Deep in the heart of Northern Ontario our shuttle van hurtles over an abandoned highway that once serviced a now derelict gold mine. For more than an hour we've been piercing ever farther into Canada's near-mythical James Bay frontier, and my travelling companions and I can sense we are close to the end of the beginning of a journey that's been almost a year in the planning.
After an eight-hour drive from Toronto, and another two-hour shuttle from Cochrane, we are about to enter a realm as historically and psychologically central to our sense of being Canadian as the Amazon jungle must be to Brazilians seeking to understand their connection to the land. For Canadians, it doesn't get much more primal than a trip through our very own Heart of Darkness to James Bay, the vast protrusion of the Arctic Ocean into the country's interior.
After travelling 156 kilometres north of Cochrane, we are finally ready to put paddles to water on our odyssey to the bay. Other than the incongruous clustering of signage, all that marks our arrival is yet another in a series of metal bridges crossing a latticework of obscure creeks and rivers that spread like veins across the immense boreal forest of the Canadian Shield.
This crossing, however, is different: It is over the little-travelled Kattawagami River, Cree for "opening of a lake," and a river only well known to those of us whose tastes run towards seeking out the most authentic wilderness experience possible. And it's not just its splendid isolation and direct access to the shores of James Bay some 190 kilometres north that makes the Kattawagami a pilgrimage for hardcore paddlers -- it's also the seemingly endless sets of rapids and falls that make travelling its waters northward a rite of passage for only the fittest and most resolute of outdoor adventurers.
Unlike many Northern Ontario rivers that mark their transition from the Canadian Shield to the vast, swamp-like James Bay Lowlands by thundering through massive falls and chutes, the Kattawagami descends gradually in increments small enough to allow the river to maintain a long stretch of navigable whitewater, yet big enough to challenge anyone looking for a world-class paddling experience. And once you're on the river -- at least 150 kilometres from the nearest population centre, and almost 200 kilometres from the bay -- there is no turning back. Next stop, Moosonee.
For those of us who grew up on the stories of Canada's North -- and how the country was opened up by the coureur du bois and the Scotsmen of the Hudson Bay Company -- setting out on the river has an almost transcendent quality.
Our first days on the river are a chance to get our river skills up to speed. As the river heads east to Bayley Lake, a large, shallow lake that signals the transition to the big rapids awaiting us later in the trip, we run set after set of smaller rapids and swifts, or fast moving water. For me and my bowman -- a newcomer to whitewater paddling, but a fit and determined 41-year-old with a black belt in karate -- it's a chance to learn each other's strengths and weaknesses and develop a water-born symbiosis before hitting the big waves downriver. The two other canoes, a father-and-son team in one, and two old friends in the other, are also working out the kinks with our looming arrival at the meaty part of the river on Day 3.
Our first night on the river we camp in a black-fly-infested patch of dense brush and pine trees, but upon reaching the lake the next day we find ourselves the sole inhabitants of a 10-kilometre-long respite from the river. We even have our very own beach, and we luxuriate in the brilliant amber sunset and the sound of the waves lapping on the shore as we tuck into our last fresh meal of the trip. As Mark, my bowman, economically but eloquently puts it, "this is just the right place to be." Amen.