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Trip of a Lifetime

The End of the Beginning

By Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest

A Note to the Reader

With one near disaster behind them, Pete and Karin Neary now wish that they'd never come to the Misehkow. They want out. Could this be the end for Ed and Brenna's trip of a lifetime?

A REMINDER 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 River, 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 some of the waterways mentioned here, the places depicted in our story exist only in the authors' minds—and in yours.

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….

February 5, 2002

Chapter Twenty-Three

Brenna woke suddenly to the murky half-light of a gray dawn. Whispers filtered through the thin nylon walls of the tent. She strained to make out the words but had no luck. All she could hear was the muted buzz of earnest conversation.

Curious, she rolled onto her stomach and rose up on her elbows to look out through the half-open door. Nothing. By her side, Ed stirred and threw his arm over the small of her back. Still asleep, he grunted affectionately. Then the voices stopped, only to be replaced by quiet footfalls. Talk had apparently given way to purposeful action. An acrid smell of wood smoke filtered into the tent. Brenna heard someone unzip the door of the Nearys' tent. The hushed whispers resumed.

By now she was wide awake, and her bladder was sending messages that couldn't be ignored for long. Without waking Ed, she slid out of their paired bags and began to dress, standing as nearly erect as the five-foot headroom would permit. Not a day passed when she wasn't glad that they'd brought the 4-man Timberline rather than something like the Nearys' little coffin-shaped tent. What was that line of Nessmuk's? She racked her memory. "We don't go to the woods to rough it; we go to smooth it. We get it rough enough at home." That was it. "Right on!" Brenna thought.

Dressed now, Brenna unzipped the door slowly and stepped out into a damp, dim world of stunted spruce and mossy rock. She didn't see the Nearys. She didn't see Billy Swamp, either. For the moment, at least, she was the only soul moving about the camp.

Brenna walked over to the fire, catching a glimpse of the Misehkow now and again through gaps in the trees. The rocky island she stood on was the only bit of solid ground in a vast expanse of swamp. She kept walking, and was rewarded by a sweeping view up and down the river when she squatted to tend to business. A moose browsed in the shallows across the channel, its head periodically disappearing below the surface of the water.

The mosquitoes were as aggressive as ever, but Brenna didn't notice them much now. She felt good about that. "I'm starting to become part of this country," she thought. "I'm not a tourist any more…. Or maybe it's the dirt!"

Walking back toward the fire, Brenna picked up the covered pot of water she'd set aside the night before and put it on the grill. As she straightened up, she saw Karin crawling out of the Nearys' tent. Karin's expression was a confused amalgam of chagrin and determination. "Uh, oh," Brenna murmured to herself, wondering what was coming next. She nodded to Karin and then stood quietly, waiting.

"Morning," Karin said. She joined Brenna by the fire. "Hope we didn't wake you," she added.

"Don't think so," Brenna replied, still waiting. Then she caught sight of movement down at the landing. It was Billy Swamp. He was tugging faded canvas sacks around in his big freighter, his pipe belching smoke. It looked like he was getting ready to go.

Karin spoke again: "Ah, listen Brenna," she began, kicking at a small pile of cones at her feet. Close by, the fire spat and hissed. "Got to talk to you. We've…I mean Pete and I…we've hired Billy Swamp to take us out." She stopped abruptly, waiting for a reaction. When Brenna said nothing, she continued. "We've…ah…about had it with this wilderness stuff, you know? And we…we've been thinking that we would fly out at Fort Hope when we got there. But then we ran into Billy, and we…ah…we decided that since he's a guide and since he's heading out anyway, then maybe we should take this chance now, rather than waiting." Her voice broke. She stopped.

Brenna said nothing. She looked away, staring into the fire. She crossed her arms. She was angry. Not surprised. Just angry. No, thinking back over the last few days, she wasn't at all surprised. Still, Karin's news certainly wasn't welcome. "Trip of a lifetime!" The words rang mockingly in her head. And what to do now? Continue on? Risky. She and Ed, alone on a big river. A little trouble could become big trouble in no time. "Trip of a lifetime!" It could be the last trip of their lifetimes, she realized. Was it worth the risk? Suddenly she thought of Henry Hudson and his son, marooned on the Bay. Did he think that it had been worth it, she wondered? But she didn't find any answer to her questions in the flames.

Anxious to avoid a row, and guessing Brenna's thoughts, Karin pressed on. "We think you and Ed should come out with us, of course. I mean, it's not safe…." Brenna, her lips pressed tight in an angry smile, turned back toward Karin. For the second time in as many minutes, Karin's courage and voice both failed her

Brenna cleared her throat. "I thought we understood each other. I thought we had an agreement. I guess I was wrong. Good of you to worry about our safety, though." She paused, then realized that she'd found the answer to her question. She pointed downhill towards Billy Swamp, who'd just removed the cowling on the Yamaha outboard. "He travels alone. One man in one canoe. Guess we'll take our chances."

Karin was stunned. She and Pete hadn't anticipated this. Anger, yes, but not such reckless stupidity. When she spoke again, it was in what Pete called her schoolteacher's voice: "But, Brenna, he's an…." She hesitated a second, hunting for the right word, then continued, "A Native. He was born to this life. This is his home. You and Ed, you're not Natives. It isn't safe."

"No, Karin," Brenna replied, with more acid in her voice than she'd intended, "it's definitely not safe for people like you."

Karin ignored the gibe. "It's not safe for for people like us, Brenna. Please. Be sensible. You know I'm right."

"Can't say I agree, Karin." Ed's voice boomed out from just behind them. He'd apparently been standing there for several minutes. "Nope. Can't say I agree at all. Brenna and me, we'll take our chances. You're right about one thing, though: we're not Natives, and this isn't our home. But we're doing OK. So I don't see why we shouldn't keep going. Brenna's apparently got no problem with that. Neither do I. And—please don't take this personally, Karin—if you're leaving today, you and Pete just lost your votes in this council. So the motion is carried unanimously. Brenna and I are staying."

Just then Pete unzipped the door of the Nearys' tent and crawled out. He scrambled to his feet and joined the others by the fire. "I'm sorry, guys," he began, "but you know Karin and I aren't going to change our minds. This trip hasn't been what we'd expected. It's not what we wanted. Look, I know you're disappointed, but I'd advise you to go out along with us. Really, I would." He raised his eyebrows by way of emphasis.

"Don't think so," Ed said, speaking slowly. "We can't stop you two from bugging out, of course. I don't think I'd even want to try now, in fact. But it's like I just said: You leave the trip, you lose your votes." He smiled unexpectedly. "You go, if that's what you want. We're staying on the river."

Pete, however, wasn't ready to give up yet. Being Salesman of the Year for five years running had made him a believer in the Power of Persuasion. "I really, really would reconsider your decision," he said, in tones calculated to project absolute sincerity. "After all, Ed, you've got responsibilities. And think of how you'd feel if something happened to Brenna. Or how she'd feel if something happened to you. Terrible." Then he rested his arm lightly on Ed's shoulder and flashed him the same earnest smile that had made him Salesman of the Year.

But Ed wasn't having any. He shrugged off the arm. "No sale, Pete, thanks just the same. I think I'll stick with my present policy." He winked at Brenna. And then he turned his back on Pete, went over to the pile of packs, and started hauling the ones belonging to the Nearys to one side.

That finished, he straightened up, snapped his fingers, and said, "You won't mind returning our medical supplies, will you? You know what I mean, don't you, old buddy? The stuff we loaned you because you forgot to bring anything more than a few aspirins and bandaids."

"Of course," said Pete, not much liking the obvious sarcasm, but glad to have things out in the open at last. He'd done his duty. He'd tried to make Ed and Brenna see sense. Now he and Karin were free to head back to The World! That was the important thing. "Of course!" he repeated. "Right away!" And he rushed to his tent to get the medical pack. Ed noticed that he was almost skipping for joy.

The two couples ate apart from one another, saying little. Billy Swamp had eaten a cold breakfast of moose jerky well before dawn. When he finished inspecting the Yamaha, he joined them around the fire. Ed gave him some coffee, which he took happily, and a bowl of oatmeal, which he refused. Instead, he pulled a knotted black strip of jerky from his pocket and offered it round, after first biting off a big piece himself and taking a long pull from his steaming cup to soften it up and wash it down. When he finished chewing, he looked from one couple to the other and then turned to Ed. "You two goin' out with your friends?" he asked, smiling.

"Nope," Ed replied. "We're staying on the river."

Billy nodded, but said nothing. His smile never left his face. He turned to Pete next. "I've tied your canoe to mine. You'll hafta put your packs in my boat. Goin' be a little tight, maybe, but that's OK. You just sit on your packs." Pete nodded. He, too, was smiling.

Breakfast didn't last long. The Nearys carried their packs down to the landing, while Billy stowed them. When Pete climbed the hill for the last pack, he walked over to Ed and held out a large, clear plastic bag. "No hard feelings, I hope, guys. Thought you might want these."

Ed took the bag in his hands and turned it round in an attempt to see the contents. Brenna, however, was more impatient "What's in it?" she asked.

"Fireworks," Pete said. "You know. For the Fourth of July."

Ed thrust the bag back into Pete's hands. "No hard feelings, Pete, but I'd just as soon you kept these."

Pete felt a small cloud intrude on the sunny sky of his good mood. "C'mon," he said. "It'll be fun. Break the silence. You know what I mean."

"No," Ed answered. "I can't say I do. 'Break the silence'? The silence is why we're here. Thanks just the same, Pete, but…."

Pete took the bag from Ed. He looked crestfallen. "Suit yourself," he said shortly, and then spun round on his heel without another word. Ed and Brenna watched him pick up his pack and climb down toward the waiting canoe.

Billy was the last to leave. He swept through camp, checking to see that he'd left nothing behind. Satisfied, he came to a stop next to Ed and Brenna. He pointed downriver and said, "In a few hours you'll come to a lake. It has some nice sand beaches. One of 'em's marked by a tall topped spruce. That's the best one. And don't forget what I told you last night 'bout the blazes at the head of the portage around Iron Falls."

"Thanks," Ed said. "We'll remember. Have a safe trip out." And he extended his hand.

Billy grinned broadly, took Ed's hand, gave it a single vigorous shake and let it go. Then he turned and strode down the trail toward the big canoe.

Ed and Brenna followed Billy along the steep path. They watched the Nearys climb into the freighter and clamber over the packs to sit just forward of center thwart. Billy settled down on the stern seat and twisted round to grasp the throttle.

The motor coughed into life, and the familiar stink of raw gasoline filled Ed and Brenna's nostrils. A rainbow sheen of oil spread out over the still water of the little bay. Billy looked over the heads of his passengers and raised his hand in farewell to the couple on the island. "Don't let loup-garou play any tricks on you," he yelled. Then he reversed the big canoe out into the river and headed upstream. The green Explorer danced in the freighter's wake. The Nearys did not look back.

Brenna turned to Ed. "Loup-garou, eh? And just what's that supposed to mean?"

"Probably means the blackflies," Ed joked, and they both stood quietly for a moment, listening as the whine of the outboard grew more and more faint.

"Any regrets?" Ed asked.

"Not really," Brenna replied, breaking a dry twig into smaller and smaller pieces. "Wish things had worked out better, though. I sometimes think we've shipped a Jonah."

"That a fact? You think it might be me?" asked Ed. And then he smiled.

"Well, it's either you or me," said Brenna, giving Ed a gentle jab in the ribs. "OK. Maybe it wasn't a Jonah. But our trip of a lifetime has certainly been jinxed from the start. First, Ken breaks his leg. No, that wasn't the first thing, was it? It was Linda dropping out—a good thing, too!—and then of course Brick pulls out. And then Ken breaks his leg. That was really too bad. He'd have liked it up here, I'm sure, and I'm sorry he couldn't come along. And then this thing with Pete and Karin."

"Naw, we're not jinxed, Bren," Ed said, putting his arm around his wife's shoulders. "Just a few bad breaks. It is our trip, after all. It's a good thing that Pete and Karin were able to bail out when they did. They weren't enjoying themselves. Now they're happy."

"True," Brenna nodded her head. "Maybe it's for the best."

Ed raked dead mosquitoes out of his beard with his fingers. "No second thoughts?" he asked. "You don't wish we were heading out with Pete and Karin?"

"No!" said Brenna, squeezing Ed's waist for emphasis. "I'm glad to be here. We've come through everything so far with flying colors. No reason why our luck shouldn't hold."

"Guess I won't argue with that." Ed smiled. "But we've got a lot of miles ahead of us." Then his voice became deeper, huskier, and more resonant, in a passable imitation of Winston Churchill: "This is not the end," he growled. "It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."

Brenna laughed and kissed Ed. Then she grabbed his hand and pulled him up the slope after her. "Come on, old man," she said, "let's break camp and get going!"

"Old man?" Ed's voice reverted to its normal baritone. He tried his best to sound hurt, but he couldn't stop grinning. "We'll see who's an old man…." And he ran into camp behind Brenna.

Working steadily, they packed their gear in record time. When the canoe was loaded and all the packs lashed in place, they took one last look around to be sure the fire was cold and nothing had been forgotten. Suddenly, a distant whine broke the stillness. It seemed to come from upriver, and it rose steadily in intensity until it was a banshee screech. Then, as suddenly as it had begun, it stopped. Once again, only the hum of mosquitoes could be heard.

"What 'n hell was that?" exclaimed Brenna.

"Damned if I know," replied Ed. "Sounded like a runaway engine. Maybe Billy's had a little trouble with his kicker." He listened for a minute, but heard nothing more. "Anyway," he continued, "if that is the problem, it's a good thing he's got Pete and Karin with him. It wouldn't be easy moving that big freighter upriver with only one paddle." And then, thinking about the Nearys likely reaction to this turn of events, Ed started laughing.

"Aren't you the callous bastard, though?" Brenna protested, but then she, too, was laughing. In a minute, however, her laughter died. "You don't imagine it's something Billy can't cope with, do you?" she asked.

"Not likely," said Ed. "He struck me as pretty self-sufficient guy. He'll sort it out, whatever the problem is. Now let's get going."

They made good time downriver. The sky remained gray and forbidding, but there was no more rain and very little wind. The moose that Brenna has seen earlier was still breakfasting, its massive head dipping and rising with pendulum regularity. Brenna stood up in the stern to make a few quick sketches, but the moose refused to pose. She had her mind on more important things, and she regarded the two canoeists with regal disdain.

The river continued to unwind before Ed and Brenna. Around one bend, they surprised a family of muskrats on an outing. Around the next, a pair of otters swam together, conversing in muted squeaks.

Billy Swamp proved a good guide. Long before dusk, the river opened out into a small lake with an intricate shoreline, and a topped spruce rose above the best of many campsites. An open, park-like pine forest sloped down to a broad sand beach. There was even a rough slab-wood table and a stone fire-pit, complete with a roasting spit and a cast-iron cauldron. Best of all, though, was the big galvanized steel washtub that rested upside down under the pines. "That's big enough to bathe in," thought Brenna, and she was right.

Ed built a roaring fire to heat water in the cauldron. Brenna rinsed out the washtub and placed it close to the fire. Then they took turns scrubbing three weeks' worth of river grime off each other. The job took longer than either of them had expected it would, but both agreed it had been worth the effort.

After changing into clean camp clothes, Brenna washed their grimy river wear. Ed went fishing. He was back in fifteen minutes with four good-sized brookies, and their newly-washed clothing dried before the fire as they feasted on baked trout, scalloped potatoes, hot bannock, and apple crisp, washed down with tea and brandy. Later, as they dropped off to sleep, two loons sang a tremolo duet in the far distance.

For two more days they paddled slowly down the river toward Iron Falls. The Misehkow was all they'd been hoping for. Wildlife greeted them nearly at every turn. Campsites were plentiful. Better yet, with the sail useless until they were on open water, the wind never rose above a zephyr, and the rain still held off. Brenna made sketch after sketch of beavers, muskrats, and moose—even a nesting pair of ospreys. Ed continued to fish whenever he wasn't paddling, and his luck had taken a turn for the better. Brenna was reaching the point where she was ready to say "Trout, again!" and mean it.

The blazes marking the portage around Iron Falls lay just upstream of an easy rapid. It looked easy enough at the start, anyway, and Ed and Brenna might have been tempted to give it a try back home, if only to shorten the portage. This was different, though. Each of them remembered Billy's warning, and neither wanted an "adventure." They used the established trail.

Hauling the heavy canoe was as great a misery as it always was, but the carry wasn't too long and the campsite at the base of the falls made all the effort worthwhile. They had a fine view of the river funneling down through series of chutes and falls and then dropping into a plunge basin, where Ed found still more unwary trout. Brenna started dreaming about pot roast, but said nothing.

Below Iron Falls, the river changed. A forest fire had left its mark on the land, and the rocky points and sand beaches were a thing of the past. Patchy spruce and tamarack dotted the clay banks. Snake-like eskers—gravel ridges left behind by retreating Ice Age glaciers—were now welcome refuges in an alien world of wet clay. The summits of the ridges caught whatever wind there was, sweeping at least some of the mosquitoes away, and game trails wandered drunkenly across the slopes, offering enticing routes for exploration.

Ed and Brenna had planned to take a month to reach the Albany River. Despite the early delays, they were still ahead of schedule. The good weather continued, and their confidence grew. Whenever the urge struck, they packed a light kit into their rucksacks and followed one of the many game trails inland away from the river. Brenna's sketchbook swelled.

The Forth of July found them on a lake about a mile south of the Misehkow. Their curiosity awakened by caribou tracks, they'd hiked up a low plateau and through an old burn scar growing up to birch and poplar. Beyond the scar, they discovered a tiny lake, with a sand beach just big enough for their tarp. At the west end of the lake was an ancient beaver lodge so large that a tamarack grew from its flank. Then, as night fell, the beavers emerged from their home. Two kits played together on the shore while their parents and older siblings foraged for fresh greens. The only fireworks marking the Fourth for Ed and Brenna were the plash of beaver tails, but neither felt they'd missed anything.

The river continued to unroll its secrets. A week after Ed and Brenna left Iron Falls behind them, the Misehkow quickened and the clay banks rose even higher. A mile-long roller-coaster lay before them. Leviathan proved equal to the challenge. It was an exhilarating ride.

"Can you believe this? We're gettin' close!" Brenna shouted from the stern seat, as the big canoe slid down the face of a three-foot roller, its descent checked by vigorous back-paddling.

Ed only laughed.

The sun now shone in a clear cobalt-blue sky, and the flies that had tormented them for so long were gone, their whereabouts one mystery that neither Ed nor Brenna wished to probe too deeply. It was enough to know that they were somewhere else.

The river swung to the right. Then, without warning, the horizon widened and the Misehkow flowed into the broad expanse of the Albany River. Ed and Brenna gaped wordlessly at a seeming universe of water, bounded by towering clay banks.

The Albany now tugged relentlessly on the canoe, pulling it inexorably north, hurrying it toward James Bay. The high banks slid by, their steep faces scarred by landslides. "My God," Brenna said, her voice reduced to a reverent hush, "this is a river. It must be at least a mile wide here. Maybe more."

"More," Ed replied. "Much more." And then Churchill's voice rang out above the hiss of moving water: "And this, perhaps, is the end of the beginning."

To be continued…

The Bay

Copyright 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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