Longreads - My first canoe trip

Since I was 11 years old, I've had a love affair with the outdoors.

 This is my Grandfather George and my Uncle Brett.  This selfie was from well before the time of selfies ... 1994

This is my Grandfather George and my Uncle Brett.  This selfie was from well before the time of selfies ... 1994

I remember being woken from a dead sleep late one Saturday night by my mother and asked a question. I remember saying yes, but, to this day, I have no other recollection of the question or really any other part of the conversation. The next thing I know I was being helped to dress at 5:00 am, and I was ushered into the cab of my grandfathers red Ford F150. I remember the drive. I remember him shifting gears with the long shift handle, and I remember dozing off on the pitch dark highway.

When I awoke, I finally asked "Where are we going?" and my grandfather told me we were heading to the Toronto International Sportsman's Show. I remember walking around the show, seeing boats, RVs, camping equipment and, best of all, fishing tackle. For an eleven-year-old boy, nothing is better at helping you imagine the size of a fish that you can catch like holding different lures. And the best thing about fishing tackle is that, even if you have an eleven-year-old's pocket money, you can still afford a solid selection of different lures.

My grandfather told me that he would buy me a fishing rod, but that I was on my own if I wanted lures. His position was that I would catch all the fish I could eat with a $1 bag of fish hooks, so anything else was up to me. So we set out to find a fishing rod. He picked out a right handed two piece rod that was perfect at the time. I still have that rod today, but it's a little too flimsy for me to use for most trips I take now.

When we got home the next day, Grandpa George sat me down and gave me one of his reels to match my new rod. It was gold and shiny and looked practically brand new, despite the fact that he had used it for years. It was just one example of his attention to detail and care for his belongings.

He taught me how to load the reel with fishing line, being careful not to overload it. Then, he took me to his front lawn and showed me how to cast. He attached a lead sinker to the end of the line, showing me the perfect knot for tying on fish hooks and lures. He then demonstrated the technique and handed over the rod. I cast until the sun went down on that first day. Grandpa refined my technique with hints until I could cast almost as far as him with pretty decent accuracy.

Over dinner that night we discussed our first trip into Algonquin park. The first step to planning a trip, he taught me, was to decide on a route. We spoke of the different things that we wanted to do, including fishing, paddling, swimming, and seeing as many wild animals as possible, especially moose.

After dinner, he pulled out a folder that contained dozens of paper maps and selected the one entitled "Canoe Routes of Algonquin Park". Grandpa George flattened the map over the kitchen table. He showed me how to read the map, including how to identify rivers, lakes, park access points, canoe routes, portages, and the various types of campsites. He even showed me a small black square on the newest version of the map that is an "unofficial campsite" that he and my uncles were forced to build on one particular trip when they couldn't find an open site and could paddle no further. It turns out the park eventually found it and put it on their map.

He told me that he had just the route. We would put in at Brent, which is one of the northern access points to the park, cross Cedar Lake, and follow the Nippissing river. We would have a full travel day on the way in, then have a full day to fish and play around and, then finally, a day to get back out of the park.

The planning session got me excited, but it was the end of the night, and I had to go home. The next day I rode my bicycle back to my grandfather's house, and we got right back at it.

The trip we had planned was to be a three-day adventure, and since we had last met, Grandpa had gotten a hold of a friend of his who also wanted to bring his grandson along for a canoe trip so we would be two canoes and two tents. He told me that the next step in the process was to make a list of all the stuff that we would need to take with us on the trip.

Grandpa gave me a small, blue notepad with the Bell Canada logo on the front. Inside was a ball point pen and a blank pad of paper. He told me that my job was to make the list of things that we would need, then document the trip so that I could write a story about it when we got back.

I carefully printed my list so it could easily be reread later:

canoe
2 paddles
2 life jackets
2 kneeling pads
tent
2 sleeping bags
2 pairs pants each (+ one to wear)
2 shirts each (+ one to wear)
2 pairs of underwear (+ one to wear)
2 pairs of socks (+ one to wear)
shoes (to wear)
rope (to tie up our food out of a bear's reach)
a small fry pan
tea pot
tea bags
2 plastic mugs
sugar
oatmeal (for breakfasts)
2 peanut butter & jelly sandwiches (first-day lunch)
frozen steaks (for our first dinner)
4 potatoes
small grill
aluminum foil
veggies to eat (dinner on the second day) to have with fish we catch
ground softener
small hatchet
4 bagels (in case we don't catch fish)
4 granola bars (for snacks)
fish mix to dust fish before frying
matches
2 fishing rods
2 reels
fishing tackle
small fish net
2 backpacks
map kept in a ziplock bag

Once the list was complete, we went down into his basement and searched for all of the things that we would need for the trip. My job, he explained, was to gather everything into one pile. His job would be to shop for the foodstuffs and pack everything into the backpacks.

I was surprised to find that he had everything that we needed. Of course, this was before I discovered that Grandpa George was a very experienced outdoorsman who would teach me as much as I cared to learn. The only thing that I didn't understand at the time was a soft plastic bottle that was labelled "Ground Softener", but it was on my list, so I added it to the pile.

We planned to leave for our trip a few days later. I remember the anticipation. I felt like the day would never come. Then, it was the night before the journey. I stayed overnight at Grandpa's house so that we could get up and leave early in the morning.

We had a few last minute preparation items to take care of as well. Before it got dark, we carried out the canoe that we would be taking and loaded it on top of the same red Ford F150.

Then, we sat back down at the kitchen table and reviewed my preparation notes from a few days before. As we went down the list, we checked things off one at a time. The only things that weren't packed were the foodstuffs, but I was told it was Grandma's job to make sure the food was packed in the morning.  They had a very traditional relationship.

The last thing that we did before bed was to prepare the veggies that we would be eating on the second day. Grandpa said that by doing the prep at home, we could just throw it in the fire when we were ready to eat.

I didn't understand at first but soon saw what he meant. We started by cutting all of the veggies in slices or chunks. Then, we laid out some aluminium foil we put all of the vegetables on the foil. Next, we added salt, pepper, garlic powder, and some butter. Everything was then wrapped up in a second piece of foil, then placed the whole thing in a large ziplock bag, just in case it ripped open. Now, he told me, we could just throw it on the fire for 5 minutes, and dinner was ready.

The next morning, we woke early, threw all of our stuff in the back of the truck, and we drove out to Brent. It was starting to get light out as we reached the top of the Brent Road. After still being a little bit sleepy on the highway, the hard packed dirt road woke me in an instant. We drove for what seemed like hours down the long and winding road, narrowly missing squirrels and roughed grouse who appeared to have a death wish. Each time we came close, I closed my eyes and held the arm rest hard.

Finally, we arrived at Brent. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but Brent turned out to be a single shop, a small beach, and a few campsites. We parked the truck and started to unload our gear as our trip-mates pulled in next to us. To this day, I cannot remember who they were, or how my grandfather knew them, but it was a grown man, and a boy my age. We pretty much stuck to our own canoes and didn't really interact much the whole trip, but it was reassuring that we weren't entirely alone.

Each team loaded their gear into their canoe and got ready to start our adventure. The last thing that we did before setting off was to lock the truck. Grandpa George called me over, and he showed me that he was hiding the keys under the driver's side front tire, under a small rock that he had found nearby. I asked why we didn't just take the keys with us so that nobody would steal the truck. His response makes sense to this day. "What if we flip our canoe in the middle of the lake? Would you want to walk home from here?"

We shoved off while it was still early in the day into Cedar Lake with me at the front and Grandpa at the back of the canoe. The lake seemed much bigger than I expected from seeing it on the map, and I had no idea which direction we were heading.

We had a few things to cover while we made our way along the shore. First, Grandpa showed me the right way to paddle. He taught me the "J" stroke and explained how it helped to keep the canoe straight. Next, he explained that he would be doing most of the steering, but that, on occasion, I would need to either reach out and pull water under the canoe or push water away from the canoe, but only when I was told to by him.

Next, as we approached the open water that we needed to cross, he taught me about the center of gravity. Sitting up on the seats as we were had a high centre of gravity, so it was fine for gentle water, but for crossing open water, we would need to lower our centre of gravity to make the canoe less tippy in 1-foot waves. He asked how we might accomplish this and I got down low in the canoe on my knees, with my feet under the seat. "That's right!" he said and did the same thing himself. Immediately, it felt much more stable, so we started paddling harder.

Grandpa then told me that we needed to be as stable as possible, but that it's still possible that we could flip the canoe in the lake. He explained that if the canoe did flip, which it probably wouldn't, that I should just let all of our stuff sink and just stay close to the canoe. The most important thing to consider was that we respect the lake for the potential danger it could cause to us, and take every precaution to make sure that we were safe before anything else. That's why we would always wear our life jackets, no exceptions.

Paddling through the middle of the lake was harder than I had ever imagined it would be. It didn't even seem like we were getting anywhere with each stroke, but we were getting farther and farther ahead of the other canoe. We were the first to get across the lake, so we held onto some reeds and waited for our trip-mates to catch up.

While we waited, I was instructed to pull out the map to figure out where we were. I quickly found Brent and knew where we had started, but I had no idea from there. I asked which direction we went when we launched and, instead of an answer, he asked me which way we turned after the beach. I remembered making a right-hand turn, so I knew that had gone west, then I saw the first portage for the Nippissing river, and I was able to see the reeds we were holding on the map. We would need to weave our way through the reeds to find the portage.

As soon as our trip-mates joined us, we started the slow journey through the reeds. Even before we reached the first portage, Grandpa instructed me to be quiet and lift my paddle out of the water. He motioned for me to look off into the distance, where I saw my first moose. It was majestic. It was a bull with a full set of antlers. Grandpa steered, occasionally paddling, as we passed the great beast. For a moment, it looked up and glanced at us while chewing the reeds it was eating. We were no threat, so he ducked his head right back down and continued his breakfast.

I was so excited I could barely contain myself. I had only ever seen drawings of moose in the books and magazines in Grandpa's basement. Once we passed the moose, I asked if Grandpa thought we would see any more. He told me that, as long as we were quiet, we would see all kinds of animals on this trip.

When we reached the first portage, we regrouped and talked about the moose. The other team saw it too, and the boy was just as excited as I was. The portage itself was relatively easy. We were going to be making two trips, so we grabbed the backpacks and a few loose items and made our way the 241 yards to the other side, then we doubled back and, while Grandpa carried the canoe, I took the life jackets, kneeling pads, and fishing rods.

After a quickly reloading our canoes, we were off. We were paddling upstream, but the current was relatively weak, so it wasn't too difficult.

The process of figuring out "who would carry what" took a little bit of trial and error, but we figured it out over the first three portages and were suddenly making one trip instead of two. In the end, I was taking the large pack and all of the loose stuff, and Grandpa would take the small pack and the canoe.

Gladly, we had the system down pat before the portage that I had been dreading. It was 1600m long and was one big hill, up, then down. As we were about half way, we found that someone had built a perfect canoe resting place against a tree, so we had a brief rest to eat a granola bar and then finished the portage. With the rest, it wasn't bad at all.

Later, at a wide point in the river, I was once again told to stop paddling and be quiet. Off to our left was a blue heron. We watched it as we glided along, then, all of a sudden, a moose yearling jumped out of the bush into the river. It stopped to look at us, then continued across into the thick brush as if it was a clear walking path. The second canoe was a few hundred yards back at this point, so we didn't even tell them what we had seen.

We came upon a great looking campsite, and I was getting tired, so I suggested that we stop for the night. Grandpa told me that we were close, but this wasn't far enough yet. The next site we passed looked even better, but Grandpa said that it would have way too many bugs because it was in a swampy stagnant area of the river. I was exhausted. We had been paddling for hours, and I didn't understand why we couldn't just pick a site.

A few bends in the river later we had reached our campsite for the next few nights. I would consequently use this site as a first night spot on many trips. It was elevated with a slight breeze to keep away the insects. It had plenty of room for two tents and two canoes. It was open enough that the boys could wander off a bit, but still, be seen or heard. It had plenty of firewood available nearby. It even had a perfect fire pit that would protect the flame from wind, but still, provide air from the bottom to make a nice hot set of coals for cooking.

We unpacked our gear and started to set up camp. The idea was to get all of the work done, while we were still tired so that we could relax and hang out for the rest of the day without worrying about anything. We set about putting the tent together. It was an older tent that had individual pole pieces that needed to be sorted before we could put the tent together. I remember thinking about how difficult it was compared to the, newer, 8-man dome tent that my father had set up for us in our backyard. Once the tent was together, I unrolled the sleeping bags, and Grandpa George brought me the kneeling pads to use as pillows.

IMG_1679.jpg

It didn't take too long and, sure enough, we were relaxing. Grandpa made a small fire to make some tea, and the four of us kicked back and enjoyed our surroundings. We ate our pre-packed lunches and discussed what we wanted to do for the afternoon. Our team would fish just a little up ahead, and their team would fish just downstream.

Getting back into the canoe after unloading the excess weight was easy. A few strokes and we were moving quickly without all that gear holding us back. We picked a spot and started to fish. Grandpa explained that it was a better choice to start upstream from camp so that we could get the paddling out of the way at the beginning, and just drift downstream with the current until we were back at camp.

I started off with one of my brand new lures and, after a couple of casts, it slipped right off of my line. I had forgotten to use the perfect knot and lost one of my favourites right off the bat. Grandpa reminded me how to tie on a lure, and I was back at it. The second lure got caught on something after a few casts, and I couldn't free it. I needed to rely on Grandpa to save it for me. We caught a few small fish, but nothing even close to being big enough to eat, let alone feed two people. I was starting to dread our decision not to bring a proper dinner for the next day given our luck.

After a few hours, we were back at camp and Grandpa said it was time to build a fire so that we would have some nice coals for our steaks. I gathered firewood while he got things started.

Once it was going, I was in danger of becoming bored fairly quickly, so I headed down to the river front to try my hand at some fly fishing with the flies I had bought at the Sportsman's show. I didn't know at the time that I didn't have the proper gear or technique, but I was still able to catch a bunch of small fish and release them. Grandpa was impressed that I was catching so many, but he told me that the type of fish I was catching were "chubbs", which weren't good for eating.

Team two also returned from their day-trip.  They had gone back to take a look at the campsites we had passed on the way in and they reported that we had chosen the right site.

Shortly after, I started to see small black and yellow bugs as I was fly fishing. A few at first but soon I was seeing a lot of them. They looked like bees, but they were much smaller. 

It turned out that I was casting right in front of their nest and they were becoming irritated by my presence. This type of insect builds a nest into the riverbank, not up in a tree or a bush. I had no idea at the time, and there was no way to anticipate what happened next.

I tripped while casting. I fell backwards and stepped right into a yellow jacket nest. The angry stingers came out in droves and swarmed all around me. I screamed and dropped my rod. They started to sting me, so I ran, crying all the way, to our tent. Grandpa took a moment to understand what was happening, and I told him I was stung all over and that it hurt badly. He came in and took a look at me. I had been stung five times, mostly on the arms. I was all right, but I was terrified. I refused to come out of the tent for fear that they would "get me" again.

Grandpa George had a solution, as he always did. He took a piece of wood and some dry grass down to the riverbank, and he made a small fire, right inside the nest. This, he said, would drive the yellow jackets away to make a new home somewhere else. Once the bugs were smoked out of their nest, he called me down to show me that they were gone. It was dark by now, and I could see the small embers in and around the nest. He also showed me how he had been stung a few times on his hands as he started the fire.

With the nest destroyed, and him not crying over a few stings, I realized that I had to toughen up and not look like such a child in front of the other team. I solemnly ate the dinner that my grandfather had prepared and sat quietly near the fire. As bedtime approached my mood had perked back up, and I was looking forward to fishing again the next day. 

A few minutes before bed, Grandpa asked me to go into the tent to fetch the "Ground Softener". I dug into his pack and found that same soft plastic bottle, but it was now filled with a caramel coloured liquid, which I could barely make out with my flashlight through the translucent material.

I imagined what this magic liquid could be that would soften the ground under our sleeping bags. I wondered how much we would need to use. Would it be the whole bottle or just a sprinkling to make it a little bit soft? I felt the ground under my sleeping bag and, it could definitely use a little softening. I could feel a few roots and small stones that we had missed when choosing where to set up the tent.

I brought the bottle out to my grandfather. He thanked me and poured a small amount into his mug. I realized then that it was a special elixir that would make you feel the softer ground. "Of course", I thought. Otherwise, we would have had to lift the whole tent up to sprinkle it. I grabbed my mug and brought it over, wondering what "ground softener" would taste like. I held it out, and Grandpa laughed. He said that I wasn't old enough for "Ground Softener".

I argued, "That's not fair! My ground is harder than your ground, how am I supposed to sleep?". His response, "you're young, you can sleep through anything, now off to bed with you."

Begrudgingly, the boys crawled into our sleeping bags while the older members of the teams stayed up and chatted for a while longer.

The next thing I know, it's morning. Day two of our trip had arrived. I remembered from the planning meetings that day two was "screwing around in this area" of the map, so I pulled out my map and looked in great detail at what was ahead. A few small portages, which would be easy without the backpacks, lots of bends in the river, and a long swamp that I was informed would be very windy.

I was at first worried that one of our packs was missing. Grandpa directed me towards the woods where he had strung up the food in a backpack so that the bears couldn't get to it. I made a mental note to remember that was one of the things that would help keep us safe. According to Grandpa, "If you left food in your tent, a bear might just decide to pay you a little visit in the tent in the middle of the night."

While Grandpa made breakfast, he asked me to grab my rod and catch us a few of those "chubbs". He said that he needed 3-4 "chubbs" of a particular size that he showed me with his finger and thumb.

They weren't biting in the morning like they were on the afternoon of the previous day. I thought, maybe I scared them all away with all that screaming over the yellow jacket nest. I only caught two while the oatmeal was cooking.

After a hearty breakfast, we set out for our "screwing around" day. We started off with a quick pace, the second team keeping up with us stroke for stroke. Coming around a corner, we saw a yearling moose that I thought I recognized from the day before. It ran off into the bush when it saw us.

Shortly after the first portage, Grandpa told me that he wanted to show me something, so we pulled off to the side of the river. I had been following the map all along the way, bend for bend, and there was nothing remarkable about this area, so I was curious. We walked back about 20 yards from the river bank, into the woods, where all of a sudden he stopped and bent over. Right at his feet was a fresh water spring bubbling up out of the ground. He filled up his mug and took a long drink before filling it again and handing the cup to me.

I remember drinking with big gulps. The water was freezing cold on this hot day, and it was as clear as tap water. He told me that this was a fresh water spring that we could drink straight from because the ground had filtered out anything that could hurt us. We stayed and drank our fill. To this day, I still have no idea how he knew that spring was there. Regrettably, I've never been able to identify the spot that we landed our canoe to find it again after that trip. Before we left, I filled up the water bottle that I had brought along.

We paddled a little farther upstream before stopping again. We grabbed some reeds to take a look at a campsite. Grandpa marvelled at how this was now an official campsite, complete with a park campsite marker. We jumped out of the canoe, and I took a look at the map. This was the one "unofficial" campsite on our route. Grandpa told me the story of getting into the park late one day and finding all of the earlier sites occupied. He was with my grandmother, and two uncles and my grandma took a stand that she would go no further as she was exhausted. My grandfather and two uncles proceeded to clear this spot at that time, and they set up camp. To see it now was rewarding for him. Not only was it prepared beautifully, but it was also fully stocked with firewood and had a proper fire pit built into the ground. The park had taken what he and my uncles started and adopted it for public use.

At this point we had reached the swamp and, as promised, it was windy. We began our trek into the wind, still travelling upstream. Both teams were fighting as hard as possible but to no avail. We made it about halfway before we all agreed that there was no point. We let the wind push us back towards the start and decided that this was a good a spot as any to start fishing.

Grandpa now asked me for the two chubbs that I had caught that morning. I was surprised when he cut their tails off and discarded the rest of the fish. He instructed me to attach just a medium sized fish hook to my line with a few small sinkers. Once complete, I was to feed the hook down through the tail of the chubb so that the hook was protruding from the end. "This isn't technically permitted", he explained. "they don't allow the use of bait fish in the park".

"After the luck we had yesterday, I don't think we have a choice unless we want bagels for supper."

So we cast our first bait of the day. After only a few casts I had a bite. Whatever it was kept on chewing my line a few times, but each time I snapped my line to set the hook, it would get away. At least I found out that there were fish in the river after all.

Next, my grandfather had a bite and, in a quick snap, he had the fish on the line. After only a minute or so, he was telling me to be ready with the net to land our first real fish. It was a 1-pound speckled trout. This prize was exactly what we had been hoping to catch! He showed me the sparse dots that identified this fish as a speckled trout, and we dropped it in the bottom of the boat.

We wouldn't be going hungry after all!

Next, I caught another speckled trout. It was much smaller than the one that Grandpa had landed, but it was edible. We put it down in the front of the canoe as well.

Now we were cooking. We started to catch fish even faster. First another small one, which we kept while releasing the first little speck, then another one-pounder that quickly supplanted the last of the small ones. We released the other little guy so that we could come back for him when he got a little bigger and kept along on our way.

We lost track of the other canoe, who had decided to have another go at the swamp to try their luck fishing in the wind.

Next, I caught the biggest fish of the day, but Grandpa made me throw it back because "there's a size limit for specks, you can't take the little ones, and you can't take the big ones, just those that are just right.". We merrily kept on fishing and catching specks. Most we released, but we did keep four that were perfect. Two for us and two for the other team in case they didn't catch any fish.

By the time we got back to camp, I had had my fill of fishing anyway. We unloaded our gear and set to preparing for dinner. Once again, I was relegated to firewood collection duty while grandpa routed throughout packs for the night's requirements.

By the time I had built up a good stack of firewood from the dead dry wood around the campsite, the other team's canoe had come around the bend and up towards camp. The man held up his lone catch and called out "look what we've got!", quite excitedly. It was a single large mouth bass. We had landed a bass as well, but my grandfather had immediately released it because, "those things are full of bones, no good for eating in the bush". Once up at the campsite, team two saw the four beautiful specks that we had brought back. "Jesus, where did you get all of those fish", the man asked. My grandfather just claimed to be lucky. He didn't mention how many we released, and he didn't mention that we had a secret bait that the specks just couldn't resist.

IMG_1680.jpg

The arrangement that we had with the other team was that each team was responsible for their own food, but the other team sure was glad we landed as much as we did. We set out to clean our fish. The bass had to be gutted and descaled. The speckled trout were way easier; "just chop off the head, make a slice up the belly, and use your thumb to push out all the guts." grandpa told me. We were done all four before that bass was even scaled.

They cooked their bass whole in aluminium foil, and it turned out ok but, sure enough, it was full of bones. Our speckled trouts, on the other hand, turned out perfect. Grandpa used the small fry pan that we had brought and, with a little butter and a quick dredge in the Shore Lunch powder we had brought along, each turned out golden brown. He showed me how I could use my fork to make a line down the back of a speck, then pull the top half of the fish off to reveal the entire skeleton. All I had to do was pull out the fully attached bones with my free hand, and the whole fish was ready to eat.

For the veggies that we had prepared before the trip, he simply poked a few holes in the foil and placed the whole package on the grill. The fire melted the butter and the veggies sautéed in their own juices for about five minutes before being ready to eat.

From that day forward I have craved speckled trout almost every week of my life. It was so easy and so delicious that I will never forget that meal. Years later, as an adult, I would find speckled trout on the menu of a very nice restaurant only to be disappointed that they had added so much unnecessary flavouring that it was almost unrecognizable.

After our fill of fish and veggies, Grandpa surprised me by bringing out two pudding cups. "These aren't allowed in the park either because people leave the tin cans behind but, since we always pack out our garbage, I figured it would be ok". I was elated! Chocolate pudding to an eleven-year-old is the greatest thing in the world.

I cleaned the dishes while Grandpa helped himself to a little "Ground Softener". Since I slept just fine, I didn't ask again, but I did learn a few years later that there was Famous Grouse blended whiskey in that bottle. I wouldn't know much about blended whiskey for a few more years.

In the morning, after another oatmeal breakfast, we packed up camp. As we got to the point that we could put the pack in the canoe, a yearling moose tromped out of the bush across the river from us. I will always think that this was the same yearling that we had seen before, but Grandpa said there was no way to be sure, so we counted each as a separate sighting on our list of animals. It watched us for a minute, then turned around and was gone into the brush.

We got on our way relatively early and, with the current at our back, we made great time. At one point, once again, Grandpa told me to pull my paddle out of the water and listen. We were on the left-hand side of the river, and he was looking off into the woods over the bank on the left. As we floated along silently, I looked up into the face of the biggest bull moose I had ever seen. He was standing on the shore; the woods were so thick that we had no way of seeing him until we were right underneath his huge rack. We looked up in awe as the current pulled us across his nose. He made no sound and didn't even tilt his head. It was as if he was trying to blend in with the camouflage around him.

"Wow", was all I could say. My grandfather also confirmed that it was one of the biggest bulls he had ever seen. He explained that there was no hunting allowed in the park so maybe he never left the park to grow so large.

It was still early as we crossed the portages that I remembered being so much more challenging the first time. I asked "Why did we need to leave camp so early this morning? We'll be at the truck soon". Grandpa then explained to me that Cedar Lake tended to be somewhat unpredictable. Even though it was calm and beautiful on the river, the lake could have brutal waves that we wouldn't be able to paddle through. It was best to get out early, take a look at the lake, and either wait for it to calm down or paddle all around the shore to get back to Brent. We had to wait and see.

My imagination was running, and I considered trying to paddle through 4-foot waves, and I was terrified. The good news was that, once we got to the lake shore, we could see that it was still indeed a beautiful calm day.

We climbed up to a campsite and had our final lunch in the woods before tackling the long paddle across the lake. We had oranges, bagels, and granola bars left, so we ate what we wanted, knowing that we had no reason to save anything for later. While we ate, a few clouds began to form in the distance.

"Well, it's now, or we set up camp for another night", my grandfather challenged. Quickly, we launched our canoes.

Again, Grandpa and I treated the crossing like we were in a race, but the other team either had no idea we were competing or just weren't that quick with their paddles. The middle of the lake was more difficult than the first crossing, but when we hunkered down with the lower centre of gravity, we could still dig deep and make solid ground. The waves had well over two-foot crests, heaving either the front or back of the canoe up in the air. Once, I swear that I tried to paddle and got no water, despite a deep reach. Dropping between the waves left a scary feeling in the pit of my stomach, but we pushed on until we were out of the wind.

The rest of our paddle was a nice smooth ride along the shore until we landed at the beach. We waited ten or fifteen minutes for the second team to finish the crossing. By the time they had arrived, all of our gear was in the truck. I was amazed to find that the keys were still where we had hidden them. The men loaded the two canoes onto the trucks while I helped the boy to pack their gear into the back of their truck.

Red Ford F150 2.jpg

In the end, we all shook hands and thanked each other for the trip. I jumped back into the cab of that red Ford F150, took a deep breath, and, as it roared to life, I looked up to my grandfather and thought about how he let me learn almost everything that I took away from that trip on my own. He didn't teach me so much as ask me the questions to make sure that I would figure everything out on my own. I felt empowered. I felt confident. And, I felt like I could accomplish anything.