June is a stupid time for a canoe trip in Canada. It's still cold, and when the temperature finally starts to rise, the rain falls. And when it stops raining, the blackflies come out. Tiny black insects that hunt in mobs, blackflies are reputedly able to devour a live moose in less than a day. Of course, that's part of the fun of six friends leaving the gleaming, overvalued condominiums of Toronto, driving up to Ontario's Killarney Provincial Park, piling into three canoes and paddling off for a week away from civilisation, carrying only what's necessary to survive. It's luxuriously stupid. That said, our idea of what's necessary to survive has really let itself go since the days of the voyageur trappers. Those intrepid explorers didn't have insect repellent made of 95 per cent Deet. They didn't have headlamps. And they definitely didn't drop more than US$1,000 (Dh3,670) for a week's worth of swanky food, none of it without at least one qualifying adjective - raisins? Why these are Chilean Flame Raisins, thank you very much.
After three hours on the highway and an inauspicious lunch at Trapper's Choice restaurant for "Beef Piled High" (under the section labelled "Light Menu"), we catch glimpses, beyond the occasional open gravel pit and tyre yard, of the glorious boreal wilderness. Killarney is a noble ambassador for that wilderness: as we drive into the park's interior, we almost hit a moose. The air here feels cool and clean and environmentally pristine - somewhat misleadingly, as we will discover. Our canoes are waiting at Killarney Kanoes, a local outfitter. Natives traditionally made them out of birch but ours are made of Kevlar, the same stuff in bulletproof vests. After piling in, two people per boat, we push off into Bell Lake, leaving behind the van, mobile phones and other vestiges of high society. It's the kind of sparkling day that inspires accountants to write love letters. Our paddles cut through the glassy water. Spirits are high. Ten minutes in, a single raindrop falls.
By the time we've darted to shore, unloaded the packs, pulled up the canoes, erected the tents and lit a fire, everyone is soaked. The temperature has plummeted. And it turns out we've left the Chinese zebra shrimp to rot in the van. On the plus side, the organic steaks (which were supposed to be our second meal) prove well worth their $12 apiece: thick as a forearm, they turn out to be spectacular when charred over an open fire and not too wet. We crouch around the fire pit on logs, passing around "cigarettes" of unfiltered Cuban cigar tobacco, a suitably apt finish to a meal of near-raw cow eaten with your hands out of a Frisbee. Bears don't hunt humans, but they do hunt steak. So after dinner, the food goes back into the bear barrel: a big resealable bear-proof tub with shoulder straps, like a rucksack. We haul it off into the dripping forest, find a suitable tree and hoist up the barrel with a rope. We smack our hands with satisfaction. On cue, the branch shatters, the barrel almost braining Pete on the way down. So we prop it up in the Y of a small tree, about 1.5 metres high, smack our hands again and offer up a few silent prayers to the bear gods.
Poking your head from a tent into a rainy, 10°C morning in a pine forest is the kind of bracing wake-up everyone ought to have at least once. After bacon and eggs, we set off in the boats again. On a map, Killarney looks like a camouflage pattern of small lakes and shallow rivers. Many of the connections, however, are impassable: marshes, waterfalls, beaver dams. So when you've paddled as far as you can go, you have to portage. This fancy Continental-sounding word means walking down a trail, balancing a canoe upside-down on your head, with a third of your body weight's worth of supplies in a rucksack on your back, while mosquitoes lunch languidly on your face. The first portage, at the end of Three Mile Lake, turns out to be a breeze: it's only 14m long and the park rangers have actually installed a mini-railway with a small cart you can load up. As we paddle to the next portage point, we're feeling cocky. The 1.3km portage "trail" to Peter Lake starts in a swamp, solidifies into goopy sludge, detours around a gigantic collapsed white pine, emerges from the forest to cross a rickety beaver dam and ends with a 10m obstacle course that requires jumping from tree root to tree root across a lake of mud - all this with a canoe on your head. The ferns are pushing up, glistening with moisture, practically unfurling as we watch. It's so beautiful we almost forget the agony. Opening the bear barrel at camp reveals another setback for Team Gourmet: the red pepper hummus has exploded all over the Calabrese sausage, tarragon mustard and Wasa crackers. It's still raining. Our unofficial morale leader, Jake, has stopped laughing at anyone's jokes. Karim wades out for a shampoo in the lake, which is barely above freezing. The tinned pasta sauce tastes like Gordon Ramsay made it himself. Two days of rain, toil and poor hygiene has taken its toll the following morning. Except for Karim, we're all filthy. Dave's ear infection has flared. Karim, who is a doctor, asks him how it feels. He considers, then replies: "Like an ice pick is being slowly inserted into my brain." Jack has bandaged a blister on his palm by wrapping his hand, boxer-style, in duct tape. He seems to have grown another inch of beard overnight, and has obliquely started concluding all his sentences with "Factoid!" For example: "Lake Panache could screw our entire trip. Factoid!" He's right. Panache is a long, wide body perfectly suited to whipping up a good easterly wind - which is exactly what we meet as we pass through Burnt Narrows. The waves start lapping our boats like an eager dog, slowing us down to a crawl. After an hour of forcing our way using our spongy, urban arms, things get a bit tense: the best way to tip a canoe is to get the lip under a wave, and conditions are very choppy. We stay close to shore, double check our life jackets are secure, and push through with our heads down, ignoring our complaining shoulder muscles. It's a relief when we finally round a point into the relative calm of Taylor Bay. Another kilometre of portaging and we're back into the interior, on Harry Lake, shaped like a set of lungs. We install ourselves on the far side, exhausted, with all the grace of a pulmonary tumour. We pull the canoes up like a shield against the wind and cook dinner as the fire dances madly, a kung fu master dodging punches. There's a scuffle over who gets the camping chair - an ingenious bit of bent foam we mocked as bourgeois before we'd spent three days hunched on logs. Dave wins, in part because his ear infection seems to be making him hallucinate mildly, in part because it's his. As the fire dwindles, the atheist and the Muslim gamely try to sort out religion, to the sound of the ghostly, quintessentially Canadian flutter-call of the loons (the bird that graces the $1 coin). But there aren't enough stars to make everyone feel appropriately insignificant, so the matter is shelved.
It's amazing how maple syrup can brighten an attitude. In the morning, after delicious dark-chocolate pancakes smothered in top quality light Quebecois, everyone's chipper - and Dave, after one of the worst nights of his life, has regained hearing in his ear. Not even our next stop, Pike Lake, dampens our spirits, despite it being one of the eeriest in Ontario: uncannily blue, clear water into which you can peer down as far as 20m. A snapping turtle lies dead, just underwater by the shore, covered in a greenish fuzz. The water has a strange, metallic taste. There's no other sign of life. The reason for Pike, and the many other "dead" lakes around Ontario, can be seen from the top of Silver Peak. We sweat out the two-hour hike from the tangled shorelines, up through birch forest and into the open "silver" or white quartzite that caps this 539m mountain. The panorama of green and blue that surrounds you for 360 degrees is marred only by three exclamation points: the smokestacks of the Inco copper mine, one of which has the dubious honour of being the tallest smokestack in North America (350m) and the even more dubious honour of being partly responsible for the acid rain that devastated Pike. As we descend, the blackflies finally wake from their winter slumber and swarm us, like jets circling King Kong. No matter. We've all broken through into a new mode of thought. We are one with nature. Our filth feels comfortable. And on our last night, huddled around the fire in seven layers of clothing as the temperature drops to 5°C, even the instant pad Thai "emergency dinner" tastes brilliant. We determine to open a restaurant in which guests will perform half an hour of manual labour before eating whatever the hell we choose, outside, with a communal Swiss army knife, out of a Frisbee. It'll be called Campsite. We'll be rich. Nobody will be able to make us shower again.