Let the river R U N T H R O U G H Y O U

SundayXtra - - FEATURE - By Tracy Tjaden

Ruth Bon­neville

WIn­nipeg Free Press

MY friend, Ruth Bon­neville, and I share a com­mon trait — we rarely choose the easy path. Some call it a char­ac­ter flaw, but I pre­fer Ray My­ers’s de­scrip­tion, “a bit am­bi­tious.” The soft­spo­ken, en­gag­ing owner of Heart­land Archery, a Win­nipeg hunt­ing and ca­noe- rental out­fit­ter, prob­a­bly thought we were in over our heads when we saun­tered into his shop one Satur­day af­ter­noon in early July to pick up the ca­noe we planned to take down 70 kilo­me­tres of the Manig­o­ta­gan River. We were.

Don’t let this river’s nick­name as “the mighty Blood­vein’s lit­tle sis­ter” fool you. It is no sissy. But like all good sis­ters, it can de­liver blunt but nec­es­sary ad­vice when needed, im­part pow­er­ful wis­dom with grace and love, and be a faith­ful wing­man on one of life’s great jour­neys.

Ruth and I had both done our share of ca­noe­ing in the past but not in white­wa­ter. We wanted to learn, we wanted to be alone in na­ture for sev­eral days and we wanted to be chal­lenged. The Manig­o­ta­gan, lo­cated in Nopim­ing Provin­cial Park, de­liv­ered.

We rented a ca­noe from Heart­land. The staff was ex­cel­lent and the gear solid and re­li­able. My­ers is the guy you want to see at Heart­land. He’s an ex­pert pad­dler, knows the lo­cal rivers and has the nec­es­sary pa­tience and ex­pe­ri­ence to size up novice pad­dlers and im­part the ex­act nuggets of wis­dom they’ll need to bring them­selves, and his gear, back in one piece.

The ca­noe we ini­tially rented was far too heavy. We wanted a sturdy boat but we could never have man­aged the 28 portages that lay ahead. My­ers put us in a lighter ca­noe and then taught us some ba­sic portage and lift­ing moves in the park­ing lot. Com­pared with the first ca­noe we tried to ma­noeu­vre over our heads, it felt great. (‘ This is like a heavy purse,’ I said, feel­ing cocky — a comment Ruth en­joyed flip­ping back as I cursed through our sixth portage a few days later.)

The next morn­ing, gear packed and amped with ex­cite­ment, we set out for Pine Falls, the last place to gas up and buy last- minute food sup­plies ( we got wine, ba­con and licorice) be­fore Manig­o­ta­gan. About two hours af­ter leav­ing the city, we pulled into Charles and Mar­i­lyn Si­mard’s yard. Charles is a ‘ river stew­ard’ and the Si­mards have a nice lit­tle busi­ness hop­ping in with peo­ple to go up­river to start their trip ( we started at Ques­nel Lake; Long Lake is 96 kilo­me­tres from Manig­o­ta­gan and will add an­other two days to your trip). Af­ter the ca­noe party un­loads, Mar­i­lyn or Charles will drive your ve­hi­cle back to Manig­o­ta­gan where it will re­main safely parked in the Si­mard’s yard, a short dis­tance from the river where your jour­ney will end.

On this day, Mar­i­lyn rode in the back and the three of us chat­ted about the river, her fam­ily and life in gen­eral. If she had her doubts about our abil­ity to man­age this river, she was too po­lite to voice them. When we ar­rived at Ques­nel Lake and put our ca­noe in the wa­ter, I stared out in the dis­tance in awe. “Wow, we’re head­ing out there?” No, she said softly, point­ing in the op­po­site di­rec­tion. “You need to go that way.” Great.

We set out, a bit ner­vous but telling our­selves it was just ex­cite­ment. Two women of the wild, run­ning a river! In fact, our first portage would have made a good YouTube video on how not to portage. All good ad­ven­tures have one good screw- up, and I made mine be­fore we even hit the Perime­ter High­way. When we were or­ga­niz­ing our gear in Win­nipeg, I left my sturdy wa­ter san­dals on the roof of Ruth’s van. When we un­packed at Ques­nel Lake, I had my heavy leather hik­ing boots and what I’d slipped on leav­ing the house, a pair of blingy plat­form Skech­ers flip- flops. Not want­ing to risk soak­ing my boots on the first day, I at­tempted the first portage in th­ese. Add to that, our gear was not very well or­ga­nized. ( We had too many small bags, which we even­tu­ally com­piled into two larger packs). Hik­ing up the steep hill on our first portage, with my silly footwear and 19 lit­tle bags hang­ing off me, all that was miss­ing was a Star­bucks cof­fee bal­anced in my free hand.

We got bet­ter — we had to. There were 27 rapids ahead of us, and while we planned to try run­ning the eas­ier ones, we knew we’d spend a lot of time lug­ging gear. But each day, our portages were smoother and more ef­fi­cient. We got into a rou­tine.

A river is a path, and like any of life’s paths it is eas­ier when you stop re­sist­ing what may not be com­fort­able and get into the flow of your sur­round­ings. Maybe it’s a girl thing, but the ap­proach Ruth and I took was more “the gra­cious guest” than, “Let’s con­quer this river, show it who’s boss!” For us, this was a spir­i­tual jour­ney, too. We knew we’d have to let go, roll with what­ever came up, stay aware and stay grounded if we were go­ing to stay safe. This ap­proach trans­lated into lit­tle rit­u­als — we’d say a bless­ing be­fore tack­ling each rapid and at the be­gin­ning and end of each day. Did it make a dif­fer­ence? I think that’s the wrong ques­tion. It made us feel bet­ter. It ac­knowl­edged the rev­er­ence we felt be­ing so far in the woods, vul­ner­a­ble yet cra­dled.

Dur­ing the next five days, we shot seven rapids, did 21 portages, saw five moose, six bald ea­gles and count­less beavers. ( Ruth called it our Cana­dian sa­fari — the per­fect way to cel­e­brate Canada Day.) We did not see an­other soul. Our great­est chal­lenges were portage fa­tigue, which hit hard­est on the last two days, and the bugs, which didn’t bother us on the wa­ter but some of the camp­sites were quite boggy and there­fore buggy. The mos­qui­toes could get bad af­ter dusk, so we made sure to be zipped up in the tent by 9: 45 pm., the ‘ witch­ing hour.’ Dur­ing the day, we en­coun­tered black flies and horse flies that seemed un­fazed by bug spray, but we no­ticed them less each day.

Ruth was very dili­gent on the bear front. She had a bear bell, whis­tles for both of us and bear spray. When we were in the bush, she’d fre­quently check in to make sure we were armed — she had the spray strapped to her belt and I had my com­pact, rather dull hunt­ing knife, which I fi­nally con­vinced her should be a last re­sort. “Um, Ruth, I don’t think we want to get into a knife fight with a bear.”

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