Thursday, March 01, 2007

Journey to the Edge of Nowhere, Part I

Earl J. Woods prepares for his first day of school. Leaf Rapids, Manitoba, 1974

I grew up in northern Manitoba. Born in Flin Flon, moved to Thompson, then to a tiny mining outpost called Leaf Rapids, a place that rested uneasily within a vast expanse of thick boreal forest. A hundred kilometres from the closest human settlement, thousands from any large city, it was a town on the edge of nowhere.

My parents, brother and I left Leaf Rapids in 1979 and came to Alberta. Last year, I went back.

On the outskirts of the Sinkhole.

Leaf Rapids isn't exactly the world's hottest tourist destination, except for a few American hunters and fishermen who come up every summer. So why go back?
Earl and Sean Woods at 8 Churchill Place in Leaf Rapids. Note the 70s decor.

I'm not an outdoorsy type. I'm content to stay comfortably indoors, in a climate controlled environment, curled up with a book. And yet, the woods in Leaf Rapids were so huge, the silences so deep, the topography so alien that I still dream of the place. The isolation was profound - one small shopping mall, a few dozen houses, some scattered businesses and utility buildings, surrounded by nature that was utterly ancient.

At first, you couldn't even drive to Leaf Rapids; we had to fly in. A timber wolf chased me to school once. The school gymnasium backed onto the town's movie theatre, and nearly every business establishment, as well as the curling rink, hotel and town offices, were crammed into the Town Centre. The dragonflies were as large as birds, at the scale of my preschool size. Ravens raided the sealed garbage bins in thick black masses, cawing contemptuously at the humans who tried to deny them their food. There were trees everywhere, and sand - fine beach sand, as good as any you'd find in California or Singapore. The rivers meandered through the woods; in a canoe, you could travel through tunnels made of trees, then emerge onto a pristine lake, dotted with mysterious islands, outcroppings of exposed black granite, often thick with moss and the ubiquitous conifers.

The stars were magnificent. The night was so black, it felt like you could see to the edge of the universe.

But what brought me back was the sinkhole.

Leaf Rapids, a teacher told me, was built on territory scarred by a receding glacier. The sinkhole was the most obvious evidence of the retreating ice age. It was a long, deep channel in the earth, very steep, a valley worn into the ground not by a river, but by ice.

I was mesmerized by the sinkhole. To get to it, I had to walk through the woods, perhaps a half-kilometre distant from our little townhouse, passing a huge pink boulder, no hint that soon the land would drop off suddenly, leaving you at the lip of what was very nearly a cliff.

But soon enough you were there, at the edge of the abyss, looking over the tops of the trees growing below you, on the sinkhole floor.

And then, carefully, you could journey downward, using the trees as handholds to keep from tumbling down the side of the hole. After a few minutes - though it seemed much longer - you would find yourself at the bottom, standing in a valley so narrow it felt like if your arms were just a little longer, you could reach out and touch both sides.
Looking up, the trees would tower above you, the sky just barely visible, a narrow strip of blue through the branches. Your feet would sink into the thick carpet of green-hued moss.
If you were alone, you might think of monsters. If you were with a friend, you might pretend to be Captain Kirk and Mister Spock, or one of the Fantastic Four. Or simply a cop or a robber.

The sinkhole was an engine of the imagination. When we left it behind, I was 10.

Last July, I decided that Sylvia needed to see it. And so we packed my little car full of supplies and headed northeast, bound for the edge of nowhere.