10 October 2011

Arrived safe and sound at the finish line!

Well, here we are (Steph, Whitney, Shane and Abby), at the Lewis's preparing Thanksgiving dinner, and feeling very thankful for the experience we have had over the last five and a half months.

New Brunswick treated us so well! Canoe Kayak New Brunswick, the Fundy Paddlers, Simon from the St. John River Society, the Lewis's and the Ringham's ensured that our final trek to the Bay of Fundy was uplifiting and enjoyable. The kindness shared by all of our supporters really showed us that this trip is not just about our crew and our cause, it's about the community and the connections "the Odyssey" has created. The first connection was built with each other, by setting out to accomplish a common goal, and the treacherous work of crossing the mountains. The second connection was that of our families, to each other, and to our cause, of protecting our freshwater resources. And then, slowly, as we each built our own personal connection with the waterways we travelled and the land we learned about, a community of support grew and flourished as we learned of people following our adventure and thinking of ways that they too can step outside their comfort zone and feel the joy of adventure, no matter how big or small.

So really, on Thanksgiving, I'm thankful for YOU, anyone who is reading our blog, and thinking of their own ways to follow their dreams, build connections with our beautiful country and our own community.

Over the next few weeks, as everyone returns to their homes and readjusts to normal life, we will still have stories to share on our blog from our incredible jouney between Ottawa and St. John. Stay tuned! <Steph>

20 September 2011

Entering Quebec

It was a beautiful sunny afternoon as we paddled away from the Parliament buildings of downtown Ottawa. Max Finkelstein accompanied us in his solo canoe, which had once brought him along much of the same route across this amazing country. As I looked back over my shoulder at the trees starting to sparkle gold in the valley, I was reminded just how fortunate we are to travel Canada’s waterways.

Our time in Ottawa proved to be more then just a typical re-supply point. We met up with Andrea McNeil from the Canadian Heritage Rivers Systems, Alex from the other group of canoeists, TranscaEAUda, and loads of other friends and family during our stay. We were also honoured to be welcomed into the home of Max and Connie Finkelstein. Max’s book Canoeing a Continent served as an invaluable resource during our preparations and we had contacted him before the trip for some advice. Having the opportunity to sit and share stories with someone who has been such an inspiration to us was truly a surreal experience.

Even though we had so much fun in Ottawa, getting back on the water always feels like returning back home; where we are most relaxed and comfortable. That being said, the journey between Ottawa and Montreal left our “home” less serene than usual. The heavily populated area forced us to find makeshift campsites on the outskirts of towns, in city parks, or near over passes, blurring the line between camping and homelessness (an ongoing debate in our group).

We enjoyed the sunshine and tailwind that accompanied us on the Ottawa River to the massive Carillon Locks, which lowered our canoes 20 m (65ft). The hydro-dam and present lock at Carillon were built between 1959 and 1963, replacing the 11 locks of the original canal system, and saving us a lot of time!

Once past there, the current slowed a little and we made our way to Lachine, dodging sail and power boats along the way, and meeting up with the St Lawrence briefly before heading into the canal system to bypass the mighty Lachine rapids. Passing the Lachine canoe club we ran into an old sprint kayaking friend of Stephanie and I, and later we were visited by Abby’s friend Jennie Mae Roy who brought us some delicious chocolate chip cookies! Our slow progress through the locks was making us anxious because we had been invited to attend the end of trip celebration for our fellow paddlers Mountains to Montreal. Their expedition had begun around the same time as ours, in Rocky Mountain House, AB and we were fortunate enough to have met up with them a number of times throughout our journey. We wanted to share in their excitement of finishing such a grand adventure, but unfortunately, just before we made it to the meeting spot we got a call from them to say that the event had already wrapped up. We were so disappointed.

We decided to stop in Old Montreal anyway, look around the town a little and of course, get poutines to cheer us up!
Our spirits raised again, we headed out of the city, to find somewhere we would be able to camp.
With the St. Laurence coming in on the right, and the strong currents converging in the center, this was tough water to handle. But we are experienced paddlers, we can handle currents, no problem! Add in some huge yachts, a few power boats zooming towards us in the no wake zone, and an irate speedboat honking and screaming at us, and the situation suddenly seemed out of our league. Where we come from, non-motorized boats have the right of way, but out there what it came down to was: we are small, and they are big. As I met eyes with the man who was driving one speedboat, and shook my head side to side as he smiled at me and sped away leaving the biggest wake I’ve ever seen to crash down on top of us, I knew we had to get out of there and fast! We stopped under the next bridge to calm our nerves, strap in any loose gear, and to make a game plan: stay together, stay close to shore and if you feel uncomfortable head for land. Luckily, after that the river opened up, the boat traffic slowed and we were no longer scared for our lives. So, it was now time to celebrate! We made it to the St Lawrence River!

The next few days we watched the landscape change from prairie flat farm land, to rolling hills and high cliffs We watched the freighters go by, stopping at the massive ports and huge factories along the riverside. We stopped in at the marinas and charming towns of rural Quebec, meeting friendly folks along the way. As we approached Quebec City, the river started to be affected by the tides, limiting our optimal paddling to the 6 hours when the tide was flowing out to sea. This also meant long treks through the muddy tidal flats to pull the boats up at night- a small price to pay for the fortuity of paddling the St Lawrence. Little did we know that the best of this mighty river was yet to come!  <Whitney> 

6 September 2011

Kind hospitality and heritage waterways

Before starting the trip we were asked where we were most looking forward to paddling, and many of us replied: home. And for me, coming home to Ontario, has certainly been one of the highlights of this trip. After our wonderful séjour in Sudbury, we left the North Channel Yacht Club (NCYC) accompanied by a sailboat crewed by my uncle and grandfather for two days. Our first day back on the water, we watched dark, ominous clouds skirt passed us, showering the surrounding hills of Georgian Bay instead. We were greeted in Killarney by my excited family members and a father son team of canoers. These fellow canoers, Mountains 2 Montreal (M2M) group. M2M left Rocky Mountain House AB this spring. Throughout our journey we’d often heard of this charismatic group from people we`d meet and felt like they`d been with us all along. We spent the next two days with them, swapping stories, paddling partners, and a few drinks. 

The French River is a part of the Canadian Heritage River System, a program that aims to conserve rivers with outstanding natural, cultural and recreational heritage, to give them national recognition, and to encourage the public to enjoy and appreciate them. The mouth of the French River, especially the Old Voyageur channel, was a real treat to paddle through. The channel is comprised of multiple small passages, narrowings, and shelves, requiring minimal portaging. At one point we found ourselves paddling through a channel no wider than the 33” beam of our Clipper Whitewater II canoes. I was paddling M2M’s Clipper Mariner that had to be tilted in order to pass! Paddling the big boat was tons of fun and the company was stupendous. I have however become accustomed to paddling lightweight paddles and had to abandon their wooden otter tail paddles within minutes. My hat’s off to the M2M crew for maintaining their impressive stroke rate with these heavier paddles. We were pleased to see so many marked and well maintained campsites along this river. We stopped with M2M at the French River Interpretative Centre, located where the river crosses Hwy 69. Here, we were thoroughly impressed by the eye catching and comprehensive exhibits and displays, related to the cultural and natural resources of the region; we highly recommend our readers visit this gem. Our only complaint with regards to the interpretative centre is its relative inaccessibility from the river. We climbed a hill covered in loose boulders and poison ivy before making our way across the highway bridge. Despite soapy washings, poison ivy welts now dominate Stephanie’s lower legs, and have been continuously creeping farther up her body. 

The next big highlight was paddling across Lake Nipissing and arriving in North Bay. We crossed the lake in an afternoon with an increasing tail wind. Riding the waves we accelerated towards the marina beach and came crashing in at formidable speeds. Once in North Bay we were greeted by dear Saskatchewan friends Tiera and Ashley, paddling with us until Ottawa, and the first of many in a recent string of generous hosts. Ray and Cheryl, of the NCYC, took us into their home and stopped at nothing to try and make our stay more comfortable. They thought of everything: including tracking down maps of the Mattawa River, contacting local media, and charting the most efficient portage route through North Bay. We chose to portage using North Bay’s city streets instead of the historical Le Vase portage route in order to save time and to avoid the numerous mucky portages and swamps that comprise this route. 

We also managed to avoid many of the well-marked portages along the Mattawa River by lining, dragging, or skillfully paddling down the series of small rapids. It was great fun having Tiera and Ashley along. A great example of their playful, creative, and loving manner was exhibited when we jumped from tall rocks at Talon Chutes. The 17 minutes it took everyone to muster up the courage to jump was videotaped and we look forward to reviewing the graceful and graceless entries. 

Our next gracious host flagged us down from the shore in Mattawa. It was my grandfather’s cousin’s husband, Roger Labelle. We were welcomed at a neighbourhood fish fry and later viewed Roger’s hand crafted birch bark canoes. We marveled as he explained how to remove the bark from the tree, how the ribs are bent then shifted towards the ends of the canoe to hold down the cedar strips, and the strength of leatherwood shrubs used to tie it all together. He uses three ingredients in the canoe’s gum: spruce sap, wood ash (to keep the gum from melting in the hot sun), and bear grease (to increase its malleability and to prevent cracking). I’m glad that this trip’s given me the opportunity to visit and learn from Roger and wife, Lucille, (celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary this month!!) relatives I likely would’ve otherwise never gotten the chance to get to know. 

The confluence of the Mattawa and Ottawa Rivers was the start of some beautiful scenery: tall, forested hills line the Ottawa River and appear stunning throughout. These wonderful hills however also funnel the wind. Thus, a headwind, combined with minimal current due to numerous dams, slowed our progress down the Ottawa River. We used our wheels to portage the canoes along most of the routes suggested by Ontario Hydro. The hills made finding suitable campsites somewhat challenging, and we were glad when members of the Delayney family came to greet us on the river near Deep River and kindly invited us over to their warm and lovely home for the night. Mike Ranta and dog, Spitz, paddling solo from Rocky Mountain House to raise money for Atikokan youth, also spent that night at the Delayney’s, sharing in the exchange of adventure stories. We spent the following night camped at the home in Pembroke of NCYC members: Bob and Lucille. We were treated to a tour of their lovely home filled with Bob’s handcrafted furniture and artwork. We’re still talking about the delicious venison bourguignon stew and ice cream topped with warm peaches and melted chocolate they served. Bob and Lucille had an unassuming grace with which they did everything so well, and we thoroughly enjoyed their company. 

Leaving Pembroke, we stayed in the channel near the Quebec shoreline and enjoyed some of the few sets of rapids we’ve gotten to run. The boys became somewhat reminiscent of their homes as the hills along the shoreline gave way to agricultural and grassy fields. Soon we came across another familiar sight as we approached the dam near Arnprior, the voyageur canoe of the M2M crew. We portaged on the Quebec side through open forest and paddled across a tiny wetland. The M2M crew had lightened their load, and we struggled to keep up with them as we approached Ottawa. We were also greeted by a pair of swiftly moving boats crews by Abby`s father, Dave, and sister, Bev; and Trevor and family, from Saskatoon. The group had recently taken part in the Shawinigan marathon canoe race and spotting them approaching on the river was a delightful surprise. Coming into Ottawa`s city limits we found ourselves in the middle of a sailboat race and were somewhat nervous as we realized that we were sitting next the finish line buoy and that the boats were barreling towards us, before doing an impressive 90 degree turn (switching their trajectory away from us) and opening up colourful parachute-like sails. More excitement followed as we scrapped our way down the Deschenes Rapids then met with Max Finkelstein (accomplished canoeist, Ottawa River keeper, and all around neat guy) and Andrea McNeil (manager of the Canadian Heritage River System and friendly as heck). We had the chance to speak with a few media people before taking off from at the base of parliament hill (links below coming soon). It certainly feels like we’re on the home stretch now: the days are getting shorter, colder, and rainier, the leaves are starting to change colours, and we’re bubbly with the excitement of achieving our goal. Bay of Fundy, here we come!! <Nathalie>

23 August 2011

Friendly faces on the shores of the Great Lakes

On August 7th, under a blanket of thick fog, we departed the community of Silver Islet located on the Sibley Peninsula near Thunder Bay. After enjoying incredible hospitality, a springboard diving competition, a sauna, and several pieces of homemade pie at Silver Islet, we bade farewell to the quaint town and the friends we’d made there, to Ross’ parents, and headed back out onto the Lake. And what a glorious lake it is! That day, visibility was poor and we were fortunate to have the sailboat Hakuna Matata, crewed by Nathalie’s Uncle Gilles and Papa Andy, to guide us across the first bay and back on our way. These Brunet brothers remained nearby up to Sault Ste. Marie. We enjoyed their company so much; the fatherly hugs, beers in the wilderness, weather updates, navigation advice, and genuine good humour. These guys are great!! It took us 14 days to paddle from Grand Portage to Sault Ste. Marie, some days we covered up to 65 kilometres. We had several days of calm paddling when the water was like glass, un
characteristic of Lake Superior at this time of year. There were many days that we fought a headwind, or worked with a tailwind or cross wind but thankfully only a few partial days were spent waiting on shore for the wind to decrease.
We’d long heard great legends of the North shore of Superior, it is rumoured to be dotted with fishing camps and saunas, open for the use of those who know where to find them. After our journey to the North Shore and back again, I am willing neither to confirm nor deny the existence of such fantastic places, it’s one of those mysteries you’ll have to investigate for yourself. I can attest to the incredible beauty of Lake Superior. The ever-changing shoreline of rocky cliffs, lush green hills and white sand beaches that border the water filled us with awe. But the most unexpected for me was the colour of the water; beautiful shades of blue, green and turquoise. The water itself, sometimes smooth and calm, can also be impressively powerful making the lake one of the most dangerous bodies of water in North America. The huge sky provides the entertainment of the day, watching storms roll by, fog settle and disperse, the glowing sunrises and sunsets. Lake Superior never ceases to impress those who travel its waters.
Off the coast of Pukaskwa National Park we met a Parks Canada patrol which informed us that the park was closed to backcountry campers due to a bear attack the week before. We had heard about the attack on the radio in Silver Islet and had planned to paddle past the park boundary in one day. The Park employees left us with a radio to call them in case we didn’t make our destination by nightfall. We continued paddling hard but by 7pm we were still 20km from the Park boundary with a storm building all around us, so after a brief radio call we were instructed to meet a Parks boat and spend the night at the Weidman’s Island warden cabin. Within an hour and a half we were speeding down Lake Superior under a stunning pink and yellow sunset with lush forest, beaches and rugged cliffs flying past. After camping the night on the island with a few friendly park staff, we were returned to our canoes in the same way, and continued out of Pukaskwa National Park. We were tremendously appreciative of the park staff for allowing us to paddle on through.
Days later, as we fought the wind crossing Whitefish Bay to Sault Ste. Marie, we were met by Whitney’s parents who commandeered a motor boat to come and pay us a visit. They were amazed by how well our Clipper Whitewater II canoes handled through the big swells, while they were being tossed around in their motor boat. There smiling faces and endless photos showed just how proud of us they were. They met us for dinner in Sault Ste. Marie, and for the following two days along Saint Mary’s River and Lake Huron with snacks and meals. Going through the locks at Sault Ste. Marie was neat. We entered through a thick metal gate and held fast to the cement wall. The water was drained from the channel and we were lowered ~30 feet to the level of Lake Huron. The process took no more than fifteen minutes; we left through a similarly menacing gate to enter the river channel that would bring us to our second of the Great Lakes and onward to the rest of Canada.
This section of our trip, as jam-packed as it was with delightful beauty, was also one of the most physically and mentally draining parts that we’ve yet experienced. We’ve been bone-tired, we’ve been sick, and we’ve had our moments of grumpiness. A head cold brought Ross and I down midway through the lake, and hung on for far too long. A stomach flu-like sickness plagued us last week, beginning with Shane, moving to Ross and Nathalie, then Steph, then me. Only Whitney has remained healthy. There were moments when it seemed that we were just so far from our destination and making such slow progress that it seemed difficult to ward off a negative outlook. We’ve found that singing- and usually at the top of our lungs- works best to cure us of poor mind-set in stressful or tough situations. There has been many a long afternoon when I’ve been drifting into a mental funk only to be snapped back into a good attitude by Whitney belting out the words to a favourite song. It seems insane that we could possibly feel gloomy when we truly are living a dream every single day and I can’t begin to explain why this happens, but it can happen if we’re not careful to keep ourselves smiling.
Our welcome at the North Channel Yacht Club set the tone for our stay in Sudbury: we were greeted by a crowd of amazingly kind and inquisitive folks including members of Nathalie’s family and members of the Yacht Club, and a potluck dinner. We were shuttled to Sudbury and are now staying at the home of Andy and Monique Brunet, Nathalie’s parents. These two rest days have allowed us time and space to once again reorganize gear and food, and to recharge our bodies and minds for the rest of our journey. We’re ready to carry on to the Georgian Bay and beyond! <Abby>

5 August 2011

Superior is awesome!

After the numerous portages of Quetico Provincial Park and the Boundary Waters, we find ourselves on the magnificent Lake Superior. Since Rainy Lake, we have been hopping from lake to lake, by a variety of ponds, rivers, creeks and portages. Although often unpopular among canoers, some portages have been quite enjoyable, filled with fresh raspberries and blueberries! Our favourite is when we can bypass the portage by lining the boats upstream.
This portion of our route has largely followed the waterways comprising the border between Canada and the United States in Northwestern Ontario. The 250 km route from Lac la Croix, east to Lake Superior via La Verendrye River Provincial Park has been designated the Boundary Waters Voyageur Waterway by the Canadian Heritage Rivers System. A listing of other waterways designated by the Canadian Heritage Rivers System can be found on their website. At Loon Falls, where we portaged into Lac la Croix, we were impressed by the motorised rail system used to transport motor boats between lake systems. We spent the night with a wonderful couple, Dana and Fred who used to operate the rail system. Before the construction of a road to the Lac la Croix reserve, the rail system was the only way to get to Fort Frances, and was a busy place!
Throughout the trip, we have employed the "bridge sprints” rule that marathon paddlers from home use during training sessions: if you see a bridge, you try to get there first, by either distracting your competitor, sneakily riding your neighbour’s wave, or just racing to get there if the other strategies failed. We had heard that Janice, the Quetico ranger at the Cache Bay station, could provide us with some interesting information regarding the region, so as we came around the corner, and saw the Quetico flag for the Cache Bay station, we got to racing (it had been a while since the last bridge). As we pulled up to the dock, Janice came down and gleefully stated "I have not heard the word ‘hut’ in many years!”. We took a long lunch while Janice shared her stories of her time marathon racing, her 27 years as a ranger on the island in the park, and her encounters with other cross Canada groups, including Max Finkelstein (Canoeing a Continent: on the trail of Alexander MacKenzie), Roman Rockcliff and Frank Wolf, who paddled from St. John to Vancouver in 1995 (http://www.clippercanoes.com/c2c.php), and the Mountains 2 Montreal group who started May 1st of this year from Rocky Mountain House (www.mountains2montreal.ca). Janice promotes the importance of treating the land with care, and really encourages youth to spend time in the park, and to later return with their friends. For me, this really struck home, as I have been reading "Last Child in the Woods” by Richard Louv. Having grown up as a city kid who always appreciated the mornings I spent in my kayak on a calm Wascana Lake, I believe in the message of the story as it presents the importance of the calming effects of nature in healthy childhood development. For the first time along the trip, we encountered numerous other canoers, mostly Boy Scout and YMCA groups from Minnesota and various other parts of the United States. We were impressed by the enthusiasm of these youths, and the positive impact these trips have on the groups is apparent. I loved the boisterous laughter of the young boys and the giggles of the teenage girls as they solo portaged their canoes across treacherous trail without complaint.
The 40+ portages (actually >40!!! We counted!!) through Quetico and Boundary Waters really made it seem like our daily goal was just around the corner, but we just couldn’t quite get there. When we met with the Trans CanEAUda crew on the Winnipeg River, they mentioned burgers at the Gunflint Lodge. It felt like it was our goal to get to that lodge for three days--- "it’s just after the next portage” we all kept thinking. The burgers and moose tracks ice cream were well worth the wait!
After a slight wrong turn leaving Gunflint Lake, we encountered a canoe of two men dressed in voyageur garb who were paddling to the "Rendezvous", where Voyageurs from east and west would meet for a festival at Grand Portage . Their characters were from Fort Frances and Fond du Lac (now Duluth), Minnesota; they wore Metis belts, used canvas tents, forehead straps for the portages and even made their own moccasins. These men had a real passion for voyageur history. They sung "O Canada” for us as we paddled away.
At this point, we thought our portaging days were coming to a close, especially when the height of land portage went swiftly. This portage marked our entry into a new major watershed, where water now flows towards our final destination, the Atlantic Ocean. Following the Howse River in Alberta, we have been paddling on water bodies that drain towards the major basin of Hudson Bay. In the Lake Superior basin, the portages increased in length, muddiness and treachery. In due time, we made our way to the Pigeon River, and were surprised by Rhonda and Dave Phillips at Partridge Falls. We decided to call it a day and take a little rest before making our way into the community of Grand Portage, and spent the evening enjoying the Partridge falls, as well as burgers and beers courtesy of the Phillips.
The amount of gear necessary to complete a journey of this magnitude made it nearly impossible to complete portages in one trip, unless we were able to use our "expedition carts”. As a result, we chose to portage using minor roads into the community of Grand Portage on the shore of Lake Superior. This decision saved our bodies from the long, muddy and difficult ~13 km "Grand Portage” trail historically used by the Voyageurs. As we made our way into Grand Portage, we were struck by the beautiful Lake Superior! We were excited for a new challenge, a change of pace, and to avoid portaging for a little while. We paddled past the huge Fort as we made our way back into Canada. As we crossed into Canada, we were greeted by Nathalie’s Uncle Gill and dad, Andy, travelling by sailboat! It will be wonderful to have their smiling faces around for the next couple weeks.
Our first couple days on Superior have been wonderful. The water is clear, cold, and refreshing. The view is spectacular! We have already had our first wind-stayed afternoon on Pie Island waiting to cross towards the Sleeping Giant. As the sun rose this morning, we paddled across the calmer water and were blown away by the sight of the rocky cliffs, lush forests, and bigness of the water. I’m looking forward to getting to know this beautiful and historical lake! Today we are resting and reorganizing at Silver Islet, a quaint little town near Thunder Bay, where they have a great pie and pastry shop, and plenty of warm hearted folks. After Shane binged on donuts in Fort Frances, Shane bet me a pie in the face that he would not eat any treats the whole time we are on the Great Lakes. I wonder how long he will last! <Steph>