By Eugene Buchanan
Established in 1893, Ontario's 7,653-square-kilometer Algonquin Provincial Park is the oldest provincial park in Canada. That's not to say canoeists have been going there longer than anywhere else, but it became a park for a reason and that reason involves paddling.
Named a National Historic Site of Canada in 1992, the park has more than 2,400 lakes and 1,200 kilometers of streams and rivers, all yours for the taking. Included in this watery web are aptly named Canoe Lake as well as such rivers as the Petawawa, Madawaska, Tim, Magnetawan, Gull, Amable du Fond and Barron. Any one of these waterways would make the region a destination worth visiting in its own right. Lump them all together and you get a canoeing wonderland found no where else in the world. Arguably offering some of Canada's best canoeing, its waterways form a whopping 2,000-km-long, interconnected system of paddling routes - plenty of room to get lost should you so desire. Head out for a three-day trip or a three-month trip; the farther you go, the more immersed in wilderness you become. And you can rent everything from your canoe to camping gear through one of the park's outfitters, making logistics as easy as your paddle strokes.
And that wilderness is as wild as it gets - even by Canadian standards. The reason is its latitude, located at the border of the coniferous forests to the north and the more deciduous forests to the south. This unique mixture, or confluence, supports a wide array of plant and animal species, offering every bit as much solace as the fur-trading Voyageurs of yesteryear experienced. Don't be surprised to see moose, deer, beavers and even bear from the seat of your canoe, and hear the call of loons or even wolves over the crackle of your campfire.
While there are more than 1,200 car-accessible campsites in eight campgrounds along Highway 60 in the south end of the park, and 100 more the park's northern and eastern reaches, your best bet to truly experience this wilderness is to head to the park's "interior" camping areas, those sites only accessible by foot or boat (all have fire pits and can be reserved through Ontario Parks).
To reach the more remote sites in the park, expect to partake in the popular Canadian pastime of portaging, which means carrying your gear on your back as well as in your canoe (but still bring the Dutch oven). Thankfully, the park maintains one of two types of portages between all most of the park's lakes — those colored red on the map are well-maintained and well-travelled; those marked black are a little more suspect and harder to follow. But you can take solace in the fact that, as Canada's oldest park, at least someone has likely been there before you.
Sidebar: If You Go
Other Paddling: Just across the provincial border in Quebec, the 5,000-square-mile La Verendrye Wildlife Reserve offers a network of rivers and lakes for canoe-trippers of all levels. A favorite: the Chochocouane River, a five-day trip for intermediate whitewater paddlers.
Getting There: It's an easy drive from both Toronto and Ottawa, making Algonquin one of the most popular parks in the country. Highwya 60 runs through the south of the park, while the Trans-Canada Highway bypasses it to the north.
On Land: The park has 19 interpretive trails, ranging in length from 0.8 km to 13 km long, as well as three areas of back country hiking trails, with sub-loops ranging from 6 to 88 km long. These trails have their own dedicated lakeside campsites.
Hint: Swing by the Visitor Center, which contains cultural and natural exhibits, a detailed relief map, theater, outdoor viewing deck and The Algonquin Room art gallery. Also try to join the weekly wolf howl programs, held every Thursday in August, wolf packs accommodating.