Story originally appeared in dinemagazine.com.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” — Henry David Thoreau
Canada is a wild country. I want to detach from the matrix and reconnect to something real, so I head north. And yet, whenever I’ve said, “I’m going up north for the weekend,” I’ve still been very much in the south.
Ontario’s true north is a Texas-sized wilderness. The opportunities for exploring its backcountry are endless. So where should I go? If I set a protractor on a map, measured a line from Toronto to, say, Woodland Caribou Provincial Park, Ontario’s most recently designated park, spun it around and measured the same distance south, I’d be floating in the Gulf of Mexico. Woodland Caribou is a boreal forest high above the maple line and part of the largest contiguous forest in the world. With two childhood friends on a guys’ trip, we fly to the North.
There are no roads. No slogging through cottage-country traffic—just a hop, skip and a jump to Red Lake where frontiersman Harlan Schwartz and his chef meet us. Red Lake Outfitters provides high-quality access to our northern exposure. We board a single-engine propeller-driven plane, and shortly disembark at the dock of the fully outfitted eco-lodge within the interior. It’s a raw environment, unspoiled, untouched and seemingly undiscovered. No cell reception here. There is a difference between feeling remote and actually being remote. Amidst absolute quiet, we survey the lake, explore the trails and are immediately aware that no one else is here; we are totally alone. Woodland Caribou receives fewer visitors in one year than Algonquin does in one day. This park is still used by Anishinaabe natives for trapping and hunting. We have more chance of seeing a moose than another human being.
After hammering a totemic symbol into the ground, we hike into the thicket. Schwartz removes an axe from his pack to chop a fallen tree obstructing our path. We forage for cranberries, chanterelles, Labrador tea, mint and whole grain wild rice. We learn what is edible and what is not for our zero-mile diet. Our chef identifies the white lichen that blankets the ground. “This is caribou food,” he tells us. He then collects chaga. These wooden slabs formed over decades around a tree’s wounds are the life force of a birch tree, and a highly potent nutraceutical tea. We steep it overnight, and in the morning, literally drink in the environment. One cupful tastes like a walk in the woods.
Breathing the exhilarating fresh air, we feel rugged and yet, like City Slickers, are comically out of our element. Alternating between splashing through the brisk water along the beach, and decompressing inside the wood-fired Finnish sauna, we’re rejuvenated and carefree. On the porch grill, our chef is preparing moose for dinner. He marinates it in Pepsi. Why? “Because it’ll eat through anything,” he says. Drizzling a reduction of our foraged-berries and bourbon, we indulge in the most mouthwatering, succulent steaks.
There’s a cozy fire inside, but we head outside and build a campfire. We warm to its hypnotic glow; sparks that crackle and pop lead our eyes up to the cosmic chandelier above. What begins as a nebulous flicker along the horizon gradually engulfs the whole night sky into fluid draping waves of the aurora borealis. We gaze up in wonder, amazement and silence. So close, it feels like we can almost reach up and touch it. Paddling out into the lake, enveloped in the green light, we run our fingers through its reflection off the water.
We rise with the morning sun to the whistle of a coffee pot and the beckoning aroma of freshly baked chocolate chip banana bread, fluffy pancakes and sizzling bacon. Fueled for a morning of wilderness canoeing and portaging, we are in search of Ojibwe pictographs and fish. Fishing in Olive Lake is like hailing a cab in rush hour. You know they’re out there; you just have to find the right spot. Once you do, let the meter run, because it’s a buyer’s market and you’re the only fare in town.
This is a haven for walleye, northern pike and lake trout. Within minutes I catch two thick walleye. The lake sparkles as we leisurely paddle to a campsite. The chef teaches me how to filet the fish right there on the rocks, while the others start a fire to cook them for our lunch. Water rushes up between our toes as we sit on the shore, enjoying our walleye with freshly baked bannock and a wooden platter of cheese, fruit and charcuterie. This is the life.
We have everything we need to experience the North Country in a most comfortable way. From wildlife viewing to wolf howling, Red Lake Outfitters provides unique activities and excursions. There are no guarantees of animal sightings, but that’s not a bad thing. I would rather see the iconic Woodland Caribou on a Canadian quarter than disturb one in his own native habitat. Our aim is to experience our pristine resources while leaving them pristine; to appreciate their awesome quality while respecting their fragility.
There’s such a natural feeling of connection here to which we easily gravitate and feel replenished. We acclimate organically to a liberating solitude that is just not possible in the more populated parks of the south. On a neighbouring lake we lay back in our canoes and slowly drift along placid water beneath rocky crags in silence and the warm caress of the sun. My friend smiles as he sighs and says, “I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed doing nothing.”