The first time I paddled a canoe was in the Algoma Highlands.
When I was 12, my father splurged on our annual fishing trip and flew us into Megisan Lake Lodge—a collection of rustic but cozy cabins east of Lake Superior. We spent a good part of the week fishing the main lake from the confines of a motorboat. Not having much luck, we decided on the second-last day of our trip to borrow one of the lodge’s beat-up aluminum canoes and portaged into a neighbouring lake to try our luck. We caught fish (trophy-sized brook trout), more than ever before, but that’s not the point. What had me hooked was travelling into a remote area by our own power—the sense of freedom that the canoe, and the place it took us, gave me. So began my love affair with wilderness travel.
To me, the canoe is the one thing that binds me irrevocably to the wilderness. I even find the motion of paddling the craft itself very methodic; the action of drifting across a calm lake or being pulled downriver is very Zen-like.
My passion for the canoe may also have something to do with the fact that I’m Canadian. Even though canoeists owe a great deal to John MacGregor, the Scottish philanthropist who popularized canoeing as a recreational sport back in 1885 across Europe and the United States, I doubt few would argue that the Canadian identity itself lies with the canoe. After all, if Canadian film producers ever wanted to depict the opening of Canada’s wilderness the way Hollywood characterized winning the Wild West, the hero wouldn’t be straddling a horse, but rather crouched down in a canoe, paddling off into the sunset. The packsack, paddle and portage are as much pioneer icons as the chuckwagon, boot spur and ten-gallon hat. Maybe the closest this aspect of Canadian culture has come to being represented in film (the work of Bill Mason excluded) is with The Frantic’s Mr. Canoehead, a superhero who had his head inadvertently welded to his aluminum canoe by a stray lightening bolt.
To me, when I spot a car barreling down the highway with a canoe strapped to its roof, I don’t see a somewhat inexpensive recreational watercraft owned by some poor fool who can’t afford a speedboat. I see a way of life.
Maybe that’s why going back to the place I first paddled a canoe was such a strong dream of mine for many years; 25 years after I first paddled in the Algoma region I decided it was time to return. I wanted to celebrate the same area—alone and content.
To get there I paddled the West Aubinadong River to reach Megisan Lake. On the previous trip, flying in bush plane had taken my father and I 40 minutes. Paddling there took eight days. Things had changed since my last visit. The lodge was now abandoned and, just beyond the edge of Megisan Lake, clearcuts had left the landscape heavily scarred. Thankfully, the 300-year-old pine that hugged the shoreline of the remote jade-coloured lake we paddled and portaged into years ago still stood. In 1989, the previous owner of the lodge, Ron Lessard, and many others, including Ontario Nature-Federation of Ontario Naturalists, saved the area from logging. Now, this small chunk of protected forest reserve is linked with the much larger Algoma Headwaters Provincial Park.
This is definitely canoe country, a network of lakes, creeks and wetlands surrounded by deep forested valleys of birch and maple, and high granite ridgetops crowned with towering red and white pine. It’s a watershed for four fast-flowing rivers (Goulais, Batchewana, Montreal and Mississagi) that cascade down to Lake Huron and Lake Superior through narrow gorges and over ancient gravel. It’s a landscape that Group of Seven member J.E.H. MacDonald labelled the “original site of the Garden of Eden.”
I camped on the very spot where my father and I had cooked a couple of brook trout for shore lunch 25 years before, and I couldn’t resist using the emergency satellite phone to give him a call. He thought the entire story I blabbed on about on the phone was a fib—that is until he heard a loon call off in the background.
“You’re actually there?” he enthusiastically asked.
“Yes I am, dad; and the old aluminum canoe we used is still stored along the portage.”
“Who cares about that?” he replied. “Are the trout still there? Is the wilderness still there?”
I paused, looked out over the lake and surrounding pine, and replied, “Yes, it’s still here dad.”
It was one of the best phone conversations I’ve ever had with my father.
The next morning I headed for home. The paddle out lasted another six days, but at least this time I was able to go with the current. On the way back I endured a few too many uncleared portages (no government maintenance is done on this route) and was even “confused of my whereabouts” for a couple of days. In all, though, the trip was well worth the hassles. Not only did I travel back in time through some of the most scenic country of the province of Ontario has to offer, but I lived out my boyhood dream to return to the place where I first paddled a canoe and to reflect on all the wild places the canoe has taken me ever since.