I was startled from my dreamless sleep by a spine-tingling snarl in the thick boral forest not far from my small tent.
Too close for comfort, but thrilling in a spooky sort of way. Quickly, I clicked on my headlamp and listened intently.
Was it a black bear growling in frustration at being unable to reach our food packs strung high up in a jack pine? Perhaps a smaller hunter -- a fisher, a marten, or even a lynx after its evening meal? Maybe a lumbering moose or woodland caribou, snorting as it foraged.
Noises can be deceptive in the back country, especially at night.
A couple of others in our group of six canoeists, Les McCann and Brian Wagg, confessed over a breakfast of oatmeal and coffee that they too had heard the sound.
"It might even have been a Sasquatch sneaking about," joked McCann, a retired provincial government employee and longtime member of Nature Manitoba (Manitoba Naturalists Society).
We were on the south shore of a small, unnamed lake upstream from Garner Lake, deep in the southern part of Woodland Caribou Provincial Park between Red Lake, Ont., and the Manitoba border. It was my first time in Woodland Caribou, a place I'd wanted to explore for years, and just 200 kilometres from Winnipeg at its nearest road-access point.
It's the third-largest wilderness-class park in Ontario and a top canoeing region that offers more than 1,600 kilometres of canoe routes. It covers 450,000 hectares of secluded wilderness in the heart of the boreal forest and the Canadian Shield.
The park is included in the Pimachiowin Aki World Heritage Project -- a push by four First Nations and the governments of Manitoba and Ontario to have 40,000 square kilometres of vast boreal forest, rivers, lakes and wetlands designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The non-profit Pimachiowin Aki Corporation notes this area provides important habitat for wildlife, including woodland caribou, wolverine and bald eagles.
During a conversation around our crackling campfire one evening, trip organizer Jerry Ameis, a mathematics professor at the University of Winnipeg, revealed that he's been coming to the park since the late 1960s.
"I made some of the original portage trails," Jerry said as the setting sun's rays cast a pinkish radiance across the skyline and the serene waters of Jester Lake.
"We just put up some blaze marks (notches on tree trunks). Some of them have become actual portages. I came with some buddies every year. I like the variety of routes possible. It's not too crowded like Quetico Provincial Park (along the U.S. border near Fort Frances, Ont)."
After driving up highway 59 to Libau, we took highway 317 to Lac du Bonnet, and then 313, 315, and 314 to our launch point, Beresford Lake in Nopiming Provincial Park -- the southwest corner of Woodland Caribou and the access route into Garner Lake.
During the course of our 10-day trip, we paddled more than 100 kilometres and did 35 portages with two down days. This was, after all, a holiday and not an adventure race.
On one particularly gruelling portage we were accompanied by heat, humidity, black flies and mosquitoes. The 825-metre trek took us from a higher part of the Garner River to a lower part. My able canoe partner, naturalist Monica Reid, and I carefully carried our 18-foot Kevlar canoe along the narrow, undulating trail through the Canadian Shield and boot-sucking bog.
We then returned to schlep all our gear. The procedure took at least 45 minutes. We repeated it on our return trip. But it was all part of the wilderness experience and I wouldn't have had it any other way.
Although we didn't see any large predators or moose or caribou, there were signs of them, particularly wolf and bear scat on the trails and at one of our campsites.
"The animals were well aware of our presence -- that's why we didn't see any," Monica said. "Also, we kept our campsites clean."
Still, we did see several bald eagles, Ospreys, double-crested cormorants and loons, and even spotted two great grey owls on our final day of paddling.
I was enraptured by the blended bouquet of black spruce, pine, balsam and aspen and other smaller flora species, including wild blueberries. Monica's trained eye also pointed out several orchid species, plus the various mosses and lichens that clung to boulders and the sides of sheer cliffs. And how refreshing it was to slake our thirst with water right out of the pristine lakes without having to filter or boil it first.
As our canoes silently sliced through the placid waters of Haggert Lake, I recalled what someone had told me 20 years earlier: "If you want to maintain a consistent cadence while canoeing, just paddle to your heartbeat."
It's easy to lose your heart out here.
IF YOU GO
Camping passes are required for Woodland Caribou Provincial Park. For further information contact the park office at 1-807-727-1388; Box 5003, 227 Howey Street, Red Lake, Ont., P0B 2M0. Topographical maps are also available.
The following tips are from the Woodland Caribou website:
Litter: All litter -- including biodegradable matter such as peanut shells and apple cores -- attracts wildlife. It's unsightly and impacts those who follow behind
Fish entrails: Best left on an exposed rock near the shore, away from campsites and portages. Do not bury them or dump them in the lake
Bears: Be wise by keeping your camp clean and storing food appropriately -- bear-proof your vehicle at the parking site
Respect: Give animals space -- this is their domain
Group Size: Maximum of nine per campsite
Natural treasures: Leave them behind for others to enjoy; don't remove or disturb them in any way but capture them in photos.
And: A small trowel is useful to bury human waste. Make sure you do this.