Toronto Star

Author: Donna Laporte, Travel Reporter – Front Page, 2nd Travel Section, Page K13, Saturday, April 27, 1996.

ALGONQUIN PARK – We sat an a huge slab of rock, gazing skyward, counting satellites and watching for shooting stars, seven women and a lone male guide.

We listened to the wind whispering through the trees, and heard the plaintive call of the loon bobbing on inky waters under an equally dark sky, scattered with millions of twinkling stars. Waves lapped the shore, though not so fiercely as they had earlier that day, when we paddled 12 kilometres through testy winds and rollers.

Our nearest neighbours were about a kilometre away, and it was just as well: seven guys, a few Neanderthals among them, whom we had encountered that day on portages, hauling our canoes over beaver dams, and while hurling ourselves into a narrow chute of gushing water, nature’s version of a water slide.

No way I’d feel comfortable doing this on my own.

And thank goodness I didn’t have to. A neophyte canoeist, having done a little paddling as a child, I had always wanted to try it again, and explore some of Algonquin Park at the same time.

So I signed up for a weekend canoe trip.

I wasn’t too keen on the portage part, but intrepid guide Robin Banerjee assured that the longest portage would be about 375 metres. No problem, he said. And besides, there’d likely be some strong male canoeists along to help – if they signed up.

How ’bout the weather? I asked. ‘Not that I expected him to be able to forecast it, but knowing that he canoes here all the time, I figured he’d know the usual patterns.

He said two things: ignore the Toronto forecasts and consider that he rarely got rained on – for any significant periods. Good, I said, admitting that I’m a fair-weather camper and have had terrible luck with rain in past outings.

The odds weren’t favouring me, as it turned out. First, six other women, all adventurous, outdoorsy types, ranging in age from about 27 to 67, took the bait. No guys meant I’d have to do my share of portaging a 25-kilogram Kevlar canoe on my back (despite chiropractor’s warnings.) Secondly, well…yes, of course, it rained.

We had left Toronto about 9 a.m. in Robin’s truck under iffy skies. Not to worry, he said. After a quick bagel and coffee stop, we shot up north, about a three-hour drive, to pick up the rental canoes in Algonquin.

After a picnic lunch and technique demonstration, we set off, winding through a narrow channel before hitting the wide open waters of Rock Lake. Not 45 minutes later, as we approached our first portage, the skies opened. We hoisted the canoes and ambled over slippery tree roots, the trail quickly turning to oozing mud and peppered with slick rocks.

Was I having fun yet? To be honest, no. My reputation as a jinx was confirmed. We went back for our packs while Superman carried the huge plastic food barrel, unflinching.

A frightened moose jumped around erratically in the water as lightening struck nearby and we watched in wonder. I had hoped to see a moose or two and was getting my money’s worth the first day out.

The downpour soon abated and we set off, wet but excited nonetheless. Out on the open water, we found our rhythm and my partner and I chatted awhile, then fell silent.

From butter soft waves to slow rolls, the waters were merciful, but by the time we got to our destination, 10 km later, we were tired and ready to pitch camp on Pen Lake.

We pitched tents, gathered wood, made a fire and ate excellent chicken fajitas by the fire. Food was later sealed in a garbage bag and – with some difficulty in the dark – Robin launched a rope over a sturdy tree branch to haul it up, away from hungry bears. Later we talked around the fire.

Saturday dawned with sunny skies and merciless rollers. I offered to stay behind to keep watch on the campsite, but Robin would have none of it. “It’ll be fun,” he said encouragingly.

And it was. We plowed through the waves on Clydegale Lake and eventually found some solace, hiding in the reeds of the South Madawaska River, gliding gently along, hopping over small beaver dams, awash in a sea of purple flowers. I did my best to ignore the attendant bees.

Later, we picnicked on bagels with peanut butter, pate and fruit. Afterward, we followed a trail in the woods and found the water chute, frolicking with our island neighbours.

We also caught up with another moose and her calf. So intent was one group on getting good pictures, they drifted perilously close to the animal family, rerouting themselves at the last moment. The rest of us sighed in relief; there is such a thing as being too close to nature.

That night, we all pitched in, some whipping up pasta primavera for dinner, others gathering wood and stoking the fire.

Dish duty called and two of us washed them carefully, using as little soap as possible and pouring it off on higher ground. Robin stressed the need to respect the environment at all times.

More comfortable the second night, I slept reasonably well, considering the slope we had chosen in our haste Friday night.

Sunday arrived with sun and glassy waters. After packing up, we headed out, lathered with sunscreen. We found a terrific spot where we could climb up a rocky island about six metres, then jump off like weighted bullets into deep waters, or just swim around, unfettered by any constraints. It was glorious.

All too soon, we retreated the way we came, sun on our backs, proficient now and proud of our skills.

On the drive home, Robin had a final treat in store. Ice cream cones at the famous Kawartha dairy. I had a double scoop. I figured I’d earned it.

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