At 7653 sq. km, it’s bigger than Palestine. Founded in 1893, it’s older than Hershey’s. And with hundreds of species of animals and thousands of species of plants, it’s one of Canada’s most intriguing public parks. But for this traveler who believes one should only camp if one is a) drunk or high and b) at a music festival (preferably with the Foo Fighters headlining), it also has the added bonus of being equidistant from Ottowa and Toronto. It is this proximity to comforting urban-ness and the wonderful accessibility provided by Highway 60 running through the south quarter that makes Canada’s Algonquin Provincial Park a wonderful location for newbie naturalists to take an (albeit long) day trip.
Full disclosure before I go on: taking the ‘let’s drive and see what we can find’ route will only let you see a fraction, a very tiny fraction, of the stunning beauty of this place. Keep your eyes peeled, be prepared for a bit of a traipse, and what you see will be more than enough! From Toronto to the West Gate ‘Km 0’ takes about two and a half km, through endless flat farmlands broken by sudden and breathtaking glacial lakes. These post Ice Age beauties define the Algonquin ecosystem, providing expanses of crystal clear and serene fresh water to set off the beautiful mixed pine and deciduous forest that takes up most of the park. Every now and then you’ll see a sign with mostly anodyne names: ‘Bat Lake’, ‘Pog Lake,’ but don’t be fooled there are wonders.
Just past Km 15 is a road leading up to the Arowhon Pines Lodge. Technically a private road, it is gravelly and inhabited mostly by huge pickup trucks that lurk like metallic carnivores amidst the trees. But leading off the main road are any number of tracks that are pretty easy to handle in a vehicle with decent clearance. Wander off here by foot and you’ll find expanses where moss has replaced grass on the forest floor, where long dry riverbeds meander sandily through the trees, and, if you’re lucky (or not, depending on how you see it), bears. At Km 45 is Beaver Pond, which is precisely that– a pond made by beavers.
There is also an enormous flooded meadow. And, a lake, also made by beavers. And, a giant beaverdam. And, hundreds of Canada geese browsing in the reeds like dinosaurs. The 2km trail winds up and down through glorious deciduous forest, cool and moist, even in the blazing heat of the summer. Look carefully and you’ll see red-orange bulbs of weird fungus, the stumps of huge trees felled by beavers, and maybe even a couple of the flat-tailed rodents themselves.
In addition to highlights like this, I also recommend Whiskey Rapids and the road leading to Coon Lake. Keep an eye out for lines of cars parked by the roadside in the middle of nowhere for no apparent reason. It’s a testament to just how astonishingly fecund Algonquin is, and to how immured to humans on the Highway 60 corridor animals are that animals will often just wander down to the roadside and hang out. We were lucky enough to see a little shemoose, and a fat black bear who didn’t mind being gawped at, as long as we were quiet and didn’t get too close to his berry tree. There’s plenty to eat along the road (including some excellent ice cream at Lake of Two Rivers Cafe), great facilities, picnic areas by lakeshores, and, if you do want to try it, plenty of areas to camp (most of which need permits).
This is Algonquin. I reckon if you stand by the road, something will come wandering by. Sooner or later.