Saturday morning and we’re out the door bright and early. Once again we’re off to the airport – and once again we won’t be boarding a plane. We grab the smallest car available – a small SUV and I brace myself for the traffic I know is coming.
This time we’re headed north. Along the way we record some Instagram stories to share our progress as we go and give viewers a single clue word: “Up.” What we don’t tell them is that there’s questionable weather in the forecast for our initial plan and so we have booked a backup “Up”.
Soon, about an hour in, we’re as far north as either of us have gone in Ontario, which is barely anything compared to the size of this enormous province which stretches up to Hudson Bay and beyond and as far east as the US border of Minnesota.
We settle for the night at an in in a small town called Gravenhurst. It appears to be staffed by ghosts or perhaps clusters of nanoparticles that do the work. We’re given a password to get in the front door, our keys are waiting for us on a table with other guests’. There is music playing somewhere. We put our things in our room, have a quick nap and hear errands being done. Laundry is being washed, doors opening and closing but when we walk out the door again there is nobody to be seen. I think this is how The Haunting at Hill House goes.
At dinner time we walk to dinner but first have a short detour to the nearby lake. There are hardly any people out and we have the lake shore to ourselves, sharing it only with a paddling of ducks who visited us only long enough to find out we brought no food before sailing off in to the distance.
Soon hunger wins out and we head back to the town, stopping in a diner. The place is packed and when we first walk in the owner says “Oh sorry we have no tables.” but as we start to turn away, one woman at a single table says to the owner “Oh hey, we know each other – I can join you at your table” and brought her dinner over there and sat with them, giving us the table.
The owner’s daughter comes over and takes our order. The food is standard diner fare but very good: burgers, fries and cokes. We enjoy it tremendously. When we go up to pay the owner apologizes for everything being so busy. We tell her what a great job her daughter did. After remarking that she knows we must not be from around here, she tells us how everyone in her family worked at the restaurant when they were young including her and tells us about all of her children both in town and away at school. I’m warmed by how quickly we’re taken from small talk in to talking about our families. It isn’t often that this happens in the city.
We get back to the hotel as night is starting to fall. We look outside and the sky is amazingly clear. The predicted clouds are not here and this means that the original “Up” plan can start.
Back in to the car we go with a destination in the middle of nowhere programmed in to the navigation system. The roads get narrower and have fewer people on them. Trees go up to the edge of the road and our headlights light up signs with ominous messages:
I am extra watchful now. Moose are big creatures with males weighing up to 1,500 pounds. An impact with one can not only destroy a car, they are often fatal because not only are they heavy, they are tall and the passengers in the car often end up crushed by the moose crashing through the window.
We are lucky, though, and soon we find ourselves at our destination: a small parking lot in the woods. Surprisingly despite being in the middle of nowhere the lot is packed. We pull out, drive a while and then come back. Now it’s even more packed with people making their own spaces in front of each other. Fortunately I’m able to find a place to pull off the road across the street from the lot and park the car there.
The night is moonlit and beautiful. The air smells fresh and like evergreen trees. There’s almost enough moonlight that we don’t even need a flashlight. We make our way to a path and in to the Torrance Barrens Dark Sky Preserve.
It has been easily twenty years since I’ve really seen stars. Living in the city is something I love but there is so much light pollution that generally all we see are 2-3 stars at most. On a very dark night in a ravine I have seen Orion – but that’s it.
Tonight, though, many of us are here and we’re all here to see the stars. I hear several different languages which makes me think lots of us are coming up from Toronto. In some ways it reminds me of when we went strawberry picking a few weeks ago with all of us exiting the city to enjoy the country. Some people are clearly here for the long haul, having laid out sleeping bags on the edge of the lake.
We find ourselves near a lake and on the other side we hear people singing in a language we don’t recognize. Everyone around us is quiet, looking up.
We didn’t plan it as well as we could do because the moon was so bright we didn’t see the milky way but we did get to see a lot. Thanks to my new phone’s night photography mode I was able to get a few photos.
We spend a long time just enjoying the atmosphere before heading back to the inn. We have to get to sleep early – another “Up” adventure is happening tomorrow.
We wake up bright and early and go downstairs. There’s clearly been someone else here and even the sound of someone elsewhere in the house they never did show our face. We left our key on the desk and closed the front door behind us.
On a Sunday morning in Toronto I need only travel a few minutes even at 8:00 AM and I have my choice of places to have breakfast. But here in Muskoka, we have to drive about 15-20 minutes to get to one place that’s open. The diner we’re at could be in nearly any rural area I’ve lived in or visited. Men in their 60’s wearing plaid drink black coffee and talk about the weather. The waitress there knows their names and most of their usual orders, bringing coffee over to most of them without asking. Sage has French Toast and I get eggs and sausage – a good standard go-to for a place like this. As we sit, a freight train rolls by outside. There’s a reason that movies taking place in small-town North America have these tropes. They’re as common as the pickup trucks in the parking lots of each restaurant like this in every town.
The waitress here also tells us she knows we’re not from around here and asks where we’re from and what we’re here to do. Cottage season typically ends a week or two ago, the leaves haven’t really started changing colour, and there’s definitely no snow to bring us here for winter sports. We tell her we came to see stars.
“Oh, you’re went up to the Barrens. It’s nice up there.”
“Yes, we don’t see so many stars back home. It was really nice to see so many people out to see stars.”
“Yeah, they weren’t there for stars, everyone just goes up there to drink.”
We’re not disillusioned, though. The people there truly were looking at the stars. Still, I’m a little annoyed. Few things push my buttons more than cynicism.
We pay our bill and see that it’s almost time for our “backup adventure.” This one is another 20-30 minute drive away. It’s clear that as beautiful as this part of the province is, living here is not something we could do. There’s just too much driving.
We arrive at a theme park, Santa’s Village. It’s a bit cloudy out and looks like we might see some rain and so the park is almost empty. The go karts are parked for the season, there is nobody in the arcade. I think the employees outnumber the visitors by at least 2:1 now.
We make our way to the counter for the “Treetop Adventure” – our next “Up”. A young woman goes to fetch harnesses and once again I find myself wearing a fall arrest system for this project.
This one is a little different from the CN Tower adventure. As we won’t be over 100 stories up in the air this time there aren’t quite so many checks. And this one has something called a “Smart Belay System”. There are two clips on it. One always has to be closed which means you can never be high up and disconnected. Above us in the tops of trees are obstacles and zip lines all connected by cables. We are trained how to move between the cables: Unclip one clip, attach to a new cable, unclip the second and move it. And so up in to the trees we go.
It starts off easy, walking on balance beams and cables with ropes and the cable we clip to balance with. We’re only about ten feet off the ground so there isn’t a great deal of fear either: just some simple problem solving.
Every few challenges there’s a zip line. You clip both clips on, lift your feet off the ground and let gravity have its way with you.
As we go up the challenges get bigger. After the first 40 minutes or so, the person helping us lets us know we’re at a crossroads. We can go higher and to more difficult challenges or we can go down. Sage chooses to go down. I keep going.
Now I’m finding it more challenging. There are some things that require upper body strength to keep balanced and not fall. I’m not afraid of falling as I trust the system to protect me but for some reason I still avoid it.
Up I go, walking high wires and even one point where logs were placed on the wire like spools. Any weight on them results in their spinning. In the end I can’y figure out how to cross them other than to stretch my leg really far and do just that.
Finally in the end, there is one last challenge. Clip in to a wire on the end of a pulley. If you pull slowly on the pulley it feels like it is completely slack and will just let you fall quickly to your death. However, if you put weight on it and jump it will slow you down and gently lower you. It does take a bit of trust, though. I pull it once after clipping in and am not sure I believe it will save me. But then I jump.
And then as quickly as it started it is over. While it was a really fun time, as I’m driving home an idea is sticking in my mind. It feels like the mental equivalent of a recently-lost tooth. It is a little uncomfortable but yet you still keep touching to see what it feels like.
The idea I am stuck on is this: At one point, as I am walking through the second level of the course, our helper calls up to me. “You have the whole course to yourself! You can fall or do whatever you want!” And yet, even with that suggestion, I continue to play it safe. Even as I am doing something new, it’s no longer risky or uncomfortable. I’m having fun but no longer pushing limits. What if I had tried to walk across the rolling logs and fallen? What would that have felt like? Would I have felt it in the pit of my stomach? Would there be adrenaline? I may never know. What would it feel like to taste failure? What would it have been like to pushed my limits in the moment and not just in the the choice of the adventure.
Something to think about as I schedule future adventures – and perhaps as in life as well. What would our lives be like if we were to push our limits every day?
Once again we created an Instagram story as we had this adventure. Have a watch here and subscribe if you want to see them as they happen.