It soars above all the other trees, a majestic white pine … or is it a red pine? A jack pine?
No, it's a fake pine: too tall, too dark and much too still in the light wind. It is, in fact, a cleverly disguised cellphone tower so that campers and hikers at Ontario's most famous park will have access to their mobile phones and, if they wish, can play Angry Birds while waiting for the haunting evening call of the loon.
There are certainly valid reasons for such towers hidden in the woods, mostly to do with safety along the Highway 60 corridor, the many campgrounds and hiking trails. Happily, there is no reception in what is known as the "back country," but that may change. Everything else has.
Canada's national parks, as well as the larger provincial parks, such as Ontario's Algonquin, get a tad nervous when they look into the future. The boomers are seniors and increasingly less adventurous. New Canadians have been slow to embrace camping and canoe tripping and, given all the demographic projections, it is here where most population growth and opportunity will be found. If the country's parks wish to maintain usage levels or, even better, expand them, it will be in attracting first- and second-generation Canadians.
It's already a challenge to hang onto those who grew up camping. Their children might be more interested in playing Pokemon than catching frogs. If strangers in the neighbourhood park worry people, bears in the wilder parks can terrify them. Parents, helicoptering their offspring through play dates, organized activities and lessons, have lost the ability to let a child go.
This is the era of nature-deficit disorder. No wonder the title of ParticipAction's 2015 report is "The Biggest Risk is Keeping Kids Indoors." Canadian kids today, they say, get a D-minus when it comes to overall physical activity. In the critical five- to 11-year-old age group, only 7 per cent are getting the recommended 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous daily activity. As for 12- to 17-year-olds, it's even worse: a pitiful 5 per cent.
Given that the very best place for a child to find that moderate-to-vigorous activity is the clichéd Great Outdoors, it's difficult to understand how Ontario could see park visits drop by more than a million over the past five years.
All is far from lost in the woods, however. There are successful learn-to-camp programs across the country and some parks even include bus service to the campsites. There are more interactive children's programs to compete with the hypnotic lure of video games. And, it must be admitted, cellphone service that allows campers to check their e-mail counts among those who prefer not to – or are simply afraid to – get away from it all.
Sven Miglin has operated Algonquin's Portage Store at Canoe Lake since 1976 and says the park experience has been shifting. His store's big weekends were previously always in summer, particularly the long weekends around Canada Day, Ontario's civic holiday and Labour Day. No longer.
"Our biggest business day would now be a weekend in the fall," Mr. Miglin says. "The interest East Asians, particularly Japanese, have in the fall colours is just phenomenal."
Those visitors arrive by bus, not SUV, but they spend, and they love it. And increasingly, Mr. Miglin, has observed, new Canadians are doing one-day canoe trips from his store.
"They're learning," he says. "If we want our parks to survive, we want to see more people learning to canoe."
On certain days, the bay in front of the Portage Store is filled with an armada of people learning to paddle, often with rescue boats poised to act should one capsize. It is not unusual to see newcomers facing each other in a canoe and paddling counter-productive to each other.
"I get livid if I see people laughing and not helping," Mr. Miglin says. "In our spring orientation, I tell our staff that if they were in another country and were told to get on a camel, the people who actually know how to ride a camel would quickly be in stitches – so show a little cultural sensitivity."
Mr. Miglin says it delights him to see new paddlers come back a second and third time to rent canoes.
"We now hope they're going to start camping," he says. "And maybe soon enough they'll move into back-country tripping."
Down at the Algonquin Park Visitor Centre, the Ali family of Toronto is completing its second full week of camping. Patrick Ali's parents came from Trinidad; Sharda Ali's family is from Guyana. The couple first camped here 15 years ago and now return with their three children: 10-year-old Isabelle, eight-year-old Nicholas and Julian, 3.
This year's experience at nearby Mew Lake was so good, Patrick says, that they decided to stay on an extra two days. He and Sharda believe there is nothing better they could be doing as a family. The children say they love camping and this year's highlight for them was the annual fishing derby.
"We've noticed a change," Mr. Ali says with a smile. "For one thing, the fishing derby used to be all white."
Camping, these parents believe, is its own education. "I tell the kids not to get dumber in summer," Mr. Ali says. "We believe that our camping actually jump-starts our kids when they start back to school. There are things that they can learn from camping out that they won't learn from watching television or playing video games. Here they read and see things and find out about things they wouldn't learn in school."
Curiously, Mr. Ali is an IT technician; yet, he deliberately disconnects when on holiday. "I go back to the days of the pager," he says. "They used to tell me to make sure I took it when I went off on holiday. 'Sure,' I'd tell them. I'd take it, but as soon as I was out of range, I'd forget all about it."
They came here for two weeks and didn't even notice the fake tree at Whiskey Rapids.
But then, they weren't looking for it.