Snowshoeing in Killbear Park

The ice sheet was grey at the edge of the lake. The air bubbles trapped in it created a frosty honeycomb lattice. A hike leader walked a few feet on to the ice, tapped it with his hiking pole, and then jumped up and down a few times. He said it was safe to walk across. He was petite, about my size. And I am as small as a cherry. But just as sweet. Most times. The group hesitated.

It was our annual snowshoe and cross-country ski weekend in Killbear Provincial Park. Some 32 members of my Toronto outdoor club were on the trip. The majority where white, with a minority of four Asian women (two with white partners), and one Black person. Me. About a dozen of us went on the eight kilometre trek to the lighthouse. It was minus twenty. Breathe froze in the air. A necklace of ice crystals dangled on the front of my scarf.

From a conventional standpoint, we were a typical outdoors group enjoying winter in the park. From a critical lens perspective the situation reads differently. Here my focus is not on the obvious race and gender dynamics, but on the land on which we hovered. I want to “move beyond the land as a geographical feature or surface to the land as a “meeting up of history,”” as Mishuana Goeman writes in her book Mark My Words.

Long Ago in Killbear Park

Killbear Park was part of the Ojibway territory, and intersected by complex trade routes between various First Nations. The Ojibways hunted. They traded fish and furs for beans, corn and squash with the Huron-Wendats who farmed the land further to the south. The Ojibways also traded for copper from the west coast, used to make tools, and for shells from the east to make decorative beads on clothes and shoes. Killbear Park had a long history before contact between Indigenous and European people.

snowshoeing in killbear park

Killbear Park was ‘acquired’ by Treaty 13 between the Ojibway nation and the Canadian government. In the 1830s European settlers flocked to the area, enticed by free land given out under the Ontario Government Free Grant and Homestead Act. They had five years to build a house and start a farm; if not the settlers forfeited the land. Dreams and reality soon collided as Killbear was poor for farming. The land is littered with massive rock outcrops. Logging became the main industry from 1860s to the 1920s. It declined once all the valuable mature trees were cut down. Killbear was eventually turned into a park to boost tourism in the area. We were snowshoeing on land with an ancient history.

We had started the trek at the lodge. We turned left, and ducked under the padlocked gates blocking cars from the road to the interior of the park. As we walked along, the snowshoes creaked on the deeply packed snow, sounding like rusty wheels in need of a good oiling. Puffs of kicked up snow covered our boots. On patches of ice the snowshoes squeaked like chalk on a blackboard.

Winter still ruled the surface of the land in early March. The birch trees and shrubs were naked, the leaf buds still cocooned in their warm protective casings. Deer tracks criss-crossed the land, disappearing into the thick strands of pine trees. I find much beauty in the simplicity of winter. In the woods, it is an endless canvas of lights and shadows, voids and shapes, fears and dreams.

We stuck to the marked trail, treading in each other’s path. Veer off and a snowshoe could plunge into a snowbank melting from the underside, twisting an ankle or trapping a foot in an icy bath. In minutes the limb would numb to the coldness, increasing the risk of frostbite. In the quiet snatches between the chatter and the squeaking snowshoes, I heard hidden water gurgling, a signal that spring was awakening under the bed of winter.

We turned right at a fork in the trail, and headed for the lake. The north wind blew off the bay, scouring exposed faces. Water dripped from eyes and noses not hidden behind protective barriers of cloth or glass. The lake looked like an enormous ice rink, with dots of tree-covered islands sprinkled on the smooth surface. The ice shimmered in the noon-time sun, blurring the boundary between land and water. Then as we filed along the shore, the snowshoe tracks became streaked with sand.

A rocky hillock stuck its tongue out into the lake. Snowshoes slid as they scraped away its thin layer of ice and snow. We could not climb over it. The choice was either an hour’s detour inland, or a ten minute walk on the frozen water.

History on the Land

Goeman writes that the “geography and the language we use to order space are formed in a “contact zone” in which various cultures interact.” At Killbear the official brochures and guides categorise the park into areas and routes for activities like camping, swimming, skiing and canoeing. They contain guidelines on how to deal with wildlife, such as grazing deer and angry bears. The brochures point out the remnants of the failed settler farms and the logged old growth forest. Thus, the Killbear land is ordered and sorted into recreational, wildlife and historical areas.

Nothing in the official materials indicate the Indigenous heritage in Killbear or the surrounding areas. It was only from researching for this essay, that I realised that there was an Ojibway reservation on Parry Island, just across the bay from the park. The reservation is visible from the lighthouse. I had seen it many times, but never associated it with an Indigenous community.

The absence of Indigenous references in Killbear Provincial Park is not accidental. It is a continuation of the government’s pattern of attempting to erase Indigenous history and ownership of the land.

snowshoeing in killbear park

The Parry Island reservation is a mere fragment of the former Ojibway territory. According to Goeman reservations are colonial spatial structures that attempt to limit Indigenous movement over the contested land. As a spatial boundary, separating Indigenous from white people, the settler-colonials, the reservation is somewhat ineffective in the case of Killbear. But, it is still a powerful psychological boundary today.

Today, there are more First Nations living in urban areas than on rural reservations. The visible presence of Indigenous people in the cities does two things. First, it refutes the white settler-colonial claim that they had disappeared, or belong only in the past. Second, it makes visible the unresolved issues around the ownership of the land called Canada.

A Lake of Ice

The second hike leader was a stout woman. She too walked on to the ice, tapping ahead with her pole, before taking each step. The echo was hollow, not the dull thud she was expecting. The surface of the ice was smooth, but underneath it hair-wide cracks were spread out like a spider’s web. The cracks can expand in seconds exposing the water below. I know of only one man who could walk on water, or so his followers claim. A decision was made – we would go inland.

We ate lunch on a sheltered rock outcrop, basking in the bright afternoon sun. There, most of the group abandoned the trek to the lighthouse. The temperature had warmed up a bit – it was now minus ten. The snow was patchy on the remainder of the lakeshore trail making it hard to snowshoe. The many detours inland made the route too long. Four of us made it out to the lighthouse. On the pinnacle of rock we gazed across the bay. To the north of the lighthouse the lake was frozen into white stillness. To the south, it was open blue water, gently lapping at the shore below us. To the west the land was filled with houses. I had assumed that they were summer cottages for people from the city.

The brochures at Killbear Provincial Park reflect the geography of hegemonic whiteness. By this I mean the standard world view that the park is a neutral space, open to all who enjoy outdoor recreation. The supposed neutrality of the space hides the dominance of white people as the managers, gatekeepers and users of the park’s land.

Goeman writes of the need to develop alternative spatialities. It is a way of seeing and mapping the Americas from multiple perspectives, at the same time. It brings into focus the histories of different groups, their relationship to each other, and most importantly, to the land on which they stand. The land is a witness that never lies.


Next Year in the PhD and in the Woods

The thing is, in the end, 2017 turned out to be a good year for me. Even though it did not feel like that during some of the months when the PhD, activities or the people around me felt as inviting as a soggy blanket.

The big surprise of 2017 was my Black History Walks. I had assumed that only a few people would be interested, and only in the summer months. I was wrong on both counts. It’s January in Toronto, it’s as cold and white as the last Ice Age and yet people have signed up for the walks. I am now scheduling them for every month, confident that people will sign up.

My motivation for doing the PhD was tested many times in 2017. Some days I felt like the smart kid in the class. Most days it was more like the dunce. For instance, I got my head around epistemology, but ontology and axiology are still drifting in the mushy grey matter that passes for my brain. Maybe in 2018 the terms will finally make sense.

How do you relax? That was an unexpected challenge in 2017. Too many days thinking, writing and worrying about my studies was not good. Sometimes I got so caught up in the issues and theories that my head felt like an over-ripe watermelon, sitting in the sun and about to explode. This year I will going back to the gym. Exercise calms my head, gets me out of the house, and turning fat into muscles is a pleasant side effect.

I will continue with my birding too in the New Year. The kid begged me not to talk about it over the Christmas holidays. She said it was embarrassing being seen with mom, binoculars and a field guide to birds. A Black nerd among the nerds was too much for my urbane teenager. My ten-year old niece disagreed. We spent two happy afternoons bird-watching in the park. It was she who spotted the cuckoos and parakeets. My five-year old nephew found the great blue heron perched on a branch overhanging the pond. Then he shot off on his scooter, scattering the gulls and pigeons.

As a Black woman who loves the outdoors, it is hard to find others in my community who share the same passion.

I was reminded of this all of last summer when I worked in Rouge National Urban Park. Many weekends were spent leading walks and informing people about the huge wilderness area in the city’s backyard. The park is free and accessible by public transit. I was astonished that about a third of the regular users in the park were newcomers from China (maybe a topic for future research). Black, Latino and South Asians were rare even though their large communities live nearby. The summer job took me straight back to my PhD research question – why are Black people afraid of the woods?

I won’t be the only Black hiker in the woods in 2018. In the last month of the old year I led a hike through the Don Valley ravine. There we were, three Black women in full outdoor gear, trekking among the oak and maple trees in the forest. We followed the river as it meandered and tumbled on its way to Lake Ontario. The two women liked being outdoors, but were tired of being the only Black person in a group. We found each other in a graduate class on Black feminism! We are now the Black girls in the woods.

To my surprise I managed to self-publish a new book in 2017. It was one goal that I had expected to miss. It takes time to write, and with my daydreaming, leading hikes and Black History walks, there was no space for the book. And I can’t write when I am tired. The solution was to make the book part of my school work. That is, as Fridays were my writing days, I spend half of it working on the book. I wrote in bed, standing at the kitchen counter or relaxed in my armchair. I could not quit unit I had written a thousand words.  The strategy worked and so I will be using it again for this year.

My four passions are outdoors, writing, travelling and Black history. Last year I managed to do a little bit of all of them. Thank you 2017, you may rest in peace.

I started the New Year drinking champagne and eating chocolates with my family as we sat around the dining table. We had jerk chicken and rice and peas for dinner. A few hours later my plane landed in Toronto. I gasped as the freezing air tortured by lungs. And still I smiled at the snow-covered streets. My snowshoes and cross-country skis were in the hallway closet, and it seems like they were going to get a lot of use soon. A proper Canadian winter is a perfect start to the New Year. Welcome 2018.

This Is My Climate Change

There are still a few people out there who don’t believe that the climate is changing. And it is not because they are stupid. In fact they are among the most rich, powerful and educated of people. They work very hard to disparage scientist working on climate change, and to spread fake news denying that it is happening. More on this later.

This is what climate change looks like in my neighbourhood. Back in the spring the annual Paddle the Don canoe festival was cancelled. The spring floods were at record levels making the river too fast and dangerous.

A few weeks later I led a 15km hike in the Beaches area of the city. The final leg of the hike was along the boardwalk. At least that was the plan. On the day of the hike ten foot waves smashed against the boardwalk. Sections of the beach were closed and sandbagged to stop the land from disappearing. Toronto had not seen such furious storms in almost a century. We watched in awe as Mother Nature unleashed her power, tumbling deck chairs and planks as if they were mere pebbles.

My hiking club cancelled its annual Thursday evening walks over at Toronto Islands in the summer. We could not get there as the ferries were not running. The Island’s docks were flooded. The Islands remained closed until late summer, waiting for the water and the excess mosquitos to retreat.

The rest of the summer was marvelous. Lots of sunshine and blue-sky days. However, the summer was still here in the autumn. In fact September was hotter than August, some days the temperature was double the normal range.

Winter is supposed to be around the corner. The ski industry is praying that it will actually snow this year. In the last few years, the white stuff has been unpredictable. If there are no flakes in the city, people assume that there are none on the ski trails and slopes as well. So they don’t go.

And if they did go, there was a good chance that they would be skiing on man-made snow. Yes, there are machines that make snow. With the weather so unpredictable the snow making machines are doing a great business.

This climate change is caused by us humans.

In Canada our love of the good life – big cars, big houses and enough food to throw away – comes at a huge environmental cost. The more oil we burn and forests we cut down, the warmer the planet gets and the more variable the weather. Things are so unpredictable that a few more Hurricane Hazels might be in the wings.

There are ecological limits to life Earth. We cannot go on pretending that humans are so exceptional that the laws of nature don’t apply to us as well.

We know what the issues are, we know we have to act, but we do nothing. It seems we would rather wait for the apocalypse than take action to avoid it. The dinosaurs had no choice. Their exit from the planet really came from the heavens above. Ours will be from our own hands.

Some pretty powerful interests want to keep it that way. Millionaires want to continue making their millions. When climate change gets really bad they think they can buy their way out of it. They have already bought the politicians who should be taking action. Mother Nature can’t be bought. We can act now or wait for more floods, wildfires and hurricanes to pay us a visit.

Sailing on a Half Moon


A Black View on Climate Change

An opera about Black people, climate change and dub poetry. Lukumi is a fascinating show on so many levels. In the first place it puts Black people at the centre of the environmental debate.

Look at the conservation, outdoor recreation and environmental movements, and all one sees is a river of white faces. It is easy to assume from the images that there are no Black people in Canada. Lukumi puts the colour back into the environmental debates.

Starring D’bi Young as Lukumi, the opera is set in a post-apocalyptic world where humans have destroyed nearly everything. Lukumi, a reluctant warrior-goddess, must journey to the depths of the Earth to find the roots of the tree of life. It might be too late, but a seed from this tree could heal the planet.

Lukumi must conquer her own doubts, travel through a nucleared landscape and convince other animals to help her. And she must battle the black skins in the white masks. These are the soldiers hunting for bleeders, the few women who are still fertile, to restock the nuclear-ruined population.

The opera is also a journey through Black music. The live band shifts from African drumming, to gospel and to jazz. The melody and reggae beats of dub poetry weaves the whole thing together. The large cast are excellent singers. The music is co-composed by Waleed Abdulhamid and D’bi Young.

The opera is not all bleak. Humour comes from Daniel Ellis, as Anancy, a versifier, shape-shifter and unreliable giver of wisdom. The trickster admits that his words have to rhyme, even if it means that half the time the sense is left out. The sound-bite is what matters.

Lukumi is produced by Watah Theatre. The professional company ‘specialises in producing political theatre from a radical queer Black feminist lens.’ The founder is D’Bi Young.

Lukumi mixes African, Caribbean and Indigenous myths to create something uniquely Canadian. It is not the official myth of Canada as a happy land of multicultural people. Rather, the opera exposes how pollution, mining and fracking disproportionally affects Indigenous people in Canada. The opera is a call for environmental and social justice. It we don’t clean up the mess, in the end humans won’t matter. We will be no more.

The opera is at the Tarragon Theatre September 22-October 14, 2017.

Black History Walks Toronto


Camping in the City

Camping in Toronto seems a bit of an oxymoron. After all the whole point of sleeping in a tent is to get away from city life. Yet, camping at Rouge Park seems to combine the best of both worlds.

It’s far away enough for a nature break, but close enough to get that latte. And maybe even have pizza delivered to your tent door.

I strolled along the stream at the north edge of the camp-ground. Water gurgled over the cataracts neutralizing the buzz from the nearby highway. It felt like I was deep in the woods. No deer greeted me that day, though many live in Rouge National Urban Park, the vast wilderness sanctuary in the city.

camping in the city

Turning away from the peaceful stream I headed towards the main gate of the camp-ground. Trees lined the route. And tents and camper-vans too. Then I spotted it. Not a rare bird. Nor a coyote.

It was a satellite dish.

It was planted right in front of a camper-van, up turned to the sky, picking up films, crime shows and the shopping channel.

I smothered my inner Grinch. A camper-van is not my idea of camping in the woods. Still, a flush toilet is better than digging your own shit hole in the ground. A soft bed with fitted sheets is better than a sleeping bag on the ground. Even one with an air mattress. Yet…

It reminded me of the debate about technology access at campsites. Some purists fumed at electrical outlets at the sites. Internet access is surely an abomination to them. On this one, I think they are right.

The whole idea of camping is to disconnect from city life, and reconnect to nature. Sitting on a warm rock, surrounded by fresh air, trees and a river, is bliss for me. For others it is heaven only if the comforts of home are there, including a satellite dish. On which to watch nature shows…

I suppose camper-vans get people into the woods. The Pokémon Go craze got people outside, walking and exploring around, capturing imaginary monsters living in the area. It’s not my idea of things to do on a walk, but it got them off the couch.

The more facilities there are for camper-vans, the more infrastructure is needed to support them. The very woods people came to enjoy, is manicured and paved, to fit human needs. It counters the idea that humans are part of nature and not masters of it.

camping in the city, river

Back at the parking lot, two guys unloaded a canoe. I followed them to the river. As they paddled down towards the lake, my thoughts drifted to my own canoe trips and the long summer days of doing nothing but splashing along a bay or across a lake.

My cell phone pinged. It was an e-mail telling me that five strangers wanted to be by friends on the Internet.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London


Walden, Or Black Life in the Woods

Long ago, Brister and Fenda Freeman lived in the woods in Walden. Across the pond was their famous neighbour Henry D. Thoreau (1817-1862). The trio met many times probably on their walks along the trail and into town. Brister went there to sell the apples from his orchard. As a fortune teller, Fenda most likely had regular customers at the town’s Saturday market.

The Freemans are just two of the Black people Thoreau mentions in his book Walden, Or Life in the Woods. I was inspired to read it by the chats and beer around the campfire, where Thoreau is often touted as a founding father of the conservation movement.

No one mentioned that he also wrote about the slaves living in the woods.

Most likely because they did not know – Thoreau is one of those writers outdoors people talk about but rarely read. On my part, I assumed that as Thoreau was white and he wrote the book to promote conservation to his kind of people, he had little to say about race. In conventional terms most white people see themselves as race-less. It is the people of colour who are raced. As my outdoors recreation group is mostly white…

In Walden, Thoreau popularised and romanticised the idea of living in a log cabin in the forest. This simple life gave one time to think, to observe and reconnect to nature. Thoreau was conscious that the wildlands were under attack from farmers, wood-choppers and turf-cutters. The wilderness was shrinking as cities grew, land was privatised and the railway expanded bringing more settlers into the forests. Thoreau argued that conservation was needed to save the wilderness both for its own sake and as spiritual refuge for humanity.

Slavery was part of the life in the woods in Walden. Thoreau describes his Black neighbours as individuals and noted how much of their lives was circumscribed by race. Cato Ingraham lived east of Thoreau’s bean field. Cato was enslaved and rumoured to be directly from Guinea. He planted walnut trees, planning that in years to come, the crop would sustain him in his old age.

Zilpha was a coloured woman who spun linen for the people in town. Living alone with her chickens and a dog, her life was hard in the woods. Zilpha’s life became tougher after her cottage was burnt to the ground by retreating soldiers. Thoreau does not mention her as a slave, implying that she was probably a free woman of colour.

Thoreau frequently mentioned Indigenous people in Walden. He noted that native crops such as corn thrived best in the soil, he admired the skills of Indigenous hunters and the grace of their canoes. Thoreau visited Canada in 1850. On his trip to Montreal, he was astonished at the extent to which French Canadians had adopted elements of Indigenous lifestyle, such as their food and clothing.

Thoreau wrote that he spent a night in jail for refusing to pay the pole tax to a government that supported the buying and selling of people. The tax was paid anonymously, probably by a relative. Thoreau was an ardent abolitionist, delivering tons of lectures on the anti-slavery circuit. He was active in the Underground Railroad.

If the founding father of conservation talked so openly about race and racism, why is the modern movement is so quiet about these issues?

Is it because not much has changed in the last two centuries when it comes to social justice in the outdoors? For white people the woods are still a refuge from the stress of city life. For Black people the woods have become a place of fear. Fear of white violence against them.

Brister and Fenda, Cato and Zilpha would have understood that fear. But, they too claimed the woods as their own. It was their home.

Sailing on a Half Moon


John Muir: Trekking in Slavery Lands

I have spent many blissful Sundays hiking the Bruce Trail with my outdoor clubs. The best hikes left Toronto early in the morning and returned to the city at dusk.

John Muir hiked the Bruce Trail too, long before it was known by its more familiar name. Muir is a father of conservation and the co-founder of the Sierra Club. He did the heavy lifting to get Yosemite and other US National Park established. His books are a bible in conservation circles on both sides of the border.

I assumed that Muir had nothing to say about race, and that it had no impact on him or his work. After all he is the colour of snow, much like the conservation and environmental movements. Black and other people of colour are largely invisible in the movements. I decided to check my assumption, prompted by something I learned in my PhD seminars – always trouble sleeping dogs and other accepted wisdoms. You need to know what is hiding behind them and who benefits from it.

Social justice scholars tend to be activists or shit-stirrers, depending on one’s perspective. I seems to be following in the steps of that noble tradition. In the case of Muir, the first step was actually reading, and not just adlibbing about him, as we tend to do around the campfire. I soon found out that like a thorn, race has a habit of pricking sacred icons.

Canada has been a sanctuary for American draft dodgers since its Civil War in 1861. That is how Muir came here. He did not want to fight in President Lincoln’s anti-slavery army. Muir spent two years in Canada, returning to the USA once the war was over.

In 1867 Muir did an epic hike, recorded in his book A Thousand Mile Hike to the Gulf. It was a hardscrabble trek involving much sleeping in caves, fields and cemeteries. He loved every hour of it. Muir cadged food and water where he could. Half the time the providers were either Black or White people.

On the first days of his walk, and on the first pages of the book, Muir is stranded crossing a river. A Black boy and his mother helped him cross, using their horse as a ferry. They sent him off to a large homestead to find fresher water. The homestead had an airy and large home that was rustic but comfortable. It is surrounded by the Negro quarters, which were big enough for a village. Muir describes it as a “genuine old Kentucky home, embosomed in orchards, corn fields and green wooded hills.”

Let’s trouble this description by unpacking its layers of meaning. First, the context. Muir is hiking in the woods in the direct aftermath of slavery. For this Black population, freedom did not yet bring economic gains. No doubt some stayed on the plantation because it was the only home they had ever know. Most remained because they had little choice. It was work the cotton fields or starve.

The situation was different for the White homesteaders. They grew fat from slavery. And continued to do so after its abolition. Their assets, in the form of land, did not diminish. And labour was cheap in a situation where the labour had little choice. All the White families Muir stayed with had substantial homes and farms. Some were damaged in the war, but the families were quickly recovering.

The richest Black family Muir bunked with had their own home, which was little more than a shack. The furniture was so rickety that the chairs had no bottom and the table was propped up with planks.

“Many of the Kentucky Negroes are shrewd and intelligent, and when warmed up a subject that interest them, are eloquent in no mean degree.” Muir wrote this after cadging a ride from an old Black man driving an ox team. They talked about the fighting which occurred in the area during the Civil War. The old man is unnamed like most of the people Muir met on his trek. In Muir’s words, the old man is shown as an individual and not as a caricature. This is significant when most writers of his era did the reverse.

Near the end of his trek, Muir took a side trip to Cuba. In Havana, he noted the colourful livery of the Black men driving the carriages, as their owners paraded up and down showing off their wealth. Before Muir’s ship could leave, it was checked ensure that it did not harbour stowaway slaves. Slavery would not be abolished in Cuba for another year, in 1886.

For Muir, nature was a refuge from the mess and stress of urban life. The Sierra Club was formed to ensure that the wilderness would not be devoured by human greed. Many preferred a nature that was chopped, dammed or drowned for profit.

Today the Sierra Club has a membership of about one million. From its website, magazine and social media accounts, it is hard to see how much the membership has changed since Muir’s days. Most are still the same colour as cotton wool.

As the White population ages, membership is declining in outdoors and conservation clubs. It would seem to make sense to get people of colour, soon to be the majority of the population, into the clubs. Muir wrote about the Indigenous, Black and other people of colour that he met on his hikes. Why won’t the outdoors movements continue this tradition? A simple first step would be putting us in the ads. Black people have always been in the woods. Just ask John Muir, a father of conservation.

Sailing on a Half Moon