In The Woods, In The Night

‘Follow the North Star.’ It sounds so simple but I was having trouble finding the North Star. I looked up at the thousands blinking overhead. It was up there, somewhere. I am sure Harriet Tubman was not thinking of ‘twinkle, twinkle little star,’ when she had to find the North Star. Her life depended on it.

I found the Big Dipper, looked across from it to find the Little Dipper. The last star in its handle was Polaris or the North Star. I was on a hike with my outdoor club in Killbear Provincial Park. We followed the paved road down to the lake. The fat moon snagged in a tree as its cool silvery light spilled on to the road. The forest itself was pitch black. The trees, like fears, seemed bigger in the night.

Headlights were turned on. Sometimes the lights reflected off the eyes of creatures in the forest. Breathe slowly. Deeply. The big eyes must be deer.

How did Harriet feel in the woods at night? She must have been comfortable – after all she lead about twenty hikes through the wilderness. Some of her hikers were terrified. They were walking away from the only world they had ever known, into the unknown. Leaving slavery behind; and their family and friends. The fugitives travelled at night, navigating by moonlight and starlight.

A few wanted to go back home. Tubman never lost a passenger on her Underground Railroad trek. She gave them a simple choice: keep walking, or I will shoot you.

The dark wrapped itself like a blanket over our hiking group. Crackle. Snap. That must be a branch falling. A very big one. The two stragglers quickly caught up with the rest us. Thud. My ears perked up waiting for another sound or for a scream. My heart did gymnastics.

The bear bells seems to jingle louder in the dark. The bells are supposed to warn the bruins that humans are near. Some hikers believe they work, some do not. I found their sound comforting in the night. Tubman was not so afraid of bears. The real predators in the woods were the slave catchers.

Small yellow eyes glowed in the dark as we walked. Wolves hunt at night. The thought popped into my head. They hunt in packs looking for the weakest and sickest moose or deer in the herd. I reminded myself that only in fairytales do wolves attack humans. The amber eyes were probably squirrels, maybe even chipmunks. My heart refused to stop doing flips.

We reached the lake. The water shimmered in the moonlight reflecting a thousand stars from above. The black patches in the distance were the islands. They seemed to be moving towards us, simply because the wind was playing with the clouds and the shadows. The murky shapes on the shore were logs bobbing in the water, not creatures from the cool, inky lagoon.

Our night hike was short – an hour long, about five kilometres. Harriet Tubman bush-wacked about 30 kilometres each night, walking for about six hours. The North Star glittered up high. It guided the fugitives from slavery in the USA to freedom in Canada.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love

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