Well Dana came back accompanied by his mother and Jim with their friends Pam and John from Winnipeg. Pam had a birthday party and people came from all over the country to join them in the celebration. This is a custom much more common in the Americas due to the frequent relocations and uprooting. In Europe, we tend to stay within a few hours and thus drive, but here only planes can quickly bring you to see friends for a party. Their stay with us was brief, but we’ll get a chance to really meet when we reach scheduled stops — to see Pam and John later this week, and Jim and Dana’s mother later on the trip. A sense of ongoing support from these people who daily keep updated on our travels is quite wonderful. We were offered dates, cookies, and a number of “goodies” that always cheer you up after a day’s paddling. We hear that a whole chain of people have coordinated themselves to provide Hugo with a new paddle, since the people from TEAL read on the blog that he had lost his. Truly wonderful folks. I really hope they join us towards the end of the trip for a week or so as they have said they might; I’d like to know folks who are able to create a really good product and invest themselves enough and believe in what they do, to accompany an adventure such as ours. Even without knowing them I feel a kind of kinship of values, a sense that they are people who make life’s journey a journey with meaning that we are sharing through their gifts, but in person would share in so many other ways. Again, like the people we meet on this journey and suddenly become aware that these ‘strangers’ are tuned into our humanity, I feel close to Audrey and Russel Sheldon from TEAL.
Talking to friends in France and the Americas on Skype, I was not able to reach all of them but those I did reach were happy to have news, and after a couple of months it felt good to have two days to stop and share news. Dealing with my mother-in-law’s health issues, as well as construction work back home, was also on the agenda. We are in a connected world where we lead many parrallel lives that need attending to in order to ensure that the mesh of the fabric of our lives makes a coherent tissue of meaning, caring for those we love and doing what needs accomplishing. How different a world than that of the Voyageurs of old where news was scarce: wars would end or people die and you might learn of it only years later.
We started off rather late on Monday: after a pause, getting started is always a little slow. We are paddling up-current on a new river system, the Winnipeg, where even though we are on a river, the dams have created high water and at times the depth and width are more lake-like … but we have current against us. Then there are the “falls”, generally rock formations that cross the whole river, narrow passages where the water must flow through, and there we are against currents with which even the power boats have a hard time. Apparently, this is exaggerated by the enormous amounts of water this year, with much of the water shed from here to Minneapolis is attempting to push water through to Hudson Bay. I believe there are even border issues on the question of whether the US can divert its excess waters north, due to the pollution of these waters.
Each time we reach a point where paddling is no longer possible, we scout the passage and then rope the canoe through. At first we were unloading and reloading – and in some cases that’s still necessary – but we are getting more confident about our ability to lug the canoe through even difficult passages using the lengths of rope we have. The one at the bow has been doubled to about 25 meters and the one at the stern is about 15 meters. The trick is to pull from the bow, let the canoe ride the swells, push from the sides to avoid scraping on the rocks and, with the stern rope, help guide the canoe in such a way that it doesn’t get broadsided (and thereby swamped). Also, the stern acts as a safety line, in case the boat begins to get broadsided and the bow line needs to be let loose. By now we are getting quite efficient at this exercise and confident of our abilities. The poor footing on some of the rocks can be a bit concerning, but we all keep our lifejackets on, with Dana taking the lead (often waist-deep in the water), Hugo always solid on the pulls, and Peter as a good safety man on the stern line. Each assumes a speciallized in a role over time.
There are times when we try to paddle the canoe through more passable fast water; in such circumstances, we are all paddling at maximum strength and speed. We come up into an eddy, then gather full power to use the dead weight of the canoe as a spear through the current and, paddling at full strength, we traverse the current’s stream to more stable waters. There are times when, even with the four of us paddling at our maximum strength, we feel we are not moving – then suddenly, the canoe slips sideways to a better position and we finally inch our way forward. After such efforts, we are glad to stop a few minutes in an eddy and catch our breath. By the end of the day, after such exertions we are really glad to stop at a park campsite where the grass is mowed, there is a firepit, and the ground is level, with an easy sandy beach to land the canoe and unload. What disturbs us most is the trash we discover that people have left. There would be full-time work for someone to collect all the trash and there should be major fines for such behaviour. Dana leads all of us in collecting garbage and bringing it back to civilization.
I must say this put a damper on my first day in Ontario. As we finally decide to camp on Crown Land, we see garbage on the shore, plastic bags and beer cans … as usual we pick up what we can and throw it into the canoe, while thinking about the contradictions of our situation.
That night it rains. We are tired and sleep early. I wake at dawn and relieve myself, then back to bed for another hour. Now I’m awake and after starting the fire, preparing a cup of coffee, I sit back at my tent and write the blog. Always writting of the day or two before. The more frequently I write, the more details I can convey to you. A couple of hours later, Hugo gets up, then Peter and later Dana. He cooks up eggs in a sauce: delicious. A couple of coffees later, we start packing and by 9:30 we’re on the water. Another rather late start, but the day before was really hard. We tie the packs to the canoe and we’re off.
I’m steering today. The J-stroke is still difficult for me on such a large canoe facing the current. I am still oversteering, having difficulty adjusting, and it’s now a question of feeling the canoe. The guys have more practice and I weave our way forward each time there are strong new currents or gusts of wind. The day is grey, a few beavers are suddlenly splashing the water as we near. They swim with an eye on us and when within 20 meters they suddenly dive. We don’t see them again.
The morning we paddle through what seems to be myriads of islands: in fact, it is the river channel which, having been dammed up, creeps up the slopes of the surrounding pink granite. Some beautiful tiny islands hold but one tree. We pause on a beach and eat a little around 11am. The usual junk litters the bank at the level of the high waves. On we go, but an hour later we meet a set of rapids. We unload all but the food and pull the canoe through. Dana, in the water, pulls the canoe through the current but is unable to hold it. The canoe starts turning down stream while Peter at the stern braces himself and lets the canoe leave the fast water. He pulls it back in with the stern line and we plan it so that two men, Hugo & Dana, are at the bow pulling while I keep the canoe from the rocks on the slippery edge, sometimes in the water. We bring it up, a bit shaken but having confirmed the lesson that we must always have 2 at the bow. On we go and half an hour later we arrive at the portage. Dana scouts it with a pack and we wait, having put the canoe on the wheels and consolidated the packs. Two then carry the food barrels with light stuff in their arms while Dana & I take the canoe carrying light packs. A second trip is required, and Hugo & Peter ahead carry part of my load 200 yards uphill. The guys take care of me. 5017
Off we go and again another narrow part in the river where we have to pull the canoe through. I counted 5 narrows where we partially unloaded the canoe and had to pull it through today. One of them seemed very difficult, and I suggested we check the other side, which turned out longer but easier. After this passage, it’s 6pm and we seek a campsite, which we finally find on an island around 7:30pm. Another 10 hrs of paddling on the river.
It’s a small island with an eagle’s nest up in one of the trees and lots of interesting dinner remains at the foot of the tree. The land is now full of flowers all blooming in a hurry to bring seeds to maturity before the short growing season ends. Dana found wild strawberries for us back at the portage, not yet fully ripe but still delicious. We look forward to the blueberries and other berries as they’ll start to ripen next month. Tonight it’s spaghetti a la Dana. Spaghetti is the type of dinner we make when we are tired and want a quick but hearty meal before retiring. The vegetable sauce is both excellent and copious, so leftovers from tonight’s meal become tomorrow’s lunch. Dana retires after diner, Peter & Hugo clean up and put away the food and packs, safe from animals and potential rain.
So you have a typical day: going up-river we work twice as hard yet still make 4 to 5 km/h. On a lake we reach 7 km/h and with the downstream current we have been known to make as much as 17km/h. Finally, the day before arriving in Kenora we have a sunny day. This is a difficult day once again, with one passage which we had planned to portage but seeing how the portage is overgrown, we decide to paddle through the 4 km of narrows which leads us to an extremely swift 300 meters of current.
5022 At the narrows, we pulled the boat with a rope and for the last 100 yards, paddling as hard as we can, staying close to the rock wall to avoid being drawn into the current, we inched our way through. As Hugo said, if we had had to go any further we may well not have made it. Peter, majestic at the stern, managed to keep us safe and reach the last eddy where we could rest and do the last 10 meters by pulling the canoe. After that our paddling felt sluggish, each of us having given it all he had. We got close to Kenora and stopped for the night at around 4pm. We swim, lay on the beach, read, I caught a fish for dinner … we take our time as we plan to get up early, get to Kenora for breakfast, make any necessary purchases, calls to girlfriends, and, of course, visit the conservation authorities. Then around 2 or 3 pm, we’ll cross the dam and paddle to Pam’s friend’s cottage where hot showers and comfortable living will be available for a day’s rest on Saturday. The weekend promises to be beautiful. At the cottage we should be, however briefly, in vacation mode; a good change, as this paddling is getting to be a little like ‘office work’ at times.
I feel we’ve reached a turning point. Girlfriends join the trip in a week or so, and then friends & family switch in and out, and the terrain is a bit more familiar to the guys. I am convinced it should be part of the trip to ‘discover’ our lives’ new rhythm: the pace of 5 months’ travel, the continuous discovery and meeting of people. I wonder what the next three months will provide. I will certainly keep my eyes open, as for me this is all new. I hope it is the same for the rest of the crew.
Arriving on the Kenora branch of the river, we find an automated dam with no one around. Peter returns to the boat to inform the others while I stop a police car and, explaining our situation, he takes me kindly to the City Hall where I might arrange for assistance on the portage. The lady at the front desk (I believe her name is Linda?) very kindly tells me they have a guy working for the city called Buck who can arrange something to help us out. I look all over town but cannot find him. I even hitch back to inform the guys that we have a solution, am picked up by a kind gentle man who takes me to the landing, but the guys have disappeared. I call, but no one is there and no canoe. A couple of fishermen loading up a boat tell me that they have not seen any canoe. Returning to City Hall, I inform them that my team has probably found another solution. Patti, one of the 4 persons in charge of ensuring people park legally, takes me around to try to find my team. I learn from her that the parking meters pay for the salaries and more while the parking tickets help fund city services. As we walk through town, she is constantly saying hello to people, asking if the babies in the carriages are growing, concerned about a pregnant woman we cross who already had a difficult first pregnancy … the kind of concern and human relations that make small town life so pleasant. Kenora has a population of around 10 000 in the winter and over 45 000 in the summer. A lovely little city with an active waterfront. I hear the summer fireworks are really worthwhile, with the hundreds of boats in the harbour out to view the show. Meanwhile, we still do not find Buck. So Patti takes me by car to see if we might find the guys. I then see Dana and learn that a fisherman had offered as soon as they arrived to carry the equipment to the landing in Kenora, and that Peter & Hugo are wheeling the canoe along the road. They apparently took a longer route, unaware of the shorter path up to the road. When they arrive, I learn that a kind man seeing them wheeling the canoe offered them a beer on the side of the road. 5090 At the dock where we reload, two police officers on a boat come to see us and a couple of canoers come to chat. These are interesting exchanges of experience, everyone learning from one another, and always great admiration for what we are doing. These meetings, helping hands … are the spirit of the Canadian people. We park the boat at the plane docks for safety and go to the local poutine stand where I have my first taste of a traditional poutine: fries with meat, cheese curds, and gravy. Hearty stuff! Not quite a French meal, but it reminds me of ‘the American’, a northern French sandwich of baguette, french fries, and various sauces. Surely a teenager’s delight.
While the guys go to buy groceries I track down the Ministry of Natural Ressources. At the Service Centre, I meet friendly helpful people who inform me that it is normal that I have still not received my fishing licence that I bought in March. Rarely is it issued before the end of the year, they say, indicating to me where the MNR building is at the other side of town. It seems that administrations all over the world are having a hard time dealing with the complexity of modern administration and its automation. I run to the MNR office, since it closes at 4:30pm on Friday and it’s already 4pm. Arriving at MNR, I address myself to the smiling lady at the counter and start explaining my story. She indicates she has to refer to a manager but that the woman who heads the office is already gone so she’ll find a supervisor.
This is when I meet Shawn Stevenson, a kind-looking man to whom I explain my story, our trip, and the potential contradictions between an agency enforcing conservation by charging prominent promoters of conservation for camping on Crown Land. Very attentively he listens and asks questions. Finally, he asks me to wait a minute, then returns and explains to me that even though normally these things need to be dealt with before the trip begins, he will do his best to see if the ministry can find a workable solution. We part with the agreement that I’ll stop in Fort Francis to see if there is a derogation letter for my son & I, or determine how else the ministry wishes to deal with the issue. As I leave I feel much better: Shawn has listened, understands the issues, and will do his best to make the administration understand that this is a special case.
We take off at 5 and cover the 12 km to our destination where Pam and John, with Bob and Deirdre, are waiting for us with gin’n’tonics, wine, and a wonderful feast. 5130 A lovely house, built by a man with an eye to feng shui, the art of ensuring the ‘energies’ of the house’s design are well aligned. Indeed, this conglomerate of small buildings are carefully positioned so that you get the best view of the lake … a jewel of a place. We are received like kings, Bob & Deirdra sharing this beautiful place of theirs with a generosity that makes us feel at home and taken care of. The meeting is, as always, a sharing of human values and concerns. After a good night’s sleep, showers, and a hearty breakfast, some of us swim, some try out the sea-doos, and all of us go for a quick tour of the region on Bob’s small but speedy boat. A leisurly afternoon. Sydney, their niece, joins us in the afternoon as she takes a day off from her work at camp and all share a delicious meal where the meat is mouth-wateringly tender, while Dana’s vegetable lasagna is appreciated by all. Sunday we’ll start paddling again. 5124 5170