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Camping with Bears

Like many in the industry, our staff love travel. TWAC’s CEO Allan Branch recently had the chance to travel from the USA to Canada for a canoeing and rough camping trip and experienced the home of the famous spicy Buffalo Wings en route.

“With decades of travel I’ve visited many places overseas and one place I love, surprisingly, is Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This used to be a “rust belt” town, left over from the old steel and mining days, but today is a thriving metropolis with top universities, leading technology hospitals, is one of America’s keenest sports cities, a thriving movie industry and award-winning reinvention of inner city living. It is on the confluence of three unpronounceable rivers, Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio, where the city burghers have wisely ensured the attractive water frontage has been protected for public usage with parks, preserved historical sites, promenades, playgrounds, cafes and attractions. Cities worldwide could learn a lesson.

On this last trip though, I used Pittsburgh as a stepping off point for a cross country road trip through Toronto for a canoeing and rough camping trip to Canada’s oldest provincial national park, Algonquin. The border crossing is the Peace Bridge in Buffalo, NY, and from Pittsburgh along the way it means wonderful sights of Lake Erie, historical light houses, a surprisingly ancient grape industry that feeds the grape juice industry and of course the essential tourist hotspot called the Anchor Bar, where the spicy deep fried chicken wings were first created, and now called Buffalo Wings for obvious reasons. That’s me in the centre of the second photo below. The bar itself has scores of motor bikes suspended from the ceiling and tons of memorabilia around the walls and dining areas. I had plates of the hottest wings at the bar with my friends. Buffalo Wings are now a staple on informal menus around the world, but there is something unique about eating at the place of origin.

From Buffalo, originally a huge industrial city in upstate New York taking advantage of water transport on the Great Lakes, but now dependent on tourists to Niagara Falls and local attractions including native American reservations, across the bridge to see the falls from the Canadian side which has far better views, and on to Toronto, one of the world’s most vibrant and cosmopolitan cities, where I spent a few days with friends, collecting the camping gear, and playing lots of blues music before overloading the car with our gear and taking off.

The trip from Pittsburgh to Toronto was a good day’s drive with stops and meals, and the trip from Toronto to Algonquin was another day’s drive, initially following the northern coast of Lake Erie but then turning north into robust natural forests.

Everything was pre-arranged and pre-planned by a local travel agency organised by my friends, and it went like clockwork. We arrived, with reservations and camp site bookings in place. We collected canoes, camping kits, maps and were able to buy any necessities that we had forgotten, such as sun screen, insect spray, and so on. We received information about recent bear sightings and safety instructions. Then set off on what proved to be a good 10 kilometres of arduous canoeing. I could have canoed forever though, because it was some of the most beautiful country I have ever experienced. Coming from Tasmania these are strong words. Crystal clear water, teeming with wildlife, unbroken pine forests, a few other campers, soft breeze, bright sunlight and a feeling the world is okay.

That was at the beginning. The first shock was the long overland portages, where we had to unload all the stuff from our canoes, carry it to the next water course, go back and carry the canoes over our heads, and do this I think 3 times. The lakes are all long narrow finger like shapes, with a slight downward gradient, so that the portages were necessary when one lake dribbled into the next with rough and unnavigable rapids. That’s me again in the centre at right pretending to know about canoes.

The next shock was that while we had been concerned about the prevalence of bears, we had forgotten to check the prevalence of mosquitoes. At times, especially when we were cutting across country, it was impossible to not eat mossies just by opening one’s mouth to breath or talk. Bottles and bottles of insect repellent were only just enough, and we were pleased we remembered mosquito nets for sleeping at night. Eventually though we found a perfect camping site and set about doing what people from Tasmania and Pittsburgh do best, being practical in survival mode. Parking the canoes, collecting fire wood, lighting the camp fire, pitching tents, locating the latrine, cooking food, getting out the guitars, recovering from the rowing.

The rewards were soon to come. Fishing and releasing, swimming and diving, exploring, late nights of revelry singing, drinking, eating, sharing anecdotes, joking, stoking the fire. Like many rough camping trips, some of our meals ended up being a mix of what ever food was available from the variety everyone brought along. As unappetising as it looked, we nevertheless ate it all. One highlight was the sighting of a wild moose on one of the field trips and it can just be seen between tree trunks but no bears despite the title to this blog. For me the craziest thing was the sounds at night of the famous waterbirds called loons, which were so loud and piercing I though someone was dying. One experienced Canadian camper in our group said it was impossible to get close to the birds, so I was pleased when I rowed up to a pair on one of my exploration trips and got to within a couple metres, watching them watch me, perfect colourful plumage like a Dutch master in pastels. Then to see them dive and never surface. Apparently they can stay under water for up to about 10 minutes, and resurface miles away.

Each night saw the most dazzling sunsets, and with no light pollution, just the flames of the campfire, it was a romantic sight to behold. The tough canoeing return trip and back to Pittsburgh, of course with another stop off for Buffalo Wings.”

Allan Branch, CEO, Travel with a Cause.

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