“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

Sean, busting my chops on the Noire.

Sean, busting my chops on the Noire.

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

Your choice of travel companions on a wilderness trip is perhaps the most important one you make. A good friend who shares your load, your sense of humour and your chores is as good as a whiney, uptight wuss in your canoe for ten days is bad (though the later can make for a good story… though the story may be about how you bludgeoned someone to death with a tent pole on your vacation).

That’s why Janine and I are excited to have Sean, our 13 year old nephew, joining us for the Missinaibi trip. Sean first joined us for a week long paddle down Quebec’s Noire River two summers ago. He was not only a fun and able companion, but brought a refreshing view to the experience. On our first night around the campfire, I wrote at length about our floatplane ride into the river – the aerial views of unending forests and waters, the drama of our landing. It had been Sean’s first floatplane ride and so I expected a lengthy response when I asked him what he’d thought of the experience.

He looked up at me from under a shock of blonde hair. “Loud,” he said, grinning.

Pithy, accurate, Hemingwayesque. I made a mental note to consider “The Loud Plane” as an alternate title to my epic novel about the trip, in case “Noire – A Poem of Air and Sky” didn’t work out.  

You wouldn’t ask just any 13 year old to come on a 10 day camping trip with you. But Sean proved himself on the Noire and has only grown into a more interesting guy since then. He’s still got all the enthusiasm of a young boy and none of the too-cool-for-your-rapidly-aging-ass attitude of a teenager.  He’s not the biggest fan of rapids and blackflies, but he signed on for a June trip down the Upper Missinaibi without hesitation and we’re glad to have him.

Only one thing is worrying me –  I’m not sure how much Sean will enjoy the 20 hours of driving over the course of two days that it will take us to reach our starting point on the river. I was thinking that I’d try to excite him about it with a vivid description of the interesting historical and geological aspects of the land we’ll be passing through.

But my guess is that, at the end of the ride, he’ll just smile and describe it as “long”.

jm

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

On any trip, your choice of a book is critical. Nothing beats a good read by the campfire, after the dishes are done and the journal’s written. A lot of my favourite books are smeared with bug guts and still smell faintly of muskol.

As I get ready for our Missinaibi trip next week, I once again find myself see-sawing between taking an old favourite or risking a new read. The Sigurd Olson, Grey Owl and Jack London stand-bys are all stacked next to the camping gear. But sometimes it’s fun to read something completely foreign to the environment through which you’re travelling – a book about desert travel when you’re in the forests of Malawi, a bio of Genghis Khan when you’re trekking in Nepal, a book about Newfoundland when you’re pretty much anywhere but Newfoundland. You get the picture.

So my search for the perfect river read continues. If anyone’s got a suggestion for something new, under-appreciated or altogether weird and wonderful, I’m all ears.

Meanwhile, I’ve got packing to do. More on that tomorrow.

JM