Canadian canoeing

Sunday, June 12, 2005

QUETICO PROVINCIAL PARK, Ontario -- My father is not an outdoorsman. Before our trip through some of Canada's best wilderness, he'd never even been in a canoe.

But last fall, my dad and I spent five days together in a 17-foot boat, paddling through a beautiful, rugged and remote spot that's easily accessible to Midwesterners: Quetico Provincial Park, the geological brother to Minnesota's Boundary Waters, just north of the border.

The trip would be a first for us, not only in terms of wilderness travel, but also in terms of time. I hadn't spent five straight days with the old man since my parents divorced when I was 8.

Dad had resisted my invitations to go canoeing for years, but once he said yes, he went all out. He studied guide books. He hiked his neighborhood with a pack on. He even "practiced" his stroke in his garage, slicing a weighted paddle through the air.

In turn, I planned a trip through a gorgeous haven of wilderness, where pine trees and Canadian shield rock ring 2,400 square miles of large lakes and meandering rivers spiced with monster rapids and sparkling waterfalls.

Park rules allow only a limited number of paddlers to enter Quetico per day, 10 times fewer than are allowed into Minnesota's Boundary Waters. That makes for a solitary trip -- in a wonderful way. But it can also make for rough going over the park's lesser-used portage trails.

My dad would call "rough going" an understatement. It was on day two that Quetico presented us with a four-mile portage, a killer task requiring us to carry our canoe and three bulging packs over an ungroomed trail of jagged rock and slippery logs.

Exhaustion and Adrenalin

Afterward, we were whipped, and my 58-year-old pop was wondering why he let a 29-year-old plan a trip better suited for his college buddies. But my route left little time to rest, so we soon got back in our craft and paddled toward open water.

And then, just as we were turning a blind corner, a hulking bull moose came crashing into the shoreline's shallows, within yards of our canoe. Of the half-dozen moose I'd seen on my four previous trips to Quetico, he was by far the biggest -- at least as big as a horse -- and he and his oversize rack were staring us down.

Fortunately, he decided we weren't worth a fight, and the beast calmly moose-paddled to the opposite shore. After our three-hour death march, nature had rewarded us with an adrenaline-charged encounter that washed the fatigue away.

Much of Quetico's beauty is that isolation. There are no roads. You paddle in, you paddle out. If you get seriously hurt deep inside the park, medical attention is hours -- if not days -- away. The park is so big -- 60 miles by 40 miles, with more than 600 lakes -- that on our Labor Day weekend trip we went three straight days without seeing another soul.

"I was overwhelmed by the vastness and the isolation, maybe just the beauty of it all," my dad, Dan, told me afterward.

Our first day was wonderful, paddling through pristine pineland and portaging around a pounding waterfall. The sun shimmering, the wind at our back -- life couldn't have been better. My father, the rookie, did great.

After making camp, Dad pulled out his new fishing rod he'd been so excited about. Soon enough he reeled in a small pike. We threw the shrimp back but, regrettably, had injured it.

A seagull labored to pull the flailing fish to land but quickly abandoned the effort.

We soon saw why.

A bald eagle had spread its wings and descended into the scene. The bird momentarily alighted on a nearby pine, then swooped down and snatched our wounded pike, carrying it off in its talons. Gorgeous.

Day two -- overcast and damp -- presented the four-mile portage. In a bid to save time, I loaded us to the brim. But when your food pack is still heavy and the terrain so treacherous, four miles lasts a lifetime. In the end, I had to double back to get gear we couldn't carry -- a 12-mile hike total.

Later on, my father didn't mince words.

"You're halfway along and sit down and say, 'This is a bunch of crap,"' he said, recalling the agony. "Well, what can you do about it? Quit? You're 500 miles from home, you're 20 miles from the nearest person. There's no option."

Months after we laid down our paddles, I asked Dad what his favorite part of the trip was.

I thought maybe he'd say the miles of open water, the moose, the eagle, or the three fish he caught.

Instead he turned quiet and answered it the best way he could have: "I guess spending five days with my son. I guess it's a highlight of being a father."

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