"Here's a story you might like. I went swimming, to my
By Bob Grafton
Otter was happy. He sat in the bow of the new boat, eight days’ supplies behind him. He and the Stranger had had to cut this trip a little short because of the Bar Mitzvah, but so it goes. Now, heading out across Tulabi, Otter was pulling hard. It’s twenty plus miles to Snowshoe, and they were fully loaded, so Otter was working his kayak paddle giving plenty of lift, as the rowers say. He wanted to get in in less than seven hours so they could set up and eat before the bugs came on.
In the stern, the Stranger watched the yellow blades cut on alternate sides. At this point, the Stranger loved to paddle, plain and simple. He’d long since crossed the boundary between paddling as a necessary chore to get from point A to point B and paddling as just fun, like cycling, an enjoyable form of exercise in and of itself. While he could admire the exploits of the big trippers like Howard, or the Hide Away Canoe Club, the Stranger wasn’t kidding himself. He was in it for the fun, of which it was plenty.
The plan was to head north, up the Bird River to Talon Lake and back. It’s a great route, especially once north of Snowshoe where the river is seldom travelled. They had only seven nights, eight days, so they’d have to move every day. If they got wind stayed, that’d be that for this year. It had happened before. In fact, this was the fourth time they’d set out to Talon from Tulabi. The Stranger had this pipe dream that if they worked hard full time, they could hit Talon on the third day. Otter was fond of countering that he wanted a vacation, not an expedition, more gentleman adventurer than Jack Hornby. Well, no chance of starvation with the kit they had. The freeze dried experiment was over. Now, after the fresh meals were done, they’d live on organic short grained brown rice and curries. Light, compact, cheap, these meals were tasty, quick to prepare, and best of all, they were real food. Satisfying and sustaining. Eat like kings and still lose weight. Here they were again, pulling up to the first portage, leaving the motor boats behind, at least until the first fly-in lake. These portages south of Snowshoe saw a lot of traffic, relatively speaking, and took quite a pounding. Plenty of mud. The land in the boreal forest doesn’t come back quickly once it’s been used hard. But it was dry today, so the trail was clean. They’d leave the litter others left behind and pick it up on the way out. Lunch stop up towards Elbow, and supper in Snowshoe. They had a little tradition of stroganoff and ceasar salad first night. Joy’s recipes had plenty of beef and garlic. A great kickoff meal.
Like many of the larger lakes from here north, Snowshoe has motor boats, fly-in fishermen, usually from Chicago or Nebraska. For many years, the boys didn’t understand how these fellas acted. But, on reflection, it must have been hard for the fishermen. Drive several hours, or fly into Kenora, then pile into a little bush plane. Fly a couple more hours north, over unbroken lakes and trees, no houses or roads. Finally, landing in a northern lake, they were shown cabins and boats, and given little maps of the lake they were on. They had no real idea where they were. No topos, maybe a GPS. They were kind of disconnected from the trail of lakes and portages the canoeists followed. Probably didn’t expect to meet locals. Also, their culture was different: guns, no universal health care, no hockey, no cradle to grave socialism, no Queen, no french, no curling, a different country. People from large cities, mistrustful of others. To them, the boys were hicks, yokels, maybe dangerous. Anyway, the boys’d talk about that at night. Sometimes plan little tricks for the visitors, like "On parle que le francais", or "You’ve been had, there’s no fish in this lake", or "The road’s just over there". The fun never stops.
American paddlers, on the other hand, were like brothers. Cut out of the same cloth. The Trippin’ Tribe. Although one seldom encountered others moving from Nopiming, through the Crown lands and into Woodland Caribou, when they did do so, the reaction was generally "You’re the first people we’ve met!" as though they were surprised at this turn of events, at the emptiness of the forest. For the Stranger and Otter, this was the usual. It was taken for granted that they’d be alone once they went through that first portage north of Elbow. Maybe you’d see one other party, usually no one. Sure, in the southern reaches within four or five hours of the car, there could be others, but once out towards Snowshoe, or up near Wilson on the eastern route, there was no one. On the other hand, the boys had to recall their one trip south to the Quetico. A beautiful area, no doubt. But the first line-up at a portage was a bit off putting. Then there was the daily flotilla of canoe parties drifting through. Some days they’d seen as many as fifteen or twenty boats. And at night you could count four , maybe five fires out there ringing the lake they were on. But when they hit that lovely camp site that was posted as closed due to over usage, and it had been well and truly trashed, well, that was that for the so-called wilds of Quetico. They’d never been back, never even talked about it. Maybe they’d picked a bad time of year, or had been unlucky on the route they’d chosen, who knew?
If the boys were going to drive eight or ten hours, they’d head north to Leaf Rapids or Pukatawagon. They were spoiled and they knew it.
Living in a minor urban setting on the edge of the boreal forest had done that. A city that was within three hours drive of a put-in, door to lake, allowed a real wilderness experience any weekend. There were years that the boys were in the woods every weekend between Victoria Day and Thanksgiving. A week off meant a ten day trip. Not huge expeditions, but plenty satisfying. The real limiting factors were ice and snow. Hard to paddle in the ice, dangerous too. The November 11th trip had shown that. When the Stranger looked into that ice covered water and imagined himself coming up under the ice unable to break through from beneath, well, it hadn’t been a comforting feeling. With two others in the boat, very likely someone wouldn’t have survived an upset in that water. He agreed with James Raffan, that trip leaders are absolutely personally responsible to bring ‘em back alive. So, that set the rule: no trips after Thanksgiving no matter how warm it seemed. Dr. Giesbrecht from the university had shown that even in frigid water a person’s survival times were longer than had previously been thought, 30 to 40 minutes, not 5 or 10. But you can’t breathe ice. The annual Thanksgiving long weekend that the Stranger took with Joy could be a late autumn idyl or a howling blizzard with two feet of snow. No matter, it wouldn’t freeze the lake, latent heat being what it is. Actually, the blizzards were fun, stimulating, and whetting the appetite for winter camping, which is a whole ‘nother story.
Snowshoe Lake is on the border between Manitoba and Ontario, marking the end of Nopiming Park and the beginning of the Crown land. Although the boys had begun tripping in Nopiming, most of their trips were on Crown land. They were quite surprised to learn that there was a park on the Ontario side, a little north of Nopiming. The old topos they’d bought years ago, or inherited from the Chief’s brother Tam, didn’t show any park. They’d been going in and out of the park for years without knowing it. Then DNR put up the signs at the entry points. The Stranger was surprised, too, to find that there was a camping fee to travel there. That was hard to get used to. It seemed sort of unCanadian, user fees being a retro way to tax. Too conservative. But the boys are good citizens, so they now ensure they’ve got the necessary permits to cover their time in Woodland Caribou.
Once through Snowshoe, it gets wilder. Scarcely travelled, the portages are floored in green and often hard to follow for their lack of use. Lots of blowdown that isn’t cleared, too. It can make for monkeybar portaging, clambering up, over and around, but that’s the charm of it. How bad can it be? The animals are not used to seeing people there either, so proceeding silently often brings huge rewards in sightings. By this time, the boys had the portages memorized, ending in the little split island where the Bird splits in two to go around a beautiful small isle, falling over rocks and singing on both sides. From that spot it’s a half hour to Lantern Lookout in pre-Chase. Then it’s a fifty meter walk to Chase, which links to Midway and Eagle. From there, the route goes northwest to Irregular, due north up the Bird, or northeast into the Talon River. There are fly-ins in Chase-Eagle. Eagle is also the southern boundary of Woodland Caribou.
Once the boys had stopped in Eagle, they were three days from the put-in. Next day would decide if they’d get to the beach at Talon this year, or not. The only thing that’d stop that would be a strong north/west wind. They were excited. They’d been in Talon before, but on a Beaver’s wings. As they sat around the fire that night, the Stranger and Otter revelled in the anticipation. Jim Hegyi had called this a different world for canoe travellers. For sure it’s the best, most fun one if you like the wide open solitude.
Next morning dawned perfect, a light southeast breeze and brilliant sunshine. The boys jumped to, packed the kit and set off for Talon. The little river is a beauty paddle, with a small falls to be heard at Dowswell Creek, a gentle meander and a larger, more energetic falls at Talon itself. As usual, the Stranger lost scale perspective and made the paddle up Talon Lake way more exciting than it had to be. In the end, as they neared the beach/cabin site, they passed a couple swimming from one of the islands nearby. They hadn’t come up the Talon River, the mud had only had animal prints, so where’d they come from? They were gone next day, presumably headed north to Aegean. It hadn’t been Scott & Kathy Warner, but so few people are seen in here, the Stranger wondered where from, where to?
The arrival at the beach in Talon was dramatic. It was the first confirmation that DNR had burned the Talon cabin. Nothing but cinders and the big old floor beams. Kind of sad, but it left a great open meadow and a first rate tent site. Being high summer, the swimming was primo. It’s a great site and an awesome destination for a week’s trip. It also marked the turning point for this year’s Otter/Stranger effort. In the morning, they’d go back to Eagle and follow the Bird back to Tulabi. But first, a great meal, long walks and Otter’s bug juice experiments.
The trip back was relatively uneventful, a paddle left behind and fetched, a bear swimming in the creek. But as they entered the last section of the river before Eagle, the sky darkened and lightening cracked overhead. Soon, it was pouring rain. At the mouth of the river in Eagle, the boys tucked under some pines and had lunch. Then, they donned their PFD’s over their rainsuits and headed out into a gale on Eagle. The wind was high but aft, so they blew around the corner and stopped in a lee spot. They threw up a tarp, got the Bombers football game on the local station, cracked a beer and enjoyed. We lost, but it was a great party. Next day, the wind raged all the way back through Eagle, Midway, Chase and pre-Chase. It pushed the boat all over the place, but never really forced a stop. The Stranger opted for the little split island’s wind protection. It’s in a beaver river, so water would have to be pumped, or so it seemed. But once the tarp went up, the runoff of pure rain water provided the sweetest fresh water in unlimited quantities. Leave the Sweetwater in the food bag. W&W all ‘round.
Next morning, they left at a leisurely pace. It’s only about 4 or 5 hours travel from that spot to Snowshoe’s sites, which are all clustered at the far western end of the lake. Because it was either raining or threatening to, once out on the water the Stranger wanted to get in and off the water quickly. There looked to be a storm building in the northeast and he didn’t want to be in the large western reach of the lake when it hit, if he could help it. The Stranger and Otter had been through this part of the system often, so the maps had been stowed for a while, since Talon River. Being in familiar country and in a bit of a hurry made the Stranger less careful and attentive than the forest deserved. Playing in such an elemental environment, it was easy to forget they were still 30 miles from a put-in, alone in the bush. At the last portage, rather than carry, the Stranger opted to line down the last chute. It’d save some time, they’d be through in a minute. But, the rain had swollen the river and the water was rolling through heavier than the last time he’d lined down. Also, the rocks were slick in the falling rain. Finally, those old boots of his really did need replacement, their soles being worn smooth. No grip at all. Otter had the bow line, and the Stranger held the boat against the flow with the stern painter. It just needed to be guided down into the pool below. As they eased the boat into the fast water, the Stranger felt the pull of the river against the hull. ‘Don’t let it go sideways’, he thought, ‘Just let her down easy.’ That’s when his feet went out from under him and the boat got away. He sat rather abruptly and then slipped into the chute.
The current pushed the Stranger against the canoe which had come to rest across the river, sideways with the bow lodged in the rocks on one side, the stern caught in the rocks on the other side of the chute. The boat had lodged there with its bottom facing upstream, so it didn’t fill with water, but the force of the current held it pinned there. As he came up against the boat, the Stranger stood and tried to steady himself, bracing on the canoe. The force of the current pulled his legs out from under him and he went down, submerging as he passed beneath the boat. In his mind’s eye he saw the little cartoon from Bill Mason’s film ‘Path of the Paddle’ and heard him intone ‘Never get between a rock and a canoe full of water’. The Stranger imagined himself crushed by his boat as they tumbled together down the chute. As his head went under, he looked up at the bottom of the boat. He could see the daylight through it. Neat. No fear or panic, just observation. And cursing himself for a careless fool.
When his head broke the surface, he was in the pool at the foot of the chute. The canoe had stayed put, jammed in place by the current. The Stranger was at the foot of the portage in two strokes. As he hauled out, what struck him was that his Tilley hat had stayed on, and his glasses hadn’t come off. He threw his hat down as he ran to where the bow was lodged. If he was going to lose the boat, at least he’d have his hat. The current was pushing against the bottom of the canoe. He thought it wouldn’t be long ‘til the water’s force smashed it in two. A forty pound Duralite wouldn’t stand up to a lot of this. The boat had to be dislodged, and quickly. He and Otter grabbed the bow in their arms and on two, heaved it into the air and downstream. The canoe landed just right in the middle of the chute and floated down easy as pie. The Stranger’s momentum carried him along with the boat, back into the chute, under the canoe. More crushing cartoon images, more admonishment from Mr. Mason.
This time when his head broke water, he was in the middle of the pool with the canoe floating immediately to his right. He was watching the paddles drift away through the pool. The Stranger began to swim after them. As he started to take his second stroke, he realized that, as he was fully clothed and wearing his boots but not his PFD, he’d likely drown going after the paddles. Okay, he thought, that’s enough bad decisions for one day. He turned, grabbed the canoe gunwhale and was hauled to shore by Otter who’d kept a grip of the bow line the whole time. The boat had six inches of water in it. Otherwise, only the paddles had fallen out in the entire incident.
After they’d emptied her out, the boys set off after the paddles which by now had floated downstream about a half a kilometre. Luckily, they’d gone back for the third paddle after leaving it behind in the Talon River earlier that day, so at least the Stranger didn’t have to paddle with his hands. When the paddles were retrieved, they set off for the mouth of the Bird and Snowshoe, silent, each nursing his own thoughts. The Stranger probably should have been thinking ‘This guy’ll never come with me again’, or, ‘Man, do we have great adventures’. But no, instead he was just aware how bright the colors were, how intense the wind felt on his face, how alive he felt. Probably adrenaline. 10 meters away, two white-tail deer stood at the side of the river, watching them pass. Oddly, they didn’t bolt as they usually do. Just stood there watching them pass, turning their heads from side to side and shifting their weight from one foot to another. The Stranger laughed ruefully to himself and thought that the deer could sense his recent brush with infinity and recognized that as a common experience of animals in the bush. After Obukowin, these ‘adventures’ were supposed to stop. Goes to show, complacency is a dangerous companion on a canoe trip. It just takes a moment, then WHAM! That’s it!
The storm didn’t break ‘til they were at the spot in Snowshoe. ‘Around the corner’ they called it. Big, flat and well cared for, the Stranger had been using this site for many years, first as a destination and then as a way stop enroute north. The boys put in, unloaded and started to tarp up. They’d just got the downwind side fastened when the sky opened. They stood under the lee side with the tarp draped over them, sheltering them from the rain coming down in buckets. A storm like this couldn’t last long and it didn’t. Within an hour, it blew itself out, the sky cleared and the wind dropped. After set up and supper, there was time for a small fire and some quiet reflection. For the Stranger, this was just the start of his summer vacation. He’d have three weeks with Joy, including a trip with his sons. Then there was a trip planned with the Chief around Labour Day. The season would close with the annual Thanksgiving trip with Joy. So, as he and Otter wound this one down, the Stranger reflected that he was half way through his trips for this year. Three completed, three to come. He’d seen a cinnamon bear, been up and down the Bird with Joy, and now, had finally made it to Talon from Tulabi. He’d keep his little swim in the chute to himself for now. No need to worry anyone. It’d be a long winter. Lots of time to share.
In the morning, they packed quickly and left. Six and a half hours to the car and a three hour drive made for a long day. It’d be good to get home.