Serenity of Soul

For at that time malignity ceases and the devils themselves are at peace.
For this time is perceptible to man by a remarkable stillness and serenity of soul.

Christopher Smart, Jubilate Agno

When Christopher Smart wrote Rejoice in the Lamb (or Jubilate Agno) in the 18th century, he most certainly did not have canoeing in mind, as most Europeans of that era were unaware of the marvellous invention of the North American native people. Perhaps that’s why Smart wrote from his cell in Bedlam! Nevertheless, anyone who has canoed on a perfectly still summer day, suspended between heaven and earth on a mirror-calm lake, will understand why I have started my canoe page with these words.

I won’t try to pretend that canoeing is only about lounging around in a boat, drifting lazily in the summer sun for an hour or two before heading back to the car. I suppose it’s possible to indulge in such frivolity the odd evening after work, especially if you’re lucky enough to live near canoeable water; but that kind of canoeing serves only to whet the appetite for the real thing!

At this juncture, I had better confess. The truth is that I’m an old crock who is painfully aware of my own mortality — and fragility! In other words, I’m NOT a whitewater enthusiast. Oh, sure, it looks fun in the films, but most of my life careens through rapids, so why would I want to holiday that way? If you add my aversion to pain and premature annihilation, my preference for flatwater canoeing becomes understandable. That doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t enjoy challenging a hefty headwind, especially when the sun arcs off the dancing waves and turns the spray to diamonds; or revel in the excitement of chasing down a river that runs and laughs and tugs us ever faster; or joyfully transend the normal human role of pariah in nature when my craft moves so sweetly and silently that we can drift amongst the loons and mergansers and moose as if we belonged there.

A canoe can be many things. My canoe is a time machine. It removes me from the maelstrom of contemporary urban life and takes me far away to another time, another world, another life. Once a year, my husband and dogs and I take the canoe into the wilderness. With the constraints of a job, two weeks is all we can manage at a stretch (retirement, where are you?), but what a glorious time it is! No alarm clock! No make-up! No obligations! No telephones! No Daytimer! No traffic! NO STOPLIGHTS! Just the joy of waking when we’re refreshed, sleeping when we’re tired, eating when we’re hungry, reading when we wish. And the quiet … it isn’t until I’ve been in the bush for two days that my ears stop ringing and I start to hear the silence — the sigh of the wind in the trees, the whisper of the water on the rocks, the gentle conversation of the birds. Out there, I’ve heard the trees breathe and the Aurora Borealis crackle.

Peace.

I dream of someday canoeing in distant and exotic places; we’ve done a little hiking in the Yukon and Alaska, but not yet canoed there. For now, we prefer to spend as much of the two-week holiday in the canoe as possible, away from the highway, so Northern Ontario hosts our summer vacations. We have visited Algonquin in the spring, watching the moose in Hailstorm Creek; we have canoed Killarney in the autumn, when the colours blaze in the LaCloche Range (the photo of our canoe at the top of this page was taken there). But our favourite destination is Temagami, with its incredible network of nastawgan, or ancient canoe routes, and its rock cliffs, pure water, and incredible variety of birds and animals.

Lady Evelyn Lake —
the vista from just beyond the channel

Our first trip to Temagami was prompted by our son, who had been transformed by a ten-day trek with a camp when he was a fourteen-year-old boy. When he returned, ten pounds heavier (all muscle!), two inches taller, and speaking in a voice about an octave lower than when he had said “Don’t worry, Mom” only a few days before, he had become a confident young man. We had tired of crowded and expensive provincial parks (beautiful as they were, they were full of people). “There’s nobody in Temagami,” he said, so that’s where we wanted to be! He also said that, although it was a rugged route, the Staircase (the north and south forks of the Lady Evelyn River) was astoundingly beautiful. It was both. Profoundly so. We weren’t pups even then, and we were travelling with a Bassett Hound and an elderly Scottish Terrier. The Staircase boasts sixteen portages (count them), up cliffs, down mountainsides, in a route that takes about two days. I didn’t have a cellulite problem for three years after that trek! I also gained an even greater respect for my son! But I can’t fully describe the sense of accomplishment, even wonder, that we felt when we completed each portage. No matter what successes you enjoy in urban life, they pale compared to the fulfillment you feel when you just get from below the umpteenth waterfall to above it, all under your own power! If you’re a canoeist, you know what I’m trying to say. If you’re not, and you don’t, try canoeing!

The waterfall that marked the fifteenth portage was so beautiful
that we stayed an extra night just to hear its music.
It was even more enjoyable the next morning
because we had already portaged around it!

That first experience in Temagami was more than a physical challenge. It was an awakening. We survived the next fifty weeks by reliving our adventures, talking about the beauty of the place, dreaming of the silence and sweet air and water … and in planning our route for the next trip!

We have had seven seasons in Temagami, each year taking a different route and enjoying a different experience. Some years we have been lazy, travelling shorter distances or taking a route with fewer portages; other years, we have tackled lengthy routes filled with long, and often arduous, portages. Admittedly, especially as we age, there are times when the way seems too long and rugged, the bugs seem unnecessarily aggressive, and the weather leaves much to be desired! But Temagami has never disappointed. From the first long-awaited sniff of fragrant air after the hours on the highway, to the excitement of piling the gear into the canoe at Mowat Landing, and the first few wobbly dips of the paddles as we head for the dam and the first portage, to the quickly regained rhythm as we put miles between us and “civilization”, and finally the magical vista of Lady Evelyn Lake as we emerge from the channel — even as I write this, my mind and heart are swept away to that magnificent land!

I have favourite places and memories there — the vastness of Lady Evelyn Lake, the rocky campsite that looks down Sucker Gut Lake (awful name but beautiful lake!) towards Willow Island Lake and the beginning of the Staircase, the dance of the loons at peaceful Bergeron Lake, the solitude of Skull Lake with its private island camp, days spent lounging in the sun at the quiet end of Anima Nipissing, the secret passages in Sharp Rock Inlet and the North Arm of Lake Temagami, the Old Growth Forest on Obabika Lake. I mentioned this forest in my nature page, and described it as a “cathedral”. It took us three tries to get there, and it was truly worth the effort! It is a cathedral, a place of peace and solitude, of ancient worship.

But the clouds are gathering over the Temagami wilderness and its “cathedral”, the storms of greed and government ineptitude.

A prophetic sunset on Red Squirrel Lake

The Teme-augama Anishnabai, “the people of the deep water”, first inhabited the area over 5,000 years ago, co-existing with the great pine forests and the multitudes of animals with little adverse impact. In only 100 years of European settlement, the animal and bird populations have been decimated and the ancient forests have been reduced to mere scraps. Yet the grasping politicians and corporations lust for more. In the past few years, an extensive network of logging roads has been gouged into the face of the land, chopping animal habitats into unconnected islands, and land has been surveyed for copper mines, notorious for open pits, strip mines, and toxic runoff. Even the Old Growth Forest, tiny remnant that it is, is slated for logging. Temagami is being lost forever, and with it one of the finest canoeing areas in the world.

Speak out for peace and beauty! The myriad species of animals and plants that have struggled to survive and evolve, and who daily celebrate life, ask only to share this planet with us. They don’t try to eliminate us — why must we eliminate them? It’s time to call a halt to profit before life.

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