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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Trip of a Lifetime

On Different Wavelengths

By Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest

A Note to the Reader

The last time out, Ed, Brenna and the Nearys stepped off a train and into a wilderness. Now they're on the water, and they've been battling almost constant headwinds. The struggle is taking its toll. More and more often, the two couples seem to be on different wavelengths.

This is a work of fiction. All the characters are figments of the authors' imaginations. It's NOT a paddling guide. If you're planning a trip on the Albany River, consult the most recent edition of a good guide-book and be sure you're thoroughly familiar with all applicable regulations. While maps of Ontario show some of the waterways mentioned here, the places depicted in our story exist only in the authors' minds—and in yours.

A REMINDER A new chapter in Trip of a Lifetime, our paddlesport novel-in-progress, will appear on the first Tuesday of each month. If you've missed a chapter, or if you're joining us for the first time and you want to catch up, just use the hot-linked title to go to the In the Same Boat Archives. It's all there.

Our story continues….

November 6, 2001

Chapter Twenty

"I wouldn't mind spending a few days on Wabakimi Lake," Brenna yelled to the Nearys, who were paddling alongside, no more than twenty yards away. "Might even see a caribou. This whole area's a calving ground, you know, 'specially the islands. Be nice to get out of the wind, too!"

Her shouted words ended with a grunt. The big canoe's bow had started to yaw, and she needed to push hard on the hook of her J to keep the boat on track. Her eyes never left the rocky spur that served as her point of reference, a fixed guide in a moving world of wind-driven waves.

From the bow of the heavily-laden XL Tripper, Ed maintained a constant, almost hypnotic pace. His favorite paddle, an ash beavertail with its grip worn smooth and black from many years of use, flashed forward, caught the water, and began to pull. The canoe met each onrushing roller at an angle. It's bow lifted slowly, paused at the crest, and slid down into the trough, only to lift again as the next wave approached. No water splashed in.

As much as he enjoyed the ride, though, Ed was praying for a break. In the last three days, they'd fought their way north up a chain of lakes, battling constant headwinds. On the rare occasions when they weren't fighting the wind or the current, they were portaging. Now they were on Lower Wabakimi Lake, and Ed was almost exhausted.

A gust grabbed the bow, but before Ed could react, Brenna brought them back in line. Ed thought of their sail, wrapped around its tripod mast in the bilge of the canoe. "A fat lot of good that's been," he muttered. Dead weight on the portages and dead weight on the lakes. A dead loss, in fact. If only the wind would back round! In his mind's eye, Ed saw them flying up the lake on a beam reach. Another gust hit the bow, stronger than any so far, and this time Brenna couldn't hold them. Ed pried. The bow swung back. Then Brenna yelled, "Switch!" and Ed did so, gratefully.

Minute by minute, the four paddlers struggled on toward the narrows at the head of the lake. Once there, they began searching the islands and bays for a campsite. Brenna was determined to catch a glimpse of a caribou. Perhaps she'd even be able to make a couple of paintings. Ed hoped against hope for good sailing weather. Karin just craved a warm bed and a respite from the drudgery of constant paddling. She was sure she was coming down with a cold. Pete was even more impatient to be off the lake. He was hearing the wind's dirge inside his head all the time now, even during the rare intervals of calm. He longed for peace and quiet.

A shout from Karin cut through the whistle of wind: "Let's camp there!" And she pointed toward a sheltered crescent of sandy beach backed by a dense stand of black spruce, just now becoming visible behind the rocky point that had been Brenna's guide for the last hour. "I'm bushed!" she added, and then sneezed.

Ed squinted against the glare of the late afternoon sun. "Look's good to me," he yelled back. He thought the blackflies would like it, too, but he kept that thought to himself. Any port in a storm. They were all tired.

Within minutes, the bows of the two canoes ground gently on the sand. "Gawd, that was tough," Karin said, slumping in her seat, elbows on knees. Pete stepped out into calf-deep water and waded ashore in his neoprene socks and Teva sandals, pulling their canoe far enough up the beach so that Karin could get out without wetting her feet. She smiled at Pete. "Chivalry isn't dead, after all," she joked.

Brenna pried the stern of Leviathan round to bring the canoe broadside to the beach. She and Ed leaped out together, splashing through the water in their wellies as they beached their boat. A quick inspection convinced everyone that the campsite was ideal. "Man, this looks wonderful," Karin pronounced, digging her toes, now freed from their rubber prison, into the firm sand above the strand line. "Looks like a great place to spend a few days."

"Sure does," Brenna agreed. "It's wonderful not to be fighting the wind all the time."

"The damn blackflies think so, too," Pete said ruefully, rubbing his hand around his neck. A smear of blood could be seen on the collar of his chamois shirt. Then he scratched his chin. His new battery-powered razor had quit working on the first day of the trip, so he was letting his beard grow. It itched.

Despite the blackflies, it didn't take the two couples long to set up camp. The two tents went up first, followed immediately by two tarps. Finally, packs were stowed under the tarps, and a driftwood fire soon crackled in a square fire-pan on the beach. The fire-pan was one of Jack Van Dorn's many gifts to the expedition. He'd made it from sheet steel and an old cooker grill. Now a large pot of water was heating on the fire, and the beach camp was beginning to feel like home.

His chores done for the moment, Ed had gone fishing. He roll-cast a black leech streamer under a large spruce snag, hoping for a walleye, but he had no luck. After a dozen fruitless casts he gave up and resigned himself to curried lentil soup and bannock.

The Nearys had their own menu—homemade pasta primavera, carefully sealed in a plastic pouch. Yet after looking forward to this treat for hours, Karin found she couldn't even taste it. Her nose was blocked and her head ached. She gazed disconsolately across the lake. The dark spruce were now bathed in the warm light of the setting sun, but even that couldn't cheer her up. The evening chill sent shivers up her spine. "Well," she thought, "at least the blackflies are gone." Then she heard the buzz of a single mosquito. Soon the lone pioneer was joined by several dozen more, and the solitary buzz had become a chorus.

Hurrying through the washing-up, Karin alternately swatted and shivered. As soon as she could, she retreated to her small Kelty tent to put on thicker and warmer clothes, safely out of reach of the cloud of mosquitoes. Sometimes lying down, sometimes half-sitting, she struggled into long underwear and her heaviest fleece jacket, tucking her long, unruly hair into a birthday present from her daughter—a multi-colored, tasseled "joker hat" that looked remarkably like a fool's cap. Karin winced. It had seemed a good joke in her living-room back home, but the humor was starting to wear thin.

When she was done, she joined the others around the fire-pan.

"There you are!" Brenna said, as Karin shuffled over to the driftwood log that served all the paddlers as a seat. "Water's just coming to a boil."

"Let me make you a cup of Mus Po," Pete said solicitously, taking note of his wife's strained expression. "It'll warm you up." He spooned a scant teaspoon of the tiny black pellets into an insulated steel cup and poured boiling water over them. When he was finished, Pete put the pot back on the grill. Ed waited a minute for it to start boiling again and then filled the Trangia teakettle. He noted the time. Five minutes. No more and no less. A perfect cup of tea. Mus Po was all well and good, Ed thought, but it didn't measure up to Earl Grey.

Karen added honey to her cup. She felt better already. The mosquitoes weren't so bad down on the beach. "Aren't you having any, Pete?" she asked.

"Not now," he replied. His sandal-clad feet scuffled awkwardly. "I'm going for a paddle."

"OK," Karin said, not moving from her seat by the fire. Then she sneezed. A drop of Mus Po splashed onto her fleece jacket. Ed and Brenna stared at the flames.

Pete's evening excursions were no longer a cause for comment. Ever since their first day on the water, Pete had gone off on his own for an hour or so after supper. Sometimes he paddled along shore. Sometimes he walked along the beach or into the forest. Karin had been too tired to keep him company on the first night, and anyway he hadn't asked her. He'd been gone longer than she'd expected, though. Later, when she'd asked where he'd been, he'd just shrugged his shoulders. "Around," he'd said. And that was all. It wasn't much of an answer, but it was enough. Karin was happy to give Pete a little space. For her part, she was perfectly content to sit back and chat with Brenna and Ed.

Now Pete's regular absences had become an accustomed part of camp routine.

The wind was dying down. It no longer sighed and whistled through the tree tops. Pete pushed off in the Explorer, kneeling in the center and paddling toward the rocky point to the east. Once behind it, he nosed the canoe into a granite notch. He craned his neck to see if anyone was within sight, then he reached into his day-pack and removed a Yachtboy world-band radio. He fitted the ear-bud in place and turned the receiver on. The carefully-modulated voice of a CBC announcer sounded in his ear.

Looking around once more to be sure that no one could see him, Pete leaned back against the canoe's central thwart and listened eagerly to the announcer's every word. News! It was precious stuff. He needed it. He craved it. And yet he felt a sort of secret guilt about his solitary pleasure. It was hard to say why. There'd been no discussion about bringing a radio—no agreement one way or the other. But he was sure that the others…well, Ed and Brenna, at any rate… wouldn't approve. For them, this trip was an escape, a complete break from their everyday routine of work and worry. And Pete was sure that no intrusion would be welcome.

But he simply couldn't do without his nightly fix now. He needed to hear what was happening in the world. No. Not the world. The World. That's how he'd started to think of the familiar sphere of life outside the enveloping wilderness of forest and water, wind and wave. The World was where his daughter attended summer classes at Frontenac Lowlands University. Where the markets prospered or declined. (Mostly declined now. But that was another worry.) Where he could eat good food while seated in a comfortable chair, visit his aromatherapist, play golf with his partners, have hot showers, sleep in a soft bed. The World. His World. And the radio was now his only link to it, his clandestine listening-in his only chance of contact. So he paid close attention all the way through to the end of the world news summary. Only when the focus shifted to local stories did his attention begin to wander.

He hadn't imagined that he'd find a summer-long paddling holiday in the Canadian north so hard to endure. But they were only three days into the trip, and he was already anxious to be out. He longed to push the pace, paddle harder, and keep going for more hours in each day. So far they'd barely crawled along. Sure, the constant head-winds had held them back, but the head-winds couldn't last forever, could they? No, sir. And when they let up…well, he'd see to it that they really ate up the miles.

Suddenly, he heard the CBC announcer say the words "New York." He'd missed the first part of the story, but it seemed to have something to do with an arrest at the Canadian border. He listened carefully.

…and in a printed statement distributed to the press, the self-styled "Colonel" of the ISM, Lesserson Null, denied any connection with illegal militia activities. The Innisfree Separatist Movement is, his statement said, "a non-violent advocacy and educational organization, committed to the long-term goal of establishing the Republic of Innisfree," a sovereign and independent nation comprising all of New York State north of the Mohawk River.

"When that day comes," the Colonel's statement continued, "it is our fondest hope that we can live in complete harmony with our neighbors to both north and south. We ask only that they recognize our legitimate claims to sovereignty."

Later, Colonel Null was asked about allegations that the ISM had recently acquired Camp X, the Second World War-era special operations and commando training center near Kingston, Ontario. In reply, he repeated his insistence that the ISM was committed to nonviolence. "We have recently purchased a property in Ontario for the purpose of constructing a recreational complex for our membership," he said, adding that he had "no idea what use the former owners made of it."

The Colonel then referred all questions concerning the pending charges for attempted weapons smuggling to his lawyer, who was not immediately available for comment.

The announcer's voice droned on, but Pete wasn't listening any more. Another lunatic, he thought. The World was full of them today. Still, it wasn't his problem. Republic of Innisfree, for chrissake! Might as well be someplace in Afghanistan, for all he knew about it—or cared to know.

Pete looked at his watch. It was getting late. He took the ear-bud out and shut off the receiver, locking the keypad to prevent it from turning on accidentally, and tucked it away carefully in a waterproof pouch in his day-pack. Then he headed back toward camp.

As he beached the Explorer, Ed walked down the sandy beach toward him, another steaming cup of tea in his hand. He was preceeded by the unmistakable aroma of DEET. Pete saw that Ed was wearing his repellent-impregnated bug-jacket. He didn't have to ask why.

"Let me give you a hand," Ed said, grabbing the Explorer's bow. The two men hauled the boat well up on shore, where Pete turned it over. Then he tucked the paddles underneath. Karin poured out a cup of Mus Po for her husband. She sniffled. Her face bore an expression of patient suffering. Pete settled down beside her on the driftwood log, put his arm around her, and muttered, "Poor darling." Then the two of them sipped their herbal tea and watched occasional flames play over the embers of the dying fire.

Soon conversation picked up. "So, Pete," Brenna said, continuing a discussion that had begun earlier in his absence, "what do you think would have happened if Ralph Nader had won the election? Don't you think we'd all be better off?"

Karin rolled her eyes and made gagging noises. Ed just grinned.

"Are you serious?" Pete said, pausing between swipes at the growing numbers of mosquitoes prospecting along the seams of his pants. "The man's a walking, talking disaster-in-waiting. Now take Forbes…he would have been something else. Best man for the job. No doubt about it. But Bush, well, you know, he's not so bad."

Karin nodded enthusiastically. She was about to say "I told you so," when Brenna started to making gagging noises of her own. Ed, not wanting the evening to end in a quarrel, tried to steer the conversation onto neutral ground.

"As long as we're playing a game of What if?…," he began, "what if America had actually conquered Canada back during the War of 1812? What do you think would have happened then?"

"Then you'd have paid a lot less for your fishing license, that's what," Pete retorted, glad to see the direction of the conversation change.

Ed laughed, but his laughter rang a little hollow. He'd had no luck worth mentioning so far, and he was beginning to wonder if it had been worthwhile to haul his tackle along. Moreover, the license had cost him an arm and a leg.

Karin followed up the attack. "You know, Ed, by the time you add in all your fixed and variable costs, you're gonna find out that any fish you catch will cost you far more than if you ordered them cooked to order at the best restaurant in New York. Fishing simply isn't economically viable. You'll see."

Ed shook his head ruefully. "You're telling me," he said. "Still, fishing isn't an exercise in economics, is it? Any more than a canoe trip is just transportation. Even you economists have got to acknowledge that there are some things you can't put a price on."

"Come on, you guys," Brenna said, yawning. "Economics is boring, and I'm whipped. My sleeping bag's calling me." She got up, stretched, and turned to Ed. "Coming?" she asked. He nodded and tossed the dregs of his last cup of Earl Grey into the flames.

"I'm off, too." Karin stood up, hugging herself against the bite of the chill breeze. "You gonna be long?" she asked Pete. He shook his head. "Not too long. Just gonna think things over for a bit."

Karin remained standing next to the fire for a minute. Ed and Brenna left to go to bed. "Good night!" Karin and Pete called out in unison toward their retreating backs. Then Karin ruffled the thin hair on top of Pete's head, picked up his day-pack, and walked over to their tent.

"I'll take care of the fire," Pete said as she left. "And I'll be along in a few minutes." He stared hard at the glowing embers. Then he looked around him.

Framed by the deep shadows of the spruce, Brenna and Ed's four-man Timberland tent glowed Kelly-green, lit from within by a flickering candle-lantern. A loon called nearby, and then Pete thought he heard a wolf howling in the distance. Small animals scurried about in the forest litter. A beaver slapped the water in alarm. Pete shivered.

Maybe it's just a mid-life crisis, he thought. Back in March when Ed and Brenna had invited him and Karin to come along on the trip, it had seemed like a great adventure. But as the departure date drew closer, he'd become more and more attached to home. Karin, too. She obviously wasn't having a very good time. Yeah, she was OK, sure, but she obviously didn't feel anything like Ed and Brenna's excitement. Maybe it was just her cold. Yeah, maybe that was it. Just a rotten summer cold.

And maybe, Pete thought, he'd start having fun, too, when they got on moving water. He didn't like lake travel much. It was too much like work. He stood up. His knees ached. "Damn," he muttered, wincing. "Must be getting old." He didn't much care for that idea, either. What was the point of all those hours in the gym and all those morning runs—not to mention the thousands of dollars they'd spent on Feng Shui consultants and health-food—if you got old anyway? What was the goddamn point?

The fire was almost out now, but Pete doused it with a couple of pots of water and stirred the ashes. Then, just to be sure, he felt them. Cold. Good. The woods were dry. Wouldn't want to start a forest fire, he thought.

With that, he slumped away to his tent. He could hear Karin blowing her nose on her bandanna as he approached, and when he crouched down to crawl in the door, he could see that she was still sitting up in her sleeping bag in the dark. He grunted a greeting and zipped the tent door shut behind him, running his hand over the netting to kill any mosquitos that'd gotten in. When he turned around again, Karin switched on the headlamp suspended from a loop on the tent's ridge. He saw that she had something in her hands. Was it…? Yes, it was. The Yachtboy.

"And just what do you think this is?" she whispered, her tone a mixture of accusation and amusement.

"Shhh!" said Pete, inadvertently raising his voice in the process. "Keep it down, OK? So I brought a goddamn radio along. So what?"

"Then why're you hiding it?" Karin asked. "Why are you sneaking off every night to listen to it in secret? That is what you've been doing, isn't it?" Despite herself, Karin grinned. "Just like a teenage boy with a copy of Hustler."

In the harsh light of the headlamp, Pete looked more startled than contrite. "Look. I couldn't let Ed and Brenna know I had it. This is their big trip. They're supposed to be 'getting away from it all' and everything. If they knew I was listening to the news every night, they'd be pissed. It would, you know, sort of spoil the magic of the trip. Not that I've seen much sign of magic so far." Pete's mouth drooped until his expression was almost a definition of "hangdog."

Karin's tone became less severe. "They wouldn't mind," she reassured her husband. "You're over-reacting. Silly boy."

Pete said nothing. He just pulled off his trousers and slid down inside his sleeping bag. Karin switched off the headlamp and snuggled up to him. Then he spoke again, his voice a barely-audible whisper.

"I've just come to realize that we're—them and us, that is, not you and me—that we're on, you know, different wavelengths. They like all this roughing-it bullshit. I don't. And I don't think you do either. I keep asking myself, 'Am I having fun yet?' You know what the answer is, don't you? 'No!' And I'll bet that's the same answer you're getting."

Karin didn't know what to say. To agree was to admit that they'd made a big mistake—a mistake that would get harder to correct every day that they paddled north. In the end, all she said was, "Don't worry so much, Pete. Everything's going to be OK." Then she kissed his forehead. It was surprisingly salty. "Get some sleep," she said. "Things will look better tomorrow."

Pete didn't reply. Outside, not far from their tent, some small animal—a snowshoe hare, perhaps—shrieked in terror. There was a brief flurry of kicking, ending in a sudden, sickening snap. Then all was quiet. It took a long time for Pete to fall asleep.

To be continued…

The Bay

Copyright 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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