Trillium Book Award Author Readings June 16

The Fish Quill Poetry Boat Diary

 
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Earlier this month, the Fish Quill Poetry Boat Tour participants paddled from Elora to Six Nations of the Grand River Territory and stopped along the way to read at cafés, arts venues and local heritage sites. During their travels, they read to welcoming audiences; sang songs around the campfire; coped with rain, rain and rain; got to know the juke box at the Nutty Parrot (see days four and five); admired "prehistoric-looking blue herons"; and dined on camping cuisine, including plenty of salami and cheese sandwhiches. The campers kept a diary along the way, which they generously shared with Open Book.

Day One: Elora (Leon Lukashevsky)

Daniel, Leigh, Gabe, Asa and I shared a car to Elora, our starting point on the Grand River, two hours east of Toronto. For the most part we were making each other’s acquaintance; there was some sparring over an offhand criticism of the US, as to whether it was reasonable or crass, then we carped about our prime minister, a tacit reconciliation; religion came up, Asa praised ritual and lamented ideology; I watched Leigh label a stack of jewel cases, when a poem of hers, that I had been reading that morning, landed for me (the narrator is trying to ask the big question, but — absurdly — can only put it in terms of the big bang); Gabe napped and ate a hot dog when we stopped for gas; Daniel brought the car to a sudden stop three times, and every time a sleeping bag fell on my head. I don't remember looking out the window once for the duration of the trip, except when someone pointed to a pair of steel balls hanging off the hitch of a truck ahead of us. We had a good laugh at that.

At the camp ground Daniel weaved the car up and down the paths that cut through the large Ontario trees, looking for our site. The Grand appeared suddenly, on either side of the car; I hadn’t noticed the bridge until we were crossing it. On the upstream side, towards the Elora gorge, tubers, at trip’s end, were drifting to shore, the bridge being too low for them to pass under. Our canoe trip was launching from the opposite side. Flowing off into the distance, alone, the river suggested only more distance and glimpsing it I was thwarted by the thought of a long haul ahead, of passing through innumerable moments, and having to carry the ghostly weight of the present over each. I forced myself to sit up straight. We parked and began setting up our tents. Linda, Nick, Abigail and Helen arrived in a separate car shortly after.

Bissell Park, the venue for that evening’s reading, is a wide open rectangle, gently sloping from a road down to a canal between its broad sides. I’d agreed to emcee the reading and, at the last minute, to cook us all dinner in the meanwhile, because there was no time to do it beforehand, as had been planned. On the menu: spaghetti in a Bolognese sauce, spinach salad on the side. We packed what we needed and were off. We found the park more or less empty; there was a pagoda crowded with picnic tables, a concrete basketball court, and a family flying a kite nearer the canal. We chose to read under one of the few trees, roughly in the centre of the rectangle. A handful of people turned up to listen; middle-aged folks, who had settled in Elora looking to escape the nature of bigger cities. We brought over picnic tables from the pagoda for them to have somewhere to sit, and one table to be used for cooking, which we placed squarely in the background of their view. I started the show. I wanted to acknowledge that poetry could be disorienting, to claim it for a virtue, to say we are all in this together. I’d had some fantasy about what an emcee at a poetry reading could do back in Toronto, which I promptly collapsed right there in front of our small audience.

The poets read. Abigail sang. She performed one song a cappella, in her rich, precise voice, while standing on a picnic table for something to stomp on. For the most part I couldn’t make out the readers’ poems from the cooking table, so I had to keep an eye on the stage not to miss my cues. As for making dinner, that turned out to be a fiasco. There wasn’t any water for boiling, or for washing vegetables for a start. I tried peeling carrots, but the going was ridiculously slow between turns making introductions. I took to handing out carrots to the poets who had already performed, for them to peel. It was a bit of clown act, and fun to put on, but by the end of the reading we were just eight peeled carrots closer to dinner.

Back at our camp site, dinner ended up taking a concerted group effort to prepare. By then it was dark, and we were cooking by flashlight. It was a gratifying meal for all the work that went into it, and how hungry we were by the time we ate. We lingered by the fire, digesting and amused that I’d even tried to get through the whole rigmarole myself while emceeing.

Before turning in, we strolled out to the bridge, to look at the stars. The river’s layered clatter was hard to pin down. I resisted putting words in its mouth. We stood like that for a few moments. I couldn’t begin to guess what was on anyone else’s mind: nothing, a prayer, plans. I imagined we looked solemn, standing silently like that on the bridge. Someone said, “I’m going to bed.” We all headed back. There were our tents again.

Day Two: West Montrose (Linda Besner)

“If you can’t get behind our troops, I’ll gladly put you in front of them.”
          —sticker on a trailer, West Montrose Family Campground

I’m hanging around the washrooms at the campground like a pervert; I’ve been here half an hour charging our phones at the godsent electrical outlet over the sink, between the vases of fake gladiola. As Fish Quill’s Den Mothers, Leigh and I can’t quite let ourselves drift off the map.

Despite our best intentions, it was 11 by the time we got out on the water this first morning — Andy and Val Tonkin, our wonderful canoe fairy godparents from Treks in the Wild, drove the canoes over to us in Elora and gave us some tips on the correct way to sport a lifejacket (if you can pull it up over your ears, it’s too loose). We drew numbers from Leigh’s straw cowboy hat to pick canoeing partners, and I got paired with Asa. Much waving and picture-taking as we set out, each canoe loaded down with dry bags, coolers, food bags, pots and pans and poets.

I was in the bow and discovered pretty quickly that the Grand River is a completely different animal from the Gatineau, which is the river I grew up on. Where the Gatineau is wide and deep, the Grand is narrow and shallow, especially in the stretch from Elora to West Montrose. I hadn’t realized before today that the person in the front of the canoe acts as the navigator, calling out directions to the person in the back. Asa and I certainly hit some fine rocks before we figured out how to communicate and work out strategies together. We learned how to avoid the shallow patches and read the river for fast-moving currents close to shore that would swing us around the bends in style.

Lunch was a feast of bread and sausage and cheese on a rocky spit, and also the perfect occasion for everyone to break out their favourite jokes. “Why did Snoop Dogg bring his raincoat?” Gabe asked, and answered himself: “Fo’ drizzle.” Gabe and I also heroically ate last night’s pasta sauce for lunch with bread — we had made far too much and had slopped the leftovers back into the aluminum cans, secured some plastic overtop with rubber bands and put them in the cooler. They looked like dog food, but we were starving, and they tasted like strawberries and whipped cream.

Snoop Dogg had the right idea. We got to our campsite in West Montrose early, set up camp and went for a gorgeous swim, but before long the sky clouded over and it started to rain in earnest. Our reading was meant to be on the lawn beside the covered bridge, which was in view of our campsite, and when we turned up to meet our host, Tony Dowling of the BridgeKeepers Association, he had set up lawn chairs in a hopeful semi-circle. Asa was the first reader, and he got up to read in full combat gear: raincoat, floppy rain hat, splash pants and water booties. Halfway through his first poem the sky opened up and the Fish Quillers, along with our small but intrepid audience, got chased into a small pavilion, where we finished the performance. The acoustics of the small space turned the poems and Abigail’s music into something new.

Back at the campsite getting ready for bed, I take a walk around the trailer park (my first ever) and take a census of the plastic animals decking out people’s doorsteps: deer, skunks, a sheepdog with a purple ribbon, raccoons, bluebirds, jumbo dragonflies, terriers, white horses. Three waist-high girls in flannel pajamas are choreographing a dance routine in their yard to “Shake Your Groove Thang”; at the campsite, we make a fire and have the first sing-along of the trip. Many more to come, I hope.


Day Three: Kitchener (Nick Thran)

Sunday, August 7th —West Montrose to Kitchener

Surely by day four I’ll have figured out how to cover all of the relevant surface areas of my body with sunscreen. There are sections of my arms and knees that look upholstered.

Morning at the West Montrose campground is rain. There are no trees at our section of the campground, just cut grass and gull feathers. And rain. And rain. And rain. I’ve managed, in spite of my track record back in the city, to be one of the early risers. So I’m up in time to put on my raincoat and have a cup of instant coffee around the picnic table with Asa and Gabe just as it hits the hardest. The day can only get better. It does.

The sun is out all late morning and into the afternoon. We’re on a six-hour paddle, the longest so far. This section of the river is teeming with prehistoric-looking blue herons. There are also some gull feathers on the surface of the water. Any feather floating stem-up is a perfect little boat.

We finally land in a rather “seasoned” area of what, over nine days, will prove to be an otherwise clear and scentless stretch of river. It’s a sprint to set up camp and make dinner in time to shuttle ourselves to the Waterloo Region Museum for tonight’s reading. I hate boiled eggs. I hate tuna fish. Our boiled egg and tuna salad dinner tastes like the best damn thing in the world.

The museum is gorgeous. The Good Hearted Women Singers, who open the evening’s festivities, sing a morning song, a friendship song and a wildflower song. Local poet and theatre actor Roy Lewis graces the evening’s performance with his deep baritone and batman love poems. Like every evening on tour, listening to Linda, Leigh, Gabe, Helen, Abigail, Asa and (later) Daniel read and perform their work is a deep pleasure. There isn’t a dud in the bunch.

After the reading a few of us find an all-hour grocery store, then cab back to the grounds. Because the campground next to us is tuned to a decent radio station (“Take a load off Fannie…”) the guitar stays in the case. Adjourned to the fire, Gabe spends the evening making paper puppets — a rabbit, a cowboy, a devil, a wolf, a crescent moon hung up in a twig — and propping them up between the bricks around the fire. By the time the rabbit’s paw catches a flame and the devil shrugs into the ash, most of us are ready to sleep.


Day Four: Cambridge (Helen Guri)

A Case of the Mondays

Sun is visible through the curves of the giant blue waterslide at Bingeman's (pronounced "Bing-i-mans" by the cursorily familiar, but "Binge Man's" by those in the know) campground in Kitchener, making this the driest day so far on Fish Quill record. Our four-day plan to dry the towels is halfway complete. We celebrate with cold cereal — our favourite. Leigh breaks the news that a raccoon ate all the cookies from inside the vestibule of her tent during the night. Indeed, some of us heard feral shrieks as a package was ripped to shreds in the early hours of the morning. Indeed, we have heard of raccoons. Some of us believe in them. At ten, it is time to slide our bags and canoes back onto the fish highway for "paddle with the poets" day. This means we will be paddling with each other. Good thing we like poetry. The destination is Cambridge, a city with internet in it, among other fruits of civilization, but on the way we stop at a riverside (and train-trackside and highwayside) gazebo to lunch and read for Andy and Val, our illustrious canoe patrons, and their smart-cookie boys Zack and Mason. Unfortunately, none of us has written an ode yet. This is a bit of an oversight. But we make do. Asa reads a poem about genitals in the cold. Gabe shares some cooking tips involving liquid peppermint, frozen ducks, hazelnuts, brie and oysters, among other ingredients. Linda manages to slip a few racial slurs (meaningfully, of course) into an otherwise harmonious piece about crockery and Abigail plays a family-friendly murder ballad. All are entertained. It's time to get back on the river and then quickly out again before we go over a waterfall. This is called portaging. The way we do it involves six people to one canoe. It takes kind of a long time to get from lunch to Cambridge. Drawing on the physics degrees we never took, Leigh, Linda, Abigail and I reason that two canoes can go faster than one, so we bungee-cord our canoes together. This arrangement is called a flotilla, according to military reference books we don't own. The flotilla runs like a well-oiled stationary bicycle. Linda paddles, Abigail rolls a few cigarettes and Leigh and I relieve the trail mix of its remaining M&Ms. After a time, we sing a few rounds in four-part harmony. It is amazing the sort of society that can be built with a little division of labour. We're there in no time.

Cambridge campsites have strict rules. These include "no camp fires" and "no using the bathroom after 8:30 p.m." It's a pity, because we've bought all these smokies and we all definitely need to pee. It's exactly 8:25. Hot dog soup! (No, not that kind, sickos.) Gabe throws in some lentils and I garnish it with veggies. It's decent after all. Although it's nearly bed time, Nick, Linda, Abigail, Leigh and I can't help investigating the city a little. Leon wants to come too, but unfortunately his legs have atrophied to the point where he can't walk. It's one of the hazards of being a voyageur. We discover a fine establishment called the Nutty Parrot. Although no gang wear is permitted in this bar, we manage to sneak our matching socks-in-sandals past the bouncer. Leigh is a mean hand at darts, which lends us the authority to dominate the juke box. Lou Reed invites all patrons to walk on the wild side as Abigail inadvertently tips the table with our drinks on it. It's the best tip the bartenders will see all night.


Day Five: Cambridge (Abigail Lapell)

Titular Tuesday

Today begins and ends in Churchill Park, Cambridge, in the rain. It’s our first and only day off from paddling. By the time I get up, there’s hot porridge on the camp stove, and coffee and bits have been hunted/gathered from a nearby Tim Horton’s. Under a picnic gazebo adjoining our campsite, we preview more of the day’s indulgences: laundry, internet, walking around town. More coffee. Not paddling.

Tonight, our travelling poetry rivershow will descend on O’Keefe’s Cottage and Ice Cream Parlour — a venue revered for its home-style cooking (by Asa), and reputed to have been “super nice” last year. Tonight is also “Titty Tuesday” at the Nutty Parrot — a colourful local pub we stumbled upon last night, where each day is celebrated, consonance-style, on a weekly chalkboard schedule. I worry that Travelling Poetry Tuesday may be facing some stiff competition.

Churchill Park is within stumbling distance of town. After breakfast, Leon, our Master of Ceremonies, is whisked off in a cab — catching a bus to Toronto, his natural habitat — and Linda, Helen and Nick ride along with a wet sack of clothes, in search of dryers and bacon cheeseburgers. I, for one, have forgotten how to walk, so I stay behind with Gabe, Asa and Leigh. It rains and shines and rains. I sit woodshedding with my guitar, and the picnic tables seem to sway with phantom river currents. We forage for peanut butter and honey sandwiches, hot dogs and M&Ms. We bungee our food bag from the gazebo rafters, safe from its fearsome natural predator, the raccoon.

My determination to use the internet wanes with the day. The sun is beaming again before the second wave of paddlers finally leaves for town. Gabe weighs the risks and takes a gamble on our soggy clothesline. It’s a nice walk to the venue, along rural roads and a riverside path through Cambridge. Leigh and I are sidetracked by The Patch, a thrift mega-store I insist on visiting for “five minutes.” An hour later, we’ve scoured the racks, tried each other’s cast-offs and settled on an ensemble or two. Leigh, touchingly, offers me her own dress. I wear it to the library that doubles as an art gallery. The internet is as strange and wonderful as I’d left it, four days earlier.

Back at the venue, it’s our best turnout yet. The paddlers feast on chicken pot pie and free ice cream, the most delicious kind of ice cream. We’re joined by local poet Antonio Michael Downing, which is a treat on the order of free ice cream. Daniel, having set his academic affairs in order, joins us, too. Linda has family in attendance, including younger siblings who soon discover that reading is both “hip” and “cool.”

Daniel’s arrival brings the notable asset of a car. Team Grocery speeds off after the reading, makes it to the beer store with moments to spare, then joins the other paddlers and guest poet, plus a small coterie of admirers, at the bar — a less colourful bar than the Parrot, where Tuesday is just another day, unmarked by any salacious sobriquet. As we prepare to leave, and just as the wet t-shirts back on our clothesline have dried out completely, the sky opens. Serious rain sheets down and, as we pull into our campsite, lightning strikes a nearby hydro pole. Someone remarks that we might have a fire tonight after all.

We wait it out in the relative shelter of the gazebo. Helen asks who’s doing today’s journal entry and whether “Titty Tuesday” will be mentioned. I stop tittering and admit I’d been wrestling with this very question. Encouraged by the paddlers, emboldened by the storm, I resolve to set aside any embarrassment at the much-parroted phrase. Journalistic integrity prevails. The rain starts to clear and we pass around cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, resuming our two days’ head start on Thirsty Thursday.


Day Six: Paris (Gabe Foreman)

Last night, lightning struck a hydro pole beside Daniel's car as a group of us drove from downtown Cambridge to the campsite. Slow blobs of light, like welding sparks, exploded from its transformer (?) as we turned from the highway into the park. Deafening. Was it an omen? Street lights went out. Heavy rain pelted everything until morning, the sky clearing as we unzipped our tents. A group of us sit at picnic tables and drink coffee, blinking, half asleep. The slightly damp shirts that I had cleverly hung out to dry the day before are now the wettest things on the planet, steaming and dripping in the blinding sun. Our whole team eats oatmeal with apples at the picnic tables under a pavilion beside our drenched campsite.

Two young women, city workers, in orange overalls, ask if they can join us. They begin by saying that they could tell, by looking at us, that we were not vagrants. Nick doesn't look convinced. Someone explains that we are a team of poets (plus a musician) travelling by canoe, visiting a chain of communities along the Grand River.

Andy and Val Tonkin kindly ferry us by van to the launch site across the road, just downstream of where we had last paddled to shore. We draw numbers to choose canoe partners, distribute gear between the boats, and head off. We take turns hitting shallow parts, getting hung up on grapefruit sized rocks, but it's mostly a smooth ride. Many herons. They look prehistoric, and a little gawky when they fly. We dine at a rustic campsite beneath a big willow tree. There's a grill under a branch, and a clear plastic sheet. Many beer cans. We try to light a lunch fire with strips of soggy cardboard and pitiful wet sticks.

We are met by supporters at the portage, Bob Greene and Veronica Ross. Excellent people. We had dinner and then a pint with them in Cambridge the night before. The portage, just upriver from Paris, is our stop for the day. After unloading the canoes and carrying the gear, and the boats, down a long wooden boardwalk, we meet up with the Tonkins. They ferry us to our new campsite in the Brant Conservation Area, not close exactly, but a great place to camp. Ours is a vast green lot by the river, beside the outfitters' launch. Very scenic. We eat dinner in a rush and race to the reading.
At the Brown Dog Cafe, we order treats and lattes. We perform on the magnificent terrasse or balcony, or veranda, overlooking the river. Like the buildings beside it, the cafe appears perched on the bank. It feels like we’re standing on the top deck of a steamship, reading to passengers, the water flowing by beneath us. There is a good turnout and a few unsuspecting patrons caught in the crossfire. Trains on a nearby rail bridge drive through the ends or middles of our poems and songs. We raise our voices to compete. Afterwards, we are given a box of apple fritters, which we take back to our campfire. Before we leave Paris, we visit a little pub a few doors down from the Brown Dog with the Tonkins. Helen's martini seems to be made exclusively of vermouth (and olives). A little weird.


Day Seven: Brantford (Asa Boxer)

I suppose that by day seven, having been soaked by rains and river, you could say we were fully immersed in water-thoughts. Helen and I were paddling together and chatting about group dynamics when she spoke of a theory she’d picked up somewhere about how crowds tend to behave like water molecules. I thought this had some sense to it as we are, after all, mostly water. And perhaps at some elemental level, we are driven along paths of least resistance; and like water droplets running down a window, we tend to flow in common channels. But what accounts for our own group’s efficiency? What accounts for how each of us has taken on certain roles without much allocation of tasks? Dinner is prepared and dishes washed, gear is packed up and canoes are carried to and from launch points with little governance. Fires are built and food is secured for the night without a checklist, without a foreman (well, except for Gabe), a captain or any other authority. Of course, we have improved since the first few days when Abigail and Nick left out their rain jackets, and none had taken it upon themselves to do an end of night inventory. So if we had been at all like water, we had since become more and more mindful of our fellows and we were now looking out for each other.

A magnificent bald eagle glided by overhead in a decisively straight line from right to left. It flew low enough we could see the stark contrast between its black wings and its white head and tail. Its beak and talons, however, were details too distant to make out.
Our canoe was in the lead, so it was up to Helen and me to find a good, levelish spot where the eight of us could eat lunch. We found a promising island in a still pool just off the main current and beached our canoe there, and flagged our companions to join us. We were proud of our choice of location until I noticed that this little island was actually an anal moraine built up by the droppings of both fowl and beast. I made my observations known; and Helen admitted that she had been coming to a similar conclusion. Upon which we promptly dubbed the place Poo Island and set off in our canoes some five metres to a cleaner spot jutting from the mainland.

We ate salami, cheese, spinach and tomato with bread and mustard. Helen ate her dense, black funny-bread with the same. There were apples, oranges, kippers and sardines. We also had peanut-butter and trail-mix with M&M’s. After scarfing that uncommon combination down, I rolled what seemed like a healthy cigarette with some Drum tobacco Gabe and I had managed to find in Paris. Gabe rolled his own and we smoked a short distance from the eating area.

We were all looking forward to the barbecue awaiting us that evening at Andy Tonkin’s home in Brantford. When we arrived, we hung out on the back porch with Andy, his wife, Val, and a few of their friends. We chowed on dip and hotdogs and barbecue chicken roasted on Andy’s rotisserie. We washed it all down with Moosehead’s Cracked Canoe label — which called for more tobacco.

Just as I was ready for a snooze, our time was up and we had to prepare for our reading that night at the Arts Block, a charming space full of artisanal objects, posters and pamphlets advertising local arts activities.

John B. Lee joined us and read a couple of poems. Unforgettable was his “Finding a Used Condom on the Lynn River Trail” — a poem about his “terrier pup Sarge” who no doubt “following the serious instructions / of a gut god” tries to “dry-swallow” what he describes as “the phlegmy remains of a nearly filled rubber condom,” having “the rheumy flavour of men.” Yuck! But such wonderfully insightful yuck, I’m jealous of the poem. I know that dog and that gut god all too well.

After the reading, Andy (with Val) and Daniel drove us back in their respective vehicles to our campsite at the Brant Conservation Area. The air was damp and chilly and the grass was heavy with dew. I put on an oversized blue flannel shirt and pulled my green rain pants over my threadbare jeans, tucking the shirt in deep and wearing the pants high on my waist for full hillbilly effect. Abigail set up an impressive tepee of kindling and got a fire blazing with one match. To our delight, Andy had brought some well-seasoned logs from his personal supply. The previous night we’d tried to burn what turned out to be some clearly green wood which we’d picked up at a gas station. All it did was smoke and smoke and get in our faces — but it refused to burn. In short, we had an exceptionally great fire and Abigail led us in song. I’m not sure how bad the mosquitoes were. I may have put some Muskol on my arms and neck this particular night. But generally, Daniel’s ankles seemed to keep the mosquitoes busy and out of our hair.

Andy and Val joined our quiet revelry and we all drank beer well into the night. We continued long after Andy and Val took their leave of us. One by one, however, each made her way to sleep. Following the usual order was first Linda, then Helen, then Nick, then Daniel, then Leigh; then a final hour or two passed before Gabe, Abigail and I called it a night and secured the communal grub against raccoons.


Day Eight: Brant Conservation Area (Leigh Kotsilidis)

The paddle from Brant Conservation Area to Newport Bridge has been the longest paddle yet. It is mainly comprised of The Oxbow, a 16.5 km loop of the river which starts and ends essentially at the same place. I tried hard not to think about this fact during our six-hour paddle.

Nick and I were canoe partners again. If it hasn't been mentioned already, Nick and I are Team Awesome! We hadn't been canoe partners since the first day, and I think it's safe to say that we had both improved upon our steering skills. The first day Nick suffered an injury inflicted by an overhanging tree branch that swung into our canoe. Today we managed to avoid most obstacles, except for a giant rock that leapt out in front of our canoe. Nature can be so vicious. Luckily we didn't capsize.

The Oxbow is gorgeous. The flat waters made for leisurely paddling and the deeper waters meant we didn't have to get out and walk our canoes at all today. We saw lots of turtles and, not surprisingly, a few herons. The only real disadvantage of paddling the Oxbow is not having much of a current to propel us. Jokes were made about finding oxen to pull us. By the time it was even lunchtime, we were all exhausted.

Some of us went swimming to refresh ourselves. And our usual salami and cheese sandwiches were a somewhat effective pick-me-up.

The afternoon was more or less the same — turtles, herons, willows — just with a couple more flotillas to mix it up. Despite how it sounds, I really didn't get tired of seeing a turtle sunbathing on a rock, or a heron hanging out on a bank. It's a welcome contrast to my car-spattered life in Montreal.

Back at camp, seven hours later, dinner was served — a delicious pasta primavera with real parmesan cheese and olives!

The campfire reading was the perfect ending to our Oxbow day.


Day Nine: Chiefswood (Daniel Kincade Renton)

Blossom Ave. Bridge to Chiefswood

Staggering from the tent, unusually early for my morning stupor, I journeyed to fill Corky and that other guy (the group’s two water jugs) at a spout further on down the road. At camp, every chore becomes a small adventure. When treasure-hunting for instant coffee, it is easy to strike gold. As the fortune cookie reads: Keep your desires simple and they will be fulfilled.

It seemed like everyone was moving slowly as we rushed to ready for the river. Not only was this the first day in three for packing up our tents and belongings, but our potable water spout had been knocked out by one of the park authority vehicles that backed into it the night before. Most of the gang had an early start, having downed coffees and Cheerios by the time I woke. (At lunch I discovered that someone had also boiled eggs for our riverside picnic). Only two of us were left to get coffee and cereal, Abigail and myself. I tried, mostly in vain, to stay out of Linda’s way as she kindly cleaned up the remaining dishes. Soon, we were all packing tents, untying the clothesline, and stuffing whatever else was left sitting around the campsite into its appropriate place. Andy and Val from Treks in the Wild arrived around 9:30 a.m., but had a wee wait before everyone and their belongings were loaded into his van. We drove to the country road where we’d disembarked the previous day. At the drop-in, two men were fishing on the bank. I asked and they said they hadn’t caught anything yet, and I confirmed the Polish origin of their accents by asking about the beer they were drinking, Żywiec. Yummy, but it seemed early in the morning for beer. Better, I suppose, than that ominous brown-liquorish looking substance some men had been drinking as we pulled up the day before.

As we loaded the canoes and picked paddling partners, Andy joked that we could ask one of the boats how much they’d charge for a tow. At this part of the river, the water is high and the current is slack. There isn’t much use for Andy’s skills at navigating the faster areas because there are no faster areas. You just jump in and paddle your ass off. At least, that’s my strategy. Sometimes it upsets the canoe. Or the other canoeist. Sorry Leigh. Best Fishes! I called back to the Polish men, as we pulled away, inciting someone to remark that if they didn’t know we were poets before, they would now.

Our final two paddles involved much hiding behind bends in the river to get shade or avoid a headwind, but now we encountered new obstacles: power boats, water-skiers and large yellow restaurant barges with names like River Princess, River Belle and River Queen. One skilled one-ski water-skier looped around our canoes and sat in the water for a chat while his motor boat made its way back to him. When he arrived, the driver, in all sincerity, asked if we wanted a tow. Further along, Leigh and I saw something dive in the water that looked like an alligator, which Andy later confirmed to be a large snapping. The shell must have been about the diameter of a basketball. This may have been the last animal our group named Gary.

With the bridge marking the end of our paddle in sight, we decided to stop for a special treat at a burger stand along the river. As soon as I got on the dock a Native woman reeled in a large bass, helped by her grandkids. The grandkids, at least, enjoyed my Best Fishes! salute.

After our quick bite, we were back on the water. Those were the best jalapeno poppers I’ve ever travelled by canoe to buy. Good cans of pop, too. When we pulled up to the dock at Chiefswood National Historic Site on the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory, we were greeted by three very kind people who helped us unload and trucked our bags up to our campsite. We were invited to set up camp beside a mansion once owned by Pauline Johnson. It’s the only surviving pre-Confederation Native mansion, and it houses a museum in her honour. Beside our campsite was a field of prairie flowers developed with plant life indigenous to the area. After being fed generously by the Chiefswood staff, we held that night’s poetry reading in front of Pauline Johnson’s mansion to a large and receptive audience. Local native poet, Shelley Clark, joined our reading, honouring us with a few selection of her intimate verse.

In the morning, Karen Dearlove, the museum curator brought us breakfast and gave an enthralling tour of the mansion. Big thanks to everyone at Chiefswood.

Read more about the paddling poets at the Fish Quill Poetry Boat Landmark.

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