Although I had for years fantasized about taking a canoe and my kids on a trip through Algonquin Park, Ont., once I had finally committed, I tried to back out several times before we actually left on a cool morning, threatening rain, last August.
I didn't have much to worry about, really, because I wasn't even in charge. Through the years of talking about The Canoe Trip, my eldest, Jamie, had grown from little boy to capable teenager. After eight summers at camp in Algonquin Park, Jamie knew exactly what he was doing. My younger son, Leo, 11, just back from camp himself, was eager to venture back into Algonquin under his brother's leadership. I was less sure about my seven-year-old daughter and whether she could sit peacefully in a canoe for hours at a time.
And so my sweet husband, knowing the trip was a dream for me – or perhaps just thinking nothing could be a bigger pain for him, volunteered to stay back with her and let me go with my boys.
Jamie and I planned our route one afternoon with the map spread out over the coffee table, the Algonquin Park reservation line on speed dial and an extensive set of negotiations. He was looking for adventure and intensity, I was looking for a trip that wouldn't kill me. By choosing an access point and set of backcountry lakes that were new to Jamie, we were able to compromise and, after some back and forth, we booked two campsites just the right distance from each other.
A month later, the gear was piled up high inside our tiny Huntsville, Ont., cottage, from where we would leave. Jamie had done an amazing job organizing and borrowing equipment and supplies, but I gave the poor boy a hard time. "There's no way we need all this stuff!" I said over and over again, looking at the tent, tarp, sleeping bags, air mattresses, pots and pans, water pump, emergency stove and fuel, lanterns, axe, first aid kit, life jackets, paddles…
As a seriously food-obsessed person, what I didn't underestimate was the importance of what we would take to eat. I felt great food could make the difference between the trip being a drag and a delight, and I was not leaving that to an 18-year-old vegetarian. Jamie helped me think about what we needed – food that wouldn't spoil, as well as stuff you can eat even if you can't get a fire going, and nothing that creates a lot of garbage, or comes in cans or bottles.
When we finally left, a calm came over me. The trip might be very hard; it might pour rain the entire time, we could get lost, we might even encounter bears, but I was pretty certain we would survive, and that was good enough. We loaded the car and drove to the park office to pick up our permits. Next, we stopped to pick up the key for our rental canoe, which had been left for us at the access point. Finally, we drove toward Magnetawan Lake, and even chatty Leo grew quiet. The Magic Numbers sang from the CD player as we followed the winding road, stopping once to let a moose and her calf cross in front of the car, but otherwise encountering no one.
We parked and loaded the canoe with our giant packs. I didn't take a wallet, a phone, a watch or money. I put my car keys away, handed Jamie the waterproof map bag and got into the front of the canoe. He would steer, navigate, lead. I would just trust him, and paddle.
THE FOODIE SURFACES
We started out nice and easy. Jamie and Leo pointed out the discreet orange and yellow signs marking campsites and portage routes, but otherwise there was nothing but water and earth and sky. The first portage, just 135 metres, felt a little awkward as we tested the limits of what we could each carry, but we easily got through it.
Around the middle of Hambone Lake, the boys got hungry, and I happily broke out the first of our provisions: maple, dried cherry and walnut granola I had made, along with homemade beef jerky and iced tea.
We portaged again. By the time we got back into the canoe on Ralph Bice Lake, the sky had darkened and we felt a few drops. This was a much bigger lake than the first two, and as we paddled toward the centre of it, the wind started to really blow. Coming from behind and to one side of us, it helped to push us along, but if Jamie hadn't been skilled at holding our course, we would have been tossed to the side instead of making it to the far end of the lake and the portage to Little Trout Lake, where we had a site booked for the night.
JUST A LITTLE GRILLED BRIE OVER THE CAMPFIRE
It was raining lightly but we worried the sky could open up at any time, so we hurried to set up camp. Jamie and I worked hard to get the fire
going – everything was wet and it wasn't easy – but finally there was enough heat to cook and to warm us up a bit. I unlatched the food barrel and
got going on our late lunch – grilled brie, caramelized onion and oven-dried-tomato sandwiches – hot and gooey and tasting of fire.
We had a couple of hours to just hang out before we decided we might as well have dinner too. I unpacked the chicken breasts I had seasoned and frozen the night before, red and yellow peppers, onions, tofu, tortillas, shredded cheddar cheese, hot sauce packets and a thawing Tetra Pak of sauvignon blanc. We shouldn't have been hungry, but we sat on a huge rock and ate sizzling hot fajitas until there was nothing left, with the woods growing dark all around us.
FIRST THE PANCAKES – THEN THE PANIC
I prayed the next morning would dawn hot and sunny, but when we climbed out of the tent, it looked even iffier than the day before. Over smoky campfire coffee and blueberry pancakes, we reassured each other that we could make it to the next site, but I could see nobody felt sure. We packed up anyway, then paddled and portaged back to Ralph Bice Lake. When we got onto the open water, we could see it was dotted with whitecaps, and the little swells reminded me of the ocean. Toward the centre of the lake, the wind started to blow right at us. Water splashed up over the bow of the canoe and we started to move backward. "Paddle… and paddle, and paddle!" Jamie yelled, trying to get us to work together and propel the canoe forward. I put my paddle in the water and pulled with all my strength. I used my upper arms, my hands, my stomach, my back. My heart was pounding and everything burned, but we barely moved forward, so I paddled harder. The waves kept coming, big enough to rock the canoe sideways and splash water all over us. I couldn't see Leo's face, but I knew he would be scared, so I started to sing. I don't know what it was – some crazy song – but he joined in too, and the canoe moved forward. Somehow we got a rhythm going and slowly, slowly we made our way across the windy lake. By the time Jamie spotted the portage route, the sun had come out and I had started to laugh. I don't know at what. The sheer intensity of it all, I guess. The feeling of being so alive.
The portage trail to the next lake was the longest of our trip and Jamie was exhausted. I decided I would try to take the heaviest pack, the equipment, so that Jamie could take the lighter pack (along with the canoe) and Leo would try to manage the half-empty food barrel. When Jamie put the pack on my back, I staggered sideways. It was the heaviest thing I had ever carried. I leaned forward and started to trudge up the hill of the portage route. About 200 metres in, it got muddy. At first, I tried to sidestep the puddles, but the quick movements made me tip over, so I gave up a lifetime of trying to stay clean and tromped right through the next puddle. The mud was so deep it covered my running shoes completely and went partway up my ankles, but it didn't hurt me. I forgot about everything else but getting to the end of the trail.
THE FOODIE RESURFACES – WITH A VENGEANCE
A bit of paddling and an easy portage later, we arrived at our second site, one of only two
on Mubwayaka Lake. We were too tired to talk as we set up camp, but the site was drenched in warm sunlight, and we all felt lucky to be there. Jamie and I got a fire going and then the boys splashed around in the lake while I got dinner together.
I prepared potato, fontina and fresh rosemary pizza, grilled right on the fire, and vegetable soup made with water, a bouillon cube and all the carrots, potatoes, celery, onions and peppers we had left. Oh, and big hunks of salami grilled on the fire and covered in mustard. And s'mores for dessert. And banana boats. And hot chocolate.
MOM ON GUARD
As we climbed into our tent, the moon was shining on the lake, and the quiet was very quiet. I lay between my sons. One was big and one was kind of small, but both were afraid of bears, and I had promised to stay on guard. They needed me still.
The next morning was cold and very clear. We had Mexican spiced oatmeal for breakfast, and packed up for the last time. The trip back to the access point was easy and casual, and before I was even ready, we were back around people again. For the first time in three days, I considered my muddy clothes and rat's-nest hair. We put the packs in the car and as I started to drive, the boys quickly fell asleep. I was glad they weren't awake to hear me giggling, so overwhelmed with joy and euphoria that I could not contain myself.
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RECIPES FROM THE CAMPFIRE GOURMET
Maple Walnut Cherry Granola
A great source of energy, you may want to double the amounts.
2 cups large-flake oats
1 cup unsweetened, shredded coconut
1/3 cup canola oil
1/4 cup plus 1 tbsp. medium maple syrup, divided
Pinch of salt
3/4 cup walnuts, chopped
1/4 cup filberts, chopped
1 cup dried cherries
1/2 cup dried apricots, chopped
Preheat oven to 350 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or foil. Set aside.
In a large bowl, combine oats and coconut with canola, 1/4 cup maple syrup and salt. Add both nuts and mix well.
Spread mixture onto prepared baking sheet and drizzle top with extra tablespoon of maple syrup. Toast for approximately 40 minutes, tossing gently from time to time to promote even browning.
Remove granola from oven and cool slightly. Add dried cherries and apricots and mix well. Pack into resealable bags or containers.
Best to enjoy this on the first night of your trip, when the chicken is still cold and fresh.
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into small cubes, or 1 12-ounce package firm tofu
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika, sweet or hot
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 small onion, sliced
1 red bell pepper, sliced
1 yellow or orange bell pepper, sliced
1/4 cup sliced green olives, packed in a bit of their brine
8 small flour tortillas, wrapped in foil
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese, frozen in a resealable bag
4 small packets hot sauce
At home: Mix cubed chicken with seasoning until well combined. Transfer to a sturdy plastic bag and freeze solid. Just as you're leaving for trip, wrap bag of frozen chicken in newspaper and pack close to other frozen food, or a frozen Tetra Pak of liquid. (If using tofu, no need to freeze. Keep in original package to preserve freshness and mix seasoning in a small bag to apply at campsite.)
At campsite: Heat oil in skillet over hot but not raging fire, using grate provided. Add onions and peppers and sauté until fragrant. Add chicken or tofu and cook, stirring often, until brown on all sides and cooked through. Add olives. Meanwhile, warm foil pack of tortillas over indirect heat.
Assemble by placing a spoonful of fajita mixture in the middle of each tortilla. Dress with cheese and hot sauce, roll, and place directly on grate for a moment before devouring. Serves four.
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