Gone Camping: Algonquin’s Sunbeam Loop

Victoria Day weekend is always a special time in Canada as it marks the unofficial start of summer and the warm-weather season. While the weather can still be unpredictable and cool, many of Ontario’s parks are busy with day-trippers and campers eager to experience the great outdoors.

At the end of last summer, my camping buddy Jeff and I picked up a new (to us) canoe but didn’t have the chance to use it before the season ended. So this year we are eager to put it though its paces, and there’s no better way to start than a backcountry trip in beautiful Algonquin, Ontario’s oldest and most famous provincial park. Joined by our friends Cynara and Jonathan, we set out on our first camping adventure of 2017.

Our “new” canoe – a Souris River Quetico 17 – at the Canoe Lake access point. What a beauty!

The Sunbeam Loop is a popular canoe-camping circuit that starts and ends at the Canoe Lake access point, and is a relatively easy route that is well-suited as an introduction to the Algonquin interior. Over the span of four days, we camped at three different sites, each day consisting of five to 6 hours of paddling and portaging. However, as we soon found out, weather conditions can really make or break a trip – luckily we were well prepared for any contingency.

On Day 1, starting out from the access point, we headed north across Canoe Lake through a short portage to Joe Lake and onward to Tepee Lake and Little Oxtongue River. While the skies were clear and sunny, a strong headwind made paddling quite exhausting. It took us about four and a half hours to reach Tom Thomson Lake where we would set up camp for the first night, some 14km from our starting point.

Cynara and Jonathan on the first portage to Joe Lake.

On Joe Lake heading under the rail bridge into the Western Gap.

Day 1 campsite at Tom Thomson Lake.

This was the coldest night of the three – near freezing.

Relatively clear night skies.

Catch a shooting star!

Next morning we woke to sunny skies but still windy conditions. After a hearty breakfast we headed east towards Sunbeam Lake, our Day 2 camp, via a series of small lakes and ponds, including four portages. This was a scenic route through Bartlett and Willow Lakes, though some of the smaller ponds were very muddy and difficult to navigate, making the portages quite challenging. Nevertheless, we arrived at Sunbeam in good time to set up camp and enjoy a sunset on the water – this would be the last good weather day, as conditions would drastically change overnight.

Day 2 before heading onwards to Sunbeam Lake.

Paddling across Tom Thomson Lake.

Still great weather on Day 2, though quite windy.

A serene section between lakes.

Heading into Bartlett Lake and the first portage point of the day.

Aster Pond (I think) that was mostly swamp and mud, making for a difficult crossing.

One of the island campsites on Sunbeam Lake.

View from our campsite on Sunbeam Lake.

The portage from Sunbeam to Treefrog Lake, which we would take on Day 3.

Sunset on Sunbeam Lake.

Quiet and calm before the bad weather rolled in…

Enjoying the campfire and a good dinner after a hard days work.

I can only describe the third day as miserable. The rain had rolled in overnight, and next morning we waited for a slight break in the weather before heading further east to Burnt Island Lake, crossing three lakes and four portages. While the portages were short, the rain had turned everything into mud trails. We met a few canoeists headed in the opposite direction who warned us of the hard work ahead – and they were not kidding! Some of the toughest carrying was done on this Day 3 of our trip. Add to this the non-stop rain and wind, and we were happy to finally find a campsite on Burnt Island. The conditions made a campfire impossible, so we spent the rest of the evening cooking in our shelters and wondering why anyone would ever subject themselves to this torture… I didn’t even take a single picture.

On Day 4 the weather started to clear up a little. The constant rain was replaced by the occasional shower as we headed back to our starting point on Canoe Lake via Little Joe Lake. This was a lengthy 16km paddle but thankfully only two short portages. A strong wind and choppy waters made crossing large Burnt Island Lake a tricky and exhausting task, but the rest of the journey was relatively trouble-free. As we neared our final destination, the waterways got busy with other returning campers, all looking as relieved as we were – we made it through the first trip of the year! And I must say that our canoe performed perfectly – super stable and steady in all conditions, and the ultralight construction really helped with the tricky portages. I’m already looking forward to the next trip.

Day 4 and the rain finally stopped – for a moment.

Campsite at Burnt Island Lake – and sunshine again, albeit briefly.

On the portage to Baby Joe Lake.

Traffic jam on the last portage to Canoe Lake.

Rough waters and strong winds on Canoe Lake.

Returning to the Canoe Lake access point. What a wonderful sight!

Location and Route Map

13 responses to “Gone Camping: Algonquin’s Sunbeam Loop

    • Thank you, this was my first time into the Algonquin interior, so I didn’t know what to expect. The weather made it pretty interesting. I just saw your website, it is fantastic! I’m crowning you the king of Algonquin 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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