Centennial Trail, Algonquin ParkJust three more, two; ahh, my calves are burning; only one more step, finally!

A sense of excitement and relief fills me as I take the final step to the top of the 15th incline I’ve come across within the last two kilometres. It’s just a few more metres until I reach the climax of my hike, the point which makes all the previous ups and downs dull in comparison.

A stillness settles around me, despite the continuous onslaught of wind, and the world looks untouched by human hands. Standing alone at the edge of the rock face, I feel as though nature has stayed this way just for me, just so I may experience it in all its natural beauty. This is the perfect moment.

A provincial park in my backyard

Growing up 40 minutes outside Ontario, Canada’s Algonquin Provincial Park was a luxury I often took for granted. The idea of driving anywhere to go for a walk just wasn’t sensible to my 17-year-old self. It wasn’t until I’d moved to a city that I began to truly appreciate the value of having a provincial park in my backyard.

Algonquin stands out, among the thousands of parks across Canada, as the first Provincial Park established to protect a natural environment. Its impressive landscape spans over 7,650 square kilometres and is filled with lakes and terrain of all shapes and sizes. While it’s primarily known for its spectacular display of red, yellow and orange maple leaves during the autumn months, it’s my ability to truly disconnect from the “human world” of technology and concrete that has made it such an appealing retreat for me.

For some, the notion of hiking through untamed bush, avoiding rocks and getting a little (or a lot!) of yourself muddy is as unappealing as going for a teeth cleaning. How can tripping over roots and getting bitten by bugs be relaxing?!

For others, like myself, the chance to break away from the busyness of day-to-day life is invaluable.

On an average day, I’ll turn to a book or puzzle as a means of escaping reality. Whether it’s for an hour or only a few minutes, these pastimes offer me a well-needed break from myself. They don’t, however, provide me with the disconnect I crave. At any point, a phone could vibrate or someone unexpected could knock at the door, disturbing the calming atmosphere I’ve tried to create. It’s only by immersing myself in nature that I’ve been able to alter the setting of my reality rather than attempt to escape from it.

Attaining a sense of serenity through physical effort

Many practices that are designed to help the mind achieve a sense of calm or enter a meditative state, such as Yoga and Tai Chi, ask that the physical body participate in the experience through purposeful and mindful movements. These movements can be slow and methodic, or they can be power-driven to encourage the flow of energy. The same concept can be applied to hiking.

When I hike, I’m acutely aware of my surroundings. Although I’m a little clumsy, and lack the finesse to say my movements are methodic, each step I take is filled with the determination to bring awareness to my senses. My thoughts become focused on the sounds I hear, the scenery above and below me and the earthy smell of the forest. I feel like I’m a thousand worlds away and there’s nothing that can jolt me back.

My most recent venture, to Algonquin Park’s interpretive trail known as Centennial Ridges, epitomizes the tranquillity I experience while traversing my leafy reality. To describe the trail as challenging would be an understatement. Fallen trees and countless inclines make getting to the lookouts an exerting and adventurous expedition.

As I attempt to find a pace that allows my breathing to keep a steady rhythm, my mind is enthralled by the natural phenomena around me. Mosses that blanket entire rock faces, roots that have turned into ascending steps and trees that grow on top of boulders are just a few that I see. No thoughts of the outside world enter my mind as I search for the small waterfall that I can hear to my left. As I reach the top of the most scenic lookout, I’m overwhelmed by the view and I experience a connection with myself. I feel serene.

It’s always impressed me how the effort I exert can lead me to such a feeling of calmness. I never would’ve guessed that disconnecting could actually lead me to reconnect with myself and help me redefine my reality.

Each trail I undertake helps me strengthen the connections I’m able to make with myself and teaches me about the value of bringing awareness to all my senses. Although I no longer live as close to Algonquin Park as I once did, it’s a trip I’ll continue to make every chance I get. I’ll never again take my backyard for granted!

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image: Centennial Ridges – Algonquin Park by Rick Harris via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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