Ontario: Park life

Ontario, Canada’s most populous province begs exploration. Make inroads into this vast landmass with a trip through the sublime and sprawling Algonquin Provincial Park. Tap into this enigmatic ecosystem to understand why the journey is the destination

By Adrian Phillips
Published 31 May 2019, 10:38 BST
Photograph by Getty Images

The whiteboard in the visitor centre reads like a roll-call of the smug.

8.01am: ‘Saw moose and calf near Spruce Bog Boardwalk. The Smith family.’ Well, whoopee-doo the Smith family.

11.24am: ‘Spotted two beevers from Mizzy Lake Trail. Buddy Bradshaw.’ Congratulations, Buddy, but don’t count on winning any spelling competitions.

3.50pm: ‘Black bear by Highway 60 at Lake of Two Rivers. John Taylor.’ This entry really needles because I’ve just driven past the Lake of Two Rivers at 3.55pm on my way here. But the whiteboard makes no room for nearly men; I’ve nothing to add in ‘look-at-me’ red pen.

Days One and Two — Wolves: 0, Moose: 0, Bears: 0.

The exhibition area only rubs salt into the wound. Algonquin Provincial Park has no fewer than 2,000 black bears, a board proclaimed in a tone I interpret as boastful. It’s without equal in North America for its moose-spotting opportunities, the crowing continues, and for its population density of eastern wolves. The park has 40 species of mammal and 2,000 beaver ponds, where you’d be unfortunate not to see… Yes, yes, blah, blah; I move on with sulky steps.

But as I turn a corner my grumpiness melts as I see the drooping face of a stuffed moose. This was an animal with heft. It stands 6ft tall at the shoulder, its rounded camel’s nose rising to antlers that spread like a giant’s hands. The horns grow afresh each year, I read, and can reach more than 3ft in length and 40lb in weight. I do a search on my smartphone for objects weighing 40lb, and then imagine having two car tyres, an average human leg or the world’s fattest cat stuck to the top of my head. A bull that owns a sturdy set of antlers and has recently rolled in a puddle of its own urine is apparently irresistible to a lady moose on heat.

In the adjacent recess, four wolves are caught in a collective croon, eyes closed and whiskery chins stretched skyward. During late summer the animals are particularly vocal, and will even respond to expert human howls, I learn. Park rangers take advantage of this to track pack numbers and locations, and each Thursday evening in August, members of the public gather to eavesdrop on the annual conversation between man and beast. I push a sticky button — the Smith family had clearly been eating iced buns — and the room echoes to a ranger’s wolf cries and a low, velvety reply from the depths of a distant wood.

The following morning, I spot my first beaver. Bobbing on the surface of Smoke Lake, as yellow as a buttercup. The Turbo Beaver float plane is the park’s turbo-engined pride and joy, standing on curving floats like a downhill skier on the world’s biggest bananas.

“Do you get motion sickness?” asks Sebastien, as I battle through the tiny door space and unfold alongside him in the cockpit. “Depends who’s flying, right?” he laughs, before pushing the little plane forward over a hundred bumps and ripples, and dragging us into the air. 

Guardian of the trees

I’m in Algonquin, a region boxing up a soggy 3,000sq miles of lakes, rivers and bogs. Oh, and trees. Straddling Northern and Southern Ontario, a five-hour drive from Toronto, it’s carpeted in a blend of southern hardwoods and Christmassy northern conifers. There are beech and birch trees, sugar maple, largetooth and trembling aspen, pines of red and white. It’s a vast patch of wood and wetness.

We bank northwards over Highway 60, constructed in 1936 as a make-work project during the Great Depression, and the only driveable route through the park. Sebastien sometimes spies moose at the roadside, especially in spring when salt is spread to thaw the ice and they come to lick it from the tarmac. There are none to spy today. Water channels squirm across the land, each connected to the next in a pulsing web. An arc to the east and Lake Opeongo opens below us; the view’s breathtaking, but this is no pleasure trip — Sebastien’s patrolling, just as he does for five hours every day, acting as the park’s eyes in the sky — its guardian of the trees.

It was to protect the trees that the park came to be in the first place. Nineteenth-century timber barons had sniffed the breeze and sensed money, kickstarting a 70-year frenzy of chopping and sawing that cropped the slopes bald. Since the park was established in 1893, commercial logging has been restricted to certain zones at certain times. Today the main threat is fire.

There are two main causes of ‘smokes’: careless campers and lightning strikes. A bolt of lightning will pierce deep into the ground, creating an angry ball of heat that can smoulder for hours, days — even weeks — before bursting to life at the surface. Long after a storm has passed, Sebastien continues to trace the path it took, waiting, eyes keen, for the moment the flames make their move. The park lost 50 square miles each year to fires in the early 20th century; now it loses just 25 acres.

But there isn’t a lick of flame in sight as we skirt Canoe Lake. It was down here in 1917 that artist Tom Thomson was found drowned — some say murdered — with a fishing line around his ankle. I watch a blue heron cross the water with languid flaps. And then Sebastien flicks a switch and flips the steering column over to my side of the plane. “Here, you have a go,” he says, folding his arms. My heart lurches, hands tightening on the wheel as if flying a kite in a gale; I make the smallest of twitches to the left, a millimetre’s shift to the right and then chart a sweaty-browed straight line. Sebastien grins, enjoying my discomfort for a moment, before reclaiming control and spurring the plane into an extravagant yellow sweep across Happy Island.

Summer in the park has been blazing hot, but this afternoon it’s overcast and cooling, the sort of weather that wildlife likes. Lake Opeongo lies at the end of a jarring track off Highway 60, and here I join Rob Shackleton — a fresh-faced 21-year-old known as ‘Shack’ — for the 11-mile ride to Hailstorm Creek. The silver motorboat churns the black water white as we skim up the lake, our eyes streaming.

On rocky bluffs above the shoreline, shallow-rooted trees are parched to golden brown. We roar past a clearing with a log table and firepit. This is the site of the park’s last bear attack in 1991, Shack tells me, when two campers were killed. Black bears usually only injure humans in self-defence, but in this instance the victims were hunted down in their tents.

Hailstorm Creek is no place for motorboats. When we reach its opening, Shack lowers a two-man kayak over the side, and once I’ve wobbled my way to the stern seat and he’s made a surer descent to the bow, we push off through a reedy portal to a very different landscape. The channel starts wide but narrows in the pinch of floating banks of silt and vegetation, neither liquid nor solid, a boggy transition between land and water that’s grown over thousands of years. Tiny emerald frogs clamber among the sticks and stems. Some day the creek’s wriggling thread will be overtaken completely, pushed from view by this creeping, muddy mat.

We paddle on and Shack talks happily about the park, and his life in and around it. As a kid, he’d holidayed here with his parents; now he’s studying nuclear engineering at college — yes, he is enjoying it, thanks — but he returns each summer to work as a guide and dabble in fishing. He’s related to the Shackleton, yes, but only distantly — his grandma was keen on genealogy and had looked into it.

Deer flies keep pace with the kayak, buzzing around our necks and ears. Bug spray is useless, Shack tells me. He prefers sticky pads that you attach to the back of your cap; it’s very satisfying at the end of an afternoon to see how many flies have stuck to your cap, he says.

A nose crosses the channel ahead of us, the furry tip of a spreading v-shape in the water. Musk rats often take up residence in disused beaver lodges, and there’s plentiful real estate in Hailstorm Creek. We scoop our way around twiggy mounds that break the surface, like a chain of wooden volcanoes. No animal does more than the beaver to shape its surroundings. After constructing a lodge, complete with special chamber in which to dry off before proceeding to the main living quarters, the beaver dams the water downstream so the level rises to cover the lodge’s entrance hole. It’s the work of an engineering maestro — although the beaver’s genius clearly bypassed medieval church elders, who declared the animal a fish and ate its tail during Lent.

We continue past a murky log scored with the tooth marks of a porcupine. I’d have bet a decent sum that if you pushed a porcupine into a river it would sink like a stone, but Shack tells me the animal’s spines are hollow, so it can bob along quite nicely. Moose are good swimmers too, even giving birth on islands so their calves can steady drunken limbs away from the attention of wolves and bears. We surprise a painted turtle on a stump and it plops into the creek. Two sandhill cranes — rare birds — stalk the reedbeds with prehistoric honks, and a light-green leech writhes through the water as if its skin’s on fire. But no beavers or moose or wolves for the whiteboard.  

In the treetops

Come evening, I sit on the verandah beside Little Joe Lake, a meal of grilled pickerel settling in my stomach. Roberto and Paddy — fellow guests at the cabins of Arowhon Pines Resort — are describing the moose they’d seen during their dawn hike. They’d turned a corner and ‘darn near bumped into it, would you believe, just chewin’ on the grass’. I shouldn’t fret, I’ll see one tomorrow, Paddy’s sure of it. A loon gives a mad giggle of alarm and makes a thrashing take-off across the lake. And then from somewhere in the dark distance comes the howl of a wolf, rich and mournful, like wind through a pipe. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard; Paddy’s face flickers wide-eyed in the light of the lantern.

I leave Algonquin the following day and drive south to the Haliburton Highlands, where I’ll spend my final afternoon trekking through the treetops with a nervous man called Tony. This is another region once pillaged of its timber, but in the 1960s a German family bought 80,000 acres and put in place a plan to replenish the woodland, targeting low-grade trees for logging so the stronger ones could flourish. Today Haliburton Forest and Wild Life Reserve is a model of sustainable resource management. As I join a group of 10 for the canopy tour, it’s evident education is also a key focus. “I’m paid to tether people to the trees and bombard them with facts about trees,” announces Dave Bishop, our guide, and we set off into the forest.

The canopy boardwalk is a third of a mile long, comprising narrow planks of wood suspended 65ft above the ground from cables slung around the tree trunks. Dave divides us into pairs and hands out safety harnesses; from now on, he says, we’re responsible for the security of our partners and for double-checking everything they do. Tony, my allocated partner, is a pale-faced man who reminds me of Woody Allen. I check Tony’s harness and he checks mine, and Dave checks both, before making Tony re-do his, and then we’re ready to take to the trees.

We climb a ramp to a platform and the thin walkway hangs before us, the height of five giraffes, piled one on top of the other. From here, the walkway seems very thin. As we clip our ropes to the cable overhead, Dave reassures us the construction is extremely tough — tougher than the previous incarnation, which had blown down in a tornado — but I don’t feel entirely reassured and Tony certainly doesn’t look it. “Just don’t tell folks afterwards you walked the plank in Haliburton — it’s not good for marketing!” says Dave, cheerfully.

The boardwalk creaks and bounces beneath our ginger steps. When we reach the tree at the end of each section, we take turns to watch the other unclip his ropes, pass them around the trunk and re-clip them to the cable on the other side. Tony keeps up an anxious commentary, but I begin to relax. We walk between trees and over them, spiky white pines growing past us while below the crowns of beeches form a green duvet you could lie on. “The trick is not to look down,” Tony says, missing an ochre forest floor dabbed with spots of sun.

Dave follows us, offering a commentary of his own. “That tree’s a hemlock — its branches droop slightly at the end, can you see? No, Tony, no one’s ever fallen off, although a few cameras have been lost over the side. The mess of sticks in that tree is a hawks’ nest; we had to be careful when they had chicks because the adults would swoop at us as we passed, defending their family. You won’t see moose or bears from the boardwalk, no — they can hear us coming — but the wolf centre back at Base Camp is spectacular. It has a 15-acre enclosure and an area where you can watch the pack feeding. We also have a moose called Hershe; we raised him after his mom was hit by a car. Yes, Tony, that is a crack but it’s perfectly safe…”

As we walk on to the sounds of flycatchers, chickadees and Tony’s complaints about the insects, I decide not to visit Hershe or the wolf centre; it would be like fishing in a fish farm. My whiteboard stays bare, my ticklist unticked, but I don’t give a hoot. I’ve kayaked through wilderness and flown across lakes, hiked over trees and heard a wolf howl. They say travel is about seeing the world, but so much of it hides away. Ontario had taught me that travel’s thrill is as much in the seeking as the seeing.


Getting there
Air Transat flies from Gatwick, Birmingham, Dublin, Exeter, Glasgow International, Manchester, Newcastle and Shannon to Toronto. BA flies from Heathrow to Toronto, while Air Canada flies from Dublin and Heathrow. 

Average flight time: 6h30m.

Getting around
From Toronto, a direct bus runs to Algonquin and a daily coach to Haliburton.
Budget Car Rental has offices at the airport and elsewhere in Toronto, offering cars from C$43 (£28) per day. 

When to go
Winter is harsh, although activities such as dog-sledding and cross-country skiing are popular — and some outfitters remain open all year round. The season for kayaking and hiking runs from the end of April until October or November.

Need to know
Currency: Canadian dollar (C$). £1 = C$1.55
International dial code: 00 1 (416 and 647 are the area codes for Toronto).
Time: GMT -5.

Places mentioned 
SoHo Metropolitan Hotel: A lovely boutique hotel in the centre of Toronto, with an excellent restaurant. 

Arowhon Pines Resort: Offers lakeside cabin accommodation in Algonquin. It’s open 31 May to mid October; rooms from C$198 (£128) per person, including all meals and free use of kayaks, tennis courts and sauna. 

Algonquin Provincial Park Visitor Centre: Located on Highway 60 (at km 43), it’s open year round, including most holidays, with reduced hours in winter. 

Algonquin Outfitters: Guided canoe tours or equipment hire, based at the southern end of Lake Opeongo (with a second outlet located just outside the park in Dwight). 

Haliburton Forest and Wildlife Reserve: Runs twice-daily guided canopy tours from early May to late October (thrice-daily in July and August). Tours last four hours (including some walking and kayaking to the boardwalk) and cost from C$95 (£61) (adult) and C$70 (£45) (child aged 10-17; minimum age is 10); tickets also give access to the wolf centre. 

Cloud Air and Lake Country Airways: Seaplane flights in the region. 

How to do it
Flights with Air Canada, two nights in Toronto, car hire and five nights at Killarney Lodge in Algonquin (full board) from £2,000 per person with Discover the World

Canadian Affair offers flights, three nights in Toronto, car hire and four nights in Algonquin from £769 per person. 

Published in the May/Jun 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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