Awed by the beauty of God´s country – by Rob O´Flanagan

Jul 06, 2013

Awed in God’s country


There is a small place on the north shore region of Georgian Bay/Lake Huron that, there can be no doubt, is God’s country.

You can get there by ferry or you can drive over Georgian Bay. One way or the other, it’s about five or six hours from here.

I remain awed by the La Cloche Mountain region around Whitefish Falls and Willisville, just a few minutes south of Espanola. I’ve been going in there for nearly 20 years, mostly to be dumbstruck. Because of its relative inaccessibility there are hardly any human beings around.

Every time I’m in there I feel a peculiar sense of disembodiment, like I’m not really there, can’t possibly be there in such an inspiring and beautiful place. Those pinkish white hills are about 3.5 billion years old, remnants of one of the oldest, and once tallest mountain ranges on Earth.

I like to hike up high, up onto the white quartzite ledges where the view goes on for 30, maybe 40 kilometres in all directions—where the sight is almost too much to absorb for one feeble little man.

Usually, I have a notion to capture a snapshot of this intense beauty with a graphite pencil, a watercolour set or a box of oil pastels. That effort is always on the lamentable side. I’m no Franklin Carmichael, but I think I understand the great painter’s love of La Cloche.

That’s what I tried to do last week when I was up in La Cloche country on a rendezvous/retreat with my wife. Valerie is in rehearsals for a stage production of The Monument in Sudbury. She had some down time and I had some vacation time, so we rented a cabin at a Jesuit-run place called Anishinabe Spiritual Centre and had one of the finest times of our 30 years together. She remains a world-leading rummy player.

I spent one afternoon on my own up in the hills above Willisville, gazing out at Manitoulin Island in the distance to the south, Bay of Islands to the southwest, the Grace Lake hills to the east, and the stinky pulp mill in Espanola to the north. It was jaw-dropping as usual, with the rapidly changing skies and the perpetual shifting of shadows over the hills and forest. You have to be fast on the draw with your drawing pencil.

I did a number of small sketches and a large oil pastel sketch on paper up on a white slope, scorching hot and breathtaking—all views of Cranberry Bay, one of my favourite canoe routes of all canoe routes.

There are many places that fill us with awe, all over the world, close to home and far away. The mountains of Lesotho, the Great Wall of China, the cavity where once the World Trade Center stood, the birthplace of James Joyce, the Ring of Kerry. These are some of those places on Earth for me—unbelievable places.

But such locales don’t have to be epic in terms of their historical significance or natural beauty. They can be epic because of their personal association.

A couple of weeks ago I was in Rogers Centre in Toronto watching a Blue Jays game with my brother, Patrick, his wife, Deanna, and several members of her family that had driven down from Temiskaming.

At one point, Pat and I stood up to troll for food and memorabilia, and I said to him: “You know that feeling you get when you can’t quite believe you’re actually doing something or actually in a place?” And he said, “Oh ya, do I ever.” And I said, “I’ve got that feeling right now.”

There we were, together after many years of living about 4,000 kilometres apart, in muggy Toronto watching a big league baseball game. It seemed too impossible to be real, like being up high in the La Cloche range, or being on a remote retreat with your significant others, far from routine life circumstances. Is this really happening?

Certain places, certain experiences confirm that life is a series of mysteries, enigmas, and wonders that together add up to a disorienting sense of being displaced, disembodied and in awe. That’s the beauty of it.

Rob O’Flanagan is a Mercury staff writer. His Free Form column appears Saturdays. He can be reached

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