|Nanook's Campfire Tales|
|White Magic on the Tobique
I've canoed various rivers and quite often we usually go with a bunch of guys and have a good time. Many traditional quotations are often heard on the way downstream, some of the notable ones being "This is THE life!" and "It doesn't get much better than this!" Even when the wind picks up, or the clouds roll in and the rain pours, there's always the infamous words "It could be worse; it could be snowing!" that'll give the guys a laugh and reason to paddle ahead.
On this particular canoe trip a few years ago, we decided to be adventurous and make a 2nd stab at the upper stretch of the Tobique River during early spring. Did I mention early spring yet? Good, I wanted to emphasize that part.
Ok, we all knew this stretch is rough going, with the river being very narrow here and extremely winding. You never know when you go around a bend what will be facing you; short but quick little drops, or the darn deadfalls that block off the river right when the back end of the canoe is turning around, and the water tries to capsize the boat broadside.
We tried to travel fairly light, while at the same time bringing extra clothing, lots of food and the ever essential liquid refreshments:-)
I remember getting to Mt. Carleton park at a reasonable hour that Friday night. It was so early in the spring that the gate was open, no workers were around and all sites were available. Great! We got a fire going, explored the park a bit, making sure we had lots of firewood, and settled down for the rest of the boys to come in. One guy was renting a small car and driving from Halifax after work, another few were starting from the Chatham area and one guy was down on holidays from Ottawa, so as usual we had no idea when anyone would show up.
My friend "Moe" and I immediately started to put a dent into the liquid refreshments, making sure the fire was big enough that we'd stay warm and the other guys could find us, while ensuring that it wasn't dangerous. In a couple of hours, a small car appeared with a couple of strangers asking if we were canoeing down the Tobique that weekend. "Yup!" was our quick reply.
"Great! You don't know us, but I'm Bennett's brother, with a friend of mine. Can we join?" asked the guys from the old junker.
We threw them a couple of cold ones and in no time we were all together, talking, laughing and getting along, sharing jokes and stories. Time started to go by faster then, with Bennett, Boob, and Crack showing up not long after. We were still waiting for "Butt" to arrive, but no one was worried. Butt had told us he'd get in around 11pm, it was now half past midnight and he still hadn't showed up, which meant Butt was right on schedule.
At one point I remember Moe convincing me that there were some nice camps to go visit on one end of the park and not to worry, he had crossed the stream last fall in an Army jeep without any problem. Although I tried to convince him that the water this time of the year was much higher and my Isuzu 4x4 wasn't amphibious quite yet, he was able to talk me into crossing it to go see the other camps. I still remember him taking pictures in the dark of my truck, with water sloshing around the front bumper as I cursed his sweet talking, grabbed the steering wheel with both hands and stepped on it, hoping I wouldn't get bogged down.
Of course old faithful made it through without any problems and we were lucky enough to see a few nice deer leave the campyards as we drove in to have a look.
We turned back, I did the old "grab the steering wheel and give Moe a nasty look" routine and met back with the boys. Sometime around 2ish a.m. I believe, we saw a new Windstar minivan with Nova Scotia plates and a rental car sticker on pull up. Butt was only 3 hours behind schedule, a good omen!
After a couple more hours of imbibing we eventually all passed out, uhh, let me rephrase that, fell asleep.
Within no time we were all up again, dawn had broke not long ago and we were itching to get on the water. We did some quick shuttling while the other guys tried to get the gear all tied into the canoes.
It was a great feeling, putting the paddle into the water for the first time that spring! Yes it was cloudy, the weather was cool, the wind was up and we were feeling the effects of last night, but no one had anything but positive thoughts and cocky attitudes.
We spent the first hour or two on the river talking about how Crack and the Birdman had swamped at the first white water stretch called the "falls" on a previous trip. We made sure to remind Crack to at least have his paddle in his hands this time around.
We spent the next couple of hours laughing at the boys who swamped at the EXACT same spot this time. That small class two falls was always tricky because, like a cobra, it was silent but deadly. You'd be canoeing away in solitude, just trying to make sure you could straighten the canoe to made it around the NEXT bend in the river after just recovering from the last sharp turn and you'd look up to see that quick drop off and hold on to the gunwales!
Over the next few hours we continued to have mishaps. Virtually every canoe either flipped, was swamped or took in water. Usually it would be the same old thing, you'd be focusing on trying to keep the canoe fairly straight as you made a sharp turn in the river only to see a logjam ahead.
The usual scenario at that point would be you'd have just enough time to get a couple of powerful but useless strokes in as the current brought the canoe broadside along the deadfall. As you hit the tree(s), and the canoe rocked, the current would then hit the boat sideways, often causing the canoe to tilt to one side just enough so that the water would flood in and quickly flip you and your belongings overboard or at least fill the boat up to the point you had to jump out or bail.
While I'm on the topic of this water that is doing all of these nasty deeds, I should take a moment to describe the aforementioned liquid. It won't take long and I'll try to be brief and to the point. The water was fast, cold, and wet. I'm not sure if I should emphasize the cold or the wet, but I think the word "cold" is what came to our lips the most often. I must admit that terms such as "freezing, deathly" and references to brass monkeys were made as well.
Anyways, after hours of swamping, flipping, and the twice per hour ritual of hit the deadfall, remove the cooler and big dry bags, somehow pull the canoe over the dead trees and debris, make sure your feet weren't too numb to continue, reload the canoe and help the next boat do the same, we eventually pulled alongside an old delapidated camp that was unlocked.
We all had tents, but no one had the strength (or courage?), to set one up. As quick as we could we got a fire in the campstove going, brushed away as much of the mouse droppings as we could, threw the sleeping bags on the floor and got supper ready.
I think my concoction that year was a mixture of canned moosemeat, canned potatoes, corn, hotdogs and some Clamato all thrown into my big old 5 pound steel frying pan. It looked horrible and tasted great. We played a few card games, talked a bit, chased after the mice, (I think an albino was seen actually), worried about the hantavirus that was spread by mouse poop,and complained about what a rough day it had been. In other words, everyone was delighted!! It was another great canoeing day to remember and a feather in the cap.
Butt decided he had heard enough about the hantavirus and knew about some of the spectacular snoring abilities of some of the locals, so he went solo and set up a tent outside. I remember taking a minute to make sure that most of the paddles, lifejackets and canoes were pulled high up enough from the river because the clouds had thickened and it looked like rain.
I know for a fact that everyone slept great that night, solid as rocks. No one stayed up long after dark. Early in the morning we all got up, hoping for sunshine and anxious to hit the water. Both sentiments were quickly dashed as we looked outside.
Snow. The white stuff. The cold stuff. Snow. Everywhere! Not just a flurry or two. It was snowing! And hard! And, it wasn't just starting. This had been going on for hours!
I still remember the funny shape the el cheapo summer tent with a couple inches of snow on top had made. Somehow the tent was still upright, although I'm using the term upright loosely. We gave Butt a shout, heard a muffled laugh and we all had a chuckle as we saw him poke his head out of the tent flap in amazement.
The next hour or so was spent looking around the campsite for loose items. Luckily most of the stuff had been piled together, but we literally had to dig through the snow to find the rest of the paddles and gear. Yes, you read correctly - DIG through the snow. It was that deep already; definitely over the ankles! To be honest, I know for a fact that one of my favourite old camp axes remained there under the snow even though we spent a lot of time trying to find it!
This was a first for all of us. We had all canoed in the rain, thunderstorms, wind, and cold spring days before. (Well, actually, this was one guy's first real canoe trip, may have been his last cause I never did see him on the river again). But, none of us had ever experienced anything like this.
The worse thing was, the snow wasn't stopping. We put plastic bags around our feet before putting shoes on, took out the heaviest and warmest clothing we could find and headed out.
All I can say is that it's a good thing we had plenty of "antifreeze" to keep us warm. That was one of the longest paddling days of my life. At some points you could barely see a hundred metres ahead, it was snowing that hard. The wind didn't help. Of course it was blowing north and we were heading south. I don't know how many times we wanted to pull over to start a fire, cursed the weather or laughed as another person yelled out "It could be worse, it could be snowing!"
A great cheer erupted as we made the final bend to see the takeout site at The Forks with that rented minivan in plain view. It was rough shuttling because the roads were hilly, weren't plowed, and visibility was still poor. I was very glad I was going to get my 4x4.
We got back to the park, spent another couple of hours making sure everybody had their own gear, fighting with Bennett's old Ranger that had a flat and reminiscing about the great trip...one for the record books for sure!
That night I called around, glad to hear that Butt had made it safely to Halifax, while the Chatham boys explained how they had made it partway home only to have to turn around because the road was snowblocked and made a detour through St. Quentin. I remember hanging up the phone in amazement, shaking my head, thinking how it was another great canoeing weekend to talk about and how great it felt knowing how some of the guys who had started with us that weekend had started as strangers and finished by becoming life-long friends ... like I said; one for the record books!
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