Story and photos by Amy Jo Ehman
Saskatoon Star Phoenix, 25 Sept. 2004
Rules are meant to be broken, right? So when Cliff says, “Don’t stop in Prince Albert,” we have to stop.
So we pull off the highway at the government-run beverage store to purchase a box called “Entre-Lacs” (which seems appropriate since we’re on our way to the lake country north of Lac La Ronge) and a bottle of blueberry liqueur that goes nicely with tea.
Then we swing into Tim Horton’s for coffees and discover that we’ve locked ourselves out of the van. This is a problem, because how are we going to explain that to Cliff if we weren’t supposed to stop?
Then someone discovers the back door of the van is unlocked, and skinny Patricia climbs over top of the life jackets and food barrels and overstuffed, rubberized, water-proof backpacks and unlocks the doors from the inside.
So now we’re heading north again and Cliff need never know, because no one’s going to tell him, right?
I’ve been on canoe trips before, but never one like this. Previous canoe trips have been “independent” ventures with my husband and with friends, for which we are responsible for our own gear, food, maps, and if we get lost, that’s our fault, too.
But this is an “organized” trip by an eco-tour company called CanoeSki, operated by Cliff Speer of Saskatoon. Cliff does all the prep work, so all I have to do is show up with my personal gear in a waterproof pack. No worrying – Did I bring enough food? Did we pack the matches? Did anyone bring a corkscrew?
Here’s another big difference: We’re all women. The trip is called Women and Waves, and we’re ten gals heading into a wilderness of gentle waves and soft breezes on the Churchill River system. Our cook is a woman. Our guide is a woman. Our masseur is a woman. (Yes, in his wisdom, Cliff has engaged a masseur.) As the van pulls away with its trailer of canoes, Cliff is a fading memory waving good bye from the sidewalk.
Pat, our driver and cook, tells us that on a similar canoe trip, the women unhitched their bras as soon as they hit the city limits, but we are not renegades of that calibre. Patricia takes out her knitting, Sonja gives her first massage, and we launch into a discussion of our favourite books.
North of Prince Albert, we stop at a roadside picnic area for lunch. Due to vandalism, all the picnic tables have been removed. We sit on the one remaining bench beside the highway, while a couple of jays make darting stabs at our sandwiches. We also see a heron glide overhead, and later, back in the van, we glimpse a bear at the edge of the forest.
There is always a risk of running into a bear while camping in the north. Our guide, Hilary, puts it this way: The first day, the bear is scared and stays away. The second day, he gets curious and watches from a distance. The third day, he gets brave enough to come snooping around. How prophetic that would prove to be. But I get ahead of myself…
Bears were not our big concern that first night in the campground at Wadin Bay. No, our biggest problem was the guys in the next campsite, who sat up talking loudly and chopping firewood well into the wee hours of the morning. Donna “the enforcer” marched across the road and threatened to call the cops on her cell phone. Luckily, they didn’t ask if she had a cell phone, because she didn’t, and she wasn’t sure there would be service up there in the wilderness anyway.
The next morning, after half a night’s sleep, we were all pretty proud of Donna, and it’s too bad she had to take the brunt of that bear… but I get ahead of myself again.
I have been assigned to paddle stern. This is a big deal for me. Whenever I canoe with my husband, he takes the stern (the back of the canoe) because he’s stronger and heavier than I am, and because the stern person has the great responsibility of steering the canoe.
When Cliff tells me that I will be assigned to the stern, I have to be honest with him. Yes, I have canoed these waters before, but I haven’t paddled stern since I was 12 years old at Camp Monahan.
“My husband always paddles stern,” I say.
“Well,” says Cliff, “That’s the whole point of this trip. He won’t be there.”
I accept the challenge. But this new responsibility comes with a cost. Stern paddlers must employ the J-Stroke and the Sweep, two steering techniques that awaken muscles in the shoulders and back which have long resigned themselves to inactivity.
When we say, “My muscles are screaming,” we must mean something like a dog-whistle scream, so high-pitched that it can’t be heard by human ears. Because if you could have heard my muscles by the end of that day, it would have been deafening.
We set off from Missinipi (an hour north of La Ronge) across Otter Lake, and I slowly get the hang of the J-Stroke. It’s easy for a novice to give too much J, and then compensate with too much Sweep, causing the canoe to zigzag like a sail boat tacking in the wind. That’s okay if you’re the only canoe in the water, but we were five canoes travelling together, zigging and zagging through each other’s wakes.
It was inevitable that I would run into another boat. Paula, a nurse from Australia, was in the stern. She yells, “Fair bump. Play on,” which we learn is something sportsmanlike you shout while playing Auzzie rules Football. It becomes my motto, at least until I master the J-Stroke.
Late that afternoon, we dock on a large island with two small inukshuk welcoming us from the rocks. We set up our tents in the forest and pop open the box of Entre-Lacs. Sitting on the rocks over looking the lake, sipping a tin cup of wine, Sonja works out the kinks in my back.
The minute she touches me, the silent scream in my muscles is involuntarily released through my vocal chords. I give a wail that echoes farther than the call of the loon, and no doubt scares away any bear with the slightest curiosity in our home away from home.
I am doing the “Downward Dog” when I spy the blueberries. We are standing in a circle in the forest, and Sonja is taking us through some morning stretches and yoga positions. With my face low to the ground, I notice there are wild blueberries growing in the forest floor all around us. They are dusky purple and much smaller than grocery-store blueberries and as it turns out, they are also much tastier.
In addition to the blueberries, we also pick wild raspberries and mix them into our muesli and scatter them onto Cliff’s carrot cake with cream cheese icing.
We set off on a day trip up Rattler Bay to see the red rock paintings. Unfortunately, we get a little lost. Not a lot lost, because we couldn’t be that far off course, but suddenly the little islands and forested bays do not match those on the map. It’s really easy to get lost when the landscape is so uniform, especially if it’s cloudy and you can’t use the sun to tell which way is which.
It might be cliché to say that when lost, women are more likely than men to ask directions, but at that moment, asking directions is exactly what was called for. But where? We’re floating in the middle of a great wilderness. As if on cue, a motorboat comes putzing around the point and docks at a fishing cabin nestled in the trees. We paddle over and ask directions.
The guy nods the way he has just come. Before long, we’re paddling through the bay into the narrow channel of the Stewart River, where someone has drawn pictures on the face of a rock with red pigment. Some of the images are hard to decipher, but we can clearly see a caribou and a beaver, and something that looks like a carrying pouch with tassels.
Since these paintings aren’t signed and dated, it’s impossible to know who made them, when or why. I know from reading anthropology that Stone Age people all over the world painted pictures of animals on rock faces with red pigments, often in beautiful but less-travelled places like hidden caves and scenic hilltops. And the narrow channel of the Stewart River, lined with reeds and lily pads, is definitely scenic.
But there is no place to dock. We tie the canoes together like a raft and eat our picnic lunch on the water alongside the rock art. Every one of Cliff’s meals is meticulously organized and comes with a menu, notes to the cook and plastic containers labeled with masking tape. “Margarine for breakfast” “Syrup for pancakes” “Cookies. Two each”
Even the eggs in the carton are marked U and C for Uncooked and Cooked. We take those marked C and make egg salad sandwiches, and after our allotted two cookies for dessert, we each take another one to a chorus of, “Don’t tell Cliff.”
Today’s day trip took us to pretty Robertson Falls. It was a hard paddle there and back, and we were all looking forward to relaxing before suppertime. A swim. A massage. A nap. Unfortunately, that bear had other plans for us.
While we were away, a bear ransacked our camp. A plastic food barrel was popped open, and Donna’s tent was slivered by a claw and dragged into the forest.
It’s not like we weren’t taking precautions. We were very careful not to attract the wildlife. No food was kept in the tents, and even our toothpaste and hand lotion were packed into a food barrel. But just as Hilary predicted – the bear got brave on the third day.
“He’ll be back,” she says. “We have to go.”
And so, banishing all thoughts of R & R, we break camp. Within 29 minutes flat, we’re loaded and back on the water. After an hour of paddling into a brilliant sunset, we pull up to an island looking for a “Vacant” sign. Well, it had been vacated recently, but the maid hadn’t cleaned up yet. The campsite was littered with garbage including an opened package of bologna, a case of empties and the remains of fresh fish.
Hilary mutters a curse toward the fisher-persons who left the place in such a mess, and decries the government for getting rid of the Conservation Officers who deter such behaviour. We all agree to write angry letters to the Minister of the Environment, and after we learn that Karen is married to an MLA, we decide to write to him, too.
(I have not yet written my letters, so perhaps this could suffice…)
Eventually, we find a nice camp. In the dying light, Pat cooks the final of Cliff’s gourmet camp meals, lentil stew with rotini and pecan tarts. We try to sing campfire songs, but the best lyrics we can muster are, “Put another log on the fire, cook me up some bacon and some beans…”
The moment the sun sets, the mosquitoes attack like the Mongol hordes. We put green leaves on the fire to create smoke. I open my mouth for a sip of hot tea and take a direct hit by a kamikaze mosquito in the back of the throat. Time for bed, our last night of the trip.
I drift off with those memorable lyrics in my head, “Ain’t I gonna take you fishing with me some day? Well, a man can’t love a woman more than that…”
Since we canoed so unexpectedly last night, we have less distance to travel today – which means we have more time to go shopping. I know this is a female thing, because whenever I’ve been north with my husband, we rarely have time to stop and shop. Shopping is not on Cliff’s itinerary, either. But then, neither was that bear.
In Missinipi, I buy a birch bark basket at the Churchill River Canoe Outfitters. It’s made by a boy named Thompson from Grandmother Bay, who learned the craft from his grandma. We also visit a fabulous art gallery in a house overlooking the bay.
In La Ronge, we stop at Robertson’s Trading Company, a curious mix of grocery store, traditional handcrafts and furs. The Robertsons are independent fur buyers, but they also support the local artisans by buying and selling their wares. It alone is worth a trip to La Ronge.
It’s a long weary drive back to Saskatoon, and I must admit I’m feeling a little homesick. After four nights with the gals, I’m missing my husband – and my own bed – in a big way. When I call him from Cliff’s place, the phone is busy, so Patricia gives me a ride home. When I walk in the door, he looks up surprised from his supper of pork and beans in front of the TV.
“Oh, it’s you…” he says bewildered. “I didn’t expect you until tomorrow.”
Reprinted courtesy of The Star Phoenix, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan