Canoeing in the wilderness with my dad taught me that we had much more in common than I ever imagined.
Perching my digital camera on a twig stuck in the ground, I race over to where my father is standing next to a dusty, leaf-littered plaque, then grin and wait as the timer counts down. We’re standing on the shores of the Shelburne River in Nova Scotia, just outside Kejimkujik National Park, dwarfed by white pine, eastern hemlock and red maples.
The dusty plaque between us commemorates the river’s status as Nova Scotia’s first designated Canadian Heritage River, and one of the most remote rivers in the province. Looking at the camera, we yell “Cheese! Fromage!” as the red light blinks a final time.
This is Day 3 of our fourth canoe trip together. I think about just how lucky I am to be able to share yet another canoe trip with my dad. Only a year ago, we sat at our campsite along the banks of the French River, in Ontario, a week before his 70th birthday. I asked him how he felt, and he admitted to having mixed feelings—he wondered how many river trips he had left in him. Arriving home after that trip, we had resolved to take another excursion, and now here we were.
Our photo taken, we head back through the overgrown portage and step into the canoe. We push off and thread our way back through a maze of boulders, lifting the canoe over one rock while managing not to knock each other into the water, eventually paddling back into Kejimkujik National Park. The Acadian forest is quiet around us, under an overcast sky.
Growing up in a suburban Toronto neighbourhood, my brother and I had heard our father talk about paddling in remote areas of Ontario, Quebec and the Northwest Territories. As a family we’d spent many summers camping in Ontario and Quebec, along with a cross-country camping trip west to Alberta. And we had once headed east to New Brunswick with a heavy, green fibreglass canoe strapped to the roof of our Chevette.
When I graduated from high school, my father gave me a paddle that he had painted—a symbolic gesture to keep me steered in the right direction.
When I completed my undergraduate degree, Dad’s gift to me was a cedar-strip canoe, which we would build together. It took two years to complete, working in the evenings while I pursued a graduate degree. We glued each strip over the wooden frame, eventually sanding and varnishing the canoe until it gleamed like honey under the fluorescent garage light.
A few years after that, we took our first trip together—a guided excursion on the Spanish River, also in Ontario. Until that point, my dad and I had never travelled alone, and as we both tended to be introverts at times, I remember asking my mother, “What will we talk about if it’s just the two of us on the river?”
Hence, the guide on our first trip, who I hoped would not only teach me the basics of river tripping and running rapids, but would also buffer any awkward silences. However once we got out there, Dad and I quickly discovered that we were able to anticipate each other’s needs, set up camp and communicate seamlessly as we ferried across the rapids and rested in the eddies below them.
River tripping was a way for our relationship to grow—it was an experience the two of us had shared, and we realized we had much more in common than we’d ever imagined.
Since that first trip, we’ve taken two more canoe trips together: on Ontario’s Mattawa River (another Canadian Heritage River) as well as the French River.
On each canoe trip, it usually takes us a few hours to settle into things—whether learning how to paddle together once more, developing a method for portaging or falling into our respective roles when setting up and maintaining camp. But eventually we fall into a comfortable rhythm, often working together without speaking.
This was our first canoe trip together in Nova Scotia. A few days earlier, Dad had made the portage from the Toronto Island Airport to Halifax—literally carrying his canvas canoe pack on a strap, or tumpline, over the top of his head, ignoring the bemused glances of fellow travellers. He’d arrived in mid-afternoon, and we quickly sorted our gear in preparation for our five-day trip into the interior.
Although we’d spent several weeks planning the trip and our supplies, we soon realized that a crucial element was missing: the pepper spray, and we were entering bear country. “Better to be safe than sorry,” we agreed. So we made haste to the Army Navy Store on Agricola Street, the manager opening his store after hours for us.
The next day we set out early from Halifax. I was excited —and nervous. It had been just a few short months since I’d undergone abdominal surgery. Although I was a long-distance runner and had been in good shape before the surgery, it had put a halt to any running or training for a good six weeks. I had only really begun recovering three to four weeks before our trip, and I worried this might affect my ability to carry the canoe on long portages. I also knew Dad had a few aches and pains of his own.
But with every canoe trip he had repeated this mantra: “We’ll just take it easy and just see how it goes.”
I replayed his words in my mind as we headed towards Liverpool, and then towards Kejimkujik National Park.
Although my parents had brought my cedar-strip canoe to Nova Scotia a few years earlier when I moved here to be with my fiancé, Dad and I had decided it would be best to rent one for this trip, to avoid scratching mine in the shallow waters or rapids. We had intended to travel along the Tent Dwellers Route (see “Paddling with Paine,” page 48)—down through Keji to the Shelburne River, then east to the Mersey and back up through Lake Rossignol—but we quickly learned that Dad’s mantra of seeing how it goes was going to come in handy.
Arriving at the park office, we discovered that the campsite we’d intended to camp at on Day 4 was booked. Despite having spent weeks studying maps, researching water levels (they were very low) and consulting with other canoeists about our route, we hadn’t realized that we needed to book our campsites ahead of time.
We came up with a Plan B, which would take us on a five-day loop south through the park, then east and back up to our starting point. Not quite the Tent Dwellers Route, but bound to be a lovely trip, nonetheless.
We spent our first night on an island on the west side of Kejimkujik Lake, after a difficult paddle on choppy waters, hopping into the lee of one island, then the next, trying to stay out of the wind. The following morning, after breakfast and a serenade by a quintet of loons, we pushed off in the direction of our next campsite, at Poison Ivy Falls.
As we set out, I was torn between marvelling at the impossibly blue skies above, and watching out for the elusive boulders that lurked just below the water’s surface. Ahead of us, a bush plane flew back and forth across the sky. We hoped it wasn’t looking for lost paddlers.
We soon arrived at our first portage in Minards Bay, the fire tower gleaming on the hill above us. Setting off with the canoe on my shoulders, Dad carrying the food barrel and tent (we would go back for our clothes), we had intended to do the portage in one stretch, perhaps two. But unlike the short line indicating the portage on the map, the trail through the forest seemed endless.
Tired and sweaty, we developed a rhythm of stopping every few hundred metres at the established canoe rests—two vertical eight-foot-high posts allowing you to lean the bow of the canoe on a bar nailed between them, while the stern rested on the ground.
After pausing to take a break, we walked back for our clothing packs, encouraging each other every so often. “We’re doing it, Dad!” I yelled out, believing the next stretch would be the last one. What we thought would be a one-hour portage ended up taking almost twice that.
After a quick tea break, we pushed off once more and paddled across Peskowesk Lake, towards the last portage, and our campsite. As we passed a boulder the size of a small house jutting out from the water, smaller boulders strewn around it, I thought how glad I was that we had made the decision to not bring my cedar-strip canoe.
That evening, on our final 800-metre portage through a forest where I’d almost given up hope of ever arriving at our campsite, Dad took the canoe from me when my arms lost all strength. We arrived at our campsite with only about 30 minutes of daylight to spare—just enough time to set up the tent, a lean-to and a fire before the sun set and the rain began.
Despite being exhausted, we stayed up past dinner, warming ourselves by the fire and drying our boots. We drank the remains of a leaky Tetra Pak of wine and chatted—my dad sharing family stories I hadn’t heard before.
I have so many other memories of this trip—being lulled to sleep by a great-horned owl; portaging through an old-growth forest, tiny toads hopping across our path; and watching the rains drift across Keji Lake on the final day as we leaned into our paddles, Dad telling me to breathe and count to 10 as I let out choice words when our canoe became stuck on yet another boulder.
Nearing the end of our trip on Day 5, we slow our strokes as we approach the put-in point at Jakes Landing. Even before we unload the canoe and pack up the car, we’ve already agreed that we’ll do a trip again next year. And we’ll keep on looking forward to the next year, and the next—and we’ll just take it easy and see how it goes.
The drive back to the city is bittersweet. We’re glad to be returning to a warm house with running water, but we’re sad that the trip is coming to an end.
In the wilderness together, our relationship changes—out of necessity, because we rely so utterly on each other in a remote area.
It’s not until we return to Halifax and are sharing our photos with my husband that Dad admits he only rushed with me to buy the pepper spray—which we carried on every portage—for my peace of mind. I guess after so many trips together, he must have known the $50 would be a worthwhile investment.