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Elliot Lake: A Little Outdoor Adventure

Early on this year, I made the decision to take the summer months and spend them with friends whom I didn’t get to see often and/or for significant periods of time. K and her husband, S, are in New Jersey (click here to read more about my time in NJ) and D and her husband, M, were in Northern Ontario, Elliot Lake to be exact. K and D are both teachers so they would both be on summer vacation. Rather than rushed long weekends or a single meal during which we’d try and catch up on everything that had happened since the last gathering, this summer would provide us with an opportunity to just hang out, to do nothing particularly special, besides the very special activity of spending time with each other.

Elliot Lake is located roughly 6 hours northwest of Toronto and is surrounded by so many lakes that many of them don’t have names, just numbers (take a look at this Google map view).

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Pull Off the Road & Find Yourself a Lake….

My friends moved to Elliot Lake 6 or 7 years ago and I’d been up to visit a few times but never in summer and was looking forward to taking advantage of the seasonal offerings. The city is an incredibly attractive spot for those who like/love the outdoors: ATV and hiking trails; more lakes than you could ever imagine for boating, fishing and swimming; Mississagi Provincial Park with its designation as a natural environment class park (both a recreational park and a natural reserve); its offering of, and close proximity to, campsites (some free of charge and without the need to reserve); and its prime location in the heart of the Deer Trail for motorcyclists.

While I enjoy a good trail walk, I cannot in good conscience describe myself as a full-fledged outdoor lover: I can be talked into a multi-day “hardcore” camping trip  – defined by me as having no bathroom facilities but a realistic chance of coming upon a bear (or a bear coming upon us) – for the “experience” but only by someone who has 1) completed many of these camping trips; and 2) has a story of successfully avoiding a bear encounter. But, to say that I would eagerly seek out this trip is a gross exaggeration.

Having said all that, I still love visiting Elliot Lake, despite the signs warning you that “You are in Bear Country”. One night during my stay, I missed all the excitement: my friend, D, woke and noticed that the motion detector light in the backyard was on. She parted the curtains and noticed a baby bear meandering.

I am a city girl, there is no denying it. I was born and raised in one and I would very definitely miss the variety on offer. On occasion, though… okay, maybe more frequently than ‘on occasion’ if truth be told, I feel the pull to get away, to go somewhere with more breathing room, greenery and peace and quiet. For me, Elliot Lake fits that bill.

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View from One of the Many Hiking Trails

On the first weekend, Serpent River (a nearby town) First Nation were holding their 24th Annual Powwow. The grounds were right off of Highway 17 with different coloured flags waving, attracting both those looking to attend the venue and, I would imagine, curious travellers. I’d never been to a powwow before and wasn’t sure what to expect. Dancing and music dominated the event: the former activity displayed a number of different styles and regalia – incredibly colourful, with feathers, shawls, beadwork and ribbons, while the latter consisted of drumming groups taking the lead during different parts of the event. I wish I’d known more about the history of First Nations in Canada, and particularly in Ontario, going in. Personally, the event highlighted for me how little I know about a very significant part of the historical landscape in Canada, one with such richness and complexity.

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Dancers at the 24th Annual Genaabajing Powwow

My friend, D’s, husband, M, loves motorized vehicles. I write this statement without having checked with him for accuracy but I’m fairly certain he’ll agree with me. He’s the son of a mechanic and rebuilt his own Mustang years ago. He rebuilt a bike for him and D, a VTX 1800 that I can declare, from personal experience, as being super comfy for a passenger, a boat (which he let me drive!) and an ATV (which I chose not to drive… if you’d seen our first trail you’d understand).

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On the Deer Trail: Visitor’s Tour on the VTX 1800…

Having said this, nothing about that collection of vehicles I’ve mentioned is unusual in Elliot Lake. It is the only place I’ve been where no one looks up when a motorcycle goes by… and many do!

Given his love for all things motorized, experience working on engines, love of classic cars (a love I share) and the utter bliss he experiences riding a motorcycle, it was no surprise to me when he announced his intention to open up a shop restoring classic bikes.

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Hutchinson Motorcycles & the VTX 1800

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Close up of the VTX 1800

 

M is working on rebuilding a 1963 Honda Benly for D….

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Speedometer for the 1963 Honda Benly for D

 

While, personally, I’m in love with this bad girl (we all know bikes are female, right?), a 1973 Honda CB350F.

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1973 Honda CB350F Before Shot

 

Needless to say, when I go for a visit, I’m getting different views of the city and its environs from multiple perspectives, including the ‘deep in the woods’ view:

Me & the ATV

Yes, That Really is the Size of the ATV and Yes, I Really am That Excited

If you ever have some time to head up to Elliot Lake, I really do recommend it. Hit the Deer Trail, in a car, ATV or motorcycle, whatever you have… it is breathtaking. It’s more… untouched – raw, I suppose, is the best word I can think of – than any place I’ve been in Ontario so far.

I got to complete my stay in the best way possible: my friends were looking after a friend’s cottage the last week I was there. We cooked, we ate, we read, we swam and we sat by the lake. I took in the sunset on the dock and the starlight on the balcony.

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Sunset on the Dock

I hope everyone had a great summer!

 

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Balance… or Lack Thereof

February was not a successful month for this blog. In fact, it was (clearly) non-existent. 

At first, it was an easy choice as to whether or not to post: my day job had me engaged in some very long hours over the first two weeks of the month. There were more than a few 10 – 15 hour days and I have to admit, I no longer recover from those, now that I’m in my mid-30s, as quickly as I used to. 

When I wasn’t at work, I was sleeping (hopefully) or trying – not very successfully – to tick off the check boxes belonging to my second life: that of travel agent, blogger and photographer.

And let’s not forget the “regular” requirements of life: banking, eating, cleaning, etc…. Oh, and spending time with friends and family whenever possible.

By the time the third week of the month arrived, I was barely treading water as far as my “to do list” was concerned. As each day passed, I felt more and more the weight of the not done, the to-be done, the ‘you really should’ve had this done already’.

And then it was the last week of February. I tried to ignore the guilt. Finally, by about Wednesday, I had to admit to myself that not a single blog entry for the month was going to be completed. 

Which brings me to this post and my plea for advice from all the other aspiring photographers and writers or any others who are trying to make a go of a second career. How do you do it? How do you find a balance between the things you have to do and the things you want to do? Yes, there are weeknights and weekends, but eventually, I burn out – do you? How do you meet the demands of the every day while also trying to grow your business, improve your abilities, increase industry knowledge and maintain a strong relationship with colleagues, clients and fellow enthusiasts? Do you ever feel like you haven’t done enough?

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The Singing Monk – Ryoan-ji Temple, Kyoto

A chunk of time ago, I got to spend 5 weeks in the Kansai region of Japan. Friends were teaching English in Kobe and Osaka and generously offered me a space to lay my head at night. During the days I’d wander – a particular favourite was Kyoto – and do my best to figure out the transportation system and in the evenings I’d make my way back to enjoy dinner with my friends – the perfect combination really for a solo traveler: new and adventurous in the morning, “old” and familiar in the evenings. 

If we’re lucky enough through our travels, we’re rewarded with memories that remain alive far longer than all the others. A sight, a smell, a noise or a piece of music that takes us back to that moment when they first occurred. For me, in Kyoto, Japan, that place was the Ryoan-ji Temple and that item, a scented bookmark.

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I bent down on one knee, lacing up the hiking shoes that I’d removed before entering the temple. The day-pack on my back slid to the right, a distraction. I stood, reflexively stretching my back out. 

A quiet voice behind me queried politely, “You’re Canadian?”

The head monk stood lightly behind me, very much in the demeanour with which you would expect a head monk to stand. I’d forgotten about the Canadian flag stitched to my pack. 

“Yes”, I replied. “Have you ever been to Canada?” How does one carry on a conversation with a head Zen monk? 

He shook his head and chuckled softly. “No, no”, he breathed, lowering his head as if the idea struck him as worth consideration. 

The Japanese tour group that had arrived ahead of me and gathered on the temple’s veranda had slowly drifted away. I’d almost not come to see this small temple known most for its beautiful zen garden. 

Perusing the Lonely Planet Kyoto guidebook, I’d come across a brief mention of a small temple, Ryoanji, with a highly acclaimed Japanese rock garden. It wasn’t highlighted as one of the main temples to see in Kyoto – and there are many, many temples to choose from in that city – but the description of the garden as one of the finest examples of its kind had intrigued me. 

I made my way through the building as soundlessly and as gingerly as I could, as if one heavy or misplaced step might traumatize the monks or this structure they lived within, a Zen temple that had existed since the 1400s. Every creaking floorboard made me feel like a boorish interloper. 

Stepping out onto the veranda, I was confronted with a group of 20 – 30 middle-aged Japanese visitors. I could try to admire the garden with them or I could return inside and wait for their tour group to move on. It was an easy choice. My time was my own – it’s one of the big reasons I love roaming solo. I wanted the chance to sit in silence on the veranda and absorb whatever lesson or wisp of wisdom I could from those who created the kare-sansui – the zen garden – and from those who’d sat in contemplation before me. Perhaps I could learn something from sitting, observing, watching. 

But what was I watching? Nothing changes or moves in a rock garden, not in minutes or hours. 15 boulders were placed purposefully and meticulously, only 14 of which can be seen from the veranda – it is said that achieving enlightenment is the only way to see all at the same time. A calmness really did settle over me as I sat and stared, my gaze slow and calm, floating from one to the next. It was like I was studying them, but for what purpose, I didn’t know. 

I can’t remember the sounds – in my memory it’s quiet – although I imagine instances of  floorboards creaking, intervals of hushed Japanese voices and lulls of rustling leaves in the breeze. I do remember the smell of incense, a scent I’ve known almost my whole life. Weekend visits with my grandmother to the Chinese Buddhist temple…. It’s a dark and rich aroma that brings with it a warmth and acceptance. I’ve always felt safe and quieted within the walls of that temple and there, in Kyoto, seated on the Ryoanji’s terrace, the sharp, pungent incense comforts me, lending this place and this city that is so very far from my home, a familiarity. 

I wanted to sit longer, hypnotized by the stones, the gravel, the safe enclosed space of a hundreds-year old structure that stood behind, below and before me. There is a release in the need to do nothing more than sit and observe. 

Eventually, it was time for me to leave. I made my way to the small gift counter near the main door. I wanted something that would always remind me of this temple, where I’d done nothing momentous or remarkable, but rather, was stilled. A package of 3 bookmarks caught my glance, paper envelopes roughly 3 inches in height by 1 inch in width, wrapped around a scented object, a straw length knotted at the top with faint printed images and calligraphy on the surface. To this day, almost 12 years later, the fragrance remains: soft, powdery and slightly floral. 

The head monk continued to chuckle softly at my question. As I pondered what to say next, he looked up, smiled and began to sing the first few bars of the Canadian national anthem. “Oh Canada! Our home and native land!….”

What do you do but listen, smile and say thank you. 

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No pics for this entry at the moment: I was shooting in film those days and can’t find the negatives just yet (what comes from living out of a storage unit and boxes), but for more information on the temple, have a look at its website: http://www.ryoanji.jp/smph/eng/index.html. 

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What places still have a special hold on your heart and mind? 

‘Til next time…. 

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