Fort Frances – A near end before a new begining

Courtesy of our friends

We left late, knowing they all had to go back to Winnipeg to resume their normal occupations. Bob reading a contract reminded me of the many years when I had to sneak into my weekends work time to insure I was ‘caught up’ by the time I got back to the office. We’re glad to be ‘back on the trip,’ though while paddling we talked about each one’s experience and enjoyment of the exceptional break we had been offered. I know that by our presence we also participated in the giving: the adventure of the trip is a gift we share with those we meet. 20 km later we found a place to sleep, after crossing hundreds of islands, each a picture post card. The rain caught up with us and we were forced to camp on an island marked ‘No Trespassing.’ As we put up our tents under the rain and tarped our gear, the thunder started rolling. Cracks came only seconds after the flash, indicating that the storm was upon us. Having retreated to our tents, we noted the sharp contrast between the luxurious weekend and this weather tormenting us. I got up at dawn to a mixed sky after a night of heavy rain. But the sun was out and I was able to empty the canoe, which was one-third full of water. I woke the guys and we set out by 7:30am on the maze that is Lake of the Woods. White pine is prominent, but cedar is also ever-present; the little islands are like jewels on the lake. Only the GPS ensures that we are on the right track, as we often aim toward what looks like a wall of trees — then suddenly an opening appears, and as we slide into it we discover another lake and set of islands beyond. Dana guides us but needs to zoom in and out of the GPS maps in order to ascertain the right path. At times the passage between islands becomes marshy and we glide into it hoping that there is enough water to let us through. A good day, if a bit grey. At noon, though, it begins to darken and we stop on a beautiful little island, put up our tent, and the rain arrives in waves. We are still 30 km from Turtle Portage, but the weatherman promises a sunny day tomorrow and we are quite happy to be snug in our tents, legs in our sleeping bag to keep warm as the temperature drops, reading the leftover newspapers and magazines we want to finish and discard before the next portage. The news of the world seems distant.

A day of rest, allowing us to reacclimatize to our on-trip lifestyle. Each one has time to think about his loved ones. Rain and wind come and go; during a break,

pelican's egg (source Hugo)

I catch a large pike that I fillet and then poach in a thyme brew. Dana then patiently pulls out the forked bones and turns the remainder into a sandwich spread that we eat with delight alongside a dinner of lentil soup. Enough is left over for sandwiches the next day. Napping, reading, we go to bed early and the guys listen to the new radio delivered to us by Pam and John. We had gotten used to our silence and intermittent conversation in the canoe; now the radio will once again fill our days with news and culture. Though it does allow me to become better acquainted with the Canadian culture and way of life, I sometimes long for the previous silence.

I wake at dawn, fix coffee, and cook the pre-soaked breakfast of porridge and re-hydrated bananas; then, having packed my things, I wake the guys and have my first cup of coffee. We leave around 8am with a totally clear sky after a pink sunrise. The leaves I’ve seen sprouting all over the ground turn out to be lovely purple bell flowers.

‘The land of plenty’ might be a good name for this country.

Once again we paddle through a maze of islands and, 30km later, around 1pm we arrive at Turtle Portage. It’s a mechanical trolley system that allows boats to pass from the northern part of the lake to the south. We load the canoe on the trolley, then turn the wheel that pulls the system of cables. The canoe goes up the ramp and then down the other side. No portaging! How nice. After a swim and a copious lunch of leftovers, we resume paddling. We spot a small bear swimming just ahead of us, hurriedly disappearing into the bushes of the island to which he was heading. The water is murky once again, perhaps full of sediment from from farmlands along the Rainy River. The surface of the water is strewn with mayflies, mostly their chrysalids. There are so many that when we seek a camping site, the shore is so thick with them in various stages of decomposition that it stinks and forces us to move on. Finally, after another 20km we camp on a beach mostly free of these carcasses and set up camp. So here I sit after a fine dinner of spaghetti, hiding in my tent from the swarms of mosquitoes that are beginning to become bothersome. The setting sun has graciously put on a show, and a new type of frog is calling out as the birds chit-chat in the trees before bedding down. I feel worn: my body, after nearly two months, still aches from 10 hours of paddling (apparently I’m not the only one!). But life is good.

Days pass by. We discover little flies that look like houseflies, but are voracious like dinosaurs. Smart little buggers, hard to kill — unlike the horseflies, few of which escape our deadly swats. Once in a while, we hear a splash, then see the ripples in the water: a silver flash from a fish jumping. We are told that the sturgeons, who only reproduce after something like 45 years, are plenteous in these waters, because they remain protected in the hope that they might return to their original numbers. Americans come up here and pay up to $4000 for a week’s fishing, where they are allowed to keep up to four walleye but mostly fish in the mode of ‘catch and release’ which helps maintain the natural cycles. The lure’s barbs are pinched, which makes it an art to reel the fish in without releasing it midway; then they take pictures and drink at night, boasting about the fish they caught. A good compromise with nature, where the destruction is limited to sometimes littering the land and burning fuel in motorboats that roam the lakes in order to find the miraculous holes where the fish lay. Many locals are fishing or hunting guides. You can arrive by car, boat, or plane, regardless of the season. The lodges span the spectrum from small shacks in the wild to gorgeous, well-kept cabins around a main house where services and food are dispensed.

The Lake of the Woods is full of islands, each one as beautiful as the next — if I repeat myself, it’s that seeing them from dawn to dusk, with sun or rain, clouds or clear skies, heavy winds or at a pause laying on the beach … these islands are remarkable in their pristine beauty. Through it all we are accompanied by the birds, ducks, pelicans, keeping watch in case we should turn out to be fishermen who, in cleaning their fish, leave them dinner.

We arrive on a stretch of beach, part of a provincial park, that is separated from the mainland by about 200 yards of water. Surprisingly, with the wind coming from the land, the waters are rough in this pass while the lake waters are shallow and calmer. We see waterlilies, reeds, and grasses, some of which may well be wild rice in various stages of bloom. A good place for the minnows to grow and regularly we see broods of ducklings, with a mother playing decoy in front of us. Often it seems several broods of up to twenty birds have gathered together with a single adult leading them and playing the decoy game. As we near, suddenly these cute little ones disappear underwater as we glide by. As the day ends, we camp on a lovely spot and accept that our spaghetti has a little grit of sand in the last bites as the wind blows. That night, the wind blows hard and all the gear is lightly covered with a fine layer of sand.

Finally we reach the Rainy River delta, where we count over 22 boats all aligned near the mouth of the river. We realize that this is because they are American boats hugging the border while fishing. I almost lost my camera and had to run back along the beach to find it. I’m surprised I have not lost it yet, but overjoyed to have found it where I had lain on the ground trying to work out the knots in my back from paddling. Meanwhile, Dana walked the beach and picked up beer cans, one of which was dated from 2008, unopened. Peter opened it, but I believe did not pursue tasting it … due to age. We entered the delta in a strong wind, boats whizzing by creating waves and other various contradictory currents, throwing water up our bow and splashing us. The US coastguard came near, hovered by, and then once they realized we would make it, came by to ask us where we were going. Three friendly young men aboard, doing their job, and I must say I appreciated that they hung around during the delicate period when we negotiated our entrance into the river. After that they turned their powerful motor on and sped up the river while we paddled inch by inch until we reached the marshy side of the river, where the current died and allowed us to progress faster. Still the wind kept facing us and, once we saw our first campsite on the Canadian side, Oak Grove Camp, we decided to ask if they knew whether the wind would die down in the afternoon.

We met a couple there who allowed us to consult the internet and confirm that the wind was to blow until the next morning. Then they offered us fresh water, and finally a place to set up camp on a luscious green lawn facing the river. We learned that this camp was on the route of the voyageurs, an old trading post, and had been in the present owner’s family for generations. Richard and his family just behind us were expecting their children as this is the CANADA DAY weekend, this year the friday is a canadian holiday and the monday is the 4th of July. They offered us beer and we spent a while talking with them about our trip … another memorable meeting.

Up at 5 am, gone by 6, and up the Rainy River. We make good time, enjoy the morning paddle, listen to various US and CBC radio programs … it is today the 1st of July, Canada Day. Last night was very warm: no need for sleeping bags. Today it is muggy, and we get a few minutes of light rain, then the sun comes out and it is sweltering. We stop by the border guards at the bridge to the town of Rainy River. We learn that as long as we remain on the Canadian side, there should be no issues; if we want to stop on the US side we have to pay a $30 individual fees, a sort of pass that allows you to go for a year from one side to the other without having to pass by a border station. Should you be on the wrong side without the pass, you pay a $5000 fine. We have been invited to speak at a YMCA canoe camp by a nice fellow, but we will have to avoid crossing the border. We’ll stop in Fort Frances and see if there is any possible solution. We want to confirm that on our portages through the US, we can avoid exposing ourselves to fines by either authorities. (in Fort Frances I did cross the border and talked to the US border guards, the head person Mr Bridges (sp?) told me he already was following the CrossCanadeau expedition and that we would have no problems as long as we only canoed along the border, portaged the canoe when necessary or for security reasons used the American border. What would create an issue is if we used a hotel, stayed in a lodge or used the American soil for anything other than required to accomplish our expedition. Bon Voyage was his parting comment, a real encouragement and the feeling that here again we met a person who gave us all the support their authority and role would allow them.)

Stopping in Rainy River on this holiday, the only eating place open is an Asian restaurant where we each eat to our liking and the owner allows me to access the internet. I learn via email that the local newspaper editor wishes to meet us and that Trailhead, who supplied us with food packs, is graciously replacing our deteriorating harnesses. Once again, this demonstrates that good people are behind their products, even if provided in a sponsoring context, and they are supportive of our endeavor. We are impressed and deeply appreciative.

Harry, a Korean War veteran who, learning of our presence, comes to talk to us, invites us to the Canadian Legion where we drink beer and share stories of the region and the city. We see folks walk in and spend time, in family gatherings or as individuals, and drink beer. Again in Rainy River an example of being welcomed, exchanges enriching our journey and meeting people who have been here for generations. The guys are attentive, caring and in exchange learning much about this country. A visit to the local train museum guided by a cheerful young man (we learned it was his birth day) made us aware of the long rail history of this country. Too bad that the tracks on secondary routes are pulled out to make skidoo runs.

The heat of the day having crested, we start off again and, wanting to swim about two hours later, we stop on a dock with a child’s slide. I walk up to the house and call out; a smiling woman comes out with her grandchildren and tells me that it would be fine for us to swim. Meantime, her husband comes up, and we share the story of our journey and that of his life as a dairy farmer. This man leaves me with the impression that he has worked tremendously hard all his life but done well and was able to retire in his 50s while still in good physical health. He is really impressive and with his wife seem to emanate an aura of solidity and strength. We swim with the grandchildren and then, drying off, share stories of our lives. An open-hearted welcome, which we cut short as we want to go up-river.

Paddling, we often encounter broods of young ducklings; we smile at the decoy behavior of the females who will fake not being able to fly for up to a kilometer to draw us away from their young. These wait until we get close and then dive – but I’ve already talked about this, it is just that right now it is so frequent. On the shore we see trees full of holes made by sapsuckers; these holes then let vermin of all sorts feed off the sap of the tree that slowly dies. Hugo mentions that in forests that are not logged, old trees become community housing for birds and ducks that lodge in their cavities. Logging companies will often cut down whole sections of trees, discovering that 80% or more are not fit for production and only pull out the ‘good ones,’ eliminating the habitats of hundreds of species. Tony from MNR in Fort Frances says that at present all wood is used either in the form of chips or as lumber. A few years back, the Canadian government voted on a bill so that the lumber industry would self-regulate, to lower costs of having federal oversight, amounting more or less to deregulation … to the benefit of logging companies’ financial interests, all under the argument that “we have to stay competitive.” When will they learn? …

The river banks are now overgrown. We visited the Place of the Long Rapids (Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung) Museum on the river bank. A wonderful construction, presenting the history of the region and managed by four young women. The manager a native brilliant person is eager to promote her culture and answer any questions we have. She even proposes to us that we could use the round house if we could not reach our destination. I like her sense of humor like when she went to collect the $5 due by the Canadian Government in a treaty from the 1800s which is still being paid and she asked that they also provide the sacs of barley … the representative of indian affairs administration did not even acknowledge the jib and just asked her to sign the receipt. We would recommend to all who pass by to go see this “museum” an attempt to present the Rainy River native tribe’s culture. Unhappily not even mentioned in the tourist map of the area. Without getting into the underlying complex issues, this illustrates the difficulties still present in dealing with the native rights and cultures.

That night we arrive at Barwick, signaled by a lighthouse on the river and a dock. Going to the first house I met Norm Hyatt, picking fresh strawberries who hearing about the expedition came to meet everyone and then proceeded with his wife Emily to invite us for strawberries and ice cream after dinner. They have a very cosy big house with a workshop for Emily who does wonderful stained glass inspired by Tom Thompson, himself an inspiration of the Group of Seven, who developed a primitive impressionistic and illustrative style that fits the Canadian culture. The strawberries were delicious, the homemade wine quite good, and the spirit warm and friendly, bathing us in this ever-present Canadian hospitality. Emily woke up early and baked muffins. She had heard our story of the rhubarb pie so with the muffins was a jar of rhubarb jam that she makes with lemon rinds and raisins. I recommend the recipe to you and will try myself to duplicate it at home.

Another hard day’s paddling upstream, and we are finally going up the sides of the river, taking advantage of the eddies, the back currents leading us upstream … and getting to the rapids where we either rope the canoe through or portage depending on the possibilities. Large tree trunks are lodged in the rocks, water is over 1 meter above normal on the shores; at times we have to pull the canoe with a man on shore as the current is truly too much work to paddle through. Walking through the high grasses on the muddy banks, falling at times in holes up to your chest, then scrambling to the next reeds and pulling the canoe. Less work than paddling this ever-surging current. At last we pass the rapids at Emo. The river widens, and we now progress once again at nearly 5km/h instead of the prior 3km/h. This makes a big difference on the level of effort required, and the morale of the paddlers. After 12 hours of paddling we reach a bend in the river and see a welcoming lawn. Walking up to the house to ask if we can camp on the lawn, Sue Johnes, a joyful woman in her forties gives us a tour of possible camp sites up on the bank and tells us of the Thomson Brigade’s camp and their near-loss of a canoe when one of the members got on board and tipped it into the water. Meanwhile Phillip, her husband, had seen the guys in the canoe and confirmed the possibility of camping on the freshly mowed lawn that Reece, his 13-year-old son had just mowed that afternoon.

Morning coffee with cookies, carrying heavy gear while we canoe on to Fort Frances, offering us lunch at McDonald (Phillip manages three of them in the area), portaging the canoe to the park on the lake, helping us find a solution to fix the canoe carrier, bringing us ice to cool our beers. Just a wonderfully nice man who is truly ready to help. I nearly forgot that we were accompanied by Reece on our paddle into Fort Frances; he chatted the whole way, with stories of his school, his life here, and just about everything else under the sun. At the end of the paddle he was a little sore but happy about having had the chance to participate in this grand adventure.

I went to the MNR where obviously our expedition poses a fundamental issue due to the present legistlation. We are not an “official” not for profit organization with statutes, we have members who being foreign nationals should pay the expected fee of $10 a night on crown land, yet the texts expect planned trips while ours by definition needs to obey to physical strength of the participants and weather contitions. We cannot plan day per day our stays, we are being invited regularly to private homes, we change course and plans based on local recommendations and events. Finally Tony Elders after consulting various authorities and confirming our says, using a letter from CPAWS that supports our not for profit expedition and in agreement with Greg Chapman the District Manager who has authority to statute on exemptions, hands us a signed letter dispensing us from the Crown Land camping fee for the duration of our expected stay in their district. He also proposes that we confirm the list of regional parks we will be crossing in order that he help us obtain the same exemption from the 7 other districts in Ontario we will be crossing during our expedition. This I can pick up in Thunder Bay. Obviously they have more important matters to deal with than our case, I will attempt to use the contacts I have had to establish with the ministry to propose that present legislation be amended to take into account such cases as ours without incurring so much effort from the local offices of the MNR. I am both thankfull to the individuals and to the organization for their ability to provide a quick solution and having recognized the value of our Expedition, thus supporting it. As always people make the difference.

At the MNR depot where we had established a cache, the team loaded the canoe and gear on a truck and brought all of it to our campsite. Kind open generous people who are on call to go fight forest fires. Did you know that Jack Pine only reproduces when there is a fire? Did you know that some fires are let run when the humidity allows for a fast surface fire but not when the ground is too dry and the fire could burn down to the roots of the trees? That the Boreal Forest needs these fires more than others? a real wealth of knowledge about forest management from these contractual workers who in 6 months earn more than “regular” jobs leaving them free in the winter to pursue their own occupations. After depositing our gear they even offered to drive me to the US border where I confirmed our ability to pass the border waterways without having to pay the Canadian $30 or US $16 fee required if you plan to cross borders without systematically informing (CA) or passing through a border station (US) . Beware the penalty in US is $5000 and in CA $1000 should you be illegally in the country.

Last night a storm crept up on us, marvelous skies and impressive thunderstorm preceded by tornado like winds. A tree, 10 meters away from our tents came crashing down sending a branch against the guy’s tent. Had it fallen in another direction either a canoe or a member of the team would have been crushed. It is in these times that you need to understand the fragility of our presence on earth and appreciate each moment life gives us. Next day the clean up crews had sawed the trunk, picked up the wood and left no trace (no liabilities!). Life resumed, Katie and Jody arrived by bus and our surprise 7th member arrived hitchhiking, picked up by a friend of Phillip’s who knew Andy was coming. Tomorrow the journey with two canoes begins.

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2 Responses to Fort Frances – A near end before a new begining

  1. Anne Balleydier says:

    Bonjour Ami

    Impressionnée par ce périple. Eric et moi préparons notre mini-randonnée en vélo avec l’espoir que vent, pluie et orage ne soient pas de la partie, je n’ai aucune envie de me trouver face à face avec un arbre en chute libre. Besoin de nature, de dépenses physiques, de regard sur l’alentour.

    4 jours avec les jeunes à Fort-Mahon. Repos, lecture, iode, relax, tourisme, un peu de ressource.

    Dimanche matin nous partons tôt matin de la maison, avec nos vélos, nos sacoches étanches et nos KW, direction Saint-Malo, via les TER. 1 jour à Saint-Malo pour le plaisir, et dès mardi 26 juillet en route pour l’aventure direction Guérande.

    Portez-vous bien tous autant que vous êtes et à bientôt.

    Plein de bises


  2. Whew! First of all, how nice it was to read something, I have so missed your editorials Pascal! Naughty Bruce is just about the necessary details. What a trip! I am so glad all things worked out for you guys at the border AND that nobody was hurt by the tree. How wonderfully lucky you all are. Missing you all and think of you guys from time to time. Glad you are all doing so well.


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