What Living on an Island in a Provincial Park Taught Me about Loving the Outdoors

Home is wherever there's a lake and a canoe

By: Jacalyn Beales

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The day I discovered I would be spending my summer break living on an island in Algonquin Provincial Park in 2014 was also the day I realized my life would probably change. Probably. 

Growing up, "summer break" for my brother and I meant being shipped off begrudgingly to a sleep-away camp in the Muskokas for a few weeks, whilst our parents languished in the child-free euphoria that comes with signing your kids up for a summer of activities away from home. I can distinctly remember packing my backpack and duffel bag with a scowl on my face each year as my parents announced to my brother and I that we would be embarking, yet again, on a three-week trip filled with canoeing, camping, portaging, fishing, swimming, archery and pretty much every other activity summer camps make you do in order to tucker you out so you'll sleep deeply each night and forget about your home sickness. It's all about making the counselor's job easier, am I right? Sure, we'd spent time as a family up north at cottages, but to be forced into doing activities neither of us were good at seemed like cruel and unusual punishment. But each year for about four years, off we went with crestfallen faces as a Greyhound carted us and several other homesick kids off to an expensive summer camp for 3-4 weeks. 

It would take me several years before I could look back on those summer camp experiences with a sort of confused fondness, a quasi-appreciation for the skills I learnt and the fun I ultimately knew I'd had when learning to carry a canoe, catch a fish or use a bow & arrow properly - okay, so that last one I still can't do. But not for lack of trying, alright? Some of us just weren't mean to be Katniss Everdeen. I love to hike, will always jump at the chance to hop in a canoe, and have ridden horses for over 13 years - getting my hands dirty and being outdoors doesn't phase me. Even accepting a job at a sleep-away camp on an island in Algonquin Provincial Park for three months didn't sound that unreasonable when hitting the "Send Application" button on the digital job posting. But when May, 2014 came to a close and I had to begin packing my bag and duffel again in a somewhat nostalgic manner, I realized I had no clue what I was doing. "Three months on an island in Algonquin?" I repeatedly asked myself this question as I shoved can after can of bug repellent into my backpack. I recognize now that what had been going through my mind when applying for the summer job was that I would have done just about anything to get out of doing another university internship in a corporate building. I was going to have an adventure that summer whether I (or my resume) liked it or not. 

What no one tells you about living on an island, much less one in the middle of a lake in a Provincial Park, is that the experience will quite literally change your life. I mean, they'll tell you what you should pack, what the Farmer's Almanac says about the long-range forecast (yay for fretful moms!) and take bets on whether you'll survive for three months as a 20-something without stellar cell reception. But nothing prepares you for the real thing. For three months, I spent everyday waking up to the view of a stunningly calm, tranquil lake, chirping birds, the first hint of morning sun beginning to warm the water, chilled from the cool, summer night before. I was able to hop out of bed in a slightly decrepit cottage with no window-screens and little privacy to an unadulterated view of a never-ending lake, spanning miles of lush evergreens, flourishing pines and untouched nature - sometimes with the odd nude kayaker passing by, but I have conveniently omitted those scenes from my own memory. I got to drink fresh-brewed coffee on a dock whilst my coworkers and I watched loons dive for fish, making the first ripples of the day in the otherwise unmoving lake. We could swim whenever we wanted, tan until our skin turned a crisp, golden brown, hop into a canoe and paddle out into the middle of the lake or simply float along and relax in the shade of overhanging birch trees near the shore of our island. Campers would laugh distantly and run around the island as we soaked up what we all knew was, possibly, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

When that summer ended, the last camper was on their way home and the staff had said their final farewells - peppered with promises of keeping in touch, sending letters and connecting through texts and phone calls - there was the undeniable heaviness in my heart of a chapter closed, a series of memories made for safe-keeping, a summer which would become a distant thing, like a story you tell years from now that feels as though it happened to someone else. It was sad to have that summer end, but it reawakened in me this love for the outdoors that I suspect had been buried deep inside as though I'd been keeping it in a vault for an experience just like this one. Upon returning home at the end of the summer, I made a resolution: I was going to spend as much time outdoors as possible, chasing that same "high" that I had floated on throughout the entire summer; the rush of knowing there is nothing but you and nature and all the wildness in between. My then-boyfriend and I hiked every trail, saw every waterfall, visited every park and conservation area our city had to offer - which, if you've ever been to Hamilton (Ontario), you know is quite a few. Though I made those additional memories with someone I am no longer with, hiking and discovering new places which invigorate that feeling of that perfect summer has become a tradition which I now understand doesn't belong to just my ex and I, but to me, myself. I'm happy to say that, even two years since that fateful summer in Algonquin Provincial Park, I continue to chase trails, wake up to stunning vistas and spend as much time as humanly possible by the water. If you ever have the chance to have a similar experience as a 20-something, I can only highly recommend you take the leap and do it. 

Those three months spent living on an island in the middle of a beautiful but massive Park taught me that the outdoors have something to offer everyone - and if you're a camper, that might mean mandatory activities that I promise you only have to mildly suffer through until you're old enough to make your own decisions about summer camp. For some, being outdoors is a way of life, a source of oxygen, a continuous yearning to be in nature. For others, camping for a few weeks each year suffices. For me, going too long without being in nature begins to feel like there's an itch I can't scratch, as though being there helps keep me rooted and calm. You don't have to love sleeping in a tent for 8 days or kayaking down a few rapids in order to love and appreciate the outdoors. Heck, I have an immobilizing fear of butterflies and once purposely tipped a canoe to get away from one. I even have a slight issue with very deep, dark water (thanks for that, Jaws). But what the outdoors means to you will always differ from what it means to someone else. Living in Algonquin Park taught me that my love for the outdoors is a part of what makes me, me. It taught me to see nature in a whole new way, to appreciate the opportunities we have to experience it, and to always take care of what we love (nature), no matter how wild or "outdoorsy" we each may be. They say "home is where the heart is," but for some, home is wherever there's a lake and a canoe. 

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.