Let the water be your guide
'There is something about wild, untouched rivers that speaks to the soul of Canada,' Roy MacGregor writes. And for those looking for a true escape into the wilderness, Quebec's remote Dumoine River is a powerful, perfect option
The man who almost drowned Pierre Trudeau is standing on the banks of the wild Dumoine River in western Quebec, water tumbling down rapids to his left, water swirling in a vast eddy to his right, water falling from above in a cold, annoying, late-spring rain.
The man who saved Pierre Trudeau's life – more on that later – knows that there is still snow in the bush, but that is a mere technicality: The season has begun.
Wally Schaber – given that the former prime minister is no longer with us, lost to age rather than drowning, and given that canoeing legend Bill Mason is also long gone – stands as Canada's best-known paddler in a world where reputations are big but hardly wide.
At the age of 66, the Ottawa-born Schaber is the founder of Black Feather Wilderness Adventures and, with partner Chris Harris, Trailhead outfitters. For nearly half a century, he has guided on the iconic wilderness rivers of the country: the Nahanni, the Hood, the Coppermine, the Mackenzie, the Mountain, the Keele, the Milk, to name but a few. He has paddled the majestic Nahanni at least a dozen times.
But it is here he loves best: the Dumoine, a river five hours north from his eastern Quebec home that can be reached only by float plane or by hammering a 4-by-4 over ill-tended logging roads.
It was on the Dumoine River that Schaber took his very first whitewater run in 1969. Last fall, he published a book on the Dumoine, The Last of the Wild Rivers, which is part history, part love letter, part plea for preservation of the river that has meant so much to him.
There is something about wild, untouched rivers that speaks to the soul of Canada. The mighty St. Lawrence is a river of travel and commerce, the Ottawa River one of discovery, the Niagara and the Fraser of pure power.
There is no commerce on the Dumoine apart from tourism, now that the fur trade has vanished and logging is a fading memory. There are no dams along the Dumoine, making it unique among the nine major tributaries flowing from western and northern Quebec into the larger Ottawa River.
Its power is spiritual rather than electrical.
It was the middle of the past century when historian W.L. Morton noted that the "alternative penetration of the wilderness and return to civilization is the basic rhythm of Canadian life."
This still holds true for a great many Canadians. Call it "basic rhythm," "cabin fever," whatever. It is an important ritual, one that agrees with U.S. nature writer John A. Murray's contention that "every so often a disappearance is in order. A vanishing. A checking out. An indeterminate period of unavailability."
There is no cellphone reception along the Dumoine River, no Internet access. There are no sounds from a distant highway, no marina, no stores, very often no one else.
In the cold, with the last of the spring flush churning through the rapids and the water black as ink as it calms and heads downstream, the river may not seem that inviting, but Schaber is already thinking of trips to come in a year that, for him and fellow paddlers, is now only just beginning.
"A river has a personality for each season," he says. "You pick different times for your trip and meet a different 'person' each time you go."
He stares out over the water, smiling past the rain. "The great beauty of a river trip," he says, "is you don't have to navigate – you just follow the water."
Tranquility full time
The Dumoine River is not a long river, only 130 kilometres, but it drains a vast watershed and has many tributaries, guaranteeing a fast current. From Lac Dumoine to the Ottawa River, it tumbles through 39 falls and rapids, seven of which are mandatory portages, too dangerous to risk. Canadian singer Gordon Lightfoot is said to have tagged the Dumoine detours as "the worst goddamn portages" he had encountered in a lifetime of paddling.
The largest falls of all, Grand Chute, thunders through rock cliffs and the water still foams white as it bends out of view in the distance. On the day Wally Schaber came to check conditions, another group watched helplessly as the small dog accompanying them ventured into the river for a drink and was swept down the chute.
The many rapids carry names like Big Steel, Snake, Sleeper, Red Pine and Canoe Eater – one I personally know from both on and below the rushing water.
The Algonquins named the river Ekonakwasi Sipi, which translates as Alder River – a fitting tribute to the coniferous trees that patch whatever open space the pines leave. Some believe that the current name comes from Le Moynes, a fur-trading family in New France. Mr. Schaber and others say it translates to "river of the monk."
Roy MacGregor for The Globe and Mail
The mouth of the river, where it joins the Ottawa, once held an important trading post. Today, the tiny Quebec village of Rapides-des-Joachims – known as "Swisha" to the locals – is but a shadow of what it was in the logging days, when it boasted a large hotel, multiple bars, several stores and Pontiac, a large steamer that ran people and supplies in from Pembroke on the Ontario side.
Today, however, apart from some First Nations usage and several weathered log cabins belonging to hunting and fishing clubs on land leased from the local ZEC (zone d'exploitation contrôlée), the Dumoine is much as it was before the arrival of the Europeans.
It was, not surprisingly, a favourite river of the late Bill Mason, the Winnipeg-born filmmaker whose Paddle to the Sea was nominated for an Oscar in 1968. It may even have been the river that inspired Mr. Mason to claim: "First God created a canoe – then he created a country to go with it."
Mr. Mason, an adventurer who was more than 20 years older, was a critical mentor for Mr. Schaber, and became both friend and father figure. Mr. Schaber was only 10 years old when his science teacher father, Art Schaber, died of a heart attack. May Schaber, Wally's mother, returned to work and, in summers, served as resident nurse at a camp on Golden Lake and Wally got to go along for free. He says his experiences at On-Da-Da-Waks, a YMCA camp for boys, "altered the course of my life."
He went from camper to counsellor to trip leader. At 19, the camp sent him deep into the Quebec bush to see if a fire ranger cabin that was being abandoned in favour of air patrols might serve as a wilderness outpost. It was here that he discovered the wonders and excitement of the Dumoine River. The camp outpost worked, sort of, for a couple of summers, but then the Y abandoned its plans and said Mr. Schaber was welcome to make use of the camp mailing list if he wished. Forty letters were sent out, eight parents signed up their youngsters, and off they went.
"It seemed just too easy," Mr. Schaber remembers. "I decided, 'I'll make a business out of this.' "
It became his summer job while he studied environmental science at the University of Waterloo. His intention had been to join Parks Canada, but the 1970s saw such an increase in outdoor adventure – in part due to demographics, in part thanks to enormous strides in camping equipment, from tents and canoes to clothing – that he decided to stick with the tripping business.
At first, they ran the tripping business out of May Schaber's basement. They hired guides, including Mr. Schaber's future wife, Louise, and trained them on the Dumoine.
"There were four of us and we were supposed to run the river so we'd know it well before taking any clients out," Mr. Harris recalls. "We showed up with all our equipment, ready to go, and Wally had this VW bug he expected us to fit into. We couldn't even get all our gear into the car so one of the other guides and I had to hitchhike."
But soon Black Feather was thriving and, with Mr. Harris as his partner, Mr. Schaber opened Trailhead, still a popular outfitting store in Ottawa. They specialized in canoes modelled on the famous Chestnut "Prospector" and they themselves changed wilderness travel when Mr. Schaber returned from an outdoors show in England with a new idea.
He had noticed one display using plastic blue barrels for holding tent poles. He measured the barrels and found them to be "perfect for fitting between the gunwales of a canoe." There was also a sealed cap, and handles. Today, canoe trippers around the world carry food and equipment in Trailhead's blue barrels.
"They took off like crazy," Mr. Schaber says.
While Black Feather sent multiple trips into the Far North, the Dumoine became the favoured river. Over a 25-year period, Mr. Schaber calculates the company took 500 paddlers a year down the river – with the odd lost dignity but never a loss of life.
"The first time I paddled the Dumoine, it was just emerging from its pioneer era," Mr. Schaber says. "I guess it was instrumental in my discovery of myself. I grew up on the river.
"And I saw the effect the Dumoine had on people who had paddled it. The river is a perfect blend of adventure and the essential Canadian experience in a natural setting."
Today, Mr. Schaber considers his career "a fluke" – something that just sort of happened. A summer job that became a full-time job that became a life. A few years back, Mr. Schaber and Mr. Harris sold their Canada-wide adventure businesses and retired, but hardly from the rivers.
As Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, author of The Yearling, put it, "I do not understand how anyone can live without some small piece of enchantment to turn to."
For Mr. Schaber, such enchantment is found on the Dumoine River in Quebec and on the Nahanni River in the Northwest Territories. A time of "checking out" of everything from e-mail to news.
"Every time you come off a long trip, the first thing you say to the first person you run into is 'What's the news?' " Mr. Schaber says. "One Nahanni trip, it was 'Elvis Presley is dead.' Another one, it was 'Wayne Gretzky got traded.' "
In the 1980s, Mr. Schaber and his wife Louise moved to Meech Lake in the Gatineau Hills, in part to be closer to the Mason family. Mr. Schaber helped Mr. Mason with his definitive canoe technique book, Path of the Paddle, and the two are said to have "invented" many of the whitewater moves that are now standard among paddlers.
In the late 1980s, when Mr. Mason was diagnosed with cancer and ultimately decided to refuse treatment, Mr. Schaber asked his friend if he had a "bucket list" of things he would like to do before the inevitable. When Mr. Mason said he would love to try one last, big river run, Mr. Schaber arranged for family and close friends to travel with Mr. Mason for one final run down the Nahanni. He was 59 years old when he died in the fall.
Years later, Mr. Schaber would be involved in another "bucket list" trip – Pierre Trudeau's final run down the Petawawa. Mr. Trudeau was 77 years old, ill and increasingly frail, but he had legendary status among canoeists, in no small part because of an essay he had written back in 1944 he titled "Exhaustion and Fulfillment: The Ascetic in a Canoe."
"Travel a thousand miles by train," the future prime minister had written, "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."
They would not be travelling 100 miles on this trip, but it would be a challenge, as the Petawawa has dangerous rapids. Most of them, they would portage. There would be several of Mr. Trudeau's paddling friends along, but the job of paddling stern in the former prime minister's canoe would fall to the accepted expert, Mr. Schaber.
On the last of the serious runs, called Crooked Chute Rapids, Mr. Schaber and Mr. Trudeau backpaddled and ferried carefully toward a still eddy where they would disembark. Mr. Trudeau reached to draw the canoe out from a rock outcropping and the canoe, caught in a cross-current, moved sharply out. Mr. Trudeau had not the strength to counteract the shift and the canoe flipped.
"I had my pack in one hand, the prime minister in the other," Mr. Schaber recalls of the harrowing incident. "I got him to shore and safe and then had to go chasing after our equipment and paddles. They were down at the bottom of the rapids, and when I got there another group I had outfitted were there and they got quite a laugh out of seeing me, soaked, picking stuff out of the water.
"I felt like a fool – but at least they didn't know I'd just about drowned the prime minister."
Preserving the 'great escape'
Russ McColl, a former professional hockey player and long-time friend, shares a leased cabin deep in the Dumoine ZEC with Mr. Schaber.
"It's more than a river to him," Mr. McColl says. "It's part of his DNA. The river has always been his great escape."
Mr. Schaber has run the river hundreds of time. He has taken celebrities and the rich and troubled youngsters on it, hoping always that they will find in the Dumoine what the Dumoine has given him.
This summer, in an attempt to improve the campsites along the river, he and friends will construct and place 25 "thunderboxes" along the sites in an effort to prevent paddlers from using the nearest bushes as toilets.
He is also taking his book around to every store in the area and giving slideshow talks to anyone who will listen in an effort to see the Dumoine fully designated as an aquatic park, something the Quebec government began several years back but has yet to formalize. If it becomes law, there will be no logging, hydro, mining or large commercial developments in the ZEC.
"It's time now to make the reserve's status official," he argues in The Last of the Wild Rivers.
To Mr. Schaber, the Dumoine reserve would be something Canada would want to share with the world.
"We change," he writes, "the forest and the river evolve, the next generation will want to travel in ways different from ours – ways that we can't predict. But the raw wilderness must not change: clean water, plentiful wildlife, mature, uninterrupted forests, peace and tranquillity, and a beautiful, wild, free-flowing river."