Imagine living in a fantastic city, with all its benefits—employment, amenities, restaurants, atmosphere—but also within weekend-dash distance of 2,896 square miles of protected wilderness, 2,000 lakes, and 621 miles of river to explore. That is the sort of place that I would love to live—or, at least, to spend a few days exploring. That’s why I drove north, away from Toronto’s distinctive skyline, to visit Algonquin Provincial Park with my friend Tem Doran.
We had three free days to follow our nose around Algonquin, and Tem was going to make a film about the trip. I have spent quite a bit of time on expeditions in Canada, cycling from British Columbia to Alaska, canoeing the Yukon River through gold rush country from Whitehorse to Dawson, and spending six weeks out on the frozen Arctic Ocean in Canada’s far north. I generally plan most of my trips myself, subsist on banana sandwiches and instant noodles, and push myself hard through long, masochistic days. So I was looking forward to this trip in particular, when Tem and I would be looked after by the crew at Voyageur Quest, which has been guiding adventures in Algonquin for a quarter of a century. The expert knowledge of our guide, M.A., would help us get the most from our visit. And there would not be a banana sandwich nor days of exhausted misery in sight!
Top Tree Spotting
Autumn is a beautiful season to visit Canada. The colors of the forests are spectacular. Before the trip began I knew that we would be in Ontario at the right time for seeing the changing autumnal colors. But, to be honest, I was not particularly excited by this. I live in England. We have autumn too. Foliage is foliage, right? Wrong! The autumn colors in Ontario were more thrilling than any I’d ever seen.
Tem and I were like an old couple, continually pointing out what the other person could see perfectly well for himself. “Look at those trees! It’s amazing!” we would shout. The colors were brighter, more vivid, and more varied than I had imagined possible. It was no surprise to me that Algonquin has inspired some of Canada’s finest artists, including the famous Group of Seven. Some of the shades were so bright they looked as though they had been Photoshopped to be more garish and lurid than nature normally endorses. Canada’s iconic maple trees were blazing red, the trembling aspen leaves a gentle yellow, and the large-tooth aspen an outrageous orange. In truth, I would have been perfectly happy to have done nothing more in Algonquin than look at trees.
But we had plans to be more active, not merely leaf peeping. We enjoyed hiking and biking on the numerous paths and tracks that meandered through the forests between lakes and viewpoints. I’m not sure fishing for trout could count as active, but we were excited to pit our skills (permits required) against Algonquin’s world-famous lake trout, which were about twice the size of the trout I’m used to back home. The cold lakes and rivers left behind after the last glacier melted in Algonquin Park are ideal habitats for brook trout and lake trout. Perhaps anticipating our incompetence, M.A. eased our empty-handed disappointment by producing a huge trout fillet that he had brought along in his canoe, just in case. He cooked it with lemon, thyme, and dill over an open fire, and it was, truthfully, the best trout meal I have ever enjoyed.
New to Voyageur Quest’s wide collection of boats is a pair of stand-up paddleboards (SUPs). SUPs have become wildly popular in recent years. You can use them for a gentle paddle, an energetic workout, to practice yoga on, or to explore rivers with a far better view than you get in a canoe.
Tem and I ventured out for a dawn paddle one morning. The air was still, and silence hung over the lake. The air temperature was colder than the water, and tendrils of mist drifted across the reeds. The sun, low above the horizon, glowed gently through the mist, silhouetting Tem against the golden water as we paddled out across the silence. It was a beautiful, memorable moment, made more so by the curious warbling call of a pair of loons, Ontario’s provincial bird, and the slow, stately flyby of a juvenile bald eagle.
One evening we canoed away to spend a night camping beside a lake under the stars. We pushed off and rustled out through the reeds, and after that the only sound was the slap of the canoe slicing the water and the rhythmic dip of the paddles. I always enjoy canoe trips—you can pile your boats high with luxury items but still paddle effortlessly. I got a sense, on our own short trip, of the long heritage and tradition of Canadians exploring their country on river journeys.
Generation after generation, friends and families have explored their vast wilderness areas by canoe. There is plenty to explore—almost 9 percent of Canada is covered with freshwater. I am fond of the idea of families taking children on their first adventure, and then those children growing up to be grandparents paddling rivers with their young grandchildren, passing on their stories and emphasizing the importance of preserving wild places such as Algonquin. The “leave no trace” culture felt stronger in Algonquin than it does in the United Kingdom, perhaps because of this long-standing connection with traveling through these beautiful, fragile landscapes.
We pitched camp for the night on a rocky spur of a lake. As the campfire crackled, I swam out into the freshwater, surprised by its warmth just weeks before the lake would freeze over. We grilled chops on the fire, listened to great horned owls calling in the darkness, and watched galaxies of stars pass over the trees with the firelight illuminating their trunks a warm red.
Whether your idea of fun is cooking maple-syrup-covered bacon over a campfire, sitting in a rocking chair in a log cabin, reading a book in front of a crackling log fire, or merely pointing out to your friend the glorious forest colors all around you, Algonquin is a peaceful, beautiful land to explore. And it’s all within reach of your home or hotel under the bright lights of Toronto. Make the effort to escape from the city and explore the wilderness around you.