It is Monday, April 27, 2010, and it has been warmer than usual with little rain so far this spring but a big rain storm is forecast for Wednesday evening. Wind is to be mild from the southwest and southeast, but is to change to the northwest Wednesday, bringing a considerable multi-day deluge of rain. i decide to canoe the Manigotagan River from Quesnel Lake to PTH 304 on my own as a personal goal having paddled it many times before but always with friends and usually as trip leader or coordinator.
The main challenge to the goal is with respect to safety as there are 32 sets of rapids or water falls to navigate over 72 km of river and lakes. However, i am also apprehensive of being alone in a tent in the dark due to the risk of encountering bears fresh out of hibernation and with few alternate food sources for them. i have always feared not the darkness, whether in water or air, but what creatures lurk in that darkness. One reason i started canoeing decades ago was to confront my fear of what's in the water. i also have a need to find some inner peace and feel a calling to do this solo trip for a familiar but unknown voice.
i tell a few friends about this solo venture and they try to dissuade me, knowing how challenging the trip is, but my gut feeling is that i will be okay and i usually listen to my gut feeling. i had broken my leg ten years prior from slipping on a rock while portaging in the middle of an eight day remote wilderness canoe trip; the experience grew my pain threshold and prepared me for future years of other much greater physical and emotional pain. i tell Mom i am going on a canoe trip with friends so she won't worry and lose sleep. Heck i'm over 50 and she still asks if i am dressed for the cold; my typical response is "i'm not wearing anything". i call the area RCMP and tell them of my plan to launch Monday and finish Wednesday, that i am going solo and they request that i call when i finish.
On the drive from Winnipeg up PTH 304 i encounter a RCMP road barricade just south of Manigotagan reserve because water bombers are flying over the road and releasing their water load on a roadside fire. This encounter adds another half hour delay to the 4 hours lost on reporting my bicycle being stolen at The Forks on Sunday morning. i finally arrive at the home of the local shuttle service in Manigotagan reserve. After transferring canoe and gear to the shuttle vehicle and a slow but very interesting and talkative ride to Caribou Landing on Quesnel Lake i am ready to launch.
i pose for a selfie sitting on the end of the canoe on shore. It is a warm sunny day at 5 pm and the lake is silent. i am starting 6 hours later than originally intended, delayed primarily by the bicycle theft.
Selfie ready to launch at Caribou Landing, Quesnel Lake
my gut feeling is settled, i have no apprehension about the trip. i am alone with a pack and a 30 litre food barrel, two paddles, my life jacket, and a very durable 60 pound Royalex canoe, as well as the requisite Canadian Coast Guard canoe safety gear. The canoe is rigged with a kneeling thwart, a kind of seat mounted just behind the yoke-thwart at the centre of the canoe, and airbags in the bow and stern to keep water out of the ends of the canoe. i can sit or kneel on the kneeling thwart at the centre of the canoe, where i can best control it whether in rapids, moving or flat water.
i launch and after the first two portages realize the water is the lowest that i have ever seen it. i had expected more water flow from winter run-off but the only water flow aiding my travel downstream is at the rapids or below the falls. This means that the long stretches in between the rapids have almost no flow and will require my own locomotion. i resolve to paddle as efficiently as possible in order to complete the trip in a reasonable timeframe and continue to paddle on, although i could turn back and abort the trip. my two paddles are a walnut ottertail and a carbon fibreglass white water paddle. In retrospect, it would have been good to bring a lighter carbon fibre bentshaft paddle which is more efficient for the long flat stretches of flat water. It just means the trip has become more of a challenge, and i paddle on to get as far as i can before sunset at 8 pm.
An objective of many paddlers is to camp on an island. It is appealing to be surrounded by water and it can be safer from bears, although bears can swim. The only such islands on the Manigotagan are early on in the trip on Turtle Lake and near the end of the trip at Old Woman Falls. i reach Turtle Lake and the sun still has another hour in the sky, so i paddle on.
View upstream from Turtle Falls Campsite
The Turtle Falls campsite appears about 1/2 hr before sunset, it has been 3 hours since i lauched at Caribou Landing. This first day i travelled 16 km and 4 rapids and have 56km and 28 rapids/falls to complete over the next 42 hours. Some of the rapids i would normally run are so "bony" with exposed rocks that they must be portaged while rapids that would normally be too big to run are now runnable. i am so tired from the first day of the trip that i am not worried about camping at a site on shore, i just want to get some food into me and lay down to get some sleep!
i first get out the stove to cook some pasta for a hot meal as the air temperature is cooling off and i need some warm grub, but find that in my packing haste i had not checked the stove for this first trip of the year and it is missing the pump! So i have no stove for the journey! It is late and i am tired and hungry. i shake off the negative thoughts i get from realizing that i have no emergency quick hot water or food and am carrying the weight of camp fuel and stove for no reason. i realize that i must not let this worry me as it wastes energy, and allow the negative thoughts and stress to flow away with the river. While munching on some snacks, i start to set up the tent before it gets dark and realize a new challenge; i had left out the tent pegs that are needed to guy out the tent fly. i quickly improvise with some short twigs laying on the ground, and the tent is ready. i prepare a cold salad using pasta sauce as a dressing with some nuts for protein and wash it down with sips of water, saving my thermos of hot water for instant porridge Tuesday morning.
i am so tired i sleep longer than intended. Around 9 am an Eastern Kingbird hovers inside my tent vestibule door a couple times, singing to invite me to join the world. What a wonderful invitation! i have many miles to go, so rise to the unique greeting, eat a quick breakfast, break camp and launch onto the river. i am determined to paddle a good part of the river today, Tuesday, so i can finish paddling the river by Wednesday afternoon before the rain hits.
i do not expect to receive more than to finish the trip safely. From experience i know that it is the transition points where accidents usually occur on canoe trips, going from water to land and from land to water, and in areas where terrain meets water such as in rapids. So i take much care landing and launching from the portages and while running rapids. The portages i do in several carries, without rushing, to safely get the canoe, pack, food barrel and paddles over without overloading my debilitated knees. On the Cascade Rapids portage i trip on some twigs and fall onto rocks, just at the end, where i am trying to be careful about my footing around a crevice a few steps from the water. Thankfully the canoe yoke bounces off my neck without breaking it and i get up with only scrapes on my forearm and shin. While portaging the other gear, thoughts of searchers finding me under the canoe make me realize how lucky i am, so i resolve to be more careful.
Out on the river again, the river's dwellers share freely with me. Dozens of western painted turtles are soaking up much needed energy from the sun on shore and rocks, having recently emerged from their sub-mud hibernation. Half a dozen times one or a pair of otters dine on clams while floating on their backs as i drift by. i spook the beavers a number of times either while drifting quietly by within a paddle's reach of them or surprising them at the bottom of a set of rapids i run. But they also spook me a couple times, as i don't expect them to surface so close to my canoe or to slap their tails so closely. Bears appear in the distance and thankfully stay there. Eagles, ravens, kingfishers, swans, pelicans, geese all greet me unconcerned with my presence as i float by. These encounters with other animals teach me that i am not here alone.
At times my arms, shoulders and upper back get sore from the repetitive paddling strokes. To resolve this, i change up the muscle groups by alternating paddling strokes between J-stroke, pitch, Canadian and "Indian" strokes. i also focus more on rotating at the waist, using my core stomach muscles. This helps immensely.
The turtles inspire me to get some sun on my own skin, so i take off my shirt and paddle part of Tuesday in just a sports bra, the sun feels great. i hope there are no hunters, fishers or woodsmen in the bush who might see me; then give this thought to the river and enjoy the freedom. The animals don't care if i have boobs!
The Granite Gates
The sense of freedom and solitude overcomes me. The experience offers an insight i am not expecting or searching for, but one that called me to do this trip: that it does not matter what any other being thinks of me, that i am who i am. It occurs to me that i have no name, that there is no need for one. A name typically defines gender, and is so important to the construct of most societies and social relations. The animals don't relate to me as a Miss, Mrs., Mr., he, she, him, her. Being away from other humans frees me from that construct. No society. No name. No gender. There is no need for sexual identity either as i have no intent of procreating with the other animals, nor they with me. i am afloat, drifting in a world where other animals know me only for what i am, that is, another animal harmlessly meandering through their world. Hence "Manigotagan" becomes "wo man i got agan".
Skunk Rapids where i camped Tuesday night after paddling 40 km and 20 rapids/falls
There are so many injustices that we humans serve one another based on our uncontested, strict rules about gender, which we all get caught up in because of our social programming. The rules are established according to various doctrine, beliefs and perceptions typically prescribed by other people, parents, teachers, friends, preachers, religions, etc. Perhaps everyone should take some time to float alone, to experience a world free of other people's will, discrimination and societal norms, to take a lesson from other animals.
However, no person is an island. And few people paddle at all, let alone paddle solo. We humans are forced to choose or identify ourselves as having a gender to define relationships in society. i hope that some day all humans will be free from gender barriers that societies build and that we will accept one another for who we express ourselves as, without discrimination.
Homo sapiens petroglyph at Knife Rapids
i know that on canoe trips, that the fewer the people or canoes, the faster the trip goes. i arrive at PTH 304 Wednesday at 4 pm, in view of the looming storm clouds which are darkened almost black with the forecast of 3 to 4 days of heavy rain. It has taken me 47 hours to paddle what has usually taken at least 3 days for two people paddling a canoe. i am fortunate to have had a slight tail wind on part of the trip, instead of wind in my face, which is typical of the trips i have done on the river. The weather is sunny and mild as forecast.
i only wish that the freedom i experienced and found on the trip will continue when i return to the society i live in. This "wo man i got agan" solo canoe trip gifted me with a unique perspective of gender.
Navigating a wilderness river alone is a considerable accomplishment that requires strength, determination and brings great confidence. Although it has been a meandering solo journey, i realize and accept the opportunity, gift and ability to similarly navigate gender in a world that is still learning how to accept its true variations.
This is important for me to share at a time when so many gender diverse persons are excluded, rejected, deprecated, discriminated against or harmed.
Copyright © 2015 Donna R. Kurt
Videos of the very low rapids will be uploaded, so check back.