The routes we choose to take

illustration courtesy: Monika Melnychuk

After years of marriage, they were just floating along. Then they picked up their paddles and canoed off the map – and the adventure rocked their boat.

Up Here, April 11, 2012

The decision to canoe deep into the burn was mutual. Everything after that was a mix of fate and negotiation – like most good marriages.

‘The burn’ is a gigantic swath of boreal forest at the end of Ingraham Trail, about an hour’s drive northeast of Yellowknife, not too far from our house. Nine forest fires converged there in the summer of 1998, amassing a wall of fire so formidable it closed the Trail to traffic and sent nervous residents packing. A massive firefighting mobilization – of which my husband Francois was a part – miraculously tamed the inferno. Ever since, we’ve been observing the fire’s evolving legacy during summer canoe trips on Tibbitt Lake with our three sons. Morel mushrooms, aspen and birch saplings, grass seedlings, bursts of fireweed, white spruce; and finally, thick stands of jackpine. By last summer though, something was missing. Our children.

With our twins at a science camp on the tundra and our oldest son working, Francois and I organized a paddling expedition, sans enfants, for the first time in…well, ever. Unencumbered, we could veer in more challenging directions than our predictable and portageless lake ventures. We would go deep, deep into the burn. Francois’s eyes lit up as he touted his preferred route. I counted 17 portages and six sets of rapids and gulped (portages don’t scare me, I have a strong back and trudging, camel-like disposition, but I’m inexperienced with whitewater).

“We’ll see how far we go,” I offered, suggesting that if we found a beautiful spot, we could stay put and luxuriate. Men and women occasionally have different ideas about what constitutes a good time.

It started out well. A Sahara-like dry heat, sultry and exotic, permeated everything. Still water. Still air. A large golden eagle beckoned us to an island of flat volcanic rock, its black surface nearly too hot for bare skin, then flew off. Privacy was in abundance for six days. Blue place markers at each portage entrance – barely the size of playing cards – and rock cairns along the paths, were the only human traces we’d see.

Whitewater was not an issue. Water levels were so low we could not run or line the rapids and had to unpack and walk our canoe across the riverbeds. And that’s where, on day two, things started to go sideways.

Baking under the hottest northern sun I’ve ever experienced, tired after three long and steep portages, and with blood sugar levels dipping low, I’d suggested, twice, we stop for lunch. Ever intrepid, Francois baited me to push on. For an hour I took concentrated steps over rounded, algae-slimed boulders as we walked the canoe over a once lengthy set of rapids, cognizant that one slip in my open-toed sandals could spell disaster for my feet or ankles. Then another uphill portage and I was, to put it mildly, grumpy. A waterfall was rushing by us with no apparent means of traversing it. Francois had bashed his shin on a rock and was dripping blood. An argument ensued. Shaky and fearful, I insisted we not go any further north into the burn. Instead, we would backtrack to a southerly route – one not featured on the tourism guide, but an alternate route we’d staked out on a detailed map.

We paddled in silence the rest of the afternoon until a trout on the end of Francois’ line reunited our efforts.

Late the next day we reached a large whaleback rock where the portage should be. Except, there were no blue markers or rock cairns. Just jackpines taller than us in impenetrable rows, like marching soldiers guarding the gates to Eden. No one had canoed here since the forest regeneration. It would take days to axe a portage. The water route, apart from more slippery rocks, was blocked with hundreds of fire-felled trees, tangled bank to bank like wooden matches spilled from their box.

“Let’s go,” I said to Francois, who was awaiting my reaction. “We’ll walk the river and push the canoe over top of the dead trees.” And we did. For hundreds of scratching, slippery, metres. We emerged exhausted, but triumphant.

We truly were deep into the burn now. Not where we’d plan to go, but somewhere better. Two eaglets watched us from their nest. A wolf howled. We camped on an immaculate island and stayed there, luxuriating. And for weeks afterwards, we looked at each other differently.

They say couples can develop a tolerance toward one another akin to tolerance for a drug – their brains no longer firing off dopamine, that excitement-inducing neurotransmitter that put the romantic high in their early days. It’s true, but luckily, all it takes is trying something new, less predictable, to stimulate fresh injections.

Sometimes you have to go deep into the burn.