Our three-day Algonquin adventure started with an exhausting three-hour hike followed by a 45-minute paddle in a huge voyageur canoe. Along the way we stepped around snakes sunning themselves on the rocks surrounding Music Lake and ran for our lives from a hive of swarming bees that managed to leave us with a few very painful memories of our afternoon trek to the Algonquin Log Cabin.
And it just got better from there.
The four of us who met at Algonquin Access Point No. 1 to hike, rather than drive, to the cabin were at least an energetic group. The four of us -- a young couple from Paris, France, looking for a taste of Canadian life on their honeymoon, my 11-year-old daughter whose idea of a hike is walking to Lime Ridge Mall from a parking spot in some far-off corner of the lot, and a newspaper guy (that's me) who only dreams of long hikes from his chair in the newsroom, were led by our guide into the depths of the forest.
Outdoor and all-round nature guide extraordinaire Andrew English took us through cool pine forests, gingerly picked his way through a deserted beaver meadow, and guided us over the large, moss-covered rocks that give Ontario's oldest provincial park its character. All the while he shared his extensive and fascinating knowledge of the flora and fauna and even surprised us with a carefully packed shore lunch of sandwiches, fruit and gourmet cookies, which tasted even better surrounded by the rugged natural beauty of northern Ontario.
When our hike was finally over and we reached the dock of the massive log cabin that would serve as our base camp for the next three days, a wood-burning sauna and refreshing lake were ready and waiting for us.
To many, the Algonquin experience involves driving along the Highway 60 corridor to civilized camp sites or, better yet, to accommodations in one of the five-star resorts inside the park.
The Algonquin Log Cabin aims to offer nature lovers a compromise --somewhere between the tenters who choose to either make camp along the highway or deep in the interior of the park, and those who prefer the comforts of a luxurious, rustic retreat.
The cabin, just completed in 1998, has room for 12 guests in its six, second-storey bedrooms. Two bathrooms make up the remaining rooms on the top level. A large sunken living room overlooking a huge, two-storey stone fireplace, a dining room that accommodates all 12 guests as well as the outdoor nature guides, and a kitchen make up the main level of the cabin. A huge front porch, complete with Muskoka chairs, provides the ideal place to unwind from a day of canoeing or hiking the trails that surround the cabin.
Hearty Canadian meals are prepared and served -- mostly buffet style -- by the nature guides. And, while the huge dining room provides the ideal spot to get to know the guests staying with you at the lodge, the busy schedule of hikes and canoe trips means that many of the meals are prepared and then eaten on the trail, often on the shoreline of some hidden lake with a spectacular view.
Our group had a decidedly Parisian feel to it with the honeymoon couple couple from Paris, another family of four from Paris, which included two young children, and a woman from Toronto, who was originally from Paris. It certainly made for interesting conversation around the dining room table.
Catering to families is an important part of the business, especially during the summer months, John Langford, owner of the cabin and operator of Voyageur Quest, says.
Many of the families who come up to the log cabin are looking for a taste of adventure with the help of professional nature guides, says Langford, who worked for many years with Outward Bound before deciding to go it alone in 1994. He now has as many as 15 guides working for him in peak season. Some of the guides use the cabin as a base to lead canoe trips into the park.
"When I was working with Outward Bound, I eventually realized that people wanted something a little different from the outdoor experience. I realized people wanted to be more in the comfort zone than out of it," he explains. And while the cabin certainly provides the comfort zone he was looking for, he says many families find the three-day guided canoe trips to be an ideal introduction to wilderness camping.
The cabin, now in its third season of operation, also caters to corporate groups.
Guests can even take advantage of the services of native guide, Waasaanese, to learn about traditional native crafts and culture.
My daughter, along with the other children staying at the cabin, learned how to make dream catchers under his guidance.
But the highlight of our trip was an evening canoe paddle to a picturesque point on Surprise Lake. We watched the sunset while guides, English and Graeme Mitchell, prepared a delicious meal over an open fire -- lake trout, a roast of pork, a delicious vegetable stir-fry, rice and as an appetizer, Portobello mushrooms marinated and heated over the open fire. For dessert, we wrapped bannock bread around a stick and baked it over the hot coals. When it was golden brown, we removed the stick and filled the hole with chocolate chips and maple syrup.
The canoe ride back to the cabin by the light of a full moon was made all that more special by the call of the loons and our own feeble attempts at howling at the silvery moon.
On another night, the guides drove us deep into the woods where we hiked along a logging road to a lake where the guides called for wolves, owls and loons. The wolves did not respond that evening, but the loons and a very vocal barred owl serenaded us for several minutes as we gathered around a campfire and enjoyed hot chocolate and cookies in the heart of Algonquin.
On the final morning, a sunrise canoe trip gave our Parisian tourists their first up-close and personal view of a bull moose feeding on water lilies. The group was able to approach the animal quite closely before it made off into the forest. His exit was just in time for the guides to serve a shoreline breakfast of fresh blueberry pancakes, bacon, eggs and, of course, steaming coffee.
Voyageur Quest, which operates the Algonquin Log Cabin, offers many different programs to suit varying needs of individuals and families.
Three- and seven-day, guided canoe wilderness adventures into the interior of Algonquin and Killarney parks are popular alternatives for the more adventurous. Longer, guided canoe trips are also available.
There are also fall, winter and spring packages available. The winter package, which was selected by the Canadian Tourism Commission as the best winter package in Canada, features dog sledding, backcountry skiing, ice fishing and snow shoeing.
Fall packages offer excellent opportunities for photography and animal viewing as well as relaxing around the incredible fireplace in the lodge.