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While many Canadians travelled to a cottage or a resort this summer for a little pampering, a little puttering around, we headed to Algonquin Park for a little blood, sweat and tears.
You know how you finally arrive at your vacation destination and you kick back with a glass of wine at the waterfront and coo, “Now this is more like it!”? Well, that doesn’t happen on a canoe trip.
I don’t have to tell all you smart, say-no-to-canoe-trips people that when I stood at the lake with all our gear packed in the canoes and looked across the white-capped waves at the hills the map said contained our campsite, I didn’t coo. I whispered, “Jesus, Joseph and Mary, what have I done?”
My husband and I hadn’t been on a canoe trip in Algonquin since we took our eldest son on a short one when he was six months old. You are likely picturing a howling baby in the middle of a lake in the middle of nowhere. Quite perceptive of you. We, clearly, had not been.
From then on, we stuck to the safe havens offered by cottages, beach houses and car camping with a tent trailer. Our “canoe tripping” consisted of day-long excursions from a secure campsite with all manner of civilized comforts a short drive away.
But 17 years and two more sons later, we decided to shed the heavy tent trailer and replace it with extra-light camping equipment. It was time to introduce our sons – aged 17, 16 and 12, to “real” camping. So, this past August, we set out on a proper, three-day canoe trip.
“A Canaaaydian Can-oooo trip, eh?” my middle son joked as we bumped our way down gravel roads. I felt wistful. I missed that trailer: our shelter from rain and wind; our book-reading couch with the wide, screened windows; our bed with a mattress and a down duvet, our little fridge.
I’d prepared for our trip to the Barron Canyon with a call to the park ranger, who sounded stereotypically burly. “Sure your boys can handle that steep portage?” he asked. “They’re teenaged boys, aren’t they?”
I followed up with some late-night Algonquin blog reading: “… and then we settled in with our flask of cognac and poked at the fire, feeling content that our food pack was hung: We were bear-proof for the night!”
And I finished my planning with a lot of map reading: “Robert, what do you think? The longest portage on this route is only 760 metres. Oh, how many portages per day? Um, well … looks like maybe only about four.”
We told the kids to pack just one set of dry clothes, plus a pair of old running shoes for the portages, and to take only what they’d be willing to carry.
We were as prepared as we could be, but my mind was stuck on the old adage about childbirth – you forget about the pain so you do it all again.
The pain came back to me in swift little hits.
“No, I said ‘rock to the right,’ not ‘ach, this is all right.’ ”
“What do you mean you can’t carry them any more? We have 400 metres to go.”
“Are you wearing … flip-flops?”
“How can ‘bring a dry set of clothes’ sound the same as ‘bring five different styles of shorts?’ ”
“Is that a waterfall the boys are paddling up to?”
“It’s only 7 p.m. and you’ve already hung the food pack? But I haven’t poured a glass of wine.”
“It’s called Buffalo Chicken. No, I was not aware that the main ingredient is dried lentils.”
“Mom, we’ve burned down every piece of dead wood we could find, so we’re canoeing across the lake with the saw.”
“I don’t know why I forgot to pack the marshmallows and the hot chocolate. Yes, that is a can of beer in your father’s hand. Tang is so a refreshing drink.”
“But I remember clearly telling you to pack your flashlights.”
“No, that couldn’t be a sheet of rain they’re paddling through; the weather’s supposed to be sunny with … oh no!”
But the beauty hit just as swiftly.
The silent message of a lichen-painted rock face; the lapping of warm lake water on the sides of the canoe; the warmth of a sun-baked rock after a swim; the sound of flapping wings in the sky; the surprise of a field of red cardinal wildflowers swaying beside a swift current; the soft reflection of stars on a calm lake at midnight; the way I forgot everything about my life except the pleasing rhythm of our paddling; the echo of our youngest son’s musical conversation with a loon; the sight of our two eldest sons contentedly joking and paddling their canoe without a lick of digital content between them.
After the Barron Canyon spat us out, soaking wet but grateful to be alive, we started the seven-hour journey home.
We stopped at the first hint of civilization and enjoyed subs with copious amounts of cold cuts and cold, carbonated drinks and felt so satisfied.
I went to the bathroom and admired the tap. We went to Timmy’s and marvelled at cups of hot coffee placed in our hands in exchange for metal coins. How civilized!
We drove past hulking RVs, tent trailers and comfortable cottages. Oooooh! Hot showers, refrigerators, wi-fi, chairs! We’d really missed the comfort of four walls, but then again we would never have felt what it was like to be without them.
The map is spread out over the dining-room table again. We’re thinking four days next time. Absolutely no flip-flops. If you’re willing to carry it, then yes, you can take pop.
Marcella Corroeli Jager lives in Oakville, Ont.