Temagami - Four of us set off from Project C.A.N.O.E., a peaceful post devoted to excursions for urban youth, with plans to paddle for nine summer days. Our practical packs in two canoes are stacked to capacity.
It's late in the day by the time we get into the boat, and the wind is against us. My back is aching. Taking the first campsite we come to, I wonder how I'll make it through a week of this.
We haul our cargo up the slippery rocks, forage for firewood, erect the tent and fish food from the sacks. The meals have been meticulously planned, fine vegetarian cuisine from bulk bags of dehydrated delights.
Tushar rouses us in the night to see the cascading northern lights dancing across the dark sky. I take a gander and crawl back inside but feel the fire alive above my head; it takes a while for sleep to recapture me.
Monty, the one who slept soundest and loudest, wakes us up. The plan is for our first portage to take us to tiny Hay Lake, where we'll break through the bog on the way to our next hike. We never find this elusive portage despite our best efforts, steering our sterns through the sludge. Dirty and discouraged, we turn back as the sun is fading.
Day three, we slice through Lake Temagami's myriad glittering mirrors, the wind with us as we aim for one of the quieter lakes that extend from the main one like the spindly legs of a spider.
Taking advantage of perfect conditions, we cover an encouraging expanse of water, arriving at an idyllic island before the sun fades behind the foliage. We spend the next few days pushing through the silent wilderness, past the scarred remnants of a forest fire, protruding rock faces begging to be climbed, lulling, crooning loons.
We embark on our most backbreaking day as a pleasing mist lies on the lake like a blanket. I volunteer to share the burden of carrying a canoe over my head during our six challenging portages.
The narrow path is lined with cedars that I painfully bang my boat against as I make my way.
The most demanding portage is saved for last. I curse the steep rocky hill I can hardly peek at from under the canoe, but stagger forward as streaming sweat stings my eyes.
At the end, I feel like I've discovered a new capacity within my fortified core. Our exhausted bodies make it a little further to a campsite just as the last light is leaking from the sky.
I lean into the lake for a late swim, splashing to scare off a large snapping turtle under a lavish sunset afterglow.
We make the next day a rest day almost by default, succumbing to morning sleep. After a long pancake brunch, we paddle leisurely across the lake. A beaver swims steadily past. Their dams on this lake make the water unsafe to drink, but on most occasions out in the boats we freely dip our bottles in for sips.
Next day, we begin an ambitious journey to more secluded waters on the other side of Lake Temagami but mistakenly portage in a circle and are forced to settle for an easier final journey.
This is a blessing, as the peaceful little lake is a perfect place to laze in the sumptuous sunshine.
We make our last portage and cross choppy water under unabatedly gorgeous weather to reach a treat of old-growth trees in late afternoon. On the hiking trail, the tops of centuries-old cedars stretch into the clouds. Twin towering trunks hug each other on the ground, while higher up, their massive bodies part to create a vast canopy of foliage.
We leave the old island to paddle to our last campsite in time for a splendid send-off sunset. In hushed ruminations round the fire, we recognize this as the last bastion of calm before the calamity of city life that awaits us.
But this experience of unsullied wilderness will remain with us and keep us motivated to preserve this earth for future adventurers.