As I walked out the door of my home, an odd, unsettled feeling arose, almost a sense I was leaving my family forever; that I would never return. I carried a duffel bag filled with clothes, toiletries and the kind of snacks any twelve year old would rely on for a solitary trip to the wilderness of northern Quebec. As I boarded the plane to Montreal, I glanced back at my mother and brother and it seemed they were someone else’s family; that I had never been with either of them before. I was alone, I had always been alone and I was never coming home.
The flight to Canada was uneventful, the drone of propellers lulling me to sleep, and I awoke just in time for the landing. Montreal was a city of unrest in 1964, a Capitol torn between two cultures. Separatists were setting off bombs and the atmosphere was filled with adventure. For a twelve year old, the unfamiliar sound of French, the cafes and crowded sidewalks filled the town with magic. I took a cab to the hotel and checked in. I had plenty of money and strolled through the city streets, amazed at laughing beautiful girls, dusky streetlights and shop after shop full of curios, odd foods and merchandise of every shape, size and color. It was almost one In the morning before I returned to my room and fell soundly asleep.
The next morning I took the train to Quebec City, where Mr. Narrow, the camp director and expedition leader, met me with his sixteen year old son, David. The rest of the day I sat in the back of his ramshackle Range Rover as we headed through brightly painted pastel villages, the great virgin conifer forest closing in on us as we sped past Lac St-Jean and on into the vast northern wilderness, the home of timber wolves, ravens and bears.
The expeditions started from an Algonquin village about twenty miles south of base camp. There were ten of us in four canoes. The other campers, who ranged in age from fifteen to seventeen, had arrived the day before. A crowd of Indian children stared as Mr. Narrow gathered our gear into the canoes. Several parents stood uneasily behind their children, hands on the tiny shoulders. They seemed so engaged, I couldn’t take my eyes off of them. The fathers, in ragged dirty shirts, shoeless, with frayed rope belts holding up their trousers, seemed on the verge of tears. Every one of the kids’ faces was brown with caked bits of earth. I wondered what it felt like to be poor. I wondered what the children played with and if they stood like this, watching rich white kids embark on their expeditions into the wilderness, at the start of every summer. It occurred to me that this was not our wilderness. It was their home.
As evening fell, we pulled into base camp, which consisted of a dining lodge, three small one room cabins and the ample log home which served as the Narrows’ summer quarters. The entire camp lay between two rivers, one of which was the Mistassini. Our goal for the next two weeks was to paddle one hundred miles upstream to the 52nd parallel. We were told it would be difficult and dangerous.
As I lay in my bunk that first night, after a dinner of fried bannock bread and jam, I fell asleep thinking of the huge parties my parents would hold during the summers; our pool filled with beautiful women in bikinis, while under an immense tent famous actors and actresses danced to live jazz bands. My best friend and I would sneak bottles of expensive liquor into my bedroom and end up in the pool with our equally intoxicated female guests. It felt like a hundred years had passed since I had swam in that pool. Staring through the window at the innumerable swath of stars, our starlet-filled pool might as well have been on Mars. As my eyes closed, off in the distance a wolf began to howl. In the foreboding darkness that had settled upon our camp it seemed the wilderness and all its creatures were awaiting our entry into its almost impenetrable lair.
Paddling up a wild river in the hot Canadian summer was an arduous experience. We often wore mesquito head-nets to ward off the great clouds of winged insects which swarmed around us. When we ate lunch we had to wipe the black flies off our food, but the fried bread, peanut butter, jam and beans were always delicious. For hours, we watched the giant pines drift past, eagles and ospreys occasionally circling far above us. At night, we pulled our sleeping bags over our heads, awakening in the morning to bear tracks circling our tents. On occasion, we saw large white crosses on the riverbank. Mr. Narrow explained they had been placed there in memory of people who had drowned in the river.
Five days into our journey, we pulled off the river by an abandoned Indian shack. It felt good to be inside. The moon was nowhere to be seen and the sky exploded with a billion tiny lights. After dinner, Mr. Narrow drew us together.
“Tonight, we’re going on a snipe hunt. Anyone ever hunt snipe before?”
Everyone shook their heads. I had never even heard of a snipe. I imagined some kind of slow moving mammal, and it didn’t seem pleasant. David Narrow began passing out large bags and flashlights. David’s father looked over at me and seriously explained, “Karl, you’re coming with me. Everyone else will pair up. There are plenty of snipe trails in these woods, and everyone will get a chance to catch one. Then I’ll show you how to eat a snipe.” Every face grimaced but David’s.
“They’re really good!” David offered unconvincingly.
Mr. Narrows and I hiked into the woods, a frail beam of light leading the way.
“Be quiet,” whispered my guide. “There are Grizzlies out here and you don’t want to spook them.”
After a few more minutes, Mr Narrow turned off the light and the night was instantly darker than a cave. In the darkness, I heard Mr Narrow whisper, “We’re right on a snipe trail. Just hold open the bag and I’ll go up a ways and scare one up.” The thought of standing alone in the dark seemed like a really bad idea. I had no idea where the cabin was. As the sound of Mr. Narrow’s feet receded into the darkness, I heard him whisper, “Just keep the bag open and I’ll run him to you. Stay right here and don’t move!”
Mr. Narrow was already deep into the bush. I started to panic and wanted to follow, but it was already too late. I was ready to cry. From the darkness, Mr. Narrow’s voice reached out to me. I could barely make out what he was saying, but it sounded a lot like, “And keep quiet, there’s definitely bears in these woods.”
I pulled my jacket around me and stared down the snipe trail into the darkness. I listened carefully for the sound of a snipe rushing down the trail. The haunting “Whoo! Whoo!” of an owl drifted through the trees. I wondered where the others were, why I hadn’t heard them moving through the darkness in their hunt for snipe. Nothing moved in the night but the wind swept leaves.
As time dragged by, my aching legs began to cramp. I peered into the darkness until I couldn’t stand it for one more minute. Finally, I called out in a whisper, “Mr. Narrow! Mr. Narrow!” Silence. Tears began to well up and I glanced in every direction for some clue to the cabin’s location.
I listened for the sound of running water. From behind me the faintest burbling caught my ear and I started into the blackness towards what I hoped was the river.
The sound shot through the darkness. In a panic I realized something was moving towards me through the woods! Something large! I could hear bushes cracking, scratching claws tearing at bark, moving slowly through the trees. Branches were breaking and what sounded like a low growl drifted in the darkness. Whatever it was, it was coming my way! Tears started down my face and I began running through the woods, whimpering and sobbing, limbs slapping against my face, my arms flailing as I sped through the pitch black air.
In another moment, I ran hard into a body, both of us falling in a heap to the ground.
“Did you hear that?” It was Mr. Narrow. “It sounds like a bear.”
I sat up and listened. The sounds were gone.
I tried to stop sobbing, but it wasn’t much use. I wanted to go home. I wanted to sleep in my bed. I wanted to see my mother. Mr Narrow stood up and grabbed hold of my arm.
“We better go back. I saw a snipe but he ran the other way. Anyway, it’s a good thing we ran into each other. The cabin’s behind you.”
The beam of light reappeared. I started to control my breathing and followed as my guide worked his way through the trees until, finally, the derelict cabin appeared. The gurgle of the river sounded sweet and comforting. In the cabin, by the fireplace, the silhouettes of the other campers moved about the cabin.
“Anyone get a snipe?” I asked, trying to sound cynical and nonchalant.
A chorus of “Naw” and “Never saw a thing” arose from the silhouettes.
No one else heard the bear and we never tried snipe hunting again. To this day, I’ve never met anyone who’s caught a snipe.
Our first trip continued for another week. We came within 100 yards of the Mistassini waterfall at the 52nd parallel, but Mr. Narrow scouted ahead and said it was much too dangerous to progress any further. So we turned back and swiftly sped downriver. Other than a moose, we saw little wildlife. We did hear wolves and coyotes from time to time and saw a lot of bear tracks, but we made our way back to base camp without further incident.
The morning of our second expedition, we started out by stuffing ten people into a Range Rover meant for nine. Our gear was piled high onto the roof and strapped down by what seemed to be a dozen ropes. Teetering atop the pile was an old wooden canoe. Our goal was a derelict lumber camp set on a lake six hours hours away by car. Mr. Narrow drove for a hundred and twenty miles through twisting dirt roads that led to nowhere in particular, until we reached the small campsite, perched at the edge of a large Mistassini tributary. The lone canoe strapped to the top of the car served as our single means of exploring the lake.
Logging roads are built to connect distant timber cutting sites, which were only used late in the fall when it was time to harvest the wood. You could drive for days and be lucky to find a single abandoned logging camp. The only way to get gasoline was to carry it with you.
On the third day disaster struck. I emerged from my tent to find Mr. Narrow, David and two of the oldest campers gathered around the Range Rover’s open hood.
“That’s it, we’re done,”
Mr. Narrow’s head was wagging back and forth. The campers were still peering into the bowels of the car while David dropped a couple of wrenches back into the large battered tool box Mr Narrow kept in the vehicle. While we scarfed down pancakes and coffee, David and his father huddled together, poring over a pile of maps. After breakfast, Mr. Narrow gathered the rest of our group and, with a sober tone, explained our predicament.
“The Rover can’t be fixed and we’re too far from base to walk back. It’ll be a good ten days before anybody comes looking for us. David’s going to take Karl and canoe downstream to the Mistassini to get help. It’ll still be three days before we can get another car up here, but we can settle down, explore the lake on foot, and still get some good fishing in.”
It seemed like a good plan, but David seemed unusually quiet as he gathered our gear into the canoe. Mr Narrow, in spite of his confident explanation, seemed withdrawn and unusually distracted. As I helped David with the canoe, I became increasingly apprehensive. It seemed like a long way to go by ourselves, and I would rather have stayed behind with Mr. Narrow and the other campers.
About an hour later, we put into the water and quickly moved downstream under a canopy of towering conifers. The forest was dim and I glanced at the river bank as we glided by, but could only see four or five feet into the impenetrable foliage. We passed through a few minor rapids, the river turning sharply to the left and right without any apparent rhyme or reason. Then the watercourse straightened out, becoming broader, slower and shallower. I relaxed, slowly paddling with the current, keeping an eye out for rocks and underwater debris. Miles of trees passed by, and except for occasional water snakes and turtles it seemed we were the only creatures in the woods.
David cocked his head. I concentrated, but other than buzzing gnats, I heard nothing but the constant gentle slap of the river against our canoe.
“I think there’s a rapids up ahead!”
As we drew nearer to a gentle curve in the river, I could hear a faint but steady roar rise above the insect’s racket.
We turned sharply to the right, towards shore. When we reached the bank, we both jumped into the water, which was almost to our waists. Each of us had taken off our shoes and shirt, and the cold water immediately cut through our jeans, causing me to gasp.
We stood in the water, holding the wooden canoe. The roar was constant and seemed to grow louder the longer we listened. Both of us stared at the dense forest that grew right to the river’s edge. Neither of us wanted to think about portaging through the woods, hauling the heavy canoe above our heads with our gear slung over our backs.
“Work your way on down there and see if it’s a big one,” David ordered.
I slid my oar securely under the gun whales and started to work my way down to the bend in the river. As I rounded the corner, I saw an unbroken stretch of turbulent whitewater, perhaps the length of four football fields. Jagged boulders rose from the white spray, trapping giant limbs that had been violently ripped to pieces between them. The roar of the water was now overwhelming and, looking back at David, I waved him off.
“There’s no way!” I screamed above the roar. David stared blankly back and opened his mouth. Not a sound reached me. I started wading upstream, fighting against the flow of water that worked to overthrow me with every step I took.
After maybe thirty feet, the canoe seemed to leap from my friend’s grasp and escaped into the quickening current. David stumbled towards the fleeing boat, fell and raised himself up in time to see the canoe bear down on me like a javelin.
I heard David scream above the roar, and as the canoe slammed into my chest I grabbed hold of the bow with both hands. In an instant I was off my feet and before I could manage a single thought I had entered the whitewater, hurtling at breakneck speed among the rocks. My fingers gripped the edge of the canoe as tightly as they could but the rest of my body seemed to be flying away in five different directions. Like a rag doll, my legs whipped against the boulders, as the canoe rose up and down with every swell, shuddering and shaking, banging against the glistening tree trunks, trying to buck me from my grasp like a demon filled stallion.
Just then it glanced off a limb, turned sideways and slammed into a towering boulder. With a crack it broke almost in half, spilling our gear into the mad river. Clothes, canteens, food, ponchos and sleeping bags tumbled into the churning whitewater and were instantly swept away. As I held my freezing, trembling body against the remains of the canoe, I saw the boat start to disintegrate, breaking into tiny pieces, dissolving into the tumult. I reached out to grab hold of our tent as it tumbled past me. For a brief moment I hung suspended between the canoe and the tent, and then, with a final crack, the entire bow gave way and I plunged beneath the waves, tumbling over and over, arms flailing about for something to grab onto.
When I came up, the canoe had disappeared and I was hurtling backwards down the churning rapids. I had drifted a ways toward the right bank and I could see a large flat rock rising from the roiling water just in front of me. With every bit of energy, I tried to steer my body to the boulder. Several inches of water were actually passing over the rock and as I slammed against the boulder, I found a cleft to dig my fingers into. In an instant, the water lifted me up over the slick flat surface and onto a fragile and precarious haven.
Looking over the roaring torrents that rushed past my perch, I saw David working his way down the riverbank. Drawing abreast of me, he called out over the roar.
“You have to jump!”
I stared into the brown foam, looking downstream towards the bank, watching the water swirl over piles of tangled branches that had become ensnared in the turbulent stream. Fragmented limbs were swept under the drenched foliage, pulled below by the undertow only to reappear yards downstream, tossed to the surface for a moment, then sucked beneath the waters again.
I looked back at David, his arms waving me into the water. There was no where to go, nothing to do. Before I could change my mind, I slipped into the current and in a moment was struggling again to keep my face above the flood. Pulled into the branches at the rapid’s edge, I felt my body start to slip under a large trunk that had fallen into the water. Frantic, I wrapped my arms around the slick wood, digging my fingers into whatever nook or cranny I could discover. Pulling my hips onto the log I slipped over the top, fell back into the water and found myself entangled in the brush that lined the bank. My feet sank into the mud as I grabbed at the vines beside me. Out of the bushes that lined the shore, David’s hand reached out to me. I lunged to grab hold and, with a yank, I was back on dry land.
David and I stood looking at each other. We had saved absolutely nothing, except the jeans we were wearing.
“Are you OK?”
David stared, as if I had crawled out of a grave.
I nodded my head.
“We better look downstream and see if we can find anything.”
I nodded again. Struggling down the bank, hoping to discover something of value to salvage, we saw absolutely nothing that could help us survive. We sat on the ground, trying to decide what to do. I wanted to try getting back to the group but David said It was hopeless to return. Maybe nobody knew where the group had gone. Maybe no one else was going to help them.
David said we had to follow the riverbank downstream and get someone from base camp to rescue his Dad and the others. We looked at each other. Base camp was almost one hundred miles away and we would have to walk without shoes, food or shelter. I wiped away a few tears and followed David as he slowly moved along the riverbank, trying to avoid thorn bushes, squeezing between vine covered trees, avoiding the sharp rocks that arose to hurt and cut our feet with every step.
For several hours we trudged along the bank, with little progress. At last, David said we had to go inland and try to find a logging road. Even though we had no idea which way to go, even if the one road we might stumble upon went nowhere, at least we would be able to walk. If we didn’t find a road soon, our feet would be too injured to go any farther. It was then I realized I was going to die. There were very few lumber roads, we had no idea where to find one and our canoe was in a million pieces. Even if someone found the wreckage drifting in the water, they would have no idea where to look for us.
“Well, one good thing is nobody’s ever been down that river before, at least not a white man.”
The thought of having gone where no one had ever been before cheered me up.
“So no one’s ever named that rapids,” David explained. “It’s ours to name and we’ll name it Manders’ Narrows!”
David was quite pleased with himself and, in spite of the fix we were in, I thought it was the coolest thing ever. For all time, that spot would be named after us, if we survived. If not, they would put two white crosses by the side of the Mistassini River to mark the deaths of two boys drowned while on the adventure of a lifetime. That did give me some comfort.
I was pretty hungry by this time, and I started thinking about Tootsie Rolls and Milk Duds. My stomach was growling and, as I made my way through the trees, I imagined biting into the chewy caramels, the sweet saliva filling my mouth. I was getting thirsty, too, but there was no water to be had. Fear flashed through my body and woke me from my fantasies. We were going to die. No doubt about it.
Death had never scared me but, then, I really didn’t know much about it, other than my dog being killed by a car and what I saw on TV. It seemed to be something that just happened and there wasn’t much you could do about it. My father was a physician and a confirmed atheist. He told me to imagine what it was like before I was born. That was death. It’s what you feel after you die. Nothing.
David and I pushed through the woods; hot, thirsty, hungry and tired. Hour after hour passed with nothing to indicate we had made any progress. The forest always looked the same. I felt aimless; the constant birdsongs that accompanied us reminding me how confined and enslaved we were in the endless forest. It was a boundless prison where we were free to walk wherever we wanted, but without real purpose. With no where to go, without direction, there was only constant, meaningless movement. We had no idea in what direction we should be moving, or where we wanted to end up, and so the fact we were searching for something did nothing to alleviate the overwhelming feeling of hopelessness.
The sun was setting and cold darkness was falling upon the wilderness when we unexpectedly stepped from between the trees and onto an ancient lumber road. We immediately stood still, grinning. We glanced up and down the road, but there was nothing in the dusky light to indicate that anyone had driven on the road for months, if not years. Both David and I knew the road might go on for a hundred miles, branching again and again; a dirt maze that led to nothing but dead ends, or maybe to an abandoned timber camp.
We started down the overgrown road, relieved our feet were walking on something other than rocks and tangled roots. Minutes later, we heard the unmistakable sound of an engine. Turning, we saw a dark blue, dust covered Volkswagen Beetle steadily approaching from around the bend. In a moment we were running toward the car, yelling and waving our arms like madmen.
Two French Canadians jumped out of the car as it pulled beside us, excited as we were. I didn’t understand a word, but David apparently spoke a bit of French and five minutes later we were crammed into the back of the bug, half covered with gear, eating candy bars and gulping down water from our savior’s canteens. Driving for hours without seeing another vehicle, I drifted in and out of an uncomfortable sleep. It was early in the morning before we pulled into an isolated ranger station. David was able to get our story out and soon he was talking with his mother on the ranger’s short wave radio.
That evening, Mr. Narrow arrived at the station and picked us up. He explained that the men in the Volkswagen were logging camp inspectors who were coming from a campsite more than fifty miles from where they found us. Had we missed them, it would have been at least three months before anyone else would have used that road. David told his Dad all about the accident and how we named the site Manders’ Narrows. Mr Narrow said someone at base camp found pieces of the wreckage and had called the rangers. It occurred to me that if nobody told them we were found, someone would put up two of those white crosses for us. As it turned out, it was like we were resurrected from the dead. We were, in a way, born again.
Mr. Narrow drove me into a village where they had a pay phone. I called my Mom and told her what had happened and said hi to my Dad. I was more than ready to leave and two days later took the overnight train from Quebec City, reversing my steps. Carried by chance and happenstance, it occurred to me that some thread of destiny had inserted itself into my life, that amidst turmoil and danger something had come to find me and save me from my endless, aimless movements.
On the plane from Toronto, I sat in first class with two stewardesses and a man wrapped in bandages. As the plane began to pitch and yaw in a late summer thunderstorm, lightning flashed and thunderclaps filled the air. In the rocking, pitching plane, the other passenger told us how he had been the sole survivor of a Canadian plane crash. The stewardesses listened in fascination and horror but I knew the truth. Something had held both of us in its hand, plucking each from death and carrying us into the future. In the midst of chaos, something far stronger than either of us had brought us together in this very storm. It never occurred to me that it was even possible for our plane to crash.