As she balanced a canoe upside down on her shoulders, crossing from one stretch of water to the next with her eyes just about able to peek under the bow, Camara Chambers knew what it meant to be supremely happy.
In that moment, she may not have been really sure where she was going, but as far as she was concerned, Chambers was exactly where she was supposed to be – getting lost in the great, wide outdoors of her adopted homeland – Canada.
London born and bred, Chambers was 25 when she arrived in Toronto a decade ago, eager to swap the “rat race life” she’d been living in England. Of all the changes that have come in the years since, her transformation into an avid outdoors-woman remains, to her, the most surprising and rewarding.
“Growing up in north London, we just weren’t a very outdoorsy, let’s-go-camping family,” says Chambers, a senior manager at Ryerson University’s leadership lab, having previously led Volunteer Toronto, Canada’s largest volunteer centre. “Experiencing nature in that way wasn’t part of my experience. But here I’m able to go to so many beautiful places in the evenings and weekends. It hits me all the time what real work-life balance I have.”
Chambers says that within weeks of arriving she knew she “had found her place”. Now she makes it her business to go to a lot of wonderful locations – and she doesn’t go alone. After catching the hiking bug early on in Ontario, she began to lead treks for others. This year she founded her own walking group called Let’s Hike TO, with TO standing for Toronto, Ontario. It’s aimed particularly at people of colour and newcomers to the city and province.
She leads walks through the parks and ravines that pepper Ontario’s biggest city but also through urban settings, too, such as Toronto’s Insta-tastic Distillery District. Once home to a whisky distillery, its cobblestone streets are now lined with galleries, restaurants and boutiques.
Today Toronto is known for its breweries, and is said to be home to more than 70, each producing their own craft beers, with many offering tasty eats in cool locations. At the end of a guided walk, Chambers likes to head to one of her favourites, the Rorschach Brewing Co, where beers such as Truth Serum IPA and Decadence await.
“A big part of the reason I do Let’s Hike TO is to see the look of wonder on newcomers’ faces, and also on Torontonians’ faces when I show them a part of the city that they didn’t know existed,” says Chambers.
Looking ahead to 2022, she’s aiming to take walkers out of the city and farther afield. Ontario’s outdoor adventures are truly limitless, from far-flung Thunder Bay on Lake Superior in the north to the wetlands of Killarney provincial park and all the way south to Toronto’s doorstep. Chambers has already done her share of exploring far and wide, but is keenly aware there is still so much more to see.
Her list of favourite places begins at the location of that canoe adventure, Algonquin provincial park, a three- to four-hour drive north-east of Toronto. The vast park is Canada’s oldest and boasts more than 2,400 lakes formed when ice age glaciers retreated. All of which makes it perfect for what Canadians call “portaging” – paddling a canoe with camping gear and supplies through its stunning waterways, then carrying the canoe overground to the next body of water and jumping in again.
“Learning how to actually carry an I-don’t-even-know-how-many-pounds canoe on my back to get it between two lakes and doing it for a week – just a fantastic experience,” Chambers smiles. “As I say to my partner Graham: I’m a girl from London … and here I am!”
Here are some of her top tips for adventurers:
Algonquin provincial park
“My favourite place to go hiking or just to be outdoors is Algonquin. It’s the most perfect place for short hikes, long hikes, camping. In winter, you can throw on some snowshoes and just get lost in nature. The park and the region is famed for amazing wildlife and I’ve had to listen as friends returned from trips and spoke of deer, turtles, moose and even bears they’ve seen up there. So far I’ve had no such luck! I took a friend from London and the whole time she was eager to see a bear. I said: ‘You’re never going to see a bear!’ And even though a ranger told us there’d been lots or sightings, we didn’t spot one. I’m still on the lookout but I’d much prefer to see a moose.”
South-west of Algonquin, Muskoka is the heart of what Torontonians call “cottage country” – lake-side cabins and laid-back resorts nestled in nature, with little hamlets and towns speckled in between that are perfect for exploring.
“Muskoka is magical,” says Chambers. “My parents visited a few years ago and I wanted to give them a taste of the relaxed country life. We rented a car and zipped up to Muskoka and spent the day in the sunshine on a boat cruise, and stopped for doughnuts at The Bakery in Gravenhurst. It was the perfect way to see a very different part of Ontario. Most people don’t know it, but the summers here are beautifully hot (think Caribbean weather). It’s a great area to stay in and relax, and to rent a canoe or kayak to go exploring.”
Outdoor gems around Toronto
“The thing I love about Toronto and the area around it is that there are so many landscapes. You have beaches – I adore the Toronto Islands in Lake Ontario, right beside us in the city. From them you see gorgeous views of the skyline. No one appreciates how good the skyline is until they get a vantage point like that. Another real favourite of mine is Ashbridges Bay park, which is right on the lakefront, and has places where you can walk, cycle or swim.
“But you don’t have to go far to feel as if you are in a different world. If you drive just to the north-east of the city you’ll find yourself in desert-looking terrain, a place called the Cheltenham Badlands, which is incredible. I imagine it looks like the surface of Mars – this blood-red colour in rolling hills. It’s great to go in autumn as the colours are changing, and there’s a fantastic cidery nearby called Spirit Tree that’s not to be missed.”
Niagara Falls attracts the crowds and it’s clear why. A breathtaking wonder of the world that offers a feast of adventure activities such as jet boat tours up the Niagara River, zip-lining over the falls or the chance to join an unforgettable boat tour up close to the foot of the falls.
For a change of pace after all that excitement, Chambers loves the quaint, historic nearby town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, a gem of an escape close to the starting point for the Bruce Trail, Canada’s oldest and longest footpath stretching 560 miles (900km) across Ontario wilderness. “The falls themselves are beyond gorgeous but Niagara-on-the-Lake is an amazing base for exploring all the wineries nearby and has great hikes too,” she says. “The town itself looks as if it belongs in the 1800s. I genuinely thought it was a movie or TV set. You’re waiting for someone to call: ‘Action!’.”
“Another part of Ontario that I love is Wiarton. It’s a small village nestled on Georgian Bay, three hours’ drive north-west of Toronto, where I took a trip a winter or two ago. The bay was frozen over and it was stunning to see snow for as far as the eye could see. There is a section of the Bruce Trail in Wiarton that is like walking through Narnia. Snowy, mystical, and stunning.”
“I visited Pelee Island, in Lake Erie, a couple of years ago with some friends and loved seeing a different side of the province. The nature reserves there are havens for birds and wildlife. It’s where I saw a snake for the first time in real life. Trust me, there was a lot of screaming!”
Much as she enjoys reminiscing about her Ontario experiences to date, Chambers’ eyes light up when she talks about how much there is still to explore and see. She’ll likely be bringing plenty of fellow newcomers along for the journey.
To discover more about Ontario’s amazing outdoors, head to destinationontario.com/uk