CANOE THE CANADIAN WILD
The tent foundered between two spindly jack pines, looking more like a failed IKEA challenge than a domicile. It wouldn't have passed Boy Scout's muster but as we scrambled beneath its crumpled green sheets, our rakish habitat provided dry refuge from the sudden torrential downpour. It wasn't quite what I had imagined when embarking on our quintessential Canadian adventure but if there's one thing to learn in the outback, it's to stay dry.
Although we could have chosen a resort-styled eco-adventure, they seemed tame in comparison to pursuing our inner pioneer. That no-holds-barred wilderness experience Davey Crockett, and Pierre Trudeau for that matter, immortalized in their buckskins and coonskin fur hats. Besides, the process of pitching a tent, building a fire, and listening to the loons call you to sleep can be one of the most romantic, enriching and family-bonding experiences available.
So it was with intrepid heart that I ditched the stilettos and joined my outdoorsy partner for a week in the north western Ontario wilderness.
First off was to hook up with Canoe Canada, a knowledgeable outfitter who custom-tailor packages to ability, preference and budget whether it's a three day excursion down river (ideal for novices) or flying to a wilderness cabin and paddling your way back to civilization. We chose the latter, and as the float plane left us at a cabin at some indistinct pinpoint in the Atkikokan region, the raw stillness of our decision was palpable.
Surrounded by a tangled network of bass-filled waters, woodlands and marshy meadows cut with moose trails, our mission was to navigate these routes for some 85 miles to another indistinct pinpoint on the map. In the Ojibwe language, Atikokan means 'cariboo bones', and as I looked out across the three mile lake - the start of our paddling journey, I mused as to whose bones they might find at the end of the trip!
We were well equipped. The canoe was fully stocked with a tent and tarpaulins, pots and scouring pads, and more than enough food packs, chocolate bars and treats to survive our itinerary. With an eye on a couple of portages, our personal gear was minimal and with the prospect of catching lake trout and wall eye en route, we left half our supplies behind.
Traveling at the speed of your oar, route maps are easy to follow and paddling becomes intuitive after a few hours. Most of the recommended campsites are on rocky outcrops or islands the size of a postage stamp, so bears aren't an issue. And the coo of wolves is as distant as the stars. Seeing another person is such a rarity that when the soft drone of a bush pilot crisscrosses the area, there's an imagined assurance that periodically at least, someone is 'up there' checking up on your progress.
Priorities shift in the wilderness. Rising at daybreak is rewarded with soft, easy waters, and the energy of nature awakening -- the memory of which still quiets my soul. The all important morning latte is traded for the art of simply boiling water; kitschy salads give way to pan fried, just-caught smallmouth bass which not only trumps trout in taste but is mouth-wateringly delicious after a day of paddling. And standing buck-naked on a rock to wash is welcome relief from clothes that cling to your body through the sheer exertion of digging deep against windblown waters.
Whoever said: "to paddle 100 miles in a canoe, you are a child of nature", got it right. Yes, there were times when the winds ambushed the waves, whipping up whitecaps into such a frenzy that every arm-aching reach into the water was tenacity personified. Mostly, though, the majesty of this inaccessible landscape left us so awestruck, our paddles froze in mid stroke: drifting down reed-edged, crystal clear rivers, crossing pools laden with lilies, inhaling the sweet scent of fallen pine needles baking in the sun, or becoming one with the silent flight of a bald eagle as it cast its long shadow across the granite bluff. Such are the bragging rights of adventurous spirits and the rewards of discovering a part of Canada that still resonates with such raw beauty it will forever inspire the heart of your inner pioneer.
Air Canada to Thunder Bay; overnight at Valhalla Inn; 800-964-1121 (closest to the airport) and take Prestige Limo-styled Taxi (877-801-5466) to Canoe Canada's base in Atikoken (www.canoecanada.com; 807-597-6418). Car rentals work out to be a pricier option.
SIDEBAR TIPS " Ask for a GPS to back up map reading " Cell-phones are generally inoperative; some outfitters provide emergency-use satellite phones " Take a fishing rod; catching supper easy even for neophyte anglers " Travel only with essentials - bio-degradable soap, one change of clothes and dry socks. " Ask for two sets of maps; store them separately
Photos: by Bill Vanderford
Photos (Bill Vanderford credit):
1) Washing up after Breakfast
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