Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Canoe Trip

This story goes back to my single years when I lived in Toronto and lived for leaving that city for a canoe trip in Algonquin.  I wanted to try writing in a second person narrative and I found that not too awkward.  I'm still happy with it...  It will be part of a new anthology published by the Spirit of The Hills arts group in Cobourg.

You wake before dawn. You bring only a thermos of fresh brewed coffee because all else is packed. The car and the canoe on the roof are speckled with dew. Everything is ready. You drive north on
deserted roads, leaving the thick city smells behind. The air gets cleaner, cooler. The coffee in your travel mug is better than on commuting days. When you stop for gas you pull on the straps holding the canoe. It doesn’t budge and you smile. Perfect. Your clothes are old and warm and comfortable and you have dressed in layers. The outer layer, a fisherman’s vest, has lots of pockets for a pocket knife, matches, canoe route map, duct tape, and some repair wire. Wallet and watch are already safe in the zippered pocket.
You arrive as the park office opens for the morning. There are few cars at the parking lot.
“Any bottles or cans?” she asks.
Your few supplies are in plastic bags and reusable containers. You show her on the map where you will be going.
“Any bears?”
“Not lately.” she replies.
You untie the canoe and carefully lift one side up and slide it toward you. The Styrofoam blocks make strange squealing noises as you slide the vessel outward and then lift it onto your shoulders. As you lower it to the water, ripples spread silently outward on the glass flat surface.
A kingfisher darts from tree to tree. Mist rises farther out, little vapour persons appearing and circling and vanishing again, revealing warmer water out there. You arrange your packs carefully and load in an extra paddle and an extra lifejacket. J stroke, straight stroke, J-stroke, straight stroke; a pattern develops and the rhythm sets in. With conscious effort the paddle does not touch the gunnels or make any extra sound.
Silently gliding through the water you disturb nothing, yet see all. You pass a loon who alternates between watching you warily and peering underwater like a child peeking under blankets. Suddenly he is off, slipping roundly beneath the water after an unseen fish. The sun slowly warms the lake surface. Ripples form and sparkle like fields of new cut diamonds out on the lake ahead of you.
You skirt the shoreline to avoid a growing breeze. Here and there are campsites neatly hidden along the shoreline. At one, a red canoe is drawn up and a flicker of light reveals a morning campfire. Voices speak softly, unaware of you, and seconds later you pass the thin olfactory vapour of a clean cedar fire.
You paddle on. Around a point you head into the lake and the wind brings up ripples. Now and then a small whitecap forms and disappears. You choose an angle that lets you hold your course as you paddle with long straight strokes. Ripples tap the canoe’s bow. Your arms begin to tire but you cannot switch sides because of the breeze.
Is that the portage?
No, not yet. Farther down the little bay. Is that it?
There is a tiny yellow dot on a tree. The map verifies your location and you steer toward it. Gradually into view comes a tiny dock and the black entry of a path leading into the woods. The wind disappears near the shore and you pull into a small plank dock. Nobody is there. You tie your painter to a small sapling just inshore from the little dock. Sitting, you carefully shift your gear onto the little dock. Straightening knees stiff from kneeling on a lifejacket, you climb out and remember when this was easier.
The map shows the portage to be 500 metres. Not having a proper yoke, you tie the paddles with the handles on the gunnels and the blades meeting near the thwart. There is now just enough space between the blades for your head. You put the lifejacket on to cushion your shoulders and hoist the canoe up, half turn and lower it onto your back. Pushing upward on the paddles you find your balance point and shift things around, tilting the canoe up slightly at the front and begin your portage, leaving your duffel bag and food pack by the dock. Years ago you gave up any worry about people taking your things. If people touch your gear it is only to move off the path or keep it from sliding down a bank.
The canoe gains weight and your breath begins to come out faster. Your steps are heavier.
Look out! You almost trip on a root. There are rocks and stumps underfoot. The carry is uphill, but you have gone farther and up steeper hills in the past. Birds cry unseen somewhere above you and the sun’s light filters through a million holes in the emerald ceiling. Your breath gets shorter yet and muscles begin to let you know where they are and how long it has been without a rest. The ground levels and then begins a descent. Through the forest ahead your eyes finally see the sparkle of sunshine on water. Downhill and around a bend the next lake is revealed. It is small and not often used. Two planks create another tiny dock at the end of the pathway. With sudden energy you lift your canoe and hold it balanced above your head for an instant before you lower your right arm and do a half turn to gently lower it to the water. You feel almost weightless and work the stiffness out of your arms and legs. A few turns of the painter and the canoe is secured again and you walk back, seeing now the trees above you and the woodpecker flying between them. A slight breeze keeps the mosquitoes away and cools the sweat that dampens your back and armpits.
A chipmunk darts away from your worn duffel bag and food pack. Everything is lying, as always, exactly where you left them. Another chipmunk chatters at you from high in a tree. A granola wrapper lies in the path. It is the only garbage you have seen all morning and automatically you put it into your pocket.
Trudging along the trail you reunite your gear with your canoe. Time for a swim! Though you are completely alone you still look around before stripping naked in the shadows. You lay your clothes out in the sun to dry the dampness and sweat. The soft brown muck blurs when you step through it, your foot descending deeply, touching beaver sticks as you carefully wade into the deeper water. You duck below chest height and the fresh coldness steals your breath. Smooth strokes carry you away from shore. Looking underwater you dimly see old logs and stumps far below and small silver-sided fish that dart into their own weedy forest. You float languidly for a while before swimming back to shore to negotiate the rough bottom underfoot. Standing naked in the sunlight, drying yourself off, you can already see the next portage at the far end of the lake. You change into cut-offs and a tee shirt. Load the canoe again and paddle to the end of the lake.
And so continues the day. Two more small lakes and a large one. Occasionally you pass other canoeists with a friendly wave in the distance or a shouted comment about the good weather – but mostly you are alone here; alone with your thoughts, with the quietness of the woods and lakes. Late in the afternoon you scan the shorelines for the best campsite and eventually spot a tiny beach with a small open flat area behind. There is a smooth stony arm reaching westward into the lake. A place to sit and watch the sunset.
Your canoe gently runs up onto the sand beach and you step ashore. You explore the campsite fully. No bear scat, or litter, or poison ivy. Firewood and kindling has been left beside a small pile of rocks for a grill – simple Canadian courtesy from last week’s or last month’s camper. They left no other trace of their stay, and you won’t either. All you smell is the lavender clean of cedar trees. Here and there are dead branches not yet claimed for firewood by earlier visitors. You gather them as you go.
Your cook fire is small and made of sweet-smelling coniferous branches. The bottom of your fry pan is black from the smoke and the smell will be conjured back for months in the city when you reheat the old pan. But today, you eat from its wholesome inside, wipe grease from it with a piece of bread and relax on the beach with a coffee boiled from lake water.
The sun lowers. You tie a rope around a rock and spot a sturdy branch to haul the food up high and away. You miss. Your try again and again and finally your weighted rope sails over the large horizontal limb while the other end plays out in your hand. You haul your food bag high and secure the other end around a tree.
Now you need another swim. Discarding your clothes again you find the sandy beach is clean and smooth for a long way out. You enter the cool clear water as the sun begins to lower towards the lake surface.
This is heaven. And this is Canada.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Back to Work!

So I'm back to work at writing.
For now I'm working on completing about twenty different story fragments that may end up being a collection of adult interest short stories. They've been sitting long enough that I can see their good parts and their faults; just as you see your friends and family more clearly as time passes than when they are up close to you in newness or in new adulthood.  We all need to step back a few paces to get perspective...
Next week I will start contacting Scholastic Canada to see if they want to put out another Canadian Disasters that is updated and
improved.  Meantime I have to see about getting some of the older books sold.  They are still a good read and I have been neglecting 'my dream job'.
   I talked to Bill Sweet at the Books and Company bookstore in Picton and he was happy to order some copies of my Disaster book with his next order.  Kathryn at Lighthouse Books in Brighton also keeps copies available for people asking.
   Compare that to the Chapters store in Belleville.  I found their "Local Authors" shelf, near the front cash and very visible, had three rows of genuine local talent and the bottom shelves were filled with books by other writers, notably The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware.  Ruth got to fill the bottom two rows with multiple copies of her new book - except Ruth comes from London in the U.K.  How is she a local author?  It seems CHAPTERS/INDIGO  is unable to find enough local authors in the Quinte West area to fill their single mobile bookshelf.  I spoke to the assistant manager and told him politely how I feel. Local authors are plentiful, and I'm not talking about the many self-published 'authors', who peddle their books around. I mean those worthy individuals who have submitted multiple times, been rejected, submitted again, been rejected again, submitted again... until a publisher has agreed to take them on.  Their work shows the clearness and strength of a healthy collaboration between a writer and an editor.  (No you shouldn't include that sentence... etc.)
There are about fifteen I can think of that have excellent books on various topics who live close enough to Belleville to qualify as Local Authors.   Anyway they promised to get back to me about my concerns.  We'll see...

Meantime here's a sample of something I'm working on for the short story collection.

“Ow! That wasn’t a beetle!”
“Was so!”
“Was not!”
“Butt head!”
“Is that your face or did your neck throw up?”
The boys were playing punch-buggy in the back seat and the punches were getting harder. 
“Time for a break, boys. Daddy, these guys need to run around,” observed Shirley. 
We were driving through the Badlands of Alberta. Our pre-teen boys were stir-crazy and needed to get out of the car. Again.
My needs were even more basic. I had eaten something that didn’t agree with me and the spasms in my gut told me I needed to stop even more than the boys did. We were passing through a genuine ghost town, with nothing in it but the grain elevator.  We stopped in the field of a desolate and overgrown community park.
Spying a large wooden outhouse shouted, “First dibs on the outhouse!” and ran for it. At this point I didn’t care if it was clean, as long as it wasn’t locked.
            The old plank door stood ajar. Inside were two sections. I jogged into the toilet part while unbelting my shorts. Relief flowed through me as the noise and olfactory offense of my emergency purge filled the little room. As the pressure dropped and my heartbeat returned to normal I began to look around me.  My eyes adjusted to the modest illumination from a neat and square high window. I saw straight boards silvered with age, a perfect vertical from a level floor. Every plank had been cut square and every joint was a snug fit. The two-by-fours were rough finished and a full two inches by four inches in size and not planed smaller. The wood was rough and durable, like the country around here.
            Finishing, I stood and belted up my shorts again.  Beside the toilet section was a half-wall separating it from the washing area.  A plain counter had an enamel basin set into it and a pitcher of water stood on the shelf with a neatly lettered label ‘ for hand-washing only’.  Sure enough it contained some summer-heated warm water and I used this with a dried bar of soap to wash my hands. 
Despite the reek of my recent void, I found myself going back to examine the wooden plank walls. I sought and found the logically distanced nails, pounded in perfectly. No smiles, no missed hits. By the age of the silvered wood and the type of nail heads it was clear this was all built years before nail guns become common. The nails had been hammered just into the wood with one of those last hits that expertly sinks a nail without touching the wood itself.
“Dad, I need to pee,” a voice called from outside. A small hand pushed on the door but the hook and eye latch remained properly fastened.  
“Be out in a sec,” I replied.
Behind me, framed into the corner was a vent stack, formed of plain boards to carry away any smelly fumes from the shitter box below the building to the airy breezes outside.  
Simple, effective and low-tech, this building may have been forty years old or eighty. I marveled at the handiwork of this craftsman, probably long dead. Did he or she ever wonder if someone would notice this perfection?
Probably not.
The art of this place came from long practice and fingers grown used to forming, measuring, and cutting with millimeter accuracy. People this able don’t consider their talent any more than they consider breathing.  
But I admired the craftsman and remembered his work. 
One year my friend Kevin called and asked if I would build an outhouse for his cottage on Rice Lake. The old biffy, many years old and rarely used, was no longer good for emergencies. Kevin knows I like to build things, but I was busy. Too busy.
            Days went by and it nagged at me.
My work was frustrating and I wasn’t seeing results.  A vision of that old outhouse in Alberta, with its weathered old boards and perfect joints kept coming back. Within a few weeks I had arranged for a quiet autumn weekend at Kevin’s cottage. Kevin is an excellent cook and knows how to take time to create a perfect burger.  Likewise I felt inspired to take my time and do a proper job.

We built the outhouse. It is not as good as the one in Alberta, but most of the joints are close, the wood is cut square, and there is a window high up. You can sit there and look around and not see too many mistakes. And there is a vent stack, leading those awful smells outside.