Paddling


It’s hard for me to verbalize how big an impact this documentary has had on my life. Among other things, it’s made me quit my job once and risk it at least once more. I am smiling so wide right now, just listening to it play in the background as I post this blog. So adventure lovers, sit back (or better yet, bake yourself a batch of sourdough bread and then sit back), relax and watch these four adventurers take the journey of a lifetime down one of the world’s greatest rivers.

A busy morning in Tobermory's Harbour on the Civic Long Weekend

Sure, by Tobermory standards this was a pretty busy weekend. Maybe the busiest of the summer. The parking situation around the snug little harbour was akin to a Christmas Eve shopping mall lot. The line ups for whitefish & chips were long. Every hotel room, campsite and b&b  in town was displaying a “No Vacancy” sign. And it took a fiendish amount of time to get my cappucino yesterday afternoon during the lunch rush at my favourite cafe.

Still, in between all this hubub, our paddle along the dolomite-cliffed shores of the Georgian Bay coastline was serene and our hike over some of the best parts of the Bruce Trail was similarly quiet. The scuba diving in the crisp waters of Fathom Five National Marine Park was first-rate, as advertised (yeah there were other divers, but Lake Huron is plenty big enough to share). The whitefish and chips and the cappucino were worth waiting for. And we enjoyed some of the finest, most luxurious accomodation, hospitality, food and wine at the E’Terra Inn that we’ve ever experienced. And we’ve experienced some good stuff.

The flipside - a quiet scene off our canoe bow, not far outside the harbour

And here lies Tobermory’s secret – the townsite is busy and the main beaches are blocked with your average weekenders. But once you get past those areas, onto the trails and waterways that made the area famous to begin with, you are far closer to being on your own than you might anticipate.

All this leads me to think that Tobermory and the Northern Bruce Peninsula, while admittedly busy, may not be nearly as busy as they should be. After four days, we feel like we’ve only started to properly explore the place. We will definitely (though perhaps with an advance reservation) be back.

Only a place as cool as Tobermory could have gotten me out of bed this morning.

We arrived at half past midnight last night, dog tired, with an infant who figured that since she’d dutifully slept for the four hour drive here, she was now entitled to play and be entertained for the rest of the evening. So morning found us only slightly less red eyed and marginally less irritable than when we’d arrived.

But things quickly got better. We have a lovely hostess at our B&B, Cedars and Birches, who had coffee made and fresh baked scones laid out for us as soon as we reluctantly emerged from our room. Fortified, we toured throught the beautiful new Information Centre for the Bruce and Fathom Five National Parks. It’s really a great facility – perfectly set its environment, spacious and bright inside and full of fun and informative exhibits. It actually got us pumped to explore the park (I know, we’re nerds).

We grabbed lunch at cafe/bar/restaurant A Mermaids Secret, chilling with home made iced teas and mexican food in the hot afternoon sun. Then it was back to the park for a tour of the sandy, dune filled west side of the Bruce at Singing Sands beach. We hunted for orchids, ancient cedars  and insectivorous plants and kept our ears pealed for the tic-tic–tic–tic-ticking  of the Massassauga Rattlesnake (no luck there, so to speak).

A little window shopping and then it was off to dinner at the Grandview Restaurant overlooking Big Tub Harbour. As the sun set, we picked over bacon-wrapped roasted scallops, fresh whitefish and lake trout while the boats and ferries gathered before us at the end of their day’s runs.

It may sound tame, but for us this was a big day – our first solo trip as new parents. We made it through with smiles on, but we are now well and truly pooped. We’ve made Kathleen a bed besides ours into which she’s fallen with only minimal heart-rending tears of rage and we are about to turn out the lights ourselves. It’s 9:30. It’s Friday. It’s over for us.

But only for 8 hours. Tomorrow, we take to the water with a glass boat tour of Fathom Five and some diving. We also check into the highly-touted E’Terra Inn –  a lodge that claims it can offer all the luxuries with none of the eco-guilt.

At this point, if it can give me 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep, I’ll give it 5 stars supposing if the roof caves in and the food gives me cholera.

JM

Bruce National Park, Ontario

Wow. Saying that title out loud sure puts a lot of spittle on your screen…

Anyway, we’re driving from Toronto today to the town of Tobermory on the tip of the beautiful Bruce peninsula.  While there, we’ll profile the area’s awesome land- and water-based activities. Among other things, we’ll be hiking along the dramatic Niagara Escarpment in Bruce National Park, wreck- and cave-diving  in nearby Fathom Five National Marine Park and staying at the exclusive E’Terra eco-lodge. If there’s any downtime, we’ll relax with good food, wine and maybe even massage.

I don’t know whether to be excited about all the stuff we’ve got to do or all the work I’ve got ahead of me to write it up properly.

Toodles!

jm

Yeah, it's not waterproof and it does throw off your keel line a bit, but I now consider an exer-saucer absolutely vital canoeing equipment

We finally took the plunge this weekend and took our 5 month old daughter camping.  We chose to introduce her to the outdoor life at our favourite overnight getaway site – an easy half day paddle down a lake in the Magnetewan River system north of Parry Sound. It wasn’t an overly ambitious choice. We decided to focus on the challenge of simply getting our new family member up and down the lake in a moderately contented state and to save the six week whitewater trips for next year.

Here’s some lessons learned from Kathleen’s first weekend in the great Canadian wilderness:

1.  A good Canadian knows how to make love in a canoe. A good Canadian father knows how to balance a carseat and an exersaucer on top of a fully loaded canoe.

2.  Singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” to a sleeping infant as you actually row a boat is a surreal experience.

3.  A 5 month old child is like a puppy in that it wants to explore everything with its mouth. This includes pine cones, sticks and assorted wild shrubbery. If you’re a negligent father and ultimately have make a very quick decision, I recommend the stick.

Sunset on Naiscoot Lake

4.  Gradually introduce your infant to cold lake swimming. Instant immersion is a recipe for a lot of screaming and loss of bladder control (for both the infant and the parents).

5.  The 5 extra hours it took you to get ready for a simple overnight camping trip will feel totally worth it once you’re enjoying that first lakeshore sunset with your baby in arms.

Have fun out there!

JM

“Let’s play a game,” I said, trying to lighten the mood.

We were bobbing on Brunswick Lake at the end of a six hour rainstorm. Everything about us was wet – our skin was pruny and seemingly every piece of gear from our sodden campsite dripped with moisture. We had changed our official team name from Team Screaming Eagle (easily the coolest paddling team name ever ) to Team Soggy Eagle (still cool, just damper).

Now the sky was finally beginning to brighten. I suggested we each sing a song from a classic television show.  Janine and Sean agreed to play along.

I sang the themes from “Cheers” and “Transformers”. The latter was a big hit with Sean, who, while bobbing his head silently to a variety of internally hummed tunes, could not remember a single word of a single t.v.  theme.  “I can hum the theme of ‘House’,” he said hopefully. “Does that count?”

“No,” I told him. Because as fun as singing your favourite t.v. theme is, crushing a child’s budding enthusiasm is even better.

It was Janine’s turn to take the spotlight. “I’ve got one!” she said happily. But then her expression wavered. “Oh, I don’t know all the words.”

“That’s okay,” I encouraged (Crushing a child’s budding enthusiasm is fun. Crushing your wife’s is just stupid). “ Just sing what you know.” Sean absent-mindedly nodded his agreement with this rule change, still tapping out a half-remembered tune on the side of the canoe. A pair of loons, bobbing, watched us from near the weedy shoreline.

“Okay!” said Janine, clearing her throat.  “Doo dee doo doo doo, doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo, The Facts of Life!  The Facts of Life!”

And that’s how our trip got a theme song.

***

Funny thing about rapids. You can run a C3 that you probably shouldn’t and come through it as dry as a cork. But you can flip while sideslipping down a burbling C1. With skill and planning you can run just about anything in your skill level with a high degree of safety. But the water is its own master. And sometimes, it’s a bit of a prick.

We’d had a fantastic 2 days of rapid play, including a cute run down the C1-filled Brunswick River, an exciting ferry past a roaring ledge at Two Portages Falls, and a zig-zagging thrill ride at the Devil Shoepack Rapids. By the end of today, our confidence was high. We hadn’t had a bad experience yet. Now we faced our final obstacle of the day – a ledgy C2 at the bottom of the 5km Albany Rapids. Our guidebook said there was a centre channel that was runnable.

We scouted it to be sure. After some serious discussion, Team Soggy Eagle agreed that the centre could be run, provided we hauled some serious ass to the right at rapid’s bottom to avoid a big curling wave. We’d already run tougher-looking stuff this trip. Pushing off from shore and ferrying back up to the centre of the river, we shouted our game plan one last time, gave the Eagle cry (a cool scream that is a dead ringer for an eagle screech) and headed down the dark, churning water.

I still can’t figure out what flipped us. All I know is, one minute we’re at the bottom and just about out of the big rollers and the next we’re swimming in the tea-coloured waters of the Missinaibi.

The team took it very well. Sean claimed that he found the whole experience kind of cool. Janine looked a blend of shocked embarrassed and highly amused.

Luckily, the rapid emptied into a particularly calm, though particularly wide portion of the river. All we had to do was swim and tug a fully-loaded capsized boat 15 minutes to shore.

As I breast-stroked and frog-kicked my way towards the beach, I was annoyed, but generally relieved. We were safe, the canoe was still floating (upside down, but that counts too, right?) and all our gear appeared to be still inside. The sun was out and we’d be dry again soon enough. This would be more of an inconvenience than anything else – a humorous anecdote to tell Sean’s parents the next time they were thinking of leaving their only child alone with us.

I stroked, kicked, kicked and tugged the boat a little further towards the bank. “The Facts of Life. The Facts of Life. Doo dee doo doo doo doo doo ……..”

***

Later that night – our last of the trip – I lay in the tent, reflecting on the trip, thinking that I’d enjoyed it as much for the company as for the river itself. I figured that, years from now, I’d probably remember more about our little group’s fire side chats and board game sessions in the tent than I did about the river itself. Maybe that had something to do with the river itself. Despite its latest little surprise, we’d grown comfortable with it; thought, maybe, we even knew it a little.

Before clicking off my headlamp, I reread one of my favourite passages from Grey Owl:

And so, day succeeding day, we go forward. And as we penetrate deeper and ever deeper into this enchanted land, the River marches with us. More and more to us a living thing, it sometimes seems as if it were watching us, like some huge sleeping serpent that observes us dreamily, lying there secure in his consciousness of power while we, like Lilliputians, play perilously on his back. Until, to our sudden consternation, he awakens, as though some austere immovable landmark that you had passed a thousand times before should rise one day and look you in the face and ask you what you did there; so does this serpent, that is the River, turn on us unexpectedly, and writhe and hiss and tear and lash out at us in fierce resentment at our audacity.

I now know that you should never read ominous prophecies the night before the end of a trip.

***

“I still don’t see a ‘clear deep channel’,”  I said, wiping a film of water off the top of my map case, reading Hap Wilson’s description of the last rapid on the Missinaibi before our end-point at the town of Mattice.  Though I certainly saw the drop that Wilson warns you to watch out for at the end of this C1 tech. The only problem was, the “drop” seemed to be a rather rocky ledge that extended across the whole river.

Janine and Sean said little. Like me, they were wet and tired, done with packing up wet tents on grey mornings, and just wanted to get this thing done. Not the best and sharpest frame of mind in which to run white water.

We ran an easy swift near the top of the rapid on river right, then grabbed an eddy and paused. The rest of the ride on this side of the Missinaibi seemed to terminate in a ledge – a smooth black line marking its edge a few dozen yards ahead of us. But over on river left there seemed to be a gushing vein of beige water moving between two large rocks. We ferried across and sized it up from the boat while tucked into another eddy. We’d have to thread the needle between those two rocks just right, but otherwise it looked doable. We peeled out and headed for the roaring “V”.

The current made a determined effort to dash us on the left-most rock, but we hauled determined to the right and scooched down between the two obstacles.  We were screaming instructions and whooping for joy when my heart dropped instantaneously into my guts.

There was another rock. A big, big rock. Cunningly hidden just below the “V”, which, from below, you would see was splitting smoothly around it. But from the top of the rapid, it was invisible. Well, I didn’t see it anyway. Not until it was too late.

“Right! RIGHT! RIGHT!!!” we yelled. “ROCK! SHIT!”

We nearly made it. But the canoe grazed the rock side ways enough to tilt it facing up-stream. Janine and most of our gear were immediately jettisoned out of the boat by the funnelled water and into the pool below. Sean and I gamely leaned down stream for a second in an effort to keep the canoe’s gunwhales from dipping. But the battle was lost almost immediately, and we hopped out of the boat and onto the rock just as the water filled our little craft with hundreds of litres of liquid and unfathomable pounds of pressure, molding her around the rock like so much silly putty.

I have a good crew. Janine, still bobbing in the water, couldn’t hear any instructions I shouted to her. But as soon as she understood that the canoe was a goner, she began swimming after our gear, particularly our sat phone. I got to tell Sean, officially, that we had to abandon ship, and with that little official pronouncement, we hopped into the river and started swimming for shore.

We were about an hour from town.

***

Owen, the owner of Missinaibi Outfitters, who had shuttled us to our starting point on the river 10 days ago, listened intently to our plight over the sat phone.  He didn’t hesitate. “I’m on my way,” he said as soon as I described where we were. “I just gotta get the engine on my boat.”

He must have bolted from his house in Mattice. Because within an hour, we were sitting in his boat and motoring back downstream towards his camp. We knew from our initial shuttle ride with Owen that he was a friendly and knowledgeable guide. Now, he elevated himself in our eyes to God-send level. 

He eyed the rapid expertly. “This one has changed a lot,” he said. “Last year, I drove my boat up the middle of this rapid to bring a prospector up the River. Now it’s completely different. The ice break up comes through here like a giant bulldozer see? It can move around the big rocks like they’re nothing.” He tutted and shook his head at the water. “And this rain! The river’s two feet higher than normal for this time of year.”

He drove me out to the wreck of our canoe and tried to pry it off with me, but it was useless. Trying to move a canoe pinned like that is like trying to push a car sideways.  Our boat was as finished as our trip.

Besides the canoe though, we had come through the accident relatively unscathed. Sean was out one boot and we’d each lost a fishing rod. Otherwise, everything else was intact except our pride.  We’d actually been incredibly lucky – the Missinaibi is a terrible river for rescue. Float planes generally can’t land on it and the shore is too thick for easy helicopter rescue.  If we’d dumped anywhere else, we could have been in for a truly uncomfortable (not to mention expensive) experience. As it was, Owen, exhibiting true Northern Canadian hospitality, wouldn’t take a cent for all his troubles in getting us out of the jam.

As we got into our car, Owen told us that, if he could make the time, he’d go and check on the rapid in a couple of weeks and make an effort to retrieve the hull of our boat. Though hopes were dim. “It’s really a shame,” the big man said genuinely, shaking his head.

We should have been more down. But we’d just changed into dry clothes for the first time in three days. There was a poutine stand just a couple of kilometres down the road. And for some ironic reason, it had just stopped raining.

“Don’t worry about it Owen,” we told him.

This kind of thing’s just a fact of life.

 JM

This will be a short description of a perfect day. It will be short because, in addition to being perfect, the day was tiring.

The sun was well above the pines and birch of the Peterbell Marsh before we finally left the tent for breakfast – multiple cups of tea and bannock cooked over a snug morning campfire. Somehow, the temperature was just right – too hot for blackflies, not quite right for mosquitoes, cool enough to sit comfortably in the dappled shade of a tree. Only the barest smudge of muskol was needed to enjoy our meal outside the protection of the dining tent. Reluctantly, we agreed we had to leave sooner or later and that the second option was the only one we had left.

But first we swam. If you can call our combination of belly flopping, dunking and breath holding contests swimming. I do. And I am an expert swimmer AND belly flopper.

Finally, we agreed that it was now neither sooner, nor later, but after that. Time to go.

Down the Peterbell Marsh, we passed a huge bull moose whose rack was at least three feet across. Grazing in the weeds, he looked up at us like a mobster disturbed from his antipasti as we floated by.

The Marsh ended with a roller coaster ride down the Swamp Rapids. With Sean taking the bow, we then played in a series of class 1 waves that took us most of the way to Deadwood Rapids. Here Sean took a look at the flood swollen C1 tech and ceded the front chair back to Janine. We rode throught he frothing haystacks without incident and paddled down to Allan Island, bypassing its broad chute on a slightly overgrown portage.

Next up, we rocketed through the heavily haystacked Wavy Rapid. Though scary, it had the convenience of dumping enough water on us that we didn’t have to change our underwear at the end of it.

From Wavy, it was clear sailing to our camp above Greenhill Rapids. Dragonflies buzzed around us like a fighter plane escort, nipping at any lingering mosquitoes and blackflies. Ducklings trailed their mothers in obedient rows of fluff. A bear swam across the river in front of us, abruptly changing direction and returning to shore as soon as he saw us.

Evening was maturing as we pulled into camp. We ate supper quickly, talking over the idyllics of the day. Now we’ve hit the hay, both in fatigue and in anticipation of the early rise and 1500 meter portage around Greenhill tomorrow.

We’re tired, we’re aching, but we’re settling into a rhythm that is empowering and comforting. It’s a standard pattern on any canoe trip. By the time we leave, we’ll be just toned and at ease in the bush enough to want to stay for another week.

JM

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