The Brit, the Canadian and the canoe

Highway 60 stretches out ahead of us, winding and dipping, pressed in on both
sides by thick forest. We’ve been driving for hours, the landscape an unchanging
procession of green trees and grey tarmac. If there was any poetry in the world Road to
Nowhere would start playing on the car’s radio, but there isn’t, so it doesn’t. I hum it
anyway. Fate’s a rubbish DJ.

We’re barrelling through Canada’s Algonquin Park, 7,653 square kilometres of hills, ridges, spruce bogs and forest, peppered by thousands of lakes, ponds, and streams. It’s early summer, and I’m here to settle a longstanding argument with my friend Andrew,
who’s working hard to drive a car the Flintstones traded in for a newer model.

Andrew – never Andy – is Canadian and utterly convinced that his home is the most beautiful, yet most overlooked, country in the world. I disagree, but in the interests of fairness I’ve given him a weekend to convince me he’s not a total moron.

As always, we’ve been bickering nonstop since he picked me up from the airport, with Andrew currently on the backfoot thanks to my panicked, somewhat nonsensical observation that Canadians all have the same haircut. He’s saved from having to come up with a witty riposte when we spot a stationary car in the middle of the road with its hazards blinking. Three more are queued up in front of it.

“Accident, Andy?” I ask brightly.

“Moose jam,” Andrew replies through gritted teeth, slowing down and flipping on his hazards. The moose is standing across both lanes, staring at the cars as though they’ve stumbled into his yard. “You see a lot of them this time of year, they come out to eat the salt the roads are gritted with,” he adds, leaning over the wheel. “We just have to wait it out. And stop calling me Andy, you British idiot.”

And so for fifteen minutes, as more and more cars queue behind us, the world’s dopiest animal brings hundreds of years of technical evolution to a standstill. It’s a pattern that will become familiar over the next few days. In Algonquin Park, fur and feathers always have right of way.

Eventually, the moose lopes off and we’re on our way again, soon reaching our destination of Aylen Lake. Sitting on the outer edge of Algonquin, the rivers that feed the lake will be our route into the park’s back country, which is only accessible by canoe. There are no campgrounds in there, no roads and no tourists, so everything we need is packed into the canoes we’re now hauling off the back of Andrew’s trailer.

In truth, I’m not entirely sure we can survive this long with only each other for company. Our past trips have resulted in cuts, bruises, a broken arm and, on one notable excursion, a night in a police cell. Still, I really want to see this place, and I figure he’ll be a handy diversion should we be attacked by wolves.

***

Cold water bites my naked feet as I tug my canoe into the lake, and climb inside. The last of the winter frost is still clinging to the branches of the trees, but as we glide out onto the water all that’s forgotten. The lake is a sheet of solid silver, perfectly reflecting the blue sky and tattered white clouds. Aside from the splash of our paddles, there’s not a sound to be heard, and for the rest of the day we barely speak, losing ourselves in our surroundings, aware of nothing but the rhythm of our paddling.

We stop only once when we discover a beaver dam, but the buck-toothed critters refuse to make an appearance, and after eating a quick sandwich, we paddle on until Andrew directs us to an inviting clearing on the lake bank.

Without my realising, afternoon has been and gone, clearing the way for early evening. As I drag my canoe out of the water, my body begins to seize up, each of my miniscule muscles waving a little white flag. We pitch camp by the water, Andrew packing all our food into a yellow bag, which he flings over a tree branch, where it dangles on a long rope like some gigantic bee hive. He catches my questioning look. “The last thing we want is a bear coming through here looking for food,” he says.The last thing I want is a bear coming through our campsite full stop, but this will have to do.

I’m eyeing the bag,wondering whether I could sleep in it tonight when Andrew says “Don’t worry, you’re too stringy for a bear, he’d probably just nibble one of your arms and then leave you alone.”

In an effort to distract myself from my imminent mauling, I take out the canvas bag with my tent bits inside, ready to build myself a house. This is probably the point at which I should admit that I have no idea how to put up a tent, or even what the point of one is.

I’ve watched plenty of Westerns, and it seems to me that real men sleep beside roaring fires in woollen blankets. Besides, if a bear comes through here while I’m sleeping I’d rather look like a log than a ready meal. Unfortunately, Andrew’s throwing his tent together as though it’s made of Lego, which has made backing out impossible, so I shuffle off to my task.

An hour passes… two hours. The third hour doesn’t even bother, it just stands there, watching me and tapping its foot. Embarrassment hangs in the air like a fat man in a hammock. I’m crushed beneath it. The tent is half built – its skeletal frame emerging from the floor like some half-excavated fossil. The canvas sheet is covered in dirt and pinned to the floor by a rock, punishment for its repeated attempts to escape this catastrophe.

Thankfully, Andrew is down by the lake with his fishing rod, catching us dinner. I was supposed to join him when I was finished, but I’m being outpaced by evolution so I abandon the wrecked tent and pick my way among the trees, down to the lakeside where Andrew is sitting on a comedy canvas stool, his fishing rod resting on a fork stuck in the ground. There’s a blanket beside him that consoles me by having precisely no fish on it. Cheerful Andrew, tent enthusiast, is gone, replaced by grumpy Andrew, failed fish botherer. My spirits are immediately lifted.

“No luck, Andy?” I ask with a winning smile.

“I think we need to try a different spot,” he grunts in response.

And so we do. Several. And though our location changes, our fortunes do not. We’re being outwitted by fish, and not even a few fish. According to the brochures, there are 54 species of the blighters roaming the park, making it “home to some of the finest brook trout and lake trout fishing in the world”. Pure chance should have nabbed us one by now. Perhaps the problem is the stones I’m periodically skimming along the surface of the lake just to bother Andrew. Yeah, perhaps that’s it.

Eventually, we decide to board the canoes and paddle out to the centre of the lake. It’s getting dark now, clouds creeping gingerly across the sky. Rain is already in the air, and we’re running out of time to land dinner. We sit there for an hour, rain drops pattering against our jackets as the sky turns black and purple, the colour of a gigantic bruise. My rod strains just once, but after a brief struggle my prize, whatever it was, gets away. Defeated, we turn towards home, and the yellow bag dangling from the tree.

By this point I’ve forgotten the mess I made of my tent, now soaking wet on the floor.

“What happened?” Andrew says, eyeing the mess.

“Must have been a bear,” I reply, trying to match his shock. “At least the food’s safe.”

Andrew’s rude word seems to linger a long time in that still evening air, but eventually he agrees to build my tent, so long as I unpack the food and cooking stove.

A fire is soon blazing and before too long we’re eating baked beans and unidentifiable meat, with a Snickers for dessert. Stars are shining overhead, the fire is warm, and there’s not a bear in sight. This could be the best meal I’ve ever had.

***

We wake to discover that a second ice age has overcome us. Absolutely everything is covered in a layer of frost, including the bear bag which I forgot to fling into the tree last night, much to Andrew’s consternation. Mist is creeping across the surface of the lake, and twisting up between the trees. It’s beautiful, and so cold Andrew is threatening to kill me and wear me as a coat.

To ward this off, I get a fire going and fill our metal mugs with hot coffee. We hold them between our numb hands, waiting for the sun to reclaim the earth and sensation to seep back into our fingers.

It takes an hour for my eyeballs to unfreeze, and even then it’s still chilly, so we decide to power onto our second camp spot before night falls. It’s hard going. Andrew sets a furious pace – in revenge for the bear bag snafu, I suspect – and all my muscles are grumbling. My canoe, which yesterday felt like an aquatic lightning bolt, today feels it’s made of solid gold, and I find myself resting every half hour or so, panting for breath.

When Andrew The Canoe Fascist finally points us towards the lake bank I could kiss him. It takes everything I have to drag my canoe out of the water, but just as I’m about to collapse onto the gravel I look up to find civilisation peeking out at me from behind a copse of trees. Okay, I find a house peeking out at me, well a hut, but it has all the modern conveniences – which is to say, a roof, four walls, a stove and bunkbeds. No five-star hotel has ever been so inviting.

“It used to be a ranger cabin back in the sixties,” Andrew tells me, dragging his canoe onto the shore the way a horse tugs a plough up a hill. A plough loaded with rocks. And pain. “Beats camping though, doesn’t it?”

Just as I offer to hunt down some wood for the fire, Andrew removes four thick logs from my canoe, where he stashed them yesterday. Heavy logs. Heavy logs I’ve been carting around all day. I don’t know whether to applaud him or punch him in the throat. My compromise is an insult so harsh that birds start tumbling out of the trees in shock.

Soon enough a fire is blazing in the stove, and we’re drinking coffee out of metal mugs.

“There’s a lookout post a couple of miles up the hill,” he tells me, warming his hands by the stove. “I’ve heard there’s great views of the park, assuming your legs are still working.”

We reach the old watch tower just as stars begin to dig themselves out of the dark night sky. We can see for miles in every direction: trees and lakes, streams and cliffs. Everything’s silent, perfectly peaceful, especially beautiful. Andrew places a victorious hand on my aching shoulder, smugness dripping off him.

“Do I win?” he asks.

I pause, pretending to consider it. “It’s lovely, Andy, absolutely lovely. Bit like my back
garden in England. You should come see it…you don’t even need a canoe.”

The Brit, the Canadian and the canoe

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