The One With a Weekend in Algonquin

It’s a 9:30pm on a Saturday night and I am in bed; scrambled eggs for tea, groceries reorganised, washing done, loo bleached, teeth brushed, the whole schabang.

This is not standard of a Saturday night I might point out, but apparently in Canada there’s these pesky things called midterms and I am slapbang in the middle of them. As a result the studying procrastination is strong and my bathroom smells divine.

Reading week is a week away and it can’t come soon enough. This past week has, unfortunately, not been an easy one. Essays and essay proposals and revision on top of standard readings and reading responses on top of a very gruelling 7:00am hike through the rain to basketball – it hasn’t been my favourite time, and I’ve struggled to weigh up the responsibilities to my academics and to myself.

It’s staggering to think that this time last week I was standing on a lakeside in the bone-shuddering cold of a Canadian autumn night, with fog drifting eerily across the water Harry-Potter-Dementor-scene style. Around me, the most diverse group of people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting, joking and teaching each other insults in their native languages, our necks cricked looking up at the endless stars.

Despite the fact that it literally was freezing and I definitely could have done with a proper thermal, I’d give quite a lot to be back on that lakeside right now. Because although the past week hasn’t been fun, last weekend was quite comfortably the absolute highlight of the past 50 odd days I’ve been in Canada.

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The trip to Algonquin over the Thanksgiving weekend was put on by the Gee Gees Outdoor Rec department under the ‘Outdoor’ section, and although I believe it’s open to all students these trips in particular are catered towards touristy things in the local area, so inevitably attract the International Students. I had signed up because a) I love hiking, and anything that isn’t Gold D of E in the Brecon Beacons feels like a holiday b) I desperately wanted to see some proper Fall colours and c) Emily made me do it. She signed up first and (very quickly) convinced me to overlook the price tag and just go for it. And I am beyond glad she did.

This was back at the start of term. In the mad rush of the semester, we’d sort of forgotten about it until an email appeared reminding us about the pre-departure meeting and we desperately started buying up walking socks and gloves. It was at this meeting we met Stéphane.

Ah Stéphane.

Stéphane falls into the category of ‘slightly hippy/weird wilderness guide’ with incredible ease. He was perpetually late because he operates on ‘Indian Time’. He told us all numerous times that “people say nature is wild – it’s not wild it’s nature!! The cities, with the guns and crimes – they are wild!!” – and by numerous I mean at least several times an hour. The first night around the campfire he chose a stick to be the ‘talking stick’ and went on a huge tangent about him being accepted into a First Nations community before making us all say something too one by one. He made us stop at random and all too frequent points on the hike to tell us stories, including one about the ‘widow maker’ silver birches. He has a strange hard-to-discern sense of humour that I’m realising is common amongst Quebecers; at one point he told an elaborate story about his grandfather dying, asked us to join him in a minute’s silence which we all, awkwardly, did, before breaking it 10 seconds in -“no it never happened haha”. Right Stéphane. He made us say ‘Miigwetch’ (the Ojibwe word for thank you) all the time. And he actually hugged a tree on our last hike – not just a quick squeeze, mind – a long lingering spiritual embrace.

He was crazy; infuriating (I’m not good with Indian Time which is no surprise to me, but fortunately neither was anyone else really so we bonded in our frustration); ridiculous; hilarious, and kind of a wonder.

“Who needs a five star hotel when we have a million star one?” he said on that first night by the lake with the milky way a cloudy smudge above us, and I had to agree with him.

Because for all his rambling stories and strange jokes and needless stops – Stéphane clearly loves Canadian nature with every fibre in his body, and after the weekend we had, I can completely respect that sentiment.

Algonquin Park is around a 3 and half hour drive out of Ottawa and the first, and one of the largest, provincial parks in Ontario. Thanksgiving Weekend gave us the bank holiday off on Monday, so we had 3 days in total (minus Saturday as travelling and setting up) and two nights camping. I was hoping for some beautiful scenery, a lake or two and getting to know some new people. And that was exactly what I got, and also so much more.

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The park itself is stunning. I don’t know about other times of year but I feel we must have hit one of the most perfect weekends to visit – the autumnal colours were incredible. Shocking greens, neon yellows, bright orange and deep, fiery maple leaf reds – sometimes all on the same tree. The drive in was breathtaking enough; walking through it was something else. I honestly think it was one of the most beautiful walks I’ve ever done. Sunday was our big hike day (I say big, it was only 12km) and although it was relatively overcast when the sun filtered through the leaves the light was astounding. Reflected by the light-coloured leaves and leaves already on the forest floor, it felt supernaturally bright – too bright to be in the middle of a wood, like the whole forest was glowing. And then around the corner from the colours we’d hit viewpoint after viewpoint on craggy rocks just built for photo opportunities, or small ponds lined with pines and littered with abandoned beaver dams, or lookouts over vast lakes as blue as the sky.

It was truly stunning. A real representation of the wonder of natural Canada, and it reminded me why I have a soft spot for this country.

Aside from experiencing ‘the nature’ however (be proud Stéphane) I was also hoping to make a few friends. And honestly, I couldn’t have asked for an easier, friendlier and more welcoming group. From all over the world, the 12 of us huddled around the fire in the mornings and evenings grumbling about the cold, took endless photos of each other with unending enthusiasm, and by the end were pulling each other in for group hugs.

They’re all wonderful people in their own right, but I’ll give you a summary of our team:

  • The two French girls – Emily and I had the pleasure of being in their car on the way there and must have talked about languages, culture differences and Brexit for comfortably the first 2 hours of the drive. They’re both lovely and here from Paris for the semester together and were just as stuck on a broken record of saying “it’s just so beautifulas I was.
  • The Belgian Girl – A sweetheart, and also one of the few Europeans I feel I’ve met where my (poor) French is possibly comparable to their English, but fortunately half of our group’s first language was French so she was fine. Had a beautiful camera and took heaps of photos I’d love to see.
  • The Swiss Guy – A Fan of Stéphane’s because he’d been on previous trips, he was refreshingly no-nonsense, but then in a moment of wonderfully stereotypical Swissness, pulled out two enormous bars of chocolate at the top of a look-out. “I brought a kilo with me from home on the plane,” he said, “I would miss it.”
  • The Aussie – Wore Australian flag flip-flops around the campsite when the temperature was probably around 2 degrees. Kept saying “chilly” in a way that reminded me how bizarrely great it is that our most similar dialect to UK English is Australia. Ate tuna out of the can at random moments – this is apparently completely normal to him. Brought a sleeping bag liner instead of a sleeping bag (i.e. NOT suitable for 15 degree camping let alone freezing!) and yet didn’t complain. Total legend.
  • The Italian – Just so Italian. Laughed a lot; was hilariously horrified by the pasta we had for dinner; admitted she was on her period halfway through the hike and then teared up when us girls swamped her in a pitying hug. I feel she would be a good friend to get drunk with.
  • The German Girl – Just so German. Asked all the useful questions about kit and timing in the pre-departure meeting in just such a wonderfully efficient and organised way. Looked super on trend with her Hudson Bay mittens. I had a fantastic chat with her all the way home about the refugee crisis and Germany’s response; I’d love to see her again for coffee actually.
  • The Other German Girl – An actual poppet. Constantly beaming and practically bouncing around. Told me the word for ‘rattlesnake’ in German is ‘Klapperschlange’ which just about made my day.
  • The Chinese Girl – Also a poppet. Very patiently tried to teach us Chinese. Was in complete awe of the stars as coming from Shanghai she’d never seen so many. Fiercely competitive at the card game we played and went from losing to winning very quickly.
  • The Finnish Guy – This guy, oh my god. Getting into the cars on Saturday morning Emily turned to me and very seriously said “I have never seen a more beautiful specimen of mankind,” and I couldn’t quite look at him without giggling for the rest of the trip. Started out being called ‘The Finnish Guy’ and ended up as just ‘The Guy’ because as well as majoring in Forest Economics (so Scandinavian omg) he had also served a year in the army as part of conscription, and was apparently a camping genius. He ended up advising Stéphane half the time (I think Stéphane, as the rest of us were, was a little in awe). Handed around a bottle of whisky from his jacket pocket when it got cold. Made the fire every night by manfully cracking tree-trunks over his thighs – cue Emily and I being unable to make eye contact.

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All in all they were a fabulous group, and I hope that (Facebook Group serving) this weekend won’t be the end of our friendship. We had no wifi, no signal, no electricity and with nothing more pressing to do than hike, eat, and stand around the fire, we talked for hours. It was only 3 days but it felt like I’d known them months by the end. In fact, the no-wifi thing was a very valuable and interesting experience for me. I’m as bad as the next millenial with access to an iPhone and social media, and though I like to defend it against my sometimes paranoid Mum – being without it all for 72 hours was… oddly liberating. On the drive home turning on our phones the notifications flooded in and I felt an anxiety creeping back in, the emails about assignments, the stream of messages from people I’d have to reply to. I made eye contact with one of the French girls and she shrugged, “I’m turning mine back off.”

So we did.

And instead of updating our Instagrams or reassuring friends we weren’t dead,  we stopped at a Tim Horton’s just as the sun was turning orange in the sky – and sitting around 4 slightly-greasy tables shoved together with our cardboard crate of coffee and box of 50 Timbits going around, I had an astonishing moment of clarity that there was nowhere else I’d rather spend my first Canadian Thanksgiving.

I was just so thankful to be there; drinking tea and eating donuts and smelling of bonfire and happy. Happy in a way that reminded me that this was why I wanted to study abroad.

One of the highlights of a weekend that in itself was one big highlight, was that time by the lake, shivering, despite being layered up in every item of clothing we’d brought. I like my constellations, I picked up the interest from my Dad, and pointing them out to the people in the group, some started oohing and ahhing at bright flashes of shooting stars. Some people saw them but there’s was always one who missed it.

Then the Finnish Guy turned to me and said, “wait, where’s the bear again?”, and wanting to make sure everyone identified it, I raised my voice a little and outlined it, right in front of us above the trees on the opposite side of the lake.

And just then, right through the centre of Ursa Major, streaked the brightest, biggest, and most beautiful shooting star I’ve ever seen in my life.

I’m not a spiritual or superstitious person, and I’m not sure I believe in signs – but even I have to admit that that felt like one.

‘That’s why I love Canada so bad: I’ve spent 2 nights in a tent with temperature below 0°, no water, no phone and no electricity. I’ve met wonderful people from all over the world, helped them set a fire, laughed, seen wonderful places, hiked, and had the best time of my life being cut out of the world. I’ve seen 2 falling stars, the first ones in my entire life, and I was supposed to make a wish. But I didn’t. Because could I wish for anything better than feeling so alive and being so blessed to be able to make such moving experiences, making my heart and my eyes so full of colours and joy?’ 

(The caption on a photo the Italian girl posted on Facebook)

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