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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

The great lone land

Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Jul. 1, 2003

I have been fortunate to see much of it, and yet I am certain I have seen but a small fraction of the fraction David Thompson mapped out.

It is probably easier to cup the morning mist that rolls along the gunwales of the canoe than it is to fully grasp the width and breadth and astonishing variety of this land.

We take it so much for granted that often we need reminders — the Dutch tourist, for example, who passed this way the day before and spoke with amazement of what it felt like to drive long stretches without another automobile in sight.

Canadians may not think constantly of such matters, but there is an appreciation — and it has nothing to do with whether one's family was always here, came shortly after Confederation, or arrived when there were more than 31 million others. Nor does it matter if the first expressions of awe were in Ojibwa, French or English, Arabic or Korean.

This country may have changed dramatically since I ran barefoot among these rocks — but in other ways it has not changed at all.

We may be the most urbanized society in the world, yet when a survey conducted for The Globe and Mail's New Canada series asked what best symbolized the Canada, 89 per cent across all generations said the vastness of the land.

Here, size matters.

David Chang considers it his duty to "explore" this country, even if more is done in his red Volkswagen Golf than in the canoe he and his friend Derek Liang have rented from the outfitters on Lake Opeongo.

The 22-year-old Toronto telecommunications salesman was born in Canada, the country of choice for his Hong Kong father and Indonesian mother, and though his entire life has been spent in the city, he has found something far beyond the urban borders that gives his working life balance.

"It's an opportunity to take off the electronic leash," he says.

"I come here to not see people. I come to avoid traffic and talk to trees."

"It's a break from the Toronto bar scene," adds 21-year-old Liang, a full-time student and part-time telecommunications salesman. "It's so beautiful here. It doesn't look real — it's like it's on television or out of a movie."

The previous night the two barely slept, paddling out to a small island where they lay on their backs on the rocks and watched the northern lights dance over a sky that seemed unlike any cover that ever appeared over the cities where more than 80 per cent of the population now lives.

"You think how huge this park is," says Chang, "but then you realize it's still just a small part of the country."

Down at the Smoke Lake docks toward the western entrance to Algonquin, 31-year-old Jonathan Proctor of Red Deer, Alta., and his girlfriend, Tanya Litwiller, 32, are heading out into the park interior for several days of canoeing, fishing and privacy.

Once a professional guide in British Columbia, Proctor has just returned from four years of studying optometry in Alabama — Litwiller is already practising in Ottawa — and he is relieved, he says, to get back to empty spaces on the map.

"The biggest difference between the States and here," he says, "is that you can still find a nice place that isn't exploited. In the United States, everything they have that might have once been nice has been turned garish."

He turns at the dock, the water stretching out deep blue before him, the varied green hills of early summer in the distance.

"It's nice just knowing it's out there," he says.

3 ROBTv Workopolis