Camping In January in Algonquin Park

21 01 2014

This weekend, I felt like I had fallen into a Group of Seven painting, not unlike the way C.S. Lewis’ and Madeleine L’Engle’s characters get to jump around into past and future eras. When I placed the heavy leather tumpline of a loaded toboggan across my chest, and leaned into the blowing snow, I got sucked into another era, one long before the combustion engine, tourists and Mountain Equipment Coop.

Leaning into the past

Leaning into the past

I’m just warning you, in case you decide to go winter camping with Craig and Doris MacDonald in Algonquin Park in the middle of January. No slick synthetics, and no  lightweight titanium snowshoes or tents on this trip. Nope. Lash on the old-fashioned babiche and wooden snowshoes with a few feet of lamp wick and follow the ancient trail that the first white man recorded in 1827 near the park’s East Gate, beyond the gargantuan virgin pines. It leads to Sunday Lake where you’ll find Craig, master winter camper and expert on Algonquin Park and on the old ways of the Natives and the traders. He comes from generations of northern postal carriers that were more comfortable in snowshoes battling a blizzard than you and I are in our slippers sitting by a fireplace sipping a latte.

We are eight people camping together in the snow. No slackers allowed. It’s a race against a setting sun. A rough, six foot chisel and two metal pails are handed to my son who heads for the lake. “Don’t forget to pile snow on the top of the filled pails so the water won’t slosh all over your legs. And don’t lose the chisel in the lake!” Doris yells out. Someone searches for firewood and bark. My husband and other son stagger out of the forest and into the campsite after retrieving caber-size poles that Craig lashes together to make a structure to which we tie the locally made Egyptian cotton tent. Before my dazzled eyes, the exact shape of the tent in Tom Thomson’s painting The Tent begins to take shape. It’s cream coloured, spacious and gracefully proportioned.

Setting up the tent Doris is showing us how to weave a soft fragrant carpet of balsam boughs, the way the Native people do. Craig and Wayne, who still wears the traditional voyageur garb, hook up the stove whose skinny chimney pipe angles up through a metal square in the gable end of the tent. Wayne, the "voyageur"A fire is crackling and, in no time, the tent is heating up. A toboggan, placed in the centre of the tent, becomes our table. Wooden stakes that hold candles are driven into the ground. Soon, we are sitting in our T-shirts, eating home baked bread and chili and swapping stories of adventure and travel, especially tales of Craig’s interactions with the Natives in years gone by. Before I climb into my sleeping bag, I slip outside. The tent is glowing like an old-fashioned Aladdin lantern turned down low. The snow is hard and crisp and the temperature is dropping as the night darkens. It is dead silent and perfectly still.

So, this is how those Canadian painters did it a hundred years ago. Well, Tom Thomson, there’s still one painter who is thrilled to be camping,  your style, in 2014.

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My CIGARette Boat : poetic musings on a faithful old canoe

4 04 2012

On the last day of March, my oldest son and I launched the canoe – an old, patched up discard that my husband and I bought from a canoe rental in Guelph, 30 years ago.   The $400.00 we paid for it seemed like an astronomical amount, especially since what we got was a sun-bleached canoe with cigarette burns all over it.

Rich cottagers on the Muskoka Lakes may have their antique cigar boats, but I have my rickety cigarette canoe and, believe me, it’s no less precious. So far, we’ve enjoyed 30 splendid years of canoeing in that faithful  vessel and she’s still plying these northern waters, still tracking straight and true, despite the extra bit of duct tape patchwork.   Never once has she dumped us, even with all those restless toddlers who would suddenly lurch over her gunnels to drag their curious, little fingers in the water.

As we slide the decrepit canoe  into the newly thawed lake, and gingerly lower ourselves onto the flimsy, wicker seats, we are extra careful not to put any weight on the paper thin floor. We don’t want to go through.  There are still chunks of ice floating around in the lake.  Did she survive another winter, we wonder?  Any sign of a leak spouting out from under the duct tape?   We watch anxiously for a few seconds, but, she holds together and soon we are swinging the bow around the end of the dock and heading exuberantly past the ice and out into the open water.

How can I describe to you the thrill of those very first moments of canoeing each spring?  To grip the smooth, wooden end of the paddle in your cupped hand once again; to feel both the weight of the water against the paddle and the familiar strain in your muscles; to hear the water gurgle as the moving paddle forms little eddies and ruffles around the paddle and canoe; to glide and bob gracefully and freely, like an equestrian under full gallop, over the surface of the water; all that makes me almost burst with joy.  In those first few minutes, I want to canoe until the next freeze up.  (Just  toss my easel in, too.)

I think of all the pristine lakes and serpentine rivers of Muskoka, Haliburton  and Algonquin Park, over which our canoe has safely carried the family, to secluded places of astounding beauty, and of ear-pulsing silence.  Those are the magical  hideaways where the sky pierces through the dense, golden green foliage in little blobs of bright blue;  where undisturbed, fallen leaves paint the forest floor gold, red and rust, and the soaring purple-blue  rocks wear wigs and vests of lime-green moss. .

Is it any wonder that I ended up being a painter?  I am so grateful to my humble, cigarette canoe that has taken me to see the remote, secret colours of our grand, Canadian wilderness.  How can I not paint them?