Like Wind over Water

For years we planned to buy kayaks, but for years we had too many competing commitments. For years our long canoe stayed in the garage, gathering dust. One of the paddles split apart, dry from disuse.

In July an acquaintance let us know she was selling her family’s kayaks, and so, after dropping our daughter off at the summer camp she attends near Bancroft, we drove south to Stony Lake to retrieve them. Before loading the kayaks onto the car, we put them in the water and paddled out into the lake.

Stony Lake, or Cheboutequion Lake, is part of the traditional territory of the Anishinaabe Mississaugas. Near the north side of the lake are the Teaching Rocks or Kinoomaagewaabkong, also known as the Peterborough Petroglyphs National Historic Site. Sixty kilometres to the south, on the north shore of Rice Lake, are the Serpent Mounds, located within the lands of the Hiawatha (Mississauga) First Nation. I am not Anishinaabe (my father’s putative Indigenous heritage was Haudenosaunee), but the region, sometimes called ‘the Land Between‘ because it is a zone where a number of geological, ecological and cultural terrains intersect, is the place I feel most at home.

A canoe or kayak set into the water, its hull floating just above the surface, is a mirror held to reality, like a landscape reflected in a silent lake. There is a symmetry in the rising and dipping of the paddle, the movement of air across the water, a hint of the transcendent in exchange for an offering of silence. Decades ago my husband, a skilled back-country canoeist, paddled deep into a marsh and surprised a moose, standing huge and still in the shallows. For a moment my husband stared up at the moose, and the moose stared down at him. Then, implacably but deliberately, the moose shoved the canoe backward with a wide sweep of its antlers. “This is my home,” it seemed to declare: “and you may not intrude uninvited.”

At our home in Toronto, although we are conscious always of belonging to culture, we try to live within–of at least with regard for–the rhythms of nature. We are fortunate to live very close to the Humber River, and to be able to put our kayaks in the water right at the point where its navigable lower portion meets the traditional portage route used by Anishnaabek and Haudenosaunee communities, known as the Tkaronto Carrying Place Trail.

Despite the passage of centuries and the pressures of urban development, the profile of the river at this location remains essentially unchanged. Above the portage point near Bloor Street, the river is shallow and stony; below it the river is wide and increasingly deep, with oxbow wetlands dense with wildlife.

Near its mouth, the Humber is an artificial, somewhat claustrophobic space, with expressway bridges hemming in the river and an engineered shoreline that protects the riverbank from erosion but does little else to soften the impact of waves rolling in from the lake. But below that industrial zone the river opens up, framed by the graceful span of the Humber Bay Bridge, its arch consisting of stylized Thunderbirds.

And beyond the bridge is the open lake, with the harbour to the east, and the surreal skyline seeming to float above the water. Offshore, it seems possible to grasp the city in a glance.

Late last week on a sultry, sunny September day, we set aside our commitments and took our kayaks out on the lake. The water was warm, the surface like rippled glass. And we soared across it like wind over water, like shorebirds granted the provisional freedom of flight, and touched down, hours later, on a shoreline that beckoned our boats and welcomed us home.

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