Monday, June 3, 2013

Canoeing with the best and the worst in Algonquin Park.

Over the beaver dam, Jeffrey M. Dean.

My buddy Willy and I once launched at seven a.m. upon Cedar Lake in Algonquin Park. We were heading southeast towards the outlet of the Petawawa River. With the water like glass and windless, we paddled. Less than half an hour later, we had trouble.

Waves swept along from back to front, rising to within a couple of inches of the gunwales. They were lifting the back of the craft and accelerating us forward. Winds were blowing about 25-30 kilometres per hour, and we had a good three kilometres of open water ahead of us.

“Don’t look back!” I told Willy.

Luckily we made it to an island. Once behind it, the water was calm again. I hate ‘high following seas.’ I take responsibility for the mistake, as I was sitting in back and steering.

What if the wind had gotten stronger; or if we were ten pounds heavier? Yet Willy was a good guy to go camping with.

I have camped with the very worst. One time, a guy insisted on going into Stratton Lake. This guy had to bring a little 1.2 hp motor. He couldn’t live without it.

“There are no motors allowed on Stratton Lake,” I told him.

“Yeah, yeah,” he said. “I know. We don’t have to use it after all.”

Of course the best way to carry the motor is on the mount, right?

After five minutes of paddling, you guessed it. He had to fire up the motor. That lake is V-shaped. The bay at the point of the V has a few campsites. People ran down to the water’s edge. They jumped in their boats. It looked like the opening credits from, ‘Hawaii 5-0.’ They were putting up rooster tails. We were soon surrounded.

All I could do was to sit in the front of the boat, shrugging my shoulders, red-faced.

Listening to him say, “Sorry, I didn’t know.”

“It’s on the map, you friggin’ dummies,” one guy said.

Clench my jaws and shut up.

We found a campsite. Put up the tent. He was tired, after paddling all that way. He fell asleep at three o’clock in the afternoon and slept till dawn. He always had to bring a six-man tent, and a bag with forty pounds of tent poles. 

Motor…fuel…tools…cooler…ice…three bags of milk. A tent heater; a lantern. More fuel. That’s a lot of stuff to carry over a 30-metre portage. An axe, hatchet and saw, three different knives…

Bored, I went for a paddle. Going past a campsite, there were six big guys standing around a fire drinking. They were wearing paratrooper boots, camouflage pants, 17-inch Bowie knives, and yelling; “You wussy! You bleeping a-hole!” 

Make my friggin’ day, eh?

Yet I went camping again with the guy. He promised to play by the rules! He couldn’t live without screwing things up for everyone else. It was an interesting case study, in some ways, but painful to watch. I found myself sitting in the front of the boat, motor going full blast. He promised to stay close to shore…we were exactly in the middle of the lake. I had specifically warned him about, ‘high, following seas.’ You just couldn’t reason with the guy, or trust him, either. I don’t think he was deaf.

Looking back, the motor appeared to be slanting backwards about thirty degrees. The plywood motor mount was breaking up. Did he not see it? Then we ran out of fuel.

We sat there in the middle of Cedar Lake, broaching sideways, in the heavy waves, while he attempted to re-fuel. We had 350 pounds of gear in the boat, and about three-quarters of an inch of freeboard.

The wind was blowing at about 35 kilometres an hour, or exactly as I had told him. He had to camp on an island, because it had a nice sandy beach. Beaches are popular sites.

They’re very dirty, with a lot of sand fleas, blackflies, etc. There was another site thirty yards away. He insisted on putting our tent on one site, and then the boat out in front of the other. Half a dozen other canoe parties showed up…went swimming…looked at that other site…and moved on. I cannot list all the stupid stuff he did on one or two trips together. The killer was what happened on the way home.

“There’s a cop behind us…” he hissed as we drove down the highway.

“Big deal,” I said.

Then: “What’s the problem…?”

Turns out screw-brain hadn’t renewed his license sticker!

Why not? Because he needed a ‘vacation.’ And he was a little short of money. 

I’m going to tell you something funny about Algonquin Park. When you go there, you provide ID and they write your name down. People aren’t shy about complaining if some other yo-yo has ruined the experience for them.

And if you should go back the next year, in all, ‘innocence,’ (perhaps ignorance is a better word,) they may have reserved a site for you. They know who you are, after all; for we reveal ourselves in so many ways.

It’s a little place called, ‘Varmint Lake.’ It’s the only one available, because you were too smart to reserve a site.

“Sorry boys, take it or leave it.”

“What you do is launch, but instead of going right onto the lake, you go left, up the swamp…follow the non-maintained trail over the Death March Hills…follow the winding stream bed for six kilometers until you hit water…then wade and drag the boat through Mosquito Swamp…and then you get to Varmint Lake, named for its size, not for any local wildlife, and then you use your two-inch buck knife, or better yet the dull hatchet, to clear a site anywhere you want on the boulder-strewn, 45-degree hillside.”

“Have a nice vacation boys, and if you hear a motor up in the hills, it’s probably just nice Mr. Ranger, releasing problem bears back into the wild.”

Really, it was all just a misunderstanding. (Greg Hume.)
“It’s nice and quiet up there…only other people in there right now are six big guys in camo pants, but they seemed like nice chaps, at least before they got to drinking…”

“Oh yeah, here’s a free bottle of Honey-Butter Sun Tan Oil, compliments of the management. And the best thing to do with sardine tins, which are not technically allowed, but we’ll let it pass just this once, is to hang them up all around the tent. Rules are rules, but of course they are meant for everybody else…right? Have a nice day and come again some time.” 

Might go camping with Willy again. Might go alone someday.

May even go back to Algonquin someday. But I got one rule: be careful of the company you keep.

Because it rubs off.


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