Foraging and the City Girl

A city girl from the tropics takes on hiking in Northwestern Ontario for the first time

By: Leah Ching, Editor-in-Chief

My first experience in the Thunder Bay outdoors was one straight out of a movie. It was sometime in the fall of 2014, and like all great stories, it begins with a bar in downtown Port Arthur. I was attending a staff party for a restaurant I didn’t work at, and trying to down enough drinks so that I could comfortably join in with all the drunken shenanigans that were going on.

I ended up meeting a guy that night (whose identity will remain anonymous) who was admittedly pretty cool. He was well-travelled, interested in knowing more about what it was like to grow up in Trinidad, and he had abs you could probably wash a shirt on. He was pretty athletic and even led classes part time, way out of my awkward-girl comfort zone. But, we hit it off and exchanged numbers at the end of the night, much to the dismay of the guy whose plus-one I was.

Cut to a few months later, we reconnected over Facebook and decided to meet up for a date. Myself, a Trinidadian city girl who had never gone on a hike in my life, had somehow agreed to go tea picking in what I could only imagine would be a gentle stroll through a grassy plain, akin to picking grapes in the vineyards of Nova Scotia. What I didn’t expect was the day-long adventure that would ensue.

I couldn’t have been more unprepared, and I couldn’t have dressed worse for the occasion. I wore a shirt, leggings, a pair of converse, and a fall jacket that wasn’t exactly hike-worthy. Mike (we’ll call him that) picked me up from my house, his tiny dog in the car, and a backpack filled with snacks in the back seat, we were on our way.

At the time, I lived with my parents who were out of town, thankfully. “Bye mom and dad, I’m going into the deep woods with a near-stranger to pick tea!” Probably would not have gone over well with my mom, who’s normally actually pretty cool.

I realized I wasn’t dressed nearly warm enough when we drove out to perceivably the middle of nowhere, about an hour outside city limits. Mike hopped out of the car in some pretty tight-tights, grabbed some mitts, a toque, and his backpack, and strolled confidently into the woods.

Now, as an absolute foreigner to the Northwestern Ontario outdoors, on the first hike of my life, I naturally struggled to keep up with the experienced rock climber in front of me. “Struggled” is putting it lightly. As Mike hopped over rocks and slid between trees, I stumbled behind him over the rocks, and cut myself on the tree’s branches.

Mike consistently tried to ask me about my childhood in Trinidad as I struggled to tell him stories between gasping breaths, my heart rate elevated from the workout I was getting and the sheer fear that I would die with this handsome stranger in the woods. Straight out of a movie, I tell you. This guy was so athletic and confident as we veered off the beaten path and into the heart of the untamed Northern Ontario woods. There were no mosquitoes as it was far too cold (my toes were absolutely frozen).

Amidst my trepidation as we made an uphill trek through the woods, my eyes almost couldn’t keep up with the beautiful sights that I was seeing for the first time. The waterfall we made our way to was unlike anything I’d ever seen, and I don’t think he realized just how new and beautiful these sights were to me. I had to stop him a few times to catch my breath, take it in, and snap a pic or two.

It was on this hike that I realized that Northern Ontario landscape and foliage was absolutely nothing like what I’d seen in the tropics. In Trinidad, the lush dark greens of the tropics, the sounds of birds and animals echoing through the woods was nothing like the fall hues of red and yellow making their way between the trees of green, the absolute silence that overtook us in the woods, except for the sound of the wind through the trees and the falls as we made our way to the top. It was enough to take my breath away.

We climbed up the falls, scaled the edge of cliffs (he climbed, I trepidatiously followed and thought to myself, “Yep, this is how I die”), and we made it to a clearing in the woods where we found a flat rock to sit on and have a picnic of dates, oranges, and mint tea as his dog sat at our feet and begged for scraps.

We then ventured even further into the woods, stepping onto colourful beds of moss that covered the forest floor. They were at least one or two feet high, and it was impossible to imagine that cities of people existed just an hour or two from where we were walking.

Mike expertly picked mushrooms, examining them to see which were poisonous and which were edible, and carried them in his hat as we made our way to his favourite tea-picking spot. Pulling two bags out of his backpack, one for me and one for him, we filled a bag-each of Labrador tea, as he told me how to watch for the good leaves, how to tell which were ready for picking, and which ones I should avoid. His dog crawled into my lap when I was finished filling my bag up. I sat, sinking into the moss and shivering a little as I realized the sun was going down.

We headed back to town right around when it was getting dark, and it was a beautiful day all-in-all. He made sure to tell me how to dry the tea out right, and after I tried my first batch, it was just as excellent as he had promised.

My mom was fine with it in retrospect – she even laughed, and then asked me if I was going to start dating this hippie. As the tea dehydrated near the kitchen window on that cool fall evening, I already knew that this was a day to remember. Partly because my

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legs would be sore for a week, but mostly because of how much fun I’d had.

Mike and I never ended up dating; in fact, we only saw each other a couple of times after that, but I’m thankful to him for introducing me to the Thunder Bay outdoors and all the fun I could have if I ventured outside of my comfort zone. For those of you that were wondering, I won’t tell you exactly where we went (mostly because I promised that I wouldn’t give away Mike’s prized Labrador tea-picking spot), but you already know that there was a waterfall, and I encourage you to get out there, and search for some tea for yourself.

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