THE CANOE TRIPYou 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.
“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.