Trip of a Lifetime
The End of the Beginning
Tamia Nelson and
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' mindsand 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
Our story continues
February 5, 2002
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
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
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 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
." 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
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.
Andplease don't take this personally, Karinif 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
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,
"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
"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
"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
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
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
"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 outa 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
"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
"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
." 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
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 mooseeven 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
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
eskersgravel ridges left behind by retreating Ice Age
glacierswere 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
"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
To be continued
Copyright © 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights