Family Canoeing with Loons

Family trek reveals the wild side of Canada
by Genevieve Rowles

Monterey Herald July 28, 1996
California, U.S.A.

Family canoeing in Prince Albert National Park

Family canoeing in Saskatchewan’s Prince Albert National Park

The July morning eases into another sunny day. A soft sheen smoothes the surface of Saskatchewan’s Anglin Lake, lapping at the southerly edge of Prince Albert National Park.

A loon heralds the day. Another loon answers. Their haunting calls float over the lake, touch the spot where I sit watching the new day stir, creep into the tent where 10-year-old Amy still sleeps.

As though in response to a prompter unseen in the bush, the show begins. A beaver swimming laps close to shore trails a silver wake. Farther out a jackfish jumps, then another, creating softly pooling ripples. As if on cue, a pair of loons shimmies across the lake’s surface in an elegant dance. Slender sheets of spray cascade against the golding sun, each drop a glittering jewel.

Common loons in Prince Albert National Park

A chorus line of seven fledglings, wings extended, mimic their elders in a dance as old as the lake, one of North America’s premier loon breeding grounds.

We are on a Family Voyageurs canoe trip. Yesterday, 11 of us – three leaders, three parents, five children – paddled bright red and yellow canoes across the lake. Pulling our canoes ashore, we broke out tents and sleeping bags, setting up camp on a lip of lake-edged meadow backed by dense boreal forest.

Backcountry canoeing guide Cliff Speer, naturalist Cameron O’Bertos and assistant Cheryl Newton lost no time in teaching us safe canoeing practices and paddling strokes. Three days hence we will retrace our wake across the lake, executing fairly creditable power strokes, draws, sweeps and J-strokes.

“No food in tents,” ordered Speer as he explained the basics of tent camping in the Canadian wilderness, where black bears are a real possibility. “We’ll hang the food in trees away from camp. Keep your tent screen closed against mosquitoes. The bush is your bathroom. You’ll find bearberry and ground cranberry makes for a soft bed.”

A sound sleep having proved Speer right, we balance coffee cups and plates around a blazing campfire. Grilled northern pike, freshly caught by 12-year-old Jason’s father, Robert, tastes mild, almost nutty. Fruit salad with yogurt, and scones spread with wild chokecherry and cranberry jam complete the feast.

Between bites, we plan the day’s activities. No structured adventure trip, this. Speer feels that kids and parents have more fun when they can tailor activities to their interests. We split up. Some choose to pick up some tips on compass navigation under Speer’s tutorship. Amy and 8-year-old Alana remain in camp, splashing in the shallow water, pretending to be loons. The rest of us join O’Bertos on a nature walk, exploring the ground covers, flowers and shrubs thriving in sun-splotched gloom under jackpines draped with lichen called old man’s beard.

I fall into line behind O’Bertos. Our squat dome tents disappear, as though behind a thick green curtain. We are alone in the bush, trailing with heads down. The spongy moss feels like a deep-piled carpet under my feet. “Boreal forests see little use today, but are ecologically hospitable, ” says O’Bertos, explaining that Native Canadians have long used forest plants for food and medicine. They make drinks from rose hips and sarsaparilla roots, tobacco and a thickening agent from kinnikinick (bearberry). Buffalo berries foam and behave like gelatin. Wild gooseberries, currants, and saskatoons are plentiful.

Not all forest plants are benign. Common vetches include the edible licorice and the poisonous sweet pea. From a point where the Spruce River and Anglin Lake conjoin in a carpet of yellow pond lilies, O’Bertos points to a plant resembling Queen Anne’s lace. “That’s water hemlock. It’s so poisonous that if you touch the plant and later touch food and eat it, you can go into shock.” He stoops to pick sprigs of wild mint. Come nightfall, he will steep it in water and offer the tea all around. Delicious.

We examine a beaver-chewed, white-barked poplar log. A birch tree bearing bear claw marks soon proves all too prophetic. O’Bertos stops beside an orange flower resembling a dwarfed tiger lily. We gaze down at it as he explains that the protected Western Red Lily is the official Saskatchewan floral emblem.

A snuffling sound severs the silence. Our heads snap up. Not 100 feet away, two bear cubs scramble up a tree. Mama bear, snorting an angry warning, clambers after them. “She can’t hang there long, then she’s after us. Let’s go,” urges O’Bertos. Mama’s snorts follow us nearly all the way to camp.

Afternoon finds us paddling up the reedy cattail-fringed Spruce River, a waterway frequented by moose, beaver, deer and otters. The primeval North wraps us in its seductive thrall. We portage over a beaver dam resembling an untidy pile of sticks. A clutch of baby grebes trails mom like obedient bathtub toys. High in the tallest trees, nesting bald eagles resemble puffs of cotton wool.

The evening is as leisurely as bush time, when life slows to a flower-smelling pace. Some of us chop salad veggies while Speer cooks a savory stew over the campfire. Fragrant apple crisp made with dried crabapples from Speer’s own garden, bakes in a reflector oven. Replete, we paddle to a secluded bay. A beaver slaps his tail on the water, playing counterpoint to the ever-present loon calls. A beacon-bright star pierces the darkening sky. A full moon casts a soft light, guiding us back to camp.

Later, we sit close to the campfire sipping mint tea, singing silly songs, and telling ghost stories. The fire is a bright oasis in a darkling wilderness where mosquitoes whine and night creatures prowl on silent feet.

Common loon with chicks in Prince Albert National Park

Our sleeping bags are cozy against the cool northern night. But instead of falling asleep, Amy voices a concern that must figure in all our thoughts.

“Mom, will that bear come get us?”
“No,” I reply, hoping to sound convincing. “Bears are as afraid of us as we are of them. She and her cubs are miles away from here by now.”
“Were the cubs cute?” asks Amy. She drifts off as peacefully as though she was in her own bed in far-away Oregon.

So went our three days of wilderness canoeing and camping under the capable leadership of Cliff Speer, a resourceful and personable guide committed to the responsible stewardship of the wilderness. Hopefully, we left only footprints. But we took memories.