On Nov.1st my buddy Jenica and I woke up to the big freeze up. The moment when liquid becomes solid. And in that moment, the 400 kilometre paddle we had maps for became Jenica’s hatchet pulling the canoe forward as I smashed the ice with my wooden paddle. And my paddling season came to an end.
We knew this could be a possibility when we arrived back to the trail in Atikokan in the middle of the first winter blizzard of the season last week of October. Funny enough, the last time Jenica and I saw each other on the trail was in a snow storm after she snowshoed the Voyageur trail with me for three weeks. This time J had come expecting the beautiful fall colours and instead found herself white knuckling empty highways and white out snow drifts.
We spent an extra day in Atikokan hoping most of the snow would disappear as fast as it had come. It was still October after all. The same thing happened to me last year when I was mountain biking outside of North bay and days later it was melted. My cousin Derm had driven 8 hours from Winnipeg Beach in the same snow storm with his wife Karen to help us launch, pick up the support vehicle, and move it to Winnipeg. At this point there was no ice on the water or her shores. We were still hopeful the snow was not the beginning of winter still officially two months away.
I know the safest way to travel in the wilderness is to have no plan. Have an idea and then adapt to the circumstances. That was my first lesson on the trail, day 3 Newfoundland when I burned that piece of paper that said, The Plan. That is how one stays safe in nature. But there are logistical reasons that sometimes make that impossible.
Four days after we left, the big freeze happened. So after Lady J and I pulled and hacked our path across the frozen water, we came to a beautiful waterfall which we sat with quietly for a few moments. Then we shored and began the search for the next portage made so much more difficult after another big snowfall. A few hours later we had climbed, chopped, pulled, and hiked all our gear uphill to the shore of the next lake and discovered that it too, was completely frozen but not strong enough to support the weight of us walking across it and too thick to paddle through. We suspected that would be the case.
So we had a production meeting.
Then removed on to plan 2. The large paper map showed a cart trail that led to a dirt road 5.5 km away and 7km down that dirt road, a paved road. So we set out to find that trail. After some wandering we found what once had been a trail but now was overgrown with trees that were all bent over with heavy snow and looked daunting and impenetrable. But we began to stomp down a trail in deep snow, and using the hatchet and our hands, making a trail. For the next three days we spent the day making our trail a little longer and pushing ahead to see if at some point it might not open up. At the end of each day we would hike back to our base camp. On the second day Jenica called my cousin and Ann on the Satellite phone. And by day three Derm and his buddy Jerry were chainsawing and coming toward us with an ATV.
At no point were we scared. We had lots of food and between us everything we needed to survive in the harsh winter conditions we found ourselves in. We accepted that our journey was not going to be a long paddle, but this challenge, together. And we enjoyed. The kindness of my cousin Derm, Jerry, Karen and Donna is the water that feeds this garden.
And the wisdom of this misadventure is that the journey is not a line across space. It is the circle, the connections and the stories.
The big freeze enabled me these past few weeks to work with Ann Verrall and Lindsay Dobbin on the Beacon Project, a companion piece to 500 Days. We are very grateful and excited to be launching a new project with support from the Canada Council for the Arts | Conseil des Arts du Canada New Chapter program. The project is a series of multimedia creations in collaboration with Indigenous communities along the Trans Canada Trail, an exploration of the beacons that guide me on my journey, and the wisdom of those that live close to the land. The project engages youth, artists, Elders and Grandmothers in a collaborative process of listening and sharing. The films emerge out of this shared reflection and dialogue, and are an honouring of signals, guides, warnings and celebrations as we continue our journey into the future.
To welcome the return of light a 3000 year old welcome song.. a fire to light the way — the Sacred Wolf Singers performing the Mi’kmaq Welcome Song, one of the oldest songs that Mi’kmaq people know.
This performance was recorded as part of the sound track for the short film “Indigenous Knowledge and the Water Grandmother” and is part of The Beacon Project
Thank you to all the people who helped this journey in 2017. Your kindness is the candle that lights the way. You are all Beacons.
I will return to the trail to snowshoe early January. Until then, all the very best.