Monday, July 23, 2012

Drought at Algonquin Provincial Park

We ran over a squirrel on our drive to Algonquin Park. It could have made it if it had only paused instead of darting across the road - we would have driven right over it with the squirrel safely between the two tires, but it made a run for it. I felt bad and wondered if it was bad luck or maybe even good luck to start the weekend off with death.

squashed into the little car

As it stood, parts of Algonquin Park were on fire, due to the drought that was still haunting most of the province. It's gotten to the point where the government is not telling us to try to conserve water at home, but rather they are encouraging us to water our lawn to prevent more fires.

When we drove into the park, a big sign displayed the fire rating. It was so hot and dry that they had tacked on an extra rating unit, to show that campfires were especially illegal with the fire ban now. A park warden came around to explain to us that illegal campfires would get you the hefty fine of $615. I did not have that money. I wanted to ask the park warden if his life was just like the TV show Parks and Recreation, but he didn't seem too chatty, probably because his park was on fire.

Facing this sober situation on my first trip to Algonquin Provincial Park reminded me somewhat of the trip I took to Etosha National Park in Namibia, only to find out that a massive brushfire had swept through the park, destroying a lot of the beautiful landscape and killing some of the wildlife. Luckily we were in another part of Algonquin Park, far away from the chaos.

The truth is, I had missed camping ever since moving back to Canada from Namibia. I missed sleeping outside, not caring about being dirty, watching the constellation Orion in the sky, taking long walks deep in the wilderness. After all my time camping in the desert, I was eager to go back to Canadian camping, in the thick of the woods surrounded by trees taller than my house, with no baboons to rob you at night but only bears, who lack opposable thumbs. Surrounded by grass and cool bodies of water.

bears, bears, everywhere

It was unexpected then, when we arrived at our campsite which presented us with the limited choice of settling down on the dead dry yellow grass or the dustbowl reddish dirt that the forest floor had become, resembling something out of a civil war movie based in the southern states, missing only tumbleweed rolling through. Everything we did and had soon became caked in the dusty dirt: all of our food, our feet, our clothes. It was fine with me; it was like being back in the desert.


Even going for a dip in the lake was a futile effort in washing up. You'd get out, clean and refreshed, and as you walked you immediately became dirty again, as the dust would cling to you like staticky pants dried without fabric softener. But at least we had the lake, which was cool and refreshing.

We decided to go on a little hike to the Spruce Bog, which has been described as a kind of a desert itself. It had started off as a beaver pond, but because beavers are so hard-working and industrious, the beavers' continuous dragging of stuff into the pond (as well as other conditions) eventually converted the shallow pond into a bog. According to my guidebook, the chemical conditions of a bog impose severe restrictions on the plants growing there, and the lack of nutrients in the bog make it almost like a desert.

a lovely little boardwalk through the bog...a bogwalk, I'd even call it.

Dannik on the rocks, Curley in the corner. My two favourite drinks!

there's something about acidic swamps that really bring out the romance in a couple.

gloria the explorer of the world

This is what our guidebook also had to say:

"At the present time the mat is a relatively thin layer with many weak spots. We strongly advise against walking on it because of the danger both to the fragile mat and to yourself. If by chance you did go through, your only consolation would be that your body would be preserved for thousands of years in the acidic, oxygen-poor peat nine metres below."

death, death, everywhere, in such a beautiful place. The words of the guidebook made us particularly reluctant to cross this tired-looking bridge with a dilapidated foundation.

It was a hot walk and I was thirsty.

For dinner, we had the meal of kings: Rob's own hearty beef stew, a bottle of champagne, and cookies. With the campfire ban still on, we had luckily brought along a burner, the kind you`d cook Korean barbecue meat on. Otherwise we would have only had the bottle of champagne and cookies to eat.

i suppose we could have also taken a chance on these bright, beautiful and possibly poisonous berries

That evening, with no campfire to stare into, we walked over to the beach with blankets and watched the night sky. In this darkness, you could see so many stars than you can in the city, one of my favourite features about camping. I was trying to find the constellation Orion, to bookend my experience in the southern part of the world where I had first seen the hunter Orion in the desert, complete with his bow and his sword and his belt. But I felt myself going cross-eyed; big clouds kept moving through the night sky and obscuring our vision of the constellations. I wondered if any of the clouds would finally bring rain.

After we lingered there for a while, a man brought a big device down to the lake shore and shone a huge green beacon into the sky. The light was so strong it could point at the stars. I thought that the man was signaling Batman. My friends told me that he was probably just demonstrating star constellations, but after we headed back to camp, I definitely saw a bat fly over our tent.

When we woke up the next morning, there was a crow-like bird that was screaming like it was being murdered. The air was filled with the loud clicking sounds that squirrels make, possibly because they are angry and plotting your demise in revenge for running over their brethren on the road. A mouse had died beside our tent and was being consumed by flies. death, death, everywhere. I reflected on the fact that I can see dead mice or porcupine or deer or zebra and calmly acknowledge that it`s just a part of life - but if I pass a swamp, I'll freak out about how gross it is.

Most of the ice in our cooler had melted in the heat and was only serving to make all of our meat soggy. I drained the melted ice from the cooler and watched the water trickle down the slope of the ground, creating art with its finger-like streams. The ground was so dry that the water couldn't even penetrate through the dirt.

I decided that I wanted to hit up one more hiking trail before we left, so Rob and I headed for the Big Pines Trail, which featured dozens of giant white pines. Rob's old house was in a neighbourhood called White Pines - presumably the area used to have a whole forest of white pine trees. But, as we know, the suburbs are where we cut down the trees and name the streets after them, so it was nice to finally be lost in a huge forest of white pines. After all the hiking through desert mountains, I was getting used to being in forests again, which was just different. In the desert, there's nothing to shield you from the sun, and when you reach the top of the mountain, you can see everything in the desert for miles and miles around because there are no big trees. In the forest, you can feel lost in a different way, not in the sense of overwhelmingly open infinity that a desert does, but in the way that being surrounded by these giant living beings that we call trees makes you feel safe and hidden and anonymous.

tree roots all along the forest floor

this was the largest white pine tree on the hiking trail

a very flattering shot of me and the tree

I was also struck by the dead trees, which, though dead for many years, were still huge, which gave them a sort of frightening quality like an eerie Tim Burton film scene

death, death, everywhere

I was also interested in (and less creepedout by) the trees that were not dead, but had survived previous forest fires like the ones attacking the park now.

the split at the bottom of this tree is a mark of a previous fire that killed the living tissue in this part of the tree. These things are called church doors, although personally I'd probably give them a more vivid name.

a tall tree with a long lightning scar. Like the Harry Potter of trees.

We soon came across the ruins of an old abandoned logging camp that had been operating in the 1880s. The forest was in the process of swallowing the whole site up back into nature.

the logging camp's stove

this used to be a lake

You wouldn't expect a hike through dead/damaged trees, ghost mining camps, and swamps to be a particularly appropriate Lovers' Lane, but it was a lovely hike for Rob and me, especially since exactly two months from that day we would be getting married.

So, to review my first camping trip back in Canada: there was a forest fire, but we did not see any of it. No bears, although a lot of chipmunks and one terrifying bird that will confuse a cop one day. A lake. A huge night sky and a bat signal. Bats. Bogs, romantic ones. A lot of thirst, but I have learned to accept thirst as a part of living. Dead things: a squirrel, a mouse, trees whose skeletons remain a century later. Cookies. It did, by the way, eventually rain: big drops of water hitting the tent and tables hard.

stopping off at Charlie D's in Barrie's Bay for poutine and ice cream, an essential part of Canadian camping.