Algoma Unplugged

The trains do not run on time in Canada . . . but then neither do I.

In fact, I find the more that I travel, the less I demand punctuality from others and myself. The more wild a place is, the more you wanna pack along the “We’ll get there when we get there” attitude.

People who think I have a good attitude have never witnessed me going through the early stages of severe internet withdrawal. It’s not a pleasant spectacle–take away my 3G and I can turn into a big baby. Remove me from Twitter for a day and–actually wait, no, just shoot me.

Call me an addict, call me insane, lump me with whichever letter generation has to be texting in order to breath, but the “digital” part of “digital nomad” is fundamental to the way I explore and interact all over our very interconnected globe. And yet, on other days, I’m just a nomad.

I knew when boarding that the Algoma Country Railway (ACR) was historic–dating back to the days of Ontario’s wild frontier. What I didn’t know is that while I was only traveling a few hundred miles from Sault Ste. Marie, I was falling out of the great grid of communication that keeps me alive and online, all the time.

As I watched the town disappear–the depleted signs of civilization–I also watched the bars drop away on my phone, one by one. And then, the painful phrase appeared: No Service.

“No Service” remained in service at the top of my phone for another 10 hours. 10 hours without updating Twitter. 10 hours without texting or uploading or reading witty responses to whatever I was doing.

I was aghast. As someone who tweets like a sub-machine gun, this unplugged scenario was too difficult a reality to accept. No kidding, I was pacing, on a train.

During my brief stop at Agawa Canyon, I stared at the birch trees, counting the black stripes and imagining them to be bars showing stronger reception. That’s right, I was hallucinating digital screen icons from trees in a forest. Mine is a serious case, I reckon, but I was not the only one.

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Dawn at Lake Wabatongushi, Chapleau Game Reserve, Algoma Country (AE/NG)

Nearly everyone on the train held some digital device in their hand, some the size of card decks, others the size of cutting boards, flipping them about, leaning them on things, peering into the screens, holding it upside down, playing games or looking at pictures or taking notes. All of us were connected travelers–even the fishermen who were out here to “get away from it all” had their iPads and pods and touches and kindles and whatever, all of them finding something to do while we passed hundreds of miles of empty Algoma wilderness.

I counted the mileposts, which are true mile posts since they mark the miles northward from Sault Ste. Marie–crude painted boards nailed to trees with stenciled numbers. As I ticked off the miles in my head and the hours passed one by one, I eventually accepted that I was disconnected and that there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.

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Baby Minnow out of Lake Wabatongushi, Algoma Country

One key secret to good travel is to adapt–to survive. You never want to depend on your electronic device so much that you miss the destination around you. That seems obvious when printed on a computer screen but it’s less obvious in real life. Next time you’re in any tourist area, have a look around. How many people are missing what’ s in front of them so that they can photograph, tweet, text, or do something else distracting?

I pretend that I am not one of them but I am one of them. I learned that by not being one of them for a full day and watching everyone else interacting with technology instead of nature. And that was without them having any Wi-Fi or 3G.

After nearly twelve hours traveling “disconnected”, I bathed in the five full bars of free Wi-Fi all around me at Errington’s Wilderness Lodge. This is true wilderness–deep in the heart of the Chapleau Game Reserve on Lake Wabatongushi, and yet fancy enough to be on the invisible internet grid. I was so glad to reconnect with all my readers, but it was also that much easier to set down my phone and switch it off in order to go look for loons.

My unplugged status continued the following day as I rode the ACR back to Hawk Junction, then continued to WaWa and then on to a rather gloomy and grey Lake Superior. For those who were concerned for my safety or wondered what I had got myself into, I thank you for your worry–I’m fine now, just a little shaken. For those who enjoyed hearing nothing but silence from me, that is probably fair, too–we all have our own different digital limits.

Perhaps I am addicted and perhaps that’s not always a good thing. But Algoma was my cure, a landscape that may not be so rugged or remote, but might as well be in that it forced me to totally disconnect.

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Swimming in Lake Superior, without any help from the internet. (AE/NG)