Summer Paddle

Earlier this summer, my friend Dianne and I paddled the Saugeen River, since she had bought a farm in the area, and the Saugeen is now her home river. We searched websites to find the best stretch to paddle first time out, and narrowed it down to two choices. After more deliberation, we decided that although one route was calmer, it also had three portages, and we felt too lazy to get out of our kayaks to carry them up banks and across concession roads.  We’d take the route without portages, where we’d paddle through clay-sand bluffs, populated by cliff-dwelling birds, kingfishers and swallows. Along the way, the description said, the river bottlenecked somewhat, resulting in a stretch of rapids that would provide “excitement for the novice and veteran paddler alike.” 

After a kilometre or two of quiet meandering river, our first inkling of approaching “excitement” was the sound of water rushing in the distance. Not quite a roar, not Niagara Falls, but loud enough that you heard the tumbling of water well in advance of seeing it.  The river is higher this year than usual, and maybe that accounts for the unexpected bouncing ride we experienced over and over along the route. Since we had expected a paddle that novices could easily navigate, Dianne hadn’t worn a sprayskirt, and her kayak collected a layer of rapids-splash in the bottom. A sharp swift turn in the current, and all that water must have rolled to one side, and “thar she goes”!  Woman overboard! A moment of “no Dianne” - the flat bottom of the kayak floating at the surface - and then up she pops. On shore, we rock the boat back and forth to empty out the water, and off we go again, grinning away, amused by our choice - the three portages beginning to sound a lot less energetic than the route we took because we felt lazy…

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This same friend and I are now at a writing retreat on Lake Simcoe. We come twice yearly, once in the deep of lake-frozen, fish-hut winter, the lake becoming what I might imagine to be a futuristic moonscape, populated with clusters of outposts or way stations. Moon travelers and moon colonists in their space suits/snow suits, moon-mobiles zipping across the lake’s outer crust, the moon’s outer crust, long barren stretches of moon-arctic lake, moon-drifts/snowdrifts. But that’s the January retreat, the winter lake viewed on high from an expanse of windows, the retreat house on a cliff facing the water. Now it is August, the deep of kayak-glory summer, and we’ve rented a smaller chalet on the same property. The summer lake is temperamental and large, with quickly changing moods, its thunderstorms and dark skies and white-capped water, almost like an angry father. But then, sometimes the storm is followed by the rainbow, spanning the Lake Simcoe sky.

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Always at the summer retreat there is the gift of a few days when the lake is still and gentle, and at peace with itself. On these days, I put writing aside and alternate between taking the sea kayak out deeper into the lake, crossing the bays as the crow flies, or should I say the Canada Geese, and taking out my smaller kayak, a crossover boat that does shorelines well, lets me hug the edges, revel in the delights that only shoreline can offer.  On this retreat, with two out of seven days suitable for paddling, I have taken out both boats, first the sea kayak, and now the crossover. There is no easy put-in point from the retreat property. I have to pull the boat down from a meter or so height of rickety old dock, through the odd spider web, and a canopy of lovely tree branches that spill over the water. 

I’m sandal-footed, standing on shore in a spongy carpet of soft seaweed, with its little eco-sphere of critters and bug-life. I tug at the boat until the stern sits on the seaweed, and the bow floats in the water. I step into the cockpit, skirt myself in, and push off. And then the boat is free. There is always this little shared celebration between boat and woman at that moment, when the boat is no longer hampered, no longer moored, floats unencumbered.  It is one of my favourite moments of paddling, and I always marvel at that feeling of lightness, being held by water, atop water. 

The new dock further over has been decked out with “sails,” joyful open coverings that offer shade and a pleasant place to read and think and create. The retreat property is filled with so many such little spots, benches purposefully placed for renewal, contemplating. It is a careful balance of untamed and tamed, bright gardens, woodlands emptying out into a stone labyrinth for walking meditation, and at the far end of the property, a native wildflower and grass meadow. Through the centre of the meadow, a path of mulch has been laid down. When you walk the trail, long grasses brush against your legs and arms, and at this time of year, there are oh so many grasshoppers, popping-pop-pop, action and sound. Follow the path to the very centre of meadow, and you discover a chair, an invitation to sit, and observe, and listen, and marvel. 

Near the waterfront “sails,” a visiting nun is sitting on a lawn chair, in her bathing suit, bathing in the sun (dare I write the nun is sunbathing? Somehow, it doesn’t seem write/right). I shout a hello from my boat. I really shouldn’t disturb her personal retreat, but I feel an urge to communicate.  Are you enjoying your stay? I ask, and then tell her we are renting the chalet. “You’re The Writers,” she says back (and that’s how we’re known by the nuns, have been known for several years now, all of us clumped together under the proper noun, The Writers). “But you’re not writing,” she adds, and I feel as if I’ve been scolded.

I leave the nun to the sun (a rhyme), and paddle my crossover kayak up-lake (is there an up-lake to lake, in the way there is an upstream to river?).  Two muskrats scurry along the tightrope branches of a fallen tree, and a party of itsy-bitsy fish pops across the surface, not unlike the grasshoppers. I round a small wharf and stroke past fishermen, stroke around the shorelines of some very rich properties. Here, the boathouses are larger than many suburban houses, including mine. One in particular looks like it must house the Queen Mary. The boathouse resembles a Mennonite Meeting House, long and white, and at first I think it is a hall or a church building. Several of the properties have German Shepherds, foxes, grey wolves on the large lawns facing the water. At first, I thought the animals were real, but when on return journey they were still sitting pretty, in the exact same spot, in the exact same position, I began to suspect…  Then a woman tucked one of the German Shepherds under her arm, and walked away with it, just like that – placed the dog in another spot. I paddled closer, and the woman and I struck up a conversation. She said the dogs are decoys to stop the Canada Geese from congregating. She moves them daily to keep the Geese from figuring out the truth. It must work - there are no geese on her lawn. A few properties “up-lake”, I paddle by a raft with geese settled on it. The geese sit next to an owl decoy that has fallen over. They are not fooled, and I am amused.

Although I only paddle this way once a year, my paddle-memory comes back to me, and I recognize the small peninsula where the water is suddenly very shallow, and the waves, reacting to the gradient of the bottom, makes the boat do funny things, tugs slightly, tracks oddly. It is midday, mid-week, and the lake is quiet. Along the shoreline, several sun umbrellas are folded down. A strap tightens each so that the umbrella is cinched. From the viewpoint of water, the white one looks like the small statue in the middle of one of the retreat gardens. At first that is exactly what I think it is, a Mother Mary statue, until my eye adjusts and my brain says “umbrella.” I see the umbrellas all along the lake, but in various colours. The black ones look like priests, and the brown ones like cowled monks. 

I round the last bay that I have explored in the past – ponder whether I want to extend my mapping by paddling further, add to the paddle-memory storage places/spaces in my brain. The sun is hot. I haven’t brought water with me. The informal paddle plan I left with “The Writers” back at the nunnery doesn’t leave much leeway for exploring, and I don’t want to worry them by being late. There is also that thing about lake – the return journey to starting point. Whatever distance you paddle “out,” you need to re-paddle back, so you double your time. Still, it will be another year since I come this way again. I decide to paddle a few more bays, cover new ground, or rather, new water. On the second bay, I am intrigued to see a bicyclist on a road or trail close to the shoreline, and then two women power-walking. A small path leads down to the water. 

I beach the boat, pull myself up and out, stick my paddle into the cockpit like a flag stuck into the surface of the moon, claiming the territory, claiming the boat, claiming the voyage. I climb up the little hill, not unlike, I’m sure to the observer, a strange sea-monster. Kayaking gear is so weird-looking to the uninitiated –  lifejacket, spray skirt hanging down and around to my knees, shorter in the back. It’s the way it fits around the cockpit when you sit in the boat, but out of the boat, looks like a skirt on backwards. There’s also a large loop that hangs from the front bottom hem, where you pull if you need to “wet exit” the boat quickly and you’re upside down in the water. Then the rest of my get-up, my baseball cap that I keep just for kayaking, and my sunglasses, my rubber beach sandals. 

I emerge into a waterfront park, at the edge of the Town of Georgina, complete with a playground, and baseball diamonds, and a parking lot, and a wide trail. Off in the distance, there are four of those portable toilet stations – not unlike those winter fishing huts. Now that I am close to a toilet, I realize how badly I have to go. I scurry over, in my sea-monster outfit, join two men who must have had the same urge, but on land – they are motorcyclists. Well, if I look a sea monster, they look like Satan Choicers. They look at me as if I look extremely odd, and I wonder if they’ve looked in a mirror lately…

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Bladder happily empty I return to my kayak (once while paddling the St. Lawrence, I climbed from my boat up onto a small rock of an island, squatted, hoisted up my sprayskirt – at that very moment a tour boat glided by, passengers pointing at me – I’m not sure they realized what I was doing…). I paddle back to the retreat property, past the Mother Mary umbrellas; the real nun at the dock has gone back to her cabin, or to walk the labyrinth, or whatever nun-things she does. I stroke my way to the shore, step into the soft spongy seaweed, climb up on the dock, pull out the boat - and if it might be said the nun has returned to doing nun-things, I return to the cottage and do writer things. 

It is wonderful to have discovered the waterfront park. There are other delights, too, unique to this retreat – a porcupine that comes to the back porch – up the steps. And a fox that plays like a small dog, tosses in the air sweet rotting apples that have fallen to the ground, then eats them. I would never have expected a fox to be so small, being an urban raised person, or for its tail to be so light and fluffed, that the tail would stretch out the way it does, behind the fox, as it trots. How the fox grooms itself, sits with its legs folded underneath it, like a deer, or a colt. How it stalks a squirrel, but doesn’t attack, but rather jumps as if might attack, knowing full well that the squirrel will make it safely up the tree. How when it spots me (not being a tame fox, as it shouldn’t be) it lifts its very large ears, runs away, at times bounding. I wouldn’t have known that foxes bound like that… 

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Dianne and I lift the sea kayak onto the roof of my car. The sea kayak is long, and loading it is a two-person job. I plan to drive the two hours back to my hometown to attend a computer seminar, then return to the retreat for a final full day of writing. Weather predictions call for rain. I don’t need two boats with me at the retreat (although I can carry two kayaks atop my car), and decide to drop the larger boat one off at home. I tightly tie down the sea kayak, double-check my knots, triple-check them. The winds were large driving to the retreat, and the boats acted like a sail, the car pulling to one side. The sea kayak hangs over the back bumper, and I dangle a little red flag from the end near the rudder. I enjoy this preparatory aspect of kayaking – loading and taking down the boats - kayaking isn’t only the paddling but the complete experience. (I also delight in bungee cords, and a package of various sized cords is one way to my heart). 

Twelve kilometres into journey, along the first of three major highways I need to travel, I hear a sound. The bow of my sea kayak lists starboard, threatening to tip, veering off to the side. I imagine with horror the boat bouncing into the path of traffic. I put on my emergency flashers, slow down. I’m already in the slow lane, but this is not what the highway planners meant by slow lane…. 

I pull off to the side of the road, but there isn’t much “side” to this road, and no gas stations, or businesses. I inspect what has happened. A piece of the cradle has broken off, the small bracket that keeps the J shaped metal pieces holding the boat in place. I’m still an hour and a half from my destination. I do have room for two boats on my carrack – and one of those places is empty, since I left the crossover at the retreat. But that would mean unloading the sea kayak by myself on the side of a very busy highway, and somehow loading it up to the other side of the car, a dangerous prospect. I don’t want to be “smushed” by passing traffic.

An unexpected calm washes over me. I will figure it out. I’m no longer my father’s daughter, not in this situation. He distrusted his own abilities, did not give his children the opportunity to “fix” things – to problem solve– especially mechanical breakdowns, or technical tasks that involved putting things together, even basic tasks like using a screwdriver. If he were with me today, he’d be “smushed” at the side of the road trying to move that boat over in the fastest way possible; he certainly wouldn’t have given me (or himself for that matter), adequate time to ponder the situation, plan a solution, execute it safely.

I secure the broken cradle with rope and bungee cords. Not much of a solution, I know. I also know I can’t drive this way for very long. I punch instructions into the GPS. The lady who lives inside it sets route for the nearest gas station. First, I will have to drive (limp) two kilometres to an off-ramp. The sea kayak still lists but not as badly as before, and a stream of cars whizzes by, giving me wide berth, warned by the flashers. Ms GPS leads me on a circuitous route through the countryside and an industrial park to a CANGO gas station that is obviously deserted, permanently closed. The wind has picked up. I don’t know how much longer the makeshift repair will hold. As her second choice, Ms GPS takes me to a Petro Canada at the edge of a place called Stouffville. I pull into the parking lot, grateful to be off the road.

I untie the ropes and bungee cords, tip and slip the sea kayak down the front window shield like a giant sleigh down a hill, counting on gravity to help me out. I stop myself just in time from pulling the boat completely to the ground, let the kayak lean on an angle, rest again the windshield and hood, little red flag flapping in the wind.  It occurs to me that I can do this myself, without begging help from a passerby to lift the boat from the ground and up onto the undamaged side of my carrack. I slide the stern over to the other side of the car, straighten out the bow while it was still on the hood, and then push the boat back up. The kayak is long, but not heavy, made of a light composite material. I marvel at how easy the task…  And then there it is, sea kayak back up on the car, and securely tied. I instruct Ms GPS to take me home. 

All is well, and I learn an important kayak lesson, to check the bolts and rust and bits of the carrack and the cradle, not simply to check how securely the ropes and bungee cords are tied. I do indeed make it to the computer seminar, although that is a bonus, and under the circumstances, if I had missed it, so be it. I also safely make return journey to the retreat later that evening - thankfully, gratefully, retreat back into the peace of the place, into the stillness, into the quiet, into the writing. And later, into the peace that is paddling.

© Marianne Paul 2011