This is a post about backpacking, and colonialism. All indented quotations from Leanne Simpson, Islands of Decolonial Love, unless otherwise noted.
remember: to feel joy, you first have to escape.
“lost in a world where he was always the only one”
Over three days, four friends and I recently covered about 45 km on the Western Uplands Trail in Algonquin Provincial Park.
P. noted as we stopped the van to pick up coffee – in “civilization,” as we so callously called the last town we stopped in – that you need to have a certain degree of comfort in your everyday life in order to enjoy backpacking. I thought that was an insightful comment. It is a privilege to be able to trek into the forest and fend for yourself for a few days. You need to have enough money to buy gear and a supply of calorie-dense food, and, as P. pointed out, the ability to voluntarily subject yourself to discomfort and privation and enjoy the experience.
I’ve never experienced such concentrated physical exertion: the entirety of the hiking trip was an endorphin high. We would walk for 50 minutes, rest for 10. By the third day, we would take an 8-minute nap on the forest floor every hour with packs still on.
It was early in the season, and the trail wasn’t well-maintained. Over the years, the plastic trail markers had faded to pink, fallen to the ground, become intermittent. At the end of our first day, we got lost for the lack of them. For hours we fought through the forest. We sat on decaying tree trunks and ate trail mix and canned fish that we’d bought at Costco and brought in little plastic baggies. When darkness fell, we set up camp by an unknown river, grateful to have found a water source, tired from breaking a new trail amidst the chaos following a long winter. We were conscious of our acute dependence on daylight and the water filtration system we’d brought along. And on dry socks, which there were never enough of – trying to find our way again, we’d walked through muddy expanses, across rivers, through obstructed valleys, over and under fallen trees, across patches of snow. We were conscious of our own fragility, remembering the moose skeleton we’d seen earlier in the day. (Decay had set in from bones to skin, and the fur had fallen into a soft, scattered covering on the ground.) We were uneasy, but also weary, and we all slept well.
After dawn, we made breakfast (mine was instant oatmeal with some dried fruit and walnuts thrown in, and coffee) and then set out. We climbed for an hour or two up a dry, autumnal hill that seemed to push the horizon further away from us with every step we took. When we finally found a trail marker, we hugged the tree that held it and then collapsed on the leaves at our feet in joyful relief. We’d been lost for about 18 hours. We took that day as a rest day and set up camp after 5 km or so.
A tree had fallen at a right angle so that its root structure stood in the water and its trunk lay horizontally in the lake. We climbed up onto the roots and talked and sat in the sun. Feeling adventurous, I tentatively climbed down the far side and took a dozen steps along the trunk. There was water up to my calves. Elation. “Guys, I’m climbing a tree underwater!” T. tried that too. Eventually the prospect of falling back into the frigid water and becoming entangled in the bare branches outweighed my glee, so I climbed back to safety and read my book for the rest of the day.
Deep sleep, a quiet, pre-dawn morning, and then more hiking. It started to rain as we walked the last few kilometres. We reached the parking lot without ceremony.
Canadian French Algonquin, from earlier Algoumequin, from either Maliseet elakómkwik (“these are our relatives”) or Mi’kmaq algoomeaking (“at the place of spearing fish and eels”).
The first time I travelled through Algonquin, I was immediately and wholly filled with an innocent sense of wonder. Here was dense midsummer forest, carpets of softly rusted pine needles, still air over water – broad, generous water that returned to tranquillity after bearing each rhythmic indentation of our canoe paddles. I felt deeply at peace. Here was a vast and pristine space, free from human corruption.
I used to think that such places existed.
A few years have passed. I’m not fifteen anymore. I’ve learned that not all human activity corrupts. I’ve also learned that any land in this country that I used to think of as “pristine” is likely stolen. Sanctioning land off as a provincial or national park is often itself corrupting, and often itself means displacement and an end to sustainable ways of being.
i tell etienne that i know how that feels but i don’t think he believes me because he thinks i’m from toronto and i’m rich and judgmental and full of shit because that’s what people think when you say the word “ontario.”
“indinawemaaganidog/all of my relatives”
Spending time in Algonquin again this spring was a delight. The company was good and it was refreshing to be so physically active after a rough academic term. Nice to feel tough in a very tangible way.
I was much more conscious of my own presence in the forest this time, though. I used to feel like I was part of some sort of unified whole when I ventured into the forest, no matter how curated the experience was and how carefully maintained the trails were. It was almost always a spiritual experience. It almost always led to a feeling of connection. This time, though, I struggled not to let my guilt consume me. Positing myself as part of a totality felt like it would be an act of erasure. And it would be. My relationship with the land isn’t such that I can just dissolve into the organic forest-world around me. Living on this land, I am a beneficiary of violence. There are labels attached to my presence here: white. privileged. settler. And although my presence as a human may leave me justified in feeling pleasantly small and insignificant, my presence as a settler requires that I think about just how much space I do take up.
Pristine. In the last century or so, we started understanding the word to mean “unspoiled,” “spotless.” “Uncorrupted.” But the Latin root of the word pristine is pristinus. Former. Original.
The land contained within Algonquin Provincial Park, then, is not pristine. The park boundaries have been imposed. In my canoe or sporting my pack, whether I’m fifteen or whether it’s 2016, I have always dwelled there as a settler. It is an artificial serenity that covers the land. The existence of the park gives the illusion of the land having always been untouched. (The chauvinistic term “virginal forest” does not sit well with me.) I do not live sustainably on this land. I do not deserve to have that serenity.
When one of the guys in our group said things referencing conquest as we climbed through the forest, something within me protested. Sure, it was really good to feel strong and capable and to overcome obstacles. It’s a mistake, though, to see that overcoming as an act of conquest. I don’t own the land (nor does the government). I don’t own the trees. I broke many branches on the trip as I made my way forward, but that doesn’t have to be a source of celebration.
Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, Der Wanderer über den Nebelmeer. Caspar David Friedrich. I love this painting. I identify with the wanderer. The colour scheme reminds me of overcast Belgian afternoons and pretty much captures my internal emotional landscape. In the Canadian context, though, it’s important to look beneath the fog. I am not a conqueror of the land I move across. Beneath the fog is history and violence and loss. Wilful ignorance sustains the shroud for people like me and gives our suburban white edifices a false air of legitimacy. I want to pierce through the fog where I can. I don’t think that mere awareness is enough, but it’s a step.
I found a nice pair of hiking shoes in my size for $15 at a Mountain Equipment Co-op gear swap. I took a bunch of square iPhone photos for my Instagram account. I left only footprints and took only photographs. That isn’t the end of my responsibility, though. From a parks conservation perspective, sure. But on a deeper level, there’s more at stake than just keeping the trails well-maintained. How did the land become navigable by novice hikers such as myself? Who delineated the boundaries of the park? Who had to vacate the land when the park was created? I think there has to be some degree of historical humility attached to using that land for recreation. What can be done, though, beyond that humility?
Even as I felt that my own particular presence was illegitimate, I did feel a refreshing intimacy with the natural life around me. I felt a deepened sense of sorrow as I gained a little bit of understanding into what has been lost by Indigenous peoples. The land is beautiful. I think of the fluorescent lights and concrete sidewalks of my hometown imposed over nearby land and feel nothing but anguish. I do understand that that anguish and guilt are unhelpful. I also know that mere awareness is far from sufficient. Where does that leave me, then? How to move forward?
if you would just read more post colonial theory, you’d understand that your anger is part of the binary of colonialism and therefore colonial and if you just take some of the things from settlers and some of the things from your ancestors, you’ll find you can weave them into a really nice tapestry, which will make the colonizers feel ambivalent and then you’ve altered the power structure.
… a paralysis of guilt and inaction …
I wrote earlier about my innocence the first time I visited the park. Where there is violence and oppression, innocence is not a virtue.
There was a lot of space to think. I wrote in my journal with pencil: Everything. / I want to know, but am constrained by my “I.” / I want to speak & listen, but have only the language of empire. / I want to love, but always I am afraid, asking, “is this right? is this?,” confusing wisdom with reticence and making an idol out of austerity. / … How to have a good life on stolen land without endorsing or ignoring your own murderous heritage?
I built up the fire while the others played a card game, and then wrote with a piece of charcoal picked up from the edge of the pit: How to live in right relations with everyone without paralyzing guilt?
That question was present in my thoughts throughout the trip. I don’t have an answer. I suspect nobody does. It’s a question I plan to keep living into, though. Turtle Island is incredibly beautiful. It’s an immense gift to be able to live here. I hate the history that has preceded me, but I can’t leave in any meaningful way. So – how to move forward? Algonquin was a very calm place to think through some of this.
land giving up truths.
we’re supposed to be on the lake.
we’re supposed to be
supposed to be
this desecrated mound
aahhhhh my zhaganashi
welcome to kina gchi nishnaabe-ogaming
enjoy your visit.
but like my elder says
please don’t stay too long.
“jiibay or aandizooke”
nishnaabemowin: jiibay is a ghost, a skeleton, aandizooke a messenger from a traditional story … zhaganashi is a white person, kina chi nishnaabeg-ogaming is a mississauga nishnaabeg name for our homeland.