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
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
excitementan 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
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. Nowwell, 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
moresay 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 geartravelling 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
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
"Pick up half a dozen," Ed replied. "Let's live dangerously!"
To be continued ...
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