Watch Out For Bears

by Kayla Kurin

With borders closed, a restless traveler rediscovers the thrill of adventure in the nearby Canadian wilderness.

Paddington. Winnie. Yogi. Bears are your friends, I think, wrapping the rope around my waist, using my entire body weight to raise the blue food barrel over a branch. Is the branch high enough? Is it far enough away from my campsite? Despite the thick forest, it’s not easy to find a tree that looks ideal for food hanging. When the barrel is finally high enough, secured by a knot around a neighboring tree, I wonder if the branch will hold or if a critter will undo my measly knots. Since there’s nothing else to do now (should’ve watched more videos on knot tying!) I shrug and head to my tent for the night.

I walk past the embers of the campfire, reds glowing in the black of night, and take a moment to look up at the starry sky, seeing the dippers and Mars burning bright before bundling into my sleeping bag. Going on trips as a kid, I loved getting into the backcountry, feeling immersed in nature away from other people, technology, cars, or modern life.

I’d wanted to do a trip as an adult, but, usually, I’m far away from Canada’s extensive canoe route network flying to Peru to see Machu Picchu, bunking at an artist’s residency in the rainforest, or island hopping off the coast of Greece. With the pandemic, that all changed. Rather than traveling the Vietnamese coast by train, wandering around busy markets, and dodging motorbikes, I’m in Algonquin Park  – nestled in the Canadian shield in southern Ontario – trying to hide food from bears and navigate a lake with no cell reception. 

For the first few months of lockdown, I barely left my basement apartment thinking that, in a few months, we’d be done with the virus and normal life would resume. That didn’t happen. Watching the news and watching the numbers made me feel less and less interested in flying somewhere only to get stranded or inadvertently spread the virus. 

So, thinking about how to bring my nomadic life closer to home, I found myself binging YouTube videos on solo canoe-ing,  and bought rope, a food barrel, and pulled my old camping stove out of storage. I had done solo hiking trips before, but never soloed a canoe, and never a trip where there was a small, albeit present threat of bears, coyotes, moose, or just really aggressive raccoons.

At night, my site is eerily quiet. Used to jumping at every rustling of a branch or the footsteps of a critter when camping on my own, it feels odd to read by headlamp in peace. Maybe I did an excellent job cleaning my site and hanging my food. Maybe there are no small critters around because they know this is the site of something more dangerous. Only the light of dawn will tell…

Unzipping the tent the next morning, watching the sun rise over the water, striking pink and yellow into the ripples of the lake, all the fear from the day before feels worth it for the view and the solitude. 

Getting more confident in my solo canoe skills, I take the boat out for a pre-breakfast paddle, exploring the nooks and crannies of the lake. 

After being bitten by a bullet ant in the Amazon rainforest and scaling rocky cliffs in the Scottish Highlands, the thick forest of maple and birch trees surrounding the calm lake feels safer, calmer, more familiar. The Ontario wilderness lives up to its name – stemming from Iroquois words that mean “great lake” or “beautiful water.”  

The bow cuts through the still morning water, making me feel a strong connection to this place – a joy and familiarity different from my travels abroad.

After four months of lockdown, it feels freeing to resume my travels, even if it means foregoing museums, galleries, and cultural centers for the forest. It’s certainly not a bad place to ride out the pandemic. Exploring the Canadian wilderness is something that’s always been intriguing, but more exotic destinations have always won out.  

After my morning canoe, I go for a quick swim (with my sandals on in case one of those rocks on the bottom of the lake ends up being an angry snapping turtle), and then rock out the camping stove to make scrambled eggs. I spend the rest of the day lazing around the campsite, reading, walking, exploring. I miss getting to visit museums and galleries and going on long train rides and sipping coffee in busy markets. But, looking out over the lake at sunset, the pinks, purples, and reds bleeding across the entire sky, painting the way for a bright, starry night, I think this sort of slow, local, travel will fill me with just as much joy, wonder, and curiosity as some of my grander adventures. 

Paddling my way slowly back to the car park the next day, thoughts of where the next trip will be in a couple months when the leaves are changing colors fill my mind. In fact, I can’t wait until next summer to do another solo canoe trip. Now that I’ve survived this one, bears, snapping turtles, and impending thunderstorms, all I want to do is dive deeper into the Canadian wilds. 

As a nomad and travel writer, COVID-19 has completely disrupted my normal life. Yet, opting to travel locally and do outdoor solo (or easily physically distanced) activities until it’s safe to travel more broadly again will help soothe my unhappily grounded feet. And I’m not the only one. 

I had to try several different campsites and canoe rental outfitters to plan my trip. Each place let me know this was the busiest year anyone could remember. It seems that many Canadians are opting to explore the great outdoors. 

I hope the current travel ban will give nomads and travelers a chance to slow down, to see their own backyards, and build respect for nature. In fact, spending more time in nature is one way to combat the stress of the pandemic and boost your immune system. Until we have a widespread vaccine, I’ll be doing a lot more slow, local travel.  

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