All the time in the world: Celebrating New Year among mountains and cows

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.

Writing 2021 with sparklers
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A look back: 2020 in pictures and words

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.    

view of Green Mountains at AU Diable Vert in Quebec in the winter
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Backpacking in Pukaskwa: Superior Adventure or Why Leave the Comforts of Indoors

“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.

sunrise on Lake Superior in Pukaskwa National Park
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The power of Gi chi Gamiing – Lake Superior in every way

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.

dramatic sunset on Agawa Bay on stormy Lake Superior

Lake Superior is a study in extremes: the rage, the calm, the immense beauty – everything is exaggerated here. Continue reading

The trip that almost didn’t happen: Canoeing in north-west Algonquin

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.

early morning on Manitou lake in Algonquin

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Killarney, canoe and me: Another birthday, another incredible solo trip

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.

paddling solo canoe with dark clouds in the background

My attempt to ‘outpaddle’ rain to get a few photos of the cliffs on Johnnie Lake fails spectacularly.

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Searching for stillness in a shifting world: Our first backcountry trip on the year

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.

sunrise on Nellie Lake

Waiting for a sunrise on Nellie Lake Continue reading

Chasing winter: Our weekend at Windy Lake Provincial Park

The winter in Toronto has been a bit of a disappointment so far. It is a matter of opinion, of course. Some people are quite happy with milder than usual temperatures and almost complete lack of snow. Not me, though. Apart from sporadic bursts of season-appropriate weather, we seem to have been stuck in an eternal November loop as if the winter has forgotten how to do winter. So a couple of weekends ago we decided to chase it and headed up north to Windy Lake Provincial Park.

snowshoes in front of a yurt at Windy Lake Provincial Park

Our pursuit of winter took us to Windy Lake Provincial Park

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Journey to Middle-earth, or our magical New Year celebration in the Hobbit House (with a video)

Magic belongs in fairy tales and children’s imagination. At least, that’s what we are taught as we grow up. Our belief in magic, however, never fully goes away, and at no time this yearning is more apparent than around Christmas and New Year’s. We don’t even celebrate Christmas on December 25, and yet, I get swept up into the whole Christmas lights powered bonanza and half expect Santa to show up. Or continue to make a wish the moment the clock strikes 12 on New Year’s convinced it will definitely come true this time, even if results so far have been patchy at best.

This yearning for holiday magic drove our decision to swap the years-long tradition of ringing in the new year with overeating and watching TV in the comfort of our home for a celebration in a cabin in the woods around a meal that usually consists of left-overs found at the bottom of our food barrel. A fairy-tale looking cabin amidst snow-covered woods or a celebration among the stars is way more memorable and magical.

This year, we took our magic pursuit one step further and headed for a place that came straight out of fantasy – the Hobbit House. No, we didn’t need to transport ourselves into Tolkien’s universe. Didn’t even have to go to New Zealand (although I wouldn’t mind that). The Shire was found not in Middle-earth but rather Upper Laurentians in Quebec at the place called Les Toits du Monde (Roofs of the World).

Hobbit House at Les toits u monde

Happy New Year from the Hobbit House! Continue reading

The Best of 2019

Here we are again: another year, another “best of” post. 2019 didn’t feature any big road trips but it doesn’t mean there were no memorable adventures – they were just shorter and close to home. The only exception was our trip to Ukraine with my younger son. The trip didn’t involve any camping so didn’t make it into this blog but it did bring some interesting insights. It was a disconcerting experience at first – I felt like a tourist in my home country. Everything looked familiar, yet unrecognizable, as if I lost the key and could no longer decipher the code.

Near Kyiv sign in Ukraine

My trip to Ukraine was a little disorienting at first – I felt like a tourist in my home country

One afternoon we took a break from sightseeing and decided to hike down to the River Prut that runs through my home town of Chernivtsi. I’d walked that path so many times before with my older son, back then still a baby, but it was as if I landed in a new place. What used to be open fields was now a tightly woven jungle of trees and grasses. Yet, in this disorienting landscape, I felt less lost and confused than when I was twenty or so years ago when the surroundings were open and clear. That twenty-year-old person didn’t feel like me; she was more of a faint memory, someone I once knew. We all change as we grow up but usually that transformation is slow and gradual and not immediately apparent. It is only when we return to the places that knew us when we were younger, that we are confronted with those distant versions of ourselves.

walking through the grass

The trail I often walked with my older son when he was still a baby looked completely different this time around

It wasn’t until we reached the river that I started to feel at home again. And I thought that home for me doesn’t have exact geographical coordinates. It’s wherever there is water and hills and trees – be it the river of my childhood, the lakes of Algonquin, the forest behind my grandparents’ house, Killarney’s white cliffs or the Carpathian Mountains where I hiked with my classmates. Every camping trip for me is not just an adventure or escape from the city. It is about coming home.

River Prut in Chernivtsi in Ukraine

Once I got to the river of my childhood, I finally started to feel at home

And with that preamble, here is a list of the best “coming home” experiences of 2019.

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