Algonquin Park (Muskoka)

Recently set out on an awe-inspiring adventure in the Muskokas to the stunningly beautiful Algonquin Park.  Algonquin is the first Provincial park in Ontario and is located between Georgian Bay and the Ottawa River and covers a land space of over 4500 square kilometres.

Ever since I was a teenager I had wanted to come here as I'd always been curious about the stories of the many bear and moose sightings, and of the sounds of the wolves howling at the moon.  I guess I've always been somewhat of a brave sort who enjoys challenges and adventures.

The Highway 60 Corridor is a 56 kilometre strip located in the southwestern part of the Park, which starts from the West Gate and passes 15 walking trails, 3 cross country ski trails and 2 bicycle trails.  If you want some culture you will also pass two museums and an Art Centre with a gift boutique so you will have the opportunity of taking some art work home with you.

If you plan on staying overnight there are 9 campgrounds here all with their own unique features.

For instance Tea Lake Campground is awesome for backpackers who intend on hiking the Western Uplands Trails or canoeists heading in the back country by canoe or Smoke Lake.

If you are looking for a good spot for swimming with nice sandy beaches then Rock Lake (40.3 km), Canisbay Lake (23 km Campground) or my favorite to look at Lake of Two Rivers Campground (31.8 km) all boast awesome beaches.  Other lakes can be found throughout Algonquin such as Pog Lake, Whitefish Lake and Opeonogo Lake (where we ended up).

When you arrive at Algonquin, if you've never been here before or have no idea of where you're going or what resources are available to you, I urge you to drop in at the Information Centre located at the West Gate.  

At the Centre they will not only give you maps and directions, but their knowledge and experience will tell you where to go long before you even ask.  For example we told them we wanted to go canoeing, camp overnight and take pictures.

She suggested we take Hwy 60 to Lake Opeonogo which has canoe rentals and is the largest Lake in the Park.  It was located at the furthest eastern point in Algonquin.  So after a three-and-a-half hour drive, we traveled for another 45 minutes and made some stops along the way before arriving at our destination.  

One stop off was the Hardwood Lookout which was a very quick trail of only 1.0 km.  It contains some some ponds and wet areas and grandstands a lookout from which we kind of took a short cut and climbed the hill to view it instead of doing the entire trail. 

The goal today was to get on the water and spend about 4 or 5 hours canoeing on Lake Opeonogo and still have enough daylight to find an island to pitch a tent. 

Once arriving, we were able to get a canoe (disappointing that it is a minimum 2 day rental) It was already 3 in the afternoon, so but that's okay as we were determined to make the best of it.  The canoe was perfect for two.  You are given oars and lifejackets and a bag with 50ft rope and a whistle, which is smart to take with you when you are not in the boat as well. The whistle may deter a bear if necessary.  Although it is extremely rare that a black bear will ever become aggressive, I will talk more about that in a moment.

The whole process of getting an overnight pass for your vehicle to remain on the mainland while you are out in the canoe and camping  took only about 20 minutes and the next thing I knew, we were on the water with some pretty beautiful moments of nature surrounding.  I was so elated.  I was teased about my rowing as a front rower, but I didn't mind because I was too busy take pictures anyways.  So we were told to look for any island or spot of land that had an 'orange sign with a tent on it' and that was our main goal now: as well as to take in the beauty that surrounded us, we also needed to find a place to stay overnight.

The first island we encountered after leaving the mainland was visited by other canoeists like ourselves, just hanging around exploring, as there were no orange signs posted on it.  We got out and took a look around for a few minutes and continued on our quest.   The sky was azure blue with very few clouds and I'd occasionally run my fingers into the water just to be sure that everything was real.

The next island up ahead also looked promising but it had a white sign with a marked 'x' indicating no camping.  Once we got up onto the island and had a look around it looked like the soil was completely dry and the island floor was scattered with dead pine needles.  A few large fallen trees and it became pretty apparent it would be uninhabitable as you couldn't possibly make a fire on here or sleep comfortably in a tent so we moved on.

After a couple of hours, we spotted island after island, and the odd spot of land which was situated up on a rock, all with canoes resting in front.  The general rule of etiquette is that "if there is a canoe already there, no matter how large the island you aren't allowed to go there".   Even after the sun was setting I wasn't really worried because I knew in my heart we'd find a place so I never got that disillusioned... besides, I was still busy taking pictures!  Sunset picture after sunset picture... I was in photography heaven.

At one point we were desperate enough to want to camp out on a small island with a weather station on it, but I convinced him that wasn't going to happen!  Funny thing though that it was from that island we spotted the one that was ours.  It was perfect.  It had a small beach for the canoe to land and a large boulder for us to use as a landmark if we ever came back.  It had a circle of stones already laid for the fire, and kindling already cut up for us.  It also had a smooth clearing for the tent.  The trees completely surrounded the island and it was far enough away from the mainland to keep us reasonably safe from animal visits while we slept, although, I don't mind saying I don't think I slept at all.  Neither did he.  At one point, what sounded like a wolf howling was actually nothing more that a looney loon howling at the moon.

The next morning, I walked around the island and disappeared for a while to sit on a boulder to watch a bit of the morning sunrise before heading back out onto the canoe again for another 3 hours back to the mainland.

Since we spent 90 percent of the time on the water in the canoe, I wasn't able to see any wildlife and going back on to highway 60 again, it was really hard for me because I didn't expect the time to go by so quickly and to love it so much.  I will be returning though to explore some of the trails and to take a closer look at 'the Lake of Two Rivers' which looked spectacular.

I wanted to make some special comments that I had learned about bears, particularly the black bear which I never knew before coming here. I think we will all agree that seeing one in its natural environment is an exciting experience, but if you saw one rummaging through your food or tent, that excitement may lead to fear if you don't know what to do with it. Fear is really only not understanding, so I learned more about the bears and now I am better equipped to deal with the fear.  

First of all, remember the bear is constantly looking for food, so always keep your food hidden, packed away, or in our case, it was tied up using the 50 foot rope we were given and hung up high in the tree (but make sure it's off onto a branch so the bear can't get to it).

Generally bears shy away from humans and will quickly get out of your way, if you see one, make your presence known by making noise.  Blow a whistle, scream or yell or in the daylight wave your arms around.  If you spot one at night, shine a flashlight on it.  The thing to remember is to HOLD YOUR GROUND.   It can be a territorial thing really and never turn to run away or you may become prey to a bear and he'll follow you!

There's a difference between a defensive bear and a predatory black bear of course so your responses should be different.  A defensive bear will give you bluff charges and act like they will charge at you, but really they're just saying, 'back off'.  They may snort or huff or blow air loudly through their nostrils but its really because they are viewing you as a threat to their food supply, nothing more.  In this case just talk slowly, back away and leave.

A predatory bear is a different story.  Luckily this scenario is very rare but they won't bluff.  So be smart.  In fact they won't make any sort of noise like huffing or swatting the ground with their paws.  On the contrary, they will become silent and move closer and closer more or less assessing whether or not it is safe to attack you.  In this case again, as I said never turn and run away.  This is when you need to be extra brave and hold your ground.  You need to convince the bear that somehow it will be the wrong decision if he attacks you.  Be aggressive by throwing rocks or if you've been prepared for this use the bear spray and blow the whistle.

I don't know why but there have been cases where it was reported that people actually thought that by playing dead they would be safe.  This has been proven to be the wrong thing to do.  The only thing you can do if you can't get away safety is to hold your ground by doing everything to persuade him to not attack you.

HWY 60

Okay, so now that I've got that out of the way, it's a rare thing in Ontario to be purposely attacked by an aggressive bear, but increasing your awareness is just smart.  You can minimize the risks by cleaning up the campsite from food and getting rid of the garbage when you leave.  This will not only help yourself but for those who tread your path when you're gone.  I can see from my own experience on the island we found that the inhabitants before had left no trace of anything human and were respectful of the land.  This is really what it comes down to when you are out here in the wilderness.  Be respectful of the land and the animals that live on it. Think of yourself as their guests and treat it as that.

The trip to Algonquin was a last minute decision of mine, but like all of those last minute decisions I make, sometime they were the most memorable.