Motor homes like great lumbering elephants trundle along the road passing the Magnetawan heading on to the French River that runs from Georgian Bay all the way to the uneasy waters of the Nipissing. Clouds hang low suspended from invisible cables that anchor them to the blue grey sky. The earth is raw and unsettled here. The skin of the soil barely covers the hard granite bones that strain ever upwards. Towering boulders like calcified trolls lingering too late and caught by the sun line the ribbon of asphalt that winds off in the distance. The crows are a constant companion, growing in numbers the farther north we travel.
Severn Falls sees the first inukshuk peering down from the staggering height of a giant torn apart by progress. It is one of many that will mark the miles that lie between it and our final destination. In Inuit inukshuk means “in the image of man”. The native peoples of the north have long used the inukshuk to provide guidance, hope and leadership on the frozen tundra. Traditionally the shape of each inukshuk could communicate a host of geographical information that would show a road through the wilderness. The inukshuks that line the road bear only a passing resemblance to those authentic forms. They’re more of a travel tradition for people passing through.
Years lost, back in my childhood, there are memories of these small men lining the cliffs arched against the sky welcoming us into the near north. They are formed from the little brothers of the heights they rest upon. Every year the ones that have fallen are built up again and their numbers are increased by the hands of those who have traveled before us. They call a silent greeting wishing safe passage and a remembrance of paths already walked. The most impressive can be seen perched high upon seemingly impassible ledges with no visible sign of access.
The highway narrows from four lanes to two and then finally one. A black bear, wise to the Tao of the asphalt, waits at the side of the road and crosses after we pass. The language of the road becomes divided as we near our destination. “Rue” and “chemin” replace “street” and “road” on the signs that mark dirt and gravel lanes branching off to the left and right. The largely French population is descended from the original French settlers who made their way here in the mid 17th century. Here, like most small rural communities, God is nothing to be ashamed of and churches abound. Each cemetery is marked by a large white wooden cross that towers above marble monuments lovingly maintained and festooned with wreaths and vases of flowers. The Virgin Mary gazes out from niches on lonely farmhouse lawns and ornate wrought iron crosses grace the roadsides marking the loss of loved ones to the white line horror.
The radio only plays oldies stations now. The smell of jack pines fills the air. Great expanses of shining black water ringed by reeds and juniper peek through the white birch and aspen. The crunch of gravel fades into dirt as we pass the Langstroth hives heavy with honey. Finally I can see the waters of the Nipissing. The surface mirrors the haze of the dying sun through racing clouds.
The day is gasping its last breath and darkness slowly creeps below the pines. Deep in the woods there is a swelling that rises up out of the earth cresting the still surface of the rich soil and moss. The bones of the earth are laid bare. Speckled with lichen, scrub and rusty pine needles, a grey pink smooth mound lolls on the surface. A huge whale’s belly round, soft and hard, naked and exposed, it is still warm from the heat of the day. I lay in the embrace of those granite bones while the cries of crows echo under the restless sky.