Trip of a Lifetime
James Bay or Bust!
Tamia Nelson and
A Note to the Reader
It's early June. After months of preparation, Ed and Brenna are
beginning their Trip of a Lifetime. With friends Pete and Karin Neary,
they're heading for the Albany River. Their goal? Fort Albany on James
Bayand then on to Moosonee. But no river trip ever goes exactly
according to plan, does it?
This is a work of fiction. All the characters are figments of the
authors' imaginations. It's NOT a paddling guide. If you're planning a
trip on the Albany, consult the most recent edition of a good guide-book
and be sure you're thoroughly familiar with all applicable regulations.
While maps of Ontario show the waterways and settlements mentioned here,
the places depicted in our story exist only in the authors' mindsand
A REMINDER A new chapter in Trip of a
Lifetime, our paddlesport novel-in-progress, will appear on the
first Tuesday of each month. If you've missed a chapter, or if you're
joining us for the first time and you want to catch up, just use the
hot-linked title to go to the In the Same Boat Archives. It's all
Our story continues
October 2, 2001
Brenna swayed from side to side as the train
clacked through a landscape of spruce-fir forest, bogs, and streams. A
gray drizzle misted the window to her right. Brenna stared out, hoping to
see a moose emerge from the murk alongside the track. None did, but a
smile played over Brenna's face nonetheless. After so many years, they
were headed back up North. At last!
Beside her, Ed turned the pages of a tiny, hardbound copy of King
Lear, occasionally reading a favorite passage aloud to Brenna, his
voice never rising above a hoarse whisper.
Pete and Karin sat just ahead of them. Even further forward in the car,
a boisterous party of fishermen were deep in a discussion of lines and
leaders, while a couple of college students going off to summer jobs in a
lodge chattered away about exams. Elsewhere, men and women dressed in
work-clothes talked, ate, or dozed. A few were white-skinned. Many more
were dark. But each had the unmistakable air of someone going home.
Karin crooked her arm over the seat-back and turned around, fixing
Brenna with a bleary gaze. "Gawd," she said, "the trip from Cochrane takes
forever, doesn't it?" She stopped suddenly, as her face was split by a
yawn. Brenna found that she couldn't help herself, and she yawned, too.
Karin smiled in apology. "Sorry about that. We haven't had much sleep in
the last week."
"I know what you mean," Brenna replied, checking the impulse to yawn
again. A chill wind seemed to be playing up her spine. She folded her arms
across her breast and hunched deeper into her heavy wool turtleneck. "I
hope Jack and Molly'll be OK," she added, almost as an afterthought.
Ed tore himself away from Lear."No problem," he said, giving
Brenna a reassuring grin. "They'll be fine. Jack already knows the book
trade better than we do, and Molly'll keep them both well fed!"
Brenna nodded in agreement. She was thinking about the enormous meal
Molly had put together on the night before they left for the drive
northroast leg of lamb and two lemon meringue pies. She shook her
head. They weren't even on the river yet, and she was already thinking
about "sivilized" food!
"I wonder what it's like to be an eighty-something newlywed?" Karin
mused, shooting a look at her husband, who'd had his wavy brown hair cut
short for the trip. A hitherto-concealed bald spot was now plainly
evident. Karin studied Pete's features as if he were a stranger, lingering
long over his sagging chin. Then she sighed. "I'm not sure I'd find
marriage all that attractive if I was
Fortunately, Pete didn't hear his wife. He was listening to a robust,
no-nonsense Cree woman who occupied the seat across the aisle from him.
She wore a faded Carhartt jacket, and she perched sideways on her seat,
leaning across the gap between them, while she explained how to gut and
butcher a moose. From time to time, she brushed long black bangs away from
her eyes and tucked her shoulder-length hair back behind her ears, but her
words continued without interruption. She spoke with an eagerness and
intensity that commanded attention, and Pete followed her detailed
description with horrified fascination.
Brenna looked questioningly at Karin and shrugged her shoulders. "Old
or not, our newlyweds seem mighty pleased with the idea. That's the
important thing, isn't it? Sure it is!" And she thought of all the help
that Molly and Jack had given them during the last few chaotic weeks:
repacking food, getting the geriatric F-150 ready for the long drive to
Cochrane, and repairing worn and damaged items of gear. They certainly
seemed cheerful enough. As happy as
newlyweds. Still, it
wouldn't hurt to check in with them when they got to Fort Hope. Just to
make sure that everything was OK.
Brenna's thoughts were interrupted by a burst of laughter. The Cree
woman was still talking to Pete. "No kidding!" she said, brushing her
bangs back by way of emphasis. "We always give the eyeballs to the kids.
They're real good, you know. The kid's love 'em. Real salty." Pete's face
was looking distinctly pale under his tan, and his adam's apple bobbed
convulsively. Brenna chuckled and turned back to Karin, who was now
following the Cree woman's words as closely as her husband, a look of
shocked disbelief on her face. "Did you hear that?" she whispered to
Brenna. "Can you believe it?"
"I can," Brenna replied, struggling to keep her growing mirth in check.
Seeing her difficulty, Ed leaped into the breach, a mischievous grin on
his face. "You're a foodie, aren't you, Karin?" he asked, and continued
without waiting for an answer, "Food's a cultural construct, right? Look
at this as a chance to broaden your culinary horizons. An adventure in
Karin wasn't amused. She sniffed and then replied in an indignant
whisper: "Eyeballs! I mean, really. I'm not ready for that sort of
adventure. I wouldn't mind a Starbucks's, though."
"Not too likely up here," Ed replied. "There's nothing like that where
we're going. Just a lake."
"And clouds of mosquitos," Brenna interjected, ever helpful.
Karin turned away to look through her window. The rain was much harder
now, and sleet clattered against the glass. "My gawd! It looks just like
winter out there. And it's early June!" Shivering, she tugged at the high
collar of her fleece jacket and drew her legs up so that her knees pressed
against her chest.
"Well, we are heading north," Brenna chided. Karin wasn't
amused. She hugged her knees tighter and closed her eyes.
Across the aisle, the Cree woman was still holding forth on the art of
"making meat," and Pete was still listening, curiosity having overcome his
initial shock. Then, without preamble, the direction of the conversation
changed. "So," the young woman asked, "what you doin' up here?"
"Huh?" Pete replied, momentarily at a loss for words. "Oh. We're going
canoeing. To James Bay. Down the Albany."
The woman nodded knowingly and said, "So you're goin' to Sioux Lookout,
"No," said Pete. "We were planning to start there, but we
changed our minds. We wanted to avoid the large lakes. So we're putting in
at Schultz's Landing. At Ona
uh, at a lake near there."
Pete frowned as he struggled to remember the unfamiliar name.
"OnaMAKawash Lake," the woman gently corrected him. "And it's Schultz's
"Right," Pete said. "And from there we'll head down to the Miskow
"That's MisEHkow," the Cree woman said. And she smiled. "Then you'll
probably see my brother, Billy Swamp. I'm Mary Smoke. Was Mary
Swamp, but I got married. My husband is Jacob Smoke. My brother
Billy, he hunts and fishes and traps all year. Round what they call the
Wabakimi Park now, down the Misehkow, on the Albany, all the way up to
Osnaburgh House. That's where we're from. Billy goes out for weeks,
sometimes months, maybe, at a time. You see a big green canoe with a big
motor and a big red eye painted on it, you've found my brother." She
paused, and then added, "He guides, too."
Pete nodded, not knowing what to say. He didn't want to hire a guide,
but he didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings, either. So he just said,
"I'm Pete Neary. Pleased to meet you."
Mary Smoke sat back a little on her seat and stared silently down at
the floor. Then she brightened, leaned toward Pete again, and spoke:
"There's one really long portage before you get into the Misehkow. It's
not too easy. I was there when I was a little girl, but I haven't been
back since. Billy knows the place, though. You look out for him and his
big canoe. You need any help, you just ask him." She paused before
continuing. "We didn't have big snow this winter, and not too much rain so
far. It's raining real good now, sure"she nodded toward the
streaming window"but never mind that. Rivers will probably still be
pretty low for this time of year. And it might be another bad fire season,
too." Her expression became grim. "You be careful with your fires, you
Pete grunted in agreement. Mary continued, "You're flying out at Fort
"We could do that, I suppose," Pete replied, glad to be able to
say something at last. "But we're planning to keep going on down the Bay
to Moosonee. That's our plan, anyway." His voice trailed off. He hoped he
sounded more confident than he felt. He'd looked at the maps. James Bay
was an awfully big place, and he'd heard stories about mile-wide mud-flats
and sudden storms that scared him silly. Flying out from Fort Albany
sounded pretty good, and he'd bet Karin would agree. Of course Ed and
Brenna would be really pissed if they did. But he was a family man, with a
daughter in college. And there was the stock market, too. It had been
going crazy lately. A guy could lose a lot of money if he stayed out of
the loop too long.
Mary Smoke seemed to sense his uncertainty. "Oh, man, that's bad. James
Bay's real bad water. People who lived all their lives up here, they go
out on the Bay and they never come back. It ain't no place for
hesitated, searching for a word that wouldn't give offense. Finding it,
she continued: "For people like you. And the tides
. You know
about the tides?"
Ed, who'd been trying unsuccessfully to get back into Lear,
couldn't hold back any longer. He leaned forward in his seat. "I'm Ed
Fletcher, Mrs. Smoke. Friend of Pete's. Hope you don't mind my butting in
like this. But I know what you mean about the Bay being a dangerous place.
My wife and I've been out on it before. We'll take our time. Work the
tides. Watch the weather. We've got good gear. Even with average bad luck,
we ought to be OK."
Mary Smoke sized Ed up. He looked like he could take care of himself.
And he said all the right things. Seemed like a nice guy, in fact. Polite.
. Mary shook her head gently. "The Bay can be real
bad, fella. It's no place for
people like you. So you take my advice.
Get somebody to fly you out at Fort Albany. You hear me, now. There's
nothing worth dying for out on the Bay." She smiled to take the sting out
of her words. Then she got up and moved to the seat behind her, directly
opposite Ed. Her voice dropped to a whisper. "And you be careful on the
river, too. There's lots of things on that river that you don't want to be
too curious about." She stopped there, frowning, her dark brown eyes
losing themselves for a moment behind high cheek-bones.
When she spoke again, her voice was barely audible. "You got to
understand that people up here like their privacy. It don't pay to be too
Ed nodded thoughtfully. "Yes," he said. "I think I do. We'll mind our
own business. I think I can guarantee it." And that was all he said. Pete,
who'd turned around to follow the conversation, waited quietly for someone
to say more. Meanwhile, Karin snoozed, and Brenna doodled on a sketch-pad.
Mary decided that she'd said all she wanted to. She stood up. "I've got
to go," she said. "Good luck. You remember what I told you." And she moved
off toward the rear of the train, swaying in time to the rhythm of the
"Thank you," Ed called after her. "We will." Mary didn't look back, and
none of the other passengers gave her more than a passing glance.
"What the hell was that all about?" Pete asked, after she'd left the
"Probably nothing," Ed replied with a shrug. Then he grinned. "Think
you can get us a moose for breakfast?"
Pete's face flushed. "Maybe," he said. "And if I do, I'll save the eyes
for you." Ed only smiled.
"YOU THE FOLKS GETTING OFF AT SCHULTZ'S TRAIL?" a voice boomed out
behind them. Karin woke up with a start, and Brenna snapped the point on
her drawing pencil. "Damn!" she muttered, jerking her head around.
A conductor in a threadbare uniform and pillbox hat had materialized
behind them. The black plastic name-plate above his left breast pocket
bore the legend "Barry Kent MacKay." He was very tall, very thin, and very
old. He looked as if he was older than Jack, in fact. Small wire-frame
glasses clung uncertainly to the tip of his nose. He had a young man's
voice, though. "Sorry to startle ya," he said, only a little less loudly
"No problem," Pete replied. "Just didn't hear you come up behind us."
The conductor gave no sign he'd heard. "You're the only ones getting
off here. Me and Charlie'll help you unload your boats and duffles from
the luggage van." He'd nodded toward the rear of the train, then turned on
his heel and walked back the way he'd come.
Ed, Brenna, and the Nearys immediately started to collect their gear.
Karin searched frantically for a missing slip-on boot. She found it under
the seat in front of her. Pete finished the last of his bottled mango
juice, and looked around for an out-of-the-way place to leave the empty.
Brenna slipped her sketch-pad into the thigh pocket of her trousers, while
Ed tucked Lear into a plastic bag and thrust it into his day pack.
By the time the four paddlers had gathered their belongings together, the
train was juddering to a stop.
Ed was first to leave the car. He hopped down onto the gravel, turned
to grab Brenna's hand, and planted an enthusiastic kiss on her lips when
she joined him. After the chill stuffiness of the train, the cool evening
air was very welcome. The squall had moved on to the south, and there was
just enough daylight left to portage down the trail to Onamakawash
Lakethey could see the dull blue of the surface through a fringe of
pines to the north. First, however, they had to unload their canoes and
Barry's voice boomed out from the van, and all four paddlers hurried
toward the rear of the train. By the time they'd reached the open door of
the luggage van, Barry and Charlie were already sliding the canoes out.
Their packs followed almost immediately.
Soon a mountain of gear stood beside the two boats alongside the track.
Barry shouted a final "GOOD LUCK!" and slid the door of the van shut with
a bang. The train stuttered forward. Ed looked up just in time to see Mary
Smoke watching them from a window in the last passenger car. He waved to
her, and she returned his wave. The engine's whistle sounded oncea
long, plaintive note. Soon the train was lost to view among the deepening
shadows of the endless forest.
Pete felt something that almost seemed like panic. He plunged into the
pile of duffles and packs, hoping that activity would break the spell.
Brenna, on the other hand, felt like a schoolgirl on a snow-day. The world
seemed full of unlimited possibility.
Around them, night was falling. A rich, red-gold sun emerged from under
a mass of low clouds. Suddenly every droplet of water on every leaf and
twig and needle glinted like a jewel. Brilliant swathes of orange, yellow,
and crimson stretched across the western horizon, tinting the undersides
of the lifting clouds. To the east, the sky darkened from inky blue to
"It's so beautiful," Brenna said, speaking in hushed tones, and the
others murmured in agreement. But no sooner had she spoken, than the
colors began to fade. In minutes, the sun had dipped below the tree tops.
A chill breeze sprang up, seemingly from nowhere, and a vast, silent
wilderness now lay before them, hidden from view in the infinite night.
To be continued
Copyright © 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights