Canoe Lake Essay

June 2012 iPad Issue — National Geographic Traveler

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Canoe Lake, Algonquin Park, Ontario, Canada

It’s ‘ice-out’ again on Canoe Lake in the wilds of Algonquin Park northeast of Toronto.  A momentous rite of spring, this is the magical day in April, sometimes early May, when the lake’s softened icy cap just disappears — like someone pulling the paraffin seal off a jar of preserves when you’re not looking.  Locals blog about it, bet on it and celebrate it.  They know this early promise of summer unlocks the best of the lake — its storied past and eerie feral vibe.  Finally, one can release again one’s inner voyageur and paddle.

Maybe it’s Canoe Lake’s long narrow reaches that beckon each summer, or the spire-like silhouettes of balsam, fir and tamarack.  Maybe it’s the permanent southeast bend of a lone pine or the quirky allure of rustic old cabins, their faded swim towels strewn over weather-worn railings.  For certain, Canoe Lake is a favorite portal to gentle summer pleasures found across the myriad waterways of Canada’s oldest provincial park, a nature preserve bigger than the state of Delaware. All this is reason enough to make the three-hour trek north of the city.  Still, to put in at Canoe Lake is also to follow in the j-strokes of over 100 years of paddlers.

The late Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Elliot Trudeau whiled away dog days on these waters, as did his three sons and the children of two other Prime Ministers — just some of the famous summer campers in the 90-year history of the Taylor Statten youth camps on the lake.

It is Canadian art legend, Tom Thomson, however, who dominates local lore. These landscapes beguiled Thomson from his first visit in 1912. Based in the once bustling town of Mowat (now five cottages on Canoe Lake’s west shore), Thomson tripped throughout the park, painting prolifically. His iconic Algonquin scenes, like The Jack Pine and The West Wind, defined an untamed northern sensibility, later made famous by the Group of Seven artists. Then, in July of 1917, he drowned mysteriously, his distinctive dove-grey cedar strip found floating overturned near Mowat.

It’s nearly a century later. Another ‘ice-out’.  Another summer and Canoe Lake’s fascination is today as it ever was for Thomson and all others since — a gateway to casting a line in the cool deep waters of Big Trout Lake; gliding past a massive bull moose in Grassy Bay; stoking a crackling fire as loons call into a breathless July twilight; and while sensing the echoes of all who’ve gone before, still feeling like the first ever paddler to take in this magnificent wilderness. 

Break from the Lake: Whitewater raft on the Madawaska River; hike and mountain bike on park trails; beckon wolves to answer at evening Wolf Howls.

Local Eats: Book ahead for breakfast, lunch or dinner at Arowhon Pines — an historic wilderness lodge with food rivalling top tables anywhere.

Nature Calling: Watch for moose, deer, fox, wolves, beavers, loons, blue herons etc.  Hang your food in a tree and make noise in the bush not to find black bears.

Tranquility Factor: Expect lots of canoeists mid summer, but just the odd cottager buzzing by in a 20-horsepower runabout.

Rituals:  Ice-out, of course; fishing for lake trout; a visit to Thomson’s Cairn and Totem Pole Memorials on Hayhurst Point; tripping Big Trout Loop.

Resident Experts: A Canoe Lake fixture, the Portage Store offers complete outfitting, tripping advice and guides.  See for park info/attractions.

Required Reading: Northern Light by Roy MacGregor — a crash course in local lore.