When your ten year old daughter shouts “Daddy! Don’t stand up in the canoe!” It is a good idea to listen to her.
I didn’t; I stood up, and a second later we were both swimming in The Lake of The Two Rivers.We were in Algonquin Park in Ontario, a couple of hours drive from Toronto. Now this is not ‘park’ as in Hyde. This is park as in the size of England, with 2300 rivers and lakes, bears, moose, wolves, billions of trees, and a population of three people. No you read that right, three, as in one, two, three.
As soon as you land in Canada, before you even collect your baggage, someone will invariably come up to you and say
“You didn’t know Canada is the second largest country in the world did you?”
“No, I didn’t know that.” you say.
But what they forget to tell you is that there is no one there. Apart from a little strip just North of the US border the whole place is basically empty. If everyone in Canada decided to get drunk one night at the same time and fell over, half of them would probably wake up in America.
One of the three people who live in Algonquin was away when we got there last week, so we pretty much had the whole place to ourselves for our stay at Killarney Lodge, a small group of log cabins on the lake’s edge.
“Good Morning,.. I would like… a room… with a canoe.” I said to
The woman at the reception desk.
“All our cabins come with their own canoe, Sir.” she said.
“Of course they do.” I said
“I forgot we are in Canada.”
It had been my idea to paddle from our cabin to the breakfast room…the whole 25 yards. Lily had wanted to walk.
“Daddy, do you even know how to canoe?” she asked.
“Of course I do darling,” I said, nonchalantly throwing a paddle into the
air like I had seen Hawkeye do in The Last of the Mohicans.
I almost caught it.
“Don’t you remember the time I took you out in a boat in Regents Park when you were five?” I said.
“Yes I do remember it actually,” she said.
“You mean the time when we nearly sunk that boatful of Hassidic Rabbis?”
“It was their fault.” I said. “They were totally lacking in navigation skills.”
Luckily this time we were wearing our life jackets, ..and I am sure one of our two cameras will have dried out by next Summer.
After breakfast we met Don who was going to be our guide for a 24 hour trip into the Wilderness the next day.
“Don knows this place as well as the Bears and Moose do.” the Lodge manager told me.
Don certainly looked the part of the grizzled old timer, late 60s, over six feet tall, 200 lbs, with a salt and pepper beard and white Stetson.
“So Don …you must be ..what 55?” I said, thinking a little flattery might break the ice.
“Actually, I am only 42, but a lot of folks think I look older.” he said.
“Leave everything to me, I can carry the canoe and all our supplies…it’s been six months now since I had the stroke …course I had to learn to talk and walk and dress myself again… but I reckon I am almost good as new.”
“Well… err… that’s… that’s… really great to hear Don.” I said.
“Yes, very reassuring indeed.” I said.
That night in the cabin before going to bed I looked for my Wilderness Survival Kit.
At $8.95, in the Mountain Equipment Co-op in Ottawa it had seemed a bargain, especially compared to the $25000 dollar ‘Dream Canada’ Camper van with two canoes on the rack that the assistant was trying to sell me.
“If you throw in a sledge and a team of Huskies.. I could be tempted.” I said.
Before leaving the store I had used their men’s washroom.
I saw the sign above the Hand Drier just a fraction of a second too late.
‘BEWARE. The WORLDS MOST POWERFUL HANDRIER. No responsibility for any loss.’ (That was ‘loss’ as in ‘of life,’ as I was about to discover’)
I pushed the button, and was almost blasted into the air by a jet engine doing an impersonation of a hand drier.
I just managed to hang on to the taps to avoid flying across the room into one of the cubicles.
“Pretty powerful drier you have up there.” I said to the assistant on the way out.
“Had many customers killed by it?” I asked.
“Not yet Sir.” he replied.
Tough people, Canadians.
I fell asleep trying to remember what the Ontario Rangers Guide Book had said about the two types of Bear you found in Canada. One type just wanted to play, but the other was going to kill you…and there was absolutely nothing you could do to stop him.
I just couldn’t remember how to tell them apart.
Don collected us the next day in his battered old pick-up with a canoe strapped to the roof and two hours and two lakes later we were fishing for our lunch beside our tent on the edge of Lake Bruce.
Lily caught 14 fish in 30 minutes, which could be a new world Fishathon record for a couple of first time fisher people.
I put it down to my newly discovered expertise for putting the worm on the hook.
“Daddy! …you do it!”
“No I really can’t ..darling…you do it.”
“What are you?… scared of a little worm?”
“OK Lily, Daddy will do it.” I said finally, reaching into the carton of
worms we had bought at the store. They kept them in the soft drinks freezer. (What is the ‘sell by’ date for worms anyway?)
Over the camp fire that night Don cooked us a steak dinner. It was Friday so Lily lit the candles, put them on a rock and said Shabbat prayers.
As she did this, her steak slid slowly off the plate on her lap and onto the ground.
” No problem Lily , just go and wash your steak in the lake.” Don said.” It’s so clean, you can drink the water here.”
So Lily went down to the water’s edge, sat on a rock and gave her steak a good wash and scrub.
Just try that in the Thames at Tower Bridge.
After dinner, I opened my Survival Kit; or rathe, I tried for 15 minutes to open the vacuum sealed plastic pack.
“It’s lucky I ‘m not just about to be attacked by a bear .” I thought.
“Excuse me Sir, but I wonder, could you possibly clarify for me exactly which type of bear you are?” I’d ask, whilst desperately attempting to open my Wilderness Survival Kit.
Don took the smaller of the two huge knives hanging from his belt and sliced it open for me.
I looked at the contents… a needle, a 100 meters of what looked like dental floss …what I was meant to do? floss the bear to death?.. and a magnifying glass; to make sure it really was a bear?
Don then told us a story about the time he had dinner at the White House with President Clinton, and his old fishing buddy the Head of the FBI.
I think he said the Pope dropped by for drinks afterwards.
Finally we crawled into our tents and fell asleep. In the morning Don said
“Did you hear that bear growl around 4am?”
“That was Dad snoring.” Lily said.
On the canoe trip back across the Lake, I tuned in on my pocket radio to the BBC World Service just in time to hear “Police in London have arrested 23 people for plotting to blow up planes over the Atlantic…”
“What do you think about canoeing back to London?” I said to Lily.
Then I stood up again.
Copyright Peter Rosengard 2006. All back columns including those that first appeared in The Independent 1993/1995, are now up on the site. Please see The Saturday Column Archive.