Algonquin Park was Ontario’s first provincial park, established in 1893 as a wildlife sanctuary. Today it’s best known for the more than 2000 km of canoe routes that run through it. My (then) husband was introduced to the Park as a Boy Scout and always wanted to return. When he suggested we do a three-day canoe trip into the Park I said sure, believing that if I didn’t organize it then it wouldn’t happen. But the person who never organized anything had a different attitude when it came to Algonquin. As the backcountry supplies accumulated I knew I couldn’t back out. I returned feeling rather capable, having accomplished something that I never imagined I would do.
It took a few years for me to be talked into doing it again, this time with kids, but I was game.
There are 29 different access points into the Park. We most often started at Canoe Lake off Highway 60. It’s just over a three-hour drive there from Ottawa (or from Toronto) so we usually stayed at the Tea Lake Campground overnight in order to get an early morning start. There’s a Portage Store where you can rent a canoe and buy supplies.
We usually did the loop, first making the big effort to get beyond Canoe Lake (such an enormous expanse), then on to the Joes (Joe Lake, Little Joe Lake, Baby Joe Lake), Burnt Island Lake, Sunbeam Lake, Tom Thomson Lake, Little Doe Lake, and back to Canoe Lake. The further away from Canoe Lake you get the more enchanting the experience.
Once we arranged for the Portage Store to drop us and the canoes off in the northern part of the park and canoed from north to south. There were suppose to be four adults but in the end only my husband and I could go, along with four kids (one being a rather rebellious pre-teen). We started at Kioshkokwi Lake and from there went to Mink Lake, Cauchon Lake, Little Cauchon Lake, Laurel Lake, Little Cedar Lake, Cedar Lake, Petawawa River, Catfish Lake, Perley Lake, Burntroot Lake, Big Trout Lake, Otterside Creek, Otterside Lake, Little Otterside Lake, Burnt Island Lake, Baby Joe Lake, Little Joe Lake, Joe Lake, and finally Canoe Lake where our van was parked.
We left some tent poles at the first portage (I blame the “rebellious pre-teen”). The pre-teen also took a detour on one of the portages and ran right into a bear. He dropped all his gear and ran screaming through the woods; my husband, of course, had to go find the stuff.
We always seemed to run out of food halfway through the trip. Maybe we just ran out of food that anyone (but the husband) was interested in eating! So two days into a trip we would be divvying up the cookie or cracker crumbs and spooning out the last of the peanut butter.
Every trip I would quit smoking and by the end of the first day would be having a meltdown. At each portage I would look for smokers from Camp Arowhon but never came upon one, although my kids say I smoked a butt I found on a trail. (I no longer smoke.)
We always looked like amateurs the first couple of days, dropping things, yelling at one another. But by the end we were impressive, efficiently bringing the canoes on shore, everyone knowing what to take and how to carry it on the portage. We all hated the portages—the trails that connect two waterways. The portages in Algonquin Park are marked with a yellow sign of a person carrying a canoe and the sign can be difficult to spot; bring along a compass as well as the Park map.
We each carried a whistle in case we got separated on the portage and made lots of noise to warn bears that we were coming through. The gear we carried was horrendous. “The husband” remembers carrying a canoe and two knapsacks at the same time, one knapsack strapped to the front of his body, the other on his back. On the long portages we usually collapsed half way through until the mosquitoes and blackflies forced us back on our feet. Sometimes we had to backtrack to get a second load.
Jessica, my daughter, says she always remembers the tough times. Like paddling nonstop through a storm on Canoe Lake because we had to get back to Ottawa that night (we stayed very close to shore) or the time she had to pull the canoe quite a distance through murky swamp water. She helped her brother introduce his new wife to the Algonquin Park experience and it rained the entire weekend. The wife slipped while climbing a slippery hill and the pack she was carrying was so enormous that she was unable to get back up and they all just collapsed in hysterical laughter.
A neighbour—probably about 10 years old at the time—came with us on the trip through the Park from north to south, a very new experience for him. He was the kind of child that looks after his stuff very well and when dishes and utensils went missing we were always asking to borrow his. When we got home he kept his parents up all night with stories of the ordeal (while eating a much deserved pizza). But the next year he wanted to go again and this time his parents did it with him.
We usually saw a moose standing in a pool of shallow water and staring at us as we paddled by. And each night we would hear wolves but never saw one. It was never an easy trip but always rewarding when it was over. My son was not very cooperative when he was young but one year announced, “This time I’m going to help out dad”, and that was it. He has been into adventure activities ever since.
Many know about Algonquin Park through the landscape paintings of Tom Thomson and The Group of Seven. Thomson spent months in the Park, doing sketches, becoming an expert canoeist, working as a guide. His painting The Jack Pine always brings back memories of the Park. Mark Robinson, a Park Ranger, said that:
“[Tom] got into the habit of coming up Joe Creek and getting up out of his canoe, walking up along that little piece of rapids that runs up from the bridge, and he would sit there and he’d throw stones into the water, look at the heavens and clouds, then look around and throw another stone.”
That’s the magic of Algonquin Park.
You do need to put thought into what to bring and Mountain Equipment Co-op has a list posted on line. The map of the Canoe Routes of Algonquin Park is essential and we laminated ours to protect it from water. The map is available from Friends of Algonquin Park. We purified lake water with iodine tablets, mixing in powdered fruit juice to mask the taste. It can be very hot out there on the water so be sure to bring suntan lotion and a hat. And rope to tie the food pack up in the air between two trees.
You just don’t arrive at Algonquin Park for you need to make a reservation. All the information is on the Park website. Mountain Equipment Co-op also offers three and six day trips from Ottawa and Toronto. You just need to bring your clothes and a sleeping bag.
Another canoeing article
Canoeing the Barrens for 56 days with 12 teenagers
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Riding the buses
© Riding the buses 2013