Monday, February 25, 2008

Net Gains 2.0

Rather great news: We have now raised close to $4000 for Spread the Net. This is in less than 10 days of fundraising. Thanks so much to so many of our generous friends and those friends we've not yet met. We will soon be announcing a larger fundraising goal and will look forward to expanding the circle of those giving to this great cause.

Thanks again. It's awfully nice how many people have given to this great cause.

The Impala is a Very Popular Automobile: On the Misunderstood Pleasures of Canoeing

Below is a shortened version of an essay I wrote up after Sam, his father, and our friend Maskull paddled the lower Rupert River last summer.

Our plan was simple. Sam’s father, Dave, would fly in from Vancouver on Tuesday night. I would arrive in Ottawa the next morning. Dave, Maskull and I would spend the day collecting supplies, two canoes, and a rental car. We’d leave Ottawa the next morning for the Rupert River, 900 kilometres north, where we’d take four days to paddle to Rupert Bay and then drive home.

It is a rather delicate matter to rent a car when one intends to strap two canoes to its roof without a proper rack, drive far into Northern Quebec, and then leave the car unattended for four days. First, no car is ideally suited for this. Second, no car rental agency wants to give you a car upon which you are going to mount two canoes. We booked a Chevy Impala, an incredibly pedestrian but flat-roofed car ideal for two canoes. We resolved to say nothing of our intention to load canoes atop the car.

Our first problem was that the agency had no Impalas. Our second was that they did not understand why we were refusing an upgrade to a Grand Prix. Standing at the rental desk, Dave and I pondered over the available cars, compared their virtues in a whispered exchange, and then asked when an Impala might be back. Clearly befuddled by our insistence, the clerk offered up that “The Impala is a very popular automobile. I can understand why you would want it.” The screwed-up skin between her eyebrows suggested she did not understand a thing. Hers was not a look of incredulity but bewilderment. We took a Grand Prix.

All rigged up on the James Bay Highway.


The Rupert neither winds nor meanders. It runs a wide line 600 km from Lake Mistassini to Waskaganish, the old Fort Rupert on Rupert Bay, at the bottom of the James Bay. In low season, the river flows at 11,000 cubic feet per second. In high season, it flows at six times the rate and drains more than 40,000 square kilometres. It runs between high banks of scraggly spruce and pine. There is rarely a spot even to pull up a canoe, except those cleared by the Cree who travel this ancient highway.

The Rupert does not “flood its banks” or roar unceasingly down a canyon. Instead, it widens out into lakes for much of its length. The only crashing and running is through a series of narrow passes like the Oatmeal Rapids, a kilometre-long, spine-shattering collection of cascades. It alternates between slow water and probable death.

The bottom of the Oatmeal Rapids. Seen from the James Bay Highway.

The James Bay Highway crosses the river 225 kilometres north of Matagami, itself some 670 kilometres north of Ottawa. The journey begins in the bubbling water at the bottom of the Oatmeal Rapids, where the water spills into a bay and then takes a right turn towards White Beaver Rapids. It is just one hundred kilometres from here to the Bay, but one must still portage seven sets of rapids through muddy trails, alder stands, muskeg, and a moose pond. Or, one has to choose a line, steel nerves and spine, and then shoot the white water. We would do both, at great cost and joy.


Our first morning was glorious and cold. We put on extra layers, boiled water for oatmeal and coffee, discussed the day’s challenge and looked over maps. We set out and soon met near disaster.

Landing at the top of the first of the White Beaver rapids, we could not find a portage. Instead, we lugged canoes and gear through thick bush, taking more than an hour to travel less than a quarter mile. We dreaded the mile-long portages ahead, picturing them as day-long fights through the thicket.

Perhaps it was the difficulty of this first portage that compelled Dave and Maskull to run the second set of rapids. As Sam and I landed at the rapids’ head, they shot them. We soon saw a canoe overturned and pinned in a fall. Maskull and Dave stood astride their canoe in the running water. They were, somehow, holding their bags and keeping the canoe from folding over the rock.

The canoe was eventually freed; Maskull and Dave paddled a kinked canoe downstream in search of our food barrel. We were on the first day of a four-day trip, and we’d lost all of our fruit, our food barrel, our hatchet, and a few other sundries.

Sam and I warped our canoe through a rock garden around the rapids. When we met Dave and Maskull at the bottom they’d found the barrel in a bay at the bottom of the rapids. We all changed into the only dry clothes we had left, quickly ate something, and then set out. We still had to go some ninety kilometres to Waskaganish.

Camp in the morning


It is not true that the rest of the trip was easy. To the contrary, it involved terribly long portages over some tough ground. On the second day, having left the Cat Rapids late afternoon after a difficult portage, we could not find a camping spot until the Bear Rapids, eventually setting up camp in long grass on a landing in the dark. Where we had contemplated luck and the stars the night before, camped on island in the bay between the second and third of the Fours, on this night we would collapse immediately after dinner. We took no joy in the sound of the waterfall ahead or in the accomplishment of paddling thirty kilometres and portaging five.

The next morning we paddled swiftly to Plum Pudding rapids, two sets of long white water. You avoid the first set by paddling a two-kilometre long braid on the south side of the river. After a short portage, you arrive at the water between the two sets. With some courage and short memory, we chose to shoot the second set. This was our greatest triumph. For two minutes we were voyageurs.

Shooting the Second Set of Plum Pudding

Fifteen kilometres later we arrived at Smoky Hill rapids. The portage counts out more than 5000 paces. It was the most difficult and rewarding portage of the trip. Just thirty kilometres from the Bay, the Cree still use nets to catch white fish at landing the bottom of the Smoky Hill rapids, as they have for five hundred years or more. The also use the landing as a recreation area. We had our greatest night here, finishing our last bottle of wine and eating a terribly good chilli. The locals who watched me swim in the rapids from across the river were the first people we had seen in three days.

The next morning was our last on the river and we took our time. As the river approaches the Bay it widens out and braids around a number of reed islands. We ate in our boats, passing around the last of our bagels and sausage. The water here is not quite brackish, but the change in the landscape must be a result of the ebb and flow of the ocean from Rupert Bay. We had just three sets of rapids - all steep, shallow and rocky – to the bay. We ran them all and then paddled onto Waskaganish.

The camp at Smoky Hill Rapids


Formerly Rupert House or Fort Rupert, Waskaganish lies half-way up Rupert Bay, which itself lies at the bottom of James Bay. It was the first fur trading post and store for the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Rupert provided a logical route inland to Quebec, a territory hostile to the HBC in its early days. The town was indeed captured by the French at the end of the 17th century and would not return to the Company’s control until 1776. As the Rupert is a great river soon to be dammed, we thought it would be full of paddlers; we were but the fourth group to travel to Waskaganish that summer.

Waskaganish is the third Cree town that Sam and I have visited, and certainly the most vibrant. This vibrancy and activity had a certain irony about it. When we visited Nemaska a summer before – arriving in the dark on our motorcycles and leaving early the next morning – the town seemed dead. The entire town was celebrating a wedding on a sandy point at the other side of the town, so we only met those who stopped by our campsite to visit.

By contrast, Waskaganish seemed full of people, most of them shuffling towards the lodge overlooking the river. But this was on account of death. When soon learned that the previous Friday two teenagers had drowned on a boat trip from Moosenee. At the same time we landed in Waskaganish, Cree were traveling from the other villages and camps for the funeral.

Maskull and I had volunteered to hitchhike back to the highway to get the car. Under these circumstances we were glad to take our leave. Sam and Dave stayed behind to pack our gear and mill about.

When we returned, we decided we would drive back through the night to Ottawa. With the sun coming up along Route 117 and Chelsea seeming like the calmest place on earth, we returned entirely fatigued and satisfied. We were soon to take our individual departures after dividing up the river maps and sorting out gear.

Arriving in Waskaganish


It was not long before I returned to my routine in Montreal. It was the same for Dave, Sam, and Maskull, I think. We exchanged emails in the days that followed, sent around pictures, and tried to put to words the joy of the outdoors and the pleasure of this trip.

I would spend the next weeks trying to explain this joy and pleasure to anyone who asked about our trip. How I relished loading up two bags and a barrel and heading into the bush. How I wanted to run more white water. Even how I relished the well-earned cuts and bruises, and how I felt as though I lived more in the five minutes after Maskull and Dave’s dump then I did in a year of academic work and travel.

I think most asked to be polite, but at least some friends and colleagues asked because they wanted to understand this desire to return, to spend one more night sleeping outside, and to run Plum Pudding one more time. I do not think I could ever explain it fully, in a way that could unknot the skin between their eyes. Canoeing is indeed a very popular sport, and the Impala is indeed a very popular automobile.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Net Gains

A quick update on our cause. In just four days of fundraising, we're up to $1300. This is more than a quarter of our goal. If we are able to reach this quickly then we will almost certainly increase the goal substantially. Please give soon if you are inclined.

UPDATE: We are now over 50%! Thanks to everyone who has given $1000 in the last 12 hours!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Night Ride

In August, 2006, not long after buying bikes and before any serious trips, Sam and I rode to my parents' home in North Bay for a weekend with friends. I wrote this short note afterwards.

Sam and I left Ottawa at 5 on Friday. We had designs of coming into North Bay at 8:30 or 9, a little after sunset. We then spent an hour on the 417 crawling towards Kanata. So, by choice or not, we would be making a night ride across Highway 17. It’s a drive I’ve made countless times, heading home from Montreal for weekends and holidays, and most usually at night. But this was the first time on the bike.

The road winds alongside the Ottawa River, climbs out of the Ottawa Valley, and eventually takes a turn at Mattawa towards North Bay. Along the way you pass through towns with names rivaling Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump. There is Pembroke, Petawawa, Deep River, Laurentian Hills, Rapides des Joachims, the Townships of Head, Clara, and Maria, then Mattawa and the race for home.

By the time we finished dinner at the Big Stop in Pembroke we knew we’d be riding in the dark. By the time we hit Deep River it was black and almost pitched. Soon we were the only two things on the road, high beams lighting up the trees and rock cuts, and alerting the drivers coming over the hills in the other direction. As we climbed higher the air got cooler. When we came down to Deux Rivieres, where you cross a strip of land with water on both sides, we pushed through a patch of fog and flies. Then we were back on the throttles, stopping only to make phone calls to worried parties, add layers, and clean our face screens.

As it gets darker the sky gets clearer and the stars brighter, but the road hides more. The moonlight cannot get through the canopy of rock cuts and pines. And when it is just pines on the sides you keep your eyes peeled for deer. We saw only a fox which ran in front of my bike. It startled me, though nothing like the time I was a passenger in a car driving through Algonquin on the way from Sackville to Huntsville and woke up to see the chest of a moose out the driver’s side window. His head so high we passed clear underneath it, and Janine Rogers so shocked she pulled the car over.

For the last half of the ride I can think of only three things. The time I made this drive at Christmas and saw a fire across a field and a group of people gathered around it. I wanted more than anything to stop and join them, but knew better things were waiting farther down the road. Then, the sense of relative isolation, alone but for my riding partner in the middle of nowhere, and thinking of what would happen if we were to meet a deer. And then, the Charity of Night:

The damage and the dying done
The clarity of light
Gentle bows and glasses raised
To the charity of night

By the time we arrive in North Bay the whole crew is there. We’ll repeat the ride back on Sunday, but not before being reminded of why it is worth the miles. And not before glassed raised to the charity of night.

If the trip doesn't work out....

...we can always start a beer company. Chris Tucker, of Mount A and now Montreal Mirror fame, has made us this great logo. It should find its way onto a t-shirt soon.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Cause - Spread the Net

Malaria kills as many as three million people a year. The majority of these victims are children living in Sub-Saharan Africa. Another half-billion people simply struggle with the disease. While some experience only minor symptoms, too many experience recurrent and crippling fevers. And some, especially children, suffer major developmental impairments. In short, it’s a terrible disease. And it’s also preventable.

Spread the Net is a Canadian charity with a rather simple goal: it wants to provide malaria nets to as many people as possible. Because malaria is transmitted principally by mosquitoes which bite at night, sleeping under an insecticide net can reduce the risk of contracting malaria by up to 50%. And it can reduce the mortality rate of children under five by up to 25%. And it only costs $10 to buy a net.

Our goal over the trip is to raise $5000 for spread the net. This will provide some 500 children with malaria nets. We’d like you to contribute, and you can do so at a dedicated website. Your donation is tax deductible and none of it goes to the financing of our trip. All money will go directly to the purchase of nets.

We will pass through 11 countries on our trip. We challenge you to buy one net for each country we navigate. Or, you could buy one net to celebrate our arrival in Cape Town. Or, you could imagine your own measure and buy 100 nets! Whatever the amount, we’d like you to join us in this challenge. Our trip will undoubtedly be hard, but nothing like the difficulty of living with such an awful disease.

Finally, we’ll be giving away a prize. For each net bought, we’ll enter you in a draw. The winner gets a picture of Sam and me leaving Cairo and another of us arriving in Cape Town. A small incentive, we know.

Let’s Spread the Net.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Fast Way Down?

I spent a few minutes on the Long Way Down site today. It's pretty awesome. Sam and I are asked constantly whether we've seen Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman's movies about their round-the-world journey and then their ride from the top of Scotland to Cape Town.

I think it was Long Way Round which first inspired me to buy a bike and make a journey through Africa. But I must say that I cannot imagine doing it as Charlie and Ewan did. They ride big bikes they got for free, they carry a tonne of gear, they are followed by two trucks, and they spend way too much time taking pictures. Most importantly, they seem slow. Farmer Bob slow.

It took Ewan and Charley some 58 days to ride from Cairo to Cape Town. They took the same general route as our planned track. And they stopped. A lot. We plan on taking 45 days to make the run. In the words of farmer Bob, we won't have to be fast. Just lucky.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

What's to Come

When I review our to do list of things to be done before out trip, it sometimes seems more daunting than the trip itself. It doesn’t help, of course, that Sam is soon off to Afghanistan and I am jamming to finish up my dissertation. But half of the adventure is in the preparation and the other half is in figuring out how to handle what you forgot to prepare for.

We certainly plan to update this site regularly. We hope you’ll stop by frequently or even add it to your feeds. To give you a sneak peek of what’s to come, we’ll be dividing the posts up into several sections:

The Trip. This is our most general section and will mostly be articles about the trip as a whole, i.e. why we’re doing it, what decisions we are making, and our general reflections on the adventure.

The Cause. We will be raising money for a quite worthy cause during our ride. We are excited to share news about this soon and we’ll be excited to get your support. This section will host articles and entries about this cause.

The Route. We are keen to learn about our route before we track it and to inform our readers about it as well. So this section will contain some technical information about the route, but also some more country reports about the places we’re visiting.

The Gear. We have a lot of gear to bring and a lot to leave behind. We’ll discuss it here, as well as some product testing we’ll be doing along the way.

The Bikes. Same as the gear, except we won’t be testing any new bikes on this trip!

Old Stories. This isn’t our first adventure. We’ll post some stories about old adventures here.

So, that’s what’s to come. We’ll have something for everyone. Please come back often and tell your friends about the site. And keep looking ahead.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Cairo to the Cape

There is no romance or history or revenge in this. Only challenge. We’ll ride our motorcycles from Cairo to Cape Town in six weeks. We will trace the Nile to Khartoum, cross the mountains into Ethiopia, and then run a long, winding route over the top of Lake Victoria, down to Malawi, across Zambia to Botswana and down to the Cape.

We don’t plan to take much or to leave with anything but our panniers and pictures. But given the pace of our past trips and the time for this one, we cannot even promise that we’ll even have many of those. Maybe we’ll just leave with recollections and stories and a new scar or two.

We are using this site to tell those interested about our preparations for the trip, to share some of our stories of past bike trips, to review the gear and equipment we’ll be bringing, and to give you information about the countries we’ll be visiting and the cause we’ll be helping along the way. We also want to let you know how you can help.

We leave in July and return in August. We hope to hear from all of you before, during and, of course, after.

In the meantime, here’s pictures of us at the end of a couple of great rides. The top picture is at Andrew Black’s place in Halifax after a run through the Gaspesie and New Brunswick last May. The bottom one is at Red Bay at the end of the Trans-Labrador Highway at the start of September. We covered 2200 kms in a little over two days, the majority on gravel. Neither of these trips were hard. This one will be. Stay tuned and stay in touch. And keep looking ahead.

Spread the Net -