It's just past 7 a.m. and only the faintest hint of light seeps through the low clouds above us as we snowshoe single file down the bank and onto frozen, snow-covered Kawawaymog Lake in Ontario. We stay silent to better hear and feel the stillness of the morning, punctuated only by the cries of unnamed, unseen birds and the crunching of our snowshoes as their spikes connect with snow, slush and ice.
This is meant to be a hike toward sunrise, but all we can see are gradients of grey, the lighter ground and darker sky sliced in half by the shadowy, snow-dappled trees. Even the bright colours of our ski gear are muted by the dim light. The effect is comforting and cozy, a feeling helped by the close-to-zero temperatures so unusual here at this time of year.
We wait and watch, and fuzzy shapes become distinct, but the sun doesn't want to be seen. I'm not bothered – this is my preference over the harsh cold that sunny days tend to bring. But I suspect the solar panels our accommodation depends on won't be meeting their potential today. As we swing around a tiny island and make our way back, my stomach wakes up. I'm overcome with the sweet pleasure of waiting impatiently for a hearty breakfast and of the prospect of spending the rest of morning on the couch in front of the fire with my book and zero guilt for doing nothing. If the park's bears can hibernate, so can I.
I'm at a yoga retreat at Northern Edge Algonquin, an outdoor centre set on the northwest corner of Ontario's Algonquin Provincial Park. Northern Edge prides itself on its environmentally sustainable travel experience; not only are the main house and facilities fully solar powered, with a backup generator for the darkest weeks of winter, but they practice strict recycling and water conservation, support local food producers and offer no-trace expeditions through the park and nearby trails. There's even composting toilets.
This isn't a luxury getaway, nor is it trying to be: facilities are comfortable but not fancy; the wholesome, unfussy meals are served buffet-style; and guests do their own post-meal cleanup. But I'm not here to be pampered. I'm here for a mental reset, a chance to spend a few days focusing on my neglected yoga practice without the clutter of daily life intruding. And since Northern Edge is fully off the grid – no cell service and no WiFi (they do have Internet and a phone for emergencies) – I have no choice but to relax, with nothing to do but show up for yoga classes, head out on the cross-country ski trails, and enjoy unhurried face-to-face conversations with other guests.
Later that afternoon, I'm standing barefoot in a bikini on the front porch of the wood-fired sauna, steam rising from my skin as I watch a light snowfall descend. Yesterday, we'd lain in the snow to cool off between rounds of sweating, carving snow angels with our bare limbs until the cold started to penetrate, but today it's much chillier out, and while the others are still rolling on the ground – albeit with louder shrieks and faster dashes back inside – I'll let the winter air draw the heat out of my body.
By the fourth yoga class, our group of nine settles comfortably into each pose, relaxed both post-sauna and with each other. I've stopped being in a hurry to get somewhere, stopped feeling the to-do list pressure. Even better, I can feel the effects of my stay here: I'm a little looser here, a little tender there, and altogether more balanced. I realize that, for once, I'm fully in the moment.
IF YOU GO
Northern Edge is 20 kilometres outside the small town of South River, Ont., that's three hours (289 km) north of Toronto and four-and-a-half hours (400 km) west of Ottawa.
Scheduled retreats run year-round, with options for three types of traveller: "Gentle Explorer," "Rejuvenator" and "Adventurer." Upcoming all-inclusive winter packages include dog sledding and winter sports (multiple weekends from January to March, $479 a person) and Yoga and the Zen of Winter for couples (Feb. 14-16, $997 a couple); in summer, sign up for retreats with activities including canoeing, kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, hiking and biking. Custom trips can also be arranged. For more, visit northernedgealgonquin.com.
The writer travelled as a guest of the retreat and Ontario Tourism. Neither approved or reviewed this article.