Ten minutes before midnight. The calm lake surface is cast in a pale, luminescent moonglow. Silently, almost surreptitiously, I slip the bow of my kayak into the warm black water; in a matter of seconds we are loaded and underway -- gliding eastward over the lake's mirror surface toward the indistinct blackness of the Amable du Fond River.
It is strangely silent. The absence of stars makes it even more peculiar. Crossing the middle of the lake, I lose sight of my companion's kayaks in the nightmist. For an instance, I feel abandoned: isolated and suspended in an ethereal void. Curiously, it is not at all an unpleasent sensation. A familiar sound suddenly resonates from some distant lake -- a restless Loon, perhaps also drifting thoughtfully over deep, black waters. Another, more obtrusive voice calls me in the distance. I respond and steer my craft in the direction of my companions. I am reminded that we still have a considerable distance to cover before we reach North Tea Lake.
Historically, the inland lakes and rivers of Ontario's Algonquin Provincial Park has been the quintessential realm of the canoe: a renowned domain of Precambrian lakes and meandering rivers, joined through a series of vigorous portages. The very essence of Algonquin reminds one of the romantic -- the courier de bois charting an unexplored wilderness, vibrant landscapes painted by the Group of Seven, the song of the Wolf, the spirit of the Iroquois -- ideally, Algonquin is the realm of the paddler; whether travelling by canoe or, more frequently today, by ocean kayak.
Algonquin Park, Ontario's oldest provincial park, encompasses over 7500 square kilometers of forestland, rivers and lakes in the southern Canadian Shield. The region is networked by a multitude of canoe routes, infilitrating almost all of the interior biomes of the park. Many portages, ranging from a few metres to a few kilometers in length, facilitate travel throughout Algonquin. While the prospect of any overland portage often discourages the canoeist, the kayaker may be even more daunted by the thought of lugging their particular crafts along trodden routes. Many contemporary kayak designs, built in Kevlar or Fiberglass, range in weight between 38 to 62 lbs. This is more than comparable to the weight of today's tripping canoes. The main difference in portaging ocean kayaks becomes evident by their shape -- ocean kayaks cannot be carried in the traditional across-the-shoulders fashion; instead, bow and stern toggle loops, or a configuration of slings, must be employed by a pair of paddlers to transport emptied kayaks across portages. The alternative is to designate a route that avoids the necessity of any significant overland portage; many such optional routes exist around Rock, Opeongo or Cedar Lakes in Algonquin.
Algonquin’s interior harbours a myriad of wildlife species, and many of these residents are best seen from the water: Moose and Black Bear, feeding and foraging along the meandering rivers, are almost always encountered near waterways in the park's interior. Methods of approach using self-propelled watercraft is often the only way to prevent startling these fauna. The movement and paddle strokes employed by the kayaker are fluid and benign; wildlife, unaccustomed to natural danger approaching from open water, are not generally startled by the motions of the passing paddler. Beavers and Otters are also quite prevailent; my own most memorable experience with a River Otter occurred while finishing a solo tour during a steady spring rainstorm on the Tim River. While cascading torrents of rain fell unrelenting around my craft, the sealed cockpit of the kayak kept me dry and comfortable. I was silently joined by the Otter, who swam under and around my kayak for over half an hour. Wildlife seem to take a kindred acceptance to the presence of the kayaker -- perhaps the harmony of motion signals a silent benevolence; an unthreatening sense of respect for the inherent solitude in wilderness.
One of the most obvious benefits that the ocean kayak has over a canoe is it's speed. Typically, a kayaker takes 2 paddle-strokes in the time that a canoeist takes one. This variance, combined with decreased drag on the hull, (kayaks make less water-surface contact then canoes) allows the kayak to travel roughly 1 1/2 times the velocity of a canoe. The structure of the ocean kayak also becomes an advantage when one encounters whitecaps or swells: the peaked bows tend to rise sharply into oncoming waves. All these differences combine to create a faster craft for tripping. As a general rule, ocean kayakers take two days to cover distance that would take canoeists three days to paddle -- this factor is notably improved during inclement weather -- the stability of ocean kayaks allows paddlers to continue confidently even during the most torrential conditions.
And although the sea kayak has traditionally been considered a craft of coastal and pelagic waters. paddling enthusiasts throughout North America have slowly brought the sleek craft inland. Interior lakes and rivers have seen an appearance of ocean kayakers over the last decade, particularly in the states and provinces surrounding the Great Lakes. More and more, paddlers are exploring inland canoe routes with the seafaring craft. By comparision, the two vessels are obviously quite distinct -- each has a host of benefits applicable to its use. While neither should be considered the superior craft, the ocean kayak certainly adds a fresh approach to wilderness tripping.
One hour later, the wind remained quiet as we turned the bows of our kayaks into Kioshkokwi Lake. We took advantage of the morning calm and paddled across the deepwater lake. On the shoreline, characteristic pine trees reminded me that I was back in the familiar wilderness of Algonquin. The weathered, solitary pines trees are what new visitors to Algonquin remember most often -- they have become a national symbol of the park, both today and throughout the park's history.
Algonquin Park was officially established in 1893, in order to preserve the tall, beautiful pine trees found in the park. Before the establishment of Algonquin, the park's large white pines were harvested to build masts for the ships of the British Navy. Rivers flowing through the park were used to float away these huge trees, and many stretches of these rivers were marked by graves where the occasional lumberjack drowned. Their scattered graves can still be found along portages throughout the park. Today, canoeists such as our group paddle these rivers to retrace the routes travelled by these turn-of-the-century timbermen.
We made our first evening's campsite along the south end of Mink Lake. Years before, I had found a small cross marking the gravesite of an early settler who once lived on this lake; we paddled there briefly to acknowledge the soul of a man who would forever be a part of the park's history. We spent that evening talking about the many phantoms that were said to roam throughout the wilderness of Algonquin. I recited my favourite legend about Wendigo, the Ojibwa spirit that ran across the treetops on the twilight wind, searching for companions to join him in his lonely journey across the night sky. We all dreamed wonderfully that night, the sounds of the forest gently stirring our imaginations as we drifted into sleep.
After dawn, we broke camp and paddled the remainder of the morning. Our route took us past Mouse Lake and into a series of rigorous portages that would carry us much further into the park. Taking turns shuttling our kayaks across these portages in pairs, my companions met a young black bear who was foraging for berries along the side of the trail.
Although Algonquin is filled with bears, very few attacks on humans have occurred over the last century. Algonquin's bear population is more at risk from poachers and habitat destruction than are the canoeists travelling in bear territory. Black bears roaming in Algonquin are very timid of any contact with humans -- our bear quickly ran into the bush when it realized that my traveling companions were headed in its direction. Hoping that the bear would reappear for our cameras that evening, we decided to set up our camp on an unnamed lake along Ravens Creek.
Autumn is by far the most beautiful time to experience a canoe trip through Algonquin. Fall temperatures are cooler, but the fragrant scents and crisp colours of the late September woodland are amplified vibrantly during this season. As the autumn sun sets, the comforting light of a campfire settles the heart as much as it warms the flesh. As dusk descended upon our second campsite, we settled quietly to listen to the haunting sound of loons calling from some lake in the distance. As the stars slowly appeared through the darkening sky, animals in the forest around us slowly awaken to roam the night. Overhead, the glowing radiance of the aurora borealis -- the northern lights -- appeared like a tapestry over the horizon. We all agreed that tonight, we would forsake our tents and sleep underneath the stars. Within minutes, we had brought our sleeping bags onto the shoreline and lay watching under the star-filled galaxy. It was one of those dream-filled nights that made us all think about life, death, God and space travel. Peacefully, we all drifted off to sleep.
The next day, we followed the current of Birchcliffe Creek to the clear waters of Biggar Lake. As we approached the entrance to the deep lake, we were met by a family of river otters who were fishing for speckled trout at the river's mouth. The young otters approached our canoes tentatively, until a whistle from the mother otter brought them back to her side. The otters swam with us for a short while, diving occasionally to bring up freshwater clams and the odd fish. We watched them as they watched us: here in Algonquin where there is little hunting pressure, most animals are not completely afraid of humans. Like these otters, some animals living in this park are as curious about humans as we are about them. We travelled with the otters for half a kilometre, until they disappeared suddenly -- a few seconds later, they resurfaced in the distance, the mother grasping a large, wriggling trout in her jaws. We continued across the lake to search for our next campsite.
As dusk again arrived, three female moose appeared out of the marsh on the north shore of the lake. They were followed almost immediately by a young bull moose with a sturdy rack of antlers. We filled up our coffee cups as we watched the young bull eagerly courting the uninterested females. I decided to paddle my canoe solo across the narrow opening to photograph the animals closer. Within minutes, I was filling my camera with pictures of this courtship. The young bull did not impress any of the females, who were more interested in harvesting water-lilies and other plants in the shallow waters. Algonquin's moose are the most common animal seen by canoeists travelling through the park. These majestic animals, the largest land mammal living in North America, can be found all across Algonquin. During autumn, bull moose anxiously attempt to mate with any female that they came across. Sometimes, males will spar and challenge each other with their impressive antlers, which can weigh as much as 30 kilograms. At this time of year, male moose are obsessed with mating, and can be quite dangerous to any human that may cross their paths. I can attest to this, having personally been charged by an angry bull during the autumn of 1986. Fortunately, that particular moose ended the chase when I ran into a frosty Algonquin lake. This evening, I decided to photograph the moose from a distance, returning to my companions to enjoy another hot cup of coffee before the evening sun set completely.
Our second-last day was spent paddling northward against a steady wind on Manitou Lake. Canoeing with the wind is always a pleasure, but canoeing against the wind always makes one wonder why they selected to travel this way in the first place. Around noon, the sky became dark and swollen, suggesting that we could possibly see the first snowfall of the year that afternoon. We pulled to shore to secure our equipment in case the winds became stronger. After a quick shore lunch, we continued to paddle north across Manitou Lake. Overhead, two ravens appeared, spiralling and diving above us, playing in the strong north wind. Within minutes, the snow came; a transparent wall of white powder -- gentle, yet announcing to us that winter would soon come in the following month. We felt lucky to be experiencing this first snowfall -- the official changing of the seasons -- here in Algonquin.
There wasn't much of a sunset that last evening. As the sky darkened, we took turns on the flat water practising our solo canoeing skills. In my mind, paddling is the most enjoyable way to travel through the wilderness: the feeling of harmony when a wooden paddle-blade cuts through the water is remarkable. Over the years, I have developed a paddle-stroke that allows me to move a canoe gracefully and silently through the water. I always try to spend at least an hour during every canoe trip practising this paddle-stroke, which I use mostly when viewing or photographing wildlife alone. I stopped paddling briefly to look at our camp; from my canoe, the flickering candle-lanterns and campfire looked like a reflection of the stars overhead. We camped that final night on the north shore of Manitou Lake. Around the fire, our conversation again turned to native legends. Manitou, in Ojibwa, means "great spirit"; it was easy to understand why native story-telling was so important to the many tribal groups that lived in this region centuries ago. We talked about the wind, nature, the coming of winter and the passage of time in the wilderness. It was difficult to convince ourselves that we would all be returning to our regular lives on the following day. We slept outside again that night, and as the light of our glowing embers dimmed, the wind carried the distant songs of howling wolves across our lake. I lay awake for a long time, listening to their timeless serenade. Overhead, the Milky Way stretched like a white band across the heavens; I drifted off quietly, thinking that this was the perfect ending to a perfect trip.
We returned to Kioshkokwi Lake the following day, paddling the short distance up the Amable du Fond River to the stretch of dirt road where we had parked our cars. As we loaded up our equipment and tied down the canoes, I took one last look at the slow current of the river. Around us, the lonely outlines of a few white pines stood tall above the surrounding woodlands. Somewhere to the east, a raven's call echoed high on the wind. The sound was comfortably familiar. I started to wonder when I would see Algonquin Park again.
Expedition Planner -- If You Go...
Algonquin Park is reached from Toronto, Ontario by driving 3 hours north on Highway 11 (Yonge Street) to Huntsville, Ontario. From Ottawa, Ontario, visitors can drive 2 hours to Algonquin Park directly by following Highway 60. Information and brochures about Algonquin Park can be received from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), Box 219, Whitney, Ontario, K0J 2M0, Tele: (705) 633-5538.
Hotels: a number of hotels operate near Algonquin. Below are a just a few that are listed by the Ministry Of Natural Resources; • Nor'Loch Lodge, P.O. Box 29, Dwight, Ontario Tele: 1-800-565-2231 • Bear Trail Inn Resort, Whitney, Ontario K0J 2M0 Tele: (613) 637-2662 • Blue Spruce Inn, R.R.#1, Dwight, Ontario P0A 1H0 Tele: (705) 635-2330
Campgrounds: reservations are recommended; • Many campgrounds throughout the park are opened from May to September. Reservations can be made by calling (705) 633-5538/5725 (Apr.1 - Sept.4)
Outfitters (Complete camping & canoeing rentals/guided trips): • Portage Store, Algonquin Park, Ontario P0A 1K0 Tele: (705) 633-5622 • Algonquin Outfitters, R.R.#1T, Dwight, Ontario P0A 1H0 Tele: (705) 635-2243
For more information about Algonquin Park write to; Friends of Algonquin Park, P.O. Box 28, Whitney, Ontario K0J 2M0.
Michael Kundu, Founder & Director of Project SeaWolf
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Copyright A. Michael Kundu