An old bush-trail cuts through the back of my neighbour’s property, weaves its way around various hollows and high places, and opens at an old, grassy roadway, on the other side of Coney Island, on Lake of the Woods. The roadway connects a small seasonal community, a large beach, and children’s play structure. It echoes of an older time. My grandmother introduced me to this place. I was very young, and we would collect material for fairy gardens, adventuring further and further through the undergrowth, looking in all the small places for pebbles, moss, and toadstools. The island was her playground. In her youth, the trail was well kept and well travelled, part of a bustling pedestrian social scene.
By the time I arrived, two generations later, it was overgrown, and most of it existed as an elder’s memory, but the little discoveries and deep places we found always seemed magical to me. We’d duck under fallen trees and stretch over old logs. I’d stomp and tiptoe barefoot, hitting everything I could with a stick.
Along the way, we’d pause, take our time, and soak in the moment. There’s a high exposed clearing of sun-warmed naked bedrock. Then, a deep and broken drop of basalt boulders is cushioned by a carpet of moss and clover. Balsam trees are grouped at the bottom, to the rear of a bog. The trees always run with sap, which forms great big blisters under their smooth grey skin-like bark. I’d take my stick and poke them until they burst and I was splattered with the sticky, watery, acrid liquid.
Further on, hopping across a waterline and tracking under the power wires, the path curves right before jutting hard left. Then, it’s almost a straight shot over tree roots and half-exposed boulders and under seasonal deadfall, until it reaches a three-way intersection in the woods. At one time this might have been a deer trail. In the centre of the way is a tall birch stump, like a signpost for raccoons and woodpeckers, and a sometime scratching post for bears. We’d stop to recognize it, and see by the patches of fur and claw marks who else had lately been there.
After, we’d turn left and stumble into a vast and prickly raspberry patch. Long gone wild, it has large, sweet berries. The path goes on beyond, but I never have. If you want to visit the beach and all the places in between, you turn right at the woodland crossroads. That way is full of stories too.
The land rises to a mystery. In my memory, I am barefoot, or sockless in my summer shoes, or cursing my awkward flip flops snapping on my heels. My grandmother follows behind me, then beside me holding my hand, then ahead calling me to notice the hidden plants and small creatures around us. We squat down to see pink lady slippers and poke at carnivorous pitcher plants. We see a bird’s nest, a mouse burrow, and a woody fungus that grows on birch trees. It’s soft on the bottom where we can leave our initials.
We climb over more bedrock. It’s fractured by the elements and covered again by soft moss and colourful lichen, like carpeted stairs. An inviting blue sky welcomes us at the top. If it were a lake, I’d jump in.
The ground feels springy like a mattress, and I feel if I bounce hard enough I could just jump right up into the clouds. This place doesn’t belong to us. I’m standing on a bed of white pine needles, hundreds of years deep. The owner, a White Pine, stands above us, like Jack’s beanstalk to the giant’s castle.
This is a giant firmly rooted in the bones of the earth. It’s older than nations. It stands, without concern, like a bridge to the beyond. The world may well be anchored to it, not the other way around.
The first time I climbed it, I wasn’t prepared for the view. I clung to the rough trunk and thrilled as the whole tree moved gently with the chilling wind. Miles and miles opened up around me even though the peak of the tree was still impossibly high above. I’ve never reached the top. I saw in those moments how tangential and small I was in Creation, but how blessed to be witness and part of all that beauty.
Back on the ground there is still something else to be discovered and explored. An actual concrete staircase is tucked away in a far and shadowed corner. It’s well-crafted, modest, and obviously very old. Made by humans, etched and decorated by nature, the steps lead down the backside of the tree’s clearing and there the trail seems to end.
I forged on once and found some old round timbers laid down like a pioneer road, but only tangled impassable brush beyond. It was a cool and dark place for crawling things and the creatures that feed on them. The air was impossibly close, and I felt like if I didn’t respect the limits before me I might suffocate or lose my way. I returned to the steps then climbed back into the light and the clearing between the deep earth and the high blue sky.
We know we’re walking on sacred ground when every step we take feels like part of an unfolding ritual. Moments become laden with significance, connections, and discoveries. Our lives are framed and formed by these times and places. The path, the place, and the traveller are inseparable. I cannot say where the transition into sacred territory is, or even if it exists, but if there is no boundary then every place is sacred, and every action recognizing and respecting this, is a ritual of faith. When we can feel and understand all of Creation as holy, then every being and place is one, joined in a sacred and eternal community. We know when we are there.