"Only the (Scottish) highlanders and French Canadians had the necessary background of poverty to qualify them for work on the Canadian rivers." --From "Seven Rivers of Canada" by Hugh MacLennan By Denis Collins Washington Post Staff Writer A SUMMER ADVENTURE PART 5
FORT MCMURRAY, Alberta--Day 15.
We were standing in the light of the campfire, listening to the ridiculous laugh of a distant loon, when the struts finally popped on this summer adventure to Hudson Bay.
"Don and I are thinking seriously about leaving the trip at Fort McMurray," said Marvel Harrison, rolling the mosquito netting off her face. "The only things keeping me on the trip at this point are my commitment to the rest of you and pride."
Thirteen days and 640 miles of unnatural labor, forced company and dive-bombing bugs had taken their toll on the adventurers. Given the demands of the journey and the diversity of the crew, it was a few days overdue.
As superjocks go, we are a particularly average group. The range in age, from 18 to 52, is as wide as the contrast in skill and strength. And each of us volunteered for this adventure for a different reason.
With our very ordinary share of toughness and vulnerability, it would be absurd to expect this trip into the wilderness of a century past to be all sunshine and flowers.
The diversity of the crew members has made the trip fascinating, but stress fractures could be heard from the start. Although most of the complaints were expressed with the dark humor of army privates on a 50-mile bivouac, the concerns were serious. By the time each day's work was done, little energy or daylight remained for updating journals, perusing bird books or thinking deep thoughts.
The route to Hudson Bay had been drawn with a detour of a few hundred miles into the Northwest Territories. Everyone knew that when they signed up for the trip. But once on the Athabasca, after the enormity of the undertaking had been fully gauged, a few of the crew began wondering if the extra scenery was worth such extraordinary effort to see it.
"We're paddling 200 miles upstream just so Donna can see a polar bear eat a penguin," joked Don Rabern one day when the river had slowed and headwinds threatened to blow us back to Jasper. With a mischievous smile, Rabern began chanting, "Hudson Bay the shortest way."
Little of this was said in front of Donna Berglund, who spent six months and hundreds of dollars organizing the trip. No one wanted to be the first to confess frailty to this much admired woman.
But once Harrison had broached the subject after dinner, each member of the group took a turn exorcising his or her own, often unfocused, fears while the rest of us stared into the fire.
"I've always enjoyed being outdoors. So I assumed I would love being outdoors all summer," said Kate Finkbeiner, who is particularly sensitive to the mosquitoes that relish her above all others in our group. "I guess home was never far away. I don't think I'm tough enough for this kind of life."
Dick Sears complained about the pace. Don Rabern said he was having a hard time figuring out his purpose for this trip. Since I was only two days from Fort McMurray and a flight home, my perspective was too shortsighted to be of any worth.
Donna and Pat Leonard, who jokingly referred to himself as "consort to the queen," remained silent until everyone had spoken. Then Pat began, in a soft, friendly voice.
"I'm sorry people haven't been communicating more about their feelings. All I can say is, if you're not happy here you ought to leave. There is no disgrace in finding out you do not want to live like the old-time voyageurs who were virtually no better off than slaves.
"But I like this life. I'm relaxed here. At home I get stress headaches every other day and my stomach stops working about once a week. I'd rather be here by this fire, in my smelly bug jacket, under my own cloud of mosquitoes than back in Washington walking on the mall."
Donna began by saying she and Pat were prepared to finish the trip alone. But she was willing to make almost any concession to keep the group together, including more direct routes to Hudson Bay and increased rest breaks. The reason she had pushed so hard at the start, she explained, was to create more time later to explore Canada's true wilderness, the ancient granite heart of North America where the clear lakes are so cold you can catch 50-pound trout that may have lived 100 years.
While nothing was resolved that night, the mood of the group brightened considerably. The river helped. For the next two days it again became the boiling, youthful rush of rapids we had seen at the start of the trip. The difficulty of these rapids had increased, but so had our ability to handle them. During one stretch of the Athabasca we ran eight miles of continuous rapids without a misstroke.
The sky remained a bold blue and the wildlife seemed to be performing especially for us. One afternoon we saw an unidentified black bird attack a red tail hawk from above. Just when it looked as though the hawk would be blindsided, the raptor rolled in mid-flight and presented a set of talons that put its attacker into a desperate roll.
Perhaps the most startling scenes we witnessed concerned our own species. Dick Sears and Barry Crouch, who have been sniping at one another since this trip began, have become comrades.
The transformation began one morning when Sears was having trouble lighting a breakfast fire in the rain. Crouch found some semidry twigs, whittled the bark off them with his knife, then used his body to shield Sears who sparked a flame. That night Sears volunteered to help his new friend do the dishes. They have even learned to coexist in the same canoe.
"I may have been too quick to judge Barry," conceded Sears, who looks more like a grizzled mountain man every day. "He listens. And he's got dreams. That's more than you can say for most people his age or any age."
When we paddled into Fort McMurray this afternoon, 15 days and 687 miles from our start, we were a content, if motley-looking crew. Our timing was excellent. This is Canada Day, the equivalent of our Fourth of July, and it was celebrated here with a parade, softball games, food-cooking contests and fireworks. It seemed appropriate that the voyageurs, who were so crucial to the exploration and colonization of western Canada, be represented at the party.
Leaving these friends was as hard as jumping from a moving train. The task was made a bit easier when Finkbeiner and Sears told me they were definitely sticking with the trip to Hudson Bay.
"I've wanted to go to Hudson Bay since I was 16," said Sears. "I've waited 36 years. For me, this is the last chance."
Only Rabern and Harrison were still uncommitted. When I said goodbye they were holding hands and munching on granola bars.