On day 15 it was time for Andy and I to cheat again.
The water issues on the Oxtongue River grew worse and the section below Oxtonque Lake looked as if some giant had dropped his big bag of marbles across the river bed. A pathetic amount of water squeezed through an almost dried up boulder garden and we resorted to accepting a lift around the central rapids from Rich Swift at Algonquin Outfitters. It saved us a good two kilometres of portaging and/or walking the river.
Beyond the last major rapid the Oxtongue seemed to deepen a bit, at least enough for us to finally float the canoe. It was a beautiful stretch — the last bit of wilderness we actually had before ending the trip. Everything was sublime except for a minor private land issue. The old portage around the last cascade in the river was now private property. "No Trespassing" signs littered the place and the land owner immediately came out to inform us we were on her property and she wouldn’t allow us to pass.
I found it odd that a paddler couldn’t portage around a major falls, on a major river. I thought free passage was a Canadian thing — the land owner informed me that I was wrong. Rather then get annoyed with her though I calmly told her that we were on the second-last day of a 16-day canoe trip around Algonquin Provincial Park and that this was the second-last portage of 93 we had to do before completing our epic journey. I’m not sure whether the land owner felt sorry for us or just couldn’t be bothered listening to me grovel anymore, but she decided to let us through — firmly stating it would only be just this once. Andy gave out a giggle and said that wouldn’t be a problem — we were never doing this crazy route again.
One minute we were being scolded by a landowner and the next we were being invited to camp in another’s backyard. Jack and Peggy Hurly offered a portion of their lawn to pitch our tent and their yard hose to fetch water. It was an absolute Shangri-La. Andy and I had no idea where we were going to camp our last night out. We were in the depth of cottage country now and there was no legitimate place to put a tent. Now, we not only had a cozy place to stay but Jack Hurley happens to be a legendary canoe-builder and it was an honour to have the grand tour of his work shop and to listen to his stories of time spent in Algonquin, building the famed cedar-canvas Pathfinder canoes. Andy and I repaid the Hurley’s kindness by staying late the next morning to help Jack canvas a canoe. What a privilege.
Our last day of our trip was a quick one. We only had two large cottage lakes to paddle across, and we even cheated on the last portage. It was a two kilometre road — titled Portage Road — and we simply hitched a ride across it. One of the funniest moments of our trip to be quite honest.
Along the way Andy and I noticed our fan base had gained somewhat. It must have been due to the CBC Radio interviews I had continued to do and the Facebook updates I was sending with my GlobalStar router and satellite phone. It’s not as if we had groupies, but a fair number of cottager’s lounging on their docks asked if we were the crazy guys paddling around Algonquin. We even came across a sign nailed to a tree “Kevin and Andy, Trails and Tamaracks Welcomes You to the Lake of Bays.” Also, at the town docks in Dwight some guy in a sports car, stoned out of head, came racing down to meet us.
The Tamarack posting was a nice touch but the drugged-up driver was a bit uncomfortable. So was the last hour of paddling towards Huntsville. We unknowingly chose the day of the big Huntsville bathtub races to finish. Helicopters buzzed overhead, speedboats and Jet-Skis churned up the water around us, and even a police boat pulled us over for a ride check. In the confusion Andy and I found ourselves in the centre of the bathtub race and had the organizer belittle us from the loudspeaker.
Hundreds of people lined the Huntsville docks, but only a handful were there to witness Andy and I complete our epic trip. Gord Baker from Algonquin Outfitters, one of the paddlers who actually dreamed up The Meanest Link, and a couple of his staff, helped us unload and portage through the fans of the bathtub race. The ending was perfect for us, really. Rather then have banners hung and people cheering for us at the finish line, our accomplishments were overshadowed by a bunch of locals propelling themselves across the water with motorized bathtubs. How ironic.
You’d think of course that we would be craving the company of other people, or at least a chance to drink a beer and feast on a greasy burger and fries. The whole ordeal, however, was an absolute culture shock. Both Andy and I missed the wilderness and were having a very difficult time adjusting. There were definitely countless times during the trip where we wanted to give up on battling the bugs and long portages. But now we had this strange desire to paddle away from the comforts of Huntsville and do the foolish trip all over again.
That was the proof I was looking for — that feeling of association with the natural world after spending a long period of time amongst it. It was the verification that the desire to immerse oneself in a wilderness setting overpowered the addiction to civilized comforts. That’s what happened to Andy and I.
We weren’t normal, of course. The average person is not playing out in the woods for long periods of time any more. Back in the 1930s, outdoor guide books had a typical trip rated to be one month. In the 1970s it was 10 days. In the early 1990s it dropped to five days. Now, the standard trip is a mere two days.
To quote John Muir, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity...”
If we continue this trend then I’m afraid there will be a mass disconnect with the wilderness — which in turn will be the disintegration of wild areas due to our lack of association with them. I’m not saying you have to complete an insane three-week canoe journey around Algonquin to feel the connection — but trust me, go beyond a weekend outing and you’ll never be the same again.