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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

The great lone land

Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Jul. 1, 2003

Algonquin Park, Ont. — They first brought me here when I was all of three days old.

This rocky point along the north shore of Lake of Two Rivers has not changed at all. Even the roots and rocks feel much as they did a half-century back when smaller versions of these feet first danced along them in a complicated game of chase invented by an older brother and sister.

The old log cabin our ranger grandfather built — and where our mother, who was born here in Algonquin Park, spent the loneliest winters of her life before finally marrying our logger father — has been torn down and carted away. Yet the surrounding landscape is still the one Tom Thomson came to paint before his mysterious death not far from here in 1917, his vivid impressions of the land eventually finding their way into the imaginations of us all.

And the cool, tea-coloured water still runs east toward the Madawaska River and on into the Ottawa, just as it did back in 1837 when explorer David Thompson, 67 years old, nearly blind and impoverished, scribbled "Current going with us, thank God" in his journal and began the final leg of a lifelong journey that saw him map about 3.9 million square kilometres of this massive continent — and still see but a fraction of it.

I come back here often but have been mostly away. By grace of a dream job, I have seen the sun rise at Cape Spear, Nfld., and watched it set off Long Beach on Vancouver Island. I have touched salt water east, west and north — and even bathed in salty Manitou Lake in the heart of Saskatchewan. I have flown by helicopter over the harsh coast and breathtaking fiords of Newfoundland; I have travelled by bush plane over the wild, white rivers of Northern Quebec; and I have stared down from passenger jets to know what David Thompson meant when his eyes were still sharp and he thought that the startling Rocky Mountains looked rather like "the waves of the ocean during a wintry storm."

I have felt the wintry storm, too, and marvelled later at the beauty of sunlight on iced-over trees. I have stood by prairie fields in late summer and watched the wind play as it sometimes did over the Lake of Two Rivers water when we lived here on this rocky point. I have driven from coast to coast, paddled rivers far from any highway, tossed on ferries at both ends of this vast continent and found, at times, places so small and lovely — a miniature waterfall at the end of a certain lake, a hardwood forest barely up the street in the city in which I live — that I have feared speaking of them would somehow cause them to disappear.

I have taken trains and buses along the central Canada corridor and watched, over time, fields vanish into housing developments and yet still felt in even the largest cities that a Canadian always has some connection, usually visual, with something far more lasting than whatever might be built: Montreal and the mountain, Toronto and the lake, Calgary and the foothills, Vancouver and the sea.

But it need not be so dramatic. Even in the densest parts of cities there will be a ravine or a park, perhaps nothing more than a sweeping back-yard garden where space, somehow, seems to go on forever in this overwhelming country called Canada.

2/ 3 ROBTv Workopolis