On the road and in the woods

Despite never having driven more than 5 hours at a time, a weather forecast that called for nothing but gray skies, a slew of broken gear and a dislike of spending more than 24 straight hours alone, last week I set out on a 6 night, 2000+km, (mostly) solo camping road trip through Northern Ontario. Honestly, with the lack of travel in the last year and a half, the unsteady feeling of crawling out of a hard winter, a month of everything in my life changing in rapid succession (again?!) and a two-week delay in the start date for my summer job, I felt like I needed to literally run away and feel like I was “in motion” or else curl up in my bed in silence for several days. I figured a lot of time in the woods was probably the healthier option, especially after a concussion kept me in bed so much the last few months. And as we know by now, I like to throw, rather than step, myself out of the “comfort zone”…2 nights of solo camping last year? Double it!

The first night, the wind roared through the trees so fiercely I thought the tent would be knocked down, and the broken zipper whipped back and forth, clattering haphazardly. I barely slept, half-dream talking to my sister (who had driven up to join me for a night) about going home with her the next day, because who wants to spend a week in the rain with a tent that won’t zip closed? But when we got out of bed the next morning, we sat awe-struck on the rocks looking out at the lake, a lookout you’d usually have to hike for right at the edge of our campsite. After breakfast I followed my sister, in her white car “Harriet the Chariot”, out of the park and down the bumpy and twisty Killarney entry road, keeping an eye out for moose and waving to her in her rearview mirror as she got on the highway headed south. I continued north in my dented, rented Toyota Corrola. I played “Firekeeper’s Daughter”, a beautiful Indigenous fiction book that takes place in Sault Saint Marie, on audio the entirety of the 7-hour drive, even during my side-stops to climb rickety wooden steps to see waterfalls along the way. I worried about my tent and stopped to buy a tarp. I drank too many weak black coffees so I could use the Tim Hortons’ bathrooms. I relished in the fact that I was driving so far from Ottawa after a year of not leaving the city, and over the fact that I didn’t have to hide my over-enthusiasm about the views from anyone, allowing myself to be as giddy as I wanted to be.  

For the next three nights, the waves of Lake Superior crashed just 50 feet away from my tent, battling to be heard over the rain drumming down. Water pooled on one side of the tent and I curled up on the other, wearing all my clothes and a sweatsuit I’d commandeered from my sister too, regretting my decision to not bring extra blankets as the temperature dropped to 3 degrees. That first night I could see my breath and never managed to get warm. But then in the morning, I walked down the 3km white sandy beach, coffee in hand, breathing in through my nose so I could smell the damp sand and wild waves and morning mist and even though I was damp and cold, all I felt was grateful.

That first full day at Lake Superior I drove through the 60km long park, stopping to hike along Sand River up past three waterfalls, to brave a dip in Superior’s icy clear water at Katherine’s Cove, to hike through lichen covered rocks and a very muddy trail to the top of Nokomis and spend long minutes staring silently at the bay, straining to try and see the Old Woman’s face in the rock rumoured to be her resting place. On Trapper’s Trail, where no other cars were in the lot off the side of the highway, I tried to stop imagining seeing a black bear behind every rushing river bend and fallen down tree and eventually accepted that a healthy dose of extra caution couldn’t hurt and so I sang aloud, just to let wildlife know I was coming. And also because I like to sing when I’m alone, loudly and usually off-key. On my way “home” to the campsite, I stopped to see the Agawa pictographs, passing three red danger signs warning of death and injury before easing myself out on a sharply angled rock and hugging the side of the cliff to see different red signs, canoes and animals drawn many, many years ago, a message that had survived the wind and waves that were now threatening to throw me (back) into the lake. One swim had been enough and I carefully crawled back, hurrying to make some boxed mac and cheese from the safety of my campsite. 

The next day, I drove to a trailhead at Orphan Lake in a drizzle, only to see a sign heavily advising against hiking in or after the rain and I knew enough from the trails the day before to not want to risk an injury while hiking alone. I drove back to my site for a crackling afternoon fire and devoured a nearly 500-page fiction book throughout the afternoon and evening as I ate more mac and cheese and drank red wine on the beach, my feet propped up on some driftwood. I stayed there until the horizon turned fiercely orange and eventually the rain began again. 

Today, I drove through the hills and forests and small towns on the way back south, through mist and fog, stopping for gas, poutine and coffee and a long phone call with an old friend. And now, tonight, the sound of a frothy waterfall careening down the river can be heard from every site in the park, at least according to the Chutes’s park website. I swam in the run-off lake as soon as my tent was set up, then meandered the only hiking trail in the park, 6km past the many turning points of the river, mini waterfalls all running and jostling towards the main chute. I stood very still when a long-legged rabbit crossed my path, then cautiously followed it for several minutes up the trail, step by hop. Now sitting at the picnic table at my campsite, my green tarp, newly purchased in Deep River on the way north, is strung above me. It turns out, tarps aren’t nearly as difficult to hang once you’ve done it a few times. I am ashamed to say that I’d never managed one on my own before this trip. I guess that’s what happens when you lead lots of big group trips – every task has many hands, or can be delegated to a friend while you do something you’re a little more deftly skilled at. Even car camping, it turns out there is a lot  to do when you are just one set of hands. I ate mac and cheese again tonight and so I am crossing my fingers that my girlfriends bring something else for dinner when they join me tomorrow. There isn’t rain in the forecast, nor an ocean-like lake or a waterfall nearby, so tomorrow’s soundtrack will likely just be laughter and chatter by the fire. After four nights alone, I am looking forward to being with some of my people again.  

As an aside from future, editing Sam – it did indeed rain the last night, a lot. But there was much laughter and chatting under my trusty green tarp!

I am not very good at embracing solitude; it takes me a long time to settle into being alone. When I eventually do, I often put pressure on myself to “make the most of it” by having some kind of intense spiritual moment or pondering big and important things. I didn’t do that this week. Mostly, I just drove and read and hiked and slept and whined to myself about the weather and whispered short prayers under my breath earth when they came to mind. I trust that God was with me as I explored his Creation on beaches and hiking trails and that he was also with me as I shook the rain out of my eyes, muttering in annoyance as I tried to tie up that bloody tarp with a truckers hitch I hadn’t tied in years. I know that the Holy Spirit kept me company as I fretted about running out of gas on the long stretch of remote road and as I sat in silence on the beach in a raincoat watching the waves smash the shore, thinking about “nothing”. There is some comfort as a Christian, in knowing that I am never truly “alone” and yet there is wisdom in learning to be alone, even when it makes me feel restless. I’m grateful that my yearning for adventure won out this week, over my dislike of quiet and too much time in my head. As it turns out, I don’t mind thinking about “nothing”, once I give myself enough space to get over the discomfort. And if I ever got too restless, there was always a book to keep me company, or a story to make up in my head the way I used to often as a kid.

And in another note from post-trip, editing Sam – by the time I got home, I was actually sad to say goodbye to the solitude. I was genuinely surprised to find how much I’d begun to quietly enjoy my own company.

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