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'You lose a bet or something?"

It seemed, to the small-town fireman who came down to the water's edge to ask, a most sensible question.

A lost bet, folly, utter madness -- take your pick.

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Jay Morrison laughs them all off. Sunday morning, the retired civil servant reached Chaudiere Falls near Parliament Hill, hoisted his homemade canoe over his head and set out to portage to higher water, the current going against him, more rapids within sight and the 1,271 kilometres of the Ottawa River but a first step in his own very personal Incredible Journey.

"I figure I'll take somewhere between two and three million paddle strokes before I'm there," he says.

There is the Arctic Ocean, some time -- God, blackflies, high winds and whitewater permitting -- before the snow flies: an 8,000-kilometre trek that no one has ever before accomplished in a single open-water season.

It is simply a breathtaking attempt. Morrison set out April 1 from Les Escoumins near the mouth of the St. Lawrence and has already fought high waves and battled winds that, at the end of the day, he may as well have been spitting into as paddling.

Now on the Ottawa, with its 18 portages, he is still on the easy part of the trip. There are open stretches on Lake Superior that terrify seasoned paddlers in large vessels, let alone a single paddler in a superlite 16-kilogram canoe. There is, near the end, a 20-kilometre-long portage that will take him over and into the Arctic watershed, a portage so long the voyageurs once used oxen, yet one he insists he will do in a single trip if he is still standing, still moving by fall.

No wonder the firemen of little Cumberland along the Quebec side of the river were so curious. Why, they wanted to know, would anyone attempt such a feat?

Morrison's first reason, the formal one, is to draw attention to the Canadian wilderness and the fragility of the boreal forest. A long-time member of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, he hopes to interest others, particularly schoolchildren, in the trip by filing a daily journal ( ) that is already getting 1,500 hits a day.

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His second reason, the personal one, is simply to "see the country." Morrison thought he knew Canadian history before he picked up Peter Newman's great trilogy on the Hudson's Bay Company. After he read about the explorers and the pivotal role played by rivers in this country, he realized that, like a first-time paddler, he had barely rippled the surface in his school studies.

"Unless you know the Canadian north from a canoe," he says, "you don't really know what the country is. Polls always say we're about social programs and diversity, and that's true, but that doesn't make us unique. Other countries have these things. What Canada has is a wilderness."

He is heading out into this wilderness in an exquisitely decorated canoe with two names -- Kida-Aakiinan and Daki Menan, Algonquin and Ojibway for "Our Land" -- and a single backpack. He carries dried food, duct tape for repairs, pepper spray for bears and a tiny little teddy bear with a red maple leaf on its chest that he has named "Captain Canada."

Morrison's third reason, the deeply private one, is one known only to his paddling wife, Kelly, and a few close friends. He is 56 -- he hates to make the "age thing" an issue -- and a superb canoeist and an athlete good enough, in the past, to have represented his country in triathlon competitions. And he cannot bear the thought that what he is is what he was, that the story of Jay Morrison is about a career, albeit a successful one, somewhere behind him.

"I want to reinvent myself as a person," he says. "I did well in my career but I was never ambitious to be a deputy minister or anything. At school, I was bright enough, but I never applied myself. I did well as a triathlete, but I was always happy to come in third or fourth.

"I could have drifted through retirement, but I decided I wanted to be a voice for conservation.

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"But to speak -- and, most importantly, to be heard -- you have to have done something that makes others want to listen to you.

"So this is a very deliberate plan -- and that's a change for me."

One who came this fine morning to wish Jay Morrison well is Max Finkelstein, who wrote about making much the same trip in Canoeing a Continent: On the Trail of Alexander Mackenzie. Finkelstein, however, was still in his 40s when he completed his journey to the Pacific and spread it out, deliberately, over three long summers.

"It's definitely doable," Finkelstein says of Morrison's ambitious plan.

"But things have to go your way. Your body has to not let you down -- especially at Jay's 'advanced' age. We're not 30 any more.

"But it is doable. A lot depends on the weather. Maybe this is one time where global warming actually helps."

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