Algonquin Park

A moose grazes along Highway 60 in Algonquin Park

I fell in love in Algonquin Park.  We arrived with our sons at the Brent Campground late on a dark night, desperate for our sleeping bags.  Leaving her tent in the car for the night, I assembled my larger tent and then the four of us bundled into the cramped, humid space.  I slept fitfully and woke early, as the pale light seeped under the fly and through the nylon.  She lay facing me and I thought, “wouldn’t it be lovely to wake up to this face for the rest of my life?”  Later that warm, summer day, she turned cartwheels on the beach.  On the drive back to Ottawa, she put her bare feet on the dashboard and sang to the radio.

The author paddles his canoe across St. Andrew's Lake in the dusk.
Paddling on St. Andrew’s Lake, Algonquin Park (photo by Isabel Deslauriers)
Moose, Costello Creek, Algonquin Park
A loon creases the surface of the Lake of Two Rivers.
Loon, Lake of Two Rivers, Algonquin Park

Memories of Algonquin Park go back generations:  a dozen or so for settlers; 500 or more for Indigenous peoples.  A canoe glides over still water at dusk, while a loon calls across the lake, and a moose grazes in the shallows.  The face in the canoe changes over the centuries — Anishnabe, explorer, trapper, logger, camper, tourist — but the experience and wonder remain constant.  They imprint themselves on the individual and collective consciousness.

Of course, so do the blackflies.

I try to time my visits to Algonquin Park for early May, before the blackfiles and mosquitoes emerge, or for September after the first cold nights.  Not June.  Never June.  Except this year.  This year, the Fates seemed determined to thwart my plans:  critical meetings, slipping deadlines, family obligations.  I postponed my trip once, then again.  Early May slid by, then mid-May, then late May.  Not until the first week of June did I find myself pulling into the Mew Lake Campground.

The south branch of the Madawaska River bubbles over rocky shallows.
Madawaska River, South Branch, Algonquin Park

All that week, I crept early into my tent at night and rose at dawn.  For the first time in years, I didn’t light a fire.  When the sun came out, so did swarms of blackflies.  At night, or under the deep forest canopy, clouds of mosquitoes rose from the underbrush.  More than once, I retreated to the Lake of Two Rivers Cafe for lunch 0r supper for an hour’s respite.

Along the Spruce Bog Trail, mist-laden spider webs droop from shrubs in the early morning light.
Spruce Bog, Algonquin Park

Not once, though, did I regret the trip.  Morning mist rising from a lake or beading on a canvas of spiderwebs.  Pink ladyslippers blooming beside a trail.  A lichen-encrusted boulder reflected in a stream.  The rolling hills and forests spread below a fractured cliff.  The flush of new needles on a tamarack — “a little green”, as Joni Mitchell describes it.  The slap of a beaver’s tail somewhere out on dark water.  Moments of wonder and beauty capture in images and memories.

A silver maple emerges from the morning mist beside Brigham Lake.
Silver Maple in the Morning Mist, Brigham Lake, Algonquin Park
A perfect pink ladyslipper blooms beside the Peck Lake Trail.
Pink Ladyslipper, Peck Lake, Algonquin Park
In the early morning, the glassy waters of St. Andrew's Lake reflect lichen-encrusted boulders.
Still Life, St. Andrew’s Lake, Algonquin Park
A beaver pond and meadow lie below a high lookout.
Beaverpond Trail Lookout, Algonquin Park

Of course, memories needn’t always come with the scent of DEET.  Autumn may be the finest time to visit Algonquin Park, cool fire-lit nights and warm, bug-free days.  Early in the season, the lakes may still be warm enough to swim.  Colourful, quilted hills rise from shorelines.  Life at its most abundant, before the long migrations south and the long hibernation.  By the end of fishing season, the brook trout and lake trout have begun to emerge from the summer depths to chase a spoon or fly.  Amorous moose call from clearings and wetland meadows.  In the evenings, loons lament the shortening days.

Red and gold trees stand on the shoreline of the Barron River, reflected in the calm water.
Autumn Colours, Barron River, Algonquin Park
A golden maple and red canoes reflect in the water of Canoe Lake.
Cache Lake, Algonquin Park
A young spruce tree grows on a decayed tree stump in a back bay of the Madawaska River.
Madawaska River, Algonquin Park

I recall rising from my tent one morning before sunrise to look out over the Barron River.  Standing on the shoreline in the quiet darkness, I puzzled at the sound of crunching coming from both up and down the shoreline, as well as on the far shore.  Only later, in the growing light, could I make out the shapes of beavers in the shallows munching water lily roots like candy.  Later that same morning, as my son and I cooked breakfast at the fire, the alarmed chatter of a red squirrel alerted us to a pine marten peering around the thick trunk of a white pine.  In the afternoon, we pulled fat bass out of the river.

A pale peach and blue light heralds dawn over the Barron River.
Dawn on the Barron River, Algonquin Park
A boy sits under a tree with the Barron River in the background.
Camping on the Barron River, Algonquin Park
A young boy in a canoe holds up a fat bass.
Fat Bass, Barron River, Algonquin Park

On another, autumn weekend, my wife and I rented a shoreline cottage at Killarney Lodge.  Sitting on the deck in the sun, we read books, sketched, fed peanuts to the resident chipmunk, and looked forward to the next gourmet meal.  We rented bikes at the Lake of Two Rivers and cycled along the old rail line under gold and red trees.  We slept with the windows open, snuggled warmly under our thick blankets, welcoming the scent of the pines and the sound of wind in their branches.

The sun rises over the Lake of Two Rivers, as viewed from Killarney Lodge.
Sunrise over the Lake of Two River, Killarney Lodge, Algonquin Park
A pretty cottage sits under cedar trees on the shore of Lake of Two Rivers.
Cabin 3, Killarney Lodge, Algonquin Park
A woman stands astride a mountain bike on the Old Railway Bike Trail in Algonquin Park.
Cycling the Old Railway Bike Trail, Algonquin Park
A pencil sketch of a dead cedar tree leaning over the Lake of Two Rivers, with the far shore in the background.
Sketch, Lake of Two Rivers, Killarney Lodge, Algonquin Park

I have yet to visit Algonquin Park in winter, but would love to see it on one of those bright, cold January days, when the snow is dry and powdery, the spruce trees crack and creak, and the whiskey jacks complain at your passing.  I would like to see the steam rising from a beaver lodge, surrounded by the exploratory tracks of a wolf.  I would love to hear Raven croak a greeting and hear the rustle of his wings as he flies overhead.  I would love to follow an otter slide from lake to lake.  I would love to return to a warm fire and steaming cup of hot chocolate at night.

Some things, like hot chocolate, should be shared.  As much as I enjoy a solitary trip in Algonquin’s back country — quietly walking the trails, listening to the sounds of night, and rising silently in my own time — I almost prefer the shared experience.  Since the last ice age, 10,000 years ago, humans have travelled the waterways and ridges.  Where settlers now camp, Indigenous peoples once camped.  In the dense darkness of cedars, overgrown vision pits speak of ancient spiritual quests.  Decayed cabins and log slides lie mouldering beside waterfalls.  Logging trucks still rattle and bang along dirt roads, where trees fall to chainsaws.  Paddlers eat lunch on billion year-old Canadian Shield rock.  Travellers from around the world look out over the Sunday Creek Bog from the Visitors Centre, hoping (not without reason) to see a moose or a wolf.  People have always been here, and they will continue to be here.  The challenge is to ensure that Algonquin Park remains both a place to find Nature and to fall in love.

A faint peach light seeps above dark trees as dawn begins on Head Lake.
First Blush of Dawn, Head Lake, Algonquin Park
Two teenagers fish from a canoe in Algonquin Park.
Fishing in Algonquin Park
Mating dragonflies perch on a pile of camping equipment in the bottom of a canoe.
Hitchhikers in the Canoe, Barron River, Algonquin Park
Friends share a lunch on boulders deep in the Barron Canyon.
Lunch in the Barron Canyon, Algonquin Park

 

 

 

 

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