures was to forego the canoe and tour with the two kayaks instead. It is amazing how much cargo the Adventures can carry.
We were eager to set-off on our trip but as luck would have it - when we arrived at the beach site launch on Clearwater Lake, the bay was looking mighty rough. O.K. - I know it doesn't look that
rough in the first few photos, but outside the bay - out on the open lake we could see large whitecaps. Both Paul and I found ourselves quietly humming an ominous Gordon Lightfoot tune. Guess which one? I had heard about how rough Clearwater Lake could suddenly become. Legendary stories of perilous windbound days - stranded on this lake. Still - this was rougher than I had anticipated. How would the kayaks fare in such rough conditions? We had about 120lbs of gear (each piece carefully weighed on a bathroom scale) meticulously balanced and evenly distributed on each kayak. Though we were well under the maximum total weight limit of the Adventures, we had never run them fully loaded previously. How would they handle out on the rough water? Would they be stable in choppy conditions? How well would they slice through the water fully loaded?
Despite some lingering trepidation, we unloaded the kayaks off the car and filled them with our cargo and carefully carried them to the water. This was one of a number of occasions during the trip where a kayak cart would have been greatly appreciated. I helped Paul (A.K.A. Evil Kukievel) get into the yellow kayak - fully loaded - so he could attempt to pedal out into the bay and test how the yak handled the larger waves. The boat was obviously sitting lower in the water and looked a little less responsive, but Kukievel thought the brief test run felt fine (like an ominous flashback to the fountains at Ceasar's Palace).
A friendly older couple (Nancy and Bill) who own a cottage on the point near our launch (see photo below) came down their driveway to the public beach where we were launching to introduce themselves and warn us about the rough conditions on the lake. A few weeks ago they rescued a large group of American Boy Scouts who capsized their canoes around the point. I think their motto "Be Prepared" better fits Nancy and Bill, as the scouts weren't dressed for the conditions, and quickly became hypothermic in the cold water. Nancy kindly walked with me to her deck overlooking the lake so I could see how rough the water was beyond their point. I started humming the song again. I showed them my map and explained that we planned to head toward the island (Big Island seen in the second photo) and then follow the shore more closely toward the narrows and the portage. They provided some recommendations on resting spots and locations for campsites just in case we needed to set up camp prematurely. They appreciated that we took the time to listen and heed their suggestions and kindly offered to watch us through binoculars as we pedaled past their point. If we showed any signs of distress - they would assist us with their outboard like they did with the Scouts. Wow. People don't get any more impressive than that. Thanks Nancy and Bill.
With our waterproof drywear and lifejackets on we left fully loaded for Cleveland....er....Big Island. It was
rough past the point. But much to our relief - the kayaks handled amazingly well. Much better than we could have ever imagined. Into the wind we pedaled. Up and through - and down each large wave. Down the backside of each crest the bows of the kayaks were often fully submerged - like Das Boot meets The Perfect Storm. But they remained very buoyant. With the extra 120 lbs of evenly distributed weight - the kayaks were remarkably stable in the water too. Never at any time did we feel tippy. And our drywear protected us from the constant battering of waves over the deck. My only concern was if the "main hatchways gave in" (that song can be quite educational really
) or otherwise started to take on water. I asked Paul on a number of occasions if it still looked like I had a lot of freeboard and he confirmed that this wasn't an issue. When we made our first stop - we checked our hatches to find only a few tablespoons of water in each. Incredible. I sure developed a new appreciation for the versatility of these kayaks. We easily traveled through conditions that would have likely windbound even the most experienced canoeists. And averaged about 3.5 mph doing it - fully loaded - into the wind. I had upgraded to the Turbo-Fins before the trip and it was reassuring how well they moved the loaded kayaks through the water. And the larger sailing rudder kept us confidently on-course in the high winds - something that would have been extremely challenging and frustrating to accomplish in a fully loaded tripping canoe. Unfortunately, we also experienced our first casualty of the trip. My new Panasonic ZS-3 camera. I placed it in a new heavy-duty Zip Loc Freezer Bag - to keep it dry. When I removed it from the above deck storage pocket to take a few photos - I noticed that it was wet. By the time we reached our site later that day - the camera was dead. Fortunately, Paul brought his along. I believe only the first 6 or so photos are mine. Paul gets the credit for the rest. It was disappointing - my camera takes HD video and I was looking forward to editing a nice feature-packed movie to document our trip. The only upside is that once I returned to Thunder Bay and re-charged the battery - the camera came back to life.
By the time we reached the shoreline on the other side of Clearwater Lake, the conditions improved greatly.
One of our stops along the way. You can clearly see where Clearwater Lake got it's name.
Though the portage (the road in the photo is used to trailer large boats across to White Otter Lake for a fee) slowed us down considerably we found a trail half-way along the route that led us back to the water so we didn't have to carry the kayaks the entire length of the portage. Once again - a kayak cart would have made this portion of the trip much easier to manage. Once we loaded up the kayaks again - now on White Otter Lake - we were off again heading toward our campsite, pedaling against the wind in rough water, and loving every splendid minute of it.
Here is the put-in along the portage.
By this point in our trip - we were very confident in the performance of the kayaks. Their ability to handle rough water provided the assurance that if we needed to head out at almost any time - the kayaks could be relied upon. Six and a half hours into our trip - we arrived at the beach site (the goldfish shaped" island). And we felt like we had just won the lottery. The site was incredible. As far as remote campsites go - it really doesn't get any better than this. We saw a couple of boats pass by in the distance the first day. But for the rest of the three days we saw nobody else on the lake.
The campsite even had toilets assembled carefully out of plywood (probably by a guy resembling Norm Abram) complete with toilet seat and toilet paper. The table was a nice touch too.
Yes - we fit all of this gear in/on the kayaks. Plus two camp chairs, a camp table, our tent, sleeping bags, canopy tarp, air mattresses, and camp cots and more! We were far from "roughing it".
Years of canoe camping has taught me a few things. One of them is that it really isn't worth it to sacrifice the comfort of your sleeping quarters. You really need to sleep well - be fully rested - to fully enjoy the trip.
We spent the second day sipping wine, listening to music, swimming, and relaxing on the white sand beach. The evenings were cold (46 F or 8 C) but the day-time highs were more reasonable ( 73 F or 23 C).
And the food on camping trips always manages to taste amazing.
The next day we headed out early to visit White Otter Castle. In relatively calm conditions - we made the trip in about 1 hour from our campsite - averaging about 4.5 mph on the water according to my GPS (with a few short breaks). It was an unusual experience to peek around the final corner in anticipation and witness the stucture slowly emerge into view in the distance. To actually see the castle in person after having seen it in photos so frequently - for so long - well it was really a magical kind of experience.
The castle is situated on a beautiful beach. The interior was much larger than I thought it would be. We took some photos inside and then snapped a few shots of the kayaks from the 4th floor.
View from the 4th floor.
Here is a brief description that adds some clarity for those curious about the mystery of White Otter Castle.
Here is a sublime photo of Jimmy McOuat's grave site. While the plaque doesn't mentioned it - he supposedly drowned in his fishing netting just off of his dock.
I had read about some P.O.W. camps situated along the lake - so Paul and I left the Castle and traveled further north in search of one of these sites located on our map. When we arrived where the site should have been - we saw nothing. Perhaps the site was further inland, overgrown and unrecognizable, or the maps were just a bit off. We ended up stopping for a break on another beautiful beach that was supposed to have been the site of an old ranger cabin. There was no trace of the cabin. There were so many beautiful empty beaches at various points along the lake and many more on Clearwater Lake too. So many beautiful sites to call home for a few days.
Here is what our site looked like arriving back from the castle.
Yes I forgot to bring the sunscreen on our day-trip to the castle.
Our last evening.
On the final day of our 4 day trip - we packed up and headed back to our starting point.
With less weight in the kayaks (and an easier time across the portage) we made it back in 4.5 hours despite facing a strong headwind once again back on the main body of Clearwater Lake.
Overall - it was an incredible trip. I definitely want to go back next year - this time with some kayak carts for the portage. There is so much still left to explore with the Hobie Adventures......