Tuesday, September 7, 2010

In the tent

The first week of the fall semester is a bit overwhelming for students and professors alike, but I think I may get more overwhelmed than many. The week before semester starts I take the 4th-year honours environmental studies students on a field course in the Addington Highlands/North Frontenac region. It's the most isolated and remote area in southern Ontario, and contains the only part of the province with paved roads to score a zero on Statistics Canada's Metropolitan Influence Zone rankings. This is a measure of the extent to which a non-urban population is influenced on a daily basis by goings-on in urban areas, as indicated by the number of people who commute daily to an urban centre. In the central part of our study region, nobody ever travels to an urban centre on a daily basis. We're talking back roads, a few modest homes, no cell-phone reception and long stretches without a gas station or coffee shop.

One of the benefits of experiencing no urban influence is that, well, there's no urban influence. The air is crisp and clear, there's no dull buzz of road traffic to mask the sounds of crickets, and there's no light pollution to obscure the falling stars in the night sky, of which there were many last week. No one is in a particular hurry to get anywhere, and the few people you do meet give you a nod or wave at the very minimum.

The students sleep in comfortable, un-fancy cabins at the Loon's Call on Marble Lake but I prefer to sleep in my tent in the adjacent family campground. It's hardly the deep wilderness thrill of Algonquin Park, but nonetheless my night's sleep is inevitably interrupted by loons, startled red squirrels, mice rustling the edge of the tent or the unmistakable who-cooks-for-you of the resident barred owl. In the morning I like to spend a few minutes watching the harvestmen (daddy-long-legs) prowl the outside of the tent's mesh before I unzip and go search for coffee...

So it was a real shock to the system today as I walked to campus past the snarls of traffic, breathing in the ozone-laden air, shaking my head at the frustrated and impatient drivers cutting one another off, pedestrians oblivious to one another's presence, and the ungodly noise of it all. Sure, I realize there are classes to teach, work to be done and it's time to get on with it - but it sure would be nice to be back in the tent tonight.

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