Mid­wives

CAR­LEIGH BAKER

Room Magazine - - BAKER -

We’re portag­ing a ca­noe. This is how it goes—Ale­cia counts, “Ready? One, two, three­eeee,” and she pulls while I push. The ca­noe is about nine thou­sand god­damn pounds and three hun­dred feet long. The trail is a slit, cut by a creek that’s frozen slick in places and muddy in oth­ers —some­times just a lit­tle mud and some­times up to my shins.

Push!

On ei­ther side of the slit it’s grass and spongy moss so un­even we can’t strad­dle the trail with­out break­ing an an­kle, so I have to shove the ca­noe along at a jog­ger’s pace, lift­ing one foot in front of the other.

Okay, push!

Since the ca­noe is right in front of me I can’t see where my foot is go­ing to land, but through the glo­ri­ous gift of mo­men­tum we can some­times get go­ing for ten to twenty steps.

Breathe!

The count­ing, the push­ing, the snap of low branches and the slop of mud is ev­ery­thing that’s hap­pen­ing in the world right now: evening news, Red­dit front page, #trending on In­sta­gram. Two muddy Métis chicks portage a ca­noe. You’ll never be­lieve what hap­pens next!

Noth­ing, ac­tu­ally; noth­ing hap­pens next. “Pu­u­u­u­ush,” Ale­cia says, so that’s what I do. She laughs. “Sounds like we’re giv­ing birth! How many kids you got?”

“None.” This some­times gets a few raised eye­brows, but sel­dom brings a fol­low-up ques­tion.

Ale­cia nods. “Bet you’re a good aunty, though.”

“The best.”

“Well, get push­ing, Aunty!” Her laugh rings out again, and I won­der where she finds the breath.

Push, keep push­ing! Some­times we take a lit­tle break, you know, bent over like we’re go­ing to puke. Only my body has surely pro­cessed the mea­gre of­fer­ing I gave it six hours ago—a smear of cold beans on a tor­tilla, and a hand­ful of cheese—that’s all there was time for. This is my sec­ond portage of the day. The morn­ing was spent lug­ging a fifty­pound bar­rel on my back, full of food I wasn’t al­lowed to eat. Like some kind of psy­chol­ogy ex­per­i­ment, or a re­al­ity show. I guess re­al­ity shows

are just psy­chol­ogy ex­per­i­ments with an au­di­ence. Hey, if my friends could see me now!

That’s a ref­er­ence to a lux­ury cruise ship ad from the nineties, by the way. Which, con­sid­er­ing where we are, makes it hi­lar­i­ously sar­cas­tic. Ha.

It’s nine kilo­me­tres from the trail­head to Aberdeen Canyon, where we’ll camp for the night. One of the guides wrapped a scarf around a tree at the halfway point, so we know Ale­cia had al­ready dragged the ca­noe four and a half kilo­me­tres when I found her on the trail this af­ter­noon. Since then we’ve gone another two, maybe three. We should be car­ry­ing the ca­noe over our heads, but it’s too damn heavy. That’s what the guys do. That’s what the old-timey voyageurs were do­ing in the artist ren­der­ings I googled be­fore the trip. Con­vinc­ing my­self that I have some kind of blood con­nec­tion to the land, even though I come from the city. Dum­bass. I think the only thing I hate more than the land right now is this god­damn ca­noe.

“Just think of how amaz­ing your ass will look when this is done,” Ale­cia says.

“As amaz­ing as a forty-year-old ass can look,” I grunt, but she’s got a point. I can only imag­ine how buff we must look un­der all our lay­ers of po­lar fleece and down and merino wool. Pad­dling fifty kilo­me­tres a day, eat­ing beans and rice and dried fish. I haven’t seen much of my body since we launched the ca­noes on the Ogilvie River, off the side of the Dempster High­way in the Yukon. The thought of ex­pos­ing any ad­di­tional skin to the late Au­gust air is heinous. It may still be sum­mer but there’s frost on the tent in the morn­ings, and ice in the shade all day. Nope, I’ll re­main sheathed in a base layer un­til we get to Fort McPher­son, seven long days from now.

Ale­cia’s face is thin­ner than when we started and her skin is glow­ing. Kind of flushed and sweaty right now, though—sticks in her hair and mud on her chin. It suits her. The last time I saw my face—a quick glance at a mir­ror shard in a road­side out­house—it looked pale and worried. Worried that twenty-one days may be a lit­tle am­bi­tious for a first ca­noe trip. That’s me, an am­bi­tious dum­bass.

“You look good for forty,” Ale­cia says. The stan­dard re­sponse for a new fe­male friend, whether it’s true or not. “Ready?”

“Ready.”

Push! Ale­cia’s re­ally got her run on this time, maybe like, thirty steps. “You got this!” she yells, over her shoul­der. My smile is a ric­tus. Brain scream­ing at limbs: Push, you son­sof­bitches. I think about all

the jog­ging I did to get in shape for this mo­ment, in my new run­ners and cute lit­tle shorts. Along the sea­wall at dawn, over the Granville bridge, past women half my age. How the last few kilo­me­tres usu­ally felt like they were tax­ing my body to its Olympian po­ten­tial. Clearly, I was wrong. This, now, is the marathon of pain that will de­fine all other pain from here on in. I was warned about the portage when I signed up. But when you’re told some­thing is go­ing to hurt, all you can mea­sure it against is the other pain you’ve en­dured. City life is cushy.

Push. Damn, the bot­tle of Ibupro­fen will take a hit tonight. Push. Maybe I can trade back mas­sages with some­one. Pu­u­u­u­ush. Think about my ass, think about my ass, think about my hot, hot ass un­til that doesn’t work any­more. Then, think about onion rings.

“Okay, jerky break.” Ale­cia pulls a hunk of moose jerky out of her jacket and tears me off a piece. “High-five.”

“Oh man, thanks.” I’ve turned my nose up at the jerky be­fore to­day, since I’m a veg­e­tar­ian. But to say no to food right now would be in­sane. I’d eat bug jerky if she of­fered it.

The ca­noe rests eas­ily at hip height on the thick grass; Ale­cia and I lean against it and look out on this land I’m try­ing to make friends with. The trail runs par­al­lel to the Peel River—crash­ing its way through a nar­row canyon that would have cer­tainly killed us if we’d tried to run it. That’s what the guides say. We’re not close enough to the cliff’s edge to see the Peel, but we’ve got a panoramic view of the val­ley: scrubby black spruce and wil­low bushes, bare-ass moun­tains in the dis­tance. Meh. Around us, tufty grass swishes a lit­tle in the wind, which is al­ways, al­ways freez­ing. The sun is down, but the sky will stay bright for sev­eral hours. If we’re lucky, Ale­cia says, the north­ern lights will come out be­fore it even gets dark. I haven’t seen them yet, not in per­son, I mean. I’ve googled them.

“Do you think ev­ery­one else is wait­ing?” I ask. There are ten of us in to­tal, eco-tourists from all over. Ale­cia took me un­der her wing pretty quick when I told her it was my first trip. Her fam­ily’s from Win­nipeg, but she lives in Daw­son now—can’t even re­mem­ber how many ca­noe trips she’s done.

She shrugs. “Tell me a story, the bet­ter it is, the longer break we’ll get.”

“What if it’s the best story ever told?” I ask.

“Then we’ll sleep here tonight,” she says. “Hope you wore your long undies!”

“Damn, took ’em off af­ter the morn­ing portage,” I say. “I’ll tell you a me­diocre story.”

Ale­cia smiles. “So, like most of your sto­ries so far.” She ducks my punch, ex­pertly. Must have brothers.

“Shut up and lis­ten. Two women were stand­ing on the shore of a big lake, just be­fore sun­set. The wa­ter was an un­usual shade of blue, like teal or turquoise, and un­usu­ally clear. They could see things float­ing past, big boxy things. It took them a while to fig­ure out the big boxy things were ovens.”

“Ovens? Like, May­tag?” Ale­cia laughs.

“And some wash­ing ma­chines, too,” I say, “But mostly ovens. They floated along for a bit just be­low the sur­face of this beau­ti­ful teal wa­ter, then they sank, leav­ing a trail of bub­bles. The lake was deep, so they dis­ap­peared com­pletely. Who knows how many. ‘Where are they com­ing from?’ the younger woman asked. The older woman didn’t hear the ques­tion, be­cause she was fo­cused on a re­ally or­nate, old-timey oven that seemed to be float­ing to­ward her. Like from a pioneer house or some­thing.

“Sud­denly the older woman was un­der­wa­ter, fac­ing the oven, and it was get­ting closer and closer. The door started to open, like it was go­ing to swal­low her up, but she wasn’t re­ally afraid. Just cu­ri­ous how it got there, and how some­thing so heavy could float at all.”

“Was she drown­ing?” Ale­cia asks. “Since she’s un­der­wa­ter and all.” “Don’t in­ter­rupt. She could breathe un­der­wa­ter, or maybe she was hold­ing her breath. The oven got closer, and when the door was fully open there was just a black void in­side, and okay, yeah, she got a lit­tle ner­vous. But then she saw some­thing else. Whales.”

Ale­cia snorts. “Lake whales!”

“Shhh! She could just make out their form in the dis­tance, and when she turned back, the old-timey oven was sink­ing be­low her. Then sud­denly she was on the beach again. The younger woman hadn’t no­ticed her dis­ap­pear. The sun had set, but now the lake was full of phos­pho­res­cence so all the move­ment in the wa­ter left sparkling trac­ers. The blocky out­lines of the ovens were grad­u­ally re­placed by the grace­ful swim­ming of the whales, and when the two women ran down to the shore­line to get a closer look, their bare­foot steps left glow­ing prints in the sand.”

We’re quiet for a minute, as I hold the im­age in my head. “Did you re­ally just make that up?” Ale­cia asks.

“It was a dream I had last night. I was the older woman.” I let the last bite of the pep­pery jerky dis­solve on my tongue, mostly stalling for time, but Ale­cia stands up and mo­tions for me to get mov­ing. She’s a tank.

Pretty soon the trail nar­rows so much we have to lift the ca­noe up on its side, shov­ing it through tightly packed trees be­fore we can put it down again. We pass a cou­ple of ca­noes that have been left for to­mor­row. We could do the same, but Ale­cia wants to see this through. As much as I hurt, I feel the same way. I’m kind of proud I’ve held up this long—it’s weird to see how much fur­ther a body can go past the point you’d nor­mally just pack it in. But my mus­cles are fail­ing now, re­ally fail­ing, de­spite the jerky and my bor­rowed re­solve. I trip and fall, and have to let go of the ca­noe to keep from pulling Ale­cia backward. It’s weird how hit­ting the ground doesn’t re­ally hurt, how bang­ing my pulpy fin­gers and bump­ing my head reg­is­ters on some dis­tant nerve end­ings I’m no longer friends with.

“Hey, lis­ten.” Ale­cia holds up a fin­ger and I hold my breath. Moose? Bear? No. We can hear voices, faint, but def­i­nitely there. I’d al­most for­got­ten about the oth­ers. They must be won­der­ing where the hell we are. They must want to eat din­ner, oh man, din­ner!

“What would you eat right now, if you could eat any­thing?” I ask. Ale­cia doesn’t hes­i­tate. “Choco­late. Which re­minds me, I’ve got a treat for us tonight.”

“Is it choco­late? I’ll push for choco­late,” I say, imag­in­ing sun­daes, s’mores, the feel­ing of a Kit Kat melt­ing in my hands from the fire’s heat.

“I’ll pull for choco­late!” Ale­cia takes the bow­line over her shoul­der, and for the mil­lionth time to­day, we be­gin again.

“I’ll push for deep fried Mars bars,” I say.

“Imag­ine,” Ale­cia gasps, “or yam fries.”

“With that mayo, what’s it called?”

“Aioli.”

“Yeah.”

“Fry bread.”

“With rasp­berry jam.”

“Natch. Lemon­ade.”

“And grape soda,” I say. My body burns. “I don’t even re­ally like it, but I want some now.”

“Dr. Pep­per slushies,” Ale­cia says.

“Gross.” Breathe. Walk on glass an­kles, push, keep push­ing. “Swamp­wa­ter,” she says.

“What’s that?”

“When you mix all the slush flavours to­gether.”

“Ew. De­li­cious.”

“Hey, did you know ovens are wombs?”

“Huh?”

“In the dream dic­tionary. Wombs.” Ale­cia stops, and I al­most mow her down, a low-speed ca­noe col­li­sion. “Not that dream dic­tio­nar­ies are al­ways right, just say­ing. Look.”

She points down­hill, and I can see a tiny flicker. The camp­fire. I know where we are now, the steep hill that leads to the trail­head, and be­yond that, the canyon. We push the ca­noe to the very edge of the hill. It’s pretty dark, so we click on our head­lamps. The de­scent is a muddy crevice, with rounded walls high enough to make it seem like a tun­nel. Af­ter two days of hik­ers stomp­ing through, it’s prob­a­bly slip­pery.

“I’m done, I’ll break my neck if we try to take this down there,” I say. “Oh, we’re not go­ing to carry it,” Ale­cia says, wag­gling her eye­brows. “Push.”

“Push?”

“Do it.”

Well. Ale­cia may have pulled the ca­noe nine kilo­me­tres but I gladly push that sono­fabitch down the crevice. Our head­lamps shine a spot­light on its de­scent, nar­rowly miss­ing a rock and shoot­ing out neatly at the beach.

We high-five. Un­steadily fol­low the ca­noe’s path, to­ward the light. Not gonna lie, I slide down on my bum. Ale­cia lets out a shrill whis­tle and the shad­owy fig­ures of our camp­mates stand up around the fire, ap­plaud­ing. Ale­cia hugs me close as we walk in to­gether. She is def­i­nitely a tank; the most beau­ti­ful tank I’ve ever met. “What do whales mean?” I ask her.

“Were they killer whales?”

“I think they were sperm whales.”

“Like Moby Dick?”

“Does it mat­ter what kind of whales they were?”

“I think it mat­ters more how you felt about them,” Ale­cia says. “Also, haha, you said sperm.”

“Im­ma­ture. You said dick.”

“What­ever.”

I imag­ine us walk­ing up to the fire like that slo-mo scene from Reser­voir Dogs, “Lit­tle Green Bag” play­ing in the back­ground, but it prob­a­bly looks more like a zom­bie shuf­fle. Good enough. A bowl of chili is placed in my hand, and a hunk of corn­bread in the other. From my van­tage point, ass plunked down on a cold, smooth river rock, the canyon walls rise up so high only a sliver of sky is vis­i­ble. No north­ern lights, yet.

“Girl, keep watch­ing; you’ll see some,” Ale­cia says. “You got this.”

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