We awoke to rain three days ago. It was barely a drizzle, just enough to seep into the corners of our rainproof tents. Twenty-four hours of rain later, our sleeping bags were damp enough to sprout mushrooms. Tonight, after three consecutive days of wet and unfriendly headwinds, this 1,900-mile canoe trip over the voyageur highway to Hudson Bay is thoroughly waterlogged.
And some members of the crew are getting restless.
"I thought we'd be spending more time hiking and less time paddling," said Kate Finkbeiner, bobbing to the surface of her oversized rainsuit during one of the mists that interrupted today's rains. "All we do is paddle, eat and sleep."
"There's got to be more to this country than seeing how many miles you can paddle through it," said Dick Sears, the graybeard of our group. "I'd like to be able to stop and smell the flowers."
In one day, this trip lost the sun, the Rocky Mountains and the strong current that had carried us along so ferociously. Already, sore shoulders and blistered hands have felt new demands as we passed from the Rockies to the Saskatchewan prairie. Eyes that feasted for two days on exotic beasts have begun looking ahead to nine more weeks of wet socks and leftover macaroni and cheese for breakfast.
This afternoon, Marvel Harrison began a conversation with the question, "Does it take more character to finish everything you start or admit you made a mistake and quit?" Definitely not a good sign on the fifth day of a 70-day trip.
Yesterday, our first feud surfaced. Sears and Barry Crouch, the oldest and youngest members of the group and not the best of buddies to begin with, found themselves paddling in the same canoe. Dick has a slow, semi-powerful stroke and a good eye for strong currents. He does not like to do work that the river will do for him.
Barry is all speed and power. He doesn't have the experience to read currents well, but is strong enough that he does not miss wasted energy.
When the two set out paddling from camp, Barry was taking two and sometimes three strokes for every one of Dick's. "Are you going to put your paddle in the water when I do or what?" demanded Barry, turning in the bow to face Dick. "Barry, I've been canoeing for 30 years and I'm not going to change now for you." Barry sulked for a minute, then resumed paddling at an even faster pace while Dick seemed to slow his a bit more.
The only person who seems unfazed by the generally miserable conditions is Donna Berglund, the organizer and motivating force behind this summer adventure. She has been unfailingly pleasant and enthusiastic and paddled every minute of every day with a stroke both faster and stronger than anyone else's.
Last night, eating spanish rice and vegetable soup under a makeshift tarp in a rain forest, Donna told us of a wilderness trip in the Adirondacks she led a few years ago with 24 college sophomores. It rained for 14 of 18 days. And one of those storms reached hurricane force.
"It was great. They really learned the value of wool," said Donna. She was not kidding. Instant depression. This woman does not endure hardship, she thrives on it. But when challenged on that point, Berglund protested, "I've just been doing this long enough that no matter how bad things get, I can usually remember a situation that was worse."
Despite the aforementioned complaints and unfavorable conditions, this group has remained remarkably cheerful. And each day the canoe conversations grow more interesting and intimate. Although most of us only met a few days ago, we are already sharing secrets that best friends might never reveal to one another.
During the last few days I have paddled through two broken marriages and one psychotic depression. I have heard confessions and made a few of my own. While we are on this river we have nothing to depend on but one another and no entertainment beyond our own ability to entertain.
Singing has become more appealing as the river has slowed. It gives rhythm to our work and focuses the mind a few octaves above the body's whining command to rest. During the fur trading era, a voyageur with a good voice and a repertoire of songs was paid extra for that reason.
Marvel has the sweetest voice in our gravel-throated crew, and a fondness for church music and syrupy love songs. Her boyfriend, Don Rabern, has a sense of humor and taste in songs that could not be more opposite. He and I perform an especially awful harmony on his favorite, "Dead Puppies Aren't Much Fun."
Early honors for general excellence in the entertainment field, however, go to Pat Leonard. This 46-year-old physicist, mountain climber and kayaker has an encyclopedic memory and, we suspect, an equally active imagination. Pick a topic, any topic and Leonard has an anecdote, fable or I-swear-it's-true story to relate. And unlike many story tellers, he is rarely cast in the hero's role.
"So there I was, upside down under a 14-foot wave, bouncing my head on the bottom . . . " and so on.
If you want to find out what you are seeing on this river, Donna's canoe is the place to be. She can start at the peak of the highest Rocky Mountain and work her way down, explaining as she goes the geology, biology and chemistry of the land, plant life and water. Get Donna, Pat and Don started on plate tectonics and the earth begins to move.
Last night Donna gave us a quiz. What purpose, she asked, do mosquitoes serve in the north country besides carrying away the bodies of dead canoeists? After we surrendered, she informed us that mosquito larvae concentrate minerals that fish and other mammals need but have no other way of imbibing in the relatively sterile waters of the north.
I awoke this morning with a powerful hunger for mosquito-eating fish. While the rest of our party slept in the rain, I crossed by log a raging creek to fish the downstream shore of the Athabasca for northern pike.
Five casts later, I had a 13-inch fish, long of snout and sharp of tooth, flopping on shore.
Don Rabern, witness to the epic struggle, immediately set about building a fire in its honor. Since one fish would not feed eight hungry campers, I moved downstream to cast again.
Wham. Another fish on the line, this one twice the size of the first, judging by the commotion it made trying to shake the hook. Legends are created on mornings like this, I thought, as I glanced upstream at a horrid sight. Where my first trophy still flopped, a seagull swooped. With much whooping and hollering I attacked the scavenger, forgetting my larger catch just long enough for it to shake free.
It gets worse. Instead of carrying first fish across the torrential creek, the mighty fisherman impaled it on a stick and attempted to throw it across to the waiting fire. Snap went the stick, flop went the fish into the water.
Don said not a word. He looked first at me, then at the soggy sky, and turned back to his fire and his cold granola.
Next: Tote that barge.