Thursday, March 15, 2018

A Wanderous Affair - new online travel magazine

I was recently published in a brand new online travel magazine - you can check out my piece on New Zealand's Moeraki Boulders on page 11! A Wanderous Affair - Volume 1, Issue 1

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Sanibel, Florida

The sound of the waves is the only sound I hear, and seashells are the only thing I see.

J is behind me, slowly wandering away and from the shore. Our host's son is ahead of me, occasionally making an audible gasp as he finds a shell worthy of picking up. His parents are far ahead down the shore, no longer within audible distance, expertly combing the piles of shells for only the rarest ones.
And me, I'm walking in a straight line, sticking close to the water, occasionally letting the still-cool splashes touch my feet. My eyes look mostly downwards, trying to pick out spirals, smoothness, colours. Every once in a while I pick up a shell, only to find it partially broken. I keep it anyway, placing it in my bucket. I lack the experience and expert eye of the locals (or semi-locals, as our hosts are).
Pretty soon, their adult son is lagging even further behind his parents, struggling to hold all his collected treasures in his arms. I quickly pull my bag off my shoulder and rummage around for a plastic bag, which I run over and give him, helping him contain all his shells (amazed at the perfect little creations he's managed to pick out of the mounds of the broken and mundane). "Thanks," he says gratefully, and continues on his journey.
Lived experience counts for so much, and I never cease to be fascinated by it. His collected treasures are all perfect, carefully picked out with the eye of experience from the massive piles of otherwise half-broken or mundane shells. Nevertheless, I am quite content with my own collected treasures, but moreso with the experience itself. It's almost meditative, we comment to each other when we all finally join into one group again when we reach the end of the beach.
We marvel at our collected shells and at the fascinating colours and patterns of the things that come out of the ocean - what need have these shells, creatures, and plants for their vibrant oranges and purples, iridescence and spirals? In the deep dark of the sea floor, who is there to see them? Perhaps that is the allure of shelling... people who on any other beach wouldn't think twice to pick up a shell, are suddenly captivated by Sanibel's incredible shells and they, like us, spend hours lost in meditative searching.
I have known this family for almost thirteen years. I used to tutor their son from age 8 until he went to high school, but have stayed in touch since then. We've been invited to come to their Florida home several times over the years, and decided this was the year we'd finally take them up on the offer. The basement apartment of their home is fully self-contained, with a spacious living area, a cozy nook with a bed, an amazing double-headed shower, small kitchenette with all the ammenities, and screen door access to their outdoor pool and hot tub.

We are grateful for this chance to unwind and experience some warm sun, especially after the deep freeze we'd been experiencing in Toronto (way too many consecutive days of -25 degrees Celcius, not factoring in the windchill... that's -13 for you Farenheit folks!). Winter in Toronto is long, cold, and very grey... especially after Christmas. We are not usually the type to "fly south for the winter", and our decision to go to Florida surprised many of our friends ("Florida?! Not, like, Peru or Africa or something? That's different!") but how could we say no to this perfect chance to escape the cold?
After our long walk on the beach, we headed back to our apartment to relax by the pool with a coffee (what later became part of our daily pattern and dubbed "Coffee O'Clock" by Jen). The sound of birds, the warm sun, and the lush, carefully tended-to gardens surrounded us as we lay on the pool chairs.
Being on a relaxing vacation is new for us, and it wasn't without its share of mild anxiety. We kept feeling like we needed to "do" something - be somewhere, see something, get moving and exploring. Sitting still and simply being, I discovered, does not come naturally anymore - that's how much the daily grind affects us.
After relaxing with our coffee in the sun, we decided to take a drive to the nearby J. N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. This beautiful and large swath of conservation land has a one-way road that runs through it, and you can pull over and stop wherever you like if you see something interesting. We liesurely drove through the area, stopping every few minutes to admire the astonishing variety of birds.
The highlight was the startling pink of the Roseate Spoonbills that we first saw fly above our heads. Later down the road, we parked near where we thought they had landed and there they were, quietly standing in shallow water, getting ready to settle in for the evening.

Almost two months has passed since we were in Florida, but certain things remain.
The rhythm of the kayak's paddle in the water as we explored the bayou close to their home. The sight of Ospreys flying overhead, expertly carrying fish in their talons, landing in large nests to feed their waiting partners. The feel of the Florida sun on our tired bodies as we took a rest on shore, looking for shells. The quietly hiding herons, watching us as we slowly paddled by. When I'm paddling, I feel at home. There is no room for stress or worries or sadness. Only the dipping of the paddle in and out of the water; the burning in my muscles, trying to keep up with the rhythm of the others; the cold water dripping down the side of the paddle. Kayaking in January in the warmth of the sun is an experience I'll never forget, and possibly the highlight of our Florida trip. I'm grateful that our hosts took us out, and showed us this little bit of their home away from home.
These memories keep me warm while the cold March winds blow in my face in the downtown corridor on my way to work.

Another memory that stands out is our hike in Collier-Seminole State Park. We made the drive down there early one morning. It was a special place for me as a geocacher, because it was the location of Florida's oldest geocache, placed in December of 2000. Most geocaches don't last that long, so a really old one like that is rare and most avid geocachers make the pilgrimage to find what we call “oldies”.
The hike itself was mostly on flat, dry ground. It was hot and humid that day. The novelty of hiking in the hot sun in January was not lost on us, and we embraced the heat, the sweat, the stifling humidity. I tried to be mindful of every moment, imprinting the heat and the horizon of palm trees to memory. We knew we'd be flying back into Toronto's cold winter the next day, and we wanted to bring some of that Florida sun back with us.

Florida's oldest geocache
Collier-Seminole State Park

The geocache itself was a large one, hanging in plain sight in a palm tree, hidden just off the main path. It was one of the highlights of the day, for sure, but not as much as that hike was. Sadly we didn't get to see the resident aligator, but we did see many butterflies and even a few lizards. After hiking back to our car, we went back into the park itself and had our lunch by the water, watching beautiful white egrets land silently in the trees, and paddlers heading out for the day.
Later that evening, we went to the beach for one last try at catching the sunset, and the sky did not disappoint. As the sun slowly sank into the ocean, we huddled close together, beach towl around us to protect against the evening's chill, and watched the purples, oranges, and pinks dance in the sky and reflect off the water. 
It has been a short stay, but enough to allow us to press the re-set button in our minds. The hours of shelling, the rhythm of paddling, the repetitive sound of ocean waves lapping the shore, or the songbirds in the palm trees as we lay by the pool – all these things made us mindful, made us still inside, reminded us that we don't always have to be on the move, stressed about work, and moving from one place to the other.
We returned home refreshed and ready to face the rest of the long winter, grateful for the chance to escape and get to know Sanibel from an “insider's” point of view.

If you want to stay at this lovely place that was shared with us, it is available for rent - message me and I'll connect you with these wonderful people and their little corner of Florida.  You won't be disappointed.

Saturday, January 13, 2018


it's the nest of soft blankets;
a darkened room and a locked door.

it's the stacks of empty green and brown bottles,
the cracks in the wood panelling around the doors;
the incoherent slurs.

it's the patched up holes;
the startle at every unexpected sound;
the white of fingers as they tightly clutch doorknobs.

it's pages of shaky writing in black ink; 
incomplete sentences and watermarks;
teeth biting down on a tongue that doesn't dare speak.

it's the razor-sharp words; 
the sting of warm water;
the long sleeves.

it's the pulling of the self apart; 
shredding, unravelling, despising. 

weaving back together.

Schrödinger's ball of yarn.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Urban Jungle

I still remember the concrete perimeters where we walked,
as if two feet down there were fires and floods that we mustn't fall into.

We were lions
I followed you through the jungle of your condo's parking lot;
A handful of carefully planted evergreens the only cover from the dangers of jungle highway 401.

I still see your small hands and long fingers, making shapes in front of your eyes;
your inner verbal monologue barely audible;
your head jerking from side to side.
I fight back the ingrained urge to say "nice quiet" during the moments you stop.

You are smiling.  That's all that matters.

I've been charged with the task of teaching you
how to put on this vast ensemble of
    social armor
when I can only haphazardly put it on myself.

So instead I teach you to climb trees
look for sleeping raccoons in high branches
and the difference between a jungle and a forest.

I help you twist bits of grass and leaves and fluff
and we leave tiny creations behind
"to feed the birds," you tell me.

You are immersed. I join you.
We are silent, enveloped by shadows and tree limbs and wonder.


One day I took you to the real woods;
a small patch, surrounded by city,
but a forest in your eyes.

We walked slowly; exploring.
You were quieter than usual.
You did not twirl your hair or your fingers.

Suddenly you looked up at me, your eyes searching:
"We are wild girls?"

Yes, love.  Yes we are.


I could have praised your language, then,
rewarded your "spontaneous" use of it with
a high five or a token; but.
I am not more your therapist than you are mine.


I didn't know how to tell you it was my last day.
How much language could you really grasp;
or, would you cry?

So I told you half the truth -"I'm going to Africa soon", I said.
"I will be gone for a long time.  I can't be your teacher. You will have a different teacher."

"You will miss me?" --- yes.

"You will see lions?" ----yes!

"And lionesses?" ---- yes, lionesses too.

"And cubs?!"  I laughed.  'Yes, I will see cubs, too."

You were satisfied.


Perhaps that is where you think I am, still.

Roaming the wilds of the Serengeti
amongst lions
climbing from tree to tree.

perhaps you dream that can one day be you, too;
and that way we'll both have escaped the confines of this
urban jungle.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Beyond the Giant - Wild Ontario

Starry skies.  Huddled around the fire pit.  Silver moon peeking through tall evergreens.

And the silence.  It is endless.  Fills me up and clears everything else out.  There's nothing but this moment.

Moonrise viewed from the cabin

Starry night sky.  The best my camera could do.
The first time I came here, 7 years ago, I was running.  Not really away from anything specific.  I just knew that I needed to go as far away as I could from everything, just for a little while.  I had vague plans of roaming around Ontario, but did realize that I needed a place to start.

I flipped through my various stacks of promotional Ontario pamphlets.  Nothing seemed right.  But then, a photo of a cabin nestled in the trees caught my eye.  Beyond the Giant Nature Retreats.

A train ticket to Sudbury was bought; then a bus ticket from there to Thunder Bay.  I had called the owners to confirm there was space available, and asked how I could get there from the bus station - a bus, a taxi?  "We'll come pick you up!" they said.

A few days later I was boarding a train.  The province sped by me like a reel of film.  Trees, lakes, rocky outcrops.  Eventually, dark, starless skies.  I slept.


5 am.  The train pulled into the empty station.  I disembarked, disoriented, only half-awake.  The early-June air was cool, the sun barely just risen.  The train left.

I was alone, a tiny island platform with forest everywhere.

As I waited for a taxi to the Greyhound station, a sudden melodic piercing melody came out of the trees.  Seven or eight notes; haunting and beautiful. A similar, mirror-like melody seemed to respond.  Back and forth, this mysterious call and response continued.  I was convinced someone was playing the flute, hidden in the woods somewhere beyond my sight.  I sat, enthralled.

At some point a taxi must have arrived and taken me to the bus station, but that memory has not stood the test of time.  All that remains is that achingly beautiful morning serenade, back and forth, back and forth... some part of me remains there still, caught in a time loop, neither coming nor going, just being.

Cedar Cabin

The cabin itself was a cozy, wooden log hideaway, nestled perfectly in the trees; Lake Superior's shore was at my doorstep.  Stairs led up to a loft with a comfortable bed and a sliding screen door to a porch where I could stare out at the lake.  Not a human presence in sight.


Sunrise viewed from bed

It was the silence I fell in love with.  I don't think I had ever known true silence until that moment.

At first your ears strain, confused, scanning and searching for faint sounds of cars, phones, humans.  The little things that are your usual background noise, typically imperceptible until you experience their absence.

The silence is so all-encompassing that it takes up space.  It's a distinct presence that fills you.  Suddenly, all other sounds become more vivid - a leaf trembles, and you hear its whisper.

Mergansers quietly glide by, and you turn at the barely imperceptible sounds of disturbed water.  And somewhere across the bay, the melancholy sound of the loon breaks the quiet.

It was the first time I'd ever heard a loon.  I believe I cried.

The silence, and the world that revealed itself to me from within the silence, consumed me and I gave myself fully to it.  It healed some part of my mind I hadn't even known needed healing.
Cabin viewed from a canoe

Deer & 2 little ones, peeking through the grass

I ended up staying a week.  Life has a way of making you stay in the spots you need to, no matter how much you plan otherwise, and this was no different.  My first day, the shore beckoned me so much that I took a long, slow walk on the meandering, extremely rock shoreline... and I sprained my ankle.
View from the cabin

Miraculously, the walkie talkie they had given me was still within reach, and soon a land rover was bounding down the shore, lake and rocks and all, to come rescue me.

I spent the next few days on crutches, sticking close to the cabin and enjoying the simple beauty of my secluded cabin near the lake.  They went out of their way to help me, from taking me grocery shopping after I realized I'd have to extend my stay, to driving me with them to tour the area and see places like the Silver Islet community and the spectacular Thunder Bay Lookout.

Thunder Bay Lookout in the fall

View from the Thunder Bay Lookout (spring)

Eventually I was able to move around with just a hiking stick, but the canoe was my real method of freedom.  I had no need of feet or ankles to get around that way, and I reveled in the wild aloneness that is solo paddling Lake Superior.  I made it all the way to a small, deserted island after hours of paddling (and back!) - no people, no sounds, just me and the lake.  I felt so small as I looked around. 
Endless water.  Endless trees.  A small little island in the distance.  And me.


After I returned home, my dreams were full of the sounds and sights of this beautiful, wild corner of Ontario I had discovered.

And that mysterious melody I had heard?  It had followed me to the cabin, and I had heard variations all around me.  Turns out it was the sweet song of the White-throated Sparrow.  To this day, every time they migrate through Toronto, for a brief few weeks I hear their song and it never fails to transport me back to that beautiful, wild north.
White-throated Sparrow

I've been back four other times since then.  The silent wild beauty of this place, coupled with the immense kindness and thoughtfulness of its owners, has made it a place that I know I will periodically and indefinitely return to.

I have a passionate love for ALL of Ontario, yes - but there's nowhere else I have been in this province that has captured my heart so thoroughly.


Every subsequent visit has only deepened my love for this silce of Ontario's near-north.  I remember once, after I returned from my third visit (alone), a friend asked me what I did in the cabin, when I wasn't out hiking or canoeing; if I'd brought a book, etc.  My response was "nothing," and he said, approvingly, "That's the way to do it."  I had no need of book, or phone, or pen.  I simply... was.

I would boil water, brew a cup of tea, and sit outside on the top deck.  Looking at the still lake.  Feeling the rustle of the wind in my hair.  Listening to the deep quiet.

Slow mornings

View from inside the bedroom looking
out through sliding glass doors

Books, emails, textbooks could wait.  I was here for these wild, solitary moments, and I planned to savor them.


The moods of the lake are many, and the wind catches in unpredictable ways.  I know the landscape well by now, and every hidden boulder under the water, every landmark tree, remains in my intuition and I navigate with relative ease.  My vigilance never ceases, though, as I've been caught out in Superior more than once (solo paddling, at that) in winds and white-capping waves.  The winds change sometimes instantly, and unpredictably.  I never take my eyes off the subtle wave changes, or turn my senses away from the almost imperceptible shifts in wind direction.  These things move through me like a comfortable, familiar pulse, and while I'm very careful, I'm not afraid.  So far, Superior has been kind to me - what I hope is a sort of mutual respect.  (I'm not sure I'll solo a canoe there again for a long time, though, except on the absolute stillest of days).

Me, solo paddling in Lake Superior


One of my favourite places to go is Summer Island.  A little under an hour if you tandem canoe and the winds are on your side.  I've seen a giant Eagle's nest there, complete with a majestic perched eagle.  I've seen a bear hop off the island and swim full across to the peninsula on the other side in under five minutes.  I've seen deer watch me from afar as I beach the boat and sit on the rocky red shore with my picnic lunch.
Summer Island in the distance

This most recent time, J and I paddled there together and crossed to the other side of this little uninhabited piece of land; we sat on driftwood logs as the silence surrounded us, and quietly took in the warm sun and breathed in the crisp October air.  All around us was vast blueness, and far shores of deep green evergreens mixed with bright yellow and white birch.  Not a soul for miles.

Canoe on shore at the remote Summer Island

Bear swimming

Eagle in the giant Eagle's nest on Summer Island


The lovely cabins at Beyond the Giant are within a short drive of their namesake - Sleeping Giant Provincial Park.  Over the years I've done many of the hikes in the park. 

(Images from some of the other hikes in the park) :

Sea-lion formation

Deer and fawn on the trail...
a truly rare, breath-taking sight

Very old Silver Islet cemetery
accessible from a short trail

Another shot of the old cemetery with wooden, engraved headstones
 By far, though, my favourite was the challenging, 22km return trip to the "knees" of the Giant.  This hike is not for the novice or the ill-prepared.  We started at 9am on a cold, mid-May morning.  Sturdy hiking boots, backpacks full of food, water, and a first aid kid, an ankle-sprain bandage (just in case!) and camera, of course.

The start of the hike is not too bad - rocky in places, muddy in others, but mostly level ground.  Eventually, though, the terrain gets steeper and rockier as you climb ever upwards... hours water, we finally reached the top, and the incredible viewpoint was worth every bruise, scrape, and exhausted breath.

Views during the hike to the knees of the giant

On the trail to the "knees" of the Giant
Spectacular view from the end of the trail.

It took us 11 hours, there and back... including the 45 minutes we spent simply enjoying the view from the top.  One of these days, we'll do it again.  For now, it remains my most vividly memorable hike.  Certainly one of Ontario's most stunning.


These days, I take a short flight from Toronto and rent a car when I'm there - no more endless train/bus rides.  It's really surprising how little time it takes to get from the crazy, fast pace of this noisy, overwhelming city, to complete remoteness.

It's hard to capture the spirit of a place in words. All I can say is go there.  You're certain to find something you never even knew you were missing.

The familiar red road that leads to your cabin,
after about a 10 minute drive

Yes, there are bears

Glass of wine by candlelight

Sandhill Crane in a field

Bunnies abound on the trails and roads in Spring

Morning coffee

The Sleeping Giant -
can you see his forehead, eyes, nose, beard, and chest?