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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Trip of a Lifetime

A Forlorn Hope?

By Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest

A Note to the Reader

The gang lost their chance to to catch a plane out of Ontario. Now Crazy Dog's come through for them once again. They hope he'll help them all get home. But is it a forlorn hope?

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 coming aboard 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.

The story continues….

March 4, 2003

Chapter Thirty-Two

The outboard roared along at full throttle, running south before a freshening breeze. Ed and Brenna's Old Town XL Tripper tugged at the tow line, darting back and forth in the Rupert House canoe's wake. Every few seconds the motor canoe's bow would slam into a wave, throwing a rooster-tail of salty spray back along its twenty-four-foot length. Crazy Dog shouted to make himself heard above the noise: "We been lucky wit' the weather so far. But 'less I miss my guess, that's gonna change real soon now."

Ed looked around. An overcast sky mirrored the leaden water of James Bay, the only evidence of land a faint charcoal smudge on the horizon to the right, far beyond the endless expanse of foreshore flats. A rich stench of decay rose from the newly uncovered mud. Ed wanted to say something to Brenna about "the perfume of the flats," but just then the boat slid over the crest of a big roller. The prop lifted clear of the water, and his words were drowned out by a tortured whine. By the time they were in the trough of the wave, the joke didn't seem so funny.

They were all traveling light now, their personal gear limited to rucksacks and whatever else they could easily carry. Sergei and Pavel kept their Kalashnikovs. Ed clutched Jack's sextant, and Brenna still had her portfolio of drawings and paintings, double wrapped against the wet. Of the rest of the gear they'd brought downriver, only the packs of sturgeon roe remained. "Best Albany River beluga," Sergei had said as he lashed them into the canoe, pausing only long enough to tap the side of his nose and wink. "Better than an American Express card. Don't go home without it!"

Jack was also scanning the horizon. He looked north, and he didn't like what he saw. Dirty gray streamers swept out to leeward from beneath the lowering cloudbase. Crazy Dog noticed Jack's expression and nodded, then shrugged his shoulders. Jack turned back around. He tried to find a position that would let him stretch his legs, aching from two days of almost continuous travel, broken only by a short stop at a goose camp near the mouth of a nameless river. Even then they'd gotten only a couple of hours rest before they'd had to follow the tide out or risk stranding on the flats. That was the one risk Crazy Dog wasn't prepared to take, and he drove both his boat and himself hard. How he kept going, Jack couldn't imagine, but there was no doubt they were making good time.

In the comparative quiet of the trough between two waves, Brenna heard a nasal houck, houck above her head. She glanced up to see a skein of snow geese scudding south. "Waveys!" she thought, and wished she could join them, flying high above the Bay, hurried along toward their destination by the wind. Just then the bow of the canoe slammed into the back of a six-foot-high roller, and the hollow boom reminded her that the geese, too, faced a gauntlet of fire ahead.

"Good luck!" she whispered after the white birds. She prayed that a little of that luck would rub off on the six people in the big canoe, as well. "It can't be long now," she thought, and searched the southern horizon, hoping to see a hazy smear of land that she could tell herself was North Point.

North Point. Then Ship Sands Island, and beyond it the mouth of the Moose River. After that, upriver to Moosonee to resupply before crossing the bottom of the Bay to Québec. And then home. Home.

How much longer? She wanted to ask Crazy Dog, but she couldn't bear the idea of sounding like a petulant child on a family outing. So she kept her mouth shut and stared grimly ahead, willing North Point to appear. The wind was stronger now, and the swell was growing. Some of the wave crests toppled and spilled down the faces of the long rollers. It was a cold wind, too. Brenna's numb fingers fumbled with the drawstrings on the hood of her anorak.

*   *   *

Back at Fort Albany, Chief Solomon Bartholomew was also watching the weather—and he was worried. It seemed like every floatplane pilot in the Native Reserve was waiting outside his office, and they were all mad as hell. He didn't need to ask why. The American-declared No-Fly Zone had grounded everybody but the military. It had also shut down the economy. People were hurting. That was bad enough. But now this! The pilots were planning a mass fly-in. Open defiance of the American ban. Who knew where it would lead? Alone in his office, wondering what to say to the pilots, the chief muttered a half-audible litany: "White men's squabbles. They think it's some kinda game. And those spineless bastards in Ottawa…. 'Go along to get along'—that's the only rule those bastards know."

He looked out the window to the north, still shaking his head involuntarily. At least the weather was running his way. "Not too many guys gonna want to fly today," he said to himself. "Maybe it ain't too late to talk some sense into them hotheads." And with that he told his secretary to let the men in.

Ronnie Awashish was the first to walk through the door. He swaggered across the carpet and stood right in front of Chief Bartholomew's desk. Ronnie was bad news personified. One look at the set of his jaw convinced the chief he'd have his work cut out for him.

"Some of these guys are gonna fly, no matter what," the chief realized, and he almost said so out loud. But then he stood up, put on his confident politician's smile, and stuck out his hand. "Always good to see ya, Ronnie. Why'ncha have a seat…."

*   *   *

Ship Sands Island. And not a moment too soon, thought Crazy Dog. The rollers had gotten bigger with every passing hour, and with no more than a couple of hours of daylight left, each minute was a challenge to be overcome. The tide was on the turn, too, and the rain-swollen Moose would be carrying a helluva lot of water. Soon every roller would be spilling white foam down its coffee-colored face.

Crazy Dog looked back at the Tripper. By some miracle, it was still there, riding high. But how much longer?

Quietly—so quietly that no one could have heard him even if the wind hadn't been blowing half a gale—Crazy Dog started whistling the Stones' Gimme Shelter. More anxious minutes passed. Then…. There! He saw it. The beach he'd been looking for. Shelter from the storm. A clean run in. Just one set of breakers over a bar and another smaller set inshore. A wild ride, but better than butting heads with the water pouring out of the Moose. Crazy Dog knew what to do. Beach the canoe and wait out the storm. No bad weather lasts forever.

"Goin' in!" he shouted, but the wind was shrieking now and only Jack seemed to hear him. The others were huddled in their anoraks. Sleeping? It looked like it. Or maybe just trying to. Who could blame them? Crazy Dog was wide awake, though. That was enough. But first things first. Cast the tow loose. And he did—the Tripper disappeared from sight immediately, swallowed up in the hollow of a wave. There was no protest from Ed or Brenna. Next, throttle down. Ride the back of the beast. Keep the prop in the water and the bow out of the trough. And wait.

The waves were breaking hard over the bar. Gimme Shelter gave way to a whispered play-by-play: "Don't wanna broach there, do ya? No way! Don't want to ground on the bar, neither. So wait for the next big one and ride it all the way in. Wait for it. Wait. Wait…. There! Catchin' the train. Here goes!" And the big canoe headed over the bar.

Then the motor died.

In an instant, twenty-four feet of boat slewed round and started to roll. "We're goin' over!" yelled Crazy Dog, but the roar of the breakers snatched his words away.

Pavel and Ed woke from separate nightmares to find themselves together in the canoe. Underwater. All was chaos and confusion. The two men kicked wildly. Pavel was out of the boat in an instant, but Ed's life jacket buoyed him up against the bottom. He tugged at the zipper, struggling to free himself. Success! Then the canoe rolled, throwing him out, too.

He tried to swim for the surface, but he was no longer sure where the surface was. His clothes dragged at him and his arms seemed terribly heavy. Suddenly, just as his strength was giving out, a wave grabbed him and thrust him up into the air. Then, just as quickly, it sucked him down and slammed him hard against the bottom. He opened his mouth in an involuntary scream, but it filled with sand immediately. He gagged. His lungs burned. And then he lost consciousness.

When he came to, Ed was standing with his face against a wall. "That's funny," he thought, "I don't remember this wall." Then he blacked out again. When he came round the second time he found himself lying face down on a hard sand beach. Every few seconds a wave broke over him. He struggled to his knees. He vomited. Most of what came up was sand. Then he crawled forward until the waves were breaking behind him. He realized he couldn't see. Something was gluing his eyes shut. He clawed at them with gritty fingers. His glasses were gone, and a thick mask of wet sand covered his face. Ed scraped the sand from his eyes. After several minutes he was able to peer out at a gray and shadowy world. Still on his knees, he looked around him. Where was Brenna?

"Brenna!" he yelled, but the shout ended in a spasm of coughing, and no reply came. Ed tried to stand, collapsed, and tried again. At last he managed a sort of half-crouch. He staggered along the beach, swinging his head from side to side, searching for some sign of Brenna.

Now he saw figures emerging from the shadows. Pavel. Sergei. Crazy Dog. All of them were converging on the point where something lay on the beach. With a start, Ed realized that the elongated green blur could only be the Tripper. But Brenna…. Where was Brenna? Then Ed saw two more figures moving further down the beach. They seemed to be holding each other up. Jack. And Brenna!

Soon they all stood together around the Tripper. It lay alone on the beach. A three-foot-long slab of splintered fiberglass was the only evidence that the Rupert House canoe had ever existed. Wordlessly, each survivor hugged the person next to him. Ed embraced Brenna.

Jack was the first to break the silence: "Any landin' ya can walk away from, eh?" Even Crazy Dog laughed.

Ed looked the Tripper over. To his amazement, it had come through the breakers undamaged. Even the float bags were still lashed in place in the bow and stern. Sergei, Pavel, and Crazy Dog left the group. They returned in minutes with armloads of driftwood and Brenna's rucksack, and then went out again to look for whatever else they could salvage. Ed noticed that the two Russians had somehow managed to keep their rifles.

Meanwhile, Brenna got a big driftwood fire going, while Jack and Ed rigged a tarp, using the Tripper as both ridge-pole and windbreak. Lengths of driftwood served as deadmen in the sandy soil. Once Ed was satisfied with their joint handiwork, he left Jack to help Brenna with her chores, and he, too, joined the salvage team. The sea proved surprisingly generous. As night approached, the pile of rucksacks under the tarp grew higher, as did the stack of waterproof packs containing Sergei's Albany River beluga.

Later, as the last daylight faded, everyone crowded under the tarp, warmed by a dish that Brenna christened "Robinson Crusoe stew." Sergei and Pavel stripped and cleaned their weapons. Ed found his spare pair of eyeglasses in his pack and put them on, seeing the world in focus for the first time in several hours. Then he changed into dry clothes. Convinced that he'd been carrying at least ten pounds of sand around since they broached in the breakers, he turned out each pocket in his sodden pants, dumping the still damp sand outside the tarp. Then his hand closed on something hard.

Ed pulled it out of the pocket and held in front of his eyes. It was a circular object, about the same size as an old Eisenhower dollar. Ed cleaned it as best he could with his fingers and examined it in the beam of a flashlight. It was some kind of greenish-gold metal. And it had some sort of design on it, too. Try as he might, though, Ed couldn't make the design out.

He turned to Brenna and handed the coin-like object to her. "Whaddaya think this is, Bren?"

Brenna looked at it. She spat on both sides, wiping the spit off carefully and inspecting the cleaned surface. Then she crawled out from under the tarp and walked over to the fire. She held the object near the flames. "It looks like a medal," she said at last, raising her voice to make herself heard over the distant drumbeat of the surf. "It's got letters cut into it. There's a big "V"…and a smaller "O" and "C" under each arm of the "V." VOC. That mean anything to you?"

"VOC?" said Ed. "No…Hold on! Yes! Yes, it does. I'll be damned. V-O-C. De Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie. Who'd have thought…."

"De Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie? And what's that, exactly?" asked Brenna, a hint of impatience creeping into her voice.

"The Dutch East India Company," replied Ed, as he scrambled to join her by the fire. "The people Henry Hudson was working for in the years before he made his last voyage. Before he came to the Bay. It could be…. Could be that this thing's a Company seal. Maybe Hudson kept it after he left the Company's service. Hell, Brenna, you could be holding the only artifact of Henry Hudson's last voyage that's ever been found. And it just washed into my pocket in a handful of sand. Now whaddaya think about that?"

Brenna looked at the seal again. It shone a dull green-gold in the light of the fire. Then she looked up. Her eyes swept the dark expanse of the Bay. Seconds passed. "What do I think?" she said. "I think I'd rather be home. And I'd bet that Henry Hudson felt the same as me. Let's get back to the others." With that, she thrust the seal into Ed's hand and walked away. Ed followed her silently. Then he stopped short. Above the muted crash of the surf, he could hear the engine of a small plane.

*   *   *

The last light was going fast. Flying under the clouds, Ronnie Awashish kept the shore of the Bay under his right wingtip. Thanks to the chief, he'd gotten a later start than he'd planned. But he was in the air now, and that was all that mattered. He scanned the water for any sign of Crazy Dog's big canoe. Gusts rocked the Turbo Beaver, but Ronnie never thought of turning back. If he only flew when the weather was good, he'd never have made a living.

And bad weather or not, he was running down the miles. There was Ship Sands Island below him already. "Hold on!" he thought. Was that a fire down there on the island? Yes, he decided. It was. And a damn big fire, too. A bonfire. Or was it something else? A signal fire, maybe? Only one way to find out. He circled round and dropped as low as he dared. Then he flew over the island again. It was a bonfire. No doubt about that. And what looked like a tarp shelter, though it was almost too dark to tell now. But no sign of a Rupert House canoe. Still, it was worth checking out. Not exactly a good day for a camping trip, after all.

He circled once more and chose his approach—the lee of the island looked like the best shot. It'd mean a bit of a hike, but it sure beat trying to land the plane in the surf. So he eased the throttle and headed down.

*   *   *

Dawn saw a heavily loaded Turbo Beaver lifting off from the Bay near Ship Sands Island. It climbed slowly into the now muggy air and then headed east toward Québec, the first leg of a long journey. From the co-pilot's seat, Crazy Dog looked down, hoping for a glimpse of his lost canoe. He saw nothing.

Brenna, her head on Ed's shoulder, hovered between sleep and wakefulness. "Homeward bound," she whispered. "At last." But Ed didn't hear her. He snored gently, a bronze seal of the Dutch East India Company in his pocket and a sextant case in his lap. The sextant—Jack's sextant—was a last gift from the sea. He'd picked it up from the beach as they'd walked across the island to the Turbo Beaver's mooring. Ed hadn't dared to hope that it would have survived the breakers, but there it was. He wasn't about to argue.

Behind them, Sergei and Pavel slept soundly. Each had his rifle next to him, newly cleaned. Jack sat between them. He was traveling lightest of all, his only baggage a wave-washed black pebble from the beach at Ship Sands Island. As the plane droned eastward, he found himself rubbing the smooth, cool surface again and again. "For luck," he thought. "For luck." He knew they'd need it. They were heading home against the odds, retracing the route by which he'd come north. He hoped they'd make it. It was only a forlorn hope, perhaps, but it was a hope, for all that. Right now, that was more than enough.

To be continued…

Adrift

Copyright 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.










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