Reflections on the North

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Just another sunset, never boring.

My time in Northwestern Ontario is drawing to a close. Well at least for the summer months. Today marks the last day of school and in the next 72 hours we’re I’m making the long journey back to Southern Ontario. There is not much left to do here but to reflect on it all, the last six months in the wilderness, living in a isolated fly-in community of about 700-800 people. Living and teaching up here has been like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. I’ve meet some fantastic people and I’m looking forward to what the next school year has in-store but at the same time I’m a little hesitant, the next time I return I’ll be here for the whole year. A year is a long time…

Above are a few select shots of where I’m living, it’s quaint and secluded to say the least. The roads are raw and bumpy, cars kick up a great deal of dust which can lead to some fantastic pictures in the late afternoon light. With the changing seasons, I’ve seen a whole new side to the North, coming up in the middle of the deep freeze of January, it was all ice and snow, but now it’s a lush green forest the engulfs all. With the melt came one thing that I did not expect, a loss of freedom. When the lakes were frozen and the ice road was open, I could wonder almost freely over the frozen expanses. But since then, the forest has come back to life it has swallowed trails, leaving me with limited paths to trample. Even in the vast emptiness of the northern boreal forest, one can feel constrained, the nature of the land will do that. The thick brush, steep rugged topography of the Canadian Shield and the ever dominant Severn River watershed make it easy to get lost. And I do not want to be lost, not up here, not with the wolves and the bears that seem to be just a short jaunt away in either direction.

The spring as anywhere else has brought colour and live back, replacing the monotones of the winter with a furry of colours. But for where the winter brings along snow-squalls and ice, the spring brings along ravenous hordes of blackflies. There are by far the worst blackflies I’ve ever encountered in my life, they’re the harbingers of misery and despair. Relentless and unwavering in their thrust, they haunt both man and beast. I’ve resorted to going for all my excursions fully clothes regardless of the weather, just trying to stay the inevitable scourge of the blackflies. Spring of course brings more then just pretty flowers and blackflies, the community is currently also infested with puppies. And I mean infested, they’re all over the place. For spring is truly, puppy season in the north.

It’s interesting to look back on ones life and try to figure out who you got to be where you are. I’m obviously living up here due to my work, that should be a simple answer. But as recently as just a few weeks before I arrived here, I never thought I’d ever be in a place this remote and removed. Now looking back, I can’t think of a place I need to be more then right here right now. The job has been challenging but rewarding, the scenery just the same. Today is a bag of mixed emotions, the students are here for a half-day and then it’ll be time to clean up the classroom. Once all of that is done it will be a whirlwind of packing, repacking and the general panic that comes with that sort of thing. Life will once again get uprooted and moved, but only for 10 weeks before the process is repeated again and we’re due to return. I can’t quiet tell if life will be returning to ‘normality’ once I return to Toronto, or if this is now my ‘normality’ and the return to the city will be the disruption to it. Only time will tell.

 

Back-country Camping in Northwestern Ontario

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Sunset far away from anywhere.

Well the first proper camping trip of the season is in the books, saying that it doesn’t really feel like. I guess since I pretty much live in the wilderness right now, doing a 12k canoe paddle and camp from your house doesn’t seem all the impressive. But once you’re out there, that 12k seems like a million miles from home and a lifetime away from comfort. Also paddling large 18-19 footer plastic tubs loaded with gear isn’t the most fun, the two hour plus paddle across open water and between islands wasn’t the most fun, but once we got to where we’re going things got better. We got treated to some amazing views and delicious meals at the end of the day. Each evening concluded with with a steak on the open fire or a fish fry. Life can be really good in the wilderness, you just have to make a hardy meal and reflect on it from time to time.

We camped on a open point near a pair of swift moving rapids, where a good breeze kept most of the black flies at bay, but every time the wind died down they came in with a vengeance. Merciless and soulless are the the black flies, feasting on human flesh and misery, but mostly misery. Since it’s been so cold up here til recently, the flies has been pretty much as bay and even during our time camping they were minimal. But let me tell you even a few black flies can make life very uncomfortable. Regardless of the flies, the location was a good one, in a sheltered bay with fresh running water and plenty of Jack Fish to catch. Living in a remote community can have it’s advantages, for us it was the fact that Victoria Day weekend was also coupled with the local hunting week. So the school was closed and we had plenty of time to choose the best days to head out and camp. To that effect we lucked out, no rain and the warmest days we’ve had so far this year. The sun was great, the views spectacular, the fishing plentiful and the food delicious.

For the most part the trip was a lazy foray into the local wilderness, we stayed close to our site and did not even attempt to tent elsewhere. The sun set’s late up here at this time of the year and the twilight did not ease until well after midnight. In spite of such a late schedule we were treated to a wonderful display of northern light each evening. Abet not a vivid as the winter sky, the hues of greens, pinks and oranges slowly crept and pranced across the northern sky. The loons and wolves filled the nights air with a cacophony of sounds, and the bushes rustled ever so often to incite panic in the tents. Luckily for us we had a dog with it, he’d gnarl and bark something furious at the slightest movement in the distance, while he kept us up at time he also kept us safe. At the end of each night, the poor fella was pooched from all his hard work and would just spend his day sleeping in the shade. His efforts to keep the bears ( or possibly a couple of raunchy squirrels) at a distance did not go unrewarded, he got himself a nice chunk of steak. More photos on my flickr.

Dominican Republic Part 2

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Odd looking Pine Trees… No wait it’s a Palm tree.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here. Too many distractions; report cards, lesson plans, EQAO prepping and computer issues. Ahh the job of being a teacher… But I figured I’d end what I had started earlier, and post some of my favorite pictures from my trip to the Dominican Republic. It was just around two months ago, but it feels almost like a lifetime ago by now. Being in Cabarate was wonderful time, the warmth was well needed, and sadly very brief. But it in the end was not real, it was just a tourist delusion. The tourist opulence is harshly contrasted by the crippling poverty that surrounds it when you leave the main strip. But regardless, it was beautiful all in it’s own way. More pictures on my flickr.

Kiteboarding in Cabarete, Dominican Republic

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Kiteboarding for the first time in over 6 years.

Greetings from somewhere tropical, for this I’ve replaced the Pine tree’s and snow with Palm tree’s and sand. As you may guess the only ice currently in my life is the ice that is in my drink. I’ve escaped the cold harsh climate of Northern Ontario this week and only this week to the sunny Caribbean and I can almost guarantee that mother nature will make me pay for that thrice over. This is my first trip even to the Caribbean islands, kind of strange I guess. I’ve never had the urge to do the touristy thing, but the girlfriend wanted to go and so we went. Luckily for me we’re staying in a self-contained apartment and not a resort so it’s not as crowded.

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Getting a refresher course on kiting from an awesome instructor at Gokite.

So far the weather has been great, the sun has been relentless, and also the water is way saltier then I remember it ever being. The winds have been perfect and there are countless kites up in the air at any given time, kite and windsurfing are a popular pastime around here. And you can get I wanted in on the action. I actually own two kites and a board myself, but my equipment is old and I haven’t flown it in over six years. Luckily for me I got introduced to the good folks at GoKite Cabarete and they set me up refresher crash course, emphasis on the word crash and I did a lot of that.

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A picture of my old (red/white) Gaastra Force kite. Its been a few years and it still sits in my basement.

I personally own two kites, one a 10meter and another an 18meter kite and I got second hand about 9-10 years ago. Never flew them that much, didn’t have the skills to do much with them. But it was a fun time a friend of mine who got me into it used to do, so I followed his lead. Sadly once my friend stopped kiting, so did I. I just didn’t have the skills to do this solo, and never got lessons to progress. So since I was here I figured it was a good choice to give it another go, but with some proper instruction.

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Crashing hard… That’s one of my skills, I’ve never met a kite I couldn’t crash.

This is an amazing sport to try, I’d recommend it to anyone. But beware it’s not cheap (equipment costs thousands of dollars) and it’s not simple. I spent several hours with the instructor reviewing proper kite flying, body dragging and simple board work. There is a lot left to learn and I spent more time drinking seawater then I did riding a board. Luckily for me I had on a PDF and wasn’t able to drown myself, despite my own best efforts. Getting up on the board reminded me of why I used to love doing this so much, there is a freedom to gliding over the water.

The Frozen Kakabeka Falls

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Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park on the side of the Highway 17.

I was here at Kakabeka falls not too long ago, just this past July. This is a relatively small park, located on the side of highway 17 and besides offering a camping option, it’s main draw is the falls. The falls are tall and ragged, they scar the landscape and slowly through the passage of time work their way up stream. During this time of the year with the camp ground closed and the trails disused, the main draw are the massive falls. People pull off the highway and make the short walk to view mother nature at her most primal.

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This little beauty got me to Thunder Bay alive.

Even though I currently reside in Northern Ontario, getting to Kakabeka Falls is no small feat. It involved a small charter plane as seen above and a rental car, also a whole lot of prayer. This was thus far the smallest “passenger plane” I’ve ever flown on. In that little flying tin-can, they managed to fit nine people (eleven if you include the crew) plus all of our gear. The ride was rugged and temperamental, the endless expanse of emptiness played out below us, scenes from Liam Neeson’s move “The Grey” flash through one’s mind. The plane bumps around and the human sardines get ever more compacted in what at times felt like a flying coffin. As the pilot put it so elegantly, we’ve all just meat in a tube, zooming across the sky. I’m sure that he was being sarcastic and attempting to lighten the mood, but those are not comforting words for anyone who fears flying. Not that I fear flying personally, but when you’re skimming low across the sky, being bounced around by turbulence like a pinball in a machine, there are some legitimate concerns to be had. Where is Laim Neeson when you need him? Now to clear something up, I did not take a private charter just to see the falls, even though some might argue it would be worth it. I was scheduled to attend a 3 day education conference in Thunder Bay and I had a spare afternoon to go to Kakabeka Falls for a return visit. The winter scenery does not disappoint even if my recent Camera based accident certainly does.

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I busted one of my main lenses slipping on the ice.

Recently I slipped and fell on my camera, breaking my 18-55mm lens. I knew that walking on the ice roads was a risky proposition and that I was certainly going to pay for it one day. I just didn’t know it would happen slipping on dry land just a few meters from my own front door. So with a 300-400$ lens busted, my workhorse of a lens at that. I’ve been stuck working with my 50mm prime, which I find takes excellent photos but doesn’t give the option of capturing as wide range of shots as I’d like. Below are a few shots from the Frozen falls, my apologies that they’re all cropped pretty tight, it’s the nature of the 50mm prime lens. If you ever get a chance to see Kakabeka Falls, it’s worth it. Anytime of the year, but winter is worth it’s own visit. More photo’s on my flickr account.

Walking on Thick Ice

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Somewhere a few kilometers out on the frozen lake.

Walking on the ice has become a familiar activity, it’s by far the easiest way to get around these parts in the winter. The ice road stretches for miles and it is well maintained, making it an easy trample compared to the knee high snow that engulfs the north during the long winter. Also it feels safer at time, though that safety is fleeting with each incremental rise in the temperature.

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A sign I found recently while on a hike. If there are wolf traps, it can only mean there are wolves to trap.

On a recent outing, I stumbled upon a home made sign concerning wolves and traps as you can see above. Needless to say it does not make one feel safe. I am told there is a relatively large wolf-pack that lives just north of the settlement and they are actively trapped for their fur as one can tell from the sign. The wolves do on occasion skirt the edges of the town, taking stay dogs along the way. The cruelty of nature is never understated here, some die so others may live. Over the last couple of evenings, the nights air has been filled with distant howls and the ever so panicked cries and barks of the local dogs. The wolves are once again near, the dogs know it and want none of it and neither do I. The ice  in this regards seems like a much safer option for a lengthy trample.

The ice road has it benefits, the sunsets are my personal favourite, can’t mention how many times I’ve walked on the ice to be greeted by the most memorizing crepuscular light that breaks through the clouds. With all that beauty comes an element of danger. On more then one occasion I’ve been a mile deep into the road when the ice shifts and expands. The noise send the most deafening chill down ones spine. The ice in places will play tricks on the mind, it transforms for a translucent milky white to a clear glass like structure. The most unnerving sensation fill you when you look down to see the dept of the lake staring up at you. Only reassurance is given by the long snaking fissures in-bedded in the ice, they slither beneath the foot as far as the ice can see. They carve the most intricate marble pattern that reveals the true thickness of the ice.

Northern Lights

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The lights begin to appear in the sky.

There are some things in life that you just have to experience for yourself. For me one of those things has been the northern lights, or Aurora Borealis. They’ve eluded me thus far in my life. But I’d been up here in Northwestern Ontario for a month now and they’ve appeared three times. The first two were not all that impressive, a dull grey haze that slowly slithered just above the horizon. That is until the other night. I got a knock on my door from a co-worker telling the lights are out and naturally I made my way out in to the minus thirty something weather with my camera in hand. That is when nature decided to treat us all to a spectacular light display to rival any fireworks I’ve ever seen. Waved of various hues of green snaked and slithered their way across the night sky. We stood outside for as long as we could handle the frigid weather, watching the solar dance unfold. As per usual more pictures on my flickr.

Life as I know it, in the middle of nowhere

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My view on my evening walks.

Life is truly hitting normalcy, even for the fact that we’re in the middle of nowhere. For miles in all directions there is just hinterlands, vast unconquered acres of woodlands stretch as far as one can see. And in the middle of all of this wilderness; I sit, in a classroom, teaching kids. It’s a strange feeling to be surrounded by pure wilderness on a daily basis and know that all roads leads no where. I’ve walked all option and short cuts in this small town, they all circle around each other. All shortcuts and trails lead to the same place, here. Only on longer snowmobile excursions to go ice fishing do we really leave this area. That is not to say I’m complaining, it’s beautiful here. But I find myself wandering, my legs need it. At times I find myself walking the ice road for no other reason but to gain some distance beneath me. This is a place to feel truly alone, to feel as insignificant at a snowflake in a snowstorm. As I walk the ice road in the frigid weather, it’s easy to forget that I’m not on solid ground. Every so often a large crack in the ice grants me the ever so unsettling reminder that beneath me is a certain doom. This is an unforgiving place, the cold takes no prisoners.

Ice Fishing on Beaver Lake

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I’m in there somewhere.. It was about -32 without windchill. Luckily little windchill was had that day.

So life in the wilderness is slowly moving forward. Emphasis on slowly, time has a different trajectory up here. Time does not seem to move forward at times but sideways. We’ve been experiencing a extra cold snap up here with temperatures dipping close to -50 at a few points. It has really shown me how soft I am, the cold is getting to me. I’m bundled up in multiple layers while the locals seem to be wearing an extra fleece sweater and are scooping ice out of fishing holes with bare hands. So when I agreed to go out for a 10 hour day of ice fishing on one of the coldest days here, I should have known I was in for some real fun.

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The layers I wore to get out ice fishing, four on the bottom and four on the top.

I’ve been ice fishing twice in my life before, but always in a warm hut with the creature comforts most people from southern Ontario like to enjoy when roughing it on the ice. This time around, ice fishing was a whole different animal. After layering up to the max, we got on our snowmobiles (my 1st time riding and driving) and headed out of town into the abyss of hinterlands that engulf this small outpost of humanity in the ever unforgiving landscape. We drove for close to two hours, first traveling on an ice road until we hit a trail and went over a portage. We just kept on driving, and driving, covering what must have been close to 40km to reach what I was told is called beaver lake. The deep freeze was unforgiving and relentless, even with layers upon layers the fingers and toes go numb. Tying hooks and setting lines was a challenge no one wanted to tackle. Also no fancy equipment was needed, no fishing rods, just 6-7 feet of line, hook and a stick broken off from a bush. 

This was possibly the coldest experience of my life, I don’t think I’ve ever been as cold and for as long as I was out on this trip. This fishing was amazing, the fish bit and were pulled out to freeze in the open air in a matter of less then a minute. The fish froze solid after a few flops, I can’t stress that part enough. They froze into motionless figurines in less time then it took to put on a new minnow. The wind had a spiteful tone to it as we broke off for a shore lunch. Cooking sausages on a open fire was a nice touch, plus the heat was a welcome reprieve for frozen fingers and toes. We followed that up with more fishing, and even more cold, until the sun began to set. As the dying light was leaving us, we geared up on the snowmobiles and begun our long journey home. This was the least pleasant part of our day, the journey was long and the extremities were aching. Our snowmobile did not have a working headlight (a common occurrence it seems) and we used the light from a headlamp and the other machine to guide us out through the thick of darkness. There are a few moments in life that I’ve felt true loneliness and desolation. This ride currently tops that list. There was no noise, no life, and no light out in this wilderness. We travel in pitch darkness with nothing but the shimmering stars above us to give hint to our whereabouts. The only noise that can be heard is that of the snowmobiles themselves, when the engines cutout, there is nothing. No dull hum off in the distance, no crackling of shifting ice, no rustling of trees. Just deafening silence, occasionally broken by a racing heartbeat. As my toes and fingers got numb and the cold crept up into the body, the dept of silence and lightlessness begins to frighten. The mind wonders aimlessly through the lurid night. We had driven for what seemed like hours and gotten no where, each turn is the same as the last in the dark. Hope seemed fleeting, our frigid fate undeniable. Then out in the distance, a shining amber orb flashed, the sign of civilization. The navigation light on top of communication tower, seemed as bright as the sun at high noon. Only in the dept of darkness those a place as small as this feel like the biggest of metropolis. I’ve never been so glad to be warm in my life. More photo’s on my flikr.

Somewhere North of Kenora

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Somewhere in the woods of Northwestern Ontario, just behind my new house.

Well we’ve officially been in the woods of Northwestern Ontario for a week. We flew in via Winnipeg (because it’s closer) on the Friday of last week and have since then been consumed with cleaning our new place, getting the heat working, and during daylight hours teaching. So far this has been an adventure! We had to haul some 400+ pounds of luggage through Pearson International in Toronto and pay a ransom in fees to get our stuff flown to Winnipeg. The ordeal doesn’t even include the effort it too to manhandle 5 large 80+ pound bags  into a single cab and then to the hotel. But it was worth, once we arrived in Winnipeg we had sometime to explore the Forks and get a last bit of city life in for the next several months.

We spoiled ourselves in Winnipeg by staying at the Fairmont, if you ever have a chance I personally recommend spoiling yourself in such a manner. It was surprisingly cheap when we were there, and it’s right downtown so it’s a plus for exploring. What we were not expecting was the bone chilling cold of Winnipeg, no wonder they call this place Winterpeg. It was to set a theme for things to come, that is for sure. Sadly this was but a short layover on our journey. In the morning the airline shuttle was there to haul us and all of our gear to a small airport north of Winnipeg. As we made our way to the airport, the city gave way to suburbs and suburbs to farmland. Before we knew it we were at the St. Andrews airport, a swath concrete paved over the endless  expanses of farmland. And there it awaited us; a small 6 person plane that was to take us to our final destination. But not before paying another small ransom in overage fees on the luggage. 

To get a true understanding of the vast emptiness of our country, you must fly over the more remote regions. For the full effect it’s best to not fly in a large airliner but instead a small bush plane. To see the vast expanse of empty uninhabited hinterlands lying beneath you is beyond comprehension. Glimpses of civilization lapse quickly from memory and signs of humanity are fleeting. It fills you with both awe and despair, the mind wonders and a steady tickle of cold sweat besets you. What on earth did we get ourselves into? Why are we moving to a place that is so disconnected? How do you survive cut off from all the things you know and love? Well that is yet to be determined. But once we landed it had finally hit us, this is for real… We’ve moved to a land of lakes, snow and muskeg in January. We’d left Toronto, which the day before our departure was +7 degrees for a place that when we landed was hovering around -30 degrees. We’d left it all to come to a place we’d never seen and to meet people we never spoke to. This is a different world, and it’s just some 2,000km north of Toronto, still firmly in the confines of Ontario’s borders. So far we’ve seen little of it, work has been a priority. But of that which we have seen; it has left us bewildered, awed and stupefied. The temperature has remained consistently between -27 and -32 most of the week thus far. More to come in the near future but until then a few random shots from this week.