Hailing from Alberta, I'd heard tell of these floating contraptions called canoes and possibly even seen an historic one on a field trip to Elk Island Park in grade 5. Canoeing is one of those things that is supposedly innately Canadian though, and the longer I spent in Ontario the more my reputation was being brought into question. Wild and free, you say? Not so much, due to the glaring absence of any real first-hand experience with canoeing.
Naturally, as a 'beginner' trip we decided on a multi-day backcountry camping / canoeing adventure in Ontario's premiere canoeing destination: Algonquin Provincial Park.
The planning began early in May and continued until the day of our departure at the start of Labour Day long weekend in September. We packed as lightly and efficiently as possible, with much of our effort going into meal planning and trying to understand exactly how much food we would want and need to eat in a day. *hint: bring a lot.
We chose Rock Lake / Pen Lake as our destination. This was based on minimizing portages and creating a relatively simple loop we thought we'd be able to handle. Jed has lots of canoeing experience, having gone with his parents regularly and every year at camp as a kid. We weren't really sure about my abilities but figured based on my rock-climbing experience that I could handle 2-3 hours per day without my arms becoming lifeless black stumps of rot.
Many thanks to the tireless efforts of Mark, whose great trip logs and galleries at Mark in the Park helped us with planning our route and knowing how to prepare. Also thanks to Algonquin Outfitters, who were able to answer our simplistic planning questions with great patience.
Day 1: Getting to Algonquin, putting in, and immediately putting out.
Our trip started auspiciously enough. We made good time through Bracebridge, gathered up our gear at Algonquin Outfitters in Huntsville and strapped in our canoe with little difficulty. We even stopped for a world-class poutine on Highway 60 before we rolled into the Rock Lake park office around 3pm. We checked in, grabbed our parking and camping passes and made our way to the put-in. We loaded the canoe and stepped in and started paddling into the early autumn sunshine.
Jed, master of the J-stroke steered while I paddled in the front. It was beautiful, it was windless, it was warm and sunny, it was perfect. It was 4pm. We began to look for a free campsite.
How it works (for the uninitiated) is: you reserve a back-country spot on a lake, but not a specific campsite. The campsites are marked with vivid yellow/orange signs. When you find a site, you put up your white park pass and people canoeing by will know the campsite is taken (if they can't see your tent or you aren't around at the time). If there are 12 spots on the lake and you arrive in the late afternoon as we did, you may have to check all the sites before finding a free one.
Or, you may paddle around for an hour and discover that every single campsite on the lake is full.
Ordinarily this isn't supposed to happen. The parks department manages bookings online and once all the campsites at one lake are booked, the reservation system is no longer available. We paddled the entire circumference of Rock Lake, checked every campsite - even those around the bends - and there was nothing available.
By the time we got back to the park office it was almost 6pm and light was failing. There was no way we were going to be able to get to another lake in time to make camp before dark. Jed and I were devastated. Algonquin Canoe Adventure: ruined? We had planned to camp at Rock Lake the first night, paddle through Galeairy Lake and across a 1400m portage to the base of Pen Lake for the second night, and all the way up and back into Rock Lake for the third night. Based on our reservations we could now go to Pen Lake and back to Rock Lake for nights 2 & 3, that was it.
At the office, the ranger told us that they had to close one of the campsites because a bear had aggressively chased the occupants away. Roight. Information that would have been useful when we first checked in?
They had an 'emergency' campsite that they made available to us in the RV / car camping zone, and we did the best we could to stay cheerful... but after a few rounds of gin rummy we went to bed early with the hopes of getting up and out on the lake as soon as possible the following day.
Also: people who go 'camping' in RV's? Lame and shameful and very unCanadian. Why even bother?
Day 2: Pen Lake & the Perfect Campsite
I'm happy to say that we woke up feeling more positive and ready to make the most of whatever the day brought. Luckily it was also a totally gorgeous day. We packed up and set out as mist was rising from the lake. After 40-50 minutes of paddling we arrived at the short portage between Rock Lake and Pen Lake. Jed volunteered to be the canoe-head and I carried the rucksack and paddles.
As soon as we got into Pen Lake we saw people making their way towards us. Campers who were leaving the lake? Yep - they had just left a prime campsite located on a tiny island in the middle of Pen Lake and I insisted we claim it, convinced we wouldn't find another private & secure bear-free campsite anywhere else. We set up our tent, the tarp and laundry line, and explored our little island, looking for a good tree to hang our bear-bag in.
Our day on Pen lake couldn't have been more perfect. We had our own beach, a rocky outcrop to jump off of, a sunny ledge to sunbathe and a calm canoe landing area. We went for 2 more paddles to explore the lake and only had one mishap: after stopping for a snack at a campsite lower down Pen Lake Jed left his camera on the rocks and we had to paddle all the way back to get it. Luckily, no bears had stolen it.
We watched the sunset from the canoe before building an epic fire, making dinner, and stargazing on the silent, totally calm lake.
Pro tip: bring melatonin to aid your senses in relaxing and falling asleep. I was really, really nervous about bears and it was the only way I could calm down enough to sleep properly.
Day 3: Jean Island
We packed up early and went up to see if we could claim one of the prime island campsites on Rock Lake for our final night. We got lucky and found one on Jean Island with western exposure and an amazing multi-level campsite. We set up our tent on the cliff above and spent the majority of the day relaxing with our books, swimming, and hiking around the island. The hours stretch into forever when you haven't got a timepiece, phone, or sense of the outside world. Not having to worry about anything took us into full relaxation mode. Work and Toronto and the disasters of the first night seemed incredibly far away.
Clouds skitted across the sky occasionally, but it was warm and windless again. In the evening we witnessed a spectacular sunset which we followed with another amazing fire, some marshmallows, a ukulele serenade, and stargazing that led to the realization that we could see the northern lights.
Day 4: Petroglyphs and Home Time, just in time.
The day was humid and overcast when we awoke. After an early morning swim and one more camp coffee and breakfast we packed everything up for our return to the site office. On our way we looked (in vain) for the 'petroglyphs' supposedly inscribed on the cliff walls. No luck, but we're also not experts.
As we got to Algonquin Outfitters to return our gear, the sky darkened and it began to rain - heavily. We began to notice the fall colours already tinging the trees yellow, red, and orange. The temperature dropped as we got closer to Bracebridge... So it seems like we were uber-fortunate with our amazing weather! It literally rained the next 5 days in a row at Algonquin and I felt really sorry for people who were just beginning their trips while we were ending ours... I can't imagine having to huddle inside a tent, feeling wet all the time, being cold, and not being able to make a fire to keep warm.
We're definitely heading back this year, and will probably choose one larger lake where we can make a camping base for 2-3 nights at a time instead of having to pack up and move every day. While it's neat to explore the different lakes, it's also nice not to have the pressure to get packed up and ready to set out before 9am.