Wide Open Spaces

By Stephen (Team Deep Earth)

Lacloche sunset
Sunset, La Cloche Lake Provincial Park. Photo: David Lawless

Before diving into research in Sudbury proper, Team Deep Earth has holed up for the weekend in a cozy cabin on the shores of La Cloche Lake, about an hour and a half west of Sudbury. Part of a beautiful little fishing retreat overseen by site supervisors/gracious hosts John and Anne (La Cloche Lake Camp), it’s the sort of place that seems to exist outside of time. The guest registry in our cabin goes back almost two decades. “Our first week here was spent as our honeymoon,” reads one entry from 2002. “Rick’s parents honeymooned 26 years ago here in this very camp.”

Another entry, somewhat less adorable, documents the local wildlife. There were sightings of beavers, loons, snakes, a fox, and a turtle. Regarding the turtle, the journaler, to Dave’s horror, writes “We watched as they cleaned him and we plan to cook the meat tomorrow.”

After six months in downtown Toronto, I find the white and empty frozen lake breathtaking. The first thing I saw as I came into the kitchen this morning was a pair of deer trotting out of the forest and onto the ice. They seemed unconcerned by evidence of human life, namely the half dozen ice fishing huts that dot the lake, as they made their way to the opposite shore.

After a magnificent pancake breakfast we, too, made our way onto the lake. Although the thickness of the ice was earlier demonstrated by the fishermen driving on it in pickup trucks, our first steps were trepidatious, and made more tentative still when we felt the snow give way and saw water bubbling up in our tracks. The days preceding our arrival had been above 0 Celsius, i.e. unseasonably warm – Sudbury’s all-time record February high is 9.6 degrees. I suspect this melted a few centimeters of ice on top of the lake, not all of which refroze overnight, leaving puddles of water all over the lake hidden by a thin layer of ice and snow.

In the city I never, in my day-to-day life, experience space like that desert of ice. I felt smaller and smaller as we walked further out to the lake’s center. Even my senses were reduced; sounds were muted by distance and I had to squint into the glare of the sun. Only random gusts of wind evidenced time passing.

We followed a trail off the lake and into the forest where snowmobiles had cut a slippery scar of ice into the crunchy white snow. Here I paused a moment and looked into the woods. The uncountable tree trunks made a messy tapestry before my eyes.I noticed in the chaos of so much crowded life how the hemlock trees, in their competition for sunlight and water, neatly spaced themselves a few feet from each neighbor. Each tree had claimed a few square feet to call home, in which to stretch out and drink in sunlight and water. Each tree standing in that spot for years, decades. Existing here before my time and after it. I felt the life around and within me and I realized that it would go on, silent and unseen, long after I left this place and returned to Toronto.

Dave scratched off a sliver of bark from one of the trees and let the sticky resin within ooze out. He scooped the glistening amber bead up with a twig and made us smell it. It was sharp and fresh and enlivening. It smelled like nourishing air; it smelled like long walks on twisting forest paths; it smelled like life itself.

I wanted to spend some time during our Quest at a place like this to remember smells like the hemlock resin. The passion that drives my environmental work was ignited during a childhood spent outdoors climbing trees, skipping stones, and chasing squirrels. I remember feeling the trees as a kid. I remember my hands sticky with hemlock sap. I remember wide open spaces. It’s when I forget those things that I struggle to get up in the morning and go to work, and instead lie in bed wondering what this is all about.

Another thing I remember: that our environmental crisis is fundamentally a matter of change. Human society is too frantic, dynamic, and is disrupting the natural world at rates it’s not equipped to handle. We’re too quickly burning fossil fuels, cutting down forests, and dumping garbage in the ocean. We’re too quickly changing the world in which we live. And as quiet and eternal as the frozen lake I’m look at appears, the changes are all too real here.

In truth, this place doesn’t exist outside of time. Last week La Cloche was unseasonably warm, approaching record temperatures. Warm enough to melt parts of a lake that should stay frozen all through the winter. Now consider climate change: in ten or twenty years will there be ice fishing in February on Lacloche Lake? Will deer be walking out at dawn in search of food for the winter? What new species will migrate north with warmer temperatures, and how will they alter the delicate ecosystem processes that have led to the hemlock trees’ neighborly spacing?

I honestly don’t know, but I’d rather not have to find out. La Cloche, like so many sacred and important places around the world, is melting away before us. I guess that’s what this is all about.

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