Temagami is a land steeped in natural and human history. People have lived on the land for thousands of years. More recently, people have come to conquer the land and take from it, while others have come to conserve it.
Temagami became part of my history three years ago when my father told me that it was on his “bucket list”. It was wild places like Temagami that drew my Swiss father to Canada in the first place. Now that he was dying of cancer, it was time to see this wild place. Before the cancer struck he would have been able to hike, canoe and camp. Even with cancer eating away at his body, he was able to take a trip with my mother to a lodge in Lake Temagami and hike out to some of the ancient trees. Temagami became part of my parent’s history. This summer I decided to take my family out to Temamagi and, the week before Labour Day*, it became part of our history.
Last year we took our first family canoe trip and loved it. Temagami was further north and we planned to stay out longer. Again, we wanted a guided family trip. It seems decadent; but as working parents, we needed a restful vacation even if out in the wild. And paying guides to do what they love, while sharing their expertise with us, fits with our values. I found Camp Temagami online and was taken by their philosophy. I wanted to experience a bit of that with my family.
“The forest looks pointy, Mami”, nearly 6-year-old Lucas observed.
We had watched remnants of Carolinian forest around Toronto switch to rich farmland, then to mixed deciduous forest (maple/beech) in the area around Algonquin Park. Now, as we approached the Lake Temagami Access Road about 100 km north of North Bay, the forest was mainly boreal (pines, spruce and other conifers with the odd paper birch and alders in the wet areas).
It felt pretty good to leave our car, and civilization, behind at the end of that access road. We reached “base camp”, at the top of the southwest arm of Lake Temagami, by boat. The name of the lake comes from Te-mee-ay-gaming in Ojibwa and means “deep water by the shore”. Then next morning, we left the shore and headed into that deep water in gorgeous, blue wood canvas canoes (built by Hugh Stewart). The canoes were well packed by our guides Emily and Sophie with traditional canoeing gear. I’ve been canoe tripping before and am used to back packs and even bear barrels. But we were stocked with gear similar to what the Voyagers traditionally used. The wooden boxes are wannigans. They look cumbersome, but can be carried quite efficiently with the aid of tumplines. They also fit well into a canoe and double as tables and chairs at camp.
Our first stop of the trip was a short hike to several very large and old white pines. They towered overhead and their circumference at the base was large enough that the arm spans of my husband and I – together – were not enough to encircle them (we’re talking some serious tree hugging). This was just a taste of Temagami’s old growth forest. There was majesty in the towering trees. There was life in the air, fragrant with the smell of pine needles. There was a sacred stillness when we walked with footfalls muffled by years of fallen pine needles (well, until the kids started asking questions, but that was wonderful too).
The land that produced these magnificent trees was scoured by glaciers more than 10,000 years ago. The Anishnabai have been enjoying the area’s beauty for at least 6,000 years after migrating from the east coast of North America. They too find spiritual significance amongst the towering trees – in particular the Wakimika Triangle. Although we were far from that sacred area, we were connected by trails and canoe routes – called nastawgans – that have been used by the Anishnabai for thousands of years.
Of course “tree huggers” like us are not the only visitors to Temagami. Clashes between loggers and environmentalists have been going on for years. Perhaps the most famous was the Temagami Wilderness Society’s Red Squirrel Road blockade from September to December 1989. The conflict involved the extension of the Red Squirrel logging road into Anishnabai territory. The dispute even reached Toronto in April 1990 when protesters came to Queens Park and then followed the Premier David Peterson around for a week with a 4-meter chainsaw emblazoned with the words Temagami Chainsaw Massacre.
However, all was peaceful for us on Lake Temagami in late summer 2016. We enjoyed three nights out, each one different and each one in a lovely, secluded campsite.
There were trails to explore,
breath taking “dining room” views
and quite bays for an evening paddle or swim.
We slept in tents, had campfires, and learned lots of skills. For example, I learned how to chop wood, and doing it the way it is taught to 10 year old campers is also much easier for fully grown campers (no more over-the-head axe swings for me, thank you). I also learned that chopping the makes camp cooking much easier (even after heavy rain) without the use of a fuel stove. Cedar and red pine are the best for cooking fires. Spruce and maple are also good, but spruce burns very hot. Balsam fir doesn’t burn well – it is too sappy. Our guides even baked daily (bagels, cornbread, biscuits, brownies, even truffles!) on open fires using a reflector oven. The equipment and the skills our guides possessed gave us a link to the past and a deeper connection to the landscape we traveled through.
There were a few challenges – no canoe trip is complete without them – but it was nothing our guides couldn’t handle. They kept the fire going (and astonishingly the bagels baking) through a thunderstorm that eventually had our family take refuge in the tent.
The Temagami area has been described as “Algonquin on steroids” and on days with fairly strong north winds, I stared at an expanse of white caps (on just a tiny piece of Lake Temagami) and knew why. But our guides skilfully detoured us south (riding the waves) through wind blocking islands to make crossings safely.
All of us stretched our boundaries: Last year Lucas was afraid to ride with the guides in the canoe, this year he vied with his gregarious brother for turns in the guide’s boat and talked their ears off too! My tropical husband swam in Temagami’s bone chilling water. Nearly 9-year-old Ray jumped from a 6 foot high rock (several times). I portaged the camp’s heaviest canoe with a tumpline (only about 50m, but still).
Even back at base camp the trip had lessons to teach. Ray wanted to continue expanding his jumping skills from the camp’s 15.4 foot (nearly 5 meter) jumping platform. In the end he chickened out (to my relief), but I jumped off it (to test the fall). I’ve jumped from a similar height before, but it was still scary. The way to do it was to walk to the end, then walk right off, no looking down, no over-thinking. Commit and just do it. Perhaps this is a good metaphor for other things in life.
Being a night owl, my favourite parts of the trip were the evenings when Ray and I would stay up after everyone else had gone to sleep and chat by the campfire under a canopy of stars. The Milky Way stretched from the southern horizon in a huge arc over our heads. We wished upon shooting stars and, on our last night out, even saw a few flickers of the Northern Lights. In the deep darkness of Temagami it was easy to understand why humans before us saw God (or Gods) up there in the heavens. As a trained evolutionary biologist I saw no traditional God, but standing awestruck with my son, I knew I was surrounded by a power much greater than myself.
* I realize this is posted just past the Thanksgiving weekend. Fall is a busy time. I am thankful for the long weekend that gave me time to blog about the last week of summer :-).