Switzer Lake – George Washington National Forest, VA

Screen Shot 2015-10-18 at 9.32.19 PM
A closer drive than Lake Moomaw, but less secluded

On the border of Virginia and West Virginia, at 2362 ft above sea level, lies the beautiful, Switzer Lake (aka Skidmore Dam, Skidmore Lake). The 118 acre lake serves as a water supply reservoir to the town of Harrisonburg, Virginia and watershed for the George Washington National Forest. When I heard that the lake did not allow gas motorboats, I wanted to go to check it out. We had actually planned for an overnighter but decided against it when the temperatures dropped.

It was significantly cooler in the mountains at approx 45F. We also forgot to load our food cooler in the car….. a small detail. Nevertheless we made the most of the situation. We met some nice folks from Louisiana who gave us their stack of fire wood after exchanging camping stories and canoe trips. We made a huge fire and heated some naan on the stones. It was a windy but beautiful day with the leaves at near-peak colors and the clear lake, sparkled in the sun.

For those who plan to camp here, Switzer Dam appears to be a much more popular camping location than Lake Moomaw (located in Bath County) due to the ease of access to the campsites, most of which are drive-in camp spots. The lake is also only 30 minutes away from James Madison University, and is a popular place to hang out. The lake is stocked with brook trout and the surrounding rivers and streams in the area also have healthy populations to fish.

I have heard conflicting stories about whether camping is allowed immediately next to the lake. I think the best way to find out is to call ahead and ask which areas are permitted. There are several campsites situated in the forest, just a tad farther from the lake that appear to be safe spots to camp.

Since this is not an official camp ground, Lake Switzer doesn’t have the benefits of regular site maintenance. So it’s up to us to keep this place clean. It kills me when I find beer cans, tin foil, fishing line etc at campsites. Remember to pack out whatever you bring in!

campsite

 

White Oak Canyon – Shenandoah National Park, VA

The morning air is crisp, and the leaves are beginning their color change, the first day of autumn is officially here. Min and I set out to our familiar backyard, Shenandoah National Park. Instead of scaling the mountains and searching for high altitude vistas. We sought out watering holes, cascades and native brook trout that lived in these crystal clear, mountain streams.

Screen Shot 2015-09-25 at 3.55.25 AM
The route: From the parking area, we took a left up the Cedar Run trail and crossed the fire road to descend down White Oak Canyon Trail.

Our trip took us past Madison, VA close to Old Rag Mountain, however this time through the Weakly Hollow Road. From there we parked our cars, and headed to the intersection between Cedar Run and White Oak Canyon trail. Instead of going the traditional route straight up White Oak Canyon, I’ve found out from many reviewers of this hike, that the best way to go, is up the Cedar Run trail. It eventually connects with a fire road to close the loop with a descent down the White Oak Canyon Trail. The total circuit would be 8 miles. I definitely recommend this method of approaching the trail for anyone thinking of doing this hike, the climb up Cedar Run is gradual as opposed to the vertical climb up White Oak Canyon. This route also allows you to descend down the fire road instead of climbing it where there really is not much to see.

DSC_0078It was a perfect day for a hike, a cool 65 degrees F in the morning and sunny. The water level was relatively low and some of the of the creek beds were completely dry. Nonetheless, there was still plenty of water to enjoy the beautiful falls. We saw plenty of brook trout in the these streams as well.

BrookTrout
Salvelinus fontinalis (brook trout) are a native fish to the Shenandoah Mountains.

Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) are part of the Salmonidae family and more specifically, a type of char. Other members of this group include arctic char and lake trout. As such, brook trout require water temperatures less than 20 degrees celsius to flourish due to the higher oxygen content. In the mountains, the native fish live relatively short spans of about 3 years, although some may live up to 6 years. Typically, brookies found in the streams grow to around 6-12 inches, larger sizes can be reached if they make it to a lake where food is abundant. They spawn during mid to late fall. Brook trout are amazing fish. I am always in awe at how they are able to survive in such low waters and through times of drought and flooding. Year and year again, they return and swim in the streams of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

DSC_0097The loop took us a solid 5 hours with a swimming break in a pool in a small canyon. The water was absolutely freezing but we knew that this was probably the last chance we would have this year before it gets too cold. As cold as it was, the water felt amazing, to swim with the brookies was also an awesome experience. Some of the watering holes even have natural water slides to enjoy during the hotter months.

Overall, an enjoyable hike and highly recommended as a place to cool off in the summers. If I were to return, it would be in the spring or early summer months with higher water levels and with my tenkara rod in hand.

Watch a video of the falls above

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.