On March 26th we packed Giles into a container and closed and bolted the door. This was not quite as simple as it sounded, given Giles with the tent on top is slightly higher than a standard container door, but with the tyres pretty much flat and Cas and our able assistant standing on the bumper we squeezed him in. Clicking the customs bolt in place felt pretty final, and on April 6th he left the port at Fremantle bound, initially, for Singapore. He had a brief stopover before heading to Tianjin, where he arrived around April 6th.
With Giles gone, the rest of our stuff on a container back to the UK, and us having found the last few weeks in Perth pretty stressful we needed a holiday. We’re not going to blog about it, but New Zealand fitted the bill and after the stark contrasts of much of West Australia was like aloe vera for the eyeballs. The plan was to fly from NZ to China, but….no epic adventure of ours would be complete without applying for a job in a different country along the way… So after a brief trip back to the U.K. we are on our way to see what Chinese customs have made of our truck….
Meet Giles, a 2013, 3.0L D4D, automatic Toyota Hilux SR5. Bought as Mike’s commuter vehicle for 70km a day, as toy-transport for bikes, surf skis and kitesurfing gear, and a weekend-warrior beginner-off-road touring machine. We have to say, he has done all these things pretty admirably. Automatic I hear you say…? Well, yes. Automatics hold their value over here better than manuals, and we originally intending on selling him when we leave. Driving an auto up the highway each day was also more appealing to Mike, so we thought we’d give it a go. Neither of us have owned one before. Now, the off-roadies will argue long and hard about whether manual or auto is the way to go on the rough stuff, but either way he’s been awesome. He’s handled everything thrown at him and has way more ability than we do, so it probably didn’t really matter.
However, once you have a terrain capable vehicle in WA, you have to start pimping it, and the vehicle modification industry here probably dwarfs many medium sized countries GDPs. If you can take it off the vehicle, you can upgrade it, and so we made a few minor alterations over the year. Though these were all pretty functional. Roof bars were fitted on the cab for the surf skis and paddle boards. Then load frame and roof bars were fitted to the canopy for the roof top tent, or RTT to keep up with the Australian passion for creating an acronym for everything. Then roof bars were removed from the front and replaced with a more versatile tray (we didn’t get everything right first time), an awning was bolted on the side, a fridge was wedged in the back and a tyre deflator, compressor, shovel, MaxTrax sand-ladders and a snatch-strap (!) and recovery points made up the recovery gear. Whilst little of this is strictly necessary, it does make camping pretty comfortable and a long way from pitching a tent on a spike of granite sticking out of Lake Huron. The James Baroud RTT is pretty sweet, keeping you away from all the creepy crawly bitey things for which Australia is famous (Cas’s stipulation if we were going camping here…), and giving a pretty awesome viewpoint whilst drinking coffee in the morning. It even has a solar powered fan (which is surprisingly effective!) to garner some air movement on those still nights. And so we wandered around WA in Giles whenever we had a few days off work, bouncing over rocks and avoiding getting bogged on beaches and spending the nights in some pretty awesome spots. The only time our expensive rescue gear was used was to extricate Aussie’s who were stuck and in our way. This, it will not surprise you, was immensely satisfying.
So, what further upgrades are needed for world-overland travel? We haven’t done it yet. Frankly, we have no idea. It would be easy to replace everything and try to cover every eventuality (Mike’s favourite pastime), or just rock up at your nearest ARB store with a blank cheque. But everything has a cost, not just financial, but physical. Add too much to your vehicle and Newton will be laughing all the way to Pisa.
But, you want to fill your vehicle with gear, ensure it doesn’t collapse or leave you stranded on some remote mountain pass, and make sure it is comfortable enough to spend the next 4 months in. Where to start…..
To be honest, we’ve probably done very little. Under vehicle protection seemed sensible, providing 3mm of steel protection between Giles’ belly and the road from the front of the chassis to the transfer case. A long range fuel tank went on, giving us 145L of diesel to slosh around and maybe meaning we can skip a few of the less salubrious filling stations en route. And we upgraded our suspension, fitting Old Man Emu springs and shocks rated for a 400-600kg load. The initial result of this, with an empty tub and the RTT removed, was quite dramatic and unnerving, and made us consider using the tent ladder simply to get into the back seat. But with our fridge back in, drawer system fitted, and RTT on the top Giles is looking a little less excited. With all the other bits and pieces needed for 4 months on the road (we’ll do a separate kit blog at some point), we hope we’ve got it about right. But we expect to have mechanicals, the only questions are when, and where.
Finally, why call him Giles? Well the original license plate had a couple of G’s in it and it’s the first name that sprung to mind. So it stuck. Yes, it’s pretty middle class and a ridiculous name for a 3 tonne 4×4. Which is why we like it.
We wondered if we were being optimistic when we originally tag-lined this site – given that we didn’t know if we’d even manage the Canoeing-across-Canada bit. But here goes: we’re planning another adventure!
Most of you know this already but for those who don’t:
We’ve spent the past 12 months in Perth, Western Australia – one of the most remote and isolated cities on the planet. I’ve completed a fellowship in paediatric anaesthesia and intensive care at the Perth Children’s Hospital and Mike has been doing an anaesthetics and simulation fellowship up the road in a very Australian sounding place called Joondalup.
It’s been an interesting year – back in work after almost a year off, back indoors after 6 months outside, back in a city* after living in the wilderness. At times it’s felt like a bit of an assault on our senses and our time – turns out we’re still not sick of each other. Yet!! And so, not content with 5 months together in a 17 foot canoe we’ve decided to spend another 5 months together in a 17 foot vessel – this time we’ll be driving (home) in a gorgeous great big truck called Giles.
We knew when we got here that we’d want to explore Western Australia which is vast beyond imagining and seemingly empty (until you look closely), so we bought a truck. Not just any truck, we bought a 2013 Toyota Hilux SR5 which Michael promptly (and inexplicably) named Giles (!).
Toyota Hilux’s (that’s a Tacoma to you folks back in Canada) are ubiquitous in Australia in every incarnation from battered tradie’s trucks to massively jacked, totally pimped off road monsters. What, at home, is a bit of an eye watering gas guzzling beast of a machine is considered normal or fairly modest out here, if not simply… small. But they’re simple, famously reliable, built for hard work and pretty comfy too. They are, in essence, the Australian equivalent of the white van.
As owners of not 1 but 2 camper vans we can’t claim to be the most eco-fastidious people in the world but I confess buying a 4WD truck didn’t sit completely easily with me. How on earth that evolved into wanting to drive the thing home deserves a bit more explanation if only to help justify it to myself.
So, truck bought, we fitted it out with a rooftop tent, a fridge and a stove and duly took off pretty much every chance we got. We have explored Western Australia from north to south and west to.. less far west; from Exmouth to Israelite Bay and so many amazing places in between. And I think it’s fair to say we have both fallen completely and utterly in love… with the truck.
Four-wheel driving in the UK is often seen as a somewhat niche, slightly geeky pursuit of die-hard Land Rover enthusiasts seeking out any opportunity to winch some poor granny out of the ditch she’s just parked in. It’s an unfair stereotype, in reality they are car enthusiasts who often, particularly in remote areas, provide an essential voluntary emergency service. And they enjoy ragging their vehicles around in the mud. But it is not the way of life that it is for many residents of WA. As such, the opportunities for off road adventures here are endless. We have only scratched the surface, but we’ve been thoroughly convinced of the potential for exploration provided by a rough tough 4WD machine.
Our original post-work plan was to head north and explore an area of northwest WA called The Kimberley – a barely charted and remote region of the country full of river crossings and gorges and, allegedly, mountains. I say allegedly because we have been told many times during our year here to go and visit a particular mountain, only to struggle to find so much as a pimple on the otherwise flat landscape. There are a few notable hills, but we haven’t found anything mountainous. Western Australia is, mostly, God’s sandpit. The Kimberley is, we are assured, different. But it is also sub-tropical, having a wet season from December to March and hot humid conditions that make travelling near impossible. So, heading there at this time of year was not an option. Somehow the sensible thing to do became to drive all the way home….
And so it is, with just 2 weeks left in Australia, we are busy preparing to pack our truck into a container and ship it to China where we will meet it in about a months time. From there it’s just 15,000km (give or take the odd detour), a desert or two, a couple of inland seas and quite a few ACTUAL mountain ranges until we reach the familiar shores of Europe, where presumably, we get turned around and sent straight back.
*ok it’s really a big town
To continue the Canadian theme, we already have some people to thank. I know, Aussies aren’t all bad!
First: Cas! She came up with the idea – again! Second: Mike – he went along with it – again! Bob at Indian Ocean Shipping Agency for endless patience and timely answers to our many anxious questions! Patrick and his team at Mosman Park Auto who not only cared for Giles whilst we were in Perth but helped prep him for the journey and even showed us how to carry out maintenance en route. Gary at ARB Osborne Park. Chris at Custom Installations. The Chinese, Russian and Mongolian Embassies all of whom processed our visas without question and in record time. Our families for barely batting an eyelid when we told them what we were up to (and receiving all the random bits of equipment and administration UK side Phil! We have you on speed dial…or the satellite equivalent…for any mechanical mishaps).
This post is long overdue, but life got busy. We’ve both tried to write this several times, but something has always got in the way. Usually it’s been good things – catching up with friends we haven’t seen in months, or making another finishing touch to our house. But it’s still prevented us summarising our thoughts on completing our great Canadian adventure. And that is the essence of what was so incredible about our summer. There was very little to get in the way.
Being home is great. There’s nothing quite like sleeping in your own bed, in your own home, surrounded by your own familiar possessions. We’ve loved seeing family and friends, hearing about summer activities and adventures and meeting the many new additions. We’ve enjoyed paddling our kayaks on the sea, running in the hills, surfing and mountain biking. We’ve taught on courses, and found our feet again at work; enjoyed Christmas and are looking forward to the new year. Before all of this we even managed to squeeze in a few days visit to Newfoundland – perfectly timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Mike’s gran’s birth in St John’s. We might just move there one day…
But we miss our own adventure. We miss our boat Bertha, who has a new home in BC and will await the coming of spring. We miss the sound of the birds, carried on the morning mists across the water and the sound of the river or the gentle lap of waves on the lake shore. We miss the grumpy beavers slapping their tails in disgust as we glide past and the satisfaction of long days on the water before cooking dinner on an open fire and collapsing into the tent. Ultimately, we miss the beautiful simplicity of a life spent outdoors in pursuit of a single goal. 2 mugs, 2 plates, 2 bowls; dip, dip and swing. And now, life feels very busy.
“How was it? Was it amazing? What was the worst day? What was the best day?” These are the most common questions we have faced since returning home. But how do you summarise a trip like this? It’s something we’ve been trying to do since arriving in Montreal, and we’re not yet sure we’ve managed it. Many people have said that the trip, and the blog, seemed to end very suddenly. We feel the same, despite the five month build up. The weather forced us to put in some long days towards the end, so we raced towards Montreal rather than enjoy and absorb the last few days.
Mike will tell you that when we finished I was reluctant to have a shower because I knew that was the first step away from the trip and towards ‘normalcy’ – and I didn’t want normalcy! I wasn’t ready for it! We joked we could get back in the boat and paddle straight back to Alberta, only we weren’t completely joking. Nothing in Montreal felt quite right – not the nice hotel or the loud restaurants. Having no aim and nothing to do was agony.
The wonder of human adaptability is that within a couple of weeks of starting we had normalised paddling every day, cooking over a fire and sleeping in a tent. And the tragedy is that it is just as easy to go back to living in a house and using every pan in the cupboard.
But another wonder of humans is their ability to show such kindness, compassion, empathy and enthusiasm for the exploits and adventures of complete strangers. So we’d like to once again thank everyone who followed our blog, housed us, fed us, sent us a message or simply waved at us from the shore. We hope you have all had a wonderful Christmas and we wish you a very happy and healthy 2018.
After nearly 5 months of paddling and over 5000km we have made it to Montreal! This is the end of our trip! We are delighted, relieved, exhausted and emotional, and it is hasn’t yet really sunk in.
The weather forecast for this week was terrible, we knew that we had one good day leaving the dam at Carillon, then a storm was expected on Sunday with strong winds lasting through until Tuesday. We didn’t know what to do. The closure of the locks in the Lachine Canal left us with a few options: paddle around, portaging the Lachine Rapids somehow, hoping for a weather break; portage the last 15km of our trip along the bike path next to the canal, which would be amusing but not how we wanted to finish; or finish on the west side of Montreal, rather than the Old Port. Whichever way, we needed to get as far as possible from the dam.
The final dam
We set off from the camp site at 7am and made the short walk to the boat launch through the delightful little town of Carillon, with its period French wooden buildings painted in cheerful colours. We had a small amount of current with us for the first few kilometres but this soon disappeared as the river widened. But the forecast westerly breeze was giving us a gentle shove in the right direction and we found that by coffee time we were only 6km short of Hudson Yacht Club, where we had thought we might spend the night if progress had been slow. We passed there before lunch and continued on, managing to narrowly avoid the start of a sailing race and thinking that even hoisting our sail probably wouldn’t make our presence on the course welcome. By lunch though we were staring at Montreal Island and the series of bridges under which we had to pass on our way to join the mighty St Lawrence River. Twenty-five kilometres still to Lachine, “can we do that before dark?” we asked ourselves. We thought it was worth a go, but identified a series of other city parks at which we could stop if we didn’t make it, once again blurring the line between camping and homelessness.
We were expecting the Ottawa to quicken as it approached the St Lawrence, but were surprised at how shallow it became as we each removed another millimetre from our carbon paddles. It was amazing to actually be paddling around Montreal, even if our finish was still over 40km away. But the uncertainty surrounding the weather was playing on our minds. We really had to get to Lachine tonight. The skies darkened behind us threatening an early start to the storm, but it held off and we quickened our pace. Cas’s shoulders were pretty painful by now but she didn’t say anything, took more drugs and soldiered on. When we joined the St Lawrence we floated for a few minutes and simply stared. The scale of the river here is mind-boggling, particularly when you’re sat in a 17 foot canoe. It stretches for around 5km across as the Ottawa joins, with large shipping passing along the distant shore. Despite its width it also has a noticeable current, at last! And so with failing light, tired, hungry and over 60km from where we started that morning we arrived at Lachine. We had a quick look at the park we intended to camp on but it was too public and difficult to get the boat up to, so we headed to the flat grass lawn of the Lachine Canoe Club, which was all closed up, hoping that if somebody did find us there they might be sympathetic. Our only disturbance seemed to be the party on the dock a few hundred meters away though.
So what to do? We checked the forecast again – windy for sure, and in our faces too, but maybe not so bad first thing….? And only 20km to do. We had to go for it, despite the apocalyptic rain that was also meant to arrive. At 5am the alarm went off, though we had both been awake most of the night due to nerves, loud music, and a sleeping mat that seems to be literally falling apart at the seams. I had been listening to the rain arrive and the wind build and had worked myself up for several hours, unsure if we were mad to be trying to paddle. But things always sound worse in a tent, Cas talked me down, and we left before dawn. Turning on to the main river once again we soon realised we were flying along in the gloom. The river narrows here until after the rapids and the current was strong. We even slowed ourselves down a bit to ensure it was light before passing under a series of bridges with their waves and eddies from the supports. We covered the 8km or so to the rapids in little time and started to see white foaming water being thrown around all across the river. We had identified a sheltered bay to catch us for our portage, but it was fairly near to the start of the rapids proper and getting there would be interesting. We hugged the left shore and got some raised eyebrows from the fishermen as we flew past. These rapids are massive. To have a spill upstream, or miss our get out, would be a disaster. We came around a point and could see people in the water! What on earth…? I’m not sure who was more surprised as we slipped along the bank past a surfer on a pretty decent wave! The GoPro footage should be quite entertaining. Chuckling at the bizarreness of this final day we slipped into the calm waters of the lagoon with the rapids roaring away to our right. Phew. Just a portage and some nice flat water paddling to the end.
The portage was easy, along a flat cycle path with the boat on the trolley. We stopped to chat to a few interested folk and put back in after the rapids had finished. We rode the current along the side of the 6km wide river and through a smaller channel around the île des Soeurs, rejoining the main river with only a few kilometres to go and the strong winds holding off. “It’s pretty boily” said Cas as we got spun around whilst avoiding a large eddy. “And that looks a little rough down there” I added, looking towards a bridge. And so we paddled the heaviest, roughest and most sustained moving water of the whole trip. We headed river left under the bridge, hoping to keep to that side and nip round into the marina. But more white foam near the bank, and the presence of more of our wetsuit-clad friends sent us way out into the middle of the boiling, swirling current. It’s around 2km wide here, but moving at 6.5 knots and in many directions. As we avoided these rapids in mid-stream my paddle spent a fair amount of time flat on the surface as boils came up underneath us threatening to turn us over. We worked our way left again through the wavetrains under another bridge only a few hundred metres upstream of the marina and, slightly sweaty and mightily relieved swung out of the flow into its welcoming arms. So that is why all the pleasure boats take the canal!
We paddled in between the launches and speed boats and found ourselves an empty spot in the marina, and were met by Debbie who was closing up for the season and who had helpfully told us about the canal being closed. And so this was it, where the fur traders would have stopped to unload their furs, and where we now end our trip. We sat on the dock, staring at the river and at Bertha, lost for words. We had done it. What an adventure.
The finish! Montreal Old Port
We have a few more additions for the blog over the next wee while, but for now we are going to try and let it all sink in. We would very much like to thank everyone who has read our blog, helped us along the way and joined us on this incredible journey either in person or in spirit. The support has been tremendous and we wouldn’t have got here without it.
For once, we were looking forward to paddling though a city. Well we should, really, Ottawa being the nation’s capital and all that. But cities have often been more of a hindrance than a help, posing some of the biggest logistical challenges of the trip. Not this time. As we didn’t need to re-supply we could simply enjoy seeing the famous Ottawa architecture from the water, after first dispensing with a few sets of rapids.
Not the recommended craft for negotiating Deschênes…
The first of these was reached after a two hour paddle, starting in thick fog then developing into gorgeous sunny day, with a tail wind! Remarkable, maybe a good omen. The main stretch of fast water to be negotiated before reaching the city is the Deschênes Rapids. Apart from being serious white water they also contain an old, partially destroyed mill, complete with rebar and other such hidden obstacles waiting for the unwary paddler. They are a playground for local kayakers in the right conditions, but probably no place for a canoe. Eric had warned us of the dangers, and being a fire fighter had a vested interest in us staying well clear. So we knew exactly where to get out and in case we missed it Eric and Nadine (and Nougat) surprised us and came down to wave us in. They also helped with the portage, showed us the put-in, provided hot chocolate and muffins and showed us what poison ivy actually looks like (we’ve definitely waded through a few patches of this in the last few months…).
Waving a sad goodbye, we headed for downtown and the parliament buildings (which look remarkably familiar). After two more small sets of fun rapids we reached the dam at the site of the Chaudière Falls. The take-out is straight on to a cycle path, which is followed all the way to the Canadian Navy Monument and back to the water. We received a few strange looks as we wheeled along the path, and have got used to people’s reactions when we tell them what we’re doing. But we felt a bit bad as some poor guy nearly fell off his bike. We think he survived, and we continued to a rendezvous with Barb (of the cottage and the jam) and Daniel, a friend of hers. Apparently we had provided over an hour of conversation at their Thanksgiving dinner and Daniel had got in touch with us, offering turkey sandwiches and tea! We couldn’t say no and passed a cheerful lunchtime in their company. But we had to leave eventually and floated down under Parliament Hill and resisted the urge to camp in the Prime Ministers garden a little further down. Indeed, with a warm wind behind us we passed all our planned camp spots and found a nice little park and sandy beach almost 20km out of town, where we demolished Nadine’s casserole and started on the cake she somehow snuck in!
Ottawa from the water
At 7.30am the headwind was back. Spirits sank slightly and we headed for the far shore to try and get some shelter. Cas thought she heard a shout, but couldn’t locate it. Then as we approached the bank a man in full camouflage gear stood up from a well concealed hide where he was duck hunting. We turned about rapidly to avoid him as he flung a few expletives in our direction, and he seemed somewhat surprised that we hadn’t seen him….. Hmmm…. Having probably done the local duck population a favour we continued on our way, and after a short time the wind dropped off slightly. We also heard again from Eric: when would we reach Montebello? We’d heard from both him and Daniel that the Chateau there was worth a look, but said we’d be there tomorrow. But after a day spent sneaking along the edges of the river to escape any wind, we arrived at the very impressive hotel and found our way to the bistro for hot chocolate with rum. We knew we could camp at the town marina one km away so after having a good look at this 1930’s wooden building we got back in the boat and continued on our way, with me promising to bring Cas back for our anniversary. Once at the dock we had a phone call, from Eric: “Are you still there? Can you go back? I’ve got something organised…!” Now whether it is because he is a fire fighter, and the Chateau is made almost entirely from wood, we don’t know, but Eric had managed to pull some strings. We couldn’t say no, and paddled rapidly back to the hotel in the almost pitch black. We were met at reception by the duty manager, who delighted in hearing about our trip and extended a very warm welcome. Our room and breakfast…on the house.
The Fairmont Chateau Montebello
It’s called a Tomahawk, apparently
Would have been good to swim in here!
After the worlds largest steak the previous night we got back on the water the next morning a little later than usual. We also had a look at the impressive swimming pool, accessed via a tunnel from the hotel. The forecast wind was easterly, in our faces once again, and so it proved. After less than 10km it became too much, with white tops frothing towards us up the widening river. We spotted two figures on a pontoon and made for them, hoping to tie up and put the stove on. Cas’s French was put to the test, and Lise and Roland invited us up to the house whilst we waited for the wind to drop. After coffee we were rejuvenated, and managed a good, solid, 1km before pulling in to shore again on an uninviting stony beach. Two hours later there was enough of a lull to make it another kilometre to a sandy beach, where we stayed. A total of 11km for the day, and two pretty demoralised paddlers. Were we ever going to get down this river? Maybe if we’re still here when it freezes we could bobsleigh to Montreal… The evening was mightily improved by a meal of pasta, meatballs and homemade tomato sauce, provided by Eric’s mother Françoise and sister-in-law Olivia.
Progress was slow the following morning too, but improved by the appearance of André in his boat. We had briefly chatted to him on our way past and declined coffee due to a slight lull in the wind, but he reappeared in his boat half an hour later with two bottles of Perrier! After slogging into the wind for another 20km Cas’s shoulders, and my resolve, were exhausted and a stop was needed. Finding a cleared plot of land (for sale, according to the sign by the road) we pitched the tent around lunchtime and prepared to camp, giving up any hope of reaching our final dam today. However, at 3pm the skies clouded over and the wind dropped. We jumped at the chance and raced to the Carillon Dam, finally crossing out of Ontario and into Quebec. The widest province we have had to cross has presented us with our biggest challenges of this trip, but also with some fantastic memories.
From the dam we have less than 100km to go to reach our intended finish point at the Old Port of Montreal. We wanted to paddle through the Lachine Canal, but have recently discovered that all locks in Canada closed on October 9th and we’re not sure if we can portage them. So we might have to take the river. Either way, with Sunday’s weather looking completely wild and more strong winds early next week we still don’t know when we’ll get there!
Eric and Nadine, for keeping us entertained and on our toes, and better fed than we’ve been for five months!
Daniel and Barb for thanksgiving lunch! And more jam!
‘Apart from a few short sections of rapids this part of the Ottawa river can be considered a series of 3 long lakes’
Ah. Our optimism in the last post may have been a little premature…
North Saskatchewan-Saskatchewan-Cedar Lake-Winnipegosis-Manitoba-Assiniboine Diversion-Assiniboine River-Red River-Lake Winnipeg-Winnipeg River-Lake of the Woods-Kakagi-through to-Rainy Lake-Fort Francis-Namakan-Lac du Croix-Boundary Waters/Quetico-Border route-Pigeon River-Grand Portage-Thunder Bay-Superior-Georgian Bay-North channel-French River-Nipissing-Mattawa-OTTAWA-St Lawrence seaway!
This has been our mantra and chant all trip. See how near the end we are?!?! And now we were stopping in Montreal really the Ottawa was it. The last hurdle. We were really nearly there! And our first few km on the Ottawa in late afternoon light with a tail wind were quite lovely (though we may have been a bit taken aback by just how big the river already is).
The fall colours here have been somewhat subdued and late in arriving due to all the rain (and ‘complete lack of summer’) this year. But in this channel flanked by steep hills on the Quebec side and gently rising forests on the Ontario side (the river forms a huge part of the boundary between these two provinces) we were still delighted by shades of yellow and orange and the occasional dazzling red.
This bit was nice!
We weren’t so delighted by the apparent absence of anywhere to camp… however we were (once again) saved by someone else’s account of paddling the river and were guided to the mouth of Edwards river where there is a well established and lovely wild camp spot (discernible from a tell tale ‘hole’ in the trees). We made risotto and fell into the tent to check the forecast and plan the next day.
Considering this river and area has fairly reliable westerly prevailing winds the forecast was a little disappointing. Almost continuous easterlies and southeasterlies. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before but I HATE paddling into a headwind. Having been so excited about reaching the last watershed and the last hurdle and the last bit of downstream, to find out it was a) essentially a lake and b) any current was going to be negated by headwinds was a little disheartening.
Ok, a lot disheartening.
We studied the maps and previous routes and marked every potential campsite, telling ourselves to be patient and do what we could. One day at a time – just like the beginning.
The next day we managed nearly 40km and, after a lengthy search, stopped for the night on a fairly inhospitable rock in the middle of the river. The following day the winds only picked up more and we were soon at the boat launch in Stonecliffe having an early coffee and considering what to do. We met a few locals who asked if we’d stayed on the island? Well, we stayed on AN island… The one with the big lovely beach?? No, I guess we didn’t find that one… But we did find out that, illogical as it may seem, the Quebec shore was sometimes somehow more sheltered from South/easterlies than the Ontario side. We considered for a bit longer during which time one of the locals had been across to the other side in his boat to double check: Yep, strip about 30 feet wide, flat calm. So off we set. It was still hard work but we were happy.
We pulled up onto ‘Ryan’s beach’ where we knew there was a campground and looked for somewhere to check in. We got an encouraging wave from someone on the deck of the house nextdoor and, grabbing the wallet, headed up.
‘Hello hello! I’m Dan, this is Pam, join us will you have a beer? wine? Sorry about the lawn it’s just been seeded, sit down sit down’
So we did, thinking what friendly campsite owners! Eventually it came up in conversation:
‘No no we’re not the owners but, the thing is, you can camp right here on the beach in front of the house! Now go get set up, come back for a drink and we’ll look at some maps and the weather and you can have a shower if you want do you need to do any washing…?’
And so on. We spent the rest of the evening talking about the trip and what lay ahead and about summers in Ontario and winters in Pinawa (we paddled past there!) which seemed to be the wrong way round but …
Setting off the next day with a fresh supply of tea bags, knowledge about logging and dead heads (‘the ones that got stuck, that didn’t make it’… ‘Maybe we’re deadheads!?’ I gasped) and advice that the Ontario shore was off limits for about 20km due to first a nuclear research facility and then a military base, we headed to the Quebec side. However the winds had changed and we were soon forced to cross back over. Just at the moment an epic thunderstorm arrived… no choice but to land then! Government property or no – the lightening was all around us so we dived under some trees and set up the tarp to wait out the storm. Mike says that that storm was the first time I’ve ever looked remotely worried about lightening, but to be fair the ground was shaking…
Standard lunch: crackers, butter, cheese and marmite
Hiding under the tarp
We were soon on our way again but the winds were still building and my shoulders were struggling. We stopped for more tea. We’d camp as soon as possible but the ‘unexploded ordinance’ signs littered the whole shore. Luckily we found ‘Gibraltar’! An island set aside and maintained by local cottagers for river users. Beach, fire pit and even a long drop!
And we were within striking distance of Jeff and Joyce’s: incredibly, Ken and Diane (whose lawn we’d pitched up on on the Assiniboine back in Manitoba) had friends who lived right on the banks of the Ottawa river below Pembroke who they’d told of our adventure. They had emailed to offer food, shower, bed, logistics – whatever we needed. So we set off optimistic though Mike’s spirits (and everything else) were dampened at coffee time when he slipped under the boat… just as well we had somewhere to dry out…?
He saw the funny side… eventually
And so with a tail wind and some really fun rapids we made it to theirs for lunchtime, accepted a lift into town for a few supplies and a bed for the night. Back home anyone preparing for family coming for the holidays might be sent into paroxysms by the arrival of two smelly canoers but not these guys! They even made time for us to Skype Ken and Diane back in Manitoba. Total stars!
Jeff and Joyce!
It was hard to leave the next day and we had a choice to make – take the main Ottawa river middle channel with flow and rapids and 6 portages or take the left branching Calumet channel with little flow but just one dam to portage. Our house (tent?) was divided over this one and we debated all morning – my shoulders hoping for a little rest in some decent flow and mike’s shoulders resenting the thought of 6 portages… Ultimately we called on the advice of true_north who very diplomatically suggested we toss a coin. We chose the easier but less dramatic channel and found a clear area at the bottom of a farmers field for the night, cooked and set up the tent in the dark and collapsed into bed with mixed feelings about the next day’s paddle into a headwind.
The fact is we’re tired! Our shoulders are sore, our paddling cadence has dropped, and our ability to cope with set backs (and headwinds) is… diminished. We had hoped to return to the heady days of paddling 60+km, and now it looked likely that 30 would feel like a slog.
Ok, it doesn’t look windy but we stop in sheltered places!
The next day sort of dawned… it was hard to tell through the mist and rain, but we had a target in mind: we had been contacted by Stephen and Barb who have been following the blog and who have a cabin on this part of the river. They weren’t going to be there but were offering an outdoor shower, a refuge if we needed it, and, most importantly to Mike, a jar of Barbs homemade jam. SOLD!!
We had a short, wet paddle to Bryson where we had a long wet portage around the dam after which we stopped for coffee in a Wendy house near the put-in (apologies to the owners, no one was home and we were drenched!). We carried on to Portage du Fort where Mike astounded me by resisting a chance to get Poutine and we got a bit more info about the river below from a friendly local. With the weather getting worse we skipped lunch and headed straight to Stephen and Barbs.
Perfect size for me…!
Delighted at the thought of not having to put up a wet tent and with jam but no bread we decided to celebrate with pancakes for tea. Just pancakes. And the WHOLE jar of jam. And maple syrup. Unsurprisingly we were then comatose. We just had time for a chat with Stephen and Barb who called to see how we were doing and talk about the trip. Other people’s enthusiasm is really buoying us up at the moment and we went to bed happy.
Warm, for the first time all day!
A stunning spot. Thanks Stephen, Barb and Barbs unwitting brother!!!
The next day we were woken by thundering rain and gusty wind and once again, didn’t feel much like leaving… we discussed taking their pedalo to save my shoulders but decided it would be trickier on the portages… reluctantly we packed up and headed out.
The wind was finally behind us and really blowing so we made good progress down towards Braeside and Arnprior. The slightly sheltered Ontario side of the lake was mostly cottages and cabins and whilst looking for somewhere to make coffee we met the owners of Cotters cabin and were invited in for coffee and panettone and general merriment – it was thanksgiving weekend after all!
Carrying on we sped across the lake towards the portage at Le Barrage des Chats (True_north variant) and looked for the take out. Struggling to see any kind of trail we were getting frustrated but were lucky to come across a family walking along the barrier. Not only did they know exactly where we needed to go but they offered to help carry our gear! And so it was that this fairly rough rocky portage of about 1km was dispatched in under an hour due to many willing mules. They even smoothed the way with the lovely landowner (who was at that moment serving thanksgiving dinner…) at the other end! Henceforth we will remember it as the Lothian-Bryant portage.
Family Lothian Bryant
They also gave us a top tip: there was ample camping at the public pontoon at Quyon, a poutine bus up the road and a garage selling beers just opposite. Happy thanksgiving to us!! Our evening was further improved by the arrival of 3 lads who came careering down the road with a huge floppy Pike and spent 20 minutes trying various methods of resuscitation, sadly to no avail.
On the pontoon at Quyon: beer, stunning sunset and finishing off my poutine = happy Mike
We woke the next morning doubly deflated: the weather was appalling – headwinds and driving rain – a new low, and the mattress had sprung a new leak requiring urgent mid night reinflation. We set off feeling pretty despondent. We stopped once for snack bars, but being cold and wet (through even our paddling gear) we couldn’t face staying still long enough to make coffee. A few km further on we pulled onto a shaly beach and hid under some trees to have an early lunch and feel sorry for ourselves. Mike suggested ending the trip in Ottawa. We were genuinely that glum.
It was here that Eric found us: walking his dog Nougat he chanced first upon the canoe and then it’s miserable owners. Nougat took to Mike instantly (something about a family resemblance…) and Eric offered and then came back and insisted we at least come up to his house and get warm and dry. We didn’t think too long about it.
Within minutes of walking through the door we’d met Eric’s wife, Nadine, daughter Thalia and son Ulrich. We were dispatched for showers with a laundry bag and instructions to fill it. By the time we came back down our tent was up in the garage being fan dried and re-sealed, some of our gear was washing, some was drying in their tumble drier and some was next door in Eric’s parents drier. Nadine made hot chocolate and cookies, Mike and Eric found the mattress leak and fixed it and I got my dreadlocks combed through by Olivia (sister in law) and then plaited by Thalia. We felt like we’d stumbled on Eden. A dry tent!!!
The whole extended family urged us to join them for what was their thanksgiving dinner (even though Nadine had already packed us some as we insisted we should carry on) and stay the night. I accepted half a glass of wine and shortly after Mike relented too. We had the most lovely evening getting to know them all, talking adventures and the meaning of luxury and then slept like dead heads in a king size bed.
The next morning we woke refreshed, refuelled, and infected by Eric and Nadine’s enthusiasm and excitement. We were finally raring to get back on the river, and just a bit hopeful about paddling to Montreal.
Thanks go to: everyone!!! Thank you thank you!!! Your kindness and generosity has made a really tough week a happy memory.
We left the Sunset Inn and paddled the remaining 5km or so towards North Bay, coming off the water at a beach shortly before the main dock to get out of a bitterly cold northerly wind. Putting the boat on the trolley we headed through town, with a route planned to take us past a supermarket to pick up some things we couldn’t get the day before. This route also took us past a Saturday morning farmers market, though we resisted the urge to wheel the boat right down the middle of it. Eventually, after stocking up on Clif Bars, we found our way to the North Bay Canoe Club, our launching point onto Trout Lake. There were several canoes already out on the water, with a lesson clearly underway. We were hoping we might be able to sneak into the class and learn a thing or two, but were spotted unloading our gear by Jen and Otto who were instructing. They were teaching Jen’s Eco-Tourism students, and invited us to come and speak to them all about our trip. It was great fun chatting to this interested bunch and describing the highs and lows of our adventure. We reckon as eco trips go it’s probably not bad, once you discount the air travel to get us here.
Sadly we had to keep going though (but not before eating their delicious banana bread) and we left the beach and headed out across the lake. A small lake, not some monster with attitude! What a joy! And we had a tail wind, so we covered the 11km to the Mattawa River, and on to Turtle Lake, with ease. The Portage de la Mauvaise Musique through to Pine Lake was less easy to find, but after lifting over a beaver dam, with the water seemingly flowing the wrong way, we found it. A short paddle, another short portage and paddle on into the twilight and we camped for the night on a low spit of land, listening to coyotes howling across the lake.
No swimming, no camping, and absolutely no martinis…
We woke the next morning and looked out into….nothing. The fog was so thick we couldn’t even see the lake, and we were camped only 5m from it. We got on the water and took a bearing, heading for the far shore. This was easy. Following the edge of the lake towards a portage you know to be above a significant waterfall was a little more nerve wracking, but the waterfall turned out to have a dam above it and the portage was again obvious and well marked. It was a rocky path though, with a particularly high step our friend Paul described as a “hernia maker”! Not this time, but I’d be nervous if I was 10 years older. This second half of the Mattawa turned out to be great fun, with numerous short and runnable rapids and some larger falls and a dam, which need to be portaged. We made great time down this pretty, playful little river, which is lined with cliffs after the rapids giving a wild-west canyon feel. It also passes the Port de l’Enfer, one of only small number of aboriginal mines that go underground, though we didn’t stop to investigate – next time Paul!
Waiting for the fog to lift after portaging around the Talon Chutes
At 4.30pm, in the evening sunlight and falling wind, we paddled out onto the Ottawa River, which will take us all the way to Montreal. Quebec City, or Montreal to finish the trip? That question has been on our minds for longer than we’ve been on the water here, and we’ve discussed it many times in the last few months. Quebec City is where the St Lawrence becomes tidal, but there’s at least one more time zone before you actually reach the Atlantic. Montreal is where the Voyageurs stopped, unloading their 3.5 tonne cargo from their “Montreal Canoes” and sending them onwards to Europe by ship. This sense of history combined with the lateness of the season, our tired and variously broken bodies, and little appetite to dodge tankers on the St Lawrence, means we will be finishing in Montreal. We also might get to make a short trip to Newfoundland, where my (Mike) late grandmother was born, 100 years ago this month.
So, just 500km of downstream paddling to go then. And the Ottawa is a river, right…?