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On Muskoka’s back roads I felt 17 again

We set out from Toronto, on a blessedly cool summer morning, rental car racing north along Highway 400. In the backseat, busy with snacks and colouring books, were the boys, ages 2 and 5. After last summer's 60-day horse trek in the remote Caucasus Mountains, my wife and I decided to try a more chilled family vacation (at least for part of the summer) and rent a cottage in Ontario's rugged shield country.

The primary motivation for the visit was water. More specifically, that warm, friendly, tannin-drenched water that blesses cottage country, so unlike the frigid glacial melt lakes and rivers inhabiting British Columbia. Many of my cherished childhood memories came upon Ontario's warm lakes, and I wanted my boys to experience the same; to splash and frolic for hours on end without painful goosebumps and quivering blue lips; to wade from sunrise to sunset, to catch tadpoles and feel dragonflies alight on sun-kissed shoulders free from the fear of hypothermia.

Beyond Orillia, Ont., and Webers famous roadside burger shack – perhaps the best-known landmark en route to Muskoka – we entered a maze of quiet secondary roads, and it was here I began to feel the stirrings of familiarity. The two-lane highways, weaving through dynamite-shattered walls of red granite and past silent bulrush bogs, were far narrower than anything in the West, and unmistakably Ontarian.

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Sumac and milkweed sprang from the ditches, and not until I saw the plants did I realized I had missed them, for almost 20 years. A signpost for Bobcaygeon and the Tragically Hip drenched my mind, bringing glimpses of crowded university bars. The sun climbed steadily higher, and mirages formed on the road ahead.

There was a time when every visit to Toronto unearthed waves of nostalgia. Admittedly, I didn't visit my childhood home much back then (employment as a raft guide meant a plane ticket was unthinkable) and as a result, the once-familiar landscape grew alien.

On the rare occasions I did return, every corner, every street and park and intersection brought a flood of memories. The empty outdoor basketball courts, where epic battles and passions once raged. A grassy hillside, tucked behind the railroad tracks, a perfect hideout for those skipping class. Pools of light beneath street lamps on the darkened road, islands of safety, which I once breathlessly sprinted between. And above all, I always noticed the air; heavy and humid, and somehow smelling exactly like home.

With time, I began visiting Toronto more often, and before long, instead of reviving the halcyon days of youth, these visits invoked memories of, well, other recent visits. In short, the ability of this landscape to arouse forgotten memories faded as my familiarity with it grew again. But now, on Muskoka's winding back roads (which I had not travelled for decades) I felt the past rising again.

In the end, it was an unremarkable road sign that triggered the flood. (You know the type if you live in Ontario; black number on a white shield, crown perched above.) It stood alone on the gravel shoulder, and as our car raced past, I was suddenly a 17-year-old standing on an identical highway, beside an identical sign, hitchhiking north. Then came high granite cliffs, and gut-wrenching leaps, and girls from Scarborough in one-piece swimsuits, the fine hair on their goosebumped legs backlit by the sun. We sat side-by-side on warm rocks and watched clouds turn pink, our fingers casually (but oh-so-purposefully) brushing until their father came to bring them home. Then we were packed into a friend's station wagon, screaming encouragement as the speedometer inched toward 100. And drinking warm Blue on a linoleum deck near Georgian Bay, with an unshaven man who was so old, as he eerily told us, that he'd forgotten his own name. Spare me that fate, my only thought.

All these moments had been lost to me. And suddenly, amid the screams of kids and flying crayons and highway maps, they rose to life. For just a few breaths, I felt 17 again.

As travellers, we often set out toward new lands, seeking new wonders, with the hope of unearthing previously unseen sides of ourselves and the world beyond. Occasionally, we stumble upon that sweet (and usually unexpected) spot, where we look upon a once-familiar landscape with the eyes of a stranger. And suddenly, yesteryear comes tumbling back. Of course, such experiences are ephemeral. Visit often, or stay long, and familiarity quickly returns.

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My boys loved the water, and so did I. Its distinctive tangy taste, the windswept pines, the loons, the glacier-smoothed bedrock – all whispered of past times. But by week's end the nostalgia had faded, and Muskoka felt entirely homelike once again – which is another gift of travel, and just as magical.

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About the Author

Bruce Kirkby has spent more than two decades exploring the most remote corners of the planet. His journeys have taken him through the heart of Arabia by camel, down the Blue Nile on raft and across Iceland by foot. The author of two bestselling books, Mr. Kirkby is the recipient of three National Magazine Awards. More


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