Saturday, August 30, 2008
I guess I can't take a hint and pressed the issue. "So, free-camping then?"
"Just don't get caught!" came a voice from the back of the registration booth, and I promised to find some secretive hiding space to spend the night.
But before that, I decided to enjoy the park: Douglas Provincial Park, embracing the Qu'Appelle arm of the lake. I had a cheeseburger and a shake from the concession stand, and bought some groceries from a woman I overheard saying the lake was as high as she's ever seen it. "It's terrible," she said.
But looking out over the broken down boat launch, the washed away beach, and the undercut lakesde walkway, I was quite pleased at hearing this. My mapbooks had warned that the Qu'Appelle was frequently too low to navigate, and best traveled during the spring melt-off. But if you look on a map, you will see that the Qu'Appelle cuts almost directly east to Winnipeg, whereas the Saskatchewan River first goes into the north before you can take the long lake Winnipeg back down. High water means the Qu'Appelle is runnable, which means I can get east quicker.
I visited the interpretive center, which like all the ones I've seen in Saskatchewan Provincial Parks exuded a feeling of abandon. I went in and briefly scanned the taxidermy, then decided to check out the trails that begin here. The trail runs to an area of active dunes, which sounded like an interesting thing to check out until I had biked for an hour in the hot, humid summer air to get near there.
I had no water, and the bike would not run on the mile of sandy path before the dunes. I decided to come back on the other side of the loop. I proceeded to get lost on those cactus-riddled trails, and wandered over game trails, led by my GPS, to get back to the center, where I quickly downed a liter of water.
Back in the canoe and down the shore I found a spot that seemed as secretive as any I was likely to find there, primarily by virtue of being further down the lake than most other boats would spend time to go.
It could not wait until morning, I had to go check out the portage over to the Qu'Appelle. I figured I might as well walk along the shore, since the evening was young and I didn't think my bike could handle it, anyway.
I climbed up to the top of the bank, and walked along a closed road until I found a path back down to the beach. I follow it. It becomes increasingly entangles in trees, and I am alternating between wading beside the trees and bushwacking along old game trails towards the dam. Finally, I reach it, and pull myself up the large boulders supporting it. At the top, I look east, and see no water. If the river's there, it's hiding down in the trees. So I climb down the far side of the dam, on the left side, where my map indicates the channel picks up. I see no water.
I look down at my feet. The Qu'Appelle is a drainage ditch, and empty.
I knew this was a possibility, but I honestly didn't think it would come to this. Back at my tent, I went over the alternative routes available to me.
First, I could put the canoe on the trailer, and bike down to the Missouri River, taking up the original plan I had. But after spoending a week on a dammed lake, the series of huge lakes that comprised the modern, modified Missouri didn't seem like fun.
Another option was to bike the canoe east until I found enough water to put in again. There are certainly lakes on the Qu'Appelle, which wouldn't be empty, and perhaps I would eventually reach one that the authorities were letting drain into the river, to be nevigable. But how far would that be?
The final possibility would be to turn around, take the northern arm of Lake Diefenbaker, and take the Saskatchewan/Winnipeg route. It would probably be quite interesting and scenic. I just didn't think it would give me enough time after Winnipeg to start heading south.
I constantly shifted between the different possibilities all night, becoming sure of one, and then losing assurance and moving on to the next. I figured there was no reason to worry, no reason to leave my site until I made a decision I could be happy with, even if it took a couple of days.
Day 29 ended: 51*00.083N, 106*26.715W
Friday, August 29, 2008
I have been away for awhile but have returned, bearing many posts!
I am humbled by the attention this blog has received so far. It seems everyone within two degrees of me is reading it, except for Luke. With that number and variety of readership I feel certain to disappoint in words, actions, or deeds.
I have uploaded through "Day 48: John Updike is an ostrich". Again, these posts will appear about once a day until they run out, and so this blog will continue to run more than a month behind the real story.
I hope that's okay.
Thank you for reading.
Thursday, August 21, 2008
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
My map coordinates were indicating I was at least half a mile on shore. But my eyes said, no, I am clearly still on the water, or at least the sailboats all around me would seem to indicate!
I pull over to decide what to do. I hadn't seen any wonderful sites on this side ofthe lake, and since I was soon approaching the branch of the 'T' I would soon need to make a crossing anyway. But neither side of the Qu'Appelle branch looked too appealing. If only there was some nice beach right here!
I looked over at the shore I had parked at. There were old footprints in the sand, leading up to an established firepit, and behind that, a flat sandy patch under a tree where many a tent had been pitched over the years.
It seemed like a nice spot. I spent the remaining hours of the day reading, writing, and working on my math problem, while wondering if anyone with a greater claim would come along to wrest this perfect site from me.
No one did. I used the half-burnt logs in the fire pit to make my cooking fire, and went to bed in my secluded site.
Day 28 ended: 51*04.789N, 106*41.270W
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
By the time I set out in the morning, the wind was already sweeping down the plain, opposed to my direction of travel. My experience with the Saskatchewan wind is if it's going in the morning, it will be going all day, so I had some decisions to make. I was already packed and on the water, so returning to my old campsite seemed a waste. So the question came down to whether to stay on the windward side of the lake, where the waves are roughestand try to pin you against the shore, or cross over to leeward, where the waves haven't had the opportunity to build up yet.
But this was a challenge! I looked straight into the wind and knew I could beat it. Once on the other shore I would be more protected and closer to the insides of the curves ahead.
Now a lake crossing is one of the most dangerous things you can do in a canoe. If the wind picks up while you're in the middle of the water, the waves could easily swamp or capsize your boat, and then you better hope the water isn't so cold that you can't swim back to shore.
I steadily chopped my ottertail paddle through the waves at they went past, and watched the shore behind me very slowly recede. There were times when I wasn't making any visual progress, and so I checked my GPS to make sure that, yes, I was proceeding at one or two miles per hour in the positive direction. Aiming for that point there I should make it in an hour. Forty five minutes. Twenty. It was difficult and I used all the strength I had -- if any waves I've seen were a meter high, these were. As I bobbed up and down like a rubber ducky in a bathtub, a couple of motorboats stopped by to make sure I was okay.
Okay? I was having a great time!
The next crossing was accidental. I was used to the small cable ferries that cross the smaller sections of river. So when I saw the ferry that crossed here, I was very careful to avoid it. Too careful, I guess. The waves got larger and larger but I didn't seem to be getting any closer to the ferry. I finally saw it unload, and many cars came out of the beast, when I expected only one. So it's that kind of ferry.
Suddenly I realized that, getting the scale of the boat all out of whack has meant that I'm back in the middle of the lake. It's another long, slow paddle back to shore, and something popped in my shoulder just as I reached it. I would have to stop for the day at the next available site.
Fortunately, the beach is all sandy in this area giving several options to choose from. At the first beach I relieved my hunger and bladder, both complaining during the second crossing. But this beach seemed to close to the ferry for much privacy. There must be better places ahead.
So, slowly scooting forward, I came around the corner to see a large island. It looked to me like one of those mathematical models, a cylinder sticking out of the water, with the top chopped off at an angle to show the cross-section is an ellipse.
Islands are always interesting, and I decided to visit this one even if it meant limping onan injured shoulder. As I got closer, I noticed the dark silouettes of many birds above the island. Closer still, pelicans at the base! I was overjoyed. Soon I noticed a flock of seagulls here as well.
And then the shadows on the crown of the island began to move. They were cormorants. These are the shadows of birds, pure black and silent in flight. As I came around to see the ellipse of the island, I noticed it was covered in bird shadows, some sitting up high on nests built of twigs.
I had encountered a few isolated cormorants before, and no doubt many passed me, invisible to my eye, but this was like finding the cormorant homeworld. Cormorants and pelicans choose islands which are too far away from shore to be reached by mammalian predators. Cormorants themselves have acidic excrement, which leaves their islands barren, and otherworldly. This has actually been a cause of some concern. It seems that climate change is allowing cormorants to expand their sphere of influence, and as they do their excrement is stripping more and more islands of their vegetation, making them all resemble this miniature Yellowtone.
So what can conservationists do? There is talk of culling cormorants to preserve isolated, forested islands in their current state. But that seems like an unnatural solution to the problem. One thing seems likely, and one reason I am glad I don't have to make this decision, is that whatever choice is made now will be the object of scorn in fifty years time. We stopped forest fires for a time, but then learned many trees need a cycle of fire to reproduce. We cut down trees that harbored a certain parasite, and then learned the relationship was far more symbiotic than we had imagined.
I had already disturbed the peace of the rookery enough, and clearly couldn't sleep there. But I could sleep at the beach across from it, to the raucus sounds of these flocks of strange birds.
Day 27 ended: 50*56.078N, 106*53.630W
Monday, August 18, 2008
My goal was to make the lake from Saskatchewan Landing to Douglas Provincial Park in three days. I had made my goal for day 25, but that took concentrated paddling all day, and was not a performance I could repeat the next day. It was quite warm, with little wind, and I had a math problem stuck in my head all morning.
The mind is a cluttered place. People often speak of what they want, or don't want, but this is usually only a window onto the tidier sections of the mind, meant for public view. At the beginning of this trip this was quite clear to me, as the portions of my mind thatcraved adventure and travel grew increasingly excited, and those that yearned for friendship and stability tried to find an allied excuse for not going. The human mind wants a hundred things at once, most of them contradictory.
So here I was, almost a month out of Calgary, and daydreaming about solving math problems, TA'ing for a semester, and running a series of talks on the "Lives and Times of the Mathematicians". My adventurous, quest-driven parts were worn out by the hard day, and I looked back, seeing much that was good. The river is a distraction from life, they said, while my wearied parts said, no, this math is a distraction from the river. I ought to be making distance, not failing, as usual, to solve some of my favorite problems.
I put myself together again, coming up with a scheme to turn the adversarial parts of my mind to one purpose. A light tailwind would help to this end.
Paddling is out of the question, but I can possibly make distance and solve problems simultaneously. How? Sailing!
People make canoe sailing sound easy, but I suppose they usually have four hands to work with. The basic idea is to take a large sheet, such as a tarp or rainfly, wrap it around a couple paddles and let the wind push you along. That's what the bowman does. The stern, however, is as always most responsible for steering and so rudders to keep the craft moving the right way.
Like I said, this requires four hands. But I had often felt the wind tugging on my tent, and I figured that, since the top of my tent is pure mesh, and the bottom a square of nylon, I could hold the tent out in front of me with one hand, using its floor as the sail. Then my other hand could take charge of a paddle, to rudder. It's an interesting problem that all of my mind could agree to try.
But the result was of very limited success. Even in this light wind it was difficult to control the tent with one hand, and not being able to reach back with my "rudder", the canoe tended to drag to whichever side the paddle was on. As a result I had to switch the rudder and sail hands back and forth to maintain travel in the correct direction.
And the rate of travel was not terribly impressive. It did not seem to be a significant improvement over letting the wind drive me, sailless, just using the paddle to correct my direction. So I tried to put the tent away, still sitting on my canoe, and got it hopelessly wet before it was apart.
I had to stop not long afterwards to let my tent dry out and my thoughts refocus. My site for the evening offered a dead cow and a little shack for controlling the power lines.
My subconscious energies came together as I slept. I dreamed the little power shack was a portal to other places and times, and walked through it to my old bedroom, where I grew up. Every thing was there, every toy, every item of clothing, practically every thing I had ever owned, stored there in boxes. And I told the new owner of the room to throw it all out, to give it all to Goodwill.
My mind wants many things, but apparently it does not want much.
Day 26 ended: 50*47.798N, 106*59.884W
Sunday, August 17, 2008
Now my aim was to make it to at least the regional park in this area. I don't know exactly what distinguishes these from their more grandiose brethren, provincial and national parks, but on my maps they are very small and I can't imagine them being much more than a nice, paid parking lots for campers. So while I stop at every provincial park that I can, I generally bypass these, figuring that I am not missing much by free camping on the shore instead.
Now the sun is setting, and now I have big storm clouds on three sides of me. On my left, which keeps me to shore, on my right, which wants me to stay on the lake, and behind me, pushing me onward.
Some motorboats put in at the regional park, making good fishing out of the time and the weather. But I push on. I see what look to be two large outcrops of shore ahead of me, which could indicate bays. According to my map, there is a very deep bay poorly serviced by roads, which ought to mean good camping. But there are also a number of very shallow ones, where I will be exposed to the lake.
I stare at my map and try to compare the features I see there to the ones before me. But it is hard, my Saskatchewan mapbook is an older version than my Alberta one and it does not include the topographic data which greatly aid this. My naked eyes suggest that the large bay is behind the second outcropping of land.
I turn on my GPS to try to pinpoint my position, and then find those coordinates on my map. This again suggests the better bay is further on ahead. But the wind is getting rough, and I might not make it there. I may as well peek into the first one which I must pass anyway.
And as I do, I see a flock of pelicans sitting at the far end. Pelicans are my harbingers of good camping. They sit in nice, clean locations which are relatively undisturbed by large animals, other than me. I immediately wheel into the bay and land on the soft, rocky shore. There is here a hill of mud, weathered like the badlands and bearing at least a ton of quartz, if the fragments I could see poking out were in indication. There is a beautiful, flat secluded spot in the bay and I set up my tent there as the storm nears. The wind is getting quite fierce but my place provides a little protection and I cook my dinner for the evening, and take photos of the sunset torn apart by the storm.
The next morning I pass by the next outcropping of land. There is nothing there, no deep bay, no flat spot for a tent. I do not know which is wrong, but the GPS coordinates given by my unit increasingly disagree with those given by the map in this area. But fortunately, the pelicans are never wrong.
Day 25 ended: 50*41.322N, 107*21.034W
Saturday, August 16, 2008
So said the lady at the privately owned camp store. It is prophesy, but not a supernatural one: she is remarking on the collection of bathing supplies I have brought to the counter.
It has been 24 days on the river; 24 days without a shower; 24 days surrounded by mud and dirt, and nothing cleaner than sand that finds its way under fingernails and into creases of skin I was unaware of.
I first carefully scrape off my vagrant's beard. This process takes awhile because a few hairs overwhelm my razor, and then I must rinse the razor and reapply a spot of shaving cream to get the next few out. When this is done, I have a bald chin and lip, but still a dirty face.
So it is off to the showers. These require you to push a button for each minute of water. I don't know how many times I hit that button, but I do know that I took three consecutive showers. Each time shampooing and rinsing my hair, carefully washing my face, and down through the shoulders, the knees and the toes and everything in between. Places that ordinarily don't require much attention are luxuriously washed and rinsed under the shower, and I hit that button again and again, as I undergo the entire shower ritual three times, until I feel clean. I change into my freshly washed clothes, and I am for two hours a clean man, who does indeed go unrecognized by the camp store lady, the next time I am around.
I proceed to get lost on the hiking trails in a brief sprinkle, and my aura of cleanliness lost a portion of its luster.
But coming back to the campsite that evening, I see that the waves came up during the storm, and carried my boat away from where I had left it -- not too far, fortunately! It was tied up, at least. But the canoe is swamped and everything in it has become drenched. My little boat has had a mudbath while I was out, and there is nothing to do but wash everything out. I am fortunate that nothing was lost or broken. My method of securing my items must be sufficient.
A hard wind comes up to help dry off my articles, and lights splash around in the sky. A girl from a neighboring site warns me there is a tornado watch in effect in our area. This storm is no worse than the others I have weathered so far, so I continue cleaning out my boat while the sky goes crazy.
Day 24 ended: 50*41.278N, 107*55.400W
Friday, August 15, 2008
I wondered about abit before realizing that the park was too big for me to get anywhere by walking. So, it was back to the boat to pull out my bicycle. I ride down to the registration office, and ask for a spot on the lake, so I can be by my canoe. The girl in the office is quite accomodating, and says I could set up my tent near the beach where I am already parked, or on in the Lakeside campground quite aways down. I take the latter option, thinking that would get me a head start when I wanted to go.
She then asked the standard questions when paying for a campsite: what is your address and telephone number? And the truth is, I have neither. I don't tell her that, I just give her my old address and old telephone number, knowing that this information isn't really used for anything anyway.
But it does hit home. I am officially homeless. At this point, I have been on the river more than three weeks and my face is shaggy with an unkempt beard. My face, which has not been washed for more than a week, has been attracting gnats and flies. All of my clothes are covered with dirt and mud.
At this point I am worn out from a day of paddling, and slow of speech from hardly talking to anyone for three weeks. The counter girl hands me a packet of something, and I try to figure out what it is. Instead of asking her, I just stare at it until she tells me, "It's Off. Bug repellent." Homeless people are rude.
A singular event comes to mind regarding an interation I once had with a beggar. I was in Boston, visiting my brother. We are going to get some bagels after some church service. I was not actually going to be paying for any of the bagels, mind you; I was just standing in line to give an order so my dad could pay.
A guy comes off the street and singles me out. He asks me to give him money for a bottledd water, with a sense of entitlement. Feeling threatened and put upon, I refuse. He becomes so angry that he storms up to the cashier, where he gets a free cup of tap water. So there!
I was completely befuddled. He got his revenge on me for not paying for his bottled water by... just getting free water? And why is he begging for water when it is free all around us, anyway? This is North America.
I think I can begin to understand part of his attitude, now. A bottle of water is not such a great cost to me, so why shouldn't he have it? And he is so used to being lied to, and treated as scum beneath contempt, that he does not know what to do when I refuse. Anything, in a blind search for dignity.
During this trip I have a couple of times, outside of the canoeing context, received the "scum" treatment. A person has a way of saying you don't matter, you are beneath me. If you are talking to scum it is okay to lie, because you can only "lie" to a person, and scum hasn't quite risen to that level.
And what can you do? You walk away, thinking of all the clever things you could have said or done to throw it back in the person's face. Anything, really.
Day 23 ended: 50*41.278N, 107*55.400W
Thursday, August 14, 2008
I expertly maneuvered my canoe in close and got out to see if there was enough space for a tent on it. In bare feet, of course. I like to feel the earth beneath me.
About ten feet up I was at the top, and couldn't see any place for a tent here, although there was possibly room on the other side. So I began to - ow! a dozen spikes pierced my foot. I had just stepped on a cactus.
Somehow I had missed them on the way up, but going down I saw them everywhere. All kinds of cactus. Small ones, big ones. Well, I do not know their names. But I had at least two kinds of spikes in my foot as I was trying to make my way down this sandy hill covered in cacti.
After several painful minutes I got back to my canoe and plucked the spikes out with my pliers. I zipped out of my "parking spot", and came around to the other side of the island.
I had to laugh. Every plant I saw had thorns, spikes, and bristles. Even a caterpillar was covered with a thorny layer of protection. But there was a clear sandy spot justbig enough for my tent, so I had found my campsite for the day.
It was kind of funny. The night before had been the island of mosquitoes. Huge clouds of the things humming and buzzing about me. I guess the deer and coyotes I saw there weren't enough for them. It was like I was living a Super Mario Bros game. One night I am on the mosquito world, and having defeated it, I move on to the dersert world. I wondered what the next level was going to be like.
Day 22 ended: 50*51.032N, 108*27.749W
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
On the other hand, some birds try to attract your attention. Shorebirds that nest on the ground are very vulnerable to predation, so the mother has an act she picked up from the theatre. She will pretend to have a broken wing, and flop about on the groud to distract the predator from her nest. Some deserve academy awards for their performances.
But now I must speak of one of the most common creatures on the river. It is the fault of many books on animal identification that they simply leave out the animals you are most likely to see. It is all well and good for a book on tracking to inform me that a bison track resembles cattle tracks, but how am I to rightly ascertain the differences if the book is unwilling to show me, in the same artist's hand, the tracks of both bison and cattle? And likewise, why leave out domestic cats and dogs and horses and the other common tracks you are most likely to see? Perhaps they expect the buyers of such books to have these so ingrained that there is no need to describe them.
I, however, for your benefit, will attempt to describe how these most common mammals, cattle, run away. I was surprised that they run away at all, being so used to humans, and in fact when riding my bicycle past grazing land their only reaction is to stop what they were doing, and stare at me as I go past. I am not sure if their expression is closer to blame or curiosity.
But here on the river, perhaps because I am so much slower and in view for so long, the reaction is different. They begin with the staring. Soon one or more break into low mooing, as if to rouse the others. After some time more join in, but rousing cattle must be an involved process. A few cows begin to walk away from the river. The rest of the crowd follows, and just as I am nearly around the next bend and out of site, the last cow leaves her patch of grass, and follows the crowd slowly, mooing her complaint that she didn't see anything worth leaving over.
Day 21 ended: 50*57.715N, 108*30.208W
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
Day 20: "You're fired", or "Rudd'er, I don't even know her!", or "Dem bones, dem bones, dem cold, cold bones"
There is something about rain that makes it harder to start fires the following day. I do not know what it is, but will continue to research this issue. I did finally manage to start one, but it took a mess of fuel and toilet paper, and ruining my lighter with the sand. The eggs rotted in my mind. My potato yearnings overgrew with vines.
It may not have helped that it was also extremely windy. And since this is Saskatchewan, the wind never stops, but chooses some random direction in the morning, and builds all day, until by evening you cannot stand against it, the trees bow before, and all the land gets swept flat.
This is why there are no mountains in Saskatchewan. None have been able to stand up against the wind.
But in any case I alternated between fighting the wind, and walking about on sandbanks wondering what to do about it. I drew a free-body diagram which finally explained why the wind tries to turn my boat sideways. It is because considering the water as still relative to the wind, the greatest drag is at the center of the boat, and so either end facing the wind is only in a metastable position.
I thought I could attach a small sail to the front of the canoe, which might help keep me righted in a tailwind. In a headwind, the motive force of the paddle helps considerably. I got so far as to screw in a board just below the bow deck and was looking for something to use as a mast when the went laid off a bit so I could move on.
Back on the water it was clear what I really wanted was a rudder! Move the drag to the back when traveling cross to the water current, but nearly no drag when proceeding straight. And clearly I had often used my paddle to rudder the boat to keep it straight, in allkinds of winds, it would be extremely useful.
But a rudder is a thing which is very hard to build with such limited tools and materials as I had. I had considered adding a rudder back home, but thought it too much work to design and build one before my departure. Now I think it would have made better time if I had gone ahead and built it. And not only for wind - I imagined having a lot more time to read and write even on a clear river current if I did not have to worry so much about keeping the boat straight.
The next beach the wind and rain forced me to stop at was littered with bones from some long-dead bovine. I imagined that a vertebra could act as a kind of fulcrum through which I could put my favorite paddle, my ottertail, as a rudder. I'd have to saw off the paddle grip, and secure the rudder through means of, I don't know, some mess of rope and bungee I'd figure out later.
I also imagined writing a short story about finding this beast's scattered skeleton in the wind. I'd find all the pieces, and put them together with some mess of rope and bungee, and then sprinkle some magic ingreient on top, like dillweed or sweet'n'sour sauce. The bones would stand up, alive and at my service. "Master," the creature would say, "you ought to have given me a skin to wrap myself in. This wind, it cuts cold, sir, it cuts cold."
And I'd tell it (and this is true) that when the wind blows this hard the water feels warmer, because it doesn't pull away the heat so quickly. And the creature would lumber down into the water with my canoe's bow line in its jaws, to pull me along.
When finally it would be time to stop, I'd give three yanks on the rope and the skeleton would crawl back onto land. "The fish", it'd say, "tell me you have been traveling this way for quite some time."
"That's true," I'd say. And then curious, "What kind of fish were they? Do you suppose they'd taste good cooked over an open fire?"
"I cannot say. They are different kinds from when I last walked."
And then I don't know what would happen, because I never developed an actual plot for the story.
So at the end of the day, all I had for a sail, a rudder, and a short story were a board and three cow vertebrae. And it took a mess of fuel and toilet paper to get my fire started, again.
Day 20 ended: 50*58.160N, 109*33.631W
Monday, August 11, 2008
In any case, the Red Deer has a greater force of will, although not water, than the South Saskatchewan, so its personality overshadows the other when they merge. The river becomes a braid of channels running about sandy islands which flicker in and out of existence as the latest philosophy dictates. I spent a good portion of the day wandering around in these channels, but finally found a long long sandbar which seemed a good place to stop.
There was driftwood here, entire trees of driftwood. I realized one thing I had not done yet on this trip was build a fire. Here, any wood I claimed for my small cooking fire is not going to have a profound ecological impact, and the beach here is so large that even with the prairie wind continuing into the evening, there is no danger of starting a forest fire.
I collected branches and twigs and windblown dry mats of grasses, arranged it all into an imitation bird's nest with extra material on hand, in case of need. Stuck my lighter to it, and it went up fast. Easiest fire I ever started.
I cooked my meal on it and nearly wept at the new culinary possibilities. Eggs every morning! Baked potatoes! Well, I suppose my desires did not go far. But I resolved myself to build a fire anytime the opportunity arose.
There is something very fulfilling about a fire. About building one, cooking at one, sitting at one, staring at one. I suppose you are suddenly in touch with thousands of years of human history that your little alcohol stove had shielded you from until now.
Day 19 ended: 50*56.493N, 109*45.173W
Sunday, August 10, 2008
A river acquires somewhere some slight bend or crook. Now as water goes through the turn the faster water is not so easily swayed from its purpose as is the slower water, water tends to be faster towards the outside of the turn. Faster water erodes the earth faster than the slow water, so it tends to cut towards the outside of the turn. Contrarly, slow water is more likely to drop the sediment it is carrying, on the inside of the turn. So the turn gets more and more exaggerated, pushing into a loop towards the outside.
Eventually, the river gets so twisted in on itself that it cuts through the loop entirely, leaving an oxbow lake.
I was still feeling crummy from the previous day, and decided to race into Saskatchewan, zooming in on my GPS as the border got closer and closer. To no purpose, of course, I could see from my map that the river here forms a huge meander, looping into Saskatchewan for a few miles, before looping back into Alberta, and then finally returning once and for all to Saskatchewan.
I did not keenly monitor my progress back into Alberta.
The wind picked up and the river got choppy. I pulled aside onto an island to wait it out. The island was gorgeous, I thought, probably tended. It was the most perfect island to have the property of existing on that portion of the river. I looked over and saw a motorboat moored by a home a mile away. I imagined the wife of the house packing the boat with gardening supplies every weekend and straightening out the island so she could maintain the perfect view from her bay window.
Now, don't get me wrong, these were wild, native plants on the island, just very tastefully arranged.
I cooked up a meal from one of my cans and sat down to eat it as the wind sandblasted my face. I remembered that I hadn't cooked up any hot meals at all, yesterday. I felt a bit better.
The wind died down a bit and I decided not to stay on that family's picture island. But it was not long after setting out that the water got choppy again. But it was almost fun, fighting against wind and wave. Sometimes I had the upper hand, making slow progress downriver. And sometimes it did, battering me against the logs on shore. But yesterday there was no wind at all, and not even a storm at night to relieve my boredom.
I crossed into Saskatchewan for the final time and spent awhile trying to scope out a good campsite, on a place my map named Ebenau Island. The channel that used to separate the island from the right shore has silted up, however, and so it is an island no more. Finally I found where the pelicans were hiding out, on a rocky sandy beach. As the pelicans reluctantly moved on to their second best spot, a great double rainbow filled the sky.
It did storm that night, but I was securely tucked away in my tent under some good old trees, finally feeling happy about my trip again.
Day 18 ended: 50*54.326N, 109*58.362W
Saturday, August 9, 2008
I was traveling through the land run by the Canadian Forces Base Suffield. My guidebook had warned me to call ahead, to make sure they are not conducting live-fire exercises when I plan to pass through. These live-fire exercises must be quite the thing. My map shows a target 30 miles wide. But the river goes through this land and so must I.
The number in my guidebook was old, or wrong, and so I was unable to call ahead. But when they are conducting exercises, a "water sentry" is posted to make sure nobody just wanders into the area to get shot. How interesting that would be! Not getting shot -- meeting the sentry! I would be just going by in my canoe when the water-sentry will come arauond in his gunboat. "Whew," he'll sigh, "I almost missed you. You almost got yourself into a lot of trouble, mister!"
And then he would take me back to his sentry shack to pass the time until the end of the exercises. We'd play chess, smoke cigars and make philosophical conversation deep into the night. And when it was time for me to go, he'd salute me, saying "Well, soldier, it's been a pleasure serving with you."
But the pleasure would be mine. Instead, as I passed the sentry shack there were no motorboats on the water, no soldier staring through field glasses at the river. I used mine to look up, down, left and right, and interpreted the three green diamonds beside the shack to mean, "safe to proceed". How boring, how dull, and ordinary.
And proceed I did. I was making rather good time - the current was strong, and I paddled to the next expectead obstacle - the "Rapid Narrows" according to my map. These are by no means high-class rapids, but my guidebook warned of "meter-high" standing waves during high water. Well, if anything were high water this must be.
I couldn't wait - I wondered what meter high waves would be like. I imagined it would be like a taste of the wild, untamed Mississippi -- something to convince myself that my boat and I could truly handle the big challenges ahead. I came around the corner, paddled into the rapids -- but the waves weren't even half a meter. Once again I was disappointed.
It started to seem so boring. Just floating down the water, with no challenges, no other people around, and no wildlife, really, in most of this entire stretch. I'd do better on the "Lazy River" at Six Flags. If this is how hopelessly dull the trip was going to be, I needed to find a way out.
I passed up a perfect stopping point, with a sandy beach, rocks, and even pelicans! But I continued on, thinking it was too early to stop. I needed to make distance. Why? I don't know, maybe to get this boring trip over with sooner. Or maybe because I hadn't gotten anything else interesting out of the day, and distance would make some consolation.
Canada tried to relieve my boredom the only way she knows how. She got out her creature creator kit and sent some presents my way - gnats that continually swarmed about my head, and flies with black-barred wings that bite through my skin to drink my blood. Unlike mosquitoes, these new terrors are not afraid to fly out over the water, and not greatly affected by bug repellent.
But even these gifts of Canada did not help my malaise.
As I wrote in my journal that night, I tried to deny the truth that I simply would not be able to handle that kind of tedium over the long haul. But I did not even realize that the boredom was largely my own fault, born of my expectations and unwillingness to grab the opportunities that did arise. The little bay of pelicans may have been early, but that does not matter. I always have something that needs fixing, something that needs writing, and something that needs cleaning, and I can only do these things in a nice, clean, comfortable location, like that bay. By passing up those opportunities I am not actually gaining any time on the trip, just gaining time putting up with more and more things unfixed, unwritten, and unclean.
Day 17 ended: 50*38.660N, 110*11.195W
Friday, August 8, 2008
Curmudgeons usually become curmudgeons, because they have lived a long time. They have lived long enough to make a lot of mistakes, but have done things right enough to last.
I had several times to this point, after finding myself in some basic error, referred to this book to find out what had gone wrong. And surely if things had ever gone wrong, they had the previous night, much of which was spent shivering in my underwear, watching my tent roll away. So I picked up the book, and reviewed his chapter "Weathering the Storm".
The next night the sky looked clear, but I thought it best to rig up my tent as securely as possible, just for practice. I set it up on high ground. There were no trees around but I set it close to the cliff face for lightning protection. I set up pegs everywhere I could, and weighed them down with rocks. I found that guy lines on the ends of the tent weren't as effective as on the sides, where the panels are larger. Tighten everything out, and it is taut as a drum.
I went to bed in my over-secure tent, believing no storm would come that night. And yet, I began to hear a rat-tat-tat of rain on my roof, and then wind came up, and then flashes of lightning. But the tent holds.
Day 16 ended: 50*19.858N, 110*36.950W
Thursday, August 7, 2008
I spent the morning blissfully repairing everything that had gone wrong so far with my canoe. There were inwhales to screw in place, ends to be patched, bicycle hardware to be replaced, and so on. In Medicine Hat I was sure to stop at a hardware store to pick up everything I could to make the repairs I would need. Now my canoe seat was higher, my bicycle well tuned, and everything cleaned and reorganied.
It was sure to come.
I saw a dragonfly just beginning to emerge from its nymph state on the beach. These amazingly large, bright green insects have been little friends of mine on the journey so far. And all the more so knowing that they hunt my enemies, mosquitoes, in water and in air. For the nymphs of the dragonfly live underwater, feeding on insect larva and other small things, and then with no pupal state they simply crawl onto land and emerge as dragonflies - air out their wings, expand their tails, and then fly off to chase what insects they missed in the water. These nymph shells are common on the river, but I rarely get to see the dragonflies make the actual transition.
But I didn't think it would come.
"We don't get real storms here," I told Marty at the Police Point Park interpretive center just the day before. "Not like in St. Louis." Several times that day in Medicine Hat I had assured people that storms were no issue. And they hadn't been - not on any camping trip I have ever taken, nor on my journey so far. One mentioned the storm of the previous night - but that was nothing where I was. Half an hour of weak rain, a flash of light, and then a bright double rainbow to finish things off. At no point did I even think shelter was necessary.
After fixing up all my stuff and staring at the dragonfly, I took my time getting to a large island that wasn't much further on my map. There was no great place for my canoe, but I trudged over a ditch of mud and rocks, and a field with more mud, to find a sandy patch to plunk down my tent. The sky wasa bit busy so I took a step back to read it out.
"There is a thunderhead there, but it is incomplete -- probably too cool for anything serious. There's no visible rain anywhere. It doesn't look like much to worry about, but I'll go ahead and peg out the tent, put up the rain fly, just to be safe." Having done so, I retired inside to strip for the night and read.
It was strange. One whole side of the tent just lifted itself up and then sat back down. And the wind picked up. The corners had ripped out their pegs and were flapping about, as the top of the tent wanted to lie down on top of me. I had to get out to try to get my tent standing up again, properly. So I crawled out, and that's when I saw the lightning. Big in the sky.
There being no shelter in my tent, I ran over to the ditch and laid down in it. But I kept looking up and noticed that my tent was slowly walking across the hill. So I got up,ran over, and dropped some large rocks on it to try to keep it still. I alternated between lying down in the ditch to protect myself from the lightning and dropping rocks in my tent to stop it from flying away. Once I noticed the rocks were successfully holding down my Thermarest mattress while the tent was letting it go so it could fly off. I put the heaviest rock I could carry inside the tent and zipped it closed, and then ran back to my ditch.
Now, I was sure glad this storm only had wind and lightning, and there was no rain to go along with it. But there I was lying nearly naked in a ditch as the wind went howling over me, stealing heat off my back as the muddy stones I was lying on took heat from my front. I didn't know how safe I would be from lightning in my tent, but hypothermia was a sure thing lying in this ditch.
So I ran back to the tent, and arranged the rocks at the inside corners which seemed to stand it up properly. I closed my -12 mummy bag tightly around me to warm up, as I huddled near the middle of the tent in fear of lightning.
It was a real storm, and I did not sleep until it had passed.
Day 15 ended: 50*11.241N, 110*34.317W
Wednesday, August 6, 2008
I am starting to think of my blog as a very early draft for perhaps a book, assuming everything ends well and interesting. A very early draft, I say. A book should probably be less confusing in grammar, tense, and quality. It might not be organized into days like the blog is.
If you are just joining, the first post is http://kevinfloat.blogspot.com/2008/07/day-1-off-without-hitch.html Just keep clicking Next to proceed.
I have photos at http://www.flickr.com/photos/kevinsaff
I hope you all enjoy the blog!
Sunday, August 3, 2008
Saturday, August 2, 2008
So it was with much enmity towards the town that I went in the next day. I proceeded to get thoroughly lost, and ended up at Medalta Potteries*. I took the $10 tour there, saw some ceramic factory buildings in a romantic state of disrepair, and was almost disappointed when told they planned to renovate it all to working condition. They also had many examples of the pieces that were made there; all, in the words of our guide, were "pretty cool".
I found the bike trail out of there and my heart softened a bit. It ran by a pleasant creek, was relatively well connected, and had an interesting conversation.
"You better look out," the man said, "there's some big snakes around here."
"Oh snakes," I said, "big ones?"
And then I was off. I saw the Saamis teepee, which was somehow not as impressive as I hoped, and what was, according to the map, a "giant chessboard", which was also somewhat disappointing. But overall, seeing the town through the eyes of a tourist out looking for fun rather than a guy running errands, I began to see why people might want to live in the town. This is the only city where I have literally helped a little old lady cross the street. I didn't know that ever happened outside of films.
That night I found an unbelievable camping location. Plenty of sand to lay on and pull my boat up on. Gravel for cooking, with larger rocks to hold my tent pegs if necessary. An elevated, smooth location between trees perfect for a tent. I looked around and saw no signs of human existence other than a few staggered posts high on one of the cliffs, as if smoeone had started to build a fence but quickly gave up. And all I heard at first was a lonely moo, which I couldn't place.
But that night things were not so quiet. Any time I think of the river as isolated I see some great powerline crossing the river, connecting what towns only its engineers may know. And all along the river are great pumps to irrigate fields, to fill ponds, and I guess to service homes as well. They reach down into the water with great tubes or even miniature waterwheels, have rambunctious motors that feed the water way up, up over the cliff to its dry destination. And here, in what ought to have been my private heaven, I heard the rumble of these machines all through the night, sounding impossibly close for a location where none could be seen.
Day 14 ended: 50*08.773N, 110*38.852W
* - Medalta is short for "Medicine Hat, Alberta". I often see Alberta abbreviated this way, as alta. I guess people are just trying to take the brr out of Alberta.
Friday, August 1, 2008
It is strange in these windstorms, that they make the water feel much warmer than the land, because it does not draw away your body heat so quickly.
I parked the boat under the Transcanada in a region of pathways that was apparently closed for the summer. I rode into town on my folding bicycle, and ran my errands. The library, for internet. The bank, to pay my student fees and health premium. The grocery store, for food, and the hardware store to get supplies to make a few repairs to my equipment.
I also made many phone calls to friends and family.
When the day was done, I felt like I hadn't really seen the city. I would probably never see the town again, and here I had only done my errands and ridden around in places I could have seen in any city of that size.
So I decided to stop somewhere, so I could see the local attractions the next day. This presented some difficulties. If you are driving across the country, you have several different options as to where to stay. You can visit hotels of varying qualities, stay at a campground, or if you are really cheap, find some Walmart or other bigbox store and sleep in the parking lot.
When traveling by canoe your options are more limited. I had spent most of the day away from the boat and did not enjoy the feeling that nearly all my resources could disappear without a warning. So I wanted to sleep somewhere near the canoe. There is a campground in Medicine Hat, but they do not have riverside camping.
I also needed a place to stay so that in the morning I could float downstream to some point where I could still get into the city. My loaded wilderness canoe does not very much like trying to go upstream. So I would effectively need some place to camp inside of the city.
There are a few parks, but I'm not sure about the legal status of camping in city parks. I suppose, if I could have found a phone at this time, I could have called the police and asked them if they had any ideas.
I stopped to have dinner at a nice takeout point by a park apparently owned by the Lion's Club. It is at this point that a motorboat went by, back and forth on the river a few times. Now maybe they were just fishermen or something, but I imagined that I had caught their eye somehow, that they had suspicions I was up to no good or something. They parked the boat down the river, just the right distance where they might not be conspicuous, but could still keep their eyes on me.
I figured I couldn't stay in Lion's Park, so I took to the water and headed downstream, wondering where I would stay, and what this boat was up to. As I approached, they started the motor, and went upstream, again stopping in a place just within sight.
At this point, taking it personally, I became really frustrated. If they had a problem with me, why didn't they just come over to me and talk about it? I started thrashing at the water, paddling as hard as I could to try to get to them. But it was no use; the river current was too strong and I succeeded only in treading water, staying in one place.
Now, my eyes are no good at distance, so I got out my weak binoculars to try to look over this boat that seemed so threatening to me. And little sooner than I did, but the boat pulled away, up river, leaving me alone. I wonder if I had it wrong all along, if they weree the ones up to no good, hiding from me!
It began to rain and I still had no campsite. There was a very small island, but it was no good - pure mud and shrubs. A little further there was a little piece of land jutting out from underneath one of the cliffs. It was thoroughly inaccessible from land, may even be considered navigable waterway under the 'usual high water line" rule. i checked it out. There was a game trail running around the base, and just enough space on top of some weeds to pitch a tent. The sun came out, a rainbow appeared, and I saw two or three fishermen sitting in Police Point Park, directly across from me.
My location was probably one of the least conspicuous in the city. Bends in the river protected me from view of buildings both upstream and down, and my canoe and tent would be relatively small and hidden on this island of weeds but for those people across from me. I decided it didn't matter. I unpacked my stuff, set up my tent, and with a bow and tip of the hat to the people across the river, went in to bed.
But all night I wondered what they were thinking, and imagined I could just barely make out their voices, coming to me over the wind...
"...I know why he camped there..."
"...he looked at us!..."
"...I wonder what he's up to..."
"...he's on the run from the law..."
"...but the real question is..."
"...what is he thinking about us!"
Day 13 ended: 50*02.337N, 110*38.226W