Reflections from the Swamp
Richard van Duyvendyk

Dear Readers

Welcome to the hay days of summer!  We’ve been enjoying the grandkids, gardening, camping in Algonquin, and seeing friends in real life instead of on Zoom. Seeing a full sky of stars and the Milky Way in all its glory while in Algonquin inspired this piece of writing. I hope you enjoy it. Keep both the Earth and the stars in view.

Best wishes.

Life is like a canoe trip, one portage after another
Dave Loudon 1970

I’ll start this story with a question. Have you ever had a belief you once had that you changed your mind about? And what made it possible for you to do that?

I went on a canoe trip across Algonquin Park from Canoe Lake to Brent when I was sixteen years old with two friends. John, Peter, and I had never gone on a long canoe trip before, so we carried our canoe up and down a suburban street in the rain while carrying knapsacks full of weights and dumbbells to simulate conditions in the field. One of the portages was 1760 yards long! I worked at Steinberg’s, a grocery store, and filled my knapsack with day-old bread, sardines, beans, powdered milk, sausages, potato chips, and granola. None of us were gourmet cooks.

Although none of us smoked or drank much, we brought along a liberal supply of cigars, pipe tobacco, and rum because we were want-a-be voyageurs. We were men, young men, and the toughest guys we knew. (We didn’t get out much.)  Peter was short but muscular, while John was tall and lanky. We all had long hair appropriate for the times in 1970. Peter and I did most of the paddling, setting up the tent, and cooking; John was interested in setting up the bar and exploring the effects of drinking copious quantities of rum. In the mornings, John was the last thing we threw in the canoe.

One starry night on Big Trout Lake, we were sitting around the campfire, laughing, singing and philosophizing about the meaning of life and what’s it all about. John figured that science had or would soon have answers for the questions of life. Peter was more philosophical, quoting Carl Jung and the Dali lama; he was seeking mystical experiences. I stuck to themes in harmony with my fundamentalist roots. A Biblical narrative seemed to relate to most of life’s events. Our physical bodies all decided to upchuck on our shoes due to the unfamiliar combination of cigars and rum. Our spirits within found the spirits of rum impalpable and violently revolted.

I thought about my mom’s speech about the demon alcohol. She was right.

We went to bed singing:

Cigarettes and whiskey

And wild wild women

They’ll drive you crazy

They’ll drive you insane

After feeling sick later that night, I went out of the tent to get some air and dunk my aching head into the lake. I sat on the end of a narrow peninsula that juts out into the lake. The sky was filled with a multitude of stars with two planets, Mars and Venus, flanking a crescent moon on the far side of the lake. A shimmer of light from these three heavenly bodies reflected across the water and intersected at my feet while sitting at the water’s edge. I was dumbfounded. I have seen the light! Was this my moment of enlightenment Peter was talking about?  Miracle of wonder! I was sitting at the only place in the universe where the light of Mars, Venus, and the moon intersected! This must be a sign; these things don’t happen by chance; I was chosen for some particular task to illuminate the world!

My physical development was not yet completed. However, my ego had grown to unbelievable proportions. Given my fundamentalist upbringing, it was not too big a jump to speculate that maybe I was the Chosen One. Was this a confirmation that I was the second coming of the Messiah? I was God’s gift to humanity. That meant I was God’s gift to women! This could be good.

What do I do next? I placed one foot tentatively on the water. My foot sank through the water to the ground below. Alas, I could not walk on water. I speculated that because I could swim, I didn’t need to walk on water. Maybe Jesus could walk on water because, being from the desert, he had never learned to swim. He had to get out to the boat with the disciples and walked on water because he didn’t want to drown. Sitting on the rock point for some time, I noticed that the positions of Mars, Venus, and the moon had shifted, yet the reflected light coming across the lake continued to focus on the spot I was sitting! Maybe this was the sign I was looking for? Like the Virgin Mary, I pondered these things in my heart and decided not to tell my friends that I was the Chosen One until the time was right.

I wondered if a Bethlehem star would travel across the sky and stop above our home on Richardson Ave. It couldn’t be a regular star; they rotated around the North Star. Could they pinpoint the house using GPS? What if they got it wrong and thought the star was above Johnny Snider’s home? Snider wasn’t cut out to be the new Messiah. Let’s not get judgemental and leave it at that. Would a procession of camels bearing wise men depart from the Toronto zoo, come down the 401, following the star? What kind of gifts would I get? These are only a few of the thoughts that passed through my egotistical mind.

The next day I was quiet and serene. We canoed through two more lakes and set up camp. None of us wanted any rum or cigars. The right moment arrived while sitting around the campfire, and I revealed my experience with Venus, Mars, and the moon. I let it be known that I was the Chosen One destined to change the world.

Surprisingly, my friends seemed to take me seriously. We walked down to the shore so I could demonstrate the sign of converging light. The night sky was as brilliant as it had been the previous evening. The reflected light of Mars, Venus, and the moon again intersected at my feet. Only this time, the rays also crossed at the feet of my friends. Was it a coincidence that my friends were named Peter and John? Would they be my disciples, or would we have to share the job of saving the world? We walked back and forth across the beach, and the light kept following us. Maybe we were some kind of Trinity? Although our knowledge of the laws of reflection and refraction in physics was rudimentary, it seemed that there wasn’t just one place on Earth where these lines of light would converge. A bullfrog started crooking from some lily pads nearby. “Maybe that frog is the new Messiah,” said Peter, as if he really wondered if it could be true.

Fifty years later, back at Algonquin, I again found myself with my bride and a couple of grandchildren staring into the stary night sky. This time I felt a sense of our beginnings. We are an infinitely small part of an ever-expanding universe. We are stardust, consciousness, life, and spirit. Like the bullfrog, we have sparks of the divine and a life that is meant to be lived fully. We are all part of something wonderfully creative.

Getting back to the question asked at the beginning of the story, it’s been a long time since I thought I was the Chosen One. Science and life have proven otherwise. Thank God. My beliefs changed, as they do for most of us, but I’m still captivated by the beauty of Creation and the wonder of it all. Like Van Gogh said, “There is nothing like a starry night that can make you feel one with the universe.” Or, as Trudeau, the 1st said,  “The universe is unfolding as it should.”