Grand Rapids – Week 6

Despite the bad reputation made in earlier cities, The PAS welcomed us open arms. The maire, Alan McLauchlan came to see us and enchanted by our trip, he brought gifts beyond our understanding. As a maker of beef jerky he gave us enough that we’ll have it for at least 3 weeks. At lunch in the canoe, that piece of well spiced jerky … is quite a treat. Though we think he and Dan, our last provider of jerky, should get together, each has a jerky worth eating … even if ultimately we think Dan’s receipe … but then if they got together and shared their skills, humanity would benefit. We still have to eat the bacon and the sausage sticks were eaten over several meals, again a big thank for both the generous intentions and the concrete reality of tasty food.

Miss the Pas,

Mis The Pas

is the restaurant where we all ended up eating each at a different time. Family restaurant dating from the 1800’s I was told, it is held by a family who welcomes you with a smile and provide a good fare.

Even our vegetarians were more than satisfied. First Nation and local customers from all walks of life seem to have their tables there, and I visited the restaurant as we visit living museums full of the legends of the past. Before the railroad The PAS was a major town on the trade route. Fery boats, paddle wheelers; brought riches and newcommers. Today, it has to make a new history out of farming and mining, possibly hunting and tourist activities. We are told that the winter is the time ‘up north’ when the food and materials deliveries are made using the frozen roadways. Summer growing season is short, 80 to 90 days depending on the year.

Our canoe had a constant flow of visitors  and the guys kept answering questions and talking about the tripMeanwhile I had gone to the local newspaper the Opasquia Times and the General Manager, Jennifer Cook, authoritative and confident woman in her thirties, told me to use her office for internet. I dont remember names but never forget encounters where words are superfluous when the intent is the sharing of a common humanity. Hugo met a retired professor with whom he discussed and rebuilt the world in front of the local librairy. Meanwhile I posted the blog, and met Devon Parker, local journalist fascinated by the history of the region. Devon, Jennifer and the editor Trent Allen , though not owners, run the paper with the staff. They publish 2 editions a week, with real journalist’s objective inquireries and information on the region. I like meeting people who do their work with passion and implication. He interviewed me, appologized for not pulling out the red carpet (indeed we had not informed him prior) and came out to the canoe to take pictures. I would be proud to count him amongst friends, as all those who show their generosity and open mind.

Instead of leaving at 3 as planned we left at 6pm feeling that we would have loved to stay more. A retired car salesman with whom we talked mentionned that he always came back to The Pas for the summer but wintered in Arizona. 90 days above 0 is a short time … I would love to visit in the heart of winter. The atmosphere and the way the people relate must be quite different due to the cold, the frozen rivers and lakes, the reduced number of people (migrators go south) and the wildlife or vegetation in an hibernation mode.

From The PAS Devon mentionned an old ferry boat landing about 25 km down river. Well we did not find it, but we found a wonderful site along the river. We pitched tents and went to bed hoping the upcomming bad winds and rain would be over by the morning. At dawn I woke all up and we decided that the wind and rain were too strong to continue. In fact we spent the day in the tent and around camp recuperating from the previous night paddle and letting the weather pass by. We repacked the food barrels with the new ‘cache’ food we recuperated from the RCMP office. The RCMP not only accepted to receive and store our food, they were real kind and gave us a lift both with the food and the 60 litters of drinking water. Hugo cooked with the fresh spinach we had bought and I repaired the harness of one of the food barels by sewing it using sail needles and thread I always have with me . The problem is that it is a bad design despite the use of some good materials since these are heavy barrels and when lugged around the waist straps just like the shoulder and side straps need to be able to resist the imperative need to haul the barrel out of a canoe, onto a shore or … Here obviously the materials and the sewing methods need to be revised. Hopefully my repair job will hold an while but we are already discussing replacing these new barrels with old ones with more convenient screw top lids.

All appreciated a full day’s rest and Dana made a treat with crackers, mashmallow, chocolate and peanut butter … better than you can imagine

Hugo appreciates

Managing the human ressources are an important part of this trip. Conditions are hard, and pushing the limits with night paddles and at times doing things “the hard way” leaves it’s toll on participants. The fact that these young men used to outdoors and back country trecks are having such a difficult time adapting themselves to the rythms of nature, facinates me. It is not surprising then, that as we go down river we see such evident misuse of nature as a limitless provider with no respect for the enviroment or nature (trash everywhere and deteriorated environments such as huge camfires left full of trash, trees masacred, … remnants of human passage leaving scars that if they will disapear in 200 or more years, leave traces that our children will see and have to live with). Unlike the original first nation people who lived here in harmony with nature, our pickup truck ‘pionneers’ exploit and destroy believing they are conquering still this wilderness. Life here is harsh, this leads to a struggle for making a living that is reflected in the way people treat nature.

The river is entering the delta phase. The river banks are impenetrable, the woods so dense we cannot find a place to rest and have extreme difficulty going beyond 20 paces in the vegetation. But the birds sing from morning to night, their songs or cries reveeling their state of mind. From the King Fishers who flutter from the river’s edge seeking their prey to the golden eagles always being chassed by ravens or others because they have come too close to their nests, Hugo attempts to tell us their names but we forget them quickly in favour of the delight we have just listening. The delta region is rich in all kinds of wild life and Hugo & Njal find rare frogs, seek insects, listen and challenge themselves on birds, … while the Barn Owl’s hoot, the geese honk as they pass, the … miriads are here for us to appreciate. We have found new pellicans which we thought we had lost, water birds by the dozens, seaguls and … please look at a good book on Canadian birds, they are all here.

So we leave early the next morning, going into the multitude of meanders of the delta region. What surprises us is that though we cross several boats, none even slows down to find out what we are about, or .. possibly this comes from canoes regularly asking for tows … which our guys would no doubt do as well. We see small hunting or vacation cabins on the side of the river, sometimes with a boat, some fancy, others minimalist, in all cases the region seems teaming with life and activities. Fish nets are now visible on the river and though we do not dare look too close, there is an unwritten rule that you NEVER touch another’s net, we can imagine that the nets catch too much fish and that most of the catch, like the pile of small bottom fish we saw in front of a cabin, are just rejects left to rot since not considered “valuable”. Another spoiliage of nature. How often have we seen a sucker, belly up in the river. Most likely caught by a fisherman and then discarded once dead into the river.

We are told the river is 3feet higher than usual, this could explain some of the marsh lands we see, but in fact the whole delta region is a marsh land in which plants and animals are relatively free to live as they have always lived. We stop and take refuge while an impressive storm passes by us, pouring for a few minutes thunder and rain. Evidence of land management and man made dikes or levies are present, but the density and poor land quality makes this place a heaven which the hunters and fishermen exploit with little control .

Happily we have maps and the GPS, Dana tells us to go down this branch, avoid the next two, stay to the left, keep right … we are folowing the main course of the river and today is the last day of the Saskatchewan as we have known it 4521. Officially it goes through Grand Rapids at the bottom of Cedar Lake, but in fact it really disapears like many other rivers into the Cedar Lake/Winipeg lake region. All this water will ultimately go north via the McKinsey… but that is another story.
We emerge into the wetlands, tall grasses from last year are prominent in their golden hues and the new green shoots are just pointing their nose, the wind at last is from the north or north east, regarless it is possible to use it and we hoist sail. I had anticipated this by preparing two poles and my canvas tarp in the canoe, pre-assembled. Hugo is at the helm and we launch into Cedar lake, by now mid afternoon. The wind is only around 10 to 15 knots (white caps generally let you know how strong the wind is) which is just a bit strong but propelses us at 8 to 9 km per hour on our course. Meanwhile Hugo is evidently and I should say rightfully scarred. The swells are now up to over 1 meter and due to the shallowness of the lake creating quite short swells, which means a little water is splashing over our board from the sides. Though the canoe is handling quite well, the men in it are tense and Hugo having a difficult time both keeping the cap and insuring that no water comes in board. Finally we find a little cove, out of the wind and are able to stop.This is where I learned that only Dana & I have prior boating experience. Peter, Hugo and Njal have never sailed which explains their semi panic at the situation and difficulty in evaluating the danger levels leaving aside the ability to handle a sail.

With great luck we find in our sheltered cove a cabin and flat space to camp. The cabin is totally delapidated, insulation torn out, floors completely rotten, and terrible trash everywhere. Not only was it abandonned, but the person who lived there just wrecked havoc in the half square mile area besides polluting it so that it would take me over 3 months to clean it up. Are we willing to let unconscious men destroy what nature took over 1000 years to build? Do we want to leave these disaters to our children? Who should pay the clean up? Is it always ‘the people’ (tax payers) for the few unconscious individuals that spoil our environment ? We try as much as possible to insure a “no trace” passage, and we insure we pick up as much and as often as we can what others have left behind. In this case the volumes and work required is too much for us. But we enjoy the place and after such emotions unpack and go quickly to bed.

The next morning the wind is blowing hard so we decide to hold off until noon to see how the wind evolves, hoping to be able to move on as soon as it dies down a little. In fact it does taper to half it’s strenght and Dana & I by 11 would have willingly continued, but the others would have none of it. Interesting how fear inhibits our ability to evaluate a situation. Hugo, probably more than all, was traumatised by yesterday’s experience. Dana proposes that we have lunch and re-evaluate the situation. After lunch, having put everything away and ready to pack the canoe, the decision by Hugo was still that we had to wait. Njal & Peter clearly seemed to back him up even if they did not manifest total blocage like Hugo. So we waited out the afternoon reading. I took my first swim in the tarnslucid lake water and washed up. The water is VERY cold, but I had been wanting to swim in it from June 1st and we were already the 3rd.

Finaly, Dana quite intelligently took Hugo to the exposed shore and showed him that there were no longer white caps. The wind was there but the waves were for the most part gone. When we finally all agreed to depart, it was 6 pm. I almost opposed this and suggested that it would be best if we left in the morning, but it had taken so much effort to convince the others that I did not want to stop the move. I just re-stated that I did not want to cross lakes or find a camp site at night.

We made good time, Peter & I at the sail and Dana at the helm. By 10 pm we had done nearly a full day’s paddling but we still had to cross a large passage to be sure to be out of the islands and on the eastern edge of the lake. This would insure us that whatever the weather we would be able to travel the next day. Again I said no finding a camp site at night, I prefer we just continue and wait the 2 or 3 hours t’ill dawn to find a camp, but no one paid attention. We crossed the channel passage and when we arrived on the other side it was pitch black. Since we were all tired and wanted a rest, we disembarked on a rocky beach, unloaded the canoe, put it on the shore on drift wood and each taking our mattress and bags seeked a place flat enough to put it. 3 feet beyobnd the narrow roky beach was a hugh swamp full of trees. We all curled up to sleep and in the night had to pull the covers tight due to the cold. In the morning our bags were wet from due and frozen white. It had gone below zero. Had we left at 11am and used the wind we would have gone much farther, faster, easier and camped better. This is what I mean about ‘ doing things the hard way’ and ‘not being in tune with the environment’. Never the less we woke up at dawn, decided it was too cold, slept t’ill 7 and then packed up and went. Cedar lake is a totally different scenery than the river we had grown to love, but how beautiful in it’s own way.

Islands from large to small, birds gathered on the shallows, and such a big sky. We keep repeating periodically between ourselves that it is beautiful, and it really is.

In the morning the wind is mild but the guys would rather paddle to warm up. Hugo and the others impose that we follow the coast line adding 10 km to our journey, they feel safe with land only 500 meters or so away while the reality of it is that with water at a couple of degrees, wether we capsize at 500 meters or more we have little chance to get out alive. The key is not to capsize and to make the journeys as short as possible, but that rational thinking is not prevalent. So we ‘loose’ a couple of days paddling where we could have sailed directly, I am here for the experience, either way means time in this incredibly beautiful scenery. After covering another 60 km we find a camping side on a hill and celebrate Njal’s last camping day with us, tomorrow we’ll be in Grand Rapids where we will part. As I sit at dawn on the doorstep of my tent writing this, sunlight blazing at me and already warm at 6am burning off the frost, the birds discussing important matters all around and the spruce trees silently growing I question wether my attempts at sharing this are able to make you feel the spirit of the place. Being here or elsewhere is not important, the essential is to live the place we are and extend our awzreness to try to grasp as much of it as we can perceive, feel the emotions, sense the reality and most important enjoy.

In the moments of panic, words became harsh, one even going to the extent of saying he was ready to leave the trip. Happily the deep friendship, the intelligent handling of the situation and making room for fear to pass enables all to give the group cohesion and allow for individual growth. I am impressed by these young men and their ability to deal with difficult situations. At times as we take real risks and cannot do otherwise, I then question my own sanity. The answer I guess is that if I had not wanted to take these very concrete and daily risks I would be in my home environment in the safety of modern society concerned about money and hungry for life. Here life is satiating every day, I just have to acept that if we did tip over in the middle of a lake crossing, there is little chance of any survival for me. Possibly with their youth they might still make it, depending on how far from shore and once there the ability to call for help.

Njal has been a good compagnion. Very poised and able to go with the flow, his presence added an easy going and soothing presence to the group. Tomorrow and for the next 3 weeks we’ll be back to 4 until the girls arrive the 5th of July. Meanwhile we are pressed for time and looking to find in Grand Rapids possibly a means of shortening our trip on Winipeg. Clearly from reputation, the guys are leary of crossing it, and the 25th meeting arranged for us to pick-up another food cache and get a chance to rest a couple of days in a cabin makes it almost imperative that we gain time on our present schedule. We’ll see what comes up, we are not here to prove anything, so may the course of events lead us to well being and satisfaction, the rest is just ego which has no place in such a wonderful trip.

Well I’d better get the fire lit and hot water going, hopefully a warm breakfast and we should be on the water. A beautiful day awaits us. Not a wisp of wind, calm waters, we should be in Grand Rapids in 5 to 6 hours, too late for a call to France but early enough for the guys to call their mates in Canada. Interestingly enough we have had only 2 occasions where the guys have talked about women thus far. Once in a while one of the girl friend’s name will come up, and I know that we each are thinking of our mate as we experience the trip, but though longing is expressed there is really little discussion about anything related to their shared life with the woman they love. Seems to me each is in a real relationship he treasures and has no need to share it with even his friends.

Local housing - Beaver style

By the way, if you are reading this and enjoying it, we could use a little help financially to repay some of the costs of the trip. If you could spare even if only $10 or $20, this could help pay for food or loans some of the guys had to make to join the trip. Thanks, through the site you can use Paypal or wire transfer to the M2M account. We thank also those who keep donating to the PAWS, every week a few dollars are thus notified to us and we could soon reach our initial goal of $4500 for this important preservation of nature.

The arrival at Grand Rapids passes trough a stoned embankement that includes a spillway towards the old river bed prior to arriving to the dam. We hugged the embankement at the non sailor’s request despite the 8km speed under sail and were seriously shaken by the waves upon arriving near the stone walls with waves spilling a few litters of water into the canoe. Another instance where lacking awareness of the behaviour of water, supposed precautions nearly put us in a dangerous situation. Fear is a bad master in life.

Dana & I walked to the Dam headquarters and fell upon Don, a 20 years employee of Manitoba Power. He finished his call and greeted us with coffee telling us he had seen Mike yesterday and transported him to the Winipeg Lake. Then he called on his men and with 2 trucks, one for the gear and one for the canoe, he arranged with his boss that we should have a house, YES A HOUSE, for the night. As he put it, Saskatchewan Power did good, but Manitoba Power really surpassed them. The weather predictions were poor on Winipeg Lake and thus he felt we should have a comfortable place to stay … a couple of days since we explained to him we were looking to shortcut Winipeg lake somewhat to insure we reached our meeting places on time.

A nice house, 3 bedrooms and two showers, a yard for the canoe, a washer and drier for clean clothes and a kitchen to cook meals … impressive how this feels nice after over a month in the wilds. The flat screen TV with beers allowed us to see the Vancouver Hokey team get beaten by Boston 7 to 1 with a sad heart but in cheerful conditions.

Don took us for a tour of the 800 souls town with 75% unemployment, a school, two gaz stations and 3 very small stores. We stopped to buy beer for the hokey game. It appeared to me that there was a Cree and Non Cree section of town with the usual recriminations from both sides. They built and in so destroyed our cimetaries and traditional grounds, we compensate and they always want more … the eternal dumb dialogue between unfair power struggles each believing they are in their right. Little do they realize on both sides that the world is a big place and that in their ‘misery’ they are priviledged people. A manager here earns around $100 000, a cook $65 000 and I could go on with enumerating amounts that are bewildering for those who live in ‘normal’ climates. But here the winter is VERY long, VERY cold and in the middle of nowhere you need to have strong nerves, be able to pay for things that are from 5 to 20 times the cost they are elsewhere … another life with proportions as different as those you find going to other countries. Values are different, you need to adjust your thinking to other scales and not judge outright.

Manitoba Dams network

Don’s team took us for a visit of the dam, a Becktel construction of the 1960’s worth several hundred million dollars. Built on limestone rocks, it is a fragile construction that seeps water but is very important in the series of Dams since it’s adjustable blades allow to drive the turbines (russian made) at the required wattage with automated controls .

water deposits calcium as it oozes through the dam walls

Right now there is a major negotiation underway to allow the Dam authorities to spill up to 12000 cubic meters of water into the old channel to compensate for the excess water that is being released from Tobin Lake and other dams above. 4569 The Dam authorities indicate that they have in the past compensated with millions of dollars the First Nation for spills and that the agreement covers all futur spills. The Indian Chief refuses on the grounds that this will hurt the fishing which is the major business of the Cree. They sell several million pounds of fish annually and claim that spilling water will damage their facilities and the environment … presently their docks are underwater due to the high levels of power generation in the turbines. This year’s water overflow should have been anticipated all winter and though this might have caused lessened revenue, spilling over several months would have minimized the impact on the environment. Another dimention of the issue is that elections for a new chief are in a few days and this is an occasion for the candidates to distinguish themselves. The complexity of the power struggles are difficult to grasp for us as we travel through the country.

Gerald, a local Cree who came to see us and seems to be a power broker in the area, took us for a tour explaining the Cree side of the issues with the Dam authorities.

Creation by Gerald, stones on black cloth

We visited a cimetary that was damaged by the construction of the Dam in the 60’s and was officially ‘recognized’ around the year 2000. Then we went to buy 5 fish for $20, Wallye of 2 to 4 pounds, and he brought us to his house to teach us how to filet them. These had been retreived from the net less than 2 hours ago and some were still alive. Interesting talk with him about local life locally, including medicines such as a fungus that grows on birtch and he says cures many deseases (cholesterol, high blood pressure, cancer …) and can be taken as a preventive medecine in the form of tea

Birch fungus

. We invited him to come to diner.

We saw a local transportation/repair shop owner who mentionned that he might come up with a solution to our transportation problem. So we have now three irons in the fire, one with the Dam personnel who change shifts on Thursday and could be going down to the city of Winipeg, one with the transportation guy and a third which could include renting a truck from Winipeg. Indeed, all people here do their major shopping in Winipeg since there are no banks, no stores no other than local necessities merchants charging outrageous prices knowing that the closest shopping area is Winipeg at least 4 hours drive away.

Njal left us at 4pm to take the bus to Winipeg and from there catch a plane to Fairfax via probably Toroonto or Montreal. We’ll miss him though we promessed to stay in touch. The M2M team is back to 4 until the girls arrive.

It has been good to sleep in a bed, take a shower every 12 hours and be able to recharge all the batteries, make backups, write the blog, … and I’m reading a 600 page book on ealy 14th century England that engrosses me leaving my mind at rest. I looked at myself in the mirror and was impressed by the loss of belly, the growth of beard and hair, the arms muscle developments … we are all in really good physical shape.

We wrote postcards to all our sponsors and thanked them for helping us on our journey. Tomorrow we have to leave by 12am though we still do not have a solution to our transportation problem. I am the least concerned since I know we’ll be in Montreal on time and the rest are deadlines I have no vested interest in. My only concern is not having any internet despite Don graciously lending his blackberry to consult Email. This will be remedied later and hopefully by the time you’ll read this not too much time will have passed.

Thank YOU Manitoba Power, hopefully we will leave here and your hospitality, the kindness of your staff and your intelligent handling of local relations will be recognized.

We moved out to the grass lawn of the Manitoba Grand Rapids Conservation office while Don worked with me to build a Canoe rack for his pickup truck. 2 by 4s and bolts & screws made a reasonable structure upon which once braced we could move the canoe. Tomorrow Don plans to drive us to Eckla south on the Winipeg Lake. He lent me his truck to get the supplies and transfer the camp site. Almost finished, I backed up his driveway and hit a pole. Despite the very slow speed I made an estimated $4 000 dollars worth of damage so we went to report to the RCMP and filed the documents so that the insurance could pay. This what happens when you rely on the rear view mirrors and dont look directly back to cover the ‘blind’ spot. I felt terrible and Don did all he could to reassure me that it was ‘only material’, though I know how much he is proud of that truck and I’m sure it bothers him down deep. But some men (and Annet his wife is the same) are able to have the kind of generosity that makes life both human and facilitates the set backs or issues they meet as a matter of life. This is where you distinguish the truly superior humans (example Ghandy, Martin Luther King … etc).

In the evening we saw the Hokey game, 4 to 0 for Boston, the guys had left the TV to talk with Gary before the end of the game as it lost it’s interest past the 3rd goal. I discovered Gerald had Internet sot I finally was able to begin to post this, I’ll finish in the morning. Renni, living with Gary is doing a film on the fishing community of Grand Rapids dealing with the local conditions that make fishing difficult to be viable and ecologically unsound (like throwing out the white fish they get in their nets due to quota restrictions on the catch. Thus they kill fish uselessly that could feed the native community whose poor go hungry each end of the month).



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One Response to Grand Rapids – Week 6

  1. Brian says:

    Awesome read. I really enjoyed it and hope the rest trip goes well. I especially enjoyed your company and thoroughly revelled in our conversations. You three young men have put me at ease about my future… And Pascal you really do need to come back and fish. Enjoy and stay safe and will check on your progress once a week……….fishing permitting!

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