Today’s post comes from one of Quetico Provincial Park’s 2017 artists-in-residence. Heather M. O’Connor is a freelance journalist and children’s author. She is currently working on a middle grade novel and two picture books, inspired by her 2017 residency.
I hear the first loon call the moment my foot hits the trail.
It’s magical, the sound of the loon. One part greeting, one part sorrow. This GTA girl, far from home, appreciates the welcome.
I rush to the water’s edge and scan the surface, but I’m too late. The spell he cast, the loon has disappeared.
Taking up residence
Behind me, less than two canoes from shore, a secluded cabin overlooks the lake. This is Quetico’s art studio and for the next two weeks I will be their resident artist.
Quetico Provincial Park inaugurated the Inspired by Quetico residencies in 2009. Artists stay as guests of the park, creating art inspired by its natural beauty and sharing their work with visitors. The program has hosted dozens of photographers, painters and artisans over the years. I am the first writer.
Soaking up the landscape
I spend my days cataloging every sight, sound, smell and sensation. Little moments. Exciting moments. Things I’ve read about but never experienced.
I watch a midnight storm gallop across the lake, enjoying every crash and flash. I watch the jelly-lime movement of the Northern Lights and catch my first too-big-for-bucket bass. I even get all my ducks in a row. (See?)
Most of my discoveries are quiet and solitary.
For a good half hour, I watch as a clever squirrel raids a paper bag full of carrot-sized horse treats from under my lawn chair. He throws each stolen treat in front of him like a Scotsman throwing a caber. He returns again and again, convinced that if he freezes, he is invisible.
(Spoiler alert, bug. You’re not.)
I try to wait for a painted turtle to pass by, stubbornly hiding in its shell just as I take out my camera. I am convinced that if I freeze, I am invisible.
(Spoiler alert. I’m not invisible either.)
Ask the experts
The friendly staff at Quetico lend me binoculars and patiently play a game of naming that bird (or fish, or tree, or plant). They help me sign a Tackleshare rod and tie a lure to it. They even point out to me where the bass are biting today.
I find out that teenagers on the beach were shouting, “Heyyy!” They’re actually crows, and it’s hard to get the fishy smell off your hands. (Really difficult.)
Other, strictly scientific, research reveals that Quetico North makes the best butter tarts I’ve ever tasted and that Robin’s Donuts are even better than Tim Horton’s.
A room of your own
The elevated balcony of my cabin and its large windows overlook the lake. It’s where I write, letting the sun toast my skin.
Most days, the sky is so blue and the water so still that a perfect mirror image is reflected on the surface. Only the insolent leap back of a fish disturbs him.
Every day, as the sun sets in the sky, the loon reappears to play hide-and-seek at sunset. I play I Spy without him ever spying on me.
Quetico has a library!
Most days I visit the John B. Ridley Research Library, located on the lower level of the information pavilion. I’m researching the Lac La Croix pony. Once, large herds of these Ojibwe ponies roamed free throughout Quetico and the surrounding regions. Today only about 200 remain.
The library has rich, uncatalogued resources on ponies that are not available anywhere else. Oral histories, superintendent’s diaries, old photo albums, maps. And books… so many books!
To my delight, I discover a journal entry, dated 1804. And in the records of the Lac La Croix First Nation, I find a 1977 photograph of the last four ponies to live in the wild.
But reading about ponies doesn’t compare to knowing them.
Quetico hosts a Pony Weekend in the Park each summer to introduce these intelligent and good-natured ponies to park visitors. The highlight of my trip is coming face to face with Makadaya and Naabesim from Gray Raven Ranch.
I love their furry ears, soft noses, and long, elegant manes. I run my fingers through her warm, thick coat. This is my kind of research.
For most of the weekend, I’m in the round pen with Mac and Sim, or standing outside, looking in. Time goes by too fast.
One part greeting, one part sorrow
All stories come to an end and each adventure leads home. A few nights later, I’m packing my bags. Notebooks full of notes, a camera full of photographs and a head full of ideas. But it’s not enough. Quetico has bewitched me.
When the loon says goodbye to me, we both mourn.
I leave inspired to create, yes. But also inspired to return.
Inspired to apply?
Where: Quetico Provincial Park, Atikokan, Ontario, Canada
Who: Canadian and international writers and artists. Any discipline. Places reserved for local and emerging artists.
When: Two-week blocks between May and September
How: Applications and art samples must be submitted every year by March 31. Selected applicants will be notified in mid-April.
Heather thanks Quetico Provincial Park, the Quetico Foundation, and the Access Copyright Foundation (Marion Hebb Research Grant) for their generous support. He will return as an artist in residence in 2018.