First God created a canoe – then he created a country to go with it.
Bill Mason, legendary paddler
The Incredible Journey doesn’t quite do it justice.
Better descriptives might include: sensational, daunting, breathtaking, exhausting, obsessive, ridiculous, insane… Pamela MacDonald laughs at the suggestion: “Sometimes I wonder.”
It has now been more than six years since Geoff and Pam MacDonald of Calgary set out to paddle across Canada. They began in March, 2007, from Victoria, paddled up the B.C. coastline, portaged to the Nechako River, on to the Fraser, then the Columbia, and, with their dog harnessed to the canoe, they dragged it and their packs with ropes up three ranges covering more than 100 kilometres of “mountain portaging” until they reached the Continental Divide, whereupon they cracked open a bottle of champagne, raised a toast, did a little dance and then stared east into what seemed like eternity.
And what today – as they spend Canada Day paddling the calm and easy Trent-Severn Waterway that will take them from Lake Huron to Lake Ontario – also seems like an eternity looking back.
It is not as if they have been paddling forever. They did stop to have Jude 3 1/2 years ago, and Rane last winter – the two young boys every bit as much participants on the trip as Taq, the seven-year-old, 109-pound Alaskan Malamute who has chased black bears, stared down a grizzly and more than met his comeuppance when a Rocky Mountain porcupine left 50-odd quills in his curious snout. At the end of each paddling season, they fly home, earn money and come spring pick up where they left off.
It was never the MacDonalds’ plan to do it with children.
“We didn’t think this would take six or seven years,” says Geoff. “We thought two years. When it wasn’t going to be that, we thought we may as well go ahead and start a family.”
“We weren’t getting any younger,” adds Pam. “We figured we could do it.”
“But until you have a baby, you just have no idea,” says Geoff. “We thought we’d just work him into the trip. Not so simple.”
There is not only the tent, safety equipment and packs for the paddlers, but packs required for a preschooler and a baby. Before setting out each spring, the family sees a doctor who specializes in travel care. They carry some medications as well as adult and child EpiPens in case of severe allergic reactions. They have special equipment that sends out their location each night for family and friends to follow – as well as a growing following on their website (www.canoeacrosscanada.ca) – and they carry a satellite telephone for emergencies.
The two adults, two children, large dog and equipment are then carefully packed into the MacDonalds’ 20-foot, Quebec-made Esquif Miramichi canoe, named the Suzy Jack after the boat in Stompin’ Tom Connors’ ode to lobster fishing, Gumboot Cloggeroo.
Jude is on his fourth straight summer of paddling across the country. He has his Matchbox toys and Goldfish crackers and has slept almost as many nights in a tent as he has under a roof. Rane, the baby, has no idea what a schedule is, yet he controls it.
Geoff, a 38-year-old geologist, was born in Trail, B.C., but grew up near Orillia, Ont. At 12, he was sent to summer camp in Ontario but ran into a young Quebecker whose parents had sent him deliberately to learn the other official language. Geoff talked his parents into giving him a similar opportunity and, after three summers at Camp Ecole Keno, has become fairly proficient in French and completely proficient in canoeing.
Pam was born in Whitehorse, Yukon, 37 years ago but grew up in Fort McMurray and Provost, Alta. When the family tried to put her into ballet, she insisted instead on martial arts and today has a black belt in Taekwando.
It was Geoff who got her into canoeing after they met in 1997 at a volunteer ski patrol course. Geoff had a dream of paddling from Rocky Mountain House to James Bay, but she extended the plan. She was equally into the wilderness, having once lived in a self-made shelter for a year to practise survival skills, but did not have Geoff’s canoeing expertise. They originally sought to find two others to join them, but eventually decided, on their first big whitewater adventure together (the East Pukaskwa River in Northwestern Ontario, 2003), that they could do it alone.
“He showed me how to draw and cross draw,” Pam remembers of her five-minute whitewater lesson. “He said to keep an eye out for the white waves that don’t move. That’s where the rocks are. Don’t hit any.”
Married, they eventually settled in Calgary, where Geoff was able three years ago to strike a deal with a company in which he would have a significant leave in good weather. Prior to that they had dedicated their savings to planning for a “grand tour” trip. They worked each winter and paddled each summer. Inspired in part by Terry Fox’s iconic run in 1980 and in part by Stompin’ Tom’s songs of Canadian travels, they set out to see the country as the explorers first saw it.
They would finance it all and count on a generous system of family and friends to help with flights, delivering vehicles and supplies to isolated locations. “We don’t have a specific cause we were supporting or a sponsor,” says Geoff. “Maybe we were being a bit selfish – but we wanted it to be our trip completely.”
They did not see the multitude of hurdles they would face: stranded for a week trying to make it around Cape Caution north of Queen Charlotte Strait; the agonies of paddling upstream through the Fraser and Columbia; the unbelievable effort to crawl over the mountains; the winds of Lake Winnipeg that would force them back and down the swollen Assiniboine River to the Forks of Winnipeg; the gusts that kept them windbound for two weeks on Lake Superior. …
“The weather has been unstable at times,” Pam says in an understatement.
Both MacDonalds say they are cautious to the extreme, especially when testing winds, waves or whitewater with children on board. “We work incredibly well together in the bush,” says Pam.
Their one constant wildlife concern has been bears, though Taq delights in chasing off the more timid black bears that often haunt campsites in search of an easy meal. Grizzly bears are another matter. “We yelled ‘Hey Bear!’ until we were hoarse,” says Pam of their long portages over the mountain ranges.
One night, while they were camping at B.C.’s Cheslatta Lake, a grizzly came into their camp. “I thought it was Pam snoring,” laughs Geoff. “Then I looked for Taq and he was just sitting there staring at the grizzly. The bear stayed around about 10 minutes and then just left.”
There have been tensions – usually weather oriented – but there have also been long periods of calm, quiet paddling that has a cathartic quality known only to those who set out into the Canadian wilderness for a few days or weeks.
The MacDonalds will paddle thousands of miles before this is done. This summer they plan to reach Lake Ontario, then go up the Rideau Canal and River system to Ottawa, down the Ottawa River to Montreal and the St. Lawrence and then continue through to Quebec City where, once they reach tidewaters, they will be able to say they paddled a mari usque ad mare, from sea to sea.
“This is really the last year,” says Geoff. “It’s time.”
“It’s been really hard, but it’s been really rewarding,” adds Pam.
They set out to see the country and ended up meeting the people.
There were Canadians along the way who invited them in, invited them to camp on their property, even sleep in their beds. One man gave them the keys to his truck to use.
A woman in The Pas gave them “the best gift ever” – two jars of wild strawberry jam.
“When we started out,” says Pam MacDonald, “the plan was to more or less avoid people, see the landscape. But now it’s almost as if we reach out for the populated places – because it’s the people who make you understand and appreciate the landscape.”