It was the summer before eleventh grade. I’d signed up for my youth group’s annual August canoe trip in Canada’s remote Algonquin Park, almost 3,000 square miles of pine and rock so rife with lakes and lakelets: about 2,400 of them, if you’re counting. All open air and sky and not a cell phone tower, a blinking pager, a Wi-Fi hotspot: just our group: six teens, two leaders, four canoes, and our backpacks. And by backpack, I mean human-sized pea-green canvas behemoths that I could crawl into and take a nap. The real monster–the food pack–rang in at at least 70 pounds at the park’s Rock Lake access point, and next to nothing by the time we clocked out. The first night we pitched tents and ate king-food: still-cool and beautifully marbled steaks for pan-frying over the fire. Corn. Soft, pillowy rolls and some sort of raspberry streusel crumble bars, creme de la creme, top of the sack. As the week wore on and we amassed bug bites and oily scalps, we dug deeper into our rations, finding the pauper-food at the dregs: noodles and the freeze-dried vegetables and a dark rye brick the outfitters passed off as a bread product but was dense as nucleic matter. It could double as a bulletproof vest, if you needed it to.
We paddled for miles (my first ever instance of trigger finger occurred in the belly of Pen Lake) and when we got to the end of one patch of water, the canoes went upside down, wicker seats flat atop our heads. The boys showed off, one-manning the crossbar over a meaty curve of their shoulders. Once the canoes had crossed, we jogged back to fetch the packs, clipped and cinched their buckle-straps in two spots, around the chest and around the waist, and pushed our legs up under us. Portaging sounds official and romantic and French, and maybe like a good life skill–-“to carry between navigable waters”–-but it is basically nasty hiking, hauling your house and your refrigerator and your car on your back.
This, I now know, is why snails move so slow: They are always portaging, always carrying everything everywhere.
We look for moose and beaver and black bears. We inflate camp and collapse camp, up and down and up, and if it is in the seventies we force ourselves to swim and towel clean. Mostly it is cold and we stay dirty. We get bored and lazy with boiling water for washing our dinner dishes, and take to cold-water cleaning them, squatting at the edge of a massive rock that slinks low into the lake. I set a sticky colander down to soak while I take sponge to our big boiling pot, and by the time the pot is smooth and clean and it’s the colander’s turn, a fat black leech has strung itself through one of the pin holes. Lots of screaming and waving and laughing as we debate ways to free it.
We spend five days on the trail, four nights, and the tents keep going up-down-up-down. We lose a stake. Two. We stop being so prissy about the inhumane fact that we are going to bathroom, imagine, on an open-air toilet that looks just as rugged and campy as it sounds: THE BOX. The box is a pine crate with a hinged lid that reveals a putrid and buggy black hole, and so we come up with this privacy code: If the toilet paper roll is off its spot on a rock or a branch, the throne is occupied. Don’t head down the trail.
I bring my journal and jot down the obvious and expected teen-in-nature thoughts: about how much hush there is out here, in the middle of nowhere, under a blanket of jarringly white star and comets, their streaky tails. How God is louder here. Bigger, too. This is before Twitter and #hashtaggingchaos and the chime! of fresh texts. And even so, the quiet is so stark it feels starched and almost uncomfortable: Too perfect that it cuts into you, like a new pair of shoes. One night a group of us decide to shirk the tents and make a little row as we camp out on a rock peninsula, and it is by far the hardest mattress I’ve known, below me, but ok, only for this: above me, the purple blue bruise of late summer sky ranks by far as the best ceiling.
At some point along the trail, we pull our canoes out of the south end of Pen Lake (the writer in me gets all goosebumpy typing that) and begin buckling up for the portage to our next paddle. The trail breaks in two parts, and our legs are fresh and young and the sun is still low and we make quick work of the first stretch, maybe a fifth of a mile, and then come to the second and re-check our map.
P 2170 meters. About 1.3 miles, another portage; maybe it’ll take an hour? Or longer, for those of us who can’t muscle a boat on our own?
But someone takes a closer look at the map. Some squinting. Is that…is that a little blue line that runs below, a barely there vein? And, does it thread almost perfectly from one lake all the way to the other? Let me see that, and we pass the map back and forth, and sure enough, agree that it does, and that it’s big enough to own a name. The Galipo River. It runs just south of the trail we’re standing on, and we can see the sun glinting off it from here, and that it’s a nice breadth, good darkish depth, slow current cutting wide like a scythe through the reeds.
Why make a portage when we can just glide alongside? someone asks. A little more paddling? And we wander over, trace our eyes along the snake of the river again, and nod.
Ok, our leaders say. The map looks good. Let’s give her a go.
A shortcut. We grin.
For the first couple of hundred yards, we are so egoed up, so settled on the fact that we are geniuses. We sing stupid campy songs and laugh as other portagers weave through trees somewhere off to our right. Silly people who don’t innovate, who take the map so literally, who choose their hill-infested hike right alongside this people-mover river.
We keep singing, and then, slowly, the river grows narrower. The reeds lean in a little. As we sing more softly, with each stroke, the river thins, and the bottom crests higher, so shallow that our paddles begin to scrape the mud bottom, until we’re standing, using one of them angled back like the lone oar of a gondola; and then the reeds are rubbing against us too close, furring us like a friendly cat, and then the canoes, so heavy laden, are suddenly beached right here in our river that now looks more like a field.
We disembark and leave our packs in the boat, and the canoe’s now light enough that, with some muscle, we can drag it along the little trickle that’s only inches wide, and then the reeds recede and the river widens up just enough that we can climb back in, only it now points us straight into a knotty tangle of scrub: low limbs that work like a spider’s web, funneled in front to catch us. We pass the hacksaw to the canoe up front, and the boys saw through small limbs, carving a path.
The portage is starting to look a little better. But we’re in the thick–the thicket–and committed, and now the shorter way is through.
As we slice through our low-limbed jungle cruise, slowly, the trees peel back and the brush lets go and the Galipo relaxes, spreads open, and we smile. Finally. Through the worst, we think, and better: there’s a little clip to the current, and it’s a friendly pull, tugging us out into the next lake, helping us paddle, and we let it carry us forward.
But the current keeps quickening. Acceleration, I think. When speed speeds up. And the river keeps bleeding out wide, and we see little ripples and rapids where stones are nosing out, cutting waters. The water grows from green to grey to black, tipped with bubble and foam, and then someone gets whapped right out of their boat, but holds on, and is helped back up in, and someone else yells for the rest of us to paddle over to the river’s hem, where we are going to pull out and trace the rest of the route along its north shore.
The pitch along this part of the glen is severe, and the footing is slippery as we wrestle our boat through more brush. The hacksaw comes back out. We take on more elevation, still tracking the river, and laugh and sigh relief as we see it rush over itself in a small circus of falls. That might have been us. We sigh. And we keep pulling, twigs scraping our shins, until finally our feet meet up with the portage trail, which is so hard and packed and perfect we could bow down and kiss it. And then we see it, this ending playing out slow like the tail of a movie: our holy arrival at a blue-grey ocean of lake. And we look at the map, confirm its name, and we couldn’t have chosen better ourselves:
The shortcut we took to avoid the hour-long portage took seven hours. Once we were out of the woods for good, and bunked back at a family church camp and shampooed and wound in clean, warm sweatshirts, eating a small mountain of spaghetti, we laughed as we regaled the other canoe groups with our bravest adventure: What we affectionately dubbed The Long-Cut.
In case you’re tempted to forgo the portage and Tom-and-Huck down the Galipo, we said, You should know that it is not so much a river as it is a marsh, and then a field, and then a thicket, and then a wild whip of white-water.
I suppose I’m thinking about this lately because it’s September, because I am wired to want direction and new ruled pages and clear finish lines. Deadlines. Because my first book publishes in April and I am having serious doubts about a second project that’s still so nascent, so much still in its fetal stages. It’s something, I hope, but it can’t much breath on its own. It’s not ready for the world. And my biggest fear is that it will ultimately only amount to a big gargle, some throat-clearing.
I guess: I am between navigable waters.
So this is when I need remind myself that I have been here before. And that I can choose better.
That I can brave the big carry.
That, when I am tempted to want a quicker way around, when I don’t want to step out and strap on the pack; when I would much rather keep paddling along this blue slip of water than put my feet on the root-strewn trail and drag the whole mess of me up somewhere different; when it seems easier to work-around than work-through, well.
I think of the Galipo River.