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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Trip of a Lifetime

Freedom's Just Another Word…

By Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest

A Note to the Reader

Ed, Brenna, Sergei, and Pavel have 700 miles of hard traveling ahead of them. Meanwhile, Jack has his own ideas about the best way to bring them home. Only one thing's certain—it's going to be one hell of a trip!

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.

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….

February 4, 2003

Chapter Thirty-One

Black night had followed gray day. Rain fell steadily. A shaft of light spilled from the open door of Singing Wolf's cabin, a lone beacon in a dark and brooding landscape. The lingering stench of exhaust and raw gasoline mingled with wood smoke and hung heavily along the riverbank.

No one noticed. Crazy Dog cut the ignition. The big outboard's loud burble stuttered and then stopped dead. Jack didn't wait. In two strides he had climbed the shore and was throwing his arms around Ed, slapping his back and roaring out a profane greeting: "How the hell are ya?" His deep baritone seemed to dispel all the silence of the Albany River country.

"We're fine, Jack," Ed replied. He grinned. "Just fine. But you're a sight for sore eyes all the same."

Jack stepped back and looked his friend up and down. Ed was filthy, and the stubble of a new beard covered his face, but he didn't seem to be missing any important bits. Then Brenna shot out from the shadows and rushed forward to hug Jack, nearly knocking him off his feet in the process.

"Hold hard, there, girl!" Jack bellowed, surprised to feel tears gathering in his eyes. "I'm just a sentimental old fool," he thought, but all he said to Brenna was "Real good to see ya!" And then he held her at arm's length and inspected her, too.

"You're a man of mystery, Jack," Brenna said, returning his gaze. "How in the name of all that's holy did you ever find us?"

Jack only laughed and kissed her cheek. "All in good time, girl," he said. "All in good time." Then he saw two figures standing quietly in the dark. Sergei and Pavel. He noticed their Kalashnikovs, too. Concern drove joy from his face. He turned back to Ed. "Introduce me to yer friends, will ya?" he asked, in a voice that didn't sound at all friendly.

Not waiting for the introductions, Sergei and Pavel stepped forward. Both men slung their rifles and extended their hands. Sergei's eyes met Jack's. A wide smile split the Russian's rugged features. "Jack Van Dorn, I believe. Welcome to the headquarters of the Northern Alliance." He paused and chuckled. "We are Ed and Brenna's new…ah…traveling companions. I am Sergei, and the sinister character to my left is Pavel. We are both very pleased to meet you."

Jack looked from one man to the other and then glanced quizzically over at Ed, who only nodded and grinned. "Yep," Jack said at last. "I'm Jack. Pleased to meetcha, I'm sure." He shook hands, but his expression remained guarded.

Then he turned to Ed once again. "The Nearys…?" he began.

Brenna replied before Ed could open his mouth: "It's a long story," she said. She took Jack's arm and smiled at Crazy Dog, who'd just finished making the Rupert House canoe fast to the landing and was now climbing up to join the group. "Let's all go where it's warm and dry, shall we? We can catch up on the news while we eat."

Jack nodded his head in eager agreement and then introduced Crazy Dog. "He's crazy like a fox," he concluded. "You can thank him for gettin' me here in one piece. I ain't never seen such navigatin'."

Crazy Dog looked down at his feet. "It was nothin'," he mumbled. And that was all.

Soon everyone crowded into the small cabin. Brenna shoved Jack into one of the two chairs and motioned for Crazy Dog to take the other. Then she and Pavel served up supper, while Ed and Jack exchanged stories, competing to see who could astonish the other more. In the end, each had to accept that the contest was a draw.

Jack had the last word, though. He finished up by outlining the arrangements he'd made. "So we'll be catchin' a flight south out of Fort Albany. Floatplane. Hope that's OK with everyone. Gonna hafta pray we don't meet up with any of the aerial patrols, but Crazy Dog thinks we got a good chance of making it at least as far as Moosonee."

"Sea Eagle here, he got friends ev'where." Crazy Dog spoke for the first time since Jack had introduced him.

"Sea Eagle?" Ed and Brenna asked simultaneously.

"It's a long story," Jack said, winking at Brenna. "But if there's another bowl of that pea soup left in the pot, I just might be persuaded to tell it."

And he did. Later, as the others laid their sleeping bags out on the floor, they insisted that Jack take the only bunk. "Can't expect Sea Eagle to mix with the common folk," quipped Ed, and to his surprise, Jack found that he was too tired to argue. Within minutes the only signs of life in the cabin were the occasional rasp of a snoring sleeper and the rapid patter of foraging mice.

*   *   *

Nearly two dozen dogs exploded into a deafening chorus of barks and yowls. Each of them was tethered to its own small house, and each was doing his best to drag that house down the hill. Philip, who'd been making a halfhearted attempt to catch up on some paperwork, looked up from his logbook and poked his head out the side door of the company chopper. The dogs were all straining at their chains, front feet clawing at the air, mouths gaping wide. One dog had gotten twisted up in his own chain and was trying to bite through the links.

Swearing, Philip jumped out onto the muddy ground and landed with a wet smack, dropping the logbook as he did so. He swore again and picked it up, now caked with dirt and dogshit. After wiping it halfheartedly on his jeans, he tossed it onto the seat and closed the door. The fresh breeze whipped his straight black hair into his eyes. Turning so that the wind was directly behind him, he spat out a brown jet of tobacco juice.

"Shaddap!" he screamed at the dogs, but they ignored him. Then he saw what had gotten them going. Solomon Bartholomew, Chief of the Fort Albany Band, was picking his way carefully up the muddy path from the street, hands thrust deep into the pockets of his new jeans, the collar of his sheepskin jacket turned up against the blast of arctic air sweeping in from the Bay.

"Howdy, Philip." The chief's face was expressionless, his voice a monotone. "Bad news, I'm afraid. Jes' got the word, an' I gotta tell all the pilots. Them sunnufabitches down in Ottawa have agreed to somethin' they're callin' a No-Fly Zone. All of Ontario. Ev'rythin's grounded. Nobody 'cept military supposta fly anywhere. If'n they do; they get forced down, maybe shot."

"Them crazy sunnufabitches! How 'm I supposta do my job, then?" Philip glared at the red lightning bolt painted on the door of his bright yellow helicopter. The tips of the rotors bounced in the strengthening gusts.

"I don' know, Philip. Don' think they do, either. Don' imagine they care, neither." Chief Bartholomew paused. "It's that dam' fool terrorist thing. Chasin' that there Lesserson Null guy. White man's business. Crazy bastards."

"Jesus Christ! And how 'm I gonna check them power lines?" Philip's voice rose to a fever pitch of agonized indecision. The dogs fell silent.

Chief Bartholomew shook his head. "Don' know. Ya better get on the phone ta Moosonee, I guess. See what your boss says."

"He'll tell me to do my job, is what he'll say, I'm bettin'. What the hell's goin' on here, anyway? Them Americans are crazier than ever, an' Ottawa ain't doing nothin' but passin' the buck. An' we're left holdin' the bag as usual…. How the hell we ever let this happen, anyway?"

Chief Bartholomew put his hand on Philip's shoulder. "I don' have no answer to that. I'm doin' what I can to get through to somebody in Ottawa can answer some questions, but…." He shrugged once more and let his hand fall with a slap against his thigh. "Tell you what, though. This country's been going downhill ever since they took it from the Indians." A broad grin lightened his usually taciturn features. "Gonna hafta do somethin' about that, maybe. But not today. You take my advice now, an' you keep your chopper on the ground, whatever your boss says. Ain't no job that's worth dyin' for."

Philip suddenly thought of Jack. "What about that old guy from down South? The one everybody's callin' Sea Eagle. He's expectin' to fly out when he gets back here wi' his friends. Whadda we gonna do?"

Chief Bartholomew looked upriver for a few seconds before replying. "Yeah. Well, I guess old Sea Eagle and his buddies are gonna be stayin' in Fort Albany fer a while, eh?"

*   *   *

In the half-light of early morning, repeated gusts buffeted Singing Wolf's cabin, shredding the plume of wood-smoke from the uncapped stack into writhing tendrils. The rain had stopped, but the wind plucked water drops from the nearby spruce and dashed them against the metal roof, where they clattered like pebbles. It was enough to wake the soundest sleeper, but the six people inside the cabin were already awake.

After a hurried breakfast, Crazy Dog went down to the dock to rig a towing bridle for the Tripper, leaving Jack and the others to gather their gear together and talk about the future. Two or three days would find them in Fort Albany, where Jack promised them that a de Havilland Beaver would be waiting to fly them south to Moosonee. Ed and Brenna realized with a start that their time on the river was coming to an end. Silently, they joined Sergei and Pavel, who were already picking though their packs and deciding which things to carry out and which to leave behind. As they made their final selections, the conversation turned to food.

"I dream about roast beef," Brenna said.

"Roast beef? That would be good," Pavel agreed. "But I think I would prefer lamb, roasted on a spit over coals."

"And I dream of apples," added Sergei. "Tart, firm apples." He stopped working and looked out a window at the river. "Apples, yes. And roast beef. And lamb, by all means. Anything but fish."

"And a green salad," said Brenna, involuntarily licking her lips. "With fresh tomatoes. And cucumbers. And wine…."

Sergei turned away from the window and squatted down beside the packs again. "When we make it across the border, we must all have a big meal together to celebrate."

"What a good idea!" exclaimed Brenna. "We will."

"But then we must start for Montana," cautioned Pavel, looking at Sergei. "We must begin looking for our ranch."

"Of course, old friend!" boomed Sergei, slapping Pavel on the back and winking broadly at Brenna.

"Ranch? What ranch?" Jack interjected.

"Pavel dreams of raising horses in Montana," Sergei explained. "That is what he wants. It is what he has always wanted. At least he is always thinking about it. And now I am always thinking about it, too. So we will become partners."

Crazy Dog returned to the cabin, slamming the door shut against the wind's relentless tug. "Time ta go," he said. "Put ev'rythin' in my boat. Anythin' that don' fit, don' go."

Everyone nodded in solemn understanding. Soon Sergei and Pavel were carefully stowing their sacks of tinned, salted sturgeon roe in the Rupert House canoe. When that job had been done to Crazy Dog's satisfaction, they lifted their battered aluminum freighter out of the water and carried it up the slope, lashing it to a cradle beside the cabin. Meanwhile, Ed and Brenna lugged food packs and personal gear down the path to the dock, helped by Jack. When the last bag had been brought out, Jack hefted Ed's rucksack, wondering at its bulk. "Not exactly travelin' light, are you?" he joked. Then he noticed the angular outline of his old sextant case pushing against the cloth. "So you ain't got rid of that thing yet?" he asked, turning to Ed.

"Nope," Ed replied. "Think I'll hang on to it for a while." Jack only grinned in reply.

As he placed the rucksack in the big canoe, Ed inspected the towing bridle. He hadn't wanted to leave the XL Tripper behind, and Crazy Dog had made no objection to towing it, though it was obvious that he figured Ed must be a little crazy himself. Now, seeing the big green boat bobbing in the wind-driven swell, Ed was glad it was coming along with them, though what they'd do with it at Fort Albany, he didn't know.

Within an hour, all the gear that was coming along had been loaded and lashed in place. The remainder was stowed neatly in the cabin or an adjacent pole cache, and a fresh supply of wood was stacked under the projecting roof. Crazy Dog seated himself in the stern of his canoe and started the motor. The others took seats where they could. A moment later and they were off down the river, with the XL Tripper following behind on the back side of the stern wave.

Try as he might, Ed couldn't stop himself from looking over his shoulder every few minutes to check on his canoe. When Crazy Dog noticed this he grinned and shouted, "No problem, fella. Your boat'll ride nice an' easy back there." After that, Ed didn't look back again.

Stratus clouds still hung dark and low above their heads, but the air was noticeably drier and cooler. A cold front had passed in the night, and a fresh breeze kicked up a chop on the river. The large canoe moved easily through the water with its smaller companion in tow. For a long time no one talked. Each was lost in his or her own thoughts.

Brenna watched the spruce forest along the riverbank slide steadily by. One minute the trees were a gray-green smear veiled in mist. The next minute, every detail of bark and needle was illuminated in a shaft of sunlight. She wished she could unpack her pencils and paints, but that was impossible now. So Brenna did her best to fix the image of the unrolling panorama in her mind.

Jack was wrapped in an ancient slicker. He sat next to Brenna, and now and again he turned his head to look at his companion. She seemed worried, he thought. The next time he looked, she still seemed worried, so he put his arm across her shoulder and gave her a reassuring squeeze. She repaid him with a smile, but it was a half-hearted effort at best. "Guess I shouldn't be surprised," he said to himself. "It hasn't exactly been the sort of trip these kids had hoped for." And then he returned to musing about the problem of getting them all home. When he looked up again, he noticed that Ed, too, was lost in thought, his face a study in controlled anxiety. Only Sergei and Pavel seemed to be enjoying themselves. They were sprawled across the packs, alternately dozing and looking at the sky. When they were awake, Jack thought they looked like they were having a hell of a good time.

As morning became afternoon, Crazy Dog didn't stir from the seat by the throttle, and he didn't head for shore. Jack roused himself from his torpor to hand round a sack of moose jerky and a big square of bannock. He washed his share down with a cup of water dipped from the river, and then handed the cup round, too. Some time later, Crazy Dog tapped him on the back and forced an empty tin can into his hands. "Maybe you need to use this soon," he said. "Careful of the edges! Very sharp." And he giggled. Jack turned apologetically to Brenna, but she was engrossed in the passing shoreline. So Jack did what he had to do, emptying the can over the side and offering it to the others in turn.

They ran downriver all day. Dinner was a repetition of lunch, but just when Ed was sure they were going to keep going all night, too, Crazy Dog turned in toward shore, where a small cabin stood in a riverside clearing. "We spend the night here," he said. And they did.

As he was drifting off to sleep, Ed could still hear the roar of the outboard and the slap of the waves against the bow of the canoe. Then he realized that something was missing. He hadn't heard—or seen—a single aircraft all day. Not a fighter or a chopper. Not even a floatplane. It was as if nothing were flying. "That's funny," he thought. But then he fell asleep.

The next day was much like the last. Crazy Dog sat by the motor, silent and watchful, steering the canoe unerringly downriver. Pavel and Sergei dozed. The others watched and worried. The river was changing, though. It was wider now, and the channel wound between forested islands. They all knew that Fort Albany was near. Yet still the skies were silent. No planes flew. Ed wondered what this could mean, but he kept his questions to himself. After all, they'd spent so much time trying to avoid planes earlier that it seemed silly to worry when they didn't appear.

Then, with astonishing suddenness, James Bay came into view. It wasn't much to look at, at first—just a sweeping, flat, featureless horizon framed by the ever-present gray clouds. But Ed's heart skipped a beat nonetheless. The others roused themselves, too, and before they knew it, Crazy Dog was bringing the canoe alongside a big floating dock.

"Home," he said simply, and the boat was suddenly bustling with purposeful activity. As soon as the canoe and its tow were securely moored, and his passengers were standing on shore and stretching their legs, Crazy Dog said, "Wait here. I go find your pilot." And then he went. He was gone a long time. But he returned alone. He motioned to Jack, and the two held a whispered conference. The whispering stopped when Jack erupted. "No-Fly Zone, my ass!" he growled. "Now what the hell we goin' to do?"

The others couldn't contain themselves any longer. They gathered round and bombarded Crazy Dog with questions. He did his best to explain. "Nobody wants to fly you out now," he said. "Too risky. You better off staying here."

No one welcomed this news. Sergei and Pavel lost their happy-go-lucky expressions. Ed and Brenna looked stunned. Was it possible that they'd come this far only to go no further? Was there nothing for them to do now but wait to be interned? That prospect didn't appeal to anyone.

In the end, it was Crazy Dog who found a solution. He looked out over the Bay, then back at his passengers. "OK. Tell you what I do. You want to go home, right? So I take you to Moosonee in my canoe. I have done it many times. A few days. No more."

Jack followed Crazy Dog's gaze out over the Bay. Then he looked at the Rupert House canoe. He shook his head. "Too dangerous," he said at last.

Crazy Dog watched Jack, a smile playing over his lips. "Dangerous? Yeah. Sure. Gotta watch the tides. Gotta know where all the sandbars are. Gotta keep from gettin' stranded on the flats. Gotta watch the weather. But I done it. Done worse things, too. Not too dangerous for Sea Eagle and his friends. They crazy like me, maybe."

"Crazy, yes," Brenna chimed in. "But not that crazy! We'll stick out like a sore thumb out there." She waved here hand in the direction of the Bay. "Anyone flies over and we'll be like a bug on a plate. And when we get to Moosonee, then what?"

Crazy Dog shrugged. "People go out on the Bay ev'ry day. Canoes, barges, even a couple of sailboats. Ain't no No-Float Zone, right? And maybe we cross the bottom of the Bay to Québec. Ain't got no No-Fly Zone there. You could get a plane home, maybe."

Brenna brightened. "You know, maybe we could do it, at that. It isn't as if we've got a lot of choices left, is it? I don't want to spend the next year in an internment camp. What's that song Janis Joplin used to sing? 'Freedom's just a another word for nothing left to lose.' Well, we sure don't have a lot to lose right now. So I guess we're free. Let's go for it!"

Crazy Dog looked at the others. One by one, each nodded slowly in agreement. "OK," he said. "Ev'rybody here crazy, I guess. So I get the boat ready. We have somethin' to eat and get some sleep. After that, we head out on the Bay."

Several seconds of silence followed. Then Brenna started whistling "Me and Bobby McGee."

To be continued…

True North

Copyright 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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