Sunday, September 28, 2008

Day 57: The last voyageur?

To imagine yourself the first person at the scene of a virginal land, the first to reach some destination and take in its bounty of promise. That is the great white wilderness myth. If it had any great value to me I suppose I ought to have studied the history of the rivers I travel. I gather from conversation and asides in books that I am accidentally retracing an old fur-trading route between the west and Montreal, by French voyageurs. I suppose I could have packed a couple pelts from the Indian trading post in Banff and amazed myself around every bend in the river, exclaiming that surely this must be what those men first saw so long ago.

The reality of the river makes this myth inaccessible to me. The Qu'Appelle is a drainage ditch between pastures, with faint memories of wild glory scattered about. It is choked by dams and fences, and now a driveway as well! I was shocked to see the river just end abruptly, before my eyes, with no channel continuing anywhere. I thought I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere, but no, as I drew near I saw that someone had simply laid a concrete road straight across the river, with nothing more than 6 inch pipes at intervals to allow current through.

I am forced to make new myths. I am not the first man, but the last, to make this particular voyage. The voyageur route was made possible by a certain political situation that lasted for a finite period of history. I have heard that the United Arab Emirates, being the descendents of nomadic peoples, have enshrined the right to travel and make camp in their constitution. Here, the law will soon protect only highway travelers and landowners will fence, gate, and dam every river in their backyards. As I understand it, and I hope I do not, the law in Florida allows landowners to shoot anyone on their property without first ascertaining if they be burglars or wayfarers. Who will take this route if every mile brings a new wall across the river, and setting foot on land to pee or sleep risks death without vengeance? It will never be possible to obtain advance permission from the hundreds or thousands of people who claim some toehold on the banks of the river, especially when risk and weather make a schedule unaffordable.

There continue to be people who push themselves to set new records, to be the first to do wonderful new things. The first to go around the world on human power. The first to unicycle across the United States. Perhaps when we run out of interesting firsts, people will begin competing to be the last ones to perform feats made impossible due to changes in political and atmospheric climates.

Being last carries with it a certain responsibility, so I will respect the life and history of the river by keeping clean camp and recording its last words, whatever they may be. And there may yet be hope, so I can lean over the patient Qu'Appelle and beg it to fight for life. I recorded the coordinates of this river-strangling driveway and took photographs. I can take these to the authorities, or paddlers, or fishermen, and ask if this is what is to become of the river. If so, I hope that day comes quickly, so I can be not only the last to paddle the entire river, but also the first to drive the entire length.

I put the canoe up on its wheels and rolled it over the road. Getting back in, I noticed thin blood dripping from my left foot; two leaches had attached themselves and drunk their fill as I made portage.

Day 57 ended: 50*31.469N, 102*09.210W


John said...

Hmm, I'll have to remember that: merely claiming to be the last is a useful political challenge.

LBA said...

well, said.