Canada is a country of lakes and rivers. For centuries a canoe was the main form of transportation in Canada. Today, travel by canoe remains symbolic of wilderness and adventure.
I have experienced my share of wilderness, including several canoe trips into Algonquin Park. For a while now I’ve wanted to share that experience with my kids, but I’d always canoed with someone more experienced. I didn’t feel comfortable leading my family in the backcountry alone. A guided trip seemed the way to go, so this year, just before the Labor Day weekend, we did it.
Our guide, Kieran, was there to greet us when we arrived. He showed us around the Northern Edge Algonquin grounds and to the log cabin where we spent our first night. Rescued from demolition by Northern Edge’s chef, architect, and stonemason, it is more than 100 years old. There was a beautiful stone area in front of a woodstove that Lucas called his dance floor. I have never seen him dance so much!
After a swim in the lake, we met our second guide, Alissa, who joined as a guide-in-training. Kieran and Alissa were fabulous. They kept us safe and comfortable, while still making us feel capable ourselves. They shared their knowledge and they taught by example: how to build a campfire, how to portage a canoe, how to saw wood, how to use tree sap as a match, how to find the North Star, and much more. By the end, I felt that we could do it on our own, but it was so much nicer having someone else cook, make sure that everything was safely stowed at night, and help out with the kids.
That night we learned about the wolves of Algonquin. When I first started canoeing in the Park these wolves were not considered their own species, but a study on recently obtained DNA data now suggests that eastern wolves are distinct from more southerly red wolves, more northerly grey wolves (timber wolves), and coyotes. Each evening of our canoe trip we howled for wolves.
The next morning we set out on our adventure.
Instead of entering the Park through Kawawaymog Lake, we took a 10 km drive south and put in on Nahma Lake. This was a secluded route. On the busier lakes, the first portage is a highway of backcountry paddlers moving into or out of the park. Not Nahma. At Nahma we performed our first portage without meeting a soul. Portage, French for ”carrying place”, is a nice way to describe carrying all your gear (canoes, tents, sleeping mats, kitchen barrels, food, tools, etc.) on your back overland. I don’t think anyone really likes portaging, but it does give a sense of accomplishment when the water at the end comes into view. We paddled and portaged to Craig Lake where we chose a campsite nestled within a hemlock grove on a tiny island. The trees gave shade and their needles formed a soft carpet for sleeping.
We loved the site so much that we decided to use it as a base for day trips. We paddled into a narrow river and encountered a huge beaver dam. While crossing it, I got a sandal stuck in the mud and snapped the straps. Luckily I had sewing supplies in my first aid kit and was able to fix it during lunch! We paddled past a beaver lodge and then into a meandering river through a wetland. Along the way Isaac and I practiced our teamwork through the tight turns. Ray saw a stick hanging over the water and made up an elaborate story about it being a chipmunk diving board.
We portaged to Pishnecka Lake where Lucas requested a shallow sandy beach and Kieran obliged. Lucas was in heaven. I have never heard him say “Yipee” as much as he did on this trip. We saw fresh moose tracks and moose droppings. The moose were near, but we did not see them. While at the beach thunder rumbled and we had a short rain shower. We decided to keep moving and portaged a longer and hiller trail back to Craig Lake. At the end of the portage we found a muddy bog. No water in which to put the canoe, but meters and meters of mud. We had to brave the mud or portage back. With thunder rumbling, we wanted the shortest route. Kieran scoped out the area and found water. Alissa piggybacked Ray, Isaac carried Lucas, Kieran carried both canoes, and I carried the food and gear barrel. I wore no shoes. I knew my sandals wouldn’t survive the mud. Through it all the boys were fabulous. As we paddled back to our campsite, thunder still rumbling in the distance, Lucas was so chill that he took a nap!
Indeed, the kids did great the whole trip. They paddled, enjoyed the scenery, asked questions, and sang. They found ways to amuse themselves without toys, screens, or the myriad other distractions of the city.
They made a seesaw out of firewood.
They sawed wood.
They built fire pits (strong enough to be used to serve dinner on).
They enjoyed our private beach.
Indeed, we all spent time learning to skip stones in the sunset.
In the evenings we sat around a campfire, talking and learning. As the fire crackled and threw up sparks, the kids saw fire fairies. I saw the fairies too, just as I had as a child. We roasted sausages and marshmallows, then poked our sticks into the embers and wrote with the glowing tips in the darkened sky. How often are kids allowed to play with sticks and fire? But out here, supervised, relaxed and safe, it all seemed fine.
After the campfire on our last night, Ray and I sat out watching stars and lightening simultaneously. Loons called to each other, and then we heard two long howls. They might have been loons wailing, but the sound seemed deeper and longer. It might have been a wolf. I hope it was the latter. That night the storm finally broke. Lightening lit up the tent and thunder woke Lucas and I. Amazingly, Ray and Isaac slept through it!
The morning of the third day, Kieran guided us to one of the most peaceful places I have been – a hidden cove just south east of “our” island. The water was shallow and still. We saw fish, kingfishers, ducks, and even a snapping turtle. We all hated to leave, but eventually it was time to paddle out. On the way there was one final delight – a bald eagle flying low and fast right over the canoe!
We returned home closer and stronger. I was proud of the kids and proud of myself. I learned that I could still steer and portage a canoe (solo). The first try was a bit dodgy. I forgot to put the nose down to rest and instead tilted the canoe backward. The yoke slide off my shoulders and I found myself calling for assistance with it balanced on my head! By my last portage, I had remembered the zen-like concentration needed to keep the canoe up on my shoulders the entire way.
Ray asked Kieran what it feels like to carry a canoe.
“Empowering” he said.
I couldn’t agree more.
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