(This is a variation of a column that appeared in The Sault Star on May 17. Check out the full version there, if you like.)
Holding a Northern Ontario debate in Parry Sound, as was done May 11, is like building a Fake Lake on Toronto’s CNE grounds for the G20 summit in Muskoka, as they did a few years ago.
Everyone (except a couple of governments) know the French River is the Mason-Dixon Line between north and south in Ontario.
The men and women who want to be premier should experience Northern Ontario reality, not call an afternoon in cottage country their northern adventure. That’s why I propose a real Northern Ontario debate be held around a campfire, way, way back in the bush.
It could be somewhere easily accessible by passenger rail, if that mode of transportation had not been obliterated by politicians on auto-pilot. In other words, a long and tortuous journey outside the GTA bubble.
We wouldn’t dream of flying our leaders up to the debate site; airlines cancel flights on northern routes randomly and for nebullous reasons. And we wouldn’t ask them to ride up in their campaign buses; think of the cost of a fill-up at pump prices north of Sault Ste. Marie.
Instead, they could take the Ontario Northland bus from Toronto to Wawa — only 15 delightful hours with a transfer at North Bay. Or two hours less on the Greyhound.
That’s unless the two-lane highway is closed, with no detour, because a tractor-trailer jackknifed to avoid a moose.
As they crossed the French River they’d be handed plaid jackets in the colours of their party.
Upon alighting at SPG Pump and Go in Wawa, doubtless raving over the comforts and ambiance of bus travel in Northern Ontario, they’d be bundled into SUV 4x4s and trek into the bush. Politicians would not be expected to help winch their vehicles over washouts.
Arriving at the campfire, each candidate would be handed a beer that would explode into foam when the cap was twisted off — it came up the same bush road as they did, after all.
Their opening speeches would be disrupted by a helicopter swooping down on the scene, bearing two conservation officers and a dog bent on keeping the bush safe from expired Outdoors Cards.
The dog, trained to sniff out fish, would bark incessantly at all of the candidates, apparently having put his nose to their campaign promises.
They would be fined for having too many lines.
The last party leader to run screaming to a 4 x 4 cab, pursued by hordes of blackflies, would be declared the winner and awarded all 12 Northern Ontario seats.
We’d throw in Parry Sound-Muskoka, too, just so they’d know those ridings really were in the North.
My loved ones cringe when I tell them I’m going on my almost-annual end-of-winter huge hike in the bush.
That’s why I don’t tell them until I’m safely back home and have not keeled over on the trail.
Sometimes I joke that my next of kin’s concern is actuarial. It might be difficult to convince an insurance company that someone died of natural causes if winter-starved animals and ravenous ravens have pretty well recycled the carcass.
Those of you who pound the trails for hours and hours every Saturday might snicker at me making a big deal about a hike.
But for an aging and casual consumer of recreation such as me, this almost-annual event is the equivalent of the Boston Marathon.
And my end-of-season hike is no walk in the city park. Nor is it a stroll in the conservation area or trek along a rustic provincial park trail festooned with inukshuks.
My hike takes me to where there is, by many people’s standards, “nothing.” No homes, fences, signs, cottages, roads, cell towers, not even wind turbines.
As the crow flies, there’s 60 kilometres of a determined lack of civilization between the east end of the lake I live on and the Chapleau Highway. And even crows don’t fly in straight lines over bush as rugged as that.
Needless to say, I’ve never hiked to the Chapleau Highway. That would take me weeks, not to mention air-drops of food, shelter, beer and wifi.
My hike lasts five hours at most. Three and a quarter in. Two and three quarters out. (It’s more downhill coming back and I’m in a hurry to get home before I collapse in a heap of regret.)
I’ve never paced it out, but I think it’s about 12 kilometres round trip. That’s about six kilometres as the crow would fly if it were so inclined.
I follow a snowmobile path made by ice-fishermen through the bush and across three or four lakes. That in turn follows what were once rough bush roads made decades ago, maybe even a century ago, by loggers. Or so it amuses me to think.
It’s no groomed passage. The first few guys breaking trail each year run a gauntlet of saplings. There are ski wounds on trees too near the sharper turns. Occasionally I come across pieces of tail-light. People fell trees and drag in pallets to span the creeks.
I started hiking it years ago after a ride on my snow machine — the one without a gas gauge. I was trying to burn off winter’s last tank, ideally just as I coasted in to my garage. Instead, the fumes I was running on evaporated about five kilometres back in the bush.
It was an intensely sunny afternoon, about seven degrees. I was wearing a snowmobile suit and big green insulated winter boots. Inadvertently I invented hot exercise.
About halfway home a good Samaritan came along with a spare can of gas. Perhaps this man from Samaria had also run out of fuel once and learned from his mistake.
But while slogging in my snowmobile suit it occurred to me that hiking that bush trail on a warm sunny day might actually be pleasurable if I were not dressed for a blizzard.
My customary hiking strategy is to wait until the springish sun and ice-fishermen whose machines whine excitedly past my dock early every morning pound the trail down to sidewalk consistency, but before the ice is too dicey for safe hiking.
Then I let my boot heels go wandering, as one of my trail anthems suggests.
Often I’ll meet absolutely no one during that five-hour hike.
Ice anglers shun the nearby lakes, which have plenty of fish in them, to go to far-flung lakes that have about the same number of fish in them. That’s because fish taste better the harder you have to work to catch them.
I joke to my next of kin that if I do keel over I will be discovered by a fisherman who has limited out and can’t find a path around that annoying lump on the trail.
Still, keeling over becomes less of an abstract concept with each hike.
In my age cohort, the third-most-common recreational activity is dying.
Some do it with a remote control in one hand and a half-consumed fistful of all-dressed chips in the other, apparently having reached the tipping point for arterial fat.
Most, sadly, are surprised by one of the many cancers, or succumb to the ravages of radiation and chemo.
I have seen a couple of men die on the ice. But that’s in arenas, not on frozen lakes.
Besides, I have my cellphone to call for help. I reassure my loved ones that if I should break a leg I need only scale a hundred-foot-high pine to get an adequate signal for summoning 911.
If humanity is scarce on late-winter days back in the bush, wildlife is plentiful. They’re awake and their bellies are rumbling.
This year I saw tracks of foxes, rabbits, moose and otters. I heard sandhill cranes overhead and woodpeckers somewhere in the bush and seagulls cleaning up the detritus of a winter of ice-fishing.
At one spot, beavers who opened their fridge and found it empty had come out to chew on some small birches beside the trail.
In past years, I’ve watched a pileated woodpecker destroy a small pine faster than you can say medium density fibreboard.
I’ve come across a moose bedroom, where five of the behemoths took lower berths in the snow. Moose hairs stuck to the depressions their bellies had made. Steam seemed to be rising from scattered piles of moose turds.
Don’t poop where you sleep, I would have told them.
Once I encountered a snorting, stomping moose and was grateful that it had no horns, so was a female and might be reasoned with. But later a friend told me that bull moose sometimes shed their racks in the winter.
Regardless, I did not have to demonstrate how fast a senior citizen could scale a spruce while wearing snowshoes.
Mostly, wildlife hear me lumbering along a mile away (they haven’t converted to metric yet) and find hiding spots.
But if a human sits down and refrains from singing whatever earworm song he’s been trudging to, sometimes nature forgets he’s there.
Once a fox came bounding up to within a few feet of where I sat before leaping out of its skin and high-tailing it.
The past couple of years I’ve come across a sasquatch. OK, it might have been a yeti. There’s a remote possibility it was the root ball of a big tree overturned by a gust of wind.
But even though it is in focus and looks nothing like some guy in a gorilla suit, unlike what you see in videos online, I think it’s a sasquatch.
The beauty of a late-winter hike is it’s warm enough and the path is hard enough that you can travel light.
But do so at your peril.
I don’t possess a lot of bush lore. Most of what I know came from Louis L’Amour books. Louis created the plots of many of those western movies of the 1950s and 60s.That means my bush lore works better in Arizona than Northern Ontario.
For example, Louis taught me to face away from the bonfire so I’ll be able to see if some varmint sneaks up with a six-shooter cocked. Haven’t had to quick-draw yet during one of my hikes.
But I do know this: Whatever you don’t bring into the bush with you is what you will wind up needing.
So I pack a lighter, candle, knife and first-aid kit. Never been used.
(I do not pack the bear bell that some worried woman gave me, because I understand that bears get a big kick out of it when they hear a ringing sound when they poop.)
I also pack a deck of cards. A wise man told me once that if I became lost I should start playing solitaire; someone will show up to tell me to put the red seven on the black eight. And then I’ll have company while I’m lost.
On this hike I packed snowshoes, because menopausal Mother Nature dumped more than 30 cm of snow a few days earlier. If the sun softened the trail I could be wading instead of walking.
And I packed lunch, trail mix and a few beers because I knew I’d be carrying those out in my stomach instead of on my back.
Too bad my sweatshirt wasn’t edible. I took it off after about the first kilometre. In fact, it was warm enough that I could have hiked buck naked with minimal shrinkage. But it’s easier to wear clothes than to carry them, so I decided to leave nudity to the bucks.
What makes my almost-annual end-of-winter huge hike special, besides that it’s so darned pleasant, is the knowledge that every hike could be my last.
I’m reminded of that by my knee brace, worn because of an injury sustained on the dance floor at a wedding celebration. My partner should have saved the last dance for someone else.
For a while I thought that cartilaginously challenged knee might be the end of hiking and other age-defying physical activities, that I’d be reduced to clutching a remote in one hand and some all-dressed chips in the other.
So each year’s hike becomes more precious.
Besides, I’ve convinced myself that this tiring trek on the beaten-down snow, not a congenital tilting of the earth’s axis, is what brings spring into my neck of the woods.