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.

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Mushroom Pickers in the Woods

“Are you sure you know what you are doing?” I said.

The woman looked at me the way one looks at a human turd, found in the middle of the trail. Bent over she dug at the roots of a tree. Her hiking boots were caked in mud. It was odd as the trail was dry and leafy.

“I’ve been picking mushrooms for thirty years in my country,” she said. She continued to stuff what looked like a mound of brown leaves into a large plastic bag. It was almost full.

“But this is Canada. The mushrooms are different here. They might look the same but you never know.”

“I do know. These are perfect. I pick them every year.”

She mumbled something to her friend. Her accent sounded Russian.

“Get a bag. I’ll show you which ones to pick,” she said.

“No thanks. Mushrooms can be deadly. Besides we are not supposed to pick any plants on the trail.”

Her look was enough to wither a grape. I left the two women and continued the hike.

We were on a fifteen kilometre trek along the Bruce Trail. Some fifty members of the hiking club were strung out along the route. The fast hikers were probably waiting for the rest of the slow pokes, the mushroom pickers and the photographers to catch up. The sweep was behind us. He would hurry the pickers along. I hoped he would tell them off too. We are supposed to take nothing but photographs from the trail.

Mushrooms seems to be popping everywhere I looked – from high on the tree trunks, rotting branches and out of the ground. I could reliably identify only one species in the wild – the giant puffballs, big and white as a football. They are lovely dipped in egg and batter, then deep fried. So I am told. I have yet to try them.

A friend used to go mushroom hunting in the woods. For magic mushrooms. She said they gave a pleasant high. She only ate them when others were around, just in case she had a bad trip.

One woman had a reaction to mushrooms. She was a botany student, specializing in studying mushrooms. One day she was out in her parents’ garden and picked some small ones. They were beige, flecked with orange and brown spots.  She double checked her reference guide to make sure they were the right species and edible. She stir-fried them in butter with onions, a little salt and pepper.

She was still at the table, the treat half eaten when her parents came home from work. Their daughter was as cold as an iceberg.

I love mushrooms, especially the oyster and shitake. Mine always come clearly labelled from the supermarket. Hunting for truffles in the woods sound like a lovely way to spend an autumn afternoon. I would go for the walk and the fresh air. And leave the mushrooms alone. I will take no chances.

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Brief Encounters in the Ravine

“Are you lost?” said the woman.

“No we are not. Just checking the map to make sure we are where we are supposed to be.”

“Well if you want to go to the Brickworks turn left. Go right for the ravine trail,” she said. Her brown hair was pulled high on her head in a messy ponytail. It was held in place by a neon purple headband. The woman smiled, turned right and resumed her brisk walk.

My friend and I were out for a Sunday afternoon stroll in the woods. Within a 15 minute walk from my downtown apartment and we were among groves of maple, oak and linden trees lining the Rosedale Ravine. Dappled sunlight filtered through the trees.

“Are you seeing a pattern here?” I said.

“That’s the third person who has asked us if we are lost.”

“Maybe they are just being friendly,” said my friend.

“Because we are Black?”

“And we are in the woods. The two don’t generally go together.”

“No one asked the three Chinese couples if they were lost. They were not wearing hiking boots and carrying backpacks.”

“Let’s put the map away and see if it makes a difference.”

We hiked for the next hour following the little stream gurgling in the woods on its way down to Lake Ontario. The ravine was deep and steep for such a small brook. During the last ice age, some 10,000 years ago, the stream was not so languid. It was a massive river sweeping away the land and ice blocks as it rumbled down to the lake.

Many houses were perched on the lip of the ravine. Quite a few retaining walls had worked their way down the steep slope, mangled and twisted by the shifting earth. It would not be too long before a few of the houses tumbled down there too.

A cottontail rabbit froze when it heard our footfalls, even as its nose twitched and its eyes shone. I remembered eating rabbit stew in Spain. Jerk rabbit. Barbecued rabbit. Would they be best served with rice or roasted potatoes? With fried plantain and roasted corn on the side.

The rabbit bolted into the dense bush. The recipe had to be amended – first, catch your rabbit. Then kill it, skin it, gut it. Better still buy the rabbit at the butcher’s where all the unpleasant work is already done, so that one can focus on the best spices to use to season the meat.

The trail narrowed on a ridge. A knot of hikers were coming up as we were going down. The all-male group walked slowly and were rather quiet. They were dressed from head to toe in shades of black. Including their sunglasses. The men walked in pairs. Holding hands.

We squeezed to the left, our back brushing against the railing as they passed. One hiker was the lead in each pair. He held a short rope which was clutched by his partner. It dawned on me that it was a group of blind hikers and their guides out for a walk.

Around a bend in the path, I saw a man walking towards us, with an old dog trotting by his side. The man was dressed in corduroy pants, a flannel shirt and a denim jacket. His thick face was ruddy in the cool air.

“Are you lost?” said the man. “The road ahead will take you to Dundas Street and back into the city.”

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