Adam van Koeverden on becoming the world’s best paddler on Algonquin Park waterways

Adam van Koeverden kayaking in Algonquin Park Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth/Cottage Life

was the latter part of the spring in 2008, and I was out for a paddle in Algonquin Park. I’m fortunate to be sponsored by the Canadian clothing company Roots, and more fortunate still that they let me hang out at, and train from, their awesome lodge in Algonquin Park. On the day in question, I was preparing for the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing (which were in just a few months), very focussed on making my kayak go very fast in very straight lines with perfect technique and form.

Algonquin is a great place to do this. Not only are there limitless stretches of beautiful flat water for paddling and limitless crisp, clean air to breathe, but apart from the odd loon, some friendly canoe trippers, and a mind-blowingly majestic sunset, there isn’t much in the way of distraction. There was really just one decision I had to make on this, my week’s tenth such kayak sojourn, and it was coming up soon. Left or right? Left went under the bridge to Smoke Creek and on to Smoke Lake—a beautiful lake, but pretty big, and probably windy. Oh, and it was pouring rain. But it was magical rain, so utterly Canadian it was like drops of warm maple syrup on my face. A right turn would take me onto a pristine little lake called South Tea. It’s small enough that it doesn’t whip up with a little gust. With four islands for variety and some wind shelter, it is the ideal size for a quick training loop.

If you’ve ever paddled a canoe or a kayak or, Tom Thomson forbid, a paddleboard in Algonquin, then you may know approximately where I was. I chose to steer my skinny little racing kayak to the right, onto South Tea Lake. Usually, left turn–right turn choices don’t have an impact on the rest of your life. But this one did. Not like the disastrous and ill-fated one Mr. Thomson experienced in 1917. This was a good kind of impact. It certainly changed my life, and certainly for the better.

Adam van Koeverden getting ready to paddle on his dock in Algonquin Park
Adam van Koeverden on the dock with his dog Michael. Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth/Cottage Life

I started kayaking in 1995 on the advice of my mother. She was concerned that the older and less athletic of her two sons was getting into trouble after school. Mostly because I was getting into trouble after school. I was too old for a babysitter, and clearly too young or stupid to be trusted on my own. So when the local newspaper ran a recruitment ad for the Burloak Canoe Club, which read: “Future Champions Wanted,” my mother called the club and politely inquired if non-future champion, jerky tweenagers were also welcome. Thankfully, they were in need of new members, so I was allowed to join.

The Burloak Canoe Club was my game-changer. They took a lazy, directionless kid off the couch and taught him to channel some of his energy into something useful. Okay, possibly not that useful. Kayaking is fun, but unless you’re seal-hunting, I suppose it may not be vital. It is an awfully enjoyable gig, though, even after paddling 5,000 km a year for the past 16 years. Kayaking has taken me all around the world for racing and training and has taught me some pretty weighty life lessons as well. At Burloak I learned the most valuable lesson I know: that any task requiring hard work to accomplish is redeemed by both the reward(s) you may be fortunate enough to receive, and (perhaps more so) by the value inherent in the effort. My kayaking career has rewarded me in many ways, not the least of which was bringing me to that corner of Algonquin.

I often consider how the choices we make mould us into the people we are. My choice to turn right that rainy morning, a seemingly random decision, ended up being another game-changer for me. When I was out paddling on South Tea Lake, I saw a For Sale sign on a dock. There was an old log cabin, and it seemed nobody had been by in a long time. I was curious, so I got out and had a look around. There were five or six big fallen trees blocking the path, and since I was in bare feet I didn’t explore for too long. I committed the realtor’s phone number to memory and finished my paddle in the rain.

I was off in Hungary for a World Cup event a few weeks later, when my cellphone rang. I decided it was worth the roaming fees and answered it. The real estate agent on the line asked if the inquiry I’d made a few weeks back was in earnest, or if I was just curious. I didn’t quite know how to respond, mostly because I had, to understate the case, limited experience in real estate deals. At the time I didn’t even own a car and had never owned much more than a bike and a few kayaks, so the prospect of owning land (or even a lease, as is the case in Algonquin) was a little beyond my scope of comprehension. One thing I did know was that there are only 300 odd cottage leases in the park, and it’s very rare that they are ever exchanged outside family lines, let alone sold through a realtor. If I were ever going to be an Algonquin leaseholder, this was likely my one and only shot. So, after I called my parents and they said I wasn’t crazy for considering it, I went ahead and purchased the lease. Over the telephone, from Hungary. After seeing it once, in the rain, in my bare feet. Oh, and I won the World Cup race. It was a really good weekend.

The cabin that became mine was built sometime in the 1940s by two men who worked at a nearby summer camp. Legend has it that the spruce logs they used for the cabin were from some land the camp cleared for a baseball diamond. There’s still a little rock cairn on the outskirts of my plot dedicated to a guy named Bookie, who died far too young, more than 60 years ago. The dedication reads: “Bookie loved and enjoyed Algonquin Park, may you have a similar experience.” And I do. The gentleman who owned the cabin had passed away shortly before I assumed ownership of his lease. So as I found it, when I was home from my European racing tour, the cabin had been left as though he meant to be back sometime soon. A book was lying open on the counter, and some hand tools were on the floor. The door to the propane fridge was propped open with a stick, and some clean dishes had been left to dry.

Adam van Koeverden sits with his dog Michael on the deck of his Algonquin Park cabin.
A rundown log cabin was what initially drew van Koeverden’s attention while he was out for a paddle four years ago. It’s mouse-infested, so is now only used for storage. Like most other cottagers, van Koeverden uses his cabin as a place of escape—especially important for someone who travels so often for work. Next stop: London, England, for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games. Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth/Cottage Life.

There was (and still is) a tremendous amount of work to be done. In the time since he had been gone, storms had whipped through the property and knocked over some sizeable trees. I bought a chainsaw, after I came to realize that the effort involved in reducing fallen mature maples to firewood with a handsaw far exceeds the amount necessary for building that brand of character that I referred to earlier. I’m an environmentalist, but chainsaws are incredibly useful tools. Until Al Gore invents a solar-powered Stihl, I’m just going to indulge in a few extra carbon offsets every year; I’m not trading in my orange monster for an eco Mennonite handsaw anytime soon.

My family didn’t own a cottage when I was growing up. I spent the summers of my youth at different camps, at my uncle’s apple orchard, and at the cottages of family friends. And, since 1995, all of my summers have been spent training and competing. But, for as long as I can remember, having a cottage of my own, with lakes to paddle on, has been one of my dream goals. When it became a reality, my younger brother and a few great friends quickly came on board. My brother, Luke, and I love the idea of a long-term, maybe lifelong, project. The cabin has really brought us together, as brothers and as friends. We’re always talking about what needs work (everything), what he saw in a magazine for the cabin, or what kind of picnic table belongs on the deck. (We got the hexagonal kind, the best for eating—and for cards.)

During my first autumn with the cabin, my good friend Anders came from Sweden for a visit, and he helped me clear some fallen trees with his Viking brawn. As we sat on the dock with a beer, he told me that my place was “lagom.”

I hadn’t heard the word before, and he explained that it’s a Swedish word without a direct English equivalent; it roughly translates to “just enough for everyone,” with the implication of some found simple perfection. So that is what I call the place: Lagom Lodge.

My first year or so of Lagom leaseholdership was characterized mainly by discovery and cleaning up. The second and third were for planning and learning how to build things, and for making mistakes (which I’m certain will persist in the coming years, as I don’t seem to learn from them). This past autumn was my fourth as a leaseholder. It was the first year that the cottage truly functioned as a place on its own, for me. I have a drinking water tank, a few decent beds, a Scrabble board, and an outhouse. I have everything I need to prepare fairly edible food and do the washing; I’m getting caveman-good at starting fires. I don’t have any ambitions for hydro or a well. I could see having a gravity-fed tank for a little water pressure, and maybe a solar panel because, of course, the kids will need to charge their cellphones (I need to charge my cellphone).

The birdhouse Adam van Koeverden built at his Algonquin Park cottage.
The Birdhouse, so named because van Koeverden thinks it looks like a child’s version of an avian abode, is the first building he erected at his Algonquin Park property. “It’s as simple as a building can get,” he says. Being green was a priority: The windows and doors are recycled, he used only no-VOC paint, and he removed just one small tree to clear the site. Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth/Cottage Life

Two summers ago, my brother and I built a barrel sauna from a kit that I got from the Pennsylvania Dutch around Creemore, Ont. (Creemore is also the beer of choice at Lagom Lodge). The sauna gets pretty hot, so it extends our swimming season by a month or so. After that project, we were fairly proud of ourselves and sufficiently ambitious to build what we call the Birdhouse, a simple, 250-sq.-ft. cabin with a steel roof and a deck out front. It’s up on stilts just high enough so you get a lake view out the window from both top bunks. I painted the floor kelly green (since that’s the favourite colour of my best friend, Sarah) and last fall I installed a little Norwegian JØtul stove. Now I don’t need to start an outdoor fire for a morning coffee, or sleep with a toque on in October. Luxury! The Birdhouse isn’t insulated, but I’m going to do something about that in the fall.

Since Lagom Lodge is exclusively water access, every project takes a little longer; all materials are loaded, unloaded, and carried at least seven times, which is surprisingly gratifying. I am very lucky to have Michael, the dog, for company and protection, as well as many strong friends who enjoy doing physical activity in the form of manual labour. I only ask that they bring proper footwear, and in exchange, I’ll feed them and provide a fairly comfortable place to sleep. Michael still stays on the floor, though. Unless it’s really cold, and then he’s allowed to sleep at my feet.

A friend of mine told me that my stories about cabin life reminded him of Walden by Henry David Thoreau. I wanted to read it, so I went to a book- store in Toronto to buy a copy for Lagom Lodge. But they were sold out. The next time I was up, I went to find the book that had been left open on the counter. Turns out, the old man had left me a copy. Serendipity!

Of all the amazing places I’ve been fortunate enough to paddle—from the Queen Charlotte Islands in BC to the fjords of Norway and the Niger River in Mali, from the waters around Alcatraz and under the Golden Gate Bridge to the Gold Coast of Australia, and in gold medal races on countless rivers, lakes, and racecourses in Europe, Asia, and North and South America—Algonquin Park is the most perfect. It is my home, and will be until at least 2017 when the leases are up, and, McGuinty willing, for many years after.

It is simply always where I want to be when I am not there.

I am drawn to it, its fascinating history and natural beauty, through the core of my being. When I eat a fish from the lake or drink from a stream, when I feel the moss and dirt between my toes and breathe the crisp air, I’m laying roots down deep into the bedrock. I am sharing something with Algonquin, and with everyone who loves and enjoys the park. When I leave my dock and look back as I turn the corner from South Tea Lake— whether I’ve left a kayak wake on the water or ski tracks in the snow—I know I will be returning soon. Walden is still sitting open on my table there. I haven’t finished it yet. Not the book, not the cabin, not the dream. I hope they’re never finished. I hope the work endures and continues to gratify me and everyone who paddles over for a coffee. You’re welcome anytime. Just bring your work boots.

This story was originally published in the Summer 2012 issue celebrating 25 years of Cottage Life.