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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Trip of a Lifetime

James Bay or Bust!

By Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest

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 Bay—and 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' minds—and in yours.

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 there.

Our story continues….

October 2, 2001

Chapter Nineteen

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 north—roast 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…you know…that old."

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…well…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 gastronomy."

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, then."

"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…Onawash…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 Trail."

"Right," Pete said. "And from there we'll head down to the Miskow River…."

"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 understand?"

Pete grunted in agreement. Mary continued, "You're flying out at Fort Albany, right?"

"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….' She 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. Respectful. But…. 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 curious. Understand?"

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 car.

"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 car.

"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 than before.

"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 Lake—they 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 packs.

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 once—a 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 indigo.

"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…

The Bay

Copyright 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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