Northern Forest Canoe Trail #7

lastdayThe Missisquoi snakes its way to Highgate Center. Like most portages, it was a challenge, but turned out to be nothing compared to what would come near the end of the day.

We were wet and tired. The upstream paddling grew more challenging as the water continued to rise. For the first time I wished I had chosen a different boat. One a little smaller, and easier to navigate up the swirling currents. Though Woody is light and an all-around excellent boat, the extra length was hard to manage in the fast high water.

The sun broke through the clouds after Highgate and, like the day before, the air felt, and the surrounding fields smelled, like wet velvet. Drops of sweat replaced the rain, and I was getting thirsty.

The intense rain had saturated the fields and sent plumes of brown muck shooting off the steep banks into the river. I treated every ounce of water I drank, but farm bacteria wasn’t something I wanted to mess with, so I rationed my water to save the clean well-water from Campbell’s Bay.

Soon we came upon a long set of class I-III rapids. I tried to eddy-hop my way up but the current was too strong and the boat too long. I could’ve lined the boat again, but there was what looked like a straightforward portage on the left side of the river along a two-lane highway.

I clipped Liesl to the front of the boat and we began the mile long walk along the 78 to East Highgate. Liesl was pulling furiously in the front of the canoe. For a 12-lbs sled dog pulling 75-lbs of canoe and gear she actually made a difference.  After five minutes I was sure she was going to die from heat exhaustion.

I learned for the hundredth time that she has no medium setting. She’s either full-blast or asleep. Her little but indomitable spirit is still always an inspiration, even if it borders on suicidal at times. I plopped her in the canoe so she would have to sit still, and poured her the last of the water from the campground, which she ignored, then spilled.

It was an easy portage but ended up being one of the most stressful. The heat was oppressive and the traffic uncomfortably close. Every time a truck drove by, which seemed like every ten seconds, Liesl would freak and lunge onto the gunnel, while the truck-wash buffeted the canoe, threatening to topple it.

And though 99 per cent of the people I met on the trip were excellent and kind, a certain breed of human inhabited that stretch of interstate 78. A race of baseball cap wearing pickup truck driving yokels who enjoyed honking and shouting obscenities at a weary, dirty, Tilley hat wearing paddler.

We reached the put in and I realized for the first time that this trip might be unmanageable as planned.

The river was so flooded that if we put in at the designated spot, we would be swept over the falls. So my options were to put in and get washed over the falls, walk along the highway for the day—which after the stress of the last mile was out of the question—, or bushwhack a few hundred meters and put in further up the rapids.

I unhooked the wheels and heaved woody over and under fallen branches on the faint trail. The mud was deep and the trail steep enough that I fell a few times.  Liesl was instantly filthy.  About fifty meters in I decided the risk of a fox or coyote was nil and tied her up while I wrestled Woody to the river.

The bank was at least twice my height and slick with mud and fallen leaves. I tied Woody’s bow to a tree and gently lowered it down with my gear in it. Then I collected L, untied the boat, and slid down the bank into the shallow water next to Woody.

After a quick rinse I put L in her lifejacket and plopped her in the boat. The current was still strong, and to make any progress I had to ferry across the river. Barring any mistakes, it would be about a minute of hard paddling to reach the opposite shore without losing any ground.

The waterfall still presented a real danger. One error and it would be almost impossible to avoid it. This was a stupid position to be in. I knew it and didn’t like it, but didn’t see any choice. I was tired and I dismissed the thought of going back to the road as soon as it occurred to me.

We pushed off and after a hard effort made it across. But now I had to hop into the river and line the boat over rocks and through rapids to get to a point where I could actually paddle.

Meanwhile a black wall of thunderheads gathered, and a sudden chill wind gave me shivers and goose bumps. We were about to be hit by a mid afternoon thunderstorm, while stuck paddling up a fast moving river with steep muddy banks.

I chose to paddle as far as I could before the storm hit, and then see if we could find a place to hide while it passed.