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Journey to Quetico – part 3

 

The storm began around midnight and by three a.m. the torrential rains had discovered the subtle design and construction flaws inherent in the floor seams and other closures of the tent, and made itself manifest by the puddle of water that had gradually formed on the floor of my tent.  At first it felt as though I was in a dreamlike state where my body was being transported across a great body of water and when I drifted back into consciousness realized my whereabouts in the tent and that my sleeping bag was completely drenched. My clothing and shoes, which had been dumped at the foot of my sleeping bag near the entrance, were also soaked. I had never been so wet, cold, and tired in my life. It even felt damp under my skin and my bones and muscles ached as I began to shiver in the cold darkness. The wind howled in angry gusts and the tent walls flapped audibly in the wind, like a flag during gale force winds. My immediate concern, before mild hypothermia began to set in, was to get some dry clothing on quickly, throw a tarp over the tent, and sponge out the water on the floor.

The clothing and raingear was stached outside in the dry bags that had been left propped up under a nearby stand of trees. It took me a few minutes to build up the sufficient determination to run naked outside in the pelting cold rain to retrieve the dry bags, pouncing on them like a predatory carnivore and hauling them like fresh kill back under the relative cover of my tent.  Thankfully, everything had been stored at the top of one of the bags, including the big sponge that facilitated the task of evacuating water from the tent.  With the door slighly unzipped and flappng in the howling wind, the process of sponging began and it was twenty minutes before the floor was somewhat dry. A large blue tarp was then thrown over the tent and weighted down at the corners with large stones to keep it from flying away with the wind.

The other wet contents were tossed outside the tent and placed under the tarp, including the sleeping bag.  Once fully dressed in polar fleece and rainwear it was at least be possible to ride out the storm with some measure of comfort. There was nothing left for me to do but wait alone in the tent, endeavor to stay dry and warm, and count the long hours until sunrise.

In the middle of the night time passed like a slow river and was measured in random thoughts that drifted like lazy clouds across the barren landscape of my mind. Uppermost in my thoughts were my family and their welfare during my long absence, the hardships suffered and sacrifices made by the brave men that first discovered this country, the incredible landscapes we had witnessed and the friendships we had forged along our journey,and mostly my daughter Rebecca who was out somewhere in downtown Montreal celebrating her prom night.

During those long hours it also dawned on me that the notion of time here did not apply in the same conventional way nor have the same significance as in the city, where time is literally money and people live with the illusion that they are masters of time as regulated by their watches and punch clocks. Out here time has a different meaning and moves at a different pace, you wake and sleep with the sunlight, eat only when you are hungry, work when work needs to be done and travel when the winds and weather permits. The primitive life in a state of nature is mostly governed by sunrise and sunset, hunger and fatigue…    

The curtain of darkness slowly lifted and gave way to a dull grey sky. The rain slowly began to taper off and a thin veil of white mist blanketed the island. There was no sign of life from the other tent when I emerged, cold and cramped but grateful that the morning had come quickly. The first priority was getting a fire going and a strong pot of coffee boiling. The firewood that had been gathered in a pile the night before was now useless as it was too wet to light. What was needed was some birch bark for fire starter and some wood that was by some miracle drier than the broken branches that were scattered about on the forest floor.

Armed with Sisyphean purpose and a hand axe, as well as a healthy dose of stoic resignation faced with the futility of the exercise, I wandered into the forest and began to forage for dry wood. There was plenty of birch bark strewn in white curls all over the ground and this was stuffed into my pockets to use as fire starter as it lit well even when soaking wet. While there was nothing dry a few broken branches from old deadfalls along the shore would work well as kindling once the wet bark was stripped and the dry white wood underneath exposed. A large log found under a rock crevasse was relatively dry which was hauled back to the firepit and split apart with the axe. With the careful forethought of a pyrotechnic enginner, great pains were  taken in constructing the fire prior to lighting it and it took several attempts, along with a much-needed roll of toilet paper and some loose leaf brought for notes that were ultimately sacrificed for the greater good, before the fire remained lit. This effort represented a grand total of forty-five minutes and made me feel somewhat like one of the Neanderthals in the film Quest for Fire. I had never worked so hard for a cup of coffee!

After several cups of coffee and cigarettes I wandered back to my tent and began to assess the damage. The large tarp needed to be tied off to some trees at its four corners and then stakes placed underneath it where the the sleeping bag could be laid open to dry. In this way it would ventilate in the wind and if it continued to rain during the day would remain protected under the tarp. All the wet clothing was thrown over tree branches. The tent, now evacuated of its contents, was completely re-sponged and dried out and the screened vents left open for aeration. A smaller tarp was then spread out over it at an angle so that the rainwater would accumulate and drain down the front.  

When the task was completed all I wanted to do was fish and I grabbed some cheese and chocolate from the cooler and the big jug of spring water before jumping into the canoe alone and paddling away from the island as fast as the paddle would propel me. If Dave got thirsty he would have to resort to drinking the lake water. Without the ballast of another body up front, the nose of the canoe planed high in the water and became difficult to maneuver, as it rocked from side to side with each paddle. On the far side of the island I went ashore to find a large rock that was placed under his seat to stabilize the bow, without shifting precariously or complaining about a sore ass. I had succesfully managed to replace Dave with a rock.

The wind was still blowing out of the west and small whitecaps had formed towards the middle of the lake. I kept the line of the canoe tight against the shoreline and paddled hard to keep myself warm. The boat glided effortlessly through the water as if it knew its final destination.  With each stroke that moved me further away from the island, my mood slowly lifted with the dark rolling clouds that soon parted and gave way to sunshine. In the narrows the bass were feeding, crashing minnows on the still surface of the protected back bays that  every few minutes erupted with the swirl of yet another large fish. The storm had triggered a feeding frenzy and the bass were all eager to hit my surface baits. Almost every point had several good fish lurking amidst the boulders that had never before seen a lure and a few of the more aggressive ones followed curiously to the side of the canoe before darting back off into the depths.

The wind eventually died down and kept the canoe drifting parallel to the shoreline without too much effort on my behalf, save to straighten the bow every now and again to keep it perpendicular to the rocks. It had once again become peaceful and serene, a place of great wilderness and beauty. At once this place has the ability to make one feel both small and inconsequential in the cosmic scheme of nature, like both the first and perhaps the last human being on the planet, and that if it so chose could swallow one up without leaving a trace of their existence. There is also an overwhelming sense of spiritual freedom, possibility, and belonging in this primitive state of nature.

It is both the giver and taker of life and out here there are a multitude of things other than human error or ignorance – derechos, wild animals, drowning, exposure, insects – that can kill you. A sombre reminder of this awaited me at the end of the bay – a decomposing deer carcass, ribs splayed skyward in supplication, lay half exposed on the silty bottom, its fate while uncertain to me, certainly final.  Maybe its demise was a result of a broken leg or some other trauma or even disease, or perhaps it had survived a bear or wolf attack and had retreated by escaping to the water, only to later drown or die from its injuries.

As the canoe drew nearer, a large set of round opaque eye stared up at me through the water. They were completely expressionless yet eerily seem to follow my every movement.  It was hard to determine how long it had been in its watery grave. More than likely it had been no longer than a few weeks judging by its state of decomposition.  A school of small transluscent silver pin minnows had gathered around its carcass, feeding on the microscopic particles that drifted about the dead animal. It was all part of the the great life cycle, the grand process of nature recycling herself, of energy finding a new life host to inhabit, of inexorable neutrinos moving on as nothing here goes to waste and everything returns to one.

The next rocky point yielded a nice walleye that was quickly lifted out of the water and unceremoniously dropped to the floor of the boat for dinner. It flopped around for awhile and then lay motionless on its side, its scales capturing the angle of the sun and causing it to shimmer like a bar of gold. It was a good fish and had been the first walleye of the trip. Feeling somewhat tired I pulled the boat up onto a small island in the channel and walked around to stretch my cramping legs. A gathering of raucous crows was feeding on the remnants of a dead squirrel and began cawing in protest of my nearing presence before flying away to the safe refuge of some nearby trees.

I peeled off my clothing and dove off the rocky ledge into the clear water. It was still too cold to swim around in for very long and I quickly emerged and dried myself by laying naked on the flat rock. Out here there is not much purpose for vanity or humility. Quetico is all about function and not form. A different set of rules applied here than the ones back in civilization.

A few casts from shore produced a thick pike which was released and swam back to its lair near a boulder that sat visibly in the middle of the channel. It remained in full view as it sulked on the bottom and flared its gills angrily as it slowly regained its strength and tried to comprehend what had just happened to it. It looked really confused and pissed off. Sensing the possibility of a repeat performance, another cast went sailing in its direction and once again it shot out like an arrow from behind the rock and nailed the same bait yet a second time.

As a crude experiment in fish behavior this exact same scenario was repeated in the name of science both a third and fourth time before the fish finally lay exhausted at my feet and unable to right itself in the water. Like a mad scientist and standing naked over a pike with my fishing rod in hand, I admonished the fish aloud for all to hear, declaring that if it continued  to be stupid enough to hit the artificial lure again it would leave me no choice but to eat it for supper. The fish, perhaps sensing the severity of my edict and its impending downfall covered in breadcrumbs in a frying pan, returned to its lair for a last time and to my satisfaction, its education completed, refused to hit again.

I put my shoes and shorts on and began exploring the island, imagining myself to be one of the great Voyagers, in search of new territories and civilizations to conquer. There was a wild blueberry patch growing on the eastern side but they were a pale greyish blue colour, hard and still unripened. Some of the branches of majestic old oak and pine trees carried wisps of Spanish moss that hung from them and resembled old mens scraggly beards and looked like the giant old Cypress trees that are reminiscent of the Deep South and particularly the waters of the Louisiana Bayou.  In other places where the ground was always dark and humid, a thick and inviting carpet of green moss covered the forest floor like a throw rug.

On the other side of the island there was an abandoned campsite soiled with the recent litter and general detritus of human activity that was scattered all about the clearance, including what turned out to be a crumpled ten dollar bill, purple and soggy, and validated by the stern and fiduciary face of Sir John A. MacDonald staring into space. It had suddenly occurred to me that money was something very superfluous in this place unless you needed it to start a fire or wipe your ass after a crap. There was also a can of AXE deodorant lying in the tall grass, the outdoor antithesis to deet based insect repellants, and a guaranteed invitation to every blood-sucking insect in the forest to come feast under your armpits…. What had these people been thinking? That in their down-time in the park they would head off to the local mall for burgers and pick up some girls? My best guess is that when they read the park checklist for important equipment to include bring they misunderstood that it was the other axe that was required.  Other garbage had also been left about the campsite; some empty beer cans, a few water bottles, a plastic re-cycling bag, and several clumps of used toilet paper that had thoughtlessly not been burned in a  fire. 

The next hour or so was spent cleaning up their mess and most of the recyclables fit snugly in the plastic bag left behind although it bulged at the seams and threatened to break. A fire was started using the ten dollar bill to light it and all the combustible trash was burned. Admittedly, it had felt supremely liberating to use money to burn garbage and made a mental note to myself to highly recommend it to anybody with sufficient largesse to do the same at least once in their lives. The balance was packed out where it would be later disposed of outside the park in the proper containers near the parking lot.  

The sight of human garbage in this place of beauty was somewhat incongruous and it struck me as somewhat sacriligious that an individual who would have both the desire and drive to make the effort to paddle into this wilderness and witness its singular beauty would not have the proper respect or park etiquette by leaving their garbage behind for the rangers or others to clean up after them.What would Teddy Roosevelt have thought and how would he have dealt with such a transgression which was tantamount to defecating in a church or other place of worhip??? He would most assuredly have hung the offending culprits by their testicles.   

The disconcerting aspect of all this was that herein lay the the great dilemma of the modern conservationist movement and the difficulties it faced in its dual mission to both preserve nature and enlighten humanity. On the one hand you needed people to experience the places and creatures that needed protection from developement and encroachment in order for them to become passionate spokesman and stewards on their behalf but on the other hand, in order to keep things wild and truly protected, you need also to leave them completely alone.  And if there is any lesson to be drawn from human history its that it is impossible for men to leave things alone – it is not programmed in our nature to leave things untouched, in the same original state of discovery, and this quirk of our enlightened nature is both a curse and a blessing for mankind.

A blessing because we no longer live in the darkness and ignorance of the Stone Ages but a curse because in our attempt to tame and master nature we have created a dangerous world that constantly teeters precipitously on the brink of self-destruction. Mother Earth is already showing signs of the fatigue and disease – global warming, species extinction, viral pandemics, and dangerously violent shifts in weather patterns, melting of the polar caps. A planet ravaged by progress traps, unsustainable and destructive energy practices, by ideological warfare and internal strife, motivated primarily by material and not spiritual values, hate and inequity, self-interest and nationalism, and dominated by the economics of avarice and the political ignorance of the myopic few that control the fate of the world.

In the modern world spiritual values have been replaced by rampant materialism and consumerism and the universal belief that our salvation lies in technology and continued economic growth. The voices of the gods of antiquity can no longer be heard above the mournful din of humanity and the ancient Manitoos of the planet have been supplanted by Wal-mart, Wall Street, and McDonalds. The oracles of our age are television celebrities, movie stars, entertainers…. The wisdom of the Indians has long been forgotten…. Humanity has made a decision to live outside the Hoop of Life….

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4 Comments

  1. Bernard Duval
    Posted May 26, 2011 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    Love the site, inspiring to go fishing. I spent 2 summers 76-77 in Quetico canoeing in my teens with Taylor Stattan camp. Awesome place that I will never forget. Cathy Molson was on one of those trips.

    • Posted May 26, 2011 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for taking the time to comment Bernie – it is appreciated…Quetico is indeed a magical and mystical place where time and space dissolve everything into a single present moment. I hope to return there one day.

  2. Jack Horowitz
    Posted April 8, 2011 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    Another excellent chapter describing, in mural like painted terms, the adventures, fun and harshness of daily life in Quetico. Your gift is to share with your readers, the sights, thoughts and experiences that you have lived. You do it in such a beautiful and personal way, as to make them feel like they are experiencing them right by your side. I hope there are many more similar episodes to be shared with your readers coming soon in the future.

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