Sunday, 28 September 2008

Kettle Falls - Missinaibi River (1980)

Kettle Falls - Missinaibi River
(A Fleeting Glimpse of Spirituality)
(Chapter Three)

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what it had to teach and not, when I came to die, discover that I have not lived”
Henry David Thoreau
The sun danced between tree boughs as it continued it’s descent in the afternoon sky. Brian and I increased our rhythm, each stroke reaching out for our evening’s destination of ‘Kettle Falls’. Our rapid cadence soon rewarded us with the sound of churning water from distant whitecaps as they danced in the waning sunlight. A portage marker on the left bank directed us to shore where aluminium on granite announced our arrival. Lashing the bow to a driftwood stump, we ambled over the rocks for our first view the falls. As waterfalls go, this was not a grand or spectacular sight for the drop was no more than seven feet in the Missinaibi’s never ending journey to join the waters of James Bay. Yet the sound of churning water, like raindrops on a canvas roof or the mournful cry of a loon on a foggy morning, has always stirred emotions deep within me. In spite of it’s diminutive size, this waterfall demanded respect as made evident by the occasional log which drifted into it’s grasp. Caught by it’s watery fist it would gather speed as it was swept over the rocky ledge then disappear in the churning foam below. Held captive, it would swirl and dance below the whirlpool’s surface, then to be mockingly flung out in the foam below.

Kettle Falls was named for it’s unusual geological feature. Over millennia, the unceasing scrubbing action of river current ladened with suspended sand had scoured holes or “kettles” into the granite substrata. The story has it that native americans had cleverly utilized these features for cooking. Rocks heated in a roaring fire were rolled into the water filled depressions bringing it’s contents to a boil. Fish, game or roots would be added in the preparation of a steaming riverside repast. Garnished with the wild chives which grew abundantly in rock crevices, a wilderness ‘Haute cuisine’ would reward the weary river traveler. Ingenuity in the utilization of what nature provided.

Regretfully, our nourishing yet somewhat less enticing meal had escaped from a freeze dried packet and was garnished with a steadily increasing number of mosquitoes. Not to be outdone by the natives we too put these water filled kettles to use as our kitchen sinks. With the pots, and utensils scrubbed clean of ‘chicken a la king’, Brian decided to call it a day and retired to the tent.

The dying fire’s embers still crackled as ribbons of acrid smoke twisted their way heaven bound. The sun had taken it’s final curtain call, having descended below the height of trees on our western shore. Although I was enveloped in darkness, the angle of the sunlight, like spotlights on a stage, still illuminated the far shore. Turning my back to the forest, I walked towards the light. At the river bank, against all logic, I searched for a comfortable rock on which to rest my weary bones. Surveying the panorama before me, I marvelled at the landscape. Like teenagers with bare knees protruding through ragged tattered blue jeans, the granite backbone of the Canadian shield poked through the thin northern soil.

I allowed my senses to fill with the heady aroma of the fire, the sound of birds engaged in their “dusk chorus” and the shimmering orange-magenta hues mirrored in the blue Missinaibi waters and roaring whitecaps alike. Lulled by the hypnotic setting of my wilderness heaven, my mind began to drift. First, like a trickling stream, then like the torrential river before me, memories and emotions quickly streamed by flooding my mind. Not unlike the experience described by people facing life threatening situations, my life also appeared to flash before me. Memories of past events, treasured friends and loving family, reeled by as from an out-of-control movie projector. Unlike common memories, these recollections were so much more deep and intense. Details long forgotten were revealed as years of foggy distortions dissipated. An overwhelmingly intense feeling of love and understanding enveloped me. The power of these memories and emotions were like nothing I had ever experienced before....

Religion had never been a significant factor in my life. In the old country, my mother had been raised a Catholic, my father a Lutheran. As wartime refugees, they met in Canada and after a proper courtship, decided to marry. Religious institutions were not so open and accommodating in those days and in order to have a church wedding, they would have to unite under one denomination. As it was easier for my mother to convert to Lutheranism than my father to Catholicism, they chose the easier road. My parents, facing the demands of making a living in the early 1950s found themselves consumed by hard work and daily chores. Religion was always woven into the fabric of our lives but little time could be to the dedicated to it’s applied practice by way of Sunday service attendance. I was baptized and in later years confirmed in our Lutheran church but otherwise, attendance was minimal and usually reserved for special occasions such as religious holidays, weddings or funerals. Still, religion was undeniably present in our home and exerted an influence on my upbringing.

My life’s path took me to the University of Western Ontario where I chose to study science. I had always been fascinated in how the natural world was structured, organized and governed by logical laws and rules. I have at times been questioned as to whether I find a conflict between verifiable scientific fact and religion based purely on faith. I can only answer that within the wonders of science there are just too many absolutely fantastic and astounding features for this world to have arisen by pure chance.

Although a majority of the world’s population finds comfort and solace in participating in an organized religion, I have never been drawn to any church or denomination. Perhaps it is because all of the rituals any religion surrounds itself with are “man made” and symbolic interpretations of what man thinks would please their God. Contents of the New Testament were compiled by editors under the reign of Constantine and decisions were made as to what to include or exclude from the scriptures. Human bias and political pressure of the times no doubt had an influence in what was written and what we are taught today. Biblical accounts were based on observations by people much more impressionable and superstitious than ourselves. Even today, two people witnessing the same event will passionately describe their observations differently. Many of the biblical statements would be disallowed in today’s court room as hear-say. Where do we look for what is undeniable truth? If not fact, then we must rely on faith.

I do find it troubling that so very many atrocities have been committed and wars fought in the name of God. In my mind it incomprehensible that a loving God would have asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac to prove his faith. I fail to understand how religious followers feel it pleases God to sacrifice some animal in his name. Why destroy God’s own work for something symbolic? Are we to live in fear of God or is God a gentle loving and forgiving deity? If so, will the most heinous and atrocious deeds be forgiven if one finds God on their deathbed? Would a kind and righteous atheist be allowed into heaven, if there turns out to be one? Religion is a conundrum and even those most schooled in the subject can only offer the combined speculation assembled over the ages. That is what we call unwavering faith.

Religion has always been a very personal matter to me. I believe that I will be judged, not on how often I attend church but rather on my values and how I chose to live my life on a daily basis. Is it better to spend time in church praising God or to eulogize him by actions such as helping people less fortunate than oneself? Does God keep a scorecard? I was married before God in a beautiful church. I have visited various churches as a tourist and found them calming to the soul and inspiring. Yet, I do not believe that God lives between four walls. I see the ten commandments simply as logical rules to live one’s life by. They make sense for an honourable and civilized society regardless of their origin. I sense an unseen energy running through my life which I might choose to call a deity, a spirit or force.. I still call this feeling the presence of God and my faith remains intact even in the presence of my science.

I slowly became aroused finding myself warmed by both the campfire and my emotions. Like the flickering end of a cellulose in a film reel, the images rolled to a halt. Sitting on the darkened shores of my pine and granite cathedral, I felt a sense of peace and tranquility never previously experienced . Although the intensity of the moment had dispersed, the afterglow of the experience remains with me to this day. Had I been touched by God for these few fleeting moments at Kettle Falls? Call it what you will.

Dousing the campfire I scanned my river one last time on this precious evening and zipped myself into the tent to prepare for tomorrow’s continuing journey. Down my beautiful Missinaibi River and the ever meandering river of my life…

* * *
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( I did not relate my emotional Kettle Falls experience to Brian the following morning, nor did I speak of it for years afterwards. In more recent years, when asked of my religion, I only half jokingly replied that my denomination is “New Wilderness Reformed” . Some have been confused, others nodded in understanding. while a few have looked at me as if I had committed blasphemy. To this day, I feel closest to my creator when surrounded by the infinite marvels of my northern wilderness, isolated from the crazy hectic nonsense that drives the superficial daily world.)

Tu es mon compagnon de voyage!
Je veux mourir dans mon canot
Sur le tombeau, près du rivage,
Vous renverserez mon canot

When I must leave the great river
O bury me close to its wave
And let my canoe and my paddle
Be the only mark over my grave

From 'Mon Canoe d'écorce' ('My Bark Canoe') translated by Frank Oliver Call

Note: To view a slide show of the Missinaibi River Canoe Trip, including Kettle Falls, return to Chapter Two and scroll to the bottom of the tale. Click on Frame to initiate show.

Google Earth Co-ordinates:
(cut and paste everything after the dash- (in red) into Google Earth search bar.

Kettle Falls
Lat/Long- 49° 47’11.44” N, 83° 13’13.62” W

"In wilderness I sense the miracle of life, and behind it our scientific accomplishments fade to trivia."
~Charles A. Lindbergh, Life, 22 December 1967

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