The Last Hurrah – by Tim Kotcheff
The end of a hard paddled river can be both a relief and a disappointment.
Relief because you feel physically drained. Disappointment because it means abandoning the serenity of the north for the anxieties of the urban life; your ‘real’ life.
There was a little bit of both when we completed the Back River in 1998. However, weighing more heavily on my mind back then was the feeling that time and tide were beginning to catch up with us. In the days ahead, there was little talk of ‘what’s next’ and as the weeks and months turned to years, I began to suspect there was no ‘next’.
In 2002, we made a feeble attempt to tackle the Horton in the Northwest Territories. Advisories were issued. Dates were set. Maps purchased. Craig Oliver and I actually booked flights to Yellowknife. So, in spite of having just celebrated my 65 birthday and sporting a new right hip, the urge to do one more Arctic river started percolating.
But when the group totally ignored our call to arms the uncomfortable truth was plain to see – the will, energy, commitment and stamina to undertake another major waterway was just not there. All the Horton plans were scrapped. Sadly, it appeared, the last chapter of my Arctic Odyssey had been written.
Out of the blue in 2006, Ted Johnson suggested that we rally the gang for a final celebratory trip down the Petawawa and arrangements were soon in place. I felt a mild rush of excitement at the prospect of plying a wild river one more before hanging up my paddle. But the 8-year hiatus raised some doubts in my mind about the wisdom of this venture. But it was the Petawawa or nothing.
We convened at the Algonquin Portage Store near Pembroke and headed to our put-in on Lake Traverse. It was a short and easy paddle to our first camp site
These days you need official permission to travel Algonquin Park. Campsites must be booked in advance including the one at ‘The Natch’ where we stopped for a couple of days. Traffic on the river was heavy as we watched novice canoeists paddle by our campsite. So much for the ‘serenity of the north’. And then it was on to McManus Lake to complete a rather uneventful trip.
In one telling moment along the river – I remember carrying a canoe with John Macfarlane around the rollway rapids. We were both utterly exhausted. We plopped down at one point to contemplate what it was going to take to finish this damnable portage . . . and the river. And we looked at each other and almost simultaneously declared that this was ‘definitely my last time.’ And so it was.
And then to our dismay, we discovered that Peter Stollery had ‘lost’ the keys to the van (our ride home) where we had stored some of our personal belongings including our wallets. John Macfarlane and I were forced to hitch a ride with Ted Johnson to his summer cottage on Mary Lake in Muskoka. From there we chartered a two hour cab ride back to Toronto.
Later, Peter discovered the key was sitting at the bottom of his canoe bag the whole time – a fitting end perhaps to our unremarkable ‘last hurrah’.
Because of its popularity and proximity to major urban areas, many people choose a river in Algonquin Park for their first canoe trip. For us, it was the last.
Sometimes I wonder why we bothered to make this final effort. We had paddled this river twice before. It held no new mysteries. Whatever the motivation, the Petawawa was not the conclusion I had hoped for.
But there are no regrets. We had conquered the mighty Nahanni, were the first to navigate the Ruggles on Ellesmere Island, and the Thomsen on Banks Island, tamed the Noatak in Alaska and watched as herds of caribou and muskox paraded before our eyes. We had climbed the mountain and had seen the light. But for our group of aging warriors, it was twilight time.
While It’s never easy to close the door on a vital part of one’s life, there is comfort in the understanding that the adventures we had undertaken, most of which we had so enjoyed will remain in our memories.
So it will be with our Arctic canoe trips – the camaraderie, the bonding, the laughter, the tears, the challenges met, the dangers overcome, the disarming beauty of the Arctic in all its glory – the wilderness experience par excellance.
But endings are not always bad things. Sometimes an ending marks the beginning of a new venture. Someone once said that truly happy memories always live on, shining. Over time, one by one, they come back to life.
So when Bob Fowler called me to suggest that we record our experiences in a book – my pulse missed a beat. I said yes without hesitation.
Over the year or so it took to select the photos and write our stories the entire group was re-engaged to this chapter in our lives. Recollections of what we had experienced and accomplished came rushing back. We were re-living our trips, but this time – from the comfort of our homes.
So hats off to Bob. A million thanks from all of us for coming up with the idea and then taking the time and making the effort to get it done.