Using the Backcountry Canoe Routes Network
The backcountry of Algonquin Park does not really have discrete “canoe routes,” but rather, there is one vast, interconnected canoe route “network” shown on the Algonquin Provincial Park Canoe Routes Map-Brochure. Rather than being restricted to just a few possibilities, you can plan an almost incalculable number of possible trips thank to the different choices that are possible at successive junctions in the route network. This is what makes the idea of describing definite routes in Algonquin rather meaningless, and it also means that you will have to make definite choices in planning your actual trip. Remember than you will have to stick with these original choices and camp only according to the lakes and dates specified on your permit.
If you are new to canoe tripping, you will understandably want some way to rank possible routes with respect to difficulty. Basically you can do this merely be comparing the distances you will have to portage. The greater the proportion of the route taken up by portaging, the more difficult you are likely to find it. Comparisons like this are easy to do, but they may not help much if you have had no personal experience with tripping and have no way to rate yourself for even one route that you may be considering. People differ greatly in their perceptions of route difficulty, and there is just no substitute for forming your own ideas through first-hand experience. It is only common sense, however, to acquire that experience gradually. Try out yourself and your equipment on a short overnight trip first and gradually work you way up, rather than plunging into a trip tha you aren’t ready for.
This is another area where there is no substitute for personal experience. The range in people’s physical conditioning, in their equipment, and in how hard and long they want to paddle and portage all make it very difficult for us to say how far you should travel each day. As well, whether or not you will be making one or two trips on each portage has a tremendous bearing on your rate of progress. Rivers like the Nipissing or the Tim, with their many meanders, can also make a difference – figure on half your normal speed – and, at the other end of the spectrum, big lakes can also slow you down or stop you altogether if the wind is blowing the wrong way. A very general rule of thumb would be that you should travel from 4 to 6 hours a day, covering 15 to 25 kilometres. On the Algonquin Provincial Park Canoe Routes Map, that works out to 12 to 20 centimetres (5 to 8 inches) per day!
The traditional way of using Algonquin’s backcountry was to go on an extended canoe trip which covered a long distance and involved considerable travel each day. In recent years, however, it has become possible for many visitors to make short forays into the Park Interior, perhaps for just one weekend. In these cases, people are not really concerned with planning a route so much as they are with finding a campsite with a little privacy and which they can use as a base for exploring nearby. If this is your concern too, remember that the best way of finding privacy is to put a portage (the longer the better) between you and your access point.
A second general technique is to camp on a lake that is a dead-end side trip off a major route. (Trippers aren’t generally interested in side trips so by taking one you should succeed in leaving them behind.) By the same token, if a short stay on a secluded campsite is what you want, you should obviously never camp directly on a lake or river that forms part of a busy route. A good example of an area like this which “destination campers” should avoid is the Park’s so-called “Main Street,” the route which leads north from Canoe Lake, through the Joe lakes, Burnt Island, and the Otterslides to Big Trout. Trippers are obliged to use such routes to gain access into the Park Interior, but there is no need for destination campers to pile in as well and contribute to the crowding they want to avoid when there are many places which can accommodate them (but not trippers).
Paddle In Campsites
The Park now manages two areas specifically for destination campers, called Paddle In Campsites, and you might consider them if that is the sort of experience you are interested in.
Different Areas, Different Landscapes
Algonquin is a fascinating mix of rivers and ponds, small lakes and big lakes, hardwood hills and coniferous forests jumbled together over a huge area. Nevertheless, there are some distinct differences from one area of the Park to another and with them are differences in the type of backcountry trip you can expect.
The Algonquin Provincial Park Canoe Routes Map delineates several broad areas superimposed over the canoe route network. The far east side of the Park contains Algonquin’s main whitewater river (the Petawawa downstream from Cedar Lake) and, in the Achray area, a distinctly different landscape of long lakes, spectacular cliffs, pine forests, and sand beaches on Grand Lake. The western two-thirds of the Park are higher and dominated by hardwood forests but, even there, important differences exist. There are large central lakes, the western uplands with their small, intimate bodies of water hidden between hills, huge open bogs like those at Hailstorm Creek and Hogan Lake, and there are beautiful “paddle-and-portage” rivers like the Tim, the Nipissing, and the Crow. By following these general descriptions, you can plan your trips accordingly.