Wild about Algonquin
Get back to nature during rustic weekend at Eco-Lodge
By SUE-ANN LEVY, TORONTO SUN
ALGONQUIN PARK, Ont. -- It's man vs. moose. As we round the corner of our forested route into the wilderness Eco-Lodge where we're to spend the night, we come eyeball to eyeball with our official greeter. A real live hairy brown moose. Never on the many excursions we've taken to this area -- in summer, fall or winter -- have we ever been this close to one of these majestic creatures.
We can almost smell its breath as it chomps away on a couple of branches, oblivious to the fact that it is blocking our path. It is so bony we name it "Mick" after rock superstar Mick Jagger, who'd come to Toronto only days earlier to headline a special SARSstock concert.
I lean out of the moonroof of my friend's SUV, clicking off a series of snapshots, before we carefully nudge by our skinny greeter.
We've come to the Algonquin Wilderness Eco-Lodge to test our staying power for the night without electricity, phones or running water.
We're just outside the southeastern tip of this renowned provincial park, which at 7,725 sq. km is one half the size of Newfoundland, one quarter the size of Hawaii and seven times larger than Hong Kong. (Local adventurers also like to talk about the park's 2,200 lakes and rivers and the 2,000 bears that wander its forests.)
Located a three-hour drive from Toronto -- plus a 2.7-km walk or cross-country ski in from the parking area -- the Eco-Lodge is one step up from camping out for those who like the idea of exploring Algonquin Park but don't want to sleep on the cold, hard ground.
The Lodge provides narrow beds or bunks, a cozy dining/living area and a washroom.
Otherwise it's pretty rustic. We must vigorously pump water from a well into buckets to flush the Envirolet toilets, to wash our hands and faces, or to take a shower. We read and dress using our flashlights, or the dim lights which are powered by a generator.
"Having no electricity is more work but it also provides a sense of adventure," says Robin Banerjee, president of Call of the Wild, which offers a variety of canoe, dog-sledding and snowmobile trips in addition to the Eco-Lodge.
"Where else can you leave your car and walk or ski for 20 minutes ... where else can you get this sense of remoteness?"
It's remote alright. Nestled far away from any traffic or the cellphones that jangle virtually everywhere in Toronto, we can hear ourselves think as we paddle around the secluded Moffat Pond -- exploring beaver dams in the boglike waters and watching for wildlife in the surrounding woods.
During our hike in along a winding, rocky road, we stop to view the stunning waterfalls mere steps from the lodge.
In summer and fall, guests can choose between hiking, canoeing and mountain biking -- or just relaxing in the hot tub and on the lodge's serene deck.
In winter, there are 60 km of groomed and backcountry cross-country ski trails -- for all levels of ability -- most of which wend their way through scenic Algonquin Park.
Call of the Wild also offers a variety of dog-sledding expeditions and snowmobile safaris just outside the park, using the Lodge as the base camp. They'll even provide transportation from Toronto and the right equipment and clothing if visitors need it.
As Banerjee explains, the Eco-Lodge -- which sleeps 35 comfortably in 17 rooms -- was originally built as a hunt camp 20 years ago. For the past 15 years, it has operated only on winter weekends as a cross-country ski centre. Banerjee's company purchased the lodge in November 2002 and have now opened it up year-round.
Winters bring many Europeans, Aussies and some Americans who come for the skiing and dog-sledding.
"Americans can't do dog sledding close to home ... it's either in Alaska or the top of end of Minnesota," notes Banerjee, who's been operating Call of the Wild adventure tours since 1993.
While a constant vigil is required to keep the lodge heated in winter -- the fire has to be stoked every four hours -- he says it's a lot easier to get people and groceries into the Lodge in snowy conditions.
"We use a sleigh ... we put all the luggage and garbage in that ... the ATV (we use in summer) is a lot bumpier," says Banerjee.
During summer and fall -- the latter season is slowly catching on -- he sees people from both the Toronto area and overseas who want to canoe or see wildlife such as beaver and wolves. (Or maybe even Mick, our own official greeter.)
"We get a lot of people in their 30s and mid-40s who are active but don't necessarily want to sleep in a tent," he says.
But for those who want to do some hardcore canoeing and don't mind sleeping outside, Call of the Wild also offers a variety of trips ranging from three days in duration right on up to eight days. You don't have to be an expert canoeist either, says Call of the Wild Guide Tim Carroll.
Carroll has been canoeing the park for 15 years and knows most of the waters inside-out in the western half of the park. "I've filled three journals with my adventures ... I saw a grey wolf and my very first bear last year ... it was about 100 feet away," he says.
He prefers canoe trips lasting five to seven days.
"I like going out for longer periods," says Carroll. "Many trips we do have very easy portages but the more portages we do, the more remote you get ... and you see more wildlife."
MORE INFO: A stay at the Algonquin Wilderness Eco-Lodge -- in summer or winter -- costs $95 per night. That includes accomodation (in a double room), luggage transfers, three home-cooked meals, use of the outdoor hot tub and the ski/hiking trails. Taxes are extra, as is transportation from Toronto. Check out their Web site at www.callofthe wild.ca or www.algonquinecolodge.com.
TRAVEL TIPS: We found that snacks were pretty limited at the Eco-Lodge. If you plan to take lengthy cross-country skiing or hiking excursions, be sure to bring along some bottled water and snacks such as trail mix, fruit or chocolate bars. It's remote country and you don't want to be caught 10 km away from the Lodge with not enough staying power to get back. In spring and summer the deer flies can be quite persistent. Be sure to bring along some good bug spray that contains DEET.