I am so fortunate to have experienced this journey during the dawn of my life because during this period I feel that one’s perception of time seems to be stretched. Its like time is slowed and savored and it seems to linger just enough to make the taste of the experience embed itself deeper in one’s memory. Bits and pieces of this journey have faded but the trip as a whole and the sundry experiences are a precious part of the texture that has been my life.
I don’t remember what prompted Alan Michelson and I to journey to Canada and immerse ourselves in the Northern Forest. I seem to remember that the idea and motivation were rooted in Alan. I do remember really being excited by the possibility of canoeing in the ‘wilderness’. There were two incidents that stand out prior to departure: 1. a practice campout on a suburban island and 2. a request for a personal one on one with Uncle Sam’s representatives regarding my legal obligation to protect our borders.
1. I don’t remember the exact place or whose property it was but I starkly remember the palpable fear that I felt camping in a tent. As I remember it we were in a small pup tent on a small island in a small pond. That detail is unimportant in the bigger scheme of things. Most clearly I recall being filled with an apprehension and a foreboding. My thoughts placed us in a distant wilderness and I considered the distinct likelihood of bears. And of wolves. And of wolverines. We could be hapless ragdolls torn asunder by ravaging carnivores. Not pleasant. It was one of those times when an active imagination was not necessarily something to be desired. I believe that the walls of the tent in some way enhanced the fear. They were not so much protection from the environment but in some way made the possibilities of my fears all the more real. The thin veneer of the fabric kept out the real world of the little island and my mind painted the blank canvas from the fountainhead of my foreboding thoughts. Kind of like Schrödinger’s cat in reverse. Ironically, when we eventually did reach Canada we were without a tent. We carried a large plastic sheet as a ground cloth and a poncho as a rain fly. I think I felt safer this way because I was less like a flesh sandwich in a Ziploc baggie and freer to escape the clutches of potential beasties.
2. One reason I associate the Algonquin trip with being called up by the selective service is that I remember thinking how the outcome of my pre-induction physical would determine whether or not I would come back to the United States or stay on in Canada as a conscientious objector. It was quite an experience. I took the Rapid Transit to downtown Cleveland and I was not quite sure of where the physical was being conducted. Once I figured it out I remember running to get there on time. When I finally showed up (on time), I saw a lot of friends and acquaintances because they were also just a few months past their 19th birthday and had received their request for their presence as well. First we were stripped down to our underwear and socks. That certainly is a great equalizer! I remember being put through a series of physical tests including eyesight and hearing. I was fine on the seeing but I was a little concerned when they put me in a booth with earphones and told me to push a button every time I heard a tone. I sat there for a couple of minutes and nothing happened and then somebody came by and said, “Next station!!!” Funny, I heard that! I said, “I think there’s a problem because I didn’t hear anything the whole time I sat here.” They made some adjustments, I redid the test and son of a gun, I passed! But wait a minute! This was not a test that I wanted to pass. Do good and go to war!!! Oh well. The next thing I knew, I was standing in a line with a bunch of other mostly naked guys and this soldier in a uniform says, “All right ladies. Anyone who thinks they are not physically qualified for induction, take one step forward.” I’d say at least 90% of that line (including me) stepped forward. As the uniform moved down the line he’d send each guy back to the original line saying something like, “What, are you living in a fantasy world?” But when he got to me, he looked at my papers. Then he looked at me again. Then back at the papers. Then back at me. He kept this up for about five minutes. Finally, he sent me to a small room where a doctor joined me and grilled me about the ulcerative colitis I had when I was sixteen years old. He kept this up for about an hour. He’d get on the phone and call my old doctors and nurses and grill them too. Eventually, he sent me to sit on the group W bench. I remember that there were a lot of unruly and unsavory characters there. I was just a skinny nineteen year old kid in his underwear and socks. Yet, there I sat with all of these rough and rowdy fellows (who also were in their underwear and socks which remarkably did nothing to diminish their nefarious appearance). After about half an hour I was called into an office. This was the biggest office I had ever been in and there were three people residing. A secretary, some officer in a uniform and then the high ranking muckety muck who I presumed was in charge of the whole affair going on outside the door. Now, being in skivvies and socks with a bunch of other guys was a humbling experience but being in this well appointed office with a fully dressed woman and two dudes in fancy uniforms really made me feel embarrassed. I do believe I was blushing from the top of my head to the bottom of my sock-covered feet. The general (I’m sure thinking back that he was of a lower rank, but in my mind that was what he was) looked up at me and asked, “So are you the one that had the colitis?” I looked up at him and in a squeaky voice I said, “Yes, sir!” All he said was, “Hmmmmm.” He looked down on his desk and searched for just the right stamp. You see, he had probably a dozen different rubber stamps littering his desk. They were of a variety of sizes and shapes that must have somehow conveyed their meaning. He settled on one and took my paperwork out and stamped it. I have never in my life read anything upside down and backward so fast as I did the words, “NOT PHYSICALLY QUALIFIED FOR INDUCTION”. He handed me the papers and I said in my squeaky voice, “Thank you sir!” and then I saluted him. There are moments in your life that are filled with sheer joy. This was one of those moments.
I remember very little about our drive to Canada, although if I remember correctly, the drive back was not without incident. But more on this later…
Upon arriving at our destination we got our canoe, paddles and life cushions from the canoe livery and set out. It seems it was about 8:00 in the evening so we didn’t get too far before we had to camp. That first camp is memorable for one thing. It was on the same lake as the rental facility and there were a number of cabins and piers on the shore so the sound we heard didn’t strike us as all that odd. I remember a whining sound that I equated with an electric motor. This made a great deal of sense: a big lake, motorized canoe. Bingo. The noise kept getting louder. And louder. And distinctly less motor like and more like a buzzing sound. Then we saw it. It was a fuzzy cloud and it was moving unerringly towards our camp. It was probably my imagination but it seemed to move quicker upon our coming onto the shore to witness its arrival. You know, the word mosquito is such an inadequate name for such a bloodsucking bitch. Under most circumstances, where you’ve got a few of the little nasties feasting on you, okay, I can accept the common vernacular of ‘mosquitoes’ but in this particular location and situation I’m thinking a more appropriate name would be Bloodsucking Vampire Flies. Now that would be a much better approximation to the reality that Alan and I faced. And of course, like fools, we just stood there when they made their arrival. But not for long. The flying insects seemed to find there way into our nostrils, our eyes, our ears, under our shirts. EVERYWHERE!!! I am sure to anyone off shore that happened to float by; we would have appeared to be a couple of drug crazed hippies doing some sort of crazy ritualistic dance. We finally took refuge under the plastic tarp for a long and very uncomfortable night. Nice way to start the trip! Luckily for us, the experience did not repeat itself with anywhere near the level of drama as that first night.
Our skills as canoeists were not exactly stellar when we started out. We took turns in the back and I don’t really remember any bad blood between us or frustration over how things were going. We sort of learned as we went along and had the patience with each other to accept each other’s flaws and foibles and discount them. Of course memories and reality often have a huge gulf between them and I am sure that in the beginning that we canoed a crooked path down the Pettiwawa River. We were unskilled in other arenas as well. For instance we packed WAAAYY too light. God must have smiled down on us because we did survive. I remember some very experienced canoeists saw us sitting by our gear and they commented that they were either very impressed or very worried about us. I asked, “Why do you say that?” and one guy said, “Anyone who comes into the wilderness with that little gear is either really, really good or they simply don’t have a clue.” I don’t need to tell you where we were in that spectrum. Our food was all freeze dried and we would joke about a bear getting into our larder and eating it all, going down to the lake, drinking its fill and then quietly exploding.
We worked our way northward, traversed a few short portages but eventually came across a portage of quite some distance. I seem to remember it was about two miles. We packed our gear to the river and then went back for the canoe. We would take turns with the canoe on our backs so we both headed back for the canoe. When we got to where we had the canoe secured on the shore, I believe it was me who came up with a bad idea. And in the history of bad ideas I think that this one has to have ranked up there near the top of all the bad ideas that have ever been acted upon. My logic was impeccable. It would be a lot quicker and a whole lot less effort if we just canoed down to where we dropped off our packs. We checked the map and saw that the reason for this particular portage was something called Stacks Rapids. Presumption was that it was a series of rapids that were named after some explorer named Stacks. Not really being wise to the ways of interpreting this map we also presumed that the rapids were marked by the little straight blue lines crossing the river. We discovered pretty quickly that presumption is truly the better part of failure.
Rapids are categorized from easy (1) to impossible (5). The first set of rapids we came across would be about a three on that scale. We noticed that they were quite loud and very quickly we were led to realize this was NOT a good idea. I was in the front of the canoe and I began to notice two things. First thing I noticed was that the horizon was doing a funny thing. It seemed to be disappearing. All I could see was the sides of the river and directly in front of it was sky. The second thing I noticed was that in spite of the roaring sound of the rapids there was an additional sound coming from somewhere in front of us that was LOUDER than the surrounding sound. I began to realize that these two random observations led to one simple conclusion: WE WERE HEADED FOR A WATERFALL! Apparently those little blue lines on the map were indicators of waterfalls. I quickly turned and through sundry hand gestures and looks of sheer panic I conveyed to Alan that it was imperative that we get to the SIDE of the river. We were able to pull our canoe onto some rocks about three feet from the lip of a seventy foot waterfall.
Standing and trembling on the brink of this massive precipice we looked down and there was a canoe wrapped around a thirty foot high rock. Downstream about twenty yards away was another canoe wrapped around another huge boulder. We were to later discover that the first white explorers to traverse this terrain were killed on this particular waterfall. We quickly decided that we were definitely very stupid. The next decision was carefully examine the map and see if there was a solution to our dilemma. The portage trail we would have followed was on the opposite shore of the river and so we attempted to wade to the other side. NOT a good idea. The force of the water was so great that there was no way to even stand up. There was a real danger of getting swept over the waterfall. Our next solution was to find a way to lower the canoe down to the bottom of the waterfall and continue on from there. We did have rope in the canoe and that ended up being our solution. Once we got to the bottom we set off again but this time painfully aware of what lie in front of us. It turns out that they were called Stacks Rapids because they were stacked between a series of waterfalls. Incredibly we were able to negotiate the entire series of rapids. When we relayed this information to the canoe livery people they looked at us with expressions mixed with awe and disbelief.
The really strange thing was that we did all of this without capsizing even once until we glanced over and saw our gear on the shore. We cheered and promptly hit a rock and over we went dumping Alan’s shoes into the stream. We eventually found them but the elation of surviving that river could not be dampened. But the trip still had some challenges to be overcome.
There is nothing like a nice breeze to help you appreciate the smells and sounds of nature but when that breeze stiffens and comes at you in gusts and bursts that could knock you over, not so much. We were coming into Catfish Lake and that pleasant breeze did stiffen but there was no knocking us over because we weren’t on land we were on the water. Please note that there is a certain lack of resistance when it comes to water and anything that floats upon it. Such was our canoe. The water was forming into waves pushed by the wind into two to three foot swells with the tops of the waves being blown off. These are quaintly called white caps. And we were canoeing straight into that ‘stiffening breeze’. Our bodies and canoe were catching the full brunt force of the wind and as such pushed our canoe backwards in the direction from which we came. The only thing that we had to combat this force was the sheer brute massive strength of our mighty forearms which had become honed to a physical perfection from the hours of paddling taking place over the last couple of days. I joke. As we stroked and paddled in an imperfect unison into those straight line winds we would glance over at the shore to measure our steady progress. Notice I said steady and not significant. Yes, we were moving forward. But more like forward in the sense that a snail crawling on concrete is making progress in its traverse of a mile long sidewalk. I don’t think I can think of a time in my life prior to that or even since then when I have worked that physically hard. Yet somehow we prevailed. We were planning on crossing an open water span of about a half mile to the distance shore as we came around the peninsula of land we had been canoeing along. Remember that life is about how you handle Plan B. Plan B turned out to be our arms were about to give up the ghost and as we rounded that peninsula we went on our own version of a Nantucket Sleigh Ride toward a solitary little island directly ahead of us. And it is an ill wind indeed that does not blow some good fortune and such was the case here. When we crashed into that island we were in for a wonderful surprise.
There was no official name for the little island but an appropriate one would be Wood Craft Island. It was probably only about a half-acre in size and was essentially all wooded. There were nice open areas for camping but in the middle of said island was a scene like something out of a story book. Some craftsman had spent some considerable time and effort in making the island into a showcase of Wood Craft the like of which we had never seen before. Using only the natural resources available there was a table and chairs and a kitchen area replete with all of the niceties that even some fully equipped modern kitchens were missing. Wow! The table was slats of wood fitted precisely together and was sturdy enough to support the weight of a full grown man. The chairs were of natural wood as well but showed an even greater level of skill. The legs and frames were branches taken from trees but the really impressive thing was the seats. They were woven together slats from Ash trees. If you pound Ash logs with a wooden mallet it will separate into long thin pliable slats. Someone had done that and woven them into beautiful seat bottoms. The kitchen area was amazing. There was a stone oven along with a stone fire circle all of which were constructed in such a way that the stone appeared to be fit together in a manner that rivaled the Incan stone temples. There was a wooden structure adjacent to both that had shelves and hooks for hanging utensils and a spit above the fire circle that could be adjusted up and down in order to better cook whatever hapless animal was being cooked above the conflagration.
The next day was the antithesis of the day before. The water was so calm that it was like looking at a mirror. Reflecting the beginning of fall colors, the site took our breath away. It almost seemed a shame to disturb the tranquil still waters with the prow of our canoe. Almost. There was progress to be made however and so we headed for our next portage on the distance shore. As we approached we noticed something moving on the bank towards which we were heading. How exciting! It was a young bear, probably just born this last spring. It saw us coming and it hightailed it up the slope and disappeared. We landed the canoe and pulled it up onto shore and ran up the slope to see if we could get a better sight of the bear. Do you remember that I said we were really naïve and stupid? Well, this was to prove proof positive of the naivety. We didn’t see it at first but we decided to check out the trail that led off to our right. It ascended for a ways and then started going down a hill with ledge outcroppings interspersed horizontally along the hill. Descending down we saw an amazing view. Down at the bottom of the hill was a campsite with a couple of campers. Up the hill from them and down the hill from us was the young bear peering over the ledge at the campers with some apparent curiosity. The campers looked up at that moment and started running around in a certain state of panic. The bear was cuter than it was ferocious. We, however, did not share their perspective. There is an old saying that goes something like this, ‘If while all about you people are running and screaming while you remain calm, then you are obviously not full apprised of the situation.’ Such was the case for us. Picture if you will a cross-section of the said hill side. At the bottom on the right are the campers, up the hill is the young bear looking over the rock, above the bear is us looking over a rock looking at the bear looking over the rock at the campers and finally above us, looking over a rock looking at us was the young bear’s mother standing on two legs and looking apparently like a rabid grizzly. Once we were ‘fully apprised of the situation’ needless to say we began to see the wisdom of the panicking campers at the bottom of said hill.
The beach in the bay near Brent was broad and sweeping. It was a beautiful view out onto the lake and a quiet respite from our long and arduous trip down the Petawawa River. The town of Brent Ontario back in the 60’s was accessible by only three modes of transportation – canoe, float plane and train. It was the home to a general store run by a little old Frenchman who did not have the temperament for owning and running an establishment such as this. Alan and I discovered this in the course of treating ourselves to a refreshing cold beverage. There was a perfect storm of population in Brent that afternoon. There was the troop of girl scouts that arrived by canoe, there were the two float planes that stopped, there was Alan and I and there was the Canadian National Railway. There were a total of sixteen of us in the store all at the same time and it was more than ‘Pierre’ could stand. He started to scream at the top of his lungs, “Everybody out! Everybody out! Too many people! One at a time!” We subsequently took our turns and I got an ice cold Coca Cola out of the soda cooler. This turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life because upon drinking this beverage from heaven I realized that it was likely going to be the last soda I would ever drink. Whereas it did have the desired effect of tasting good and being cold, I soon began to observe firsthand the deleterious effects it had on my body and metabolism. It was probably because I had cleansed my body of its poisons over the last week or so and as a result I could actually sense subtle ways it was hurting my body. Because of this, I have essentially sworn off carbonated beverages and I am far healthier for it.
On our trip to Kiosk, the next town of any population, I remember having two amazing animal encounters during a lengthy portage. I was carrying the canoe on my shoulders and most of the time in doing such a task I would have my head down and I would be focused on the trail. At times I would take a break by putting the back end of the canoe on the ground. This would take some of the weight off my back. Often I would rest my arms on my legs and as such about 90% of my focus was straight down onto the path. I did this one time and in my peripheral vision I saw what I would have sworn was a tree shaped just like the leg of a deer and the bottom of it even looked like a hoof. Then as I glanced around I noticed three more just like it and they were located proportionately in about the right locations to be biggest deer on planet Earth. I slowly raised the canoe off to one side and there was a stag Elk with probably an antler spread of about six feet. He very calmly looked at me like I was the strangest thing he had ever seen in the north woods and chewing on his cud slowly ambled off.
The second animal encounter was equally amazing but on a totally different scale. I was looking ahead to see Alan just ahead of me. He was wearing a white Levi jacket but that was not what I saw. What I saw didn’t make any sense. His entire jacket was really more of a grey color and the cloth seemed to be moving in waves even when he was standing still. As I got closer to him it dawned on me what I was looking at. Mosquitoes, aka Blood Sucking Vampire Flies. I felt physically ill. The beauty was that the next night there was a killing frost and after that, the BSVF’s were no longer an issue.
The town of Kiosk was a lumber town and the saw mill was a prominent feature of the skyline. The only thing of note that I remember was my presumption regarding the pronunciation of its name. I presumed it was KEE osk but the local populace said KY osk.
On the return journey we camped in this beautiful little cove. We claimed the beach area as our campsite and we were preparing our little stoves and freeze dried fare when here came a canoe with an electric motor. It was a man and his son. They pulled their canoe up onto the beach next to ours and jumped out with a stringer of trout and proceeded up the hill to a knoll on the top of a peninsula overlooking our campsite and the lake. They never said a single word to us and I remember thinking that they were extraordinarily rude. Boy was I wrong. They only spoke French as far as languages go but as far as being amazing people they did speak the right language. We could smell the fish cooking and hear it sizzling in the frying pan. The aroma was almost too much for our stomachs to take. When the fish was cooked they came down the hill with two plates filled with food and handed us those plates with the words ‘Bon appetite’ which was French that we easily understood. Vive la France!!!
About two days out from our return to civilization we came across the perfect transitional element back into society. A copy of Mad Magazine left at a campsite. It is funny how memory works. I can still recall holding that magazine in my hands, what there was on the page, the smell of the air, the general lay of the land. It is like it is permanently etched in my mind and I can recall it on demand. The piece I remember from the magazine was a parody on how everything was disposable those days and they were advertising a cloth rag as being something new and exciting because it could be used over and over again unlike the disposable paper towel. Or the straight razor for shaving as opposed to disposable razors.
The last campsite where we stayed I nicknamed Reflective Pond because of the mist and fog of the morning and the still waters reflected the dead trees. One resembled an archer’s bow. The solemnity was quite breathtaking and humbling. Another memory capture that shall be with me until my dying breath.
The drive home was unremarkable as far as my memory goes, possible with Alan remembering something pertinent. But the one snippet I do recall was stopping someplace along the road and purchasing a ceramic cat done by a Lisa Larson. Still have that cat and every time I glance at it my memories of one of the finest adventures I have ever shared with another human being immediately flood my cerebral cortex. Good times!