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