Kattawagami Untouched
© Richard  Culpeper

Kattawagami River
Lower James Bay


One hot morning as we lay about the dock thinking adventurous thoughts down at the Sudbury Canoe Club, a woman walking along the boardwalk stopped and asked what we were doing, or at least that is what we think she was asking, for she did not speak French or English -- only German with a thick Bavarian accent which defies both description and translation.  She was a scraggly thing with jewellery attached to her runny nose, so we assumed that she must be a Euro-punk who through a cosmic mistake landed up in Sudbury looking for a meal.  Turns out we were right.

Not being able to communicate verbally, we thought that the best way to explain what we were doing was through example.  We loaded the trailer, drove up a skidder trail near River Valley, put the waif in an old, expendable R-5 kayak, and waved in a friendly and encouraging manner as she drifted off the Temagami's Island Falls.  Driving home at the end of the day, our guest had a smile on her face, so we assumed that she liked paddling with us.

That summer we explained how in Canada we tremendously enjoy hiking, but because of so many pesky lakes we have to hike with canoes to help paddle between breaks in the trail.  Thus we brought the urbanite along on trips to Killarney and Algonquin.  She quite enjoyed the hikes, and didn't mind the paddling sections either.  A snowstorm on top of Silver Peak, followed by a
nighttime off-trail descent and paddle back to Norway Lake was just the sort of relaxed outing which our tourist enjoyed the most, although we were later to learn that she preferred cycling round and round in a hole in the Ottawa's Coliseum because she really likes swimming -- although the turkey vulture diving at her was a bit unnerving.

We learned several things about our guest that season.  We found her to be fearless, light hearted, and most importantly, omnivorous.  Her only failing was her gullibility, which approached dangerous proportions, and nearly got her arrested on some road trips.  By the end of the summer her English had improved enough that she was able to communicate: "My name is Martina Urban and I shall return."  She was, she did, and the rest is herstory.

The Trip that Would Be

Through the miracle of the Internet, which provided communication with Martina as equally incomprehensible as face-to-face verbal communication, we planned our trip.  Hundreds of research hours later I was to learn that Martina had difficulty communicating not only with English speakers, but also with her own family.  She did not tell her family of her planned expedition because they would be too worried about her being eaten by bears.

Now I realize that to you and me, being eaten by a bear is not an overriding concern when planning a trip, but in Martina's village near the Checz border, it is.  You see, she lives on the edge of the Bavarian National Forest, and in the Bavarian National Forest is a cage, and in the cage live Rudi and Traudl.  The St. Oswald newspaper has a story about the bears at least weekly.  The villagers worry about the bears' physical, emotional and spiritual well being (they frequently have colds, have no bear buddies, and are worshipped by a small number of scantily clad, body painted neo-Luddites on full moonlit nights).  Most importantly, the villagers worry that the bears might escape the cage, leave the park, and eat their children as they sleep.  With this sort of societal background, it is no wonder that Martina did not want to tell her family of her plans.

Thus when Martina's sister decided to get married in the middle of the summer, she had no reason to believe that she would be upsetting Martina's well laid plans.  Martina rejected my suggestion of feeding her sister to the bears, so we juggled our plans and prepared for the Kattawagami.

The Kattawagami flows from this wetland, near the northern Ontario/Quebec border, down through the Canadian Shield into Hanna Bay, at the base of the Arctic Ocean's Hudson's and James' Bay.  To say the least, the Kattawagami is not a well travelled river.  Peter, of Polar Bear Marine in Cochrane, who arranges shuttles in the area, says that about one group per year has paddled the river during the last decade, since the Detour Lake Mine Road went in.  (One group made it half way down before giving up and trying to work their wayback to the top.)  Before this, according to Moose Factory water taxi driver Billy, whose parents lived at the mouth of the Harricinaw, very few people ever travelled the river prior to the road.  Five groups have kept logs.  One party paddled from Hanna Bay all the way into Moose Factory, but had a rather rough time of it on the open ocean.  The rest flew out from the Harricinaw's Goose Camp to Moosonee, averaging just more than two weeks for their trips.

The logs were wonderful examples of  human perception.  One group carefully named each rapid they ran, describing the various routes available and the moves required of them.  Very complex.  Had they included universal transverse Mercator grid references, these descriptions might even have been something which could be identified with the rapids we encountered.  The two camp groups spent quite a bit of time going on about secret friends and drying out after dumps.  I don't know about secret friends -- probably some cult ritual -- but I do know that I never wish to swim as often as they did.  Something about repeatedly crashing on a remote wilderness river gives me the heebie-jeebies.  Their party which took eighteen days and paddled all the way back to Moose Factory had some useful notes on how not to venture out into the ocean, for again their aggressive attitude toward paddling led them in over their heads.

Pat and Bryan Buttigieg's log was very helpful, for they clearly identified the major waterfalls, and described the prettiest campsites imaginable.  By comparison, I am quite humbled, for when I review it, I find my log of little use to any one.  I make comments such as "Another day drifting down a river in paradise," and "Boy, Martina sure eats a lot!"  Comments which will probably be of no use what-so-ever to future explorers of the river.  All I can offer the world is corrections and additions to an annotated map, but sadly even this is very poor, for my handwriting is deficient.  About the best advice I can give future trippers is be conservative in your judgement and pack a really big lunch.

Modern Transportation

Just reaching the headwaters was an adventure. Martina’s flight from Germany to Canada was on Air France, but unfortunately the French airports, fine institutions all, happened to be on strike at the time.  Several changed flights and many delays after leaving her home in the Bavarian Forest, Martina found herself in the wrong airport in Canada.  She had hoped to end up in Toronto, where I was waiting, but found herself being shipped back and forth between Dorval and Mirabel in Montreal.  The bilingual flight attendants made valiant efforts at explaining, in both French and English, just how very far off course Martina was, but Martina, as you might remember, only speaks a seldom understood regional dialect of Bavarian German.  Meanwhile, in Toronto, the Air France staff, truly dedicated people, had given up on Martina ever arriving and had gone home for the night, leaving the responsibility with Air Canada’s staff, who, after having me walk from one end of Terminal 2 to the other several times over, kindly explained to me that they were not allowed to tell me, due to security regulations, why Martina had gone missing  I gather that they were worried that after mis-shipping Martina about the world for a day, from one wrong destination to the next, I might assassinate her if she ever did arrive in Toronto.  Close, but no banana.  I think a truer view of reality would be that they themselves would be in danger from Martina if she ever did arrive, which she did in a semi-comatose, rather smelly state, a day late.  My sister, Jennifer Culpeper, came to Martina’s rescue by soaking her in a hot tub and bundling her off to bed.  Air France and Air Canada should be grateful for Jennifer’s actions, for Martina had a steely look of murder in her eyes when she de-planed.

Even then, it took a few days to make it to the headwaters.  We stopped in Sudbury to visit the gang at the club.  One thing led to another, and we ended up having a wonderful party with all our friends on Lake Ramsey.  That, combined with some fine dining at a restaurant which Pat and Bryan Buttigieg and I frequent when on the Wanipitei River (we paddle, set up camp, drive into town for dinner, return to camp, paddle the next day, et hoc genus omnes), set the mood for what would prove to be both a paddling and culinary adventure.

I had packed a month’s supply of food for a two week trip.  We did not want to run into trouble on the Bay by paddling in inclement conditions, as did one of the previous groups, so I packed an extra couple of weeks of food in anticipation of being weather bound.  Martina took a close look at the supplies.  Then she took a close look at me.  For those of you who have never met me, I might best describe myself as an overweight troll.  Short, wide, grumpy.  Having examined the supplies and condescendingly poked a finger at my gut, Martina decided that we had better double our provisions.  I assured her that I had never eaten a paddling partner, and was not about to start, but she would not believe me, for she was a true omnivore who, when running out of fruit, vegetables, beans and grain, could give new meaning to the phrase “Have a friend over for dinner.”  Thus when we finally set out from Sudbury (with another stop in Timmins for some more five star dining), it was with two months supply of food for a two week trip.  And folks wonder why I own a big canoe.


The pattern for the trip was established the first few days.  We would float aimlessly for a few hours, sucking on sweets, then set up camp and go for a swim.  I have never been much of one for swimming; in fact, I have a couple of kayaking t-shirts proudly stating, “I’d rather die than swim!”  With weather so hot, though, an afternoon swim became mandatory.  Besides, I doubt if Martina would have let me in the tent otherwise.  We’d set out together, swimming upstream.  After a few minutes of floundering I would drift back to camp and prepare dinner, while Martina would swim several kilometres.  Although she might be away for a few hours, Martina always returned, refreshed and smiling from ear to ear.

The river was most cooperative, for although it wound through a wetland (can you name Ontario’s five types of wetland?), it had a four foot sand bottom, defined banks and a gentle current.  The land was very low, with lots of muskeg, but there were occasional hummocks of black spruce and jack pine, which made for tolerable camping.  One of our first nights in this section we found ourselves setup in a burn, which was rather messy, but it was just as well, for this was the same night our stove decided to nova.  I am always amazed at my ability to flame a well maintained stove; it’s a talent on which I have worked years perfecting.  I have never actually blown up anything, but with skill and determination I am certain that I will someday take out a major section of forest.

I have gained this proficiency under the tutelage of Janet Earl, who aside from being a terrific wild water kayaking teacher, can also demonstrate some neat tricks with stoves.  No matter what the type, from Peak to Whisper, Janet knows how to blow it.  She has even taken out an entire picnic table, turning it from eating platform to bonfire in only minutes.  At the end of a day’s paddle the word goes out: “Janet will be lighting her stove in half an hour.”  “Janet will be starting up in a few minutes.  Have you found a place from which we can watch?”  “Janet is pulling out the matches.  Are we far enough back?”  “She’s lighting it.  Holy Sweet Mother of God!  That was something; is everyone OK?”

Since the weather was so hot, there were quite a few fires in the region.  Fortunately, no active ones crossed our path, though Jeanette Gerard had a trying time on the Little Bear.  While Martina and I were paddling north, Jeanette was parallelling us to the west on the train.  She had to spend over fifteen minutes passing through a burn, and nearly had to turn back.  Made for some pretty spectacular sunsets.  Again and again through the trip we were to pass through recent burns.

There are several politico-religious governmental organizations which are fighting out the burn issue.  Their debate takes on a religious fervour, so they are called ministries: the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, and the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Energy.  The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources is gradually coming to realize that absolute fire suppression is not the best way to help a forest.  A couple of years ago they hired their first forest and fire ecologist, Dave Heaman of Temagami, who has religiously been spreading the “Burn Baby Burn” gospel.  He has a long way to go, for his ministry is still promoting large clearcuts over natural burns, but the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Energy has recognized that for large areas burns are better.  Ian Thompson of Forestry Canada has been preaching that burns leave more live and dead standing stems, leave more residual patches of live trees and large diameter downed wood, and occur in a largely unpredictable manner over the landscape ranging from a few hectares to thousands of hectares.  Of course none of this flashed before my mind as my stove erupted.

On the Beach

After a few days of lazily drifting down the river we found ourselves emerging into a shallow lake.  It too had a four foot sand bottom, but its diameter was several kilometres.  The lake was lined with beautiful white sand beaches.  As we entered the lake the winds picked up, raising several water spouts near us, and leaving a magnificent double rainbow in the distance.  At camp we lay on the sand with a hot wind blowing across and the sun burning down.  Of course Martina spent a great deal of time swimming about, though I preferred to take my exercise running along the shore.  This was one of several camps we were to set where time stopped, leaving us with no wish to continue on.  Paradise.

Over the years I have become accustomed to miserable camps.  Bugs; rain, sleet and snow; bumpy, sloping tent sites; bugs; brackish water; dense vegetation; and did I mention bugs?  A site with no major drawbacks is appreciated, and perfect sites are rare.  This was one of those perfect sites on a perfect day.  Simply perfect.

The water and air were so warm that Martina decided to not paddle the next day.  I paddled.  She swam.  We had discussed what to do in case we lost the canoe, which would put us in an uncomfortable but non-life threatening position.  I suggested that we could wait a few weeks until our rescue coordinator realized that we were overdue, or we could walk out, depending on where we were.  Tina said, “Why not just swim out.”  I thought that she was joking.  I was mistaken.  Perhaps Martina was onto a new sport: wilderness marathon swimming.  Who needs canoes?

I asked her if she was worried about getting a cramp, sinking and drowning, leaving me with the provisions all to myself.  She replied that she was the Princess of the Bavarian Forest, and that ones such as herself did not cramp.  “Besides,” she said with her thick Bavarian accent as she stood up in the middle of the lake to be handed a sweet, “the water is only four feet deep.”

Remembering a nasty encounter a friend had while we were on the Missinaibi, I asked Martina if she was worried about large Muskie with sharp teeth.  She replied that as long as I kept making fine meals for her, she would not take any bites out of the fish she swam past.  It was about this time that I began to realize that Martina was a predatory woman with no limits.  I resolved to redouble my culinary efforts, for I did not relish crossing her, and was beginning to have concerns over sleeping in the same tent.  If she ever dreamt that I was a butterball turkey (which Bill Dawson once did -- started chewing on my arm), it would be all over.  I would have no chance to escape.  I knew that given the opportunity, Martina would happily eat the canoe, the paddles, and me.  Damn omnivores.  I never should have mailed to her copies of Hood’s and Franklin’s journals.

Our day was capped by a magical encounter with a woodland caribou, which was feeding in the shoreline grasses near the exit of the lake.  We spent half an hour watching it, and being watched in return.  Martina had never seen one before.  She did not know if it was a deer, a moose, or a bear in disguise, but it sure looked edible.  I was relieved to know that I was not the only big game in the area, particularly since our stay in the headwaters was quickly coming to and end, for we were about to drop down through the Canadian Shield.

Tortuous Shield

Days merged into each other as Martina and I made our way down the granite and gneiss of the Canadian Shield: Precambrian rock formed a few billion years ago; hard rock as old as life itself.  Through the eons it has been eroded by water, wind, glaciation and vegetation, but it remains a formidable terrain.  The river had to fight its way through: blind channels, mazes, switchbacks, sudden drops and falls; no clear course to be found.

We divided our time evenly between running class II, lining class III, and portaging class IV.  Sometimes it was difficult to portage such wonderful runs, but we did not want to take many risks, given our remoteness.  Fortunately, most of the carries were along the rocky shore, saving us from having to push into the woods very often.  The few times we did have to leave the river to portage, we were rewarded by lush vegetation.  Once through the shoreline growth and into the forest, we would find ourselves following caribou and moose tracks through either muskeg or lichen and blueberries, depending on whether we were in a depression on a hill.  The shield determined everything.

We took our time with the inland portages, making several trips, following different routes, and shooting lots of film.  While physically tiring, these carries were always welcome for the glimpses they allowed us into the land.  I would poke about with my camera, enraptured by the ever changing light and the myriad of colours, while Martina, folded at the waist, would forage for blueberries, in her element at last.  I had been fortunate enough to help edit the Ministry of Natural Resources’ “Field Guide to Forest Ecosystems in Northeastern Ontario.”  Aside from allowing me to spend time with Doug Skeggs’ pretty impressive band of northern paddlers, it helped me become more familiar with the flora of this end of the province.  What I could not have been prepared for was the sheer intensity of life I was to find on the Kattawagami: coral lichen on the rock; Labrador tea, naked mitrewort and a variety of sphagnum in the bogs; creeping snowberry on rotting logs; velvetleaf blueberry on the exposed hills, sedge and dogwood in the low meadows, northern honeysuckle and goldthread poking up in the margins, endless Schreiber’s moss, and eclipsing above, the over story of black spruce and jack pine.  All never touched by resource extraction or development.  Seldom visited by first peoples in the past, and today only seen by very few, very fortunate paddlers.  The experience was wondrous.  Each day by mid-afternoon, when we would set camp, we would be exhausted, partly from the exertion of moving ourselves down the shield, but also from the potency of discovery as we passed through the land.

As we slowly made our way down the river, Martina and I learned to work smoothly together.  Missed calls in the rapids, such as: “Draw right, please.  Thank you, now draw on the other right, please,” became fewer.  Our stroke rates synchronized.  We fell into an easy routine when setting and breaking camp.  After several days descending the shield, well past the point of no return, but still very far from the finish, we began to realize just how remote we were.  It was a warm feeling, a feeling of rightness with each other and with the land.  We were truly at home on the river.

Much Adventuring

Of course there were adventures enough to keep us busy in paradise.  Early on I made a series of silly mistakes which cost us our spray cover, which we were carrying for use toward the end of the trip when we would head out into the northern ocean.  One morning while portaging, Martina wandered off into the woods.  She eventually found her way back, but was rather upset and a little bug bitten.  (For some reason, the insects only seem to appear when you are bothered with something else -- they can’t just let you be when you most need to be let alone.)  As we loaded the boat, the mesh bag we used to carry wet gear tore a seam.  Rather than immediately sew up the bag, we continued loading and began our day’s paddle.  As the day wore on, I forgot about the bag, so when we made a liftover at lunch time, I did not think to repair the bag, even though it was an ideal opportunity.  We spent the day running technical class II, having a great time until we broadsided a submerged rock while ferrying.  We hopped out, avoiding a pin and making for a quick and easy recovery, but as our packs floated along the contents of the mesh bag escaped through the torn seam.  We said goodbye to our spray cover and to Martina’s very cool rose coloured glasses.  This impressed Martina to no end.  In one day I had managed to almost lose her while portaging, and then lose some gear while paddling.  The best she had to say about the episode was, “At least you were polite, saying ‘Please hold on to the paddles’ as we began our swim.  I liked the ‘please’.”  The best I could come up with in my shame was, “But Martina, I thought you liked swimming.”

The wind was often quite strong, and occasionally a tiny but fierce thunder head would force us off the river.  Surprisingly, we only had to don our rain gear a couple of times during the entire trip.  For the most part, it was hot winds at our backs.  Sometimes, though, this made setting camp interesting.  One afternoon, just in time for the four o’clock blow, the tent just did not want to stay put.  I laid it out to avoid the wind, staked it down, erected it, and watched it pretend it was a parachute.  I started again.  Laid it out, staked it down, set rocks over the stakes, erected it.  Again a parachute.  I started yet again.  Laid it out, staked it down, set rocks over the stakes, tied it to the canoe, erected it.  Darn thing pulled the canoe.  One more time; this time with feeling.    Laid it out, staked it down, set rocks over the stakes, binered and roped it to every boulder in sight, lowered the canoe into a small crevice, filled the canoe with rocks, tied it to the canoe, erected it.  Success at last!  It did not blow away!  Unfortunately, it blew absolutely flat.  Wind some, lose some.

Meal Plan

All this exercise made for some big appetites.  One evening I found the diner too salty for my taste.  I don’t seem to be able to tolerate much salt.  I cough when I taste a salty mouthful of food.  I have learned through hard experience that it is better to go hungry than to risk blowing my dinner onto whomever is unfortunate enough to sit across from me.  Thus I had to forgo an otherwise fine meal, leaving the entire feast to Martina.  While she devoured our dinner, I set to preparing a second meal.  Seeing as we had a month and a half of extra food with us, this was not much of a problem.  Unfortunately, by the time this second meal was ready, I had lost interest in eating, finding myself instead forming pleasant thoughts of nesting in my lovely down sleeping bag for the night.  Again, Martina came to the rescue and consumed the entire second meal, including a sizeable pot of blueberry cobbler for desert.  As the evening drew to an end, Martina lay there, making small gurgling noises, her normally flat stomach protruding, for she had eaten enough to satisfy four very hungry people.  I had an evil urge to offer her a sweet, but fortunately thought better of it.  By the end of the trip she had managed to gain four or five kilos, which might be a first for northern canoeing.

Martina has a craving for fresh fish, so when planning the trip, we made a point of researching what we might catch.  I am no fisherman.  Never have been.  Never wish to be.  Those fish never did anything to me, so I don’t see why I should do anything to them.  Martina, however, is another story.  She swims so much that she seems to me to be a fish: one that is high up the food chain.  I don’t debate her need for trout in a pan.  Realizing this, we asked Ed Snucins, Temagami’s aurora trout man of the Cooperative Fisheries Unit, what the fishing should be like.  “Well,” he explained, “the fish up there are none too sophisticated.  You can expect them to jump at just about anything.”  Sounded good to us.  Ed sent us to Ramaco’s Tackle World, where Ramaco spent the day teaching us how to cast for speckle and sold us a fair bit of his inventory.  Went well, especially when Martina landed a plug through the open window of a passing car.  In the evening we visited Ed’s research partner, Bill Keller, who explained where, when and how we should fish, and showed us how to clean the wee beasties.  All in all, we thought we were pretty well prepared to catch something at some point in our trip.

Well, it did not go exactly as planned.  One evening I broke out the tackle, tied on a Mepps #3, cast, snagged, followed Ramaco’s snag recovery instructions explicitly, and lost the lure.  So I tied on another Mepps #3 and repeated the process, including losing the second lure.  Fortunately, we really did have a fair piece of Ramaco’s inventory, so at this rate I could happily keep ‘fishing’ without worry of running out of lures.  The only problem was the shame factor, for one of my clients was the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, where we worked surrounded by trophy fish, where everyone spent much of their spare time fishing, and where everyone was intensely interested in knowing how each other’s fishing was going.  Now here I was, smack dab in the middle of the best fishing in the province, and utterly unable to catch a thing.  It would not have been so bad, had the smug S.O.B.s not kept jumping beside my snagged line.

While all this was going on, poor Martina was laughing herself silly.  Eventually she took pity on me.  She suggested that she would have better luck jigging, so she tied on a jig head, mounted a slimy shiny thing over the hook, cast, and, well, it’s hard to describe the look on her face, for the lure disappeared.  My best guess is that it came off on the back cast, but I’d swear that Martina thought it was properly cast, only to be snapped up and off by a lightening fast pickerel.  We never did catch anything, though I have never seen so many fish before.  Makes me wonder, though, who was more unsophisticated, the fish or Martina and I.

The One that Almost Got Away

I may not be much of a fisherman, but I am a passable boatman.  With all the strong wind and technical rapids, I was quite satisfied with our ability to move quietly down the river.  Running, lining and portaging all flowed smoothly.  At times we even slid our loaded boat down the shore beside small drops, easily coordinating our efforts to run the boat ashore, hop out on the fly and continue the momentum to get the canoe up and over the hump, and on its way down to the water below.  Usually this worked quite nicely, until one time when both Martina and I gave particularly strong heaves just as a very strong gust hit.  Who’d have guessed that a loaded boat could pick up speed descending a shallow rock?  The darn thing out sprinted me.  It hit the water at a run, with me diving wildly after it.  Somehow I was lucky enough to land in the cockpit, but by the time I had dug my face out from under the packs and got the rest of my body more or less in the boat, the canoe was well under way, leaving Martina on the shore wondering how long it would take for me to return against the current and the wind.  Fish, canoes, they’re all the same.  I may have lost the little ones, but in a pinch, I landed the big one.  Martina just shook her head.

Heaven’s Camp

On a river full of excellent campsites, one in particular stood out.  It was on a small island, surrounded by waterfalls.  The main current divided, with the flow to the east dropping over a very pretty vertical waterfall, and the flow to the west sliding down a large, smooth table.  At the centre of the island was a small, grassy, well drained meadow, with a fine tent site directly underneath a massive cedar tree.  This was a very odd tree to find here, for there were few cedars on the river, and none so large.  Two people holding hands would not be able to hug all the way around this cedar.

Directly beside the tent site was a series of small pools, with a series of four foot wide waterfalls dropping between then, landing on smooth, flat rock.  We spent an afternoon sitting under the falls, being pummelled by the water, then baking in the sun on the flat table rock by the western channel, then back to the small waterfalls, then back to the sun, again and again and again.  For the first time since we entered the shield we skipped our nightly massage before heading to bed, for the pummelling and sunning left us feeling wonderful.  All the effort it took to get this far down the river was well worth it, and we were reluctant to leave.

A few more days of work took us out of the shield and onto the clay belt of the Hudson Bay lowlands.  The transition was quite abrupt.  We finished portaging a series of major waterfalls on Precambrian rock, ran a short section of gentle rapids through limestone, which indicated the end of the shield, and then were in clay country, which set upon the limestone.  No more wild water, just a swift current from here to the Bay.

After the variety of the shield, the lowlands offered kilometre after kilometre of similar terrain and vegetation.  Each night we would climb up the clay bank, about six feet, and pitch our tent in the grass, which grew over a metre high in the five metre zone between forest and river.  We felt like cats in the grass, peering out over the river.  The only breaks in the scenery were when we passed huge mud slides, which had collapsed hectares of forest, and at times blocked the river.

The rest was welcome after the shield.  A typical day in the lowlands consisted mostly of drifting with the current, only paddling hard enough to maintain steerage.  It gave us time to talk, no mean feat considering our language barriers.  Martina: “I am looking forward to seeing my brother over Christmas.”  Richard: “Kick the bum out.”  Martina: “Why would I kick my dear brother out of a family dinner.”  Richard: “Because he is a car thief.”  Martina: “Why do you say that?”  Richard: “Because you said he took a car.”  Martina: “Oh, Richard, what I said was that he had borrowed the family car when I was wanting to use it.”  Richard: “Sorry, Martina, please ignore everything I said about your brother the last few days.”  We can testify that language is no barrier to a great canoe trip.  By the way, Martina is an English teacher.

Out into the Arctic Ocean

As the river widened and joined others, we emptied out one of our barrel packs and filled it with fresh water, for soon we would be tasting salt from the tide pushing up the river.  As we approached the river delta, the trees dropped away, replaced first by grasses, and then sea grasses.  We could smell the change, and taste the salt on our lips when the wind picked up.  We were awed by the ocean as it opened up before us, for upriver there had been no open spaces.  To us the water and the sky seemed huge and inviting.  The tide was running as we left the Kattawagami, so rather than set camp, we continued out into the sea, cooking our dinner on board, and paddling well into the evening.  The slow sunset over the water was a brilliant ending to our day.

As we made our way along the coast we grew used to the marvellous openness of the ocean.  We would take the tide out for kilometre after kilometre, far out of sight of land, and then return on it many hours later.  Every hour we would stop to take a fix, set our next bearing, and lie back in the boat, surrounded by nothing but water and sky and each other.  Hour after hour, day after day, we paddled and sang and slept under the hot sun on the northern ocean, wanting never to return.