Up Shit Creek In Algonquin

Canoeing's not all white water. Ontario's Algonquin Park has big lakes, big woods, big wolves and a big history to paddle through.
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Canoeing's not all white water. Ontario's Algonquin Park has big lakes, big woods, big wolves and a big history to paddle through.


“Here am I sitting in my tin can far above the Moon, Planet Earth is blue and there's nothing I can do.”

‘Space Oddity’ David Bowie

I push the kevlar Evergreen canoe off the stone beach and float backwards towards the middle of the lake. There’s thirty eight minutes of daylight left and that’s enough time to float off and away into the middle of nowhere. The sun’s almost gone but there’s still enough warmth in the day to go out in a T-shirt and life-jacket. If you think all canoe-ing is white water and rage think again. This is the stillest place I’ve been on Earth.

On the shore I can hear the boys laughing and joking about wolves and bears, their humour crackling with inner-city paranoia. Their voices bounce across the lake. This lake, Pen Lake, like so many others in Algonquin Park, is a huge rippling space under siege from forests. There’s a third of the Earth’s still water in Canada, and a paddle is gentle steering me deeper into it. The setting is an area that's steeped in industrial and ecological history. What appears to now be pure nature was once the heart of pure industry. After just three days away camping and paddling it feels like we have been away for weeks. We constantly see grey lake and green banks, no mirrors, no media, no neon, no sharp edges just solitude and water and leaves. The trees that surround us look amazing bursting into reds and ochres and limes.

On shore five guys who were strangers three days ago gather by the fire. The atmosphere is boisterous and funny. The assumption of the worst case scenario is we will be savagely attacked by wolves, whilst going to the toilet in the woods. American Werewolf in London has a generation to apologise to. Only our guide Robin from Call Of the Wild knows differently. Robin describes once seeing a pair of eyes staring at him across a camp at night. A wolf, perhaps half wolf half dog, which might have been released from captivity, perhaps a pet that grew too big. But unusual for one to come and sit at the edge of a camp. They know humans will hunt them and they keep away. This one must have been used to being around humans. This doesn’t exactly calm our fears… “So they might come up to us but if they do they’ll be wanting a biscuit and a pat on the back?”

There is no 21st century entertainment here, just the opportunity to stand on a pebbled beach and stare up at the skies full of stars and howl.

We’ve been paddling and carrying these huge hefty canoes on our shoulders for three days. So much so that it now seems strange just to lie back and drift and listen and look around. There is no 21st century entertainment here, just the opportunity to stand on a pebbled beach and stare up at the skies full of stars and howl. And double up in laughter when one man’s wolf call is another man’s bad Kenneth Williams impression.

To the city boy there is nothing here in Algonquin Park, Ontario. There are no cash machines, phone chargers, taxis, televisions, i-pads, bars or shops. No petrol, no gas, alcohol, no radio, no noise. And yet there is everything. There’s peace and tranquility. There’s thousands of years of natural history. There’s an industry that built the British Empire then disappeared. There are elk and bears and wolves out there somewhere. And there’s a clutch of red trees amidst the green that look like a jigsaw piece in the wrong puzzle. I have sat leaning back on a canoe like this in the English channel but it has none of the power the forests of hemlock, balsam spruce, white birch, maple and white pine give Algonquin. When we paddle off from lake to lake, down beaver streams and across huge bays with rock walls, it’s the red jigsaw piece tree that’s my marker to say there’s just 40 minutes of paddling back to the camp.

“Turn left at the rock,” we laugh. “And then up the inlet to the bank and carry the canoe through another forest and repeat." For the short-attention span multi-channel TV and internet generation the change of pace seems a challenge. The humour is cynical but it cracks us up, we are having a fantastic time. Constantly in awe of .. what? Nature. Travel writing is essentially slacking with a passport but unlike most of us these forests have seen hard work, work that took lives and propelled a navy around the globe – turning it pink with the stamp of Empire as it went.

After defeating the French in the Napoleonic Wars the British rebuilt their fleet with the Algonquin Forest, declaring it would provide timber for a thousand years. The huge white pine trees made for perfect ships masts and they set to inventing the modern logging industry. Within 80 years the forest was spent. What followed was the hard bitten era of logging and lumberjacks. Young men sewn into their underwear until the sweat rotted it off, working 18 hour days throughout the year until the snow physically stopped them. Driven by poverty to live two to a bunk in small freezing stone hovels. Then starting up again after the ice thawed. This industrial scale endeavour has long since ended but at one point we climbed over a tiny damn and Robin explained that it was once the end point to the busiest railway in Canada, an engine, fully loaded with timber, leaving every seven minutes. We looked around, nothing. It couldn’t have looked less like an industrial railway station.

Walking through a wood four times carrying ungainly canoes and rucksacks full of toughened pans and burners is as close to the action as it comes for us Armchair Explorers. And yet this is where modern man can still truly come alive.

If you look closer though you can still see the odd trace of this hard bitten industry. An iron pin juts from the smooth boulder of a natural log flume. A cleaned log lies half submerged or stuck by a waterfall. In Alberta a  diving company have begun recovering these  lost logs for designers and architects. The cold lakes have preserved them perfectly and these 1000 year old tree trunks offer better wood stock than modern trees. They go for big money.

If the movement now as I rest 200 yards from shore is almost imperceptible the awkward portage through the forests is anything but. Look at the canoes in the pictures and you will imagine two of us carry them, one at each end. Far from it, it's a one man job. The canoes are tipped up at one end and walked onto the shoulders, worn like an enormous hat with hard wooden yokes across the back of the neck for balance. Tighten your stomach muscles and develop a pace and you eventually become accustomed to the nature of the walk. Up muddy slopes and along occasional decking, it’s a challenge to the mind as much as the body. For those of us that toil at keyboards and screens the half mile walks from lake to lake, and the immediate return for the bags with the camping equipment offer a tiny glimpse of real world work.

Walking through a wood four times carrying ungainly canoes and rucksacks full of toughened pans and burners is as close to the action as it comes for us Armchair Explorers. And yet this is where modern man can still truly come alive. Not out on the disco floor or flexing behind the endless debt potential of the credit card in a shopping mall.  Here where we were originally supposed to be. Lying on our backs across a bench and yoke, staring up at the sky. Floating in all nature's stillness. Watching the day turn to dusk. Knowing your life is doing the same. Out here on Pen Lake, Algonquin, we go at nature’s pace not our own and we’re all the better for it.

For more info contact Robin Banerjee, CALL OF THE WILD,  ALGONQUIN ECO-LODGE  Adventure@CallOfTheWild.ca

Photographs by Rob Milton

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