timmins 10_jpg_t285I jumped the gun a bit when the tourism gang from the Timmins region invited me up to participate in the Great Canadian Kayak Challenge. I agreed to race; basically because I love the Timmins area. Problem is, I'm a canoeist, not a kayaker. I also don't have much of a competitive spirit. The last race I took part in was when I was eight at a church picnic; running across a field balancing a hard-boiled egg on a spoon. I'm definitely not an anti-kayak like some of my canoe mates, but to me, the joy of paddling is to gently glide a canoe across a mist covered lake, not squeezing into tight neoprene and propel myself across the water as fast as possible, looking something like a dog wiping its butt across the carpet. But then again, I love the north, so there was no way I was going to pass up being there for such an event.

Of course, there was still the issue of not knowing how to kayak. For that I contacted an outfitter I knew from Smooth Rock Falls - Rick Isaacson of Howling Wolf Expeditions. His idea seemed simple enough. Rick would take me kayaking down the Abitibi River a few days before the race to teach me the techniques needed not to come in last in the race, or at least not look like a total geek when getting in and out of the boat.

To give myself more time practicing out on the Abitibi River I took a flight out of Toronto to the city of Timmins. The extra cost was well worth it since Rick picked me up at the airport and had us launching at the Abitibi Canyon Hydro Dam by mid-day.

Abitibi Canyon Dam was built in the early 1930s and once housed enough people to label it a good-sized village, made up of 70 houses, a church, a school, a post office and a place to buy groceries and alcohol. Lots of alcohol. It's now a ghost town - a real ghost town. Two monuments are the basis of the hauntings. One is dedicated to at least four bodies (rumor has it that the number is as high as 200) who lie dead, encased in the concrete dam during the initial construction. It's titled "The Sons of Martha" and has some of the most profound poetry inscribed on all four sides. A second marker gives homage to the ten hydro employees who died one foggy morning in 1976 after their plane crashed into the hydro tower 250 meters northwest of the dam. With such a high body count, the ghost stories have become legendary.

We drove over the wall of cement - one side holding back the Abitibi River and the other revealing the deep canyon lined with a mix of cement and hard granite. Rick then turned down a secondary road to reach the access point downriver.

Joining us were Drew Gauley, the cameraman and photographer for the trip, and Rick's son Luis. Luis' job was to motor Drew around in a square-stern canoe to get good footage of Rick showing me, the greenhorn, how to kayak. And the lessons started the moment I tried to take a seat.

What an embarrassment. Getting in and out of a kayak without getting wet, and retaining my dignity, seemed next to impossible. Rick, however, showed me a couple of maneuvers to make me look somewhat graceful. My preferred entry was sliding my butt across the paddle shaft anchored behind the seat and braced against the mud-caked shoreline of the Abitibi. It wasn't until my third attempt that I slipped into the drivers seat without mishap.

Next was a lesson on forward motion. It's definitely not like canoeing. The power comes from rotating the torso, not propulsion of the arms. Keeping the blade low, at least eye level, and pulling it through the water from tip to hip were a couple other pointers. The most important element in coach Rick's arsenal, however, was to make sure to relax each stroke. We had over 40 kilometers to cover in less than two days and the only way for me to make the distance and still have enough Tylenol induced muscle power to get over the finish line was to relax each stroke.

A pit stop was made at the old site of New Post Fur Trade Again, thankfully we had Rick as the guide. I would have definitely passed this area by. The only evidence of the site being a past homestead and trading post were patches of rose bushes and rhubarb peeking through clumps of aspen, birch and wild raspberries. The spot was also flat, a rarity along the banks of the Abitibi. The Hudson Bay post was established in 1867-68 to entice the local natives to trade here rather than going south to Temiskaming. It was also placed at the end of the long portage around the rapids that existed before the construction of the dam. Boats traveling up from Moose Factory were exchanged for canoes traveling downstream and cargo was exchanged. A big white clapboard house was built for the Hudson Bay Co. factor, along with an even larger store and two smaller buildings to accommodate the Cree trading at the post. When the railway was extended it meant the end of New Post and by 1924 it was left abandoned.

Not much remained intact at New Post due to the dam fluctuating water levels and continually eroding the river bank. Rick took us further back, through a large a stand of mature poplar and stunted spruce, to view the gravesite. Here, a number of Hudson Bay workers and Cree were buried. Stone markers and wrought-iron fences mark the European graves and cedar planks mark the Native sites, and growing amongst them all were various species of flowers, introduced here by an elaborate garden once cared for behind the horse stable and dairy. It was a haunting place to be and we paid homage to the people who lived - and died - here along the Abitibi before heading back to the river.

Check out the video:

...to be continued