Text and photos by Melanie Chambers.
I looked around to make sure the coast was clear—it’s winter so I’m the only person in the Algonquin Park Visitor Centre. I’d seen the photo on the wall before: Tom Thomson smoking a pipe standing beside his canoe. It’s been a decade or so since I obsessively read about his life and mysterious death. My eyes start getting misty. What?
I felt silly; why should I get all teary for a painter who died falling out of a canoe? A painter who knew the power of canoeing in the wilderness alone; who knew what it meant to retreat from the world to create something; who knew what it meant to be completely taken and inspired by the sounds of water trickling over rocks or a silent winter’s night in the forest? Tears actually seem quite appropriate.
This is my first time at Algonquin Park and it’s fitting that I should come in the winter, alone. After I came to Ontario from Nova Scotia over 20 years ago, my friends never stopped talking about the most famous Canadian park: ‘You’ve never been?’ they’d repeat, shocked.
But now that I am here, one night in a yurt is not enough. I want more.
Arriving at noon, I waste no time: “Bat Lake is a bit strenuous,” says the ranger at the Visitors Centre. Bingo. That’s my trail. Only 5.8 kilometres, the twists and turns make it seem longer. I decided to run, but stop when I see a wall of icicles on a rock face. For 45 minutes I crawl under the ice, on top of rocks, and over the icicles taking pictures.
The snow is packed and scrunches when I walk – a sound heard only in extreme cold. I ditch the snowshoes and begin to run. With a snowshoe in each hand, I feel like a deer running from a hunter. I’m the only one on this trail but I can’t shake the feeling that someone or something is watching me. Only three hours from Toronto, it’s hard to believe I could be this alone.
From the rock face, a wall of ice streams down in blues and yellows. One false move I could crack a giant spike, sending that giant icicle through the chest and that would be the end of Melanie Chambers. Over the years I’ve learned a few things about hiking alone: pack food, water, cell phone and extra clothes. And—don’t get lost. But winter is another beast: cell reception is spotty and it’s cold. Really cold. Nose-hair-sticking-together kind of cold. Today with windchill it’s about -27C.
I start to run again, picking up speed and tucking my shoulders around the branches; a scene from the movie American Werewolf in London comes to mind: buddy is running naked through the woods and then stops to chomp on a live rabbit. Morbid. But that’s what this kind of solitude does to you. Did Tom experience this when he set out into the forest for months? After I get a good sweat going, I notice a park bench that looks out onto the forest. And the most endearing thing, a plaque: This bench is dedicated to… For the rest of her unworldly existence, this woman watches the forest in Algonquin Park. I can’t think of a more beautiful place to be.