Path of the paddle (Page 1 of 2)
Inspired by age-old travelways, a new canoe route knits together the Trans Canada Trail
Story and photography by Hap Wilson
|In Quetico, a canoeist approaches the fabled Falls Chain. (Photo: Hap Wilson)
Itís never just an ordinary day on the canoe trail,
at least not for me. Iíve been paddling and portaging
in northwestern Ontario for almost one month now,
enough time for soft winter palms to blister and
harden into thick paddling calluses. My body aches, always,
somewhere; if itís not joint pain, then itís bug bites or sunburn.
Today, however, is an easy traverse on Trousers Lake,
in Ontarioís Quetico Provincial Park — 10 kilometres and
two portages, mostly soft creek, beaver dams and less than
a thousand metres to haul gear. I plan to not push off until
after noon, waiting for a break in the nimbus sky that kept
me in camp since sunrise.
The aches and pains remind me that Iím no longer in my
thirties. Iíve been creating and mapping trails for 35 years,
and I figure Iíve covered more than 60,000 kilometres by
canoe. At least five percent of that distance has involved
humping gear and canoe over rough or non-existent portage
trails. This latest assignment is among the most challenging:
creating a water-based route around the Superior lakehead
to the Manitoba border, more than 900 kilometres in all,
to be incorporated into the Trans Canada Trail system.
There is a lot of paddling and portaging ahead of me.
As the day winds down on Trousers Lake, I find sanctuary
on the lee of a large island, pull my canoe up on shore
and lash it to a large Jack pine. If a storm hits, Iíll be somewhat protected; though, if Iím honest with myself,
thereís really no safe place out here. With the humidity
spawning a scourge of blackflies, I quickly pitch a tent back
in the trees and build a campfire for a single-pot meal. Then
I settle in with my journal and a dram of Scotch.
Sensing a storm coming, I rope up a secondary fly over
my small tent and guy it tight and low to the ground —
enough to deflect any summer squall. The loons are unusually
quiet tonight. In the confines of the small pack tent,
I rub talcum on my feet to prevent trench foot. I wear Bean
Boots one size too small, snug so that I can easily navigate
over rocky trails. Exhausted, I slip into my sleeping bag.
I can feel the wood ticks crawling on my bare skin, and I
spend the next 10 minutes plucking them off and tossing
them outside the tent.
When the storm arrives, it hits with such a fury that both
my tent and fly would have sailed off across the lake had
I not wrapped some of the guy lines around my waist and grabbed hold of a nearby spruce shrub. Trees crash down
around the campsite: the forest is in a state of chaos. Rain
stings my face, while lightning creates a strobelike light
show. I think of my wife and kids back home, safe in their
beds, and wonder whether this is going to be it: Hap
Wilsonís Final Adventure.
Like most summer storms, it departs as quickly as it
arrived. But by sunrise, the consequences become clear.
Large Jack pines are strewn over the three-kilometre portage
that I now have to travel. My artificial knee, even one year
after the replacement, still does not have the necessary flex,
while the other knee has only a thread of cartilage. For the
next five hours, I struggle to haul my canoe and gear over
and under a maze of broken trees.
The next day, I am struck by lightning.
I had always assumed that the Trans Canada Trail,
first dreamed up in 1992 to celebrate Canadaís 125th year
of Confederation, was intended to be a land-based recreational
path from coast to coast to coast.
Thatís not quite the case, as I discovered in 2009 while
attending the Ontario Trails Council annual meeting. Dan
Andrews, former executive director of Trans Canada Trail
Ontario, sought me out and asked whether I would be
interested in mapping a water-based route in the northwest
of the province. The stretch between Thunder Bay and the
border between Ontario and Manitoba posed a quandary
for Trans Canada Trail planners. As Andrews explained, building a land-based trail through these parts, accounting
for myriad river and creek crossings, irregular-shaped lakes
and large fens, would be costly — at least $6.5 million.
Installing infrastructure, such as suspension bridges, boardwalks
and puncheons, would triple this estimate.
A water-based route would be much less costly, and
faster, to develop. It would have the added benefit of incorporating
Canadaís first trails — the canoe and portage
routes, the nastawgan, or aboriginal trails, that date back
several thousand years — into the national trail system. But
there would still be significant hurdles to navigate. Land-use
issues plague the North Country. Environmentalists and
First Nations vie to keep industrialists and developers transparent
and accountable. In response, developers hold job
security and local economies as playing cards in the quest
for responsible land management. Itís enough to strangle
a bull moose in rut.
Just coming up with a name for the quintessential
Canadian canoe route took a year of discussions. Bill
Mason, the Canadian conservationist, filmmaker and
canoeing icon who died in 1988, spent his formative summers
at Manitoba Pioneer Camp on Shoal Lake, at the
western terminus of the proposed route. So it was fitting
that our new route be named Path of the Paddle, borrowed,
with the blessing of the Mason family, from Billís
series of how-to books and films.