Placed second in the adult category of our travel-writing competition, Robin Khan's piece was praised by judge Deborah Stone for being “very creatively written, with vivid descriptions and a good structure outlining the trip and what the family got out of it.”
Unspoilt nature, novel foods, new learning experiences and opportunities to keep fit – our recent trip to the back-country wilderness of Algonquin Provincial Park in Canada’s Ontario Province provided these and more.
Algonquin is the largest park in Canada, with more than 770,000 hectares of forest, lake and river. A single road, Route 60, crosses it from east to west. Most folks headed to the park, however, are looking to get off the road and into their canoes. About 2,500 lakes and 1,500km of canoe routes make this a true escape from civilization.
Canoe-camping novices, we decided to play it safe on our first trip and hired a guide. Outfitters and guides are plentiful. We chose an award-winning ecotourism lodge, Northern Edge, to help us plan our journey and take care of the details. Roughing it while still being pampered enough to have someone else take care of the planning, packing, outfitting and cooking promised a glamping trip fun for Mum, Dad and the kids.
Zach, our guide, detailed our three-night journey over dinner in the main lodge. The completely organic and locally sourced meal paired with Canadian wines was excellent. That night our solar-powered cabin with self-composting toilets proved fascinating to my city-dwelling children used to unlimited power and flushes.
Next morning after pancakes with local maple syrup and wild blueberries, we got down to the business of learning some basic canoe strokes. An hour later, our party of six, three to a canoe, headed out to open water. As we passed other canoers, some groups going into the park, others returning, everyone gave a friendly greeting and wished us a safe trip. As we threaded our way through the narrow and shallow wetlands that lead to the park’s entrance, signs of wildlife were abundant. The air hummed with cicadas, bird songs and bullfrog calls while the wind carried smells of fresh marsh grass and lake water so clean we drank it straight with just a simple filter.
A passing family warned of an obstacle ahead – an uncharted beaver dam that required a brief portage. Our first real portage (the process of transporting boats, supplies, etc, overland between navigable waterways) was a 400m stretch of land marked by a funny yellow sign of a man carrying a canoe on his head.
We pulled up along with several other canoes; portages can become bottlenecks, as packing, lifting, carrying and repacking the contents of your canoe can be time-consuming, not to mention hard work. Our little ones staggered, laughing under the weight of packs bigger then them, and helpful adults stopped to lend a hand. Portages became a fun land-break from water and a good spot for an energy snack.
We entered the park, and after another two-hour paddle across crystal-blue waters dotted with tiny islands, it was time to choose a campsite. Back-country sites are marked by orange signs with tent symbols and require a permit. There are 1,500 back-country campsites in the park so no fear of having to share a site. We visited a few before settling on a protected island with a large clearing. All the sites have a fire-pit and WC, known as a thunderbox. I pondered the moniker of thunderbox before I heard someone using it drop the lid, the wood slamming down with a sharp, loud crack.
Setting up camp, pitching the tent, creating a rain-shelter, dragging canoes up onto the beach, finding firewood and kindling, starting the fire – all this became our routine over the next few days. Once settled, we had time to read, swim and explore our own private island. After a full day of exercise, we were ravenous. We demolished a Thai noodle dinner one night, pasta bolognese the next, and gourmet flatbread pizzas cooked on hot stones on our last night of glamping. Dessert around the nightly campfire was roasted marshmallows with dark chocolate and biscuits. Down by the water’s edge the stars were brilliant and we tried to remember our astronomy and pick out the larger constellations while we lay backs to the ground, water lapping the shore.
Although the park is home to more than 260 species of birds, 40 species of mammals including wolves, loons and black bear, and 20 species of reptiles and amphibians, our goal was a sighting a moose, the largest mammal in the park. Algonquin is considered to be one of the finest moose-viewing areas in the world. An estimated 3,300 moose live within the park – one for every two square metres.
Early the next morning, we almost got our wish. Our guide spotted something large and brown on the shore. But by the time we got close, there was no sign. We got out of the canoes and found two fresh sets of moose tracks. The larger was sunk about 8cm into the mud, so heavy was the massive moose on the soft mud.
We never did come eyeball to eyeball with a moose on this trip, but we learnt so much: conservation techniques, wilderness skills and self-knowledge – of our strength and capacity for perseverance. Everyone surprised themselves in some way. I portaged a 34kg canoe on my head for 400m. My daughter rescued her brothers from beneath a capsized canoe in a simulation training. The kids packed their sleeping bags, backpacks and tents and carried them up and back from canoe to campsite and across portages every day with little complaint.
Best of all, no one was bored. It’s hard to fight the 'I'm bored' syndrome when surrounded by technology, and I give in to computers and TV more than I like. Without access to technology and no signal on the mobile phones, both kids and adults happily created conversation, spontaneous scavenger hunts emerged, we played trivia games, told campfire stories and entertained ourselves simply. Living in a world crowded with human beings, it’s hard to imagine what the world would look like without us. A trip to Algonquin will reveal the possibility.
Read more about family holidays in Canada, including adventure holidays with kids.