On Your Backcountry Canoe Trip
Because of Algonquin Park’s fame and its proximity to large urban populations, many people choose Algonquin for their first canoe trip. Unfortunately, many novices imagine that there is nothing more to a canoe trip than jumping into a canoe and paddling off, and nothing more to camping than pitching a tent and starting a fire. The results of this ignorance are bad all around – bad for the canoeist because he often has a miserable and exhausting trip instead of the good one he expected, and bad for the Park because of the damage done to backcountry campsites.
In fact, there are definite techniques which make all the difference between having a successful trip and having something you and the Park could well do without. The following section attemps to describe some of those techniques. Many, however, are far more easily demonstrated than explained in writing. For this reason, if you are in doubt about any of them, be sure to ask one of the Park staff, or take advantage of the other learning opportunities. It will be a few minutes well spent.
When you set out, the empty canoe should be put gently into the water beside the dock or shore, and steadied from the shore by hand while another person puts in the packs. The load should be built around the centre thwart as low as possible and shifted as necessary to ensure that the loaded canoe sits evenly on the water or with the bow slightly higher than the stern. Any weight difference between the bow and stern paddlers should also be taken into account.
In mentioning the bow and stern paddlers, we have implied that each canoe should carry two people. This is probably the most usual number, but a third person can be carried if (and only if) they sit or kneel down in the centre of the canoe, keeping their weight as low as possible. Under no circumstances should a canoe set out on a trip with four adults.
Only one person at a time gets into a canoe, which is carefully steadied all the while from land until the entering paddler is kneeling in front of their seat and is holding their paddle. When this is done, the next person does the same and then the last paddler (usually the sternman) steps in, holding their paddle across the gunwales for support, shoves off with the other foot, and kneels in front of their seat. There are other possible variations, but they all involve care and the realization that a canoe with a person standing in it however briefly, is a very unstable situation.
Although there are very few, if any, canoes nowadays which do not have built-in seats, it is still a rule of good canoemanship that you do not sit on the seat when you are paddling. You can rest on the front of the seat, but your knees should be on the bottom of the canoe. There are two excellent reasons for this. First, it is much easier to paddle in a kneeling position than with your knees sticking up in the air, and second, it lowers your centre of gravity and helps to stabilize the canoe. By all means take a lightweight foam pad but keep your knees on the bottom of the canoe!
As far as paddling itself is concerned, there are a number of simple rules which make for an efficient operation and easy progress. Bow and stern paddle on opposite sites, in unison, and with the sternman taking their cue from the bowman. Departing from this simple procedure will cause you to work harder than necessary.
Maintaining a straight course is normally the responsibility of the sternman, and to do this they must at the very least know the “J” stroke. If you do not know it, you are not really ready for a canoe trip in Algonquin or any place else. Fortunately, the “J” stroke can be learned in a few minutes and perfected in a few kilometres of paddling. It really has to be seen to be learned.
There are several other basic strokes as well, including “draws” and “sweeps,” used by either or both paddlers in a complementary fashion to accomplish rapid, efficient, steering manoeuvres. One of the real joys of canoeing, in fact, is being able to make your canoe respond exactly as you wish with minimum effort. Although the terminology may seem confusing, the actual techniques are simple. So once again, if you are in doubt, come out to one of the Park’s canoeing interpretive events. We think it would be a few minutes well spent.
Completing a portage in one trip should be a goal for every canoeist, and can be easily attained with a little planning. To begin with, all your equipment should be in a pack; carrying loose articles in your arms is both inefficient and tiring. Two people can usually get all of the gear into one large pack. This means that one person can carry the pack, while the other carries the canoe. (Some people might want to carry a light pack along with the canoe.)
The canoe is best carried upside down on the shoulders of one person. The only problem is getting the canoe up there, but like the “J” stroke, this is easy to learn and with practice easy to do. Some canoes come with, or can be fitted with, a yoke that spreads the weight more evenly over your shoulders. A temporary yoke can be formed by lashing two paddles to the thwarts so that your head will be between then with the blades resting on your shoulders. Padding can be created by wearing your lifejacket or draping a sweater over your shoulders.
To avoid confusion and the possibility of lost equipment, it is important that everyone knows exactly what they are responsible for carrying across the portage. Usually it is the sternman’s job to make sure that all of the equipment in their canoe at the start of the day is still there when camp is reached.
Finally, don’t make the mistake of over-exerting yourself. If you get tired, stop and rest. You came to enjoy yourself, not to set endurance records.
Camping in the canoe country of Algonquin Park is simple and satisfying. Through it you can blend into nature’s realm more completely perhaps than in any other way. It is a good practice to stop several hours before sunset so that you will have plenty of time to make camp, go for a swim, prepare dinner, and enjoy the quiet evening.
It is standard practice to begin setting up camp as soon as you arrive at your chosen campsite. Most campsites will have several different locations where you can pitch your tent. Choose a level area with both sufficient shelter and drainage to provide a dry and comfortable sleep. An exposed point, with a good breeze blowing, may help to reduce the immediate insect population, but will leave you in a poor spot should a storm develop.
Most backcountry campsites have simple wooden privies. These privies are there for your convenience and should be treated with respect. If you camp at a site without one, it is your responsibility to dig a shallow hole back in the bush away from the campsite, and well away from the water. Be sure to fill in the hole before leaving the campsite. Many experienced campers carry a small folding spade or garden trowel for this purpose.
Unfortunately, there are still a few thoughtless people among the camping fraternity, and you many find that your site is littered with garbage when you arrive. The Park employs a summer staff of 20 backcountry rangers whose job is to maintain the portages, and clean up the mess left by thoughtless people. Unfortunately, they cannot always get to a dirty campsite before you do, and so your cooperation in cleaning up these sites is certainly appreciated. Because of the increasing human pressure on our wilderness resources, many canoeists prefer to do their cooking over a small stove.
Once you have found a sheltered spot, and topped up the fuel, you are ready to light the stove and begin cooking. People who still depend on fires will have much more work to do before they are ready to begin. Information regarding the proper method of building a cooking fire is given below.
After dinner, the pots and cooking utensils should be washed thoroughly with hot water and biodegradable soap. All wash and rinse water should be poured out on the ground, well away from the lakeshore and your campsite. Because you aren’t carrying any cans or glass bottles there should be very little garbage. Metal foil, plastic wrap, or any other non-burnable material must be packed out in your litter bag and then taken home with you. Propane cylinders are to be packed out and disposed of at your local hazardous waste facility.
After the dishes are done, and before going to bed, is often one of the most enjoyable times of the day. A moonlit night provides an excellent opportunity to go for a quiet paddle; with luck you might catch a glimpse of a beaver hard at work. Clear nights ensure a good display of stars, and many people stay awake a little longer hoping that the northern lights might put on a show.
Before dark, you should re-pack all your food and suspend the pack above the ground as a precaution against Black Bears and Raccoons. If you have had a campfire, it must be completely extinguished before goind to bed. Before leaving in the morning, take a last look around to check for gear and garbage. If you have followed these few simple guidelines and left no evidence of your presence, there will be nothing to spoil the campsite for those who follow.
Every year a number of backcountry campsites are destroyed by fire. This is a serious problem since most of the areas suitable for campsites have already been developed. Every campsite destroyed by fire means one less place for you to camp. Most campsites have a fireplace, established and maintained by Park staff. If your site has more than one obvious fireplace, choose the one that conforms to the the usual standards of being on rock or mineral soil, close to the water and away from standing trees. Your fireplace may have to be repaired or modified to suit your needs, but it does far less damage to rearrange the rocks of an existing fireplace than to build a new one. Mounds of charcoal and other debris are unattractive and should be kept to a minimum.
Dry twigs and branches found on the ground provide the best firewood. Never forget that it is strictly illegal to damage a living tree – and totally unnecessary because “green” wood is difficult to burn. On many islands the supply of firewood has long since been used up, and in such cases you will have to paddle over to the mainland to get wood. A small, hot fire is the best for cooking. Wood to build a small fire can easily be gathered by hand, thus eliminating the need to carry even a lightweight folding saw.
Never leave a fire unattended. Before going to bed, or leaving the campsite, your fire must be dead out. There is only one safe way to put out a fire – drown it with water, stir thoroughly, and drown it again. Make sure that any partially burned pieces of wood, the ground underneath, and the area around the fire are thoroughly wet. When you think the fire is completely out, get right in there with your hands and stir the ashes around. If the ashes are still warm, you need to soak them again.
In times of extreme fire hazard when conditions become so dry that an open fire of any kind, no matter how well tended, would represent a real threat to the surrounding area, it may be necessary to declare the Park a “restricted fire zone.” During these periods, people entering the Park on a camping trip will be required to prove that they are carrying a portable stove or fire container. People already in the backcountry will be advised of the ban on open fires; those people who are not carrying a stove may be asked to terminate their trip and leave the Park immediately by the shortest route.
With the Algonquin Park Canoe Routes Map, well-marked portage trails, and many other people besides yourself using Algonquin’s canoe routes, there is little chance you will get lost. If you do, the only real danger lies in panicking. Sit down, relax, and think! The chances are you will figure out where you went wrong and how to get back on course.
If this doesn’t work, and you are still lost, or if there is an injury in your party, it is best to stay put and signal for help. Although the Park does not operate search and rescue patrols, we will respond if we are contacted. During the summer months there are a limited number of rangers working throughout the backcountry, and there is an aircraft that we use for various management purposes. There are also other campers, so help is usually close at hand. Three signals of any kind, either audible or visible, constitute the universal call for help. Also, if a Park aircraft is in your vicinity, a smoke fire could help to attract the pilot’s attention.
If darkness is approaching, make camp along a lakeshore or in a clearing; the more visible you are, the easier you will be to find. If you are travelling with a group, stay together and reassure the other members of your party. Do not wander off aimlessly into the bush. Travelling at night is especially foolish and should not be attempted.
Serious injury or sickness may require more immediate action on your part. In some circumstances, it may be advisable to leave the injured person and paddle out for assistance. If you are forced to leave someone behind, make them as comfortable as possible, leave someone with them who can continue to signal for help, and be sure that you know exactly where they are.
Canoes are light, unstable craft built for calm water. In moderately windy weather you can still travel safely provided you stay close to shore and avoid long, open stretches. But when stronger winds whip up big waves and whitecaps, especially on large lakes such as Opeongo, Lavieille, or Smoke, not even an expert canoeist in a properly loaded canoe can ignore the danger. If you find yourself in such a situation, there is nothing to be done but make camp and stay put until the wind has subsided. Every experienced tripper has been “wind bound” from time to time, for a day or even longer.
Keep an eye on the sky. Look for darkening skies, flashes of light, and listen for thunder. If you can hear thunder, you are close enough to the storm to be stuck by lightning. If on the water, get to land – water conducts electricity – and find shelter. If shelter is not available, move to a safe location. Avoid high ground or hilltops, open spaces (like fields or meadows), and tall objects (solitary trees). Avoid the edge of the forest. Low trees located well within a forest or in a clump (but not close to tall trees) are less dangerous than trees in open country. Watch for overhead hazards – branches that may fall during a storm.
If you feel your hair stand on end, this is an indicator that you are within the electrical field, and lightning may be about to strike. If this happens (and preferably before this happens), you need to make youself the smallest target possible. Do not lie flat on the ground – this will make you a larger target. A position with feet together, crouching, and resting on the balls of your feet, while removing all metal objects (including baseball caps) is recommended.
A person who has been struck by lightning does not carry an electrical charge that can shock other people. This person can be handled safely. If the victim is burned, provide first aid and seek emergency medical assistance immediately (when safe to do so). Look for burns where lightning entered and exited the body.