Standing on the outfitters’ dock and looking back across Kawawaymog Lake and the autumn-coloured hills beyond, I was overtaken by melancholy. Even though it had been an epic struggle against wind and whitecapped waves to canoe across the endless lake to return to the starting point of our adventure, wet and chilled I wanted to turn our canoe around and go right back into the Algonquin Park wilderness. I was surprised by the melancholy, but it was appropriate. I was feeling the happiness of being sad, as Victor Hugo defined the word. My 30-year-old son and I high-fived our accomplishment against the elements, and when he went into the outfitters’ office to confirm the return of our rented canoe and gear, I felt tears threaten from a place deep inside. Happy sad tears that I struggled to understand in the moment. Still looking across the grey lake, in my mind’s eye I could see the enchanted world that beckoned from the far side of the distant hills.
Enchanted? So it was. But it wasn’t the wilderness itself that made the experience magical, although the natural elements within the boundaries of the world-renowned park have worked their magic on canoeists for hundreds of years. For me, the enchantment was much more than that. Over four days and three nights, my son and I completed a canoe route across large and small lakes connected by portage trails. It seemed as if the tea-coloured water through which we paddled, the low, rounded mountains cloaked in evergreen, amber, gold and red, and the sometimes grey, sometimes blue October sky belonged entirely to us; we saw no other humans for three days once past the first major portage.
Perhaps no one would think the weather was magical, as we more often than not had our rain gear on while we paddled and portaged, and wore several layers of clothing and toques as we slept. For the last two of our four days, the gusting winds were so strong that at times we had to summon all our energy just to keep our canoe in place on the angry open water as the bow of our little boat was lifted high by a frothy wave, dropped steeply into the succeeding trough and then nosed sprayfully into the next wave. Testy as she may be, there was exhilaration and reward in our battle with Mother Nature. Within her spectrum of moods, we also experienced the tranquility of placid water under azure skies, at one point gliding silently in close proximity to a momma loon with her youngster at her side. That was magic.
So was the mist-shrouded lake we awoke to on our first morning; a red, rising sun in both sky and water the next. So was the brilliant gold and white of sunlit birch protectively encircling our campsite as late afternoon edged towards evening. So was the eerie hoot and throaty growl of an unseen but presumed Canadian lynx in the dark. So was a ragged, shape-shifting sunset over wild, orange stained waters. So was the black velvet night canopy strewn with brilliant diamonds. And so was the scent of autumn as our hiking boots crunched along portage trails quilted with discarded leaves of maple red, oak brown and birch yellow. Magic. That was pure, natural, sensory magic. But, as I said, it was more than that, a deeper magic.
It was the deep sense of being an intrinsic, indistinguishable part of the present-moment environment: falling with the gentle rain, flowing with the current, raging with the wind, silent in the silence. I was returned to the womb of nature, feeling her heartbeat, nourished by her richness.
It was the deep erasure of the outside world of Covid-19, Trump, articles nagging to be written, grass to be cut, appointments to be kept.
It was the deep primal call, the minimalism, essentialism and simplicity of containing my shelter, my bed, my clothing and my sustenance in two packs—one carried on my back and another strapped to my chest as we portaged—and leaving only the faintest of evidence of our passing as we travelled on.
It was the deep comfort and fullness of being in the company of a loved one in the humanless wilderness, knowing he was asleep in his compact, backpacker’s tent on the opposite side of the firepit from mine, breathing the same, crisp, cleansing night air beneath the towering pines. This was the deepest, most special magic. What sleight of hand conjures up a mother’s love that only increases with the passage of time, such that thirty years after we first came face-to-face in the delivery room we were sitting side-by-side on a log-cum-bench, with fire glow on our faces, feeling no compulsion to speak into the shared silence in the Algonquin back country?
Sadness is always born out of a loss of some kind, and the melancholy I was experiencing standing on the outfitters’ dock, looking back across Kawawaymog Lake to the hills beyond was the happiness of being sad about the loss of that enchanted place. On the cusp of turning 65, would I ever be back again? When and how will I again experience such magic, achieve the precious state of being in flow, that immersion in the unmatchable feeling of energized focus?
Did that being in flow explain why I felt no muscle aches in the following days, despite lugging 55 pounds of gear across numerous portages over four days, sleeping on a one-inch thick air mattress for three nights, and leaning as forcibly as I could into my paddle to incessantly push against the wind and the waves for four hours on the last leg of our journey? It’s certainly not attributable to me being anything more than a moderately fit senior. Was it a little bit of lingering magic? Was it testimony to the power of attitude over circumstance, mind over matter? Because I chose to love every moment of the adventure despite Mother Nature’s moodiness, did my muscles and bones not find anything to complain about?
I’ve done a number of such canoe trips and family camping vacations in my younger years, inevitably feeling the achy consequences of my physical exertions. I recall the joyful homeward-bound anticipation of my soft bed, a hot bubble bath, and meals not cooked in a pot. But this time, there was none of that. No creature comfort or convenience was so alluring as the call back across the lake into the solitude behind the autumnal hills—the call of the loon from deep within my soul.
But I turned my back on it. I walked towards my car, towards my not-so-real life, feeling only the ache of happiness in my sadness.