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 touches the path.
It’s magical, the sound of the loon. One part greeting, one part grief. This GTA girl, far from home, is grateful for the welcome.
I hurry to the water’s edge, scanning the surface, but I’m too late. Its spell cast, the loon has vanished.
Taking up residence
Behind me, not two canoe lengths from the shore, a secluded cabin overlooks the lake. This is Quetico’s art studio, and for the next two weeks, I am its artist-in-residence.
Quetico Provincial Park launched the Inspired by Quetico residencies in 2009. Artists stay as guests of the park, to create art inspired by its natural beauty and share 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 scenery
I spend the days cataloguing each sight and sound and smell and sensation. Small moments. Exciting moments. Things I’ve read about but never experienced.
I watch a midnight thunderstorm gallop across the lake, enjoying each crash and flash. I spot the lime-Jell-O shimmy of the aurora borealis and catch my first too-big-for-the-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 a sly chipmunk raid a paper bag full of carrot-sized horse treats under my lawn chair. He heaves each stolen treat ahead of him like a Scot tossing a caber. He returns again and again, convinced that if he freezes, he is invisible.
(Spoiler alert, critter. You’re not.)
I try to wait out a Painted Turtle, who stubbornly hides in his shell the moment I pull out my camera. I’m convinced if I freeze, I’m invisible.
(Spoiler alert. I’m not invisible, either.)
Ask the experts
The friendly staff at Quetico lend me binoculars and patiently play name that bird (or fish or tree or plant.) They help me sign out a Tackleshare rod and tie on a lure. They even point me to where the bass are biting today.
I learn that the teenagers down by the beach shouting, “Heyyy!” are actually ravens, and that it’s hard to get the smell of fish off your hands. (Really hard.)
Other research—strictly scientific—reveals that Quetico North makes the best butter tarts I’ve ever tasted and Robin’s Doughnuts are even better than Tim Horton’s.
A room of her own
My cabin’s raised balcony and broad windows overlook the lake. It’s where I write, letting the sun toast my skin.
Most days, the sky is so blue and water so still that a perfect mirror-image is reflected on the surface. Only the insolent backflip of a fish disturbs it.
Each day, as the sun sinks in the sky, the loon reappears to play hide and seek in the sunsets. I play I Spy without it ever spying 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, great herds of these Ojibwe ponies wandered free in Quetico and the surrounding regions. Today, there are only about 200 left.
The library has rich, uncatalogued resources on the ponies that aren’t available elsewhere. Oral histories, superintendent’s journals, old photo albums, maps. And books—so many books!
To my delight, I discover a diary entry, dated 1804. And in records from Lac La Croix First Nation, I find a 1977 photo of the last four ponies that lived in the wild.
But reading about the ponies doesn’t compare to meeting them.
Quetico hosts a Ponies in the Park Weekend each summer to introduce these clever, good-natured ponies to park visitors. The highlight of my trip is cozying up nose to nose with Makadaya and Naabesim from Grey Raven Ranch.
I love their fuzzy ears, soft noses and long, graceful manes. I run my fingers through their warm thick coats. This is my kind of research.
For most of the weekend, I’m in the round pen with Mac and Sim, or standing just outside, looking in. The time passes too quickly.
One part greeting, one part grief
All stories come to an end, and every adventure leads home. A few evenings later, I’m packing. Notebooks full of notes, a camera full of pictures and a head full of ideas. But it’s not enough. Quetico has cast its spell on me.
When the loon bids me farewell, we both grieve.
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. Spots reserved for local and emerging artists
When: two-week blocks between May and September
How: applications and artistic samples are due every year by March 31. Successful applicants notified in mid-April
Heather gratefully acknowledges Quetico Provincial Park, the Quetico Foundation and the Access Copyright Foundation (Marion Hebb Research Grant) for their generous support. She is returning as artist-in-residence in 2018.