Thursday, August 29, 2013

A Brownfoot Odyssey

Ten days and approximately 200 kilometers. Twelve lakes, and seven rivers and channels. Twenty-two sets of locks. One 17-foot canoe, four people, and approximately 200 pounds of equipment.

And only two shower facilities.

As the days approached for our family vacation, our canoe trip from Kingston to Ottawa, along the Rideau Canal Waterway, I was quite nervous. My only experience with canoeing was the times I've puttered around on lakes, primarily Lac Bernard. At most, Lori and I navigated the entire lake, keeping close to the shore, carrying nothing but ourselves and life jackets—personal floatation devices (PFDs)—which were not worn but were at our feet.

We were rank amateurs.

Only one week before our trip, we took a Paddle Canada tandem-lake-skills course, which taught us some great techniques and prepared us for situations when we tip out of the canoe (mind you, with an empty canoe). The course helped boost my confidence, but not enough to alleviate all fears of this journey.

My parents, who were worried that the four of us wouldn't fit into the single, ultra-light canoe with all of our equipment, came down with us to see us set out and to drive our van back to Ottawa. The maximum weight capacity was 750 lbs; we calculated that our combined weight was about 600 lbs, give or take 20. When we set off from Kingston Mills, my folks wouldn't leave until they were sure that the canoe's gunnels were high enough off the water and that we were balanced and had room for all.

They are wonderfully concerned that way.

Lori and I paddled for five or six hours each day, covering anywhere from 15 to 25 kilometres each day. We could not have planned a better trip, weather-wise: we had sunshine and warm temperatures, and the prevailing wind at our back for most of the journey. It rained only once, on our way from Poonamalie to Smiths Falls, and onward to Edmonds Lock. With our many dry bags, we had no trouble protecting our equipment. Only our tent was soaked, as the rain came before we had packed it; but it was fully dry before we bedded down, later that evening.

The journey wasn't without its challenges. Though the wind was mostly at our backs, it did create swells on the larger lakes, primarily Upper Rideau, Big Rideau, and Lower Rideau. The wind would try to turn our canoe sideways, and so we would fight the swells in trying to stay straight. When a boat would pass, its wake would often be perpendicular to the swell, making it a challenge to keep the canoe from flipping over.

I thank Mark and Karen, from our canoe course, on teaching us how to keep our paddles in the water, to draw and pry to turn the canoe quickly. We never swamped the canoe (only a little water breached the gunnels), never overturned. We worked like dogs, but we made it through the rough waters.

We met some interesting people on our journey. Chris, from Prescott, who took an interest in my night photography and even helped me achieve some effects. Heather, and her husband, who showed us navigation maps and helped us calculate the time needed to paddle from Murphy's Point to Poonamalie, and who generously donated snacks and drinks to help make the leg more bearable.

We experienced wildlife of all kinds: green and blue herons, deer, porcupines, jumping fish, and one stubborn raccoon who wouldn't stand down. But that's another story.

We lost our youngest daughter for a couple of days. At Poonamalie, a mosquito bite that had been scratched to pieces became infected, and she had to be sent home. Luckily, a family member from Smiths Falls happened to be heading to Ottawa that day and was able to pick our daughter up and drive her to my mother, who took her to a clinic. After a couple of days of rest and antibiotics, she was better and able to rejoin us for the last leg, a 25-kilometer stretch from the Long Island locks, in Manotick, to the final locks at the Chateau Laurier.

It's amazing how the body can continue to work in a continuous rhythmic motion for hours on end without fatiguing, and be able to repeat that action the next day and the next. Yet, a couple of days after the trip, my arms and shoulders are beginning to ache. We've been home for a couple of days, and I'm utterly exhausted.

My wife is keen to do another canoe trip, but I've told her no. Been there, done that. At best, I'll paddle to a remote spot for a day, set up camp, and paddle back the next day. But not this year, probably not next year.

Our family has completed an epic journey, one that a few months ago thought impossible to do. But we did it and survived. The whole family worked as a team, both in the canoe and at our camp sites. We covered a great distance over a respectable time using only our upper bodies. Of this, we can be proud.

Over the next few days and possibly weeks, I'll share photos and adventures that we experienced on our journey. I hope that you'll stay tuned.


  1. Wow, Ross. Congratulations to you and your family! I love canoe trips but after 5 days of paddling I'm usually done, 10 is epic. I'd love to do this trip myself, do you think 2 relatively experienced paddlers with minimal equipment could do it in less time? Say 7 or 8 days?

    If and when you feel like canoeing again I'd suggest one of the many easy to paddle to sites in Algonquin. You can often get to a nice secluded site in a couple of hours.

    1. Thanks, Amanda.

      Definitely, two experienced paddlers could do this trip in eight days or fewer. Because we had two kids, we worried that they would get bored in the canoe so we tried to limit the paddling to four or five hours. Without them, I think we could have carried less equipment (smaller tent, fewer sleeping bags and clothes) and would have moved faster.

      Though I wouldn't do it again (been there, done that, and I'm done with camping), I'd recommend doing it.