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Take the Family › Wilderness with Style In Algonquin Park, Ontario

Wilderness with Style In Algonquin Park, Ontario

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.”

When it comes to travel, do you seek out unspoiled 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 provides that and more. 

Algonquin is the largest park in Canada, comprising 7725km2 of forest, lake and river. A single road crosses the park, Route 60, traversing east to west. Most folks headed to the park, however, are looking to get off the road and get into their canoes. An estimated 2500 lakes and 1500km of canoe routes make this a true escape from civilization.   

Canoe-camping novices, we decide to play it safe on our first trip and hire a guide. Outfitters and guides are plentiful. We choose 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 promises a glamping trip fun for Mum, Dad and the kids.

Zach, our guide, details our 3-night journey over dinner in the main lodge. The completely organic and locally sourced meal paired with Canadian wines is excellent. That night our solar-powered cabin with self-composting toilets proves fascinating to my city-dwelling children used to unlimited power and flushes. 

Next morning after pancakes with local maple syrup and wild blueberries, we get down to the business of learning some basic canoe strokes. An hour later, our party of six, three to a canoe, heads out to open water.  As we pass other canoers, some groups going into the park, others returning, everyone gives a friendly greeting and wishes us a safe trip. Threading our way through the narrow and shallow wetlands that lead to the park’s entrance, signs of wildlife are abundant. The air hums with cicadas, bird songs, and bullfrog calls while the wind carries smells of fresh marsh-grass and lake-water so clean we drank it straight with just a simple filter.

A passing family warns of an obstacle ahead – an uncharted beaver dam that requires a brief portage. Our first real portage (the process of transporting boats, supplies, etc, overland between navigable waterways) is a 400m stretch of land marked by a funny yellow sign of a man carrying a canoe on his head. 

We pull 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 stagger, laughing under the weight of packs bigger then they are, and helpful adults stop to lend a hand. Portages became a fun land-break from water and a good spot for an energy snack. 

We enter the park and after another 2hr paddle across crystal-blue waters dotted with tiny islands it’s time to choose a campsite. Back-country sites are marked by orange signs with tent symbols and require a permit. There are 1500 back-country campsites in the park and no fear of having to share a site. We visit a few before settling on a protected island with a large clearing. All the sites have a fire-pit and WC, or 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 will become our routine over the next few days. Once settled, we have time to read, swim and explore our own private island. After a full day of exercise, we’re ravenous. We demolish 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 is roasted marshmallows with dark chocolate and biscuits. Down by the water’s edge the stars are brilliant and we try to remember our astronomy and pick out the larger constellations while we lie 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 is 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 2m2. 

Early the next morning, we almost get our wish. Our guide spots something on the shore, large and brown, but by the time we get close, there is no sign. We get out of the canoes and find two fresh sets of moose tracks, one big and one small. The larger set is sunk about 8cm into the mud, so heavy is the weight of the massive moose on the soft mud. 

Although we never do come eyeball to eyeball with a moose on this trip, we learn so much: conservation techniques, wilderness skills and self-knowledge – of our strength and capacity for perseverance. Everyone surprises themselves in some way. I portage a 34kg canoe on my head for 400m. My daughter rescues her brothers from underneath a capsized canoe in a simulation training. All the kids pack their own sleeping bags, backpacks, tents and carry them up and back from canoe to campsite and across portages every day with little complaint.  

Best of all, no one is 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 create conversation, spontaneous scavenger hunts emerge, we play trivia games, tell campfire stories and entertain 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.

By Take The Family

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