The weather forecast for Thanksgiving weekend didn’t look good. No matter how many times I refreshed the page, there was nothing but clouds and rain over the three days we planned to spend canoeing in Algonquin. The sun peeked in for a bit but then quickly disappeared behind clouds. Rain and clouds it was. Oh, and single digit temperatures. Nonetheless,we kept packing because barring some natural disaster, like a hurricane, we weren’t going to bail out.
Our plans caused all sorts of reactions: from raised eyebrows to horrified high-pitched “you will freeze” warnings. There were also expressions of admiration accompanied by badly concealed “you are nuts” looks. You’d think we were heading on a month-long mission to North Pole in nothing but shorts and t-shirts with a newborn in tow.
But seriously, why subject ourselves to what many may consider misery? Except to prove that we are not fair weather campers, of course. I had a lot of time to think about it as we paddled back through persistent rain, feeling drops forming rivulets down my face and water inevitably soaking through my underwear. Would I prefer a warmer weather? Sure, a bit of sun would be nice. Maybe a glimpse of sky, just a sliver, a bit of a silver lining so to say. Was it an enjoyable trip anyway? Absolutely.
I once read that there are two types of fun: type A when you enjoy whatever you are doing in the moment, and type B when the experience becomes more enjoyable after the fact. And while this trip was leaning towards the second kind, there were still moments of pure joy. When you stop paddling for a second, look up and all of a sudden there is an explosion of colour all around you, the lake and surrounding forest breathing softly, gauzy mist coiling above water and over the hills. Or watching raindrops break the surface of the lake with circles growing around them, bumping into each other, passing on the yodel of a loon and carrying it all the way to the other side. Emerging every morning into the crisp golden air of the forest. Feeling the warmth of a campfire and that first cup of coffee spread through your body right to your core, the center of all things good and happy. Savouring the aches in your muscles — a pleasant humming after hours of paddling, not the dull pain of spending all day in an office chair. The intense sensation of the world pressing against your body, the feeling of being part of your surroundings, not just observing them through a screen or a window, realization how strongly anchored you are in the present moment, grounded in the here and now rather than the regretful “whys” of the past or speculative “what ifs” of the future. What’s a little cold and rain compared to that?
Plus summer is short in Canada so if you limit your trips to warm weather only, you are left with a two-three month window. Not much to go on. Most importantly, venturing out only in good weather would mean robbing ourselves of nature’s multitude of facets and moods.
And Smoke Lake in Algonquin Park was definitely moody on a Saturday afternoon as we loaded our canoe and pushed off the dock. It also lived up to its name with a mist hanging over it like a thick blanket. We only had three days for our trip so thanks to my husband’s lobbying efforts I decided to make it fairly easy: cross Smoke Lake (which by numerous accounts can be pretty rough), portage into Ragged, then paddle to Parkside Bay and stay there for two nights.
Those same accounts warned that Rugged Lake and Parkside Bay can be pretty busy but I was counting on lower temperatures to deter crowds. I was right — sort of. Only seven out of 19 sites were booked. However, by the time we arrived at Parkside Bay, all the best sites were already taken. I guess it didn’t help that we missed one of the turns and ended up paddling around a large island on Rugged Lake. Plus lost in October beauty and a discussion of our son’s English assignment about Prometheus, we took our time getting to the site. Even an on-again off-again drizzle didn’t serve as enough of an incentive to paddle faster.
That’s how we ended up at the edge of Parkside Bay at around 6, thick fog wrapping tighter and tighter around us, and early fall darkness approaching quickly. My checklist for an acceptable campsite was getting shorter by the minute. The site where we finally set up camp was not too bad as sites go. It was certainly missing an oomph factor and the view of the lake was a bit obstructed but the trees created a barrier on windy days. And with the tree canopy above, we had protection from the rain. Plus with a great sitting area around the campfire, the site worked out very well for us. And Prometheus’s gift kept paying off throughout the weekend.
Shorter days and cold temperatures mean fewer opportunities to do things. We went for a paddle on Sunday but didn’t do much beyond that. Fall camping, however, offers plenty of opportunities to just be: to slow down, huddle around the campfire, cook long, delicious meals. It inspires to take a deep breath of crisp autumn air and listen: to the rustling of the leaves, to the crackling of the fire, to vibration of the water as the paddle breaks the surface.
Our trip back offered additional challenges. The drizzle quickly turned into a full-on rain slowly working through all the layers of clothing. We had to pick up our paddling pace to make sure we didn’t get cold and for once a portage came as a relief giving us an opportunity to get some blood flowing into our legs. We were bracing ourselves for a windy, choppy Smoke Lake on the other side. Instead we got serene smooth waters. I guess that was our silver lining.
And even though there was nothing else I wanted more than a pair of dry pants, we started to slow down the closer we were getting to the dock as if trying to postpone our return. But the road was waiting. That, and a major downpour that we managed to avoid by a few minutes.