Fall is definitely upon us. I can feel its cool breath in the morning. I can see its brisk reflection in puddles and pools. It’s busy repainting the world around as if trying to make up for shorter days and gloomier skies.
There is no better place to watch fall at work than Algonquin Provincial Park. So much so that Algonquin has become a leaf peeping magnet, drawing busloads and carfuls of people, creating traffic jams on the roads and people jams on the trails. That’s why we haven’t visited Algonquin in the fall for years. Neither have we done much canoeing in the park for quite some time. So this fall we decided it was time for a return canoe trip to enjoy the colours and avoid the crowds.
Canoeing in Algonquin, a perfect way to enjoy fall
Since we only had three days, our plan was simple: start at Canoe Lake, paddle to Little Joe, stay there for two nights and explore the nearby lakes.
We left Toronto early on a Saturday morning. As we watched mostly green foliage in Toronto area give way to reds, yellows and oranges further north, we could feel excitement bubbling up. And even the rain that followed us all the way to the park couldn’t dampen our spirits.
On the road again
The wet weather turned out beneficial actually deterring some visitors and shrinking crowd sizes. Even the usually busy cafe at the Portage Store had a table readily available. By the time we fuelled up before the trip, got our canoe and loaded it up, it stopped raining.
Boat launch on Canoe Lake: All set to go
The wind, however, decided to stick around. And on a large body of water like Canoe Lake windy conditions can spell trouble. Lucky for us, it was a tailwind helping us rather than working against us. So it didn’t take us long to reach the first and only portage of the trip.
It was a windy day on Canoe Lake
The trail connecting Canoe and Joe Lakes was short, fairly level and dry so it only took us one trip to transport the gear. After that it was a short paddle to the campsite. Things got a bit confusing as we tried to choose a site: we weren’t sure where the Eastern Arm/Little Joe section began. So we just picked whatever was available.
Portage from Canoe Lake to Joe
A paddling selfie
It was a fine campsite as campsites go. It had an open level space, a couple of benches around the campfire and a great view to the west, which meant beautiful sunsets.
Our campsite on Joe Lake
There was more space for at least three tents further into the forest but it was too close to the bear hang for our comfort. (A steel cord with a rope and a large hook was already installed, which made the whole food hanging business so much easier.) So we decided to set camp right by the water. That way we would wake up to beautiful views every morning.
The best part about camping? Waking up to views like this
After we made some soup and pitched the tent, there were still a few hours of daylight left to squeeze in a paddle around Little Joe. As the name suggests, the lake isn’t big. Arowhon Pines Lodge is located on its shores but it was pretty quiet except for occasional squeals from a couple of brave souls taking a dip. We also came across a gaggle of geese but other than that the lake was silent.
Late afternoon paddle around Little Joe
Little Joe Lake
By the time we got back to the site, it was already dark. We decided to make some bannock, which was a mistake. In the dark I overdid with the water and the batter turned out gooey. The final product was okay though even if it took us a bit of time.
It rained heavily through the night and when we got out of the tent the next morning, the lake was coated in a thick blanket of fog. The opposite shore was nothing but faint outlines and even those would disappear from time to time. There was a bit of rain too but it was light. Plus the forecast promised clear skies in the afternoon so we decided not to bother with the tarp and just tough it out till noon.
Gloomy start of the day
The opposite shore was almost invisible in the fog
Hot cocoa and coffee helped clear the fog in our heads if not around. We busied ourselves with the usual morning chores: breakfast, dishes, campfire.
Morning chores: The fire didn’t want to start with all the rain
Coffee and hot chocolate make even the rainiest of mornings better
At 12, as if on cue, the shore across the lake came into focus and the sun broke through the clouds. We packed some snacks and water, hopped into our canoe and set out to explore the nearby lakes. Our destination was the famous Tom Thompson Lake (I will get to Tom Thompson later).
The opposite shore came back into focus
It was a two hour paddle to Tom Thompson through Tepee Lake, Little Oxtongue River and finally Littledoe. Somewhere along the way the wind died down leaving behind a smooth mirror with a fiery forest reflected in it.
The lake was a little restless when we started
But got smoother as we paddled along
Until it turned into a mirror
It was a beautiful paddle. Gentle sunlight tangled up in our hair. Our eyes and hearts filled with awe of the fall’s showmanship.
Beautiful Algonquin forest
We didn’t encounter any obstacles until we reached the entrance to Tom Thompson where we were stopped by a huge beaver dam. Someone must have been busy. Luckily, there was a big log that we could use to get out of the canoe and another one to get in on the other side of the dam.
A major fit of engineering: Beaver dam at the entrance to Tom Thompson Lake
Tom Thompson is a popular lake and is hard to book in the summer. This time, however, there were a few sites available. We picked one for our rest/late lunch stop. It was a gorgeous site. I’d really like to go back and stay there one day. There were some papers left in the fire pit so we started a fire to burn them up. After we were done with our lunch, it was time to head back.
Taking a break on one of Tom Thompson Lake campsites
There is always time to catch up on some reading
We did a circle around Tom Thompson, then pulled our canoe across the beaver dam again and were on our way back.
Beautiful Tom Thompson Lake
More scenery that inspired Tom Thompson
We couldn’t ask for a better weather
As we paddled back to the campsite, we met many of the culprits responsible for that engineering miracle.
Master of engineering
But the biggest highlight was running into, or should I say paddling into, a moose cow with her baby.
Typical Algonquin scene: Can you spot the moose?
Our most magical encounter of the trip
We got back to our campsite in time for a sunset. It was the most dramatic end of the day as if the sky was trying to outshine the multicoloured fabric of the forest.
A magnificent end of the day
Once the darkness descended, the sky put out a different kind of light show – billions of tiny fireflies against the black dome. So we just sat there watching the Milky Way until it slowly faded away under the projector of a rising moon. We could hear the beaver hard at work not too far away — a chomping solo in a well-orchestrated musical of a forest at night.
The next morning I woke up early hoping for some alone time on the lake. The sky was overcast and the temptation to get back into the sleeping bag was strong. But I also knew it could be my last padlding trip of the year and I can always catch up on my sleep during winter. The lake was coated in a mist as I set out in search of some solitude. My only companions were loons diving and popping up all around me.
Misty morning on Joe Lake
My favourite part of the day: some solo time
Well, I wasn’t completely alone
Made lots of loon friends
After about two hours of following them around the lake, I returned to the campsite. My husband and son were up by then as was the sun. So after coffee and oatmeal, we started packing. Our son even manged to squeeze in a quick paddle around the lake.
In our family I am not the only one who likes solo paddles
We got lost a bit on our way to the portage even though the route was pretty straightforward. I think it was our subconscious resisting going back. Eventually, we located the portage and quickly got to Canoe Lake. On the other side, we met a group just about to leave. We exchanged the usual “What a beautiful day” and “Great way to spend Thanksgiving.” And it looked like it was the end of it. But upon our return back home I had a pleasant surprise waiting for me: a message on my blog from the woman we met on the portage that day. Apparently she’s been following my blog for a while but didn’t know how to start a conversation. It is always fascinating to see online connections come to life and meet fellow adventurers. So if our paths cross in the big outdoors, don’t hesitate to say hi.
Time to go back
The last day of the trip felt like summer, too bad it was the end
Our last stop was at Tom Thompson memorial – a cairn and a totem pole. Tom Thompson, of course, spent lots of time in the park and immortalized Algonquin in many of his paintings. Algonquin is also where his life ended in a mysterious drowning accident on Canoe Lake exactly one hundred years ago. So the cairn close to the place where Thompson’s body was found makes sense. What doesn’t make any sense is a totem pole built in his honour. Thompson wasn’t an Indigenous person. He never portrayed Indigenous people in his paintings. What’s more, totem poles aren’t even typical of the Algonquin area. They are built primarily by Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest coast. I understand that the totem pole was created back in 1930s. Those were different times, some people would argue. In the era of reconciliation, however, we need to rethink how we use indigenous symbols. Time to take that totem pole down and honour Tom Thompson’s memory in a more meaningful way.
It’s time for the Tom Thompson totem pole to go