Canoeing Through Eastern Ontario’s Backcountry Wilderness

Crotch Lake, in North Frontenac Park Lands, Ontario, offers the ideal, remote paddle-in camping getaway.

Last summer, after a full year of COVID-19 restrictions, my husband, Kevin, and I were eager to accept an invitation to a wilderness canoe-camping trip. Due to travel limitations, camping sites were difficult to book, as their popularity seemed to soar throughout the province. Conscious of the need to physical distance and, with the rules constantly changing, a paddle-in camping trip seemed ideal.

Crotch Lake Canoe TripPhoto: Sylvie Gauthier
Sylvie and Kevin canoeing with the kayakers.

Our Crotch Lake Adventure

We chose a mid-July three-night trip to Crotch Lake—situated in Ontario’s North Frontenac Park Lands within the Frontenac Arch Biosphere Reserve, and with a shore of almost all undeveloped Crown land. Our group of 15—most of us friends from the Cornwall Outdoor Club de Plein Air—was split into four sites, with three to four tents per site. Although our site was close enough to be visible to one other, the other two were across the lake, at least a kilometre’s paddle away.

Crotch Lake - Canoes On The WaterPhoto: Casey Pruner
The first evening’s paddle on Crotch Lake.

Planning is Key

Most participants were experienced wilderness campers, but this was my first real paddle-in camping trip. The most difficult part for me was the planning and packing, trying to cram everything we needed into a canoe, being mindful of item weight and size, food preservation and weather. Meal planning was particularly gruelling. I couldn’t imagine how others, in their less spacious kayaks, managed.

We launched near Ompah, a village at the north end of the lake. Paddling on the open water along the rugged granite shoreline was incredible! We admired other campsites perched on rocky outcrops topped with conifers. As we drifted by, some campers on shore waved, as if welcoming us into the community.

Crotch Lake CampsitePhoto: Sylvie O'Rourke
Our Crotch Lake campsite view from the water.

Making Camp

Nearly two hours passed by the time we reached our site, which Kevin and I shared with two female friends. Our accommodations consisted of a firepit, an exposed bedrock patio overlooking the lake and, a little beyond our tents, a thunderbox. The latter was basically a loo with no walls, just a box with a seat in a forest clearing.

The surrounding forest was mostly thick and impenetrable. As a result, there was no opportunity for any significant walks, which we all found a bit confining. On the flip side, this forced us to take more time to relax and enjoy our surroundings.

If we got the urge to explore, we would do so on the lake, during our group daily paddles. With no cellphone coverage, we had to pre-arrange meeting points at areas on the lake that were central to the four sites.

Crotch Lake - Campers Picnic at the RapidsPhoto: Sylvie Gauthier
Picnic by the rapids.

Embracing Life in the Wild

We chose a different destination each day. First, we paddled to the Whitefish Rapids, where the Mississippi River rushes into the lake, to enjoy a shared picnic lunch. On the second day, we took a 13-kilometre round trip to the lake’s dam, where we got out to stretch our legs. And on our final morning, we snaked through the Crotch Lake Conservation Reserve, an area narrowed by two jutting peninsulas and dotted with small islands. Being on the lake gave us the opportunity to socialize as a group while enjoying nature’s offerings.

When not on the water, we remained with our camp mates—cooking, swimming, reading and performing basic tasks such as tending to water filtration and stringing up our food containers in the trees, away from opportunistic wildlife. Our site group was well-matched, all of us early risers. We enjoyed quiet evenings by the campfire and spent much time sitting on our stone patio by the water, gazing up at the stars, appreciating the sunrise and enjoying the peacefulness of being off the grid. Our entertainment consisted of watching loons do territorial circle dances, being startled by jumping fish and being amazed by the speed at which a beaver could swim past our site. Out in the wilderness, on hiatus from the worldwide madness, we could decompress and simply be.

The Healing Power of Nature

The trip reaffirmed the positive aspects of immersing yourself in nature. The simplicity of human interaction in this setting allowed us to engage in animated discussions and share laughter, dissolving our worries for a time—followed by the realization of how fortunate we are to live in such a splendid country. There’s so much beauty here! Were it not for the travel restrictions, I may never have explored this secluded section of the biosphere reserve.

Crotch Lake was an adventure I would enjoy repeating, pandemic or not. When everyday life gets overwhelming, memories such as this one engulf me and the desire to escape is strong. I can’t wait to trade my desk for a canoe and take off on another wilderness adventure with friends.

Story idea from: “The Circle Dance,” The Cornwall Seeker—Oct. 2021, by the author.

Wondering how Crotch Lake got its name? Find out in our roundup of the funniest place names across Canada.

Originally Published in Our Canada