Well Tom Thomson came paddling past / I'm pretty sure it was him.
—Three Pistols, The Tragically Hip,
When Ontario's oldest provincial park — and the first provincial park in Canada — was created by the stroke of a pen on May 27, 1893, few could have envisioned the prominent place in the country's large catalogue of wilderness iconography it would come to occupy. Yet by any measure of size, familiarity, charm or usage, Algonquin Provincial Park's original 7,723 square kilometres quickly surpassed all expectations to become part of the national psyche.
Being only 250 km north of where I grew up in Toronto, and an hour from the family cottage, the park became integral to my mental bitmap, fundamental and omnipresent in my understanding of Canadian art, landscape, recreation, and ecology. I can't say I grew up in Algonquin Park, but I did come of age there. Month-long canoe trips at ages 15 and 16 cemented both physical and mental confidence, as well as a newfound sense of self-reliance. I was lucky to have a Grade 8 teacher who helped orchestrate these summer missions through an ex-student-formed outdoor club. These days, canoe-tripping is part of the actual curriculum for many Ontario high-school seniors, and Algonquin remains a prime destination — duly noted when six of us paddled up Canoe Lake last Sunday morning at the start of a week-long self-prescribed birthday canoe trip. For the first three hours of paddling and portaging, we passed ever-larger flotillas of school groups heading back in after their own wilderness forays. Teen energy was palpable in the singing and shit-talking that echoed around the lake, as was their sense of accomplishment — fond memories parlayed by a new generation experiencing the wonders of this terraqueous landscape. Despite what seemed an almost industrial increase in park usage for autumn, Algonquin's charms nevertheless quickly assembled. Wind-sculpted white pines worthy of a Tom Thomson painting adorned every pink-granite point, and loons cavorted everywhere.
But much as heading out of bounds and away from key runs at Whistler Blackcomb drops the crowd in a hurry, so, too, did we gradually find ourselves almost alone as we made our way that first day across lakes and portages as far as Burnt Island Lake, a solid indoctrination for backs unused to six hours of hard paddling and shouldering 30-kilo loads — especially given the weather.
Although it was almost October, it was preternaturally warm for this part of the world. A heatwave — the kind Ontario hadn't seen all summer — had settled over the region, with cloudless skies, temperatures in the 30s, and serious humidity that lasted far into the evening, making sleeping bags unnecessary. The heat was a welcome surprise for myself and fellow Whistlerites Asta Kovanen, Paul Morrison and Gail Morrison, as well as a couple of Ontario friends who were Algonquin veterans. As the only neophyte to eastern canoe-tripping, Asta was happy for the stellar introduction.
On lakes that were still as ponds and reflective as mirrors, hours went by where our canoes made the only ripples on their surface; we sweated profusely on the water as well as on the portages, and swam with abandon in summertime-warm waters. Bullfrogs, also seduced by July-ish conditions, began calling. But the oddball meteorology couldn't last. After three searing days it finally broke, heralded by a strong west wind that sprung up on labyrinthine Big Trout Lake just as we passed a small island where the wind also re-ignited a fire left by careless campers. Previously smouldering through duff and tree-roots, the fire reappeared with a puff of smoke as we set up camp on a nearby point. Miraculously, passing cellphone connection allowed me to call it in. Within an hour, a helicopter flew in to assess the situation, and the next morning a floatplane arrived with a two-man fire crew armed with a pump. It had started raining, which might have helped, but by then flames were thigh-high and besides, why take chances with the crown jewel of Ontario parks?
As we paddled into the rain and mists of White Trout Lake, the wind hit with force. Peregrine falcons dive-bombed from high cliffs as we struggled past their base. In the endless marshes at lake's end, we battled upstream, the wind continuing on our nose. But the canoe is a low-drag marvel that allows progress despite almost gale-force gusts. By the time we entered McIntosh Lake, white pines bowed like doormen and the wind roared through the night. The next day we faced an intimidating 2.3-kilometre portage into Tom Thomson Lake, where we'd make our last camp. After two crossings and the walk-back in the middle, it was seven kilometres of hoofing it, almost five loaded down. But after a week of canoe tripping you're a Voyageur again, and it went by fast.
Soon we were back on the water, tracking reflections, listening to the loons' maniacal symphony, scanning for moose, and wondering — industrial canoeing aside — if this ageless wilderness passage shouldn't be part of the curriculum for every student in the land.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.