This story was originally drafted in May 18, 2019
“You are so brave!” The aunty exclaimed after hearing that I was on my own. I shrugged with a polite smile and, after a pause and a moment to think about it, she followed up with: “It’s very good for the mind.”
I had just arrived in Prince Edward County, located two hours east of Toronto, and my first stop was at Shed Chetwyn Farms to see the alpacas. For the first few minutes, I was the only one there. I stood silently peering over the fence at the goofy looking animals with their wild hair as they ate and puttered around in the sunshine. I enjoyed the quiet peacefulness for a few minutes before this family of four adults parked and walked up to join me.
The mother in the South Asian family eyed me off to the side and, after a moment, approached me to ask whether I was there on my own. Her response was to proclaim how brave I was and then share the information with the rest of her family. I smiled, thinking of my previous solo adventures to further places and for longer periods and thought about how this weekend away so close to home was really easy in comparison.
When she reflected and then mentioned the mental health benefits, I felt like she had read me well. It had been a trying few weeks and my main goal for this weekend in the country was to disconnect and find a quiet place to just be. I nodded and smiled in agreement. Soon after our exchange, and after quickly recognizing that she really wanted to keep chatting, I politely wished them well and left to make my lunch reservation.
I didn’t think about our conversation again until the next afternoon.
I had ventured out from my B&B to find a good place to hike. It was a cool 9 degrees celsius and raining off and on but I was pretty determined to not let that stop me. My hosts had mentioned an off the beaten path trail along Lake Ontario called Point Petre and so I drove off through the country roads to find it. Notes on the internet had mentioned that it was hard to find the trail head from the road but I was still willing to give it a shot.
Part of the experience was the drive itself – through winding country roads, passing farms and fields in an array of mid-spring shades of green, brown and yellow, and barely another car in sight. It reminded me of my adventures through Denmark – driving around to find an interesting place I spotted on a map and not caring if it didn’t work out in the end, just enjoying the journey.
Once Google Maps announced that I had arrived at my destination, I pulled over at the side of the road, double-checked my pack and got out to find the trail and make my way down to the lake.
A few minutes later, I was back. I just couldn’t find the trail head. I drove a bit more to another spot, parked, took out my pack, wandered a bit there. No luck. After a third unsuccessful attempt, I decided to give up and just head to the more popular spot in the area for hiking and beaches: Sandbanks.
Sandbanks Provincial Park sits just off of Lake Ontario and is known for having the world’s largest fresh water sand bar and dune system. It’s also usually a super popular place in the summer and my initial hesitation was a concern of it being too busy.
I forgot that it was really early in the season and, since the weather was cool and rainy that day, I actually had nothing to worry about. I felt a bit of excitement at the discovery of the almost-empty parking lot as I pulled in, mainly because I just did not have it in me that day to deal with crowds. I was yearning for some solitude to help ease my mind.
The park itself has multiple beaches but I knew I had to go to Dunes Beach for my first visit. Once parked, I headed straight to the water first – dark and mysterious and crashing loudly against the shore. The familiar vastness of the great lake immediately give me a sense of calm. To my immediate left, I could see the towering sand dunes beyond the trees and knew that’s where I had to go.
I hesitated for just a moment – wondering if it was wise to try to climb the sand dunes with an unstable knee. Six months earlier, I had torn my ACL and meniscus while playing soccer. Since then, I’d gone through months of physiotherapy and hard work to get the range of motion and strength in my left leg back again – well, as much as possible before surgery to reconstruct the ligament. In the meantime, it had been a challenging winter and now that spring was finally here, I was dying to be outdoors again. So my stubbornness propelled me forward to at least try.
I started by taking very careful and intentional steps on the dunes to test the consistency of the sand and to see how my knee would do. I quickly realized that the light rain actually made it slightly easier to walk on the dunes as the sand was packed together. I also realized that all the training I had done was making a big difference – it may sound obvious but engaging my leg muscles helped counteract any instability from the knee.
I felt a spark of excitement at that realization and kept climbing. Across the way was one couple and another family coming in from the other side but, other than that, it was just me.
I reached the top pretty quickly and admired the views of the great lake to one side – expanding into horizon – and the tops of trees from the forest and wetland to the other. It felt good to have made it through that small but significant hurdle.
Looking back down towards the trees, I noticed trail markers and decided to head down towards the trail. At that point, I was completely alone again and, after taking a moment to check the length (2.5km), I took off on the Sandbanks Dunes Trail. I didn’t know where it went or where I would end up – I was just going to wing it and take advantage of my time there.
The trail took me up and down hills, through forest area, across wetland and around. As I hiked, I felt my heart get lighter and a familiar joy that I get from being outdoors came back to me. I was surrounded only by nature and the sounds of just the wind and birds. That sense of solitude brought peace to my mind that had been so busy with a million thoughts and it was a relief. Add to it the chill and cold wind and I felt wide awake and so very happy.
At one point, the trail took me around wetland and I had to cross a set of wooden planks to continue on. When I stepped on the first plank, it dropped into the water and was completely submerged – likely a result of the recent rain and rising water levels. I stopped and then chuckled to myself before continuing forward. Instead of being dismayed about the potential discomfort of getting my feet wet, I felt excited because it felt like another small piece of adventure and an opportunity to overcome another (small) challenge.
It was the first time in many months that I’d felt this sense of adventure – of winging it (with some caution and preparation) and working my way through nature. I was also reminded of just how good I feel when I spend time outdoors. There was a point where I caught myself wishing that I could do this more often – once a month, every week even.
As I continued on and reflected on my thoughts, that’s when I remembered the comment I received ten minutes into my weekend away – that being alone out here would be good for my mind. It was like a foreshadowing. Even though it was my intention for the weekend, I wasn’t sure I would get any relief from the stress, exhaustion, anxiety and uncertainty that I had been feeling. But this mini-adventure and hike gave me a moment to clear my mind. Those concerns were still there but, for a moment, I was able to remember what really matters to me and that I can make it happen on my own.
And that made all the difference. I just need to do it more.