Sunday, August 22, 2010

Intrepid Voyageurs

This weekend Bev and I went on a canoe trip. For extreme trekkers it might not have actually qualified as a real canoe trip. There were no arduous portages and our camp, once set up, stayed set up until we were ready to come home. Instead of the sleek lightweight canoes that most trekkers favor, we used a Sportspal. It certainly is lightweight but it doesn’t glide easily through the water at every stroke of the paddle. It’s designed more for duck hunting than canoe trekking. Some liken it to trying to paddle a bathtub across a lake but we weren’t in a hurry so we didn’t mind. We like it because it is nice and wide and consequently very stable. That will count more and more as we get older and our balance becomes an issue. Besides, it brings back a lot of memories.

The first canoe my younger brother, Tom, bought with his own money was a Sportspal. He spent many happy hours on the water in that boat. We were nearly done High School when my two older brothers conceived a plan for the greatest wilderness adventure of their lives. They would take the whole summer and canoe all the way to James Bay and they would borrow Tom’s Sportspal to do it in. They bought huge backpacks from the army surplus store. Dave learned how to make Indian bannock and began to plan for the food staples they would need to carry. They were counting on supplementing their diet by fishing and hunting along the way so Richard bought a crossbow. There were no cell phones back then but they did think to carry whistles in case they got separated.

The day came when everything was ready and we drove them north to their chosen put in spot near Chapleau. The canoe was loaded to maximum capacity and excitement ran high as we said our farewells. No explorer ever set out with greater anticipation and hope of adventure than those two. They had no idea just how short their trek was destined to be.

They hadn’t gone more than six kilometers when they came to a set of rapids. With the canoe as heavily laden as it was they decided to portage the packs. Richard would walk along the shore and guide the canoe down the rapids by means of a rope. It was a method called “lining the canoe” that neither of them had ever actually tried before. Meanwhile, Dave would begin the task of carrying the packs to a point beyond the rapids. The big square 80 pound packs were cumbersome and Dave was struggling to adjust to the weight when he tripped and fell on what turned out to be a wasp nest. Angry wasps swarmed upward to surround him and he instantly forgot the weight on his back as he scrambled up and took off running through the bush. He soon left the wasps behind and finally came to a gasping halt on the bank of the river once more. He just managed to ease the pack from his aching shoulders when he heard the desperate tweeting of Richard’s emergency whistle coming from around a bend in the river.

Before Dave could respond Richard himself appeared at the bend looking like thunder. He was drenched from head to toe and there was no sign of the canoe. Apparently “lining the canoe” down the rapids wasn’t as easy as it sounded. At a particularly rough patch the lightweight aluminum Sportspal had spun out of control on the end of the rope turning sideways so that it was caught by a huge wave. Richard, who still held the rope, ended up losing his precarious balance and getting pulled into the river. He had to let go in order to save himself but the canoe wasn’t going anywhere. It had very nearly folded itself in half around the boulder it was pinned against by the force of the wave. It took their combined strength to eventually pry it loose. Even though they managed to stomp it back into shape it didn’t much resemble the canoe they had started out with. The ribs were broken and it was holed pretty badly. It was ‘fix it’ or ‘walk’ so they opted to attempt repairs. They spent two days making new ribs for it from some nearby cedar and sealing the holes with the patch kit they’d brought along.

When they put it back in the water it actually floated but it was obvious the patches weren’t going to hold very well. It was leaking badly when they set out once more. Progress was slow as they had to spend as much time bailing as paddling. They made it as far as the next lake and decided that was as far as either of them was willing to go. Fortunately there was a fishing lodge on the lake and the people there offered a means to return to civilization. They were happy to take a break from their exertions and camped there for a week or so before heading home. The great adventure was at an end less than 20 kilometers from where it began. Strangely enough, they didn’t seem at all disappointed. They came away with at least one good story and it only cost them the price of Tom’s canoe…oh, and one crossbow which is probably still somewhere at the bottom of the river.


  1. Robin, your family is providing a rich treasury of stories!
    They used to sell a small motor with the Sportspal. I'm thinking that would be one of my first expenditures :)

  2. We've been looking at small electric motors for a couple of years now. Did you know you can also get a sail for the Sportspal? I think it's a great boat.