Camping In January in Algonquin Park

21 01 2014

This weekend, I felt like I had fallen into a Group of Seven painting, not unlike the way C.S. Lewis’ and Madeleine L’Engle’s characters get to jump around into past and future eras. When I placed the heavy leather tumpline of a loaded toboggan across my chest, and leaned into the blowing snow, I got sucked into another era, one long before the combustion engine, tourists and Mountain Equipment Coop.

Leaning into the past

Leaning into the past

I’m just warning you, in case you decide to go winter camping with Craig and Doris MacDonald in Algonquin Park in the middle of January. No slick synthetics, and no  lightweight titanium snowshoes or tents on this trip. Nope. Lash on the old-fashioned babiche and wooden snowshoes with a few feet of lamp wick and follow the ancient trail that the first white man recorded in 1827 near the park’s East Gate, beyond the gargantuan virgin pines. It leads to Sunday Lake where you’ll find Craig, master winter camper and expert on Algonquin Park and on the old ways of the Natives and the traders. He comes from generations of northern postal carriers that were more comfortable in snowshoes battling a blizzard than you and I are in our slippers sitting by a fireplace sipping a latte.

We are eight people camping together in the snow. No slackers allowed. It’s a race against a setting sun. A rough, six foot chisel and two metal pails are handed to my son who heads for the lake. “Don’t forget to pile snow on the top of the filled pails so the water won’t slosh all over your legs. And don’t lose the chisel in the lake!” Doris yells out. Someone searches for firewood and bark. My husband and other son stagger out of the forest and into the campsite after retrieving caber-size poles that Craig lashes together to make a structure to which we tie the locally made Egyptian cotton tent. Before my dazzled eyes, the exact shape of the tent in Tom Thomson’s painting The Tent begins to take shape. It’s cream coloured, spacious and gracefully proportioned.

Setting up the tent Doris is showing us how to weave a soft fragrant carpet of balsam boughs, the way the Native people do. Craig and Wayne, who still wears the traditional voyageur garb, hook up the stove whose skinny chimney pipe angles up through a metal square in the gable end of the tent. Wayne, the "voyageur"A fire is crackling and, in no time, the tent is heating up. A toboggan, placed in the centre of the tent, becomes our table. Wooden stakes that hold candles are driven into the ground. Soon, we are sitting in our T-shirts, eating home baked bread and chili and swapping stories of adventure and travel, especially tales of Craig’s interactions with the Natives in years gone by. Before I climb into my sleeping bag, I slip outside. The tent is glowing like an old-fashioned Aladdin lantern turned down low. The snow is hard and crisp and the temperature is dropping as the night darkens. It is dead silent and perfectly still.

So, this is how those Canadian painters did it a hundred years ago. Well, Tom Thomson, there’s still one painter who is thrilled to be camping,  your style, in 2014.




13 responses

21 01 2014
Jean Ankenmann

Wow Elizabeth, you do like your adventures.

22 01 2014

Yes, Jean, I do like adventures, almost just as much as you do.

21 01 2014

What a beautiful post. I’ve been thinking about this all afternoon and wondering if I could actually accomplish this. Probably not, but you described it so beautifully, I don’t need to.

22 01 2014

Hi, Kelly. Of course you could. It helps to go with an expert like Craig and someone who has the tent, stove and toboggans. I am glad I wasn’t camping last night. It was -38 this morning on Shoe Lake.

22 01 2014
Holly Land

Elizabeth, this is charming and I’m so glad Wayne brought it to my attention. I would have loved to have been there with you all. This morning in Guelph it is -26 C – it’s hard to imagine camping in this weather, and yet, many did for many years. Good for you for keeping the explorer’s spirits alive. I look forward to the painting that will birth from this experience. Best wishes, Holly Land

22 01 2014

Thanks, Holly, for your comment. Living history makes it far more alive than just reading about it in a book. Mind you, that’s great, too.

23 01 2014

Your descriptions over the phone were wonderful, but the photos make it even more spectacular. Sounds like quite the adventure! One of these years I’d love to come along, though I’ll have to wait till the boys are bigger!

23 01 2014

What a wonderful retelling of your magical trip!

25 01 2014

Thanks, Kaye. You and Jay would have fit right in with our camping crew. So sorry we missed the trip with you in September.

24 01 2014
jane nigh

Hi Elizabeth,
Thanks for drawing my attention to this beautifully written account of your winter camping. I loved it! The pictures indeed make it come alive. You are a trouper Sis.

25 01 2014
Daniel Gallant

Great story! I enjoyed reading this and the photos even more than I am currently enjoying reading True North by Elliott Merrick. Loved seeing the “ceinture flechee” worn by your guide, I have a similar one.
Thanks for sharing

25 01 2014

I haven’t read that book. I’ll have to look it up. Glad you recognized the “ceinture flechee”. Thanks for your kind comment.

25 02 2014

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