Posted by: seanmichaelbutler | January 20, 2009


The wave bearing down on our tiny canoe might as well have been a tsunami, for all that we were prepared for it. Malevolent progeny of a vulgar powerboat, the wake was fast approaching our starboard side, triggering a vague recollection in my mind of the canoeing prime directive: don’t ever let waves hit you from the side. Cowering in the canoe with me was Wayne, a paddling novice. Barely more capable, dimly remembered canoeing techniques flitted through my panicked brain.

“Draw!” I commanded.

Wayne looked confused.

“Like this!” I demonstrated, desperately plunging my paddle into the water and pulling it towards me. Wayne caught on fast to the technique, but I had neglected to mention to do it on the opposite side of the canoe to spin us and meet the waves head-on. Precious moments were lost as we thrashed futilely at the water like a drowning animal.

              “It’s too late!” I screamed. “Prepare to be broadsided!” We instinctually hunkered down, lowering our centre of gravity, and met the onslaught of waves. As we pitched violently back and forth, I cursed bitterly the disgraceful end we had already come to, in this, the first hour of our canoe trip. Then, eyelids still clamped tightly shut, I realized that the barrage had subsided and that we were not only alive, but still afloat. We had defied the canoeing prime directive, and won. “Ensign,” I said, “take us home.”

The plan that September was for the three of us – Wayne, myself and a third, Joe, to follow Ontario’s Mississippi River from its source in Bon Echo Provincial Park to the Ottawa River, and from there to the nation’s capital and home. In the annals of exploration, our canoe trip could only be considered ambitious in light of our lack of skill, knowledge, experience and equipment.

Yet in our bumbling passage through a familiar landscape, we would be trailblazers of a sort. Human progress had bridged, diverted, dammed, dumped into, harnessed and generally tamed much of the river and carved up the surrounding landscape into something far too prosaic for most canoeists to give a second glance. Yet I chose this route because I liked the idea of paddling from the wilderness straight to my home in the city. If a Joseph Conrad character once boated upriver towards the primitive heart of darkness, we would do the opposite. Ours was like a journey forward in time through the last thousand years of human life in this area. It would begin with rock paintings left by ancients on a monolith known as the Gibraltar of Ontario in Bon Echo, and end with whirring hydroelectric dams and towers of shining glass. Too easily, I believe, we ghettoize wilderness, we confine it to parks both on the map and in the geography of the mind. I wanted to take my eraser to the distinction between forest and city, nature and human, and see if the two concepts can blend into each other.

We set out in sunshine the next day. Wayne was primed for the scores of “nubile women” he hoped to encounter gallivanting through the Canadian bush. Considering none of us really knew the exact meaning of “nubile”, we couldn’t rule out the possibility. 

The first part of the trip was to be a descent through a series of fairly pristine lakes surrounded by the rocky landscape of the Canadian Shield until we hit Carleton place, where Wayne would leave us to return to Ottawa the easy way, in a car. Joe and I would then join the Mississippi proper and follow its meandering course through the farmlands and small towns of Lanark County.

Towards evening we landed on an island and found a campsite between the trees. Joe had brought the world famous Narvison Family Tent. It had once belonged to the Narvison family, but had long ago been given to a friend with the solemn words: “Take thee this tent, friend, and use it well, and when you do see another in greater need of it than you, do likewise relinquish it, as I have to you.” And thus it had passed into the hands of Joe.

After dinner, Joe showed uncharacteristic interest in the map. “According to this,” he said, “Murdoch is only a couple of kilometres down river. We could go check it out tonight. We might find…beer.” The magic word hung potent in the dusk.

“And nubile women,” rang in Wayne.

The lure was too strong to resist. We grabbed the flashlight and portaged the canoe to the next lake. Unencumbered by gear or wind and guided by a full moon, we made good time, slicing through deep, black waters.

Soon, a streetlight cast its yellow glow on a few buildings ahead. Feeling like commandos on a night raid, we landed on a beach and pulled the canoe out of the water.

Tuesday, it turned out, was a dead night in Murdoch. Its one store was closed, and neither beer nor nubile women were in sight – nor anyone else for that matter. We were beginning to suspect that cartographer’s fear of empty spaces on the map had caused them to generously bestowed on this crossroads a misleadingly substantial dot.

The options for our big night out already exhausted, we paddled back to camp to do what we should have been doing all along: resting up for the next long day.


My ears soon became attuned to the low-frequency rumble of a waterfall ahead. When you approach a waterfall in a canoe, there is a moment of fierce anticipation as you pull your paddle out of the water and let it hang there, tracing a dripping path, while you are sucked toward the falls. Then you dip half a paddle’s blade back into the water swirling with expectation and gently direct the boat’s nose at the shore just to the side of the waterfall. The softness of the steering maneuvers is in sharp contrast to the violence of the river ahead. And then, the excitement over, another grueling portage stretches out ahead.

By the forth day, a dangerous mixture of reluctance to portage and buoyed confidence compelled us to test our skills in some whitewater. As we weaved through the rocks of our fist set of rapids, we discovered that, whereas the stern paddler is usually responsible for steering, in rapids the bow paddler is the only one capable of making the canoe veer in the right direction fast enough. When you’re in the bow, your eyes must learn to read the water like a musician reads notes, always a few bars ahead, making adjustments now to avoid a rock 50 feet down river. You must become water with a consciousness, play the role of water as an actor would and do what comes naturally to the river: take the path of least resistance.

With a shout of joy tinged with relief, we were spit out the other side of the rapids and into calm waters. Our boat drifted to a rest against the torn and ruined remains of two previous canoes.

We disembarked and Joe, picking up a shattered fiberglass piece from one of our less fortunate predecessor’s canoes and climbing upon a rock, cleared his throat and began:

“I have something to say. The world may judge us as brash, hasty, ignorant…dumb even. We have failed to behave in the safety conscious manner befitting our era. We have been told the stories of innocents and their slaughter when they foolhardily ventured into the wilds unprepared and untrained. We have absorbed the cautionary tales since infancy. We have been well trained to buy a helmet, wear a seatbelt, stand back, eat right, take a course, get a consultant, get a councilor, get a shrink. Though I appreciate the desire to reduce life’s inherent risks, I must ask – what do we lose in the exchange? When do the walls we erect to keep the bad out also become a prison?

“Even play and recreation has been absorbed into our consumerism. We cannot go out and play without first buying the book, the gear, the fashion accessories, the instructional video. Perhaps we do all that so we will have someone else to blame other than ourselves if we should happen to fail. Perhaps we hope to buy an experience. We have just experienced, my friends, what it is like to charge into the unknown with only the combined wits of you and your friends to bring you through safely, and we have felt what a liberating experience that is.”

Wayne and I applauded Joe’s speech and piled back into the canoe for the final paddle to Crotch Lake. We found, to our relief, absolutely nothing crotch-like about it. It was, in fact, beautiful – a gem at the center of the necklace of water we traveled down. We found the perfect campsite on a huge peninsula of bleached rock. The water was just the right shade of blue, and the rock just the right hue of white, and the sun at just the right warmth to make me feel as if we had drifted ashore in the Mediterranean.

I had an extra tent, and decided that it would make a fine sweat lodge. After dinner, as the fire burned down, we planted stones amidst the coals and waited for them to absorb the fire’s heat. Half the space in the sky seemed alight with stars by the time we zipped close the tent, added a little water to the now hot stones and presto – instant sauna. What better place for a good sweat than Crotch Lake?

Joe was ecstatic. “This has just given me ideas for twenty more ways to pick up women!” I could tell Wayne was weighing the chances that there were any nubile women in the vicinity.


We encountered our first dam the next day. It was preceded by a series of increasingly urgent signs imploring us to turn back before it was too late. But according to our map, the portage trail began right beside it. We warily pushed on. The next disincentive was a line of boom logs stretched across our path.

“Ramming speed!” I impulsively cried, and for some reason my crewmates complied. The bow met the log with a grotesque crunch and ground to a halt. In the excitement of the moment, we may have acted rashly. But our hardy vessel didn’t appear to be taking water, so we put her in reverse and found a less dramatic way around the boom along the swampy banks of the river.

One final sign awaited us on the other side, declaring that we would surely all be sucked into the dam and die any moment now. Then the dam itself came into view. Fortunately, no one felt inclined to roar, “Ramming speed!” this time. Keeping a respectful distance, we spotted the green marker cheerfully announcing the portage trail just to the left of the dam, and pulled in beside it.

We wandered down to inspect the hydroelectric plant. It was an old, brick, cavernous building, humming a single tone through an open door into the surrounding forest. The machinery went about its business, unattended. The water fell, the turbines spun, and somewhere far away someone turned on their TV.

Back in the water, we soon arrived at more rapids. In the interim we had somehow gotten turned around and taken on six inches of water. Indifferent to this fact, I energetically proposed that we run the rapids. The ramming incident already unwisely forgotten, the others agreed.

I sat in the stern, picking our way through the treacherous waters in the about-faced canoe, my knees bent and practically poking into my armpits in the cramped space between the seat and the stern. I was beginning to feel semi-literate in the language of water – how certain sections of the river’s surface are glassy smooth, while others throw a wall of hissing, thrashing foam up – and to see how the water was a medium for the land beneath it; a medium but also a force with a life of its own. As my eyes scanned the waves ahead I felt as if I was in a car with no brakes speeding down a mountainside and straight into a marketplace – with no way to stop or back up, just dodge. Then a tunnel formed by a bridge ahead framed a haven of calm waters at the end of the rapids. We plunged into the tunnel, dodged left, deked right, and shot out into a lake.

That evening the ribbon of water we were following passed through Innesville, a real town this time. We grabbed our money and headed inland, like sailors on shore leave. Wayne may have muttered something about the possibility of encountering nubile women, but it was more out of a sense of duty than anything else. On Highway 7 we found what we were really looking for: Mr. Norm’s Fast Food, its flashing neon outline of a chicken guiding us to gastronomical bliss like a lighthouse on stormy seas.

We stood in awe inside the door, breathless from running. Every inch of wall space was covered in utilitarian descriptions of food. Seemingly infinite variations on the themes of hamburger, chicken, hotdog and fries bewitched our eyes. The Superburger caught mine. I was not in a hesitant mood – one of those, please, with extrrrra grease! Imagine, food that you don’t have to add water to, that is delivered to your table (imagine, a table!) minus the ritual of drooling around a campfire for hours, waiting for water to boil.

While stuffing mouthfuls of the heavenly manna down our throats, a trucker approached. “You guys just come off a truck?” he probed.

“Nope, a canoe,” mumbled Wayne through his food.

The trucker’s uncomprehending eyes stared back blankly for a moment and then, clearly faced with something that refused to mesh with his particular version of reality, he simply turned and walked away.

The next Town we came to was Carleton Place. After leaving the canoe as inconspicuously as possible in a waterside park, it was time for a celebratory drink. Like any self-respecting sailor, Joe shouted to a group of teenagers across the street, “Hey! Where do we go for a good time in this town?”

“To Phil’s! To Phil’s!” they chanted back, breaking into what sounded like Phil’s theme song.

“That sounds like the place!” I said, picking up my pace.

Phil’s was the country music haven for the regular old-timers. We pulled up three seats and ordered a pitcher of Canadian. I handed the waitress the money and a generous tip, and realized what money had become to me. It was a piece of paper that you gave to someone, who then gave you something wonderful, like beer, in return. I was seeing money as it truly is, stripped of all its false associations.  I liked my new relationship to money so much, I ordered another pitcher.

Later in the evening, after Wayne had departed, a couple of local guys struck up a conversation. They heard our story and sighed, “It’s good to be young…” exchanging a sad glance speaking of kids and mortgages. Then one of them asked, “You guys ever seen that Deliverance movie? Your trip sounds a lot like it.”

“Oh yeah? We’ll have to rent it when we get to Ottawa,” I said.

“You’re going to Ottawa? By canoe?” they laughed. “You can’t get there from here. There’s a big hydroelectric dam. It’s impossible.”

I realized then what had been missing from our quest – the naysayers! The temptress of civilization, frosty beer mug in each hand, had been whispering in my ear, making me waver in my determination to finish the trip, but this was just the sort of challenge needed to set my resolve. Suddenly, resting up for the next day seemed the best course of action. I slammed my beer down and headed with Joe out into a crisp, starry night.


Because towns tended to spring up around watermills, which harnessed the energy of waterfalls, towns and portages tended to coincide during the latter leg of our journey. Such was the case with Almonte. Our map indicated a rather long portage – through the centre of town. Bracing ourselves for the inevitable Mr. Canoehead cracks, we heaved the canoe aloft and plodded down Main Street.

“Excuse me, coming through,” reverberated Joe’s voice from somewhere within the bow of the boat’s hull as we bobbed through the Saturday afternoon shoppers. A small dog strained at its leash, barking frantically at the four-legged, green-headed figure we cut. Gasps and giggles came from Almontians we could only know from their footwear.

“What’s the matter with these people?” joked Joe. “Don’t they realize that their downtown is on a major portage trail? Doesn’t anyone else follow this route? Fur traders? Voyageurs?”

We took to the water at the other end of town with all the ardor of two sea lions reunited with their natural environment after days lost ashore. We paddled until evening, pulled over for some rice and beans, then kept paddling into the night. The water’s surface was polished smooth, and it felt as if we were flying across it like it was ice and we were a puck heading down rink on the hockey stick of the Almighty.

The world around us lay as silent as death; I could empathize with my ancient ancestors who equated autumn with the decay of the world. And I also felt a connection with more recent ancestors, the men and women who first sailed from Ireland to till the frozen fields we were gliding through.

We did not talk or sing, we just warmed ourselves with the steady rhythm of paddling, through the death and the dark, under bridges carrying trucks roaring like avenging angels, through a history that is one long river. After several hours, we pulled over and carried our things up the bank and into the edge of a farmer’s field. No sooner had we stopped paddling than an icy chill started to penetrate our clothes. We threw on every piece of clothing we had and jumped into our sleeping bags, forgoing the tent. I could feel the cold slowly worming its way inside me. I drew the drawstring on the hood of my sleeping bag so tight that only my nose poked out, then curled up in a ball and rubbed my feet. I managed to ward off the cold and drifted off into something resembling sleep.

I was jolted awake sometime later by the sound of mooing. It was still night. I knew we were in a cow pasture; the smell was a dead giveaway. Then I heard it again: Moooooooo…. It was a lonely, hungry cry. What desperate actions could an animal in such a state of mind be driven to, I wondered?  Moooooooo, it came again, closer this time, floating over the fields like some Hallowed Eve grim reaper. I sat up, shifted my eye to my breathing hole and peered about. I felt about as vulnerable as a half-blind caterpillar; perfect fodder to be trampled underfoot by an unruly herd of territorial bulls, mad with hormones. Only the blessed unconsciousness of exhausted sleep finally relaxed my vigil.

I awoke at dawn to find my sleeping bag encrusted with frost. We took to the canoe eagerly and paddled hard until we had warmed up. Soon a tall concrete wall stretched in our path across the river. Beyond the wall was what our map enigmatically classified the Mississippi Syne. Was the wall holding something out, I wondered, or in? We had no idea what a syne was, but were going to find out.

We were soon enlightened. A syne – or “snyde”, as Joe sneeringly called it – is a seemingly endless maze of dead-end waterways, gooey bogs and swamp gas. The wall was decidedly there to keep people out, for their own good. We spent much of the afternoon barefoot, pant legs rolled up, wading through slime; the canoe now an impediment to forward progress. I wished that, like Theseus, we had brought a ball of string to trail behind us. I tried to imagine how long it took the water to trickle from one end of the syne to the other. I hoped we would find our way out faster.

It was like passing through the intestines of some gigantic beast with indigestion. When it finally defecated us into the Ottawa River, I felt like Balboa emerging from the Panamanian isthmus and beholding the mighty Pacific for the first time.

We hoped to make it to Constance Bay, a retirement community that my maternal grandparents called home, by nightfall. As we paddled I was overcome with a feeling of freedom. Why stop in Ottawa, I asked myself? From here we could paddle to the St. Lawrence, skirt between the freighters in the seaway, and be carried to the Atlantic. From there the world would lie at our feet! I imagined life as a roving water-gypsy, awakening each morning in a new place, passing through towns on the Amazon, the Nile, the Danube, floating down the Earth’s ancient highways. A road trip without the ugliness of man-made roads, down the fluid, slurshing, trickling, babbling, bubbling, burbling, gurgling, crashing, waters of the planet. Most of the world’s population lives within a short walk of an ocean, a sea, a bay, a lake, a river, a stream, a creak, a brook – we could visit them all!

As we approached what I suspected was Constance Bay, we pulled in close to a couple strolling along the beach. “Which way to Constance Bay?” I asked.

“This is it here,” said the man. “Where you guys coming from?”

“The Mississippi,” I replied as we pulled away, relishing not for the last time the look of incredulity this misunderstanding produced.

We paid my grandparents a visit the following morning, after spending the night on the soft beach. My grandfather was waiting for us outside his house. “Come in through the garage. I don’t want you messing up my place,” he grumbled half-jokingly.

Rita, my step-grandmother, had laid out a breakfast spread to break a canoe-tripper’s heart. We ate fried eggs, bacon, toast, hash browns and tomatoes fresh from the garden and Joe washed his food down with half a pot of coffee.

My grandfather walked us to the beach. He wanted to see the evidence for himself that we had actually come calling in a canoe. As we left, he gave us a bag full of apples and Coke to see us through to Ottawa.

When we came around our final bend in the river I could see the Jacques Cartier Bridge in the distance, marking the end of our journey. Behind it rose the city. I felt like a pilgrim from the wilds laying eyes on this metropolis of glass and emerald-green rooftops for the first time.

After an improvised portage through the Britannia Yacht Club, we were tantalizingly close to our goal. Finally we passed under the bridge and rounded a corner that brought us into sight of the beach that was the beginning of our final portage – the portage home.

I had walked my dog to this same beach thousands of times before and looked out at the water we were now paddling through. It looked so small from where I sat; I had never seen it from this perspective before. It hit me hard to see this beach, where I had spent so much time, as just another strip of shoreline, connected to all the other shorelines and places and people I had passed, by a path of water. The place held no meaning from this angle, from the outside looking in; it was a stranger to me. It was disorienting, but also wonderful, that our perceptions could be shaken free from their groundings. It was like a brief glimpse of the existence of a new, unimagined dimension, like turning a mirror around and discovering that it had another side, one that did not reflect your own image back at you.

The canoe slid into the sandy beach. I sank to my knees and kissed the sandy ground, only half in jest.

“Sean,” Joe expounded, “we have done a Great Thing.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, looking out at the red-tinged clouds heralding the end of another day. Red at night, sailor’s delight, my mind automatically noted.

“I can hear my father now,” Joe said. “‘Congratulations, Joe, you’ve just spent ten days getting somewhere I could have driven in two hours.'”

“Forget it,” I said. “We got one more portage to do.”

With that, we shouldered our equipment, heaved the battered canoe onto our heads and portaged down the road, into suburbia.


Published in the Ottawa Citizen, August 6, 2000


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