Park and glide

Alia McMullen over­comes her fears to go ca­noe­ing in east­ern Canada’s Al­go­nquin Pro­vin­cial Park

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

T’S said you haven’t re­ally ex­pe­ri­enced Canada un­til you’ve ca­noed it. And af­ter spending three days float­ing through the Cana­dian wilder­ness with a tent, a pad­dle and a bar­rel to hide food from the bears, I reckon that say­ing is right. I count down the days un­til the ca­noe trip with ex­cite­ment and ner­vous­ness.

Ex­cite­ment? I des­per­ately need an es­cape from my job as a fi­nance re­porter and I have al­ways wanted to see a moose. Ner­vous­ness? Will I be able to keep up with the group of born-to-ca­noe Cana­di­ans I’ll be trav­el­ling with. Hav­ing never ca­noed or portaged (the act of car­ry­ing a boat across land), I am jump­ing in at the deep end with a three-day trip through beau­ti­ful Al­go­nquin Pro­vin­cial Park in east­ern Canada.

Then there are the an­i­mals. Aus­tralia is gen­er­ally con­sid­ered a coun­try of danger­ous crea­tures but I’ve never been con­cerned about a shark or snake break­ing into my tent at night. In Al­go­nquin, I will be sleep­ing out among black bears and wolves.

Our friend and guide, Chris, a Cana­dian who plays on an Aus­tralian Rules foot­ball team with my boyfriend Si­mon in Toronto (we were sur­prised to find there’s ac­tu­ally a well-es­tab­lished com­pe­ti­tion here) as­sures us we have noth­ing to worry about. He once spent three years as a ca­noe guide in Al­go­nquin, so we are happy to take his word for it.

As Si­mon and I stand at the dock wait­ing for Chris to help us into our ca­noe, a woman walks past; she’s dis­tressed, shiver­ing and drip­ping wet. She has at­tempted to go it alone and is now re­turn­ing the ca­noe without hav­ing left the dock. It is early Oc­to­ber, the best time to catch the mag­i­cal colours of au­tumn, but the wa­ter is chilly. It’s an av­er­age 17 de­grees by day and can drop to zero at night. But the ad­van­tage of this cool­ness is there are very few bugs; by early Novem­ber, the leaves are gone and the wa­ter freezes over un­til April.

There’s a sim­ple art to mak­ing a ca­noe go straight when only pad­dling on one side. Chris gives us a quick demon­stra­tion — dip the pad­dle, keep your arms straight and twist your core to pull it back — and, with his guid­ance, we are com­fort­ably on our way.

The great thing about ca­noe­ing in Al­go­nquin is that it can be as easy or as hard as you like. Four hours north of Toronto, the park boasts 2100km of ca­noe routes that twist through pines, maple trees and rocky out­crops. But a sim­ple daytrip on Ca­noe Lake also gives a great taste of what Al­go­nquin has to of­fer. The lake is ac­ces­si­ble by road and is large enough to keep you busy without the need for portag­ing.

The Portage Store on Ca­noe Lake rents two to three­p­er­son ca­noes for $C40 ($48) a day. Here you can get in­struc­tions, maps, or even join a guided tour from $C30 a per­son for a half-day or up to $C155 a per­son for an all-in­clu­sive overnighter. For those with no ca­noe­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, I highly rec­om­mend sign­ing up for a guide as it will make your ex­pe­ri­ence much more en­joy­able.

Ca­noes hold a spe­cial place in the hearts of Cana­di­ans. A poll of more than one mil­lion CBC view­ers re­sulted in the ca­noe be­ing named one of the seven won­ders of Canada along­side Ni­a­gara Falls, Old Que­bec City, the Rocky Moun­tains, the igloo, the wide open skies of the prairies and Pier 21 in Hal­i­fax. Ca­noes were a cru­cial mode of trans­port for North Amer­i­can In­di­ans and early ex­plor­ers in a coun­try that is about 9 per cent sur­face wa­ter. There are so many lakes in Canada the ex­act num­ber is un­known, but of­fi­cial statis­tics put the fig­ure at a min­i­mum of two mil­lion.

I im­me­di­ately love ca­noe­ing. My arms are well worn by the end of the day but that’s off­set by the feel­ing of tran­quil­lity while slid­ing silently across the wa­ter. The reds and yel­lows of au­tumn flicker in the re­flec­tions as we glide to­wards a loon, Canada’s na­tional bird. It sits in the wa­ter and lets us ap­proach to within 1m, then dives be­low the sur­face. We wait for a minute, but with no sign of the duck-like crea­ture, we pad­dle on.

With not a car for kilo­me­tres, the si­lence hangs thick in the air. It mas­sages my mind and forces me to re­lax as I breathe in the sappy smell of pine. Our group pad­dles as if in a trance for a few kilo­me­tres un­til our med­i­ta­tion is bro­ken by a block­ade of sticks across the wa­ter. Boat by boat, we step on to the branches and pull the ca­noes across. Si­mon and I are al­most ready to pass the dam when a beaver swims by with a large stick in its mouth. It stays along­side us for a few sec­onds then freezes, sud­denly aware of our pres­ence, slaps its tail on the wa­ter and dis­ap­pears.

Some­thing less peace­ful is portag­ing be­tween lakes. We have about 13 portages over our 40km trip and, while Chris tries to limit each to a few hun­dred me­tres, walk­ing with a ca­noe and camp­ing gear is ex­haust­ing.

I amalso sur­prised to learn there’s a very spe­cial way to carry a ca­noe. I as­sumed I would be help­ing Si­mon and did push-ups for weeks in prepa­ra­tion. But Chris in­sists we use the cor­rect method, which is for one per­son (Si­mon, that is) to carry the 26kg ca­noe by him­self. This is done by us­ing the wooden yoke that spans the cen­tre of the boat as a shoul­der rest. I as­sist by car­ry­ing the pad­dles.

We set up our tents in a des­ig­nated site by the wa­ter’s edge and light a camp fire. Our ex­haus­tion makes even the sim­plest pasta din­ner re­ward­ing, while sleep­ing on a foam mat seems un­be­liev­ably comfortable. Be­fore bed we pack our food into a plas­tic bar­rel that we seal and hang from a branch. Th­ese bar­rels can be rented from the Portage Store and are a ne­ces­sity to pre­vent an­i­mals, es­pe­cially bears, from rummaging around camps.

We don’t see wolves or black bears on our trip. The smaller and less danger­ous cousin of the no­to­ri­ous griz­zly gen­er­ally doesn’t at­tack hu­mans but does in­vade camp­sites and will eat just about any­thing left ly­ing around. We also don’t see a moose. Chris says they are ex­tremely shy and are rarely seen in the park.

Hav­ing man­aged to stay dry, I can def­i­nitely say ca­noe­ing is a great way to see Canada, but it also helps to have a Cana­dian close at hand to set you on the right track or to ex­plain those scary noises at dusk. Chances are that wolf-like howl is just a loon say­ing good­night. Car rental from Toronto’s Pear­son In­ter­na­tional Air­port from $C48 ($57) a day. More: www.bud­get.ca. For de­tails of ca­noe rental, Al­go­nquin Pro­vin­cial Park maps and guided tours: www.portage­store.com. For gen­eral in­for­ma­tion on Al­go­nquin Pro­vin­cial Park, in­clud­ing weather up­dates and park per­mit fees: www.al­go­nquin­park.on.ca.

Pic­tures: Alia McMullen

Up the creek with a pad­dle: Al­go­nquin Pro­vin­cial Park, with its vast net­work of lakes and rivers, is a per­fect in­tro­duc­tion to ca­noe­ing in Canada

Trav­el­ling light: Ca­noeists carry all their needs for a three-day ad­ven­ture aboard their craft

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