Visiting a natural reserve park in the depths of winter would not be everyone's idea of holiday fun, particularly if that park is in southern Ontario, where the average minimum temperature in January can be around -20 C.
So even the colorful language that a friend used as she suggested that we head out of Toronto on a day trip to Algonquin Provincial Park－we could "embrace the beauty of the nature", she says－held little appeal for me. The white icing on this supposedly appetizing cake was two days of heavy snow that had just fallen in the area.
"Come on," my friend Rachel pleads. "You've never been there, right? You'll want to try it sometime."
Rachel and I go back a very long way, and she knows how to win me over.
So here we were, three people and a dog, Willy, a border collie, on Highway 60, which passes through the southern section of the park.
Before the trip I had never heard of Algonquin Provincial Park but Rachel, who has lived in Canada for more than 12 years, reckons it is the perfect place to appreciate the beauty of maple leaves, which indeed is what the park is best known for. However, the day we headed for the park, when it was-10 C, autumn colors were the last thing I expected to see.
Locals apparently often refer to Highway 60 as a corridor, and it was easy to see why, because the road gradually takes you into the area's natural scenery before you even realise it.
Our planned route was to enter the park through what is called its western gate and exit through the other side. Despite the terminology, it seemed to us that there was in fact no gate, at least not one big enough for us to notice.
Soon we were parked outside a shop near a ski trail entrance. As I stepped out of the car I found myself knee-deep in snow, and feeling every one of those 10 degrees below the zero mark.
Photo: China Daily
Willy the border collie had in effect become my master, confidently leading me to the shop, obviously drawn by the heart-felt warmth of the big sign hanging outside the door: "Dogs welcome".
It was like any of those gift shops you find in tourism spots. At this time of the year it rents out ski equipment, but because pets are barred from the well-groomed ski trails, that seemed to rule us out as customers.
"Dog sledding and wildlife watching are both popular activities," the shop owner helpfully suggests.
Since local businesses generally provide dog sledding services in the form of day trips, meaning you will have to commit six hours from 9 am to 3 pm, and we had apparently missed the departure time, the best option left was to try our luck with the wildlife.
Over the next couple of hours we failed to spot a single mammal, reptile, amphibian or bird, the best we could manage being a sketch of a moose on a traffic sign warning "Danger 45 km".
Not only that, but mammals of the human species were also nowhere to be seen.
"Are you still sure this is worth doing?" I asks Rachel in the car.
"Of course," she says. "We just need to get a bit closer."
"A bit closer to what?" I wonder. But before being able to put that to Rachel she had pulled into a parking bay on the side of the road, and turned around, saying: "Let's get out."
Photo: China Daily
The comfortable warmth of the car dissipated within seconds of our getting out, and as we trudged through the thick snow my teeth were chattering.
Willy seemed to be the only one who did not feel the chill. The four-month old was so excited to be in the snow that I think he was deliberately throwing himself into the thickest piles.
Thanks to his exuberance and strength I soon found myself sitting on snow-covered ground, holding his leash and being dragged downhill. The out-of-control Willy was yet again the master in control.
My friends burst into laughter. I knew how funny this must all look, but I needed to remind them of my good fortune.
"At least I got some dog sledding done today."
"Yeah you did," Rachel says, doing her best to stop laughing, "Now stand up and look around."
I did, and I was stunned by what I saw. We were standing on a vast landscape, nothing but a smooth and neat surface covered with pure white snow, glistening in the occasional sunlight. This scene stretched far out to the horizon.
"It's like ... the sea level," I say, wondering where this sense of familiarity came from.
"Yes," Rachel says. "We're on a lake."
She was pointing to a sign towards where we had come from. It says: "Lake of Two Rivers".
"Are we standing on the ice?" I just couldn't believe it. "Do you think we can dig the snow to actually see the ice surface?"
Thus began a contest to see who could dig up ice the fastest, and of course the winner was a certain quadruped who could not stop rolling in the snow.
In the end we all started doing the same, making several human- and dog-shaped stamps on the lake surface. It was freezing, but that did not matter because it was so much fun.
Exhausted from all the rollicking about, we lay on the ground looking at our breaths steaming in the air. A gust of wind then swept through the pine trees by the lakeside, somehow incredibly forceful but oh so tranquil, and at once very familiar but also fresh.
"Do you hear that?" I whisper. "It's beautiful."
"I told you it would be worth it," Rachel whisper back. "You just need to take the first step."
Photo: China Daily
In a vast expanse, a hidden package full of surprises One of the things I love most about travel is the element of surprise. You can spend weeks beforehand doing all the homework you like, but you can always be guaranteed to return home with tales of the unexpected.
On this trip the first surprise that awaited me was the road conditions.
I reckon I was well within my rights to fret over the heavy snow that had fallen in the area in the days before we set out. Snow may look wonderful on picture postcards, but if you have had any experience of the kind of travel chaos that heavy snowfall can generate, as I had, you will understand where I am coming from and was going to. In fact snow flakes were still fluttering about as we set off.
However, it turned out that my worries were ill-founded. For three hours we drove on clean, snow-free and well-salted highways. Rachel, my friend and travelling companion who has plenty of local experience, reckons the local snow removal companies do a great job.
"No matter how much snow you get at night, the driveways are always cleared by the morning," she says. "You do need to ensure that your car has winter tires though, for safety reasons."
The second surprise was the pine trees.
Two days after I returned from the trip, I was telling a friend, Alex, about them. Instead of talking about things visual, as I generally do, I found myself enthusing about how impressed I was when I heard the wind whooshing through the pine trees.
"I'm not surprised you noticed the pine trees," says Alex, whose family is from the Algonquin area north of Toronto, and seems to have spent many summers in the park.
"Of course I would notice the pine trees," I say. "They provided the only non-wintry colour in the park."
But he was not referring to that. Apparently it was the great pine trees that attracted one of the earliest groups of human visitors to the area hundreds of years ago.
In Alex's comment there was a faint echo of a vivid description on the park's website: "Living in remote, primitive camps, they (the loggers) felled and squared the giant pine, and when spring came, drove them down swollen rivers to the Ottawa River and the outside world."
The good news for modern generations is that in their dealings with these prime woods the pioneers appear to have shown enlightened mercy, and today the pine trees continue to flourish.
My third surprise was the lakes in the park, or, to be more accurate, how many there were.
Photo: China Daily
Majestic lakes are probably one of the images that the mere mention of Canada evokes in many people's minds, and that itself may be of little surprise, given that the country is said to have more than two million lakes covering about 7.6 per cent of the country.
Canada is of course a vast expanse, the world's second-largest country, but if you are keen to get a feel of what having two million lakes in one country is like, the Algonquin Park provides a useful microcosm.
Driving along Highway 60 with Willy the collie in the back seat, lakes were another constant companion. At first it was difficult to tell where lakes began and where they ended, because they looked little different from the snow-covered terrain that was free of any human traces. But the nearer you got to the surface of a frozen lake surface the easier it became to tell what you were looking at. The lakes are simply more wide open, smoother and more reflective.
Alex suggested I go back to the park in summer to try what he called "remote camping", meaning you canoe to a small island between the lakes and spend a night snuggled up with nature as you share the habitat with other species.
Even if the lack of snow and ice then would have stolen some of the park's many surprises, I'm sure many others would be lying in store.
If you go
Fees: A day visit to the park requires a daily vehicle permit, and the price depends on the season. From now until the end of March it is CDN$17 (S$17.65). Additional fees apply to camping and other recreational activities.
Transport: The most convenient way to get to the park is probably driving your own vehicle. The park is about three hours north of Toronto Pearson International Airport. Take Ontario Provincial Highway 404 on to Highway 11, and then onto highway 60, which will lead you straight into the park. Algonquin Provincial Park's official website: http://www.algonquinpark.on.ca/
Travel tip: If you are interested in learning about Dr. Norman Bethune's life, the Bethune Memorial House National Historic Site is worth a visit as well. The memorial house is located between Toronto and Algonquin Provincial Park. Take exit 169 on Highway 11. The address is 235 John Street North, Gravenhurst, Ontario.