The first of twenty-four portages feels like chaos, like a summer storm wreaking havoc on a beach; the last, like an old friend comfortably leaning on your tired shoulders.
Everything in between is no more and no less an addictive progression of ache.
Before we began our Algonquin paddling adventure, I’d wondered whether the portage ache–the unique stiffening soreness of schlepping first a 55lb backpack and then a 42lb canoe over crooked forest trails as long as 2km in between each lake–would, like its counterpart the alpine ache, come to be felt as both agony and ecstasy.
Toronto, August 15, 2012. The Spadina Avenue corridor from Bloor to King Streets is a brocade of barriers, hard hats, steel beams and jackhammers, as the TTC’s construction teams retool the streetcar infrastructure to conform to the new trams arriving next year.
Nine years ago this month I dropped anchor in Tunisia for a six-month contract teaching English at a school in the seaside city of Sousse, packing along with me little besides my old Canon single lens reflex, an 18mm wide-angle lens and a few dozen rolls of Ilford FP4.
I worked six days a week, so when that seventh day came round I was on a bus or a train somewhere into countryside as far as I could get. But it wasn’t till shortly before my departure that I was able to devote an entire week to a voyage into the Sahara, at least to its border towns and not-too-distant oases.
It was a hermetic experience: late May in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, the Chott el-Djerid salt flats, and beyond them the Sahara — with their mirages, siestas, scorpions and utter lack of tourists — is conducive to isolation and meditation, and I found myself subsisting on a diet of bread, water, the kindness of strangers and contemplations of photography.
When Samuel Champlain paddled down the Restoule River with a party of Ottawa nation aboriginals in the early seventeenth century, he believed he was beating a trail of discovery to a great, westward river that would lead to the mer de l’ouest, the ocean on the far side of what was, to Europeans, a new found land.
In the Canada of Champlain’s peers, the frontier emerged from obscurity beneath each footstep and paddle stroke of he and his men. What became known as the French River was the first of many underestimations of Champlain, who was by all evidence one of the more gifted of the early European explorers of North America.
Champlain stood at the confluence of the Restoule and French Rivers and believed the latter flowed over the western horizon to the salted sea. (No doubt his indigenous guides, who may never have come across anything but fresh water during their inland lives, struggled in translation with this alien concept of saltwater.)
Champlain was wrong. But in his wrongness, he made if not a discovery then at least a revelation.
From the confluence of history and myth this remote place draws its name: the earliest inhabitants lived on the North Island during the summer months—in shacks closer to the inshore fishing and squid-jigging grounds—and on the South Island during the winter months—in homes protected from the bitter Arctic winds. Thus, twice per year they would change islands.
Men whose fathers had fished came here to fish; the hamlet of Change Islands was one of the most important outports of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Newfoundland fishery, whose annual spring thaw sent sailors “down on the Labrador” to pull cod from the waters all summer long.