Friday, June 15, 2007

Clarity

Georgian Bay Islands National Park was born in 1929 at the Bay's southern end. Although it has swallowed up over fifty-nine islands in its short existence, by far the biggest and most popular is Beausoleil Island, a short paddle from the little town of Honey Harbour, Ontario.

To me, this place is the gateway to Ontario's north. Only 150 kilometres or so from Toronto, it is where the grassy St. Lawrence Lowland gives way to the barrenness of the Canadian Shield. The park itself is a microcosm of this: only twelve square kilometres in size, it has warm, sandy beaches at its southern extreme and, to its north, the Shield's exposed granite bedrock.

Beausoleil also has an interesting place in human history. Aboriginal tools and earthworks have been found on the island dating back centuries and, in 1615, the local Natives were first exposed to Europeans when Samuel de Champlain himself paddled through these parts while exploring the farthest reaches of what was then a very young New France. Since then, it has been in an island in flux, serving as a reserve for the Ojibwa people, a home for early French and English homesteaders and, just before it became a national park, the base for a highly destructive (and happily short-lived) logging operation.

The sky seems bigger here. Not exactly a prairie sky, mind you, but from camp on the shores of Beausoleil I have seen star constellations of breathtaking beauty and clarity, and from these same shores three years back a moonrise so crimson and clear it felt as though I could just reach out and push the glowing orb back down into the distant, shadowy fir trees.

But its not always this tranquil. One of the biggest threats to the park is its proximity to towns and cottages; and because those places are so close to the financial centre of Toronto, the inhabitants have, lets say, the means to purchase the largest, loudest, and most polluting watercraft ever invented by man.

And such humans are, unfortunately, not small in number. After school gets out in late June, Beausoleil can be besieged by teenagers, forcing park staff to do double duty to keep the kids contained and the park, well, a park -- and not Daytona Beach North.

So if you're going to go, take my advice, go in June or September.

Our early-season trip to Beausoleil has become an annual tradition, one that we continued last weekend. When we go, there is an almost mechanical ritual that is followed. First, the boats are removed from the roof of the car and carefully placed side by side on the government dock at Honey Harbour. Sunscreen is applied. Then all the gear -- from sleeping bags to headlamps to plastic food containers -- is stashed in a methodical, time-honed fashion in the hatches. By then I'm usually too hungry to start paddling, so there is a crash trip to the (only) little store in town for a bit of binge eating. This time it was pop-tarts. Four pop-tarts. In seven minutes.

But the moment I shove off from the dock is the one I anticipate the most. Soon, the drone of life's daily pressures recedes into the background and its just you and the water, the fish that constantly hover and dart beneath the hull and, especially last weekend, the warmth of the late-spring sun on your face.

And on the shore at night, it's always that same brilliant sky, the same radiant moon and, just as you are about to drift off to sleep in the tent after a long day's paddle, the same distant, plaintive call of the loon.

Welcome to the Bay.

For more on Georgian Bay Islands National Park, click here.

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