Running through storms, and saying goodbye to Canadian Shield country (June 14-22)

I remember that when I left Jeff’s place late in the morning on the 14th, hoping to complete a long, hard run and make up some lost time, I casually remarked, “Well, all I want is to not get rained on today.” I’m not sure why I even happened to say it out loud, since I was mostly talking to myself. I was in for quite a day.

As I was hoping to go long that day (60-70 km), I started out with a long walking portion and told myself not to feel guilty and just walk as long as I felt like it. Thus I ended up walking just about my first 22 km, almost all the way to Upsala.

A note on walking: walking has an interesting role in my daily life on the road, because fundamentally, I feel that the act of running encapsulates and justifies my entire mission; I feel a little bit ashamed when I spend too much time walking, even though its role is important both physically and mentally. Of course it functions as a warmup. It also saves energy at the beginning of a long-distance day, saves water if I’m dangerously close to running out, and may be a wiser act in terms of energy conservation if there are extreme winds or hilly terrain (walk up, run down). Walking is doubly meditative because it uses less focus and mental energy than running. It’s also the time of the day where I do most of my thinking: in fact, you might even say that I think about a lot of different things in a somewhat intelligent and free-flowing fashion while I’m walking, and then when I’m running I latch onto just a few of those thoughts and repeat or develop them, or feed off their energy. This isn’t even necessarily what I want to be going on in my head, because I prefer to be focused solely on the physical sensations of the present moment, but it happens nonetheless.

Coming in to Upsala, I had covered 28 km very slowly, and I knew it was time to figure out exactly what was going to happen today and make my move. I had seen a sign for an inn at English River that let me know it was 42 km (exactly a marathon) beyond Upsala, and I resolved to make it there no matter what. If I pushed hard, ran a lot, and made up this distance today, and if the inn/motel situation was open and affordable, I’d reward myself with a good night’s rest. In Upsala, I stopped at the general store, had a couple snacks, and drank a can of Whoopass (they should really be sponsoring me). I truly did feel ready to whoop some ass. That’s about the time the sky started clouding over.

Church by the CPR tracks as I came into Upsala.

Upsala sculpture depicting a mosquito dining on man-flesh. Honestly, this was a little disturbing in real life.

Four kilometers down the road from Upsala, the rain started, and it quickly turned into a downpour. I secured everything in the chariot and got it as “rain-ready” as it can be, but in a matter of 20 or 30 minutes, everything was soaked. In fact, pretty soon everything was soaked so badly that I knew camping just wouldn’t be an option tonight, and that inn was my only hope: in Northwest Ontario, you’re pretty lucky if the businesses you see on road signs are actually still in existence and open, so I was staking a lot on that. Furthermore, I knew that if I ever stopped running to take a walk break in this downpour, it was over… frankly, I’m not even sure what that means, but it would have been a profoundly bad situation: if you stop running when you’re wet and cold, but the atmospheric conditions are such that you can’t get dry and warm again, and there aren’t any rest stops along the way, then, well, I suppose you could get hypothermia or at least a severe chill. I knew there was nothing on the road before English River, and I knew that this rain was just the beginning of a major storm from the way the clouds were moving. If ever I was in a situation that said, “run or die,” this was it. So I said to myself I was going to run a complete marathon, with no breaks, in a thunderstorm, and that’s just the way it had to be.

An hour into my run, I was right on track, feeling strong and no need to stop – that’s about the time the thunder started. At first, I could hear it rumbling away off to the south, slowly moving north to pass over me. Eventually the sound started getting closer, and I could clearly see lightning strikes getting closer from the south and the west. During the second and third hours of that run, lightning was continuously striking near me on all sides, and the rain was coming down so hard that I had to put on my headlamp facing backwards to improve visibility for the truckers approaching me from behind: it was only late afternoon, but it was dark and you could hardly see further than a hundred feet or so. Despite all this – or really, possibly because of it? – I was absolutely killing it. I looked at my watch when I passed the 20 km mark (the highway was marked along this whole stretch), and it’s possible I miscalculated, but I was thinking it might be possible to break my own marathon PR (3:32)  while pushing the chariot through this crazy storm in the Arctic Watershed, so I was really going for it. Around the 30 km mark I realized that a PR definitely wouldn’t be possible, but I could still make a finishing time to be proud of when I looked back at this insane day.

I knew what I was doing was, in a sense, dangerous, in that time when I was surrounded by lightning and the ditches had all turned into rivers, but I also knew that to stop out here in the middle of nowhere could potentially be more dangerous. The challenge was also symbolic: I had been attempting to make up lost time for weeks, but was constantly losing what I made up because the schedule to which I’m trying to stick already pushes my limits with every day. So I knew that to make up a day that I’d lost would require something really special – a tremendous push, both physically and mentally. I had basically four psychological lines of defense during that time, through which I repeatedly cycled:

  1. The storm won’t last forever. Ultimately, everything is going to be fine.
  2. The thunderbirds are our friends and protectors, and they’re just throwing down with the fabulous underwater panther right now.
  3. If I can keep this up until English River, I’m going to (hopefully) have a supremely comfy and warm place to sleep tonight. I’ll take a shower, dry everything out, eat anything I want, etc.
  4. What I’m doing is ridiculously badass and I’ll probably remember it for the rest of my life.

The most amazing part of the whole run was watching the progress of the storm, keeping an eye on the clouds and observing it pass – oh-so-slowly – from the south (and a bit southwest) to the north over to my right. That was my most consoling thought during this time: just repeatedly telling myself that, like everything else, the storm was just another sensation that was arising and passing (vipassana talking again). I didn’t know how long it would last, but the storm had finite boundaries. I could sense its approach, feel my presence in the middle of it, and watch it go its merry way. That was pretty cool. By the final 10 kilometers of my electrically-charged marathon, the rain was noticeably lighter, until by the very end of my run it had become a drizzle.

When I hit the 42 km mark since Upsala, I took note of the time, and that 3:48:31 is a marathon time that I’ll always be proud of, even if I do (and why shouldn’t I?) someday break the 3-hour mark. I laughed and shouted and sang on the wet empty highway when I could see houses up ahead. I knew there was a possibility both the inns I’d seen advertised would be out of business or lack vacancies, but I had hope. I was particularly worried when the first one I passed was apparently permanently closed and all my hopes were on the second. Fortunately, it was open, looked nice, plenty vacant, and turned out to be friendly and low-cost to boot. I won’t bore you with trying to get across the ecstasy of all the trivial comforts I enjoyed that night at the English River Inn, but I was touched by a little note that the owners left out in all their rooms (here abbreviated):

Because this hotel is a human institution to serve people, and not solely a money making organization, we hope that God will grant you peace and rest while you are under our roof.

…We are all travelers. From ‘birth till death’ we travel between the eternities. May these days be pleasant for you, profitable for society, helpful for those you meet, and a joy to those who know and love you best.

I don’t know if that would have always hit home. Maybe it was just meeting the kind & trusting innkeepers themselves that prevented me from finding all that a bit cheesy, but, whatever the case, I was so grateful to be taken in after the events of the day that this kind of hospitality seemed pretty incredible.

The next morning, the skies cleared early on. I dried all my wet gear in the sun and had a fairly warm and sunny run to Ignace, the town of fire. As I walked through town the next morning, there were all these interpretive displays to educate visitors about how the landscape around the town, and its history, had been shaped by forest fires. Before Ignace was heavily settled, there was a fire watchtower that the government maintained to keep an eye on fires in the area: the tower was left intact as a curiosity for visitors, although by now its function has been replaced by scientific instruments which record and graph lightning strikes, paired with observation by helicopter. I was amazed, thinking what it would have been like to be the fire lookout, or “towerman.” Apparently the job attracted a unique type of individual, often solitary writers and thinkers who valued the time alone to study and meditate. The cabin on top of the tower was amazingly small: it was a bare, octagonal wooden cabin with windows on all sides, not much bigger than the cupola on top of my grandfather’s house. In the summer, it must have gotten really hot in there. It’s interesting how this caught my imagination when I was in Ignace, and only a week or two later I ended up staying with guys who fight forest fires, who told me all about this kind of work (and how the towerman’s job has become obsolete); furthermore, I just finished reading Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, in which the main characters both work as fire lookouts in Washington state.

Sunset over Ignace from Tower Hill, the historic site of a fire lookout where I camped for the night.

But I could only escape the thunderstorms for so long. My next run was ill-fated, although it started out perfectly sunny. Only about 15 km in, I saw some clouds on the horizon, and in this part of Ontario, storm clouds tend to move very quickly. About half an hour later, I realized I’d get completely soaked again if I didn’t set up camp ASAP. I didn’t think I had it in me to tough it out the way I did out of Upsala, and I also had a hunch (a good one, it turned out) that the storm would last longer. In the nick of time, I got my camp set up on an abandoned road/trail off the highway, and it started pouring. I probably crawled into my sleeping bag around 5 pm… I didn’t get out until the next morning. Which is not to say that it was dry and comfortable. The problem with pitching my tent in this part of Northern Ontario, is that the landscape is dominated by the Canadian Shield, and you will usually hit solid rock only an inch or so below the soil. Thus, I wasn’t able to stake my tent down very well at all, and I got devoured by mosquitoes and blackflies while I was doing it. In rain as heavy as I had that night, the tent slowly flooded and became completely wet on the inside. My sleeping bag was soaking and there was nothing to do about it but lay there – still warm, at least – and sleep, hoping for better luck the next day.

And so on June 17th I gathered up my dripping gear and headed west again. It was sunny, and I felt better after finding a good flat chunk of Shield by the roadside, upon which to dry my tent, sleeping bag, mat, shoes, soul, etc.

I’m going to gloss over the details for a few days here, mostly because I’m so far behind on my blogging. One of my stops, “Borups Corners,” which looked like any other “town” on Google Maps, turned out to be two abandoned houses in the middle of nowhere – I’m pretty sure I just laughed when I saw the sign and rolled into town. That night was the one I found a Bavarian tavern in the middle of the woods, and after a royal feast, the proprietor (Manfred) suggested that, rather than camp that night, I sleep in their campground’s laundry room while the storm raged on. On my way to Dryden, taking shelter from a short storm that passed through, I made friends with this cool old Franco-Polish dude who’s riding across Canada on a recumbent bicycle, furiously lobing everything. I liked the ethos of his cross-country trip, which seemed different from a lot of cyclists I’ve met: he was so outgoing and open to new experiences, and also not afraid to stick out a little from the flock of eastbound pedal-pilgrims. He also had this brilliant division between the intense organization and planning he did before he left Paris, and the complete absence of planning and all-out going-with-the-flow he started once he set out from Vancouver: he just booked a flight home from Montreal in October, but he’ll be in Montreal by August, easy. To me, this contrasted charmingly with the control-freak / micromanaging aspect I’ve observed in some older male cyclists. He didn’t even bring a tent with him, just this cool hammock with a waterproof tarp and bug net – what a champion. “A name I use very often is ‘Alex,'” he said. “But, uh, is that your real name?” “Well, my real name is kind of complicated.” He scribbled something illegible in cyrillic in my notebook, saying, “If you google my name, you will find a book on tea that I have written. It is not very interesting to read, too scientific!”

“Alex”: “Many people do not realize that the expression ‘to be drunk like a Pole’ is actually a compliment!” (apparently Napoleon told his own hungover soldiers to “be drunk like a Pole” – that is, to be drunk yet still functional in battle.

I cleaned out an all-you-can-eat Indian buffet in Dryden and got rained on again that night, but in a well-staked tent on neatly manicured grass in the public park – nobody hassled me. I remember seeing the weather forecast as I headed out of Dryden, and it was just rain, rain, rain. And yet, it began to dry up just that afternoon, after a gentle mist that lasted a few hours. Outside Vermilion Bay, I camped in the Experimental Lakes Area, way up in the hills and off the main road. It was a pretty amazing region: you pass literally hundreds of separate lakes, one after the other, in the Canadian Shield’s last violent outburst before it disappears and you enter the prairies. Unfortunately I woke up one of these mornings with my knee feeling sore in a way that it hadn’t before, and really freaked me out at the time, so I was taking it easy and walking and stretching a lot / feeling a little stressed. Fortunately, this went away after around Kenora, and I haven’t felt it since – so, nothing to get upset over.

Scary gorilla (??) in Vermilion Bay.

Kenora was lovely. Viviane, my wonderful Brazilian hostess who just finished her first year at McGill Law (THANKS AGAIN BEN FLIGHT), didn’t get out of work until later, so I passed a sunny afternoon getting in a good strength workout in the park, checking out the scenery, and getting my money’s worth at a rather grimy Chinese buffet (the nice old guy who I think owned the place spoke English well enough that every time he thought of a good sentence to say, he’d come over to refill my water glass and try it out). As I was walking around town, I ran into a guy my age who was obviously cycling across the country, so, like I usually do, I said hi and swapped stories a bit. Henri, like “Alex,” seemed like he had a similarly laid-back ethos to his bike trip, and he had a skateboard awkwardly strapped to the back of his bike. It turned out that he and his girlfriend Megan (who appeared shortly) were doing the cross-country thing together, starting from Victoria, where they live. We all decided to go for a beer together on a terrace around the corner, and we told stories of, complained about, praised various aspects of the lands we’d covered recently – they’d pass right through all the places I was just in and vice versa, so it was fun to compare notes. Megan studied my itinerary and added a cute extra layer of paratext in the margins (remarks like, “good food burgers and borscht at Motor Inn McMunn off highway on your right,” or “good grocer here! 99 cent graham crackers.”) She also gave me a little seed kit to start making my own sprouts en route – she makes sprouts in a jar in her bag. Henri got out maps and started explaining very slowly and carefully how to find the vacant campground at Falcon Lake, and the way to their friend Jackie’s place in Portage. They were both such energetic, happy, beautiful people that I started to feel a sense of lonely self-absorption in the massive run I’m undertaking all on my own – secondary, of course, to my happiness at having made these new friends, but there nonetheless. Just as we were parting, Henri jokingly said I’d one-upped them enormously in how driven and ambitious my trip was, in an athletic sense. What I didn’t say, but thought, was that the only one who’d been one-upped was me: who cares how many miles I run in a day if I’m not happy? I’m making progress out here and I’m having a lot of awesome experiences, but I don’t feel like I’m on the same level of engagement with present reality as these two, joyously and haphazardly making their way across Canada together, eating fresh sprouts grown en-route. Later, I would think of them with a mixture of affection and gladness for the meeting, and a potent sense of envy for the love and positive energy at the roots of their whole trip.

With Henri and Megan at a waterfront beer garden in Kenora, drinking FREE BEER (thanks, nice waitress who thought there might have been something wrong with that pitcher).

In Clearwater Bay, I camped on an incredible expanse of Shield, off in the woods, that just happened to have a patch of moss that was barely long, wide, and deep enough to stake my tent properly: it was cool, spending the night on this giant sheet of rock that the Chariot could just glide over with ease as if it was a road. I finished reading On the Road, and I sang a lot.

Staking my tent into the Canadian Shield for the last time in Clearwater Bay.

I guess you could say that was my fond farewell to the Canadian Shield, because the next day I would cross the long-awaited border into Manitoba. After some fifty-odd days in the massive wilderness of Northern Ontario, I was going to enter the flat, sunny expanses of the prairies. It was really something to be excited about.

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~ by edmundmilly on July 8, 2012.

One Response to “Running through storms, and saying goodbye to Canadian Shield country (June 14-22)”

  1. Hey Ned…I was really moved by the note that the Innkeepers left for you. While perhaps “cheesy”, they determined in advance to reach out to their guests with a wee bit of humanity, while accommodating the guests privacy. I think that’s cool.

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