A Fall Trip – Algonquin’s Dividing Lake and The Infamous Golden Staircase

I always get a little antsy at this time of year.  As the days grow shorter and the weather begins to turn, I ask myself “can I get one last trip in before winter?”  In October of 2014 Mike Walker, Mark Highfield and I escaped for one last season trip up to Dividing Lake in Algonquin Park.    

Why Dividing Lake:
Back in my younger years, my father had a number of Kevin Callan books.  Back in the 90s Kevin published a number of canoe trip guide books.  One of these books was called Brook Trout and Blackflies (later renamed as A Paddler’s Guide To Algonquin Park).  This book focused exclusively on tripping in Algonquin Park and one of the routes was to Dividing Lake. 

Three things captured my interest in Dividing Lake.  The first was that this was an area of the park that I have never visited previously.  Second, there was rumoured to be a large old growth white pine forest with trees of nearly 500 years old.  The final draw to Dividing Lake was The Golden Staircase.  To access the area we would have to tackle this 2745m low maintenance portage that has a long storied history of breaking paddlers. 

Trip Planning:
With a fall trip in mind and a destination that would challenge even the more experienced paddlers, the only thing missing was a tripping partner.  It took one quick call to Mark Highfield and I had a partner.  We also extended a few other invitations and Mike Walker took us up on the trip.  Our trip dates were late October (20th to 23rd) and we knew that a trip this late in the season could also pose problems.  We aimed to travel light because of The Golden Staircase, but there were a lot of essentials that we could not part with.  Tripping in the Fall, similar to tripping in the Spring (see our article on early season trips: LINK), requires a different level of planning.  We coordinated our gear, dialed in our plans and we were ready for The Golden Staircase and Dividing Lake. 

Getting There:
Dividing Lake is located in the southwest side of Algonquin Park.  Our trip started at Access Point 14 on Livingstone Lake.  Setting out from Livingstone Lake is slightly different from what most people are used to.  There is no park office at the put in.  You need to call the central park office and register for your trip over the phone.  They will give you a confirmation number and you leave that number on your dash.  If you’re planning this trip, make sure that you bring along a pen and paper. 

Travelling south down Livingstone Lake you will reach a small portage that takes you into Bear Lake.  Bear Lake is easily navigated and ends with a small inflowing chute that can be run if the water levels are right.  Otherwise there is a short portage on the right bank.  You are now in Kimball Lake.  Head towards the east shore and just to the right of the hunting camp you will find the entrance to the Golden Staircase portage.

The Golden Staircase:
Anytime that you see that a portage has a name you should immediately be weary.  Only the biggest and meanest portages earn names.  The Golden Staircase if most certainly no exception.  At the modest distance of 2745m it wouldn’t immediately strike experienced paddlers as being overly challenging.  A close look reveals that the portage actually falls outside of Algonquin Park and does not receive any maintenance.  If you investigate a little further still using Jeff’s Map (www.jeffsmap.com) you will see that this portage starts in a low swampy area and climbs about 100m over the last third of the trail.          

Our Trip:
Mike, Mark and I got an early jump on the day and made our way up to our Access Point.  We registered over the phone and we were on our way.  Mike has just purchased a brand new 17’6” Alchemist canoe and he was very excited get a few nice scratches in it.  Mike and Mark paddled tandem and I headed out solo.  The trip up to Kimball Lake was uneventful, assuming that you gloss over the incident when I almost dumped the canoe trying to hit the chute from Bear Lake to Kimball Lake.  Thankfully I stayed dry.

As we made our way across Kimball Lake we came across a gentlemen in a pontoon boat who was having some mechanical issues.  We paddled over and asked if we could be of any help.  I had an unsettling vision in my head of him hopping into my boat, a sort of canoe hitchhiker.  He was a pleasant enough fellow and simply asked if we could ask his friend on the other side of the lake to come and get him.  Thankfully his friend was located right where we were going and we didn’t lose any time. 

It was about midday when we put ashore at the trailhead of The Golden Staircase.  And so our adventure really begins. 

There are a couple of different methods that can be employed when portaging.  The classic method is to simply carry all of your gear, including your boat, from beginning to end.  Another option is to carry your gear to the end of the portage, return along the same path and then bring the boat along.  The final method generally used is to leapfrog.  This means carrying a portion of your gear a certain distance, dropping it and returning to get the other gear.  People will carry up to or past their first drop point and then continue doing this until the end of the portage.  The walk back allows you to catch your breath and rest up. 

Given the length of The Golden Staircase we made the decision to do a single carry, with multiple breaks.  It was an aggressive approach, but one that would reduce our overall distance travelled and decrease the amount of time spent portaging. 

It seemed like a good plan…for the first 300 meters. 

With 3 people, 2 boats and heaps of gear, we found ourselves over loaded.  My pack and canoe alone added another 110lbs to my load.  The wet, swampy terrain wasn’t helping our cause either.  It wasn’t long before we reevaluated our plan and opted to leapfrog the rest of the way. 

This change in plans worked well and we were thankful we adapted because the trail just kept getting more and more difficult.  Fallen trees, over grown areas and the worst of all, the elevation.  The damn trail just kept going up.  Frequent breaks, some muttering under our breath and the odd (er…regular) expletive helped as we spent the next 3.5 hours on The Golden Staircase.  On any portage, the happiest moment is when you catch the first glimpse of your next lake through the trees.  Few things have brought such a satisfying smile to my face as Rockaway Lake on that October afternoon.

An hour later we had paddled across a glass calm Rockaway Lake and found our campsite for the night.  A long day of travel and wet weather had taken their toll on us, but we were all in good spirits and after a hearty dinner and a few ‘beverages’, we were off to bed. 

The following morning we made the decision to remain on Rockaway Lake for our second night and do a day trip into Dividing Lake.  The weather was gorgeous and we were well rested.  We set out at midday and made our way east into Dividing Lake.  Our main goal was to find the old growth white pines on the southern peninsula.  This required some bushwhacking and we naively asked “How will we know when we find them”.  Every once in a while we would see a big tree and wonder if that was what we were hunting for. 

When we reached the old growth forest and we all chuckled at how obvious it was that we were in the right place.  These trees were massive and they overshadowed everything else in the forest.  It was awe inspiring and humbling to stand amongst these trees that have existed for nearly 500 years.  Suddenly the entire trip, with all of the hardships became worthwhile.

We woke the next morning, enjoyed our breakfast and broke camp.  With our boats loaded we paddled back towards The Golden Staircase.  There was no doubt that this would be another challenging traverse, but for the most part the elevation wouldn’t impact us.  We were slow moving but we made good progress.  Within about 2.5 hours we had reached the shores of Rockaway Lake. 

We still had miles to travel but for us the trip concluded once we has crossed The Golden Staircase for the second time.  For me it was a trip that had started all those years ago when I read Kevin Callan’s book. People say that the most difficult destinations to reach are the most rewarding and after surviving The Golden Staircase I tend to believe that.         

Check out the video of our trip below.

**Map provided by Jeff's Maps: www.jeffsmap.com