Life in the North Country
Traveling across the wilderness of North America in an old ford ranger and 14 foot travel trailer, one soon learns the downside of being alone. Mandy and I left our home in Greenwich a few days ago aiming for Algonquin Park in northern Ontario where we would hop on the Trans-Canada highway all the way to British Columbia. Along the way we will travel through endless forest of Ontario and eastern Manitoba, than endless prairie of Saskatchewan and Alberta. Once in the Rockies we plan to head south into the US and back.
Although we’ve braved more remote areas, Southampton Island in the Arctic or Tierra del Fuego in Chile, we weren’t pulling a 3,000 pound trailer behind a lovable but vulnerable pickup (192,000 miles at the start). I feel like behind the trailer I’m tugging a load of anxiety as we gradually fall off the grid. We lost cell phone contact a hundred miles ago, and the uncertainty we face floods my mind with worry.
Is the metal-on-metal noise, that wasn’t there at the start of our journey, getting louder? The infernal scrapping sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard, it threatens like a razor- sharp knife as we sink deeper into the boreal wilderness of Algonquin National Park, a state-size wilderness known for it fishing and wolves. What if we breakdown? How can you call AAA when there is no cell service, and AAA is as foreign here as Tim Hortons is in NJ. Do we flag down a helpful Canadian, who will no doubt think twice about stopping once recognizing our Jersey plates. . . . . I would.
When did it happen that we are almost never out of contact. It once was the norm, but, slowly, normal morphed into constant connection. Even in the Arctic we took a sat phone and an EPIRB giving us at least the illusory bridge to civilazation. In rural, and desperately poor, northern Brazil cell phone service was unexpectedly ubiquitous, one can always top a hill or hold the phone to the sky and get a few bars. In New Jersey no service zones achieve notoriety – like the infamous dead spot between exit 7a and 8 on the NJ Turnpike.
Not many people in New Jersey know the feeling of being out of contact, in fact most of the east coast rarely experiences digital isolation. In the northern Canadian forest there is no TV, no internet, no cell phone. Is it irresponsible to be this far out of contact? This is the question that glares at me as we slowly make out way across this seemingly perpetual forest. One can pretend to be safe but no one is immune to the inconveniences and dangers of the wild north.
We planed to spend a few days in Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, a massive forested rock on Lake Superior along which lies Canada’s newest Marine Sanctuary. We choose the more scenic route along the northern shore of this immense lake, eschewing the 500 km ride that cuts through the nearly unpopulated forest about 200 km north of the lake. After 10 hours of driving from Algonquin and with only 3 hours left to Sleeping Giant we stopped to top off the gas tank, before tackling the last 400 km drive.
At the tank a trucker asks “ Which way you heading?” “West” I cautiously offered. He said “Well, your not going to make it, I just came back because the bridge at Schreiver is out and they won’t be able to repair it for a week”. I stared silently for a second sizing up the man, looking for signs of a prank. It’s not that unlikely giving the propensity for rural Canadians to toy with someone with NJ written all over him and his truck. Mid-fifties, grey hair buzz cut and a gut more typical of an American, he looked the type. He said with an unlikely note of humor in his eye “ your gonna have to drive back 150 km to White River, than 200km north to route 11 just to start west again, and watch out for moose and logging trucks, their crazy” (the drivers , not the moose).
Suitably alarmed I checked his story with three other people. All wore vaguely pissed off looks when asked about the bridge. They said they had no warning and drove over 300km to the dead end Sheiver Bridge to be told they had to drive back to White River. This would be like telling someone to turn around after driving the length of the NJ Turnpike and start over. For us it meant taking a detour that would be the equivalent of going to from Philadelphia to Cape May through NYC.
One person, a pear shaped man wearing a sleeveless tea shirt and a warm hearted grin, first confirmed the difficulty ahead and said “ I had to drive 300 km back and forth, I was just here 4 hours ago”. Disgusted on his behave, I offered meekly that at least he was in good humor to which he said “ What can you do about it?”. So it is with life in the north country.