(by: Jes Salter)
When you are confined with one person for 8 hours a day by two gunwales and a three layered hull, and with three other people for 9 hours by four poles and some canvas, your priorities change drastically, and personal space moves up the list. Described as the ‘elite Air Cadets from Britain’ in a local Schreiber paper, a group from Herts and Bucks Wing set off on a canoeing expedition, known for the past three years as Canada 2000
Twelve cadets, eight staff, two Canadians and Baggins the dog left Terrace Bay, Ontario in July to join the Steel River for our three day training, going on to the White River to begin our self sufficient expedition in the bush, ending up on Lake Superior 12 days later. Once we had passed the town of White River, that was it. There were no roads to drive back on, no communication, impossible to canoe the whole way upstream and difficult to walk the whole way through the bush carrying our gear – 300 m portages exhausted us enough.
Priorities changed from whatever we valued as important at home to having enough food, keeping dry and getting enough sleep. Actual time wasn’t as important as how many clicks we had covered or if it was time for lunch. Our evening meal consumed most thought and chat after lunch, and also what we missed most from home, what we craved and what we were going to do as soon as we got back to the motel. If you remove yourself enough from the conveniences and comforts of your home, the most common, simple things can seem amazing. Out of the millions of food stuffs available, thousands of appliances and hundreds of people we had left behind, highest on our most in demand list was a fresh apple, a piece of toast and chocolate! We were, however, able to supplement our dehydrated diet with fresh pickerel, caught and fried within minutes.
We had to be careful with our food waste, just one of the precautions we had to take against wild animals. Another was that every evening we would have to throw up ropes between two trees to hoist our food bags 2m up to prevent any nocturnal visits by the bears. We saw moose, who we surprised whilst they were washing and their strength and speed of escape, shocked us. It is gratifying, to come across a huge wild animal that totally disappears within a minute, confirming that you are, in fact, in the wilderness! However, the creatures we got the most pain from were the mosquitoes, no-see-ums and black fly, for whom insect repellent seemed an attraction rather than a deterrent. In fact, the Deet only seemed to have two purposes – to smell horrible and make your skin sticky; the insects certainly weren’t prejudiced over areas of skin Deet-ed or not.
But even with the mozzies, we were on the go the whole time and so we naturally fell into a routine and had individual jobs – not assigned by staff or higher ranking NCOs, just jobs in the group that you were able to do. That way everything got done in the shortest amount of time. When we woke up at 0700, we would cook breakfast, filter the day’s water, put lunch at the top of the bag, eat, wash the pans, take down the tent, pack up our kit, load the canoes and be on the water by 0900, or almost! Then we would canoe for the day, averaging 16km and 7 portages per day, stopping for lunch around midday. In the evening we would arrive at the campsite at about 1800, set up the tents (and tarpaulins if it was raining), cook dinner, put up tents, pack up the food bags, wash up, set up the ropes in the trees and lift up the bags – a process that could take 3 hours to perfect, build a fire, burn the day’s rubbish, put out the fire and finally sleep. One problem we did encounter and which no one had expected was leaking meths. In fact, so many bottles leaked that we had to seriously ration our use of Meths, and therefore Trangias. We could use our stoves each morning, but in the evenings we had to be content with building a wood stove which needed constant attention to keep lit. This solution was for the cadets only. Some of the staff, due to their non-stick pans, had to use our rationed meths and cook on Trangias!
An ancient Indian tradition to ensure good luck for a trip is to throw wild rice or tobacco into the river at the start of a journey. So duly warned with tales of consequence if we failed to do so, we each sprinkled a handful of rice into the marshland outside Marathon. However, in a canoeing adventure, with plenty of water available, getting wet was inevitable. Capsizing usually proved pretty funny all round, unless your kit got wet inside the “dry” bags, in which case, the best advice was to sleep in your sleeping bag, even if it was wet because it was still surprisingly warm. But despite the amusement of someone capsizing, on the third day, one sight reminded us of the strength of the river, and what we were really up against if we didn’t take care. At the edge of the river was a battered, swamped canoe and not far away, on the shore was the remainder of the occupants’ expensive camping equipment.
The canoeists had been rescued by a helicopter, whose crew’s sentiments were “we take people, not kit”. This was a sobering thought that the calmness of our surroundings was deceptive.
The scenery was amazing. No matter how much we had thought about in advance or looked at photos, nothing could prepare us for the sights around us as we paddled down the river.
The endless trees were for the most part a fascination, but we did become tired of them by the end. Although the lakes were incredibly idyllic, we also became tired of these as the water was practically still, apart from a wind, which could be head on, making paddling arduous. Because of the sheer size of the lakes, it didn’t look like we were going anywhere, which was demoralising. We much preferred the thought of rapids, even if potentially there was a portage involved.
Portages were part of a way of life for men on the ancient Voyager trips in Canada, carrying fur skins to trade, and so we knew that we would have to carry our boat and kit alongside some technical rapids and all waterfalls. What we did not expect when we signed up for a canoeing course two years ago that along the White River, we had a potential 85 portages. Whilst some of the distances seemed almost unimportant, 200 and 300 m, the portage trails were not well used and so you had to climb over logs, crawl on hands and knees, scramble up rocks and wade through bog. It was one thing to walk this with mosquitoes buzzing round on the journey back to collect more kit but it was entirely another handicapped by a canoe or bent double with kit bags and paddles.
We reached Lake Superior at the end of day 11. Five o’clock in the evening was our cut off point for being able to cross the lake to the campsite, and the last group arrived at 1630. We set off immediately across the lake, which although calm, had quite a strong pull away from the shore line. We travelled the 7km relatively fast, although we had to canoe at an angle to continually correct ourselves. We found out over the next few days that we had been lucky; the wind had picked up, creating waves across the lake and meaning that we would have been trapped behind the lake for at least 3 days.
Our departure to Britain, back to eagerly-awaiting families was via Niagara, which although impressive in it’s own right, compared to the sights in the bush, seemed an over-commercialised disappointment. Umbata Falls on day 9 was by far its superior; smaller, but without the carefully arranged flower beds, Japanese tourists and overpriced gift shop that Niagara boasted.
Our travel definitely transformed us. When we were in the bush, there was no safety net and no familiar backdrop, allowing us to be something other than what we normally are. We surprised ourselves by what we did and the way we coped with situations that arose during our expedition, but we all learned a great deal about ourselves, our limits of tolerance as well as our strength and other people we thought we already knew.
It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in my life.
|Wing Adventure Training Officer: Flt Lt John Smith RAFVR(T) Web site by: Flt Lt Geoff Bowles RAFVR(T) Last updated: 19/05/2003|