Part II*: The Ontario trip: French River – Georgian Bay – Key River
(*to read Part I, scroll to the bottom of this page)
Last time, Elizabeth, Andrew, Dave, and Howard the Dog had just begun the fourth day of their trip, their second day on the French River…
So, just how lost were we?
When our trusted navigator told us to turn our boats around, I wished that I had at least glanced at the map that morning. Dave and Andrew sorted everything out, though, discovering that our mistake was a small one — we had followed the wrong channel only a short distance back and were soon on course once again. (Side note: considering the warnings that veteran French River paddlers had issued to us about how easily we could get lost, I have to congratulate Andrew, who navigated almost the entire trip. Thirty thousand islands dotting Georgian Bay couldn’t phase him.)
Onward we paddled. We came around a bend in the river, and I noticed some kind of resort sprawling across the south bank. Seven or eight Canadian flags fluttered in the breeze along the front of what appeared to be the “main lodge.” I squinted at the curious, remotely-located establishment as we moved closer, picking out cabins squatting at the water’s edge, nestled farther back in the woods, and perched atop cliffs downriver. “Is that camp thing on an island, or does the river just twist around it and dead end?” I asked dully and turned to face Andrew, expecting him to look up from the map for a second or two and ignore my question.
But he was gazing thoughtfully over my shoulder at the resort. “Hey, all those Maple Leaves are at half-mast,” he murmured. I turned and looked again. Wow. I’d missed that.
“Yeah…” Dave broke in quietly, matter-of-factly, “…it’s September 11th.”
It was indeed — September 11, 2002 — the one-year anniversary of the attack upon and subsequent collapse of the World Trade Center, the Twin Towers. Now maybe, just maybe, I’m one of those hardened posers who tries stubbornly to detach emotions from things that I cannot wrap my head around or that I cannot control, and I surely won’t even go into my take on world politics. I must admit, though, that during the rest of that day, even I felt something weighty, something unsentimental but universally sad coiled in my stomach. I would occasionally glance up at the sky around us, ensuring that I glimpsed a plane in the air every few hours.
And so it became my privilege to fear only the possible embarrassment of swamping our canoe or taking an involuntary swimming lesson as we braved the rapids that day.
Not that I wasn’t nervous as heck. Of what exactly I was so petrified, I’m uncertain. Andrew and Dave guaranteed that we would scout every rapid before shooting it, and if anything looked like a gamble, we would line or portage. Scouting, in fact, though generally considered a necessary pain in the rear, turned out to be one of my favorite aspects of the trip. Getting out of the boat, clambering up (sometimes nearly straight up — the “landings” around the rapids were usually just a less vertical spot along the boulder-lined bank) onto shore, exercising the muscles in my cramped legs, feeling the huge boulders of the Canadian Shield under my feet, exploring the faint foot trails along the rapids, looking more closely at the vegetation — etc., etc. — it all charmed me to happy little bits. Andrew and I would seek out a suitable lookout point along each rapids, snap photographs, and cheer Dave on as he soloed his Explorer through the white fluffs of agitated water. Then we’d take our turn.
The water level was fairly low, so the first “rapids” marked on the map was a mere ripple, hardly detectable as we came around a sharp bend where the river narrowed slightly. I admittedly felt relieved, but I imagined the next rapids to be a raging Class V with huge drops and maybe even octopi to grab my boat and pull me under.
Of course, my jitters and fears were entirely unfounded. I loved every minute of that day. I loved carefully lining up before the current grabbed our eighteen-and-a-half-foot boat, kneeling in the bow and choosing our line of attack. I loved leaning over the gunwhales, making careful adjustments with draws and pries as we plunged into the thick of things, secure in the belief that my trusty stern paddler would surely compensate for most errors I could make. I loved the waves splashing me in the face when our bow bit into them.
We spent the greater portion of that day running the series of rapids that dotted our course — on the map, it looked like a crooked row of unevenly spaced hurdles. The Blue Chute was the most famous rapids we encountered, but because of the water levels, we had other personal favorites. The river’s unusually low volume meant that some of the “bigger” rapids were not as exciting as we had anticipated. Some stretches, though, were more technical than what we had expected, because the shallower water exposed boulders and rocks in the riverbed.
I was disappointed when the river flattened out again. The French certainly has different sides to her personality. Her narrow sections are exciting, often carved into twisting canyons between tall cliffs. In its calmer stretches, the river is amazingly wide, with a current so faint that it often feels like the longest, most gorgeous lake you’ve ever paddled. Above all, it is strikingly beautiful.
That evening we explored spooky Cross Island, where a group of missionaries have been memorialized after meeting their deaths in the river well over a century ago. The white cross that marked the spot can’t be a grave, we decided; the entire site was solid rock like the rest of the area, ripped apart by glaciers into islands and sharply bending channels during the Ice Age. I managed to snap a very haunting photo of the cross, Andrew, Dave, and Howard’s shadow in the slanting sun.
We tried to find a place to camp on the shore opposite Cross Island, but in the knee-deep lichen, no suitable tent sites rewarded our tramping. After searching several spots along the bank with no success, we finally headed a few miles further down the river, eventually landing in the perfect little harbor where we would spend our evening.
Dinner cooked quickly, our tents went up as the sun went down, and the moon appeared in the clear night sky over the cooling river. We sat around the fire huddled in our sleeping bags, enjoying night-caps and chatting about our day and the adventure yet ahead of us. The night was bringing with it some very cold air — that I could feel in my bones. The breeze picked up. The stars came out. Our eyes began to droop. The fire spat a hot coal onto my self-inflating sleeping pad.