The Mohican is my "home river." I’m intimate with its bends, islands, riffles and pools. But, sometimes I feel the need to canoe and camp somewhere wilder, somewhere more exotic. Algonquin Provincial Park fits the bill. With nearly 3,000 square miles of forest, streams and interconnected lakes, that fascination could last a lifetime. Or more.
It’s worth the 1,100-mile drive round-trip to experience the clean waters, breathtaking scenery and wildlife you won’t find in these parts. Five years ago, we had a close encounter with wolves. Pretty remarkable considering there are only about 300 in the entire park. Compare that to an estimated 3,000 black bears.
I’ve never encountered a bear in Algonquin, but their presence is a game changer. (No pun intended.) Campers need to take precautions to avoid contact, which means dangling your food container from a bear rope high overhead before you retire to your tent at night. During the day, it’s best to suspend food packs a few feet off the ground. It doesn’t take the squirrels and chipmunks long to gnaw holes in your "bear-proof" barrel.
Don’t put your food down and expect to keep it. On one trip, a chipmunk executed a flying tackle on one of our Pop Tarts, rolling around the ground with its "prey." If I hadn’t charged the chipmunk, it would have made off with the Pop Tart.
The lakes are clean enough you can draw your drinking water from them if you filter it. (With the moose, beaver and other critters fowling the water, you might not want to drink it straight from the lake.) For years, we used a pump filter. This is a time-consuming method. Two of us had to paddle out to the middle of the lake, where the water is cleaner. One man would operate the pump while the other steadied the boat. Three years ago, two women we met up there turned us on to gravity fed bag filters. You simply fill the bag with water, roll it up to seal it, hang it from a tree, and the water flows through a filter and down a hose. The model I have holds 10 liters. I can paddle out by myself to fill it.
Of course, there is no plumbing in the backcountry. No outhouses either. Instead, campers use what is known as a boom box, or thunder box. It’s a wooden box situated over a pit. The box has a lid. When it is dropped, the lid makes a loud boom that can probably be heard two lakes away. Hence the name.
The beauty of Algonquin — like life itself — is the harder you’re willing to work, the bigger the reward. As you portage from lake to lake and deeper into the backcountry, the scenery and the water quality continue to improve. You’ll also find more tranquility — and less litter left behind by other campers.
A word on the nature of Algonquin’s lakes. Originally, the area was timbered. Streams were dammed to form lakes and logs floated down from higher elevations, moving from lake to lake to be taken to sawmills. After the park was established and the land reverted to a more natural state, the result was a staircase of pretty sizeable lakes. The portage paths typically follow the streams that cascade from lake to lake. Those streams are too steep and rocky for canoeing, so portage paths allow campers to move from lake to lake.
Some canoe campers opt for circuit routes, others prefer out-and-back trips.
Paddlers can plan their trips according to their level of fitness and ambition. The portage trails are clearly marked and some have log bridges over low-lying sections of trail. Which isn’t to say they’re easy. As the saying goes: "summer — some are, some are not." Most portages are about the length of a few football fields. Some are more than a mile. Since it takes two trips to haul canoes and gear, triple that distance.
Which is an inspiration to pack light.
When I mention Canada, the first thing people ask is, "What about the black flies?" The short answer — don’t go until mid-August or later and they won’t be an issue.
Camping fees are quite reasonable — around $13 a night per person. Getting the best campsites requires strategy and luck. My friend Steve McKee has been doing Algonquin trips for three decades and is quite adept at working the system.
There are a certain number of campsites on lakes where camping is permitted. (Not all have camping.) The park service accepts so many reservations per lake and it’s a first-come, first-served proposition. The trick is to work around weekends, to time it so you’re coming into a lake when most people are leaving. It also helps to move from lake to lake early in the day.
These days you can register online and that’s a big help — http://www.algonquinpark.on.ca/visit/camping/backcountry-reservations.php.
If you go, avoid being on the road on holiday weekends. The highways north of Toronto can be bumper to bumper for miles on end. We’ve found that you can work around Canadian holiday weekends by going up mid week, paddling deep into the back country by the weekend and staying there till the weekend is over. Their summer holidays correspond to ours, more or less. Best to check a calendar first.
Don’t forget your passport. And your camera.
Irv Oslin, a retired Times-Gazette reporter, is a canoe and outdoors enthusiast.