We call it "the look." Half revulsion and half pity, it crosses the faces of our middle-aged friends when they learn that my partner and I, two Calgary city slickers, spent our past two Canada Days on backcountry canoe trips in the realm of our iconic moose, loons and beavers.
"No spa, no hot tub, no bison carpaccio?" friends ask. Afraid not. It's remote, rough and raw, we confess. But we don't tell them that on these trips we also indulge in luxuries like hot stone treatments (lying on a piece of sun-baked three-billion-year-old granite), aromatherapy (breathing the scent of pine and wood smoke) and revitalizing hydration therapy (a sunset swim in the warm waters of an untouched lake).
Scott Green knows about nature's full-service spa. He runs Green Adventures, a Kenora, Ont., company that has a lock on local guided vacations by canoe and kayak. Unlike other "adventure" tours, Green's aren't padded with amenities like solar showers or champagne at sunset. He lets nature do the pampering.
In the Lake-of-the-Woods region, Green Adventures offers something different from the hundreds of fishing lodges that have kept the local economy afloat for generations. Though the number of lodges is declining, many still cater exclusively to the hook-and-bullet fraternity who come to view their wildlife from inside a bass boat stocked with cold Budweiser.
Seven years ago, Green saw an opportunity and began marketing affordable hands-on holidays for those who want a human-powered excursion into the forests, water and wildlife that extend for hundreds of kilometres in all directions.
For us, he planned a five-day, 76-kilometre paddle along the Confusion and Sturgeon rivers, about 200 kilometres north of Kenora. We would canoe and Green would kayak through five lakes and three placid rivers long known by the Ojibwa and rediscovered about 350 years ago by voyageurs.
The magic began when our truck reached the "put in" point beside Confusion River. As if placed there by central casting, a massive moose was on location, its head underwater as it fed about 200 metres away. Into the 17-foot aluminum canoe we went, along with our dry bags, and into Green's hands went our fate. We began paddling quietly, gliding past lily pads and serenaded by a symphony of birdsong. The moose lifted its head and looked at us. Its sheer bulk was impressive, but so was the sound made by the torrent of water running off its rack. I swear it was enough to run a hydro generator. It made for the shore, its powerful chest creating a wake that would have swamped us had it turned our way, and strode into the forest.
Over the next five hours and eight kilometres, we encountered four more moose and the limit of our personal comfort zones. We negotiated rapids, logjams, rocks and rarely-used portage routes. We waded chest-deep in a river to push our canoe past a troublesome patch of whitewater. We unloaded and loaded our boats several times, once using a rope to lower them down a 20-foot rock face. We experienced fear, giddiness and pride. And we owed it all to our thirst for an unequivocal outdoor experience, and to this man who kept us safe while we quenched it. At our camp that night on Roger Lake, we reflected on this while Green fed us vegetable stir-fry, apple pie and tea.
Green said that each year his business grows as more people seek the experience we were having. "Everyone has an innate longing to be in nature," he explained while cleaning our dishes. "I want to be the medium that brings them to it. It's so good for the soul and we can't replicate it in any form, so we come out here."
Green spent years as a fishing guide at local fly-in lodges. Now, with an honours degree in outdoor recreation and geography from Lakehead University, plus wilderness, food safety, first aid and paddling certifications, he said Green Adventures will be his life's work. Clearly this strapping 29-year-old is in his element.
By morning, our nervousness was replaced with confidence and camaraderie. Green piled into our canoe with us and we paddled five kilometres to witness Right Lake's spectacular falls, a thundering wall of whitewater stretching 15 metres high and 30 metres across. It's a sight few people have seen. On our return to camp, we collected driftwood as campfire fuel. Then, on a gently turbulent chute of water that we had easily navigated the day before, the now-overloaded boat's front dipped. In a heartbeat, our canoe was underwater and the three of us, the firewood and the canoe drifted apart. The warm water (I later coined it "boreal bathwater") had a calming effect, but fear flashed through my mind. Were we safe? Could we get the boat back?
I waited for Green to shout the directions that would save us, but he did something better: He raised his waterproof camera and snapped pictures of his flummoxed, floating guests. We burst out laughing. Then, as Green retrieved the canoe and drained it on a rocky shoreline, we bobbed in the lake and frolicked like middle-aged kids at camp.
By day three, we felt like we had lived out there our whole lives. Fuelled by a swagger you just don't get from strategic planning sessions or PowerPoints, we paddled along Sturgeon River past the sagging remains of a trapper's cabin, and under Fletcher Lake's 30-metre rock walls. We made camp on an unnamed island and enjoyed an orange and violet sunset reflected on a lake whose smooth surface began rippling with jumping fish for as far as the eye could see. All through the starry night, a loon and whippoorwill called, their duet punctuated by the tail slaps of a curious beaver circling our island. About 2 a.m., I looked about the campsite, and saw hundreds of brilliant fireflies floating silently, like helpful spirits. A look crossed my face: half bliss, half wonder, it was the expression of someone who has become a regular at the world's most laughably affordable luxury spa.
If you go
Green Adventures Kayaking Company Lake of the Woods, Kenora, Ont.; 807-467-8535; www.greenadventures.ca.
How to get there By air Fly to Winnipeg on most major airlines, and take a connecting flight to Kenora through Bearskin Airlines (1-800-465-2327; www.bearskinairlines.com). Bearskin departs from many northern towns in Manitoba and Ontario, including Ottawa. By train Via Rail does not stop in Kenora, but you can disembark in Redditt or Minaki and take a taxi to Kenora. By special arrangement Green Adventures will provide transport from Winnipeg.
What to bring Each trip is tailored to the customers' abilities, but in all cases Green Adventures supplies tents, canoes or kayaks, paddles, life jackets, sleeping bags, dry bags, satellite phone, first aid kit, etc. Customers must bring clothing and personal items sufficient for a range of weather and terrain.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Follow us on Twitter: