Algonquin Park, Ontario Canada. Spring 2010
Paddling out from the Ministry office at Opeongo Lake, I checked my map as I headed towards the interior of the park. The map shows the public camping along the highway that cuts through the bottom of the park, and interior camping where you’re on your own with just the map to show the lakes, and portages to get from one lake to the other.
I’ve been coming here fifteen years in a row now. Early in the spring you might flirt with late snow and cold, but there are no bugs and the fishing is great.
I usually go across a number of lakes into the backcountry to separate myself from the weekenders and pretenders. Back there you can go days without seeing anyone and when I do see someone, they just pass by, waving if they're close, or not, if they're on the other side of a lake. Either way, they want solitude like I do and we seldom get close enough to talk.
The first leg takes you to the north arm of the big lake, a two-hour paddle. Then another two hours across that north arm, to the top of the lake. The water is brutally cold this time of year and the paddle moves through the odd patch of slushy ice cubes.
I’ve run into a snowstorm this early in the year once, but generally I’ve been lucky with weather and just have to stay out of the water. The water will kill you in a matter of minutes if you fall in, so everything is based on staying out of it.
In the north arm I drop a lure and slow a little to troll for speckled trout on my way in to shore. These lakes, especially those farther into the park, are great for fishing. They were originally stocked for the Queen’s visit in '67 and topped up repeatedly ever since. Not many people will endure the hardship required to get to these fish, so they're plentiful.
I wedge the rod between my legs, sticking out to the left while I paddle. It pulls hard and bends back, fish or bottom? Dropping the paddle in the canoe, I pick up the rod and reel a quick four or five turns, pulling up hard on the rod, setting the hook.
The line goes tight and I hold it up waiting for the tell-tale sign I got him, a vibration or tugging. Just as I feel him pulling, he’s out of the water flapping back and forth, a perfect arc through the air and back in. The line goes slack, he must be coming towards me, so I wind fast as hell and catch up to him as he jumps again, right close to the canoe. He’s trying to shake the lure so hard he flips upside down and hits the water on his back. As he turns to run away the reel zings as it spins out line. We fight back and forth and finally he tires.
I pull him into the canoe. It’s a nice fish, about three pounds. Putting away the rod I head to the shore.
With the camp set up and my stomach full of fresh fish, I’m thinking about tomorrow. I usually have some goal early in the trip. Things like checking out different bogs for moose, or a white water river to run, or a place I want to fish. This year it’s checking out an old growth forest. It’s off the beaten path, if there’s such a thing here, but it’s supposed to be some really large trees that we don’t see any more.
The directions I was given said that I have to find an old settler’s cabin where the owner was killed by a bear, and then locate the path into the forest behind his place. It’s somewhere on the east side of this lake. Giving the fire a last check before settling in, I shake my head for even allowing myself to start thinking about bears before trying to sleep in the bush.
Paddling along the shore early the next morning, watching for any sign of an abandoned cabin, I come across an inlet with a large opening in the forest that seems to be the only place to build along here. I put the canoe on shore and walk up the slope to an open area. Seeing the pile of old wood where it was obvious the cabin had collapsed meant I was in the right spot. I pulled the canoe into the woods, just out of habit, there's no real chance of theft, but I couldn’t imagine how you’d get out if here if there was. It’s not worth the risk, so the canoe's well hidden under a tree.
The trail's old and hard to follow, more a meandering break in the woods than a real trail. A few hours later the forest seems to thin out and I see the first big tree. I only get my arms half way around it and when I look up, it goes forever. Walking around there appears to be only nine of these giants and I head towards the biggest one.
Its lower branches are only three feet off the ground, each branch as big around as a normal tree. They stretch out in every direction some twenty yards. Looking up, there are branches sticking out as far as I can see, and the top ones appear to be about eight stories up. They look the size of my arms or bigger.
Settled against the trunk, munching down a handful of trail mix, I think about what a sight an entire forests of trees this big must have been. Tired from the walk, the sun warms me enough to close my eyes.
Waking to the sound of wind ripping into the trees, something has changed. The tree branches have all bent to touch the ground no. Leaning down to look around the trunk, I don’t see any light. The branches all droop down, closing in to create a cave-like space. I circle to the wall of branches, trying to find where I had crawled under a large branch to get to the trunk in the first place. No luck.
Trying to squeeze through or between branches to get out only results in me getting snagged and stuck. Retreating to the tree-trunk I look up, there are swaying branches moving left and right but there is light up there. I start to climb up the twenty feet it will take to get to a level above where these branches join the trunk.
Getting on top of the first set of branches, I start to walk out to the end where I can hang down and drop out of the tree. Suddenly wind picks up again and the tree starts making a racket as its branches bang together. A number of branches bend down, coming together to create yet another wall in front of me. The tree limbs intertwine and overlap each other until it becomes almost dark as they block out the light. The branches touching the ground below are something I had just accepted but this was not something I was ready for. What the hell! It’s like the tree is keeping me here.
Retreating back to the trunk I sit and try to think this through. If I go up higher to a third level, it may make another wall there, I might be able to jump from this height, but I probably wouldn't make it from higher up.
Quickly, I climb ten feet to the next level and run out a branch planning to jump off at this crazy height, then land on the level below, so I can climb down the outside of the tree. The branches react in an instant, quickly bending and swinging around but I reach the wall before it’s pulled itself together and launch myself outwards. The branches below should give me somewhere to land, I just have to grab on when I get there.
As I hit the section below, the outer edges of the branches come up, curling into a pocket, catching me. Before I can grab on and or jump off, the branches roll back in towards the tree, tumbling me along like a ball, smacking my shoulder right into the tree trunk.
Back on the second level, I'm a little exhausted and sore. Shaking my head and swearing doesn’t help, nor does hitting or kicking the tree. I rest for a bit and then start climbing up the tree again. I have to know what will happen at each level. The fourth level is above the surrounding evergreen forest and I can see for miles. Not attempting to go out on the branch I keep going up to the fifth level and then the sixth.
Thinking I may be able to go out on the branch here, I step forward, nothing happens so I take another step, feeling a surge of hope.
The branches don't close in on me, they actually move away and leave me with nothing to hold onto just when the wind starts to blow rather hard. It’s like a tight wire act all of a sudden, at ninety feet off the ground. I’m trying to balance, swaying as the wind tugs at me. Dropping down onto the branch and lowering myself onto my stomach, I retreat, crawling back to the trunk.
Jesus Christ. What am I going to do?
Algonquin Park Fall 2010
“I need water, I want it now!”
I am screaming at a tree. We have come to an uneasy agreement through our one-way dialogue. I’m clearly a prisoner of the tree. It was only when I gave up and started banging my head repeatedly against the trunk in an attempt to escape by dying, that the tree finally gave me some rights.
Now I'm living in a tree. I have a cave down on the first floor and live mostly on the second and third levels. I have learned that anything above that is just for viewing from close to the trunk.
Thank god my day-pack had some supplies. The flint kit has allowed me to start little fires on the branch floor the tree set up for me. Generally, I get nuts or food or water from the tree, it just doesn’t usually work at the speed I want it to.
“Last call - I want that water now!”
Sure enough high above me, the tree branches are moving, slowly they are pulling together, forming a trough, a little valley created by leaves funnelling down to me like a hose. I hear the water trickling, then starting to flow, as it comes careening down the leafy valley and pouring onto the floor. I reach for the bowl I made of leaves and catch the water before it turns the floor to mud.
When nuts were not enough, I plead and negotiated for better food. I woke one morning to thrashing and the sound of breaking branches. Alarmed, I looked down into the cave to see a large deer that must have been allowed through the wall and was now stuck like me. The tree had produced a ten-point buck. He wasn’t as worried about hurting himself as I was, charging the wall head down, fighting for his life.
I screamed and screamed at the tree to let him go. To my surprise, the wall of branches opened and the deer charged out, going full-bore in a straight line, crashing through the evergreens.
We settled on a dead squirrel or a bird, with the odd fish and some fruit thrown in. In the beginning I wondered where it was coming from, but I couldn’t wrap my head around the image of squirrels or birds being grabbed off the top of the tree by branches. As for the fish, I’m not even going there.
The only subject I talk about these days is the upcoming winter. The tree is not listening to my reasoning; I will die here if it doesn’t let me go. I'll freeze or die of starvation, a brutal way to go.
The tree just lives on and blows in the wind. Of course talking to a tree all day is a sure sign I may not be totally with it. I know that the bruises and cuts from repeated attempts to escape have healed and that physically I'm doing okay. The mental part is becoming a real challenge. Accepting reality, that I am captive in a tree in the middle of nowhere, should be enough to make a person lose their mind, especially when one part of the brain watches the other part talking to a tree. Trying to plead and reason with a large inanimate object, it becomes hard to pretend sanity, when clearly insanity is taking over.
“Thank you Mr. Tree, thank you.”
I’m yelling at the top of my lungs, clearly delirious in pleasure. Winter preparations have begun! The tree branches have all shaped themselves around my floors, some bark has come loose and dropped down my way. I've used it like plywood to make walls.
The most amazing thing has been the leaves. They have all been collected as they fell and have been funnelled into, around and on top of the branch walls. These trees keep some foliage, so there is also a wind-break outside my somewhat insulated house.
I spent the last warmth of the fall sitting up at the top of the tree, looking out over the surrounding forest landscape knowing I'll soon have to hole up here, winter-bound and just hoping to survive.
Algonquin Park Spring 2011
Anikka Jorgensen was enjoying the beautiful day hiking through the forest. A Stockholm University grad she was spending the summer in Canada gathering data for her final Environmental Engineering thesis in Algonquin Park.
The wide variety of geological history in the uninhabited, remote park provided excellent examples of old-growth forest. Her previous summer had been spent in British Columbia and she was doing a comparison between eastern and western forest evolution.
If it wasn’t for that old canoe she'd seen when pulling hers out of the water to stash in the bushes, she would have been sure no one had been here in years. It was probably some fisherman who left it there so he didn't have to bring it in and out of the park each year. You see that a lot. What was left of the old cabin sure was deserted.
An avid outdoorswoman, camping and exploring with her father had taught her to be comfortable on her own. This trip she was prepared to spend a couple months in the wild gathering her data. She'd been supplied with GPS coordinates for a few spots of interest and decided to start with a patch of old-growth forest that was supposed to be spectacular. The ranger at the station had called it a doorway to the past.
Anikka had seen plenty of old-growth before, but early in the morning, with the sun just starting to come through the trees, she was taken aback by the beauty of these trees. The nine of them stood out like towers in their clearing. The biggest one caught her attention. It seemed to have structure to its branches, almost like enclosures on the bottom of the tree and again up about twenty feet and then again another twenty feet up.
Getting out her camera, she took some pictures, backing up, trying to get a shot of the whole tree. She snapped some of the entire group and the surrounding area. Curious, she moved towards the biggest one. Although it seemed the enclosures on the second and third tiers looked really tight and hard to get a good look in, the bottom one wasn’t as bad. It had openings in it, and this close you could see the trunk.
Interesting, she thought. Stepping in between the outer branches she touched the rough trunk. Leaning against the tree and looking up she could see something like a floor, but only darkness above that. The chance to look at it was better outside and she turned to head back out between the branches.
The wind began blowing before she could take two steps, and the tree closed in. Large and small branches were closing and entwining, making a solid wall right in front of her eyes, more terrifyingly, sending the cave like area she was standing in into a near-blackout. The sun wasn’t high enough in the sky to light up this area. Experimentally, she shoved her shoulder into the wall of branches a few times, but that didn’t work.
Retreating to the trunk, she was becoming worried. Looking up, she realized she would have to climb.
Climbing up, she thought of getting out of the tree at this next level, maybe pushing through the walls up there and jumping. Pulling herself up over the edge of what looked like a makeshift floor, she rolled onto her back and caught her breath. The sunlight was starting to come through the branches and she was shocked when she started recognizing man-made objects.
Some shelves made of branches went up the one side of the trunk; there was a table made next to a large root that acted like a bench to sit on. Some bowls woven together with leaves and branches lined the shelves.
Amazing. Someone was living here, or had been. It's not impossible, but why? Some of this stuff is obviously made by a person. But the branch wrapping around the trunk as a make shift table, and what happened below, were not handmade. Looking up at the third level above, she began to climb again.
She gave a little squeak of shock when her head cleared the floor of the next level and she spotted someone. At least she thought it was someone. She froze, looking at something/someone, covered in fur and beard. Regaining her nerves, she clamped her mouth shut and started back down the trunk.
“Ya can’t go anywhere, so there’s no sense running.”
Safely back on the second floor, Anikka fought for composure. His voice was so calm. He’d been here the whole time and not said anything. Her thoughts raced. He’s not chasing me, or coming after me. Is he going to help me? Or does this make things worse?
“Come on up when you want.”
Sitting down with her back against the rough bark of the tree trunk, confused, she tried to decide how to best deal with this.
“Who are you?” she called out louder than she intended.
“Why are you here?”
“I’m stuck in a tree like you.” As if that was any kind of answer. But at this point Dan decided keeping things simple might be best for her. After all, he knew about the horrors that being stuck in a tree would make you endure, but she needed to work through this initially on her own.
Anikka knew she was going to cry, or scream. But she tried to hang onto something, anything. That guy looked like hell. How long had he been here? How did he get stuck here?
He said, like me! Stuck like me!
Will I end up like him? At least he seems to be just stuck here. She hoped he wasn't a threat, or some kind of sick mother.
She decided to climb back up to the next floor and get some answers so she could get out of this crazy tree.
Dan eyed her up and down as she crawled back up over the edge of the makeshift floor. My god, she was good looking, not wearing much, probably out hiking. Everything was tight fitting and she had a gorgeous body, he guessed she'd be about twenty-five. She pulled her long curly hair over one shoulder as she sat down across from him.
She thought he may have been good-looking at one time, but his hair was over-grown and the scruffy beard hung halfway down his chest. He smelled to high-heaven, and was covered in a patchwork of furs that looked to be made of every color of animal available, light brown, dark brown, some black and some red stitched together crudely with something like fishing line. Furs put together to like blankets were scattered around the makeshift floor.
“How long have you been here?”
“A year.” That answer pretty well covered it he thought. A year of hell. Slowly losing his mind. Imprisoned in a tree, trapped in a nightmare where you can’t leave, quit, or die.
Does she want to know about the winter I lived through and the food I ate? About the storms covering us in good while the tree gathered up squirrels and birds by the dozen and herded them into my enclosure, locking them in tight.
Dan’s eyes haven't left her since she sat down. The breeze sent her light, fragrant scent his way and the electrical charge was overpowering. He was smiling now, feeling a sense of relaxation and satisfaction.
“Thank you tree! Thanks a lot!" He suddenly shouted. “You are the one, you are the one.”
She jumped in her skin when he yelled. He’s gone crazy, he is really gone. This guy is just nuts. What am I going to do? Now he’s talking to the dammed tree. Has he tried to escape?
This is gotten out of hand. Can he get us out of here? Geez, he seems to be looking at me funny, what's with that smile? “You’re talking to the tree, does it listen?”
“Yes, we're a team.”
“This is crazy. You’re crazy. What does it do if it listens?”
“Water! I want water!" he shouted.
Anikka shook her head. Definitely a lost soul here. He really is talking to the damned tree. Is he beyond help?
But before she could ask another question, the tree started moving and shuffling above. A trough formed right down in front of them and water began to trickle down the leafy valley.
Quickly, he reached for a bowl and held it out to catch the running water, then offered the bowl to her.
No! This cannot be happening. She couldn’t believe it. Looking down at the water Anikka realized this may be the way out.
“If you can talk to the tree, why don’t you ask for something better?”
“I have been for a while now," he reached for her, "I’ve been asking for you.”
The rest of the park paid no attention to the screams of the windstorm that rattled the old trees.