Friday, March 15, 2013

Canoe Story of the Year - 2011


It took place here, on the shores of Plastic Lake

The idea for this post came about when I had an incredible experience on a canoe trip in 2011. In general, I think I can say I have had amazing experiences on most trips, but occasionally something happens that quite literally leaves you speechless. You know, those times you question whether it just happened, or for that matter, if anyone would believe you if you told them? Quite often, these things happen so quickly and unexpectedly you don't even have the opportunity to capture it. It may be the rare instance where you have the camera/video camera in hand, but most times you don't. The only record of it, is now in that grey matter of yours. 

There would obviously only be one story per year, but I would have to wait until the year ended to evaluate all my trips before selecting the one to write about. I would also imagine that in some years, there may not be anything that exciting to write about, but then again, other years there may be plenty. In any case, I'll go year by year and see how this all plays out. I just hope that whatever I have to share with you, you can vicariously experience this amazing event alongside me.

Finding this Northern Ringed-Neck snake under our tent was
 certainly  cool, (Surprisingly not crushed!) but
 not as amazing as what followed.

I had planned to share this post with you in 2012, but as you all know, things have been pretty busy with me last year. The plan is to have this "Best of" post in the early part of the new year. I already have an amazing story to share in 2012 with you, despite the shortened season, (And no, it's not the canoe wedding!) but will have to do it later in the year. For now, let's go back to September of 2011 when I was out on a 4 day canoe trip in the Haliburton Highlands Watertrail area.

I was with a new paddling friend named Jennifer, whom I had met at the Sportsmen Show earlier in the year. She was working with the Birds of Prey folks and had come over to our Eureka booth to look for a tent and sleeping pad. I got her all set up with a good deal, but during the exchange, I found out not only did she know about birds, but was also an arborist. One discussion led to another, where I then found out that she had lead some canoe trips up in northern Ontario. Before parting ways, we exchanged emails and agreed to stay in touch, with the possibility of heading out on a canoe trip together.

Months passed before we got in contact again, but when we did, we agreed on a short canoe trip together in September. As she was located near the Haliburton area, we decided to head to that area to paddle. I picked out a moderately easy route in the Leslie Frost area, passing through landscape I was familiar with, including new areas that I haven't been to. It would be a good mix of paddling and portaging, while seeing how well we jived together on a trip. 

Skirting a section of muck, Jennifer handily shoulders a barrel
 on the 1150m portage to Sherbourne Lake

Jennifer was a natural in the outdoors, as would be expected for an arborist and someone with knowledge about birds. I know my trees fairly well, but it was great having someone along the way, teaching me new things about trees. In the bird field, I'm fairly lacking except for the obvious ones, so it was interesting to learn about our avian friends from her along our route. Most importantly, we worked well together paddling along the waterways and portaging through a variety of terrains. 

The morning of day three, we were camped at Plastic Lake, probably the lake with the least inviting name. (I've still to figure out why.) The day dawned beautifully, as there was a faint hint of mist across the lake, and the water was like glass. We took the morning to sit by shore to soak it all in, with me occasionally getting up to take a few shots with my camera. At one point, I finally got up and walked up the rocky slope to the tent site above to change into my tripping clothes. I was getting hungry and it was time to get breakfast going. After putting on a different shirt, I stood up behind the tent to change my pants. It was after I removed them, that's when I heard it. (Why does it always happen after you've taken your pants off?)

Just finishing the portage into Plastic Lake, Jennifer looks at the
map to determine where the campsites are.

I've spent enough time in the bush to identify certain sounds, and like most times, it was obvious. I could hear the low resonating beat of heavy hooves heading my way. It was just a question of which ungulate, a moose or a deer? In my anticipation and nervousness, I made a pathetic squeak out to Jennifer to let her know something was coming. (Found out later she didn't even hear me.) I turned my back to the lake as I looked towards the trail just behind our tent. (This path leads to the other campsite further along the shore.) I quickly realized the pace was fast, in fact very fast, and it was heading towards our camp! In my eureka moment, I realized if this thing came up the pathway, not only would the tent be in the way, so would I! In that short time, standing with just my drawers on, you'd think I'm move, but in fact I actually froze!

What was seconds before, a nervous anticipation of seeing an animal, was now a growing fear. My eyes were transfixed down the trail into the nebulous space of pine needles, leaves and shadows. I was starting to feel the reverberations in the ground as the thumping got louder. Then came the sounds of thrashing leaves, snapping branches and even the distinct heavy breathing associated with a hard run. It was then, wondering what was driving this beast to run at such a mad tempo towards our open campsite, I caught a glimpse of the multi-pronged antlers heading my way. It was a large male deer barrelling up the small incline towards me. Like the white pine standing stoutly behind me, I stood just as resolutely, holding my breath, wondering why my fight or flight instincts weren't kicking in! I believe it is usually at these moments, when some people un-admittedly relieve themselves, but the only benefit to my stiff body, was the fact the sphincters below my bladder were as immovable as my stance! That still didn't change the fact the deer was snorting heavily and heading directly towards me!

It all started here, right behind the tent!

Was it my 3 day old smell, or the sight of a half naked human being, I will never know, but not more than 10 feet in front of me, the deer remarkably did an abrupt 90 degree turn into the bush away from me. With barely a breath of relief, my body stiffened once again. Hot on the heels of the stag, was a wolf! Going at a frightening pace, it's head low and ears pulled back, it too turned into the forest. The flash of angry grey fur was more than I could fathom as I still stood in shock in the same place, now following the chase by sound. I could hear the continued crash of flesh against vegetation around the back of our campsite, which then followed down the outside perimeter of our camp towards the lake. I may have finally exhaled a breath of relief at that point, but it was again short lived. The chase was now heading towards the lake - and Jennifer!

It's strange how the body works. Evolutionary processes would normally dictate self-preservation, especially in times of fear and danger, like it did just moments ago. I certainly wasn't going to fight, but where was my flight reaction?! Yet when I was concerned about my fellow paddler, my legs actually started that accelerated gait called a run. (I'm pretty certain there's some short-circuits in my head.) Midway down the hill, yelling at Jennifer about some big bad wolf, I heard a huge splash. Was it Jennifer, or the deer?! By the time I got to shore, literally almost tripping in my floppy imitation Crocs (and skivvies), Jennifer was standing by shore looking at the stag swimming out into the middle of the lake. 

A bit rattled, she told me she heard the raucous coming down her way, as she then witnessed the deer leap straight into the lake a few feet from her! Thankfully, it missed her, as my pathetic attempts to warn her fell on deaf ears. (There was dense brush behind her so she couldn't see what was coming.) I immediately asked about the wolf, as she looked at me puzzled. I quickly relayed the events not minutes ago, as her eyes widened with amazement. We both then looked around us, wondering where the wolf was. Wolves usually don't bother with humans, but what if this one was pissed I ruined it's chances? Full bent on taking the stag down, it was probably full of adrenaline and possibly interested in the next closest warm-blooded mammal(s)! The other question that soon became apparent was whether this wolf was working in a pack or on it's own, as I only witnessed the one. In any case, we backed away into the centre of camp, away from the forested edge as we peered around nervously.

It was peaceful and tranquil,the morning of day three;
however, it didn't stay that way!

Defensively holding onto a large stick, while straining to listen for any signs of movement, we were also quite aware how quiet the area had become. Prior to this, we could hear birds chirping and the local red squirrels chattering away, but now there was dead silence. It was like every living thing around, knew that there was a top level predator around and no one was willing to give up their position. After what seemed like eternity, we realized the wolf (or wolves) had melted back into the shadows just as quickly as they came. We also wondered if the wolf continued running along the shore to head off the deer once it came out of the water. In any case, it would be a long run as the stag was far off in the middle of the lake.

With some time to settle and finally digest the whole incident, we realized the deer's plan all along was in fact to run into the lake to ward off the wolf, as it knew it wouldn't follow. We were amazed, as we didn't know that this was a deer survival tactic, or that they could even swim long distances. I've seen many deer on canoe trips, but this would be my first sighting of one in the water, let alone swimming! The deer had obviously meant to take the open run along the trail into our camp, and then down to the lake to increase it's lead over the wolf. My presence and placement obviously prevented that. I'm not partial to either the deer escaping or being caught, but the thought of me being the reason for the deer's demise was a bit, how do you say? Oops?! Even more unsettling, if it was being shred to pieces by our camp!

After about 30 minutes, life returned to the area as the collective chorus of sounds started their usual refrain. Feeling confident nothing was lurking around, I took the time to inspect the trail where the chase took place and located the obvious gouges left in the soft pine needle floor where hooves and pads had just tore a strip. I was both amazed and astonished that Jennifer and I got to witness this event, and even more grateful that the chase diverted around me and Jennifer. (Or quite frankly, I'd be telling a different story!) In any case, it was an incident that I, nor Jennifer, will ever forget. Having spent a lot of time in the bush, I've seen many deer and wolves, but not ever together, let alone in this type of circumstance. It could simply be stated as being at the right place at the right time. 

The whole incident not only shook us up, but really got our
appetites going! Omelets anyone?

The rest of the trip finished without incident, other than being spooked by another deer along a portage. It ended up being a great trip, with 'the chase' certainly being the highlight. It was a privilege getting this rare opportunity to actually witness the life and death struggles of these wild animals, which we often only get to see on TV. We sometimes forget, when we get caught up in the beauty of the environment, that this is going on constantly 'behind the scenes'. But in reality, this darker side is a big part of life in the forest.

 I know I sometimes take for granted when I cut into a steak, or chomp into a burger. This incident gave me a greater appreciation of the world outside our life of convenience, when we can easily pay to have our hunger looked after almost immediately. How often do we go hungry, even when we are 'on the hunt' in a grocery store? Thankfully, this canoe trip, as well as many before, often keeps me from forgetting that notion. I bet the deer was relieved that his instincts and flight reaction allowed him to survive another day. Now, if only I can get my flight reaction to work too!

Cheers,
tPP


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