Across Algonquin: Family Style
By Kevin Callan
It was the schoolyard bully that initiated our family canoe trip across Algonquin. My daughter's arch nemesis had teased her at recess about not seeing a moose before. I doubt the ruffian had seen one either - she was one of those priggish little girls who judged everyone but herself. It was the last day of school before Summer break and Kyla came home that night with a determined look on her face. I'm not sure what bothered Kyla the most; the teasing of the school bully or the fact that she's been wilderness canoe tripping since she was six-weeks old and had yet to see a creature that Bill Bryson's defined as "a cow drawn by a three-year-old." Whatever the reason, Kyla was intent on seeing a moose (maybe even two) before going back to school in the Fall.
Algonquin was a good choice for a moose spotting trip. The population is around 3500 with the added bonus that the majority of them aren't camera shy. Algonquin is one of Canada's busiest provincial parks and the wildlife calling it home have adjusted to the crowds. Combine all that with Algonquin's 2000 kilometer of possible canoe routes and we found out hunting grounds for the Summer.
The route was a solid one. Two weeks of paddling and portaging from the west end of the park to the east end. It was a trip my wife, Alana, and I had always wanted to challenge ourselves with and it seemed timely to make our dream a reality. For Kyla the route we planned had little meaning - as long as there was lots of beaches for swimming and frogs to catch she was okay with our choice.
Since it was a linear trip there was a bit of homework on the logistics. First off we needed someone to shuttle our vehicle and we chose Jason from Algonquin Bound Outfitters. It worked out perfect. We arrived at their store just outside the west gate on Highway 60. From there we had someone from the store join us in our vehicle as we drove to the western access (Magnetewan Lake). Once we unloaded our canoe and gear, the driver took our vehicle back, to be cached at their other store in Madawaska - located along the access road to our end point on Crotch Lake. The only downside was that it was pouring rain when our shuttle driver left us. Rain doesn't bother me too much on trips, except when it happens the first day out.
We made the best of the wet weather and spent a couple of hours paddling and portaging from Magnetawan Lake to Daisy Lake. Out first night was spent on the west side of Daisy's centre island. By then the rain had stopped and Kyla went in for her first swim of the trip. She loves swimming, even though she's not all that good at it. Not sure why. We've registered her in swim classes since she was a toddler. Our dog, a springer spaniel, can't swim well either. That's like a retriever not knowing how to fetch a stick or a husky afraid of the cold. Very odd.
The area we were paddling the second and third day of the trip was a trip down memory lane for me. We kept to the Petewawa River, camping on Misty and then Big Trout Lake. It's the same waterway I took countless spring fishing trips on with my high school buddies. We had canoe tripped together since grade eleven and continued our annual visit to Algonquin through post-secondary, graduation, family and full time employment. I'm not sure what ended it all. Thinking back, it was a blend of things I guess. Some of us wanted to challenge ourselves on more northernly routes and others wanted to simply rent a cabin for the weekend. There were also differences amongst the group that caused friction; friendly banter around the evening campfire had turned into heated debates, even nasty arguments that created reversible bad feelings. Some of us still meet for the odd golf game, and a few got together for a beer at our high school reunion, but a full week venture down the Petewawa River searching for trophy brook trout became a thing of the past
I think Alana and Kyla grew a little tired of me rambling off elaborate anecdotes of past fish caught and practical jokes played on my high school chums. To them this section of the park was new and exciting, not familiar and full of good (and bad) memories. I switched my tune by the afternoon of day two and rather than cast a line into a recognizable trout hole I would stop to catch frogs with Kyla.
Our time together was well spent. We caught lots of frogs and the bond between father and daughter was immeasurable. It always has been. Since she was out of diapers I've made sure Kyla was part of the trip rather then someone tagging along on it. She carries her own pack on the portage - even though it only contains a collection of Barbie's and her favorite books. She has chores to do around camp as well, like helping mom put the tent up, fetch water or gather firewood. She even paddles some of the time, but not all the time. Our relationship on a canoe trip is somewhere between being a camp councilor and an overenthusiastic and ever watchful parent; and it seems to work.
It was on the portage leading into Little Trout Lake at the end of day three Kyla had her first moose encounter. I was just ahead of her on the trail, balancing the seventeen foot beast of a canoe over my shoulders, when I caught a glimpse of four dangly legs a few meters off the overturned bow. It was a young bull, one that had definitely seen humans before. I unloaded the canoe and then jogged back on the trail a bit, catching up with Kyla and whispered "Your moose is waiting for you just ahead." She did a slight scurry past me to catch a glimpse, and then stopped dead in her tracks when she saw it. "It's big! Bigger than I thought" she muttered back, and then proceeded to motion me to go first on the trail.
Pictures of the moose were taken by my daughter, my wife and myself. I swear the moose posed for them. It also took its sweet time moving out of our way before we continued on our route. We waited patiently, however. Moose can be dangerous and encounters can go horribly wrong. The problem with Algonquin moose is that they seem tame at first and usually react like a zoo animal when you first approach them. In lesser traveled parks you're lucky if the moose stays put for half-a-second before escaping into the dense bush. Be warned, however. Algonquin moose's gentle, almost domestic character can switch back to its wild state when you least expect it. One minute you're getting the photo of a lifetime and then suddenly the beast's hackles go up and it blindly charges.
We escaped the moose encounter without incident and found ourselves camped on a banana-shaped island on Big Trout Lake a couple hours later. A group of vociferous terns were our neighbors, which became a problem when CBC Radio called on the satellite phone. Michael Bhardwaj of CBC's In Town and Out had scheduled a few interviews with us while we made out way across Algonquin. Michael said the squawking birds added to the "live" quality of the show. I just found them annoying. So did Kyla. She was interviewed by Michael as well, and she did a great job rambling on about how she felt about being on an extended canoe trip with her parents. Funny part was that after the interview she handed over the phone and said "That's not my thing dad, next radio interview you're on your own".
We had a layover day on Burntroot Lake. Day 4 and 5 were spent doing laundry, baking bread, swimming and heading to the southwest bay to check out the remains at the old Barnet Depot Farm and historic logging alligator. The two days were a highlight of the trip. The weather was good and the campsite shoreline had an amazing beach, complete with a record number of frogs for Kyla to catch and two perfect trees to tie my hammock between. The best part is that we had the entire lake to ourselves. I found it odd to have such a large and glorious lake unoccupied in such a well-known park. We enjoyed not seeing anyone but also felt some concern of the dropping numbers of paddlers heading further into the interior for longer periods of time. The first two days of the trip most of the sites were taken - all by weekend warriors. It was humorous but also disconcerting to have so many of these paddlers stand their mystified on the portage when they asked us long we were out for. Twelve days, especially with a 7 year old, seemed unreal to them. It's definitely a different mind set. We once met a group of teenage girls halfway through a long portage, all in tears about how long they had to endure the portage and the bugs; and there was Kyla jogging past them wondering what all the fuss was about.
We altered our trip slightly on day 6 and made a side trip up to Catfish Lake before heading southeast towards Opeongo Lake. Alana and I had stayed on Catfish Lake years ago, well before Kyla was born, and wanted to show her our favorite campsite there. The route from Burntroot was easy enough; we crossed Perley Lake and continued down the Petewawa River. The only mishap of the day, besides a million or more deerflies buzzing over our heads, was taking the wrong portage. Not sure how I managed to do that. The trail we were suppose to take was marked on the opposite shore. Thankfully I only hiked the canoe a quarter the way to North Cuckoo Lake when I realized my mistake. It was worth it though. A young wolf ran across the trail in front of me. What an amazing experience. I'm guessing it was one of Algonquin's notable Red or Eastern Wolves. Recently the wolves of Algonquin park have been reclassified, and by doing so, have gained extra protection.
It was always thought that the wolves in Algonquin were distinct and somewhat different than the typical Grey Wolf (Canis Iupus) of Ontario's more northern boreal forests. They certainly look different; being much smaller and having a reddish-brown texture. Initially, researchers dating back to the 1970s, thought they were a subspecies of the Grey Wolf and were labeled Canis lupus lycaon. Soon a number of biologists began disputing the connection to the Grey Wolf and believed they were more closely related to the highly endangered Red Wolf (Canis rufus) of the southeastern United States. Many others debated the fact, clearly outright denying it actually. The labeling would give the Algonquin wolves more protection against hunting and trapping and some interest groups didn't want that to happen. In 2000, however, DNA testing became available and members of the Algonquin Wolf Advisory Group were able to reclassify them the Eastern Canadian Wolf (Canis lycaon). The debate was over.
Recently other Eastern Wolves have been found in areas neighboring Algonquin (Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park for example) and some areas of Quebec, Manitoba and Minnesota. Algonquin's wolves, however, are thought to be the purest form since they have not interbreed with coyotes to the degree the others have. The reason for this, of course, is that coyotes do well in urbanized areas; wolves don't. As long as Algonquin remains relatively wild, so will the wolves.
Our side trip to Catfish was disappointing. Our favorite campsite from previous trips, the one on the large island situated in the central part of the lake, was littered with toilet paper and garbage. We moved on to the north end of the lake, only to find the cluster of sites trashed even more. We ended up choosing a site high up top a ridge on the east side of the narrows, between the north and south portion of the lake. It was clean but you had to be half billy goat to reach the tent pad and fire ring. The site had an amazing view of the lake - and we even saw twin moose calves across the lake - but it wasn't very kid-friendly.
Leaving Catfish Lake wasn't easy. There's was a major drought happening and water levels were at a major low, which meant the creek that connected Catfish and Sunfish Lake was almost unnavigable. And the three long portages that followed, taking us into Hogan, didn't help either. It was crucial that we made this day fun for Kyla. Alana and I have had our fair share of bad days on canoe trips. Kyla, however, hasn't. The number one rule while introducing youth to the great outdoors is to make sure they have a good time - or they'll second guess going out again. The saving grace was Hogan Lake. It's a beautiful and secluded lake with rugged cliffs, stout white pine, turquoise colored water and picture perfect campsites. By the time Kyla had a swim, caught a few frogs and toasted up S'mores around the campfire, she's forgotten about the nearly dried up creek and nasty portages - and so did Alana and I.
The longest portage of the trip was waiting for us the next day. The length was close to 4 kilometers (3740 meters). Most regular paddlers in Algonquin pack light and do one carry across the portages. However, with all the gear we packed for three of us for twelve days it would mean we'd have to do two loads across. That added up to twelve kilometers of walking. Yikes. These moments are the only time I dread canoe tripping in Algonquin. The average portage here is around a kilometer. Further north in parks like Quetico or Temagami the average is less than 300 meters. I still like the park though. It has a quality all to its own.
Kyla and Alana did better than I did on the long carry. The trail had a few hills and we had to contend with the heat wave that accompanied the draught; and for good measure there were a few dozen or more deer flies buzzing overhead. I think Ellie had the worst time of it. Her pack was still laden down with dog kibble and a few extra camp items I threw in.
Big Crow Lake was our destination that night. We by-passed a superb site on a sandy point to the northeast in favor of a more out-of-the-way spot in the southeast bay. Three other canoes were racing across the lake to get to the good site - a clear sign to me that it was well utilized, and much more likely to have nuisance bears problems than the one we chose.
I woke up dizzy, nauseated and disoriented. Not a good thing to happen on day eight. I suffer from Benign Positional Vertigo - an infliction that causes a sudden spinning sensation, similar to walking off the Tilt-a-Whirl ride at an amusement park after drinking a full bottle of bourbon. It's due to a disturbance within the inner ear, and quite honesty is a life-altering experience. I've been dealing with it for a few years now. I take drugs that tell the brain I'm not dizzy and visit a physiotherapist now and then to have my head shaken back and forth to loosen the small bits of bone-like calcium that supposedly clog the tube of the inner ear and induces the spinning sensation.
I was told by specialists that the illness is forever, my hearing would gradually get worse, and my balance would depreciate. I was also told that I shouldn't be going on remote canoe trips for long periods of time - something that was completely unacceptable to me. So before heading out into wilderness areas I stock up on drugs and practice doing the head shaking manoeuvre on my own. Thankfully I never had to deal with the vertigo in a remote setting - until now...
The trip mood changed when I told Alana and Kyla my dizzy spells were back. Our time out so far had been without mishap. Now things were about to change. I wasn't all that upset about being nauseous and depleted. Sadly, I had grown accustomed to it. I wasn't even too worried about the consequences. After all, we were equipped with a Spot Satellite GPS messenger and a satellite phone. I figured we could contact an outfitter on Opeongo Lake and have a motor boat come and get me. Worst case scenario would be to call for an emergency evacuation by helicopter. What freaked me out is the thought of the vertigo happening more and more on trip. My life is all about going on a canoe trip and the thought of an lifelong illness getting in the way created anxiety beyond belief.
Alana wasn't taking the news well either. Again, it wasn't the emergency evacuation that was the overwhelming part. She had helped me on previous trips dealing with other paddler's issues: broken bones, hernia, hypothermia. What upset her was having a perfect trip turn sour while Kyla was tagging along. Having your child along on a canoe trip adds a third dimension for sure. You become desperate for nothing bad to happen. This may be driven by guilt. Since day one taking Kyla out in the woods we've had friends, family members and complete strangers question why we would jeopardize our daughter's safety. Now we have; and maybe subconsciously we stopped to wonder if there concerns were justified. We've always counterbalanced people's concerns by listing all the hazards associated with her not spending time in the the wilderness. Obesity is most visible plague that's facing many youth today. But there's also a lack of creativity and mental psychological and emotional wellbeing; and worst of all, the disconnection with the natural world.
Kyla has greatly benefited from our family canoe trips. Research has shown that children who spend quality time outdoors are more self-aware, less aggressive, able to get along with others, smarter, healthier, happier. It's also been said to greatly boost problem-solving skills. Case in point. Kyla rolled with the punches through my dizzy spells. She kept bringing me fresh water to drink and strung up the rain tarp to provide shade. She stayed positive and kept busy. More frogs we're waiting to be caught at the campsite and it was a good day for swimming. The only true issue was our permit didn't allow for us to stay over two nights on Big Crow Lake; a major disadvantage of paddling through a busy park is to keep to your schedule. Breaking the rules couldn't be helped of course. And we were glad to see that not all the sites were full later on in the day.
At midnight the fifth attempt at shaking my head and loosening the crystals paid off, and by morning I was beginning to feel less nauseous. We moved on and portaged into Opeongo Lake. While having lunch at the dock on Opeongo an outfitter's shuttle boat arrived to unload a group of paddlers. We had the opportunity to bail on our trip and get a ride out but we didn't. Everyone, even Ellie I think, were relieved that we were able to continue our trip across Algonquin.
The rest of the trip went as planned. The paddle across Opeongo went smoothly due to only a slight breeze caressing the surface of this massive lake. During the crossing Kyla and Ellie had a nice long nap. When Kyla woke she grabbed a piece of driftwood bobbing by the canoe and built a makeshift boat and then soaked her feet in the bailing bucket... oh the life if a 7 year old.
Our site on Opeongo was another underused one situated close to the entrance of Anne's Bay. It was a hot, hot day so we slept without putting the tarp on the tent so we could catch a breeze and gawk up at the stars.
We started seeing more and more people en route once we paddled and portaged the Opeongo River towards Booth Lake. They were different paddlers compared to others we came across deeper in the interior of the park. A father and son portaging ahead of us left a handful of litter every time they stopped for a break; just candy wrappers and some empty fishing lure boxes but the trash was left behind deliberately and without remorse. They also didn't say hello back when we gestured to them along the trail. To me, they're actions were more than a little odd. My father always taught me to greet other paddlers while wilderness travelling, no matter who they are. You never know if you're going to need them to get you out a jam. Five of the seven groups we met that day simply ignored us. It was obvious we were running into the weekend warrior types who are only out for self-satisfaction before going home to their busy urban lives. Not sure what that's all about but I've noticed it to be an increasing trend out here.
Who was more cordial towards us was a moose that wandered up our campsites beachfront the last morning. It stayed long enough for Kyla to say hello and snap a few photos. I could tell it was a solid trip for her. What was once a new fascination with Kyla had become run-of-the-mill; spotting moose became commonplace. She was now able to inform her arch nemesis back at school that she spotted a moose (4 in total, actually). More importantly, however, she could care less about telling the school bully about it. A true sign the trip was a success.
While it was nice to finish we weren't in a rush to leave Algonquin park just yet. We had a nice chat with Ann who works at the permit office at Shall Lake and she shared stories about her summer so far. She told us about the bear who liked hanging out in the parking lot but wasn't causing any trouble. She had a sign indicating where there were turtle eggs at the front porch of the office and the date the eggs were due to hatch. She also informed us how a park warden had just handed over a hefty fine to a father and son who tossed a bag of garbage down the outhouse hole near the parking lot. Awesome.
After we finished loading up the truck, got some junk food and started our trip home, we decided to take a detour to the park's visitor centre to pick up the obligatory Algonquin t-shirts adorned with a park moose logo before heading back home.
Such a great family tripů can't wait for the next one.
Here's a YouTube video of Kevin's Family trip across Algonquin - Part 1:
Kevin Callan is the author of 11 books including "Wilderness Pleasures" and "The Happy Camper." A regular keynote speaker at major North American canoeing and camping expos for over 20 years, he has received three National Magazine Awards and four film awards, including top award at the prestigious Waterwalker Film Festival. Callan lives in Peterborough, Ontario, birthplace of the modern-day canoe.