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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Trip of a Lifetime

Billy Swamp

By Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest

A Note to the Reader

Last time, after days of hard traveling, Pete Neary unexpectedly found himself between a rock and a hard place. Has time run out for Pete?

A REMINDER This is a work of fiction. All the characters are figments of the authors' imaginations. It's NOT a paddling guide. If 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 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….

January 1, 2002

Chapter Twenty-Two

Ed stumbled along the shore, slipping on rain-slick cobbles. Water beaded on his glasses, turning the sodden landscape into an impressionist painting. He wiped the back of his hand across the lenses, but that only made matters worse. The dancing points of light and color were now replaced by a greasy blur. Still, he could see enough. And he didn't like what he saw

Karin Neary was crawling slowly up the rocky shore, her soaked clothing weighing her already-exhausted body down. And there was no sign of Pete. His head had disappeared below the water's surface. Only the Neary's big, green Explorer was visible, pinned against a mid-stream boulder. With each surge in the current, the boat tugged at its only remaining link to land—the drum-tight bow painter that Pete had tied off to a riverbank spruce just before he jumped in the water. Looking far downriver, Ed could see occasional splashes of color that he knew to be the Neary's packs.

But there was still no sign of Pete. Ed guessed that he lay under the heaving, gray-green pillow of water near the bow of the pinned canoe, trapped between the boat and the painter.

Then Ed saw something break the surface. Pete's head! His arms flailed out in all directions as he struggled to hold his mouth above the pummeling water. He gasped involuntarily, gagged, and gasped again. His empty, probing hands found the boulder. He clawed at the rock, tearing his nails to the quick as he tried to gouge a purchase in unyielding granite. But the cold water had already taken its toll. Pete weakened. His hands relaxed, and his head yielded again to the smothering pillow. Water, rock, and rope held him fast.

Karin was on her feet now. She stood silently, frozen into immobility, staring at the river that had claimed her husband. Ed, still jogging along the bank, stumbled and came down hard on his left knee. Waves of pain washed over his leg, but he lurched back up again and staggered the last few feet to the tree where Pete had made the painter fast. He tugged on the free end of the line, hoping that Pete had tied a slip hitch. Nothing happened. The knot held fast. A sudden spike of pain from his injured knee drew a red curtain across his consciousness. His hand continued to tug mindlessly at the end of the painter.

Suddenly, Brenna was at his side. She elbowed Ed away from the line. Another red surge of pain washed over him. Then she ducked down and reached above her head, cutting the taut painter with one swift, sawing slice of her knife. CRRAAACKKK! The short end of the line flailed back, while the long end whipped downriver, singing past Karin's face. The red curtain dropped away from Ed's eyes, and he saw the painter slap the water downstream of the pinned canoe. It looked like a bad cast by a giant angler.

Pete, still struggling against the river's relentless push, felt the pressure of the painter against his back ease. "Free!" he though. "I'm free!" And he forced his head above the surface once more.

Hands reached down toward him from the boulder. Ed and Brenna. They clung to Pete's life vest and clothing, hauling him up, pulling him toward shore. They were rock-hopping and wading, dragging Pete along between them in a desperate tug-of-war with the river. With the little strength he had left, Pete struggled to help. No sooner had his feet found the river bottom, however, than the current swept them out from under him. Blackness descended. Then he was sitting on the cobbles next to Karin. He coughed, and the cough became a retch. River water spewed out of his gut. He closed his eyes. When he opened them, he saw Brenna's face close to his own. Her eyes looked into his, searching, enquiring. She smiled. "Feeling OK?" she asked. Pete nodded. Yes. Then he closed his eyes again. When next he opened them, Brenna had disappeared.

Karin hugged Pete. He shivered and coughed, and the rain pelted down on both of them. Ed and Brenna returned from upstream, carrying a long, hastily-trimmed pole—a young spruce, torn from a cutbank by the spring floods. Ed had an Ace bandage around his left knee. Pete watched listlessly as his friends scrambled and waded back out to the boulder where his canoe still clung.

Once there, Ed reached cautiously into the surging eddy below the rock, fishing what remained of the bow painter out of the water. He coiled the line, dividing the coil evenly between both hands. Then he yelled to Karin to get her attention. When she looked up, he threw the line to her. It hit her in the face, but she grabbed the end and held it fast.

"Tie it off!" Ed yelled, pointing to a nearby spruce. Karin did.

Brenna planted the pole hard on the river bottom, wedging it between the pinned canoe and the boulder. Next, she and Ed pushed the upper end outward. At first the stern of the canoe only shuddered, but slowly, indecisively, it came away from the rock. The surging water now filled the bow completely, driving the boat round. In less than a minute, the canoe was free of the boulder's embrace. It tumbled down the chute, completely awash, only to be pulled up short by the painter. As Ed and Brenna watched anxiously, the line stretched. Tiny jets of water squirted out between the strands, but the line held. The Explorer slewed round into a near-shore eddy.

Within minutes, the Neary's canoe had been emptied and hauled up onto a cobbled, crescent beach. A lone pack—a clothes bag—remained in the boat. While Brenna looked the Neary's canoe over, Ed limped downriver, snagging packs out of eddies and dragging them ashore for pick-up.

Returning back the way he'd come, he joined Brenna by the Explorer. The bottom had been forced up above the line of the gunwales, but Brenna hadn't found any tears. The hull was intact. The same couldn't be said for the gunwales, unfortunately. Still, they both knew that it could have been worse.

After stopping to check on Pete, Ed and Brenna walked back to their own canoe. Taking their time, they lined down past the boulder—Ed had already christened it "Scylla"—and re-entered their boat. After one painful attempt at kneeling, Ed sat in the bow seat, thrusting his injured leg out in front of him.

Half an hour later, the XL Tripper was back, beached next to the Explorer on the cobbles. A pile of packs lay alongside.

The rain continued to fall. Pete and Karin were both shivering, and it didn't seem likely that they'd be up to any further travel that day. Brenna eyeballed the beach. She pulled her cook tarp from the kitchen pack. Without being asked, Karin helped her guy it out, but Brenna noticed that she seemed to be sleep-walking. Then the two women left Ed and Pete to inventory the recovered packs while they collected the driest wood they could find. Soon a large pot of water was bubbling over a blazing fire. The rain didn't seem quite so bad now. Even Karin's spirits seemed to rise.

Pete, on the other hand, looked awful. He picked through the salvaged packs, opening the roll-top seals and glancing at the gear without apparent comprehension. Ed noticed with relief that the bags—big roll-top dry-bags of the type he's always called "Bill's bags"—had lived up to their advertising. The contents were nearly dry.

Leaving Pete to continue his half-hearted inspection, Ed walked over to the Explorer. Remarkably, the ash gunwales had split along the diagonal. It looked like it would be possible to bring them back together. A couple of splints on each side of the breaks, a good wrapping of duct tape, and they'd be almost good as new.

Next, Ed cleared away the larger cobbles next to the Explorer. When he had a reasonably even bed about as long as the canoe, he slid the boat onto it. Pete had just finished his inventory. He joined Ed beside the canoe. "Looks bad," he murmured, shaking his head.

"Not too bad," Ed replied. "Not torn anyway. Hold her steady and I'll do my patented clog dance, OK? We'll see if we can't make her look more like a canoe."

Leaving Pete clinging to the bow, Ed clambered into the upright boat. Moving gingerly—"Damn knee really hurts!" he muttered, wincing involuntarily—Ed slammed his right foot down on the buckled hull. The unnatural, upward bulge flattened a bit. He brought his foot down again. And again. Working his way from bow to stern, he gradually hammered out the hull. When he had finished, the Explorer looked almost like its old self. Even the gunwales had come together.

Ed turned toward Pete. "What did I tell you?" he said. "Good as new!" Pete smiled wordlessly.

Karin wasn't smiling, though. After helping Brenna gather wood, she'd walked away from the cobble beach, climbing the gentle slope upward toward the dense woodland above the spring high-water mark. She'd seen something in the trees. A spot of color—no, she thought, that wasn't right—a flash of light against the deep green of the spruce. She pushed into the woods, forcing her way past the rasping, clinging, dripping branches. And then she saw what it was that had caught her eye.

A low, white picket fence surrounded a tiny clearing in the woods. Three white crosses stood in the cleared space: a large cross, flanked by two smaller ones. Two odd-shaped things hung from the smaller crosses. They looked a little like weathered picnic baskets. Karin walked toward the fence to get a better look. Fragile white flowers covered the forest floor, each rising on a delicate stalk above a whorl of shiny green leaves. All were bedded deep in masses of thick, springy moss. Then Karin realized what she was seeing. "Cradles!" she shouted. "Those things…they're Indian cradle-boards!" Without knowing why, she began to sob, and her sobs grew in volume until they were great shuddering cries.

Brenna was the first to hear. She came running. Pete was close behind her. Ed, limping worse than ever, brought up the rear. Brenna and Ed took in the sight before them, silently exchanging glances. Pete folded his arms around his sobbing wife, cupped the back of her head in his large hand, and held her face tenderly against his shoulder. Gradually, her cries became less agonized.

They stood for several minutes without speaking. The only sounds were the steady drumbeat of the rain and Karin's sobs. Then Brenna touched Pete's shoulder and motioned toward the beach. "Come on," she whispered, "let's get out of this rain and have something hot to drink." Pete nodded, and the four friends turned their backs on the lonely crosses.

Once under the shelter of the tarp, seated next to the fire, with a cup of hot, sweet tea in her hands, Karin stopped crying. She blew her nose on a soaking wet bandanna, and spoke, her voice little more than a hoarse whisper. "I'm sorry. It's…well, it's just that after seeing Pete almost…almost…." Tears welled up in her eyes, but she continued: "I thought I was going to, you know, lose him, and then seeing those crosses and those cradle boards, and I, well, I just broke down. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

Pete squeezed his wife's shoulders. Brenna patted Karin's hand. Ed stared into the fire. Finally he said, "Nothing for you to be sorry about."

"At least this rain seems to have drowned all the flies," Brenna added, hoping that a bad joke would lighten the mood.

"Right," Pete said, with a hint of a chuckle. "That's something, at least. And…." He paused, searching for words. "And, ah, thanks for recovering our boat, and for saving…."

"Think nothing of it," Ed interrupted, embarrassed. "All part of the service. Let's just chalk it up to experience."

"Yeah," added Brenna. "Let's. You'd have done the same for us, wouldn't you? Things turned out OK. That's what's important."

Pete looked like he had more to say, though. He cleared his throat. He tugged at the end of his nose. Then he spoke. "Speaking of experience. It's just that this trip's not turning out like we expected—like I expected—it would. What with Karin being sick right from day one." He tugged at his nose again, then went on. "I'm not—we're not—enjoying this. At all. I really wish we hadn't come."

Ed looked at Brenna. She returned his gaze, shrugging her shoulders ever so slightly. Then Ed spoke:"Well, you're here now. Let's finish setting up camp. Put on some dry clothes. Have a good meal. And then turn in early. Get some sleep. See how things look in the morning. We've been pushing hard. It's not easy to enjoy yourself when you're worn out. After a good night's sleep, maybe things will seem a little better."

"Sure," Pete replied. "Good idea. But today's taught me something I'm not going to forget. This sort of thing's not for me."

"Not for us," Karin added, her eyes averted. "I'm not having any fun at all. I just want to go home."

"Well," Brenna said, "that's that." She sounded resigned. "But it's not so simple, is it? There's no bus service out here. If you want to bail, the way out still leads downriver. And trying to hurry is just asking for trouble. Like today…." Her voice trailed off.

"Right," Ed added. "We'll work something out—tomorrow. But today's nearly over. There's not much light left. Now we've got to get things squared away." He stood up, his head touching the sagging tarp and sending a cascade of water off the eaves. "Let's finish setting up camp while we still have light to work by."

Pete stood up, too, stooping so as not to bump the tarp. "Sounds good to me," he said, extending his hand to his wife. "Come on, Karin. Let's go."

All in all, thought Pete, as he helped Karen get their gear under cover, they'd had better luck than they had any right to expect. They hadn't lost much. A food pack. The Pelican box with his Nikon SLR. And his day-pack. The day-pack. He winced at the reminder. That was the worst loss. The Yachtboy had been in his day-pack. The shortwave radio that was his connection with the world—no, The World—was gone. And since he'd made a secret of it, he couldn't even complain about the loss to Ed and Brenna. That really rankled.

Still, he had to admit he felt more cheerful now that the tents had been set up and supper was cooking under the tarp. And it promised to be a good supper. Brenna was forming a raisin- and sugar-enriched bannock, while Karin dropped dumpling batter into a large pot of chicken stew. They'd all share the meal, and there'd be more than enough for extra helpings all round.

As the stew simmered and the bannock baked, Pete helped Ed put up a second tarp next to the first, stringing a clothesline beneath it. Hot food. Dry clothes. Life was looking better all the time. Even the rain was letting up at last. And before the mosquitos realized good flying weather had returned, all the paddlers had retreated to their tents for their first good night's sleep in days.

Pete was the first to wake. Without disturbing Karin, he crawled out of their small tent. Shafts of sunlight shone through the clouds, and patches of blue sky were visible overhead! No mosquitoes buzzed around him. He walked over to the cook tarp in his bare feet and long johns, piled up some dry kindling they'd stowed the night before, and started a fire.

One by one, the others woke and joined Pete by the fire. Brenna was the last. Pausing to scan the river before she ducked under the tarp, she was delighted to see a black bear on the opposite shore. Two fat cubs played beside their mother in the shallows, splashing and roughhousing. Suddenly, the bear lifted her nose to the breeze, grunted a warning, and loped off toward the woods, her cubs bounding after her. Before Brenna could call out, the bears had vanished.

The four friends spent the entire day in camp. Pete scraped the Explorer's split gunwales smooth and screwed splints along both breaks, covering the finished join with duct tape. Next, at Ed's suggestion, he heated the boat's hull near the fire, watching it carefully to be sure no coals landed on it. As the hull warmed, Pete ironed out the remaining creases with a smooth piece of driftwood. When he put the boat in the water at the end of the day, he found it handled as well as ever. Only then did Pete remember the lost radio.

For his part, Ed tried his luck with gaudy streamers in the pool beneath the rapids. His luck was good, and an early supper of brook trout was followed by reflector-oven-baked chocolate cake. It left everyone feeling overstuffed and happy. Everyone but Pete, that is. He felt better than he had for days, to be sure, but he still longed to return to The World. He'd had a hushed discussion with Karin the previous evening, just before dropping off to sleep, and she'd agreed—though not without some misgivings. They'd paddle as far as Fort Hope on the Albany, then hire a plane and fly out. They'd be homeward bound. Ed and Brenna could do what they wanted. It wasn't his problem.

The next morning dawned clear and cool. The four friends got under way early and easily lined the canoes down the last rapid before Rockcliffe Lake. As they headed downriver, they kept their eyes peeled for the Neary's lost packs, but they found none, nor did they see any trace of them where the river emptied into the lake.

Happily, the narrow lake's orientation gave them some respite from the persistent north wind, and it took only three hours to traverse. Then the paddlers continued on down the river. Here they encountered a series of rapids, most of them requiring that they line their boats. Pete was more careful now, but he was still impatient. Whenever he started taking chances, though, Karin just hummed a few bars from "The 59th Street Bridge Song": Slow down, you move too fast…." Pete always got the message. He slowed down. Even so, by nightfall they'd come fifteen miles. The river now crisscrossed a swampy floodplain in lazy meanders. The swamp wasn't shown on the map, but as Ed pointed out, this wasn't unusual. The country had the final say.

Still, the sodden surroundings didn't offer much in the way of campsites. Tangles of alder lined the river banks. Even when they stood up in their canoes, the paddlers couldn't see inland. As they approached each bend in the river, they craned their necks, hoping to catch a glimpse of the land ahead. Then, as the light dimmed and they were all starting to think they'd have to spend the night in their boats, a small island loomed up ahead. Studded with stunted spruce, it was far from picturesque, but at least it offered a dry camp.

That was more than enough. Both canoes headed for the spruces. Ed was the first to see the faint blue haze hovering over the island. Soon he could smell the smoke of a camp-fire. "Look's like the place is already booked," he joked, but no one laughed. As they came closer, a small bay opened before them. There, sheltering in the lee of a rocky point, they saw a canoe. And it was no ordinary canoe. A beamy, green, transom-sterned fiberglass freighter—Ed guessed it was around 22 feet long—it had a large, red eye painted on the bow. A big outboard was tipped up out of the water.

A large, red eye…. Ed suddenly remembered their brief conversation with the Cree woman on the train. Wasn't her husband or someone supposed to be traveling on the Misehkow? There couldn't be too many canoes like this one. Ed stopped paddling. The XL Tripper drifted toward the big freighter. He wondered what they should do. The island was small—very small. But there wasn't a lot of choice.

Just then, a disembodied voice floated down from the trees. "Come on in. Plenty a' room up here. Won't find another good camp for miles." A figure appeared on the rock spine, silhouetted against the rapidly darkening horizon. The Tripper drifted closer. The silhouette resolved itself into a man. He had a blackened pipe clenched between his teeth, but that didn't stop him from smiling. Ed noticed that both his lower incisors were missing. Tobacco smoke mingled with woodsmoke and the aroma of frying bacon. Both canoes drifted closer. Now all the paddlers could see the slender, grinning man in a red-and-black-checked wool shirt and rubber hip boots, each one turned down over the knee. He couldn't have been more than 25.

"You just tie off to my boat," the man said, without removing his pipe from his mouth. "She ain't goin' nowhere." As he spoke, the man scrambled down the steep path to the little bay. Soon the canoes were made fast, and pack after pack was being passed from hand to hand up the slope.

When the final pack had been carried up, Pete was the first to speak. He, too, remembered the conversation on the train. "I think we met your wife on the train coming in…," Pete's voice trailed off as he struggled to recall her name.

The man's smile got broader. "Got no wife. Not yet, anyways. You musta been talkin' to Mary Smoke. She's my sister. I'm Billy Swamp." He looked at Pete for a long second. "Not local, are ya?" he asked, and the smile got even wider. Pete shook his head silently and returned Billy Swamp's gaze. Black hair stuck out from under their young host's billed cap and hung down over a pair of searching dark eyes. Pete could just make out faded letters spelling "Yamaha" on the cap.

Billy Swamp shifted his pipe to the other side of his mouth, squatted down, and turned his attention to his supper. He picked up a long fork and speared thick slices of bacon in a massive cast-iron skillet, turning each slice carefully.

To Ed's surprise, he found that his stomach was growling. The bacon smelled good! He looked around. Though the campsite was small, it was level, and there was more than enough room for two more tents. Billy Swamp got up from tending his meal. Ed extended his hand and introduced himself, then introduced Brenna, Karin, and Pete. Billy shook Ed's hand and nodded modestly to Brenna and Karin. He looked at Pete again and shook his hand, too.

"You don't mind if we spend the night here?" Ed asked.

"Nope," Billy replied. "Glad to have the company."

That was that. Ed and Pete lost no time in pitching the tents, while Brenna and Karin made a quick supper. After the meal, they shared a big pot of tea with Billy Swamp, who found it hard to take his eyes off Karin's multi-colored fleece jester hat. He's never seen anything quite like it.

Talk ebbed and flowed as the tea was poured out and handed round, and as thousands of stars appeared one by one in a moonless sky. Billy mentioned that he was on his way upstream. Just short of Rockcliffe Lake, he'd cross over into the next watershed and make his way back home to Osnaburgh House.

Pete thought immediately of hot showers and telephones, but Ed had other things on his mind. "How do you get your freighter around those rapids?" he asked, remembering the number of times they'd had to line their own much smaller boats.

Billy smiled. "Oh, she's not so bad. I just haul her over the rollers on the portages."

Ed's jaw dropped. They'd been down that stretch of river only hours ago, yet he'd seen nothing of any of these portages. Not a thing. Local knowledge, he thought: there just isn't any substitute.

"Where'ya heading, yourselves?" Billy asked.

"James Bay," Ed replied, while Pete looked away.

For the first time, Billy's smile faltered. "Oh, that's a real bad place, James Bay," he said. Then he shook his head and took a deep drag on his pipe. He looked from one member of the party to the other, saying nothing.

When he spoke next, his voice took on the distant tone that people use when they have bad news to deliver. "The Misehkow, now, she's bad, but not too bad, if you know what I mean, and the Albany—the lower Albany, y'unnerstand—she's just a big, old river. But the 'Bay—well, that's somethin' else. Tidal flats that go on and on. Mud as far as you can see. An' squalls that brew up without no warnin' at all. Blow even a big boat under in no time. And no bodies found. Me, I've lived on these rivers all my life, but I don't go out on the 'Bay. I'm goin' to stay alive to play with my grandkids—an' I'm not even married yet."

Ed listened attentively, the orange and red of the fire reflected in his eyeglasses. Brenna stared out over the dark water. And Karin moved closer to Pete.

No one spoke. The only sounds were the sibilant rasp of the breeze through the spruce, the crackle of the flames, and the menacing buzz of hundreds of mosquitos, each bent on making up for lost time. A log shifted in the fire, and a shower of sparks enveloped the camp. Suddenly, far away, the howl of a wolf could be heard.

Billy smiled for the first time in several minutes. "Well, maybe you don't need to worry about the 'Bay, OK? Maybe the loup-garou get you first. Then the Bay won't matter." And he laughed.

To be continued…


Copyright 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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