In Ontario, the shadow of Algonquin Park looms large. More than one million visitors ply its waters and trek its back country loops every year. And they do so for good reason. But even Kevin Callan, author and paddler extraordinaire, admits that the park’s more popular routes can sometimes feel like freeways.
If you find yourself in Eastern Ontario and want something a little different—and potentially a little quieter—look no further than Frontenac Provincial Park. With more than 5000 hectares of land, 120km of looped hiking trails, and 28 navigable lakes, Frontenac offers an experience for back country enthusiasts of all levels.
My favourite route is the one I have dubbed The Fearless Five Lake Loop centered around Big Salmon—the largest lake entirely within park boundaries. Fit paddlers can complete the route in 6-8 hours, making it a great one-day challenge. But it can also be broken up over 2-3 days to include fishing, hiking, and a little off-route exploration of the park.
The Fearless Five Lake Paddling Loop:
Length: 20 km, five lakes (17km) & five portages (3km)
After purchasing interior permits/booking your campsites at the Park Office, paddlers can put in at the southwest end of Big Salmon Lake next to the site of the former Trail’s End Fishing Lodge. Big Salmon is long and narrow, particularly at this end, and offers a series of small granite cliffs along its south shore.
The fishing here is very good. Big and small mouth bass abound. Lake trout, too, are plentiful. The average depth is just over 40 feet but plunges to 140 at its deepest. Aside from its campsites, the lake is entirely wild, with no cottagers or motorized boats. You are likely to spot loons and herons and even ospreys. At the north-east end of the lake (approximately 6 kilometres from the launch) you will reach your first portage. Here there are a series of small islands which make great picnic spots. And campsite #6 (N. 44° 32′ 38.1″ | W. 76° 30′ 49.5″) is not far off, if you wish to spend the night and strike out early the next morning to tackle the loop.
Otherwise, the portage is 491 metres in length and leads you to the much smaller Lake Labelle. The route climbs gently and then descends to the next put in, for a relatively easy transit. Lake Labelle has only one cottage and the paddle route to your next portage is only about a kilometre away. Similar to Big Salmon, Lake Labelle has granite cliffs and a couple of small islands.
The second portage is short (190 metres) and has one hill with slightly more elevation gain and is rated as moderate. Your put in on Big Clear Lake is near the southern tip of the lake which is narrow and tucked in amongst high granite cliffs on both sides. The far shore is not park land, so the cottages are more numerous here, and power boaters are also present. You have about 6 kilometres of paddling on Big Clear Lake, which runs north and wraps around Big Salmon like a parenthesis.
Your route will follow the western shore and eventually duck into a long narrow bay running just to the north of Big Salmon. Campsite #13 (N. 44° 33′ 31.7″ | W. 76° 28′ 7.3″) is on the north shore of this bay and makes a nice halfway point for those who wish to spend the night and divide the loop in two. There is also a nice lookout about 1.4 kilometres west of the campsite along the Big Salmon Lake Hiking Trail.
You can also access this lookout from the third portage at the far end of this narrow bay. The length of this portage is 666 metres—which is the number of the beast—as my son once pointed out. This portage may not be the longest in the park, but it is one of the toughest. It’s part of the reason I have dubbed this circuit The Fearless Five. This transit starts off steep right out of the water and then gets steeper, before finally levelling off and then winding down in a series of looping switchbacks and plank bridges to the shores of Black Lake. Park literature rates the portage as moderate; however, this is a conservative rating. It requires a good deal of energy—especially if you are portaging solo—and the maneuvering amongst trees is tight at times.
Black Lake is the smallest of the five lakes in this loop. It is also one of the prettiest, if not as spectacular as the cliff views on Big Salmon and Big Clear. It is much more like a dark mountain tarn with marshy shores. In the right season, lily pads bloom in profusion here.
The paddling is over quickly if you intend to simply cross the lake. It is only about a kilometre to the fourth portage. Do not be confused with the 977 metre route north to Bear Lake; you want the shorter route to Little Clear. It runs 453 metres and is the easiest of your five portages. Although it can be boggy in the early going, the path is platter flat and joins the broad, well-groomed Big Salmon Hiking Loop before reaching the shores of Little Clear Lake. However, if you can afford the time, the remnants of the McComish Homestead (also known as Black Lake Homestead 1881-1953) are within a hundred yards of the portage on Black Lake, if you want to search them out.
Unless you choose to explore the lake, or to take advantage of Campsite #9 (N. 44° 33′ 23.3″ | W. 76° 30′ 11.7″) on the north end, you will spend very little time on Little Clear. The fifth and final portage is only 500 metres from your put in. Turtles (including the elusive Stinkpot) and snakes are prevalent here, so keep your eyes open.
If you want to rest up before tackling the longest of Fearless Five portages (923 metres), I would suggest you visit the remains of Green Homestead and “Old Thor,” the truck used to build the now overgrown road to Little Clear Lake. They are easily accessible heading southwest along the Big Salmon Hiking Loop.
The final portage is tough mostly because of its length. The path is relatively clear, but it does roll and wind through forest. At just under a kilometre, the portage will prove challenging, especially if you are undertaking the Fearless Five in a single day.
Once back on Big Salmon, you will turn south-west and head for home the way you came.
Just past Campsite #4 (N. 44° 32′ 17.0″ | W. 76° 29′ 42.2″) there is a portage (453m) to Camel Lake. It is a picturesque lake with rocky shores and marshy backwaters. It does not lead anywhere further, and is not part of the Fearless Five per se. However, even if you choose not to carry your canoe, take it as a hike. Partway there, you will come across a beaver dam. It is a marvel of engineering, and one of the best examples I have ever seen. It is several metres high and clearly visible in its entirety.
A Bit of Historical Beta:
Before Frontenac Park was established in 1974, it was the location of several hardy homesteaders—most of whom were poor Irish Immigrants who were trying, unsuccessfully, to draw a living from the land. The ruins of these homesteads are visible throughout the park, making it not just an environmental gem, but a cultural one as well. The only moderately successful economic ventures here were the mica mines, a sawmill, and a shingle mill. All of which are still visible in some form throughout the park. A few examples (including homesteads and the shingle mill) are on the Fearless Five Lake Paddling Loop, as indicated above.
Have you ever done the Fearless Five? Do you have a favourite paddling loop outside Algonquin? If so, let us know in the comments below!
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