Ontario, A Paddler’s Paradise

After leaving Isle Royale National Park in Michigan, we spent four weeks in the province of Ontario, half of that time along the Canadian shores of Lake Superior and Lake Huron, and half in Algonquin Provincial Park (PP). The locations along the lakeshores were new to us, but Algonquin is one of our most visited parks anywhere, as we made at least annual trips there from Rochester, New York, during the 20 years we lived there.

After a single night at Rainbow Falls PP, we spent several nights at Neys PP, on the north shore of Lake Superior. The highlight of our visit was seeing a Canadian Lynx cross the road in front of us, and then spotting it a second time five minutes later when it crossed an open area under some power lines. We have only seen this elusive species twice before, both times in Alaska. It preys primarily on Snowshoe Hare, which has cyclic population explosions and crashes, leading to similar but slightly lagging population cycles in lynx.

Common Merganser, Grand Lake, Algonquin PP, ONT
Common Merganser, Cedar Lake, Algonquin PP, ONT

This portion of the Lake Superior shoreline is unusual in the Canadian shield, because the bedrock is syenite rather than granite. Syenite is like granite but with little or no quartz, and it usually is more alkaline, so it supports some interesting plants. In addition to the bedrock factor, the cold waters of Lake Superior produce a cold microclimate where there are residual populations of arctic plants from the last glacial period, making the botanizing even more interesting. We saw several interesting species, including Butterwort, an insectivorous plant with sticky leaves, and Encrusted Saxifrage, which exudes calcium carbonate from pores at the tips of the leaves (see photo).

Encrusted Saxifrage, Saxifraga paniculata, Pukaskwa NP, ONT
Encrusted Saxifrage, Saxifraga paniculata, Pukaskwa NP, ONT

Our next stop was in Pukaskwa National Park, farther east on the Lake Superior shore. After parking in the campsite, we did everything on foot for the duration of our several-day stay. We paddled in two bays off the main body of Lake Superior, which had magnificent rock outcroppings and good plants, including Sagina nodosa, a minuscule species in the pink family, and a member of a genus we had seen only once before.  The hiking trails were very artfully woven through the terrain, making excellent use of the bedrock. On one trail we found an uncommon orchid in flower, Goodyera tesselata, our last North American species in this genus. Our individual campsite had outstanding birding, with White-winged Crossbills, Boreal Chickadees, and a male Spruce Grouse that foraged within five yards of Eileen for twenty minutes.


Our last stop on Lake Superior was, appropriately, Lake Superior PP, where we spent one night on a cross-country trip in 1991. Starting in Isle Royale, we had been paddling whenever we had the opportunity. This park had actual canoe trails and we took one that was 10 miles long, with eleven portages (where the canoe had to be carried overhead along a trail to get to the next body of water). This was good practice for Algonquin! The last night we camped along a lovely cobble beach looking straight west over Lake Superior, and the conditions looked good for a green flash, so we set up the camera and waited. Although there was no green flash, the refraction was extraordinary, as shown in the photo below.

Sunset over Lake Superior, Lake Superior PP, ONT
Sunset with refraction, over Lake Superior, ONT

Next on the agenda was Killarney PP, near the north shore of Lake Huron. We were greeted by a pair of Red Foxes as we entered the park, and enjoyed fine paddling and hiking once there. Here two bedrock types meet, lovely pink granite and gray quartzite, creating lovely scenic views with contrasting cliff colors. The two rock types had surprisingly similar plant species, though we only found the elegant Fragrant Cliff-Fern, Dryopteris fragrans, on the granite.

Our 15 days in Algonquin were a nostalgic reminder of our many previous trips and the hundreds of miles of canoeing we have done here. Although wildlife was not as numerous as sometimes, we did have two Black Bear sightings, a pair of Moose (as well as excellent tracks and scat), more Red Foxes, and multiple encounters with Black-backed Woodpecker. We paddled on 9 days, covering 102 miles, an average of 12 miles per day, with a longest day of 16 miles. When we were at our paddling peak, we averaged 17 miles per day on flatwater and had a record of 24 miles. Our paddling speed is within 10% of what it was (about 3 mph), but the number of hours we can paddle in a day has dropped more.

Red Fox, Killarney PP, ONT
Red Fox, Killarney PP, ONT

Although it is hard to pick our favorite paddle, the Barron River would be a top contender. As the ice sheets were retreating after the last ice age, the water in what would become the Great Lakes, and the glacial meltwater, had to go somewhere, but the Saint Lawrence River drainage was still icebound. For about ten thousand years, all this water drained through the rather small Barron River, carving a 330-foot deep canyon with near-vertical walls. Legacies from this period include Encrusted Saxifrage on the cliffs, and in deep, cold lakes nearby, several relictual arctic crustacea and a fish that preys on them persist.

We had hoped to see some nice fall color, especially in the southwest portion of the park, where there is fine sugar maple forest. But the combination of a late-summer drought, and over a week of intense heat at the critical time, led to the poorest fall color we have ever seen. But it was still a delight to hike many of our favorite trails, paddle favorite lakes and rivers, and see Common Loon (which often gave their haunting calls), Gray Jay (which we hand-fed pecans), Rusty Blackbirds, Common and Hooded Mergansers, a selection of colorful berries, Wild Rice, and Cardinal Flower.

Common Loon, Cedar Lake, Brent, Algonquin PP, ONT
Common Loon, Grand Lake, Algonquin PP, ONT

We’ll be spending most of October visiting friends and family, and then returning to El Paso by early November.

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