In May last year, we went on an excellent 6-hour canoe trip in Algonquin Provincial Park. Everything was perfect – from the weather, to the paddling conditions and even our lunchtime sandwich – apart from our failure to see a moose.
When my uncle and aunt, Angus and Sue, announced that they would be visiting in late-May this year, we offered them the chance to join us on the same canoe trip. They enthusiastically jumped at the chance. After all, canoeing round a lake is so Canadian, eh?
We met them on a Friday afternoon in Toronto, after they had journeyed up from New York. The weather was gorgeous, a warm Spring evening in the city. We hopped in the car, and after encountering the usual traffic heading north on the 400 out of Toronto, a few hours later we were up in Muskoka, on the edge of Algonquin, where the weather, just like in Toronto, was great.
Now the problem with booking a canoe trip 2 months in advance is that you don’t know what the weather will be like on the day. All week, the forecast had told us that Saturday, the day of our canoe trip, would be nothing but rain.
Weather forecasts are rarely wrong these days, so despite the lovely weather on Friday, we of course woke up on Saturday morning to rain. There was I would say, an unspoken sense of “I really, really wish we didn’t have to go in a canoe in the rain for 6 hours, but we’ve already paid for it so we have no choice” over breakfast that morning.
We headed off in the car, and of course, the windscreen wipers were needed straight away. On our journey to our start point on Canoe Lake in Algonquin, I looked up at the sky, hoping to see a bright spot, or even a patch of blue, but all you could see, was a continuous sheet of grey.
We duly arrived at Canoe Lake, and so did our tour guide, Alexander from Algonquin Adventure Tours, with our canoes and equipment. First things first, it was time for a quick paddling lesson. We stepped into the freezing shallow waters of Canoe Lake, and practiced our strokes, before getting in our canoes – Angus, Sue and Alexander in one, myself and Emma in the other.
Despite the rain, it actually wasn’t too bad. Everyone was bedecked in waterproofs that seemed to be doing the job, and the paddling was keeping us warm. We came across a pair of loons – birds which I had absolutely no interest in at the same time last year in my excitement and urgency to see a moose – but this year were actually interesting as we watched them go about their day whilst we paddled past.
After a while we came ashore to visit the totem pole erected in memory of Tom Thompson, one of the Group of Seven artists, who drowned on the lake in 1917 in mysterious circumstances. But now we had stopped paddling, we started to realise just how cold our bodies were, and that there was only so much our waterproofs could cope with to keep us dry underneath.
Back out on the water, I looked to my left, and the rain was coming down harder than ever. Each drop was crashing into the lake with such force and creating huge splashbacks, and there we were, out in the middle of this, with little protection from it all!
At this point I felt really sorry for Angus and Sue. Not only were they on holiday, but neither did they know what was coming up. Emma and me did. We knew how far we still had to go, and how there would be no shelter or respite from the elements!
We reached the end of Canoe Lake, and so it was time to portage our canoes and equipment into Joe Lake. I remembered this moment from the year before, when it was sunny and hot. This year the path between the two lakes was littered with big, brown puddles, which, when you are carrying a canoe on your back, you have no choice but to walk straight through. At least there was one positive – the canoe acted as one giant umbrella for those couple of minutes!
Out on Joe Lake, and our moods improved as the weather looked like it was finally getting better. But then we turned the corner, and the rain was back. Now it, and the wind, was blowing straight into our faces. What should have been an easy paddle, became a massively slow and exhausting endurance as fought the wind and current every inch of the way across the lake to our lunchtime rest point.
Arriving ashore, a camp was to our right, and we cast envious glances towards their camp fire. Unfortunately, we had to ascend Gibraltar Rock for views out over a very grey Algonquin. Once again, I could remember how great the moment was one year ago, when the skies were blue, the trees green and I was dry. Now, everything was grey, and everyone was soaked, cold and miserable.
This especially becomes a problem when standing on the top of an exposed hill, trying to eat your sandwich after having to pose for photos. I thought at this point that at least one of us might go insane and lose it!
On our way back to our canoes, the camp we had seen before was kind enough to let us stand around their campfire for a few minutes. We were so wet and and so cold, I have no idea if the fire actually raised our temperature at all, but at least it raised our spirits a bit.
Now on our return journey, we quickly passed back through Joe Lake, and portaged back to Canoe Lake. The first part of Canoe Lake seemed to go by quickly too. Our crews had been mixed up now, with Angus added to our boat to boost the horsepower after me and Emma had struggled on the last leg before lunch. Steering the canoe from the back, the boat was running very smoothly, and we’d be back in the dry in no time…so I thought.
But then, as soon as we found ourselves out in the open water of Canoe Lake, it all started again. The wind had picked up massively. Our canoe needed to head left to get home, at worse, go straight, but all it wanted to do was peel off to the right. We found ourselves being pulled further and further into the middle of the lake, and having to go a longer and longer distance to get back. It was exhausting work, both physically – steering from the back, I could not pick up any paddling rhythm, as every other stroke had to be a hard corrective steering stroke – and mentally, as your mind drifted to ‘what if’ situations and you just had to tell yourself to keep on going.
Finally, at long last, far in the distance our end point came into sight! In what seemed to take an eternity, we eventually made it as our canoe gently grazed along the lake bed as we came ashore. Ushered inside by Alexander, we sat inside the cafe, shivering uncontrollably as we sipped on hot drinks, whilst making a huge puddle all over their floor!
Eventually the shivering subsided, and warmth slowly returned to our bodies once we changed out of our sodden clothes into nice dry clothing.
The whole experience has to be one of the most challenging tests any of us has, or will, ever go through. The conditions were so, so bad! It’s one of those things, where you really had to have lived through it to know just quite how difficult it was.
However, I’m still glad we did it, because we came out the other side and survived, and we’ll always have that satisfaction of knowing that we got pushed right to the edge, and we came through it!
But that’s all inconsequential to the main story. Did we finally see our first moose?
Of course not! Only humans would be so stupid to go out into the open in such conditions. The moose were safely tucked away somewhere, keeping dry and warm, whilst probably chuckling at us.