On Friday I was a paddling virgin and despite poking a hole in my canoe, by Sunday I considered myself a bit of an expert in canoeing.

My weekend canoeing trip started in the rain as our guide from Voyageur Quest, a soft-spoken young man named Chad picked us up from Yorkdale subway station in Toronto and drove us north. There were five of us, three American women and two Canadian men, and on the way up we worried about the weather. It did not look good as it had been raining hard for most of the week.

Nearing our destination we drove through a beaver pond which spilled over the logging road, a trail we would have never been able to find ourselves. It finally petered out at an old collapsed bridge, our put-in point at the northwestern edge of Algonquin, Ontario oldest provincial park, and a mecca for canoe enthusiasts.

Under a lead-grey sky heavy with the promise of rain, we loaded our canoes and set off. We learned quickly how to efficiently pack and unload our canoes as we had a series of short portages to negotiate. We ferried barrels of food and boxes with supplies and soon felt like true coureurs du bois, as we went back and forth along the forest trails. Carrying canoes was made light work with teams of two each grabbing hold of a vessel.

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We paddled along a series of pristine lakes and streams, alternately, chatting, bantering, or simply reveling in the silence of this beautiful wilderness. We stopped occasionally to swig down some water or chow down on Gorp – short for good old raisins and peanuts, that mix that no self-respecting outdoors-person would go without. We found our rhythm as we paddled along. All of us had been in a canoe before, but none of us, with the exception of Chad, was very proficient at paddling one. Chad patiently explained the J-stroke and the draw stroke, which helped us get gracefully through bends in creeks without beaching our canoes.

On the last portage we got overconfident and in a moment of inattention, I stumbled and dropped a heavy box of gear into the canoe, poking a hole in the bottom. We didn’t notice it until we were halfway the next lake en-route to our overnight camp: suddenly there was a lot of water in the canoe! Chad to the rescue – after we arrived in camp he plugged the hole with what seemed nothing more than some duct tape and candle wax.

Camp for the next two nights was on a gorgeous stretch of beach backed by a pine forest. We quickly set up our tents, while Chad busied himself making dinner over an open fire. Starting a fire was a challenge as the forest was still wet from the rains, but Chad managed to find some dry tree roots under an overhanging sandy bank, and had a fire going in no time. Over dinner we shared stories of our travels and learned new canoe terms we had not known before. The box outback which doubled as our toilet was the thunderbox, a.k.a the kybo (short for keep your bowels open) – yes, we were becoming real outdoors-people.

Meanwhile the clouds had parted and we witnessed a glorious sunset, colouring both the sky and the lake in all shades of red, orange and pink.

Sunset over Ontario

Saturday we woke up to the splashing of hoofs as a mother moose and her calf worked their way along the beach in search of sustenance. The skies had cleared and the sun soon drew us out of our tents and into the canoes. We were to leisurely explore a series of creeks, bogs and lakes, just seeing where the day would take us. Squirrels chattered in the trees, a marten ran over a log and blue jays swooped over our heads as we worked our way through a clear creek lined by a pine-scented forest. There were surprisingly few mosquitoes and flies – perhaps they were still recovering from the heavy rains.

Kingfishers darted in the air as we paddled along the creek into a beaver pond. Chad decided to challenge us – who would dare to paddle their canoe over the top of the beaver dam? The rains having swollen the pond to overflowing, that didn’t seem too difficult, so I took him on. It is strange feeling, balancing precariously in your 17-foot canoe at the top of a beaver dam, one end hanging over the abyss as you slowly start to tip forward into the creek below.

Towards the end of the day we stumbled on a camp set on the most beautiful of lakes and we marveled how lucky the people were who were camped in a such a pristine location. Chad laughed out loud: “That is our camp”, he said.

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That night we sat around the fire enjoying each other’s company over a bottle of wine, gazing at the multitude of stars. There were more than any of us city folks had ever seen. A loon cried out a lonely haunting serenade in the distance and a shooting star swooped through the sky. We were miles away from anywhere and in no hurry to return to our regular lives.

But return one must and so on Sunday morning we broke camp and set off back the way we came. We felt like true experts now, paddling in unison and loading canoes without poking holes in the hull. We enjoyed a last floating lunch, explored some hidden bays, and too soon were back at our van. None of us wanted to leave. But thanks to Chad and Voyageur Quest we had a lifetime of memories and a boatload full of stories.

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