We could hear the roar of the monster three miles away. Grand Rapids, north country cruncher of great boulders, tall trees and small canoeists, the legendary breach in the water that put "feare in the buttocks" of even the boldest voyageur, was thundering below us like a convocation of mad cannoneers.
"I wouldn't go near that rapid unless I was damn sure I knew exactly where I was going," warned a fisherman we met a few days ago. He told us of a conversation he had last year with three West German canoeists traveling downriver with a dog. "They found the body of one guy and the dog a few miles below Grand Rapids. They never did find the other two."
Grand Rapids is officially listed as a Class VI rapid. So is Niagara Falls. It is absolutely non-navigable. Almost every year some canoeist who has not had the sense to seek local advice paddles into the Grand. Occasionally people who know better get too close and are sucked into the rapids that drop 60 feet during one mile of continuous white water.
We had no intention of flirting with the Grand. But getting to the spot where a portage trail was rumored to be proved unavoidably risky. The Athabasca was running a record high; there were rapids on the right bank where relatively calm eddies had been promised.
Our first look at the trail we would have to use to carry the canoes and a thousand pounds of cargo around the rapids was no booster. It was thin as a plank, mud slick and nearly vertical for the first 350 yards. Then the trail wiggled for more than a mile through a forest dense with spruce, aspen, mudholes and ravines.
"This looks like something you'd find at Marine boot camp," said Don Rabern without a hint of admiration.
Here would be a real test of this crew's fortitude. In 12 days we had paddled 600 miles. We had survived rain, wind and desiccated camp food in good health and essentially good humor. But only now would our romantic notions about following in the wake of the old-time voyageurs, who paddled 16 hours a day on a diet of powdered buffalo meat and pork fat, really collide with the aching truth.
The first trip, our packs weighed as much as 90 pounds each, but the walk was made more bearable by the discovery of a small meadow bright with orange wood lilies and a patch of chest-high ferns. On the second trip, we carried 85-pound canoes and saw only the ground under our stumbling feet and the great swarms of mosquitoes rallying to feed upon this ship of fools.
Marvel Harrison fell twice during the second of her three round trips, almost disappearing once between two logs that served as a bridge across a deep ravine. The tracks of her tears were visible through the dirt and specks of wood that covered one cheek.
Four hours after we began the portage, we dropped the last pack below Grand Rapids on the edge of a logjam two acres square. In the fading midnight light, the logs, stripped of their bark and bleached white, looked like the bones of the forest the river had spit back.
Our dinner was a sour gruel of tough brown rice and cheddar cheese. We ate in a circle, but said little. Someone congratulated Dick Sears and Kate Finkbeiner, the oldest and smallest of our crew, respectively, for carrying more than their share. That reminded me of my first and very false impression of Kate. I feared she would be unable to cope with the physical demands of this trip. Today, when Don and I were dragging our way back for the third portage, Kate went past us at a jog.
Marvel regained some of her bounce after dinner. She had said good night and was halfway to her tent when she stopped and tossed back a final thought:
"You only get allotted a certain number of fun tickets each day. I think I just about used all of mine up today."
Next: Revolt and reconciliation.