Friday, February 25, 2011

Being in Wild Places

On the chilly midwinter weekend last I drove down to the annual symposium of the Wilderness Canoe Association. Those intrepid folks gather every year in the East End of Toronto from points all across the US and Canada to relive the joys of passage through the deep wilderness of Canada's boreal and arctic north. They tell tales of great adventure in one of the last wide places of the world, stories that have thrilled me for many winters past. When amongst these grizzled heroes I always feel a bit of a poseur for I was only a canoeist in the wilderness, rather than a true wilderness canoeist.
We used to spend summers with two school-age kids towing a house trailer as far as the roads go up North in Ontario and Quebec. A marine canoe with a small detachable motor came along to be used for fishing and sightseeing up sandy boreal rivers and on big windy lakes. My only canoe journey of many consecutive days was later in life, camping through Algonquin Park much farther south.

A recurring theme at these yearly canoe fests is the continuing decline of the truly wild. Animals that need great swathes of human-free terrain are threatened. One such here in Ontario is the wolverine. Out West there is now great concern for the grizzly bear. Bear researchers seem to agree that the Jumbo Valley deep in the Purcell Mountains contains the core population without which the bear will only survive in sub-optimal separated relict groups. Oberto Oberti, a Vancouver architect, plans to put a high-end European-style ski resort smack into the centre of Jumbo's spectacular wilderness.

This is a newer version of the continuing conflict between those like the WCA who want to keep the wild just that and those who want people in it. The longer running battle has been resource extraction and exploitation. Many fine canoeing rivers, some of great historical heritage importance, are now at the bottom of dammed lakes. Back in the 1970s the huge size of the James Bay Project on the La Grande River watershed  flooding that affected one tenth of the geography of the  province of Quebec, got our attention. Now the Tar Sands in Alberta have the world's attention. There bituminous oil extraction affects the whole enormous Athabasca River basin.

My own connection is fond memories of the awesome shoreline just north of a 'camp' (cottage) we used to rent near the mouth of the Michipicoten at the NE corner of Lake Superior. This is the land of the southernmost population of the thinly spread woodland caribou. A Michigan company wants to hollow the cliffs out to extract aggregate for US road building. Town of Wawa locals, who have roller coaster job prospects, are mostly for it. Wilderness kayakers, who know the Pukaswa coast as the longest unbroken line of cliffs on the Great Lakes, are vehemently opposed.

Another feature of the WCA sessions that never fails to impress is hearing how the wilderness water traveller spends weeks in highly risky and inaccessible remote situations with a very few companions or solo. He takes trips facing many obstacles that demand a strength of character and a resilience that few of us ever need.  Except when asleep, he is always 'in the present'. Senses are heightened; management of circumstance extraordinary.  The nearest I have come to that state is skiing off-piste down a big mountain, but that was only for a few hours, not weeks at a time.

A canoe tripper is a human being truly 'in the now'.  Each year such folk reinforce for me that, if we never experience wilderness, we miss opportunities to be fully human. Balancing the need to keep people in the North with the North as wilderness may be our greatest challenge as a nation priding itself on its unparalleled quality of life.


  1. This post really set me thinking about how pedestrian most of our lives are. The nearest I ever came to this kind of situation was whilst driving (yes, driving, in a modern, safe, reliable motor car) through the Kruger Park in S Africa. There was a beautiful sunset and we were late in reaching our next night's camp where the gates would be shut at sundown. Our Visitor Pass warned against missing closing time and warned we might need to spend the night in our vehicle amongst the wildlife. Of course made it with time to spare. I guess most people never even experience that mild tension, cocooned as they are in the bosom of their organised package holiday!

  2. Couldn't agree more, Mr. A! And I know what you mean about "poseur" too. We used to go to The Banff Mountain Film fest, just to rub shoulders with climbers and outdoorsmen par excellence...I did indoor, not outdoor climbing, and I am an (armchair) Everest buff. Like the WCA, it's inspiring and it reminds you of the huge importance of being in, and one with, nature. These days I'm interested in creating more marine parks b/c our oceans are really under severe threat, perhaps more so than our land wilderness. So many issues, eh?! Good post, really enjoyed it.


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