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PostPosted: July 8th, 2019, 8:05 pm 
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Joined: August 19th, 2011, 8:28 am
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My wife Caleigh and I did the Tilden-Spruce Lakes loop over Canada Day weekend. I haven't written a trip report in a while but there's not a lot of recent info out there about this route so I figured an update might be helpful.

Dates: Saturday, June 29 - Monday, July 1, 2019
Access Point: Tilden Lake public boat launch, Tilden Lake Road (off Highway 11, north of North Bay)
Route: Tilden-Bear-Poplar-South Spruce-Hammell-Bear-Tilden
Canoe: Swift Prospector 16
Fish: 1 smallmouth bass
Wildlife: eagles
Mosquito Level: high to extreme
Portage Trail Condition: hahaha nope
Weather: mostly sunny except overcast on Sunday morning and brief rain on Saturday afternoon; winds from whatever direction we were trying to go in

For a map we were using the Temagami JeffsMap, which I still have on Avenza on my phone. Granted the Temagami JM was a first draft when the unpleasantness happened and isn't completely accurate, but it worked for the most part and was very helpful to have in GIS-enabled format on this trip. I share a screenshot of the map for reference.
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We were going clockwise.

We drove up from Toronto on the Saturday morning and stopped in South River to pick up a rental canoe from Swift. When we arrived at the Tilden Lake launch there was a sign saying harmful algae was identified in the area, and warning against swimming or drinking the water. This of course made us a bit concerned but as we still had cell service, I typed in the URL on the sign (the website of the North Bay Parry Sound District Health Unit) and saw a map showing only the southern tip of Tilden Lake as the algae sampled location. (On closer inspection now, it was sampling data from September 2018. Maybe the sign had been up all winter. Didn't realize that at the time.) Anyway, I didn't worry about it on this trip but it did make me think, with blue-green algae blooms seemingly becoming more common and backcountry lakes sometimes closed for that reason in provincial parks, maybe this is something we're going to have to start worrying about on Crown land routes where there's no monitoring.

Tilden Lake itself was of course busy with cottagers on the Saturday of the long weekend. The portage to Bear, as I'd read, is very well-used and could easily be driven in an SUV. However it's not exactly where JM says it is. The Tilden end of the portage is right by the mouth of the river that flows in from Bear, in between the river and a big red cottage complex, in fact so close to the latter you could mistake the portage trail for a boat ramp belonging to the cottage. Satellite photos I've seen suggest that there is some sort of bush road along the route where JM shows the portage, but I don't think it connects with the lake.
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The Tilden-Bear portage. The red line is my approximation of where it actually is. Also there's no beaver dam at the mouth of the river, more of a little waterfall.

The Bear Lake end of the portage is a big open rocky area with lots of cached boats, beside the dam. There were cabins scattered around the lake but no sign of any people. We had a nasty headwind up Poplar River, which really funnelled against us on the straight parts of the river, so that it took us like two hours from the Bear Lake portage landing to Poplar Lake.
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Knowing we'd be getting a late start, I had planned to camp the first night on Poplar Lake and the second on North Spruce, before completing the loop through Hammell on the third day. And indeed it seemed like a reasonable time to make camp by the time we arrived on Poplar. But we decided to make full use of the long daylight hours and push ahead to South Spruce Lake, so that we could camp there for both nights, and spend a relaxed layover day on the Sunday, perhaps exploring North Spruce.

Paddling up Poplar Lake we saw two or three occupied campsites, but it looked like there were plenty of spots to camp on the lake. We found the start of the portage to South Spruce right about where JM says it should be.
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Now, see where the portage trail crosses an old logging road? There was at that point a junction in the trail, with all branches/trails looking kinda the same. Based on the map I wanted to say don't turn left, but the GPS direction on Avenza actually indicated that left was where we wanted to go to follow the portage, so I chalked it up to the road being incorrectly marked. We went left along the trail but after a while our progress seemed to veer north off the trail direction. We looked around but couldn't find a trail branching off in the direction we were supposed to go, so we eventually conceded to bushwhack the rest of the way to South Spruce Lake.

It wasn't really a pleasant bushwhack, through heavy cover with heavy mosquitoes biting through our bug jackets and bug spray, and often no good way to move forward. We probably spent an hour in the woods there and it was almost 8 when we emerged onto South Spruce Lake (still no sign of any portage trail/landing), at which point we grabbed the site that appears on JM and quickly set up camp.

Although there was a large cabin across the lake from the campsite plainly visible, we clearly had the whole lake to ourselves. The campsite wasn't great in terms of tent space or food hang spots, but it had very nice big shoreline rocks to sit on and enjoy the view, with a well set-up firepit and a rock table.
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Being kind of exhausted from this we slept in and lazed around the next morning -- the day started grey and windy anyway, though it later got nice -- and then scouted the portage to Hammell, went swimming, and explored the lake while unsuccessfully trying to catch dinner.
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the Spruce Lakes live up to their name

We didn't really go into North Spruce but we did check out the way in. There isn't a beaver dam there like JM shows, just an open, flowing channel, and no sign of a road or anything like that.

Eagles were a common sight on the lake, though no good photos.
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In fact there was a nest of some sort of smaller raptor (a falcon or accipiter of some sort) on our island that would sometimes get into conflict with the eagles, we saw them chasing one at some point.

Anyway here's a nice sunset from the campsite.
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On the Monday morning we got an early start, actually ate breakfast in the canoe to avoid the mosquitoes as we headed for the portage to Hammell Lake. This portage, which we'd scouted the previous day, was in surprisingly good shape, with even flagging tape along the path. We'd also hacked down one obstruction while scouting. The portage is about where JM says it should be, but it's not visible from the water on the South Spruce side; look for the big gently sloping boulder that looks more like a nice campsite's frontage than a portage landing. At the Hammell Lake end there were a couple of cached boats and flagging tape facing the water. I guess those boats must be associated with the cabin on South Spruce, whose owners must have some sort of ATV access, and maybe they maintain the portage.

Hammell Lake feels very secluded. As we paddled across it, trolling a Rapala, I finally scooped up a bass.
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When we got to the south end of the lake, the shallows were full of juvenile bass and sunfish. Between this and the existence of the boat cache, I wonder if Hammell is really the lake to fish. It is the one lake on the loop in which smallmouth are the only major predator species (the other lakes have at least pike, and lake trout and walleye in the case of Tilden and Bear), which made Hammell seem less interesting fish-wise, but maybe creates more abundance?

Anyway, then came the unpleasant matter of portaging south to Bear.
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Wading around in the shallows at the south end of Hammell Lake, we could find no sign of a trail. In one spot, just slightly west of where the landing should have been, there were about 3 posts with circular tags on them, looking more like an old survey or claim line than trail markers really, and in any case they didn't lead to a path. Once again we realized we would have to bushwhack, this time the whole 1km+.

And it was rough. For some stretches we had to lunchbox the canoe to angle it through really dense bush. We crossed two old bush roads, the first (northernmost) of which is visible both on JM and the provincial topo mapping, the second one not, and neither showing any sign of recent use (other than footprints of bear, moose and wolves). At each road we scouted along in both directions to see if we could pick up a trail, but there was none. The first road we followed east a little bit since it was angling in our direction anyway, and we did spot a piece of flagging tape that may or may not have been meant to indicate a place to turn off, and was as good a place to turn off as any, though it didn't get us on a path. On the second road we went west a little bit, for the same reason, and at some point saw an arrow made of stones on the road pointing back towards Hammell Lake, perhaps suggesting that there was once a path branching off the road in that place. I guess trees grow faster than rock arrows disappear.

After sweating, swearing and crashing through the forest for probably a couple of hours, we emerged right at the cabin that JM shows immediately east of where the portage landing should be. I shouted hello but no one was home. The waterfront was a perfect sandy beach, bug-free in the stiff breeze off the lake, the cached boats of the Bear-Tilden portage landing shining like a beacon some 3km away across the blue waves. Caleigh said we should take a swim before continuing. I suggested we hold off until the other end of the lake, since we were technically trespassing, but that idea didn't gain much traction. If the cabin owner is reading this, I'm sorry we used your beautiful property. I promise we didn't touch anything but the sand. The paddle lying on the beach isn't ours.

That "stiff breeze off the lake" made for a slow upwind push across Bear, and going the same direction on Tilden was only slightly better. We made it back to the car embarrassingly late in the day, but having gotten an early start, still made it home to Toronto for a late dinner. Headwinds, bushwhack portaging, searches for nonexistent portages and a couple of meal breaks can add up.

All in all, we did great for solitude on a July long weekend; beyond Tilden Lake itself, the only humans we saw (and them at a distance) were a couple of occupied campsites on Poplar Lake and one motorboat on Bear on the last day. In the future, I'll probably leave any canoe routes where I'm not totally confident about portage conditions for a less buggy season. And I'd be interested to hear if this cute little route is ever re-opened, so to speak.


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PostPosted: July 9th, 2019, 3:54 pm 
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Joined: June 28th, 2008, 2:06 pm
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Location: GTA
Interesting. We were in the exact same time as you, but reached South Spruce one day later. On Sunday morning we saw your boat on the island on South Spruce and continued on to North Spruce for a site. Ours wasn't a loop trip though, so we didn't experience the difficulties you did getting back into Bear Lake. We had an extra day and headed back out the way we came on Tuesday morning. Great weather for the weekend!


Last edited by Brad Thomas on July 9th, 2019, 4:58 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: July 9th, 2019, 4:31 pm 
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Joined: February 12th, 2008, 6:01 pm
Posts: 426
Location: North Bay, Ontario
Hi,

North Spruce is the nicest of the group in my opinion.

I too never found the portage from Hammell into Bear, and ended up walking way more than I should have. We ended up hitting the little stream where the bush road crosses and paddling the stream into Bear. Saw a moose there too. But not a pleasant portage. If there is a proper portage trail it is certainly not obvious.

Kinguq.


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PostPosted: July 9th, 2019, 6:55 pm 
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Joined: August 19th, 2011, 8:28 am
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@Brad Thomas - haha awesome, I guess we weren't as alone on the Spruces as we thought, and would have seen you if we'd gone farther into North Spruce. How was the Poplar-South Spruce portage for you? While I'm fairly confident that there was no trail to be found from Hammell to Bear, I would entertain the possibility that we missed something when we lost the trail from Poplar to South Spruce, perhaps made a wrong turn at the junction after all. Was the Hammell-Bear issue the reason you didn't loop? After all, once you were on North Spruce it would seem that Hammell is the shortest way back, though not if you're aware of how tough it is.

@kinguq - when I was looking into this trip I found a post of yours from a few years ago about trying to find your way through a mess of logging roads. Was there any sort of trail starting from Hammell at that point? Did you just bushwhack from Hammell to the first road (the one that shows on the maps) and then follow it southeast until it hits the creek to the eastern tip of Bear Lake? I guess I could have done that... but number one I didn't know if the creek was a paddlable one and number two the road was in pretty rough condition itself, with lots of deeply muddy spots and some fallen trees etc, so there wasn't even the promise of a long but easy portage... at best a long and normal portage.


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PostPosted: July 10th, 2019, 8:36 am 
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Joined: February 12th, 2008, 6:01 pm
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Location: North Bay, Ontario
Hi, last time I was there the portage from Poplar to South Spruce was actually a snowmobile trail and in reasonable shape. It was easy to follow about 3 yrs ago. On one trip I tried to go up the creek from Poplar to South Spruce. Not recommended...

As I recall there were a couple of boats cached at Hammell about where the portage should have been, or so I thought. A faint trail led up to the bush road, but it didn't seem to continue south as one would expect. So, reasoning that the trail couldn't branch off to the west, we followed the bush road east expecting to see the portage trail branch off at some point. We followed several trails but they just petered out or went in the wrong direction. Eventually we just followed the road, which was easy going then, until we hit the creek, then paddled the creek to Bear Lake. Just a couple of beaver dams on the creek.

If I was more ambitious I would try to flag a trail from Hammell to Bear. But I'm not, really, and there is so much great canoeing near here that it's not a priority.

Kinguq.


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PostPosted: July 12th, 2019, 7:38 am 
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Joined: June 28th, 2008, 2:06 pm
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Location: GTA
Dan M wrote:
@Brad Thomas - haha awesome, I guess we weren't as alone on the Spruces as we thought, and would have seen you if we'd gone farther into North Spruce. How was the Poplar-South Spruce portage for you? While I'm fairly confident that there was no trail to be found from Hammell to Bear, I would entertain the possibility that we missed something when we lost the trail from Poplar to South Spruce, perhaps made a wrong turn at the junction after all. Was the Hammell-Bear issue the reason you didn't loop? After all, once you were on North Spruce it would seem that Hammell is the shortest way back, though not if you're aware of how tough it is.


The Poplar-South Spruce portage had a lot of ferns, but over all it was pretty good. We managed to stay on track, but it might have helped that you had passed through just the day before. It actually ends at South Spruce on a rock ledge/looks something like a campsite, but it's marshy in the area and not a good place for camping in July. There were three cached aluminum boats there. We didn't do the loop because we had read earlier reports here (probably by kinguq) that the portage between Hammell and Bear wasn't easily followed.


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