A few weeks ago I found myself sitting on a sizable number of vacation days that were about to vanish in accordance with my employer's use-'em-or-lose-'em policy, so when a last-minute opportunity to take off presented itself, I was cautiously excited. I knew it might be my only chance to do a long kayak trip to Canada, but on such short notice I'd have to go solo. My only question: Can I get my boat and gear ready in time?
Five mornings later I was a bit bleary from the string of frantic 18-hour days it required me to answer yes, but I didn't care: I was driving north to La Verendrye Preserve in Quebec, where I was planning a two-week paddle around Reservoir Cabonga. I'd been eyeing the lake for a year on maps and knew that not only was it enormous, but almost completely pristine (just a dam, a small native reservation and two fishing lodges, plus a lot of primitive campsites scattered over 677 square km). And though the lake is in the middle of a protected area, it is only 10 km down a logging road from the tiny village of Le Domaine, which has a gas station, motel, greasy-spoon restaurant, camping/fishing store and fishermen's cabins, plus an outfitter called Canot-Camping La Verendrye (CCLV) that can shuttle a boat into the woods and back. An ideal setup.
I arrived around 10 PM and sprang for a room in the motel, which was $70 for Spartan but nice accommodations. After breakfast the next morning ($10 for bacon, eggs and toast) I headed over to the outfitter shop. It's a cozy building and everyone there speaks both English and French.
After finalizing my arrangements to be dropped off (and picked up) at the bridge at Passe Brady, off I went. I started paddling generally north with the intention of making the largest loop I could without leaving the map of Circuit 25, which covers most (but not quite all) of the reservoir, plus the connected Lac de l'Ecorce. I figured two weeks of 17 to 20 km paddles with a day or two of rest would be enough to finish it, which was about right.
The lake is quite peaceful when the fishermen are not humming by. (My guess is that at any given time of day there were about a dozen small fishing boats on the water. Most are from Rapid-Lake, and the others are from Bark Lake Lodge; some days I saw ten go past, other times I went two days without hearing a single one.) It's beautiful too: Mixed forest, mostly evergreen, reaches right down to the waterline, interrupted only by boulders, driftwood logs, and the occasional marshy area. Beaches are quite rare and very small -- any sandy stretch more than 10m long looked highly inviting to me after the first day.
The real variation lies in the sort of passages you can paddle through: wide open lake, island clusters, narrow chutes, twisting mazes, and a stinking fen here and there. Rocky islands are fairly common and offer good rest spots, though if there's any plant life you'll want to be careful on these obviously fragile ecosystems. Wildlife was fairly plentiful; beavers swam past on two occasions, and I also saw a bear. The bugs could be bad in camp, especially after the sun went down, which fortunately didn't happen til after 9:30.
My favorite spots were the cliffs along Chenal de Culbute and the main section of the lake in the general vicinity of the dam, but that's just because I like long vistas, rugged islands and dramatic elevation shifts. There's plenty of other kinds of beauty all around.
The campsites are primitive but well-maintained. Each has a nice flat area for one or more tents and a plastic barrel for a toilet. Most had a well-constructed fire ring, sometimes with a log bench, and a few even had small tables improvised out of flat rocks. Landing area quality ran the gamut from fine, gentle beaches with plenty of room for boats and wading to steep, eroded banks I barely trusted with my weight (mostly the former, thankfully). The lake water was cool and pleasant for swimming. I saw one daytripper canoeist the second day and except for him I may have been the only paddler on the lake.
Though I had a lot of sunshine, windy days were common, and big storms blew in a couple of times with little warning. When the wind picks up, waves appear instantly, and I saw whitecaps at least half a dozen times. A few days went from being pleasantly sunny and hot in the mornings to stormy in the afternoons. The last 48 hours it was quite blustery; 20 to 30 knot winds, 30 to 50 cm waves, and intermittent squalls. Capilene T-shirts and a Polypro top served me well for the trip, as did a good sun hat. Temperatures ranged from 30C on warmer days down to 8C at night.
The lake is about 3-4 hours northwest of Montreal and feels fairly distant from civilization. When my CCLV connection arrived to take me back to society, I found myself wishing they'd just brought me another bag of food. I easily could've stayed on the water another week or two.
For anyone planning a trip, here are a few miscellaneous thoughts:
- Visit the CCLV site:
Then contact CCLV by email. They are very helpful and friendly.
- You should reserve the shuttle truck at least a week in advance.
(Don't forget to tell them when to pick you up or you're walking out.)
- Prices for some services have gone up. Ask for an estimate before you drive up.
- Your last (or first) town of appreciable size on Route 117 is Mont-Laurier; a good bet for a meal.
- The only motel at Le Domaine has about eight $70 rooms and fills up fast -- get a reservation if you want to stay there. Check in at the restaurant, which serves 24/7.
- You don't need to stay there, though. If you arrive late you can camp near the outfitter shop. If CCLV is expecting you and you've got a tent, you can camp the night you arrive at no charge.
- Once CCLV drops you off, you're on your own, but not completely alone; fishing boats will go by once every few hours. They will ignore you completely as a rule and may not even see you, especially if you are more than a km away, which for me was often. If you're in deep trouble, plan to get yourself out of it; you may not see another soul for a day or more, especially if you're in an area unpopular with walleye.
- That said, when the fishermen stop, they usually stay in one place for a couple of hours; once their engines stop you can probably hail them if you're close (and loud) enough. They usually know the weather report as well.
- Civilization touches the lake at a couple of points. On a peninsula in Lac de l'Ecorce is Bark Lake Lodge, which was willing to serve me a $10 breakfast if I made a reservation the previous evening. They have a pay phone. Check them out here:
- Next to the Rapid-Lake reservation is a boat launch also with a restaurant. I got the impression they wanted advance notice on food requests as well but managed to get a bowl of soup when I walked up. (You can eat on a sun deck with umbrella-shaded tables, a nice respite.) The tiny store caters to fishermen but had a few things: Bottled water, candy bars, drinks. I didn't ask about a phone.
- SEPAQ campsites have trash barrels. Outhouses too but, as always, bring your own toilet paper.
- Don't expect the CCLV employees to know much about the route you plan to take -- they depend on paddlers' reports just as we do. When I arrived, no one there had ever even been out on Cabonga, though they had canoed some of the reserve's many other lakes and streams.
- There is no potable running water anywhere in the reserve. (Don't drink from the sinks at Le Domaine.) Everything you drink should be bottled or filtered. A 4-liter bottle cost $3.50 when I was there.
- The Web site suggests that boiling lake water for a minute is enough to purify it, but I'd take a filter along anyway. When I was there, lots of yellow pollen -- obviously from some very common plant - was everywhere I looked in the water.
- Mosquitoes, even in (an admittedly dry) June, really were not that bad most of the day; if you go ashore to relieve yourself, use DEET and you'll be fine. After the sun went down however (around 9:30) they became nightmarish. Make sure you're in your tent by then.
- The lake is beautiful, but the shore does not always offer much in the way of obvious landmarks; hence it is essential that you at least have a compass and the map for Circuit 25 with you. This general map is fine for most navigation, but many small islands are not represented, so check your position frequently. Plotting a course that passes marked campsites and the rare navigational numbers will save you a lot of grief.
- Any time you're traveling through a lot of small islands, I'd have the topographic map alongparticularly the islands near Rapid-Lake, I got miserably lost in there.
- Some spots on the map indicate they are unrunnable when the water levels are low. Passing a few stained rocks the first day, it looked like the water was about 30 cm lower than usual, but I never ran aground unexpectedly or couldn't get through. (60 cm low and I would have however.)
- I saw a bear swimming between islands the first night I was there and heard plenty of noise other evenings. Mostly it was small harmless forest animals, but be ready.
- I did see a few leeches in the shallows but they're easy to avoid; never felt concerned.
Some more photos here:
Canot-Camping La Verendrye
Yes - visit their site for details.
Canada Route 117 northwest from Montreal
Get the map for Circuit 25 direct from the outfitter.
- Trip Duration: Extended Trip
- Skill Level: Intermediate
- Water Type: Flat/Sheltered Water