The Meanest Link Part Three
Updated: Jul 24, 2021
Day Three: Tanamakoon to Upper Twin Falls. Distance Travelled: 30.3km (3.89km of Portages, 26.41km Canoeing).
Day three dawned foggy when my alarm went off at five in the morning. Looking out over the lake, the Islands and shorelines that were visible from the night before were cast in a ghoulish, gray glow. We ate a heavy breakfast and broke camp. By the time we were ready to depart, shortly before seven, the fog had lifted, burned away by the sun. It was going to be another hot day, and we had many kilometers to cover, so we put paddles in the water and started out.
Instead of continuing Southwest, we went straight North. The Meanest Link is part canoe route, part scavenger hunt. You have to take pictures of all the portage signs you come across to prove you’ve actually completed it. Along the Opeongo to Oxtongue leg, there is an extra bit to accomplish; we were heading there now. We plowed through two swampy lakes and two short portages before encountering one portage just shy of a kilometer. We climbed up a deadly hill before finding a (semi) easy path to follow. It was made out of what I could only assume was an old logging road. Parts of it had collapsed from rain, so we had to step gingerly in some areas if we didn’t want the dirt to give way, sending us plummeting down to the boggy lake almost a hundred meters below. We crossed a dirt road and had an option to go left or right. We went in the proper direction on the first try!
We entered Source Lake and canoed our way out to the island in the Easternmost quadrant. It was here that we found, and stopped at, Camp Pathfinder.
Camp Pathfinder is a boys Summer camp that teaches its pupils about canoe tripping in traditional ways: the canoes are wood and canvas ones. It was founded in 1914. Over the years, the lease has changed hands many times. One such pair of hands to hold the deed was Bill Swift Sr.
This part of The Meanest Link is seen as a pilgrimage to honor the life and contributions of Swift Sr. It is required to get a picture of the camp, and some people take time to reflect on all the good that has come out of this camp. Since we were slow, it was only I who hopped out of the canoe. I spoke with a few councilors and wandered around the camp for five minutes or so, getting looks from some of the campers as I was rather dirty and somewhat ripe by this time. I took the picture at the lodge and then we headed out.
Source is a large lake, with only one island to protect canoers from the open wind. As mentioned before, we had headwinds and it took us a long while to cross it, well, longer than we’d budgeted for. We were looking for a tiny portage, slated at 10 meters. The way the lake is laid out, or maybe it was our map, the portage, unmarked, was tough to find. It took us an extra thirty minutes cruising near the shore to locate it.
After, it was less than five minutes to cross Landlock and Ouse lakes, respectively. Next was a treat of almost one and a half kilometers of portaging. Like our first day, this particular portage was littered with deadfall and rocks and bogs and mud. The bugs came out to play and had an absolute feast on any exposed flesh. During one of the more loose grounded portions, Twon, carrying our food bag, his bag, and a canoe, stepped wrong and twisted his ankle, going down in a heap. He was maybe 800 meters through when this occurred. When I came across him, he could not get up from the weight of all the gear. We removed everything and got him to his feet. With the aid of a paddle as a makeshift crutch, he took two bags and soldiered on, albeit stepping much more gingerly than before. I was left with the carrying of both canoes. It slowed us down as I had to make two trips from that point on, but we went ahead anyway, mostly because we were closer to the end than the beginning.
We canoed across my least favourite portion of this leg of The Link: Smoke Lake. It was only a kilometer across from East to West, but the wind whipped down at us as it was over three and a half kilometers from North to South. The highway running along the Northern edge helped nothing but the barrelling blows that threatened to tip us with every movement we made. Personally, it was scary. I was tired, used up, and a little disheartened due to Twon’s tumble. Still, turning back wasn’t an option.
We finally, breathless, windburnt and aching, exited Smoke. It opened up into a long and wide channel. Dead trees stuck out of the water like hitchhiking thumbs. The twisted, gnarled branches hung heavy with spiders and all sorts of insects. We steered clear of them, less we wanted some interlopers travelling with us. The channel passed under an overpass, breaking us out of the quiet and peace we’d previously been prescribed. Afterward, it opened up into Tea. There was a public beach and campsite that we pulled over to, climbing into the shade of the trees to take lunch and assess our hurts. Twon’s ankle had ballooned out to twice its size by this point. He was struggling to walk, and it was the first time I thought of using the Spot device to call in help, I’m ashamed to say. We let him hobble around while Erin and I rested and then put the question to him. He would have none of it. He apologized for leaving me with the canoes, but said that between him and Erin, they could take care of the bags. It was settled. We would push on.
Thankfully, or so the map said, we were past all the brutal portages. The only ones left were less than two-hundred meters, save for the final two on our last day. It was doable. Besides, after we made our way across Tea, which was small, yet continued on for what seemed an eternity, we hit the Oxtongue River. At the mouth of this was a dam that we skirted with a quick and easy portage. That done, we were free to enjoy all the Oxtongue had to offer, and offer a lot it did.
First up was the Whiskey Rapids. These rapids were composed of vicious rocks, jutting up, ready to carve out the bottom of your canoe if you didn’t pay attention. They were also composed of some of the lowest water levels we faced along this route. However, they made for some of the most fun canoeing I’d experienced to that point. It was a treat to use minimal arm effort as I was pulled down the river; my paddle was more a rudder during these rapids than anything else. At some points, when the water flow became almost too hairy for I, I’d be deposited into the shallows where I’d be forced to get out, get my feet wet, and drag my canoe a little further downstream before continuing my journey. Twon and Erin had double the trouble with the shallows. There were a few spots, however, where portaging was necessary as the rapids were blasted with large rocks and sticks that blocked our path.
Eventually, we made it through and entered the calmer portions of the river. This is where things got weird. We came to a portage titled “Pine Landing.” By this portage, there were two monster pines blown down across the river. We figured this was why there was a portage sign. We were wrong. The portage led up to the highway, more of a drop-off/pick-up spot than anything else. There was no designated path to follow to get around the blown down trees. After taking a quick break for debate, we decided the only reasonable option would be to make our own portage. We hoisted our gear and stomped off through the thick forest, keeping the river on our right. If you’ve never tried to trail break with a canoe on your shoulders, consider yourself lucky. It was not a fun time. We eventually found a steep cliff that opened up onto a shallow, rocky area to get back in and continue our way down river. I dropped off the first canoe, and then went back for the second; the trail only slightly more accessible this time.
That done, we were back on our way. The river began meandering around, forcing us to go North and East at times to continue on our descending direction of South and West. It seemed counter productive, but what can you do when you’re at the mercy of nature? No doubt, in a few quick millenia, the Oxtongue will produce an exceedingly high amount of oxbow lakes. During this part of the river, we encountered a few more impassable portions due to blowdowns. These unscheduled portages took up time, but thankfully they were short. During the last such portage as this, I was struck with a sense of wonder that we were touching a part of the river that few people had navigated that season. It was sobering and showcased the sheer wildness of the area around us.
After many hours of river travel, we made our way to our third and final campsite of the trek. We were on Upper Twin Falls. The site was in the middle of a portage that skirted the small, but treacherous falls that had developed in the river. While the island campsite our first night held a fantastic view, I’d say this one was by far the most beautiful and my favourite. To sleep next to rapidly running water held a soothing effect on my soul. We’d traveled for more than twelve hours that day, and yet, I believe it’s because of the powerful sounds of nature, forever and eternal beside me, that I slept like the dead that night.
To read Part Four, click here.