The River Runs Orange
Our canoe raced towards the rock.
“Left! Left!” I shouted above the rapids’ roar.
I plunged my paddle deep into the froth and pulled. The canoe veered left and slipped past in a wave of foamy white.
Another rock reared its jagged head. But before I could warn Eric, who was paddling in the stern, he’d already responded and deftly steered us around this last obstacle. I searched downstream for the next set of rapids and thankfully saw nothing but smooth, free-flowing water. We could relax, for the moment.
I loosened my grip on the paddle and let out the breath I’d been holding since spotting the line of approaching white. The map had indicated Class II rapids with the fitting name of “Tight ’Round the Bend”. The most difficult we’d encountered since my friend and lover Eric Odjik and I had begun this week-long whitewater venture down the DeMontigny River .
“We did it!” I shouted back to him, as the now familiar rush of adrenaline coursed through my veins.
“Don’t celebrate yet, Miz Harris” he called back. “We still have ‘Canoe Eater’.”
“But you said we’d portage around it.”
“That was at the start of this trip. Now I’m thinking after five days of running rapids, we’re more than ready.”
Eric’s eyes twinkled under his floppy white hat, as his dimples erupted on either side of the grin. The hot July sun highlighted the grey running through his thick black ponytail. The trip agreed with him. His face had lost the careworn creases that came from the demands of being Chief of the Migiskan Anishinabeg, or Fishhook People, a band of the Algonquin First Nation.
“We’ll see,” I replied. The knots in my stomach tightened, a feeling I was beginning to think normal, along with the dry mouth.
The canoe continued to drift in the fast current. Another hundred metres downstream, the river suddenly ended. Beyond, rising mist.
“Bear Falls,” Eric said. “We’ll eddy in here and wait for Teht’aa.” He steered us toward a patch of still water tucked behind a jumble of rocks. “Then we’ll make for the portage.”
I could see a yellow sign marking the trail about fifteen metres upriver from the falls.
“There’s something special I want to show you on the other side of the portage,” he added.
I stabbed the paddle into the liquid mirror as the canoe crossed the eddy line and turned us around to face upstream. Behind me the forest throbbed with the power of the falls.
“I hope it’s a nice, soft place to sit. I’m sure I’ll be ready for a rest. How long did you say this portage was?”
“Long enough. But what’s at the end will be worth it.”
“You’re not going to tell me what it is?”
“Nope,” he replied, which only served to sharpen my curiosity.
I grabbed onto an overhanging branch to hold us steady while we waited.
It was hard to imagine that less than a month ago I’d known nothing about prys, cross bows and draws. And now I was using these whitewater paddling techniques as if I’d been born to them.
It had started innocently enough. I’d asked Eric to teach me how to paddle whitewater. He’d obliged by taking me down the easy rapids of the Misanzi River that runs through the West Quebec reserve of the Migiskan. On the first trip down the five-kilometre stretch, we’d sideswiped several rocks leaving behind streaks of red paint and managing to fill the bottom of the canoe with water from two-foot-high standing waves. On the next trip, we threaded our way easily between the rocks, avoided the standing waves altogether and at the bottom of the run were as dry as when we’d started out, with most of the canoe’s red paint intact.
After several more clean runs, Eric had declared me ready for real whitewater. Exuberant over my new prowess, I’d confidently agreed. Little did I know that this new challenge was to be filled with kilometre-long portages and class II rapids that carried names like Keyhole and Snake, and of course the class III horror, Canoe Eater, whose very name filled me with dread.
We’d flown in five days ago with Eric’s canoe tied to a pontoon and our gear weighing down the rear of the floatplane. We’d landed on Lac DeMontigny, a remote lake on the southern edge of Quebec’s vast LaVerendrye Park. It was the starting point of our planned seven-day descent down one of the ancient highways of the Algonquins to where it emptied into the Ottawa River. Reputedly named after one of the great eighteenth century fur trading families, Eric said his people knew it as Wabadjiwan Sibi, meaning River of White Water.
The river also had a more personal connection to Eric. It had once been the traditional territory of his ancestors. For countless generations, the Odjik family had lived and died along its shores, only leaving in summer, when they would head downriver to visit and trade with other Algonquin families at one of the traditional gathering places on the Ottawa River. But his great-grandparents had been the last. Logging had left a wasteland bare of animals and a river too toxic for fish. And when the fish and animals had returned, the Hunting and Fishing Camps had moved in, denying access to all but the wealthy.
And though the exclusive camps had long since been disbanded, hunting and fishing were still highly regulated. Moreover, the Odjiks had moved onto the Migiskan Reserve and lost their nomadic ways. Eric’s only link with the river of his ancestors now was the occasional canoe trip like this one.
For a day, Eric and I had had the lake to ourselves. We’d paddled along the edge of its forested shores, floated with a family of loons, skinny-dipped in the invigorating early July water and made love in the glow of the campfire. The next day, his daughter Teht’aa Tootosis and her boyfriend, Larry Horn had arrived.
Eric wanted this trip to be a voyage of discovery for his daughter so that she could learn of her ancestral link to the river. He also wanted it to be a journey of peace.
Relations between his daughter and myself, the elder by only ten years, had not warmed beyond half-hearted smiles and innocuous weather observations. Her upbringing on an isolated Dené reserve in the Northwest Territories had left her suspicious of whites. This distrust was further compounded by having to share the father who’d only recently entered her life. Before that, he’d been dead to her. A death invented by a mother whose fear of Eric’s off-reserve influence was greater than her love for him.
And I knew I hadn’t helped the situation. Whenever Teht’aa tossed out one of her snide remarks regarding my spreading middle-aged curves or enhanced red hair, I’d bristle and throw back an equally biting remark.
Her name meant “Lily” in Dené. I sometimes wished the softness I associated with the flower had rubbed off on her. It hadn’t. At least not that I’d discovered.
Eric hoped that seven days alone on the river contending with nature’s challenges would bring us closer together. After five days of battling whitewater, bugs and one raging thunderstorm, the best the two of us had accomplished was the task of washing dishes in accepted silence with the occasional noncommittal remark about the trip.
Unfortunately, the boyfriend didn’t help. A Mohawk from a reserve near Montreal , he wore similarly-coloured blinkers. Whenever Teht’aa’s lips twitched with the hint of a friendly smile, Larry would say in that droning voice of his, “Remember Oka.” At which point she’d drop her stone-like mask back into place.
“Where are they?” I asked Eric. “I thought they were right behind us.” I craned to see around the bend to the upper section, but the boughs of the overhanging cedar blocked my view.
“Maybe they ran into trouble on that first ledge,” he replied. “I’ll give them another ten minutes. If they don’t come, I’ll make my way back up along the shore.”
The water shimmered with the intensity of the noonday sun. Sweat dribbled down my face and onto my life-jacket. I soaked my hot arms in a river still cool from the winter snows. Tiny blackflies swarmed around my head. Even though they were at the end of their season, they still packed a stinging bite. I applied insect repellant over my face, arms and legs.
Behind me, a sharp slap, followed by, “Christ, I’m bleeding.”
“Sure you don’t want to use my DEET?”
Eric growled, “No.” Another resounding slap.
He didn’t bother to respond. I figured it was a man thing. Braving the elements without sissy interventions like insect repellant, bug hats or even proper clothing. Today he hadn’t bothered with his cotton T-shirt and had just put his PFD over his bare chest. At least he’d agreed to wear the life-jacket, but then again it was only after I’d blackmailed him by refusing to come unless he did.
“You don’t happen to have any more of that chocolate and peanut butter energy bar, do you?” Eric asked.
As I turned around to pass it to him, I noticed something on the far shore that turned me cold. “Is that what I think it is?” I pointed to a weathered wooden cross that had been jammed into the rocks above the falls.
Eric twisted his body around to see. “Yeah. Probably marking a grave where some poor unlucky logger got caught in a log jam years ago. I’m sure it’s not the only death this river has seen over the years. No doubt the odd voyageur lost his life in the upstream battle to get his fur-laden canoe back to Quebec. And of course, the bones of my ancestors are buried along its shores.” A mischievous glint appeared in his eye. “And I mustn’t forget the odd recreational canoeist.”
Although I answered him with a playful splash of my paddle, I couldn’t help but wonder if any modern day canoeists like us had indeed succumbed to the force of the turbulent water.
“I’m getting tired of waiting,” Eric said. “I’m going to walk back along the shore.”
At which point a bright yellow canoe swirled around the bend, sideways, with Larry in the stern, Teht’aa in the bow, frantically paddling. The horizontal plane of its side headed straight for the rock we’d narrowly missed. The canoe struck and held. The river boiled around them. At least they had the smarts to lean downstream to keep the boat from filling up. They jammed their paddles against the rock and pushed off. But they weren’t out of danger. The canoe wallowed considerably lower in the water than was safe. Both canoeists balanced precariously, afraid the smallest movement would ship more water into the boat and drown it. They began to paddle gingerly towards the shore, but the current was too much. It pulled the swamped canoe inexorably towards the falls.
“Hurry!” Eric shouted to them. “Meg, get the throw rope.” Eric shot our canoe through the grip of the eddy line and raced after the floundering boat. They were about ten metres from the drop line of the falls and five from the shore. The cross hovering on the rocks behind them only served to heighten the danger.
“Get ready, Meg. I’ll tell you when,” Eric shouted above the roar of the falls.
I stopped paddling as we closed in on them and prepared the rope for throwing. When we were about two canoe lengths away, Eric yelled, “Okay, now!”
She glanced up and shook her head. She continued paddling.
“For Chrissakes, catch it!” Eric yelled.
But I could see that his daughter was right. Reaching for the rope might upset the delicate balance of the waterlogged canoe. Besides, they were almost upon a shallow rock garden that would halt their drift to the falls.
Their bow crunched to a stop a little more than a canoe length from the drop-off, but the strong current swung the stern dangerously towards the edge. The boat began to slip backwards. Jumping out, Teht’aa desperately tried to pull the heavy canoe over the rocks towards the shore. Larry’s hulking mass, however, remained rooted in the stern, as if paralyzed by fear.
Shouting at him to get out, Eric scrambled over to help his daughter, while I struggled to secure our canoe to the riverbank. I could hear the two of them splashing and cursing as they tried to pull the canoe closer to the shore. At one point, I heard a cry and turned around to see Eric lose his footing on the slippery rocks. His daughter continued to hang on, but the heavy canoe edged backwards towards the chute. Larry still didn’t move. As I raced to help her, Eric flung a stone at the man. Its thudding impact was enough to unfreeze his fear. He thrust his paddle into the water and pushed.
Want to read more? Buy The River Runs Orange