The Meanest Link Part One
Updated: Dec 3, 2020
Situated between Georgian Bay and the Ottawa River in Ontario, Canada, lies Canada’s oldest provincial park; Algonquin. It is home to over 1000 species of plants, more than 200 species of birds, 53 mammals, and an extreme abundance of insects, among other living creatures. It’s a grand spot for bird watching or hiking, but the best part of Algonquin Provincial Park is the canoeing. There is a plethora of rivers and lakes for anyone from a beginner to an expert canoer to traverse and explore. There are known routes you can do, or if you’re of the mind, you can plan your own route out, testing your limitations logistically as well as physically.
There is one route, however, that stands above and beyond all the others in the park. It is simply known as “The Meanest Link.” It was the brainchild of Alex Hurley and Gordon Baker and birthed during the summer of 2004. They came up with a grueling four-hundred and seventyish kilometer route that connects all four of the Algonquin Outfitters spread across the park. It was done to honor the memory of one of the Algonquin Outfitters founders, Bill “Meanest” Swift Sr. In case the full link seems out of reach for your expertise, you can do one of the four legs of it: Oxtongue to Huntsville (1), Huntsville to Brent (2), Brent to Opeongo (3), or Opeongo to Oxtongue (4). Each portion of the link is of a different length and offers its own challenges to the trekkers. Me and my crew decided to tackle the Opeongo to Oxtongue (4) portion of the link. We got our gear and planned to do the trek in a rather casual four days. While it’s more a test of endurance than a time trial, there have been some spectacular feats of timing. Some groups have done this eighty-plus kilometer section in as little as two days! We figured, being the novices that we were, four days would give us ample time to take in the flora and fauna while giving us a bit of a challenge; to say we underestimated the ability of The Meanest Link to destroy souls would be an understatement.
Day One: Lake Opeongo to Whitefish. Distance Traveled: 11.6km (7.1km of Portages, 4.5km of Canoeing).
We arrived at the Algonquin Opeongo Store shortly after nine in the morning. We got our camping permits from the office and then picked up our rental canoes, paddles, PFDs, and a SPOT GPS device. The latter was of the utmost importance. Since we’d be on rivers seldom touched by folk, we wanted a safety net to broadcast an S.O.S. in case of an emergency. We launched our canoes shortly before eleven in the morning. Erin and Antoine were in the sixteen-foot, two-seat Swift Prospector, and I in the sixteen-foot four-inch solo Swift Shearwater. It was a quick and easy jaunt across to the south-west corner of Opeongo. We were off, and our spirits were heightened to the Nth degree. We skirted the shore to our left, watching as an extensive collection of buildings and docks around the outfitters slowly receded away, carrying with it most of humanity. As we slid our canoes into the muddy access point of our first portage, brief and barely audible sounds of humans could be heard floating across the lake.
Our first portage was the biggest we’d have to do all trip. It was signed as 3305 meters. I was happy I had fresh legs for it. Twon and I each took our packs and hoisted the forty-plus pound canoes over our heads and started off into the trail. Erin took her bag, the food bag, and our paddles. The lot of us had been canoe camping before, but as I’ve stated above, we were somewhat unprepared for the sheer wildness of the route we were undertaking. Some portage trails are well kept by the park rangers, some less so, while others are given only the barest of maintenance, which comes in the form of other travelers walking through them; this portage was of the latter variety. Deadfall littered the scant path. Fifty meters in and any sound of human contact was swallowed by the immense forest that surrounded me. Outside of my own breathing, the only audible sounds were that of bird songs and the incessant buzzing of mosquitoes. The path wound its way through fifty meter elevation changes while ankle rolling rocks lay strewn about the trail. There were mud pits and swampy areas that pulled at my boots and threatened to devour my legs mid-way up my shins. We took a couple of brief stops to hydrate and put on our bug jackets. We’d chosen late June for its relatively high water levels but had to deal with peak mosquito season. It seemed like a fair trade-off at the time.
We emerged from our death march at Sproule. We quickly canoed across in some light, and most welcoming, rain before we had to portage all over again. It was less than five-hundred meters, so it seemed like a breeze. Another quick ride across Sunday was followed by another portage; rinse and repeat.
Our fifth portage was my favourite of the day. It was a nine-hundred meter beast connecting Pond and Kearney. What made it fun in my mind was that it wasn’t really a path at all. It was more akin to trail breaking. There were times when I had to pause, as the ground below me stopped resembling a trail, and I had to open my eyes to the whole forest, taking it in for all it was worth. I’d have to unfocus my eyes and see it for what it really was; a solid, wild canopy. Which way did the plants bend? Was there any possible way in which they grew that suggested someone had once walked through there? Eventually, the waist-high ferns would part in a scant breeze, and I’d notice the barest hint of a trail. Content, I'd shoulder my canoe and trudge on.
Kearney Lake was beautiful as we crossed it in the late afternoon. The clouds had begun to open up by then and sunlight filtered down on our already weary bodies. Across the lake and it was time for our final portage of the day. This one was the easiest. It was a path cut through a campground. It was level and we spent the majority of it walking on stable ground. The only hard part was crossing the highway that bisected our path. There was a bend in the highway to both our left and right, so it was a little nerve-racking trying to cross it without getting hit by a vehicle. Eventually we made it to the beginnings of Whitefish Lake. We dropped our gear and took a breather while an older gentleman got out of his truck to chat with us. He lasted less than a minute before the mosquitos forced him back inside his vehicle. He did have time to laugh at the fact that we looked about fifty percent bug ourselves, due to the swarms we had surrounding us.
Finally, we got back in our canoes and made a mad dash towards the island in the middle of Whitefish. We wanted to be the first ones at the campsite and to stake our claim. Algonquin Park controls access to the camps on the lakes. One permit means you get one campsite; if there are three campsites, they’ll only issue three permits. It is on a first come, first serve basis, however. Being that island spots are generally the best, they fill up early. Luck was on our side, and as we pulled up to the island shortly before seven in the evening we were the only ones on the lake. We made a fire in the pit, set up camp and ate a splendid meal of dehydrated food and jerky while watching the sunset from our makeshift log bench. It was a breathtaking sight, seeing the sun dip below the horizon as the lake reflected a swath of color. Then, we strung up our food bag (to protect it from bears) and settled down for a tired, but good night's sleep.
To read Part Two, click here.