Loaded up with 60 days of food, camping gear, and maps spanning 1300km, David Jackson and his partner Leah began their paddle and portage trip in Ontario’s most northern community of Fort Severn last summer. Follow their incredible journey and encounters with wildfires, dry creeks, flooded rivers, overgrown trails, and the constant torment of bugs along the traditional routes of the Nishnawbe people.
In the final days, we found ourselves looking down the biggest rapid either of us had ever seen. As far as we could view, the kilometre-wide river tumbled over a horizon line, the water at the bottom hardly visible far below. As we cautiously let ourselves down the south shore, we came to a point where falls obstructed the route and forced us to portage. As we scrambled up muddy limestone shelves, we stopped. Underfoot was not limestone; instead, we found ourselves creeping along the edge of an enormous iceberg, a tower of muddy ice the size of a two-storey house and one hundred metres wide. The portage we would later learn was on the opposite shore.
We seldom remember long journeys for the hard times. Our memories seize on the moments of joy, the buzz of reward, letting them outweigh the fickle truths of adventure.
At the end of a trip, we often share the memories with those who we meet, the connection of place and time becoming ever harder to relate to the further we get from the end. When we arrived in Fort Severn, it was late afternoon on a perfect summer day in the north. Ominous clouds hung low over Hudson Bay, crystal clear skies radiated overhead, and the enormous banks of the mighty Severn River loomed high above us.
I had been sleepless for four nights, the threat of polar bear country on two people demanded care in camp, and we were relieved to find only tracks of the white bear in the shallows on the river's edge. We were one week ahead of the caribou migration, and summer, which had just begun in the northern latitudes, was soon coming to an end. I left Leah on the muddy bank and scrambled up to the community, worried we would upset people with our arrival amidst a Covid lockdown. To our relief, Fort Severn had ended their lockdown that morning, and they quickly found a place for us to camp behind the Nishnawbe Aski Police Detachment.
At midnight, the light was still up, and people stopped by to say hi, everyone swatting at clouds of vicious bugs. Questions were those of water levels, game, campsites, and general interest related to the winds and weather. In the north, stories exist between the past and future, conversations are of the here and now, and topics could be from yesterday or 100 years ago. Though we had left from distant waters that flow to Lake Superior, the Cree of the Hudson Bay coast understood our journey for theirs and their ancestors' lives revolve around the water and seasons. When we left, it would be by plane; our canoe, sitting on the gravel airstrip, would be flown out on the next cargo haul. It was our first time away from the yellow hull that had faithfully travelled us so far. After months of travel by foot and paddle, it would be planes, trains, and automobiles that would take us so far from the place with which we felt so close. Our winter's dream of life on water and old trail had brought us back to the realities of life on land.
Months after the iceberg and long days of sun, our tans have faded, our cheeks thickened. Never a day goes by where we don’t remember the wisdom of Kevin Winter, the lightning that started fires, the old paint on ancient rocks, or the trails worn deep in the mossy north, ever guiding us on our way. That’s the beauty of travelling by canoe; we remember the connection that feels so natural. Each time the gas smell at a pump fills our nose, the running metre reminds us how free we were to roam in the land where all we needed were paddles, a hull, food, and gumption to go where we would. Visiting family and friends, luxuriating in places we love, and travelling the paved roads of our familiar life, not a day goes by where we forget the trodden trails of the forests, the tug of a river current, and the stillness of a lake at dawn. Our journey ended where it began, safely back at home, and these familiarities are reminders to dream once again, for somewhere there’s the gurgle of a river, and we will go listen.