Dur­ing the last week­end in May, Lily and I felt the call of the wild. We dust­ed off our camp­ing gear, packed the car, loaded the canoe, and set our sights on Algo­nquin Park. It had been near­ly three years since our last camp­ing trip, and the antic­i­pa­tion was pal­pa­ble. Our des­ti­na­tion? A seclud­ed back­coun­try camp­site on the north­west cor­ner of Tom Thom­son Lake, a place we’d stum­bled upon by sheer acci­dent in August 2020. It was a retreat filled with breath­tak­ing sun­sets and a wel­come escape from the chaos of city life dur­ing a glob­al pan­dem­ic. But that’s a sto­ry for anoth­er time. This trip, our dream of a peace­ful get­away, took an unex­pect­ed turn due to poor prepa­ra­tion, ide­al­ized mem­o­ries, and a relent­less horde of insects.

Our first mis­take was over­con­fi­dence in our phys­i­cal abil­i­ty. We’d bought our canoe in 2018 and used it reg­u­lar­ly every sum­mer since. We’d have a cou­ple of months of canoe­ing under our belts lead­ing up to past back­coun­try trips. Dur­ing months of canoe­ing, we trained our pad­dling mus­cles for longer adven­tures. So, it was a bit naive to make our maid­en voy­age of the sea­son a 13-kilo­me­tre trek into the wilder­ness. By the time we pulled past the beaver dam sep­a­rat­ing Canoe Lake and Tom Thom­son Lake, fatigue was set­ting in, and I could feel my strokes los­ing pow­er.

Our sec­ond mis­take was one of mem­o­ry and expec­ta­tion. After 13 kilo­me­tres and four hours of pad­dling, we final­ly arrived at our long-dreamt-of camp­site, only to find that real­i­ty clashed with our ide­al­ized rec­ol­lec­tions. The camp­site we’d held in our minds for near­ly three years—one I’d built into the Pla­ton­ic Ide­al of campgrounds—was a let­down.

First, about halfway through Tom Thom­son Lake, a swarm of black flies decid­ed to fol­low us, buzzing around our ears and attempt­ing to bite us at every oppor­tu­ni­ty. This harass­ment con­tin­ued unabat­ed, explain­ing why almost every pad­dler we passed wore a mesh head net over their hat. Sec­ond, the entire water­front por­tion of the campsite—the best part in terms of loca­tion and views—was cov­ered in goose drop­pings of vary­ing fresh­ness. We had to watch our steps and Porthos because he’s known to eat the stuff. This unsavoury com­bi­na­tion made the site unten­able for us.

A brown dog and a paddler in a canoe on a forest river.
On Lit­tle Oxtongue Riv­er, more than halfway to our orig­i­nal des­ti­na­tion. Porthos was a patient sport dur­ing the long pad­dle. (iPhone)

Faced with these chal­lenges, we decid­ed to aban­don our orig­i­nal des­ti­na­tion for a spot one kilo­me­tre back near the start of the lake. Halfway along the lake, the black flies abat­ed, and we felt the sweet relief of their absence. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, this respite was tem­po­rary; they would return with rein­force­ments once we made camp.

Our third mis­take was going in May. Any­one head­ing to Algo­nquin Park or oth­er parts of north­ern Ontario from May to July should be pre­pared for hordes of black flies and mos­qui­toes. Their prime sea­son is the warm, humid weath­er of late spring and ear­ly sum­mer. It’s some­thing to remem­ber if you’re plan­ning an out­door adven­ture dur­ing these months. We were bliss­ful­ly unaware and thus hor­ri­bly unpre­pared for the wel­come com­mit­tee of bugs.

We weren’t com­plete novices, though. We packed pants, sweaters, light jack­ets, and two types of insect repel­lent. But the day­time weath­er was too warm for full-cov­er­age cloth­ing, and I find insect repel­lents incred­i­bly unpleas­ant on my skin. I could tol­er­ate them briefly, but not all day.

The front view of our camp­site. Tak­en from the canoe the day we left. (iPhone)

After arriv­ing at the back­up camp­site, we had to find a rea­son­able loca­tion to unload our gear. The most evi­dent area fac­ing the lake’s inte­ri­or was rocky and steep and wouldn’t offer secure footholds under the weight of our equip­ment. We got out to eval­u­ate the loca­tion and found a well-cov­ered camp­site fea­tur­ing a good view, placed on rel­a­tive­ly flat ground and shel­tered from the south­east by rock shelves lead­ing up a small hill. (All of Algo­nquin reviewed this camp­site here.)

We found a more suit­able spot to park the canoe and unload our things at the back of the camp­site. There, the approach to the water was more grad­ual and com­posed of sand and mud. To my dis­gust, I dis­cov­ered sev­er­al leech­es lurk­ing in the shal­lows by our boat. No swim­ming here!

Wide-angle perspective of a white canoe tied down in the shallows of a forest campsite.
As if the bugs weren’t bad enough, to my hor­ror, I dis­cov­ered leech­es hang­ing around the shal­lows near the canoe! (iPhone)

After set­ting up camp, I embarked on a search for water. The task proved chal­leng­ing because the water around us had translu­cent white dots sus­pend­ed through­out, and I feared they would clog the filter’s mem­brane. It took some effort and sev­er­al back­flush­es of the fil­ter, but we even­tu­al­ly col­lect­ed 8 litres of clean water.

With our water sup­ply estab­lished, we pre­pared our meal: grilled Beyond Burg­ers and rehy­drat­ed freeze-dried pas­ta. As we cooked, the relent­less insects made their pres­ence known, forc­ing us to don our pants and long-sleeved shirts and apply bug spray.

After our culi­nary efforts, Lily found some peace on a rock by the water. I have sev­er­al pho­tos of her lis­ten­ing to music and con­tem­plat­ing the land­scape. She enjoys camp­ing and being in nature; it soothes her soul and puts her in touch with real­i­ty, where actions have tan­gi­ble con­se­quences, not the vapid insignif­i­cance of danc­ing num­bers and met­rics.

As the evening wore on, we had a majes­tic expe­ri­ence. I was tend­ing to the fire when we heard the dis­tant honk­ing of a flock of geese approach­ing from the south­east. We fol­lowed their sound until they appeared fly­ing low over the water in a loose chevron for­ma­tion. They passed so close to our camp­site that we could hear the beat of their wings. I’m accus­tomed to see­ing Cana­di­an geese in and around Toron­to, but there was some­thing mag­nif­i­cent about such a close fly­by on a lake in the mid­dle of nowhere. We heard them land in the water a few hun­dred metres away. They were prob­a­bly head­ing to our orig­i­nal des­ti­na­tion for a bath­room break.

The weath­er was stun­ning, with calm water, a clear sky, and the fiery light of the set­ting sun cast­ing a gor­geous glow. I took a beau­ti­ful pho­to of an island we explored in August 2020, lit by warm sun­light, reflect­ing in the water like shim­mer­ing tex­tured glass.

But the insect sit­u­a­tion wors­ened. Once the sun had set­tled beyond the hori­zon, we con­tem­plat­ed our sit­u­a­tion. Porthos was a good sport, but Lily and I could tell he was uncom­fort­able. I even­tu­al­ly ush­ered him into the tent, prepar­ing for his protest at being iso­lat­ed from us but real­iz­ing that he wel­comed the change.

Twi­light fell, and with the inces­sant buzzing, stargaz­ing was out of the ques­tion. It was time to wash up and call it a night. After see­ing leech­es near our boat, I dread­ed get­ting in the water, but the south­west side seemed leech-free. The tricky part was enter­ing from a shal­low ledge that sud­den­ly dropped into the brown murky depths. After strip­ping to noth­ing, I stepped out onto the shal­low ledge and plunged into the cold lake. I didn’t stay longer than nec­es­sary because swim­ming in water where I can’t see my legs trig­gers a pri­mal fear. Any­one with a good pair of binoc­u­lars would’ve had a great laugh watch­ing my inter­nal strug­gle and, lat­er, a gig­gle at the state of my emer­gence from the water. “Like a fright­ened tur­tle!”

Dur­ing the night, a dis­tant loon’s wail awak­ened me. And lat­er, I heard the sound of heavy foot­falls near­by, pos­si­bly a pass­ing moose, but like­ly a man­bearpig. My child­hood fear of the dark has fol­lowed me into adult­hood, and these fears and my active imag­i­na­tion always run wild when sleep­ing out­doors in the wilder­ness.

In the morn­ing, the bug sit­u­a­tion was dire. Porthos was reluc­tant to leave the tent, and Lily and I exchanged a know­ing glance. “Let’s just leave. This isn’t worth it,” she said.

And that’s how we cut our trip short. There was no way to enjoy the expe­ri­ence, and we felt awful for the dog. On the pos­i­tive side, Lily turned the sit­u­a­tion into a learn­ing expe­ri­ence, pur­chas­ing mesh head nets for future trips. I was dis­ap­point­ed but knew it was sen­si­ble. It felt like giv­ing up, espe­cial­ly with the mag­nif­i­cent weath­er. But we live and learn, and the lessons from this trip will guide our future adven­tures.

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