A Canoe Trip Is the Epitome of Slow Travel

canoe trip prep

"There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats." (Kenneth Grahame)

For the past three days, I have been on a canoe trip in Algonquin Provincial Park, a vast region of lakes, granite cliffs, and pine trees that occupies a swath of central Ontario, Canada. It has been immortalized in the famous paintings of the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson, which many readers will recognize.

My husband and I have wanted to take our kids on a canoe trip for years, but we felt we should wait until the youngest was able to walk independently on a portage route, rather than add to the list of things needing to be carried between lakes. Now that he's four, this was the year.

We packed ourselves into an 18.5-foot canoe with a third seat in the middle, big enough for two small bottoms to sit side by side. The littlest child wedged between my feet at the back of the boat, from which I steered, and my husband provided much of the paddling muscle up front. We packed our camping gear, food, and clothing into two dry bags and a bear-proof barrel. Then we chose a route that required only two portages, as these rough trails linking lakes are often the hardest part of a trip.

What ensued was a powerful lesson in the value of slow travel. There's nothing quite as slow as a canoe trip when you're moving with small children and a barrel of fresh food (at my insistence). Even with four family members paddling, the headway made on a windy lake is slow.

You move at a pace that allows you to notice every irregularly shaped tree, every log sticking out of the water, every magnificent boulder along the shoreline. It's slow enough to reach out and pluck a lily pad from a shoal for the youngest child to play with. It's slow enough to watch individual waves on the water, to see how the surface of the lake changes with the approach of a new breeze, to drag fingers or feet in the water to cool off.

Drummer Lake Algonquin

Dan Minkin – A typical view in Algonquin Park, granite cliffs & pines plunging into water/CC BY 4.0

Then you walk, trudging beneath the burden of every single item you've chosen to haul (and questioning those decisions). Once that canoe is hoisted on your head, you just go, trying to ignore the mosquitoes that buzz and bite, choosing your footing carefully, and trying not to think about how much further you have to carry that load.

Because my husband and I didn't want to walk the portages several times, we loaded up with everything – one pack on the back and a food barrel on the front for my husband, a pack and a canoe for me, and the kids carrying additional small backpacks, paddles, a large water bottle, and a saw. The littlest child was our life jacket carrier, with three life jackets buckled on to make him look like the Michelin Man. This also gave him so much padding that he bounced off the ground if he tripped. At that point, progress was measured in feet, sometimes even inches.

Upon arriving at our campsites, which were rather luxuriously furnished with a stone-rimmed fire pit, log benches, and a 'thunder box' toilet (a knee-high box in the forest with a hole in it), we had nothing to do except be. We had no phones (hence the lack of pictures) or toys. Instead, nature became the kids' play space, and did they ever find a lot. Several frogs, a crayfish, a mother catfish surrounding by a cloud of tiny babies that looked like whiskered tadpoles, pairs of curious loons, and majestic great blue herons occupied their attention, as did prodding the campfire and cannonballing off a rock into the lake. There was less fighting and complaining, more entertaining themselves and expressing wonder at the world around them.

It was a rare slowdown for me. I tend to rush around like crazy, trying to squeeze far too many activities and errands into a single day and usually ending up exhausted, wishing I'd had more time to sleep or read a book. On this trip, I did plenty of both of those things – napping in the middle of the afternoon with the wind blowing through the tent and reading most of an autobiographical adventure story as the kids puttered around me.

Algonquin map

© K Martinko – A tiny section of Algonquin Park, a land of thousands of lakes

We paddled homeward yesterday, feeling relaxed and happy, our 'nature' tanks topped up. And yet – this is the thing that I find amazing – we didn't go that far. In total, we probably covered a distance equivalent to what a car could drive in ten minutes at highway speed. We were canoeing in a region that is less than an hour's drive from my childhood home – my extended backyard, in a sense. We could have, in theory, paddled from my parents' house to where we were in the park without using a car, although that would take several long days.

To experience such a deeply rejuvenating vacation without hopping on an airplane and flying to some all-inclusive resort, spending instead a fraction of the cost and traveling under the power of our arms and legs, in a region that I know as home but can always know more intimately, was a revelatory experience.

The family canoe trip will, without a doubt, become an annual event, and as the kids grow we'll go further afield and explore more of Algonquin and other beautiful parts of Ontario.