Story by Erin Merrick
Drawings by Frank de Jong
Vegas Chips: Tales from a silver canoe
It’s hard to know how to introduce this tale, as I’m sure many other journeys could recount similar beginnings. There we stood on the morning of our departure, double-bagging food and throwing extra matches and duct tape into our ever-bulging packs, the corners of our eyes still held at the mercy of sleep. Despite the series of warm good-byes and frenzied waving from the barge as we pulled away, the morning was surreal, heavy with a tangible disbelief that this was actually Day 1.
After months of planning, volumes of checklists and a sea of great expectations, our journey was now unfolding. Nervous chatter filled the bus as we wound our way north, Ontario’s face changing from the careful collaboration of cottage country to forgotten gravel roads and fishing lodges. Arriving at Flame Lake, the seven of us quickly unloaded our gear and soon found ourselves planted by the water’s edge.
I looked out at the far shoreline, a distinct meeting of dense green to blue, and felt the hugeness of our endeavour climb around me. Fifty days we would travel; fifty days to fumble and be re-born. We would be welcomed each night by random clearings and old campsites, the endless lakes and rivers of northern Ontario graciously leading us to these makeshift homes. Each day would unveil a changing face, the environment we were travelling through offering sharp, breathtaking contradictions, harsh meeting ease, bare clasping
beautiful. This would be new territory for all of us, large expanses of wilderness that we knew only from the snakes and ladders of our topographical maps, our trust placed like Vegas chips on the cartographer’s generous translation of the region. Fifty days, 7 girls, 4 packs, 3 boats, 2 tents, 1 barrel… and an infinite source of possibility.
Our aluminum canoes were stacked neatly off the grassy shore, their scratched, silver bottoms feeding us slick promises of invincibility. We looked them over well, knowing these boats would soon become beloved, trusted friends. It is a necessary relationship to pursue in
canoe tripping, I reckon, especially when the proposed route leaves little opportunity for alternative modes of travel.
Agreeing the boats seemed a perfect fit for our trip, we grabbed rolls of blue foam from our packs and carefully wrapped the canoes’ metal thwarts. I could feel a slight anticipatory ache creep into my back and shoulders, acknowledging the kilometers of portaging that, inevitably, lay ahead. It is a strange rejoicing you take in carrying a boat this size, hoisting her to your shoulders, balancing her 17 feet, 75 lbs with a precision in direct contrast to the crude dance executed when faced with precarious natural obstacles on any given portage. This would be but a piece of the rough puzzle, I considered, smiling, foot travel connecting a web of open-water paddling, river stints, and an endless negotiation of streams, creeks and wetlands.
As we sat around the campfire that night, patching together a few rituals of our own, a swell of hope and fear met cautiously in the open flame before us, the group now loosely connected by a common vision. It was beautiful. There we sat, ignorant to the challenges and triumphs that waited patiently in the creases of the weeks ahead, fuelled by the desire to explore, wanting to stretch our bodies and spirits in deliciously uncomfortable ways, to connect with the natural world, each other, ourselves.
True, I’m sure we took with us large, sloppy helpings of ego, as well, pre-planning the vivid tales we would weave amongst family and friends after the trip. But, perhaps, this is one of the greatest pieces of such wilderness tripping. Ego alone has a difficult time keeping straight its spine in the face of long, rain-drenched days, ravenous bogs, the audible assault of mosquitoes.
It soon bows to Mother Nature’s sword, and a person is pushed to grapple with more honest motivations for pursuing such an adventure. There is an exactness in this travel as careful doses of adversity and fulfilment manifest, triggering a very genuine purging process for those who are game. We are allowed to come clean to ourselves, to accept either our comfort or uneasiness in such a setting. You can see it in our actions, a fantastic rawness that emerges in both the brilliant and difficult times. It is real and gritty, and one of the most valuable gifts offered by the journey.
We set off from Flame Lake, self-conscious of our movements, searching old memories of past canoe trips for details that proved unnecessary in our typical urban realities. Following bullets of penciled instructions framing our first map, we moved slowly through creeks and suggestive trapping trails, mud engulfing our surface apprehensions and reminding us of the unpredictable world we had just entered.
Sure, there were a few tears that day, a few looks of uncertainty shot in my direction – I sighed, repeating silently my trusted mantra, “The best lessons are not always the most comfortable ones,” crossing my fingers in vain that such words would still apply in this context. Any hesitations were washed from our finely scratched and aching bodies that evening, our canoes cutting through a lake of glass, water rippling off the boats in perfect symmetry.
There was magic in the air as the sky erupted in colour, the setting sun throwing a palette of pinks, purples and blues across the horizon. Smiles crept across our faces, and though exhausted by this long day of travel, our soft voices were playful and reassuring. Over the next 48 days we fused with both the blessings and curses of wilderness travel.
We hoisted our rain gear close to the rank of deity, battling both the promise of hypothermia after spending hours in icy downpours and the fevered onslaught of blackflies as they fed heartily on our ears, faces and hairlines. We perfected the long-respected tradition of “air raids,” jumping with abandon into the cool waters of a given lake, the building sweat and heat stripped quickly from our skin.
Days spent dueling fierce headwinds, dragging canoes up rocky streams and maneuvering around inherent river obstacles began to shape our bodies, newly defined muscles cleverly concealed under a thin coat of bruises, scrapes and bug bites. “My body is a wonderland…” echoed playfully in our ears many mornings, the sarcastic serenade in entertaining opposition to the unforgiving muscle spasms that clenched our shoulders and backs.
Our conversations stumbled from absurd to enlightening, all of us growing into our relationships with one another, learning careful details about this collage of individuals and often relearning our own idiosyncrasies in the process. We woke with the sun, simply listening for the first few moments before opening our eyes, trying to predict with some accuracy what weather might greet us that morning. Exhaustion often consumed us in the evenings. After eating, cleaning dishes, packing away our food, we would fall like giant timbers into our sleeping bags, surrendering to a fatigue of such satisfying quality. There were times when we held our breath, caught slightly off guard by the perfection of a moment, our paddles moving in unison, the elements aligned. Rolled ankles taught us about the meaning of teamwork.
Infected eyes and swollen hands reminded us about self-care and the humbling task of asking others for help. We were overwhelmed by the generosity of strangers, amused by the way we tried to converse intelligently about bait and lures with skilled fishermen, often frustrated by our own limitations. It’s human. We each engaged in new challenges: navigation, cooking group living, educating, flipping a canoe, starting a fire. Now, they weren’t all terribly pretty attempts, but we grew into these new skills, branding a certain degree of competency in each.
Yes, our failures were as valuable as our successes, adding a richness and certain flare to the adventure. As the works began to meld together, a timelessness surrounding our modest fleet, we no longer assumed this to be just a canoe trip. This was becoming our life. It felt natural, as though we began to fit seamlessly into the wild spaces that we moved through. As a team, we grew more efficient, certain routines having been established both on and off the water. We took comfort in the unknowns, trusting, with a growing confidence, our instincts, now excited by the unexpected discovery of a logjam or near-vertical portage. It forced us to be resourceful, applying the experiences and knowledge we had been collecting neatly in our dry bags along the way.
Coming full circle, the initial disbelief that opened our journey transformed into a vivid scepticism that the end of our excursion was actually approaching. Having committed to the trip, engaging fully in the realities uncovered in cedar forests, rocky shorelines and muted daybreaks, a confusing mix of emotions pulsed through each of us as we tried to digest the inevitable transition. Armed now with somewhat indescribable certainties about ourselves, an understanding of our capabilities, a level of fascination in the way we embraced, skillfully, what was once considered impossible, we searched for ways to bring this awareness with us, from the wilderness into our “normal” lives.
It was a perfect day on Canoe Lake, our small island home looking strangely unchanged after the years we felt we had been away. There was silence as our canoes landed solemnly on the sandy shore, the crowd looking at us with apprehension, curiosity, excitement. Everyone waited to see what would happen, what our reaction would be, unsure if this moment was heaven or hell for us. I don’t know if I was sure, either, my body awash with an intriguing numbness, a detachment. Looking around at my six companions, their dark faces blurred by the swell of tears cradling my eyes, I tried to read them carefully, like I might read the quivering of my own hands. We held our breaths, and waited safely in that moment.
I dare profess that this trip was one of the few times in our lives that we experienced true freedom. There we were, seven women in canoes, making our way through the wilds of Ontario. No longer able to categorise ourselves by any standard definitions, miles away from starchy societal norms, we were allowed to shed our skin and emerge, bold, beautiful individuals.
Having little room for our own inhibitions and doubt, we realigned our focus and made space for a new type of learning. We paid attention. We became aware of the sun’s path through the sky, the changing direction of the winds, the snaking body of a river. We grew humble, understanding further our inherent dependency on the natural world, our dependency on each other.
We acknowledged how small we were in the grand scheme. We took responsibility for our actions, and tried to make sound, conscious decisions. We sang and swam naked through clear lakes, the gentle evening light bathing us in moments of quiet reflection. We were not afraid, for this journey had become our own. Ah, maybe it wasn’t freedom. But it was something. Something real.
We were able to smile easily, to be playful and frustrated and vulnerable and strong, without apology. We were alive, present and open to all the intricacies of the experience. It was amazing: not perfect or without struggle, but amazing. As with all good things, time begins to blur the finer edges of these memories.
Faltering for but a moment, I slowly let go, trusting the learning I pieced together over the seven weeks is now an
inherent part of me, as basic as the fold of my elbow, the lines on my face. I know I can’t go back, and so choose to venture forward, my steps, perhaps, now animated in a new way. Sure, I’d love to be in my canoe again, my dear companions close by, but appreciate other adventures await us. Besides, our journey hasn’t really ended; rather, just a different place of it has begun.
Erin Merrick is a proud Canadian living close to Wyoming’s Teton Mountains. She continues to carve out time to explore wild spaces with skis, boots or paddle, and misses the Motherland every single day.
Editor’s Note: This story, like many other good stories, landed on my desk courtesy of Bob Henderson. Bob’s daughter Ceilidh, who was one of the campers on this 2003 trip, shared Erin’s letter with Bob recently. Normally, Nastawgan’s staff closely edits submissions, but in this case decided to leave much of this letter untouched and to place the Author’s Note at the top, in an effort to provide enough context for you, the reader, to enjoy largely unedited “honesty and imperfection of 20-something-year-old Erin and her chosen words.”
Author’s Note: Though tempted to correct a few errors (“topographical”!) and wordy sections, I am choosing to honour the honesty and imperfection of my 20-something-year-old self and her chosen words. There is something entirely sincere in this letter to my campers, my extended family, and perhaps that is more important than a vigorous edit. Our route east from Flame Lake through the Biscotasi region to Lady Evelyn, south via the Ottawa River and eventual re-entry into Algonquin Park was raw, far from extraordinary and magic, without question. I believe this letter was intended to protect all the sacred pieces we collected along the way.