Summer on the Big Rivers
My parents were serious about canoe trips so every year they spent a month up north paddling and sleeping hard, having the times of their lives. Eventually I was allowed to go too
IN 1950, ON THE OCCASION OF TURNING 21, TORY
Ketcheson asked for and received a 16-foot canvas-covered cedar-strip canoe. My mother had spent her youth in the woods and I guess she wanted to spend her adulthood there too. Toward the end of that decade, she married a young lawyer named Robin Fraser and soon after my parents took their first big-river canoe trip together. They spent 25 days, just the two of them, paddling that little canoe down the sweeping Albany River into James Bay.
Nearly every summer for the next 40 years, my parents spent a month travelling a major Canadian river, some of them more than once: the Churchill, the Rupert, the Nascaupi, the Coppermine, the Winisk, the Caniapiscau, the Hanbury-thelon and many more besides. Mom took one summer off for each of their three babies.
When each of us kids reached 13, we were invited to accompany them. (Prior to that we’d be at summer camp for the duration, developing our camping skills.) By that age, we were ready and able. So come summer we’d board the train in downtown Toronto with the boats, gear and packs, and we’d travel as far as the rails would take us. Then we’d take chartered float planes, the canoes wrapped in burlap and strapped to the pontoons. After many thrumming hours flying over northern Canada, where a gazillion lakes looked like puddles below us, we’d be dropped somewhere mid-river. We would start paddling.
Things I took for granted then, I have perspective on now. My mother must have spent months in advance planning, ordering, weighing and packing dehydrated meals for a half-dozen hungry people to last four weeks, all divided into cotton drawstring bags that she had sewn to size from old camp laundry bags. We would fish every
evening for dinner, and when we didn’t catch anything, I can imagine now there was fleeting anxiety as each adult mentally recalculated the remaining meals.
In the Barren Lands, travelling is hard. We scrounged and hoarded precious firewood. We ate breakfast amid swarms of blackflies so thick that even with full head nets, every spoonful of Red River cereal and every sip of Tang carried their peppery carrion. We gratefully slurped the leftover oil from lunchtime sardine tins. We lived in “modern” tents of Egyptian cotton and ran our fingers down the inside to direct leaking rainwater off our sleeping foreheads. We slept on muskeg so deep you couldn’t reach down to the ground, a better mattress than any I’ve had since. We often had snow.
One trip, we stopped at the remnants of John Hornby’s cabin, the spot where the English adventurer and charges, his 18-year-old cousin Edgar Christian and Edgar’s school chum Harold Adlard, all starved to death over the winter and spring of 1927. (The terrible experience is detailed in Christian’s diary, found in the cabin’s stove more than two years after by RCMP searchers and published in England in 1937.) The rigours of the wilderness were writ large.
But we had “luxuries” as well. A tumpline — a strap that passes around the forehead — on an oversized pack was a blessing. Stable fire irons laid across a makeshift stone fireplace, likewise. My mother’s cigarettes, double-wrapped carefully in plastic bags, and a bottle of overproof rum meted out in tin cups were the adults’ evening rewards. But I most appreciated the harmonica. After pitching our tents, fishing, eating, maybe delicately wading into the cold, cold river to wash ourselves, Dad would sit and play folk tunes to the late-setting sun.
For me now, those trips have reduced to a series of exquisite moments: the sound of water whirlpooling at each stroke of the paddle; a herd of grizzled muskox on the banks of the Thelon; the pleasure of sleeping on muskeg; the sensation as you slowly inhale the velvet of spring air.
Our family culture valued industriousness, ingenuity, resourcefulness. Make do or make — and once made, mend. If you needed something and didn’t have it, well, you should find a substitute at hand that would suffice. Failing that, you should make it yourself from scratch. Then you should mend it until the end of time. I still wear winter socks knit by my mother 40 years ago, now darned into near obscurity.
Our parents were people who loved the land, who respected and admired the people who live on it. My father, a downtown big-firm lawyer, was also a dyed-in-the-wool conservationist, heading up the Nature Conservancy of Canada for years as well as contributing to a diversity of naturalist boards. My mother, his kindred spirit, was inherently of the land. She revered nature and its people. She worked at and subsequently campaigned against Canada’s remote residential schools long before the world recognized they were a disaster. A gifted weaver, she spent hours in solitude in the woods collecting plants to dye her handspun wools. She gathered morels in the woods for dinner and wore necklaces of stones collected
family and friends are like tump straps; they help you distribute life’s load, help make it bearable
from the shores of Lake Superior. (One summer she brushed out our collie So So, spun his fur and knit us a sweater from it. It was mercilessly itchy.) Most memorably for me, she read us stories of Inuit, of Laplanders, of sealers off the shores of Newfoundland — people for whom hard physical work in demanding conditions was the price of living in nature in a free and unprotected way.
The final canoe trip was in 1995. They paddled the Albany again, their very first together, once again just the two of them. Mom’s brain tumour was already present though nobody knew it. In the bow, she must have missed a few notes of the familiar song the rapids always sang: their canoe broached on a boulder. Everything was carried away downstream. They had to abandon their broken boat and bushwhack out. They walked for three or four days before encountering a trapper couple out checking their lines.
My mother died of cancer just over two years later. We still have her birthday canoe; 70 years on, it is well-travelled, much-patched and still used. In late 2017, just a few weeks before he died, I was back east visiting my dad. We were talking about our “most significant” life experiences. I had said the two years cycling with Gord through Africa, and the births of our two children since then. And my father’s? “The canoe trips,” he said. “Without a shadow of a doubt, the canoe trips.”
As a teenager — not surprisingly — I would get on my parents about how it was perverse of them to insist on doing everything the hard way. Now I recognize it is that self-reliance and resilience that is their legacy to me, and that these trips taught us kids many things. That tump straps come in many forms, and family and friends help you distribute the load, make it bearable. They taught me to bring only what you can carry, because soon enough you’ll be carrying the thing that carries you. To mend by default, and that mending is not just a form of preservation, it is creating too. To make music. To keep a sharp eye for rocks. And when adversity strikes and all else is failing, stick together and rely on your wits and each other to get yourselves safely home.
At right: The author and her parents, Tory and Robin Fraser The Frasers’ extensive canoe travels are featured in a display at the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ontario. Learn more at canoemuseum.ca