Up a creek, lake or river… with a paddle

Woke in light drizzle; Larry discovered garter snake coiled inside toilet paper roll, inside garbage bag, inside canvas pack; had spent entire night inside tent with us.
Notes from French River trip (1994)

Despite the discomfort associated with canoe trips — sleeping on the ground (sometimes with snakes), being eaten alive by mosquitoes, portaging knee-deep through moose mud — these dismal prospects never stopped me from signing up. During my thirties and forties, I paddled many a northern Ontario river, and although I prefer more sedentary pleasures these days, I still hear the call of the wild.

It was on Ontario’s Spanish River that my friend Terry Kelly introduced me to canoeing, and it was with him and in the company of other friends (principally Larry Scanlan and John Bemrose who, like Terry, are writers) that my 20-year romance with the rivers evolved. I loved their stillness in the mornings and the way the mist lay over them like a blanket. I loved their twists and turns, every bend revealing a hidden landscape, each unique in its configuration of water and woods and sky. I loved the surprises — an osprey diving, a bear wading.

I loved thsounds — bird calls, paddles splashing and the roar of white water. And I loved the simplicity of the life. The only things we thought about were breaking camp, collecting wood, supper, and a smoke and drink at the campfire. We didn’t think about our jobs, our debts, or the crowded, smoggy cities we’d left behind, for now.

From Haliburton to James Bay
Over the years, we did the Burnt and Drag Rivers in Haliburton. We did the Wenebegon, south from Chapleau, and into Aubrey Lake. We did the Spanish River, west of Cartier, twice. We did the Mississagi, near Blind River, the French from Lake Nipissing to Georgian Bay, and the Lady Evelyn from Florence Lake (where the float planes dropped us) back to Lake Temagami.

We spent a week exploring the north shore of Lake Superior at Gargantua Bay. We canoed the entire Missinaibi/Moose River system, all the way to James Bay. That one took three trips spread over three summers and just about killed us. A few of the trips were especially difficult, for various reasons: weather, terrain, personality conflicts. But we survived them all.

Larry’s sleeping bag had gotten soaked in the hailstorm, so he slept fully clothed with his rain shell on, laced tight around his face like an old Victorian woman in a bonnet; he had an extra shirt around his torso like a straitjacket, and he was up to his hips in his emptied backpack.
Notes from French River trip (1994)

We learned to be stoic. We learned to live in wet clothes, sleep in whatever was dry, then put the wet clothes back on in the morning. Because we had no choice, we learned to accept inclemency — 11 straight days of rain on our way to James Bay.

We learned how to remove leeches (with salt or the coal of a cigarette). We learned how to live in close quarters with people other than our families; how to hang our food packs from trees to keep bears away; how to repair a banged-up canoe with duct tape; how to do a downstream ferry and a j-stroke and a cross-bow draw.

We learned how to tell the difference between a red pine and a Jack pine, or, at 300 feet, a red-tailed hawk and a turkey vulture. We learned to put up with bad food, black flies, backache, sunburn, sunstroke, strains and exhaustion.

Dangerous situations
Through foolishness, or inexperience or misadventure we faced a multitude of dangerous situations, but we were lucky. Some people are unlucky or run out of luck, like the dead boy John Bemrose found near Bull Moose Bay on the Missinaibi River in 1974. Blue sweatshirt. Bluejeans. Wallet in his back pocket. His family back home in Kansas City wondering why they hadn’t heard from him.

Although we heard many stories over the years about misfortune on the rivers, nothing could dampen our enthusiasm for canoeing. A typical day went something like this: we woke up, ate breakfast (granola bars and Tang or, if time permitted, a cooked breakfast — coffee and pancakes), broke camp, paddled for six or eight hours through rapids and canyons and untouched lake.

We would average two or three portages a day (short ones, over log jams or beaver dams, took only a few minutes; the three-mile portage at Long Rapids on the Moose River, on the other hand, took an entire day because of the difficult country and because we had to do it twice to move all of our equipment).

If the water was calm and there was a favourable wind, we laid 12-foot cedar poles across two or three canoes abreast, rigged a tentfly to two other poles (or paddles, if necessary), held it aloft, and sailed for as many miles as we could. We could stop briefly for lunch — at a campsite or riverbank or sandbar — and share our crackers, cheese, hard salami and trail mix. Sometimes we would remain in the canoes for lunch, holding on to each other’s gunwales as we passed the food around, drifting with the current, and dipping our cups into the river when we were thirsty.

Making camp

Then we would search out a camp (on a promontory, if possible, with a breeze to discourage mosquitoes, and a good swimming hole), pitch our tents, gather wood, make dinner (my specialty was tuna casserole, with cashews, chow mein noodles and mandarin oranges), eat, wash out the pots at the river, then relax with a drink at the fire.

Our tasks were straightforward and physical, our community was small and manageable, only eight or nine other people in our world, instead of six billion. If it wasn’t raining and the mosquitoes weren’t too bad and we weren’t too tired, we would talk for a while before turning in. No televisions. No news of the latest local or international atrocity. No sirens wailing outside our tents. Just silence. Or maybe the song of the white-throated sparrow: "Old Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody–.

I haven’t been on any ‘real’ canoe trips for years now. Whether retirement gives me the incentive (not to mention the time) to take them up again remains to be seen. I don’t think it would take much to get Terry and Larry back on board. In fact, I still have the canoe Terry and I used on our two Spanish River trips back in the ‘70s.

Asleep at the Wheel

Although it’s no longer seaworthy (its gunwales are rotten, its yellow fibreglass cracked and brittle, and its seat, thwart and yoke no longer to be trusted), I keep it around — like an old pet. Its name, Asleep at the Wheel, is still vivid on its bow. All those years ago, I used a stencil and dark green paint to apply it, and it still strikes me as right as canoe-tripping allowed my companions and I to drift, forgetful of the problems and stresses we had left behind in the city.

I suppose I chose the name because it captured the carefree quality of life on the northern rivers. That, and the sense of adventure. Not knowing what was around the next bend — a ripple, a rapid, a grave, a derelict cabin, a swimming bear, a merganser hen with her fleet of ducklings, a moose raising its dripping rack from the water, green reeds swinging from it like ribbons.

…we had reached the beginning of the final three miles of rapids and we ran them smoothly and in a sustained ecstasy; during the final descent thru a solid hundred yards of white water, I stole a quick glance ahead and there… waiting for us… lay the perfect gem of lake — tranquil, wide; fishermen half asleep over their reels — and we were thru, finished, exhilarated, and sad.

Notes from Wenebegon River trip (1983)

J.D. Carpenter teaches at Leaside High School in Toronto. He is the author of four books of poetry, including Lakeview (1990) and Compassionate Travel (1994), both published by Black Moss Press.