The rain, which had stopped while I chased Liesl up and down the riverside path, had come back, though not as heavy and without thunder, but it was cold, and the pressure was still low and the sky still a featureless slate grey. Paddling was keeping me warm, but Liesl was shivering in the bottom of the canoe. I scooped her up and plopped her in my jacket papoose style, only her head peaking out. I doubt she comfortable, and I could barely paddle, but she was warm and didn’t struggle.
I eddy-hopped, and hugged the sheltered shore to avoid the worst of the current as we approached the dam at Sheldon Springs, which was hidden behind a bend upstream. As I got closer it was obvious something wasn’t right. There was violent white water far downstream of the dam. All the previous dams I had crossed had tongues of turbulent water that stretched downstream for a few hundred metres, normal, of course, given how a dam works, but this water wasn’t just turbulent. These were big rapids with standing waves where they didn’t belong.
I edged my boat to the apex of the corner and saw the problem: the dam had been released to prevent flooding upstream. Later I would read that the water turns into class III+ rapids when this happens. Fun to play in, but alone in a 16-foot canoe heading upstream in bad weather, and only a third of the way through a long trip, it was unexpected and unwelcome.
I hugged river left but needed to cross to river right to access the portage. Having lost my wheels, I wanted to stick to the easiest routes, both for Liesl and for my back. I drew parallel to the portage route and adjusted my gear to better balance Woody for the ferry across. I took L out of my jacket and put on her life jacket, and started paddling.
The standing waves were too high, and the current so strong it washed out the eddies I could have used to ease my way. I managed to work my way to about the middle of the river, but was pummelled by a wave as Woody ricocheted off an unseen rock. Water began to crash over the sides. It was too much. Aiming the nose back toward river-left I managed to inch my way back without losing too much river. Liesl was drenched, and so was I, and the water in Woody was well above my ankles, my lose gear floating around my feet. We would have to find another way around the dam.
The portage on river left didn’t exist. And, ominously, a dead beaver greeted us when we disembarked. Well I thought it was ominous. Liesl promptly tried to roll in it.
It was slow and exhausting. I couldn’t manage the boat, Liesl, my bag and the paddles all at once, so had to make a few trips through the mud and muck. By the time we were back on the river we had been moving for about 13 hours, barely eaten anything and the brown water, soupy with farm runoff due to the rain, had me wary of drinking and so dehydrated. As if on cue, thunder cracked and the rain fell.
I calculated about another hour or so to get to the private (meaning built on private land for use by Northern Forest Canoe Trail paddlers) “Lussier” campsite, as the map called it. I decided that would be our home for the night. It would give us a chance to rest and scout the Abbey Rapids, which the map said are usually class II but grow to class III when water levels are high. The sun was low, and because of the low sky it was getting dark early. I bundled L back into my jacket and we were off. The thunder was distant enough that I could ignore it and beyond the dam the river once again grew scenic.
The pressure of having to figuring out the Abbey Rapids now postponed, I was able to lose myself in the dip and glide of paddling. I meandered northeastward under old train bridges and through history. Despite how miserable I was feeling, I could at least appreciate the moment. I’ve always been attracted to Vermont. There’s an air of independence I don’t feel in other U.S. states. Maybe it’s because Vermont is one of a handful that was a sovereign state in its past. Or maybe I’m making that up because I read it int he guide book. But it is a place with a history closely tied to that of my home province, Quebec, and that I could feel.
In the dusk there was almost no echo of traffic on nearby roads, and the rain and mist obscured anything a few metres beyond the banks of the river. Hints of farms loomed in the uncertain distance, but it was really just the river, the trees on its banks and me. Despite, or maybe because of, the general crappiness of the day, it was a moment worth savouring. My cares and worries, slipped away, lost in the simple rhythm of thousands of canoe strokes and shroud of fog. Liesl slept, a damp but warm little ball pressed tight against my stomach.
Again. Inevitably. The current picked up. The map shows the campsite at the foot of the rapids, but as I drew closer it was obvious that the high water had extended the rapids far below their usual end, so the site was at least a hundred metres up the rapids. Worse, the banks were lower here and the high water had reached above the riverbank spilling over onto a short shelf of land between the river and the true bank forming a kind of mini-floodplain.
My all-to-brief moment of peace gone, my arms and back aching, I hopped out. With water swirling about my thighs and my shoes sucking in the mud, I hauled Woody upstream. Liesl stood like a figurehead on my bags, her bright red life jacket had slid to the side making her look more off-kilter than usual and accentuating her four-inch bowlegs. She grew anxious and started to whine. She was hungry, tired, drenched and now, once again, it seemed to her almond sized brain that I was leaving her. I started to whisper to her, and moved back to stand next to her, hauling Woody by his gunnels
Thankfully, Lussier turned out to be a pleasant campsite nestled under some trees and adjacent to a brilliant green meadow that even at 9 p.m. in teeming rain looked wholesome. I made camp, ate a snack, hung a tarp to extend my fly as the rain showed no sign of slowing that night, and promptly passed out in my damp sleeping bag with Liesl snuggling against my belly.