My First Canoe Trip (the honest truth)

How was my first canoe trip? It made me sick to my stomach. I was terrified, had anxiety the whole time and only really enjoyed the parts of the trip where I was safe on land.

Getting ready to paddle across Smoke Lake
Getting ready to paddle across Smoke Lake on my first canoe trip

It was 2010 and my husband (boyfriend at the time) and I were housesitting for a couple who took a year off to go on a cycling adventure. Along with the contents inside their house, we were told that we could help ourselves to their camping gear and Swift kevlar canoe if we needed it.

I have always loved camping. My parents started taking me camping when I was only 6 weeks old. My most favourite memories as a kid are camping with my family and friends. Naturally, it only seemed right that I would eventually take it to the next level.

B and I started discussing a canoe trip and decided to book a backcountry site once and for all in Algonquin Park. We bought our own waterproof map and called the reservation line with Ontario Parks and booked a site on Parkside Bay for 2 nights in July 2010 with 2 friends. I remember looking at the map and seeing the portages and large lakes to paddle across. I didn’t know what to expect but went along with it. The whole planning process was somewhat of a love and hate thing for me. I was concerned that I didn’t know what to expect but really excited to get out into the wilderness.

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Not even sure if Jeff’s Map existed before my first canoe trip

In 2008 I went on a holiday to Mexico with family and friends. I had my first and only panic attack onboard a catamaran while being seasick. It was hell. I don’t think I have ever been as sick as I was then. Everyone on the boat was having a great time drinking tropical cocktails and listening to Bob Marley with the sun in their face. Meanwhile, I was in the cabin puking my guts out and miserable. I couldn’t take any medication because we were on the boat and I couldn’t get off the boat because we were sailing across the ocean to an island. My hands and arms seized up and I couldn’t move them. It was awful. Since that experience I had a hard time getting into any boat without being a nervous wreak and taking gravol, even though I grew up fishing in an aluminum boat with my dad, and spent an incredible amount of my childhood hanging out at my aunt’s place on the lake where we went tubing and paddle boating all the time.

My anxiety about being in a canoe in the backcountry of Algonquin was real. I remember spending the first night at the Tea Lake campground. I brought a pad that was about half an inch thick thinking it would be sufficient enough. I had a terrible sleep! When we picked up our permit the following morning at The Portage Store, I bought myself a Thermarest. I had no clue about sleeping comfort options.

We loaded up the canoe, took a few photos and set off across Smoke Lake. I had anxiety the whole time. The canoe was tippy, the lake was huge, and I didn’t have the map to look over to make sure we were going in the right direction. I hated it. I couldn’t wait to get to our first portage in Ragged Bay to be back on land. Do you know that feeling of relief when it’s too windy to be paddling and you finally reach your campsite or portage? It was that times a million.

Feeling anxiety
Feeling anxiety

We had a lot of stuff with us, even a small cooler! So, I think we did the 240m portage into Ragged Lake in 2 or 3 carries. It was my first portage ever. I remember the excitement of seeing a new lake and the dam near the portage. This canoe trip was adventurous.

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I’m not even sure if Jeff’s Map existed at the time of my first canoe trip

The wind picked up on Ragged Lake as we started paddling north from Crown Bay toward Parkside Bay. We had a good headwind. I remember seeing the dead tree stumps along the way and the whole area just being absolutely stunning. I was still terrified though. We landed on the first campsite to the left just as you paddle into the bay. It was very windy and exposed. It was an okay site. We decided to keep paddling. I would have just stayed at this site because I didn’t want to get back into the canoe. We paddled further into the bay and ended up on the first peninsula. It was a beauty site! Amazing swim spots with 2 beaches, facing west to get the sunset and it was surrounded by hemlocks.IMG_0409

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I was so happy to be on land and set up our new MSR Mutha Hubba tent that we just bought. I wanted to settle in. It had been a long day so far with the little sleep I had the night before.

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When we got out to explore the site, I noticed an intricate pile of lightwood next to the fire pit. I didn’t understand why this was here. Do the park rangers go around and deliver lightwood to campsites? I was amazed that it was waiting neatly for us to use. Little did I know that some wonderful person who camped on this site before us left the wood for us to use! I had no idea what backcountry etiquette was. I hope since then, that we’ve left plenty of lightwood for others to use in the backcountry to make up for my lack of understanding.

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I expected to spend the rest of the weekend on our site, but was encouraged to do a little fishing in the bay in the afternoon/early evening. No bites and no baitfish to be seen. It was strange. I had brought all of my bass lures but didn’t catch a thing! Later I learned that this was a trout lake and the lakers would be near the bottom. So much to learn! I still don’t know why I couldn’t land a smallmouth at least.

The next day we explored Claude Lake and had more luck with fishing. We caught a couple of splake. We had a shore lunch of dehydrated Mountain House meals and paddled back to our site when we were done fishing. I enjoyed this. I was getting more comfortable getting in and out of the canoe at the portage put-in and take-out areas. We paddled through an unnamed pond where I saw the biggest snapping turtle I’ve ever seen sunbathing on a rock, and a mama loon with 2 babes riding on her back.

I enjoyed cooking over the fire on our site, relaxing, reading and swimming. I also really enjoyed the company of our friends who were along with us.

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Campfire pizzas!

Rather than paddling back to the access point the same way we came, it was decided to paddle through the unnamed pond, through Claude Lake and into Smoke Lake at West Bay. I was happy with this because it meant more time on land and less time in the canoe paddling.

I remember enjoying the portage. The longest was from Claude to West Bay at 840m. It was a beautiful trail that seemed to have all the elements of a portage. Ups and downs, muddy and rock sections, and muck at the end of the portage because of low water.

Our paddle back across Smoke was done up the west side of the lake. The wind was cut down significantly paddling this route. I was so excited to see the access point and even more excited when the canoe landed in the sand on shore.

I had made it.

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After all the anxiety I had, the next year my husband and I took a trip to Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park. It was a trip we took a few weeks before we got married. We paddled from Long Lake access point to Cox Lake in a day. It was amazing and my confidence increased. I had to realize and understand what the worst thing that could happen to me if our canoe tipped was. I’d get wet. Sure there would be scrambling to gather our belongings and the shock of the whole episode, but it wouldn’t be that bad and we always wear our PFDs. With all the experience I have paddling a canoe over the past 6 years I don’t worry about tipping at all.  We always take extra caution when it’s too windy or unsafe to paddle. Not to mention that the canoe I paddled on my first canoe trip was a lot smaller than what we’re using now which is a beast on water.

The more I get out there, the more comfortable I am and the more confidence I have. Canoe tripping has become an important part of my husband and my life. Every canoe trip we plan pushes our comforts and experiences to new levels. I learn something new every time I go, and discovering new lakes, campsites and backcountry is worth it. Hearing wolves howl behind my campsite and watching a cow and calf moose swim across a narrows in Killarney Provincial Park; watching a black bear swim toward my campsite in Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park; or paddling up on moose in Algonquin park are all rewards for getting out there. How lucky am I?

In terms of anxiety, I have learned that my sensitivity to wheat triggers it. So, a gluten-free meal plan makes for the most enjoyable experience for me in the wilderness. And, I just have to keep telling myself that I’ve done it all before, trust my confidence and know that my experiences will all be worth it.

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