Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Fitting Gift to End the Paddling Season

All it took was a brief reprieve from the strong wind to convince
myself to head out on Canoe Lake. The problem
being it was just that - brief!


Ahh, it feels good to finally put a post on my blog! I actually start to feel bad when lots of time passes and I haven't posted anything. In actual fact, I have been quite busy with writing commitments and deadlines, so I didn't have much time for my blog. But now that's over, the only other pressure is the Christmas holidays heading our way. It shouldn't be a stressful time, but there is always things to do, stuff to buy, places to be, weight to be gained, etc, etc, etc,...you get the idea.

Well unfortunately this year, I didn't get the opportunity to close out the canoe season with the white stuff. Despite the fact there is lots of it now causing many people, places, and countries lots of grief. Hearing about how some travellers stranded in airports may not get to their homes for Christmas this year is just terrible. Stick me in the bush in the middle of a bizarre any day! Anyhow, my last trip of the year did provide a nice parting gift, (Christmas present if you wish) and no, it was a frozen water! That story is for later.

The way my solo trip started near the end of November had me wondering what the rest of the trip was going to be like. Of course at this time of year, you have to expect both bad weather and tough conditions, but it doesn't hurt to cross your fingers and hope for the best. I was initially relieved when I got my permit from the park office without problems, unlike last year. (Yes, I know, there was snow outside and it was Dec then!) This time the young lady gladly issued me the permit and even remarked about another party that headed out earlier in the same direction. I then made my way to the Canoe lake put-in, only to be duly unimpressed. Waiting for me was waves, whitecaps, and lots of headwind - great!

After unloading the car, I waited out the howling wind. As much as I needed to get going, I would literally be wasting energy trying to make any forward progress in these conditions. Luckily, only after 15-20 mins, the wind seemed to peter out. Well not totally, the gusts were now just intermittent. This was the break I needed, so off I went. (at least that is what I thought) Of course when I shoved off, didn't the wind gods sneeze?!! Yes, I was paddling the canoe in reverse, had all the weight possible in the front, and even moved myself to the middle of the canoe, but it still took me like a twig and twirled me funny! If ever I looked like I didn't know what I was doing in a canoe, it would have been now. What eventually did help was changing my paddle. I was using a short 52" bent shaft that I found just didn't have enough reach or power for these conditions. Thanks to the waves soaking my gloves, did it eventually dawn on me to switch paddles!

Forward progress was still slow and tiring even with the longer whitewater paddle, but at least I was making distance. It was a tough go with frozen hands and wet pants, but somehow, even with the wind biting at my skin, I was starting to appreciate being out there alone. After a couple portages through the chain of Joe Lakes, I began the 435m portage that bypasses Lost Joe Lake and ends at Baby Joe Lake. I decided to carry the heavy barrel, the paddles and the Pelican case with all the camera gear first. The trail was pretty with pine needles and dried leaves scattered generously throughout the forest floor. Throw in the soothing gurgle of the stream nearby, it was the ideal tonic for the urban soul. On my way back, while picking up some birch bark for a fire, random thoughts entered my head. For some reason, (I still don't know why?) I started to wonder what I'd do if I encountered a bear. First off, I figured the chances were slim. With temperatures below zero, even bears wouldn't avail themselves to trouncing around the forest at this time of year, unlike some seemingly-intellectual human. I didn't have bear spray, a stick (as my head turns to look for one), or even a whistle - although I did have a folding knife with a 1.5 inch blade. (stop laughing!)

Cresting a small knoll, as I looked up, did I not see a big mass of black fur that stopped me in my tracks! I think I even stopped breathing. It seemed like eternity as I stood there trying to re-focus my eyes from looking at the ground to now 20 meters in front of me. Breathing a sigh of relief, I made out the figure of a moose in the shadow of the sparse canopy. Surprisingly, the brown spindly legs and its honking schnoz blended with the forest background and all I initially saw was the black mass of fur in the middle of the trail. Relieved it wasn't a bear, my thoughts turned to picture taking, but my camera was at the other end - crap! I knew for certain if I went back for it, the moose would be gone, so I took the opportunity to just enjoy the moment.



I should have known, based on the grand staircase that started
the 435m portage to Baby Joe Lake. It was to portend
an equally grand experience!



We had a stare down for some time, sizing each other up. (Not that my 'hulking' 150lbs impressed this ungulate by any means!) It was kind of neat when it decided I wasn't a threat anymore and turned its head away from me to look towards Lost Joe Lake. Eventually I decided I needed to get going, but the moose seemed a bit reluctant to move. It looked back at me, and off towards the lake again. I was starting to wonder why it was standing its ground, until I started to hear some shuffling coming from my left. It was hard to see what was there, but I slowly made out several other large dark figures through the dense shoreline vegetation. Alarm bells started to go off in my head - wasn't it rutting season for moose?!

I had no clue when the rutting season started and ended, all I knew was that bull moose are particularly dangerous then, much more than a bear. For the next several minutes panic set in again as I wondered if I could climb any trees nearby. Slowly backing away, not one but three vague hulks appeared slightly behind and to my left! I could hear my heart starting to pound as I looked for an escape route. Bears all of a sudden didn't seem scary, nor did the usefulness of my small pocketknife. Keeping my eyes locked beside me, 3 moose slowly emerged from the dense brush. Surprisingly, none had any impressive rack to display and send me packing! Phew! But why was there so many moose together?!!

Feeling more confident after insuring my bladder hadn't inadvertently emptied, I now strutted back down the path towards the lone moose on the trail. It dawned on me that the three moose beside me were the off-springs of the moose that stood in my way. (although they were practically as big as the mom) That was why the mother moose didn't move and kept looking towards the lake. I guess she was somehow letting them know I was around, and until she determined I wasn't a threat, stopped her off-springs from emerging from cover. Relieved yet again, I slowly approached the mother moose, speaking calmly and asking for passage. Thankfully she obliged and made her way towards her young.

The roller coaster of emotions had me pumped full of adrenalin, giving me that extra shot of energy to carry the canoe and remaining barrel. I've never had the privilege of being so close to 4 moose alone. As much as the incident nearly gave me a coronary, it was truly amazing. As I approached the same area, they were unexpectedly all still there! Now I was steaming that I didn't have my camera! I decided the opportunity was too unique to pass off, so I put my canoe down and walked down towards the river where I sat down to watch them.

The mother moose again stared at me from the other side of the river before she gave me the "oh, its you again" look and continued foraging before moving off into the forest. Then the 3 young emerged from my side of the river and slowly crossed single file. It was hard to believe, but when they were all in view, all in the river, they all stopped and turned their heads to look at me! Where was my camera!!! Argh!!!! It was the picture perfect moment! I'm positive these younglings were perplexed by my display of contorted faces at that time. It was an opportunity lost, but another gained - trying to console myself this way. As they walked one by one into the forest, the last moose decided it wasn't done with me. It turned and continued looking at me for quite some time. During which I rationalized that there was no way I knew what the moose was thinking, but in some sense I thought I did. That span of time, space and distance felt like some communication of sorts. An acknowledgement, a curiosity, an acceptance, and ultimately a level of comfort. Whichever the case, it was a rare connection that left us parting ways with a higher level of respect for each other.



A most fitting ornament, not only for this time of year,
but also for my end-of-the-year trip!


Carrying the canoe down the rest of the portage, I was thankful at the chance encounter, even more grateful that it wasn't a bear or a enraged bull moose. It felt like a fitting gift, especially after having to deal with the miserable conditions at the start of the trip. It even was an epiphany of sorts, helping me to further understand and respect animals like the moose and acknowledge that co-existence doesn't have to only be in fleeting (or fleeing) moments. Although I didn't get to end the season paddling under lightly falling snow, this special encounter more than made up for it. An amazing gift to end the paddling season for sure, just unfortunate that I couldn't share that scene with all of you!


tPP

PS. Being Christmas and all, the scene of the 3 moose in the river reminded me of the nativity scene of the 3 wise men on their camels. With a Canadian twist to it, it could have easily been the 3 wise moose!

PPS. I'm planning to invest in a P&S camera to carry with me at all times. Live and learn!



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