In Autumn, as the land turns over with a final flourish of the years earthly beauty, we begin to face into the long white tapestry of a Minnesota winter which looms on the horizon. Still, the dazzling display of descending reds and yellows of the maple and birch, and the crisp mornings perfect for long cups and slow sips, make the path towards that horizon less ominous. I would perhaps say, even enjoyable. For with the opening sky, a spaciousness seasonally offered, returns to us. An opportunity to take that crisp, charged air deep into our lungs and hold onto it a little longer than usual just to taste the ripeness of its offering. I do this too, as though I could live with some of its best intent, in the slow, spacious months ahead.
Yes! All the work of spring and summer; all the sprouting and pushing forth; the ripening and maturing, has finally given way to a period of rest. For us human beings, this natural yearly flow may not seem necessary to embrace given our modern orientations. But up here on the North Shore of Lake Superior, as the last of the leaves go, and the flow of people slows to a trickle, and we are given such obvious opportunity for respite from our work - I would have to think of myself as a fool not to take it! For my flesh and bones declare this space as necessary every bit as honestly as the trees naked limbs, or the bears solemn sleep, or the steadfast embrace of winter night skies.
But Autumn is not yet Winter, and so rest is not fully homeward bound, and of course there is still the occasional warm day with ample daylight for a big adventure. This space between, here’s when we lean on hoping, and that our planned big day out lands on one of those occasional “perfect” fall days. Because as we all know, there are a lot more “imperfect days'' these days. But, this October, we planned a big adventure up to the Farther North Shore, to the Sleeping Giant Provincial Park of Ontario, and our hopes were met.
It was an early morning, even for coffee professionals. But Josh, Peter and myself were on the road well before sunrise, making for the border crossing, and waiting for the sun to illuminate the landscape. Our first stop was in Thunder Bay, to gather ourselves over a cup of coffee. We stopped at an oddly familiar coffee roaster and coffee shop called St. Paul Roastery.
I say oddly familiar because in many ways Fika and St. Paul Roastery are replicas of each other over the international boundary which seemingly separates us. We both operate in a tight space, with a simple menu, using many of the same machines (including roaster and espresso machine), and offer a friendly rivalry of tasty coffees from all over the world. A few cups of their seasonal offerings, and some good conversation with one of their owners, Camron, we were on our way to the Park with new beta, ready to begin the long 14 mile round trip to the top of the Giant (two miles of mountaintop in Sleeping Giant Provendial Park in Ontario Canada that resembles a giant), and back.
Arriving at the trailhead, only a few cars were parked in the massive lot, and the sun was streaking through the blue skies. Ha! Adventure filled me with the giddyness of sensing itself, the time now at hand! We unloaded the bikes, packed up our bags, and were on the trail within a few minutes.
Peter, the young buck of the three, raced off ahead, flying down the trail with fat tires cutting through the mud. I maintained the middle while Josh came up in the back. The entire 3.5 miles of approach to the steep climb up the Sleeping Giant, we were able to ride on bike. The trail was flat, yet with all the rain this fall, it held long, and deep puddles every so often. The forest was dense, and lush, covered with moss and mushrooms. Lake Superior was at times visible through the forest, and at other times the Sleeping Giant was visible in the distance moving closer.
We reached the endpoint of the bike portion of the trail, set aside our bikes, and began to move our feet upon the soft soil of a saturated earth. I took to the trail first, my toes tickling, begging me to stretch my legs into a run for the first quarter mile or so, until the climb steepened to an extent which I could not persist at a running pace.
Peter and Josh were just far enough behind me that I was alone. I passed a lake, with a view of some cliffs on the other side. The colors were still popping at a prime all around it. The trail moved through a stretch of cedars and thick moss - the same style of forest I have come to favor on my home stretch of the North Shore. Then it began to climb again. A long hard climb, up made stairs and over boulders. Towards the top I began to hear water flowing. It was a spring, where the climb evened back out. The spring flowed down a small gorge to the lake I passed on the way up. The water tasted sweet and was the perfect treat. I cooled off by washing the sweat from my face. When I finished washing and turned back, Josh had arrived. A few minutes later Peter too.
We were all breathing heavy after the climb, but ready to carry on. Peter’s pace was no longer as before, like a rabbit, or a fox. Josh took the lead guiding us along the torso of the Giant at a running pace slow enough to take in the occasional vistas without stopping. We were up there now; standing on top of a giant does put you in the sky!
It was a mile or two more, of relatively flat terrain, up the spine of the Giant, to the westerly side which overlooked the lake back towards Thunder Bay. “The Gorge”, an impressive 900ft sheer rock face, was the endpoint we were after. We ran together the last half mile, to that stunning vista. The wind was whipping, and the air cool enough to chill us immediately despite all the warmth we had gathered on the way there. Still, how could we not enjoy that perch for a while. The three of us sat right at the edge of the cliff, staring down into the canyon and into the lake below. Plenty of islands were scattered along the shoreline. The wind pulled the water into regular patterns that from our birds perspective were mesmerizing to observe.
Our conversation bubbled with enthusiasm, for life, for adventure, and the mystery of it all. And we joked, and laughed, and imagined future adventures; some possible, others not at all likely. I shared my reflections on the manner in which I relate with nature, and how it has changed throughout my life. How at times I long to overcome nature (individually, separately), and other times I long for absorption with nature (or being overcome by nature, and forced to merge with its divine dictate). I have come to not think of one approach as better than the other; but both as appropriate, and natural aspects of human nature. But both also potentially inappropriate. Immaturity can lead to maturity, but immaturity can also lead to greater immaturity. Movement can fall into peaceful stillness, but movement can also corrupt itself with further forced movement. The paradox which constantly grips us human beings! It's a love/hate relationship. Still, even if it is only “frog perspectives” that I keep while here, I have to say there are moments of pretty impressive “frog perspectives”. At least I try to think so.
Sitting up there with my two friends, feeling the wind, and watching the single raven slapping itself continuously against it, while the Lake below devotedly tended to time; I have to say, was one of these impressive perspectives. Still, nothing was overcoming that horizon. And while we were perched at it comfortably, our only next move was back down.
We hopped all the way off the giant and onto our bikes; and then rolled our way down the trail to the car. Peter, the young buck who set off so ambitiously at the start, arrived at the rear with an expression of partial anguish. I smiled with the gift of age in a manner I had never experienced before. I think I saw Josh smiling at the same thing. Peter, however tired, was smiling too. And I think I understood why. We all knew, somewhere deep inside, there were still bigger, better, and more important adventures ahead of us. And yet, sharing a day on the trail as we did that day was every bit a part of those greater commitments to life. We loaded up our gear, set our calm, tired bodies back into the car, and started the drive home. Two and a half hours along that magnificent lake, with just a touch of new familiarity alive inside all three of us.