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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Trip of a Lifetime

The Cold Light of Dawn

By Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest

A Note to the Reader

It's March, 2001. Brenna Trent and her husband Ed Fletcher are starting to make plans for a three-month-long canoe trip to James Bay. It seemed easy yesterday, when the idea first took hold, but the problems are already starting to mount up.

November 7, 2000

Chapter Two

Ed stood at the tall kitchen window, hands cupped around his mug, watching tendrils of fragrant steam rise from the surface of his morning coffee. There were times, he thought, when it was very good to live over the shop. No panicky scramble to get on the road. No rush-hour traffic to infuriate and delay. A measured, orderly start to each workday. Smiling to himself, he reached for the toast.

Only then, as he put down his coffee mug to give full attention to the rest of his breakfast, did Ed notice how cold it was in the apartment. He laid his hand on the shuddering, pinging radiator and frowned. Not even lukewarm. And it would be even colder downstairs among the towering bookshelves. Wonderful, Ed thought. Now he'd have to spend the morning bleeding air out of the pipes. He couldn't even look forward to a warm office.

He turned back toward the window and gazed out in the direction of the distant Adirondack foothills, now just a mauve smear on the far horizon, their outlines obscured by billowing, gray-white clouds of smoke from the paper mill to the west. The diffuse, watery light filtering through the thin smoke gave nearby streets and buildings a slightly surreal quality. For a moment, he was reminded of the misty, enigmatic Parisian cityscapes of Brassaï.

That illusion didn't last. Two inches of heavy wet snow weighed down every power line and bent the bare branches of the maples. A few enterprising house sparrows prospected at curb-side, looking for something edible amid the drifts of sodden litter. An echoing chorus of dogs gave each early passerby a fitful, dissonant challenge.

Ed's mind flew over the boarded-up storefronts and decaying apartment buildings around him. He ransacked his memory for more welcoming vistas, just as he'd done on hundreds of similar mornings. "Remembrance of things past," he snorted inwardly, angry with himself for day-dreaming. Then he stopped short. Today was different. He and Brenna were going north again. And he felt a pleasant tingle of excitement—an almost adolescent anticipation.

Just at that minute, Brenna came into the kitchen and sat down at the table, reaching reflexively for her mug and plate. She was wrapped up in a wool robe against the chill. "It's damn cold in here," she said. Brenna was a woman of few words in the morning.

Ed nodded. "I think it's an air-lock," he said. "I'll bleed the radiators after breakfast." Then, settling his glasses on the bridge of his nose with a forefinger, he added, "Dick Grimm."

Brenna was used to such sudden transitions. Ed wasn't exactly a linear thinker. She knew what he meant. They'd talked about possible partners for the trip north the night before, just before going to sleep. "I hadn't thought of him," Brenna replied. She chewed her toast reflectively and jotted a note on the pad she kept beside her place at the table.

Ed's attention wandered. He looked out the window again. A tall, white-haired man was walking along the side-street opposite The Book Locker. He left two narrow tracks behind him in the sooty snow, and his hands were crammed deep into the pockets of his shabby greatcoat. He didn't look comfortable. Then he turned the corner and headed in the direction of the diner on Main Street. Two boys wearing the dark green blazers of St. Mary's School approached the tall man from the other direction, passing him without a word. After taking another few steps, the bigger boy bent down to scoop up a handful of slush and packed it into a hard snowball. Turning swiftly, he threw it at the man's retreating back. Just as the boy's arm flew out, however, the tall man looked round. Moving with surprising speed, he sidestepped the snowball. Then, without an instant's hesitation, he, too, bent down. As he straightened up, he threw a snowball of his own at the bigger boy, who was now running as fast as he could go down the street. He threw it fast and hard, catching the boy smack in the back of head. The boy let out a howl that could be heard right through the storm windows, but he kept on running.

Ed chuckled to himself. The biter bit, he thought. The tall, white-haired man resumed his slog toward the diner. Ed turned back to the business of the day: "How about Pete and Karin Neary?" he asked.

"Probably not," replied Brenna. "I think Karin's teaching this summer. I'll give 'em a call this afternoon, though, just to be sure." She made another note and then looked up, shaking her head in dismay. "There's so much to do. We've only started, but I already feel like I'm falling way behind. Last night it seemed like we had forever to get ready. Now—well, look at this list." And she shoved her notebook at Ed.

He poured more coffee for them both. "One thing at a time, Brenn. One thing at a time. The longest journey begins with a single step." He caught sight of Brenna's sardonic expression and his voice trailed off in embarrassment. "OK. I just joined the cliché of the month club, right? But it's still true. So why don't I take a good look at the Tripper first? Canoes don't last forever. The old barge's gettin' on. Lots of water under her keel. Lots of cold winters. Got to know if she has another trip left in her."

He scanned Brenna's notebook. The "to do" list alone ran on for more than a page, with "Buy maps" right at the head. Maps. They had to know where they were going first, Ed thought. James Bay was a big piece of real estate. They had to pick a river.

Ed's eyes travelled down the page. One question after another. Water levels? New hydro developments? How about logging or mining operations? Ed had vivid memories of hunting for portages lost in a wilderness of logging slash. Put-in? Take-out? Drive or fly? New regulations? New fees? Ed winced at this one, remembering that Ontario Crown Lands weren't free to foreigners. How much? Three months or more—say 100 days. Two people. Could be quite a big chunk of change, he thought, ruefully.

He looked up. Brenna now had another notebook in front of her. She was scribbling furiously, adding items one by one. She stopped, caught Ed's eye, and shrugged. "Gear list," she said. Ed nodded. He too was starting to feel the pressure.

"Why not put 'em on the computer down in the shop?" Ed asked.

"I'm going to," Brenna said. "But I can't bring the computer to the breakfast table, can I? I'll put everything I can think of down in these two notebooks now, and then I'll transfer the lists later. In the meantime, let's haul all our gear out and look it over. We can hang things up on the porch if they're musty, and use part of the back room downstairs to sort and pack."

Ed nodded, swirling what was left of his coffee. He yawned. They hadn't even finished breakfast and already the day was looking full. He continued to study Brenna's "to do" list, saying nothing. A companionable silence followed. Suddenly, Brenna put down her pen. "What're we going to do about the shop?" she asked.

Ed raised his eyebrows and stroked his stubble thoughtfully. ("Can't go north without a beard!" he'd said that morning when he left the bathroom unshaven, answering Brenna's unspoken question.) What to do about the shop? That was THE question. No doubt about it. "Well," he said, "we've got two choices. We can close the shop down or we can hire someone to keep an eye on it. Wait a minute.... There's another alternative. We can sell out."

Brenna sighed. It wasn't an easy choice. The shop was a lot of work, and it certainly wasn't making them rich. But she had to admit they'd grown accustomed to the place. They liked the treasure-hunt atmosphere of the auctions. They liked chatting with customers. They liked being surrounded by thousands of books. But now they'd made the decision to go north, and something would have to be done about the shop. Ed noticed Brenna's downcast look. He had to admit he felt the same way himself. "There's no hurry," he said. "Let's just wait a while. Something'll turn up. You'll see."

"OK, Micawber," Brenna said, and she planted a warm kiss on her husband's cheek. Downstairs the clock started to chime the hour. "Let's get to work."

It was another slow day. Brenna pushed the wet snow off the sidewalk in front of the shop and then sprinkled sand on the stone steps. Marge, the lady from the dry-cleaners down the road, stopped in during her coffee break to buy a two-foot-high stack of romances. ("Second-hand love," Ed whispered to Brenna, winking, as he bled the radiator behind the counter.) Slow morning or not, though, there was one good sale. A couple who lived in the northern Adirondacks, traveling through town on their way downstate to visit family, bought over three hundred dollars' worth of books, including a really nice copy of D. W. Waters' The Art of Navigation in England in Elizabethan and Early Stuart Times. When Brenna went round to straighten up the stock after they'd gone, she noticed Donald Johnson's Charting the Sea of Darkness: The Four Voyages of Henry Hudson, right next to the gap on the shelf where the Waters' volume had been. She took it back with her to the counter. It seemed like a good omen.

Meanwhile, Ed had taken a break from bleeding the radiators. He was working in the back room, clearing shelves, shoving boxes of uncataloged books into corners, and dusting off the big table. As a finishing touch, he tacked a National Geographic map of Canada up on the wall, next to a tattered, unframed print of George Caleb Bingham's Fur Traders Descending the Missouri. Then he stepped out into the damp chill of the big porch running along the full width of the shop at the back.

Under the porch roof, hard against the wall of the building, Ed and Brenna's Old Town Tripper rested upside-down on two sawhorses, looking a lot like a beached whale. Ed swept last autumn's dried leaves and the winter's dust off the hull, and then ran his eyes over it. The Tripper's bottom was criss-crossed with scratches, some of them pretty deep. Ed got his nails under the bow bang-strip, tugged, and felt it start to pull away in his hand. He leaned on the hull, gently at first, then putting more and more of his weight on it. It flexed under the pressure, and Ed could hear an ominous cracking sound. Next, he muscled the canoe off the sawhorses and set it right-side up on the porch floor. Now he could see the old fiberglass patch in the bow, marking the place where a woodpile had collapsed on the boat late one sub-zero night, splitting the inner skin of the hull. That was years ago, back when they still stored the Tripper in a friend's barn on the Battenkill. Ed worked his fingers along the edge of the patch. It, too, lifted in response to his probing. Not good, he thought. The old girl was definitely showing her age.

Ed did some quick sums in his head. He figured they'd be gone three months. Make it 100 days to keep things simple. Estimate food at five pounds a day. That was a quarter-ton of food alone! Then figure another hundred pounds for clothing and gear—travelling light is fine for a weekend, Ed reminded himself, but you really appreciate a few home comforts on three-month-long trip. Now add in the weight of the crew. He looked down at his pot and groaned. Better add another 325 pounds for the crew. What did that all add up to? Five hundred plus a 100 plus another 325 … 925 pounds! Almost half a ton. That'll be pushing it, he thought, remembering the big, wind-driven rollers on the Bay. Of course they'd be travelling a lot lighter by the time they tasted salt water. Still, there'd be no margin to speak of, even if the Tripper was brand new. Which it wasn't, not by a long shot.

Just then Brenna opened the porch door and asked, "Can you take over at the counter for a few minutes? I'm going for sweet rolls."

"Sure thing," said Ed, coming in. Then, hearing the radiator ping loudly, he added, "And I'll finish bleeding the system later."

"The back room looks great," said Brenna surveying Ed's morning's work. "Now we've got a place to lay out all our gear and check it over." She paused for a second and asked, "So how many rolls should I get? Four?"

"Pick up half a dozen," Ed replied. "Let's live dangerously!"

To be continued ...

On the Missouri

Copyright 2000 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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