by Doug Archer
We had been talking about a father-and-son
canoe trip since our sons starting playing hockey together
a decade ago. Suddenly it was a case of now or nevergirlfriends
and summer jobs would soon make such an outing impossible.
Thats how eight forty-something fathers and our eight
fifteen- and sixteen-year-old sons came to find ourselves
in Algonquin Park early on a summer morning, dumbfounded,
listening to a couple of guys from the local outfitter explain
how to siphon river water through a special portable purifier
to make it drinkable. Silently we all wondered what we had
gotten ourselves into.
None of the eight dads are what I would
call adventure types. We all love the outdoors,
as do our sons; but to be honest, our outdoor ventures up
until now had consisted of day-hikes on the Bruce Trail and
cottaging in the Haliburton Highlands.
A few of us considered ourselves campers,
but several had never slept in a tent before. Some had canoed
in a previous life, none seriously. And one father had looked
up the word portage in the dictionary a few weeks
before the trip and almost canceled out. I think a handful
of us thought (or at least secretly hoped) that when we hired
an outfitter to assemble the equipment and food for our trip,
they would paddle the canoes and carry the packs for us as
Within the hour our eight canoes were
in the waterone dad-and-son team and two 50-pound backpacks
per canoe. The challenge and excitement of a five-day wilderness
adventure lay before us.
Six hours into the trip, death would have
been a welcome relief.
By some cruel twist of fate (some might
call it a case of novices biting off more than they could
chew), the first day turned out to be the toughest. Four hours
of paddling across two lakes into gale-force headwind. A seemingly
endless journey up a shallow, swamp-like creek that had me
thinking about Stanley and Livingston paddling into the African
interior. And just to keep things interesting, a 2.5-kilometre
portage through dense bush with vertebrae-crushing backpacks
strapped to our backs and canoes balanced on our shoulders.
By the second kilometre, I ached in places I didnt know
I had. I found myself drifting in and out of hallucinations
of vacationing at a chiropractic clinic.
Throughout it all, every flying insect
known to man had a go at us. Mosquitoes, black-flies, horse-
and deer-flies...hell, even tsetse flies for all we knew.
They landed with feeder bags on, and lapped up the insect
repellent we had doused ourselves with, like it was some kind
When we finally arrived at the campsite,
we collapsed in a heap, teenagers included. Some of the fathers
had that hollow, washed-out look they say soldiers get after
months in the battlefield. How many sleeps before we go home?
We were in our sleeping bags that first
night by 9 p.m.16 farting, belching, snoring males zipped
inside six pup tents. God have mercy on those who forgot ear
and gas masks.
The camp master (thats what we ended
up calling the dad who arranged this trip) had us up by 6
a.m. to cook breakfast and break camp. If there was one thing
we all came to dread by the end of the trip it was making
and breaking camp. Setting up and taking down six tents. Inflating
and deflating 16 air mattresses. Rolling and re-packing 16
sleeping bags. Hoisting 50-pound packs of food up into the
trees every night out of reach of the black bears.
I have newfound respect for the early
explorers. Not for what they discovered or their courage in
venturing into uncharted territory to discover it, but for
their tenacity in sticking with it through the monotony and
aggravation of having to make and break camp every day.
After a fine breakfast repast of powdered
orange juice and dry toast charred black over an open fire,
most of us had to go for our daily constitutional. Thats
when we were introduced to the Thunder Box. This is the Algonquin
Park version of a Johnny-on-the-Spot. A wooden bench with
a hole cut into it perched over a shallow cavity dug into
the ground. The phrase, call of nature, had never
had more meaning to me. And of course the boxes were hidden
among the evergreens for privacy, which meant mosquitoes,
my buttocks still itch.
Back on the water we paddled slowlytoo
sore from Day One for anything more strenuousthrough
the untainted wilderness of Tom Thomson paintings. The group
talked endlessly about everything and nothing, calling from
canoe to canoe; and then we paddled for what seemed like hours
in silence, comforted by our majestic surroundings and the
simple presence of one another. I found myself wanting to
freeze this moment in time.
Eight out of eight of the dads woke up
on the third day in pain. It was like a morning at a nursing
home as we sat around the breakfast fire complaining of sore
backs, strained shoulders and pulled ligaments. The teenagers
nicknamed us the Geriatrics. A day off had not been part of
the original itinerary, but we figured we wouldnt make
it if we didnt declare a day of rest.
We swam and tended the fire and explored
the island we were camped on. The most strenuous thing we
did all day was cook dinner. As it turned out, however, that
was quite an ordeal. Following our main meal of freeze-dried
stroganoff (Mmm! Mmm!), the dads decided to try their hands
at preparing a blueberry cobbler the outfitter had provided
Before we were finished we had an assembly
line going that would have put Hells Kitchen to shame.
Powdered milk. Powdered blueberry sauce. A dehydrated dough-like
substance that refused to rise. And everything had to be cooked
in separate pans before combining. We had five adults hunched
and sweating over propane burners stirring and mixing and
cussing for almost two hours to produce a barely edible blueberry-flavoured
gruel (the dough never did rise) that was devoured in about
30 seconds by the teenagers. Next time well bring a
bag of chocolate chip cookies.
The trip brought out the fact that in
the company of guys, everything becomes a competition. What
father-son team could put up their tent the fastest? Who could
cook the best skillet potatoes? (We found Teflon specks from
the frying pan in the potatoes one morning and the guilty
dad-chef will never live it down.) Which dad could get to
the end of a portage with the fewest back spasms?
On Day Four the camp master went for the
break-camp record. He had us rising and shining
by 6 a.m. Macaroni with freeze-dried home fries cooked and
eaten by 6:45. Tents down, sleeping bags rolled, 16 trips
to the Thunder Box complete by 7:10 and back on the water
by 7:15. We were good!
The talk on the water that day was about
food. Real foodwith substance and texture and tastewas
becoming a fixation now. We were down to licorice sticks and
slightly stale bagels with PB&J. But our spirits were
We travelled along a meandering river
and watched beavers slide into the water from the shore and
disappear under a jumbled heap of sticks and mud they called
home. We crossed a small calm lake surrounded by wind-crippled
pines. And over the course of the day we never saw another
human being. At one point my techno-geek son, who had not
taken his iPod or PSP out of his knapsack for two days now,
quietly said, Its nice here, Dad. The prince
On the fifth morning, the camp master
poked his head into our tent at 5:45 a.m.whats
with this guy! But this morning it was different. He wanted
us to see something. We all crept down to the lakea
collection of 16 men and boys-becoming-men. The sun was just
coming up, its glow shimmering on the mist rising off the
glass surface of the early morning water. Swimming toward
us across the lake, only its head and antlers visible above
the water, was a huge bull moose.
Over the past four days we had paddled
beside beavers; shared our food with chipmunks and field mice;
given a wide berth to snapping turtles and fallen asleep to
the cry of loons. But this was our first moose. As though
he knew he had to leave a lasting impression, he clambered
onto the shore not ten feet from where we hid behind trees,
strolled through our campsite and disappeared into the forest
beyond. Mother Nature had saved the best til last.
As we paddled the last few kilometres
back to our launching pointdirty, unshaven, riddled
with insect bitesI felt a pang of regret: the father-and-son
trip was over. I hadnt been able to freeze it in time.
But I had learned something on this excursion into the wilderness.
Fixing moments in time with my son and friends was not the
pointit was having such moments that mattered. And we
had shared a five-day moment in Algonquin Park that I will