Last year, when the word ‘pandemic’ split our world into the before and after, I headed to Lake Ontario to watch the sunrise – my attempt to find an anchor, something to hold on to in the face of uncertainty. Last week, I found myself on the same spot at Humber Bay Park, next to an uprooted tree trunk, stripped and polished by water into a work of art – a foreground for many of my Lake Ontario pictures. A few of its roots and branches had gone missing since last year – a big triangular shape that had worked so well for framing the CN Tower was now gone. Other than that the scene looked no different from last year – the same fiery orange paint spilled along the edge of the sky in anticipation of the big star’s entry, the same comforting lull of the lake…
A cozy cabin in the woods, a wood stove or at the very least a gas fireplace, days filled with snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, evenings filled with board games and reading – for many years these have been our Family Day weekend staples. In 2021, they have become distant memories. With the province in lockdown, our Family Day activities required rethinking. I knew that many of my thoughts over those few days would start with “We could be somewhere in the woods right now…” So I decided that the only way to prevent or at least minimize all the brooding was to throw at it as much hiking, and snow, as I could.
Celebrating New Year in the woods is always an interesting experience. Marking the change of arbitrary numbers among trees, hills and lakes that are oblivious to what year it is always feels weird, if not downright silly. In the woods, emptied of everyday routines and obligations, time stops being an accounting exercise where hours, days, years march by in a quick succession and becomes more of a space that you inhabit, an extended present moment that contains both past memories and future dreams at the same time. Standing in the presence of trees, hills and lakes as we exchange “Happy New Year!” is always a reminder that time isn’t linear, that it doesn’t pass by us but rather through us, that we can’t just put a year, not matter how bad, behind us because it inevitably becomes a part of us, like another ring in a tree trunk or a deepening crevice on the side of a mountain.
Early morning is my favourite time of the day. As I lie in bed, eyes still closed, I savour the silence, interrupted only by deep breathing and an occasional snore from my husband and kids. I finally open my eyes and look through the window – craggy silhouettes of Green Mountains slowly come into focus. It takes me a few minutes to remember it’s January 1st. Which means 2021 is here. And even though in this tiny cabin in southern Quebec, in the presence of eons-old peaks, time units like years seem ridiculously arbitrary and inconsequential, even though I am fully aware that pandemics and other global crises don’t follow a calendar, I still can’t help that growing sense of relief. 2020 is finally over.
“Humans have spent centuries perfecting the indoors,” notes my older son as he moves closer to the campfire. “Only for you to drag us all the way here to battle the elements.”
I know he’s only half-joking. This is the first night of our backpacking trip at Pukaskwa. We’ve just spent half a day hiking in the pouring rain, at times through ankle deep water and a good portion of the trail over slippery rocks. So I can see why our kids are not particularly excited about the whole endeavour. And while our younger son simmers quietly by the fire waiting for food, the older one launches into one of his philosophical arguments.
Once we get some chili into them and dry clothes on them, the mood improves considerably. But I can still feel spoken and unspoken doubts floating around under our green tarp, getting trapped in the criss-cross of clothing lines that spot everything from t-shirts to socks to underwear, wrapped in a dense coat of smoke courtesy of wet firewood. Eventually, we pack our edible stuff into the food locker and retreat into our tents. Maybe not the type of indoors our older son had in mind, but the best shelter for this particular moment. As I fall asleep to the fading beat of raindrops against the nylon, I start wondering what we are searching for on the wildest of Lake Superior’s shores.
We drive around another bend on Highway 17 and my heart cracks open: framed by the green hills, a canvas of the brightest blue stretches all the way to the horizon until it merges with the sky. This is not our first trip to Lake Superior, yet every time we come here, its power strikes me in new, unexpected ways. Every time I feel my brain, my eyes, my heart are too ill-equipped to embrace the immense beauty of Gi chi Gamiing. Everything is exaggerated here: dramatic views, overwhelming rage, fiery sunsets, deep calm painted in cotton candy colours, sudden mood swings. More than anything, Lake Superior is a study in extremes.
Lake Superior is a study in extremes: the rage, the calm, the immense beauty – everything is exaggerated here.Continue reading →
The news can be a little overwhelming these days. Did I say “a little”? “A lot” is what I meant. Last week, after only a few minutes of scrolling through my newsfeed, I got a sudden urge to throw away my phone. Instead, I turned it off and said to my son: “I need a break. I’ll go and water the planet.”
“The planet?” he raised his eyebrows. “That’s ambitious.”
What I meant, of course, was “the plants.” But as I was watering tomatoes and peppers in my balcony garden, I started thinking about California, Oregon and Washington and the amount of watering our planet requires to fight recurring wildfires all across the world, which are becoming more extensive and destructive as a result of climate crisis.
Some trips are meticulously planned several months in advance; others are quickly thrown together at the last minute. And while the final enjoyment of the trip usually doesn’t depend on the length of the planning period, the lead-up to it is a different story.
I lower my canoe into the water at the end of a short portage from Ruth-Roy Lake into Johnnie, and it takes me a few minutes to register how smooth the water is. Every time I paddled Johnnie Lake in the last couple of days, it was choppy with a generous helping of a strong side wind. This unexpected calmness looks like a minor miracle; I do a quick happy dance. The night before I passed beautiful cliffs but couldn’t pause for photos for fear of being turned back or, worse, flipped over. With waters finally calm, I decide to take a quick detour from my trip back to the parking lot and make a stop by those cliffs for a few shots. The sky doesn’t look particularly supportive of this endeavour. Dark and heavy with copious amount of tears, it is threatening to unleash its pent-up sadness at any moment. I know rain is inevitable; I just hope it will hold off for another 30 minutes or so.
My attempt to ‘outpaddle’ rain to get a few photos of the cliffs on Johnnie Lake fails spectacularly.
Time stands still during the last few moments before sunrise; the world holds its breath awaiting the sun’s big entrance. It is my favourite time of the day. I steer my canoe into the middle of the lake and just sit there watching dark silhouettes of the hills framed by the soft glow of the sky above and the lake below. Over the past few months of being homebound and unable to leave the city, I’ve been craving this silence – the absence of that permanent urban hum that even COVID hasn’t been able to extinguish. Here, in the middle of Nellie Lake, everything is quiet, so quiet that I can hear blood rushing through my head. Or is it the heartbeat of the Universe? I listen to its rhythmic beat punctuated by a bird song bouncing between the hills.