TEMAGAMI


Fifty-two years ago this August.  On the sixth, to be exact.  Ten days of my life, beginning by being trucked up past Lake Nipissing, further north than I had ever been at the time, to a wild place called Temagami.

I had long forgotten about Temagami, and I would not have remembered it had it not been for Camp Pathfinder’s 100th anniversary and reunion I attended in 2013. I wanted to see the place where I learned canoe tripping, which I’ve continued the past 50 years.  I was glad to go to the reunion; while I don’t plan to return, I made the trip once, and that was a gift to myself.  I got a chance to canoe again in Algonquin Park, which I did not expect to do at all, and I discovered at 64 I could still carry a 90 pound canoe on my shoulders for a mile, without stopping.

And survive.  The guy with me was ten years younger, a big advantage.  He took the stern, and I was happy in the bow.  The first carry was a lift-over, and the second one was his. Right away, we had a problem.  We were not about to carry the entire weight on our neck.  We were used to lashing paddles to the bow seat and carrying thwart, and putting the weight on our shoulders.  Neither of us had lashed since then, but it wasn’t like it was rocket science.  We alternated portages and had a great day trip.  I needed to wash the muck off, so I had to swim again in Source Lake.  I couldn’t believe how cold the water was, although only I had changed.

It was a lot easier when I was 18.  Algonquin was a lot wilder back then, too.  When I drove into the Park, I stopped at the Canoe Lake store to use a pay phone and could barely orient myself.  There was a huge restaurant on the second floor, and the launch point, which used to be a sand beach, was paved over.  We kids used to shoulder our packs without help when we landed at the Canoe Lake store, because we were young, full of testosterone and wanted to show off.

Pathfinder has listed online all the trips ever taken from 1959 to the present, and my name is on twenty-five of them during the 1960s.  As I looked through the ones in 1964, one called “Temagami” popped up.  Wow, Temagami.  When certain names of wild country appear, my brain goes somewhere Up North, where the lakes have no cabins, the horizons are tree-lined, the shores rocky, the rivers free flowing, and one hears campfires crackling, the banging of pots, the chopping of wood, the rain on the tent at night, and the haunting call of the loon.

Temagami.

Temagami was one of the wildest places I would ever canoe until I ran the Nahanni River in the Northwest Territories in 1985. The Nahanni, Yukon, and the Brooks Range in Alaska are more remote, but Temagami was remote enough.  It hadn’t been done by the camp before, so we campers were honored to be chosen; the head man was the director of tripping.  We were going for 10 days, north, a wonderful word, north of Lake Nipissing to the 45th parallel, which for me was like being in the Arctic.  We knew the lakes were big, the portages long and not well maintained, and the campsites few.  What we didn’t know was it would rain every day,  and back then, neither rain gear nor canvas tents was very good.

As I started writing, a few memories returned.  I don’t know how many are true, half a century plus two years later, but I’m assuming the best.  Lake Temagami, our jumping off point, was the first “big lake” I had ever paddled.  Kneeling in the bow, for Pathfinder campers never sat, was the only time my knees ever hurt from the force of the waves.  I came right down on the ribs and planking, stroking into a strong headwind.  We had to pull into shore to dump water out of the canoe, for the waves often came right over the gunwales of our Old Town, loaded with 3 people 3 packs, with little freeboard.  I was about to write that it was the only time that happened, but over the years, I’ve had to go to shore several times to dump water out of the canoe to keep packs drier.

I don’t remember many campsites, only that they were primitive. Back then my boots were wet the whole time, and most of my clothes were, too.  That was before rain suits. To this day, wet boots and wet feet don’t bother me.  I actually feel less at home in the woods with dry feet.  I remember one site where we were camped by a roaring falls. It rained the whole night. I woke with a puddle of water under the foot of my sleeping bag, tried to remove as much as I could, figuring the bag would be soaked the next morning.

When I awoke, the spot was dry.  Go figure.  Maybe I had been dreaming.

Makobe Lake was the furthest north we went, and I can still remember the black spruces dotting the shores and the horizon.  I thought I was so far north then.  Now, I live at that latitude.  On the penultimate day, the Sun, the glorious Sun, broke through the clouds, a raven called, we answered in kind, and all was right with the world.  I don’t know if that was on Larn or Ostergut, but that’s what the lakes were called back then. Never forgot them.

I never saw and never will see Temagami again. For some things in life it’s actually better not to go back.  I did look online, and the portage known as Fat Man’s Misery, which I am very proud to have done, even if only with a pack, now has many more trees.  I prefer my imperfect memory of wondering how our staff got canoes down that carry.

The following year, I would transition from a superb bow man to a third man, lowest of the staff on a trip, paddling in the stern.  It would be three years before I would be in charge, wearing the red bandanna. My last summer, my last trip, as a camper, wasn’t in Algonquin.  It was to wild Temagami further north, where the haunting whistle of CN trains carried us back at the end of our trip..

Today, Pathfinder sends month-long trips to Hudson’s Bay.  They’ve even done the Bloodvein River, which makes me a little jealous.  But not much.  I’m thrilled that young guys and gals are out in that country.  I hope there will always be wild country for them—and folks like me— to test themselves in.  It might still be Temagami, Quetico, Ile à la Crosse, Aichilik, Kobuk:  any name that evoke black spruce, muskeg, the Canadian Shield, rivers running wild and free, and a land like no other.

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