Reflections on Algonquin

A retreat from the 21st century leaves James Brown pondering the beauty in getting off the grid

James Brown

I publish Sabotage Times, talk for Talk Sport, wrote for the NME, launched Loaded and Jack and started the GQ Man of The Year awards.

James has previously hunted for the real Captain Quint in Long Island



March 18, 2014

The osteopath who was folding me up like a deckchair so I’d be fit and ready for whatever the woods and lakes of Ontario could throw at me looked in disbelief “You’re going to Algonquin? I’ve been there, the first thing you see when you come into the park is this amazing outdoors shop with everything.”

I figured there’d be lots of entrances to this massive natural park in Ontario but when we pull into the park there is indeed this amazing outdoors shop, it’s name is on the side of an old fashioned pick up truck that’s piled high with canoes on top of it.

There are five of us and our guide, Robin Bannerjee from Call of The Wild adventure tours, our intention is to spend the best part of a week in the forests and lakes, canoeing and camping.

Unloading the Weight of the World

We have travelled all the way from London by plane and automobile to go back in time, leave technology behind and paddle and float about the lakes of Algonquin on giant Kevlar Evergreen canoes. The experience is called Portage from the French verb to carry. There’s no whitewater, it’s lakes not rivers, but there will be one unusual challenge.

To get from each lake to the next you are required to tip these huge canoes upside down and carry them on your shoulders. The canoes come with a specially fashioned wooden cross bar that is essentially the same sort of yoke you see milk-maidens carrying heavy churns in kids story books. Although it doesn’t look like it, the Portage-ing is a one man job, you have your mate hold the canoe tip up high then you edge backwards under it until the yoke in across your shoulders, then you tighten your stomach muscles and step up, very very tentatively until you develop a pace and eventually become accustomed to the nature of the walk.

Up muddy slopes and along occasional decking, it’s a challenge to the mind as much as the body. For those of us that toil at keyboards the half mile walks from lake to lake, and the immediate return for the bags with the camping equipment offer a tiny glimpse of real world work.

The rest of the travel isn’t so much a walk in the park as a paddle in the pond. The wind can whip up some slight choppiness but nothing to worry you about, they are two man canoes and you can make fair headway.

Soon it becomes a challenge not to believe that out with nature is where we are supposed to be. Floating in all nature’s stillness. Watching the day turn to dusk. Knowing your life is slowly doing the same. Out here on Pen Lake, Algonquin, you go at nature’s pace not our own and we’re all the better for it.

The beauty in the detail
Image credit: ilkerender

To the determined city dweller there is nothing here. There are no cash machines, phone chargers, taxis, televisions, i-pads, bars or shops. No petrol, no gas, alcohol, no radio, no noise. And yet there is everything. There’s peace and tranquility. There’s thousands of years of natural history. There’s an industry that built the British Empire then disappeared. There are elk and bears and wolves out there somewhere. And there’s a clutch of red trees amidst the green that look like a jigsaw piece in the wrong puzzle. I have sat leaning back on a canoe like this in the English channel but it has none of the power the forests of hemlock, balsam spruce, white birch, maple and white pine give Algonquin. When we paddle off from lake to lake, down beaver streams and across huge bays with rock walls, it’s the red jigsaw piece tree that’s my marker to say there’s just 40 minutes of paddling back to the camp.

“Turn left at the rock,” we laugh. “And then up the inlet to the bank and carry the canoe through another forest and repeat.” It feels like nothing has happened here but we are wrong. Coming across a small weir that is clearly man made Robin suggests we climb out onto what looks like a very small wharf.

“Believe it or not,” he says, “Where we are standing was once Canada’s busiest railway station. A fully loaded engine would leave every seven minutes – such was the rate of harvesting the logs.”

At closer inspection the ground certainly looks flatter than most of the lakeside. He goes on to explain that these woods were directly involved in the rise of the British Empire.

We look around, we are on the edge of a forest with a massive lake behind us, he’s clearly gone nuts. There’s no railway station to be seen, no rails, no buildings, nothing. There’s definitely sign that man has been there, the weir has a man made slope and the thing we’re standing on looks like its made from fashioned rock but beyond that, there’s nothing. At closer inspection the ground certainly looks flatter than most of the lakeside.

He goes on to explain that these woods were directly involved in the rise of the British Empire.