Ontario’s First Provincial Park
Algonquin Park was established in May 1893, the result of a Royal Commission to create “a wildlife and forest preserve, a health refuge, and field laboratory for scientific study.” It is the first provincial park in Ontario, a system with over 300 parks today. Algonquin Park is the province’s premiere location to take in fall colours, but more importantly, the park has an illustrious past and present to be discovered.
The Eastern Gate of Algonquin Park has an arched drive-thru entrance and a Parks Ontario store where permits are purchased here as well. It also has the Peace and Reconciliation Totem Pole. It was presented to Algonquin Park by the Algonquins of Ontario in 2015 and is beautifully carved from a century-old pine tree by Dan Bowers. The totem pole is traditionally associated with Nations in what is now Western Canada, but the artist wished to use the medium to pass on Algonquin culture.
It is a reminder that the park’s name is not just a name and should refer more to more than hiking, canoeing, camping, fall colours, or any other park activity or sight. It refers to the Algonquin peoples, a nation with rich culture and history whose traditional territory encompasses the park with active claims to the area.
An Industrious Past & Present
J.R. Booth was a logging baron who had a lot of activity in Algonquin Park’s rich forests. Logging in the Park stretches back to the 1800s and is a critical part in its history. To aid in transportation, Booth had a heavy hand in creating the Ottawa, Arnprior and Parry Sound Railway (OA&PSR) in 1897. The route ran across central Ontario and the south portion of Algonquin Park.
The Algonquin Logging Museum is a main structure and a 1.5km trail of outdoor installations which the story of the people, events, technology of the logging industry, including the friction between preservation and industry. It is also a history that continues: logging is still allowed in the park today.
By Highway & Railway
Highway 60 winds its way through the southwestern portion of Algonquin Park over and between rivers, lakes, and hills. It runs from west to east from Huntsville in Muskoka to Renfrew near Ottawa. The Algonquin Park portion is named the Frank MacDougall Parkway. Highway 60 was completed through Algonquin Park in 1936. While there were smaller “roads” within the park connecting lakes, there was no main corridor passing across the park before the construction of Highway 60.
Before the main road, the main access to the park was the railroad. In 1905, J.R. Booth’s Ottawa, Arnprior and Parry Sound Railway was sold to the Grand Trunk Railroad (GTR). The GTR was in turn absorbed in the the Canadian National Railway (CNR) in the 1920s. The railway ran in a rough northwest-southeast orientation, crossing Highway 60 near Cache Lake, an area which served as the Algonquin Park Headquarters for many years and hosted a popular GTR hotel, the Highland Inn. The Park’s Highlands proved an challenge for the railway as many trusses over waterways were required as well as blasting through the Canadian Shield terrain. The railway survived until sections were abandoned by CRN between 1940 and 1959. A section of the old railway serves as a bike trail near Cache Lake at the Track and Tower Trail.
Welcome to Algonquin!
The Algonquin Visitor Centre opened in 1993 to mark the park’s centennial. It has a shop operated by The Friends of Algonquin Park, a not-for-profit organization who purpose is to advance educational and interpretive programs in the park. They also publish self-guided tour books of the major trails in the park.
The building also has an exhibition which details the history of Algonquin Park. The lower level of the space details the natural history while the upper levels contains the cultural human history. It contains one of many references throughout the park to Tom Thomson, the famed early 20th century Canadian Painter who carried Algonquin Park as a muse for his works.
The Visitor Centre also opens up to a lookout spot and has a mini Fire Tower Trail, both which overlook Sunday Creek.
The Spruce Bog Boardwalk Trail is a gentle, relaxing 1.5 km walk. It runs over boardwalk and forest and showcases the diversity of environments within Algonquin Park. A keen eye while walking this trail should produce some interesting flora and fauna, like mushrooms and the Spruce Grouse (in the spring months).
A Trail with a View
The Lookout Trail is a look through millions of years of pre-history of Algonquin Park. It is a grueling 2 km loop, the first half of which is a steep uphill climb. Along the way are giant boulders which were deposited in the last Ice Age as the ice retreated from this area and left this rolling landscape of hills, lakes, and rivers. For this reason, the topography gives the area the name “The Algonquin Highlands”.
The apex of the climb produces a worth-while, breath-taking view of the Park and the Lake of Two Rivers. The elevation and cooler climate of the Algonquin Highlands allow for this colour change much earlier than latitudes to the south around Toronto.
The Algonquin Art Centre celebrates the artistic legacy of Algonquin Park. This of course begins with “The Legacy Path”, an outdoor exhibit about Tom Thomson’s life and time in the Park.
The museum building itself is a beautiful 1950s construction of wood and stone which actually served as the park’s first visitor centre. The indoor exhibition space in 2021 featured “The Spirit of The Group of Seven”, a collection of inspired works of the noted artists.
Tom Thomson & Canoe Lake
Canoe Lake’s modern association is in part with its namesake, day-long or multiple-day long canoe trips across its waters and between its islands. The facility at the lake outfits visitors with the essentials to make trips around the waterway.
Historically however, Canoe Lake is associated with the activities of Tom Thomson. The artist spent a good part of four years in Algonquin Park between 1914 and 1917. He spent his winters in Toronto (at the Studio Building) while exploring and painting the park during the more temperate months. Thomson arrived in the Park by train, getting off at the Canoe Lake Station on the north end of the lake.
Thomson stayed in the milling town of Mowat on the northwest shore of the lake during the summers. He painted many of his artistic scenes from around Canoe Lake. He even took jobs in the Park, such as being a fire ranger in the summer of 1916.
Thomson disappeared in the summer of 1917. His upturned canoe was found in the north end of lake on July 8, 1917 with no sign of the painter. Nearly week later, Thomson’s body turned up as well. Although the reported cause of death is by drowning, the events leading up to his death are a mystery even today as Thomson was an expert paddler and swimmer. Today there are several tributes to Tom Thomson, such a cairn (whose inscription is also viewed in the Visitor Centre) and totem pole near where he passed and a several plaques on the south shore of the park.
A visit to Algonquin Park is a sobering connection with the millions of years of natural history and the thousands of years of human history with the people who have inhabited, worked in, and enjoyed the Park’s many offerings.
“Algonquin Provincial Park: Ontario, Canada.” The Friends of Algonquin Park, https://www.algonquinpark.on.ca/index.php.
The Country Connection Magazine Story: Algonquin Park — Ontario’s Wilderness Legacy, http://www.pinecone.on.ca/MAGAZINE/stories/AlgonquinPark.html.
Kate, and Kate. “Paddling after Tom: A Canoe Lake Adventure.” The Great Canadian Wilderness, 27 July 2021, https://thegreatcanadianwilderness.com/paddling-tom-historical-canoe-lake-adventure/.
Mackay, Roderick. “Establishing Algonquin Park, a Place for Promoting Health and Recreation.” Toronto.com, 6 June 2019, https://www.toronto.com/community-story/9422828-establishing-algonquin-park-a-place-for-promoting-health-and-recreation/.
“Mowat (Tom Thomson Murder).” Ontario Abandoned Places, https://www.ontarioabandonedplaces.com/ontario/algonquin-park/mowat-tom-thomson-murder#:~:text=Unknown%20Ghost%20Town%20in%20Algonquin%20Park%2C%20Ontario%2C%20Canada&text=Mowat%20was%20a%20lumberman’s%20town,largest%20town%20in%20the%20Park.
“Riding the Old Railways Bike Trail.” Algonquin Outfitters – Your Outdoor Adventure Store, 6 Aug. 2017, https://algonquinoutfitters.com/riding-old-railways-bike-trail/.
ttlastspring, Author. Tom Thomson’s Last Spring, 23 Aug. 2020, https://ttlastspring.com/.
Vipond, Patti. “Wilderness Art in the Woods – the Algonquin Art Centre.” MuskokaRegion.com, 6 June 2019, https://www.muskokaregion.com/whatson-story/9423040-wilderness-art-in-the-woods-the-algonquin-art-centre/.
“Welcome to the Algonquin Park Archives and Collections Online.” The Friends of Algonquin Park : Online Collections, https://algonquinpark.pastperfectonline.com/.