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Odyssey to the great white north

A summer of canoeing and polar bears

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For three days this summer, I pretty much only thought about polar bears. At night, every rustle outside was a polar bear; during the day, every rock on the horizon might be one, and when we saw paw prints by the side of the river, I nervously tried to figure out exactly how fresh the prints were, as if I were some kind of animal-whisperer.

I was one of four guides on a 32 day canoe trip this summer, with eight campers. The trip started on the Pipestone River in western Ontario, where we travelled East towards Winisk Lake. From there, we went 250 kilometres (km) North down the Winisk River, which eventually flows into Hudson Bay, far enough North for polar bears to be a legitimate issue. Near the end of the trip, we got a report that a week before, basically right where we were planning to sleep that night, another group had been woken at 2:30 a.m. by a nudge on their tent; it was an adult polar bear (roughly the size of a minivan, and one of the few animals left that eats humans in the wild). The group scared it off and, for some reason, decided to go back to bed. About a half hour later, they woke up to the same bear sticking its head into the vestibule of their tent. They scared it off again and wisely decided to book it to their final destination. Once we heard this news, we did the same and got out of there. Thus began a three-day period of hysteria, as we paddled 80 km in sleet the first day, then 50 km, then bust out 40 km on the last day till the end.

I’ve spent my summers at Camp Pathfinder since I was nine years old. I’ve been staff for five years now, and, beginning last year, a lead guide (headman) on canoe trips. The camp is based in Algonquin Park, Ontario, and this year marked the 100th anniversary of the camp. Because it was the 100th, the camp sent out this trip down the Winisk. It doesn’t sound like a big deal to anyone else, but the Winisk has been played up for me for about 5 years now: when I was 15, about to be a camper on a 25-day canoe trip down the Rupert River (which has since been dammed, RIP), the guides teased us, telling us we were going down the Winisk, just to fuck with us. “Yup, straight up into Polar Bear [Provincial] Park. We’re gonna bring a gun, too.” After that, it was always the go-to joke: “Yup, this year we’re doing the Winisk.” Always a joke, until this year, when our Director of Canoe Tripping led me to a map and told me: “You’re going [on] a canoe trip this year. Up here [he points to the Pipestone River] and then East, then up here, all the way up here [Hudson Bay].” My mind made the link: the Winisk. I was going North.

The Director told me this in the last week of June; we were set to leave on July 9. What followed were two weeks of intense planning and outfitting. I was so excited, and nervous, that I almost cried multiple times just walking around. It’s a lot of responsibility: I was to be one of four staff in charge of eight kids for a month straight, in the middle of nowhere. When people say “the middle of nowhere,” they’re often exaggerating. This was really the middle of nowhere: even the smallest civilization was days away by canoe, and medical help was also far, far away. If we screwed up – whether it was an injury, or a broken boat – it would not be an easy fix.

The packing wasn’t easy either, as we spent days organizing gear and food for 32 days (with some extra, just in case). It was mind-numbing work, and incredibly stressful too, because if you forget just one thing, it can torpedo a part of the trip. Half our food we took with us; the other half was to be shipped by air to a First Nations community halfway through the trip.

The kids were all 15 years old and all Americans. They had all been coming to the camp for a number of years, so they knew what they were getting into. Before the big trip, we took them on a short training trip to a set of rapids so they could hone their whitewater skills. Paddling in whitewater is still kind of a terrifying experience for me, and I could tell some of the kids weren’t totally comfortable either, but over two days they improved enormously.

Anticipation builds until finally, everything’s been packed and we’re off to the train station for an 18 hour ride to Savant Lake, Ontario. There are three trips from our camp going to the same area; one trip is going on the Asheweig, which flows into the end of the Winisk, and the other two are going down the Pipestone and Winisk. The trips are staggered such that none of the three trips will see each other till the end of the trip – and my trip goes last. After the other trips leave, we wait in Savant Lake (the closest thing I’ve seen to a modern day ghost-town) and time stretches on.

Once we finally leave and actually reach the water, we begin with a small rapid immediately; the rest of the day is spent on small, fun rapids that can be run with all the gear in the boat. We get to one set that we have to portage around. I carry my boat to the end and notice that our head guide, James, is walking gingerly and isn’t carrying his boat. “I heard my knee pop. It sounded exactly like the time I tore my ACL the last time.” Shit. The whole trip is nervous and worried, as an evacuation and replacement would take days. Plus, leaving this trip as it starts would be devastating. James decides to gut it out; for about ten days he can’t carry his boat, and he wears a brace, but manages to make it through the whole trip.

The Pipestone, after the first day, turns into burnt-out forest. Massive forest fires ripped through the area in the past couple of years, though they were mostly root fires, so the trees still stand on trunks of ash. On a particularly bad portage where the path is covered in fallen trees, the remaining branches twist over our head, creating a black canopy. On the second day, we reach a campsite on a burnt-out esker next to a huge set of rapids. The ground is covered in ash, and the campsite is littered with burnt trees – it looks like God’s ashtray. (On a related note: a huge forest fire ravaged the Eastmain region in Northern Quebec this summer, and, because the land was First Nations, and much of it unprofitable, the federal government did little to help the region until they absolutely had to).

We’ve reached a point in the trip where ‘brain-rot’ is starting to form. Brain-rot, basically, is the result of spending all of your time with 12 people in the woods, with no external stimuli. There’s no new pop culture to consume, no new jokes to be heard; everything that comes is from inside a warped mind. Over the course of the trip, everyone acquires about seven nicknames based on anything from ‘pokemon names’ to ‘funny pronunciations’ or just weird observations. Anyway, the campers go wild on this campsite, grabbing sticks and ripping down the dead trees, which are exceedingly easy to take down. One camper runs by me, yells “MY LANCE!!!” and goes to town on the trees.

It’s a clear night, so I decide to keep the fly off my tent and stay up to see the stars. This far North, though, the sun doesn’t fully set till about 9:30p.m., and the sky stays light for a while afterwards, obscuring the full night sky. I’m reading to stay awake, getting close to bed, when I decide to look one last time. There’s a green streak across the sky. I yell to James and Mike over in the other tent, “Um, guys, you should check out the sky.”

The sky is dancing for us, shimmering green and sliding across the sky. There are streaks of orange within the green. It’s obscenely buggy outside – mosquitoes swarm my hands every time I try to take a photo – but none of us wants to stop looking.  It’s only day two on the river and we’ve already seen the best Northern Lights we’ve ever witnessed. And we’re only going farther North. It can actually get better.

The cool thing is that the landscape changes every couple of days, from burnt-out forest, into more mature forest, and then off the Pipestone into a large chain of lakes. These days are not as exciting; it’s a string of days of all paddling, with barely any current. The weather cooperates on our biggest lake, and we’re able to rig up a tarp sail to cruise down the lake. On another lake, Chipai, a rainstorm comes in around 2 p.m. and the driving rain continues till midnight. We set up our tents on a small beach in the rain (my tent-mate, Joe, has a terrible idea for setting up the fly of the tent first, which ends with us sleeping in a soaked tent), cook in the rain, and eat in the rain. We go to sleep hoping for the rain to end, though still laughing; the campers have placed their tent too close to the lake and a wave or two hits them in the night. It may sound hackneyed to non-Pathfinder people, but I truly do believe Pathfinder people are not fazed by anything.

In a couple days time – around 14 days into the trip – we get off the chain of lakes, onto the ‘upper’ Winisk and into Winisk lake, the headwaters of the Winisk proper. There’s a small First Nations community, Webequie, where our food for the rest of the trip has been dropped off. We decide to go into town and try to find a local with a place to stay on the lake; instead, the owner of the local grocery store lets us stay on his lawn.

Webequie is accessible only by air or winter roads. It’s a small community with two long dirt roads running through, houses on either side, and a community centre in the middle of the town. Walking through, it’s hard not to recognize our own privilege as white outsiders; the houses are squat and simple, the road unpaved, litter scattered about. Life in these First Nations communities is certainly not easy – employment is limited, and food costs are exorbitant because of the price it takes to ship anything there. We take the campers to the grocery store, where campers and staff alike buy the delicacies they’ve missed these past two weeks – candy, soda, fresh meat, and vegetables. It’s weird though, this sensation of passing through – 12 outsiders spending some money, sleeping on a lawn, then departing the next day. This is vacation for us, life for them.

After a hearty breakfast – doughnuts and Dino Egg oatmeal included – we set out to the Winisk river. For the whole trip, we’ve been going East-Northeast, but now, looking at the maps, we’re going straight North, 250 km or so. The weather, which so far has been mostly sunny with a cold wind, gets colder and colder, even if the sun comes out – my long underwear stays on for about three days straight (gross, I know, but oh so warm).

The Winisk itself features a forest further thinning out, as we start seeing less and less birch trees. There are big rapids at the beginning of the Winisk – it takes careful planning and execution to ‘sneak’ around the bigger features – and we get through mostly unscathed. We’re ahead of schedule, so the days are leisurely – only about 20 km a day – and we spend a couple of rest days on nicer campsites (basically, campsites we didn’t have to create ourselves). The fishing is absurdly good – at points, it’s not even fun, as we pull out eating size walleye and brook trout with ease for our dinner. After about five days though, the rapids abruptly end: we’ve dropped off the Canadian Shield, the geological feature that’s under most of Southeastern Canada. Now the shore is mostly shoals and the forest is made up of scrub bush and small jackpine.

So, the 80 km day. We wake up at 4 a.m., eat a small breakfast of granola, and start paddling the river, which is all flatwater at this point. It’s bitterly cold; at one point, it begins to sleet, though we continue on in hour-long paddling sessions. We’re so rotted at this point that we sing ‘99 K to the Bay’ to the tune of ‘99 bottles of beer’ and, for maybe the first time since I was ten, I finish the whole song.  After another tough day, we have about 40 km left till Peawanuck, our end point. We decide to wake up at 3 a.m. (we had run into one of the other trips, also pushing towards the end, and wanted to beat them) and go for it. It is, again, bitterly cold – four degrees Celsius or so – but, once we get out into the boats, we’re treated to another Northern Lights show, and, after another couple hours of paddling, we reach a limestone gorge. It’s an amazing scene, almost indescribable; I feel tiny beneath these huge, ancient cliffs, through which water has flowed for thousands of years before me, and which will continue after me.

We arrive to Peawanuck, another small First Nations community, just in time for ‘Creefest.’ Creefest is a gathering of people from neighboring communities in the Hudson Bay/James Bay area for community games, music, and food. All three trips have arrived, so 36 outsiders show up to Creefest. Thankfully, they are nothing but kind, offering their food to us (caribou, geese, even swan), playing tug-of-war against us (we lose to the women of the community), and letting us enjoy their live music with a friendship dance, in which every camper finds a local dance partner. Walking back to our campsite – a 2 km walk down a dirt road – we’re again greeted with outrageous Northern Lights. We make jokes about how they’re ‘boring’ now, having seen them so much, but we can’t look away – green and purple ring the sky from all directions.

We arrived in Peawanuck three days early, due to the polar bear scare, and so each trip spends one day going out to Hudson Bay proper. (Peawanuck is 30 to 40 km from Hudson Bay. The old First Nations community, Winisk, closer to the Bay proper, was completely wiped away by a flood in 1986.) We’re last, again, and get rave reviews from the other trips that return – “We saw a polar bear! And a beluga!” – which makes us all the more anxious – what if our trip isn’t as good? We’re driven out in motorboats, for about an hour, to about where the river meets the Bay. The tides and winds aren’t cooperating, so instead of driving out into the Bay, we have to hike on land.

The ground around the Bay looks like a different world; it’s muddy, with small bushes and grass everywhere, interspersed with large swaths of vibrant flowers. Our guide to the Bay brings us to a spot where he points out a white blob on the horizon, indicating a polar bear, though even with binoculars it’s hard to tell. “Do you want to go further?” he asks, and we have to say yes. It’s not good enough yet.

But then, after another hike of 30 minutes or so – and weeks of anticipation – we stop and see five polar bears; two mothers, one with a single cub and another with two. They’re the biggest animals I’ve ever seen outside a zoo. The cubs themselves are the size of black bears. The mom with her two cubs is walking in our direction, and we’re downwind, so they just keep coming, so close that our guide loads his rifle. It’s amazing and slightly terrifying all at once. The mother eventually sees us, but, instead of turning away, turns perpendicular to us. As we walk back to the boats, they walk parallel to us, always in sight. The image burns into my brain.

The next day, we took a flight on Air Creebec back to camp. What follows is the weirdest adjustment period of my life; for a month, I’ve been living in the woods, the real woods, separated from anything but my 12 friends, who I’ve grown to love. My brain was rewired – used to the bush. Getting up, paddling and portaging, eating a fire-cooked meal, seeing the Northern Lights – that all became extremely normal.

As I write this, I feel like I’ve done the trip a disservice. There’s something inexpressible about the experience, about intensely bonding with 12 people, about living out there, about weathering every storm that came our way, everything. All I can say is that I’m extremely thankful I could do this, that I could learn so much, and, I exhort you: it – whatever the word for it is – is out there. Go and get it.