Thoughts from a Canadian portage…. (and an Ode to Killarney)
Like so many summer past, this last weekend I had the glorious opportunity to portage* through some of Ontario’s beautiful lakes. I’ve been waiting for this particular trip to Killarney Provincial Park for over a year – home of the beautiful white quartz cliffs, and about 5 hours north of Toronto on Georgian Bay of Lake Huron. Last year, I made the assumption that I could book a site several months in advance, but was spurned at my attempts (we Canadians are voracious about our portage fantasies in the deep of winter and book asap), so this year I booked well in advance. And it was completely worth it….!
Paddling through glassy (sometimes rather windy) lakes, watching the tree-lined horizon slip past you, hearing the call of the loon and the gliding of the canoe atop water marsh lily pads, watching the flight of the great blue heron…. It puts you in such a peaceful state of mind. With each paddle stroke, my memories of the city, of work, of bills, of careers, of chores, it all melted away. Tangentially, portaging also makes me feel as if I have a slightly better understanding of the First Nations people of this region, and how they lived much more harmoniously with these great waters and forests, and all life within them. I feel connected to their understanding, however lacking in erudition I am on their history and culture.
When you are able to sleep under the yawning Milky Way outlined by a silhouette of trees, with evening story-telling around a fire (and also when you have to battle the elements, colloquially known here as ‘skeeters’ and ‘damn deer flies’), you start to reflect upon life back ‘home’. The sterile rooms, the soft cushioning, smoke-bellowing industries, instant hot water/electricity, and concrete everywhere, not to mention the internet – it seems so far removed from the life we lived upon the shorelines of Killarney’s lakes for a few brief days. Bathing in Killarney meant scampering down the rocks for dips in the lake, heating meant harvesting wood and stacking piles of kindling from the forest floor, ‘toilets’ required no flushing (just careful checking for critters). Granted, we packed our food, but we made good attempts to harvest blueberries and even caught a few fish, and filtered lake water directly for drinking.
Deep in the recesses of nature, hours can be spent sitting on a rock staring at the water. Or lying in the sand, watching the clouds. Whatever it may be. And unlike the city, no one questions your sanity or health when you do so. Some of my hours were spent wondering why our lives in cities are so disconnected from this peaceful state of being in nature. My normal ‘city’ routine is to wake up, splash my face groggily, blend a smoothie and hop on my bike to work, trying to avoid getting run over by speedsters eager to get on the highway and sit in traffic jams, then spend 8 hours in front of a computer before hitting the windowless basement gym to run nowhere on the treadmill, before I finally head home and flop down exhausted on my couch, likely to watch a movie. My days are composed of electronics and convenience from beginning to end…. And despite some good attempts to connect (several community gardens, my own plants, a few cats, trips to the woods and waterfront, etc.), I am not connected with Nature the way I should be. There are literally a series of constant walls between my body and the breathing, pulsating course of life on Earth.
Why have we created these cities like this? Walled up, separated from nature and each other? Solitary cubes of loneliness and depression? I’m intrigued by the concept I read recently by an architect who wanted to design cities to have nature integrated, not separated and shoved out (their name escapes me). Why do we accept the concrete jungle when it is so obvious all you need for peace is food, shelter, warmth, health, and time alone to watch the clouds and stars move rhythmically in the dance of the universe, as they always do?
What worries me most, is when people don’t understand the pull of the wild, and so they don’t want part of it, no longer yearn for it. Some part of me fears for a humanity where millions flood into the city every day as we destroy the balanced ecosystems of Nature, and where people are born and raised in but have never left the city. Have never broken out of their comfort levels and thrust themselves into the temperamental beauty of nature, left with only what they know and how prepared they are. Where illnesses of the body, mind, and heart resulting from these social structures tear through the fabric of our species. I fear a humanity where people do not learn the lessons that are freely available throughout nature, given enough time and contemplation. Granted, we have created our own system, but it seems so disconnected from the flow of Nature. The laws of nature always lead to balance, and balance always leads to peace. So why have we these built walls? And how do we break them down? I’d recommend starting with a Killarney portage if you can…..
*For those of you who don’t know, portaging is the act of carrying your canoe across land where waterways are impassable or simply not connected. This can be as short as a couple hundred metres, or as long as several kilometres or more.