On night five of paddling the Thames River in southwestern Ontario I had Big Bend Conservation Area all to myself.

That wasn’t the case on night six. 

I camped at the Chief Tecumseh Monument—a roadside pull-over with picnic tables, cut grass, a Johnny-On-The-Spot... and there were also people. A lot of people.

I shared pleasantries with some dog walkers, a Mennonite family, a teenage couple who came to make out and some guy looking for a hookup. They all had great stories of life along a southern urban river. I enjoyed their company, except for one man—a gruff loner who rambled on about himself. I wondered if he was ever going to leave. It was a long day and I desperately needed sleep.

Mosquitoes came to my rescue. Hundreds of them were coming out to feed.

A few minutes of swatting at the bugs and the man finally fled back to his truck and drove off—leaving me to spend the night on the pull-over area, being lulled to sleep by a great horned owl hooting in a willow tree beside my tent and random vehicles passing by on the nearby road.

Kevin CallanKevin Callan

I was on the river at sun up.

The quicker I got out of the roadside pull-over, the better. Besides, the best time to solo paddle is early morning. You’re rewarded with more wildlife sightings and less wind to deal with.

I saw my first motorboat on the river. The Thames was changing yet again; wider banks and less moving water. The farm fields were tight along the shoreline with less of a buffer than upstream. And I started to see houses.

The river still has a subtle charm to it all, however. Massive cottonwood trees hung their branches over the twisting banks. There were less eagles but lots of herons, ducks and kingfishers.

The lower reaches of the river is also rich in history, from epic War of 1812 battles to the most northerly Underground Railroad where slaves escaped from the U.S.

The town of Chatham also has one of the funkiest hotels I’ve ever experienced. This is no small town inn. It’s an absolute dreamscape—a turn-of-the-century hotel modified into modern grandeur. The moment you walk through the doors you’ll witness the idiosyncratic collection of Rob Myers, the past owner of the biggest specialty/fine-automobile auction house in the world. There’s the prominent Nutcracker statues, a series of quirky moose paintings, framed dinky toys, retro vending machines and some really oddball movie posters… and more… a lot more.

The 45 theme rooms range from the spacious “King William” to the Easy Rider,complete with a Harley Davidson motorcycle hanging on the wall and a Harley sink and shower.

My room choice was the “Log Cabin.” The highlights were a stone fireplace, antler chandelier and one of the biggest shower stalls I’ve ever seen. And a stepladder would have helped getting up on the bed. This thing was massive.

Not a bad last-night campsite…

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