On this day (before)

Today seems like a good day for reflection.

By this day some of us have built homes, started businesses, taught in classrooms, had children, led companies, patented inventions, filed for bankruptcy, written books, completed theses, finished marathons, run away, saved lives, cured illness, eased pain, flown planes, climbed mountains, travelled the world, lived in monasteries, had relationships, lost relationships, survived war, or had the luxury of living in peace.

Some of us are just beginning; some of us are nearing the end. No one has done it all – and that’s okay. The paths are many and this world needs all of our contributions and all of our diversity – especially on this day (before).

One this day (before) I remember who I am: curious, compassionate, sensitive, vulnerable, able to learn from mistakes, human. Not driven by fear, greed or hatred. On this day I remember who I am and who I want to remain.

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Year in Review 2016

Written 24 December 2016, Panama

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How to build a snowman in 30 Celsius heat? Use plastic drinking cups!

This is my 12th “year in review”. It’s hard to believe that the first was written from Texel Island in the Netherlands in Dec 2005). In 2008, I wrote from Panama as we introduced our first born to his “abuelos”. This is the second year, since I started writing the “year in review” that I am writing from Panama. This year the “abuelos” have two big kids from Toronto with whom to celebrate. Ray is 9 and Lucas is 6. It is unbelievable how quickly the time has flown!

When I wrote this it was snowing and cold at our current home in Toronto while we were sweating it out in Panama’s humid transition from the wet to dry season. This will be Ray’s second Christmas in a hot climate, but the first that he remembers. It is certainly Lucas’s first. For hubby, it is what he knows from childhood. I’ve had several Christmases in hot climates, most in Panama from 2000 to 2003, but also one in Mauritania in 2006. For someone who grew up where it is cold in December, sweating on Christmas still doesn’t feel quite right, but I don’t miss trying to get around in the snow.

It has been a trying year for many in terms of world events (depending on your point of view), but it has been a fairly good year for our family. Other travels this year included a lovely few days for the boys and I, with very close friends, at a rented cottage in Oxbow Lake (near Algonquin Park). As a family, we also did another wonderful canoe trip, this time further north in Temagami. This trip to Panama is our send off to 2016 (though we will be back in Toronto to ring in the New Year).

Our boys continue to grow physically, intellectually and emotionally. This year they started in a new school so that Ray could begin extended French. He is in grade 4 and has 50% of his classes in French and 50% in English. This means that Ray is starting on his third language. He’s made friends at his new school and is generally doing well. Physically, he is developing skills in running (he joined the cross-country team), swimming (he joined the swim team), biking, and other general sports like monkeying on the monkey bars. He continues to be our social and talkative guy, but despite this gregariousness, he remains our pensive one. He thinks and feels deeply and he is working on strategies to deal with strong emotions. The kids and I have been experimenting with mindfulness (the book Sitting like a Frog is a great intro for kids) and we are all finding it helpful.

Lucas is in grade 1!     He struggled a bit with the transition to the new school (he missed his old school and his friends) but he is now making new friends and is doing well. He remains very kind, always quick to help others and to ensure that everything is fair for everyone. He is developing his logical, mathematical and organizational skills with patterns, puzzles and (of course) collecting rocks. Like his brother, he is developing his physical skills in biking and swimming. He also still loves singing and dancing – and to my delight – he still skip-walks when he is excited. Even though he is firmly in kid territory now (not anywhere near a baby), he will always be my baby.

As for the adults, hubby has found a place that he loves professionally. As bike culture continues to increase in Toronto, he found a job as a bike mechanic at Urbane Cyclist. It is a workers co-op with like-minded colleagues and it is close enough to bike commute. In fact it is also close to the University of Toronto, so he and I can sometimes meet for lunch. The job allows hubby to use his technical skills on something he is passionate about – getting people riding safely by building and fixing bikes. He is basically getting paid for his hobby. Not bad. The job is still somewhat seasonal, but even that works since it allows us to do things like visit Panama for the winter holidays.

This has been a busy year for me professionally. Last year I learned the day-to-day operations of graduate student education and funding (it reminds me of ecology in its complexity) and I began to research several topics around enhancing graduate funding. This year I added to that by deepening the research and data analysis and working with senior leaders to implement several major projects that included an increase to grad student funding, better transparency around that funding, optimizing international student funding, and new programs for professionalization and progress through PhD programs. There were certainly challenges, but overall I have learned an immense amount this year! I’ve deepened my understanding of the intricacies of graduate education and funding, and how senior leaders make tough decisions in higher education amid multiple, and often conflicting, demands. Next year I will start a yearlong secondment doing similar work but around research and research funding.

The year 2016 has been trying for many, but for my family it has been a year of strengthening our souls and our relationships. It seems prudent to look for solidity in oneself and close relationships when other aspects of life are turbulent. I wish you all the best for 2017!

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Temagami

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.

It did.

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.

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Packed canoes off Ant Island. Photo: D. Buehler.

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).

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Towering white pine. Photo: D. Buehler.

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,

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Temagami trail. Photo: D. Buehler.

breath taking “dining room” views

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A room with a view. Photo: D. Buehler.

and quite bays for an evening paddle or swim.

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Anyone for a paddle or swim? Photo: D. Buehler.

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.

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Bagels cooking on the reflector oven. Photo: D. Buehler

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.

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Sometimes it rains. Photo: D. Buehler

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.

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Commit and just do it. Photo: D. Buehler.

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 :-).

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Moving beyond survival in Iceland

At times it was hard to breathe in Iceland.

Sometimes it was the scenery that literally took my breath away: waves and white sea spray against black sea cliffs, rift valleys glowing red and yellow with autumn heath and birch, glacier capped volcanoes, thundering waterfalls, or all of the above in a single day!

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Þingvellir rift valley in autumnal colours with Öxarárfoss waterfall in background. Photo: D. Buehler

Other times it was a sulfuric stench rising from geothermal mud making it hard to breathe.

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Steam plume from the GunnuhverHotSprings. Photo: D. Buehler

Still other times it was tightness in my chest, released by tears of awe and joy, at the dancing Northern Lights.

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Aurora borealis – right outside our accommodation! The photo doesn’t do it justice. Photo: D. Buehler

I returned from Iceland in early October after a conference and a week of family vacation. But I struggled for months to write a post about it. Somehow just describing the beauty of the place seemed insufficient. The island sits atop a seam in the earth’s crust where two continental plates are pulling apart. This rift between the Eurasian and North American plates creates large scale faulting that forms fissures and breaks in the land through which magma can seep (or explode) to the surface. I needed some time to delve into the geophysical phenomenon that created the stunning landscapes. I needed some time to understand the hardships and terrors that created tough, saga writing, parliament making, and fiercely independent people. I also needed some time to deal with rifts in my own life.

The Free Dictionary defines a “survivor” as “a person or thing that survives” and remains alive or in existence despite hardships or trauma. Iceland is a geologically new addition to this earth and to me its landscapes and people epitomize not just survival, but the notion that one can take tough circumstances and embrace them to build a stronger, more efficient and more beautiful whole.

Icelanders inhabit a harsh and unforgiving land. To survive and thrive they work with its harshness rather than fighting against it. For example, the Reykjanes Peninsula could be described as desolate. Lava fields cover the land right to the edge of the ocean where waves crash against stark black cliffs. No rivers flow here because the ground is too porous. The ground is also hot! In places it steams and is too hot to walk on without melting the soles of your shoes. We visited two geothermal areas on the Reykjanes Penninsula: Gunnuhver and Krýsuvík Seltún.

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The ground is hot at the Gunnuhver geothermal area. Photo: D. Buehler

 

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Stay on the path amid the steaming earth at Krýsuvík-Seltún. Photo: D. Buehler

To some, this lava strewn and steaming ground looks (and smells) like hell on earth, but others see geothermal activity that can be harnessed. Geothermal energy accounts for about 25% all the electricity produced in Iceland and, even more impressively, provides for the space heating and hot water requirements of approximately 89% of all buildings in Iceland and 90% of all swimming pools. (And there are a lot of pools!)

The geothermal forces that provide for Iceland’s space heating and hot water originate about two kilometers below the surface where freshwater and seawater combine and are heated by magma. This magma is much closer to the surface in Iceland because of its unique position between two diverging continental plates. Icelanders access this superheated water via deep holes that lead to geothermal power plants. One of the most famous is Svartsengi the plant that provides power for much of the Reykjanes Peninsula. Superheated water is vented from the ground and used to run turbines that generate electricity. After going through the turbines, the steam and hot water pass through a heat exchanger to provide heat for the municipal hot water system.

Svartsengi is also the source of another Icelandic phenomenon – the Blue Lagoon. The world famous spa is a by-product of the power plant. On its way to the surface, geothermally heated water picks up silica and minerals. These minerals are helpful to a host of ailments and the soothing temperature of the water is wonderfully relaxing. Though we chose to experience Iceland’s geothermally heated water through its wonderful public pools (the kids were far more impressed with water slides than silica and minerals) it was still a sight to behold. The Blue Lagoon is a shining example of the way that Icelanders can harness the good in something that might otherwise be considered waste.

 

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Mineral infused water and encrusted lava rocks at the Blue Lagoon. Photo: D. Buehler

Beyond the Reykjanes Penninusla, the ground is less porous and plentiful rainwater collects into rivers – lots of them – strong and powerful. Tumbling from high glaciers in enumerable waterfalls and rapids these rivers produce ~75% of Iceland’s electricity through hydropower. They are also a huge draw for tourists. The mighty Gullfoss (Golden Falls) attracts hordes of tourists each year. However, unlike the great waterfall of North America – Niagara Falls – there are no casinos at Gullfoss. Icelanders seem to have a greater understanding that the power and beauty of nature alone can be the main draw for tourists. With tourism surging in Iceland, I hope it stays that way.

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Rainbow-clad Gullfoss surrounded by nothing but natural beauty. Photo: D. Buehler

Another breathtaking waterfall is Seljalandsfoss, which literally means “selling the land of waterfalls”. The waterfall certainly lives up to its name, as it plunges 60 meters from the top of a moss and health covered sea cliff. A footpath leads behind the falls and my 8-year-old and I found the walk behind the falls so exhilarating that we did it twice! I loved the thundering of the water and the misty wind it blew up into our faces. I loved seeing the countryside through the waterfall. Awesome (in the true sense of the word)!

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The view from behind Seljalandsfoss. Photo: D. Buehler

The Icelandic landscape certainly inspired my imagination, and it has inspired people for centuries as the backdrop to a rich literary history. This history began with oral story telling about Norse gods. Driving through the countryside, it was easy to imagine how angry Gods might have helped early Icelanders to explain steaming lava fields and mountains that spewed glowing rock, clouds of black ash, and flashes of electricity. Yet pagan deities and magical creatures also fit more peaceful aspects of the landscape. It was equally easy to conjure fairies dancing in the rainbows around waterfalls in misty, moss-covered cliffs.

Iceland moved from oral traditions to written sagas in the 13th and 14th centuries. The sagas contain 40 narratives describing the life in Iceland during the Viking age around the year 1000. This was a time when Icelanders abandoned ancient gods and adopted Christianity. Viking Sagas are filled with larger-than-life heroes and epic voyages. For example, the sagas describe Leif Eiriksson’s expedition westwards on what many believe is the true first voyage by a European to North America. But there are also “family sagas” about ordinary people, independent farmers and tradespeople, who formed the main class of a society free from kings, hereditary aristocracy, and taxes.

Myths, legends and stories are everywhere in Iceland, and they do much to enrich the experience for the visitor. Though I must admit not having read any of the sagas, we did visit the giant Giganta’s house in Keflavik.

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Giganta’s house fits perfectly into a sea cliff near the Keflavik harbour. Photo: D. Buehler

 

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Giganta herself enjoying some sun. Photo: D. Buehler

Iceland was created under harsh and often violent circumstances. It is the clash of fire and ice: magma, glacier and crashing sea that creates the startling natural beauty of the place. Icelanders live in this harsh environment and rather than fight it they embrace it. They integrate it, harness its power, and weave it into their legends and culture. This trip came at a moment in my own life when pressures building within and around me caused a rift that felt somewhat like the spitting apart of continental plates. Iceland has much to teach about embracing what you are given and emerging stronger, smarter and more aware than you might otherwise have been.

 

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Year in Review 2015

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This year’s review begins on a note of sadness and gratitude. The two people who first inspired me to write these reviews – Paul and Louise Herzberg – both passed away this year. Louise passed at the end of September at age 78 and Paul followed her, only two months later, at the beginning of December at age 79. They lived full lives and they both had a huge impact on me. I am grateful to have known them, and though I am sorry to have lost them, I am consoled by the fact that, even this year, they are together for the holidays.

Within our family, the boys are growing immensely: physically, intellectually and emotionally. Lucas is a confident senior kindergartener and, although he remains reserved at school, he is always quick to help others. He is incredibly kind and fair. If he has something, he makes sure that others get some too. He loves patterns and counting and he remains our little geologist – always collecting and organizing rocks. He is also starting to read by sounding out simple words. In the pool, a pair of good goggles helped him to overcome his fear of putting his face in the water. He is now an avid explorer of the underwater world. If 2014 showed us his love for singing then 2015 showed us his love for dancing. Wherever we went he found a dance floor: the stonework in a cabin in Algonquin Park, the dirt around a campfire, even surrounded by adults at the closing dinner of a conference in Iceland. He showed us how to dance with unembarrassed rhythm and joy!

Ray shot up physically this year and several times we looked at him and wondered, “Where did he get those Capri pants?” (They weren’t capris; he’d just grown two inches.) He remains our pensive one – always thinking and feeling deeply. He is an incredibly sensitive and compassionate child. Now in grade 3, he has worked hard to improve his reading (which has become much more fluent). He is an articulate speaker and is exploring ways to express himself in writing to the same extent that he can when using spoken words. He has also become quite the cyclist, even able to do tricks with his dad. In the pool, 2015 brought the success of passing the deep end test. I am incredibly proud of his persistence and perseverance and I hope he is also proud of himself.

Like his boys, Hubby was in school for part of this past year, juggling parenting while churning out a steady stream of assignments, reports and exams. In October the hard work paid off and he graduated from Seneca College with an Environmental Technician diploma. He also gained valuable experience working as a bike mechanic at a high-end shop in downtown Toronto during the height of the cycling busy season. Hubby wins Super Papi points for singlehandedly managing the kids and work while I was away in the Arctic for three weeks in June. He is a bit of a legend at the Canadian Wildlife Service. Apparently most mothers aren’t as lucky as I was, though – social commentary here – generally fathers are. He also gets kudos for making the whole family Halloween costumes from scratch! We went as characters from Star Wars Rebels.

For me, this has been a year of highs and lows. On Jan 1st 2015, I found myself walking alone on the Leslie Street Spit feeling contemplative. The cold rain and strong wind matched my mood. The winter and early spring were stressful with many challenges at work and at home. In contrast, the summer and early fall brought amazing opportunities for travel and adventure: the Arctic in June, outback Algonquin before Labor Day and Iceland in early October (I still owe you a chronicle for that one). Indeed, this was my biggest travel year since 2006 (pre-kids) and I still love it. My wanderlust hasn’t abated a bit. Travelling on my own this year reminded who I am. Travelling with my family showed me that the kids are now old enough to share my wanderlust with them. The question for 2016 will be how to integrate the adventurous researcher/writer with the settled and breadwinning parent. Working together, rather than in conflict, these parts of me could bring my children stability, flexibility and wisdom.

For us it has been a year of travel and opportunity, but also a year of exhaustion and soul searching. We hope that 2015 has treated you well and wish you all the best for 2016!

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Carrying a canoe hurts – but it’s somehow empowering

Canada is a country of lakes and rivers. For centuries a canoe was the main form of transportation in Canada. Today, travel by canoe remains symbolic of wilderness and adventure.

I have experienced my share of wilderness, including several canoe trips into Algonquin Park. For a while now I’ve wanted to share that experience with my kids, but I’d always canoed with someone more experienced. I didn’t feel comfortable leading my family in the backcountry alone. A guided trip seemed the way to go, so this year, just before the Labor Day weekend, we did it.

Our guide, Kieran, was there to greet us when we arrived. He showed us around the Northern Edge Algonquin grounds and to the log cabin where we spent our first night. Rescued from demolition by Northern Edge’s chef, architect, and stonemason, it is more than 100 years old. There was a beautiful stone area in front of a woodstove that Lucas called his dance floor. I have never seen him dance so much!

Century old log cabin. Photo: D. Buehler.

Century old log cabin. Photo: D. Buehler.

After a swim in the lake, we met our second guide, Alissa, who joined as a guide-in-training. Kieran and Alissa were fabulous. They kept us safe and comfortable, while still making us feel capable ourselves. They shared their knowledge and they taught by example: how to build a campfire, how to portage a canoe, how to saw wood, how to use tree sap as a match, how to find the North Star, and much more. By the end, I felt that we could do it on our own, but it was so much nicer having someone else cook, make sure that everything was safely stowed at night, and help out with the kids.

That night we learned about the wolves of Algonquin. When I first started canoeing in the Park these wolves were not considered their own species, but a study on recently obtained DNA data now suggests that eastern wolves are distinct from more southerly red wolves, more northerly grey wolves (timber wolves), and coyotes. Each evening of our canoe trip we howled for wolves.

The next morning we set out on our adventure.

Everyone in canoes. Photo: D. Buehler.

Everyone in canoes. Photo: D. Buehler.

Instead of entering the Park through Kawawaymog Lake, we took a 10 km drive south and put in on Nahma Lake. This was a secluded route. On the busier lakes, the first portage is a highway of backcountry paddlers moving into or out of the park. Not Nahma. At Nahma we performed our first portage without meeting a soul. Portage, French for ”carrying place”, is a nice way to describe carrying all your gear (canoes, tents, sleeping mats, kitchen barrels, food, tools, etc.) on your back overland. I don’t think anyone really likes portaging, but it does give a sense of accomplishment when the water at the end comes into view. We paddled and portaged to Craig Lake where we chose a campsite nestled within a hemlock grove on a tiny island. The trees gave shade and their needles formed a soft carpet for sleeping.

The view. Photo: A. I. Castillo.

The view. Photo: A. I. Castillo.

We loved the site so much that we decided to use it as a base for day trips. We paddled into a narrow river and encountered a huge beaver dam. While crossing it, I got a sandal stuck in the mud and snapped the straps. Luckily I had sewing supplies in my first aid kit and was able to fix it during lunch! We paddled past a beaver lodge and then into a meandering river through a wetland. Along the way Isaac and I practiced our teamwork through the tight turns. Ray saw a stick hanging over the water and made up an elaborate story about it being a chipmunk diving board.

We portaged to Pishnecka Lake where Lucas requested a shallow sandy beach and Kieran obliged. Lucas was in heaven. I have never heard him say “Yipee” as much as he did on this trip. We saw fresh moose tracks and moose droppings. The moose were near, but we did not see them. While at the beach thunder rumbled and we had a short rain shower. We decided to keep moving and portaged a longer and hiller trail back to Craig Lake. At the end of the portage we found a muddy bog. No water in which to put the canoe, but meters and meters of mud. We had to brave the mud or portage back. With thunder rumbling, we wanted the shortest route. Kieran scoped out the area and found water. Alissa piggybacked Ray, Isaac carried Lucas, Kieran carried both canoes, and I carried the food and gear barrel. I wore no shoes. I knew my sandals wouldn’t survive the mud. Through it all the boys were fabulous. As we paddled back to our campsite, thunder still rumbling in the distance, Lucas was so chill that he took a nap!

Indeed, the kids did great the whole trip. They paddled, enjoyed the scenery, asked questions, and sang. They found ways to amuse themselves without toys, screens, or the myriad other distractions of the city.

They made a seesaw out of firewood.

Kid-made seesaw. Photo: D. Buehler.

Kid-made seesaw. Photo: D. Buehler.

They sawed wood.

Sawing. Photo: D. Buehler.

Sawing. Photo: D. Buehler.

They built fire pits (strong enough to be used to serve dinner on).

Building a fireplace. Photo: D. Buehler.

Building a fireplace. Photo: D. Buehler.

They enjoyed our private beach.

Enjoying "our" beach. Photo: D. Buehler

Enjoying “our” beach. Photo: D. Buehler

Indeed, we all spent time learning to skip stones in the sunset.

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In the evenings we sat around a campfire, talking and learning. As the fire crackled and threw up sparks, the kids saw fire fairies. I saw the fairies too, just as I had as a child. We roasted sausages and marshmallows, then poked our sticks into the embers and wrote with the glowing tips in the darkened sky. How often are kids allowed to play with sticks and fire? But out here, supervised, relaxed and safe, it all seemed fine.

Campfire. Photo: D. Buehler.

Campfire. Photo: D. Buehler.

After the campfire on our last night, Ray and I sat out watching stars and lightening simultaneously. Loons called to each other, and then we heard two long howls. They might have been loons wailing, but the sound seemed deeper and longer. It might have been a wolf. I hope it was the latter. That night the storm finally broke. Lightening lit up the tent and thunder woke Lucas and I. Amazingly, Ray and Isaac slept through it!

The morning of the third day, Kieran guided us to one of the most peaceful places I have been – a hidden cove just south east of “our” island. The water was shallow and still. We saw fish, kingfishers, ducks, and even a snapping turtle. We all hated to leave, but eventually it was time to paddle out. On the way there was one final delight – a bald eagle flying low and fast right over the canoe!

Loon and eagle watching. Photo: A. I. Castillo.

Loon and eagle watching. Photo: A. I. Castillo.

We returned home closer and stronger. I was proud of the kids and proud of myself. I learned that I could still steer and portage a canoe (solo). The first try was a bit dodgy. I forgot to put the nose down to rest and instead tilted the canoe backward. The yoke slide off my shoulders and I found myself calling for assistance with it balanced on my head! By my last portage, I had remembered the zen-like concentration needed to keep the canoe up on my shoulders the entire way.

Ray asked Kieran what it feels like to carry a canoe.

“Empowering” he said.

I couldn’t agree more.

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How travelling helps me appreciate life – examples from the Arctic

While walking at lunch the other day I saw a bumblebee, and I stopped, and I watched it. In that moment I was fully present. Thoughts about work evaporated and my mind was focused. I smiled because there are bees in this world and because they do amazing work.

Then my mind wandered to the bumblebees I saw while volunteering with the Canadian Wildlife Service in the Arctic this June*. There, I marvelled at the bees even more than at home in Toronto.

Bumblebee in a dwarf willow, Baker Lake, Nunavut. Photo: Debbie Buehler

Bumblebee in a dwarf willow, Baker Lake, Nunavut. Photo: Debbie Buehler

Arctic bumblebees, and other Arctic insects, face severe cold in winter, unpredictable cold snaps in summer, and almost endless wind. The bees beat the cold by being large (lower surface to volume ratio) and by “shivering” (rapidly contracting their flight muscles). They also sit in the center of bowl-shaped flowers on cold, but sunny days. The petals of the flower focus the sun’s rays making a perfect basking spot. Other Arctic pollinators, like flies and mosquitoes, do this too. And Arctic pollinators don’t hover lazily around flowers like my Toronto bee. In a land of winds that can knock a human down, insects often eschew flying altogether, preferring to crawl from flower to flower.

In the Arctic I paid attention to bees because I was fascinated by how they survived in a place that is cold and windy most of the year. That fascination made me more attuned to bees back home as well.

This is what I love about traveling. It wakes me up and makes me pay attention. The effect is especially potent when I travel to places that take me to the boundaries of my experience. While on such trips – whether navigating a new and exotic (to me) city, or surveying wildlife in a remote plot – I must be present, must take in my surroundings, must live in the moment. I am wide open to the stimuli around me, and because I am paying full attention, I can fully appreciate my experience.

My trip to the Arctic offered many moments of appreciation. I appreciate caterpillars more because of the Arctic Wooly Bear** (Gynaephora groenlandica).

Arctic woolly bear, Kivalliq region, Nunavut. Photo: Debbie Buehler

Arctic woolly bear, Kivalliq region, Nunavut. Photo: Debbie Buehler

 If you look closely at the Arctic tundra (which one does when looking for nests) you are bound to see a big caterpillar completely covered in long rusty coloured hairs (hence “Wooly”). These caterpillars spend nearly 90% of their lives frozen! They feed and grow only in June, then retreat to a protective cocoon for the rest of the short summer and go dormant for the winter. Such a protracted life cycle means that it can take 7 years to go from caterpillar to moth***. So the caterpillars I saw could have been 7 years old!

I appreciate helicopters more because there were no roads to the places I visited in the Arctic. We used our helicopter like a taxi, sometimes travelling hundreds of kilometers a day.

Me and “my ride” on the tundra. Photo: Jennie Rausch

Me and “my ride” on the tundra. Photo: Jennie Rausch

When people ask me what super power I want, my answer is invariably soaring flight, Flight in a helicopter is as close as I’ve ever come to soaring. I loved the feeling of flying, and I especially love the freedom of simply floating off the ground without a runway. The freedom to hover and to land anywhere is essential for Arctic fieldwork. Now when I hear a helicopter buzz by in Toronto, I am brought back to the tundra and the sound of “my ride” approaching to pick me up.

From the helicopter I had a bird’s eye view of a landscape that many “southerners” like me have never seen.

Landscape near Arviat, Nunavut. Photo: Debbie Buehler

Landscape near Arviat, Nunavut. Photo: Debbie Buehler

Melting sea ice on Hudson Bay. Photo: Debbie Buehler

Melting sea ice on Hudson Bay. Photo: Debbie Buehler

Tundra beneath clouds near Arviat. Photo: Debbie Buehler

Tundra beneath clouds near Arviat. Photo: Debbie Buehler

From the helicopter I saw herds of caribou – one day we had hundreds – and from the air I could easily see that the ground was crisscrossed with their migration trails. The aerial view also made it easy to see landforms made by glaciers and permafrost: hummocks, frost boils, tussock wetlands, eskers, raised beaches and tundra polygons.

Low-centered tundra polygons. Photo: Debbie Buehler

Low-centered tundra polygons. Photo: Debbie Buehler

To my delight, we also saw muskoxen from the air in small herds, including a few young. After landing at one plot, I was even able to snap a picture of one from the ground.

Muskox in the distance as seen from the ground. Photo: Debbie Buehler

Muskox in the distance as seen from the ground. Photo: Debbie Buehler

One particular sighting truly made me appreciate the helicopter – a mama Grizzly and her cub (sorry no photo, though I do have a very unprofessional video). I can assure you that I only wanted to see bears from the helicopter!

Beautiful places arrived at by helicopter. Photo: Debbie Buehler

Beautiful places arrived at by helicopter. Photo: Debbie Buehler

I appreciate satellite technology more because sometimes you need to make a call because you are almost out of fuel and are, literally, in the middle of nowhere. This happened when our team was deep in the Barrenlands of the Northwest Territories. Our cabin was over a hundred kilometers to the northeast in Nunavut. We had just finished a productive day of fieldwork and our pilot set a course for the fuel cache we needed to get home. But when we arrived at the coordinates there was nothing there! No fuel. This was a problem. The next nearest cache was at our cabin! When you run out of fuel in the tundra, it means staying where you are until fuel can be brought to you (could be days) with nothing but the helicopter for shelter (for 5 people). I will admit that this made me nervous, but the more experienced folks on the team were not worried. Luckily, we had not one, not two, not three, but four satellite telephones on us (the helicopter had two and each survey team leader had one). We used this rather amazing technology to call colleagues at Environment Canada who immediately put us in touch with the owners of the fuel cache. To our great relief, the minutes in the coordinates we were given were off. We were only 9 km away from fuel (as the helicopter flies). With one call, and within a few minutes, our problem was solved!

The elusive Hanbury fuel cache. Photo: Debbie Buehler

The elusive Hanbury fuel cache. Photo: Debbie Buehler

I appreciate showers more. This tends to happen when you live in a place with no running water for a while. I appreciated showers even more after returning from three weeks on the Mauritanian desert coast in 2006!

Finally, I appreciate my family more. My three weeks in the Arctic were the longest I have been away from my kids (or from my husband since having kids). It made me realize that, although I can still have my freedom and my adventures, I am tethered now. Each time talked to my family on the phone – whether from a hotel room in an Inuit hamlet or from a satellite phone on the tundra– I felt a tug of longing to be with them. The sound of my kid’s voices made me long to hug them and to smell their familiar scent. Noticing that tug in my gut, really feeling it, made me appreciate that I now have a safety line that guides me home. It changes my behaviour, makes me more careful, so that I can keep my promise of “mommy will be home soon.”

Appreciating my boys at the Aquarium back home in Toronto. Photo: Debbie Buehler

Appreciating my boys at the Aquarium back home in Toronto. Photo: Debbie Buehler

I have been back for more than a month and things are pretty much business as usual. But in the Arctic I practiced living in the moment, I practiced seeing my surroundings, and I practiced appreciation. I’ve brought that appreciation home with me.

While walking I saw bumblebee and I stopped and I watched it. I did not wander to thoughts of pollinators being in trouble. I just noticed the bee – and I smiled – with pure appreciation.

______________________________________________________________

* The views expressed in this, or any other, article written about my experience, are mine alone. I am not an employee of the Canadian Wildlife Service, though I thank them for inviting me on this incredible journey as a volunteer.

** For those who know the “Wooly bear” to be the caterpillar of the Isabella Tiger moth, this is a different Wooly bear

*** Revised from the 14-year estimate in E. C. Pielou’s book.

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