‘Round about this time every year, when the skeeters are pretty much done and August is waning, I miss being in the great outdoors with only a canoe or kayak for travelling and pasteurized Canadian beer for drinking.
From the mid-1980s, when I was much younger, to almost 2010, my friends and I took a week for a canoe trip each summer.
It was a guy’s trip, since women were too smart to endure our level of disorganization and certain mayhem, to places like the French River, Temagami, the Spanish River, and the mighty Magnetawan River.
Most times these were travelling trips; you canoed all day, then set up your tent, cooked a meal, had a few pops and broke camp the next morning for more travelling on small river systems and lakes. Circular routes were not always possible, so car drops were often necessary for these adventures, which were generally four to six days long, anywhere from 60 to 100 kilometres in length.
None of which makes me anything close to a great outdoorsman.
Usually by the time I got the hang of setting up the tent, cooking and eating outdoors, trying to stay dry and just generally not doing anything stupid, the trip was all but finished. And I’d forgotten all these lessons by the next trip.
To protect the (mostly) innocent and prevent lawsuits (even though ‘blood from a stone’ applies), I won’t mention any names here — although my memory of these adventures remains razor sharp.
Like our first (and only) trip to Algonquin Provincial Park. Arriving at our lake, where we had reserved a site as per park rules, we found no vacancy. When we asked the park ranger why this was (it being before the Seinfeld joke about being able to take a reservation, but not being able to hold one), we were told “those campers” were just leaving.
“At five o’clock?” I said, incredulously.
“Well, they had bear trouble at that campsite last night,” the ranger replied.
“What?” I said, even more incredulously.
So with nowhere else to go, and most but not all of our beer confiscated (no cans allowed!), we set up at the bear campsite.
That night, we were awakened by the sound of gunshots behind our tent and up the hill, to be told later at least one bear had been shot.
And that was the last time I went to Tom Thomson’s favourite provincial park.
One year, we decided to conquer the mighty Magnetawan River, which I recall being an hour north of Parry Sound, or at least the section that flows west of Highway 69 and into Georgian Bay.
Some nasty portages, if I recall, but one nastier than the rest.
The map appeared to say it was 250 metres, which isn’t too long, despite us being overloaded with brewskis and other luxury items like large tarps for lounging beneath whilst enjoying said brewskis during thunderstorms, which always happen when you’re setting up or tearing down your campsite.
Anyway, this portage seemed long, way more than 250 metres, so we asked our sturdy navigator to re-check the distance.
“Oh, 2,500 metres,” he said, somewhat sheepishly. “The last zero is on the fold in the map.”
“What?” I said, and not for the last time.
Another portage story took place on the French River, where we rented two huge aluminum canoes, patched war pigs, which were long, wide and very heavy.
As my partner and I unloaded our vessel and began the portage, the other pair decided to pull their war pig up the rapids. They thought it was doable from shore, just using ropes at either end of the war pig and not worrying about banging and bumping a rented canoe on the rapids’ rocks.
We were portaging our gear along the trail when we heard, and I quote, “Aaaaaaahhhhhhh!” from where the rapids flowed.
“That’s not good,” I said.
“That can’t be good,” my partner countered.
The story we heard afterward was our friends both had their heads down, pulling their loaded canoe up the rapids, when the top rope broke and the canoe broke free into the rapids, dragging the other inattentive fellow into the river.
Luckily, he was wearing his life-jacket. It probably prevented a broken rib or two.
He was able to save the beer, but all of their gear got soaked. We camped nearby and laid their stuff out to dry in the hot sun. Most of it did, except the very ends of their sleeping bags, which were still damp. So they were both cold and miserable that night, which served them right for being lazy and not portaging.
A little karma on the canoe trail, as they say.
Going into the great outdoors inevitably means running into the animals which live there full-time. Deer, moose, racoons, beavers (which love damming up whatever waterway you’re trying to cross)… even bears.
Fortunately, we had few real run-ins with bears, because they are big (300-pounders), fast, agile (they climb trees), smell really bad, used to getting their own way and know where all the exits are in a forest.
We did have one memorable near-encounter with a bear, however, in northern Ontario. I actually can’t remember exactly where; so much for my razor-sharp memory.
Camped beneath a narrow bridge on a waterway one morning, we noticed a sizeable bear coming out of the woods and ambling across the bridge, heading in our direction.
So we grabbed our cooking gear and started slamming the pots and pans together, making a noisy racket which the bear initially ignored — being a bear and able to do that.
Then, suddenly, the bear stopped, sat up a little and sniffed the air, before turning around and heading back into the woods.
Not sure why, but maybe the bear got a whiff of us and decided being upwind of humans wasn’t such a bad idea.
Either way, we were grateful to avoid a bear encounter of any sort.
The fun thing about canoe trips is you never really know what’s next.
What’s around that bend in the river? Is there enough water in those rapids to shoot them? Is that a campsite or just a clearing? How soon can we get off this lake if there’s thunder and lightning? And when should we start rationing the beer, if ever?
Important questions all.
But that’s what happens when you get old. You can’t do all the stuff you could when you were younger.
I haven’t been on a real canoe trip in nearly a decade and that one was with kayaks, mostly on Georgian Bay near Killarney.
Took me about a week to recover and to get the soreness out.
Makes me glad I went on canoe trips when I could.
Bob Bruton is a staff reporter with BarrieToday.