The Mud Underfoot
30 September 2019

Fort William Native Reserve, Mount McKay-21.9km’s

I must have taken a wrong turn. The mud underfoot is thickening and sucks greedily at my shoes and the undergrowth is closing in claustrophobically, with errant branches encroaching on my airspace and worrying my face and forearms. My feet land uncertainly on the slippery surface. A large puddle spans the width of the way and rather than leap it I choose instead to splash through the ankle-deep water as I’m not sure I can pull off a landing in these conditions. I begin to feel that familiar pang of helplessness, an instinctual reflex to the condition I’ve inherited from my father who’s singular lack of any directional awareness informs my every endeavor and of which I am reminded when executing even the most trivial of journeys, be it finding my way back from the washroom at a restaurant or more significant expeditions like today’s.

​Eventually I see a break in the woods ahead. I come out on a hill that crawls casually up to the foot of a massive, slate coloured cliff which makes up the South Western face of my quarry, Mount McKay. There is a tall electricity pylon to my right and below it a utility box with the words YOUR A FAGGIT spray painted on it. Further on the dislocated and fresh remains of a moose are strewn across the ground. Three legs, it’s head and pelt and gallons of blood that have turned the mud a reddish black. It would have been shot here and hastily butchered, the meat ferried away on an ATV. Judging from the other tracks present the fourth leg and innards have been removed by coyotes who I have likely driven from their afternoon buffet.

​I’ve been wanting to take a crack at Mount McKay for a while, and while we wait for a train load of grain to roll in from out West, it seems like the perfect time to scratch that itch. To call it a mountain might be overstating things. It is a flat-topped hill that rises 442m’s above the city to the west. There is an observation point three quarters of the way up which is where I intend to get today, the rest of the way being forbidden as the site is a sacred place to the Ojibwe people on who’s land it sits. Before I came to this path, I crossed their reservation. It was a peculiar mix of brand-new prefab houses and dilapidated mobile homes. There were a number of ramshackle chipboard structures that could have been homes or sheds, it is unclear as they lacked windows and any visible entrance. Some of them stood at odd angles, like precarious parallelograms blown lopsided by a big wind. The front lawns were bereft of any grass and festooned with pickup trucks, ATV’s, snowmobiles and boats on rusty trailers. All in various stages of repair, from straight off the showroom floor to permanent rust-bound retirement. Clothes lines ran between the buildings, their vestments fluttering in the breeze. As I left the last of the houses behind, I realized that despite the time of day I hadn’t seen a soul and that no vehicles had passed me on the street. I paused my playlist to see if I could hear anything but there was nothing, not even the pervasive barking of a distant dog.

​I am relieved to find myself where I ought to be. That is on a clearly marked trail up Mount McKay. My previous worries have been dispelled; I can relax into my run. The grade is not too challenging though truth be told for all the running I do, very little has been on hills. The path is bracketed by mostly poplar and birch who’s long, lithe trunks put me in mind of the lissome female forms that used to grace the covers of Vogue and Vanity Fair in the teens and twenties of the last century, exemplars of the art nouveau illustrations I’ve always admired. High above me their golden raiment’s riffle in the wind, occasionally shedding leaves that shillyshally down across my line of sight, so yellow they could be woven with yarn spun from the sun itself. The path winds on up. My thigh muscles begin to feel that familiar burn.

​And then I arrive, and it is magnificent. I emerge from the tree line to the full breadth of Thunder Bay and Lake Superior’s vast, grey face. I walk along the observation deck. I feel a tinge of fear as despite my tallship pedigree heights not glimpsed from up a ship’s mast remain a problem. The city is spread out beneath me and beyond to the north trees and small lakes range as far as the eye can see. To the south there is the sleeping giant and that great inland sea’s expanse. I look behind me at the vertical rock face that rises vertiginously upwards. At its crest, three ravens soar like the black-feathered sentries of this sacred place. Wings outspread; they describe effortless circles against the blue, blue of the sky. I notice a monument behind the observation deck. It is dedicated to the Ojibwe soldiers who died in WW1. Imagine that, dying so far from your home for a king who dismissed your people as savages and a country that had been routinely slaughtering, lying to and subjugating your people for 200 years. That old anger piques my already crimson face. I feel at once anchored to this earth and its endless injustice and then, looking up to the ravens, buoyed by their world, to which I both do and don’t belong. I take a sip from my water bottle and begin the long journey back.