You can't have one without the other when you want to reach nirvana

By Robert Sarner, The South Tea Echo, Fall 2005

On July 23, some 700 people traveled north to Tamakawa for Visitors Day. Most were parents of campers along with other relatives and friends. Some came from Toronto, others from points much further south. Almost all traveled by car. It's a journey most make only once a year, a journey that's the object of mixed reviews among Tamakwans.

Many parents and staff like driving up to camp. I don't. I accept it as an intrinsic, inescapable part of the Tamakwa experience. Full disclosure demands that I own up to a checkered relationship with my car as I've never been too crazy about driving.

While campers also make the northern trek to Tamakwa once a year, they have a different vantage than their parents or most counselors. First, they don't have to drive. Second, they travel on comfortable buses, loaded with unspeakable amounts of candy, heavy duffel bags and all manner of other stuff, eagerly anticipating the summer ahead. They are surrounded by friends and other campers, many of whom they haven't seen in a year. For them, the trip is part of the fun-filled kickoff to camp.

Given my reporting duties for the South Tea Echo and the Tamakwa website, I visit camp several times during the summer. As a city dweller, being at Tamakway offers me blissful solace for mind, body and soul. In late June, the prospect of my first stay at Tamakwa in 2005 had me overjoyed. The prospect of driving there and back did not, especially on a holiday weekend.

I know, I know, I know... I've got it easy compared to many other Tamakwans who live in Michigan and places far beyond whose drive up to camp is more than twice as long as mine. But for them it's a great opportunity to travel in Canada. And besides, everyone knows that Americans were born in cars and love being in them.

Nothing could be more juxtaposed with Algonquin Park than Toronto's congested highways on a hot, muggy late afternoon just before a long weekend. The contrast between being stuck in endless traffic and being at the car-less paradise of Tamakwa couldn't be more pronounced.

Short of coming by seaplane, you can't have Tamakwa without the highway trek. It's a package deal. From Toronto, even under the best conditions, you're looking at three hours behind the wheel. Admittedly, there are far more arduous drives than this one but still, it's not something I relish.

On Friday, July 1, despite our intentions to the contrary, my wife Galya and I did not leave home until just after 5 p.m. With a streak of masochism we expected the worst. Sure enough, by the time we got on Highway 401 heading west to Highway 400 to leave Toronto, it seemed as if half the city's residents were just in front of us, the other half close behind. Everyone seemed to be fleeing at the same time, even if we were virtually the only ones bound for Tamakwa.

There's something almost ritualistic about the journey. Initially, you feel as if you're part of an endless herd of slow-moving metal. Inexorably, the further you get away from Toronto, the less chrome you see and the better the trip seems to get.

The more often you do it, the more you think you know what to expect. This time, due to the Canada Day holiday, we anticipated a punishing drive until Barrie. To our amazement, once we turned off Highway 401 onto 400, the traffic improved considerably. To be sure, a joy ride it was not. There were a few bottlenecked stretches due to accidents, but things moved decently for the most part.

By now, having done this trip many times before, I'm familiar with the telltale landmarks indicating movement forward. Few of them are particularly memorable - the sign indicating 247 km to Algonquin Park; the Petro Canada/Wendy's/Tim Horton's pit-stop just north of Highway 7; the artificial mountain of Canada's Wonderland; the sign "Glen Echo Family Nudist Park, Exit 52"; the red tower of the Cookstown Outlet Mall; an old church here, a huge billboard there. More sky, more fields, more rural texture. Everything falls into place.

The drive is like a rite of passage. A ritual signifying better times ahead. A gateway to a magical world far removed from anything in our urban reality.

Next up was the Barrie racetrack, followed shortly by the sign that reads "164 km to Algonquin Park." A minute later, there's the existential decision whether to veer left on Highway 11 or right on 400; Beyond this point, the traffic usually starts to thin out considerably.

More benchmark sites follow: Weber's burger emporium; the Welcome to Muskoka sign; the first sight of huge Precambrian Shield rock formations in the middle of the highway; Before you know it, you're passing the sign "98 km to Algonquin Park"; then Gravenhurst; Bracebridge; Huntsville; Wal-Mart; the turnoff to Highway 60; Shopper's Drug Mart; Deerhurst Inn; At this point, reaching the South Tea landing seems plausible.

Then, in quick succession, you pass Dwight; Henrietta's Bakery; Oxtongue Lake; Curv-Inn Motel and one of the most welcome sights - the western gate of Algonquin Park. From here on in, no more billboards, no more gas stations, no more burger joints, just small discreet signs indicating each successive kilometer and perhaps an errant moose or deer. Suddenly, like a mirage off to the left, you see South Tea Lake with Tamakwa in the background. Salvation is now only minutes away. Freedom from the automobile is imminent. Soon we will be home away from home.

At long last, we crossed the Smoke Creek bridge and immediately turned left onto the unidentified dirt road leading through trees to the landing. As we emerged from our car, we felt vaguely euphoric. In the fading light of a clear evening sky, we walked down to the landing, marveling at the scenery as if it was our first time there. The Algonquin air filling our lungs was intoxicating.

Boarding the pointer and setting off on the water took us to a new high. Rounding the bend, we reveled in the sight of the Lone Pine. It didn't matter that we had taken this journey so many times before.

The conditions were ideal. A warm evening with a light, soothing breeze. The combination of water, trees and sky was perfect. Our senses were overwhelmed by the beauty of what surrounded us.

Arriving at camp was the climax. Galya and I put our things in the cabin, appreciated the warm welcomes we received and then rushed to the Lower Deck beneath the Eye-Full Tower. We sat there transfixed, overlooking South Tea Lake, savouring the tranquility, the soft sound of the waves lapping on the shore, the panoramic view, the sense of nature all around us, the timeless magnificence of it all. It was worth every second of what it took us to get there.

We knew instinctively that if ever there was a case of the destination justifying the journey, of the ends justifying the means, of the journey being part of the destination, this was it. In a way, the trip from Toronto had made being at Tamakwa even more uplifting.

We felt fortunate to be back at camp. During the drive up to Tamakwa, we knew paradise awaited us. We also knew it would be something else entirely two days later when we had to leave Tamakwa and do the same trip in reverse.

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