Backcountry Camping and Canoeing.
Since I was a young child, I've been lucky enough to spend part of every summer canoeing in the interior of Ontario's beautiful provincial parks. For me, few things compare to the feeling of launching a good canoe into a calm, clear lake... feeling the smooth way it glides through the water, tasting the fresh air in your mouth, and sensing the way that the beautiful landscape slowly massages your troubles away. A good canoe trip is nothing less than spiritual, and is a safe and fun way to connect with a deep and long-neglected set of human needs: to feel a part of nature, to wonder at its intricacy and beauty, and to succeed without the convenience and the chaos of modern society. A better vacation is pretty hard to find... and below I offer some great ways to celebrate a canoe trip, along with plenty of tips on successful planning and safety. I'd like to dedicate this page to my Dad, who taught me to appreciate nature in a way that's changed my life forever.
The Joy of Canoeing.
Stargazing. After the sun falls behind the horizon, the night sky offers a view of stars that city-dwellers never see. Find a comfortable spot along the shoreline, or take the canoe out for a 360° view, and watch the beautiful scatter of faraway stars light and dim. On clear night you'll be able to see the foggy belt of the Milky Way, the slow glide of a satellite, and more shooting stars than you can count on your hands. If you're lucky enough to see the Northern Lights, consider yourself truly blessed.
Cliff-jumping. Scout out a place where the rocks ascend straight out of the water, at least 20' high for a real adrenaline rush. First swim down and check that it's plenty deep where you'll be landing, then climb up the cliff and leap off into a free fall. Enjoy the rush, it's great, but be safe about it: don't hit the water with a broad part of your body, and be aware that the change in pressure as you quickly sink in the water can do nasty things to your eardrums. Wearing a lifejacket will protect your ears by keeping you from sinking too far; just realize that it'll pull upward on your body as you enter the water, and make sure that that's a safe thing for it to do.
Fishing. This is really peaceful and relaxing, until you catch a bite and the excitement begins. It's an amazing feeling to pull something alive and beautiful out of the mysterious blue water. Get a perforated lid for your bail bucket and buy bait at the outfitters or catch frogs on the shore. When you get a bite, keep the line tight so the hook stays attached to the fish, and keep the rod off the side of the boat and bent as little as possible to avoid breakage. Once the fish is next to the boat, lift it in by hand if you don't have a net, and string a rope through a gill and out the mouth to tie it up and keep it caught. Cleaning a fish takes some skill: scale it, remove the head and tail and organs, and cut along the side of the backbone to get the meat. You'll end up with a natural, healthy and fairly caught meal for your group to enjoy.
Hiking & Mountain Climbing. They may not be "mountains", but the gorgeous white quartzite hills of Killarney Park, for example, make an enjoyable and challenging hike with a breathtaking view at the summit. Plan for one day of your canoe trip to be a day trip up a hill, pack a lunch and plenty of water, and watch how the landscape changes around you, reinventing its beauty with every step. If you like you can plan whole trips around hiking and leave the canoes at home. Once you're on top, enjoy the amazing view and continue your celebration of being alive.
Ultimate Frisbee. This can be an amazingly fun time. Find a nicely private beach with fairly level shallow water, plant your paddles as goalposts in the sand, and just give 'er with a good game of ultimate. Having the water there makes running funnier and more fun, and also means you can dive for the frisbee with a safe and enjoyable landing. Water shoes are good to keep from stepping on sharp clams and such. Have fun.
Swimming. Swimming pools can never duplicate the refreshing, expansive and chlorine-free water of a freshwater lake, and being in the water is one of the finest parts of a good canoe trip. Interior camping also offers you a great degree of privacy if you get the right site... so if you're the type who appreciates being naked, and the others on your site don't mind, it's a great chance to take it all off and go for a dip. Sexuality is irrelevant here; it's just really nice to feel the cool water on your skin. The same goes for the warm sun, and if you're comfortable sunbathing naked it's recommended. With or without a swimsuit, sunbathing and swimming can both be a lot of fun. You might also take an empty canoe onto the lake, flip it over and bail out, and have some fun with your semi-sunken ship.
Firegazing. Fire evokes a primoridal fascination in the human soul, and brings a meditative state to the least interested of beings. Watch the play of flames, find shapes in the coals, feel the natural warmth that radiates out from the fireplace, and enjoy the deep conversation that a campfire naturally brings.
Photography & Painting. The landscapes of the Canadian Shield, and those of any real natural area worldwide, are very beautiful things. Bring a good eye and a good camera and you'll end up with some great nature photos, not only studies of plant life and landscapes, but also shots of the great variety of wildlife & birds you can encounter. I have little experience with sketching or painting, but I can see how the landscape of Northern Ontario would inspire artists like the Group of Seven to create some really mind-blowing work. I'd think that the act of painting in such a peaceful environment would be a reward in itself, and the final product might be great as well.
Just Being. No matter what you choose to do while you're canoeing, the fresh air and natural exercise and escape from urban life will work wonders for your soul. Enjoy every moment, whether you're doing something on this list or not.
Gear to Bring Along.
Below you'll find my checklist for a successful interior canoe trip. Every time I go I'll print the list off and check it, and if you'd like to do the same, there's a printer-friendly .pdf file right here. More details on all the gear are given below the list.
O Canoe with pads & ropes
O Paddles, lifejackets, bail bucket
O Tent with fly
O Sleeping pad or air mattress/pump
O Sleeping bag & pillow
O Park map & compass
O Portable saw and/or hatchet
O First aid kit w/ solar blanket, whistle
O Rope & clothesline
O Rain tarp
O Toothbrush & paste
O Toilet paper
O Bug repellant
O Garbage bags
O Cedar dust
O Flashlight & lantern
O Lighter / matches
O Cards / chess / Poker chips
O Reading material
O Camera & film/batteries
O Standard clothing
O Swimsuit & towel
O Hat & sunglasses
O Rain gear
O Warm sleeping clothes
O Shoes & sandals
O Stove with extra gas
O Water jug & filter / pills
O Fishing rod & bait bucket
O Mess kit:
Pots, frying pan, stir-spoon
Plates, bowls, cups, cutlery
Soap, washcloth, towel
Swiss army knife
Sharp blade & cutting board
Restaurant (there & back)
Simple Meal Ideas:|
Oatmeal (& fruit salad)
Eggs in a bottle (to scramble)
Cereal & powdered milk
Bagels with PB&J
Bagels with cheese & tomato
Fresh pasta & frozen sauce
Head lettuce & dressing
Soup mix & rice or potatoes
BBQ meat (1st night only)
Potatoes in foil
Trail mix / gorp
Dried fruit / candy
Powdered or boxed juice
Frozen bottled water
Alcohol / coffee / cigars
Salt & pepper & sauces
In general, all your gear should be as lightweight and low-volume as possible. Having the right-sized containers for things will definitely help. To increase the volume of gear that your backpack can hold, attach things to the outside of the pack with biner clips or string.
Canoe rentals should come with paddles, lifejackets and a bail bucket. The pads and ropes are for transportation on top of your vehicle, as described in the how to section of this page.
A good tent is the foundation of your camping gear. A full fly is essential, and I like a vestibule to keep my shoes and pack dry without bringing them in the tent. When purchasing a tent, consider the number of people you'd like it to sleep, the ease of setup, the packed volume and weight, amenities like windows and a place to hang a lantern, and the durability, warranty and price. For more details on selecting a good tent, talk to an outfitter or an experienced camper or read some kind of book.
Thermarest brand sleeping pads are small and great for interior trips. For car camping, a bulkier air mattress with an optional pump will be quite comfortable.
I use two very small and light sleeping bags, which can be doubled up in the cold or zipped together to sleep two. A pile of folded clothes will substitute for a pillow if you're tough enough to handle it.
I like to photocopy and laminate the section of map I'll be working with, and attach it to my pack where it'll be visible when the pack's in the canoe.
Whistles are essential for safety while hiking. Consult a professional to be sure your first aid kit has everything you might need, and also make sure that you know how to use it.
Rope is used to anchor the canoe, and to store the food overnight as described in the how-to section. A clothesline is handy for many things, including hanging the tarp and doing the obvious.
Personal Items and Clothing.
Cedar dust is hydrophobic and can be used to clean oil out of your hair, and it also scents and volumizes nicely. A flashlight with spare batteries is essential and a lantern is nice but optional. Be sure to protect your camera as well as your book from water damage and from being mangled or dropped.
Keep your clothing dry with a waterproof sack, and bring something to change into, especially in cold or wet conditions. Cotton has almost no insulating power when it's wet and wool or fleece are much better choices. Don't bring anything fancy, and don't hesitate to wear something reasonably dirty if it means a lighter pack. Full shoes are important for safety during a hike or portage, but sandals are better for comfort at the site. Underwater shoes can be fun and helpful if you like spending money and have the room to pack them.
Food Gear and Meals
The meal ideas on the list above are very basic and more sophisticated recipes are definitely possible. A good friend of mine swears by the book Lipsmackin' Backpackin' by Christine and Tim Connors. For more hardcore campers a food dehydrator will lighten your load quite a bit.
Pack your food in firm freezer or milk bags rather than tupperware whenever possible, and you won't have to pack out the extra volume of empty plastic containers. Do the same with aluminum cans or glass bottles, which aren't allowed in most parks. Transfer ketchup or other condiments (and sunscreen) to smaller squeeze bottles, which you can find at your local outfitter or art supply store.
Make sure your food can hold up to a bit of a pounding; bagels are good and bananas are not. =)
Carrying frozen water and pasta sauce in your cooler will help keep it cold, and unlike an ice pack these things will be edible when they thaw out. Speaking of water, you should only drink it if it's been boiled, filtered of chemically treated.
Most of Northern Ontario's campgrounds have grills for cooking over the fire at most sites. Take advantage of this by bringing meat or veggie burgers for your first dinner, and grilling them over some good hot coals with a low flame. Some foods can be cooked directly on or under the coals, including potatoes wrapped in foil and perforated with a fork to let air escape, and corn left inside the husks.
Using a stove for most of your cooking will save you the work of gathering wood and reduce the impact of that work on the natural environment. I'd suggest saving the fire for special dinners and after-dark recreation. Be sure to bring enough gas for your stove.
A nice compact mess kit is essential. You might look into sporks or bowls that are also plates. Find a thin plastic cutting board and a sharp folding blade, and choose a phosphate-free and biodegradable soap that'll work for your skin and hair as well.
Once you've got the right gear and you've remembered to pack almost all of it, all you'll need is some of the know-how and skill of the modern woodsperson. The next section is all about how to make your canoe trip a smooth, safe and enjoyable experience.
How To Have a Successful Trip.
Decide where and when to go. Before anything else can happen you've got to decide which park you'll be going to and what your arrival and departure dates will be. Algonquin Park is Ontario's biggest, oldest, and most well-known park, and it's a great place to start. The date or arrival and departure will depend on everyone's free time and inclination, but anywhere between three and ten days is normal and I find five or six to be ideal. I'd plan to arrive at the entry point in the early morning, to boost your odds of securing a good site. This can involve sleeping very early and leaving in the wee hours of the morning, or leaving the afternoon before and sleeping in the car or tent or hotel at a spot that's close to the entry point.
Decide who to bring. The best part of a good trip is having the right company. Most Ontario parks allow for up to nine people on a site, and you can plan trips for family, friends, you and a lover, or just yourself. I've been interior camping with a child as young as four, but that's a decision for an experienced camper and parent to make. If you're bringing a lover you're in for some fun, but I wouldn't be too literally dirty while you're singing the body electric, just for sanitary reasons. If it's just you, you should have a survival training course under your belt, have someone who knows exactly where you'll be and when, and if it's possible given your cell phone's coverage area, have a way of contacting the outside world.
Plan your route.
Next plan which route you're taking and which lake(s) you'll be sleeping at. The map of Algonquin available here includes plenty of pointers for selecting a good route. In general, I'd recommend a portage or two to give you some privacy, and a paddle and/or portage distance that's suitable to the amount of exercise you want to get. Obviously staying longer and covering more ground will be make the trip more challenging, and changing sites or making day trips every day is a great way to test your fitness and endurance if you're into that sort of thing. On the other hand, you can settle into one site for a few days and just relax, working only when you feel like it. It's all up to you and your fellow campers.
Book the trip. Once you've got the where, the when and the who nailed down, it's time to go ahead and book the trip. If you're going with Ontario Parks you can do this up to five months in advance. The booking begins with a credit card and this page, with more information available on this website. You'll need to know the dates of arrival and departure, the number of people, and the type of shelter(s) you'll be staying in. You can also book by phone at 1-888-ONT-PARK.
Plan your meals. Even the gentlest canoe trip involves a good amount of exercise, so plan for somewhat more than your party would usually eat. On the other hand, too much food will weigh you down and a cooler won't keep your perishables lasting forever, so shoot for a good balance. When more than two people are coming, I find it best to have each meal or at least each dinner assigned to one canoe-team of two people... it's simpler, more efficient, and helps you travel lighter if you feed six people once rather than two people three times. If you want to, list all your meals on a chart to be sure you bring the right amount. Make sure everyone's dietary restrictions are public knowledge, and that everything you plan can be fairly easily cooked on a stove or a campfire. Groceries can be a significant expense, and in general you should keep track of who pays for your expenses, which are listed with the list of gear, and split them as you see fit when the trip is done.
Load the canoe on the car. First lay your canoe out lengthwise on the lawn beside the car. Be sure it extends an equal distance forward from the front of the car, and backward from the back; you can slide it farther back for greater visibility while driving, but the front of the canoe should never be behind the front of the car. Attach the pads to the canoe so they're lined up with the front and back of the car's roof, and carefully lift the canoe onto the car. Be sure it's centred left-to-right, then tie it to the front and back using store-bought securing straps, or two twelve-foot ropes using the following steps. 1. Tie one end of your rope to the anchor under the car on the front left. 2. Pass the rope through the anchor at the front of the canoe. 3. One foot below the canoe's anchor on the untied side, fold the rope in two and tie the twofold rope around itself once, so there's a loop sticking out of the rope before it extends downward. 4.Pass the end of the rope down through the anchor under the car on the right, and up through the loop you've made in the rope. Don't tighten it there just yet. 5.Repeat steps 1 through 4 on the back of the car, tighten the rope fairly tight there without lifting the front pads of the canoe off the roof, and secure the end of the rope around the loop. 6. Return to the front of the car, tighten the rope nice and tight, and secure it to the loop like you did at the back. You should now have a nice secure "A" shape on the front and back of the car. if you've got a hatchback, hopefully you've loaded your trunk before all this happens. If you're looking to bring two canoes, you'll need a roof rack, a trailer, a truck, or another friend with a car.
Paddle. Of course it's best to learn to paddle on the water, and you can experiment with movements and body positions there. Two fundamentals are that paddling on one side will turn the canoe to the opposite side, and the rear canoeist's strokes have much more impact on the canoe's direction. Steering is mainly up to the rear canoeist, though the front person can help and will also set the rhythm. Two canoeists paddling on opposite sides will balance each other to a certain extent, and the rear canoeist can make that a full balance by using the J-stroke to reduce the net turning effect of his stroke. To do a J-stroke: when your stroke is almost finished, turn your paddle so the same flat side of it goes from pushing the water backward to pushing it outward. This will turn the boat toward the side you're paddling on. The J-stroke can also be done in the front, in which case it'll turn the boat away from the side the front canoeist is on. Avoid backpaddling if at all possible and don't let the boat become parallel to the waves in rough water; it's better to zig-zag diagonally across the waves, or stay in closer to shore where the waves will be smaller. Please be safe and wear your lifejacket.
Portage. A portage involves carrying all your gear over land from one lake to another, or over an unnavigable section of water. It's the most strenuous part of a canoe trip, and it's here that your lightweight and compact gear will pay off. If you can move all your gear in one trip, I take my hat off to you; if it takes two, don't forget to enjoy the scenery on the way back. I like to double-team the canoe, which allows a duo to place the seats on their shoulders, on top of their heads, or held up above them with straight arms. Don't fight each other by pulling down on opposite sides. You can cut the portage down to one trip if you each carry a pack while you do this. Be sure to wear full shoes and watch your step for safety's sake.
Set up camp. If you can't pitch your tent on a flat spot, try to find one where the contours of the ground fit your body nicely, and pitch the tent strategically over that spot. If you're on a slope your head should be higher than your feet. Hang a tarp and clothesline if you like, make sure your canoe's not drifting away, swim after it if you need to, etc. =) If you're crafty like my Uncle Frank, find a tree with two trunks and saw a piece of wood to fit in between them horizontally, about four feet off the ground... flatten the top side of that piece of wood, carve "BAR" on the front side, and you'll be good to go.
Find firewood. This is a fair bit of work and a significant environmental impact, so I wouldn't overdo the whole burning thing. Never cut live wood for your fire - even if it didn't have a right to live, it's too moist or "green" to burn very well. Birch bark might make good kindling but stripping it from a live birch can kill the tree. What you want to do is park the canoe on a shore away from all campsites, remember where you parked, and walk into the woods to look for fallen trees that aren't too green and aren't rotten either. Standing dead trees are second-best as they provide bird habitat, and I'd stay away from the shoreline where no one wants to see a stump. Saw off some 10' sections of any nice tree you find, load up the boat with them, and paddle on back to the site. Once you're back there'll be plenty of sawing to do. To saw efficiently, relax and move the blade across the wood, keeping the whole blade in constant contact with the wood surface. Struggling to push the blade towards the wood as you saw across it is just a waste of energy. If the saw blade gets pinched, lift the wood and remove the blade rather than potentially breaking it by trying to saw.
Build a Fire. A good fire is a successful balancing act: you need enough matter to keep burning and retain heat, and enough empty space to allow oxygen in to enable combustion. A good firepit will have walls on all sides that not only mark the boundaries, but also reflect heat back to the center. Start a fire by making a pile of paper, building a tipi with small sticks around it, and gradually adding larger sticks until you're up to full size. Dry out moist wood by explosing it to the heat around the edges of the fire. If there's not enough air flow, rearranging the wood or blowing into the fire will help. If you can see exposed coals and feel the heat escaping, place a log over the coals but not directly on top of them. A "log cabin" or # shape, with two logs parallel and two laid on top perpendicular to the first two, is a pretty effective way to have a bonfire. In dry conditions a fire ban may be in place to prevent forest fires; please respect it if it is, and put out your fire before bed in any case.
Cook and wash the dishes. Ideally, by the time it gets dark you'll have cooked and eaten dinner, washed the dishes in hot water with biodegradable soap, and poured the leftover soap suds out on land some distance away from your site. After that the only work left to do is the following...
Store the food overnight. If you leave food out at night, you risk attracting rodents, raccoons and even bears. To avoid this, one solution is to pack your food in olive barrels (available at some outfitters) that seal in the scent of the food. Another is to hang your food packs up in a tree, at least 15 feet off the ground and preferably away from the tree trunk. Tie a rock to a rope and throw it over a sturdy branch before it gets dark, then haul the pack up and tie the rope down when you're ready. A third option is to float your food in the canoe in the middle of the lake. To do this, securely tie a good-sized rock to a length of rope, and use it as an anchor attached to a canoe full of food. Tow that canoe out behind another one so you can return to shore once the anchor's lowered. It's recommended that your smelly toothpaste and deodourant be stored with the food, but it's a pretty small risk if it's not. If you do come close to a real live bear, the idea is to scare it off by appearing large (hands on hips) and being loud and intimidating. Bears are more curious than bloodthirsty, and if you can convince one that he'd get hurt if he tried to eat you, he'll go find his food elsewhere.
Be eco-conscious. This final tip is one of the most important, and when you really experience the overwhelming beauty of an unspoiled landscape, you'll understand where environmentalism comes from. Leave each campsite cleaner than you found it. You can burn paper and cardboard, and compostable waste can be left away from the site where it won't be an eyesore or attract animals... but please don't pollute the air with burning plastic, and do pack out all the rest of your garbage. Don't tame animals by feeding them, do your [ahem] downloading in the designated box, and don't harm trees or trample too much plant life. Visiting these beautiful natural areas is our privelege, and I hope it's one that'll be enjoyed by generations to come.
If this page helps you enjoy a good canoe trip, that's great. If a good canoe trip deepens your appreciation of nature the way it did mine, that's even better. Enjoy...