The Return to Lake Moomaw

On June 13, 2015, the temperature in Richmond was 92 degrees F. We needed a place to escape the heat. This was our chance to make the return to Lake Moomaw out in the mountains of Virginia, where it was 15 degrees cooler with lows in the 60s at night. Brian worked the night previously so we left late that Saturday afternoon. For this trip, I rented an Old Town Discovery canoe 15’8″ from Riverside Outfitters in Richmond. We typically get our canoes from the VCU Outdoor Adventure center however all of theirs were taken. This trip pretty much convinced us that we need our own canoe to avoid the hassle of rental and returns.

 After a quick lunch at the Galley, we hit the road. The drive into the mountains was peaceful. We were hit with intermittent mountain rain showers as the clouds came and left.  We could already feel the cooler air as we approached the boundaries of the national forest. We passed through gorgeous passes with streams that looked perfect for Tenkara.

IMG_1288There’s always an upside to rainfall, for we were treated to an awesome display of misty mountains as we paddled to the campsite. The sun was making it’s way through the clouds and the sky was clearing before sunset. We spotted deer as they approached the lakeside to drink the cool water. I had forgotten how beautiful the lake was.

One of the advantages to paddling in Virginia is the lack of mosquitoes. NO horseflies/deerflies either! Sitting comfortably out in the open without a bug shelter in June is something we did not take for granted. We parked the canoe and enjoyed  some Woodford whiskey by the lake.

The water was especially clear that day. We saw numerous motor boats, but no other canoeists. It seems like Lake Moomaw is used mostly as a fishing and motorboating spot for the locals. All of the canoes that were available for rent were still on the racks at the marina. None of the back country campsites were occupied so we had our pick. Pretty amazing for just a $5 parking fee. We camped at a new site this time which was very clean and secluded.

The Trangia alcohol stove, produced in Sweden it was designed primarily for backpackers. I found it works well with the Emberlit stove.

The following night was a perfect opportunity for me to try out my new Trangia alcohol stove. I must say this little stove is perfect for canoe trips. There certainly is beauty in simplicity. It is built like a tank and has no moving parts to break. All you have to do is fill it with fuel (alcohol of any type) and set a spark to it. I find it makes the perfect companion to the Emberlit stove, a stick stove that I’ve used for a couple of years now. The alcohol stove burns cleanly with no soot to clean from your pots and pans. Win. With the simmer plate, we were able to grill spicy sausages to perfection.

I also had a chance to play with camera settings on the DSLR to try and capture the thousands of stars. I think it turned out pretty well for the first attempt. It was difficult without a tripod but this trip opened my eyes to the world of night landscape photography.

Lake Moomaw star show

We took the canoe out for a midnight paddle on the lake under the blanket of countless stars. It reminded me of paddling Big Trout Lake in Algonquin park at 3:00am in September 2014. With the assistance of a small amount of hand sanitizer (awesome trick) to catch a flame to the soaking wood, we were able to get a rip roaring camp fire going.

We woke the next morning and prepared some breakfast once again with the Trangia. A simple meal of scrambled eggs, brie cheese, salami, toasted bread and yogurt with blueberries and raspberries. One of the perks of lakeside camping is packing a cooler. With no portages to haul heavy gear, we could bring what we wanted. The cooler is a definitely a luxury item on canoe trips.

Overall, the return to Lake Moomaw was a very relaxing trip. No heavy portages, no rushing and no real destination. Despite the spectular views, I do not suspect that we will be back any time soon. There are numerous waterways in Virginia that I have yet to paddle and I have compiled a list of rivers and lakes that I want to explore including the Cowpasture River (claimed to be one of the most pristine rivers in Virginia). I also picked up a copy of “Virginia Whitewater” by H. Roger Corbett off of ebay. Apparently it is a must for canoeists in Virginia.

We learned a great deal on this trip and left Lake Moomaw that evening with one revelation…..we must now buy a canoe. Leading choices at this point: Nova craft prospector 16 foot in royalex or the Old Town Camper 16 foot in royalex. Both beauties.

Dolly Sods North – Mongahela National Forest, West Virginia

In the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia, lies the Monongahela National Forest. The Dolly Sods (open mountain top meadow) Wilderness occupies a small portion of this area. It is one of the highest points in West Virginia and as a result the vistas are unlike any other on the East Coast. The rocky landscape, spruce forests, and sphagnum bogs is a scene normally found in Canada. Needless to say, when I heard about this place, I knew I had to experience it. I finally got the opportunity on March 22, 2015. I set aside the first three days of my vacation to explore Dolly Sods. I went with Min, an old college friend and the one who actually introduced me to the Old Rag Mountain hike in Virginia. I have been on numerous camping trips in all forms: drive in sites, canoe portages and off-road but never a backpacking camping trip where I would have to carry everything in. I knew that this one was also particularly going to be challenging with temperatures in the 19-22F range requiring bulkier clothing and heavier packs. We averaged just over 45lbs per pack.

The forecast predicted three days of clear skies however we took this with a grain of salt; the mountains were prone to abrupt changes. We started our trek that Sunday morning on the Bear Rock Trail. Walking away from our car and into the howling wind, we knew we were in for a tough trek. We were the only ones in the whole area, not another human in sight, and no other cars parked. Our progress was slow as we marched through boggy meadows and icy rocks. The spruce forests were like little oases, a place where clear streams ran and the cold wind broke. We met our first stream and took a short break to appreciate the pristine camp site.

We knew it was too early to set up camp, so we pushed on through the meadows and bogs. By 4:00pm, we decided it was time to start setting up camp in one of the spruce forests. The creek in these forests had unfortunately frozen over and we were too far away from the next flowing water source to make it in time before nightfall. We decided to set up camp and melt the snow and filter out the sediment as our water source. This was made possible with an axe and folding bucksaw. In such a dense forest, these tools went hand and hand, allowing us to process the numerous downed spruce trees. It appeared that wind and the elements caused several to snap at the base, we quickly limbed the trees and got a large fire going to warm our wet socks and prepare dinner. To clarify, we DID NOT chop any down. This is a pristine wilderness area and we hope that everyone who visits pays the same respect to the Dolly Sods.

With all of the streams frozen in the forest, we melted our snow and filtered out the sediment to get clean drinking water.

We woke up early the next morning to make up for lost ground the previous day. We found that in some parts, the trail was surprisingly difficult to find. The presence of rock cairns made the job easier left by previous hikers. We traveled across beautiful vistas and proceeded through a rock scramble where we rested our backs.

Sheets of ice layered over the clear springs

It was a good thing we decided to camp where we had the previous night because the next water source was miles away. We navigated our way up a creek with fresh flowing clear spring water. It was certainly a welcome sight.

One of the highlights of the trip was crossing Stone Coal Run, the largest body we encountered since crossing Red Creek at the beginnning of our journey. We took a break and drank as much as we could and filled up our water bottles. As a method of filtration, I prefer my Platypus. The bag holds 2L and is able to filter all of it within minutes. It has served us well in the past and is particularly useful at a campsite with abundance of water. We filtered about 60L while in Algonquin Park without any issues.

Around this area, were some prime camping spots, all unused. We pushed on to head towards the red creek crossing. It was here where we decided to camp for the night. Completely secluded with tons of fallen spruce trees to process. We washed up and set up our camp.

While the forest axe was certainly heavy with a 2lb head, Min was determined to bring it. I’m glad because it allowed us to split wood and have a fire hot enough to bake bannock. No trees were felled during this trip.

At this point, we were both pretty much spent. We decided it was time to go to town on our food. We cooked and ate several meals, including: curry and rice, Min’s korean noodles, bannock, and a lot of snacks. We were grateful for the running stream to provide us with ample drinking and cooking water. It was truly an oasis.

Learning from our previous cold night, we took no risks and layered on all clothing before climbing into our sleeping bags. We slept straight through the night without any disturbances. The next morning however, we awoke to 2 inches of snow.

We woke to 2 inches of powdery snow

Our next leg involved crossing the stream and continuing on home. This was surprisingly difficult with the snow covering most of the trail in the dense forest. There were several occasions when we had to set down our packs and scout in different directions until one of us found the trail. At the sight of the main road, we breathed a sigh of relief, our feet were wet, cold and sore and our backs ached. On the walk down the main road, we ran into the only person we saw during this entire trip. He was a young guy who carried very little gear. To our surprise he told us that he was hiking across the country. He had made his way through Delaware and DC already. He decided to take 9 months off and make a solo trip on foot. Forest Gump style I guess.

At the arrival of the Bear Rock Trail sign, we knew we made it. The trip was a hard one and our bodies were pretty much done. The views and scenery were  simply amazing. I must give credit to the people of West Virginia and the forest rangers, this was one of the best kept wilderness areas I have ever been to. The camp sites were immaculate and I did not see signs of garbage or debris anywhere, this made the experience so much better. Overall, our trip to the Dolly Sods was everything I hoped it would be and much more. I’ve read about the area and seen photos and videos of the Dolly Sods but nothing compares to seeing it with your own eyes. I would go back in a heart beat, preferably when it gets a little warmer.

Algonquin Park – Ontario, Canada

Watch the documentary of our trip to Algonquin Park (above)

algonquinMy brother and I last paddled the lakes of Algonquin Park over 20 years ago. One day, we decided it was time to return. While designated a provincial park, Algonquin definitely feels more like a national park. Every year, people from all over the world come to Algonquin to canoe, camp and fish in these pristine waters. The size of the park is immense, at almost 3000 square miles, it is larger than Canada’s smallest province, Prince Edward Island. For an American reference, it is larger than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined.

On the southeast coast, in Richmond, VA, we spent weeks planning our trip, looking at camping gear, watching Kevin Callan YouTube videos, and reading books on Algonquin Park. I don’t think we’ve ever been this excited for any other trip in our lives. The thrill of adventure was invigorating and kept us energized during long days at work. On September 6, 2014, after a 14 hour work day, we made our way north to Ontario. I took the first leg through the night, in the old Honda CRV powered on red bulls and AMP.

We arrived at the Portage Store in Algonquin Park with only half an hour left before the store closed. Thirteen hours of travel and it came down to the last half hour before they stopped renting out canoes – typical Le Brother style. We rented out a Souris River Canoe Prospector 16, a kevlar canoe.

The sun was already setting as we paddled across Canoe Lake, and Little Joe Lake. The cries of the loon welcomed us home as we paddled across glass-like waters. Not a cloud in the sky, nor a breath of a wind.  The small, red flickers of distant fires marked the Canadian shield around us. It appeared that most of the campsites on Little Joe were already occupied. We were worried that we would have to travel much further to the next lake of campsites. As we passed around a bend of forest, we found the last campsite hidden on Little Joe Lake. Both of us were far too tired to get a fire going. We heated up some stew in the Eureka bug shelter and turned in for the night.

The following morning, we woke up fully energized. After a nice breakfast of bacon, eggs and bread, we set forth for our first full day in Algonquin Park. We traversed beautiful portages, streams, beaver dams, and massive lakes to reach Little Otterslide Lake as the sun was beginning to set. We spotted a couple of old men camping who practiced some Canadian hospitality and asked us if we wanted to join and eat dinner with them at their campsite. I’m sure they would’ve had cool stories to share but we politely declined and paddled on to our own rock paradise campsite overlooking the beautiful lake. This was probably my favorite campsite of the trip. We baked some pizza for the night, which looked much better than it tasted. As we cleaned dishes by the lake, frogs and turtles approached us because of our headlamps. A pretty magical night on Little Otterslide.

The sun was out in full force the next morning. We utilized this to our full advantage and swam in the cold but refreshing waters. We washed off the grodiness of a 13 hour road trip, and 2 days worth of paddling and portaging. We picked up and headed off for Big Trout Lake at about 3:00pm. It was a late start to say the least and we knew we were in for a long night. We made our way through amazing marshlands. We traveled deep into the night and used headlamps and navigate our way through the swamps. We had some tough portages during this leg but the arrival to Big Trout Lake was epic.

We paddled out onto the biggest water we have seen yet. We traveled by moonlight which was shining incredibly bright across the still lake. Not a single ripple for kilometers ahead of us. Such moments are religious. Remarkably, we were able to find an island campsite in the dark and unpacked our gear. As I took off my water shoes, I went to brush off some bark on my feet. It did not come off so easily. This confirmed my fear….it was a leech. We grabbed some matches and burned off the sucker.

The next morning we were able to enjoy a full day of rest. No traveling today. It was time to refuel and take in our surroundings. We were able to make a large dent in our food. We fried potato pancakes, baked pies, chopped fire wood and we tried to fish unsuccessfully. Before I knew it, our time at Big Trout Lake had come to an end. At this point, we were half way into our trip and were now on the return loop. It always impresses me how much one can accomplish in a day of camping. I feel like so much happens in one day and no day is like the one previously. No schedules to follow, no traffic and no people. Your lifestyle pace is suddenly changed. You are no longer in control of the day, but you build your day around nature. The weather, the animals you encounter and the elements. It is a soothing experience.

The sky was overcast and rain fell upon us as soon as we started paddling. As night came, the storm descended upon us. We were forced to pull off the lakes because the water was far too choppy and we risked capsizing. We set up camp in the middle of a storm, our headlights were dimming and the wind ferocious. As we staked our tarp poles into the dirt, the gusts of wind would blow them clean off. We lashed them to spruce roots instead. As we continued the fight to tie the tarp, the wind picked up and the storm intensified. We breathed a sigh of relief when the tarp was finally up. Next, we set up the tent right underneath. By this point we were both cold and shivering. We slipped into the tent and took off all of our wet clothing. To be dry again was one of the most satisfying moments I have felt in a long time. Amazing how one can feel after being dry. We felt ready to put on some dry clothes, and face the next obstacle ahead of us. We fired up the snowpeak stoves, and made some delicious sphagetti; such a simple but satisfying meal.

The next morning we woke to explore our surroundings in the daylight. The campsite was a beautiful one under spruce trees and a clean flooring of pine needles. We set out to make a fire to dry our clothing. We ate some chicken tikka masala and rested for the day. We originally planned to paddle that day, but the weather was still overcast and the waters still choppy. We opted to stay an additional day.

The next morning we started the final leg of our trip. It was a big day of paddling culminating in a 2500 m portage. We were rewarded for our efforts. At the beginning and end of this tough haul, we saw a moose eating in some reeds. The perfect goodbye to our time in Algonquin Park.

Upon arrival to the portage store, we felt a sudden sadness as we pulled the canoe out of the water and onto the deck. The park gave us so much in the 7 days we traveled and unforgettable memories. We packed up our gear and found a hotel in Huntsville, Ontario to spend the night. As much as we missed the park, a hot shower and a warm bed was incredible. We spent the next day exploring the town of Huntsville, eating sausages from the hot dog vendors and chatting with the locals. We found an old laundromat to do some laundry in order to have some clean clothes to wear. We then ventured back into the park to pick up some gifts for friends and family from the souvenir shop. We lingered at the portage store to enjoy burgers and poutine before officially departing.

It is easy to see why people from all over the world come to Algonquin year after year. There is a certain magic to it that you can already feel when you’re at the park boundaries. The sheer size of the park and the endless possibilities of adventure that lay ahead is more than enough to create an atmosphere of excitement. The cry of loons that echo in the background, and the gorgeous sunsets particularly stand out in my mind. The place is unlike any other, the sight of canoes on every car, and groups of campers pouring over maps and prepping their gear, each party with a unique adventure in store for them, waiting to be fulfilled.