Canoeing the Back River by Allan Rock
We put our canoes into the Back River at a spot almost 3,000 km from Ottawa. It took us two days of travel and many complicated logistics to get to that remote shore. But to me, that was just the point. We were truly “getting away”. Apart from the pleasure of my companions’ company, what drew me to the expedition was the promise of relative and restorative silence. After a raucous and dispiriting winter and spring in the House of Commons, I ached for the solitude of a rarely traveled northern river.
What I hadn’t factored into that fantasy was the effect of allowing Craig Oliver and Tim Kotcheff to share a canoe. Any thought of tranquil reflection “receded like the mist before the morning sun”, as Craig and Tim engaged in their non-stop banter.
Loud and spirited, their boisterous exchanges were laced with language that was even worse than I’d heard in Parliament. When the Back was wide and calm, their voices would carry forever. When it was narrow and rough, they hollered even louder.
I thought I’d resent the intrusion. But I quickly realized that I was just part of a privileged audience for a remarkable performance.
These two veterans of the summer canoe excursions had perfected their trademark routine and turned it into an elaborate form of theatre: feigned gruffness, mock anger and over-the-top outrage at real or imagined provocations.
They acted out their parts brilliantly, producing hilarious exchanges that kept the rest of us in stitches.
At the very end, when we dragged the canoes from the water, I began to realize how very much I would miss their pretend quarrels, and how their noisy but brilliant scenes had provided the very distraction and escape I had so very much hoped to find.
I was the rookie among the seasoned veterans. I sensed from the outset a certain concern, as though other members of the annual expedition worried that the tenderfoot city slicker might not be up to the challenge.
The Silky Canoe
To me, the greatest benefit of this exaggerated anxiety was that they teamed me, as a precaution, with David Silcox as my canoe partner. “Silky” was perhaps the most able paddler of the talented lot, renowned for his ability not only to stay out of trouble, but also to manage it if it appeared. I suspect that the others told him that his job, first and foremost, was to make sure that the Minister of Health did not get himself killed. In Eddie Goldenberg’s mind, that concern may more likely have been based on a desire to avoid a by-election in Etobicoke Centre than on any worry about my well-being! Whatever the reason, it was a pure treat to sit up front in Silky’s canoe. His company was a continuous pleasure, as he introduced me to his cultured world of art and artists. And his masterful steering kept us clear of rapids, skirted troubling eddies and found us favourable currents.