Written by Andy Goodson
Photography by Andy Goodson and Sean Hootz
Saturday, May 20, 2017, near Fort Pelly, Saskatchewan — Well past noon, we gathered at a dusty crossroad where our plans had just come undone.
"Guys," Sean said with his hands on the back of his neck, "this one's my fault. I should've checked the road out last week."
I kicked up a cloud of dust while flailing to get rid of a dozen woodticks crawling up my pant legs. Sean and Nate looked over maps on a cellphone. I barely noticed the large black pickup truck that pulled in beside us.
The driver rolled down his window. "You guys can't be lost if you made it out all the way here," he said.
Sean explained that we had planned to canoe the Assiniboine River, but the end-point he chose was an impassible turkey trail. We needed to find another location to leave our vehicles and trailer that was out of the way without shortening our trip too much.
The man in the truck seemed surprised by the length of our journey, which was 70 kilometres of river, meanders and all. "You guys better have a few days set aside," he said. "It'll surprise you." Garth was his name. He told us he had paddled the river before and that parts of it "make you feel like you're in the Geographic Society." Much of the upper Assiniboine River was inaccessible without crossing private land. It was uncharted territory for us and we wanted to be surprised.
Garth warmed up and offered to escort us to a relative's farm where there would be secure access to the river in a place he called the Mossy Forest. He led us on a grass road over hills, through fields and finally a forested river valley that seemed out-of-place among uninterrupted farmland.
We thanked him for saving our trip and, before he left, he imparted some last-minute advice:
"Don't underestimate that river. It'll wind and bend—you'll think that the end is just around the next corner, but you'll be far from it, maybe even hours away. It's about five miles on the river for each mile as the crow flies."
We had never paddled a river before, but were convinced we had this trip in the bag. From road crossings the river looked lazy, perfect for beginners.
Being a few hours behind schedule, Sean, Adam, Andrew, Nate and I took back to the grid roads immediately. David, Ann and Gill, who we had left at the put-in point near Tadmore, were no doubt wondering why we were taking so long.
We returned by mid-afternoon. David was wearing a cowboy hat; Ann and Gill were relaxing in the shade of the overhanging maples. Something about the scene felt Old West, in a budget brand kind of way.
Adam and I stepped inside my cedar stripped canoe, a gift from a co-worker and one of the few pretty things I owned. I wanted to learn how to steer properly, so I took the stern. The middle was loaded with all the unnecessary gear one brings when extra space is available.
Adam asked for a beer so I pulled a can out of the cooler and threw it over, missing him entirely. It took us a while to retrieve while scrambling with paddles and being pushed around by the current. But we did not put in much effort and had already gone past the first few bends.
The rest of the group caught up as we drifted downstream. The banks were grassy with clean, sandy beaches on lower flats, and the maple trees had young light-green leaves that reached far over the water. We were low relative to the banks on the edge of the river, which hid any sign that a world existed beyond the Assiniboine. I would not have guessed that there was farm or pasture just beyond the trees.
"We're on the bayou now," Andrew said, "Who wants to eat some crayfish?"
Geese followed us through the green corridors as songbirds called from the maple groves. It was a slice of paradise—for the most part.
On slower sections, we would be hung up on sandbars. In faster currents, we spun out of control trying to correct ourselves. Before Adam and I got the hang of basic paddling techniques, we were sucked into a fast section that dragged us beneath boughs and branches, flattening Adam on his back and brushing our only paper map into the river.
I was getting less confident in our skill. Even with a wide river to work around, it demanded a lot of attention.
"What happened back there?" Adam said exasperated. "Can't keep your eyes off the river for even a second. It's nothing like paddling a lake."
I didn't know much about the Assiniboine, but had done some research out of curiosity. I knew that it fed Lake of the Prairies and eventually emptied into the Red River in Manitoba. The Assiniboine was also a historic fur trade route, and the sparse written accounts described shallow, difficult passages. I thought the water would be higher in May.
I found it difficult to take photos while steering the canoe as well, but the breaks in paddling were rewarding. There were few bugs, lots of freshwater mussel shells and scenery that conjured images of Huckleberry Finn on the lam.
"I can hear the road," Sean said. But we were many corners away from seeing the bridge. We expected to cross it an hour before. Gill, who was the only one with experience paddling rivers, said something akin to "I told you so."
We took a short break just after the bridge and the matter of where to camp was brought up. We agreed that we had underestimated the amount of time required to travel and would need to paddle until dark.
The river meandered for a long time as we veered further and further into something more closely resembling wilderness, though I was getting impatient with the constant turns. The river's surroundings transformed with tall patches of spruce, ideal for camping, and eroded riverbanks. This was accompanied by a change in elevation, and substantially faster water.
"Do you hear that?" Adam said, "It sounds like waterfalls." My stomach dropped.
We floated around the bend and I heard Nate shout before passing through a wall of noise. I saw rocks, splashes and rumbling water. I would not call them rapids, but they were far more than we were ready to deal with at the time.
I tried to back-paddle, but it was too late. The current pulled us in and the underside of our canoe scraped over a large exposed rock. It made a crunching noise that shivered through my spine.
"Shit, shit, shit..." I tried pushing us off the rock, but we were hung up on the very middle and there was a substantial amount of weight. The canoe screeched and moaned. Adam and I stepped out to slide it off then got back inside, shaking, waiting for water to fill the bottom. But it never came. Maybe it sounded worse than it really was.
The look on everyone's faces was grim. I wondered what we had gotten into. This was not the last section of fast water, nor the worst ahead.
Sean, who was in a one-man canoe, offered to go ahead of the group and find the best course. He would shout instructions, but it was usually too loud to hear and too late. Adam and I were still figuring out how to navigate the current while boulders thumped and cracked beneath us. Nate and Gill were on the verge of tipping at any given moment.
By dusk, we were eager to set up camp and wind down for the night. We found a grassy clearing in the forest with an old fire pit at its centre where we decided to unpack. Sean was concerned that we might have visitors, but was promptly ignored. We were still close to the river and would leave the site cleaner than we found it anyway.
I had promised to cook a pot of chilli with deer meat for the group, so I put some of the excess cargo to work. The cast-iron Dutch oven and tripod was impractical anywhere but my backyard.
"How'd your canoe hold up?" Sean asked me. I didn't know. I didn't want to look.
Day Two: Farmland to Forest
I sweated while sleeping, thanks to the chilli. It cooled me down considerably and made for a lousy morning in the hammock. Howling coyotes kept me awake so I was particularly grouchy.
I realized that our trip was not going to work out as planned. I had spent enough time studying the maps – before they fell in the river – to know that the end-point we set was too far. The last section, which we would not reach after a full day of paddling, would take at least an extra day to complete.
Persuading the group to change plans was difficult as everyone was feeling ambitious. But those who were most reluctant to give up were those who did not plan the trip.
"Let's just see how far we get today," Sean said. "There's two bridges left. If we messed up we can call to get my brother to pick us up at the last road crossing." We had no cell service on the river but hoped to get lucky.
Before Adam and I repacked our canoe, I turned it over to check the damage. It was not good. There were small cracks in the fibreglass coating running along both sides of the vessel. The floor of the canoe must have flexed inward when we were teetering on the rocks.
"Are we gonna make it?" Adam asked.
The sky was clear, and the sun was soon to warm my bones that chilled from the previous night. There was no option but to keep paddling. Getting nervous would not fix my canoe.
We got to the next rapid and riffle section quickly. More brazen than the day before, Adam and I paddled into the current and slipped by the rocks expertly. "That felt right," Adam said. "Let's do more of that."
It was only during calm stretches that we could tune-in to the scenery. Old-growth forest surrounded the river as I began missing the lazy ebbs and flows of the bayou. But I couldn't discount what I was seeing, which was dream-like and instilled a strong sense of déjà vu. Even the image of Bob Saget's face on the back of Nate's shirt felt plucked from an important memory.
There were baby geese diving alongside the canoe through clear, red water. They swam funny, like kids pedalling on bicycles they've outgrown. The water would press their gosling fuzz close to their body, giving them a skeletal appearance I could only describe as creepy-cute.
Occasionally the forest would break and reveal households, pastures and dilapidated shacks on the riverside. We passed by one onlooker standing on the manicured grass of their backyard leading down to the river. Nate waved to her. These vignettes would pass as quickly as they appeared between theatre curtains of poplar and spruce.
Seeing the second bridge crossing snapped me out of the Assiniboine's dream state. We were making good time, which divided the group once again on whether we could finish the full route. The final bridge was still a far travel away, and it was after that crossing that we would come to regret.
Majority ruled the next bridge would be our last stop.
We were getting better at paddling, despite ongoing rock hang-ups, and we started to notice patterns. Where the river would split, narrow sections were more treacherous than wide sections. On shallow water, ripples would form a "V" pointing through the deepest passage, but this was no guarantee. Many boulders hid beneath the surface and were dodged by luck alone.
If we became too relaxed, a knock or crunch would jar the nerves. I was getting used to the sound of scraping fibreglass and had convinced myself the damage would only be cosmetic. Besides, if we were to walk the canoe through each riffle, we would never finish this trip. We were not taking on water and the fast sections were becoming more fun.
On a mid-afternoon break, Sean hiked up the valley where he was able to get cell service. He made plans for us to be picked up the next day. He also reported that rain was in the forecast and we needed to find a place to camp.
There was a dark, old-growth spruce forest wrapped around a sharp riverbank downstream that looked inviting. While looking for a place to debark I heard the sound of composite plastics screeching against rock. I did not think much of it until I saw what happened.
Nate and Gill's canoe had been broadsided by the current and lodged onto a boulder. Their dog, Oaty, leapt out as water rushed inside. The canoe flipped, sending gear downstream instantly. Gill dived into the water and swam after her backpack as Nate struggled against the current to reset the canoe. There was no damage, but Gill and her gear was soaked. Nate looked like he was ready to kill something.
The forest was a bust for camping. It was swarming with mosquitoes and was too shaded to dry gear. We had to keep looking.
The next spot was on the edge of a farmer's field. It was grassy and lousy with woodticks, but patience was wearing thin and dark clouds were on the horizon.
Nate was ready to unpack when Sean said, "We shouldn't camp here, it's way too close to the field." Sean then launched into a treatise about public access to waterways versus private ownership. Those who were soaked, were not impressed. It was our understanding that the riverbed and a small portion of adjacent land was acceptable for recreational use, but Sean had a point that some land owners might not approve.
Exhausted, we kept looking.
There was an 'okay' spot adjacent to some pastureland further downstream. I do not think it was anyone's favourite but nobody was willing to start any more arguments. "Sean probably won't like it, but my opinion means shit-all," muttered Nate. I wanted to stay out of it.
I turned my canoe over to dump the water and found the bottom gored far worse than I imagined. Pieces of fibreglass were stripped off, exposing the core of cedar that had taken its share of damage. I felt like I could push a hole right through if I pressed hard enough. But the damage was done. I returned to camp wondering if I was too tired to feel self-pity.
Around the fire, moods started to lighten as beer cans opened. Sean and Nate exchanged apologies. The dark clouds passed us over and left us with plenty of daylight as bird songs filled the air.
I was just beginning to forget my own problems when those who made their way to the shore came back to express their condolences. "That thing's got about two hit-points left," Adam said. "It was such a beautiful canoe," Andrew said. I would keep an eye on it, I said. Uninvited sympathy is the worst.
We took a walk before dusk to the top of the valley and watched the sun set over the Assiniboine River. Surrounded by distant farmland, the Assiniboine seemed like a hidden oasis of parkland wilderness. It was exactly what we were looking for, no matter what trouble it took to get there.
Day Three: Our Shallowest Sympathies
The next morning, I stared at my cracked canoe regretting that we wouldn't be able to finish the trip as planned. I shrugged the thought as another learning experience in a long list of many.
"We'll take it slow," Adam said as we left the shore. The rest of the group escorted us slowly through the first stretch like a funeral procession. But it was not long before it felt unnecessarily dramatic and everyone soon regained a natural pace.
There were only a few rough sections left and even the most challenging felt easy compared to the previous days. We now understood that letting the current do most of the work was better than trying to fight it. This made navigating riffles feel more like riding a water slide and less like being flushed down a toilet.
The water calmed as the river transformed once again. Tall, sandy ridges enclosed the river valley among patches of spruce. We approached the final stretch and saw the bridge, our new end-point. I wished we would have gone further, but there was no risk anymore and the river looked mighty rosy. I recalled Garth's warning and believed we would have been screwed regardless.
"We made it, buddy," Adam said as we pulled the tired cedar from the water one final time.
The Assiniboine River had delivered on its promise of unexpected scenery. It warranted more time than a long-weekend, but unlike northern rivers, it was only a few hours from home.
After being picked up by his brother, Sean returned to take the rest of us to our vehicles. We were on the grid roads and noticed plumes of smoke billowing on the horizon near the farm where we had parked. An air seeder and tractor had caught fire. Bright orange flames wrapped around enormous tires as black clouds spewed from the machinery.
A pickup truck was parked at a distance with whom I guess were the owners watching it burn, with grim acceptance, like a five-hundred-thousand-dollar funeral pyre.
"Let's get out of here. We'll be in the way when the firetrucks come," said Sean. I supposed it was not polite to be rubbernecking. Besides, the folks were keeping an eye on it.