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A few years ago, I found myself fumbling my way through a dark forest. I wasn’t lost, I was just trying to get to the viewing platform over Lake of the Clouds in Michigan’s Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. Dissatisfied with my daytime pictures of the lake, I thought I should come and photograph it at sunrise.
It seemed like a fabulous idea in the light of the day, but I wasn’t so sure about that as I stood at the edge of the forest wrapped in predawn darkness. I tried a flashlight, hoping it would make me feel safer, but instead I felt more exposed and vulnerable – a shining blob amid the shadows. It seemed better to merge with the forest, be less conspicuous, become one with the trees, so I turned off the light and let my eyes adjust to the dark.
After a while, silhouettes of trees and bushes started to come into focus like a Polaroid photo developing, fuzzy at first, then more distinct, and I resumed my walk, probing the ground for roots and rocks.
The trail from the parking lot to the Lake of the Clouds viewing platform is no more than a couple hundred metres, but on that August morning it gave me enough time to go from panicking that there might have been no living soul for miles around to wishing that were actually the case.
When I reached the platform I scanned the horizon.
The mountains were breathing softly, bathed in the crisp morning haze. The forest below me was thick and black, ripped in half by the winding Big Carp River. The surface of the lake was smooth, polished glass.
The sky was inky blue and only a thin strip of grey light above the mountain line in the east betrayed the upcoming sunrise.
I set up my tripod, snapped a few pictures of the lake and mountains, moved the tripod around and took more pictures. The strip of light had acquired a telling, slightly orange hue, but the actual sunrise was still some time away. So I prepared for a long wait with no one but mosquitoes to keep me company.
It seemed like too much trouble to go to for a picture, considering I am not a professional photographer and the photo would go no further than my wall. But that moment was about more than just a perfect shot. Like all our nature adventures, it was about a search for solitude and tranquillity, those rare moments when you are not surrounded by people, when you don’t have to fight traffic noise to listen to a bird in a tree or block out digital noise just to hear your thoughts.
Our family is often asked why we spend so much time camping, backpacking and canoeing. Sometimes people go into a laundry list of camping dangers and challenges: mosquitoes, bears, heat, cold, hard ground, hard work. Occasionally, they assume it’s the boys who like that kind of stuff and that I just tag along out of solidarity.
I have all sorts of answers. I have my own counter-list of all the camping benefits, from better physical and mental health to stronger family bonds and increased appreciation of nature.
I also have my cost-efficiency arguments: For the price of a one-week vacation at a Caribbean resort we can spend four weeks travelling around Canada or the United States. Yes, it means living in a tent for a month and cooking your meals over a fire, but think of all the places you get to see.
Sometimes I tell stories of my childhood spent at my grandparents’ village in Ukraine and my school hiking trips to the Carpathian Mountains with our homeroom teacher and frame my need for nature as a yearning for those early experiences of barefoot freedom and unbound joy.
In my more poetic moments, I think there are parts of me scattered around woods and mountains, etched into cliffs and dissolved into streams and I am bound to roam the world trying to collect them all. But as I do so I also leave parts of me behind, sprouting roots every step of the way, thus creating a never-ending process of merging, entangling, connecting with nature.
On that August morning above Lake of the Clouds, I felt the pull more strongly than ever. It was as if thousands of gossamer threads ran from my fingers, toes and the top of my head, connecting me to trees, mountains and the sky above. Without my everyday life claddings, I felt the boundary between me and the world erode, dissolve and disappear. I was part of the world, but I also had the world inside me, suspended, mere seconds before the sunrise, about to witness the beginning of time.
The sun peeked above the horizon shortly after 7. The big red orb inched its way into the sky, first cautiously, almost reluctantly, as if doing it for the first time. And then, a few seconds later, it catapulted from behind the mountains right into the bright orange abyss. More people showed up on the platform, turned toward the sun like sunflowers and started snapping pictures. One woman next to me paused for a second, captivated by the sight, turned and said: “Too bad more people aren’t here to see it.” I nodded in agreement, and we both turned back toward the sun, pulled in by its magic.
Oleksandra Budna lives in Toronto.