Lake Superior Beauty

I grew up surrounded by water. I remember houseboating on the Montreal River when I was young enough that the memory is quite fuzzy, though I recall playing cards and trying to figure out how a vessel could be a boat and a house at the same time. I remember my Dad’s shirt flying off the back of his boat on the same stretch of water, and me thinking it was a duck, much to my mother’s merriment.

When we moved south my father moored his pontoon boat at a marina and we spent summers floating by the Mazinaw Rock in Bon Echo Park, me warily eying Nanabush. Later on, we lived in a house situated high above a lake, 60-something steps down to the water, where I swam, sat on the dock in water shoes, sometimes tried to fish without having to touch the bait, lazed around in the pontoon boat (and one time attempted tubing behind it), and watched our neighbours waterski, back and forth, back and forth, across the tiny lake. I could never figure out why my younger cousins from the city were enthralled with the lake — they had a pool in their yard, which in my mind, was way better.

Mazinaw Lake

We lived close enough to Lake Ontario that it was a commonplace sight, every time we had to do the kind of shopping that required more than a simple grocery store. I celebrated my graduation from high school by cruising the St. Lawrence through the 1000 Islands, listening to the musical stylings of a lounge lizard and eating stuffed chicken.

St. LawrenceIn university I stepped away from water for awhile. I suppose I lived near the Grand River, but I never set sight on it, really. The only way I know it exists is because my bus pass said “Grand River Transit.” In college, though, I found myself back at the water, crossing over the Moira River every time I had to go from my apartment to the bus station, to a restaurant, or anywhere else downtown. Sometimes I would walk along the shore or head out to a Bay of Quinte pier to clear my mind, snapping photos of seagulls and rapids.

Moira River
Now I live a stone’s throw away from one of the many lakes in this area. Every summer we waterlog ourselves, soaking up Pelican, Vermilion, Minnitaki, Abram, Lac Seul.

Two of the places I’ve lived in my life even have the word “Lake” right in them — Pickle Lake, and Marble Lake. I’ve put my feet in the Pacific and the Atlantic, and countless rivers, streams and lakes all across Ontario.

Round Lake-25

But despite all this, my strongest affinity for a body of water does not lie with any of my stomping grounds, past or present — or splashing grounds, if you will. No, the place that tugs at my heart, makes its way into my dreams (which is why I’m writing this) and weaves itself into the narrative of my life is much more vast, more rugged, more beautiful. Lake Superior, Gichigami, has worked itself into my soul (and I’m sure I’m not the only one who has had that happen). There is nothing quite like it.

Lake Superior3
I always urge people who are visiting us, or heading south from here — “Don’t take Highway 11! Take 17 and go through the park!”

Highway 17
Of course there’s a weather aspect to consider, but having suffered through the flat, plain boringness of Highway 11 I think I would rather be fogged out and only catching tiny glimpses of Superior and her bays and mountains and cliffs and shores than hurtling down the longest, most perpetually rocks-and-trees filled highway in Ontario.

Lake Superior2
When I moved here, driving alone from Ottawa up north, the park scared me. I crossed over its boundaries, noting the big brown sign that reads something to the effect of “LAKE SUPERIOR PARK — NO GAS FOREVER” and it was dark and foggy and there was only me and big logging trucks on the road. I didn’t move my head an inch left or right during that drive — I just saw slick roads and steep inclines and my own white knuckles on the steering wheel.

Foggy Highway 17
The next time we took that trip I was on the back of the Goldwing and equally terrified. Matt, naturally, kept turning his head to take in the open-air scenery and I envisioned us careening into one of those beautiful rock cuts. I wish I could go back, with the confidence I have now on the back of a bike, and actually enjoy it a bit more. On our way back through during that trip, it was dark, cold enough that we could feel the temperature immediately rise, thankfully, when we drove between two cliffs, and Matt was falling asleep, so we camped at Rabbit Blanket Lake (which I now know is only 30 kilometres away from Wawa). We had a big fight, and it was freezing, and we were sore and miserable but I still relished the chance to camp in the park.

Every time we go through there it feels like an adventure with some kind of gravity — the trip down to my grandmother’s funeral, when I was driving and desperate to get there fast, held back by the whiteness that enveloped the highway and forced me to wake up Matt to be a second set of eyes for me. The return trip, which is what really cemented my love for Superior — stopping and running our hands over rocks, our feet through sand, dipping our toes and fingers into the water.

Our honeymoon brought us along the other side of Superior, and I couldn’t help but compare and contrast — Canadian Superior is rocky, tough, foreboding. American Superior is sandy, coastal, inviting. But between those two coasts there are ships, sunk down to great depths, smashed open, tipped over in storms, drowning the secrets of mariners along with their bodies. Both coasts have warnings for kayaks and canoes — don’t go out on the open water unless you know what you’re doing. There are lighthouses, harbours of refuge dotting the shores.

USA Lake Superior
I’m campaigning for a real Superior adventure with Matt, one of these days when we find that mythical spare time. Maybe two summers from now. I want to hike on part of the Coastal Trail. I want to camp, this time in a more organized way that doesn’t involve unrolling the world’s thinnest bath towel from the bottom of a motorcycle saddlebag in order to shower. I want to see pictographs, and see the forest divide into two divergent eco-systems. I want to pack a lunch and eat it at Katherine Cove. Maybe we’ll be parents by then and I can pass my Superior love on.

Katherine Cove

In the meantime, I bought myself this little 5×7 from Poppy and Pinecone on Etsy:

Lake Superior

I don’t know where I’ll put it up yet — I hate hanging things just to take them down when we move — but I’ll be happy to see my favourite lake somewhere on my walls.

Two Years in Sioux Lookout

It’s October 29, 2009. I’m up early, having tossed and turned all night in the guest bed at my dad and his partner’s lake house. I get out of bed, take a shower, and try to find room in my stomach for food — it’s hard what with the giant knot in it.

Dad has filled up my station wagon with gas. He’s also helped fill it up with most of my worldly possessions. My keys are on a lanyard so I don’t accidentally lock myself out of the car. I have a map of Ontario in the glove box, even though I’m planning on sticking to Highway 17 for the next 2,000 kilometres or so.

The three of us hug goodbye. It’s no later than 7:30 AM and we’re all supposed to be getting on the road; Dad and Patsy back to Ottawa and me continuing on all the way to a little Northern Ontario town I’ve vowed to call home for the next year. I get in the front seat of the car and realize I can’t see out of the windows and the rearview mirror is useless. I will learn how to back up a station wagon using only my side mirrors very quickly.

Patsy bought me an iPod dock for the car before I left. I plug it in and pull out onto the road behind Dad’s van. Imogen Heap starts playing and I start to cry.

There there baby
it’s just textbook stuff
it’s in the ABC of growing up

We reach the intersection where Dad is turning one way and I’m turning the other. He waves out the window and I honk back, with a heavy heart. I’ve left home many times before, but this time feels… permanent.

It takes all the way to North Bay for me to stop crying. I get out and fill up the gas tank, hit Wendy’s for some food, and realize I’m committed, now. I’ve gone this far and I’m not turning back. I start to feel a bit giddy as I take the Sudbury bypass. The road is open, the sky is clear, and my music is playing. Life isn’t really that bad, I decide. I drive and drive and drive some more. I nearly get lost in Sault St. Marie and the lady at the gas station has to explain how to turn the gas pump on because I’m standing there slack-jawed and confused. I feel like maybe I’m not cut out for road tripping by myself.

I don’t notice any of the Lake Superior scenery. It’s getting dark and I’m sore and exhausted. This is the longest I’ve ever driven a vehicle. This is the longest I’ve ever been in a vehicle alone. I think I see northern lights and get excited but it turns out to be the glow from a paper mill. The Wawa goose is the most glorious site I’ve seen because it means I can finally get out of the car and go pee. I promised my father I would under no circumstances attempt to drive further than Marathon in one day. I consider stopping in Wawa but the hotels all look sketchy and I still have lots of energy. I grab a coffee and get back in the car.

The drive to Marathon is treacherous. It takes longer than it should because fog rolls in that was not there before. If I had known this was going to happen I would have stayed put with the goose, but I’m already on the road, sandwiched between transport trucks, and the winding hills are not getting any less winding. I’m willing to pay any price the man at the Travelodge asks when I finally arrive. Nothing is open. I eat leftover Wendy’s chili and swallow a few painkillers.

I’m up a bit too late in the morning, checking the oil in the car. I was exhausted the night before and accidentally slept in and now I probably won’t get to my destination until dark. The fog from the night before is still hanging around, clinging to the road, and it’s drizzling and cold outside. I drive into Marathon to buy a pair of sweatpants and a coffee. Tim Horton’s has been replaced by Robin’s Donuts and that’s when I know I’m really, really far away from home.

Driving. Driving. Thunder Bay is busy and it’s almost nice to see traffic again. I stop in Kakabeka Falls for gas but I can’t be bothered to get out and look at the falls. More driving. Slow down in Upsala because that’s where the cops will get you — my dad’s warnings echo in my head as I take my foot off of the gas pedal. In Ignace I buy a sandwich and the cashier compliments my tattoo. I know I’m nearing my destination. When I see the sign for Highway 72… I keep driving. I can’t go yet. I’m too nervous.

I drive to Dryden and hit up Walmart for more comfortable clothes. I didn’t pack in a logical way and I have nothing to wear for pajamas. I drive all the way to Minnitaki and buy a pair of sheepskin slippers. I have to get to where I’m going eventually, so I turn around and head down the road. I’m terrified of moose. I’m terrified of this town. It takes forever to get there and the hotel room is even more expensive than it was in Marathon. I don’t have anything to eat but I don’t want to venture out to town to buy anything and besides, it’s pouring rain.

The next day I check out and go to my new apartment to move in. Turns out the landlady forgot when I was coming and it isn’t ready yet. I’m supposed to come back later that day. I drive to Dryden again, in my pajamas, buy magazines at Walmart and read all day in the parking lot in my car. When I return, I’m told I still can’t move in and I’ll have to find somewhere else to stay for the night.

I try to call my Dad but my cell phone stopped working somewhere around Nipigon. I can receive calls but I can’t make them, so I text him to call me. I get about three words in and burst into tears, homeless, homesick, and broke. I check into a different hotel and Dad tells me where he hid the champagne in my car. I drink it from the bottle while lounging in the discoloured bathwater in my hotel room, reading the book of Mormon because there isn’t anything else in the room.

Halloween. I wake up dejected and spend the day eating chocolate covered banana chips that I bought in Ottawa and a few green apples I had stashed in the car. I watch scary movies and wonder what, exactly, I’ve got myself into. I finally get to move into my apartment later that day. It doesn’t have a stove and there are random frozen fish stockpiled in the freezer, but I can finally hang my pictures on the wall and unpack my car.

I go to work the next day. From my driver’s seat window, I see a guy bounding down the stairs and think, “Yay! I get to work with a boy!”

The rest, as it’s said, is history. I settle into work. I move four more times. I go on a date with the boy from work. I fly in a few bush planes. I get stuck in lots of blizzards. I travel, in all directions, even further north. Even further north than highways exist.

I witness real northern lights, not tricky paper mills. I witness the most glorious sunsets I’ve ever seen.

I fish. I snowshoe. I lose track of all the animals I’ve seen — moose, bears, a few beavers, a lynx, a handful of wolves, deer… I cook Thanksgiving dinner in a former Mennonite school on a gas stove. By myself.

I celebrate birthdays, Christmases, and life. I make friends. People say hi to me in the grocery store. I survive not just one winter, but two. Two summers, two springs and two falls. I trade the station wagon for something a little more rugged, with an actual block heater and four-wheel drive.

I fall more in love than I ever thought I could. I stop running away from life and embrace it instead. I stay. I don’t leave. I’m here.

Happy anniversary to me.