I enjoyed nearly all of the trips I’ve made by canoe but some shine out from my memories. Ironically enough, those trips that were the hardest, coldest, wettest, ecetera-est are, by far, the most memorable.
I recall one in particular, where my father, brother and I were canoeing in the mid west of Algonquin Park miserably through rain. But that point when we finally had our smoky fire going and into something drier at the camp site. Well. It’s hard to put that feeling of comfort into words. There’s a lot to say for a respite from some hard and wet portaging and paddling. And the wildlife I saw on that trip added to the experience. It was the first and last time I saw a black bear in the wild on a canoe trip. There were many loons, too, and there was the magic of being able to follow a beaver around on the small lake… wow!
I remember another canoe trip that brought whole new meaning to the word ‘arduous’. It was an 8 day trip, also from Algonquin’s west side although a different and circular route going well into the interior. My wife and the other couple we went with call it, aptly, “The Canoe Trip to Hell.” There was a drought but, when asked explicitly, the park attendant informed us that this would not affect the portages on our route. He couldn’t have been more wrong. The portages were 3 to 10 times as long in places. The fact that there was a fire ban (even though it was raining) and that we were traveling through a burnt section of the park only added to the fun. The first night we didn’t make our campsite even though the attendant had told us that it would only take us a few hours to get to it. Several hours later I was canoeing through a narrow channel in nearly complete darkness with my wife for whom nature has only one frightening creature: the frog. The water was so low that we were going past hundreds of frog heads poking up through the dark water. I didn’t say anything. This was her first real canoe trip and I wasn’t going to ruin it. We finally had to set up camp on a portage trail at 3AM in the morning, at least 8 hours after we left the cars. We all nurtured specific fantasies on what we’d do to that attendant if we saw him again. My friend Peter lead us that night by feeling the portage route with his feet. That may sound strange but it was absolutely true… he is blind but so gifted in other ways that he kept up our spirits and guided us on the dark path better than a sighted person could have.
The going just got worse. One small lake started out great but the water had gone down so far that the other end was really nothing more than thick, black quick-sand. We paddled like mad for two hours to try to reach a shore that was only 10 metres away. We had to use the momentum from one canoe to push the other in and then tow the other canoe in with a thrown rope.
It was getting laughable. We kept saying to each other that it couldn’t get worse and then it would. But none of us wanted to go back the same way… that was a horrible ‘known’ but the chance, getting slimmer all the time, that it might be better ahead kept us going.
After four days we finally reached a bigger lake and had some nice sunny weather. We pulled our exhausted bodies and canoes up on the rocky shore and collapsed, finishing every drop in our 4L wine in a box. We washed, relaxed and soaked in the sun. It was wonderful. Incredible. But looming ahead for us was the knowledge that we were going to have to take a route involving a small creek out of there in order to return from the interior. It turned out to be heavily dammed by &%^#$@( beavers. But it didn’t matter… by that point we were so eager to get out that we went at ramming speed over the top of each dam. My wife, the intrepid coureur de bois was running on our final portage out of there. When we reached civilization (Huntsville) we ordered a table full (and I mean full) of food at the only restaurant we could find open.
But we still fondly remember our trip. We saw 26 moose and many other animals… because of the drought they weren’t as shy as they normally were. Of course it could have been the one moose family (buck, doe and foal) following us to make sure that we left. It seemed like a lot of moose to me and I had worked for two summers in the park in my youth as a canoe ranger (Junior Rangers). I saw a great deal of the park on many canoe trips but I could add all the moose I saw on all my previous trips and come up with less than ten.
My poor wife. She hasn’t wanted to go on a long canoe trek like that since and I don’t blame her. It was the worst trip I’d ever been on.
But, strangely, perhaps that’s why we still talk about it!