Our position is roughly 51 degrees, 56 minutes north latitude, 65 degrees, 30 minutes west longitude. To put that in more accessible terms, we’re way out in the Canadian bush, still in Quebec but about five miles away from the southwestern corner of Labrador. It’s Sunday, early July, about 6:30 pm. We are pitching camp on the shore of one of the innumerable little ponds that make up the labyrinthian waterways of northern Canada, a country so densely laced with streams, rivulets, bogs, rivers, lakes, and ponds that no one could begin naming any but the larger bodies of water. But names the mapmakers cannot get around to, the wilderness paddler can, because any place you make camp and named tonight’s resting place Camp Hummock for the obvious reason that hardly anywhere within a hundred yards of our campfire can you find enough level ground to pitch a tent.
We are twenty: Hugh and Neil from Quebec and Ontario, Guijang and Haochen from China, Patricia-Pamela and Harol Maikel from Cuba, Jhon Joanna Tamara Andrea Leonardo and Jose from Venezuela, Regan from Brazil, Jhong –ha from Korea, Sailaja from India, Karolina from Polan, Elena from Moldova, Melika from Iran, and I from Lebanon. Ages are as diverse as origins. I am the youngest one. We are making our way toward the Labrador border. Once we’ve crossed it, we’ll be in Lac Assigny, the first of a chain of lakes that make up the headwaters of the Atikonak River watershed. From Lac Assigny on, it will be a downhill, though “downhill” on a wilderness canoe trip is not always the equivalent of smooth sailing. Before this trip is over, we will have portrayed twenty-one times. Four days ago, we climbed off the Quebec North Shore and Labrador Railway train at whistlestop named Eric. Since then, we’ve already made seven of those twenty-one portages. We’re only about forty miles into our 250-mile trip, and already Hugh has dubbed this “the trip that wouldn’t give an inch.”
Hugh is cooking tonight. “Ham au gratin or spaghetti ?” he asks. Thirteen voices say, “Ham au gratin.” He puts a bag of mixed nuts and one garlic sticks on top of wanigan for us to snack on as we do chotes. Guijang and Maikel have cut a couple of dead black spruce for firewood. Leonardo, Melika and Elena are sawing them up and tossing the billets over to him to split. I set up the gallery poles for Hugh to hang his spots on, split some kindling, get the fire going. The others are pitching tents. One of the joy of traveling with old hands is the ease, the utter routineness of routine. We set up a rotation of cooks, but nothing else is foreordained. Everyone knows what chores need to be done and automatically steps in.
Camp Hummock may not be ideal for setting up tents, but it’s superb for lounging. All these hummocks padded with caribou moss make exquisitely comfortable backrests, and once camp chores are done, we kick back, pull out maps and journals, and start comparing notes on the day’s travel.
The first joint Jhon’s thumb is equal to one mile on a 1:50,000- scale map and he calculates each day’s mileage in thumb joints. Before Leonardo even leaves home, however, he lays out the route on his maps and marks each mile with a tick mark. He and Jhon, rarely come up with the same daily tally.
“Eight miles today”, Jhon says.
“I get nine,” Leonardo says, so I write 8.5 in my notes.
“Which point was it where we had lunch?” Tamara asks me, “This one here, or the next one up the bay?”
Elena is collecting our cups and lining them up on a wanigan lid.
“Cocktail time,” she says and tips tiny flash lid of rum into each cup, about our an eighth of an inch, not enough to induce even a mini-buzz but enough to warm the tongue and heart.
Hugh’s pot of rice is bubbling softly. In a pot next to it, water is heating for after-dinner tea. The swarms of black flies that often keep northern travelers in headnets in the evening are blessedly absent tonight, and they will remain so for most of this trip. Why? None of us knows, but we speculate- an unusually dry summer, perhaps, or maybe just a low in a normal cycle.
A light northwesterly breeze has swept away the showers that drove us into raingear in the morning and at noon, and now the wind has dropped; the air is still and cool, promising a night of perfect sleep. We pull on wool shirts and hats. Hugh serves up heaping platefuls of ham au gratin and rice. We cradle the warm plates in our laps and eat.
The flow that is almost as constant as the flow of the river stops for a few minutes. A moment o sweet stillness takes over in our little company. We look out on the glassy water and on the spires of black spruce rising around us, on clouds of translucent gold drifting across the sky. We grin at each other.
Jhon calls this moment fourth-night magic, a time that does indeed seem to come with astonishing regularity on the fourth night out, that moment when a canoe company coalesces into a clan. We’ve shared four days of wet feet and driving rains. We’ve waded and wallowed, tracked canoes up rapids and lined them down, chopped our way through blowdowns, humped canoes and wanigans and hundred-pound packs over portages. Four days of bruising adversity we’ve shared, and four days of fun surpassing mere fun. Bliss is the better world, beatitude maybe. Blessed are the wilderness paddlers, for they shall know heaven in the boondocks.
We are warmed by food and wool and a toot of rum, of course, but most of all by the presence of brothers and sisters of the bush. When fourth-night magic descends, what goes unsaid but is understood by everyone around the fire is simply this: There is no other company I would rather share right now. There is no other place I would rather be. This, my friends, is as good as it gets.