Photography by Andy Goodson, Sean Hootz, Jason Vanin and Nate Sawkiw
August 5, 2016 - The smell of mosquito coils burning like incense still clings to my jacket as we leave the pavement and hit rumbling gravel. "How much further do we have to go?" David asks, sitting on the passenger side while Adam hand-drums in the back. Our rendez-vous at the bar in Hudson Bay had gone a little later than expected.
At an hour before midnight, our main concern is how we plan to track Sean and Jason's pathway in the dark; we had lost contact with them nearly ten hours ago when they left the service area to set up camp. Although we have a rough idea of where they might be, the river is new to us and the forest unfamiliar.
"Was that the road?" Adam asks after we pass the third or fourth trail leading off the road and into the woods. David checks his GPS and sighs, "We've still got a way to go."
I hover my foot over the brake while driving in the plume of dust left by Andrew's car up ahead. I'm not sure why he's leading; he doesn't know where we're going.
"Slow down," David points to another tangential path leading off into the darkness. We pull over and convene with Nate and Gill, leaving Andrew to figure it out for himself. I hobble my car off the main road and onto the grassy pathway. Gravel crunches beneath the tires as weeds scrape along the undercarriage. The suspension wails in pain.
The narrow corridor, illuminated by headlights, leaves plenty of shadows for the imagination to run wild. At each corner I expect to see either Jason's empty truck, or the twins from The Shining. We find his dusty vehicle looking as if it's been parked in the bush for months.
Nate, Gill and Andrew park alongside. We shower in mosquito spray before taking off into the woods for our first midnight backpacking trip.
We take to an old ATV trail indiscreetly marked with ribbons of bright red trail tape. At least Sean and Jason aren't subtle with their marking. The further we hike, the more closed and overgrown the trail becomes. It's difficult to imagine anyone on an ATV getting much enjoyment out of a path like this.
Snagging branches and fumbling our way through a wooded ravine, we push further into the thick forest understory.
Andrew holds the last visible piece of trail tape in his hand as we pause to discuss which direction to go without aimlessly wandering. After noticing certain grasses and leaves shine differently in his headlamp, Nate discovers a faint pathway that Sean and Jason must have created when they reached the river earlier in the day. From the back of the line, I just have to trust that we're going in the right direction while I untangle myself from trees.
We march single file through the dark jungle. The bouquet of dew and birch leaves mingles with the unmistakable aroma of burning firewood. Nate lets out a primordial shriek to get some caveman-ish game of Marco Polo going with the hidden camp. After a short pause, the echo of Sean's dog Jean-Paul growling and barking reverberates through the river valley.
While calling back and forth, the river comes within earshot. There's a quick rustling in the bush as Jean-Paul comes running through the leafy understory with his furry face, big goober eyes and tongue flailing about. Sean's voice booms through the distance calling J.P. back to camp allowing for us to follow him the rest of the way.
I unbuckle my backpack and set it down in a patch of sand at the base of a young birch tree before heading to the campfire by the river. It's hard to tell in the dark, but the area seems like a peculiar choice for camping. There's a lot of sand and the trees are thin and wiry. I find myself regretting bringing a hammock over a tent.
I make my way to the riverside where the rest of the group is socializing. I figure Sean and Jason must have been anxious with our late arrival, but I wasn't expecting the fraught expression on Sean's face under the harsh light of my headlamp. He looks panicked and hunted—like we've just followed him into a trap.
"The mosquitoes...You guys have no idea," he says with a twitch in his eye. "They're horrible. We were thinking we need to get the hell out here, but we didn't want you guys to come all the way out here not to find us...They were biting us through our clothes and through the smoke. We had to sit our tents for over an hour just to get away from them! Now there's blood all over the walls..." He shakes his head and looks blankly into the distance. "Just wait...You'll see."
I crack up while listening, but it's easy to forget how much fuss a 2.5 milligram insect can cause.
The truth is mosquitoes are not individual organisms. They are one unified entity. 'Mosquito' sails in the breezes; she lives in the farthest reaches of the forests and plains; she hides on every blade of grass. She is everywhere at once, like Jesus or The Force. Mosquito speaks in a shrill hum, the language of a dentist's drill or a nagging girlfriend.
"You're starting to worry me Sean," I say. "Just wait...You'll see," he repeats. I try not to get too worried. The night has cooled down considerably. Mosquito must be resting.
We waste a few hours drinking around the campfire until the first sign of morning-light rears its beautiful-ugly head. Sean must have brought up the bugs at least a dozen times. I wish he'd shut up about it.
I climb into my hammock and fall asleep.
Close your eyes. I said, close your eyes... They're already closed, you idiot.
I pull the arm of my jacket from underneath my head and wrap it around my face. Please, just fall back to sleep.
A branch snaps a few metres away. There's no doubt in my mind that a bear is on its way to chow down on my hammock like a tree-burrito. Of course, this means I'm awake for good now.
I lift my head and unclench my eyelids. Twenty-one mosquitoes stare down on me through the mesh netting above. Twenty-one. I press my finger on the fabric. It takes an average of 8.5 seconds before the bastards land my finger like heat-seeking missiles.
Playing tag with bugs loses its lustre pretty quick. I unzip my cocoon, find my shoes and make my way to the river so I can wash my face before I bathe in chemicals.
The tea-tinged stream crests over the rocks into a playful mess of ripples, splashes and eddies. Sunlight peers through the shade casting reflections over the water making its way down a rocky staircase. A light breeze moves through the channel, bringing in fresh oxygen of the intoxicating variety. Primo stuff. In the dry heat of a sunbeam, there are no mosquitoes. What am I supposed to write if I have nothing to complain about?
After breakfast, the rest of the group seizes their spot in the sun like cats on a patio. The mind is eager for adventure, but the body is lousy with beans and bacon.
"Sandy forest," Jason interrupts a completely unrelated conversation. "The water must have been really high at some point. It's far into the woods and there's already a four-foot drop-off from the riverbank in some places." Sean laughs at the fact we've clearly set up in a flood plain, but the weather forecast is good so we're not overly concerned.
"...and you picked the shittiest forest for setting up hammocks," I catch David giving Sean the gears. "What are these trees anyway?" Ignoring the barb in his comment, Sean answers, "Nate always uses these to build tripods. They're birch."
This sparks an intense debate about tree identification which, to anyone not in the mental state of wilderness camping, would have their eyes rolling until they can see through time.
"Birch grows in clumps, you moron." "Why doesn't the bark peel as much like the others?" "I don't know, look it up in the book."
Adam finds it in his guide to western Canadian forests. "River alder (Alnus rugosa): a tree belonging to the birch family. Everyone's right. Peace prevails.
We leave the camp for our day's mission: to see what else we can find and engage in other lengthy debates. Jason and I are interested in the river's potential as a trout habitat. Decades ago, brook trout were introduced into streams in the Pasquia Hills, but many were discontinued for reasons we don't completely understand. Still, when I fantasize of these hills, I imagine them overflowing with streams rainbow, brook, brown and cutthroat trout. A man can dream.
My shoes sink into the mud almost immediately. While there are long expanses of dry quarry-like riverbeds, many sections are enveloped by birch and poplar on either side. Freshly fallen trees slow down our river crossings along with mounds of deadfall on the sand covered riverbanks. Horsetails, ferns and smaller plants are laid down in swaths, like they've been pressed by a giant's footstep.
I remember how fast the rain had raised the water when camping at Waskwei River. It's entirely possible that the same rain that had caused flooding in Arborfield and Carrot River this year might have made it this far.
"Jason, what do you think about this damage?" I ask. I assume he has a few theories since he's already spent an afternoon investigating the river. Jason explains that a massive amount of water has come through here recently, which is why the sand is so far into the forest and there's so many fallen trees that still have green on them. The river must have been six or eight feet higher at some point. "There's been some change here for sure. It would have been incredible to see," he says.
Our attention returns to the hike and how far we're willing to go before trailing back to camp. The skies are clear and Mosquito has been polite (as long as we stay out of the shade.) We carry on with curiosity of what could be around the next corner. This is the blessing and curse of river hikes—you tend to keep going and going until something sends you running back.
Bend after bend, corner after corner, we discover more fallen trees and small oxbow ponds. The water is cold to touch, but the heat overhead still leeches our energy and possibly our reasoning.
Riding out the mid-afternoon lull, Nate decides to go full Donkey Kong and climb an eighty-foot spruce tree. If it were anyone else I might be worried about having to craft some splints, but Nate has proven on more than a few occasions that monkey blood runs through his veins. Besides, he wouldn't stop if I ask.
Compared to trail hikes, rivers don't typically offer a clear goal or objective to make you think, "Yes, I've achieved something today. Time to head back." Sometimes you need to set your own capstone. For most of us, watching Nate climb the tree and return to safety is a good note to leave on and go to camp.
"What'd you see up there?" Sean asks as Nate stumbles back into the river. "Not much, but it looks like there's some hills up ahead. We should check that out," he says. What did I say about rivers again?
We continue the hike, splashing and sloshing through the shallow water. A low and steady drum grows as we make our way forward. Boiling and bubbling, the sound gets clearer with every step. "What is that?" I hear someone ask. I lift my focus from the stones at my feet to the river ahead and see white bubbles and foam floating across the water surface and sifting through the rocks. Small cascades appear to be jetting straight from the earth and into the river.
Puzzled by the sound of five or six miniature waterfalls all pouring out of the riverbank, my first thought is groundwater welling up from springs like the ones we've seen at Parr Hill Lake.
As usual, the right answer is the one you've spent several paragraphs foreshadowing with the subtlety of a Scooby-Doo mystery. It's the flood that changed the river.
To my left, the rest of the group is investigating the culprit: a colossal landslide marked by a five-story cliff of sand and gravel. Green leaves adorn the branches of the fallen forest still clinging to life. There's no doubt that the change is incredibly recent, and we may be the first to ever see it.
"This is called a mass wasting," Jason answers a question I'm not sure anyone asked. Adam, Sean and I repeat the phonemes 'mass-way-sting' a few times because it's fun to say.
It's not often one gets to see the immediate effects of a landslide reshaping a river system. What would it be like to have seen the ground finally give way and sink an eighty-foot spruce tree into a watery grave? The mass wasting is a beautiful example of the ever-changing state of our environment, and Pasquia River might have gotten away with it too if it weren't for us meddling kids.
Not eager to see Nate climb trees on an eroded hillside, we follow the stream through the forest to see what's beyond the dam. A large, turbid pool sits above the obstruction next to a remarkably flat shoreline composed of sand and stone fused together like conglomerate rock. Further upstream, a sandy beach hugs a clear and near-perfect swimming pool where the river forks just before it overflows into the forest. I light a small campfire because it seems like the right thing to do. We've found our capstone.
While some of us take turns diving into the river, the rest wander the forest or soak in the sun. I've alluded to my 'hillbilly hotel' rating system before. Well, this is a solid four-out-of-five missing fingers I tell you 'hwat.
Sean throws a stick downstream and Jean-Paul splashes through the water to find it. "You know, for absolutely no planning, I'm surprised to say this has probably been the best trip of the year. I guess it's just a matter of getting out and rolling the dice."
"I think this has been an awesome year," Nate argues. My immediate reaction is to remind him of the time we flipped a canoe and got stranded on a peninsula for two days, but I suppose he's right. We've made the best out of every less-than-ideal situation. After all is said and done, any anxiety I've felt about the wilderness has been due to my own unpreparedness. This is a good thing. I may not be able to control the elements, but I can change how I react. I'll start by saving up for some decent rain pants...next year.
Nate lets out a belch. "Welp... We should probably get goin' now." The shade from the cliffs encroach on our beach as the group shuffles through the sand gathering their gear. God forbid we have to hike in the dark, that could be downright spooky. At any rate, a day like this is better ended around the campfire with friends, sipping lukewarm beer and swatting Mosquito.
"When's our next trip, guys?" Adam asks. "I'm feeling another canoe trip. And we have some unfinished business, no?"
Sean watches J.P. wading through the shallows, searching for the stick that got away. "Maybe it's time we give the mission another shot."