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Avocational archaeologist Rory Mackay sifts for buckles, metal bits, and maybe handmade nails from the smithy at Basin Depot, the site of an old logging supply camp. (Courtesy Algonquin Park Museum Archives, Photo: Jonathon Reynolds)

Canoeing through the history of Ontario’s Algonquin Park

For years, I spent every summer as a canoe guide in Ontario’s Algonquin Park, where thousands of miles of interconnected canoe routes crisscross 3,000 square miles, through more than 2,400 lakes and countless rivers and creeks. I imagined Algonquin as an untouched wilderness until a day in 1986.

I was paddling with a friend through a narrow stretch of river where the water slid smoothly down into a calm pool. We whooped and hollered down the slope until the canoe lurched to a stop, throwing me forward. We jumped out, and with a little jiggling and the sound of ripped canvas, we tore the canoe free. We got it to shore and flipped it over to find a neat, six-inch rip in the canvas alongside the keel. I waded back upstream to look for the culprit, and what I found surprised me. Just a few inches below the water was a smooth platform of slick timbers. In a few spots rusty spikes had worked their way loose and stuck out—one of them sported fresh traces of orange paint, straight from our canoe. We were in the middle of the wilderness and found signs of what had once been a large-scale timber industry.

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Both canoers and loggers make use of Algonquin Park. The hillside on the far shore was probably logged more than a hundred years ago. (Courtesy Algonquin Park Museum, Photo: Peter Ferguson)

I hadn’t realized then that Algonquin Park had been heavily logged, two or three times in some places. Our canoe had been torn by a timber slide, used to move floating logs around waterfalls and rapids, on their way down to mills in Ottawa. There was no wilderness there as I had conceived of it—the place had been significantly altered over the past 200 years. Though logging in Algonquin is now tightly controlled and 35 percent of the park is off limits to it, the practice has not stopped since the 1840s. That much activity leaves traces worth studying to understand the history that shaped a forest larger than the state of Delaware.

I returned to Algonquin last fall to get a better understanding of this history with members of the Ottawa Chapter of the Ontario Archaeology Society (OAS) on a dig at a site called Basin Depot in the eastern part of the park. I drove in this time—on my way to meet Roderick “Rory” Mackay at the site of one of the oldest logging depot camps in the park.

Jonathon Reynolds is a travel writer based in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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