Words and Photos:: Hayley Gendron
“I bet none of the pro climbers could pull off the Burt Reynolds Roll!” says my dad, laughing while lying horizontally on a large rock ledge fifteen metres off the ground. With his head resting casually on his hand, he resembles an awkward (and clothed) version of the famous photo of the mustachioed actor.
He has just survived the crux of his first pitch of outdoor rock climbing ever, at 57 years old.
I find myself belaying him from the bottom of Rattlesnake Point on the Niagara Escarpment, a popular cragging area, a mere fifteen minute drive from where I grew up in Acton, Ontario. I had lived in the area for the majority of my life without ever learning to climb, before packing my bags and moving to the west coast to chase nature on a larger scale. Now, several years and countless hours spent in the mountains later, I am able to reflect on my roots of outdoor admiration while on a trip back home.
I always find it interesting to hear where individuals find their love for natural pursuits. For me, I think the seed was planted long before I was born. When my dad was about fourteen, he and his best friend hitchhiked nearly 400 kilometres to Algonquin Park, the largest and oldest provincial park in Canada. Young and craving an adventure, they rented a canoe and set out on their first portage trip that would turn into an annual event for years to come. It was this teen voyage, paddling on the same lakes as famed Group of Seven artist Tom Thompson, watching moose swim and hearing the call of the loon over isolated, mist covered water that had him impassioned and forever hooked.
His adoration for nature is sincere and palpable, and with the help of my mother, he passed it down to my brothers and I earnestly. For as long as I can remember, family vacations always and only consisted of hiking, camping, and canoe trips. As a kid, I loved paddling and portaging from lake to lake, learning about bugs and plants and exploring the intricacies of different ecosystems from campsites. It was all a ‘natural’ progression towards a romanticization of the eventually a move to British Columbia—a lush, giant tree and mountain-filled place I had dreamed about for years.
We decided that on this year’s visit home, my dad and I would explore our roots by going on a canoe trip in Bon Echo Provincial Park, in the traditional territory of the Algonquin First Nations, which happens to be our background on my dad’s side of the family. On top of that, we would also go rock climbing, which has taken up a lot of my life over the past year. My dad had never climbed before, so I was excited to return the favour of teaching me to canoe, by teaching him what I had learned in the mountains. It would be a family skill-share, if you will.
We would start with a multi-day portage trip. Canoe culture is something so unique and dominant in Ontario, and I’ve missed it a lot while in BC. Many outdoor-loving people I’ve talked to on the west coast aren’t familiar with portaging, so if you’re new to the term, it refers to carrying a canoe (traditionally over your head) over the land in between lakes and rivers in order to access the next body of water. Ontario offers thousands of lakes, and in turn there are endless multi-day, week, or month long portage trip opportunities to get you deep into the wilderness. In my opinion, it is one of the most Canadian activities one can do.
This year we were limited with time, so we decided on a shorter route of just five lakes. We would be paddling the only official portage route in Bon Echo: the Kishkebus canoe route. It begins by following the west flank of Mazinaw Rock, a 100m cliff face jetting out of Mazinaw Lake, which at 145m of depth is the second deepest lake in Ontario (other than the Great Lakes). We spent the first day exploring the details of this wall, as the weather was less than ideal to continue on to the rest of the route. The rock is famous for having Canada’s largest collection of visible pictographs—more than 260— painted by Algonquin First Nations centuries ago. They are dotted along the bottom of the rock, just above the water line. If you didn’t know they were there, they would be easy to miss, just faint orange markings to the untrained eye. Yet as you get close, you can clearly see depictions of groups of people, animals, gatherings, etc. My dad and I talked about how remarkable it was that it could have been our ancestors painting the ancient art from canoes, and now, hundreds of years later, we were admiring them using boats of the same design.
In the summer months, climbers hang off Mazinaw Rock after accessing it from canoes; a uniquely Canadian way to climb. There are more than 130 traditional routes up to 100 metres high, and located around the corner at the first portage site of the Kishkebus route is an Alpine Club of Canada hut, where there is a small boat acting as a shuttle service to deliver climbers between the hut and the base of the rock. Although under construction when we were there, it was exciting to see an ACC hut east of the Rockies.
The next morning the weather was looking much better, so we decided to finish the route. The first portage was an infamously long one—1.5 kilometres through a muddy forest with many hills and slippery boardwalks. It doesn’t sound like a long distance, but with an awkwardly balanced sixty-pound canoe over your head, the task is daunting. My dad carried the boat the first half, skirting over moss covered wood bridges while I scurried ahead with the packs and paddles. Halfway through, we swapped roles so I transformed into what resembled a canoe with little legs. We eventually emerged from the forest onto Kishkebus lake, the namesake of the route. The lake is beautiful and placid, and without any cottages lining the shores as other lakes in the area have, we had it completely to ourselves.
In five or so hours, we crossed the smaller Shabomeka and Semicircle lakes, paddling around dams and streams and belly laughing while trying to duck under a little low-lying bridge, nearly flipping the boat. I scanned the shores, trying not to laugh too loudly as my dad did obnoxious moose calls. They didn’t answer back, but we’re sure they were listening. Eventually we tackled the last portage out onto Lower Mazinaw Lake and made our way back up to our put-in.
Later, while driving home through the traditional territory of our Shabot Obaadjiwan Algonquin ancestors with the canoe on the car roof, the leaves changing colours around us and the Tragically Hip playing on the radio, I couldn’t help but smile at the feeling of the very successfully Canadian few days we’d spent.
Next on the agenda was to get out of the water and onto the wall to teach my dad to climb. We had to wait out several rainy autumn days for the rock to dry, but we used that time for my dad and brother to perfect their figure-8 knots and learn to belay. Without a dry rock wall to practice on, we improvised by bringing a rope and our harnesses on a walk with Gunner, our Great Dane, in a nearby forest. We found a somewhat steep hill, and I built an anchor around a tree and set up a ‘top rope’. My brother tied in and began slowly walking up the hill as my dad belayed him, maintaining tension on the rope. The scene was hilarious: a middle-aged man using a 60m rope to belay a teenager walking up a 10m hill with a massive dog tilting his head in confusion.
The laughs continued several days later when we finally got the weather window we had been waiting for, and my dad informed me that the only helmet he had to use on the wall was a hockey helmet. It would have to do; he would climb Happy Gilmore style. We arrived at Rattlesnake Point, a crag just outside of Milton, Ontario. There are a ton of routes of all difficulties along the limestone and dolostone cliffs, including many that are beginner friendly. We decided on a fun looking one with a lot of big blocky holds. I set up the top rope and my dad tied in.
All I wanted was for him to feel the joy of working a route until thinking it is impossible, and then trying it again, a little harder and slightly differently, and finally sticking it. For me, doing this all while in an intimate bond with your environment is the addictive quality of climbing, and this route would provide the perfect opportunity for him to experience it.
There was a wide ledge about half the way up the wall, with good footholds a body’s length below it, but no good hands on the ledge itself. To get high enough to mantle (or push up) onto the ledge, he needed to get a high foot on a miniscule hold and put all his weight onto it. He tried repeatedly but doubted he could commit to such a small hold, and didn’t think he had the arm strength anymore to push himself up onto the ledge. He was about to give up, but I told him to take a break, breathe, and try one last time. He got his foot nice and high, pushed extra hard, and instead of mantling, he had somehow summoned a weird strength that rolled his entire body onto the ledge in one fell swoop. He landed leaning on his arm and looking down at me, laughing uncontrollably. He screamed “I did it! but I look like that naked picture of Burt Reynolds on the bear rug!”
Watching him continue up the wall past the crux in his hockey helmet, I was overcome with pride, seeing him humbled by nature in a totally new way, especially so close to home. I felt so grateful to be given the opportunity to teach my dad another way to appreciate the outdoors, as he had taught me time and again growing up.
At the end of the day, as we packed up our gear and headed home, I thought about how sometimes the biggest, most fulfilling adventures are the smallest in scale. I was flying back to Vancouver the following day, high on quality time in the outdoors with the people I love most. The overwhelmingly stunning landscapes of western Canada have provided so many gratifying exploits, but this time I didn’t need any big mountains to share one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve ever had in nature. Now if only I could get that image of Burt Reynolds out of my head…