By Melisa Luymes
I’m writing this just back from four days of backcountry camping. My skin still tingles from the sunburn, my ankles itch, my muscles ache and I still have that wild excitement about me.
A friend and I went to the Massasauga Provincial Park near Parry Sound. Most of its gorgeous, secluded campsites are accessible only by canoe. We went through seven lakes in all and about 3.5 kilometres of portaging with our gear on our backs and a canoe on our heads, up and down slippery trails, all while trying to outrun a bazillion bugs.
Anyone that has done a trip like this knows the feeling – halfway through a long portage when you are nearly buckling under the weight of your pack, you just want to stop and chuck most of what you packed out into the bushes. I felt every pound and I cursed myself for taking more than I needed.
Then we get to the campsite to set up the tent and tarps, find the hole-in-the-ground toilet, forage for dry wood in the forest, get a fire started, filter water from the lake, make dinner, clean up the dishes and then hang everything up in a tree to keep it from bears and bold rodents. Too tired to move at this point, I lay down in my tiny tent, fitfully trying to get comfortable on a squeaky air mattress with a twisted sleeping bag between twisted tree roots.
I love backcountry camping, even if it sounds like a lot of work.
Because the next morning, I get up as the sun does. Pink streaks of clouds mirror perfectly on the calm water. A loon does a running takeoff on the lake for a few hundred metres before getting enough speed for flight.
I make coffee and take a book to the water’s edge. After who-knows-and-who-cares-how-long, my reading is interrupted by heavy breathing. There are two eyes shining at me from a gnarled head just three feet in front of me in the water. I stare at the head as it stares at me, takes another big raspy breath, and submerges. The snapping turtle is huge, prehistoric, and slow, ambling about the rocks and water lilies in the shallows before heading back to the deep, dark water.
From its size, the snapper might have been older than me. Apparently, the age of a turtle can be measured, like trees, by the rings on its shell. And I smiled when I thought this turtle’s shell seemed a bit like its own backpack - its shelter and protection from predators and, with the lake providing all its fresh food, this turtle had everything it needed.
Socrates wrote, “He is richest who is content with the least.” Similarly, I heard a quote earlier this week that hit home: “He who is of few needs and easy to serve, swiftly finds peace and is already close to happiness.” This is from Guy Burgs, a meditation teacher in England. He goes on, “The more complicated is our idea of ourselves, the more we will perceive our needs to be and the more of a burden it will be to this planet… The truth is the only real needs are food, shelter and companionship. Everything else is a bonus.”
As we packed up the tent, stove, filter, our clothing and food, it is quite remarkable how little we actually needed out there. We had two backpacks and a blue barrel of food, and we could have been comfortable out there on Spider Lake with half of that. And I think back to all the things I have back at home: piles of books, throw pillows, every size of pot and pan, the knife set(s), the paintings on the walls, etc. They suddenly felt like a weight on me.
Mesmerized by the turtle, I was also reminded of the story Turtle Island, the creation story of many Indigenous people here. Skywoman fell to Earth, which was only water at the time, but birds caught her in their feathers and a turtle held the woman on its back. When she gave birth, the animals wanted to make land for the people, so they swam deep to try to bring back some ground. They were all unsuccessful until finally, a muskrat tried. When he later surfaced, he had died but had a fistful of land, which Skywoman placed on the turtle’s back and as she danced her gratitude for the muskrat’s sacrifice, the continent was formed. She planted seeds that she had brought with her to make a garden on earth full of food and medicines.
Out in Massasauga, it is easy to feel reverence and gratitude for Turtle Island, for the water, trees, animals; I want to tread lightly on the place. Back home, we instead get caught up with having all these “things.” But what if we had to carry all of it on our backs? Would that make us see things differently? ◊