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Algonquin Provincial Park wilderness canoe trip. Photo by Doug ArcherDiary of a
Wilderness Trek

by Doug Archer

We had been talking about a father-and-son canoe trip since our sons starting playing hockey together a decade ago. Suddenly it was a case of now or never—girlfriends and summer jobs would soon make such an outing impossible. That’s how eight forty-something fathers and our eight fifteen- and sixteen-year-old sons came to find ourselves in Algonquin Park early on a summer morning, dumbfounded, listening to a couple of guys from the local outfitter explain how to siphon river water through a special portable purifier to make it drinkable. Silently we all wondered what we had gotten ourselves into.

None of the eight dads are what I would call ‘adventure’ types. We all love the outdoors, as do our sons; but to be honest, our outdoor ventures up until now had consisted of day-hikes on the Bruce Trail and cottaging in the Haliburton Highlands.

A few of us considered ourselves campers, but several had never slept in a tent before. Some had canoed in a previous life, none seriously. And one father had looked up the word ‘portage’ in the dictionary a few weeks before the trip and almost canceled out. I think a handful of us thought (or at least secretly hoped) that when we hired an outfitter to assemble the equipment and food for our trip, they would paddle the canoes and carry the packs for us as well.

Within the hour our eight canoes were in the water—one dad-and-son team and two 50-pound backpacks per canoe. The challenge and excitement of a five-day wilderness adventure lay before us.

Six hours into the trip, death would have been a welcome relief.

By some cruel twist of fate (some might call it a case of novices biting off more than they could chew), the first day turned out to be the toughest. Four hours of paddling across two lakes into gale-force headwind. A seemingly endless journey up a shallow, swamp-like creek that had me thinking about Stanley and Livingston paddling into the African interior. And just to keep things interesting, a 2.5-kilometre portage through dense bush with vertebrae-crushing backpacks strapped to our backs and canoes balanced on our shoulders. By the second kilometre, I ached in places I didn’t know I had. I found myself drifting in and out of hallucinations of vacationing at a chiropractic clinic.

Throughout it all, every flying insect known to man had a go at us. Mosquitoes, black-flies, horse- and deer-flies...hell, even tsetse flies for all we knew. They landed with feeder bags on, and lapped up the insect repellent we had doused ourselves with, like it was some kind pre-dinner cocktail.

When we finally arrived at the campsite, we collapsed in a heap, teenagers included. Some of the fathers had that hollow, washed-out look they say soldiers get after months in the battlefield. How many sleeps before we go home?

We were in our sleeping bags that first night by 9 p.m.—16 farting, belching, snoring males zipped inside six pup tents. God have mercy on those who forgot ear plugs…and gas masks.

The camp master (that’s what we ended up calling the dad who arranged this trip) had us up by 6 a.m. to cook breakfast and break camp. If there was one thing we all came to dread by the end of the trip it was making and breaking camp. Setting up and taking down six tents. Inflating and deflating 16 air mattresses. Rolling and re-packing 16 sleeping bags. Hoisting 50-pound packs of food up into the trees every night out of reach of the black bears.

I have newfound respect for the early explorers. Not for what they discovered or their courage in venturing into uncharted territory to discover it, but for their tenacity in sticking with it through the monotony and aggravation of having to make and break camp every day.

After a fine breakfast repast of powdered orange juice and dry toast charred black over an open fire, most of us had to go for our daily constitutional. That’s when we were introduced to the Thunder Box. This is the Algonquin Park version of a Johnny-on-the-Spot. A wooden bench with a hole cut into it perched over a shallow cavity dug into the ground. The phrase, ‘call of nature,’ had never had more meaning to me. And of course the boxes were hidden among the evergreens for privacy, which meant mosquitoes, black-flies, deer-flies…my buttocks still itch.

Back on the water we paddled slowly—too sore from Day One for anything more strenuous—through the untainted wilderness of Tom Thomson paintings. The group talked endlessly about everything and nothing, calling from canoe to canoe; and then we paddled for what seemed like hours in silence, comforted by our majestic surroundings and the simple presence of one another. I found myself wanting to freeze this moment in time.

Eight out of eight of the dads woke up on the third day in pain. It was like a morning at a nursing home as we sat around the breakfast fire complaining of sore backs, strained shoulders and pulled ligaments. The teenagers nicknamed us the Geriatrics. A day off had not been part of the original itinerary, but we figured we wouldn’t make it if we didn’t declare a day of rest.

We swam and tended the fire and explored the island we were camped on. The most strenuous thing we did all day was cook dinner. As it turned out, however, that was quite an ordeal. Following our main meal of freeze-dried stroganoff (Mmm! Mmm!), the dads decided to try their hands at preparing a blueberry cobbler the outfitter had provided us.

Before we were finished we had an assembly line going that would have put Hell’s Kitchen to shame. Powdered milk. Powdered blueberry sauce. A dehydrated dough-like substance that refused to rise. And everything had to be cooked in separate pans before combining. We had five adults hunched and sweating over propane burners stirring and mixing and cussing for almost two hours to produce a barely edible blueberry-flavoured gruel (the dough never did rise) that was devoured in about 30 seconds by the teenagers. Next time we’ll bring a bag of chocolate chip cookies.

The trip brought out the fact that in the company of guys, everything becomes a competition. What father-son team could put up their tent the fastest? Who could cook the best skillet potatoes? (We found Teflon specks from the frying pan in the potatoes one morning and the guilty dad-chef will never live it down.) Which dad could get to the end of a portage with the fewest back spasms?

On Day Four the camp master went for the ‘break-camp’ record. He had us rising and shining by 6 a.m. Macaroni with freeze-dried home fries cooked and eaten by 6:45. Tents down, sleeping bags rolled, 16 trips to the Thunder Box complete by 7:10 and back on the water by 7:15. We were good!

The talk on the water that day was about food. Real food—with substance and texture and taste—was becoming a fixation now. We were down to licorice sticks and slightly stale bagels with PB&J. But our spirits were well fed.

We travelled along a meandering river and watched beavers slide into the water from the shore and disappear under a jumbled heap of sticks and mud they called home. We crossed a small calm lake surrounded by wind-crippled pines. And over the course of the day we never saw another human being. At one point my techno-geek son, who had not taken his iPod or PSP out of his knapsack for two days now, quietly said, “It’s nice here, Dad.” The prince of understatement.

On the fifth morning, the camp master poked his head into our tent at 5:45 a.m.—what’s with this guy! But this morning it was different. He wanted us to see something. We all crept down to the lake—a collection of 16 men and boys-becoming-men. The sun was just coming up, its glow shimmering on the mist rising off the glass surface of the early morning water. Swimming toward us across the lake, only its head and antlers visible above the water, was a huge bull moose.

Over the past four days we had paddled beside beavers; shared our food with chipmunks and field mice; given a wide berth to snapping turtles and fallen asleep to the cry of loons. But this was our first moose. As though he knew he had to leave a lasting impression, he clambered onto the shore not ten feet from where we hid behind trees, strolled through our campsite and disappeared into the forest beyond. Mother Nature had saved the best ’til last.

As we paddled the last few kilometres back to our launching point—dirty, unshaven, riddled with insect bites—I felt a pang of regret: the father-and-son trip was over. I hadn’t been able to freeze it in time. But I had learned something on this excursion into the wilderness. Fixing moments in time with my son and friends was not the point—it was having such moments that mattered. And we had shared a five-day moment in Algonquin Park that I will cherish forever.

This is an original story, first published in The Country Connection Magazine, Issue 54, Summer/Autumn 2007. Copyright Doug Archer.



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