Canoe across Canada
“Love many, trust a few, and always paddle your own canoe” — Billy Two Rivers, Canadian Mohawk Chief,
Picture a Canadian canoe. It’s there in your head, isn’t it? Wide at the middle with simple seats across its open belly, tapering into two pointed, upturned ends. Now picture yourself sitting inside one, holding the end of a single-blade paddle and stroking through the still waters of a pristine Canadian lake. Because, really, what could be better than canoeing in the country that invented them?
Canoeing is huge in Canada and one of the last truly egalitarian activities: everyone from toddlers and teenagers to grandparents and their huskies regularly goes on canoeing day trips, weekends or multi-day adventures. All this probably has something to do with the fact that Canada is tailor-made for canoes.
“It is possible to cross Canada by water making no portage longer than 13 miles [20 kilometres],” writes Robert Twigger in Voyageur, his book about travelling more than 3200 kilometres across Canada in a 6.8-metre (21-foot) birchbark canoe. “The route is very circuitous, but it shows how much water there is in the place.”
And nowhere in Canada is more suited to canoeing than Ontario, where you’ll find the world’s largest network of “canoe routes”: almost 100,000 paddle-worthy kilometres. To fine-tune it even further, Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario’s oldest and largest wilderness park, is a paddlers’ paradise. It has 2000 lakes and 2000 kilometres of canoe trails throughout its vast, pine-forested interior, and most of the park is off-limits to cars, motorboats and even float-planes. There are beautiful hiking trails through the park, too, but canoeing is clearly the way to travel. Besides, it’s the Canadian version of bushwalking — on water.
Black bears and sled dogs
Our three-day trip in Algonquin mixed a bit of traditional canoeing — which involves paddling considerable distances each day and staying at a different campsite each night — with the canoe version of car-camping (paddling to a nice campsite then day-tripping in the canoes from there). Three days was short enough to not be too daunting, this being my first ever canoe trip, but long enough to get us into the park’s aptly named Wilderness Zone, far from busy thoroughfares that promised to be popular on this last long weekend of the northern summer.
There were three of us — my partner Craig, our guide Jen and me — in two canoes. Joining us was Jen’s “paddling partner”, Maya, an Alaskan husky/malamute, who arrived in her own lifejacket, made by Outward Hound, because she can’t swim — because she’s a sled dog.
“Maya and I have a deal,” Jen told us. “I paddle her around in the summer; she pulls me around in the winter.” It added another dimension to the trip, hearing about the dogsledding expeditions Jen runs through Algonquin in winter. “It’s pretty weird to be swimming and paddling in a lake and thinking that in six months this lake will be frozen solid, hard enough to dogsled or even drive on.”
At our put-in point on the aptly named Canoe Lake, the pebbly beach was so congested with canoes and people bustling about, there was almost no room for water at the water’s edge. We’d already packed all our gear — tents, sleeping bags, other assorted camping essentials, food and clothes — into two alarmingly large “packsacks” (oversized rucksacks with harnesses) and an anti-bear food barrel. So loading the canoe was as simple as putting these three things into the two canoes.
There was just one thing that threatened to capsize my fledgling love affair with canoes. Bears. Black bears are reasonably common in Algonquin (there are about 2000 in the park) and back at the outfitters where we’d met Jen, I’d noticed a particularly striking display of bear-chewed paddles and Eskies.
“Um, Jen,” I asked our jolly guide, before stepping into a canoe and paddling past the point of no return. “How likely are we to see bears?” Like most non-Canadians, I’d read the guidebooks telling you to be submissive with brown bears and aggressive with black bears — or was it the other way round?
Fortunately, Jen was suitably reassuring: “All in all, Algonquin Park is a really safe place to travel. As long as you put your food in a barrel or up in a tree, you’re all right.” Most campsites have ropes dangling from trees so you can haul your food at least four metres off the ground. We opted for the barrel, with the added precautions of not taking anything scented into the tents at night (not even toothpaste or lip balm) and washing our dishes immediately after every meal.
“The moose can be dangerous, though,” she added, just as I was starting to feel better about the bears, though it was getting late in the season for moose. “They can charge if you startle them — in the direction they’re facing, which is not good if they’re facing you. But there are no poisonous snakes in the park.”
Paddling and portages
That settled, our first day got off to an easy start. Paddling along the shore of our first tree-lined lake, as holiday cabins gave way to empty forest, I realised that canoeing is one of the easiest things in the world — as long as both paddlers paddle in synch, on opposite sides (swapping sides at will). It’s also supremely comfortable. Most canoes now have built-in seats, though they’re not actually for sitting on; they’re for resting your derriere on (as they say in neighbouring Quebec). Traditionally, canoes were paddled in a kneeling, rather than a seated, position, which makes sense for two reasons: it’s easier to paddle like that and it’s stable because it keeps your centre of gravity low.
Another thing I learned about canoes is that they frequently leave the water to cross inconveniently placed pieces of land in a manoeuvre called a portage (which Jen pronounced “por-taj”). Portages vary in length from a few metres to several kilometres — there are signs at each one telling you how long they are — but they’re actually a good chance to stretch your legs, rest your arms and log (pardon the pun) some forest-time.
ides, today’s canoes are as easy to carry as they are to paddle. Our 4.5-metre (15-foot) carbon-fibre/Kevlar canoe weighed only 15 kilograms and was perfectly balanced when you placed the yoke on its crossbeam behind your neck. The packsacks were more of an issue — this is the kind of trip where you want to snap your toothbrush in half, just to make the load lighter; Jen actually pre-chopped all the vegies for our dinners to avoid lugging the inedible bits on portages.
lunchtime, we nosed the canoes into a small beach, relaxed on granite boulders warmed by the sun and had our first wildlife encounter — with a resident chipmunk that scurried out from behind a rock in search of crumbs from our salad rolls. I held out my finger and it grabbed it with its tiny paws to investigate before running up a tree.
That afternoon, we paddled across open stretches of stillness where the lake reflected the clouds back at themselves so well that at times I wasn’t sure which way was up. We threaded ourselves through lovely corridors of grasses only a few feet wide where fragrant white water lilies and bulrushes brushed the sides of our canoes as we glided past. In some spots the bottom was covered in clumps of horsehair reed that looked like a hundred auburn-coloured wigs flowing back and forth in the current.
Our camp that night was a clearing on the edge of Burnt Island Lake. Before dark, I took myself away from the crackling campfire and the two canoes resting upside down on the stony beach to sit down on the pine-needled ground (which was surprisingly soft) and listen to the sounds of the evening: the lapping water, cooking pots, the quiet voices of my companions.
Except for a canoe pulled up on the far side of the lake, and the glow of a campfire there when it got dark, there were no other signs of humanity. Later, just before retiring to our tents, we heard coyotes. Or wolves. It turned out to be neither: Jen told us the next morning that duck-like birds called loons often call to each other at night.
Canoeing back in time
On our second day it didn’t take long for me to notice the obvious: everyone we saw was in canoes. It was like stepping back to a time when people everywhere travelled by canoe. Squinting a little, I could almost imagine that each canoe we passed contained a family of Algonquin Indians paddling to market or their next camp.
Long before Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki became famous for his nature documentaries and climate change activism, First Nations peoples were paddling through the wilds of northern Canada in one of the most environmentally friendly forms of transport known to man: birchbark canoes.
Made of a patchwork of bark pieces glued together with water-resistant pine or spruce resin over a frame of wooden ribs, these canoes were the epitome of sustainable travel. Because birch trees are one of the most common species in Canada, on-the-spot repairs could be done almost anywhere and when the canoes finally wore out, they were completely biodegradable. Today’s canoes are more commonly made of carbon-fibre and Kevlar, but they’re still a low-impact way to travel and still quintessentially Canadian.
One morning, as Jen made us French toast with real maple syrup (just in case we were starting to forget where we were), she told us she learned to paddle from her grandfather, who was once a fishing guide in the park, and took her first canoe trip at the tender age of five.
The Canadian theme continued when we came upon a wall of sticks blocking our path later that day: a beaver dam. There weren’t any beavers about — the best time to see them is October when they’re repairing their dams — but we had to get out of the canoes to haul them gently across the dam to avoid damaging their hulls and having to do repairs ourselves.
Star-gazing and wolf-howling
We arrived at our next campsite around lunchtime and pitched our tents overlooking a deep, dark pond perfect for swimming. It was a warm, sunshiney day and there were no nasties to be afraid of, though the bottomless black seemed to get spookier the further we swam from the bank. This was our loveliest campsite by far, and our clearest night. Because there was no moon, it was ideal for star-gazing — in the lake. With only the biggest and brightest stars reflected in the water, you could see the constellations more easily by looking down than up. Back in the sky we saw a white glow: the Northern Lights, which faded and glimmered above the treetops.
Then we tried wolf-howling. Algonquin Park is famous for its public wolf-howls. They happen every August and attract up to 2000 people in a single night, but the wolves are around all the time and you don’t even need to sound like one to get a response from a nearby pack — you just need to make a loud, sustained call. Jen howled her heart out but Maya was the only one to answer. Then again, maybe Maya was communicating with a pack of faraway wolves — apparently their hearing range is up to 20 kilometres but ours is only about five kilometres.
There wasn’t a breath of wind on the lake this night, so Craig and I decided to go for a night paddle. That’s another nice thing about canoeing: you can just grab your paddle, hop in and go. It turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. Our canoe glided over the liquid black, feeling fast without all our gear in it, and bats skimmed the water close by as we did a lap of the small lake through the silent night.
On our third and final day we met a blustery headwind, which made for a morning of intense paddling. At Tom Thomson Lake, we paddled over to a cairn on a small island. It was dedicated to a much-loved Canadian artist, woodsman and guide, Tom Thomson, who was a regular in the park from 1912 until his untimely drowning on Canoe Lake, where we’d started our trip, in 1917. The inscription read: “He lived humbly but passionately with the wild. It made him brother to all untamed things.”
That’s when it hit me. Canoe-camping is as truly Canadian as I’d hoped it would be, but it’s also more than that. After three days of paddling and camping out, I felt like I’d found yet another pathway back to the natural world. And I wasn’t the only one. As former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once said, “What sets a canoeing expedition apart is that it purifies you more rapidly and inescapably than any other travel. Travel a thousand miles by train and you are a brute … Paddle a hundred in a canoe and you are already a child of nature.”
Louise Southerden is an award-winning travel writer and photographer based in Sydney. She went canoeing in Canada as a guest of the Canadian Tourism Commission.
Facts to go
Where: Algonquin Provincial Park is three hours’ drive north of Toronto in Ontario, eastern Canada.
When to go: The paddling season runs from whenever the lakes become ice-free, which is usually the last week of April, until mid-October.
How to do it: Algonquin Outfitters will kit you out with canoes, paddles, lifejackets, camping gear, food for every meal of every day of your trip, maps and advice on where to paddle from about CAD$80 per person per day plus CAD$195 per day for an experienced guide (2–8 people). See www.algonquinoutfitters.com. Camping permits cost an extra CAD$11 per person per night and are available. See Algonquin Provincial Park: www.algonquinpark.on.ca. More information: Canadian Tourism Commission: www.canada.travel. Read Voyageur: Across the Rocky Mountains in a Birchbark Canoe by Robert Twigger, 2006, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London.