We all felt sad to leave Atikokan. For Branwen, this was her home for half of each year growing up, and the woods we had come through, and the region we were approaching, were her paddling haunts. We all realized that by leaving the town dubbed ‘the canoeing capital of Canada’ we were beginning the final stretch to the finish in Thunder Bay, and perhaps this, coupled with the reality that we had been working so hard, for so long, just to keep moving forward, had us quiet in our canoes paddling up the stiff current of the Atikokan River. By Little Falls, rain began pouring down, filling our canoes and forcing us to bail water in between the portages for the entire day. Talking was useless for we couldn’t hear each other under the sounds of rain pounding upon our hoods, and at portages we would exchange quick sentiments over the rain until we reloaded above an obstruction and carried on.
We reached Nym Lake in the evening just in time for the sun to break, a golden beam falling down onto the pines of an island hardly one kilometer from our bows. We paddled in laughter and smiles, the lakes south shore marking the boundary of Quetico and the next leg of our journey, first we had a stop to make just beyond the glowing pines. As we crossed the bay and rounded the point, the dock of Voyageur Wilderness Programme(VWP) came into view and there beamed the smile of Michelle Savoie, her daughters puppy, Eddie, bounding around the dock greeting us all, taking in the curious smell of travelers on the long trail. Michelle offered us a bunk house to dry out in and promised a hot meal for breakfast to get us moving, but it was her stories we all were eager for. VWP has operated for over 60 years on a small island of Nym Lake, outfitting, educating, and helping prepare visitors for canoe trips into Quetico Park. Over litres of hot coffee and an as promised hot breakfast, we chatted with Michelle about her families Métis heritage and the ethics that drive a world class outfitter where visitors are not just landed on a trip, they are ingrained in the culture of canoe’s, portages, and the intrinsic history of Indigenous land use across these waterways for thousands of years. Michelle reminded us that we needed to enjoy every second of the trip, to smile and laugh, for soon it would all be over and we would only be left with the memories. Before departing, she handed all of us a sash, traditionally used by the Métis Voyageur to help reduce the likelihood of hernias under the incredible loads expected to be carried for months on end across precarious portage trails. The rain and wind raced past the dock as we reloaded, recharged, heading for the portage to canoeing heaven, Quetico Provincial Park.
Quetico holds a special place in mine, Leah, and Branwens heart, for it’s a region we all associate with home. For Bruce, he had heard about the park for weeks and as the big pines and rocky shores began to emerge above pristine water, I could tell he was connecting in a way that is only afforded after three weeks of canoe travel. The issue was the weather, for a marginal gale was blowing with sideways rain interspersed by scorching sun, encouraging us to make up ground we had lost in the Maukiak Trail. By the end of the second day, we were in the Agnes River marveling at the haunting beauty of last summer's fires. Unlike black spruce regions further north, where fires burn everything but the rock, reducing the land to a barren scape of tooth pick tree’s and white rock, the mature pines in some places had survived. For hours we moved through a scorch that, while burned to the ground in many places, had pockets of half charred old growth pines, burned halfway up, with a green crown to mark their survival over the blaze. It was refreshing to move through the blackened remains of the burn, observing green grass and wildflowers in bloom until the forest returned and Kawnipi Lake lured us on into the evening. The next morning, we entered the Kenny Falls chain, swimming in waterfall pools, racing from storms, and moving, always moving, until a storm shut us down. Over a dinner of pasta clad in rain gear by a smokey fire, we stopped talking when a beam of light broke the grey and our entire world transformed into a golden globe of light. The rain continued, giving atmosphere to the eerie light, and for what felt like an eternity the magic engulfed our small world atop a bedrock peninsula. You can travel for months on the land and only have a few moments of such profound minutes where all the world is a dreamscape, a place suspended between fantasy and reality. When the glow subsided, clear skies had parted the evening and we tucked into our tents to dream of the trail ahead.
At Cache Bay Ranger Station on Saganaga Lake, we met with park warden Chris Stromberg and his assistant, Jack, to travel into the Granite River and La Verendrye Park together. They were cleaning trails and taking dark sky readings during the new moon, we were climbing up and ever up to the height of land. For half a day we paddled across the wide open sweep of Sag, a strong northerly wind moving us to our goals, stories bouncing between the canoes of trails and life in the bush. On Marabeouf Lake, we parted ways with the wardens and carried on. As we left, Bruce admitted that he longed for what those two were up to, shorter days, an evening observing stars, a moment we all longed for to just stay still, to stop the movement, to enjoy the places we were moving through. Perhaps more than ever on the trip, we needed something, or somewhere, to pick us up and remind the heart of weary paddlers why we spend all day driven by forces that, when its all simmered down, are trivial in nature. As the afternoon wore on, we took refuge on the loveliest island we had almost overlooked, and the evening delivered our wishes. Atop that rocky island, we sipped tea, shared stories, and lounged long before the evening set. It seemed impossible that nearly four weeks had passed, just yesterday we were in the Manitoba heat, passing by oak tree’s and stepping over snakes. Had we not just ascended the Winnipeg River? What about the daisy campsite on Blindfold Lake, or the cliffs on Winnage Lake, how could we forget the full moon showing us the way on Eagle Lake. That’s the thing with high kilometers in a short amount of time, you’re bound to be down at some point, we are ever destined to feel the weight of time on our shoulders and wonder what it’s all for, until we arrive in a place such as this little nondescript island we easily could have missed. We may never have the time, luxury, or desire in life to dance the waltz of the long, the margins of joy might be too slim for many, but atop an island nearing the end of a journey, four weeks and over 700km from a starting point, you’re bound to realize the beauty of what you’ve accomplished by the enormity of will we all are capable of. Perhaps we aren’t up late stargazing for sleep demands much of us, and it’s true that we put in long days and paddle when the weather is abominable, but we also are doing what canoes were designed for; traveling a land of water and trails.
You could feel the landscape pulling us to the height of land that evening, our talks were shifting to the other side, to water that was once distant and now was just one day away. Four weeks we had traveled up the Arctic watershed, sometimes going with the flow, but always going higher, always moving up, always nearing this moment where we would teeter on the precipice until alas, all water would bring us to Lake Superior.
What else have they been up to?