Call of the Wild: Paddling in Ontario

Some years ago a work colleague preparing to retire advised me to think about how many summers I might have left. Since 30° C and sunshine are hallmarks of Ontario summers, I remembered this when I chose to leave the workforce. Why spend another brilliant summer day in an office, when I could be on the water? With shoreline on four of the five Great Lakes, 250,000 inland lakes and close to 100,000 km of rivers in Ontario, summer for many means time on or near the water.


The physical land of Canada still belongs to the Queen (our Constitutional Act didn’t amend this) and with only about 10% of the land held in freehold tenure, roughly 90% is still in Crown leasehold administered by the federal and provincial governments. Essentially, this is public land and it offers a recreational playground for camping, boating, swimming and hiking.


The Canadian Shield, a hard cap of igneous and metamorphic rock millions (and in some places billions) of years old, covers a staggering 4.8 million square kilometres across Canada. Forested and pitted with lakes, the Shield covers 2/3 (about 660,000 square kilometres) of Ontario and much of Ontario’s Crown land is in the Shield. To make the most of the wilderness we share, it follows that you must enjoy….“rocks and trees and trees and rocks and rocks and trees and trees and rocks and rocks and trees and trees and rocks and rocks and trees and trees and rocks….and water“.




A few years ago, a friend and I began kayaking bits of this remote wilderness, camping in areas accessible only by water. For me it was great exercise, long weekends of simple living and a way to decompress from the stresses of work in an away-from-mobile-phone-reception heaven. But this summer, without any immediate need for stress relief, I unexplainably assumed the pressure of becoming an ad hoc guide for other friends wanting to try a so-called wilderness experience. In the past month I have done four kayaking trips: two among the 30,000 islands on the east coast of Georgian Bay, the world’s largest freshwater archipelago, one trip through three inland lakes near Killarney, Ontario and a day trip kayaking and hiking Livingstone Lake and Bear Lake in Haliburton, Ontario. Three of them were with friends new to kayaking.

Wilderness by definition comprises the untamed and back country camping is solitary, quite unlike drive-in campgrounds with communities of tents and trailers. Rather than the voices of the neighbours in the next tent, screaming babies, barking dogs or the music of others, the lullaby to which one falls asleep consists of the eerie night-time call of the loon, singing tree frogs, honking bullfrogs, the sound of the wind in the trees and of water lapping against the shore.


Suddenly I felt the weight of responsibility; I needed to pay more attention. I must monitor the rapidly changing wind and wave conditions of Georgian Bay that can quickly swamp paddlers, prepare for worst case scenarios such as nuisance and possibly predatory bears or rattlesnake bites requiring immediate hospital treatment to prevent death. Even annoying occurrences like having to put up tents in the rain would dampen the experience. I told the wilderness-seeking women to pack their bear-fighting knives. I think they began to worry. I insisted on paddling early before the winds picked up, I packed bear spray, I scanned the rocks for snakes sunning themselves.

On one trip we finished paddling just as the high winds began and we had the tents up with 15 min to spare before the brief but torrential thunderstorm hit, we burned uneaten food remains, scrubbed our dishes clean, trod gently through the woods listening for the infamous rattle as we collected firewood, and we spent an inordinate length of time discussing the best branch from which to hang our sealed food for the night. At least 10 feet high and so out of reach to a bear, not easily able to hold a climbing bear and unencumbered by other branches and trees, we then spent even longer trying to throw the food-hanging rope over the chosen branch because we all threw like girls.

We might have had a better choice of trees had Britain not had such a greedy King in 1721 when through the Board of Ordnance all suitable white pine in the colonies were reserved for the King’s use as masts for the ever-expanding British navy. Most of majestic white pine covering Ontario were harvested well over a century ago.


The first night my tent mate slept little, despite taking bear banging explosives and bells to bed with her. It was all for naught though as the night was uneventful. On the next night, however, four-legged creatures were back and forth all night, coyotes/wolves howled in the distance, something padded in and out of the water and I heard bear bangers exploding across the lake – someone obviously trying to rid the area of something. At 5:45 am, waking up to a an animal party outside, I went out to investigate. My roomie on the other hand was curled up in a ball at the foot of the tent. She was sleeping like a baby, exhausted from her lack of sleep the previous night. The noise I made stumbling bleary-eyed out of the tent caused whatever was out there to quickly disappear but the sunrise was stunning. The mist rising from the water was quite ethereal.



I went back to sleep but was shaken awake and asked in a slightly alarmed voice if I heard that noise? It was a cheeping chipmunk. Apparently the sound sleeper had completely missed the armies of animals marching by through the campsite all night.

On my most recent trip, despite packing up camp early, we battled strong headwinds for three hours to get back to our base. Choppy, breaking waves hit us from different directions as we rounded headlands with the wakes of passing motorboats just adding to the wave confusion. Wildlife took a backseat to wind and wave worries.

I do feel slightly responsible for my friends’ sore muscles, sleepless nights and the cracked tooth suffered by one from extreme jaw clamping while paddling in challenging winds. I am just hoping that the beautiful scenery, swimming, tasty meals (beer) campfires, sunsets and paddling close enough to witness the dance of the loons have overwritten any undesirable memories. We all had fun but I am thinking that this new tour guide gig might bring with it too much worry. I’d consider retiring if it weren’t for…the call of the wild.

by Anne Neary

2 thoughts on “Call of the Wild: Paddling in Ontario

  1. What a fabulous musing and your pictures as usual are amazing. Please put me on your next trip I really want to do this..will talk soon.

    Sent from my Galaxy Tab® A


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