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I'm writing about a place I discovered on holiday in 2003, just north of Toronto in Ontario, Canada. It is an incredibly special place and one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. If any of you are travelling in this part of the world or know anyone else who is, let them know about it - you won't regret it. It's called Algonquin Park.
The land that is now Algonquin Park was first found by loggers in the mid-1800s, searching through Ontario's vast forests, ever in need of the elusive White Pine that was needed so desperately by the growing population and, ultimately, the economy of the British Empire. These loggers, living in remote villages, felled the great pines and, at the arrival of spring, drove them down the swollen tributaries to the Ottawa River. The park itself was established as one of North America's first national parks in 1893, primarily to protect the local wildlife but also to protect the area from logging.
The actual landscape of the park is too beautiful to describe. Mile after mile of great cliffs and gentle hills, all richly carpeted with the verdant pine and fir trees. Algonquin is probably most famous for its lakes, covering hundreds of square miles, all interlocking in an incredible waterway system. Algonquin has no towns, and only supports a handful of permanent homes, so there is no sign of industrialisation or habitation to scar this landscape.
It is unsurprising therefore that Algonquin harbours many breeds and species of plants, fauna and animals. Indeed, this pocket of conservation has become Canada's most important resource for biological and environmental research. The deciduous trees of the south meeting with the coniferous forests of the north right inside the park's boundaries, combined with the rugged topography of the land has created incredibly varied habitats, as so it is unsurprising to find these complemented by many species of animals. 45 species of mammals including bears, moose and beavers, 262 species of birds including the famous Algonquin loon, 30 species of reptiles and amphibians, 50 species of fish, and approximately 7000 species of insects are known to occur within Algonquin's boundaries. In addition, there are well over 1000 species of plants and another 1000 plus species of fungi growing in the Park.
With such an incredible natural space, Algonquin has unsurprisingly inspired much art. Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, Canada's most famous group of artists all frequented the park, which is a common subject of their paintings, hung in the Canadian National Gallery and all over the world. Over 40 books have been written about it and there is even an Algonquin Symphony. Clearly, it is a beautiful and cherished place. And there are lots of ways to enjoy it too.
Algonquin Park is a great place to go camping. Camping is all about being at one with nature and your surroundings, so where better but here? This is how I lived during my stay the first year, and it was incredible. There are also, however, many other forms of accommodation including cottages for hire and hotels. There are many official campsites with modern facilities, but we chose just to find an empty, secluded spot by a river, and boy, there are a lot of them! It was amazing; on our last morning I uncharacteristically woke up very early (camping does this to you) and gazed over the river. Then, cutting through the typical morning fog I saw a real beaver, stick in its mouth, babies swimming behind, crossing the river to what must have been their dam-home on the other side. It was quite extraordinary.
Many people go hiking and mountain biking through the park, which is also highly recommended. In just a quarter of an hour maple forest, spruce bogs, rivers, beaver ponds, lakes, and cliffs will pass you by, all dramatically blending into each other, providing an amazing array of wildlife, too. Fishing is also highly popular, and very rewarding - the lakes and rivers are full of fish, and it is one of the most relaxing pastimes you can engage in. Unsurprisingly, wildlife spotting is also very popular, both by amateurs and professionals - if you are driving along an Algonquin road and you see a load of cars parked by the side of it, get out and walk to the side of the road, because I would bet my bottom dollar there is a moose wandering around nearby! If you are keen on seeing bears, you'll most likely find them lurking round in rubbish sites, scavenging for food. There aren't many of these actually in the park due to the lack of towns, but if you go to a nearby settlement there's probably a waste site there, which is your best bet for bears. I remember myself driving round for an hour looking for rubbish dumps with my family.
Ontario Parks, the governing body of Algonquin, has several information huts around the park, and there you'll find information regarding Public Wolf Howls. This is where a guide will take you to a spot where wolves are known to be in the vicinity, before expertly teaching you how to howl just like a wolf. He himself will do a loud wolf howl in the hope that real wolves will howl back. These wolf howls are very popular and successful, and we really did hear a wolf reply to our guide's call. I'm sure it could be a magical moment at the dead of night in the Canadian wilderness, particularly if you have kids with you.
What Algonquin Park is most famous for, however, is canoeing. There are 1500 kilometres of canoe routes along the rivers and the lakes of the park, and it is for this that the most people come to Algonquin. Tom Thomson, the artist I mentioned earlier, used to go out in his beautiful canoe with a fishing line trailing behind, and the just sketch the incredibly scenery. Canoe expeditions are extremely popular - these are where you pack up all necessary belongings into a rucksack and then go out into the park in your canoe. There are may different routes to take, but all will involve a portage - a land crossing, where you must lift your canoe onto your back and carry it. This may sound daunting, but it is surprisingly light, or at least not as heavy as you'd thought. I found after my trip that canoe is far preferable to any form of transport that I've previously encountered. A canoe will offer you perspectives that are not possible from any other vantage place, they are surprisingly fast, very easy to learn to use properly, and, probably most importantly, they create no noise except the delicate rippling of the glass-like water.
From having such a reputation for canoeing, it is unsurprising that Algonquin is completely geared up to gear you up for a half-hour outing to a fortnight adventure. Most notable is probably Algonquin Outfitters on Canoe Lake in the heart of Algonquin, who, as well as being a fully-stocked outdoor pursuits specialist, also run many guided expeditions. I went on one of these with my family and it was superb. An hour and a half's canoe, a short portage, another half hour of canoeing, followed by a lunch break on a small cliff-faced island in the middle of a lake. For anyone daring enough, you could try jumping off the fifty-foot ledge into the brilliant blue warm water. I did, and it's a great, thrilling experience! Then a leisurely canoe back, stopping off at various points of interest, including the point at which out friend Tom Thomson mysteriously drowned at the beginning of the twentieth century. I would highly recommend a similar guided canoe trip; although pricey, they're well worth it - it is an experience you'll never forget. There are also other good outfitters, mainly in nearby towns outside the park. Other facilities include two museums, one of which is a fascinating outdoor chronicle of the legendry logging industry that came to found the park itself.
Algonquin Park will forever be a very special place for me. I have never experienced natural beauty in such a pure, undiluted, untinged form. I really hope that someone reading this will, at some point in their lives, experience it for themselves as well. Unlike other, more famous North American National Parks like Yellowstone in Wyoming, USA, Algonquin is relatively obscure and there is much less tourism there - you could even say that it is 'off the beaten track', although it is quite well known to the locals. Like Long Island to New Yorkers, many wealthy Torontonians own holiday cottages in the area, but, being locals, there is none of the entourage that follows tourist trends. I would completely recommend you to go anytime of year; summer is most busy, and probably best for canoeing because the water is nice and warm in case you fall (or jump) in. Spring offers the best trout fishing in the whole of Ontario, as well as exquisite landscape colours which, although beautiful, are not as well known as their autumnal counterparts. Mile upon mile of orange and red trees, deep blue lakes and evergreen shores are worth the trip alone. Winter is also very popular - the guaranteed coating of snow opens up a world of winter sport opportunities, not least cross-country skiing. Along with autumn, there are also no biting insects, a point that is worth to consider, but not really a problem in the summer if you've packed good insect repellent.
It may be quite a way away, but with places like Toronto, Montreal and the Niagara Falls within three hour's drive, it has a prime location - and something for everyone. If you want more information, the official website is "http://www.algonquinpark.on.ca/", or you can just put it through a search engine.
Discover nature's wilderness of wonder in beautiful Ontario. Camping, canoeing, trails for all seasonal sports, come and experience the park, you'll be glad you did!