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During a history class many years ago I learned that the French navy, filled with Revolution-era fervour, renamed one of its ships Tyrannicide, as an in-your-face reference to the beheading of Louis XVI in 1793 and a shot across the bow directed at the British Royal Navy of King George III.
“If I ever own a boat,” I told myself, “that’s what I’m going to name it.”
A career as a writer has kept me out of the boat-naming tax bracket. And an interest in peaceful, unspoiled nature ensured that my time in boats would mostly be spent with a paddle, rather than a steering wheel, in hand.
For years, my wife Rosemary and I planned that, someday, we would buy a canoe or a pair of kayaks, instead of just renting a few times a year. But we kept putting that idea on the backburner as we owned a succession of small cars powered by four-cylinder engines. How do you carry a pair of kayaks on the roof of a Nissan Sentra or Mitsubishi Lancer?
Parenthood also had a habit of pushing other items higher on our shopping list. What’s more, years of reading outdoor adventure magazines that exalt products made for extreme situations, with price tags to match, made me think a watercraft purchase had to involve Kevlar or artisanal craftsmanship. Could we really justify that kind of outlay?
The outdoor magazines – titles like Explore and Outside and Backpacker – built up a set of expectations that further crimped my wings or, to unmix the metaphor, scuttled my aquatic dreams. In the fantasy projected with beautiful photos and first-person accounts in these magazines, outdoor experiences were adventures, expeditions, epics. Hikes were multiday journeys in trackless wilderness, preferably involving treeless or even ice-capped summits. And paddling meant flying on a bush plane to the Nahanni River in the Northwest Territories, riding roller coasters of whitewater dropping off the Rockies or braving Pacific swells to reach some fog-shrouded Emily Carr backdrop on the West Coast.
If we were going to buy a boat, it would need to be able to stand up to challenges like those. Never mind that, as the years passed, Rosemary and I both found that our spines would voice their strong disapproval of any kind of paddling that lasted for more than two or three hours.
It seemed I had, mentally, paddled into the same trap a hiker friend of mine had reached some years before. Years ago, when we lived in Calgary, this friend had confided that he didn’t consider it real hiking unless a trip took place somewhere within sight of the glaciers of the Continental Divide. To him, it just wasn’t worth packing up the car to go for a walk in the non-ice-covered Front Range or, horrors, the foothills.
The expectation of high adventure had turned into a prison for him, with the gates to the outdoors locked unless he could prove the proposed trip would meet his mental warden’s requirements. (Long drive, check. Glaciers, check.) The predictable result? He didn’t get out much. Perhaps I’d done something similar.
It appeared my dream of boat ownership would remain unfulfilled, until the day I watched a pair of inflatable kayaks at Sombrio Beach on British Columbia’s Juan de Fuca Trail. Their owners were having a blast riding the gentle swells and exploring the kelp forests along this spectacular, wild stretch of coast, and it hadn’t required a backbreaking portage for them to get there along the 1.5 kilometre hiking trail.
When Rosemary and I subsequently learned from a man fishing along one of the rivers in our hometown of Winnipeg that inflatable kayaks can be had for about $100, I finally jettisoned my expectation of high-tech, high-priced adventure.
We purchased two inflatable kayaks and immediately made paddling a regular part of our life. In last year’s pandemic summer, getting out on Manitoba’s lakes and rivers allowed us to paddle our worries away in complete, physically distanced safety.
We’ve paddled past deer, nesting geese and snapping turtles along Winnipeg’s La Salle and Seine Rivers, where our kayaks’ light weight made them perfect for a quick and easy portage past downed trees. We’ve taken them, on quiet days, on Lake Winnipeg and Lake Manitoba, adding a new dimension to beach days on our province’s inland seas. The view of the white limestone cliffs at Lake Manitoba’s Steep Rock felt more Mediterranean than Manitoban, and the narrow reed- and cattail-lined channels near Gimli on Lake Winnipeg were a little reminiscent of a gator-free Everglades.
In Nopiming Provincial Park, a vast wilderness of Canadian Shield forests and lakes popular with wilderness canoe trippers, we paddled to a secluded rocky ledge on the frontcountry Tullibee Lake that was perfect for swimming. The kayaks’ shallow draft and removable plastic keels made them ideal for floating down the Pinawa Channel, a shallow artificial waterway blasted out of granite more than a century ago to carry water to Manitoba’s first hydro-electric dam.
Living in a province that boasts 100,000 lakes, we won’t soon run out of places to explore.
Our cheap kayaks may not be up to the specifications of dedicated wilderness trippers. You wouldn’t use them in big waves or dangerously cold water. Carrying a fishing rod, water bottle and snack pretty much maxes out the cargo capacity. But they have given a couple of newly minted seniors the ability to explore rivers and lakes all summer long.
They’re more than summertime toys. They’ve provided a kind of liberation. Freedom to move on water and freedom from the expectation that great experiences can only come at great financial cost. Freedom from the requirement to compare my real life to the fantasy packaged in magazines that exist to sell big-ticket items.
If I can get a stencil and some waterproof ink that adheres to PVC, I might just use that Tyrannicide name after all.
Bob Armstrong lives in Winnipeg.