Monday, February 25, 2008

The Impala is a Very Popular Automobile: On the Misunderstood Pleasures of Canoeing

Below is a shortened version of an essay I wrote up after Sam, his father, and our friend Maskull paddled the lower Rupert River last summer. It's cross-posted at Cairo to the Cape.

Our plan was simple. Sam’s father, Dave, would fly in from Vancouver on Tuesday night. I would arrive in Ottawa the next morning. Dave, Maskull and I would spend the day collecting supplies, two canoes, and a rental car. We’d leave Ottawa the next morning for the Rupert River, 900 kilometres north, where we’d take four days to paddle to Rupert Bay and then drive home.

It is a rather delicate matter to rent a car when one intends to strap two canoes to its roof without a proper rack, drive far into Northern Quebec, and then leave the car unattended for four days. First, no car is ideally suited for this. Second, no car rental agency wants to give you a car upon which you are going to mount two canoes. We booked a Chevy Impala, an incredibly pedestrian but flat-roofed car ideal for two canoes. We resolved to say nothing of our intention to load canoes atop the car.

Our first problem was that the agency had no Impalas. Our second was that they did not understand why we were refusing an upgrade to a Grand Prix. Standing at the rental desk, Dave and I pondered over the available cars, compared their virtues in a whispered exchange, and then asked when an Impala might be back. Clearly befuddled by our insistence, the clerk offered up that “The Impala is a very popular automobile. I can understand why you would want it.” The screwed-up skin between her eyebrows suggested she did not understand a thing. Hers was not a look of incredulity but bewilderment. We took a Grand Prix.

All rigged up on the James Bay Highway.


***

The Rupert neither winds nor meanders. It runs a wide line 600 km from Lake Mistassini to Waskaganish, the old Fort Rupert on Rupert Bay, at the bottom of the James Bay. In low season, the river flows at 11,000 cubic feet per second. In high season, it flows at six times the rate and drains more than 40,000 square kilometres. It runs between high banks of scraggly spruce and pine. There is rarely a spot even to pull up a canoe, except those cleared by the Cree who travel this ancient highway.

The Rupert does not “flood its banks” or roar unceasingly down a canyon. Instead, it widens out into lakes for much of its length. The only crashing and running is through a series of narrow passes like the Oatmeal Rapids, a kilometre-long, spine-shattering collection of cascades. It alternates between slow water and probable death.


The bottom of the Oatmeal Rapids. Seen from the James Bay Highway.

The James Bay Highway crosses the river 225 kilometres north of Matagami, itself some 670 kilometres north of Ottawa. The journey begins in the bubbling water at the bottom of the Oatmeal Rapids, where the water spills into a bay and then takes a right turn towards White Beaver Rapids. It is just one hundred kilometres from here to the Bay, but one must still portage seven sets of rapids through muddy trails, alder stands, muskeg, and a moose pond. Or, one has to choose a line, steel nerves and spine, and then shoot the white water. We would do both, at great cost and joy.

***

Our first morning was glorious and cold. We put on extra layers, boiled water for oatmeal and coffee, discussed the day’s challenge and looked over maps. We set out and soon met near disaster.

Landing at the top of the first of the White Beaver rapids, we could not find a portage. Instead, we lugged canoes and gear through thick bush, taking more than an hour to travel less than a quarter mile. We dreaded the mile-long portages ahead, picturing them as day-long fights through the thicket.

Perhaps it was the difficulty of this first portage that compelled Dave and Maskull to run the second set of rapids. As Sam and I landed at the rapids’ head, they shot them. We soon saw a canoe overturned and pinned in a fall. Maskull and Dave stood astride their canoe in the running water. They were, somehow, holding their bags and keeping the canoe from folding over the rock.

The canoe was eventually freed; Maskull and Dave paddled a kinked canoe downstream in search of our food barrel. We were on the first day of a four-day trip, and we’d lost all of our fruit, our food barrel, our hatchet, and a few other sundries.

Sam and I warped our canoe through a rock garden around the rapids. When we met Dave and Maskull at the bottom they’d found the barrel in a bay at the bottom of the rapids. We all changed into the only dry clothes we had left, quickly ate something, and then set out. We still had to go some ninety kilometres to Waskaganish.

Camp in the morning

***

It is not true that the rest of the trip was easy. To the contrary, it involved terribly long portages over some tough ground. On the second day, having left the Cat Rapids late afternoon after a difficult portage, we could not find a camping spot until the Bear Rapids, eventually setting up camp in long grass on a landing in the dark. Where we had contemplated luck and the stars the night before, camped on island in the bay between the second and third of the Fours, on this night we would collapse immediately after dinner. We took no joy in the sound of the waterfall ahead or in the accomplishment of paddling thirty kilometres and portaging five.

The next morning we paddled swiftly to Plum Pudding rapids, two sets of long white water. You avoid the first set by paddling a two-kilometre long braid on the south side of the river. After a short portage, you arrive at the water between the two sets. With some courage and short memory, we chose to shoot the second set. This was our greatest triumph. For two minutes we were voyageurs.


Shooting the Second Set of Plum Pudding

Fifteen kilometres later we arrived at Smoky Hill rapids. The portage counts out more than 5000 paces. It was the most difficult and rewarding portage of the trip. Just thirty kilometres from the Bay, the Cree still use nets to catch white fish at landing the bottom of the Smoky Hill rapids, as they have for five hundred years or more. The also use the landing as a recreation area. We had our greatest night here, finishing our last bottle of wine and eating a terribly good chilli. The locals who watched me swim in the rapids from across the river were the first people we had seen in three days.

The next morning was our last on the river and we took our time. As the river approaches the Bay it widens out and braids around a number of reed islands. We ate in our boats, passing around the last of our bagels and sausage. The water here is not quite brackish, but the change in the landscape must be a result of the ebb and flow of the ocean from Rupert Bay. We had just three sets of rapids - all steep, shallow and rocky – to the bay. We ran them all and then paddled onto Waskaganish.


The camp at Smoky Hill Rapids

***

Formerly Rupert House or Fort Rupert, Waskaganish lies half-way up Rupert Bay, which itself lies at the bottom of James Bay. It was the first fur trading post and store for the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Rupert provided a logical route inland to Quebec, a territory hostile to the HBC in its early days. The town was indeed captured by the French at the end of the 17th century and would not return to the Company’s control until 1776. As the Rupert is a great river soon to be dammed, we thought it would be full of paddlers; we were but the fourth group to travel to Waskaganish that summer.

Waskaganish is the third Cree town that Sam and I have visited, and certainly the most vibrant. This vibrancy and activity had a certain irony about it. When we visited Nemaska a summer before – arriving in the dark on our motorcycles and leaving early the next morning – the town seemed dead. The entire town was celebrating a wedding on a sandy point at the other side of the town, so we only met those who stopped by our campsite to visit.

By contrast, Waskaganish seemed full of people, most of them shuffling towards the lodge overlooking the river. But this was on account of death. When soon learned that the previous Friday two teenagers had drowned on a boat trip from Moosenee. At the same time we landed in Waskaganish, Cree were traveling from the other villages and camps for the funeral.

Maskull and I had volunteered to hitchhike back to the highway to get the car. Under these circumstances we were glad to take our leave. Sam and Dave stayed behind to pack our gear and mill about.

When we returned, we decided we would drive back through the night to Ottawa. With the sun coming up along Route 117 and Chelsea seeming like the calmest place on earth, we returned entirely fatigued and satisfied. We were soon to take our individual departures after dividing up the river maps and sorting out gear.


Arriving in Waskaganish

***

It was not long before I returned to my routine in Montreal. It was the same for Dave, Sam, and Maskull, I think. We exchanged emails in the days that followed, sent around pictures, and tried to put to words the joy of the outdoors and the pleasure of this trip.

I would spend the next weeks trying to explain this joy and pleasure to anyone who asked about our trip. How I relished loading up two bags and a barrel and heading into the bush. How I wanted to run more white water. Even how I relished the well-earned cuts and bruises, and how I felt as though I lived more in the five minutes after Maskull and Dave’s dump then I did in a year of academic work and travel.

I think most asked to be polite, but at least some friends and colleagues asked because they wanted to understand this desire to return, to spend one more night sleeping outside, and to run Plum Pudding one more time. I do not think I could ever explain it fully, in a way that could unknot the skin between their eyes. Canoeing is indeed a very popular sport, and the Impala is indeed a very popular automobile.

2 comments:

Hartamophone said...

Man, I wish I'd taken you up on your offer and gone with you guys.

Thanks for injecting a dose of summer into the winterized North.

Mike said...

My buddy had a canoe attached to his car and it fall. He was lucky it only scratched his a car a bit. Canoeing is like mediation to me.