Which is faster: a canoe or a mosquito?

Algonquin Park – a vast quasi-wilderness one quarter the size of Belgium – is the complete antidote to modern life. Founded in 1893, and occupying much of the space between Ottawa and Toronto, it provides limitless opportunity to enjoy Canadian shield landscapes and wildlife.

Old growth red cedar? Present. Heron? Sure. Beavers? Plenty. Moose? You betcha. Wolves and bears? Right behind you. Seriously, they’re in there somewhere. I’ve not seen either of these last two in person within the park, although I did once find some moderately fresh bear scat, which is an old-timey word for poo.

The park also supports a surprising level of forestry – around 1% of the total area of the park is harvested each year – but the logging is typically far enough from the canoe routes and campsites that you might never know. Still, the Auditor General of Ontario notes in a 2020 report that commercial logging is “incompatible with biodiversity conservation”. Pressure to end logging within the park will surely only grow louder with time. I wouldn’t mind one bit.

Olanna and I got married inside the park. We’ve canoed with friends, with our kids, and just the two of us, as well as individually with other groups. We’ve taken both kids on overnight canoe trips every year since they were babies. Max learned to crawl on a tarp by Guskewau Lake on the Western Uplands hiking trail, which sounds too good to be true but that’s really how it happened back in the summer of 2015. I turned my back for 10 seconds on a baby who hadn’t previously shown much inclination for relocation, and suddenly he was 10 feet away cramming pine needles into his mouth like a golden retriever taking out an unguarded sandwich.

A woman sits by the shore of an Ontario lake, supervising two young children who are paddling in the lake nearby. The scenery is wild.
Adam Barnett | Dread Pirate Robots Floating about for fun

All this to say that while we’re not exactly voyageurs, we do have some experience planning and enjoying backcountry canoe trips, and the trees and rocks and lakes of Algonquin Park are laden with memory and meaning for us.

Timing is everything

We’ve never done a backcountry canoe trip in late May though. Why? Bugs, that’s why. Mosquitoes and blackfly are both entering peak breeding season as spring turns to summer, and this means they’ll be biting. I can sorta-ignore quite a lot of bug bites, but it’s harder to ignore bug bites when your children are the ones getting bitten.

Still, sometimes when an opportunity presents itself, you gotta go for it. When our canoe crew friends from south of the border told us they’d be up in Ontario for a wedding and asked if we’d be up for a canoe trip afterwards, it was hard to imagine saying anything other than “most definitely!”

We knew ahead of time that late May would be a challenging time of year for a backcountry canoe trip, and the weather and general conditions we encountered confirmed this theory pretty quickly.

That’s a paddlin’

We knew that the two large dogs would each require a human to wrangle them while in the canoe, which meant that two canoes would be required for the dogs. Each canoe with a dog in would thus be paddled only by one adult at the rear, with dog + handler at the front.

The dog-wrangling slowed us down a bit, since it meant two trips with two canoes, rather than one trip with all three canoes. While this is almost exactly a classic river-crossing puzzle, we made it work. Doubling back took a while, but we were never planning to be more than 20 minutes from the put-in on this trip anyway, since longer multi-stage canoe trips are best reserved for parties where everyone involved is both willing and able to operate without supervision and help.

As the final canoe landed at the site we’d selected, the heavens opened, and it started to rain. Oh, how it rained. It rained, and it rained, and it rained some more. The bugs didn’t seem to mind though: they just kept on biting.

We got tents and tarps up, and started to feed hungry children as the sun slide behind the trees. We had a few laughs here and there, but it wasn’t the relaxing scenario we’d dreamed of: it’s always lovely to be out with friends in this beautiful place, but this was hectic.

Before long, optimism gave way to itchiness, and excitement was displaced by rainwater. After a damp dinner, we all turned in fairly early, since the conditions weren’t permitting any better options.

The occupants of one tent had to move their whole tent in the middle of the night because they were – and I quote – “in about six inches of water”. We choose tent locations with care, but sometimes the elements decide you’re looking a little too comfortable there in your 3-season sleeping bag.

If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.

The Dalai Lama

It rained all night, more or less. I don’t think any of us slept for more than about 20 minutes at a stretch, and as Day 2 dawned, it was clear that the only smart move was to leave the backcountry 48 hours early. This was not an outcome any of us wanted, but we called time on the expedition before discomfort turned dangerous.

The weather did at least clear up a bit after breakfast on Day 2 as we packed up, and I almost wondered if we could tough it out, but some people had damp bedding and the conditions could worsen again at any point.

The 2×2 canoe trip back to the access point was happily unremarkable, although it’s not always straightforward to single-handedly pilot a canoe laden with a dog + handler and plenty of bags and equipment under a bridge against the current, especially if another canoe is trying to cross under the same narrow bridge in the other direction.

We landed, unloaded the canoes and packed the cars. After some brief group commiseration in the parking lot, we headed back down the gravel road out of the park to Madawaska and on to our separate destinations in the outside world. Ultimately, everyone got home safe, and that’s what really counts. Still, there was a palpable sense of loss as we said our goodbyes and reflected on the trip we wanted vs. the trip we got.

Lessons from the landscape

Sometimes you have to experience something you already know to learn it more deeply. Here are some truths from our May 2022 canoe trip:

  • Dogs and kids require constant supervision. We already knew this, but in the past we’ve had better conditions and more adults on hand relative to kids and dogs. We had enough adults to do what needed to be done, but the conditions were challenging. As a result, every adult on the trip was constantly busy: setting up camp, preparing food, guarding against the rain, feeding kids, untangling dogs from their leashes, applying bug spray again. To illustrate how busy I was: I brought whisky into the backcountry and didn’t even touch a drop the whole time we were in. I also took only a handful of photos this entire trip, whereas I normally have many.
  • Risks compound one another. If the bugs had been reasonable, but it’d rained hard, we probably would have been OK. If the weather had been fine, we could have dealt with the bugs more easily. Both together slowed down everything we did, and meant we were essentially just fighting the conditions almost the whole trip.
  • Have a fallback plan. In fact, have several fallback plans. Given the high likelihood of an onslaught of bugs and unforgiving weather, I regret not also booking a car camping site for our group. We could have toughed it out there much more easily, and it’s likely that other nearby sites would have been largely unoccupied because who wants to go camping when the bugs are that voracious?!
  • A trip cut short costs about the same as a trip which goes the distance. I still feel bad that people drove many hours to join the trip, but it was quite literally a wash. I hope to make it up by visiting friends in their neck of the woods one of these days.
  • Kids are tougher than you think. It’s not all doom and gloom! Both my own kids (4 and 7) and our friend’s kids (9 and 11) were hardy and managed to find things to enjoy, even if they didn’t love the bugs. So long as we kept them supplied with snacks and drinks, the younger members of the canoe crew were resilient.
A boy stands ankle deep in a lake. He is holding a canoe paddle and causing ripples across the surface of the lake. Near him are three canoes, flipped over for temporary storage. The shore of the lake is treelined.
Adam Barnett | Dread Pirate Robots Ripples on the lake provided a peaceful distraction on the morning of Day 2

Return to nature

Even though we didn’t get the canoe trip of our dreams this time – far from it! – I’m grateful for my family, my friends and access to nature. Everyone pulled together while we were in the backcountry, and my friends were gracious in the parking lot afterwards, even as we packed our sodden kit into cars we’d only left the previous afternoon.

“It was was fun but mostly it was mosquito bites.”

Max (age 7)

When we go canoe camping, we want steak and sunshine and whisky and stories round a campfire under the stars, and you can’t get that when you’re doing your best to prepare instant noodles for famished children using a wobbly campstove balanced precariously on the forest floor in a downpour while deerflies compete with mosquitoes in an endless game of bite the human.

So while it’d take a lot more than all of this to keep us out of the Algonquin backcountry, I expect we’ll stick to the golden window – mid-July to mid-September – for our overnight trips from now on.

And yes, mosquitoes will pursue you out into the lake. While the shoreline is often teeming with the tiny vampires, some mosquitoes will stick with you even as you paddle your canoe out into open water, and won’t give up until they’ve had their fill or you swat them into oblivion with a laminated map.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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