Saturday, November 12, 2016

Northern Encounters

Back in 1974 at the ripe age of fourteen I joined three teachers for a six hundred and fifty mile canoe trip.  Years later from my journal and memories wrote up this one event.  I've lost my journal to a house fire so this is really the only thing outside of the gray matter that remains.  It was a defining time in my young life and one despite the hardships was worth it all.  Here's the tale of one night.


By Doug Doremus
June 1974
Twilight approached as I stood on the edge of the water. This river has been my home for the last five hundred miles and twenty-two days. I will be glad to be free of its grip, its narrow boundaries, which have sped me downstream day after day.
I entered this adventure with hopes of excitement, an entrance into manhood, and a proving point to myself as an individual. Instead I found myself, the adolescent I was, whining about when the trip would end. I was weary of freeze-dried food, frozen clothes in the frost-covered morning, delicately brittle yet abrasive and intruding to my barely warm skin. I was weary of the rain running in rivulets down my body, moistening every belonging, hindering our every effort to dry out before a tier of burning logs. Weary of the winds ceaseless caress, drying out yet cracking my skin, my fingertips, and my lips creating miniature crevices which bled with every smile or movement. The bloods warmth welcome only until the winds cooled it.
We were one hundred miles from trips end. I looked out onto what lay ahead in those last miles and I felt my heart sink. The James Bay lay there before me at the rivers end. It swelled and moved like a living being. It was nine hundred miles to the Eastern shore but that was a journey we would not take. We would be heading south down it's western shore, a shoreline littered with mudflats. At high tide four feet of water flowed to the shore but at low tide it as completely dry-docked for as far as the eye could see. These mudflats create havoc with the winds and currents. It was an entity all of its own, existing as a bay within a bay.
Twilight came and the waters finally met the sky, turning the horizon into a black tapestry extending from the beach I stood on to the heavens above my head. We stood up, entered our canoes and pushed off from the sanctuary of our river leaving our home behind and paddled into the vast unknown of the James Bay.
Stars began to make their appearance in the blackness, pinpoints of dim wavering light shining through the clear Canadian night. As the darkness increased, the stars offered us their show, thousands upon thousands of them, like a parade of tiny torches in the crystalline night sky. We joined our crafts together as one. Maps were broken out and under the flickering light of matches we tried to consult them. Rising and falling, the waves make it hard for us to find a heading. We continue paddling.
My internal clock had been twisted and turned, my day was now night and my night was day. My body cried out for sleep and as my chin hit my chest I heard my name being called. I snapped upright and started to paddle only to find my paddle gone, my hands gripped nothing but empty air. I turned to the stern and my partner handed me my paddle and barked his command to stay awake. He was twenty years my senior and a seasoned outdoorsman. His order was not one to be ignored. There was nothing to do but dip the paddle, pull, muscles strained, sleep continued to taunt me. We made headway slowly. I splashed the cold salty water of the bay on my face, hoping to keep me awake. I reached into the dry bag and pulled out the map and compass and laid them on my knees. Searching for my matches I suddenly realized that I could see my hand, my fingernails. I looked to my left, then my right. Puzzled I looked up. A shimmering veil of light was above me, a bluish hue wavering back and forth resembling Christmas ribbon candy in the black overhead.
It started on the eastern edge of the sky and extended until it met the western horizon. Before my eyes another one began to race across the sky, quickly making its way through the blackness, following its companion in blue, only this one was red. The next to follow was yellow and the last to streak out was green. They all joined us on the bay, the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights, offering us their light.
Under their glow we consulted our maps and turned our canoes to our heading, but instead of paddling we sat and stared upward at the spectacle above us. Each band was solid at the top of its arc across the sky, the colors fading as they reached down to the waters we sat on. They had life in them, moving and fading in and out, pulsing not unlike a heartbeat, the heartbeat of our earth I thought. Time seemed to lose meaning to me as we sat and watched this resplendent display of nature. Fatigue left me as if I drew new energy from this cosmic wonder. I realized the hardship of the pasty twenty odd days seemed trivial. Above was one of our earth's most magnificent demonstrations. They stayed with us, for what seemed like hours lighting our way as we drifted down the bay. Slowly, they began to fade off, the bottoms of their shimmering and pulsating curtains dissipated leaving only the band of their crowns to glow in the sky and then even they began to fade. Finally, they where gone.
I was saddened, yet exhilarated. I wanted to see more of my night companions. I grew in the warmth of their fragile glow, knowing that all of the burdens of this adventure had reached a climax with their appearance. I put the bitter feelings behind me. I knew I had witnessed a pageant of beauty that few others had seen, worth every dip of the paddle, every hardship, every cold, shivering moment in this unforgiving land. There is a price to pay for rewards and this reward was worth it, for I felt contentment flush through me, my soul feeling complete and intact.
The darkness overtook us as the Northern Lights left us to continue their journey across the vast emptiness of the heavens. We sat in our canoes, bobbing in the waves, speechless. There was nothing to say. Close enough to see each others faces in the night, we picked up our paddles, and with new determination began our journey south to trips end.

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