For days there had been no signs of human life. Pine forests shrouded in snow and half-frozen lakes glittering in the sun stretched into an unspoilt Canadian wilderness. It was strangely quiet. All I could hear was the wind rattling through the leaves while it iced their trees with spindrift. Nothing suggested man, woman or beast had set foot in this back of beyond recently.
Yes, there were occasional log cabins, but they had been abandoned by their owners many years ago. No point in today’s lost travellers seeking deliverance at their door. This was a land now unsullied by human presence and the passing of time. A hundred miles from the nearest town, it was the most remote place I had ever been.
None of this was of any concern to the elk, grazing by the banks of the river, on grass emerging tentatively in the spring thaw. Once they would have been in danger not only from wolves lurking in the forest nearby but from two-legged trackers. Originally, the area known as the French River was a travel route of the Ojibwe Indians, but in the early 17th century it became a key link in the old fur trade between Montreal and Lake Superior.
So, I wasn’t the first to have found myself in a landscape without as much as a dirt track to signal anyone had ventured there lately. Dark was creeping in. I could smell it. The aromas of the day were giving way to those of the night. In this country where bears and wolves outnumber people, the thought of being out here alone was frightening.
But the air was cleaner than any I’d breathed before — all impurities had frozen away. I mentally put that in the ‘at least’ list. But the ‘what if’ tally was growing.
And then the image of a man.
Dressed in animal skin, he moved stealthily from the cover of the trees. He raised his bow, an arrow flashed in the sunlight and a shape staggered and fell. As suddenly as he appeared, he was gone. In this ancient land, barely changed since hunters arrived with their beaver hats and long rifles, nothing surprised me. This one must have hacked and paddled his way through the wilderness the Iroquois named Ontario, meaning “shining waters”; in a region containing a quarter of the world’s freshwater, it was a fitting name.
It’s hard to appreciate the size of Ontario. Almost as big as France, Germany and Italy combined, it has a northern coast higher than the Alaskan panhandle and a southern boundary on the same latitude as Rome. The rocks underneath form part of the Canadian Shield, the ancient core of the North American Continent. At least a billion years old, the shield is made of some of the oldest granite on the planet.
I felt very small and very new by comparison.
I looked up. There was a bird. I craned my neck to watch it soaring, circling, riding the thermals.
I thought about how maps have made birds of us all. I didn’t have a map, but I saw us from 300 feet up through the eyes of that bald eagle. It can see its prey from three miles away. Everything below has potential. Was it weighing me up? I weighed it up and decided there was no need to add it to the ‘what ifs’. I put it in the ‘at leasts’ and felt impressed by the presence of any life in such a glacial environment.
In the distance, the freezing howl of a wolf. Then I sensed something moving through the snow. The footsteps came closer. I prayed it wasn’t going to give chase. I knew I couldn’t survive long in this cold.
Fortunately, I wouldn’t have to. A lone black figure emerged from ‘Wolfe Manor’, my compartment in the ‘Canadian’, the transcontinental tourist train. With 30 carriages, three engines and glass-domed viewing cars it looked like a caravan of silver and blue bullets primed to power its way from Vancouver to Toronto.
Images of the past faded as the present returned and my husband’s voice pierced the darkness:
“For heaven’s sake, what on earth are you doing! You must be frozen. This was only meant to be a quick stop for a breath of air. Come on, dinner’s about to be served.”
Thank goodness, I was ravenous.
Deliverance in the dining car.
Gayle Wood is a travel and nature writer living in West Penwith. In recent years, she has travelled West to Canada and East to Singapore. At the moment, you’ll usually find her back in Cornwall, on the top of a little green hill looking out at over Atlantic. She believes ‘the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new places but in having new eyes.’