Circumnavigating Lake Fanshawe

Finding a temple in the woods.

This piece was written for inclusion in the Summer 2020 issue of the Huron & Erie Regional Digest. You should really subscribe to H.E.R.D. and read it there.

(a first attempt at getting lost)

The first time I made the journey around Fanshawe Lake it was with a group of 13 friends. The event was suggested as the ideal celebration, a bon voyage of sorts, for a pair moving to other lake-like settings on Canada’s west coast. I use the term ‘celebration’ loosely as I do not think that any of us knew what we were getting ourselves into. Do not misunderstand me—by the end of the journey we were all glad we partook in the experience, but for those that did not bring enough water to drink or others who decided jeans and long-sleeve shirts were proper attire for the 25 kilometre trek, some of us began to rethink life choices early on into the 5 hour collective march.

But I digress.

When it was all said and done, and we were enjoying communal cans of some local lager and thirst-quenching slices of watermelon, I found myself wanting to jump to my feet and make the loop again, even if only metaphorically. My body was in no physical shape to walk any longer that day, and by the time the lagers were finished I likely was not in any mental shape to complete the trek again. I can’t really remember.

(recreating a metaphorical circular wheel)

I find the predictability of the walk around the Lake itself to be the element I look forward to the most. The recurring scenes. The interactions. The feelings and emotions re-experienced. Unlike Groundhog Day—or a global pandemic—where every day is some version of the day before tomorrow’s yesterday, each loop around Fanshawe Lake while similar to the times before presents a new opportunity to take away slightly different metaphorical souvenirs from the excursion.

Depending on the climate of the day I am getting lost in, it may be the running through the flooded and humid sections of the trail to avoid being attacked by mosquitoes which becomes the memory for the day. Other times, it is the knowing that a sugar bush exists somewhere along the trail—it depends on if you are coming or going—but forgetting exactly where it exists, while not actually caring because it is never late winter when I am making the trek and there is never maple syrup, pancakes, or the smell of a firing burning to enjoy. Here is hoping that global warming shifts the maple syrup season to mid-summer or early fall when it would make for an ideal addition to the journey.

Most often though, it is the tracking of the walk itself that I most enjoy; experiencing a variety of different scenes which invoke their own unique feelings. From the farm fields filled with corn and soy, depending on the time of year, to the tree-lined trails where the forest floor is covered in aged pine needles; knowing what topography is coming up that I will have to traverse but always forgetting the order in which it appears. At the beginning or end of the trip—again, depending on if you are coming or going from your hike, emergency pit stops may be needed. Because of this, it is helpful to cement into one’s memory the location of the two golf courses along the route, and to note which allows easy access to its washrooms––one does, the other does not.

(solitude and contemplations on circumnavigation)

There is something to be said for spending time alone with one’s own thoughts. While the economics and logistics of building a cabin in the woods, following Thoreau’s model, are not exactly practical given a typical life in today’s times, I imagine that a few uninterrupted hours of walking in one large circle can provide some similar benefits.


As I consider some of the most profound, complex, and stupid thoughts I have had over the past decade, many are attached to the act of circumnavigating Fanshawe Lake.

During one round of the Lake I found myself contemplating the philosophical differences between Catholicism and Agnostic Atheism. The conclusion I came to is that all religions are roughly 99% the same; that everyone simply believes in one less God than the person they are comparing themselves to. That, as a global community, we allow a 1% difference in philosophical beliefs to create unnecessary tension throughout all we do. This is not to say that I am right, you are wrong, or that we are all doomed, just that having hours of nothing to do but think can help to work through some of the most challenging questions one faces. Your mileage may vary.

On another attempt at the 25 kilometre path I found myself writing the words I would recite before dinner at my own wedding, without knowing it, years before the syllables would be uttered from my mouth. While not as distilled as the thoughts were on the day of my matrimonial celebrations, in a single loop of the Lake I articulated the essence of what ties us all together into a treatise on communities of identity, faith, and place.

When I make the statement that I “really like” Fanshawe Lake, I often find that individuals who have cottages in the Muskokas or those who portage through Algonquin Park on an annual basis are quick to dismiss that Fanshawe Lake has anything of value to offer. But, while they are stuck in traffic for 6 hours on the way to their locations of “solitude” I have made my way around a hidden, yet painfully obvious, natural gem within my mid-sized city. Clearing my mind of the unimportant and considering thoughts much more worthy of my time & attention than paying attention to the act of driving, I have come to appreciate how fortunate we are, here in Middlesex County, to have this local lake within an arm’s reach.

(creature of habit)

For those considering making the trek, either by themselves or with others, establishing a routine can be of the utmost importance. More habit at this point than the result of wilderness training instilled in me as a young boy (I never was a Boy Scout. Scout’s honour.), here is a list of the things I consistently do, offered without any context and in no meaningful order:

  • Weather.
  • Ice.
  • Sleep.
  • Weather. (!)
  • Fruit & Nuts.
  • Walk Backwards.
  • Four!

One time I was caught in a torrential downpour halfway around the Lake––I am not certain if I was coming or going––and almost found myself in the market for a new over-priced handheld computing device. The solution? I now leave my phone at home which has led to a much more enjoyable and engaging walk. For those who are not looking to get lost, or fear being disconnected from every moment of every day, I recommend bringing a Ziplock™ bag to protect all devices and sensitive information.

  • Stop. Watch. Listen.
  • Sneak into Golf Course.
  • Water. (!)
  • Slow down.
  • Beer.
  • Nap.
  • Fend off Groundhogs (and daylight Racoons).
  • Eat all of the things.

For the more adventurous, or those who declare that they are not a creature of habit, an ad-hoc approach may apply. Proceed at your own risk.

(what is in a name?)

I once made the mistake of swapping the nouns that make up the Lake’s name in presence of a former NASA employee. Lake Fanshawe I declared. Lac Fanshawe for those of you reading from Quebec or New Brunswick.

I was quickly corrected.

A former astronaut turned bicycle barista (hi, Ben!) declared that “noun order is intentional!” Apparently. How we arrange nouns in a name denotes whether a feature has a name, or if the feature is named after someone. Seems obvious enough.

Lake Kevin / Lac Kevin.

Kevin Lake / Kevin Lac.

Some of us always come up short in the name game.

If we consider Old English origins of words, which I am inclined to do based on lifelong use of the English language, the combination of fane and shawe leads me to believe that Fanshawe means, temple in the woods.

Temple in the woods.

This resonates.

The journey around Lake Fanshawe can be completed in as little as 3-hours if an individual is in a hurry. I lean towards taking the circular path at a more leisurely pace. Clearing my mind. Inhaling the fresh air. Getting away from the city without ever leaving it. Enjoying a slower pace of life. And, sometimes, even partaking in the proverbial “smelling of the roses” along the way. For the record, and not to mislead—I have never seen, therefore smelled, any roses along the way.

For some, Lake Fanshawe is just a pool of water that is too slow at the evaporation game, for others it is downstream from places where life moves at a slower pace (hi, St. Marys!). And for some, those occupying the surrounding day-use conservation area at any given moment, it can be a place for their children and dogs to pee while other people swim and fish.

For me, well, Lake Fanshawe may just be my temple in the woods.