Friday, November 8, 2013

Paddling Under the Aurora Borealis.

A.Y. Jackson.

The first time I ever saw the Aurora Borealis was many years ago. My buddy and I were going to Algonquin Park. 

Somewhere north of Huntsville, Ontario, we pulled over briefly at three a.m. for a call of nature.

“Whoa! Look at that, Willy!”

“What is it?” he asked.

It took a minute to click in, as he’d never seen it before.

This was a full-color array. It was surprising how fast the darting swirls of bluish-green, yellow and red light started up, moved around, and faded. We’ve all seen pictures, but the speed of it was impressive—the way the bands of light seemed to dance to some music of the cosmos, heard only by themselves.

Now, the first night paddle we did, we set up a flashing yellow light on the beach at the south end of Opeongo Island. This is in the north arm of Algonquin Park’s Opeongo Lake. We paddled due south, with a diaphanous, ghostly-white moon ahead.

The water was flat, with little lacy bits of froth, from all the soap people use; the south shore clearly visible in the moonlight. It was easy to navigate. Never losing sight of the beacon, after an hour’s circuit, we safely returned, flushed with a unique experience. On another occasion, Willy and I went for a night paddle on Cedar Lake, also in Algonquin Park. With a few drinks, overcast skies, warm night, exhaustion, and the gentle swell, the floating sensation; Willy became disoriented, and said he had nausea, or vertigo. So we went back to shore.

Years later, my brother and I went up to Aura Lee Lake, connected to the west end of Cedar Lake. I often go down to the shore, away from the fire at night. It’s worth it; I once saw the most awesome meteor at four bloody a.m., and my brother was snoring in the tent! No one to tell it to…anyhow, this time I was completely stunned by what I saw.

So I nipped back to the fire, grabbed up my lifejacket and smokes.

I suggested a night paddle, and he jumped at it. My brother had never seen anything like that in his entire life. It’s impossible to describe, there were beams shooting up out of the horizon. Quite narrow at the base, they were veritable sword points in the heavens. And they slid around the horizon, left and right, even as swirls, whorls, and vortexes floated around in the centre of the sky. Throw in a few stars, Jupiter and Mars, a tiny sliver of the moon down low in the west.

It was pretty sublime, maybe even surreal, to drift around looking up at it. There was even a meteor or two for good measure. Sometimes it seems like God is talking to you.

I haven’t been up there in a few years. Once we pretty much had our fill, but still one night all paid up. My brother talked me into going to Wendigo Lake. This is a long, skinny lake oriented cross-wise to the generally prevailing summer winds. We motored about some, with my 1.2 horse-power motor on the back of the canoe and then went south down the lake to find a campsite.

A ‘Wendigo’ is a person possessed by demons in ancient Algonquian folklore. The demon often possesses them in a dream. Once taken over, they become obsessed with eating human flesh. The best-known way to get rid of the demon was to perform the wiindogookaanzhimowin, which was a highly-satirical dance which involved wearing a hideous-hilarious mask and dancing about the drum backwards.

People who understood that they were possessed would often request that they be put to death before they could do harm to others, including their own families and friends.

True Wendigoes were gaunt, emaciated creatures, with their pallid skin tightly-stretched over their bones, sunken eyes and an ‘ash-grey’ complexion. It was believed that those who had consumed human flesh were in danger of becoming Wendigoes themselves.

This taboo is perfectly understandable in terms of any hunter-gatherer culture where seasonal famine was all too well known. The Wendigo myth is like all stories of its kind, a sort of moral lesson, where symbolism takes the place of factual, historical material.

Speaking of the consumption of human flesh and blood; as we cooked and gathered firewood, it became clear we were in a bad mosquito zone. The smoke from the fire didn’t help. The breeze died at sunset. We used all our repellent. About ten o’clock at night the zipper on the tent broke after a dash to the bushes for a nature break..

We were in trouble. It was truly amazing. There were hundreds of mosquitoes on us, maybe thousands. It was bad. I don’t know how the couriers de bois did it, or how early peoples could stand it. We tore down the tent, chucked everything in the boat and paddled out a hundred yards.

It was really dark. Overcast. No lights anywhere on shore, the perimeter of the lake pitch black. The water was crystal clear, surface almost invisible, as I held the flashlight.

Steve got the motor on the mount, fueled it, and luckily for us, it ran first pop.

It was disorienting. He put his little light on the floor ahead of him. I held my light over the side, pointing down and ahead in the water—sometimes in the middle of the lake a submerged rock rises up within inches of the surface. And I didn’t want to sit on one all night, holding on to a broken boat, and wait for an early fisherman. Over time, our eyes adjusted, but only the overcast had any lightness of color.

The car was across the lake, and north two or three kilometers. After twenty minutes we found the opposite side and followed the pale glimmer of the boulders on shore.

“Go dead slow,” I told Steve. “Keep your feet in the center of the boat, relax your hips, don’t grab the gunwales under any circumstances…look straight ahead, focus on the rocks along the shore.”

After a trip of about an hour, it seemed forever, my light picked out a reflector from a vehicle. The boat launch! Thank God. And my navigation. It’s always an adventure to travel in Algonquin Park. It has its allure—its dangers can be seductive. The decision to go to Wendigo Lake was made in haste. The tent door was ripped in haste. Jumping in the boat was done in haste. In a situation like that, have your life jacket fastened tightly.

The key is to relax, and think about what you’re doing.

Know your limitations. And don’t do anything stupid.

Night paddling is for experienced paddlers using proper equipment and not under the influence of alcohol.

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