“A Canadian is someone who knows how to make love in a canoe.”
The original plan leaving Ottawa was to drive to Winnipeg and take the train to Churchill. There I would kayak with some of the 3000 beluga whales that visit the Churchill Basin of Hudson’s Bay in the summer. Mother nature had other ideas. In May, the rail line between Thompson and Churchill was washed out by spring floods. With expected repairs not anticipated to be completed before fall, the only other access to Churchill is by plane. (As of February 2018, the route between Gillam and Churchill remains suspended.)
Churchill would have to wait. Instead, with summer in full bloom, I decide it’s the perfect opportunity to indulge in a favoured Canadian activity and take advantage of some of Canada’s jewels – our national and provincial parks.
Despite having lived half my life only a few hours away, I’d never been to Algonquin Park, the oldest provincial park in Canada. Established in 1893, the 7653 km² park transitions between northern coniferous forest and southern deciduous forest, creating a unique environment for diverse species. The tract was set aside as a wildlife sanctuary in consultation and cooperation with the forestry industry. Forestry continues within the park through a joint management plan but agriculture was banned, ensuring the protection of headwaters for six major rivers.
It’s not hard to understand the draw of Algonquin. The park is more than just a green space. With 12 developed campgrounds, 3 lodges, 4 stores, a museum, and it’s own newspaper, Algonquin is a community away from home with a focus on family-friendly activities designed to educate and engage the next generation in the cultural and natural history unique to the region. Almost a million people visit the park annually – regardless the season – to hike, bike, paddle, fish, and even dogsled in the winter.
While I’m tenting, Algonquin offers alternative accommodations for those who prefer a little more comfort, including yurts and ranger cabins. The cabins, built between the 1920’s to the 1960’s from red and white pine logs harvested in the park, were restored in the 1990’s and rented to visitors, the proceeds ensuring protection of their historical significance. While a few are accessible by car, the majority are only accessible by trail or water, offering paddlers and back-country hikers the opportunity to experience an updated version of ranger life.
With more than 2400 lakes and 1200 km of streams and rivers, there is no better way to experience Algonquin than by canoe. With a clear sky and calm waters, I take the opportunity to get out on the aptly-named “Canoe Lake” for a paddle, digging into the depths of my memory for the lessons I took at camp when I was 11. As I paddle, I find myself singing the campfire song I’d learned back then . . . “A boy and a girl in a little canoe and the moon is shining all around . . .”
The boat slips through the water like a hot knife through butter, so silent the moose I glimpse along the shoreline doesn’t notice I’m there. The campgrounds are busy but the lake is quiet and I pull out my book and just drift for awhile, disturbed only by the lonely cry of a loon as the sun begins its descent, reminding me I have to head back to the dock.
The next day finds me exploring the Park’s forestry history and some of the numerous hiking trails. The 1.5 km open air Logging Museum showcases the historic methods and equipment used in the park and includes a reconstruction of the workers’ shacks. User-friendly guides are available at the trailheads interpret the history, geology, flora and fauna at specific points along the path. Extremely detailed, most of the guides are free to use, but if you take them home with you (and you’ll want to), a request is made to leave the recommended amount in the fee box. It works on the honour system, something I’ve encountered a few times over the course of my travels. That they’re still offered for free tells me the system works.
Beaver dams abound throughout the park, the critter-made ponds and lakes dotted with white water-lilies and blue-flag irises that would inspire Monet. The park itself has drawn many artists, not the least of whom was Tom Thomson, an impressionist painter often associated with the Group of Seven. He briefly worked as both a guide and a fire fighter within the park, but spent most of his time in front of the canvas, inspired by the landscapes richly represented in his oil paintings. Tragically and curiously, he disappeared during a trip on Canoe Lake on July 8, 2017 (the same lake I’d paddled), his body found eight days later. One hundred years later, his death remains a mystery.
The trails wind through bogs and ponds, up granite outcroppings, around lakes and over streams, each trail offering it’s own unique reflection of the region’s diversity. Atop the Lookout Trail, all I can see is pristine wilderness and peaceful lakes, the view unhindered by any trace of civilization. It’s in these moments that I recognize, simply by the grace of our size, Canada has the luxury to set aside such large tracks of wilderness, both for the preservation of species and the enjoyment of the public. That our parks are so readily available and easily accessible promotes a culture of conservation and outdoor activity.
Pukaskwa National Park
I had never heard of Pukaskwa National Park, only discovering it on my road map (the old-school folding paper kind) when deciding my next stop. Still in Ontario, Pukaskwa sits just 14 km off Highway 17, along 135 km of Lake Superior coastline, offering a perfect launch point to explore the region by canoe or kayak. As large as the state of Maine, Lake Superior has a tide like the ocean, and can be just as temperamental. Fortunately, there are sheltered coves that allow for a day’s paddle with less risk.
Those who prefer the earth beneath their feet have the option of easy and moderate groomed interpretive trails, like the Firewalk Trail that explains the importance of fires in forest health, or the Bimoose Kinoomagewnan (Walk of Teachings) which explores the seven Grandfather teachings of the Ojibway elders. The more adventurous are invited to explore the backcountry trails, including the 18 km trek to the White River suspension bridge overlooking the Chigamiwinigum Falls, the first leg of the 60 km Coastal Hiking Trail.
Getting in early, I have time for a short trek along the Southern Headland Trail that takes me past Horseshoe Bay beach to a granite outcropping overlooking Lake Superior. Lichens, violets, and dwarf harebells cling to the crevices of the stone, sheltered against the wind that blows off the lake the size of Maine. While the day is warm, swimming is out of the question, the temperature even in the summer a bone-chilling 4°C.
The sound of drums catches my attention and I follow it through the trees to the visitor centre. Located on traditional Anishinaabe lands, the Park has teamed with the local First Nations to share their history and culture with visitors through stories, song and dance. We sit around the campfire and listen to tales of the people and their lives, the traditions of hunting, fishing and trapping still practiced today.
My campsite neighbour is there, a teacher from Toronto who spends her summers hiking and kayaking in Northern Ontario. She tells me she’s heading to the suspension bridge in the morning and asks if I’d like to join the hike. I would, but my stop is just an overnight and I wish her a good hike before packing the car and continuing west.
Elk Island National Park
The fields still fallow when I’d passed through the end of May have now exploded into bloom, the soft powder blue of the flax overshadowed by the rich mustard yellow of the canola (feature photo) I thought I knew this country but find myself flummoxed when a pelican flies by. Wait. What? I was under the obviously mistaken impression that pelicans only lived by the ocean.
Not so. According to friends, you can find pelicans all throughout the northern prairies and into the territories.
I even find them in Elk Island National Park. There isn’t actually an “Elk Island” in this particular Park, but the fenced and protected elk refuge, surrounded by farms and oil and gas activities, could be considered an “island” for the wildlife. You could even consider it an “island” of tranquility from the daily grind of city life in Edmonton, just 35 minutes away.
The other thing noticeable about the Park is you’re more likely to see bison than elk, with a drive-through bison viewing area near the south gate (when they deem to grace you with their presence, that is). There’s also a handling facility with chutes and corrals you can visit to learn more about the management of the animals. I’m already familiar, having done some work with a bison farmer in northern British Columbia, so skip the tour and take in some of the short hikes in the area.
The Park is home and resting stop to more than 250 resident and migratory birds. My hikes take me through beaver ponds and around wetlands that provide the perfect nesting sites for waterfowl. I catch a glimpse of a pair of trumpeter swans on the Beaver Pond trail, as well as a grebes, coots and mallards. The swans are part of a reintroduction program started in 1987 to provide the threatened species protected habitat. No beavers though and I don’t wait for dusk to see if one will appear, the mosquitos driving me out of the forest and back towards the lake where a half dozen pelicans and some geese are feeding near the shoreline.
Like all National Parks, Elk Island offers educational programs and family-friendly activities throughout the year, including a modified triathlon that includes paddling in place of swimming. Water activities are prominent in the summer with sailing, paddling, and wind-surfing on Astotin Lake. Snowshoeing, winter camping, and stargazing in the Beaver Lake Dark Sky Preserve take precedence when the snow falls.
I have time for a quick dip before the sun sets and I have to settle in for the night, the swim restorative after long days on the road. I’d like to stay a little longer and explore the Ukranian Cultural Heritage Village just outside the park, but time seems never to be on my side. I’ll be leaving the prairies behind in the morning and turning north into the northern boreal forest of the Northwest Territories.