Monday, February 25, 2019

Winter Getaway - Golden Lake, Ontario

I'd forgotten the utter silence of the woods in winter. They are devoid of the usual twittering of birds, mammalian rustles, wind moving leaves.
Nothing moves in the woods in winter. Not right here, right now, anyway. Here on the Lake of Two Rivers trail, in the middle of a sunny February afternoon, everything lies sleeping under 40 inches of snow. The snowshoe trek is exhausting, so I stop periodically to listen. Absolutely nothing. A soothing, trance-like sort of nothing.
I love Ontario. Even though I have been to the expanse of the Serengeti, the remoteness of Iceland, the impressive fjords of New Zealand, the white sand beaches of Fiji, the rich historical streets of Europe, there is nothing quite like this wild province we call home. It was with this in mind that Jen and I booked our most recent trip - a four day getaway about four hours north-east of Toronto (Renfrew County, near Pembroke). As the date of the trip approached, we watched the weather forecast with increasing concern. A massive snowstorm was approaching, and it seemed like it would hit the hardest on Tuesday morning, the day we had planned to leave.
After some quick readjustments and a last-minute search on AirBnB, we decided to leave on Monday night instead, and drive up to Bancroft late after work in order to get ahead of the storm. We had reached out to Aileen of Suite in the Bush, who kindly accommodated us at the last minute, including setting things up so we could check ourselves in around midnight, as it was the earliest we could get there after work.
Night driving long distances is something that I find soothing - makes me nostalgic for the days when I used to drive to Ottawa every Friday night for choir rehearsal. Once we got out of the city, there was hardly anyone else on the roads, and when there was, I'd calmly let them pass us. We were in bright spirits, happy to be heading on a mini-vacation after almost a year since our last one. We arrived at Suite in the Bush just before midnight, and entered our little home-away-from-home apartment quietly so as to not wake our hosts who lived in the main house above. The apartment was very warm and cozy when we entered, as they had stocked up the wood stove for us. We loved all the personal touches, from the basket of snacks, the cold drinks in the fridge, the super-soft king-sized bed, the option to make hot chocolate, and the lovely decor. We were also surprised by the breakfast menu, full of different delicious options to choose from for the next morning.

After settling in for the night, we slept quite soundly and were ready for our homemade breakfast upstairs in the host's kitchen for 9am. Jen had selected a grilled croissant filled with cream cheese and strawberries, and I had french toast. It was very nice to meet our host and chat while she prepared us our yummy meals. There was also plenty of coffee, fruit, yogurt, and fruit juice to have while we waited. We felt like we were in a luxurious hotel rather than someone's home!
After saying goodbye to our host, we were on the road again, headed in the direction of Killaloe (where Beavertails were invented!). The sun was shining and the skies were clear. As we checked our phones for the weather in Toronto and saw the mess the city was in, we were even more grateful we had made the last-minute decision to drive up a night early.
After getting some last minute supplies in Killaloe, we made our way to our final destination for the next three nights, a small little cabin on Golden Lake. The snow was just starting to fall as we arrived, and we were grateful that our host already had the cabin ready for us and allowed an early check-in! After parking the car, we settled into our charming little cabin, and got fully prepared to be snowed in.

Jen playing on the frozen lake

The next morning, everything was covered in a huge blanket of snow. We made our breakfast leisurely and then made our way over to Greystone's office, where free-for-use snowshoes had been left thoughtfully outside so we could explore. There was a small patch of woods on the property, so we didn't have to go far.
It took us a while to get our “snow legs”, as snowshoeing in knee-deep snow was more challenging than we thought it would be. We both fell a few times, trying to get our bearings. We didn't mind – the snow was fluffy and soft, the sun was shining brightly in the sky, and the woods beckoned us forwards.
With my longer legs, I found it slightly easier to get through the deep snow and so I uncharacteristically led the way, creating a path for Jen so she would have a bit of an easier time. We looked all around us for evidence of life, but it seems all the creatures were still asleep or hanging out elsewhere – not a single track disturbed the pure white blanket all around us. We wandered for an hour, trying to follow what we felt like was a very faint path that was slightly indented in the tall snow – or perhaps it was an illusion and we were just forging our own. Regardless, we stumbled upon some interesting structures, likely belonging to the camp that the map shows nearby.
After our adventure, we went back to the cabin to warm up, have a snack, and then head out to Jen's car. The snowstorm had partially covered the vehicle, and the snowplow had done the rest – three sides of the car were almost completely snow-covered! We got to work with our shovels and spent about an hour digging the car. Back home this would have quite annoyed us, but since we were on vacation it just added to the fun adventure! Getting the car out was complicated by the layer of thick ice under the wheels that kept the wheels spinning, but we persevered and finally, exhausted and wet and cold but elated, the car was free! We high-fived, and headed into the little cabin to have a well-deserved late lunch.

Algonquin was the adventure for the next day, and headed out to the Visitor's Centre which was about an hour's drive from the cabin. We checked in with staff to see which trails were open and accessible, and spent some time watching the winter birds at the feeders out back before heading out to the snowshow trail.

The trail we had chosen was moderately challenging for a snow-shoe hike, and we went slowly but steadily forward through the trees, thankful for the well-packed trail that we could follow.
The trail was a beautiful winter wonderland, and our slow pace allowed us to take it all in even more. Being present in each moment (mindfulness) is always so much easier for me when I am away from the fast-pace of every day life. Here, in these silent woods, it's so much easier to let my body settle into the way the deep green needled branches hang heavy with snow; let the soft dee-dees of chickadees all around us consume my hearing; let the cold air fill my lungs.

My personal and work life may currently be in an extreme state of anxiety-inducing chaos, but here, in these woods, in this moment, looking out over the white, grey, blue, and green of the ravine and the frozen river below, I have a small reprieve from that. Those things are not here. Only this moment, this breath, is.
No winter Valentine's week adventure is complete without a fancy dinner, and Alton Brown's delicious Steak-au-Poivre recipe, paired with garlic-parmesan mashed potatoes and gently steamed green beans, did not fail to disappoint.
We drank wine, sat by the gas fireplace playing board games, and adapted quickly to the slower rhythm of a snowy winter getaway. We couldn't have picked a more perfect cabin, with the beautiful frozen lake right outside our window and very lovely hosts who even offered to mail our forgotten lens cap back home to us! Another place to add to our list of places to return to when we don't have time to venture too far from home.
Mystery large animal tracks (?) the frozen lake

View from the cabin at frozen Golden Lake during the snow storm

Friday, October 5, 2018

Africa Blog Posts

Africa: Day 1
Nairobi, Kenya: Day 2
Journeys through rural Kenya: Day 3
Tanzania: Day 4
The Serengeti: Day 5
The Serengeti and a hot air balloon ride: Day 6
Leaving the Serengeti: Day 7
Ngorongoro Crater: Day 8
Back to Nairobi & Flying to Zambia: Days 9 & 10
Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe: Day 11
Devil's Pool & a Sunset Cruise on the Zambezi, Zambia: Day 12
Botswana - Chobe National Park: Day 13
Leaving Africa, acclimatizing in London, and bringing it all home: Days 14-17

Choir Tour Posts 2012 & 2014: Austria, Germany, Italy, Netherlands

The sounds of Salzburg
Singing Bruckner in Austria
Last Day in Austria

Reflections from the plane: Choir Tour Day 1
Wandering Venice: Choir Tour Day 2
Singing in Basilica di San Marco: Choir Tour Day 3
Last day in Venice and concert at San Palo church: Choir Tour Day 4
The Thomaskirche (Leipzig Germany): Choir Tour Day 6
Singing in Leipzig: Choir Tour Day 7
Bachfest Leipzig 2014: Choir Tour Day 8
Goodbye Bach, Hello Buxtehude...: Choir Tour Day 9
Performing Sunday service in the Marienkirche - Choir Tour Day 10
Striving for Perfection: Choir Tour Day 11
Performing in Martinikerk in Groningen, Netherlands : Choir Tour Day 12
Last concert in Amsterdam: Choir Tour Day 13

Portugal Blog Posts

On the way to Portugal: Introduction
Day 1 - Quinta da Regaleira
Day 2 - Cabo da Roca & Praia da Ursa
Day 3 - Moorish Castle and Palace of Pena
Day 4 - Batalha & Tojal
Day 5 - Nazaré
Day 6 - Coimbra & Conímbriga
Day 7 - Peneda-Gerês
Day 8: Porto
Day 9 - Serra da Estrela
Day 10 - Évora & the Cromlech of the Almendres
Days 11 - 13: The Algarve (Benagil & Marinha beaches, Sagres, Cape St. Vincent, and Odeceixe)
Day 14: Lisboa de mil amores (Lisbon of a thousand loves)
Day 15: Last Day in Lisbon, & Saying Goodbye to Portugal
Route map - coming soon!

Links to all Iceland blog entries

Day 1: Reykjavik 
Day 2: The Golden Circle
Day 3: South Iceland
Day 4: Skaftafell / Vatnajökull National Park
Day 5: Ice & Mountains: East Iceland
Day 6: Djupivogur & East Fjords
Day 7: Northeast Iceland & Myvatn
Day 8: Trolls, Caves, & Craters: North Iceland
Day 9: Siglufjordur & Hofsos
Day 9 Addendum: Campervan Living & Aurora Borealis
Day 10: North Iceland
Day 11: West Iceland
Day 12: Snaefellsness Peninsula
Day 13: The real magic of Iceland
How much does it cost to go to Iceland?
Detailed map of our driving route with all the campsite stops

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Backcountry trip log: North Tea Lake (August 5 - 7 2018)

Solitude is not lonely.  It is rich, teeming.  The wind rushing through the tops of the evergreens.  The small splashing laps on the granite shores.  The warmth of a rock underneath me . The haunt of a loon's cry from across the lake.

These sounds are not only company in this otherwise human-less place, but they are souvenirs.  I tuck them into my mind, one at a time, until I am sure they are fully secured for the long journey home.


Ready to set out on
Kawawaymog Lake
After a long drive from Toronto and a night spent in North Bay, we were on the water, canoe fully packed, by 10:30am.  The paddle across Kawawaymog Lake started off quietly; the lake was mostly still.  However, as we got farther into the open water, the winds picked up and soon we had some white-capping waves hitting parallel to the boat.  Instead of continuing in a straight line towards the river mouth we were heading to (Amable du Fond), I steered us in a zig-zag fashion across the lake instead, in order to avoid the dreaded waves hitting parallel to the boat.  It took us roughly an hour to paddle the 2km of Kawawaymog in this fashion.

We were rewarded by a long, leisurely paddle of almost 4km in the Amable du Fond River.  This narrow river twists and turns almost constantly, meandering through tall grasses, lily pads, the occasional duck family, and a backdrop of tall evergreens.  The paddle is almost completely silent.  Despite it being a long weekend, there is a surprising lack of people, for which are are grateful.  We especially enjoy the sight of frogs resting with their eyes just above the water.  The pairs of round yellow watching us curiously as we paddled through their home keep us company.

Finally, we reached our first portage.  It was a short one (65m), but the very first one we had ever done.  We managed to flip the canoe over our heads and I held it stable while Jen arranged herself under the yoke.  Then I walked over to the front to keep it steady, and up the hill we went, carefully stepping around tree roots, rocks, and steep sections.  At the top, it was a very short walk back down to the water.  It took us a couple more trips to retrieve all our gear and re-load it into the canoe.  In total, it took us 25 minutes - a little slow, but not bad for our first one - and highly satisfying!
Paddling on Amable du Fond River

Some of the stairs at the second portage
After another section of river paddling, we soon approached the second portage.  This one had a pretty little waterfall rushing over the rocks and boulders.  We balked a little at the sight of the long wooden staircase - we were supposed to carry a canoe up that?! - but got to work and somehow (with some stops, bangs, and hastily shouted instructions to each other) managed to get the canoe up the stairs, through the short hike in the woods, and down the stairs on the other side of the falls.  The gear was next, and after all was said and done it took us 25 minutes to do this longer portage of 255m.  I'm hoping this means we're getting the hang of it!

Paddling North Tea Lake
The end of this portage brought us to North Tea Lake.  We had reserved 2 nights on the West Arm of this lake, so we set about paddling and looking for a free campsite (you don't reserve a specific site, you just get access to whatever site is available on the lake you've reserved).  We decided to check out the first small island we saw, but unfortunately there was already a canoe there, so we continued our paddle in search of another site, probably one of the ones on each of the shores.

As we were wondering whether to go to the north or south shore, the winds picked up considerably, and soon we were paddling through white-capping waves that were lifting us up and down like a toy boat on a raging sea.  When you're in the back country, you're on your own.  If you get into trouble or the dreaded flip happens, there's no one around to rescue you, or even notice.  So I made a beeline for the nearest land we could safely get to, a large island with several campsites marked on the map.  I managed to steer through the waves and winds enough to get us onto shore in one piece, but it wasn't a great landing spot and in order to minimize the risk of damaging the boat we didn't pull it all the way up onto the rocks.  We sat on the rocks and held onto the canoe that was being pushed and pulled by the waves, trying to angle it so not too much water would get inside, while we looked at the map and tried to get our bearings.

Walking on uneven rocky shorelines is a recipe for me spraining my very weak ankles, so Jen walked carefully on the rocks and around the corner of the island while I stayed with the boat, hoping to find a vacant campsite somewhere on the other side.

She eventually returned.  No campsite, but she did think it might be possible for her to walk the canoe through knee deep water around this side of the island and bring it to the calmer waters she had seen around the corner.

I carefully followed along on the rocky shore (hiking boots firmly on my feet), occasionally orienting the end of the boat for her as she persistently walked the boat through the disorienting waves, while also walking on uneven rocks she couldn't see under the water.  Somehow, she made it around the corner.

We found a campsite!

The other side of the island was like a different world - a flat still lake with barely any wind.  Relieved, we hopped back into the boat and continued our search for a campsite.  Thankfully, we didn't have to go too far.  We soon approached another small island - one of the only two in the West Arm of Tea Lake that had a single campsite on it.  Miraculously, it was unoccupied - we'd gotten our own private island after all.  It was 4:30pm - we'd been paddling for 6 hours and were exhausted.  We quickly pulled ashore, got the gear out of the boat, and rummaged around for our tiny campstove, a pot, and the coffee grinds.  Priorities!
Making coffee

After the day's exhaustion, sitting on our own little island, surrounded by pine trees and silence, looking out at the pale blue water, it was probably the best cup of coffee I'd ever had.

Camp didn't take us very long to set up, and soon after I was in the water for a swim.  I took our empty water container with me and swam out to the middle of the lake for some clean water, and then brought it back to camp so we could put our water treatment tablets in it.

It's incredible that so much wild, natural beauty still exists in Ontario.  This is worlds away from car camping, where you are packed into small spaces of green alongside so many other people, and the wildness is only an illusion due to the presence of park rangers and your own vehicle right beside you.  Car camping of course has its place, but it isn't this.  This utter aloneness, freedom, and just a touch of anxiety and thrill at knowing you're completely dependent upon your self for survival.

After preparing dinner, we carried it over to a nice lookout rock on the tip of the island.  There is a short path that cuts through the trees and involves a climb over a large fallen tree (which is awkward at best when you're just going for a walk over there, and considerably moreso when you're carrying your dinner and a camp chair.
Enjoying dinner on the tip of the island

Camp dinner

We set up for dinner on the rock, and looked out at the sunset while enjoying our meal of egg noodles, alfredo sauce, re-hydrated vegetables, fresh yellow bell pepper, and diced pepperoni sticks (I always try and make sure we have a fresh veggie and a protein source in all our meals).  We couldn't see or hear anyone else.  It was just us, the now calm lake, the island's lone resident red squirrel, and the Song Sparrows flitting in the trees.

Doing dishes, backcountry style
After doing the dishes and packing up any loose ends for the night, we head into our tiny tent by 9:30pm.  Partly because we were so tired and partly because we heard the rumble of thunder in the distance.  A few minutes later, the storm starts.

We huddle in the dark as the wind whips around us.  I clutch onto the fly through the mesh of our dome tent, perhaps irrationally worried it isn't attached securely enough and that the wind will rip it away.  The thin tent material flaps wildly in the strong winds, and then the rain starts - pellets of intense water hitting us from all sides.  Somehow, my little $30 tent doesn't have a single leak.  The thunder and lightning are happening simultaneously, so we know the storm is directly above us. 

It makes one feel very fragile, sitting in a pitch-black tent, while all that protects you from the wild winds, the flashes of light in the sky, the cracks of loud thunder, and the endless rain, is a thin piece of grey and blue fabric.  Nevertheless, there's also a thrill in it, sitting and waiting out a wild storm, completely alone on an island, at least a 6 hour's paddle from any sort of civilization.

When there's a pause in the rain and wind, I can hear the piercing call of the loon echoing across the lake.

After about an hour the storm passes, and we sleep, only to be woken a few hours later by another, even more intense storm.


After tossing and turning most of the night, we eventually end up in some sort of sleep, and make our way out of the tent around 10am.  Breakfast is instant pancake mix with dried blueberries mixed in, and a little container of maple syrup. And, of course, coffee. "What's the plan for today?" Jen asks.  "Nothing!" I reply back cheerfully. 

Morning sunrise

The resident red squirrel

And that's exactly what we did.  Every muscle in our bodies was sore due to the previous day's hard paddling and portaging, so we enjoy just sitting and looking at the lake.  I sit on a rock and write in my journal, Jen dozes in the sun.  Later I go for another swim in the cool water.  The day is cloudy but humid, and the lake feels incredibly refreshing.  I try and memorize this moment - the stillness of the lake punctuated by the ripples from my breaststroke, the surrounding forests of green, the reflections of the clouds on the water, the sight of Jen sitting in a navy blue campchair perched on the pink and moss-green coloured rocks at the tip of our island.  And the silence.  Always the silence.

Later in the afternoon, we put up a tarp because we could see it might rain again.  It did, but no storm this time.  It was relaxing to just sit under our makeshift shelter, look out at the lake, listening to the pitter-patter of raindrops, watch our resident little squirrel run around, and just be.

Going for a swim
Our rain shelter

Even though there was a fire ban, who says we can't
practice using our new fold-able saw,
even if we can't actually burn the wood?

Blogging, back country style


Writing, especially publicly, is difficult.  I often wonder who I am writing for - who is the "reader", or the "listener"?  I think here, in this virtual space, I am mostly writing for myself.  I am trying to capture certain moments in detail, so I can preserve the feelings associated with them.  But I think there is simultaneously another listener I write for - you, whoever you are.  A person who either can relate to these experiences and wants to read about them from a fresh perspective, or someone who will never have these particular experiences simply because of a different, no less meaningful life journey, and reads these posts in order to be brought to different places and experiences.

I know there are plenty of other reasons people stumble upon these virtual pages and read these words, but I cannot possibly write for all.  The meaning I make of my experiences is entirely my own, and that is the difficult part of being a writer.  Writing carries with it a certain level of power; an almost pre-supposition from the Reader that what the Writer is saying is "right" or "true".  I make none of these claims - I only try and capture what I feel I need to, in the way I that I feel is the most meaningful for me at the time.  Why do it in a public space, then?  I'm not sure.  Perhaps because we all need some form of social sharing, and I've never been much good at speaking.  Or perhaps because it keeps me accountable; forces me to put coherent frames around my experiences which is not only a benefit to the reader but also to myself.

But, I digress...


After our wonderful day of doing nothing on our private island, we again went to bed early, this time sleeping a little better.  We woke the next morning at 6:30am, had breakfast, and packed up camp while drinking our coffee.  By 8:30am we were on the water.  We had looked at the map the night before and decided on the best route back, depending on the wind.  Thankfully, the early morning start meant very little wind, and we paddled easily across North Tea Lake back to the first portage, with only a little headwind slowing us down in the middle.

It didn't take us much less time to complete either portage, but at least we felt like we were getting more fluent at the whole process.  We even managed to take all our gear in one trip this time, rather than going back and forth.
Leaving our campsite

Our campsite, all packed up

The day had started off cloudy and a little cool, but soon the sun was out and keeping us warm, while the occasional breeze made it very comfortable.  Unlike our first day, the humidity was gone, so that was a relief as well.  We paddled back along the Amable du Fond River, enjoying the solitude (that was occasionally interspersed by a canoe or two passing by this time).  We didn't speak much, just paddled, looked for frogs, and enjoyed how far we still were from noisy city life.

We reached the mouth of the Kawawaymog Lake and rather than stopping for a rest, decided to just paddle through for the home stretch.  There was a strong headwind but at least we were paddling directly at the small waves, so no need to zig zag across the lake this time.  We paddled almost perfectly in a straight line until we finally reached the dock at Access Point #1, where our car was.  The whole trip was just over 4 hours - we'd shaved off 2 hours from the way there.  What a difference the wind and weather can make!

As we pulled the boat onto the dock and unloaded the gear, Jen and I high-fived each other.  "We did it!"  Backcountry trip #2 is under our belt.  Slowly we're gaining experience.
Using a Life Straw to drink
directly from the river

I already can't wait to go back.  There's something about the demanding physicality of it that is incredibly meditative.  When all you have to focus on is getting through the basics of the day - food, water, shelter, transportation, warmth, safety - there isn't much space for anything else.  My mind, having such functional and vital necessities to focus on, has little room for function-less anxiety or wandering. 

Amable du Fond River
Simultaneously sensing both how strong and how fragile you really are is somehow not frightening but a kind of joy.  This sort of mindfulness presence to every moment is something I've been trying to learn for years, and have been focused on even more intently as of late.  I sat on our rock at the tip of our island one evening at dusk, and tried to focus on the sound of waves lapping the shore - there were three patterns I could hear simultaneously.  Every once in a while random thoughts would float through my head, but I'd try to just notice them and then let go of them.  Immerse myself in the sounds of the water.

For I knew that, once I was back home, sitting in front of this computer screen, that I'd need to be able to close my eyes and remember it again - not only the sounds, the sights, or the feelings - but the stillness.

The best kind of souvenir.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018


I baked myself a cake
the way you would have.

I didn't realize what I was doing at first,
as I grated the beets,
purple juices staining my hands.

I remember the first time you made it;
we were both amazed by the pink batter,
and equally as surprised when it came out of the oven
a different colour, no pink remaining.

I thought of that as I pulled my own cake out,
chocolate brown and steaming.

As I shook the rainbow sprinkles over top,
I realized I was mothering myself;
replacing your absence with an unconscious recreation of
birthdays past.


Who am I to you now -

A cake you painstakingly baked,
only to pull it out of the oven and see it didn't come out
as you expected;
all the pink gone?