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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Trip of a Lifetime


By Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest

A Note to the Reader

Ed, Brenna, and their unlikely companions have been attracting a lot of attention as they travel down the Albany River. Now they're cooped up in a tiny fisherman's shack, while Jack heads upriver on a fool's errand. Or is it?

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 guidebook 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.

If you've missed a chapter of our Trip, 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….

January 7, 2003

Chapter Thirty

Crazy Dog felt the dank air buffet his face. The roar of the motor deafened him, but he wasn't so deaf that he didn't hear the rhythmic crash of the Rupert House canoe's broad bow as it smashed into the big Albany River waves. He couldn't see much, however. The river was blanketed by thick fog. But it was still his river, and he didn't need to see a great deal to know where he was. Every now and then, a bigger wave than most sent bucketsful of icy water splashing over the bows, and each time it happened he laughed out loud. "Crazy Dog" or not, it wasn't the laugh of a madman. It was an expression of pure joy. He was where he belonged, doing what he did best. And that was enough.

The old man with the long white hair whom he'd agreed to take upriver seemed to understand. Not too many other people did—not even when they'd known him all his life. A few did, though. Father Blair, for one. The Anglican priest understood. Crazy Dog was sure of that. His mother did, too. Neither of them had ever called him by anything but his Christian name: Adam. Adam Beauchamp. But his mother'd been dead for years, and he didn't have much to do with Father Blair. Crazy Dog hadn't needed any help finding God for a mighty long time. He found Him every time he went out on the water. Funnily enough, Father Blair seemed to understand that, too.

But to almost everyone else in Fort Albany, Adam was Crazy Dog. When storms drove other men off the water, drove them to find what comfort they could in whiskey and women, Crazy Dog just shrugged his shoulders and went out to haul his nets. Then, when winter stilled the river and locked up the margins of the Bay, Crazy Dog strapped on his snowshoes and pulled a narrow sled along the newly-frozen, serpentine highway. He didn't keep any dogs and he didn't have a Ski-Doo, but he seldom missed a meal. And he didn't have any payments to make, either. He liked that.

Crazy? Well, he admitted to himself, maybe he was. Just a little. There were days when he'd have liked to have a woman waiting for him in a warm house. Days when satellite TV and a cold beer would have looked mighty good. But the water was his true home. Whatever else they said, everybody agreed that he was one of the best boatmen on the Bay. The latest in a long line of Métis watermen. The last, probably.

Now he was taking this old man, this white man from Outside, up the river, on some goddamn wild goose chase, looking for a couple of missing tourists. Of course, the old man wasn't just anybody. He was Sea Eagle, and the people in the tribal office at Fort Albany treated him like he was some kind of rock star. And then, when this old man heard about the two canoes that had been seen on the river, 100 miles from the Bay, he wanted to start upriver right that minute, fog or no fog. A canoe had been the best way. There wasn't any other way, really. Not until the fog lifted. That's when the old man had come to him for help. Crazy Dog figured he wasn't the only one who was crazy, but he didn't say so. The money was too good.

So here he was, sitting on the gunwale and powering his way upstream at full throttle, taking advantage of every eddy, eyes constantly scanning for breaks in the gray wall that enclosed them. Just then the old man, hatless, his white hair streaming out in the rush of air over the bow, looked back at Crazy Dog and smiled a broad, knowing smile. Crazy Dog laughed again, and this time the old man joined in.

Easy to see why people thought the old man was something special. Easy to see that there was more to it than an ancient obligation, too. The old man had something. Call it determination, maybe, or strength. Or call it craziness. Just another madman, Crazy Dog thought, and he grinned. Then he spat a jet of brown tobacco juice over the gunwale.

If Crazy Dog had put his thoughts into words, Jack Van Dorn would have agreed. Despite Joe Hunter's black rubber slicker and his own heavy, oiled-wool turtleneck, Jack felt wet and cold and tired. Very, very tired. It seemed like a lifetime since he'd last been dry and warm. Still, the Métis boatman knew his business, and that was the important thing. And he could laugh. Whenever he laughed, Jack joined in. Then he didn't feel so cold.

Jack missed Molly, too. That was no laughing matter. For the first time in his long life he had an anchor ashore. It felt good, but it was surprisingly hard to cast off. Jack found himself pulled in all directions by opposing currents, currents as powerful as those of the big river they were heading up. In a thick fog. Into who knew what kind of mess.

Maybe, he thought, laughter was the only sane response after all. Just one thing was certain: he couldn't do nothing. He couldn't sit still and hope for the best.

If the motor's roar hadn't made conversation impossible, Jack would have asked Crazy Dog about the river, about its currents and channels, backwaters and banks. But now he could only try to catch glimpses of the northern landscape through the occasional tears in the gray wall, and pray that the big canoe didn't meet up with a snag or rip its bottom out on a gravel bar. The boatman knew his river. That much was sure. But Jack also knew that no river stayed the same for long. He hoped they'd be lucky.

The hours passed slowly. They'd been pushing upriver for over a day now, pausing only long enough to pump gas from the drum into the working tank. Once, they'd grabbed a meal and snatched a few hours of sleep in an empty cabin. That was all.

Very soon, Jack thought, they ought to be where the two canoes had been seen. Jack wasn't sure how the message had been passed to Fort Albany, but everyone he'd talked to had agreed about the facts. Two canoes were heading downriver. And Ed and Brenna had to be in one of them. Had to be. Anything else was unthinkable. So Jack forced the unthinkable out of his thoughts. Instead, he chewed over the details of his plan—at long last, he had a plan, thrashed out in Fort Albany, after long discussions with Philip and Crazy Dog.

Jack's plan was as simple as he could make it. Find Ed and Brenna—and the Nearys, of course—and tow their boats down to Fort Albany. Once there, hitch a ride south in a de Havilland Beaver, retracing the route he'd taken when he'd come north.

Piece of cake. Or so Jack hoped. In any event, it was all arranged. With any luck, they'd all be back home within the week.

Home. It was a new word in his vocabulary. Home. Home to Molly. Jack looked down at the gold band around the ring finger of his left hand. He flexed the hand and felt the unaccustomed constriction. It had been a nuisance at first, he admitted. But now it was a comfort. No, it was more than that. It was the master link in the chain to his sheet anchor. Something to hold on to in a crazy world.

*   *   *

Singing Wolf tugged open the cast iron door and threw another chunk of spruce into the oil-drum stove. The wood sizzled and spat. Shadows sprang into life on the soot-blackened walls, keeping perfect time with the dancing flames. The air inside the fishing shack was close and fetid. Drops of water beaded on the small, greasy windows. Then Singing Wolf slammed the stove door shut and returned to his seat on one of the camp's two split-log stools. The leaping shadows died.

"First-class accommodation," Ed said. He grinned. He stood with his hands on his hips, inspecting the grimy ceiling not far above his head.

Sergei, who was forced by his six-foot frame to assume a sort of half-crouch, also grinned. "True," he replied, somewhat ruefully. "Still, it is best to remember what they say about beggars and choosers. This place is warm, and it is also sheltered from prying eyes. You will agree that those are both good things, will you not? We have each known worse, I think."

Ed nodded thoughtfully. "Any port in a storm," he said at last.

Meanwhile, Brenna and Pavel rummaged happily among the food packs, working in the light cast by a single kerosene lantern with a badly-trimmed wick. Their minds were on the next meal. Soon the camp's shaky slab-wood table was covered with pots and plastic bags.

Ed busied himself improvising seats from folded sleeping pads. Wood smoke trickled out of holes in the rusted stove pipe, swirling in a choking cloud just below the ceiling. Sergei stood by a window, snatching gulps of fresh air from around the badly-fitted sill. He looked out. Their canoes were invisible among the trees. Only Singing Wolf's battered Grumman bobbed in the water next to the small dock, the big outboard angling out over the stern. Night was falling, and the wind-driven rain seemed to drum harder as the light diminished.

"Dirty weather," Singing Wolf said suddenly. "Sometimes it's like this for weeks. But we…we're used to it up here."

Sergei turned away from the window. "We are no strangers to bad weather, either." He paused. "And what is bad weather for some is good weather for others. I myself will not mind if it rains for forty days and forty nights." His eyes swept over the food bags. "So long as I have something to eat," he added.

A pot was simmering on the stove, and the smell of stewing chicken was now competing with the sharp tang of wood smoke. Pavel caught the eye of his old companion. "We will have stewed fruit for dessert," he said. "From the dried apples. It will go well with the canned chicken."

Singing Wolf looked longingly at the simmering pot. "That sure smells good," he said. "We could do with a little whiskey to wash it down with, though." He looked hopefully at each of the other four but met with no response. Then he shrugged his shoulders and fished a sodden cigarette from his pocket, lighting it with a Zippo he'd been given by a fisherman from New Jersey, a couple of summers back. The Zippo was enameled a bright blue and bore a swordfish medallion.

The paddlers stumbled around the cabin in the half-light, feeling in their packs for dry clothes. Sergei and Ed strung a line to hang their sodden shirts, sweaters, and pants. Soon the odor of wet wool mingled with the savor of chicken and the ever-present smoke. Everyone was warm, and everyone was looking forward to a hot meal.

Before long, Brenna was spooning steaming stew over dumplings and passing brimful bowls around. Pavel poured hot, sweet tea into mugs from the giant kettle he'd carried away from the Sturgeon River camp. Then all conversation lapsed as the sounds of eating vied with the drumbeat of rain on the metal roof. Nor did the talk resume when the meal was done and the dishes washed. No one had the energy. One by one, the tired travelers pulled their sleeping bags over their bodies and fell immediately into a deep sleep. Only Singing Wolf stayed awake, smoking a last cigarette in front of one of the tiny windows, and peering uselessly out into the dark. Then he, too, crawled into his sleeping bag and closed his eyes, while white-footed mice foraged among the unexpected bounty on the cabin floor, squeaking and scurrying this way and that among the sleeping bodies.

In the morning, fog hung low over the river and the mice had all retreated to their own mossy beds. Singing Wolf and Sergei woke first. Together they rekindled the fire, and then Sergei shook the others awake.

Feeling the first tentative stabs of pain that signaled a headache coming on, Brenna sat up. She rubbed her eyes and ran her fingers through her filthy, tangled hair, wishing for nothing so much as a long, hot bath. Then a hand clutching a mug of hot black coffee appeared before her. She looked up, willing her bleary eyes to focus. The hand was Sergei's. "Would Madam like something to drink?" he asked, in a passable imitation of a stage butler's unctuous solicitude. "And perhaps brioche as well? Or shall I have the maid run your bath?"

Brenna smiled despite herself. "Thank you," she said. "The bath, I think. That would be lovely. You will be sure that the towels are warmed, won't you? But, no, on second thought, perhaps you'd better just have the maid lay out my clothes. I've a busy day ahead."

"Certainly, Madam," Sergei replied. He stood up, banging his head on the low ceiling and falling into a half-crouch again. Then he kicked at the sleeping bag next to Brenna's. "Wake up, Pavel!" he commanded. "Rise and shine!"

But the head that appeared in the bag's opening was Ed's. "What's this?" he demanded. "Coffee and brioche for milady, and nothing but kicks for her lord and master? 'To each according to his needs,' Sergei! Don't tell me you've forgotten that. And I could certainly use a cup of coffee."

Sergei only laughed, while kicking energetically at the sleeping bag to Brenna's right. Pavel shot up into a sitting position, looking as bad-tempered as Brenna had ever seen him.. His expression softened when Sergei thrust a steaming mug into his hands, however, and he was soon standing at the table, shaping bannocks.

As they all ate bannock and oatmeal, Singing Wolf talked quietly of his life along the Albany—about the long, dark winters, and about the spring floods that lifted buildings off their foundations and sent riverbanks tumbling into the swollen brown waters.

"Don't you ever want to go Outside?" Brenna asked.

Singing Wolf stared at her silently for a minute as if waiting for some sign that she was joking. When he realized that she wasn't, he shook his head. "No," he said. "I have been Outside. Several times. And I did not like it. It is loud and it stinks. No. It is hard here, sure. Very hard, sometimes. But it is my home. I will never leave it again." Then he stood up. "Now I must go back upriver. Crazy Dog should be here soon. Later today. Or tomorrow. I wish you good luck."

And with that, he was gone, almost before the others could offer their thanks. In a few minutes the Grumman had disappeared into the fog. Only an oily smear of exhaust hanging in the air gave any evidence of its passage. Then this, too, disappeared.

"Incredible," Brenna commented. "And now we just wait—wait for someone who may not come?"

Ed was collecting the breakfast dishes. "Why not?" he asked. "We could use a break. Tomorrow, if no one shows up, we can continue on downriver."

Sergei listened quietly. He picked his teeth with a birch sliver and then chewed on the improvised toothpick for a minute more. "I agree," he said at last. "We could all use a rest. And the delay may do some good. The river is rising. We will go aground much less often in the dark, and that is a very good thing."

Brenna's expression suddenly became thoughtful. "You know," she said, looking over at Ed, "if Jack really is looking for us here on the Albany, he's probably expecting us to be traveling with the Nearys. Unless they've gotten out somehow. Or gotten word out, at least." Her eyes darted over to Sergei and Pavel. "And if that's what he's expecting, Jack's in for a surprise!"

"A pleasant one, I hope," said Sergei. He wasn't smiling now. "And who are these Nearys you speak of?"

Ed and Brenna exchanged glances. Ed shrugged, and Brenna began describing how they'd come to part company with their former traveling companions. Even as she told the story, it took on an air of unreality, as if she were telling about something that she'd learned at second-hand, something that had happened to someone she barely knew. She wondered what Sergei would make of it, but he just listened without interrupting.

Even when she had finished, he had very little to say. "This 'trip of a lifetime' of yours…it has not been much of a holiday, I'm afraid." And that was all. It seemed to Brenna that his voice was tinged with something very close to sadness.

The remainder of the day passed quickly. The four paddlers napped and mended their torn clothes. At last, as the gray light dimmed, Pavel and Brenna made an inventory of their food and stores, while Ed and Sergei held an earnest conference over a mosaic of large-scale topographic maps that covered almost a quarter of the cabin floor. The Bay occupied much of this floor-space, and most of their thoughts. It loomed ahead of them, seemingly infinite in expanse—and full of dangers.

Ed talked of tides and sudden storms and the impossibility of night travel. Sergei listened patiently, and then replied: "True. I would not choose to paddle our canoes from Fort Albany down to the bottom of the Bay. But I have a better idea. Pavel and I have much "Canadian caviar" in our packs. It is not Beluga, to be sure, but then not much Beluga is really Beluga these days. Perhaps it will be enough to buy all of us a ticket home. And who knows? There may even be enough left over to buy Pavel a ranch. He will like that."

Pavel grinned. He leaned over toward Brenna and said, "Remember, please, that you and Ed must come to our ranch. I will teach you all about horses. We will ride every day in the hills. And you and Sergei will paint, and Ed will fish in our river."

Sergei looked at his comrade and shook his head. "Pavel, old friend," he said, "let us take things one step at a time. Before we can entertain guests, we must buy our ranch. And before we buy our ranch, we must get out of Canada. First things first."

"Of course," Pavel agreed. "But we will buy the ranch," he added in a whisper. "We must." Only Brenna heard him.

Ed got up from his seat on the floor and walked over to the window that looked out over the water. Sergei continued to pore over the maps. Brenna filled bowls with soup, while Pavel peeled apart fist-sized biscuits. As Brenna was getting ready to hand the bowls round, she thought she heard a faint rasping noise coming from the river. The rasp grew steadily in volume. Soon it was a roar—the roar of a motor. Heading upriver. Heading toward them.

Sergei looked at Ed. He shook his head. He saw nothing. Sergei then gestured to Pavel. Wordlessly, they had grabbed their rifles and disappeared out the door into the dense spruce woods on either side of the cabin.

Ed and Brenna left the cabin and walked down to the dock. The roar was louder now. Together, they stared into the swirling, shadowed fog.

Suddenly, the motor cut back to an idle, and the roar became a liquid mutter. Soon the biggest canoe that either of them had ever seen emerged slowly from the mist. Brenna saw a figure huddled near the bow. When she caught sight of an unmistakable shock of white hair, she knew who it was. "It's Jack!" she whispered to Ed, certain that it couldn't be anyone else. Finding it impossible to contain her joy any longer, she shouted his name—"Jack!" And then she and Ed both waved their hands in the air, looking for all the world like drowning swimmers struggling to catch hold of a life-line.

The canoe motored closer to the dock. The white-haired figure unwound from his huddled crouch and stood. Seconds later, a familiar voice boomed over the water: "I hope supper's on, folks! Company's comin', and we're both mighty hungry!"

To be continued…

True North

Copyright 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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