Warning: This post talks about war, which may be triggering for some people. I acknowledge that this may not be the type of content you would expect from a blog dedicated to camping. However, the war in Ukraine has had a profound impact on a lot of the people I know and love, on millions in my home country who live under constant threats of attacks and those who’ve fled in search of safety. And while my experience of it on the other side of the ocean is in no way comparable to that of people in Ukraine, the war has redefined every aspect of my life and its echo has been heard in every outdoor pursuit, every nature walk, and every camping trip. As I look back at the year filled with sadness and grief, this post is also about searching for light in nature, books, support offered by my friends, and bravery of people in my home country. It is about travelling back to Ukraine, rediscovering the land of my childhood and youth, and learning yet again that hope equals action. If you are looking for ways to help Ukraine and those displaced by the war, links to organizations you can support are provided at the end.
Winter often gets a bad rap and I can see why: cold, wind chill, snow storms, extra challenges of getting outside that come with slippery roads or impassable snow banks, short days and all-consuming darkness. We often talk about winter as something to get through, huddled at home waiting for the arrival of better days. What we fail to see as we binge through yet another Netflix show is winter’s magic at work: crisp, sparkling air that fills our bodies with vigour and joy, softness of a snowfall that erases the edges and transforms familiar scenes, a promise of newness that comes with a fresh snow cover, mesmerizing creations chiselled out of ice. This past weekend we headed in search of this magic to Bruce Peninsula, a place where Niagara Escarpment’s rugged limestone cliffs and turquoise waters of Georgian Bay work together to create a masterpiece of a landscape. With an extra touch of winter’s artistic genius, the scenes were truly spellbinding.
January 1st started with grey skies and a drizzle. As I drank my first coffee of the year on the balcony of our cabin perched on top of a cliff, I watched the opposite shore of Lac du Cordon drift in and out of sight. There was a certain, almost soothing rhythm to this game of hide-and-seek as the fog moved in repainting the hills across the white expanse of the lake grey to match the sky, then slowly dissipated only to roll back in again. It wasn’t the most promising start of the year as if nature mirrored the uncertainty and sadness of our pandemic reality. But then a flock of white-winged crossbills swooped in, pops of red and yellow against the greyness of the morning, and provided a much-needed reminder that beauty and joy can be found in the gloomiest of times.
Today I realized it’s been almost two months since I posted anything on the blog. And sure, I could blame it on colder weather and fewer camping trips. But that, of course, is not the main reason. Connecting with nature, after all, doesn’t require days of paddling or backpacking. Nature can be experienced anywhere: during our weekly microadventures, a brief walk around the neighbourhood or even on my balcony in the middle of Toronto. This dry spell is not so much due to a lack of new locations but rather scarcity of new ideas. So here I am sitting in my bedroom, bathed in November’s late afternoon light, listening to a boisterous bickering of sparrows on my balcony, and attempting to tackle this writer’s block the way I would normally tackle a trail – by putting one foot in front of the other or, in this case, one word after another.
Today’s post is going to be about one my favourite microadventure destination – Boyne Valley Provincial Park. Our microadventure tradition started years ago, born out of recognition that we were more familiar with far away parks than places close to home. Since then, almost every Saturday, unless we were camping, we would pack snacks and drinks and head for a hike somewhere within an hour drive from Toronto. One by one, those stories made it onto these virtual pages, some places more than once. All but Boyne Valley.
“This trail has been described as challenging,” says the park ranger flipping through her orientation binder. We stifle a nervous laugh, still trying to embrace the enormity of what we are about to undertake – backpacking the entire 60-kilometre Coastal Hiking Trail in Pukaskwa National Park on the north shore of Lake Superior. There and back, plus a detour to Picture Rock Harbour – totalling 130 kilometres over nine days. A significant distance even on the flattest of terrains, let alone what has been rated as one of the most challenging trails in Canada.
At 543 metres, Silver Peak isn’t the highest of mountains. Even the word “mountain” sounds like a bit of stretch. But it is the highest point in Killarney Provincial Park and offers breathtaking panoramic views of the La Cloche range, the closest we get to mountains here in Ontario.
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.