Kristina Leidums

She set out to paddle the path of 
the explorers. Between the two-day 
portages and the bouts of beaver-
phobia, she turned into one herself

Kristina Leidums, Creston, B.C. // Age: 27

I have butterflies in my stomach as I push off into the river alone, feeling small and vulnerable in the stern of my 17-and-a-half-foot canoe. With my friend Angela watching quietly from shore, I take my first tentative strokes as a solo expedition paddler, noting how the boat responds to my steering. Can I do this? Do I even want to? Is my body strong enough to keep up the necessary 60-kilometre-per-day average, week in and week out? I’ve paddled alone many times, I remind myself. I have to try, or I’ll always look back on this moment and wonder what the story might have been.

When past canoe trips ended and the other paddlers raced to showers and iPods, I only wanted a harder adventure and more time in the wilderness. I needed to test myself, convinced that my full potential lay somewhere in hours of endless paddling and wind-bound days on the shores of massive lakes; in becoming weather-beaten and sun-flushed; in earning bruises, scrapes, bug bites and that bump on the back of the neck that they say every serious portager develops. I wanted to experience newness around every corner, and to use my own arms and legs to feel the vastness of the country. It was about spending a whole summer outside, watching and feeling my body get stronger.

Over the Christmas break in 2009, I decided to use the upcoming summer to follow the historic fur-trade route across central Canada. I rallied my friend Angela as a partner, and for six months we researched, arranged food shipments, packed and acquired financial support from Mountain Equipment Co-op. We mapped a 3,000-kilometre, 50-portage route linking the North Saskatchewan River, Lake Winnipeg, the Winnipeg River and the lake country that forms the international border between Ontario and Minnesota. When people reacted with awe and admiration to our story, I began to realize the power of acting on a dream. I felt like I could take on the world.

I’d always been fascinated by tales of adventurers like David Thompson and Alexander Mackenzie, wondering how it felt to cross the nation by canoe—and now, at age 26, I was about to find out. Our starting point in Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, was symbolic, a historic launching pad for fur traders and explorers. Once, the silty North Saskatchewan was a main artery of travel across the country; today, its high clay banks, abundant wildlife and prairie vistas are unknown to most Canadians. With our lives packed into a keelless, green Wenonah Cascade canoe, the sheer scope of our journey sank in.

The ball dropped after just nine days. An old back injury returned to abruptly end Angela’s trip, our elation at having paddled some 600 kilometres suddenly forgotten. A few days earlier we had been laughing and squealing together as we used a paddle blade to rescue a drowning squirrel. Now, it was akin to a divorce as we sombrely separated gear. Angela packed to go home; encouraged by my family, I would press on alone. There was no one to carry this iconic Canadian dream through but myself.

Later that day, I paddle under yet another nondescript bridge, crossing the border from Alberta into Saskatchewan. Feeling celebratory, I stand up in the boat and wave my cellphone around for reception. It’s a dead zone, and the landmark boundary feels bittersweet. Nine days and 500 kilometres from here, in Prince Albert, I will hear from my brother Erich about whether he can join me for the rest of the trip.

As I set up camp that night, I’m surprised to discover that I’ve covered 60 kilometres—a respectable distance for a solo paddler. A few days later I’m elated to realize that the pace is sustainable, provided I put in long days of 10 to 12 hours on the water. There might just be enough time to get to Lake Superior by my August 21 deadline.

The days fly by, and life on the river is simple. Grey skies contrast with yellow fields of canola; weathered, abandoned farmhouses appear high on the banks. White pelicans stare lazily upstream in meditative silence. I watch for storms. They rarely force me to stop, but appear to come out of nowhere. “It would seem that way to you,” muses an old farmer who refills my drinking-water supply. From my position down low in the river valley, I’m unable to see clouds brewing on the horizon.

I stop on a hot, windy afternoon to wash laundry in a large Ziploc bag and soon I’ve set up an impromptu clothesline: a rope running from the bow to a paddle standing on end in front of me in the stern. It’s like a sail made out of underwear. No reason to be bashful out here, I tell myself, until I round a corner to see I’m putting on a show for people at a busy boat launch.

The nights are less carefree. I’m not sleeping well; in fact, my night fears might be the only thing that could stop me from canoeing past Prince Albert alone. My tough-girl facade is crumbling. And although I’m loathe to admit it, I have become paranoid about beavers. They seem to abound in pre-fur-trade numbers here, and in my life I’ve  read more stories depicting them as crafty and intelligent than shy and benign. I’ve heard of beavers clawing through the bottoms of canoes, or fiercely defending their kits from marauding wolves. I’ve even had dreams on this trip of beavers stealing my paddles in the night, adding the shiny wood to their dams and lodges.

Camping is limited to a thin strip of forest between the river and the fields, with only cows and distant farmhouses for a modicum of company. The islands that looked appealing from the maps are choked with alders and rose bushes. On one steep, muddy bank, littered with sticks half-chewed by beavers, I know there is no hope of setting up a tent or cooking supper. In the drizzle I empty the canoe, cram an energy bar in my mouth and crawl in under the yoke and thwart. I zip my spray deck over top of me to form a primitive, cave-like shelter, something about the boat’s hard shell offering a sense of security. At 4 a.m. I awake to the sound of an animal slurping water beside my boat and I’m sure it can hear my pounding heart. That’s it for sleeping. A few minutes later I’m up and moving, poking my head above deck to the most brilliant pink sunrise.

There is something special about approaching a town by canoe, wandering the streets and stores while feeling like a time traveller, out of place and experiencing a world where everything and everyone seems more interesting…and then vanishing down a riverbank like a ghost, leaving city life behind for a more simple way of being. Prince Albert will be a time of rest, but also of decision: If my brother Erich can’t join me, will I continue on alone?

It turns out that I have much to celebrate. For one thing, I have crossed the 1,000-kilometre mark. For another, I learn that my boyfriend, Karl, has landed a new, more flexible job and will be able to join me for the last two weeks of my journey. Best of all, Erich makes it down from the Yukon to paddle the Prairies with me, despite four unscheduled flight changes, including one after his plane was hit by lightning. He stumbles into my hotel room at 2:30 a.m., and by late afternoon of that same day we are on the water.

A few days later, we’re moving at 5 a.m., in a failed attempt to beat the wind on stormy, man-made Tobin Lake. A guy on shore hollers, “There’s a small craft warning! Small craft warning!”—not realizing that a skilled canoeist with a spray deck can ride through chop much more smoothly than a motor boat, which rises and falls hard on each wave. My jitters come back, though, as we ride two-foot rollers across open water to reach the Tobin Lake dam. I’m thankful to be heading toward a remote section of the North Saskatchewan River with a partner. I’m sleeping well again, the company appreciated.

Manitoba’s inland delta is an eerily quiet, watery maze stretching to Cedar Lake. The bugs are horrendous—the worst in years, as I learn later. There are no signs of life besides the occasional deserted hunt camp, and often the “shore” is nothing but vast jungles of reeds where the only sleeping option would be in the canoe. When a boatload of local Cree offers to tow us to Cumberland House (“just so you won’t have to paddle all that way”), we politely decline. We do, however, accept a set of directions to their winter cabin as a place to spend the night. It turns out to be a mouse-infested tin box not much bigger than a closet; we trample down tall grass to make room for our tent instead. That night a goose parks itself just a foot from our vestibule and watches us calmly, as if to say, “Welcome to my wet, wet neck of the woods.”

Facing a time crunch, Erich and I make the difficult choice to take the train around Lake Winnipeg. That big cheating-machine whisks us between the Manitoban towns of The Pas and Powerview, through the last of the prairie landscape. If only we had spare days and a long, sturdy voyageur canoe to take on Lake Winnipeg’s infamous winds and waves. My frustration dissolves as we reach our restarting point and make camp on the one rocky peninsula in sight. Though it’s not much to look at, it signifies our arrival to Canadian Shield country. I am so happy I could cry. I am canoeing home to Ontario, where I grew up—back to lakes and hardwood forests, granite shores and clear water. This is what it’s about, I tell myself. This is where I belong.

“Hey, look, there goes the mushroom hunter!” A gaggle of boys is following Erich around the grocery store in Lac du Bonnet, Manitoba, where we’ve stopped for snacks. They giggle and concoct their 10-year-olds’ stories about his caveman appearance. Erich does look like he’s been picking mushrooms in the forest for weeks, with his scraggly beard and wild afro of chestnut hair. He refuses to throw out his favourite merino-wool shirt, which hangs off his long arms in shreds. My gentle-giant, camp-counsellor brother is scaring the locals.

On the beach where we’ve docked, the boys eagerly ask us questions about the trip. “I’m going to do that one day, too,” says one, dreamily. His statement gives real meaning to the trip. I’ve grown up idolizing the explorers from history books, as well as modern-day canoe legends like Verlen Kruger, Eric Morse and Bill Mason. I’m heartened to know that we’re carrying on the tradition of long-distance canoeing in Canada, and inspiring younger generations. As we lower ourselves into the boat, anxious to set up camp before the looming storm descends, we’re bombarded with Facebook requests from our new “friends.”

As we make our way upstream against the Winnipeg River, hugging the inside of bends where the current is slowest, I marvel at my new-found strength. I’m an unlikely voyageur—5’9”, female, 125 pounds. But I’ve always possessed strength out of proportion to my size, and my mind and body are thriving on hard work and adventure. I’m glad that I didn’t let the skeptics unsettle me, such as the lady in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, who “feared for my life,” and the man who started fishing beside my tent at 4 a.m. one morning, incredulous that I wasn’t “worried about the coyotes.”

For siblings, Erich and I get along well. Our mantra becomes, “Go hard while the going’s good.” After the upstream battle and dam portages of the Winnipeg River, Lake of the Woods lies in wait. It’s a massive body of water, with 14,500 islands and a southern “bay” resembling an ocean. We worry about the winds, knowing that if we’re laid up precious days will be lost. The lake takes us three days to navigate, including one open-water crossing where three-foot waves throw our bow high up out of the water. From here, we will spend two weeks along the international border, with Canada on our left shore and the U.S. on our right. The silver maples are reddening, foreshadowing autumn and the end of the trip.

We paddle 14 straight long, hard days to cover the 500 kilometres between our put-in at Powerview and Fort Frances, Ontario, where Erich will end his trip and my boyfriend, Karl, will take his place as my paddling partner. On our final day together, Erich and I encounter a fellow canoeist heading downstream to Kenora. Rudy is 64 years old, paddling a homemade canoe and attempting to finish a trip he’d started 30 years earlier in southern Ontario. While we share tinned salmon on rice cakes, he explains how hard it is at his age to find friends willing and able to join him on his adventures. I can relate, having yo-yoed all my life between wondering what’s wrong with me, for my irrepressible need to seek out challenges, and what’s wrong with others, who would not or could not undertake them. I feel fortunate to have rallied all three of the willing people I do know to participate in this trip.

Where once I had dreamed of being dropped by float plane to paddle wild northern rivers, my philosophy of wilderness travel is changing. There are creeks in our backyards that start up high, trickling down to rivers that connect to lakes and eventually the sea. Water flows, unloved and unnoticed, under our bridges, through our towns and sawmill yards. Trips on such rivers, more calm and urban than wild-water and remote, have the potential to change us by strengthening our ties to our environment and communities. After this trip, the Canadian map will never look the same to me, having opened up to become an imaginarium of stories and history come to life.

At 29, Karl is a Westerner on his first canoe trip. While I’m happy to be reunited with him after a summer apart, the compulsion I’ve developed over the summer to paddle almost non-stop every day is off-putting for him and a test of our relationship. I have to exercise patience while Karl gets “worked in,” and curse myself for being unable to turn off the drive to go hard. I recall stories of adventurers who had minds for nothing but their goals, ultimately ending up lonely and destitute. It isn’t right, I tell myself, but a fever has overtaken me.

We are deep into lake country. This is the familiar world I’ve been waiting for: swimming; camping on rocky, pine-covered points; fishing and picking blueberries. The canoe now has layers of fancy red duct tape where the front skid plate once was. In the pre-trip panic, new skid plates hadn’t even been on my list. After checking out the nifty foam core through a loonie-sized hole in the fibreglass, on went the epoxy putty and tape. To our amazement, it stays on for the remainder of the trip.

After crossing the Height of Land Portage, toasted with a beer Karl bought at the Gunflint Pines Campground in Minnesota, it’s all downhill to Lake Superior. Here, we attempt to make a single-carry portage, and crumple in a heap after only a few hundred metres. Then it’s back to shuttling everything in two loads, effectively covering every portage three times—forward, backward, forward again. By the end of the expedition, I’ll have walked more than 75 kilometres.

Minnesota’s Grand Portage: For two months I’ve pictured it in my dreams, strategized about it and imagined it with mild terror. And when the navigable water of the Pigeon River runs out, I finally find myself climbing the muddy bank to begin the notorious overland traverse. It is 14 kilometres of forest and rickety bridges, but will take us two days and 42 kilometres of walking as we leapfrog our canoe and three packs.

Now, with only a short distance left to reach Lake Superior, we ignore our aching, blistered feet. As I walk this path, I picture streams of voyageurs and explorers, loaded down with trade goods and beaver pelts—the weight of our 60-pound bags paltry compared to their 180-pound loads. And while 14 kilometres seems like a ludicrous distance to portage, I see it now as just a tiny part of the 2,400 kilometres I’ve paddled and hiked since setting out from Alberta, 61 days earlier.
The weather is cooling significantly; it’s late August and I’m revelling in a strength I hadn’t known I could possess. My expedition wasn’t meant to be a race, but I have now paddled and portaged 28 days solid from Powerview. And then we make the most serendipitous error. Having calculated that we have half a kilometre to go, Lake Superior suddenly appears early.

The lake air is crisp, almost ocean-like in feel. I shoulder the canoe for the last leg across the lawn, past the reconstructed trading post and down to a big wharf. I want to cry and laugh all at once, as I realize I’m not ready to end this trip. My mind is already paddling across the next bay, around a rocky point, setting up camp on a sandy beach. A crowd of tourists has poured out of the museum. They came to learn about the voyageurs, and are now witnessing a pair, as real as they’ll ever see, materializing in front of them.
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