Thursday, July 31, 2008

Day 12: To lose my arm would surely upset my brain

After a quiet day of floating I approach Redcliff and Medicine Hat. The origin of Medicine Hat's name is obscure, but Redcliff's is obvious. The banks of the river here have continued to rise and become more vertical. There are sections of badlands, but just before Redcliff there are cliffs, and indeed, portions of them are bright red.

The cliffs here are not merely passive barriers to contain the river. Or, if they are, they are under a siege, a constant attack by the river. For, staying in any one place long enough, it is inevitable that you will here a light rumbling, and looking at its sourse, you will see a few rocks or small boulders fall off the cliffs into the water.

I stopped just before Redcliff so I can enter town in the morning, and take my time there. I laid down in the afternoon sun to take a nap, tilting my hat forward to cover my face. When I got up I noticed my right ring finger had swollen, to almost twice its normal size. I immediately worried about what kind of poison had gotten in there, and visions of amputations danced through my head.

Now, maybe its because I'm right-handed and clumsy, but it seems my hand is frequently cut or bruised or swollen, and each time I become concerned about what I would do if I no longer have a hand. This feeling extends to at least my right forearm, which received a nasty burn one night in the Illinois steam tunnels, and a rather deep gouge one day as I stopped my bicycle by running into a stop sign.

Probably more than any other member of my body, I fear the loss of my hand. And why not? As a writer, a builder, an artist, as a creative in general, my hands are my true vital organs.

I think it is the nature of first aid books and the like to only discuss the worst possibilities, and in mine the closest fit to this malady was a black widow spider bite. Oh, but it said not to worry, the effects of the poison only last six to eight hours.

I don't know if it was a black widow or not, but certainly my finger was back to normal within a couple of days.

Day 12 ended: 50*03.809N, 110*52.622W

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Day 11: One laptop per camper

I liked the gravel bar location so much I decided to spend all day there, alternately rereading Steinbeck's "Travels with Charlie" and typing up blog posts. I do record a brief summmary of each day in my journal, but these entries often have as much to do with worries about weather, or fears that some farmer will come tell me I have to move. Generally these worries are unfounded and uninteresting, so I find it best to wait a few days before trying to write about what happened in detail. This gives me a little time to forget all the unimportant stuff, and mythologize the memorable things.

To type up my blogs, I use a computer called the "OLPC XO-1". OLPC stands for "One laptop per child". They are an organization which hopes to put one of these little computers in the hands of each child in a developing country. The idea being, I guess, that education brings freedom. The XO doesn't stand, but does look a little like a kid if you look at it sideways.

Since these computers were made for people in rough conditions with limited access to electricity, they are almost ideal for the camper as well. The small form factor packs well, the ruggedized housing is handy, and the keyboard is even covered with a rubber membrane to take spills and light rain. There is even a built-in camera and microphone, so it would be possible to make videos with this machine.

The power input is optimized for 12VDC, the same as a car battery, but it can handle a range of voltages. I have with me a 20W solar cell, which is mounted in the bow of my canoe. Its output is about 18V, but the computer charges quite well off of it. The panel is powerful enough to charge the computer in reasonable time despite not being rotatable to the optimal angle with the sun. Apparently because of the high voltage, the computer buzzes when charging off the solar panel. By moving my hand over the solar panel, I can get the pitch to change, and play the computer like a poor musical instrument.

Unfortunately, the OLPC takes a nonstandard sized plug and so it is a bit of a trick to get a cord going from the panel to the computer. I was able to find a Radio Shack size "M" plug that was the correct diameter on the outside, but too wide on the inside. Fortunately, this plug uses little pins for the inside connection, and using a needle I was able to push these pins in to get a good fit. Unfortunately again, I neglected to completely solder and seal this plug to the wire at home, and I have had some trouble keeping a good connection in the corrosive environment of the river. It seems like every time I want to recharge the computer I first need to repair the plug.

Overall, I'd say the computer hardware is spot on. One of my favorite features is the special screen that is both reflective and transmissive LCD, so you can turn the backlight completely off, saving considerable power, and still read the screen in most lighting conditions.

The software, on the other hand, has some issues. A pet peeve is that the browser seems to have a bug which disables keyboard input after a random period of time, making typical browsing tasks like google and email impossible. More generally, they were going for an ambitious redesign of the operating system in general, which is a mixed success. The graphic design is quite nice. Instead of programs you have "activities", and instead of saving and restoring files you are supposed to stop and resume activities. But this couples the concepts of files and programs too much. It seems, like many before them, they deemed the file system to be too complicated and were looking for a way out of it. But the result is that programs instead have to interact through a complicated cut and paste system, and it is hard to talk to computers in the more traditional ways. So even though there is a "Write Activity" for the OLPC, I tend to use the vi text-mode editor to write all my blogs, just so I know where and in what format my files are so I can easily transfer them to a USB stick.

Day 11 ended: 50*03.087N, 111*15.466W

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Day 10: What are you going to do about... clothes

All my clothes are made out of fast drying material, like wool or polyester pile and other synthetics. I don't know if I can give a full rundown of all that I have, because the truth is, I have too much. Three underwear is reasonable, as is two pairs of pants, but I also have a pair of shorts and swimming trunks which seem almost useless. I have three t-shirts, which is probably one too many. A couple of jackets, which is reasonable, but then I don't need the two long-sleeved undershirts I brought. I have two pairs of long underwear, but almost certainly only need one. I had two sets of gloves, but lost one. Then, there is my full suit of gore-tex raingear. I am probably forgetting something.

Oh, yes. Four pairs of socks, of which I've only ever used one. Then there is the quick-drying button-down shirt I got to try to look more when I go into town. But the truth is with all of me so dirty, disheveled, and smelly that doesn't really help much. It's better for me to wear some obvious piece of sports equipment, such as my bicycle helmet or life jacket, and then people categorize me as cyclist or canoeist, instead of homeless, regardless of how much I smell.

I came to this gravel bar fairly early in the afternoon. I don't know why, but the pelicans tend to frequent the kinds of places I like. When I have visited the ocean, I always thought of pelicans as solitary birds, but here they almost always come in groups of three. They seem to spend most of the day doing nothing, and unlike most creatures, are relatively unperturbed by my canoe until I get very close. Then they reluctantly spread their enormous wings, flap them a few times, and glide in ground effect until they are a sufficient distance away.

The pelicans were especially reluctant to leave this gravel bar so I gathered it must be especially good. The last set of clothes I wore were packed somewhere, dirty, so I thrashed them around in this cleaner water, and being bereft of a clothesline, laid them out on the gravel to dry. The air in Alberta is so dry this does not take long, even on the ground.

I at first thought there were no structures in sight, but with my weak binoculars I was able to make out some vaguely industrial-looking building on the top of one of the bluffs. "Oh well," I thought, "if I need binoculars to make out just the building they probably won't care what I'm up to." And with that I took off and washed my shirt, then my pants, and underwear, and then finally splash! All of myself. And I laid back as all my clothes and body dried together in the long summer evening.

Day 10 ended: 50*03.087N, 111*15.466W

Monday, July 28, 2008

Day 9: The good in the bad

I wake up on a smooth beach bordering not the ocean nor even the river but a towering hoodoo. On the other side is a rock overhang -- flat on top but several feet of cavernous space underneath, and a rat or snake could continue the descent God knows how far through the many holes and cracks below that. The pointed rock shards on top were the only thing that convinced me not to pitch my tent in such an audacious location. I pack my things and make my way down to the wet ditch where my canoe is parked. I'll move on before having breakfast; I only stayed to camp in the badlands.

They are "bad" not because they are especially dangerous or, impossibly, of low moral character. I suppose if that were the case they would be the evillands. They are "bad" because they are not profitable. You can't grow crops in such a place, and they don't typically have any useful minerals. They certainly aren't the only kind of nonprofitable terrain. See also deserts, salt plains, inaccessible mountains, glaciers, and more. Anything you might call "wilderness", and any place that is so useless to commerce that a national park is made out of it. We protect the things no one has a reason to destroy, anyway. It's easy enough in North America to find some mountain range seemingly untouched by human hands, but you will go through a lot of trouble to find a significant untouched tallgrass prairie. Once far more common, but also far more useful.

But the uselessness of wilderness has its currency in remoteness, in getting away from it all. Oh, let's not talk about the weekend wars right now: yes, there is a value in the momentary escape from work, from ordinary life for a couple of days a week. Or, the meaning to be found in the aesthetics of nature.

Let's take a look at the more serious, long-term, "spiritual" side of remoteness. The monk who lives in a cave for years. Christ who must go to the wilderness to be "tempted", as though there were not enough temptations in the city! The ancient rituals whereby boys were made into men.

Now Jung would have it that these tribal manhood rituals were intended to sever the bond to the mother, an idea which seems somehow mysterious, and somehow wrong. The idea here is that the mother represents safety and nurturing, whereas the father represents going out into the world, and being forced to try new things. So the child, nurtured by the mother, must have that connection severed to become a man.

This seems doubtful to me because it assumes that maturity in men and women are two different things, or arguably, that this kind of psychological maturity is the sole province of men. But we can put this in a wider context, realizing that the primary forces against maturity are our many fears. So putting on the sleeve of bullet ants, getting swung by a spear through the pectoral muscles -- these don't clearly symbolize severing some kind of psychological connection to the mother. But they do seem to have a lot to do with overcoming fear -- especially the fear of physical pain.

So the monk who goes to live alone to discover truth. Why alone? Because a primary source of falsehood in our lives is the fear that truth will separate us from society. But having already been separated, what is the risk? I have already been separated, so I have no fear of separation.

Exposure to fears allows us to live a life with fewer fears.

Talking to people about this trip has been a good way to gauge what kind of things they are afraid of. What are you going to do about food? What are you going to do about shelter? What are you going to do about clothes? What about bears, bugs, thunderstorms, getting hurt, and more and more and more?

What about the birds of the air? What about the lilies of the field?

I try to respond in a way to reduce their fear. Because we should try to reduce not only our own fears, but those of others. I am not always successful.

The wilderness is an environment which allows us to face some of our fears, even some we didn't know we had. I do not need to fear being alone, because I have been alone. I do not fear pain, because I have been in pain. I do not fear homelessness, because I have been homeless. I do not fear hunger, because I have been hungry.

This is one reason fasting is a spiritual discpline.

But now I must be careful not to praise this kind of living too much. The saint who spent his life on top of a pole perhaps reached a certain sureness in his soul, but what good in the end did this do him or his fellows?

The return from the wilderness is just as important as the setting out. I have heard that in Buddhism the Buddha is praised not so much for achieving enlightenment, but for coming back after doing so. I think it is actually impossible to brutalize oneself so much as to overcome all fears, and then return as if a perfected being. So we go out for a time, to come back a little better. Fasting does me no good if I then am not able to come back and share my meal with one who needs it more.

Don't let me praise myself too much here. The wilderness is full of fears and dangers, but it does not have them all. And these are not the reasons I went out onto the river. This is only what I thought that morning, after breakfast, when I went up on the hill to look down into a crevasse. At the bottom of the crevasse, some kids in 2005 had had a kegger and burned out a section of cave, leaving a burned out keg and road signs. Somewhere above that was a nest for some pigeon, or "rock dove" as it may be called in this environment. I was too afraid to climb up into the cave alone when one handhold collapsed, and now up on the hillside the inherited Saff vertigo cut in.

There is something quite rational about vertigo. No, you know that no wind has ever swept you so far from this position that you would fall off the But when you are like this, quivering with fear, you really aren't so sure how steady your feet can be. It isn't the fear so much as the fear of fear that gets you. It is like an allergy - your system overreacts this time because it overreacted last time.

Day 9 ended: 49*54.778N, 111*34.391W

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Day 8: We have these things

Don't blame me if this entry is a bit disjointed. The whole Eastern Irrigation District resists narrative.

"And here," she said as she slid open the secret panel, "we have these things." I had terrified her minutes before, as the Eastern Irrigation District Museum in Scandia gets few visitors. I was her first in two weeks of working there. Now, she was opening doors previously invisible to me to reveal the museum as much larger than I had thought at first.

Indeed, there were many things. Old telephones, clothing "falling apart from the inside out", a stuffed hawk. An old shower. The original register of the Scandia Curling Club, which must have admitted every able-bodied man in town. Cabinets, even a display case of "japanese things". All of these things were unlabelled, except perhaps for a small tag to indicate who donated it. My guide knew little about any of these things, other than they were all "pretty cool".

But it isn't her fault, really. The Eastern Irrigation District contains many towns; indeed all their names are carved into separate stone boulders at the museum. These towns all contain many people and things. But the irrigation district is a vortex which strips allthings of meaning. It is a collection of objects stripped of their relationsips to one another. Why is a place called the "Eastern Irrigation District", without any qualifier on "eastern", found deep in western Canada? How come each time I try to write about it, I end up with a mess of descriptions, concluding with some meaningless summation like "Such is the human condition" or "It is representative of the postmodern condition"? Why is the boulder engraver's granddaughter my tour guide?

Outside was a collection of antique farm equipment, with dubious names recorded only on a secret decoder scrap of looseleaf paper held by my tour guide. Potato bug sprayer. That's the only one I remember. I don't recall if its purpose was to spray potato bugs, or spray something to keep the potato bugs away.

A building full of old stoves and other miscellania. It is as though the museum is largely a collection of junk no one has the heart to sell or throw away. Oh, but this is pretty cool, a blacksmith's shop which is actually made operational once a year during the fair. The fair is named after the museum's founder, who has some non-descript name like Frank Earlton. His main claim to fame is apparently founding the museum. He must have had a lot of pretty cool things.

My guide had never given a tour before, so she was very nervous and did not know how to give the presentation. I tried to help, by asking questions like "What's so great about the Eastern Irrigation District anyway?" and "Did Frank Earlton do anything else other than start the museum?" but those questions couldn't reveal any information in this vortex.

She didn't know what keys went to what buildings, and there was one building she never found the key to. She said it was full of kitchen furnishings and food and drink containers from the early days of the district, that a woman had been working in there to organize and label everything, to try to make some sense in this senseless place.

I guess the irrigation district responded by disappearing the key to make this place inaccessible. I fear if this woman continues to try to build meaning in this place then in some year to come, both her and her building will disappear, to disappear not only from reality, but from the memories of the townspeople.

If you are interested in visiting this place, the museum is located in Scandia, Alberta. The vortex itself must begin at the Bossano dam, where most of the Bow River's water is drawn off to irrigate the district. I definitely recommend it, as it is somehow representative of the human condition.

Day 8 ended: 50*54.326N, 109*58.362W

Saturday, July 26, 2008

[LIVE] Moose Jaw

Hello everyone.

This blog is about my little float trip, which so far has stretched from Calgary, AB to Moose Jaw, SK. When I get to town I add post-dated stories from my days in the water to this blog, which appear once a day after being uploaded. Thus, this blog will tend to lag my adventure quite a bit. I have been pleased with the responses so far, so I will try to continue to do this. Hopefully the blog stays relevant to you!

I forgot to bring my GPS unit to this computer station, so I don't have new waypoints to post right now. However, I found my camera cord, and have posted some photos to my flickr stream, beginning at

Just keep hitting "Next".

Saturday, July 12, 2008

End of Medicine Hat posts

Okay, that's all for posts uploaded from Medicine Hat. I wrote most of these on a gravel island, on Day 11. When I wrote up day 8, I really was not pleased with it and so determined to let it settle a bit before trying again. I don't know if this posting format will continue in this way, but I hope you've enjoyed what I've written so far.

And to my parents: yes, things have been much safer since day 4!

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find the cable to connect my camera to a computer. Fortunately (?) my photos have not really been any good.

From here in Medicine Hat, I will continue up the South Saskatchewan River, through a large Canadian airforce testing base, around into Sasktachewan, which has regularly spaced regional parks until Lake Diefenbaker. There, I must determine whether I will be able to take the Qu'Appelle River further east, or be forced to bike south -- or if I'm utterly nuts by then, continue north into Lake Winnipeg.

I don't know when I'll next have computer access, but I'm hoping there will be public telephones at some of these regional parks for me to keep in touch with some of you.


Friday, July 11, 2008

Day 7: What are you going to do about... Shelter?

I quit the day early because I was fed up by the wind. After about eight hours out on the water, I had only gone 12 miles (20 km) or so, constantly being whirred around one side or the other while I tried to keep the boat's bow generally downstream. I would have understood, and perhaps been able to adjust better, if the wind simply flipped me backwards. But it seemed the wind was intent on turning me to a right angle in relation to it, which is a situation I still don't understand, physically, so I was unsure what to do about it. The next day seemed to be improved by adjusting the loading on the boat.

The wind at this point had been an occasional enemy for several days, seemingly always in opposition to my goal. I turn left, it would turn left to keep going against me. I turn right, it turns right. My guess is this wind was generally about 20-25 mph (30-40 km/h), based on the wind scale index I found in one of my books. At least once, while I was trying to set up my tent before a storm, the wind reached such speeds as to nearly knock me off my feet. I should write a letter to the tent manufacturer asking if they have a wind-tunnel in which to try erecting their tents in gale-force winds.

In any case, since not much exciting happened this day I will take some time to discuss shelter and how I select a campsite.

My tent is an MSR "Hubba-Hubba", a dome structure intended for two people. This means that I can easily fit myself and all the stuff I want inside during the night, and I cannot imagine being comfortable in a one-person structure for this length of time. This kind of tent can be set up multiple ways - you can set up just the bug mesh, just the rainfly, both, or, I suppose, neither. This two layer construction is almost essential for keeping dew and condensation off of me.

In Canada, generally river islands and land below the "usual high-water mark" are "Crown lands", similar to the American concept of public property (which also applies in similar situations). So legally, one should try to keep to these areas as much as possible. However, other factors often come into play when selecting a campsite. I have come to the conclusion that generally, if an area is not posted; has no signs of human usage such as fences, buildings, or livestock; and is difficult to access from any nearby roads, it's reasonable to camp there even if it is unclear whether you are below the mythical high-water line. With these considerations, no one will know you are there, and if you are tidy, no one will even know you _were_ there, nor care, since the land is unused. However, it is especially important to keep a clean campsite if you are uncertain about the land's legal status, so as not to disturb the property owner, and keep the area open for later travellers.

Take all of that with a grain of salt; I am neither judge nor property-owner so cannot predict how either will react toyou camping in a certain place. So far, all of my campsites have been in apparently unused areas -- either islands, clearly legal, or in thin strips of land between the river and the bluffs, probably legal, depending on how the high-water line is defined.

At this stage of my journey, I do not ask much of a campsite. The less mud I have to deal with, the better. Anything else, like a flat place to lay out my tent, trees to dry clothes from or tie my canoe to, or a nice angle for the sun to wake me at the correct hour, are pure extras.

End day 7: 50*18.098N, 112*09.994W

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Day 6: South by South-East

I was still tired by my "reserve adventure", but it is hard to get enough sleep at these latitudes in the summer. The sky maintains some vestige of light long after the sun goes down, and then brightens again a short time later. While this light may force me awake, I am usually quite comfortable in bed until forced out by the needs of the toilet. The first of these is quite simple, and can be done nearly anywhere, even over the side of the canoe. The second may be a bit more mysterious to those who have never needed to practice it.

While I'm sure our roaming ancestors did not too much trouble about how they did this, in modern times there are certain guidelines to follow when making deposits in the wild. First, it is considered best to bury them in politeness to your successors, who do not want to smell or step in your stuff. Burial also improves the rate at which they degrade into dirt, which is especially important near heavily used sites. Authorities vary on the size of hole for this purpose. One book suggests a six-inch cube, which seems overly large to me, and certainly not always possible given the soil one sometimes has to work with. On the other extreme, I read a touring cyclist who claims he digs a "cat-hole" with the toe of his shoe, which makes me think he must go very frequently to use such small holes.

From the fact that I have not encountered another soul on the river since leaving Calgary's halo, I assume my campsites are very rarely used, but still try to bury them appropriately. Lacking a shovel, I dig my holes with my axe. I don't seem to need any greater width than the length of the axe-head, about three inches. I then do make the holes about six inches long, which is certainly necessary if I've had a lot of starch recently.

It is then essential to pack out the toilet paper, which apparently does not degrade rapidly enough. This is just one of many reasons I'm happy whenever I find some place I can dump my garbage.

After taking care of business, I begin to pick up my tent, starting with the sleeping bag and pad, and then taking down the tent. Since I've seen little rain, I usually prefer to do this before eating breakfast, since this keeps the camp neater. Less stuff out makes it less likely I will forget anything or, I suppose, draw attention. Then I put everything in the canoe, push off, and set out.

On this morning, however, I was interrupted while going about my morning routine by a small plane, perhaps a crop duster. It came in fast and low, buzzing my tent, and I was terrified as I saw it flopping around on the wind, heading toward the bluff ahead where the river turned right. I'm not sure how he did it, but he managed to pull out just in time, and continued down the river.

A strange thing, I thought, to tour a river in a plane, but I suppose he was having a gand, terrifying adventure as well as I was.I go down the river, apparently dosing off for short periods. There are no rapids, no debris, and generally no dangers whatsoever to be found on the lower Bow, but I was a couple times jerked awake at the sound of water rushing over a larger rock, or around a branch. With the current generally being so slow, and the water so smooth, a boat is unlikely to capsize unless intentionally. More disturbing to me were the waking dreams I had, including at least one brief conversation with my boat-mate, Jack. There was another in which I was discussing some film I was going to make with a friend, but one of my suggestions was rejected as being too "carile" (pronounced "care-isle") which is apparently the proper adjective to describe a monster in a horror film being less effective due to having eyes which are too cute. I was unaware of this word and the need for it, and suppose that now I have it, should this need ever arise.

If these kinds of dreams had continued the next day or been of increased intensity, I suppose I would have needed to call the whole thing off. But that night I was finally able to get enough sleep to fully recover from my night out on the water.

Day 6 ended: 50*25.630N, 112*15.348W

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Day 5: What are you going to do about... Food?

In the morning on day 5 I paddled to the dam, and it took some time to portage around it because a two-foot stone wall extending at least a mile before the dam on the right. So I could not just use my wheels. Slowly, since my things were not packed well for this, I had to take everything out, over the wall and to the road. Then I pretty much dragged the canoe up, put it on its wheels, repacked everything, and took it to the river below the dam. Some men in pickup trucks who passed by on the road seemed to find my wheeled canoe both impressive and humorous.

I had been warned that the water level below the dam was often too low to paddle, but it was very high for me, never shallow enough that I could feel the bottom of the main current with my paddle. The next river in my rough plan that could set me back is the Qu'Appelle, which one guidebook suggests is only consistently runnable in early spring.

In any case, I did not go too far before stopping to break my long fast. My guidelines during physical activity are:

Eat before you're hungry

Drink before you're thirsty

Pee before you can*

And I was clearly in violation of at least one of these. My breakfast was oatmeal - to me then, the best I'd ever had. I simply cooked it as normal, with a bit of extra water, added some milk powder and a huge dollop of honey.

Okay, if Sesame Street taught me anything, it is that oatmeal is boring, so I won't go into any details here, but I will take some time now to answer the question of what and how I eat. This is only a general pattern - every day is obviously different due to the course of the day and what is available to me.

Any cooking is done with a small alcohol stove. This does not put out much heat and essentially requires a small ring of rocks around it to more efficiently direct the heat to the pot. Its primary advantage is that the operation is foolproof - just pour in the fuel and light it. It cannot break and if you lose it, you can easily construct a new one with available tools and materials. This is important to me because my biking trip to Banff in the fall was cut short largely by a stove that I could not get to work. A disadvantage is that the cheap, denatured alcohol is harder to find than white gas, but I suppose if you are willing to pay there is strong enough liquor at any corner store to cook your food.

Breakfast is generally oatmeal, which I "shanghai" -- I put in the oats and water, and cover it with a lid to conserve heat. Lunch, if any, is usually snack food like crackers, peanuts, and granola bars. I also bought some of those packages of apple sauce or chocolate pudding which make for a good desert during lunch or dinner. The main course for dinner is usually some kind of canned soup. For this, Chef Boyardee is clearly superior to other possibilities, like Campbell's soup or Safeway baked beans. I sometimes have a container of cold canned meat on the side as well - think tuna or flaked ham.

And that's about it! My diet may change as I adapt to this new environment. I have some rough, perhaps contradictory categories of food to inform what I should eat, when:

Carbs: medium term energy, for both muscles and brain

Protein: long term muscle building and repair

Sugar: good for one short term boost in energy per day

Water: absolutely essential at all times for both brain and body

Fat: irrelevant (neither good nor bad) to an active individual

Day 5 ended: 50*40.115N, 112*28.831W

* - This is clearly not to be taken literally, but just to emphasize to myself that there are certain activities not to be put off.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Day 4: Nightlife

Figuring I was nearly halfway to the Bassano Dam, I got out my map and tried to pinpoint my exact location. But something was wrong."

Surely I would have remembered passing that bridge", I thought. That bridge in this case was only a quarter of the distance to the dam, and if I wasn't even there yet, I would probably have trouble getting off the reserve in just one day. Eschewing my GPS unit, I anxiously tried to match river features to my map, and came up with many hopeful conjectures about my location, each of which was dashed by the next bend in the river. Some of my facies placed me near the lake behind the dam itself, which would have required me to miss two bridges and a ferry.

When I finally hit the first bridge, I realized I needed to do more paddling and not rely so much on the current as I did the first day, which was almost strictly floating. By the second bridge, I was seriously wondering how Clinton, my contact at the Siksika Department of Lands, could have thought I might have made it all the way, starting in the afternoon!

In my fantasies before the trip, I figured I would take two days to get to Carseland, and then maybe rest a day and do all of Carseland to Bassano in one day. And this plan makes some kind of sense if you look at a map that isn't very detailed. But this portion of river is at least 60 miles (80 km) on the water, with a slower current, bracketed by the weir and dam. But in my fantasies, based loosely on the journals of Lewis and Clark, I imagined meeting with the Siksika elders, in a teepee of course. There I would explain in detail my trip, and how I desired only one day to pass through their lands, that I was not there to take their fish and game, and indeed! I wouldn't even set foot on their lands if they so desired it. They would show some reluctance still, and so I would offer them a gift, "Take this axe; though it be of no special value or construction let this be a goodwill offering to you, as I go unarmed into your land." Then we would smoke the peace pipe and I would set forth with only the verbal agreement of one of their chiefs.

And I knew that was all ridiculous, but I still was disappointed to find out that this business would be conducted instead in a mundane government office building like any city hall, and rather than meeting with tribal chieftains my case would be handled by a quiet civil servant in casual clothes named Clinton. He took me back to his personal office which had Catholic images on the walls and a calendar recording the saints' days.

But I must have been unclear that I was hoping to canoe the entire stretch from Carseland to Bossano, because he seemed sure a one-day boating permit would do it. "Well", I said, "I guess the river's going pretty fast." And then I handed over $30 for the permit, bland government documents were signed and dated, and we exchanged idle pleasantries before I left.

But he seemed to think at 10 o'clock I could bike back to Carseland, and boat the entire distance to Bossano in a day. Did he think I was so strong? Did he underestimate the distance as well, or think I was putting in closer to Gleichen?

I don't know. But I now suspect that in my meeting with him I never used the word "canoe", only "boat", and that it is really only natural that he would have assumed a motorboat. Only in my silly mind which romanticized his race as the inventors of the canoe as the ideal instrument for Canadian river travel might I have expected differently.

But then on the water I still carried the notion that I should try to get to the dam by midnight, to keep within the letter of the law. For, as I told myself, there had been centuries of people who looked sort of like me taking the land of people who looked sort of like him I should avoid camping and thereby furthering that kind of injustice. This itself, of course, is a kind of racial thinking probably no more correct for its slightly increased sophistication. I changed into warm clothes, and put my rain suit on top, after seeing the dreadful stormclouds which were developing ahead of me as the sun began to set.

As I passed the ferry the sun left only twilight in the sky with that storm, which it became clear would pass just north of me. But I was now on the dam's lake and there was no current. Worn out from the day's paddling, and not having eaten anything substantial since breakfast, I pulled over to the side of the river and paddled some small distance, hugging river right so as not to become lost. I found some muddy bank, wedged a paddle between the gunwhale and a bungee cord, and pushed it deep into the mud below me to form a kind of temporary anchor as I drifted into sleep.

When the stars came out I woke and paddled a little further on the lake.

When the dogs howled at the appearance of the moon's waning half, I woke again, and paddled further.

When the first pink of morning crept over the horizon, I woke a third time, and paddled further, in the direction of what sounded to be the dam.

Each time cursing the cold, the loss of my gloves on day one, my self, and my foolish choices, as I prayed the kind of prayers born only in desperation.

Day 4 ended: no permanent location (between the ferry and the dam)

Monday, July 7, 2008

Day 3: Bikin' to Gleichen (and the "Indian house")

The Siksika Nation owns the section of the Bow River from just after Carseland to the Bossano Dam. When I called their head office, I was told I would need a permit to canoe this section, and to get a permit I would need to see the Department of Lands, located in the head offices just south of Gleichen. Gleichen being roughly 25 miles (40 km) away, I would need to ride my bike there to obtain the permit.

About the ride there, I do not have much to say. It was raining, but I made good time and was happy to feel as though I were going uphill all the way, since that would mean an easy downhill ride back.

During one of our landlord's frequent complaining sessions of us as humans and as caretakers, they said that the small pile of junk that had appeared in the back when two new people moved in made our place look like an "Indian house". I asked Calvin what this meant, and he said it was general racism. Now that I have observed some real "Indian" houses, I can perhaps provide a description of those I saw on the road.

In an area proclaimed by sign as the "West End Development", were what looked like some prefab houses laid out in a seemingly random pattern. My first impression was that they were dismal, not because of collections of junk, but rather by the lack of it. All these identical houses, each painted in some plain color appeared soulless, unlived in. And after seeing a couple more of these developments further on, my general impression was always of these buildings being plopped down, indiscriminately on the prairie. There were rarely the kind of strong architectural features, such as fences, driveways, sheds, trees, and the like which make a building appear to belong to the place, and even when these features were present it simply made the feeling of otherworldliness extend to the border of the fence, say, rather than the wall of my house. If a squadron of UFOs were to land in Stanley Park, they would appear to be as at home in the landscape as these houses in the prairie.

But above all, I did not see any conspicuous junk in the yards. I do not know why, but in my stranger's imagination, it is because these people live without all this extraneous material, as if ready to pack up their houses and go on to the next world at a moment's notice.

At the office I met some weathered faces who told me where to go for my permit, and I wondered how my face would look at the end of my journey. I was able to quickly get a $30 permit for one day of boating on the river.

On the way back to the park, I could not tell if I was truly going downhill most of the way, because the wind was so incredibly strong in my face. I got back, my legs exhausted but my arms still in good shape, and went a couple of miles so I could camp on free land and be able to empty the water out of my boat.

Day 3 ended: 50*49.572N, 113*23.673W

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Day 2: Le portage de mud

I had ended day 1 just short of the Carseland weir, glad to have found a nice campsite, and not to worry about the weir until the morning. There was a portage route clearly marked on my map, and by signs on the river depicting a stick figure powerfully hoisting a canoe over its head. My plan for short portages was to load the canoe onto the trailer that I made. This consists roughly of a couple 16 inch wheels from a bicycle trailer built for children, attached to two lengths of electrical conduit reinforced by a simple frame of wood. Two foam blocks rest on top of this contraption, and holding it down in the water I can position the canoe over it, attach it securely by means of straps, and then roll the canoe out of the water.

With some effort I was able to pull the boat out over the ramp, and just keep it under control as it descended the other side. The water on the other side, far from being the relatively clear and clean water from above the weir, was here still, overgrown with algae and a fetid stench. In little pools of mud around the water could be seen tiny, writhing worms, as red as blood and surely blindly groping about for some host to parasitize. I was a little too late in grabbing the bug spray, and had a swarm of mosquitos securing first meals for their equally evil offspring. Having to wade in this water to remove the wheels was not pleasant, but I eventually got back in the boat and hoped to leave this area behind.

Slowly paddling over the currentless water, I could see no clear channel out, and then checking my map, realized that the exit must have silted over with mud from the recent flooding. My wheels would be useless there, so there was nothing for it but to shove and pull the canoe through a useless forty foot, winding ditch in the mud. I would push until it would not push any more, shove one side to re-align it, pull until I could not pull any more, and repeat, until I was at last out into the clear, moving water.

I decided to stay at the Wyndham-Carseland campground that night, since I was told I would need permission from the Siksika to go through the next section of river. I figured this would be easier if I had some kind of "official" place to put my boat. But even then, I could find no place suitable by the water, so invented my own campsite on the rocks by the walk-in campsites. The ranger, arriving late, told me I must move - that there were proper sites near enough to the water further down. Well, these were surely taken, and the best place I could find was a gap in the mud bank where I could leave the canoe in the water, tied to trees, as I could only load and unload my things by precariously standing on the wet mud and reaching into the boat.

This mud I found throughout the lower Bow. I got mud on my clothes, on my feet, my hands, all around inside the canoe, everywhere. The river was unnaturally high here, and while some other Bow River adventurers had said that during another high year, the water was still only just high enough for floating, as long as I was in the center of the river, I could not even feel the bed by sticking in my paddle as far as I could. The high water was good for paddling, but bad for camping since it left only this mud, mud, mud, everywhere in its wake.

Day 2 ended: 50*49.948N, 113*25.739W

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Day 1: Off Without a Hitch

There I was at the put-in. A crowd of Canadian friends had come to see me off early in the morning and had already waited more than an hour for me to show up, pulling my homebuilt canoe behind my folding bicycle. The hitch that was to be the centerpiece of my plan had broke as soon as it had been asked to pull the fully-loaded canoe, so the canoe was held in place by a makeshift system of ropes and bungees that continuously came undone as it went over bumps and holes in the pathway.

Right in front of me is a series of compression waves generated by the Calgary weir. They weren't the largest waves, but they looked utterly terrifying as a proving ground for my canoe, which had only previously been tested in a kind of glorified bathtub, a duck pond at Prince's Island Park.

And then Shawnti came, holding the most afraid little cat I have ever seen.

This cat, String, was under threat of eradication from our landlords, for the crime of coming around to the house and visiting us every day. At one point it was decided that the best thing to do would be to send her with me on my journey, and we ould adventure together. I even bought a life-jacket for her, having some trouble with the sizing because I couldn't find anything between a terrier and a pug.

The cat did not seem thrilled about the adventure, so I had to set off without her. I had already had enough trouble without a terrified cat adding to it.

Those initial waves were indeed the worst I would see all day, but I had never canoed on a river this big before. I constantly found myself getting turned every which way, and it wasn't until I saw a group of experienced paddlers "peeling out" of an eddy that I realized my mistake. The current in an eddy is still or backwards compared to the main current, so hug the inside of a corner too closely, and you'll get turned around, pulled into it. Fortunately the process reverses as well -- just aim your canoe upstream out of the eddy and the current will catch you, turn you right side around and hurtle you on your way.

One of those paddlers asked me about my trip. I told him that I was a math student who was dropping out of school to go basically as far as I could.

"Well," he said, "if you keep going you'll eventually reach the Hudson's Bay."

This really wasn't part of my plan, but the way things were going, instead of mentioning St. Louis or New Orleans, I simply said, "I had an idea to pull the canoe on the back of my bike, but that isn't going so well."

He nodded, looked at the scratches in the bow from the bike rack rubbing the boat, the broken inwhale duct taped into place, and the haphazard collection of objects thrown into the boat, and said, "Well, I'm sure I'll see you again on the river!"

He neglected to say what state he expected to find me in.

It was only later, as I began looking for a campsite, that I began to relax and take stock of everything. No one would say this was going well, but should it, in a real adventure? I read many of these books written by men who paddled big rivers like the Missouri and the Mississippi, and the most interesting ones, the only true "adventures" were those written by folks with nearly no clue what they were doing as they started out. This gave them the opportunity to grow, to learn new skills, and see and experience new things as they went. They may have "bumbled their way from one disaster to the next" as one of their more prepared comrades put it, but their stories were interesting and the experience clearly added to their lives.

Not so the ones who started out well-prepared, with a full skillset. These people seemingly sleepwaked from one location to the next, never learning, never seeing, never feeling anything. Their true stories are not on the river in those books, but earlier, when picking up their skills, when dreaming their big dreams. But having already developed their skills to perfection, the actual river tour is a bore to them, as they try to beat down the miles as fast as they can to get back to what they really cared about. In my mind, it is these guys who wasted their summers. One's highlight was his "invention" of a meal consisting entirley of uncooked oatmeal in cold water. But I guess at the end he was able to check a box off his list of things to do in life, so good for him.

With such a start, I was pretty sure I wasn't just wasting the summer, mine will be a true adventure, bumbling and all. I could honestly say I had no idea where I would get, when I would get there, and how.

I found a beautiful little campsite before the Carseland weir and thought, ah yes, this is it, whatever happens, I will figure it out.

And by the morning nothing bad had happened other than some creature with invisible footprints had broken into one of my waterproof bags and taken some oats and my best ramen.

Day 1 ended: 50*48.449N, 113*28.584W

Friday, July 4, 2008

Medicine Hat!

Hey everyone, it's day 13 and I'm in Medicine Hat! My original idea for this blog was to try to have a post up for every day. I don't know if that will work or not, but writing these blogs will generally trail the actual day by a bit, and then posting will trail the writing by a bit more.

In other words, most of what you read here will be out of date! I need a few days to put things in context - you don't want blogs just copied from my journal, which are usually just notes full of troubles and worries. I need a couple days to forget all that stuff, and just remark what is good!

So, I will try to upload some post-dated blogs to appear over the next week or so. For those who want more up to date info, I'll copy down my GPS coordinates where I've camped each night -- these are usually the canoe's location, rather than the tent's.

Day 1: 50*48.449N, 113*28.584W
Day 2: 50*49.948N, 113*25.739W
Day 3: 50*49.572N, 113*23.623W
Day 4: N/A
Day 5: 50*40.115N, 112*28.831W
Day 6: 50*25.630N, 112*15.348W
Day 7: 50*18.098N, 112*09.994W
Day 8: 50*07.912N, 111*42.212W
Day 9: 49*54.778N, 111*34.391W
Day 10: 50*03.087N, 111*15.466W
Day 11: 50*03.087N, 111*15.466W
Day 12: 50*03.809N, 110*52.622W

Also, if any of you would like postcards, please email me your addresses. Thanks!

I don't know when I will be able to upload next, so I hope these few posts will tide you over until then.