Written by Andy Goodson
Photography by Andy Goodson, Mitch Doll and Sean Hootz
It's easy to fantasize about adventure and seclusion, but it's familiar locations that usually tip the scale when deciding where to go. This is the reason so many of us resort to visiting the same lakes and parks each year. Predictable is comfortable.
Although wilderness backpacking rarely cooperates with rigid plans, practice does lend some semblance of control—If you keep golfing the same mini-putt course, you're bound to sink one in the clown face and win a free game eventually. After our botched canoe trip to Snail Lake, we could really use a hole-in-one to boost morale.
With a Super-8 film project in mind, we decide to make a return trip to Waskwei River in the Pasquia Hills during early summer. Knowing what to expect is a tremendous advantage when shooting video and the river's shallow passageways make hiking into the wilderness like walking grandma to church.
The backpacks are full. The cameras are in. The bugs are out.
It's time to waltz with Waskwei.
(Damn it... We forgot the camera battery.)
June 23, 2016 - Waskwei River
Four men in their mid-twenties stumble out of the woods, staggering over rocks like newborn fawns.
"Smoke 'em if you got 'em," Sean says, swatting two mosquitoes on his cheek with one heavy-handed slap. I wonder if citronella cigarettes would be a good business venture? I press the swollen bump burning on my forehead. I might be onto something.
Mitch slumps down by the riverside and washes his face in the water.
"I don't want to stray from the plan without the Super-8 camera. We can still shoot in digital, but we need to focus," he says.
Sean and I turn the dials on our cameras. There's no doubt that not being able to shoot film as planned has taken some steam out of the project. But I remember last night's speech, delivered by Mitch clutching a bottle of red wine: "Something, something, manifesto. Something, something, look at things differently, challenge perceptions." I'm paraphrasing here, but trust me it was riveting.
We pass by vaguely familiar landmarks producing some distorted memories of last year's visit to Waskwei. We nearly miss the giant shale outcrop until Jason points out that it is now veiled by mounds of fallen dirt.
The only thing that seems unchanged is the mass of insects - deer flies, horse flies, no-see-ums and mosquitoes - all working together in vicious harmony.
The air is thick and hard to breathe. Sean dips his hat in the water and slops it back on his head. "What time's it supposed to storm?"
"The forecast said all day, but nothing more than a few millimetres of rain until later tonight," Jason answers. "We shouldn't hike too far."
Camping in storm-season is always a gamble. Do you cancel your plans when the weather forecast shows sun, cloud, lightning, rain, snow and plague of locusts all in the same day? I recall the rolling thunderstorms at Steeprock River where - even with the afternoon's scare - we had spent most of the day in undisturbed sunlight. How do you know when to cancel a trip?
I step through the shallow river, dizzy from heat and fumes of insect repellent. A drink would be nice, but I'd rather set up my tent. The humidity removes any rejuvenating qualities that an extended break would have anyway.
"The next place we find that looks alright, I say we camp," Sean proclaims with no argument from the rest of us. It takes us no time to find a tall riverbank leading into some old-growth forest.
There are still a few restrictions we need to keep in mind in case it storms:
- Don't set up near dead trees that can potentially fall. (It only takes the top of a tree to snap off and fall on you.)
- Avoid tall trees or open areas which are more susceptible to lightning strikes.
- Be careful of low-lying areas that could potentially flood.
It's rare to find a camping location that fits this criteria perfectly. But we find one that is decidedly "close enough."
Mitch builds a campfire then smothers it with a handful of moss and ferns. The fog of mosquitoes thins in the smudge, but only for a short time. It's easier just to keep busy.
The afternoon sky clears up as I tighten the last knot on our rain tarp. Wanting to take advantage of the weather, Mitch suggests that we go on a hike to scope out some key shots for our video. I'm skeptical about getting our right-side brain functions into gear, but we might as well try.
Mitch, Sean and I scan the river for any potential shots relating to the theme we had literally picked out of a hat the night before. Meanwhile, Jason distracts us with miscellaneous geological facts.
We hike as far as our previous campsite from 2015 and see that it's been decently renaturalized. Only a few tell-tale signs of humanity remain which most people would overlook on a regular day. Foot traffic is incredibly rare here, but it's reassuring to see that our damage appears to be minimal.
On our hike back to camp, the smell of smoke permeates the river corridor. I try to ignore my concern that we might have left the campfire burning. A forest fire would be a massive demerit.
Muffled voices materialize through the bush and the tenseness relaxes as we connect the dots. Adam, Nate, Gill and her dog Oats are keeping busy, setting up their tents and maintaining the fire.
"God, it's nice to be around more people," Sean says before collapsing into his chair.
I don't remember falling asleep—or waking up for that matter. The morning is dark and dull. There's a constant pressure on my eyes and a scratch in my throat.
I crawl out of the tent and am immediately assaulted by legions of mosquitoes. Being the first one up, I suppose it's my job to get a smudge going and deal with the blood-sucking demons. The rain last night has made firewood scarce, but there's enough birch bark in the area to ignite some of the smaller pieces of deadfall.
Spirits rise as the rest of the group makes their way to the fire, but not enough to ignore the day's dreariness. You'd think that rain would bring some cooler temperatures, but that's not always the case.
Around noon, Nate asks the million-dollar question: What are we doing today? We've been avoiding the thought of it. Mitch fills the rest of the group in on the details of our film project. We're going to hike whether rain or shine.
Given the current conditions, we need not prepare for "shine." Unfortunately, I earn another demerit when it comes to my rain gear which is virtually nil: blue jeans, a garbage bag miniskirt and a jacket designed for light rain at junior soccer practices. I have no one to blame but myself.
We take to the river once again without a skip in our step, lest someone slip and break a jawbone.
"How much farther are we going to go?" Nate yells at us from atop of a fallen birch tree. The question flies overhead. Most of us are preoccupied swatting mosquitoes again. I check my camera and find it unresponsive. Just another kink in the plan.
I see Mitch aiming his camera steadily with his bare hands covered in black specks. He jerks suddenly, ruining the shot. "Alright, I think we've got everything we're going to get as far as video," he says.
We make haste back to camp, but the rain continues now accompanied by the occasional low rumble of distant thunder. There's nothing left for us to do but sit back and ride it out.
Heavy drops of rain click-clack on our thin plastic shelter. We stay close to the fire, lungs filled with the thick smoke of smouldering wet wood.
"It's been a rough year, hasn't it?" Mitch says, squinting his eyes from behind the haze.
A wind gust throws a cascade of water off the trees, crackling across the entire tarpaulin.
Sean lets out a groan.
I press the back of my hand onto my lower spine, trying to pinpoint the source of the ache. "Can anyone spare me a beer for a shot of rum?" Anything to take my mind off the noise. Adam passes me a lukewarm can and Nate happily gets on board with a few gulps from his two-six. I take a few swigs myself.
"We're getting old you know," Nate says, screwing the cap back on his bottle. "We've only got maybe ten years of this until we're driving around in quads with sunburns and beer guts." The group chuckles nervously at the thought.
Sean pipes up. "I don't think we'll ever be that bad. I mean, I've noticed I don't have the same amount of energy I had two years ago. We'll stop doing long-haul hikes up rivers. Less adventures. More gentle. We'll find a way to make it work."
"If we're all still around by then," Nate burps. "I don't know many people that have stayed friends for as long as we have."
A silent bell tolls and a new wave of mosquitoes begins their evening shift. This time, they don't seem to mind the smoke. Each bite leaves a nickel-sized welt. Virtually the only benefit to wearing jeans is to prevent bug bites, but the flies still manage just fine. Jason moves his chair away from the fire and sits by himself on the edge of the rain. Mitch goes to bed.
I refill my mug of hot cider. "It's rare, I guess. Seems like the friends you go camping with stick around longer. Maybe it's the mutual interest—or, we're too socially inept to be around large groups of people." I smile with an underbite. Jason gives a solemn nod, "This is the most anxious group of people I've ever met," he laughs.
Nate reopens his bottle, tilts it back and wipes his mouth on his sleeve. "If everyone moves away, there's nothing left for me in this province. These trips are the only thing keeping me around."
Only Adam, Nate and I remain around the fire, but we soon retire.
I regret opting to stay in Adam's tent, which is obviously built for kids camping in their parents' backyard. It has a thin nylon sheet going over its open, star-shaped peak—the nipple pasty of rainflies. I'm too tired to care about the puddle of water I'm laying in. Sleep comes easy.
Clack click-click shhhhhh clack clack sploosh, clack clack clack shhhhhhh sploosh...
It'd be nice if it followed a rhythm. Each time the tarp fills with water, it sounds like someone dumping a bucket full of shrimp next to my head. The wind doesn't stop. And now I can't stop thinking about the dead tree I had only noticed after the tent was set up underneath it. The noise...Is there something stomping through the river?
I wake up the next morning more sick than the last. The rain has stopped, aside from the wind knocking dew off the trees. Something is different. The white noise is...much louder. I can feel my blood pressure rising.
I step outside the tent and stumble toward the river as my veins fill with dread.
This isn't the same river. How are we going to walk back? More importantly—where is our food?
The rock we've used to tie our food hang has disappeared underwater. I see a red dry-sack caught in a web of branches downstream.
I walk to the cluster of tents with shoulders slumped. "Hey. You guys are going to want to wake up."
"Why?" I hear coming from Sean's tent.
"The river's completely changed. The food fell. There's some bags missing. I think we've got to deal with this right away."
Sean's tent groans.
We start packing up our campsite immediately. Jason and Sean fashion trekking poles from thick branches to help with walking through the strong river current. Shooting video is no longer a priority. There's not much excitement for making breakfast either - we just need to get out of here.
Using a shabby stick to balance myself as we walk waist-deep through rushing floodwater, I have to wonder why these trips are so important to us. We have never been in control. There is a list as long as the Trans-Canada Highway full of dangers and discomforts. If it's for bravado, I wouldn't have packed my camera away for the most perilous part of this trip. Nobody is forcing us to do what we do, yet here we are.
A bead of sweat drips off the tip of my nose as I stare down at the water moving past me—moving my feet slowly—testing each rock for stability. Three mosquitoes suck the blood from my fingertips. By the time we reach the vehicles, the bugs have decimated any sense of jubilation. We say our cheerful goodbyes before Mitch and I take a long drive back to the city.
I twist the key inside my front door, enter and drop my gear in the corner of the living room. I take a long shower, eat whatever's in the fridge, and sleep for the next 11 hours. I wake up, make coffee and drive to work. Comfortable.