Part of Liquid State: The science, art and wonder of water in Canada, an occasional series about one of the nation's most magnificent resources.
The mission was all but completed – and right up to this moment, just before lunch on this final Sunday of August, it had been a resounding success.
Graham Fraser was on the second-to-last set of rapids in a three-day, 40-kilometre paddle down the Petawawa, a Precambrian Shield river that snakes and bucks its way through Ontario’s vast Algonquin Park before emptying into the much-wider Ottawa River.
At 67, he had never paddled whitewater before. He had approached this deeply personal quest with considerable determination and some understandable fear. He was learning fast when, suddenly, an unseen twist in the surging water sent the canoe carrying him and his son Malcolm into a large boulder, the strong current pinning the vessel fast and instantly dumping the two men.
But his own size-13 feet were caught under the stern seat. With eldest son, paddles and water bottles spilling out and away, he thought for an instant that this was it – that it was all over.
It was not, however, his own life that flashed before his eyes. It was his father’s.
It was not that there was not enough to recall in Graham Fraser’s own lifetime as an accomplished journalist and foreign correspondent for numerous national publications, including The Globe and Mail, and these past seven years as the country’s Official Language Commissioner.
But this trip had never been about him.
Graham – along with his sons Malcolm, a 39-year-old writer and film critic from Montreal; Nick, a 37-year-old professional musician from Toronto; as well as Nick’s 13-year-old son Owen Heathcote-Fraser – had come to the Petawawa during this week of the blue moon to right a wrong, to avenge a misguided insult to the family name and to pay their respects to a grandfather and great-grandfather the younger ones in the family had never known.
Forty-five years earlier, on May 12, 1968, Blair Fraser had died in these same waters – thrown from his canoe on the sometimes-treacherous Rollway Rapids upstream, smashed into rocks and hurtled down the long jumble of rushing water and jagged granite to drown in the deep pool at the end of the run.
He had been 59, eight years younger than his son was this summer on his first-ever paddle on the Petawawa. The elder Mr. Fraser was in the prime of his life and career, the Ottawa editor of Maclean’s Magazine and known throughout the country for his reasoned and rational “Blair Fraser Reports.” He had reported from around the world, and yet felt that the most precious place in that world was the Canadian wilderness. He had interviewed prime ministers and presidents and Maharajas , yet preferred a workplace where the only position worth holding was steady against the current.
In the tribute Maclean’s printed that summer, writer Douglas Marshall called him “a gentleman journalist” and argued: “No individual did more to create and sustain this country’s international reputation for superior journalism than Blair Fraser.”
The magazine quoted from his book (unfortunately his only one), The Search for Identity, which had come out a year earlier during the country’s Centennial celebrations: “ ‘Development’ continues. Canada’s standard of living, second highest in the world, is in no danger of losing that proud position. Washing machines and television sets abound, as in no other nation save one. … Ugly little towns prosper, all calling themselves cities and all looking like faithful copies of Omaha, Nebraska.
This is not a Canada to call forth any man’s love. But just north of it lies a different kind of land – too barren ever to be thickly settled, too bleak to be popular like Blackpool or Miami. There is no reason to doubt it will always be there, and so long as it is there Canada will not die.”
This transplanted easterner had become a great champion of the North. Out of a 1951 Ottawa dinner party, a small group of public servants, diplomats and journalists became a vanguard for what developed into a continuing national passion for summer canoe adventure.
At the party, they bantered with a few foreign diplomats about how you couldn’t really learn about a country on the cocktail circuit: You had to experience it. Eric Morse, then national director of the Canadian Clubs, was the main proponent – he had read Harold Innis’s The Fur Trade in Canada and had long wished to retrace the footsteps and paddle strokes of the likes of Mackenzie, Thompson, La Verendrye and Hearne.
The group began annual trips and were soon dubbed “les Voyageurs.” The core of eight was constant – Mr. Morse, Mr. Fraser, American naturalist Sigurd Olson and five other close friends – but the Voyageurs often included others. One happened to be a young Montreal academic called Pierre Trudeau, who had been a canoe aficionado since he had been sent off to Taylor Statten Camps in Algonquin Park as a teenager.
As early as 1944, Mr. Trudeau had been extolling the virtues of such escapes. “What sets a canoeing expedition apart,” he wrote in an essay titled Exhaustion and Fulfillment: The Ascetic in a Canoe, “is that it purifies you more rapidly and inescapably than any other. Travel a thousand miles by train and you are a brute; pedal five hundred on a bicycle and you remain basically a bourgeois; paddle a hundred in a canoe and you are already a child of nature.”
The Voyageurs chose a new route each year, often heading into the Far North far away from any possible human contact while they paddled. They slogged all day and spent their evenings around campfires, where Mr. Fraser was a favourite for his ability to sing old fur-trade songs and his welcome supply of brandy.
His wife, Jean Fraser, initially worried about such trips to the wild, but as she later explained to Maclean’s: “Then I saw those refreshed and rejuvenated faces that returned, and I remembered the white, pinched faces that had left, and I didn’t worry any more.”
In spring, the Voyageurs came to treasure the nearby Petawawa, which requires a lot of technique, as a tune-up. A year earlier, Mr. Trudeau had flipped in the Little Thompson rapids above Rollway and emerged unharmed, if a bit wet and embarrassed.
The river is hardly the most difficult in the country, but it is considered a jewel by whitewater advocates. It can be dangerous in high water and low, and is a different river each time it is run.
Hap Wilson, author of Rivers of the Upper Ottawa Valley , tells of early 19th-century explorers sent out in the aftermath of the War of 1812 to see if the Petawawa might provide safe passage between the Ottawa and Lake Huron. They reported back that it was futile – the river, Lt. Henry Briscoe concluded in 1826, was “nearly one entire rapid [and] its banks are very high and rocky, in many places 80 to 100 feet perpendicular.”
The group had no intention of running Rollway that May but Mr. Fraser, paddling stern, had missed the take-out. He and Elliot Rodger, a retired major-general then in charge of the Manitoba liquor control board, had been swept into the rapids by the fierce current. Mr. Rodger survived; Mr. Fraser did not.
At the time, Graham Fraser, then 22, had just started his first job in journalism, as a summer student at the Toronto Star. That weekend he and girlfriend Barbara Uteck, soon to be his wife, had gone canoeing at Canoe Lake where, coincidentally, landscape painter Tom Thomson had drowned in 1917. Graham learned about his father’s death when he called back to Toronto and childhood friend Bob Rae broke the tragic news.
Jean had been in Paris with friends when she was informed of her husband’s death. The city was all but closed down by the student riots of that spring, but she made it to Amsterdam and a flight home. John Fraser, Graham’s older brother, was then an up-and-comer in External Affairs and flew home from Warsaw. (John died nearly three years ago at age 75 following a distinguished career in the foreign service.)
Mr. Trudeau later wrote a personal note to Jean. “In two activities in which we shared an enthusiasm,” the then-prime minister told her, “political analysis and canoeing, I came to admire Blair’s exceptional skill and judgement. We respected him for what he could do, but we cherished him for what he was, a wise and generous man with a gift for undemanding friendship.”
The drowning shattered the family and deeply rocked his fellow paddlers.
That fall, with the full blessing of the park authorities, the Voyageurs erected a very small cross at Rollway. It stood two-and-a-half feet high and one foot across and cost the Voyageurs $84.67. The family was brought in by vehicle along the logging roads and a simple ceremony took place.
“In Memory of Blair Fraser, 1909-1968,” the cross read. “Erected by his Fellow Voyageurs.”
For 40 years it stood there, a silent legacy to a man who, largely by accident, did a great deal to revive and promote recreational canoe tripping in a country only made possible by the canoe.
Right up until someone tore it down and threw it away.
In the fall of 2008, Che-Mun: The Journal of Canadian Wilderness Canoeing ran a story about Blair Fraser’s cross being torn down. Editor Michael Peake was furious, calling it “the ignorant act of an ignorant person.”
The perpetrator had subsequently written to various officials and environmentalists to boast of his service to nature. He had ripped out this blight on the wilderness, he claimed, and had placed it harmlessly in an out-of-the-way place.
When the Fraser family was informed of this vandalism, they did not know what to do. Replace the cross? Look for it? Forget it? The desire was to return it to its place, if possible, but where was it?
A year ago I set off with Phil Chester, a retired teacher from Deep River, Ont., who is best known for improving on a famous quote often attributed to Pierre Berton: “Anyone can make love in a canoe,” Mr. Chester once proclaimed. “It’s a Canadian who knows enough to take out the centre thwart!”
Mr. Chester is himself a whitewater specialist who has run the Petawawa multiple times. He brought along his daughter Holly and I took along my daughter Jocelyn, both of whom work as nature guides.
The water was higher than it is this year, and so we shot the Rollway and then retraced steps in search of the cross – unaware that it had already been found: Members of the Ontario Wilderness Adventurers had passed through earlier and someone had seen a glint in the water and investigated.
The supposed crusading environmental avenger had simply tossed the cross into the river.
With it found, the Frasers were anxious to repair the base. Park authorities were open to the family going in by logging roads and trails, but a fierce July storm had swept through the area, and downed trees had made such passage impossible.
The only way to do it was to paddle in.
Along with Mr. Chester and another area guide, Dan Caldwell, the inexperienced Frasers put in at Lake Travers on a day when the water was black and smooth as obsidian stone. In perfect weather they paddled through lakes and easy swifts until, eventually, they came to the more challenging runs.
On Saturday, the group reached Rollway.
“Everywhere you want to go,” Mr. Caldwell said, shaking his head, “there’s a rock.”
But the Frasers were not interested in running the rapids that had taken their patriarch. Leaving the canoes for Mr. Caldwell to dance through the rocks, they set off down the lengthy portage until they came to a small clearing. It is a lovely spot, high over the Rollway rapids that roar constantly, the air slightly damp and refreshing on a late summer’s day.
On the rocky outcropping closest to the water, all that remained was the bottom of the cross. To the side, those who had found the memorial had placed it carefully upright, supported by various small stones.
For a long time, Graham just stared at it. He said that his father had often joked that if he had to go, he hoped it would be right after a good winter ski down Mount Tremblant. “This, I have to think, would have been his second choice – if it had to be.”
For the better part of two hours, as their guides looked on, the son, grandsons and great-grandson of Blair Fraser worked with a trowel and a small amount of ready-mix cement to provide a solid new base, and then, as discreetly as possible, to cover the work with natural stones from the area.
“Did that guy ever think about how many lives might have been saved by this cross?” Mr. Chester wondered aloud. “How many people came here to scout the rapids and saw this and decided maybe it might be a wise idea to portage instead?”
Graham, understandably, became sentimental: His father, he said, used to say “that he didn’t know anyone who took so much pleasure out of the things that he did badly. After he died people often wrote about him as if he were an expert canoeist, but he wasn’t. He always described himself as the drudge labour on the trips. He was a fundamentally modest man.
“The last conversation I had with him, he said, ‘Don’t think I’ve been a success. I became a journalist because I didn’t have the imagination to do anything else.’ It was fundamentally not true, because he was extremely successful … but he had none of the professional arrogance that many journalists tend to assume – that they are somehow better people than the people that they write about.
“I always felt that it was a gift that he was as modest and self-deprecating and supportive as he was, and at the same time did the things that he loved … and set such high standards, which I try to live up to.”
When it was done, the four Frasers gathered in a group hug in a long silence.
When Graham finally spoke, it was with a broken voice: “Until now, I’ve been following in his footsteps. From now on, we’ll be going where he wasn’t able.”
The words proved prophetic just one day later when, with the end of the journey coming into sight, Graham went over the gunwales and into the fast water that, 45 years ago, had taken his father’s life.
“My foot was caught under the seat,” he said as he changed into dry clothes on the shore of the Petawawa River. “And as I was hitting the water with both feet caught under the seat, I thought, ‘Well, this may be the way that it ends.’ ”
And then he paused, smiling, satisfied: “But it ended happily.” Mission accomplished.