The sun is barely up, the air cool and clean. The silence is complete except for the rythmic slap, slap of the paddles in the water, smooth as glass, reflecting the crimson and gold of autumn\'s glory as it reveals itself on another new day in Algonquin Park.
Here we are, 10 of us up for an October weekend at Algonquin Log Cabin Lodge. Loaded into vehicles while the sky\'s still dark, then transferred into canoes on Little Tyne lake where we paddle as the dawn paints the sky pink and the mist rises off the water.
Then a short portage to Big Tyne because a beaver lodge has blocked the way between the two. More paddling to a rock outcropping where we disembark to devour pancakes and bacon cooked over an open fire with campfire coffee and oranges. What is it about food cooked and eaten in the outdoors that makes it taste so good?
This is the experience provided by Voyageur Quest, an Ontario adventure outfitter selected by the Canadian Tourism Commission as one of Canada\'s 50 Exemplary Practices in Adventure Travel and Ecotourism.
Owned and operated by John Langford since 1991, Voyageur Quest operates year-round, offering camping, canoe trips, nature walks and native wilderness lore in the spring and summer, camping, canoeing, wildlife viewing, wolf howls, star gazing and hiking in fall and dog sledding, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and igloo construction in winter. Its \"Footsteps of the Pioneer\" winter packages were voted \"Best Winter Package\" by the Canadian Tourism Commission in 1998.
The base of operations is a log cabin on Surprise Lake just outside the northwestern corner of Algonquin Park which can house 10 guests and two guides. Built by Langford and friends, the cabin features six double occupancy rooms, a sunken living room with huge fieldstone fireplace, a reading library and a raised dining area. Lighting is from candles and kerosene lamps, but there\'s indoor plumbing and running water and a shower and sauna in a separate building.
The guides do the cooking too, producing hearty fare and homemade desserts like apple crisp, banana cake and chocolate cookies. Juice, coffee, tea are provided and you bring your own wine if you\'re so inclined.
You can be as active or as lazy as you like, depending on the weather and your inclination. You can drive up yourself or hitch a ride with Langford from the York Mills subway station for the three-hour drive from Toronto to the lodge.
You can go straight to the lodge or get dropped off for a two- hour hike in, which is the option I took, being guided by Jennifer Hutchinson, 22, a Seneca College graduate. It was raining but we tramped through fields and forests anyway, soaking our feet crossing a beaver bog, warming up with the soup and sandwiches she brought until we got to Surprise Lake where a canoe awaited to take us to the lodge.
Once there, we warmed up in front of a roaring log fire and sat around after dinner getting to know the other guests, who included a family from Japan having their first experience of the Canadian wilderness. Most of the women went and had a sauna before bed, stopping to look up at the billions of stars twinkling in a black velvet sky.
After breakfast Saturday, we were led on a hike where we learned fascinating nature lore such as the use of rock tripe, a type of fungus that grows from rocks, which is apparently edible if you boil it three times. You\'d have to be really hungry to eat it, but it can be done. We discovered that the sap from balsam fir can be burned as fuel, used as glue and as a disinfectant on wounds. There\'s another plant called Gold Thread which has a bitter gold root that Indians used as a kind of aspirin.
Just being in the dappled green, gold and scarlet forest with leaves crunching underfoot and that familiar musty smell of autumn is a tonic.
Back at the lodge, Langford, now 33, told his story, which began with a love of the outdoors learned from his mother who was a camp director in Northern Ontario during his childhood. To pay his way through university, he worked summers as a pipeline inspector then went into advertising for a while, ending up having \"a mid-life crisis at 23\".
So he started guiding for Outward Bound and eventually decided to start his own business in 1991, offering dog-sledding programs out of a rented base camp in Algonquin. The program was so successful that he expanded to offer three-day canoe trips, rock climbing and white-water rafting in Ontario and even took groups as far afield as Utah, but by 1997 he decided to concentrate on what he knew best - Ontario - and bought the one- acre property where the lodge is now.
\"The same day I got the key, I asked my wife to marry me,\" Langford recalls. They married in the fall of that year and with the help of friends built the log cabin in three months, holding \"chinking\" parties in -12C weather. Chinking is the material that goes between the logs to insulate the house.
The business has been a runaway success ever since. When they opened in January, 1998, they were booked through Thanksgiving and it\'s been pretty much the same ever since, with programs adjusted to meet demand.
The weekend I was there, a second group was led into Algonquin Park to camp all weekend. And Langford will rent out the log cabin to groups at special rates.
The most popular package is the three-day weekend, priced at $375 per adult and $200 per child under 13, which includes all activities as well as meals and accommodation. But for those who just want to be in nature and have meals and accommodation, that\'s available too for $275 per person. Return transportation from Toronto is an additional $75.
For more information, call Voyageur Quest at (416) 486-3605 or 1-800 794-9660. E-mail: info @ voyageurquest.com.