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

Canadian Wildlife - - FEATURES - By Kirsten Forbes


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 ca­noe­mu­

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