Created in 1893 at the behest of logging companies keen to keep farmers out, Algonquin Provincial Park is Ontario’s oldest and largest provincial park and for many it comprises the quintessential Canadian landscape. Located on the southern edge of the Canadian Shield, the park straddles a transitional zone, with the hilly two-thirds to the west covered in a hardwood forest of sugar maple, beech and yellow birch, while in the drier eastern part jack pine, white pine and red pine predominate. Throughout the park, the lakes and rocky rounded hills are interspersed with black spruce bogs, a type of vegetation typical of areas far further north. Canoeing is very popular here and with an astounding 1600km of routes there’s a good chance of avoiding all contact for days on end. Wildlife is as varied as the flora – any trip to Algonquin is characterized by the echo of birdsong, from the loons’ ghostly call to the screech of ravens. Beavers, moose, black bears and raccoons are all resident, as are white-tailed deer, whose population thrives on the young shoots that replace the trees felled by the park’s loggers. Public “howling parties” – which can attract up to two thousand people – set off into the wilderness during August in search of timber wolves, or rather their howls: many of the rangers are so good at howling that they can get the animals to reply.
Whether you’re after the full wilderness experience or just a quick dabble, access to Algonquin’s backcountry is via the 56km Parkway Corridor – also known as the Frank McDougall Parkway (Hwy-60) – the park’s only significant road linking the West Gate, 45km east of Hwy-11, and the East Gate, on the long road to and from Ottawa.Read More
The mystery of Tom Thomson
The mystery of Tom Thomson
Arguably Canada’s greatest painter, Tom Thomson drowned in Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park in 1917. He was last seen setting out across the lake on a fishing trip, but a few hours later his empty canoe was spotted bobbing around on the water and his body was finally discovered one week later. No one knows what happened to Thomson – and his death may well have been an accident – but he was an expert canoeist and an experienced backwoodsman, skills that would seem to make his accidental death unlikely. The result has been all sorts of theories to explain his early demise – from the conceivable (suicide) to the bizarre (shot by a World War I deserter hiding in the woods). Whatever the truth, there’s a cairn monument to Thomson overlooking Canoe Lake a forty-minute paddle from the Portage Store.
The beaver is Canada’s national animal: it appeared on the first postage stamp issued by the colony in 1851, and now features on the back of the 5¢ piece. There was nothing sentimental about this choice – beaver pelts kick-started the colonial economy – and only recently has the beaver been treated with some restraint and protected from being indiscriminately polished off.
Beavers are aquatic rodents, growing to around 75cm in length and weighing about 35kg. Aboriginal peoples hunted the beaver for its thick, soft pelt, composed of long guard hairs and a dense undercoat, to use for clothing. In the seventeenth century. European fur traders realized the value of beaver pelts, particularly in the manufacture of the all-weather, all-purpose hat worn by every man of any substance. To keep up with demand the beaver was extensively trapped, and the French voyageurs pushed further and further west along the lake and river systems in pursuit of the animal, thereby opening up much of the interior. The beaver was hunted to the point of extinction in much of eastern Canada, but had a reprieve when the beaver hat went out of fashion in the late nineteenth century; today beavers are comparatively commonplace.
Beavers start to build their dams, which can be up to 700m wide, by strategically felling one tree across a stream. This catches silt and driftwood and the beaver then reinforces the barrier with sticks and stones plus grass and mud, which is laboriously smoothed-in as a binding element. The lodge is constructed simultaneously; sometimes it forms part of the dam and sometimes it is fixed to the shore or an island in the pond. It is about 2m in diameter and has two entrances – one accessible from land and one from underwater – both for its own convenience and to be able to escape predators in any emergency, along with a lot of tail slapping to give the alarm. Lodges are topped with grass thatch and a good layer of mud, which freezes in winter, making them virtually impenetrable. During the autumn, the beaver stocks its pond with the soft-bark trees and saplings that make up its diet. It drags them below the water line and anchors them to the mud at the bottom before retiring to the lodge for the winter, only emerging to get food from the pond or repair the dam. Beaver lakes are not the tree-fringed paradises portrayed by some nature-film makers; nearer the mark is a mud-banked pond, surrounded by untidily felled trees and with a bedraggled-looking domed heap of sticks and sludge somewhere along its banks.