After paddling three kilometres from the boat launch in Missinipe I remember that I left our first night’s supper back in the van. Days earlier I had cut up chunks of pork, frozen them in a marinade and was intending to skewer them with veggies for the freshest–and most bulky–meal on our menu. (We dehydrated the rest of our meals ahead of time.) Instead, we split the following day’s lunch in half. Before eating our shishkabob-less supper we go swimming to wash off our paddling sweat. Everyone throws on their swimsuits except for Vivi, because she doesn’t have one. Her missing swimsuit is one more thing I had forgotten to pack and for the rest of the week she lounges bare-bummed on the bald granite. The next morning the sun rises and our tent is as bright as a glow-bowling ball. I roll my black toque down over my eyes to block out the 5 am sun. When I rally enough to get dressed I discover my third mistake. I cannot find my underwear. I pull out each counted and precious item from our dry bags and realize I had forgotten ALL my panties in a neat pile on my couch. Which is approximately 800 km due south. I have, of course, the pair I am wearing and I continue to wear it, wash it and roast it over the fire to dry, for the next seven days.
Strangely, these forgotten things don’t matter as much as I think. We catch plenty of walleye and end the trip with surplus food in in our plastic five-gallon buckets. We swim off private sites where it doesn’t matter who wears what, if anything at all. We wash our clothes almost daily. The details that seem terribly important in other contexts are almost inconsequential here. On the other hand, other things becomes paramount: finding a good potty spot to bury poop and toilet paper, picking up bannock crumbs to keep bears away, monitoring the wind (and celebrating the lack of it), and becoming adept at sealing 5 sleeping bags into a 55 litre dry bag.
Vivian definitely notices the change in priorities and ambiance. Although she seems happy enough with her lot in life, staying out of waterfalls and campfires, she has bouts of homesickness. While she doesn’t complain about the dearth of toys she expresses her disorientation daily. On the last morning she stands at the edge of our island campsite and asks again, “Mommy, where’s the road home?”
I listen to her three-year-old voice pitched against the sound of roaring rapids and tell her, “You’re looking at it, girl!”
The edge of the waterway we are standing on is part of the Churchill River System and has been used for centuries as a highway for First Nations, voyageurs, and now, recreational enthusiasts. Die-hard paddling addicts say it is one of the premier paddling places in the world, and our driver Heidi, who picks us up at the end of the trip, claims she would need more than 3 lifetimes to fully explore it.
Heidi, a guide with Churchill River Canoe Outfitters who has paddled for at least 30 years, has a tanned face and her strawberry-blond braid is interwoven with silver. While she shuttles us back to our vehicle I lean forward in my seat to learn all I can from this formidable woman. She tells us about raising her kids in a boat (solo tripping with a toddler and infant in the backcountry), dealing with bears (“I’ve never had any problems except for that one time in the NWT when a grizzly totally destroyed our canoe.”) and quick-dry underwear (which is of particular interest to me). When we ask about the risks of whitewater and for extra tips she is helpful and informative. At the end of our conversation she adds succinctly, “But, you know, if I’m always thinking about the risks I’d never leave my own living room.”
We meet other paddlers who have come to the same conclusion as Heidi and it’s clear that the northern waters are in their blood. They are smitten by this land–where life can be harsh and the margin for error slim–and its bounty. A place of unlikely generosity where spongy, soft moss grows a foot deep on hard granite, where fish hooks thrown into the foot of raucous falls pull out perfect walleyes, where reindeer lichen grow a few millimetres each year into edible sculptures more delicate than an artist’s dream, where saskatoons, blueberries, raspberries and bearberry provide a buffet for the forager, where pelicans and eagles criss-cross the sky, and where even the hum of mosquitoes rings with abundance.
Although we’ve canoe tripped in other places and provinces this is the farthest north we’ve paddled and it feels like we are on the brink of something new. We buy a thick book called Canoeing the Churchill at the outfitters office before we leave. At the same time we re-calibrate to our regular ways out of the bush. We change into clean clothes. Toilets become important again. We look in the mirror in gas station restrooms and rake our hands through our hair. We check the clock, count hours, and estimate a midnight arrival back home. Priorities change. Life on land with engines, schedules, and infrastructure dictates a rigour altogether different than the water and paddle. Still, we pass the canoeing guide around our rented 15-passenger van and read snippets aloud of legends, voyageurs and possible routes for next summer. We’ve had a small taste and are hungry for more of the wide river, where loons cry as if they know about our forgotten things, mourning as if everything matters.
Bare-bones of the Trip
Put-in: Missinipi (5 hours north of Saskatoon, SK)
Take-out: Stanley Mission, SK
Total days on water: 7
Longest paddle day: 19 km
Number of boats: 4
Number of adults: 4
Number of children: 5 (ages 12, 10, 9 and 3)
Number of days to pack/dehydrate food/gather gear: 3
Number of days to unload and clean up: 1
Supper meals: hot dogs, potatoes and veggies in tinfoil packets, tortilla soup (dehydrated powder base, cheese, sour cream and corn chips), fried fish, bannock, scalloped potatoes (from a box), dehydrated ground beef and gravy, dehydrated frozen veggies, mac n’ cheese, pizza (on naan bread), chili with dehydrated beef, popcorn, apple/berry crisp (dehydrated ingredients)
Breakfast Menu: porridge, dried fruit, pancakes, dehydrated sausage, refried beans, bannock, granola bars, nuts