After a disastrous vacation south, a Toronto couple try their luck in another direction.
Last winter, we took our dream vacation south. Daily, we had skated our of our back lane and drove to work through streets that were a slippery nightmare ? black mounds around stranded cars decaying with salt and buses flinging greasy slush onto huddled civilians.
Just when we thought things might improve, the skies would open, bringing another pristine snowfall that would soon become part of the foul soup one had to leap over at almost every corner. We had put in our calendar a picture of Jacques Cousteau among rainbow fish, a reminder of where we would be in March.
We had scoured the web for a resort that would be remote and all-inclusive. We did not want to think; we wanted an escape. Instead, after a few days in our so-called paradise, we wanted to escape.
As if we had signed up for summer camp for cattle, we were herded into an orientation where our cheerful counselors defined all-inclusive with a lawyer?s sharp asterisk; we were then given a watery, nameless beer and a string of meal tickets. Not even scuba diving could save us: In the tepid waters, we were ambushed by a brigade of grey snappers, ugly foot-long dinner fish who became enraged and swarmed us when they discovered we had no bread in our hands. A week later, we came back, peeling, ripe, fate, toxic and tired.
This year, breaking all the rules of decent behaviour, we went north, farther north than we had ever been, to a place where there were no ski hills, no handrolled sushi, no one bringing you hot chocolate by the fire. It was a different kind of resort: Algonquin Park. We were not really excited: no pictures in the calendar. We knew it would be ?good for us,? but more like a slightly bad-tasting medicine that we had to hold our nose to get down. A week before the trip, one of us, who shall not be named, crawled out of bed and said, ?Up north in a cabin in a place that?s colder than here and snowier than here ? you might as well put me in a hair shirt.?
While cranky, the complaint was reasonable. We had booked three nights and four days in a cabin on the northwest edge of the park, accessible from a little-used side road. We packed almost a year?s worth of food, enough woolens to strip bare 10 flocks of sheep, army-issue sub-arctic poly-pro long johns and games to amuse us during the long, dead, arctic nights. We also packed two outdoorsy friends who had got us into this in the first place. We are sorry to report that we almost didn?t reach the cabin.
Driving through the snow at a snail?s pace and marveling at the locals who blasted past us in tiny Toyotas, we made the mistake of veering too far to the right and eased into a ditch. By this time, we had moved from the unnaturally green lawns of Toronto, through a dirty, low-level snow around Barrie, to a gorgeous, heavy blanket that hung heavily in the cedars around our stranded car.
We were spared camping in the car by a trio of eager passersby who pushed us deeper into the ditch, then called a jocular tow-truck driver who extracted us so cheaply we almost cried in thanksgiving. He also advised us to drive in the middle of the snowed-out road.
As we drove the rest of the way, the scene became more remote, the snow untouched, the air crisp and silent. The whole landscape edged into primal tones, a thin, austere, black trim of trees against an overwhelming, glimmering white snowscape and a flawless blue sky. We passed iced-over lakes with no signs of humans ever having stepped there, an occasional laggard bird flying in silhouette over the shores, faint trails of snow-hares or muskrat at the edge of the bush.
Our cabin was no prospector?s hutch, but a strong, tightly planked, solar-paneled hearth at the edge of Kawawamog Lake. Two fireplaces kept it warm. We rested until the nearly full moon hung heavy and bright over the lake. By then, the woods were filled with a ghostly, brilliant light, and we walked among boughs drooping with snow, touching them until they released their burdens in a glimmering screen. Strangely, it did not seem cold. There was no wind, and the forest and the lake and our extra layers of clothes allowed us to forget about our bodies and revel in the severe silence around us.
In the mornings, caught in the spell of snow that had fallen as we slept, we explored. On cross-country skis, we crossed frozen rivers and ventured on to small, stark, lakes, cutting into snow that had never been touched. It was like being a child again, when snow was not the enemy.
After cooking a meal, we broke off icicles from the eaves, and one of our outdoorsy friends burst our of the cabin in his boxer shorts and made a snow angel before sprinting back to the wood stove with the snow sizzling on his back. We don?t recommend this.
There was no shortage of activities. One of us went dogsledding; another day we strapped on snowshoes for the first time and tramped into the woods, rattling down steep slopes and into snowdrifts while trying to set off avalanches for the tops of towering firs. Some tourists? ice-fish, others clamber on to Ski-Doos and some brave weeklong trips into the heart of the park with a guide and a pack of dogs. Europeans and Australians seem to understand how remarkable this landscape is ? we found them in the few places we came across other people.
And compared with a southern vacation, the north will not add to a disastrous Christmas credit card bill: The two of us spent about $300 over four days.