Up every creek, with a paddle

Louise Southerden ignores her fear of bears for a clean, green journey through the Ontario wilderness.

You've got to hand it to the Canadians. Long before environmentalist David Suzuki gained worldwide attention for his nature documentaries and climate-change activism, First Nations peoples were paddling through the wilds of northern Canada in one of the most environmentally friendly forms of transport known to man: birchbark canoes.

Made of a patchwork of bark pieces joined together with water-resistant pine or spruce resin over a frame of wooden ribs, these canoes were the epitome of sustainable travel. Because birch trees are one of the most common species in Canada, on-the-spot repairs could be done almost anywhere and when the canoes finally wore out, they were biodegradable.

Today's canoes are more commonly made of carbon fibre and Kevlar but they're still a low-impact way to travel and still quintessentially Canadian. Think trekking in Nepal, skiing in Colorado or shopping in Singapore and it makes sense to go canoeing in Canada. That's how I came to be on a three-day canoe-camping trip in Ontario, which has the world's largest network of "canoe routes", almost 100,000 paddle-worthy kilometres of lakes and trails.

To fine-tune it even more, we were in Algonquin Provincial Park, which aside from being Ontario's oldest and largest wilderness park, is canoe heaven. It has 2000 lakes and more than 2000 kilometres of canoe trails; its pine-forested interior is off-limits to cars, motorboats and float-planes, which makes for peaceful paddling and increases your chances of seeing wildlife such as moose, loons (a kind of duck), beavers, otters and wolves.

At the outfitters - which is like an outdoor store, a tour operator and a supermarket in one - we met Jen, our jolly Canadian guide. We also met Jen's "paddling partner" Maya, an Alaskan husky-malamute who arrived wearing her own life jacket, made by Outward Hound, because she can't swim - she's a sled dog.

"Maya and I have a deal," Jen told us. "I paddle her around in the summer, she pulls me around in the winter."

It added another dimension to the trip, hearing about the dog-sledding expeditions Jen runs across Algonquin's frozen lakes in winter: "It's pretty weird to be swimming and paddling in a lake and think in six months this lake will be frozen solid, hard enough to dog sled or even drive on."

But this was midsummer and it was surprisingly hot. And busy. At our put-in point on Canoe Lake, canoes were everywhere. Fortunately we'd already packed our camping gear and food into two large rucksacks and a plastic barrel, so escaping the crowds was as easy as putting these three things into our two canoes, stepping in and pushing off.

No sooner had we started paddling than I felt myself falling in love with canoeing. It's so easy, so minimalist, so comfortable. There was just one thing that threatened to capsize my fledgling love affair - bears. Black bears are reasonably common in Algonquin. Sure, only 58 people have been killed by black bears in the whole of North America since 1900. But we were going to be camping out in the woods and back at the outfitters I'd noticed a display of bear-chewed paddles and coolers.

"Um, Jen," I asked. "How likely are we to see bears out here?"

"Algonquin Park is a really safe place to travel," Jen replied in her reassuring guide voice. "As long as you put your food in a barrel or up in a tree, you're all right." We also had to remember not to take anything scented, not even a tube of toothpaste, into our tent at night.

"The moose can be dangerous, though," she added, just as I was starting to feel better about the bears. "They can charge if you startle them - in the direction they're facing, which is not good if they're facing you. But there are no poisonous snakes in the park." She smiled sweetly. Oh, good.

There was one more fact of canoeing life in Canada I hadn't anticipated: portages, which involve unloading and carrying your canoes across inconveniently placed pieces of land from one lake to another. Apparently you can canoe across Canada making no portage longer than 20 kilometres - which seemed a long way to carry anything, let alone a canoe and a backpack, until I shouldered our ultra-lightweight carbon-fibre canoe. These babies are made for travelling over land as well as lakes. Besides, portages are an excellent opportunity to stretch your legs, rest your arms and log some forest time.

In case I was about to forget we were in Canada, Jen reminded us at breakfast on our second morning - by making french toast with real maple syrup. Later that day we hauled our canoes over beaver dams, paddled across mirror-smooth lakes and sneaked through corridors of grass where fragrant white-water lilies and bulrushes brushed the sides of our canoes as we glided past.

When night came, we toasted marshmallows over campfires, went night-canoeing (star-gazing at the reflections in the dark water) and saw the Northern Lights shimmering over the tops of the pine trees. We even tried wolf howling - packs of wolves roam the park year-round and ranger-led public wolf howls draw up to 2000 people a night. However, on this occasion, only Maya answered Jen's howl.

Paddling through Algonquin Park helps you realise how timeless canoeing is. In a place where everyone travels by canoe - in summer at least - it's not much of a stretch to imagine the people you see to be families of Algonquin Indians paddling their birchbark canoes to market, or perhaps to a campsite of skin tents. Or in any case, living simply and sustainably back in the days when Canadian Mohawk chief Billy Two Rivers was known to say: "Love many, trust a few and always paddle your own canoe."

The writer travelled with support from Canadian Tourism Commission and Algonquin Outfitters.


Getting there

Algonquin Provincial Park is three hours' drive north of Toronto. Qantas flies daily to Toronto via Los Angeles. Air Canada flies daily to Toronto via Vancouver.

How to do it

Algonquin Outfitters will kit you out and advise on where to paddle and, if you want one, supply an experienced guide for $C195 ($226) a day. They also offer three and four-day canoeing trips from $C375 a person. See algonquinoutfitters.com. The paddling season runs from the last week of April until mid-October.

Further information

See canada; travel, algonquinpark.on.ca.