So there we were, standing on the side of a river in the middle of Algonquin Park, soaked to the bone, shivering uncontrollably and … singing. Singing “Oh Canada” at the tops of our lungs. Some of the members of our group were in real, serious danger of hypothermia, but at this precise moment the only thing we could do was sing.
As with all of our canoe camping trips, we really didn’t think that we’d have any problems on this one. Nick, Dave and I were seasoned veterans at this point and though Pete and Roozbeh were new to it, we had taken them on a previous trip and they had had a blast (despite the mosquitoes, but that’s another story).
Pete had jumped in to canoe camping with both feet- to the point that he had actually gone out and bought a brand new, beautiful blue Langford canoe specifically for this trip. Sitting in the Sportspal next to Pete’s canoe was like pulling up next to a Ferrari in a rusted out Pinto. The Langford had smooth lines, a perfect finish and seemed to cut through the water at speed with almost no effort. It was like a fighter jet-fast, maneuverable and unstable in the hands of a novice.
The trip was pretty typical for us at the time. When you’re in University, summer work schedules leave little time for vacations, so we decided to go on the Canada Day long weekend. The plan was to do the four-hour drive and eight-hour canoe/portage in to our bass fishing lake, stay 2 nights and then head back home. No problem.
Canada Day long weekend is right in the middle of prime camping season up here – the first weekend in July. The weather is beautiful, warm and dry, the mosquitos and blackflies have died down a bit and the deerflies and wasps haven’t really gotten their stride yet. Unfortunately we picked the wrong Canada Day for our trip.
In the last 9 years, it has rained once on Canada Day. And the weather forecast for our trip really wasn’t all that concerning – potential for a little rain, but nothing serious. Nick, Dave, and I, having been burned before, wrapped up tight against any potential inclement weather – rain coats, rain pants, and all of our gear in dry bags. We didn’t think we’d need them, but hey, you never know. Pete and Roozbeh, not so much. Roozbeh in particular, wore only a thin windbreaker and packed none of his gear in dry bags. The drive up went well and, though there were some threatening clouds, there was no rain. We got unloaded and paddled across the first big lake with no issues. By the time we completed the first of four long portages, the rain had started.
It was an insistent, continuous rain. The kind of rain that says, “you’d better get used to it, because I’ll be here all day”. By the time we got to the top of the third portage, the guys who didn’t have proper rain gear were soaked to the core. Roozbeh especially, was starting to shiver and was slowing down, his windbreaker plastered to his clothes. At least Pete and Roozbeh had the foresight to bring along pack covers, so their gear wasn’t getting too wet. Even Nick and I were starting to get wet, but our core (read: gitch) was still dry.
Nick and I had to make a decision – did we make a stop here, where there was nowhere to really set up a tent or did we finish the portage and get to a campsite, settle in for the night and warm ourselves up before continuing on? We talked it over and decided to keep going. Had we stopped, there would have been no way that we would continue and this would have left us out of striking distance of our goal as well as far away from any kind of half-decent campsite. But, we had to do something.
Nick suggested that we split the canoes – he would take Roozbeh and Pete in Pete’s high-speed canoe, get to our final destination and get the two of them warmed up. Dave and I would turn the Sportspal into a cargo barge and follow at a more leisurely pace. Dave and I helped Nick to load the guys and only the gear they needed to get warmed up into the Ferrari of a canoe and watched as they set off at a furious pace. Then we loaded up the SportsPal and followed.
Sitting up in the bow of the SportsPal I watched as Nick’s skillful paddling coupled with the lighter weight, higher muscle power and far more efficient hydrodynamics of their slim lined, tippy canoe quickly increased the distance between us. It was almost comical seeing Roozbeh perched precariously on top of the gear they were bringing with them in the small, slim canoe. Knowing that there was nothing that I could do to catch up with them, I turned around to talk to Dave for a minute. When I turned back, they were gone. Completely disappeared.
I did a double take- there was no way that they could have gotten so far up the river to have made it around the bend in that short of a time. I turned back to Dave and yelled “Where did they go?!”. I turned back and saw something- or rather three things. Three heads floating in the water.
“Paddle!”, Dave and I yelled almost simultaneously. We paddled as hard as I’ve ever paddled in my life. In minutes, we had arrived at their canoe – tipped and floating upside down, with the three guys in the water beside it. We quickly helped the guys to shore and collected the gear. It was challenging because the shore was rocky and steep – there wasn’t a lot of space to put everyone and everything. We unloaded the gear from the SportsPal in anticipation of getting Pete’s canoe back.
Leaving Pete and Roozbeh on the side, we paddled back out to the capsized canoe with Nick onboard to help with the rescue. Knowing we were in a bad situation at this point, we didn’t think much of it as we dragged Pete’s pristine and beautiful new boat up and along the exposed rivets and twisted metal of the SportsPal. As we pulled the canoe up, we felt and heard the metal of the SportsPal leaving deep scars in the brand new wooden gunnels of the Langford. We flipped the canoe upright and slid it back into the water, leaving matching scrapes on the hull – long white lines in the deep blue, mirror polish of the bottom of the boat. There was no time to be concerned about the boat though as we dragged it back to shore and met up with the guys.
We hopped out of the boat to decide on our next move. As we did, the rain that had been constantly falling since our first portage, started to worsen. The situation looked bleak. We were soaked and freezing, Pete and Roozbeh’s packs were drenched all the way through and we were nowhere near safe. On Canada Day. We all started to laugh, somewhat manically, at the futility of it all.
I’m not sure who, but someone started singing the opening bars of Oh Canada. In no time, we had all joined in, standing on the side of a river in the middle of nowhere, in the rain, singing out our fury at the top of our lungs. The rain gods, hearing our singing, must have realized that they hadn’t yet managed to crush our spirits. The rain redoubled its efforts, growing stronger and harder throughout the song. By the time we hit the end of the song, triumphantly bellowing out “we stand on guard for thee!”, it was raining so hard that we couldn’t hear each other and could barely hear ourselves. The water on the river was being pounded with such force that the surface was no longer a defined line and was instead a mist of white that could only be measured as an average of two points about a foot apart.
Upon completing our song, we were jolted quickly back to reality and hopped back into our canoes, leveling out gear and people to prevent another spill. We put Roozbeh in the Sportspal, between Nick and I, and it soon became apparent that the cold wet conditions were not merely a discomfort for him. He was now shivering uncontrollably, and certainly experiencing hypothermia. With no change in weather forthcoming, it would have been unsafe to continue the remaining three hours to our campsite. We needed to find shelter fast, and get Roozbeh into some dry clothes. We paddled out into the lake together, looking for the closest shelter. Seeing an occupied cottage, we docked at their beach and asked for shelter, hinting that we were in rough shape. Perhaps due to the fact that a cottage is a rare luxury in this area and that they may get a lot of campers such as ourselves asking, they were not inclined to help and instead directed us to the nearest campsite.
We arrived at the site and quickly set to getting warm and dry. I set up shelter and Nick made a fire. Once the shelter was in place, we took stock of the situation. We had two guys who were nearly hypothermic, only 3 packs that had made it with dry clothes still in them, and three dry sleeping bags for five people. We all chipped in and got everyone into dry clothes and warmed ourselves around the fire.
The rain slacked off that evening and stopped during the night, early enough that we could enjoy the fireworks that we had packed, with foresight, in our dry bags. We woke up after a “friendly” night sharing the dry bedding we had left to an overcast morning, and the threat of more rain. We had a couple of options. We could continue on to our bass lake, hoping that the rain held off, and finish our trip as planned or we could cancel the trip and head home. No one wanted to abort the trip but we were definitely on the dangerous side of things. All of our dry clothes were in use and another day of rain could have serious consequences. After much hand wringing, we decided to stay but to also reduce our risk. Dave, Pete and I would head back to the cars with an empty canoe and bring them in closer to our campsite to make the trip out easier. Nick and Roozbeh would take the gear and set up camp at our final destination.
It was a long, difficult but uneventful slog getting back to the cars and shuttling one to the closer access point. But we managed it and were headed back into our lake in time for dinner.
Roozbeh and Nick made the transfer with all of the gear slowly; there are long portages involved and a reasonable paddle. By late afternoon they were done. They finished the portage into our lake just in time to see the clouds part and the sun come out over our favourite lake. Dropping the last pack and seeing the sun over our lake, Roozbeh said quietly, “I’m glad we decided to stay”.