Here are Adam Popper’s top 10 memories in no particular order.
- Floatplane ride – After a flight to Thunder Bay and a bus ride to Atikokan, I boarded a 4-seat Beaver float plane (built circa 1950) for Cache Bay Station in Quetico Provincial Park. It was the first time I had been on such a flight. It was wonderful to see Quetico from the sky. The park is about a 50/50 mix of water and land, blue and green. The plane flies at about one-third the height of a jet, so you can see much more detail: small waves, forests that had burned and regenerated, bogs, rivers, and endless clear, untouched lakes. Within 45 minutes we were make a sharp turn to land on lake Saganaca and meet the team. An unforgettable arrival.
- Berries – We ate so many berries. Blueberries, raspberries, saskatoon berries, currants, thimbleberries and even wild cherries. I would gorge myself whenever possible, not because I was hungry, but because it was so enjoyable. Those quiet moments, squatting, shoveling food in bear-like, were quite contemplative. I was directly working for my food, and it tasted fresh and sour-sweet. One day in late July, we arrive at a 400m portage along the Pigeon River, and after the first few steps I could tell this was a special portage, not only for its beautiful outcroppings of Canadian Shield, but for its abundance of blueberries. After finishing the portage each of us took a magical 30-minutes to sit by ourselves in the late afternoon sun and fill bowls of blueberries. It was too easy! Every step we took, we were surrounded by 1000 berries. We ate and collected so many we had full bellies, as well as blueberry pancakes, blueberry syrup and blueberry jam for the next few days.
- The northern night sky – The weather was amazing on my section of the trip. Over the span of a month, we had only one or two days of rain accumulatively. We were also blessed with many clear nights. Though we often curled up at 10pm due to exhaustion, on occasion we stayed up long enough to enjoy the gorgeous stars, the bright moon, and on once the most spectacular northern lights I have ever seen. It was at the Red Rock Folk Festival in Red Rock, Ontario on the north shore of Lake Superior. That night, after the last performers left the stage, most of the festival-goers walked past the marina to a giant campfire where bleachers had been set up around the fire so 100 or more people could participate in an acoustic sing-along jam. Above us were dashes of green, yellow and white light, dashing, streaking and receding. Neil Young would have sung Pocahontas: “Aurora Borealis. / The icy sky at night. / Paddles cut the water. / In a long and hurried flight.”
- Paddling – If you don’t really love paddling, then don’t go on a trip that’s crossing most of Canada. This team is not dip-dip-and-swinging for three hours each day; it was closer to eight or 10 hours per day. We did several 50+ km days on Lake Superior. But no complaints; paddling is an enjoyable way to pass the time. It’s easy to have conversations with fellow crew, listen to the solar/wind-up radio or revel in the light labour. It can be tiring, but that’s the challenge. We switched positions in the boats several times a day, taking turns in the small boat and “the beluga,” our 22-foot whale. In the canoes, we would often recount history and think back to the days when the French-Canadian voyageurs ruled the lakes and trails. I would often ask myself what the voyageurs would do in any situation we encountered. After 27-paddling days, I had a mean case of paddlers claw: even a week later, I wake up with my fingers swollen and clenched as though they are gripping a paddle.
- Portaging – Once we got to Superior it was all paddling, but from Quetico to the Grand Portage, my first 10 days, the effort was mostly on our backs. There were plenty of beautiful lakes and some rivers, but it was the portaging that was most memorable from this section. The beluga weighs in excess of 250 pounds, requiring the effort of 4 people at any-one time, and 5 people to take it from end to end with frequent switch-outs. The portages in this section, right along the Canada-US border were, generally speaking, very poorly maintained. Fallen trees, large mud sections, steep terrain, narrow paths and slippery rocks were among the most challenging obstacles. Some of these portages lasted for more than three kilometers. But there are few moments in life that are so immediately satisfying as at the end of a long portage.
- Swimming – When I’m all bundled in my winter jacket, I will think back to the many times each day I jumped in the clean and clear waters of northwestern Ontario. There’s no feeling quite like swimming on a sunny summer day. Building up heat from paddling and portaging meant that being refreshed was just a jump away. Between Quetico and the Grand Portage were some spectacular lakes, but nothing compared to the beaches and rocky shores of Lake Superior.
- Lake Superior – “The Big Lake” as many locals called it. Its beauty is only matched by its danger. Every local knows that the lake can “whip up” from flat and calm to 10-foot waves in an hour. We paddled it in many conditions. When it was glass we made great headway. We took on some water in the bigger waves, and faced the rollers that must have started as tiny ripples 100km away and built up over the many hours. The highest, deepest, and biggest Great Lake, Superior is also the coldest and clearest. It’s roughly 7°C year-round, which means you have about five minutes before you get hypothermia. It can be much warmer in the bays, but nothing like the lakes and rivers I am used to on southeastern Ontario. It’s clarity means you can paddle over huge boulders 20-feet under you and see them perfectly. The coastline made for some spectacular views: huge cliffs, a variety of trees and wildlife, beaches of boulders, pebbles and sand every few kilometers. I know why they call it Superior. I have to go back!
- Sunsets – Our great fortune with weather meant that sunsets were always a true pleasure to watch, often with a bowl of warm food in hand. The best ones were when we were on the eastern shore of Lake Superior, the horizon was long and almost completely flat. Watching the sun sink into the inland sea, first slowly, and then noticeably fast – plop! – right into the water. It’s unforgettable.Sunset on Superior
- Teamwork – Carrying the canoe, paddling together, setting up camp, and overcoming group issues. I will never forget my teammates: the courage with which they face each day, the joy and laughter of living in the moment – modern voyageurs. There were challenges too: challenges of leadership, communication and fairness, but all in all, the varied team built strong routines and understandings with each other that keep them on course to the impressive finish.
- Hospitality – As the article in the Sault Star makes clear, we have been met with the most wonderful hospitality. People opened their arms and hearts to us. Everyone from distant family to complete strangers shared with us their stories, their boats, cars, and homes. They fed us, towed us, drove us places and carried our gear. They chatted with us, and wished us well. Mark Shimota from Minnesota met us on a lake close to the border and reconnected with us two-days later, this time with a full cooler of beers and food at the beginning of the Grand Portage. In Thunder Bay, we kept our boats in the marina and received advice from trippers and sailors who knew the lake best. To camp, we set up our tents in the municipal park next to the marina. One night, the cops pulled the cruiser up on the grass and shone their lights into the tent. After explaining our trip, the cops we reassured that we weren’t a public nuisance. One said, “as long as you take your tent down by daybreak,” while the other said, “they’re paddling across Canada, that’s impressive.”
I wish I could have done the whole trip, but I am equally happy to be back in Toronto, fulfilling my responsibilities and spending time with my friends and family. I look forward to welcoming the team in Montreal and in Toronto.