Dreading the forthcoming slide of fall into winter and wanting to experience the maximum effect of autumn leaves, I decide it was time to book an amped-up nature hike in northern Ontario for myself and my friend Amy.
After some research, we choose the renowned Canopy Tour, a walk through masses of rare old-growth white pine. Besides the massive trees, the tour has a special feature to make it well worth the occasional back-bending portage - a boardwalk suspended 20 metres above the forest floor. "Ewok Village!" Amy exclaims when she initially hears about the trip. I'm thinking more Swiss Family Robinson. Either way, awesome - and, um, retro-cinematic.
In the parking lot/base camp of the Haliburton Forest and Wildlife Reserve, we meet the guide, Andee, who leads us by foot and canoe to the start of the tour. Together, we hike alongside a lazy stream while Andee tells us about the forest and its wildlife. I realize that it's been a very long time since I've walked through a forest for its own sake free of the influence of marijuana. After about 15 minutes of similar reflections - at least, I think it's 15 minutes - we get into a canoe and paddle to the peninsula where the Canopy Tour is located.
Below the boardwalk course, Andee goes over the safety precautions and outfits us with harnesses, ropes and clips. Here, Amy and I remind each other of our mantra, "Old man in chinos." We repeat this, only half-jokingly, because the organization's Web site features one such man standing contemplatively in the midst of the mile-high tour. If he can complete it, we reason, then surely we can as well.
I've never feared heights, so I feel relatively brave as we climb up a ladder to the first plank. We clip ourselves to cords running overhead and start trekking along narrowish boards, balancing with the thin ropes that are hung at hand level.
Noticing the forest floor fall away as the planks run upward and unable to escape the sounds of the creaking, swaying wooden boards underfoot, I start to take an acute interest in the trees around me. Investigating the foliage is only partly aesthetically driven, of course; to avoid vomiting, I have to avoid looking below my precariously placed feet.
When the planks veer downward - even slightly - the altitude of the course becomes very apparent. Depending on your personal constitution, the experience can range anywhere from an extra-interesting stroll in the woods to a seemingly death-defying act of courage.
When Andee hops sideways off the course and, still harnessed, swings over and sits down on an impossibly high tree branch, my inner chant of "old man in chinos, old man in chinos" shuts up for a moment. I consider the fact that I'm privy to something rare - a live-action view of the forest. And it is an exceptional forest at that, viewed from quite an impressive height. Witnessing Amy's glee and willingness to step half off the course to stand on top of a white pine, I think about loosening my grip (only ever so slightly, of course) on the ropes that are my pseudo-lifeline.
Toward the end of the tour, the three of us stop on a platform built nearly at the pinnacle of the course. Andee provides us with hot chocolate and great crunchy peanut-butter granola bars, and we stare rosy-cheeked into the distance.
Soon we're off again. I finish the course with confidence and no further need for mantras about elderly men. So enlightened, we paddle, hike and drive back to base camp. Clutching our souvenir posters - or "diplomas," according to our guide - Amy and I depart reluctantly.
That night, after toasting marshmallows (on an inside fire; we're not that hardcore), Amy and I fall happily asleep, completely relaxed, with the sensation of swinging planks under our feet.