Saturday, October 14, 2017

Beyond the Giant - Wild Ontario

Starry skies.  Huddled around the fire pit.  Silver moon peeking through tall evergreens.

And the silence.  It is endless.  Fills me up and clears everything else out.  There's nothing but this moment.

Moonrise viewed from the cabin

Starry night sky.  The best my camera could do.
The first time I came here, 7 years ago, I was running.  Not really away from anything specific.  I just knew that I needed to go as far away as I could from everything, just for a little while.  I had vague plans of roaming around Ontario, but did realize that I needed a place to start.

I flipped through my various stacks of promotional Ontario pamphlets.  Nothing seemed right.  But then, a photo of a cabin nestled in the trees caught my eye.  Beyond the Giant Nature Retreats.

A train ticket to Sudbury was bought; then a bus ticket from there to Thunder Bay.  I had called the owners to confirm there was space available, and asked how I could get there from the bus station - a bus, a taxi?  "We'll come pick you up!" they said.

A few days later I was boarding a train.  The province sped by me like a reel of film.  Trees, lakes, rocky outcrops.  Eventually, dark, starless skies.  I slept.


5 am.  The train pulled into the empty station.  I disembarked, disoriented, only half-awake.  The early-June air was cool, the sun barely just risen.  The train left.

I was alone, a tiny island platform with forest everywhere.

As I waited for a taxi to the Greyhound station, a sudden melodic piercing melody came out of the trees.  Seven or eight notes; haunting and beautiful. A similar, mirror-like melody seemed to respond.  Back and forth, this mysterious call and response continued.  I was convinced someone was playing the flute, hidden in the woods somewhere beyond my sight.  I sat, enthralled.

At some point a taxi must have arrived and taken me to the bus station, but that memory has not stood the test of time.  All that remains is that achingly beautiful morning serenade, back and forth, back and forth... some part of me remains there still, caught in a time loop, neither coming nor going, just being.

Cedar Cabin

The cabin itself was a cozy, wooden log hideaway, nestled perfectly in the trees; Lake Superior's shore was at my doorstep.  Stairs led up to a loft with a comfortable bed and a sliding screen door to a porch where I could stare out at the lake.  Not a human presence in sight.


Sunrise viewed from bed

It was the silence I fell in love with.  I don't think I had ever known true silence until that moment.

At first your ears strain, confused, scanning and searching for faint sounds of cars, phones, humans.  The little things that are your usual background noise, typically imperceptible until you experience their absence.

The silence is so all-encompassing that it takes up space.  It's a distinct presence that fills you.  Suddenly, all other sounds become more vivid - a leaf trembles, and you hear its whisper.

Mergansers quietly glide by, and you turn at the barely imperceptible sounds of disturbed water.  And somewhere across the bay, the melancholy sound of the loon breaks the quiet.

It was the first time I'd ever heard a loon.  I believe I cried.

The silence, and the world that revealed itself to me from within the silence, consumed me and I gave myself fully to it.  It healed some part of my mind I hadn't even known needed healing.
Cabin viewed from a canoe

Deer & 2 little ones, peeking through the grass

I ended up staying a week.  Life has a way of making you stay in the spots you need to, no matter how much you plan otherwise, and this was no different.  My first day, the shore beckoned me so much that I took a long, slow walk on the meandering, extremely rock shoreline... and I sprained my ankle.
View from the cabin

Miraculously, the walkie talkie they had given me was still within reach, and soon a land rover was bounding down the shore, lake and rocks and all, to come rescue me.

I spent the next few days on crutches, sticking close to the cabin and enjoying the simple beauty of my secluded cabin near the lake.  They went out of their way to help me, from taking me grocery shopping after I realized I'd have to extend my stay, to driving me with them to tour the area and see places like the Silver Islet community and the spectacular Thunder Bay Lookout.

Thunder Bay Lookout in the fall

View from the Thunder Bay Lookout (spring)

Eventually I was able to move around with just a hiking stick, but the canoe was my real method of freedom.  I had no need of feet or ankles to get around that way, and I reveled in the wild aloneness that is solo paddling Lake Superior.  I made it all the way to a small, deserted island after hours of paddling (and back!) - no people, no sounds, just me and the lake.  I felt so small as I looked around. 
Endless water.  Endless trees.  A small little island in the distance.  And me.


After I returned home, my dreams were full of the sounds and sights of this beautiful, wild corner of Ontario I had discovered.

And that mysterious melody I had heard?  It had followed me to the cabin, and I had heard variations all around me.  Turns out it was the sweet song of the White-throated Sparrow.  To this day, every time they migrate through Toronto, for a brief few weeks I hear their song and it never fails to transport me back to that beautiful, wild north.
White-throated Sparrow

I've been back four other times since then.  The silent wild beauty of this place, coupled with the immense kindness and thoughtfulness of its owners, has made it a place that I know I will periodically and indefinitely return to.

I have a passionate love for ALL of Ontario, yes - but there's nowhere else I have been in this province that has captured my heart so thoroughly.


Every subsequent visit has only deepened my love for this silce of Ontario's near-north.  I remember once, after I returned from my third visit (alone), a friend asked me what I did in the cabin, when I wasn't out hiking or canoeing; if I'd brought a book, etc.  My response was "nothing," and he said, approvingly, "That's the way to do it."  I had no need of book, or phone, or pen.  I simply... was.

I would boil water, brew a cup of tea, and sit outside on the top deck.  Looking at the still lake.  Feeling the rustle of the wind in my hair.  Listening to the deep quiet.

Slow mornings

View from inside the bedroom looking
out through sliding glass doors

Books, emails, textbooks could wait.  I was here for these wild, solitary moments, and I planned to savor them.


The moods of the lake are many, and the wind catches in unpredictable ways.  I know the landscape well by now, and every hidden boulder under the water, every landmark tree, remains in my intuition and I navigate with relative ease.  My vigilance never ceases, though, as I've been caught out in Superior more than once (solo paddling, at that) in winds and white-capping waves.  The winds change sometimes instantly, and unpredictably.  I never take my eyes off the subtle wave changes, or turn my senses away from the almost imperceptible shifts in wind direction.  These things move through me like a comfortable, familiar pulse, and while I'm very careful, I'm not afraid.  So far, Superior has been kind to me - what I hope is a sort of mutual respect.  (I'm not sure I'll solo a canoe there again for a long time, though, except on the absolute stillest of days).

Me, solo paddling in Lake Superior


One of my favourite places to go is Summer Island.  A little under an hour if you tandem canoe and the winds are on your side.  I've seen a giant Eagle's nest there, complete with a majestic perched eagle.  I've seen a bear hop off the island and swim full across to the peninsula on the other side in under five minutes.  I've seen deer watch me from afar as I beach the boat and sit on the rocky red shore with my picnic lunch.
Summer Island in the distance

This most recent time, J and I paddled there together and crossed to the other side of this little uninhabited piece of land; we sat on driftwood logs as the silence surrounded us, and quietly took in the warm sun and breathed in the crisp October air.  All around us was vast blueness, and far shores of deep green evergreens mixed with bright yellow and white birch.  Not a soul for miles.

Canoe on shore at the remote Summer Island

Bear swimming

Eagle in the giant Eagle's nest on Summer Island


The lovely cabins at Beyond the Giant are within a short drive of their namesake - Sleeping Giant Provincial Park.  Over the years I've done many of the hikes in the park. 

(Images from some of the other hikes in the park) :

Sea-lion formation

Deer and fawn on the trail...
a truly rare, breath-taking sight

Very old Silver Islet cemetery
accessible from a short trail

Another shot of the old cemetery with wooden, engraved headstones
 By far, though, my favourite was the challenging, 22km return trip to the "knees" of the Giant.  This hike is not for the novice or the ill-prepared.  We started at 9am on a cold, mid-May morning.  Sturdy hiking boots, backpacks full of food, water, and a first aid kid, an ankle-sprain bandage (just in case!) and camera, of course.

The start of the hike is not too bad - rocky in places, muddy in others, but mostly level ground.  Eventually, though, the terrain gets steeper and rockier as you climb ever upwards... hours water, we finally reached the top, and the incredible viewpoint was worth every bruise, scrape, and exhausted breath.

Views during the hike to the knees of the giant

On the trail to the "knees" of the Giant
Spectacular view from the end of the trail.

It took us 11 hours, there and back... including the 45 minutes we spent simply enjoying the view from the top.  One of these days, we'll do it again.  For now, it remains my most vividly memorable hike.  Certainly one of Ontario's most stunning.


These days, I take a short flight from Toronto and rent a car when I'm there - no more endless train/bus rides.  It's really surprising how little time it takes to get from the crazy, fast pace of this noisy, overwhelming city, to complete remoteness.

It's hard to capture the spirit of a place in words. All I can say is go there.  You're certain to find something you never even knew you were missing.

The familiar red road that leads to your cabin,
after about a 10 minute drive

Yes, there are bears

Glass of wine by candlelight

Sandhill Crane in a field

Bunnies abound on the trails and roads in Spring

Morning coffee

The Sleeping Giant -
can you see his forehead, eyes, nose, beard, and chest?



  1. Beautiful piece of writing and pictures. We have recently returned from our first adventure at Eagle’s Nest cabin and appreciate the sounds and silence of this truly incredible wilderness area. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment, Susan! So glad to hear you enjoyed your stay up there as much as I always do.

  2. My wife and I returned this afternoon after spending a wonderful, totally peaceful 4 day break from it all. We stayed in the Cedar Cabin, beautiful, fantastic view of the moon rise last night. Bruce and Brenda were great hosts, always available.

    While this was our first trip there, its definitely not our last.

    1. Hello Dan - thank you for your comment! So glad you found some magic there like I have.