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Hiking amongst the limestone of the White Desert, Western Egypt (copyright Janine Murphy)
 
Hey Gang,
 
Check out my new article in the Globe & Mail on off-roading adventures in Egypt’s Western Desert!
JM
 
 
 
 
 
Curator Lake, Below the Notch Pass, Jasper National Park

Looking down at Curator Lake on the way to the Notch Pass in Jasper National Park

This is my final blog post on my one-day, 46km hike of the Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park to raise funds for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society

It’s 8 am on Canada Day and I’m standing at the trailhead of the 46km Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park. The electric blue waters of Maligne Lake lap a saw-toothed shoreline of 2500 meter peaks behind me. This far north, the sun has already been up for 3 hours and I can smell its heat stewing fragrantly through the stands of larch and pine forest that flank the path ahead. My goal is to reach the other end the Skyline Trail by day’s end, so I should already be nervous about letting so much time slip away from me without even starting the hike.

But I’m strangely calm as I stand here, paper coffee cup in hand, my eyes wandering over the corkboard trailhead sign with its bear safety warnings, maps and trail conditions report. My mind is not on the fact that I’m late, that there’s reported to be far more knee-deep snow on the trail than I’d anticipated, that I’ve never hiked this far in one day before, or that I haven’t hiked at all in two weeks thanks to a sore knee. Instead, one thought keeps rattling around my head as I put the dead coffee cup in the trailside garbage bin, take a final deep breath and start up the path towards my first rest point.

This is just like Toronto.

***

I’m trying to walk the entire Skyline in one day for a number of reasons, the most important of which is to raise money for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. Now there’s probably easier ways to raise money for a good cause. But I work in an office and come from a family where good people seem to be doing charity walks, bike-a-thons, walk-a-thons or potato-sack-race-a-thons every second week or so. I knew that I’d need to stand out from the ranks if I hoped to raise my target amount of money for the cause. So I stole a cute title from an old Johnny Cash song and told my social circle that I’d really suffer for their donation, walking more than a marathon’s distance over mountainous, snowy terrain all in one day. It worked. My friends, family and co-workers rallied to support my agony and raised $2,000. The “I Walk the (Sky)Line” trek was born.

It was grateful for the support and suddenly very motivated to get in shape and earn the pledged money. Being a working Dad, I had to build my work out time into my commute time. So a couple of months before the hike I started walking a variety of 10 – 12km routes to work daily trying to flatten my cello-shaped Bay Street body into more of a flute shape for the big day.

And yes, I wish I could think of a harder core instrument to compare myself to than a flute, but that’s just the way it is. I’m just one bad-ass flute.  

***

It’s sometimes said that the greatest challenge of the marathon is mental – willing, motivating or tricking your body to push past its natural limits.  My mental/motivational strategy is to match where I am on the Skyline with where I’d be in Toronto on my training walks.  I figure that if I can hike 22km in the Big Smoke, I can double that here if I really push myself for one day. I’m just walking to work I tell myself, as I start towards my first marker.

The differences between Toronto and Jasper are so constant and obvious, that my game feels completely ridiculous for the first little while. For one thing, there’s the water. The sound and sight of it is everywhere on the Skyline Trail. The creeks near the trail are adrenalized with Spring runoff. They overpower even their natural restraints, gushing over the path or seeping through it at regular intervals.  Toronto used to be a city of creeks and rivers bubbling through dozens of verdant ravines on their way down to Lake Ontario. But most of these are long buried by the forces of urbanization. I walk over their asphalt graves daily as I pass High Park, and west Dundas Street and the UofT campus, hearing their ghosts through the sewer grates.

In Toronto, I never double-check my pack for gore-tex socks.

I never enjoy the air this much either. Whenever I get to the mountains I usually spend the first 15 minutes taking deep, nostril flaring breaths like someone in a Febreeze commercial. No air freshener could ever capture the mountains on a Spring morning – thawed moss, air freshly scraped off the glaciers, the crisp compendium of minerals, the promise of warmth, the alacrity of a possible thunderstorm. Nature seems to have magically sprung from back to life without any of the usual intermediate stages of death and putrefaction. When I do a training walk on Bloor Street, breathing through the smog, the truck exhaust, the Tuesday garbage collection and the smokers lounging in front of store fronts is a necessary evil. Here it’s a performance enhancing drug.

You can feel alienated in a city of millions, but you can’t feel alone. Besides the odd bootprint on the trail, I certainly feel like the only human on the Skyline today. And as always, I’m intensely aware that I am not necessarily at the top of the food chain around here. Of course, I tell myself the usual things about bears – they’re far more threatened by us than we are by them. I also remember that one of the great CPAWS initiatives I’m hoping to support with this hike is the establishment of the Y2Y (Yellowstone to Yukon) Rocky mountain corridor to provide safe habitat and migratory routes for creatures like bears. And of course, sighting a bear, particularly a grizzly bear, in the mountains is a sign that you are truly in a wild area, a place worth protecting. Still, I’ve run into bears on hiking trails before and I am well aware how empty all these sentiments are when you actually see one appraising you, trying to decide whether you should be fled from, ignored or taste tested. So I take the standard precaution of talking loudly and singing to myself as I hike.

In Toronto, you’ll rarely find me loudly stating at regular intervals, that I’m both bony and high in trans-fats.

***

Near the 10 km mark I come to the ridge of Little Shovel Pass, the first of three passes I’ll crest today. On my training walks, I’d have reached my office by now, my pace slowed to a crawl as I shuffle between the Bay Street skyscrapers with the rest of the commuters. It’s the part of the training walk when I’m most surrounded by people, buildings, noise, confusion.

On the pass, there’s only the sound of the wind whipping past me as it scuttles back towards Maligne Lake. Two low mountains on either side of the pass are the only thing obstructing my view of the sky. A couple of marmots wrestle beside their den with the energy of animals that have just woke up from a 6 month nap. There’s nobody else here. Obviously, most people are listening to the wardens this weekend and giving the trail another couple of weeks to melt. Besides some scattered patches of snow, there’s nothing on the ground but bare grey and brown rock. In the valley ahead – more snow, more rock, a few patches of grey vegetation just coming out of winter hibernation.  Looking back the way I came, towards the Lake, the green trees and the blue mountains around Maligne Lake, I feel like I’m on the moon looking down at Earth.

The shallow valley that lies between Little Shovel and the next pass, Big Shovel, is called the Snowbowl. In high Summer, it’s a pleasant basket of alpine flowers, striped with creeks and streams running down from the surrounding amphitheatre of peaks. Today, it’s a patchwork of snow and muck in various degrees of thaw. The visible plant life huddles moodily, buds tightly closed like a teenager clamping the covers over his head on a Monday morning. It’s not a cheerful scene, but then again, I am also literally losing my sunshine – the sky has become overcast, and suddenly everything is shades of matte grey. On my Toronto walk, I’d be on my return leg home now, trudging westwards on Dundas street past Chinatown’s maelstrom of blaring loudspeakers, strange spices, stranger fruits, and goods of questionable use and safety. Further along in Little Portugal I could snack on a marshmallow-soft Kaiser bun at my favourite bakery or grab a roasted chicken to bring back for dinner.

I don’t linger in the Snowbowl. Once I’m on the other side of it, I’ll truly be at the point of no return (or at least, long, inconvenient, repetitive return) so I’m anxious to get going before my resolve wavers. I reach into my pack for a granola bar (I’ve brought enough of them to start a thriving hippie colony), take a deep drink from my water bottle, perform a few cursory stretches, and keep moving.

***

The path over the pass called the “Notch” is the sixth highest length of maintained trail in the Canadian Rockies. It often sports a small overhanging cornice of snow along its top that hikers must march around to reach the top. The last time I was on the summit it was early September and my brother and I scooped handfuls of powder from it for a snowball fight. It’s the halfway point of the hike and I have hopes of reaching it by lunch time, based on my training walks back home.

The snow and the mud of the Snowbowl have slowed me down and its 1:30 before I crest the ridge of Big Shovel pass and get my first view of the Notch in the distance. It’s a bleak picture. The whole valley between me and the pass looks snow-covered. More worryingly, I can see the trail disappearing underneath a cornice which stretches all the way across and over the Notch like an ugly overbite. Clouds the colour of old dishwater hang just above the summit.  The whole thing looks like its waiting for hikers with a big, nasty grin.

I repeat my mantra. But it is now competing with another recirculating thought. You’re screwed.

***

Luke and Dick are from Indiana. Luke and Dick are a son and father, hiking in Jasper for the first time. Luke and Dick seem like nice people to me. Of course, sitting here at the bottom of the trail leading up to the Notch, it wouldn’t bother me if Luke and Dick were chainsaw wielding cannibals. They’re the first people I’ve met on the trail today and they’ve got information on how to get around the cornice.

Well, not information really. More like an encouraging bit of news. “We met a park ranger yesterday who had just come over it,” Dick says, munching on a snack. “She said it’s doable.”

Luke and Dick don’t have much more intel than this. Luke and Dick don’t have much experience with scrambling across snow-covered scree slopes. But they’re going for the top of the Notch anyway, fully loaded with big packs and overnight camping gear. So, if they’re willing to take a stab at hauling themselves over the Notch, I reason that I should be willing to do the same. I take it as a sign from the hiking gods that I met them right when my spirit was at its lowest and Toronto seemed furthest away. 

I look up at the trail. It doesn’t seem so bad. If we by-pass the cornice by hiking around it via a steep scree slope to its right, we can scramble over the mountain that makes up one side of the pass and then back down to the trail on the other side of the Notch. Luke and Dick and I agree that’s probably what the ranger did.

We tackle the pass together. But in my far-lighter, daypacking state, I soon find myself way out ahead of my Indiana friends. I climb steadily towards the cornice, head down, planting one foot slowly ahead of the other in the stoney dirt, thinking in ten foot stages, daydreaming about how loudly I’ll sing Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer” when I get to the top.

I am, of course, making a stupid, stupid mistake. Thinking in ten foot stages is fine when you’re on a set trail, safe, and are simply trying to motivate yourself. But when you’re picking a new route through unfamiliar terrain on the side of a mountain, you need to plan out your entire approach to the summit.

Otherwise you will very likely find yourself, as I suddenly have, perched on a precarious outcrop of undercut rock, small boulders tumbling away beneath you, with no discernable way forward for a land-based animal and the way back seeming only marginally less dangerous.

I trained for the Notch by climbing the 47 flights of stairs in my office tower. They are wonderful, stable stairs. They have handrails. They did not prepare me for this moment, where my happily muttered “Ohhhhh we’re halfway thaaar! Whoa ho! Living on a…” dies on suddenly parched lips and a sense of deep fear clamps over me like a vise. I realize that, in taking the series of easy lines that seemed to go directly towards the summit, I’ve overshot the lengthier, but only moderately difficult route to the top of the mountain, putting myself out on a minute ledge, high above the saddle of the Notch, but with no safe way down or over to it.

Suddenly, every forbidding line from every wilderness disaster story I’d ever read, jumped into my head. These lines generally all end with the phrase “It was a fatal error”.

“He set out at night, determined to find a way out of the disorienting wilderness and save his family. It was a fatal error.”

“The men calculated that if they halved their food and made a forced march to the coast, they might meet up with a passing supply ship that serviced this area of the arctic. It was a fatal error.”

“Captain Tyne decided to sail for the notorious Flemish Cap in a make-or-break effort to salvage the sword-fishing season. It was a fatal error.”

I’m going to fall and die here, probably painfully and slowly, unless the big unstable rock I’m currently perched on follows me to the bottom for a mercifully quick crushing. I’m going to die because I was proud and stupid and hadn’t listened to my instincts that the trail just wasn’t safe this early in the season. I’m going to die because of Luke and Dick and the hiking gods, those bastards. The money I was raising for CPAWS will probably have to be put towards a memorial bench in Jasper. The Globe and Mail will write a brief piece misspelling my name and wondering how I died on a trail hiked safely by hundreds of people every year.   Torontonians will write snide letters to the editor about how stupid I was. Albertans will write that morons from Toronto shouldn’t be allowed to hike in their woods. Even the friggin’ marmots will snicker. I am about to become a gooey joke.

I’ve read enough books on mountaineering to know that panic does no good and probably a whole lot of harm in these situations. So, fighting every instinct in my body, I actually do the right thing. I cautiously sit down and unwrap another granola bar, fighting the nausea that comes with each bite. As I munch, I look upwards and pick out a route that, with some slight backtracking and mild coronary discomfort, may offer the best footholds to the top of the mountain. I put the granola wrapper in my pocket, shorten the length of my trekking poles and begin to climb, still humming “Livin’ on a Prayer,” but now in a very different tone.

I get to the top of the Notch at 3:30.

In Toronto, I never regret not bringing a spare pair of underwear on a hike.

***

Honestly, I think I’d hike the Skyline again just for the water. I drank like an old sailor throughout the day. I know drinking too much water on a marathon-length walk is not recommended and maybe my mouth was a little dry from the adrenaline rush of the Notch, but mainly, I just like the taste so much that I decide to treat myself. Burbling springs, green pools of glacial melt, streams running off and under 6 foot high banks of standing snow – I dip my nalgene in all of them, sucking down liquid until my face knots with the freezee headache. If my bottle is still full when I reach the next water feature, I dump it out and refill just for the pleasure of it.

The 10 km after the Notch feels easy, fueled by the adrenaline rush of a near disaster, the scenery and the knowledge that it’s pretty much all level or downhill from here. The trail contours a steep ridge that on one side offers a panoram of the entire Athabasca River Valley – the Jasper townsite, Mount Edith Cavell, the famous wall of mountains known as the Ramparts and half a dozen other famous peaks. On the other side of the ridge, an imposing orange and black mountain known as the Watchtower dominates the view back towards Maligne Lake. Ahead, the trail cuts towards the backside of Mount Tekarra. It’s a rounded, uninspiring peak when viewed from town.  But from this angle, it drops a sheer and spectacular 500 meters down to a picturesque blue and green river valley.  Looking at it, you immediately understand why every second store in Jasper is named after Tekarra.

Even with the threatening clouds and a wind that wants to tear every hair off my head, it’s a glorious stroll. I’m soon at Tekarra campground, 14 km from the end of the trail with any thoughts of Toronto far from my mind. I stop only to needlessly refill my water bottle in Tekarra Creek before taking on the final leg.

I’ve been looking forward to this section of the hike least of all.  For one thing, I’m now well beyond any distance I’ve previously hiked and I’m worried that I might hit the infamous “wall” that I’ve heard so much about. For another, the last 10km of the trail is on a visually-uninspiring fire road. The steep decline of it is enough to make my knees ache in advance and the knowledge that I won’t have any alpine scenery to distract myself with doesn’t help the situation.

Luckily, I’ve saved my best Toronto images for just this point in the walk. As I begin to limp down the fire road, I let my mind wander to my favourite training route – walking home along Lake Ontario. Instead of worrying about the fresh black bear scat and the encroaching darkness (which, incidentally, makes it very hard to avoid stepping in fresh black bear scat), I imagine I’m on the busy waterfront trail with the rollerbladers and cyclists, watching the sailboats and the dragon boat paddlers and the beach volleyball players as a hazy sunset sears the water a pewtery pink. As my knees start to scream on the downhill switchbacks, I think about my homestretch walk through High Park, up Colbourne Lodge Road past the deep Carolingian woods and the delicate cherry trees, past the kid-filled softball diamonds and swimming pools, past the tennis courts full of flailing arms and sweaty after-work faces. And then, as the sound of the cars on Maligne Lake Road becomes louder and louder, I picture myself back on Bloor West, passing the bakeries and fruitshops and the bookstores of my little neighborhood.

And I smile in this beautiful mountain paradise as I think of my home in big, bad Toronto.

***

Thanks to all those who made the first “I Walk the (Sky)Line” a success. From my donators to those who followed my blog, to those who took the time to encourage me. A special thanks to my wonderful family, especially my wife Janine and baby Kathleen (Honestly: how could I plummet to a gooey death with such a cute kid to come home to? Someone’s got to teach her how not to scramble up mountains).

There’s no reason why the first “I Walk the (Sky)Line” fundraiser should be the last. And there’s no reason why I should be the only one having all the fun. I encourage everyone who loves our country’s wild places to organize their own walks next July 1.

What better way to celebrate Canada Day than to spend it enjoying our parks and wild areas while helping out those who seek to protect them for future generations?

See you 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

“Why’d They Have to Eat *That* Ear?” – Janine

Finally.

That’s the thought that kept running through my head for most of the day. Finally after all the wishing and all the preparation, we’d be on the water today. On the Missinaibi.

Our shuttle driver, Owen, kept us entertained for most of the drive with stories of bears, expert lessons on hunting and trapping, treatises on Northern Ontario history and an explanation of why he hates beavers (it’s completely understandable really – they killed his best friend). The man should charge extra for his conversation.

After driving a final 87 km down a gravel road that Owen claims workers cut while following a drunk snake, we finally arrived at the put in. Owen had enjoyed his new truck’s capabiliites on the road (“Last time I
came down here with my wife, she vomitted all over the place!” he said cheerfully, taking a sharp turn at 80 km/h ) and Janine’s face nicely matched her green shirt as she exited the vehicle. Still, the smile on her face was genuine. I knew she was as excited to get started as I was.

A small crowd watched us assemble our pakboat (people up here care deeply about boats, I find, and are always interested in a novel watercraft). Once this was done, we pushed off into a light mist on Lake Missinaibi.

The blackflies had arrived in whirling columns as we’d unloaded our gear from Owen’s truck. But the open water and occassional rain gave us some relief. After a three hour paddle, we arrived at the start of the river proper and the first rapid – Quittenegene. Here, we set up camp in grass soaked by several days of almost continuous rain. The blackflies rolled out the welcome mat and were soon enjoying their dinner. Janine and Sean, who seem to react to blackfly bites particularly badly are already swelling up nicely and our shirts are already becoming polka-dotted with blood spots. Still, everyone’s in good humour with Janine only complaining that the flies had not bitten so hard on the ear she usually sleeps on.

Though a short paddle day, when combined with the drive, it was enough to wipe us out. Janine and Sean are already asleep beside me and I can’t wait to join them.

Tomorrow, our first rapids.

jm

(This is my continuing blog on getting ready for my Missinaibi River trip, which starts this Saturday)

We’re ready. Just about. Pretty much.

The bags are packed and all the little debates are settled. Sandals or neoprene boots?  How many forms of pre-cooked bacon is it safe to eat in one 10-day period? Do we really need the Audobon field guide to plants and trees? What the hell is cream of wheat?

We’ve read our “don’t forget this stuff” list so many times our eyes have crossed. The only thing to do now is drive 12 hours and realize we forgot something.

Sean passed out about half an hour ago and Janine just hit the bed with an audible thump. I really should be waxing lyrical about how excited I am to get up north again; to be enclosed by the pines, to be lulled to sleep by the tune of the river rushing by our campsite;  to be slowly eaten alive by the blackflies.

But I’m so, so tired. I’ll just let Grey Owl do my talking for me:

I have traversed the black swamps and the vast, reeking muskegs of the Abitibi, gone hungry in the bleak sterility of the distant, unknown North, and hacked my way through the impenetrable cedar jungles of far-off Temiscouata… Riding Mountain… the spruce-clad lowlands of the upper Saskatchewan.  Each of these districts has its special claim on the imagination and every one of them is imbued with the fantastic lure of the unknown that, like some all-powerful enchantment or magic spell pervades the unpeopled places of the earth’s surface. But they all, to me, lack the austere magnificence  and the rugged grandeur of the highlands of North Ontario, with their bold, romantic scenery, uncounted and uncountable deep-water lakes and wild rushing rivers…

jm

  

IMG_8038
A picture from the last year’s trip prep session. This year’s trip prep session is too scary to photograph.

(This is my continuing blog on getting ready for my Missinaibi River trip, which starts next week)

As used by cosmologists, the term Big Bang generally refers to the idea that the universe has expanded from a primordial hot and dense initial condition at some finite time in the past, and continues to expand to this day… [according to some postulations] the universe [will] reach a maximum size and then begin to collapse. It [will] become denser and hotter again, ending with a state that was similar to that in which it started — a Big Crunch.

–  Big Bang Theory, Wikipedia

I’ve often thought that God (a dedicated paddler with an amazing cross-bow draw) got the idea for creating the universe from packing for a canoe trip. Certainly, the similarities are striking.

Deep in the unknown darkness of my basement, a mass of camping, fishing and paddling gear lays in a disorganized jumble of bags and barrels, awaiting the divine spark.

In a tremendous and sudden burst of energy, Janine and I descend from upstairs and haul the mass into the middle of the basement, separating it haphazardly, spreading it across the entirety of the room until the place looks like a hand grenade went off in the middle of MEC. The poles for the two man tent are next to the minus 30 sleeping bags, the fishing lures are in the kitchen bag, there’s plant life growing on the water filter. I have one gaiter. Is this nalgene full of shampoo or suntan lotion? The dishes smell like Muskol. What the hell is this thing? Hey, five bucks!

With hard work and cursing, the various categories of gear eventually begin to conglomerate into recognizable constellations. Paddles clump with life jackets, forks find plates, fuel reunites with the stove, tents regain their proper rain flies. Like a black hole, one barrel sucks in all the stuff we don’t know what to do with and don’t intend to take anyway. The room becomes organized into slightly less disorganized galaxies of crap. Ticks begin to appear on lists. A meteor of optimism streaks across the firmament, until it fizzles with the memory that we haven’t grocery shopped yet (more on that later).

Then, when we’re convinced that we’ve managed to find it all, that the great work is finished, comes the Big Crunch. The room’s contents, having finally evolved to a discernable order, are drawn backwards into the yawning emptiness of the red and green rubber bags, the blue barrels. A great sucking sound of rattling metal and swishing nylon is followed by the clicking of clasps, the cinching of straps and the inevitable sound of cracking plastic that tells you you’ve broken something that may or may not have contained liquid.

We’ll repeat this process about a dozen times before trip’s end. But for now, we rest.

And try to figure out how many granola bars to buy at Loblaws tomorrow.

jm