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We were three hours outside the city when Dad turned to interrupt me, his eyes narrow with disapproval. “It’s not the forest, Shannon … ” he corrected. “It’s the bush.” He relaxed his gaze and returned its focus to Highway 17.
Dad was driving me, my husband and our two girls into Ontario’s enormous Algonquin Park for a six-night canoe trip. He had agreed to drop us off but declined to join us on the trip, probably because of infractions like this.
Thirty-odd years ago, I would have been scrambling around under some of these bent pines, scaling apartment-sized boulders and rolling across the mossy floors that comprised “the bush.” Back then, the great outdoors wasn’t the heady, noble thing that city folks now devote their after-school clubs or Instagram feeds to. The bush was all there was. But it had been a while, and Dad was quick to remind me.
He signalled left, turned the car off the highway toward Tim Lake and cracked the windows. With each minute, the trees grew closer and the air more wet. Dad braked, wrenching the girls from their video screens. He hopped into the brush, quickly snapped off some twigs and returned to the car. “Yellow birch … ” he explained, handing each girl a sample and saving one for himself. “Taste that,” he said. “Wintergreen.” We didn’t chew on too many plants in the city.
A family paddle along the Nipissing River had been my husband’s wish. While I had vague recollections of cold, slow hours spent in Dad’s canoe waiting for the fish to bite or the pheasant to flush, these trips were new for my husband. An Algonquin Park map had become his latest winter hobby. Every cold Saturday morning that I spent poring over the newspaper, I would find my husband spilling his coffee over some history-steeped river or lake with a quaint name. (“Squirrel Lake! We need to go there this summer.”)
I steadied myself as Dad tore the car around a dusty corner at highway speed. He was slouched, relaxed as ever in his Ministry of Natural Resources ball cap and blue jeans, as he maneuvered the back roads with a story for each kilometre.
“Passed a mountain lion over there once … ” he said, pointing to a scraggly field rife with Jack pines and rotting stumps. "Unbelievable – but I saw it!” The girls were listening now.
Dad spent his working years navigating the provincial parks, lookout towers and forest fires that span the Ottawa Valley. Growing up on Ministry grounds, I spent idle time bouncing on the chain-link ramp that dried the fire hose instead of a trampoline. Where my kids have a manicured community pool and were wary of only losing their swim goggles, I jumped into the Ottawa River off the float plane dock and kept a keen lookout for water snakes.
The dirt road gave way at last to a grassy lot and a small boat launch at the mouth of a creek. We unfurled a jumble of gear into our rental canoe. “Can’t believe you’re not bringing a fishing rod … ” Dad said, with one last disappointed head shake. Then, he and his bush smarts hopped back in the car and drove off.
The crisp spring sun bounced back and forth between the sky and the water. The kids stepped casually into the canoe without bracing their paddles for balance. My husband readied the stern and we plunged our paddles into the bush.
The Nipissing is a narrow, squiggly river that encompasses 20-odd portages of a distance and elevation that you can’t feel when you’re mapping them out over a coffee.
On the third portage of the trip, my husband and the girls had gone ahead of me. With a 60-litre food barrel strapped to my back, one of the girls’ overstuffed bags strapped to my front and our six-person double-room, car-camping tent on my shoulders, I began. As they disappeared ahead, I marched nine metres straight up over craggy rocks, straight down over spring runoffs, and slower back up over fallen trees until finally my heart met my throat so vigorously that I wondered, somewhat seriously, if this is where I would take my final breaths.
I thrust the tent from my neck, shook the remaining gear from my torso and unfurled the map. Our exit from the bush, so many portages away, didn’t even appear. I had to imagine it somewhere to the far right of the paper’s edge.
My city self was ranting wild in my head. “It had been too long since I’d been in backcountry!" “I didn’t have the right stuff in my pack or in my head, I had called it a forest, for crying out loud!”
But then, as I stood sweating and doubtful, nothing else happened. The trees stood stoic. The squirrels dashed through the leaves for spring snacks. The sun flickered on gently through the poplar leaves. Nothing to do here but breathe.
When I finally reached the end of the portage, the girls were gorging on hazelnut chocolate and discussing exactly how many loons we would see when we got to Loontail Creek.
Our next days followed the light and our hours of paddling were marked only by the streak of a garter snake, the dot of an otter’s head or the fuzz of a Canada goose nest. The girls, forgetting the composure of city life, took to the cold creek for their baths and the mossy underbrush for a night’s rest.
On our last night, as rain poured through the pending dusk, we found ourselves without a designated campsite. Two ball caps emerged from a spot we had hoped would be vacant, and my husband pleaded our case with the fishermen who had been set up there for the past two days.
“Come on up!” said the first. “You guys can put your tent over there.” We were grateful for the accommodation, but slightly embarrassed to raise a tent that was nearly four times the size of theirs.
“You guys aren’t here for trout?” they asked, incredulous. Where we had brought full meals (and were apparently the only ones to bring fish into the park), they had packed only dried food to complement their catch. We spent the evening huddled underneath their tarp by the fire, exchanging tales of adventures in the woods.
Our two tents co-existed happily under the deep darkening veil of bush and cloud. We poked our heads out of ours to say thank you one last time as we readied for bed. “Floss … ” noted the first fisherman, astounded at my husband’s nighttime routine. “Of course.”
Dad would have shaken his head, too. But this time, he wasn’t in the bush. I was.
Shannon Elliot lives in Ottawa.